Category Archives: Gate of Heaven

Advent 2 (2015)

Advent 2

December 6, 2015 AD

Old Testament: Malachi 4:1-6

Epistle: Romans 15:4-13

Gospel: Luke 21:25-36
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Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

– St. Luke 21:28

I wonder how many times you’ve found yourself asking, “Where will it all end?” That’s not the kind of question we’re likely to ask when things are going well, but I’m sure we’ve all asked that question in times of personal crisis, or when faced with family difficulties that just won’t go away, or on those days when we become so painfully aware of the violence and conflict in the world, of the deprivation and hunger, the sheer misery that mark the lives of millions. It’s then that we find ourselves asking, “Where will it all end?”

Just a few short days after those terrible events we’ve come to call “9-11”, I received a beautiful card from a very dear and considerably older friend encouraging all of us “to remain strong in faith and prayer because,” she said, “no matter what might happen in the meantime, we Christians already know how the story ends.”

And how does the story end? In the coming again in glory of our Lord Jesus Christ to judge the living and the dead and to usher in His beyond-imagination glorious kingdom which in His love He prepared for us from the foundation of the world. That’s where it will all end!

To many people of course our Christian belief in Christ’s coming again has nothing to do with the urgent demands of life; it seems to deal with what to them is at best an utterly remote possibility— in fact an event that in all likelihood will never take place and therefore can be safely ignored. And if truth be told, even within the visible Church there are people who have in fact abandoned this hope in part because misguided teachers have so distorted our Lord’s teaching about this with all kinds of bizarre notions and have even attempted to predict the exact day and hour of His coming— despite the fact that our Lord Himself said: “Watch, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming,” and “the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

In the Gospel for this Sunday our Lord does in fact speak of the signs of the last days: “signs in sun and moon and stars and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring. . .men fainting with fear and foreboding at what is coming on the world.” But what is so often forgotten is that, according to Holy Scripture, all days from Christ’s first coming in lowliness until His second coming in glory are in fact the last days – the days when God is at last bringing to completion His truly loving purpose for the whole creation. Saint John wrote, “Children, it is the last hour,” and Saint Paul addressed the Christians of his day as those “upon whom the end of the ages has come.”

And so when Jesus says, “When you see these things place, you know that the kingdom of God is near,” Jesus is speaking in terms not of our human time-table but in terms of God’s time-table which is another thing altogether— the Lord “with whom one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day.” In a word, the signs of which Jesus speaks tell us that He is coming, not when He is coming as Jesus said, “Watch for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming,” and “Watch, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

Someone has said that our Lord’s coming again has to do not with a date but with an attitude. “Not a date” because the day and hour of His coming are known only to Him, “but an attitude”: an attitude which is neither cynical despair and resignation nor naive optimism but rather a deep and abiding hope which can face the very worst and still rejoice because it is hope grounded solely in Christ: the Lord who through forgiveness makes each moment of our lives a new beginning, who brings good out of evil, life out of death, and who will in the End deliver the dying creation and wonderfully transform all things by the light of His resurrection. As Saint Paul writes to the Church at Rome, “Creation itself will”— in a way we cannot now even dimly imagine— “be delivered from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

We live in a dying world and you and I are dying people; the grave awaits each and every one of us, and the world as we now know it will come to an end. The signs of which Jesus speaks in this day’s Gospel tell us that this is so: “signs in sun and moon and stars and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring. . .men’s hearts fainting with fear and with foreboding at what is coming on the world.” In fact all the dismal and destructive realities of life tells us that this so. But if we remember and take seriously the words of Jesus, these signs— these grim reminders of our own mortality and of the world’s approaching end— are no cause for despair. Seen with eyes of faith, they are even reason for hope because they tell us that the Lord we love and long to see is in fact on His way; He is coming to gather His redeemed children into the kingdom which in His love He has prepared for us from the foundation of the world.

So where will it all end? Not in death and oblivion, but in the coming again of the Lord whose love we already know through His manger, cross, and open tomb. So, “When all these begin to take place, look up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.”

