We talk about the sacraments as “the means of grace”, in the everyday world we might refer to someone as a person of means, but I don’t think we really know what that word – means – means. Nor do we really plumb its depths. We don’t for two reasons. The first is that most of us are secular. We have buffered ourselves from what what Nicene Creeds calls the invisible creation. Not that it isn’t there and doesn’t effect us, simply that we deny it, usually with some fantastical pseudo-science. Although for me the best denials are the straight up “didn’t happen, who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes.” The second though is a spiritual reason. We think we want God to act immediately. We think we want the lightning bolt. This sermon is an exploration of God working through means and or reactions to that fact.
After the last month of parables, today’s text was a shift to miracles. But the feeding miracles are almost a category of their own. The way I categorize miracles is typically: healings, nature or power, and restorations to life (I don’t use resurrection because that is a special term meaning the resurrection body which is no longer subject to death). All miracles reveal or invite us to ponder a specific part of who this Jesus is. Healings, like the man lowered in the house, invite us to ponder the Great Physician and how the one who can cleanse of of disease, more importantly cleanses us of sin. Those categorized miracles invite us to see how Christ has beat: the devil, the world and our sinful nature. The feeding miracles could by the nature miracle, but that is not the reaction of those who were there. Instead, the feeding miracles ask us to imagine how the Kingdom works in this world.
It works through compassion for those who might be our enemies. It works not through offering the world a worldly solution, but by offering Christ. It works not through direct power, but through means. The church or the disciple in this world is invited to follow Christ, and go and do likewise. This sermon explores that.
There are five week of Epiphany this year. Epiphany is a season on the church’s calendar that stretches from the end of the Christmas Season (Jan 6th, the 12 days of Christmas) until the beginning of Lent. The older purpose of Epiphany was the slowly dawning realization of the divinity of Jesus. Not only was this Christmas Child true man born of the Virgin Mary, but also true God made of the same substance as the Father. The traditional reading for the last week of Epiphany was Transfiguration. It is a season constructed around a theology from below – starting with what we know, Jesus, and moving toward a full epiphany of the Christ.
And Christology, the understanding of the person and nature of Jesus, is always a good thing. If you’ve got your Christology off, everything else goes strange. But Christology is not what afflicts us today. It is easy to look at the creeds and sort out true doctrine from false. Our afflictions today are down in that 3rd article of the creed. And they swirl around a question and its derivatives: How do we find God?
The 5 week epiphany season is a short one this year, but the lessons we will be reading all lend themselves to reminding ourselves a couple of key truths. We might be asking How do we find God, and the magi I’m sure were thinking they were on a quest to find the child, but as the story makes clear, we tend to be hopelessly lost and mess things up. In this world the Word finds you. And How does the Word find you? Word and Sacrament and the people created by those promised things. The Epiphany I’m preaching toward this season is the one that Jacob had – “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it (Gen 28:16).” The Lord is present, we can meet the Lord, in some very specific ways instituted by God himself that continue to carry His promises for us. They always have carried His promises, even when we didn’t know it. Next week’s text? The Baptism of Jesus.
The posts on the law and on the spiritual practices in some odd ways merge at this point. What we’ve developed out of our look at the law is the recognition that the moral law is the best representation of the sanctified life. It can’t save. After the cross it doesn’t condemn either. But the law has not been done away with. It has been fulfilled in Christ. The life we life in Christ is one of fulfilling the law. And Christ’s summary of the law is: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 22:37-39)
This sanctified life retains its cruciform shape. Because God first loved us we are able to love our neighbor. And it is the love of God in our life that continues to form us and enable us to live lives of service. If all you are doing is attempting to love the neighbor, without a strong basis in the love of God to renew yourself, that love will grow cold. I’m convinced that is what we see today in many neighborhoods. How many neighborhoods today actually are neighborly? We work and we get home and dig in. We erect fences and hedges. We screen in porches. We insulate ourselves. We do that because we know that coming into contact places burdens…burdens of love. And when you are not rooted in the vertical dimension of love for God who is the very source of love, those burdens of love for our neighbor become too great.
The very basic spiritual practices are to make diligent use of the means of grace – word and sacrament, i.e. make it to church. The devil will try all kinds of things to separate you from this most basic lifeline because this is where God’s grace is abundantly present. This is where God himself is present. If our adversary can get you to make less diligent use – the seed just might fall on thorny ground. The cares and worries of this world will look very great compared to something as unnatural as getting out of our carefully constructed and comfortable bubbles. Yes, I’m a minister, of course I’m going to say that. Discount the heck out of it. It still stands – go to church intentionally and with a good mind. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Which Luther explains simply as not despising preaching and the word, but holding it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
That is the basic spiritual practice. You can’t substitute for the assembly of the body of Christ.
The next post – I promise – will start to look at Matt 6, Lenten spiritual practices and the ways we can grow or sustain a gentle piety or loving the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind.