Proper 16B Sermon (2003)

Proper 16 (August 21-27)
Texts: Ephesians 6:10-20;
John 1:43-51; Ex. 19:1-6


About thirteen months ago, I unpacked this bag with a few things in it — things to help you get to know me a bit. After a good year together, it’s a bit sad today to have to pack these things back up. [Packing, with a few comments: Lions mascot, family pictures, Gandhi video, visitation Bible, reading glasses, funeral solo file, Girard’s Things Hidden.]

Believe me, though, I’m taking away a lot more than what I can pack in here. We’ve grown a lot together. It’s been a memorable year for us. This is the most difficult task of being an interim pastor: saying goodbye. This goodbye is a little easier, since I live in Racine and will be remaining a part of the Racine cluster ministry.

Of course, saying goodbye is not just about what you take, either. It’s also about what you leave behind. I think I’ve helped leave behind some seeds to grow for a new direction in ministry. I’m excited about that and will be eager to watch from a distance. Your leaders here at Our Savior’s have already done a lot to help those seeds grow, especially in being able to call an excellent candidate for pastor. I have a good feeling that Pastor Tracy has the training, the gifts, and the passion to lead you in growing this ministry of reaching out to neighbors in Christ.

What I hope I also leave behind is a passion for the Gospel that will help sustain you for the challenges ahead. Last week (Proper 15B Sermon), I spoke about the challenge that our Lord makes to us every time in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We human beings are in the habit of making for ourselves un-holy communions. That is, we come together as a community at the expense of others. That’s exactly what his cross shows us, a coming together at his expense. Caiaphas, the high priest who passed sentence on Jesus, had said, “It is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed” (John 11:50). He was keeping the peace at Jesus’ expense. Even the Jews and Romans had a small measure of communion at Jesus expense. Luke tells us on Good Friday, “That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (Luke 23:12).

Do you see our un-holy communions? We always come together at someone else’s expense. We scapegoat in families, against the so-called “black sheep.” We do it in neighborhoods, gating ourselves off from those “other people.” We do it as wider communities, neglecting the poor. We do it as nations, unifying ourselves against the “evildoers.” Our very lives are shaped by the power of Satan to keep our unity always based on driving someone out, those “bad,” unwanted people. Our lives are shaped by these un-holy communions, so much so that Jesus came to be one of those driven out. He came to be the Lamb of God who takes away the this Sin of our world. And then God raised him from the dead so that he could come back as our victim, not to get back at us, but to forgive us. And, grace upon grace, he comes here each and every week to offer us his Holy Communion, his brand of coming together as a people that is based on forgiveness and grace. He comes to heal us and to feed us so that we can leave this place ready to extend that Holy Communion to others.

This is the ministry you are called to in this place and time with Pastor Tracy. It is about being forgiven and fed each week so that you can begin to break down those barriers of our un-holy communions; so that you can break down those barriers of race and religion and economic status. In that Holy Communion around the Lamb of God, you will also have much help. Mt. Pleasant Lutheran Church has committed to partner with you. Our cluster of ELCA churches is coming together to have a ministry of healing in this city of ours. We will continue to work at lowering those barriers which divide us so that we can truly come together as God’s children.

Will it be easy? No. That’s at least partly why these partnerships are so important. That’s why coming together as followers of Jesus, as brokers of the Holy Communion, is so important.

Our second lesson this morning is clear about the forces arrayed against us. We are always in for a battle. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” writes St. Paul, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” And so he calls us to put on our armor and fight the good fight. We are to put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes that make for the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Are you ready for the battle? Pray, says St. Paul! Keep praying!

Now, you may also be wondering, ‘Hmm. That doesn’t sound like Pastor Paul — all this talk about fighting a battle with armor. He’s talked the whole year against violence.’ Well, if you thought that to yourself, I’m glad. I will have left behind at least an impression of being against violence of every sort. I am against violence. But I’m not against the struggle, the battle, of helping to bring about its end. It has been most helpful to me to think about the satanic powers as basically the powers that trick us into using violence — violence against violence, so that the violence never really ends. The best that we otherwise hope for are brief cessations of violence. Unless we learn to battle as Jesus did against the powers of violence itself.

