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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Diploma and Commencement

 God’s grace, peace and mercy be with you. ... My focus is the Gospel of John where we read, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in the truth.”[1]
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”[2] Now that our feet are within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
Through 28 years of ministry, I spoke at various graduations – preschools, kindergartens, grade schools, high schools, technical schools, colleges and universities. Until now, I gave little thought to how those closing words in our Gospel relate to two words used in tonight’s activity: diploma and commencement.
We define diploma as a document that shows a person finished a course of study or graduated from a school.[3] The English-speaking world used diploma in academics only since the 1680s.[4] I earned my high school diploma by attending classes for four years. I earned four others by completing academic programs at college, seminary and universities.
Most sources tell us that the origin of diploma is from the Latin word meaning passport, or from the Greek word meaning folded paper or to double.[5] However, today we are not issuing passports or folding sheepskins, but, like a passport, your diploma is a public document.
Competent authorities issue public documents that confer certain rights and privileges. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White issued me a Driver’s License that permits me to drive motor vehicles. Although I am one of four people who signed diplomas for Kelton, Jenna, Chase, Hayley and Bailey, “for having completed in a satisfactory manner the prescribed course of study for elementary education,” I do not know what rights, honors and privileges we confer through it; but a diploma is a signed public document conferring them.[6] I think it means that if you hold your diploma in one hand and cash in the other, you possess the right, honor and privilege to purchase a Polar Pop at Circle K. …
Now, to be honest with you, I did not give much thought to the meaning of a diploma until recently when I came across this passage from a book written by Douglas Boin, Professor of Archeology at St. Louis University. Boin wrote Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire.
In one chapter, Boin describes Marcus. Marcus was Syrian by birth who served in the Roman navy at a station in Italy. After 25 years of service, the emperor awarded him an honorable discharge. “This decree was etched on a folded bronze plaque, the size of an iPad today, but it did more than vouch for Marcus’ 25 years of service. It granted him Roman citizenship. That was something no one could put a price on. Romans called this certificate a diploma.”[7]
With his diploma, Marcus could live on his own terms. It gave him a sense of security and pride. With diploma in hand, Marcus possessed the same rights, honors and privileges of any free Roman citizen. This was a small victory for a man who could be mistaken for a runaway slave. Let me freeze Marcus for a moment and examine commencement.
When we use the word commencement, we mean the ceremony for conferring degrees or diplomas.[8] The word, commencement, is a late 13th century French term that means beginning or start. In 1850, we started using the word to mean a school graduation ceremony.[9]
Given that the word means beginning and you are receiving your diploma today, think of this day not as the end but as the beginning. Early Christians like Marcus, who received his diploma after 25 years of service in the navy, had the rest of his life to live as he pleased. You have the rest of your life to live as you please … with some restrictions, of course. Early Christians who lived freely as Roman citizens counted their freedom as a small victory. It would be another century before Emperor Constantine signed an edict permitting Christians and all others to worship as they wished. Considering that Christians comprised only 10% of the population of the Roman Empire, this was quite significant.
Our Gospel tells us that Jesus sent his disciples into the world.[10] Today, He sends you into the world. As Christ’s disciples, what small victories will you count?
Unlike Rome’s early Christians, you will not have to worry about freedom, but you can become enslaved. Though freed by Christ, you can still be enslaved to Satan, the world and your sinful self if you are not vigilant. So, what small victories do high school students count?
Apart from victories in the classroom and on the court, among friends and on the field, where do young Christians count victories? Although some news sources like to trot out those students censured for their high school graduation speech[11] or denied admission to college because they profess faith in Christ,[12] it is probably not going to happen to you, at least not in Nashville, Illinois.
I encourage you to count as small victories in our culture those opportunities to profess and witness your faith to your high school classmates. Count as small victories those opportunities to invite a friend to Sunday’s Divine Service. Do not place them on the same plane as Christ’s victory. But perhaps your small victory would be to thank our Lord daily for His blessings.
On Sunday, I spoke of how Martin Luther taught people to pray. In essence, he said that God will grant us anything, but we must order our prayer according to how Jesus taught His disciples. Daily, begin your day with prayer, and know that Christ sends you into the world every day. On those days when the world is against you, know that He has sent others with you. So, rely upon Christ’s presence and rely upon your brothers and sisters sent with you. Pray daily as you were taught over these past 8 years. Ask God for guidance in all you do.