And so I would like to conclude this morning with some beautiful, yes, poetic words of John Henry Newman about the altar, the altar of the Sacrament, as this place where our hope is kindled and sustained. Newman says,

But while the times wax old, and the colours of the earth fade, and the voice of song is brought low, and all kindreds of the earth can but wail and lament, the sons of God “lift up their heads for their redemption draweth nigh.” Nature fails, the sun shines not, and the moon is dim, the stars fall from heaven, and the foundations of the round world shake; but the altar’s light burns ever brighter; there are sights there which the many cannot see and all above the tumults of earth the command is heard to show forth the Lord’s death and the promise that the Lord is coming. “Happy are the people that are in such a case!” who, when  wearied of the things seen can turn with good hope to the things unseen; yea “blessed are the people who have the Lord for their God.” “Come unto Me,” He says, “all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Rest is better than toil, peace satisfies, and quietness disappoints not. These are sure goods. Such is the calm of the heavenly Jerusalem , which is the mother of us all; and such is their calm worship, the foretaste of heaven, who for a season shut themselves out from the world, and seek Him in invisible-Presence, whom they shall hereafter see face to face. (J. H. Newman, Parochial & Plain Sermons VII, l58f)

And the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, +Amen.

Trinity 24 (2015)

Trinity 24

November 15, 2015 AD

Old Testament: Isaiah 51:9-16

Epistle: Colossians 1:9-14

Gospel: Matthew 9:18-26
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Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house, and saw the flute players and the crowd making a tumult, He said, ‘Depart, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed Him to scorn.” (St. Matthew 9:23f)

At this time of the year when earth begins to feel the cold hand of winter, the hours of darkness lengthen, and nature itself in some sense dies, we Christians begin to think about the  end: the end of life, the end of the world. But we do that in the dazzling light of Jesus’ resurrection, of which the raising of Jairus’ daughter in the Gospel just read is a sign— a sign pointing forward to Jesus’ resurrection and ours, when in the end He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But the mourners just laugh Jesus to scorn.

christ-1522Now it’s no secret that we live in a day when the resurrection hope is dismissed as a matter of little concern which one may or may not believe, or else is trivialized as nothing more than a poetic way of saying that— well— despite everything, life still— somehow— has meaning. Now this faith weariness, this loss of Christian nerve, this death of genuine hope is of course by no means something new. You might even say that it’s as old as the human story. Job asks, “If a man die, will he live again?” And the New Testament Scriptures give plenty of evidence as to how this hope was then dismissed by both Jew and Gentile. The party of the Sadducees in Judaism knew nothing of the resurrection hope, and when Saint Paul preached the resurrection to the sophisticated audience gathered on Mars Hill in Athens, “some mocked him and others said, ‘We’ll listen to you again some other time,'” more or less dismissing him out of hand. Yes, the rejection of the resurrection hope is nothing new!

In fact members of the Church St. Paul founded in the city of Corinth kept asking— anxiously, “How are the dead raised? With is what kind of body do they come?” And St. Paul answers their anxious question by using a comparison: the picture of seed sown in the earth. Of the body buried and risen St. Paul says, “What is sown in the earth is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

And it is at this point that one so often finds confusion worse confounded because that word “spiritual” is one of the slipperiest, most easily misunderstood words there is! It can mean so many different things! And so today, just as in St. Paul’s day, when we people hear the word, “spiritual,” they jump to the conclusion, “If spiritual, then certainly not bodily.” But that conclusion contradicts everything we as Christians believe!

For us Christians spirit and body are by no means mutually exclusive, since God who is spirit in fact took on Himself from blessed Mary a body and has never put it aside— although that body born of Mary, crucified and buried, is now risen and wondrously changed in a way we can’t even begin to understand this side of our own resurrection. So when Saint Paul speaks of the resurrection body as a “spiritual body,” he doesn’t mean “not bodily at all”, but a body totally responsive to the Holy Spirit who, as we learned in our Catechism, “will on the last day raise me me and all the dead and give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life.”

The life we now know, this side of the resurrection— despite all its tragedies, sorrows, pains and absurdities, its own manifest injustices and intractable problems— is nevertheless God’s precious gift, full of joy and delight and wonderful surprise— truly a gift of love! And where there is so much love, there must be more, always more. And how do we know that? Because on the first day of the week the Lord of Love rose from the dead. And not only on Easter Day but every Lord’s Day we celebrate His glorious resurrection, receiving Him in that wonderful Sacrament which is me the sure Pledge of our own resurrection, as we hear in the dismissal from the Lord’s Table: “The Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting.” And so here at the altar we know and truly receive our Savior’s hope-sustaining love.

