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Sermon for 5th Sunday in Easter 2023

First Reading: Acts 6:1-9; 7:2a, 51-60

 1Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. 8And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.

72a And Stephen said: 51“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” 54Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.


Psalm 146

 1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. 2Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them. 3When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish. 4Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God; 5Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever; 6Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. 7The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; 8The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked. 9The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!


Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:2-10

 2Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. 4As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 7So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” 8and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.


Gospel: John 14:1-14

 1{Jesus said,} “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4And you know the way to where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. 12Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”


The Priesthood of All Believers

I know I’ve mentioned this in sermons before, and it bears repeating, “We are all priests.”  These aren’t my words, nor are they a new teaching of the NALC, these are the words of Martin Luther.  But what’s important for us to understand is, Luther didn’t invent this revolutionary idea.  No, he discovered it in the Bible.  When the Bible says, “You are a royal priesthood” and “He made us to be priests,” it isn’t talking about ordination in the sense of clergy ordination, but about the baptismal call of every Christian, man, woman, and child; none of us are excluded.  In rediscovering the gospel, Luther came to understand the principal means by which the gospel is shared, through the priesthood of all believers.  And what does it mean to be a priest?  It means we’ve been consecrated to serve.  This is the call of every baptized Christian.

A couple of weeks ago I emphasized two other actions God takes, that are important to us as Christians, Justification and Sanctification.  In Christ, and because of Christ, we’ve been justified, by faith alone, that is forgiven or made right in the eyes of God, through the death of Jesus Christ.  Because He willingly bore our sins on the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for sin, that is death.  Paul made this clear in Romans 6:23 when he said, “the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The second important word we need to understand is sanctification.  Sanctification is the life-long process of becoming more and more like Jesus.

The Biblical meaning of sanctification is “the state of proper functioning.”  To sanctify someone or something, is to make it holy, or to set that person or thing apart, for the designer’s intended use.  In the theological sense, people and things are sanctified when they’re used for the purpose God intends.  A Christian is sanctified, therefore, when he or she lives according to God’s intended design and purpose.  Sanctification is the life-long journey of walking blamelessly before God.  It’s how we live before God not only when people are watching, but how we live in private.  Sanctification involves daily examination, contrition, repentance, and living a life that is pleasing to God.  But there’s a step in between being justified and the life-long journey of sanctification, this is consecration.

In the Old Testament, there are two Hebrew words translated “consecration.”  One appears seven times and means installation, usually of a priest.  The other occurrence appears twice, once where it refers to the high Priest’s crown, and the other in connection with a Nazarite vow of separation.  Consecration in the Hebrew is translated “crown” or “separation” on 22 other times.  The only form of the English word “to consecrate” that can be found in the New Testament is “consecrated” where it appears twice.

In the New Testament, the word consecration is found in Hebrews 7:28 and it comes from the Greek word tete-lei-ō-menon which means “to be perfect” and refers to the Lord.  It’s a form of the same word that’s translated in John 19:30 as, “It is finished”.  In Hebrews 10:20, the word translated to consecrate, comes from a different Greek word ene-kai-nisen, which means “to dedicate”, and refers to the way into the Holy of Holies our Lord’s death created for us.  Placing these two Greek words into context, we can say that the Lord’s death has consecrated us by making us perfect in His sight and thus opens the way into God’s presence for us.  The Greek word for sanctification appears 10 times in the New Testament.  And although it can mean consecration, it’s never translated that way.  It’s used to mean “sanctification” 5 times and “holiness” 5 times.  It’s root word means “holy”, so to be sanctified is to be made holy.

So putting all this together means that as Christians, we’ve been consecrated as God-appointed channels through which the power of Christ flows into the common life of humanity.  Let me put these three words in simpler terms: Justification is forgiveness and made right in God’s eyes.  Consecration is to be set apart for God’s intended use.  Sanctification is to be used daily by God in His kingdom.  Or even more simply, we’re washed, called, and sent.  And for this to happen as God intended, we’re gathered into Christian fellowship to be the holy body of Christ in this world.  We are Messianic people who are set apart with a royal mission.  That’s why scripture calls us a royal priesthood.  In baptism, we’re consecrated into the Messiah’s own kingly and priestly mission.