For this, pray in Jesus’ Holy Name. Amen. … May the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.[13]

[1] John 17:18-19
[2] Psalm 122
[7] Douglas Boin, Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire. New York: Bloomsbury Press (2015), 57.
[10] John 17:18
[13] Philippians 4:7

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Holy Ghost! We Got Everlasting Life!

Our topic is the Third Article of the Creed, particularly, the Resurrection form the Dead and Everlasting Life. In his answer to what this means, Martin Luther wrote, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. … [He] will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.[i]
In the Large Catechism, Luther wrote, “Meanwhile, however, while sanctification has begun and is growing daily, we expect that our flesh will be destroyed and buried with all its uncleanness, and will come forth gloriously, and arise to entire and perfect holiness in a new eternal life.
For now we are only half pure and holy, so that the Holy Ghost has ever [some reason why] to continue His work in us through the Word, and daily to dispense forgiveness, until we attain to that life where there will be no more forgiveness, but only perfectly pure and holy people, full of godliness and righteousness, removed and free from sin, death, and all evil, in a new, immortal, and glorified body.
Behold, all this is to be the office and work of the Holy Ghost, that He begin and daily increase holiness upon earth by means of these two things, the Christian Church and the forgiveness of sin. But in our dissolution He will accomplish it altogether in an instant, and will forever preserve us therein by the last two parts. …
This, now, is the article which must ever be and remain in operation. For creation we have received; redemption, too, is finished But the Holy Ghost carries on His work without ceasing to the last day. And for that purpose He has appointed a congregation upon earth by which He speaks and does everything.
For He has not yet brought together all His Christian Church nor dispensed forgiveness. Therefore we believe in Him who through the Word daily brings us into the fellowship of this Christian Church, and through the same Word and the forgiveness of sins bestows, increases, and strengthens faith, in order that when He has accomplished it all, and we abide therein, and die to the world and to all evil, He may finally make us perfectly and forever holy; which now we expect in faith through the Word.
Behold, here you have the entire divine essence, will, and work depicted most exquisitely in quite short and yet rich words, wherein consists all our wisdom, which surpasses and exceeds the wisdom, mind, and reason of all men. For although the whole world with all diligence has endeavored to ascertain what God is, what He has in mind and does, yet has she never been able to attain to [the knowledge and understanding of] any of these things.
But here we have everything in richest measure; for here in all three articles He has Himself revealed and opened the deepest abyss of his paternal heart and of His pure unutterable love. For He has created us for this very object, that He might redeem and sanctify us; and in addition to giving and imparting to us everything in heaven and upon earth, He has given to us even His Son and the Holy Ghost, by whom to bring us to Himself. For (as explained above) we could never attain to the knowledge of the grace and favor of the Father except through the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the paternal heart, outside of whom we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge. But of Christ we could know nothing either, unless it had been revealed by the Holy Ghost.
These articles of the Creed, therefore, divide and separate us Christians from all other people upon earth. For all outside of Christianity, whether heathen, Turks, Jews, or false Christians and hypocrites, although they believe in, and worship, only one true God, yet know not what His mind towards them is, and cannot expect any love or blessing from Him; therefore they abide in eternal wrath and damnation. For they have not the Lord Christ, and, besides, are not illumined and favored by any gifts of the Holy Ghost.
From this you perceive that the Creed is a doctrine quite different from the Ten Commandments; for the latter teaches indeed what we ought to do, but the former tells what God does for us and gives to us. Moreover, apart from this, the Ten Commandments are written in the hearts of all men; the Creed, however, no human wisdom can comprehend, but it must be taught by the Holy Ghost alone.
The latter doctrine [of the Law], therefore, makes no Christian, for the wrath and displeasure of God abide upon us still, because we cannot keep what God demands of us; but this [namely, the doctrine of faith] brings pure grace, and makes us godly and acceptable to God.
For by this knowledge we obtain love and delight in all the commandments of God, because here we see that God gives Himself entire to us, with all that He has and is able to do, to aid and direct us in keeping the Ten Commandments-the Father, all creatures; the Son, His entire work; and the Holy Ghost, all His gifts.