Preaching to some no doubt skeptical Oxford undergraduates about fifty years ago, Austin Farrer had this to say:

They think too little of [God’s] love who call this hope in question. Belief in this infinite and invaluable gift, this partaking of God’s eternity, is the acid-test of genuine faith. Leave this out of account, and you can can equivocate forever on God’s very existence: your talk of God can always be talk about the backside of nature, dressed in emotional rhetoric. But a God who reverses nature, who undoes death, that those in whom the likeness of His glory has faintly and fitfully shone may be drawn everlastingly into the heart of light and know Him as He is: This is a God indeed, a God Almighty, a God to be trusted, loved, and adored.

Saint John put it so simply: “Beloved, we are children now. But it does not yet appear what we shall be. But we know that when He appears we shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.”

And now the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, to life everlasting. +Amen.


All Saints Day (2015)

OSLC 5All Saints Day

November 1, 2015 AD

First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

Epistle: 1 John 3:1-3

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

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Whenever we say the Apostles’ Creed— and if we follow Dr. Luther’s instructions in the Small Catechism we say the Apostles Creed twice a day, morning and evening— whenever we say that Creed we confess our faith in the Holy Christian Church the Communion of Saints: the Holy Christian Church which is the Communion of Saints. And it is especially on this Festival of All Saints that we rejoice in this truth— or, to speak more accurately, in this blessed reality.

It was Pastor Wilhelm Löhe, one of the great Fathers of the Lutheran Church during the nineteenth century, who said:

When I was young I thirsted for an eternal fellowship. Now I know an eternal fellowship which becomes more and more close and binding— the holy Church! From it death shall not separate me, but death will for the first time bring me to complete enjoyment of love and fellowship. [For] there is one eternal Church, part to be found here, and part to be found in eternity.

I believe in the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints— here on earth and there in heaven. As we sang in William Walsham Howe’s wonderful hymn:

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine:
Yet all are one in Thee for all are Thine.

Or as we sang in the sermon hymn:

One family we dwell in Him,
One Church above, beneath:
Though now divided by the stream
The narrow stream of death.

I believe in the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints.

Long before the coming of our Lord the author of the Book of Proverbs said: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Well in the first reading from Holy Scripture we have a fragment of the vision of Saint John exiled on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. We usually call that vision The Revelation to Saint John. And at its very beginning Saint John says, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day”— the day when all the seven churches of Asia Minor to which he wrote would have been gathered for the weekly celebration of the Holy Communion on the day of the Lord’s resurrection. The late Austin Farrer put it this way:

One Sunday it happened that St John could not be at church with his friends, for like Elisha, like Jesus, he was taken by the armed men and held in prison. But God consoled him with a vision: he saw the Christian sacrament that morning not as we human beings see it, but as it is seen in heaven. His spirit went up; he saw the throne of glory and the four cherubim full of eyes in every part who sleep not saying Holy, Holy, Holy. And he saw the Lamb of God: a Lamb standing as though slaughtered; a Lamb alone worthy to open for mankind the blessed promises of God. He saw the Lamb, and then the angels. I saw, he says, and heard the voice of many angels round about the Throne, the number of them ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to be receive power and riches and wisdom and honor and glory and blessing…

And he saw the saints standing before the throne of God and the Lamb. And who are the saints? Those who had come out of great tribulation and had washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, the gentle Lamb who leads to springs of living waters and wipes away every tear from their eyes.

You and I are not yet there. We are only on the journey; they are at journey’s end— in the nearer presence of the Lord in whom is all our life and hope. As Pastor Löhe said, “There is one eternal Church, part to be found here and part to be found in eternity.” But it is one eternal Church, and both here on earth and there in heaven Christ’s people worship before the throne of God and the Lamb. In heaven the saints see Him. Here on earth we find Him hidden under the outward appearances of bread and wine. But we with the saints in heaven acclaim Him as the Lamb slain for us all, washing away our sins through His most precious Blood, feeding us with the heavenly Food for our journey— His Body given, His blood shed— and worshipping Him as do the saints and the angels in the words of the thrice holy hymn: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth: Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory. Hosanna in the highest!

