Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Tiptoe through the tulips with the Rev. John Ruppenthal.
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Tiptoe through the tulips with the Rev. John Ruppenthal.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
John 15:26—27; 16:4b—15
“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
“All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
Beginning last Sunday afternoon, Pastor Pohlman and I spent parts of three days and two nights camping and fishing with five other guys in Vernon County: about half of us fish, and about half of us camp. Pastor Pohlman belongs to the latter group; I to the former. We’ve done this sort of thing three times now, and each time (because one of our number is an avid historian) we spend the hours after dinner sitting round a campfire debating history: twice we’ve focused on American Presidents (more or less successfully—twice failing to get past FDR). This last time the theme was war: American wars post 1776. But we foundered badly, having some difficulty even defining “war,” its origins, circumstances, manifestations, dimensions, and consequences.
Oddly enough, our conversation once again foundered on FDR. One of our younger members observed that in his own family FDR was hardly ever mentioned. But, on the other hand, in my experience (being the oldest in the group) FDR was a person of frequent reference, and always in hallowed terms. Asked to provide an example, I had an easy time, simply saying my name, “Franklin.” But, then (for the first time in my life), it struck me that the name I’ve always thought of as my own, is actually more than “my name.” It currently belongs to others as well, and has belonged to countless others in the past, and likely will belong to more in the future. After all, the thing I claim as “my name,” was in fact given to me, and so actually belonged to others—as in fact it still does.
What is said of a name, may also be said of life itself. The thing I claim as “my life,” is actually “our life jointly held.” Pentecost proclaims the church’s life as the Spirit’s life, the life of Christ, the life of God. Jesus says, “All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” What the Father has is life; life is never merely “mine” or “yours,” or “ours,” or even “the church’s.” Life belongs most deeply to the Giver; it belongs to God. Which is why Christ Jesus frequently bids us deny ourselves and lose our lives: life doesn’t belong to us in the first place. “Our lives” belong to God. In losing them we make personally clear what is universally true: losing our own little lives, we enjoy more of life itself, we participate more fully in the fullness of Christ’s risen life.
“I will put my Spirit within you and you shall live.” One could generally say that Pentecost celebrates Christ’s gift of the Spirit. One could further say what is often said, that “Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Spirit to the church.” But, of course, such well intentioned language misstates the case: there was no church to receive the Gift before the Gift called the church into being. In other words, in giving the Spirit, Christ creates the church. In putting his spirit within us, Christ gives us his life, which is the life of the church. There is no church prior to the gift of the Spirit, just as there can be no life apart from Breath God breathed into Adam. Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones may serve as a preeminent example.
Here at Luther Memorial Church, we know Ezekiel 37 as the fourth reading for the Great Vigil of Easter; among some it goes by the name of “Evelyn Swenson’s reading;” though it has now for many years been read by Mary, Evelyn’s daughter. But, no matter who reads Ezekiel’s account of the dry bones, the meaning is clear: apart from the proclaimed Word of God, apart from the Wind/Breath/Spirit of God, the “whole host” of Israel is lost, cut off, dried up, dead, and without hope.
The story prefigures Christ’s resurrection, and our own. As Christ was raised from death by the glory of the Father, as life came to Christ from outside himself, so also life comes to us from outside ourselves. Life does not inherently belong to us, is not owned by us, but comes to us as a gift to be stewarded by us for God, the true Owner. Life comes to us even, and especially, when we are dead. According to such a view, in and of itself death is nothing; like evil (the absence of good) death is merely the absence of God’s life-giving Spirit.
Born on the power of God’s creative Word, the Spirit gives life to the dead. Hence, the Nicene Creed confesses the Holy Spirit as “the Lord and giver of life.” Apart from the coming of the Lord and giver of life, we have no life in us. Apart from the coming of the Lord and giver of life, we are and remain dry bones. Apart from the coming of the Lord and giver of life, the church is not. The Spirit creates the church by means of the spoken word—and most vividly the Word spoken over water as at the dawn of creation “when the Wind moved over the face of the deep, and God said, ‘Let there be light.”
This, then, is Baptism: the most elemental example of the Spirit’s life-giving work. This morning, as Cora Jane is baptized, as at the dawn of creation, amid water, word, and light, Cora is made what of herself she could never be: a living member of the Body of Christ. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, Cora is bound to Christ for all eternity. Like Ezekiel’s dry bones, Cora shall live. Though she must die, the Spirit gives her life forever: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
1 John 5:1-6
“The Lord will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.”