Let this suffice concerning the Creed to lay a foundation for the simple, that they may not be burdened, so that, if they understand the substance of it, they themselves may afterwards strive to acquire more, and to refer to these parts whatever they learn in the Scriptures, and may ever grow and increase in richer understanding. For as long as we live here, we shall daily have enough to do to preach and to learn this.”[ii]
We have finished the Creed. Before you retire this evening, reflect upon your fleshly existence, the shortness of life on earth, God’s gift of everlasting life, and praise God for that gift. For this, pray in Jesus’ Holy Name. Amen.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Ask For Anything

What do you ask from God? Are your requests personal, familial, professional, ecclesial, societal or global? For yourself and your loved ones, do you ask God for eternal life? A long life? A healthy body and a healthy mind? A successful, wealthy career? Do you pray for the church? For our Synod’s leaders and pastors? For our members and Christians everywhere? Do you pray for our nation and neighborhood? President Obama and the Supreme Court? Our senators and city council members? Our principals and coaches? Across the globe, do you pray for people’s needs? For families starving for food, religious freedom and relief from oppression? What did you ask from God today?
Let us ask God for anything, but first let us ask God to help us understand this passage. Let us understand this passage as John wrote it, as Luther interpreted it, and as we might apply it.
John opened today’s passage, “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son.”[i] We believe an eyewitness’s testimony. When one witnesses an event and shares the recollection with family or friends, on social media or in court, we regard this testimony as reliable. We accept testimony from men, women and children, should we not accept the testimony of God? We believe others when it concerns earthly matters, should we not believe God when it concerns His Son?
God’s testimony to His Son unified the final passage of John’s Letter. Essentially, John said, “Believers have the Son. Unbelievers do not have the Son. To have the Son is to have eternal life and eternal truth.”
To have the Son is to have eternal life and eternal truth. That was vital in a Greek culture that valued the eternal and esteemed the Ancients, e.g., Homer, Aristotle, Plato. Greeks believed no faith was certain unless its object, foundation, origin and end existed from the beginning. That prompted John to write, if you have fellowship with us – apostolic eyewitnesses – you have fellowship with the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word.[ii]
John urged Christians to be confident, knowing that they alone knew the one true God through Christ and His Church. Think Joe Namath guaranteeing a Superbowl victory. Multiply that superior confidence exponentially and you have John. With an attitude of superiority, he guaranteed victory over Satan, sin and death,[iii] and so inspired fellow believers to abide in fellowship with Christ and His Church.
Though John’s letter was classic rhetoric, it appealed to his readers’ deepest emotions. He wrote not only about concepts and ideas regarding Christ and Christians, but also about behavior. John urged Christians to retain their core values against the attacks of the dark powers from whom God promised to protect them.[iv] In other words, John taught behavior reflects belief.
Because behavior reflects belief, John galvanized and steeled Christians for struggles against the world, the flesh, the devil and false teachers.[v] If they could endure these things until the day when they would see Christ, they would see Him just as he is. Until then, they could confidently ask for whatever they needed.
Verse 14 reminded them, “To know is to be assured; to be assured is to be confident; to be confident is to ask for the very things that we know that God intends for us to have and to hold.”[vi]
This assurance was not merely theoretical or a matter of inner personal experience. Christians discovered God’s assurance in life’s ambiguities through a continual relationship with God through His Son and within the common life of the Church, that is, those who share that relationship. … Here is the heart of John’s letter: Divine indwelling, abiding in God, walking as children of the light and all other expressions of belonging to God are not primarily individual but communal. In other words, Christians have fellowship with God only through the Church, not apart from it. That is why John repeated to church members, “Love one another.”[vii] Church members are all God’s children and deserve to be loved as His children.
