St. Paul's Lutheran Church

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Second Sunday of Easter

Series B readings

April 7, 2024

The season of Easter runs for 50 days, and 40 of these days fall between our Lord’s Resurrection and His Ascension. In Acts we see that Jesus ascended 40 days after His resurrection, so it makes sense.

The readings for this season are sort of the “now what” readings. Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ shall ascend soon, and as we wait for that day of ascension, what do we do.

We also get a glimpse at how the Christian church started.

So, I have a question for you: as we consider our first reading today from the Book of Acts, Acts chapter 4, and we consider what was going on 2,000 years ago as the first churches were being planted, mostly small house churches in different cities of the empire and Asia Minor, how are we to understand this today as a 21st century church?

Listen to the text from chapter 4: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” How do we take this?

Well, it is in passages like this where we must learn the difference between PREscriptive language and DEScriptive language. Yes, Scripture certainly prescribes things. The Commandments, for example, are prescriptive. Jesus teaching us to “take up our cross” is prescriptive, Paul teaching us that the Fruit of the Spirit is contrary to the Works of the Flesh is more or less prescriptive, that Christians should no longer live according to the flesh because works of the flesh lead to death. Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper is prescriptive language because it gives the command and prescribes the act and how it’s to be done.

And with all the prescriptive language in Scripture, there is at least 3 or 4 times as much descriptive language which expose us to history, facts, situations, and the like. Jesus walked around with His disciples following the Aristotelian teaching model. Paul travelled from town-to-town preaching and teaching in Jewish synagogues and even gentile venues while making a living sewing tents. John baptized people in the River Jordan, Palm Branches were waved and placed on the ground as Jesus enter Jerusalem, and I could find hundreds of descriptive language examples in the Old Testament as well.

Knowing the difference between prescriptive and descriptive language in the Bible will save you a TON of time and frustration as you wade through all the various teachings, many false, some true, which float around Christendom these days, believe me.

You know, I’ve heard people say things like, “The Bible is the blueprint of our lives,” or “The Bible is God’s great instruction manual for believers,” or “Just follow the Bible and you’ll be fine.” And all of this may be true IF the Bible was entirely prescriptive language. But it isn’t, and reading descriptive language as prescriptive, or vise versa, leads to a great deal of confusion.

So, when we consider the 1st Century church as it’s revealed in the Book of Acts – and this, by the way includes such matters as spiritual gifts and speaking in tongues and healings and all that stuff – do we take it as prescriptive or descriptive?

Well, if we read the book of Acts, the text speaks for itself. Most of the Book of Acts is descriptive, it is describing how the Christian church was started by the Apostles and how the new converts to Christianity responded.

Christianity was a new thing, not only for the Jews, but for Gentiles, pagans who had worshiped hundreds of false gods and did a lot of very ungodly, depraved things in their worship of those false gods. As they are being brought into the church, converted to Christianity by the Word of Christ through the Apostles, who themselves were given great signs and miraculous abilities being that they were bringing Christ, for the first time, to the world, the converts were profoundly amazed because the forgiveness of sins, on account of God coming in the flesh, dying, and rising again, had never been preached with such zeal or authority before.

When the new converts considered the absolute wonderfulness of this Good News and how people everywhere should to hear it and escape from the ongoing lies and deceit of the fallen world, they stepped up and said, “We gotta do what we gotta do to get this message out because possessions are just not as important in any way as being repossessed, owned, loved, and forgiven by the one true God.”

Never before had these people known a religion or a god who taught serving the neighbor, loving the neighbor, and forgiving the neighbor. Their response to God’s love was to use what they have gained and possessed to help and serve the poor, and let’s be honest, in a very radical way.

But this is only descriptive – it’s only telling us what was going on in the first churches of the faith. The fact that they met mainly in house churches back then doesn’t mean we need house churches today. There’s nothing wrong with a house church, but it’s not prescribed. The fact that they gave away land and houses and brought the proceeds to the apostles and pastors doesn’t mean we have to do the exact same thing today. It’s not prescribed. It’s not wrong, and should someone wish to give their land to the church, or their house or their car, money, possessions for use in God’s kingdom, this is wonderful. But not prescribed.

In fact, regarding our altruistic habits, the Scripture doesn’t prescribe anything for Christians other than to say that we ARE to give, and we are to support the work of the ministry. How and how much…not prescribed. The only thing the Scripture says is do not give from compulsion but give as a cheerful giver who gives from the heart and for the joy of the Lord.

Ultimately, how the church operates, be it in a building or in a home, whether it owns its own land or is owned by someone else, be it have a school attached or not, be its worship style be this way or that way, whether the church calls pastors from the congregation or from someplace else…all of these things that are NOT PREscribed in the Scripture, the church is free to do as it sees fit. However, whatever the church does it cannot detract from the Gospel; it cannot keep Christ and His cross buried in the ground.

When the Scripture does prescribe, we abide, but where the Scripture is describing things, we read and take to heart understanding that descriptive language is not typically meant to be modeled.

As a congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, this congregation has freely agreed to abide by LCMS practices regarding the calling of pastors and church workers, church constitutions and voters’ assemblies, our full subscription to the Lutheran Confessions, etc., but much of this has to do with polity and practice within our freedom, and not prescriptions from the Scripture. And this is okay.

But what about Prescriptive language? Well, we get an example of prescriptive language in our Epistle and in our Gospel.