To accomplish all this, God became visible to the whole human race when He Himself became human; when the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).  Christianity still shows its true vitality and makes it strongest appeal when it assumes the human touch and is lived out by you and me.  The priesthood of all believers isn’t some impersonal message or program or organization, it’s baptized Christians who are the primary agency through which Jesus chooses to work.  The world is a field, Jesus said, and “the good seed are the children of the Kingdom” (Matthew 13:8).  God works in this world through the men and women He resurrects in the waters of baptism, and uses as His living instruments.  Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  And as the Father sent Him, so He sends us.  His cause is in our hands.

Biblical scholars have pointed out that the gulf between the clergy and the laity, which has done so much to cripple the mission of the church, has been promoted by the introduction of a fatal comma into a key passage of the New Testament which describes the church’s mission.  The passage is Ephesians 4:11-12.  In the King James Version it reads, “He gave some apostles and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”

In the King James Version, and the Revised Standard Version, the perfecting of the saints, meaning believers, and the work of the ministry are separated by a comma.  In the New English Bible, the comma between the saints and the ministers is removed and we read, “to equip God’s people for work in his service.”  Like our bodies, the church has a variety of ministries, all are important in carrying out the church’s mission.  The church cannot accomplish its mission, unless every Christian is involved.  The word “layman” itself is derived from the Greek word “laos” which means “people.”  It’s used in the New Testament to designate specifically the Messianic people.

To be a layman then, is a very high honor in the New Testament.  It means to be a priest and a king, a Christ-like person, and a kingdom focused individual.  Each of us are called to the various tasks in the church and the distinction between a minister and a layman is insignificant when compared with the distinction of being in Christ or out of Christ.  The question we must ask is, are we in Christ, an active member of His body, the church, and in sharing in the work of His Kingdom, or, are we simply sitting on the sidelines?  Being an active part of the priesthood means serving God in our everyday occupations and everyday lives.

Luther was clear in his emphasis that our calling as priests, gives sanctity to every calling in life.  When a Christian housekeeper sweeps the kitchen floor, they do it to the glory of God as much as a nun saying her prayers.  When a Christian farmer works in the field, they are performing as priestly a function as a bishop at the altar.  We may be mechanics, lawyers, truck drivers, teachers, electricians, or businessmen, but our life work will take on added worth if we are also Kingdom people.  Yes, we must keep pace with the marching orders of our professional, social, and civic responsibilities, but to use Thoreau’s phrase, we also “hear the sound of Another Drummer.”  There is a spiritual overtone that gives true meaning and dignity to what we do daily.  Even when no direct religious activity is involved, Christians reflect Jesus.

As a teenager, I can remember a contractor, a Christian layman, whose influence for Christ went out from his office and work truck, to the lives of hundreds of construction workers.  I came to know a teacher whose love for her students was reflected not only in what and how she taught, but in the care and concern she showed for her students.  Even today, she’s often greeted by her former students who express the positive impact she’s had on their lives.  That is the priesthood of all believers in action.

Using Luther’s metaphor of “God’s masks,” we are the means by which God enters in disguise into places where the church, as church, has no access.  The church may make a pronouncement about management-labor relations, but the power of Christ is released much more effectively into these relations if the industrial executives and the labor leaders are Christians, who act as Christians.  But our witnessing is more than simply living the Christian life and exerting indirect influence. We also have the duty of consciously witnessing for Christ.

A person who has been consecrated by God cannot keep silent.  Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.  This is a duty no one can do for you.  As Franklin Fry expressed it, “No one can love my wife for me, and likewise no one can bear witness to my Savior for me.”  This is an intensely personal privilege and obligation.  You cannot hire a preacher to do it for you.