There’s something very important in these words from Ephesians 6: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.” In other words, our fight isn’t against other people. I just finished reading a very important book, Jesus and the Victory of God. The author, N. T. Wright, is revolutionizing modern interpretation of the New Testament. I can’t get into all that, but I need to lift up one of his most important points, which is exactly the point here in Ephesians. The title of the book even points to Jesus having won a battle. But what battle, against whom? Wright says that Jesus’ own people expected a Messiah who would lead them in victorious battle over their enemies, at that time, the Romans. Jesus did come to fight a battle, but not against enemies of flesh and blood. In other words, not against the Romans, or anyone else — except Satan. Jesus came to fight the battle against those powers which we’ve talked about already: those satanic powers which always lead our rulers and authorities into un-holy communions, namely, into communities and nations based on being against someone else. Jesus’ own people had been hoodwinked into just such an un-holy communion. They wanted a Messiah who would lead a victorious fight against their flesh and blood enemies. President Bush, and we the people of this land, are still hoodwinked by these satanic powers of thinking the victory comes against flesh and blood enemies, aren’t we? The point is: Jesus could have killed the Romans, and Satan would simply find another instrument for his brand of righteous violence. The United States can kill Hitler, Suddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and all the Al-Qaeda terrorists, and Satan will simply find others to take their place. In fact, he has already gotten us to play those games of violence precisely by getting us to kill them. We’ve gotten swept up in those powers of violence.

No! We must stop the madness! To win this battle God needed to work a completely different strategy in Jesus Christ. First of all, we must realize that we have a God in Jesus Christ who loves us, you and me, even while we are still enemies hoodwinked into these schemes of violence. He loves us so much that he sent his Son into the world to expose all these powers and to forgive us for being enthralled with them. He could have killed us all, like at the time of Noah, but Satan would simply get the next folks.

No, this battle cannot be won by doing violence against other people, because the enemy is those forces of violence themselves! No, God had to win this battle against those spiritual forces of violence by exposing them with its opposite, nonviolence. God sent his Son to fight the battle and win it for us — not with literal weapons and armor against flesh and blood, but with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes that make for the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. He sent his Son, in flesh and blood, to be killed by these powers of violence in order to expose them for all time. How? By raising Jesus on the third day! By raising Jesus, God effectively says, “There! You’ve done your very worst against my own flesh and blood, and it will never win the final victory over my power of life. See! He is Risen! The victory is Life!’ Our God has shown us the victory in Jesus Christ. In fact, the victory is basically already won. The decisive battle has already been won. It is, since that first Easter, only a matter of the powers of violence someday finally playing themselves out — and they will play themselves out. For the only end for the powers of violence is for them to eventually collapse in on themselves. In the meantime, we have God’s promise that his power of Life has won the victory. In our baptisms, we have already died and risen with Christ to those powers of violence. We need not be afraid. They cannot win the day.

In closing, I’d like to point to one of the many good things that Pastor Jerry left behind for which I’ve been most grateful: namely, weekly Communion. I grew up at my home church in Livonia, MI (which, you may remember, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year) with Holy Communion at every worship every week. When I was on internship about twenty years ago, I was upset and had a hard time adjusting to not having weekly Communion. My intern supervisor finally got angry with me and asked me to be quiet about it. I did. And I guess I got used to not having Communion every week. Being your pastor and worship leader every week this past year, I’ve realized how very much I’ve missed it. You are so blessed to have made that change. We are all blessed to come again this morning, as in every week, to this table of Holy Communion, a table of refreshment for our battles during the week against the powers of un-holy communion. We are blessed to take time out for strengthening in the hope that the victory is already won. Come to this feast of victory for our God, for the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia!

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 24 & 27, 2003

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