The Second Sunday of Easter, April 27th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
John 20:29 – 31 The Blessing Book
Jesus said: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Bibles, those books in which the amazing signs and promises of Christ are recorded, are very popular gifts. At confirmations, for Mother’s Day, at births and birthdays, and even at deaths, buying or passing on Bibles is very common, among lots of people, including some who barely ever darken a Church door. A study Bible intended to serve a new confirmand for many decades, the Bible from Mom or Dad’s desk, falling apart from use, your most precious inheritance at their death, a baby’s Bible board-book, covered with teeth marks from her efforts to literally eat the Word, or the Story Bible, which we give away freely here: all of these and a thousand more examples abound to prove the popularity of giving Bibles as gifts.
And this is good, for God has given us His Word, recorded in the Old and New Testaments, translated into a thousand languages, in order to bless us. God has been causing the Word about Jesus to go out to every corner of the world, all so that Jesus can call you blessed, and call you by name, as He did for Mary Magdalene outside the tomb on Easter morning. Christ has given us His Word, so He can forgive you all your sins, by announcing the Peace with God He has won through His suffering, death and resurrection.
It seems like doing mission work would be pretty simple, then, doesn’t it? Just give people Bibles. And we do intend to be involved in God’s Mission when we give away these Story Bibles. Just the other week, I met a young man, one of the workers installing (the new windows at Trinity) (our new windows), a man with a wife and three kids, commuting from Glendive. In our conversation, he mentioned they are looking for a church. I gave him a Story Bible to take home, and told him about Pastor Hageman and all the saints at Our Savior Lutheran Church, our sister congregation in Glendive. My prayer is that his whole family will be blessed by the Story Bible, that the Word of God would ring out in their home, and that they get will connected and become members of a faithful congregation, like Our Savior’s. Missions is easy, right?
Well, no. If giving away Bibles was all that was needed, then the Gideons would have converted the whole world by now, and hotel rooms would be called sanctuaries. But that’s not how it works. The Bible is indeed wonderful, a vital and authoritative gift from God, truly a book of blessings. But the growth of God’s kingdom involves more than just giving away copies of the Bible. In fact, for more than three-quarters of Christian history, almost nobody had a Bible, and yet the Church grew.
Not until Gutenberg invented the printing press and began printing in the 1450s, leading to the availability of affordable books, and not until the next century when Luther and Reina and Tyndale and Wycliffe and others made good translations of the Bible into the common languages of the people, and not until literacy became widespread, not until really the late 1500s or early 1600s did lots of people own Bibles. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1700s that more than half of all the people in England could read. And yet, despite the lack of Bibles and literacy for most of her history, the Church grew. It really is an odd and depressing coincidence that in many ways the Church has lost influence in the world at the same time as the rise of literacy and the proliferation of very inexpensive Bibles. Today almost everyone can read, and the Scriptures are available on your smart phone for free. But this has not led to overall greater Biblical knowledge, nor to any observable numerical growth of the Church.
So we see simply owning a Bible, simply having one on your bookshelf or in your phone doesn’t bless you. God’s Word is not a good luck charm. This limits the missionary impact of simply giving away Bibles, because faith comes, not from owning, but from hearing the Word of Christ. The Bible is the Blessing Book, and it is a good thing to own a Bible, but the blessing of the Bible comes through its use, most often in the context of gathered believers, because the blessing of the Bible is in hearing and believing. The blessing of the Bible comes through the doing of the things it says.
Now, I want to be clear. I don’t mean that the blessing of the Bible come through you and I keeping God’s commandments. Not that there aren’t real blessings in keeping the commandments. The more we keep the Law, the better neighbors we are, the better daily life is, no doubt. If no one is stealing or hurting or killing or trying to sleep with someone else’s spouse, life is certainly better. If no one was lying or jealous or selfish, if no one was running around cursing in God’s name, if everyone gathered together on the Holy Day, the world would have less pain and more joy. But the real blessings of the Bible do not come from us keeping the Law, because we don’t do it.