I believe in the Holy Christian Church: the Communion of Saints. God grant that we may rejoice not only on this All Saints Day but every day in that blest communion, fellowship divine, until we too are called to Christ’s nearer presence and join in worshipping Him before the throne of God and the Lamb.

And now the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, to live everlasting. +Amen.


The Festival of the Reformation (2015)

OSLC front Holga-ishThe Festival of the Reformation

October 25, 2015 AD

First Reading: Revelation 14:6-7

Epistle: Romans 3:19-28

Gospel: Matthew 11:12-19
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The Joint Reformation Service which will take place this afternoon is an old Baltimore tradition. Way back in late October 1949 my father told me that the preacher at the Joint Reformation Service that year would be a certain Dr. Pelikan. Only a few weeks before our family had been in Florida, and for the first time in my life I had in fact seen pelicans. And so my seven-year-old mind wondered what on earth a Dr. Pelikan would look like! Well, he in fact looked much like any other pastor. I don’t remember what he said, but as the years went by I learned that this Dr. Pelikan was one of the greatest Church historians in twentieth-century America.

My reason for talking about Dr. Pelikan this morning is that he said something worth thinking about as we celebrate this Reformation Sunday. And what he said was this:

The Reformation was a tragic necessity. It was tragic because the opposing groups could not agree and so the visible unity of the Western Christian Church was destroyed and remains so to this very day. But the Reformation was also a necessity because in the late medieval Church the Gospel had been obscured, the Good News that we are saved not by anything we do, but by what has God has done and continues to do for us through His Son Jesus Christ.

Of course the Gospel had not been completely lost, because the Church cannot live without the Gospel, and Christ promised that “the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church.” And so despite all the errors of the Church before the Reformation it was still the Church— the one flock of Jesus the Good Shepherd who never fails to feed and protect all those who place their trust in Him. And so Dr. Martin Luther was not the founder of some new religion but rather the Reformer whom God raised up to restore to His Church the Gospel in its purity.

I’ve often said from this pulpit that so many people think of the Gospel as good advice. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or to put it in Biblical words: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.” These words are of course true but they are not the Gospel, because the word ‘Gospel’ doesn’t mean good advice but good news. The world has all the good advice imaginable but what the world does not have apart from the Gospel is the forgiveness of the world’s chronic inability to live by the good advice it already knows, or to put that in biblical language, forgiveness for its sin.

And by sin we don’t simply think of murder and drunkenness and adultery and fornication and stealing but also of the resentment and hatred in our hearts, our indifference to the plight of those in such desperate need, our discontent and lack of gratitude for all the gracious gifts of God, our anger that our prayers have not been answered in the way we wish, our impatience with God, and lack of trust in His goodness and love. And so we are sinners in need of forgiveness of our sins.

The Gospel is the good news that our sins are forgiven by God who loves us not because we are so lovable but because He is love. As Dr. Luther sings in one his many wonderful hymns:

But God beheld my wretched state
Before the world’s foundation.
And mindful of His mercies great
He planned my soul’s salvation.
A father’s heart He turned to me
Sought redemption fervently:
He gave His dearest treasure.

He spoke to His beloved Son,
“‘Tis time to have compassion,
Then go, bright Jewel of My crown,
And bring to man salvation.
From sin and sorrow set him free,
Slay bitter death for him that he
May live with thee for ever.”

Yes, God sent His dearest Treasure to be our Saviour. And in a wonderful Christmas hymn Dr. Luther sings:

He whom the worlds cannot contain,
Doth in Mary’s lap repose.
He is become an Infant small
Who by His might upholds all.

Look to the Child of Mary, look to the crucified Savior! That is where we see God with eyes of faith, that is where we see His love. The preaching of the Gospel points you to Him. Baptism clothes you with the spotless robe of Jesus’ blood and righteousness. And now again at the altar He truly feeds you with His precious Body and Blood.

Yes, the Reformation was tragic in the which followed, but it was also necessary so that believers might again see with clarity the love of God which brought Him to the manger and the cross, the Lord who now lives and rules all things for the good of His holy Church, His Body and beloved Bride which in the end He’ll bring to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in His kingdom.

And now the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.