February 2-4 2013
4th Weekend after Epiphany
For Lutheran Schools Week
Pastor Tim Smith
13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (NIV)
Jesus had celebrated the Passover. He had instituted the Lord’s Supper. He had given a “new command” or New Testament to his disciples. He had said memorable things that rang in their memories: “In my Father’s house there are many rooms… I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me… I will ask the Father and he will give you another Counselor…I am the vine, you are the branches…” All of this took place in the same room, in the same evening—the very same night in which he would later be betrayed and arrested. He had even made a move to head out to Gethsemane already, saying, “Come now, let us leave.” But then he stayed. He held back. He had just a little more to say. And as he talked about the Father’s love for these disciples, he included the words that make up our text which is also our theme verse this year at St. Paul’s School: Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
Our children will be hearing devotions on this text every day this coming week, and so we meditate on it together as their congregation. We don’t always do this for Lutheran Schools Week, but I want our children to understand that the Gospel message that they hear about in school, in chapel, in their classroom devotions, when teachers go back to the love of God or the glory of God or the Providence of God or the creation by God in any of their lessons—this is the same Gospel with no changes at all that we embrace and rely on here in worship. It isn’t as if there are two religions: a kiddy religion that includes stories about eternal life, and an adult version that pushes away those childish things. There is only one Gospel, and children and adults alike, share it.
1. That’s one of the great advantages of a Christian school: Time every day in the word of God.
2. Another benefit of a Christian elementary education is seeing our lives from a Christian perspective, whether grammar or math, music or gym class, science or social studies, history or art—or whatever it might be.
3. We shouldn’t forget the benefit of Christian companionship and having Christian friends. Especially since there will always be disagreements and sometimes even fights and fallouts between sinful people like us—but as Christians, we learn to forgive and what true godly tolerance, which the world doesn’t have a clue about—and we learn what that truly is.
4. There is also the example we get from learning from Christian teachers. There may have been times in the past when a teacher might have been exceptionally firm and rigid in their rules, or even lost their temper, but tough teacher or gentle teacher, the lessons and the word of God were taught. And finding any person, Christian or not, who can be in a position of authority in and among children for more than seven hours a day and never, ever, make a mistake or lose their temper is just never going to happen.
5. Another benefit of a Christian school is to have an entire staff—principal, teachers, para-professionals, and even volunteer parents and grandparents, who are Christians of our fellowship, and who are able to offer help, answer questions and give comfort and encouragement from the Word of God.
6. When our culture and the circumstances of our society and our moment in history require that the tough subjects have to be addressed: death, abuse, abortion, birth control, murder, homosexuality, war, popular and trendy theories that come and go like the theory of racial superiority that was around when our school was founded 150 years ago and the theory of evolution today, and the tough, “right now” moments of disasters like the attack of 9/11 and news reports of school shootings around the country – these things are handled by Christian teachers who believe God’s Word, who trust in God for comfort and help, and who bring that comfort, that word of God and that help to our children every day.
Now, all of these things are benefits we might expect from any Christian education, in any Christian school. And some of these benefits are possible—and they were my personal experience in the public school system—when there is a teacher who is a Christian in that public school setting; a teacher who cannot hide their Gospel Light no matter what demands are made of them. And that’s a blessing, too.
But our particular focus today is not on childhood education when there happens to be a Christian around, as in my childhood, or even in Christian Education which we see happening in a couple of schools in our county and even right here in New Ulm. No, our focus this week and on this weekend just about every year is on the benefits and blessings—not just of Christian schools, but of Lutheran Schools.
What makes a Lutheran Education different from any other Christian education?
A distinctly Lutheran understanding of the Bible is summed up by St. Paul in 2 Timothy 2:15: We do not need to be ashamed of the gospel, and we “correctly handle the word of truth.” Paul’s Greek word that we’ve translated “correctly handle” is a carpentry term: (ortho-toméo) “to cut straight.” That’s exactly like when the woodworker clamps down the guide on his table saw and sends the board through, straight and true, with no curves, no wandering off the pencil line—a straight, perfect cut. To correctly handle the word of God is to avoid the trap of so many people who think that it’s all just an allegory. That’s a kind of teaching that Paul said would spread like gangrene, which never does anyone any good.
Correctly handling the word of God, with no doctrinal curves or wandering away from God’s line, is understanding the difference between Law and Gospel,(that is, between what God demands of us—the Law, and what God has done for us—the gospel). Or the difference between Justification (how we are saved) and Sanctification (how we respond), and the difference between passages that are Prescriptive (telling us how we should live and serve God) and Descriptive (telling us how other people lived or served God but which God may not require of us today). A great many people in the world, many of them good Christians who know their savior and whom we will meet in heaven, still misunderstand these things and often insist on things that are unnecessary, and fail to insist on things that are.
For example—Let’s finally come to our passage for Lutheran Schools week. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Is this an example of Law or Gospel, of Justification or Sanctification? Or might it be something prescriptive or descriptive? Well, this verse brings us into the realm of justification versus sanctification.
What our children learn to begin to do in our Lutheran Schools, is first of all, to take a passage like this at face value. Jesus meant what he said. Second of all, our children learn look at this verse as it sits with the verses around it—the context. For example, just because Jesus once told one man, “What you are about to do, do quickly” (John 13:27), that doesn’t mean we should always do everything quickly. “Sorry I was speeding, officer, Jesus told me to get down this road quickly.” No. And if we look at Jesus’ words in their context, we see that before he said this, he was talking about the way he loved us all.
So when he says: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus is first of all talking about he himself laying down his life for his friends—the disciples, and us. Not as a mere example of love, but as God’s Greatest Expression of Love for us all. Jesus on the cross is the Gospel pounded home with hammer and nails for our forgiveness, forever. That’s the doctrine we call Justification, God’s saving work on our behalf and in our place. It’s Jesus laying down his life for us. Greater love? There is no greater love.
But Jesus didn’t stop there with what he said. He also went on to talk about what he means by “friends.” “You are my friends” he said next, “if you do what I command.” So these words LEAD US to respond. They show us and teach us about the doctrine we call Sanctification, the way we live in the forgiveness of Christ.
The problem in all of us is that we need a Savior, because without him, we’re lost. Our sins damn us. They make us guilty and deserving of hell. And there is a trend in our world to just turn away from things we don’t like to hear. But hear this: Without faith in Christ, we would all be lost. Without faith in Jesus, you would be lost forever. So strengthen that faith you have.
What our children—all of our children—already know, is that through Jesus we have eternal life. The skill of understanding God’s word and applying it begins when we’re very young—we have pre-schoolers who are, what, four years old. Maybe some day in the future, we will have a pre-school that would be able to admit three-year-olds. And teach them from so very young on for the rest of their lives, the love of God—greater love has no one than his.
If you are rusty with those skills, school is still in session. In Bible study, in daily home devotions, e-mail devotions, podcasts from our website in the near future, and right here at worship. Any one of these is helpful. But more than one, or many of them, is better still. TO learn about the love of God, greater than anything we know, that gives the peace of God…