Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Mission Sunday, August 19th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches
Sidney and Fairview, Montana
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, all those who practice it have a good understanding. The particular purpose and goal of Christian education, of becoming wise in Christ, is to know the fear of the Lord, and have a good understanding. And, also, out of this fear and wisdom, that we rejoice. Not that we just fear and tremble, which we sinners will do when we come into the presence of God, but that we also rejoice in the fear and wisdom of the Lord. For the Psalmist completes his verse about the fear and wisdom of the Lord by proclaiming: His praise endures forever! Christian education also has as a primary goal the joyful praising of the Lord, especially in a congregational setting, as we heard from the same Psalm: Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Rejoicing in fear. Wisdom as the foundation of congregational worship. Do you think about education in this way? The Scriptures bind teaching and growing in wisdom firmly together with faith and worship and the saving presence of God in the midst of His people. If these associations seem natural and proper to you, thanks be to God. But I suspect that if last Thursday afternoon someone had asked you what is the purpose of education, you wouldn’t have made any immediate connections to right worship. I doubt that any of us would immediately have said education is all about teaching people to fear God rightly.
And yet, if you read what the Bible has to say about teaching and wisdom, you will find that even when speaking of categories of knowledge that seem quite earthly, like how to build the wall of Jerusalem, or how to organize people, or how to wisely execute the laws of a nation, the Author of Scripture connects these earthly things to heavenly realities, indeed, to the right knowledge and fear of the Lord.
In our culture, we tend to divide our lives between the worldly and the spiritual, and so consider education in practical things like reading, writing and arithmetic as something distinct from learning the wisdom of God. But when, following the example of God’s instruction to His people Israel, Martin Luther made the very practical suggestion that all children be taught to read, his intended purpose for this innovation was so that people would be able to read the Bible. The resulting increase in literacy had tremendous benefits for the society and economy, a major reason for the development of the modern world. These unintended benefits were true blessings from God, but Luther’s primary concern was for the teaching and reading and understanding of the Word of God, that the Holy Spirit might give Godly fear and eternal wisdom to more and more people.
We Christians should always to keep this distinctive purpose of education at the forefront of our minds, and especially today, as we celebrate this Mission Sunday for Martin Luther School in Bismarck and for Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. We need to remember God’s goals in education, because our educational efforts are very much subject to failure. Whether we are talking about VBS or Sunday School, about a Lutheran Parochial School, or about a Seminary preparing men to serve as pastors in Christ’s Church, whatever the educational context, if we don’t remember the distinctive purpose of Christian education, our efforts will fail to foster a right fear of the Lord. And if we fail to foster a right fear of the Lord, we will miss out on the joy of right worship. If we forget God’s goal in giving us His wisdom when we plan and pursue our educational efforts, they will in the end fail to be Christian at all.
Sadly, examples of Christian educational efforts which have been perverted over time into empty, worldly, anti-Christian institutions are quite numerous, like Harvard and Princeton, former divinity schools that now teach the rejection of Biblical truth. Even our own Concordia Seminary St. Louis became, in the 1960’s, the entry point to the Missouri Synod for the rejection of Biblical authority. There was a difficult and bitter fight to restore the authority of Scripture at Concordia St. Louis in the early 1970’s, a struggle which included a walkout by professors and students, and eventually led to a split in our Synod, with dozens of congregations leaving our fellowship, and also leaving behind resentment and strife between many who remained within Missouri. Biblical authority was maintained in our Synod, but the cost was and remains high, all because we lost our focus on teaching the true fear and wisdom of the Lord.
The potential for mischief is found at every level. We may be tempted at our local congregation to choose empty, moralistic, works righteous VBS or Sunday School materials, because such materials tend to be packaged so neatly, organized so well, and are so pleasing to our desire to take pride in ourselves and our goodness. Teachers at Martin Luther School in Bismarck may be tempted to avoid the hard work of showing the many problems with the teaching of evolution, tempted to just let their kids be swept along with the tide of the world, which denies the work of God in Creation. Instead of humbly passing on to another generation of pastors the faith once handed down by Christ, professors at our Fort Wayne and St. Louis seminaries may be tempted to write and teach in such a way as to impress their peers in the broader academic world, and the world wants nothing to do with the true fear and wisdom of the Lord.
At every level, understanding that our purpose in Christian education is centered on repentance, faith, and a right fear of the Lord is absolutely vital, because, while worldly wisdom is very impressive and can bring many benefits to us in this life, apart from a right knowledge of God and His salvation, none of it matters. Apart from Christ, nothing endures, nothing gives lasting peace. It would be tremendously bitter to suffer in torment for eternity, knowing that we used God’s gift of intellect to teach others false, human understandings that end in ruin, especially if we did it under the banner of Christian education.