The spread of Christianity in the first century was primarily a lay movement.  During the first persecution of the church in Jerusalem, St. Luke records, in the book of Acts, that “they were all scattered abroad except the apostles” and “they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word” (8:1-4).  Everybody preached the word everywhere they went.  Christianity spread because every single layman was also a missionary and an evangelist.  They were Christians first, and businessmen, fishermen, farmers, and professionals second.  Take St. Like for example.

Luke wasn’t an apostle or an ordained minister.  He was a Greek physician whom Paul had led to Christ and who became Paul’s faithful companion and co-worker.  He was “the beloved physician” but he was above all a lay evangelist.  He not only brought the Christian message by word of mouth to non-Christians from city to city, he also used his literary talents to put the gospel in written form and to give us the history of the early church.  And the key to his effectiveness was love; love of God and love of others.

St. Paul implored us, “let you love be genuine.”  In a Romans passage that many refer to as the marks of a Christian, Paul wrote, “Let love be genuine.  Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.  Love one another with brotherly affection.  Outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not be slothful [lazy] in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (12:9-11).  Our witness for Jesus is to be an active part of our everyday lives.  We must be vigilant in our service in God’s kingdom; preacher or president, teacher or truck driver, business owner or barber, all are part of the royal priesthood.  The key to our effectiveness as lay-ministers and evangelists is genuine love.  A second important factor for us to consider is that we need to see ourselves as a part of God’s great plan.

God has a divine plan, and we need to see that we’re a part of that plan.  When we work with it, we succeed, and when we work against it, we fail.  Instead of being preoccupied with ourselves, we must learn to see our place in the big scheme of things.

This is part of being a priest in God’s kingdom.  Being part of the priesthood is standing before God and asking, Lord, what do you want me to do, knowing and expecting that God does indeed have tasks for each of us.  Phillips Brooks said to young preachers, “The gospel has never been preached by anyone just like you before.”  This applies to all of us.

The light of God’s truth has never shined through just the kind of prism that your personality and your life-situation constitute.  Without each of us, there is a discord in the divine harmony, a gap in the divine plan.  Your heart and your head form a combination which is utterly unique and without which God cannot do a certain piece of work that needs to be done.  All this can then be summed up into God’s second greatest Commandment, love others as you love yourself.  As members of the priesthood, we’ve been called to be in service to others.

I have a question for you.  If you fail to reach out to your neighbor, how can you say that you follow God’s commands?  Our service to God and others must originate in our love of God, first and foremost, and our love for others second.  This is the very heart of our priesthood.  Luther put it this way, the Christian does not live in himself at all, but in Christ through faith and in his neighbor through love.  When we become consecrated to Christ, we were given a new perspective.  We see with the eyes of love.

This truth was brought home to me in a conversation I read about with between two pastors in East Germany shortly after the close of World War II.  In this article, they discussed the Pentecost proclamation which Dibelius, the courageous bishop of Berlin, had just issued, urging the church to remain firm in the face of Communist persecution.  The author of the article took for granted that maintaining such a stand was the most important task confronting the German Christians living under Russian occupation.  But the second pastor said, “While that is important, it’s not our most important task.

The primary thing is that these Russians, with whom they came into contact with, were men like themselves for whom Christ died, and their contacts with them may afford them their only insight into the gospel.  Of greatest importance is to make use of this opportunity of witnessing for Christ.  By word and example, each of us must give them a true impression of Christ and of His way among His people.”  Only Christ can bring about that kind of attitude.  Anyone can be defiant and hold fast, but one must be a Christian to see in everyone, friend, and enemy alike, as a brother and a sister for whom Christ died.  As Christians, we must surround ourselves with Godly patience and love so that the reconciling love of Christ becomes a living reality.

You and I, in baptism, have been forgiven and set apart, made holy, for the work of a royal mission, a ministry of service and witness.  We have been washed, set apart and sent out in service to God and others.  In genuine love, as priests in God’s kingdom, it’s our business to bring the life-changing power of Christ into the lives of all with whom we come into contact.  We are all important parts of the body of Christ and each of us must be active each day in our call.  The task before us is far too important for any of us to be idle.  The needs of the people of this world are urgent, and we must be intentional and active in accomplishing the business of God’s kingdom.


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