In fact, coming at the Bible as an instruction book for good living is to walk into a trap, a trap set by our own weakness, a trap happily used by Satan, as he seeks to prevent us from being truly blessed. Even when we try really hard to keep the Law, and we should try, really hard, still, our sinfulness breaks through, in small ways, and sometimes, too often, in large ways, always revealing the same sad truth: Even though the Law of God is good and true, we because of our sinfulness cannot earn the blessings of God by keeping His law. By works of the Law shall no one be justified.
No, the real blessings come in hearing of the signs Jesus did, and through this hearing, coming to believe that He is the Christ, the Son of God. This is the real blessing of the Bible, because by believing in Him, you have forgiveness and new life, real life, everlasting life, in His Name. And, not coincidentally, the signs Jesus did all have to do with the fact we cannot achieve real blessings through our keeping of God’s Law. Jesus had to make a new way for us to be blessed. Because we are sinners through and through, and cannot save ourselves, Jesus had to take on the whole task of salvation, from living the sinless life God’s Law requires, to dying the sacrificial death that our sin demands. And He has done it. This work is finished, for you. The Bible is the Blessing Book both because it tells that glorious story, and also because the Word of God, spoken, written and sung, is the Spirit’s means, His tool, for delivering the victory Christ has won for sinners. The Blessings of the Bible come from the doing of the things it says, and Christ by His Spirit is the One doing the things of the Bible.
God in His mercy and mysterious wisdom chooses to include sinners in His great work, using sinners like Gutenberg to print Bibles, and sinners like Luther to uncover and proclaim the Biblical truth that the world always tries to cover up, sinners like parents and pastors and teachers who speak the truth of God’s Law and Gospel. God causes people no better and no worse than you and me to read and speak and hear the Good News He has recorded in Scripture. God causes people to wash and forgive and feed His flock with the forgiveness Christ has won. God uses His effective, powerful, glorious Word to create faith in human hearts. Even though you have not put your finger into His side like Thomas, Christ gives you the same faith that cries out to Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”
God’s Word is powerful, and long lasting. This past week I spoke on the phone a number of times with a woman, we’ll say her name is Jane. She was married here at Trinity, in the 1970s. As she and her fiancé were studying with Pastor Erber in preparation for their wedding, he discovered that she had never been baptized. Pastor Erber insisted, since Jane was asking God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to bless her marriage, that she first receive the greater blessing that comes in that Name, the blessings of forgiveness, adoption, and new life that are given through the Water and Word in Baptism.
Through Pastor Erber’s encouragement and instruction, Jane was baptized a few days before her wedding. And she attended services here at Trinity for a time, even though, as she told me, she struggled to understand God’s Word. Eventually they moved, and her life has gone on, with struggles and joys, and heartaches. She suffered a divorce. She lost a son. But now, today, God is calling her back. She was contacting me to find out the date of her baptism, as another pastor at another church wants to verify it, as she works toward communicant membership.
While we were on the phone, as God would have it, she decided to ask me some questions, about faith and life and where God was leading her. I was given the privilege of pointing her to her Baptism, God’s first Gospel gift to her, which never expires, and to point her to the gatherings of God’s baptized children, where He comes to meet us and bless us. I told her how, when God’s people gather in the Name of Jesus, He is there, as He promised, and He brings with Him the souls of the faithful departed. For the dead in Christ are never separated from Him. So the closest we can be in this life to Christians who have died before us is in the Divine Service, as we hear Christ speak and celebrate our baptisms, and kneel around His Table with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. I encouraged Jane to get into the habit of gathering with God’s people around the Word of Christ, for that is God’s desire for her, the place where He promises to bless her.
She thanked me, in particular for helping her understand God’s Word better. I thanked God, for allowing me to witness His ongoing work, in her life, and mine, and yours. A good Word, from Jesus, through Pastor Erber, sparked a faith that God is still sustaining, even through the difficulties of life, because God is building a people for Himself. Very cool.
Christ is Risen! (He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!) You are saved by faith in the crucified and risen Christ, who has freed you from your sins. God creates and sustains your faith by the hearing the Word of Christ. By all means, yes, reading your Bible is a good thing. You might even read it out loud. But even if you can’t read, God is still pursuing you, and all people, through His Word. This is His Mission, in which we are blessed to be caught up, for our life, the life of the world, and the glory of God, forever and ever, Amen.