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you… love one another.”
“You are my friends if you do what I command you … love one another.” I wonder about the “if.” The very fact that I wonder, the fact that the “if” threatens me, indicates that I read Christ the way I read a legal contract: as a matter of law. It tells me that, when push comes to proverbial shove, I hear Christ’s command not as gift, but as burden. It tells me that I don’t abide in Christ’s love; that I’m not Christ’s friend; that I don’t qualify. Which (from my side) is true, and yet (from Christ’s side), is false.
Still, the “if” haunts me. It condemns me to uncertainty at best. Worse than that, the if subverts even my uncertainty, leaving me with the certainty that I don’t abide in Christ, that I fail Christ’s love. So long as the “if” endures, the best I can hope for is a certain uncertainty: the lingering suspicion that I’m not. But, then, according to St. Paul, uncertainty may suggest hope, the very ground in which Christ grows faith.
Did you ever doubt your mother’s love? Hollis did. When Hollis was five years old, there was a day when he could not believe his mother loved him. His family had just moved into a neighborhood of farmlets—little weekend acreages with small barns, a couple of out buildings, a pasture, a hay field, a small orchard, and neighboring houses across the fields.
Linda and Bill lived to one side, Pete and Irene on the other. Linda was also five, and became friends with Hollis that first week. Each day when kindergarten was over, they’d race from the bus, have a snack, and then meet in the field to plan adventures. Sometimes they’d chase chickens; sometimes they’d explore the woods or throw rocks at cattle. Or they’d play hide and seek in the barn. Then, one day, they decided to take off their clothes and race naked around the hay mow. They had a blast chasing each other shrieking at the top of their lungs. It was perfect Eden until Maxine, Linda’s frantic mother, discovered them. Their shrieks had caught Maxine’s ear. Suddenly, she was there: an enormous cat pouncing on a cowering mouse. The field stretched continental as furious Maxine dragged Hollis pell-mell across it, swatting his bare behind with every giant step.
By the time Maxine delivered Hollis into the hands of his mother at the back door, he knew he had committed mortal sin, that he was as good as dead, that judgment would be swift, that he would never again be welcomed home, or anywhere else in the neighborhood. As Maxine proclaimed his sin, he was certain he’d forfeited his mother’s love: he’d be disowned, sent away—probably to “Woodburn,” the infamous reform school, the place his older brother had said was a hell hole from which you could never return. He’d have to pack his bag and forfeit his dinner. The police would soon arrive and take him away.
As Maxine turned and huffed off back across the field, Hollis waited for the hammer to come down. Standing stark naked inside the utility room, shivering with fear, he awaited the worst: judgment, condemnation, rejection. Shaking her head, his mother left the room, and went inside. He could hear her footsteps on the stairs. Maybe she was going to get a gun. Maybe she was going to get a suitcase. Maybe she was going to get his little brother to protect the sleeping child from the shame of such a wayward brother.
It wasn’t long before she was back: no gun; no suitcase; no baby brother. She had gone to fetch some clothes. “Here,” she said, “Put these on while I make you a sandwich.” Hollis was crying and, amid his tears, saying how sorry he was. But, seeing the clothes and hearing “Sandwich,” he managed to mumble, “Aren’t you mad?”
“Oh,” she said, “I’m a little mad at Maxine for getting so worked up over the two of you. That’s just something kids do. I’d probably be a little angry at you if you did it again. But I expect you’ve learned it’s best to keep your clothes on when playing with the neighbors.” “Here,” she said, “Eat your sandwich, and don’t worry too much about Maxine. She’ll get over it. I just hope Linda doesn’t get it any worse than you did.”
Linda and Hollis never spoke of it, so he never knew. But he did know this: there’s a world of difference between the varieties of love. When Christ Jesus bids us abide in his love, he says we can trust the dependability of his love, not ours. Whereas our love for anything and everything is inconstant, and changing with the weather, or with age and circumstance, Christ’s love for us is constant, unchanging, and eternal. As Luther might say, we cannot of our own ignorance or weakness alter Christ’s love. Christ’s love is more like a mother’s—only stronger, more durable, and utterly dependable. Yet a mother’s love (or indeed any parent’s love), impressive though it may be, is merely a sign of that love which Christ alone exhibits not merely for good people but especially for the bad, for us not merely when we’re lovable, but most especially when we’re not—when the “if” haunts, and we know in ourselves that we fail Christ and his commands. Even so, and especially then, Christ abides. His cross-death signs his love. He bears the shameful pain for us. The death we deserve, he takes upon himself. This, then, is love: we did not choose him, but he chose us, and gave himself for us when we were naked, afraid, and trembling at the door in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
1 John 4:7-21
“To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down… and I shall live for him.”