Regarding our epistle, Martin Luther affirmed that no true prayer is unheard and unanswered. Concerning God’s promise, Luther wrote, “Do you mean to say that this promise is always true even though God often does not give what we have asked for? Did He not let David pray for the life of his son in vain? … I have often said how a prayer must be ordered and arranged. In our petitions we should not prescribe to God [some] measure, limit, place or person; but we should commit all … to Him who knows how to give … what is good for us. This is why He … set up this order … in the Lord’s Prayer [and] … put before us three objectives, which must always have precedence: the hallowing of His name, His kingdom and His will. Then follow our daily bread and deliverance from temptation and all troubles. … If this precedes, then that which is ours will certainly follow. Accordingly, St. John says, “If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us …”
Continuing, Luther wrote, “You have His complete will, and God will certainly not think otherwise in His heart than the Lord’s Prayer shows you. …  Therefore, when in trouble and danger … pray for deliverance and help, but in the way the Lord’s Prayer teaches you.”[viii]
I admire the simplicity of Luther’s theology. John’s theology, like his Letter, can be complicated, leading to hours of head scratching. Luther’s understanding clarified what John meant. We can ask God “anything, [and] according to his will he hears us,”[ix] but we must ask according to how the Son taught us to pray.
As children of God, our common denominator is the prayer Jesus taught. He said, “Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”[x]
If we ask for anything according to God’s good and gracious will, we know that he will hear us, but undoubtedly, John’s assurance puzzled countless Christians whose prayers were not answered in ways they hoped. Prayer is not a blank traveler’s check signed by Jesus, which produces results on demand. Nothing should encourage us to suppose that God will grant anything we choose to ask, simply because we want it. It is the will of God, not the believer’s whim, which is the cardinal rule of prayer.[xi]
One who prays should know that God considers and acts on all requests to maximize the coming of His kingdom and the fulfillment of His will.[xii] Therefore, we can ask for anything because according to his will, God hears us.
According to his will, God hears us, but at times, we doubt. Like Christians, athletes have doubts, especially when the future seems like an incessant uphill battle. In these moments, athletes must find the strength to push forward, work harder and be better. Some are lucky to have coaches and mentors who put things into perspective and motivate them.
John’s Letter motivated Christians not to win a contest or a crown, but to remain faithful to God through fellowship with Christ through the Church. … Friends, remain faithful to God through fellowship with Christ through the Church.
God gave you what you need to remain faithful to Him through fellowship with Christ and His Church. God answered your prayers and gave you the means of grace. God opened His ears to your prayers through His Word and Sacraments. You have those. What else do you need? Perhaps a small catechism to learn your faith. Friends, learn your faith.
“What you learn no one can take from you,” my father often said. He applied this not only to his profession, but also to of our faith. His religious learning did not end at confirmation, but continued throughout adulthood; and his behavior reflected his beliefs. That inspires me.
My father died in 2003. He was born six weeks before Eldor Frederking. All of you knew Eldor better than I knew him, but this much I can tell you. One week before he died, from his hospital bed, Eldor called and asked for the Lord’s Supper. He knew Christ’s Body and Blood would sustain him through his last days. What Eldor learned about Christ, no one took from him, even on his deathbed. Behavior reflects belief. That inspires me.
When you enter your last days, will your behavior reflect your beliefs? Will a lifetime of learning about your faith and fellowship in Christ accompany you to the grave? Will your relationship with Christ through his Church inspire anyone? What if you do not live to be 90 or 70? Does your behavior inspire anyone today? Does your behavior reflect belief?
As we come to the end of the school year, a test for you. When you get home, make a list of the people you think you inspire or want to inspire. Next, call them and ask them if you inspire them. Prepare yourself for unexpected responses.
If your behavior inspires no one; if your relationship with Christ through His Church inspires no one; if your behavior does not reflect your belief, talk to God. Ask the Holy Spirit dwelling in you to come alive and then, reflect on John’s words: “If we ask anything according to his will he hears us.”[xiii] Finally, pray as Luther taught. Children of light, pray to the Trinity for that grace. In Jesus’ Holy Name, we pray. Amen. …

[i] 1 John 5:9
[ii] Bruce G. Schuchard, 1 – 3 John. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (2012), 92.
[iii] Ibid, 566
[iv] Ibid, 567, fn 174
[v] Ibid, 567, fn 176
[vi] Ibid, 570
[vii] Ibid, 571
[viii] What Luther Says, 1095 #3502
[ix] 1 John 5:14
[x] Matthew 6:9-15
[xi] Schuchard, 571
[xii] Ibid, 572
[xiii] 1 John 5:14