Sunday, May 25, 2008

Between God and Mammon

St. Matthew 6:24-34

St. Paul tells the Romans, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God”(Romans 12:2). What we have received from St. Paul in the New Testament is not only responsible for elaborating the Trinity and the doctrine of the sacraments. St. Paul’s writings are also an elaboration of what the Christian life looks like.

St. Paul writes to the various churches in an effort to help them grow in the faith. He wants them to be on guard because being a Christian in this world encompasses a unique vantage point. You may look at yourself as not being any different from the other people that you work with or who live in your neighborhood. On the outside we are flesh and blood just like everyone else. We put on our shoes the same way—we may even share similar interests with the heathen.

They might even see the world in a similar fashion as we do. They might see the political and social disparity that seems to be growing in our country. They may even observe the moral decay in our society, but you still have a different vantage point because you are baptized. St. Paul, in telling the Romans not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, is stressing that the Christians had been given something that was precious and needed constant renewing.

St. Paul was warning them that this world has the capability of changing who you are. It can change you. Raising children is proof enough that the world always threatens to change people. The young, especially, are influenced greatly by what they experience in this world. St. Paul is saying to watch that closely, not just for children but for all people.

St. Paul’s words run parallel to the words of our gospel, which record Jesus saying that no one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and mammon. What is mammon? Riches and worldly treasures. Just before our text Jesus says “the lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. If your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. Jesus is talking about our spiritual eye which either sees things clearly or is easily misled by this world.

As I was saying a moment ago, you are different from the unbeliever because you have been given something that the unbeliever has not received. It is the Holy Spirit through Holy Baptism. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one.”(1 Corinthians 2:14-15).

The spiritual eye of the soul that is healthy will discern the difference between serving God and mammon. Because you are baptized you know that it is wrong for you to serve the flesh, whether it be serving sexual lust, giving in to your appetite for money, or your desire to serve and improve your reputation or position by worldly standards.

Martin Luther makes a good point when he compares money to the Holy Scriptures. A person can miss several weeks of church, not receiving the sacrament or hearing God’s word and that isn’t considered robbery to the soul, but cut the same man’s wages ever so slightly and watch him come unglued. The truth is the world causes us to worry about what we will eat, what we will wear, how we can plan for our own future. Yet, Jesus is reminding us that we have no control over what happens tomorrow.

Faith is supposed to be such that we trust in God for everything. What will our financial status be next year? What will it be when we retire? Society has flung that worry into every home. Today, the world tries to get us to shift our focus to worldly riches and worldly comfort, when we need to be more concerned about investing in the future of our souls through God’s holy and precious word.

The psalmist says it well: “Do not trust in oppression, nor vainly hope in robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them. God has spoken once, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God”(Psalm 62:10-11). King David knows and communicates to us his own understanding that the riches and treasures of this world threaten to drag our souls away from God, and he is warning us not to set our hearts on them.

We are to set our hearts and minds on the scriptures which reveal to us our Lord and God. We are to do this through prayer and prayerful study of God’s word. We are to train our children in like manner, and then look to God for all things, knowing that each day is a new day, bringing blessings and challenges along the way.

So where do you fit into all this? Well, you may find yourself worrying too much about the things of this world at the expense of our spiritual growth and well-being. This is due to our sin. How do we rectify this problem? Jesus gives us the answer at the end of the gospel—“seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”

The baptized Christian confesses his or her sins to God, and seeks God’s forgiveness and His guiding hand to lead us in the right direction—to Him. This, to use St. Paul’s language that I quoted at the start, is the baptized Christian’s “being transformed through the renewing of the mind.” This is that cyclical pattern of confessing sins and receiving God’s holy absolution. The fact that we are able to make a distinction between the world’s ways and God’s ways is due to our new life in Christ through holy baptism.

I proclaim to you the forgiveness of sins that Jesus won for you on the cross, and through it all the Holy Spirit makes you wiser as you live our your life of faith in this world. It is the Holy Spirit’s purpose to make you wiser through the Holy Scriptures and the blessed sacrament.

Regardless of what you face, Jesus is with you. The gospel ends interestingly enough: “Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” No matter what your today or tomorrow looks like, you are amazingly special and like a star that shines in the darkness because the spiritually eye of your soul is illumined through the Holy Spirit and by the merits of Christ. Amen.

+Fr. Chadius

Thursday, May 01, 2008

St. Mark 16:14-20 The Ascension of Our Lord

Today the church gathers on this great festival, the Ascension of our Lord, with the benefit of pondering one statement in its beloved creeds, “And he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.” It is a statement in the Creed which is straightforward enough that we often simply leave it at face value without pondering the magnitude of this action in the life of Jesus.