“We love because he first loved us.”
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”
First things first: First John says, “We love because he first loved us.” In the Gospel, Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” He then provides an analogy: “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”
He first loved us? In our English language, “Love” is a problematic word. We “love” everything from apples to antiques, from the Packers to peanuts, from the Badgers to bowling, from Cantata to curds. Jesus himself seems to understand this. Therefore, he communicates the meaning of “abide in my love” by means of horticulture: the vine and the branch.
“Abide in me as I abide in you.” A corollary might sound like this: there would be no apple without an apple tree. Today’s readings proclaim the interrelation of life, and not merely of biological life, but the dependent LIFE of Christ, the LIFE we are grafted into by baptism into Christ, being made members of him, his body. It’s not that the body of Christ is a metaphor for life; it’s that the body of Christ is LIFE itself. Christ is Life. The antithesis is also true: there is no LIFE apart from the body of Christ, no LIFE apart from Christ himself. Christ is the very life the beauty and sound Cantata Sunday proclaims.
Of course, the Botany Department may disagree. But that’s no surprise. It’s not the purpose of Botany to dissect love, but rather to explore plant life in all its physical, material, and measurable forms. This, it turns out, can be done (perhaps must be done) apart from love—that is without the invariable loss of self all true love requires. And yet, even within the Botanical Garden signs of love abide—engraved paving stones bear the names of persons who exercised self-sacrifice developing the study of Botany at the University of Wisconsin.
Some sunny day, take a walk across University Avenue. Cross the street and follow the path northwest, past the engraved paving stones, up the hill through the Botanical Garden, toward an apple tree at the Garden’s northwest edge. A bronze plaque near the tree’s trunk declares in part that the tree is a “Newton Apple Tree,” a direct descendent of the English apple tree from which it is thought Isaac Newton first observed a falling apple and, as a consequence, began work on his theory of gravitational force. The walk is worth it not only to see the Newton Tree, but because Bruce Bengtson says (and he’s right) it’s the best place on campus from which to view the gravitational force of Luther memorial Church.
There were no falling apples last Wednesday, when my wife and I sat beneath that tree. There were, however, brilliant pink and white blossoms bursting with summer promise. Gorgeous hues of erupting buds beckoned bees buzzing in bright sunlight beneath a sky of cobalt blue. A vernal breeze rustled leaves of Edenic green: the tree was newly dressed in the elegant attire of Easter unknown to Botany. As a child knows not his or her conception, so Botany cannot know its conception in the love of God; a botanist may know, but Botany cannot. The child knows only that it is; that it lives and moves and is the child of Jean and Dave, or Art and Pauline, or Don and Helene. Like Botany, a child cannot know (and perhaps even should not know) the genesis of its conception, but only that it is; and that is enough, at least enough for now.
But there will come a day when the child will want to know. There may even come a day when the child will need to know the how and why of his or her impassioned parental entry into biological life, an existence that could not have been without them and that; a life that wholly depends on them and that; the way an apple depends not only on the tree, but also on the bud, the branch, the leaf, the breeze, the bee, the bacteria, the sun, the clouds, the rain, the dirt, the roots, the bark, the DNA, and the gravity which first pulled the fruit earthward, borne-drop-down descending through light faster than the flux of all things, photon flooding Newton’s eye, traversing optic nerve, pulsing oxygen rich blood past cerebrating neurons, mingling with carbon and hydrogen (C6,H12,O6) to become the sugary zest, the mythic apple of human desire.
No wonder they say it was an apple that she took, an apple that she gave, an apple her husband (our mythic father) ate, and tasted the first sweetness of sin’s bitter fear only to fear and blame (“the woman whom Thou gavest to be with me!”) only to fear and blame the very One on whom he and we depend for life and all things.
“Abide in me.” This, then, is love: a dependent apple; a dependent tree, blossom, leaf and earth, a crucified man depending from the wood. Why so? Because that tree, and every tree, that apple tree and every fruit-laden vine of summer, that vine and every cluster of grapes, that cluster of grapes and every drop of blood red juice, that blood red juice and every drop of wine, that drop of wine and every ear of grain, all proclaim the Tree of Life, and the Fruit of that Tree, the very melody and meaning of life, the music, the LIFE that is Christ himself. Eat him. Drink him. Consume Christ. Depend on Him: the love of God in whom and by whom and with whom we abide. Come, let us sing unto the Lord. Eat. Drink. Abide. Love. Sing. Depend. Christ’s gravitational pull: Cantate!
