One of my favorite stories is of Rabbi Israel of Rishin, an important Hasidic, Jewish, rabbi. I’ve told this story before but I’d like to tell it again: When the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer—and what he had set out to perform was done.
When, a generation later, the Maggid of Meseritz was faced with the same task, he would go into the woods, to the same place and say: “We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers”—and what he wanted done was done. A generation later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform a task. He too went into the woods and said: “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it belongs, and that must be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.
But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: “We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done.” “And, “the story teller adds, “The story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.”
We are at the same place as Rabbi Israel. Our faith is grounded in events that happened long ago and far away. Abraham and Sarah lived as long before Jesus as we live after. Moses lived more than three thousand years ago and yet those events of ten plagues and wilderness wanderings, lightning and earthquake and ten words written on stone are the foundation of the faith of God’s people. King David lived a thousand years before the new David, Jesus the Messiah and He, our Lord almost two thousand years ago. We are at a remove from the Gospel writers, from St Athanasius and the writers of the creeds, the confessors at Nicaea and Constantinople who helped understand Christ’s nature as divine and human. We are almost five hundred years out from the day when a Saxon monk nailed 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. We are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but scholars have questioned whether Martin Luther ever really knew that a new world had been discovered—he never made much note of it. So much of what we say and do in our faith centers on times long-passed and in places very far away. But we have the story and it is enough.
Years ago my wife and I had the privilege of visiting Spain and the monument to the fallen in the Spanish Civil War. Deep in a mountain near Madrid was a church dedicated to those who had given their life in that terrible conflict. On the ceiling above the altar are depicted a long line of people marching to the Risen Christ. Some of them are famous– Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Peter, Paul, Augustine and Jerome, Francis, Teresa—names we recognize from the Bible or the history of Christianity, but others are nameless people from every place and time. They are all saints—those whose names we know and remember and those others known only to God. They are all witnesses to the power of the risen Christ, the power of God’s Word to continue to change and transform lives long after the events recorded have taken place. We are believers because of them; we are in the same line of saints as these men and women who have gone before us in faith. They proclaimed the message and testified in their lives to the power of Christ. They shared the story and it is enough.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Just a note to let you know how much I appreciate receiving the ‘bonus’ materials. They are outstanding! Of course, I’ve come to know that your work is always exceptional. I enjoy reading, studying — and contemplating — the thoughts included in your weekly emails.”
A thousand sparks to “spark” your imagination!
Resources to inspire you — and your congregation!
In today’s Gospel Jesus prays for His disciples. Jesus prays that we may be one as He is one with the Father. He prays that none of us be lost but that we might be protected from harm, made safe from the evil one, guarded so that none of God’s faithful might be lost. Jesus also reminds His Father in this prayer that He has given them the word. We may not be witnesses to the events recorded in the Scripture or hear from those who have seen or heard but we have the Word which proclaims God’s truth. We have the word of truth which has been trusted through all the years and generations by the faithful people of God. And it is enough. God’s Word is enough to build our faith and keep us faithful. God’s Word is enough to assure us in difficult times of God’s love and protection. God’s Word is enough.
In one of the books we use with our fifth graders there is a picture of people taking communion. It seems to be in an old country church because those receiving the Lord’s Supper are all kneeling at a curved rail. At the rail are some older people and middle aged people, men and women. There are children receiving communion too. Some people are well-dressed and others more humbly attired. There are even a couple who look disheveled, perhaps street people or homeless. Others are at the rail—there is a man who looks like a sea captain or perhaps an immigrant from nineteenth century Norway, a woman from Africa or the Caribbean—we can tell that by her clothes. Some of the people look like figures from Bible times. They are all gathered to receive the Lord’s Supper. We explain to our children that the people are both those visible and present that Sunday morning, in that American church, and those from other places and times.
It is a difficult concept for fifth graders, perhaps all of us, this idea of the communion of saints. The saints of God are all the faithful past, present and future, who are gathered by God’s Word, strengthened by the Word, and fed by the visible Word, the Lord’s Supper. It is enough for us to hear that Word of truth proclaimed, to read the Word in the Scriptures, and believe it, to receive the Word in our mouths and hearts and be formed into the people of God. We may not see the lightning or hear the thunder of Mt. Sinai or be able to gaze into an Empty Tomb but we have God’s Word and it is enough. We have the story and it can change lives.
God’s Word is truth. I am reminded of one of the most poignant lines of Scripture, also from John’s Gospel. Pontius Pilate turns to Jesus and asks, “What is truth?” Pilate echoes our thoughts. He voices the plea of so many people when they are confronted with various truth claims—what is the truth? It is almost as if God says to us, “I haven’t given you much information and I have hidden from your sight the wonderful things that I have done, am doing and will do, but you must choose to believe anyway.” “What is the truth?” Pilate asked, and Jesus answered, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”
And in our text, “Sanctify them in the truth, your Word is truth.” Jesus is not referring so much to a holy book although the Bible is God’s Word and true. In the deepest sense Jesus is referring to Himself. When He says that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, He is not referring so much to His message but to His person. Jesus is the Way to God. Jesus is the Truth of God. When we gather around Word and Sacraments it is because in, with, and under the pages of a book read and proclaimed; in, with, and under forms of water and bread and wine, that we come into the presence of Christ. We may not see him in the same way as the disciples who walked with Him in Galilee or hear His voice like the crowds on the mount, but gathering with other believers around word and water and meal, we are in the presence of the Risen Christ and it is enough.
Many people are uncomfortable with biblical religion and they should be. The evidence for Christianity is pretty slim. Remember how the Israelites wanted to return to the flesh pots of Egypt ? If these people, led by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, drank sweet water from the rock and received manna from heaven, so quickly lost their faith, then God’s presence must have been underwhelming.
James and John knew Jesus intimately, yet they could not sit up one evening in the Garden of Gethsemane while He prayed. Peter denied his Lord three times. Thomas saw the risen Jesus and still wanted to poke his finger in the nail holes. When Jesus was crucified, His followers all ran away and hid. They remained behind locked doors out of fear.
And yet… in spite of little evidence, in spite of two, three thousand years’ time, different languages and cultures, people believe in Jesus Christ. Through the words of the Scripture, through the waters of baptism, the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, through people gathered together in the Lord’s Name, we have come to know and love the Savior. In spite of everything—or because of everything—we confess Jesus as Son of God. We confess that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We have the story, we can tell the story, and it is enough.