It is a confession of faith and an inclusion in the narrative of Christ’s way of salvation for reasons which ultimately retreat back to the creation account and God’s plan of having a fellowship with His creation. This article of the creed turns our gaze, ironically, to the depths of the human existence, which reaches down into the valley of death, into the zone of untouchable loneliness and rejected love. While hell is an illocal place for unbelief, this loneliness and some of the attributes of hell touch the lives of the inhabitants of this earth as well.

St. Paul, using psalm 68, makes an important remark to the Ephesians regarding the descent and ascension of Christ. St. Paul says, “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive; and gave gifts to men. Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.”

What St. Paul is pointing out for us concerning Christ’s ascension is that a gift is given in the ascension that is unique to this world. While hell is characterized as a place of torment, it has a fundamental characteristic that we overlook. This unfortunate characteristic is now a part of this world. The gifts which Jesus gives to men in His ascension is the very opposite of the characteristic of hell, and I want to recall to your minds the account of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is in hell and he is unnamed.

From what the account gives us, this rich man is utterly alone. He is individualized, singled out. He is “self-sufficient” as he was on the earth. In hell he can see heaven, though he cannot participate in its blessings. Lazarus, on the other hand, is in heaven and he is not alone. He rests in the arms of father Abraham. If you’ve ever wondered why it is Abraham rather than Jesus who is situated with Lazarus, the reason has everything to do with the gift given in Christ’s ascension.

The ascension of Christ points to the opposite end of human existence. This existence wrought by the bodily ascension of Christ embraces, as the opposite pole of utter solitude and loneliness, the possibility of contact with all other men through the fellowship of divine love and connectedness. We see this with Adam and Eve. Before sin there was a unity between Adam and Eve and oneness with God. Sin brought individuality to Adam and Eve. Each saw their own nakedness. The curses, too, were individualized. Oneness with God, unity with one another was lost.

This individuality is a fundamental characteristic of separation with God. Man’s unwillingness to receive from God, man’s desire to be self-sufficient, man’s being alone is the character of Satan and hell. We see this today in our world very clearly. The women’s liberation movement, the world’s attempt to divide races, war between different nationalities and more. These are individualized and the very evidence of Adam and Eve in sin and the rich man in the solitude of hell. This also is seen in man’s desire to avoid fellowship with Christ and His church.

What makes Christ’s ascension so important? Don’t we say that our salvation is because of Christ’s crucifixion? Indeed. But the reason our creeds include the ascension of Christ along with the confession of Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection is due to the fact that Christ ascends bodily to heaven. Jesus, who is God and Man, ascending into heaven, therefore, unites God and man. By Christ ascending into heaven, he re-establishes the fellowship between God the Father and mankind. His incarnation is this very reality within Himself and His ascension makes it real for us also.

Jesus unravels Satan’s quest for the world’s loneliness, individualization, and separation. Heaven is the contact and the home of the “human beings in the flesh” with “God in the flesh.” This coming together of God and man took place once and for all in Christ with his stride over life through death to new life. The resurrection and ascension of Christ is the final merging of man and God into oneness and a unity that carries with it an everlasting blessing.

Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, together, have enormous implications for the church today. It is true that Jesus is the Second Adam who came to restore man’s relationship with God. It is true that we become one with Christ through baptism and faith, thereby confirming Christ’s words that “he who believes and is baptized shall be saved.”

The bodily ascension of Christ therefore adds substance and concreteness to the church’s life around the altar. “One faith, One Lord, One baptism,” as St. Paul says, is significant. This Christian faith and life, which centers around the altar adorned with Christ’s body and blood, is the very opposite of the rich man’s conclusion in hell—nameless and alone. The Christian is no longer simply about himself. When the church gathers around the altar, we cast off the solitude of hell, along with the namelessness of the rich man. We become one with Jesus and unified with one another and Christ knows us intimately and by name.

This is Christ’s way. He came to take us from Satan, pull us out of what the world has become, and places us in a new paradise. Today, we participate in this otherworldly blessing as we eat and drink Christ. For it is in the eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood that we are no longer simply left to ourselves, but we are one with Christ, one with St. Paul, one with father Abraham. In this sacrament you participate in heaven now, as you are made holy, set apart to be God’s true creation, at peace, not forsaken and lost, but loved having the forgiveness of sins that Jesus so graciously atoned for on the cross.

All is complete and we simply await the day when we, like Lazarus, shall be gathered together with Abraham and all the saints, centered around the true throne with Jesus Christ in the center—the true individual, God and man, with us unified to him forever. So let us confess with the creed and the church of all ages that Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, thereby uniting God and man, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

+Fr. Chadius