Jesus has, as we have heard for the last three Sundays, been trying to impart this God-taught, divine wisdom to the crowds which were following Him after the Feeding of the 5,000. John’s Gospel makes available to us a crucial lesson in the purpose and way of God’s instruction. And certainly the mystery and fear of the Lord comes through loud and strong in Christ’s classroom. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” declares Jesus. “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” What? How can this be? Who ever heard of such a teaching?
These Jews, up to now quite impressed with Jesus for His wisdom and His miraculous power, now find their reason and their sensibilities offended, and they grumble. Jesus, knowing that fallen, dying sinners cannot grasp the truth of His salvation, presses forward with His fearful teaching, in order to put to death, and then give new life to the spirits of His hearers. So Jesus says to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Strange as it is, says Jesus, it’s my way or no way at all. Jesus teaches that if you reject His Word because it doesn’t fit with your understanding or your sensibilities, then you reject Jesus. And if you reject Jesus, you will have no life, no access to God’s favor. Jesus declares that the only chance to escape death’s grip is found in His flesh and blood.
This is a desperately hard teaching, a fearful thing. We may be used to the words, especially if we have grown up in the Church. But if we ponder it, wow, Jesus is a radical. And He seemed much more so when He first said it. Many of the Jews who had believed in Jesus now turned away and stopped following Him. Too hard, too radical. Still today, people don’t like Jesus’ words. Many who want to follow Jesus try to explain away all that seems unreasonable about Him and His Supper and His Cross and the true worship which only He gives us. Many churches, despite the plain words of Scripture, deny that Jesus can give His Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper, saying it’s impossible, that His words are just a metaphor. But the reaction of the crowds to Jesus suggests they weren’t thinking metaphorically. They thought Jesus meant what He said. And He did.
Even for the 12 disciples it was very hard to believe. Notice that when Jesus asks them if they want to leave also, Peter’s doesn’t say, “Of course not Jesus, we’re completely comfortable with all this talk of eating your flesh and drinking your blood.” No, Peter and the rest are bothered as well, but by the Father’s grace, they cannot leave Jesus, because they have been drawn to Him, drawn to believe that only Jesus has the Words of eternal life. Jesus’ teaching is hard, but Peter knows the truth. Lord to whom can we go? We don’t get it, but we can’t leave.
Peter and the 12 are troubled, like you and I are troubled, by the radical, mysterious teaching of Jesus in John 6. But God the Father, through His Spirit, gave them ears to hear the joyful promises Jesus also made: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink; Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.” “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died; Whoever feeds on this bread,” says Jesus, “will live forever."
Christian education is about life and death. The wisdom of the world crashes and burns against the harsh reality of death. No matter how much we learn about electromagnetics and biology and chemistry and astronomy, still, the world has no satisfactory answer to the problem of death. Some of the worldly wise, in anger at the inability of mankind to overcome the problem of death, try to deny that it matters. For many, the first requirement of worldly wisdom is agreeing that we’re just random accidents, that human life has no higher meaning, that there is no God above, that man is the measure of all things.
But most people don’t believe that. Far more of the world’s people seek a different wisdom, one which acknowledges some concept of God and a world beyond our senses. However, the default religion of the world says that if we just do our best, we can earn enough points in this life to receive a good life in the next. That’s not what Jesus says. He says “I am the bread from heaven. Only I give eternal life, through my flesh and blood. I am the only way for you to be freed from sin and death. I am the very wisdom of God, sacrificed unto death, for you.
God the Father protected and continued drawing Peter and the others along, desperately clinging to Jesus, despite all the hard things He said. Only Judas disbelieved, rejecting Christ’s way, and so fulfilling the prophecy that one of those closest to the Christ would be the one to betray Him. All the others, God the Father drew along, with Jesus, so that on a rocky hill outside of Jerusalem they could be our eyewitnesses to the breaking of Jesus’ Body and the pouring out of His Blood.
God the Father by His Spirit also sustained them through three long days in the valley of the shadow of Jesus’ death, so that they could also be our eyewitnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus, which reveals and declares that God in Christ has overcome sin and guilt and death, the Resurrection which reveals that the breaking of Jesus’ Body and the pouring out of His Blood is, by God’s grace, the best news we sinners could ever hear. For in these fearful things our sins are forgiven, our death is defeated, our new and eternal life is guaranteed.
It is a joyful thing, this Fear and Wisdom of the Lord, revealed in the dying and rising of Jesus. God from these most unworldly events, starting with Eleven Apostles and a few hundred followers, created the Christian Church, built on the foolishness of the Cross. For 2,000 years, day by day, week by week, year by year, the Church of the Cross, the Church of the Supper, the Church which knows the true fear and wisdom of God has lived on, not by her own strength, but solely in the strength of the One who gave His flesh and blood, His very life, in order to win forgiveness and new life for sinners.
As we teach, as we prepare minds and hearts for life and service in the world and in the Church, God grant us His fear and His wisdom, that we might ever cling to His Jesus, rejoicing in the only One whose Word is eternal life, Amen.