1 John 3:16–24
“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
“We know love by this, that [Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
“No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
In a pluralistic age, it is generally assumed that the meaning of a word like “salvation” (like the meaning of any word), is limited to individual interpretation. In such an age, one can hardly imagine a sentence more embarrassing than this from the First Lesson: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
The very mention of “salvation” is itself enough to make a child of the modern age cringe. The word conjures visions of a benighted era, minds narrow with religious obsession, souls burdened by fear, the high anxiety of divine condemnation from which “salvation” delivers.
To make matters worse, Acts says that this salvation—if we even allow the possibility—Acts says that this “salvation” exists solely in one person—“there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” In an age of “inclusivity,” here is a claim mortifying in the extreme. This salvation which we must have exists in, with, and under one name only: Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord of the universe, a first century Jew put to criminal death and raised on the third day: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” The name, however, is exclusive in one sense only: it is exclusive of sin, the very thing to which we cling.
Offensive though the First Lesson seems, it’s perfect for the Rite of Confirmation, the Affirmation of Baptism for: Abigail, Branden, Calvin, and Henry. The First Lesson is perfect for Confirmation, perfect for people steeped in the death of objective truth, the power of individual choice. It’s perfect because it runs against the grain of post-enlightenment culture—that is, against our culture, the regnant view that there is no such thing as objective truth, that truth (if there is any) is relative to individual point of view, that salvation (to the degree there is any) is determined by individual taste, choice, and preference, that if we need or want saving at all, we could be saved by whatever or whoever we choose, that, in fact, there are as many names under heaven who could save us (if, indeed, we wanted saving) as there are individuals under heaven considering the vast menu of saving options.
To put the question succinctly: “Do you want salvation?” may be considered as roughly equivalent to “Do you want fries with that?” Just like fast food, “salvation,” comes with options: self-actualization, self-fulfillment, and self-aggrandizement might be roughly equivalent to our choice of fries, green salad, coleslaw, joe-joes, chips, three-bean salad, or (if you choose) soup, of which there are at least three kinds ….” We live in an age of individuated choice as a kind of salvation.
Yet, notice: spoken in the voice of Peter, the Acts reading gives no options, offers no menu, invites no choice. The speaker provides one meal and one only. In Acts, we have not come to Burger King, but to the Holy Trinity, to the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Holy Supper. The Body of Christ given for you. The Blood of Christ shed for you. No wonder so much of Christian history finds the church conflicted along sacramental lines: once a month or once a week? Flat bread or raised? Wine or grape juice? One cup or many? Drink or dip? Wheat or gluten free? Standing, kneeling, or sitting? All baptized Christians welcomed or only our particular type? Baptism necessary or unnecessary? We will, you see, exercise our will. We will invent a choice where we have none. We will decide!
Peter’s speech, however, warns that we are bound to decide badly. Like Israel of old, the church of every age, we will do wrong in the name of doing right; we are bound to do evil in the name of doing good; bound to kill God’s Son to protect God’s law; we love ourselves under the pretense of loving God and neighbor; we are bound to call our love God’s love even as we hate in God’s name.
In truth, it is not God’s condemnation from which we need salvation. We need saving from our selves. Just like those addressed by Peter, we do precisely what we would and not what we should do: we kill the very one sent to save us from ourselves. That is, in rejecting God’s Savior, we participate in the accomplishment of God’s salvation; we embrace life by destroying the Lord of life. We exercise our vaunted inclusivity by excluding any we think less inclusive than ourselves. We prove Jesus divine by killing him that he might be raised from the dead and thereby revealed as “the Stone the builders rejected.” In short, as enemies of God we are our own worst enemies.
In other words, the salvation we must have saves us from ourselves, and this Christ, is the only one who has died to save us. Whether we want him to save us is beside the point. God raised him from the dead, and by baptism joined us to his death and resurrection. By the Father’s choice, we are saved. And, after four decades of teaching Confirmation—40 years in the wilderness!—nothing is clearer to me than that we need to be saved from ourselves. Christ’s death and resurrection proclaim that this salvation is accomplished, finished, done. Therefore we say “I do and I ask God to help me,” because in Christ Jesus, God already has done; God already has helped us, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
1 John 3:1-7
1 John 1:1-2:2