Considering our Epistle reading from 1st and 2nd John, we see a clear example of Prescriptive language. John writes, “If we say, ‘I haven’t sinned,’ we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and even cleanse us from those unrighteous ways of darkness.” Prescriptive. Repentance – acknowledging and confessing sin, and faith, believing in the forgiveness and cleansing blood of Jesus.

See, John first describes what a false Christian looks like, then he describes what a true Christian looks like then he PREscribes how to be this true Christian – repent and believe. John is teaching us precisely what Jesus taught Him while he was a disciple for those three years before His crucifixion. Repentance and faith. Confession and absolution.

And we see how the church carries out the business of repentance and faith when Jesus PREscribes what we call the “Office of the Keys.”

In John 20, Jesus appears in the upper room which was locked because the apostles feared the Jews and He says, “Peace be with you.” This is descriptive; this is Jesus absolving the faithless, weak, scared disciples who ran off when He was arrested and who still didn’t believe He had risen from the dead. Jesus absolves them, and this same absolution is for all who repent and believe that Christ is risen from the dead, just as He said.

Then He breathes on them the Holy Spirit, again, descriptive, and says, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld,” prescriptive language regarding the use of the office of the keys.

This is one of the last things He says to His apostles before He ascends 40 days later. He prescribes how the forgiveness of sins works in the church. It’s big deal stuff, to say the least. And taking Matthew 18 and 19 in consort with Jesus’ words here, we discover that when the church speaks forgiveness of sins, it is also spoken in heaven. When the church does not forgive sins, they are also not forgiven in heaven.

BIG deal stuff! This is literally the judging authority of the church given by God.

Now, using this authority comes with great responsibility. Fundamentally, we need to know, as God’s holy church, who desires mercy and forgiveness and who does not. First, we don’t ever absolve the sins of unbelievers. They neither desire nor are in a position to receive God’s mercy for they are under His wrath. Should an unbeliever repent of his sins and cry out for God’s mercy, then we no longer consider him an unbeliever but as a child of God and we absolve him, we forgive him.

What about a Christian who refuses to repent, do we absolve such a person? No, we don’t. In such a situation we use the office of the keys as prescribed by God to withhold God’s mercy and peace because that person is living outside the peace of God and contrary to the Word of God. Withholding absolution is the means by which the church draws such a person to repentance. The prayerful hope is that such a person feels the full weight of his sinning and it is so very heavy on him that he finally relents and his stubbornness breaks and he returns to the Lord for mercy and forgiveness, and in such a case we forgive him without holding back.

If you cling tightly to a sin, that sin clings tightly to you, and you’re not forgiven because you’ve chosen to put that sin, those sins before the Lord and to worship them and reject the forgiveness offered in Christ. If this is your life, you must repent. God does not affirm your sinful living. Instead, He offers to forgive it and offers His peace.

Consider Thomas who wasn’t present when Jesus appeared on that first Sunday. Thomas refuses the mercy and peace offered by Christ; he refuses to be forgiven of his sin of doubt which keeps him from believing the truth. That doubt which he holds on to tightly, also tightly holds onto him. Even after his friends, the other 10 disciples say, “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas holds tightly and refuses to repent. He heard the Word of God, the call to believing went out, and he says, “Nope, not going to believe.”

God’s Word wasn’t good enough for him. The Word telling him that he was sinning because of his doubt…not enough to convince him to repent.

Why do we hold so tightly to our sins? Is it fear, doubt, is it because we are in love with the sinning, do we doubt God is able to provide for us if we give up the sin? For Thomas, perhaps it was the fear of more heartbreak, more despair after His rabbi was put to death. But even though this may sound like a reasonable excuse to sin, he was still sinning and refusing to let go.

That’s what the devil does. He convinces us that some sin or some rebellious way of living is absolutely necessary; he’ll get us to hold on to our sin any way he can.

I suspect the other 10 apostles told Thomas many times that they saw Jesus, that He truly rose from the dead. I mean they had eight more days. Regardless, Thomas did not believe until the eighth day. And what’s amazing is that the 11 disciples locked themselves up again out of fear, and Jesus appears, and once again says, “Peace be with you, you locked yourselves up again after I appeared a week ago, you began to doubt again, but I absolve you.” Then He turns to Thomas and says, “Thomas, look at me and what do you see? Stop doubting, stop letting the devil have a field day with your soul; believe, because it’s all true.” Thomas confesses his faith by saying, “My Lord and My God,” and Jesus says, “You believe because you have seen, blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.”

This is all a description of how unbelief and doubt leads to a rejection of Christ and His cross, and a prescription of how, as God’s church, we have the authority to forgive sins or retain forgiveness. This authority is entrusted to the office of holy ministry and to faithful pastors who use it in accordance with Christ’s command. Finally, it is a description of how Christ comes to us with words of peace and absolution, that even in our weakness and fears, He is here to be our advocate, to show mercy, and to give us His peace.

Prescriptive language commands us or tells us how to do or think or live, how we are to worship, pray, administer the Lord’s Supper, etc. Descriptive language only describes events as they played out without giving a command that we model those events.

Let’s close with this: In 1 John 2, the last few sentences of our Epistle reading, John writes: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

John prescribes God’s children to not be people of sin, that we are to flee from sin, repent of sin, turn from sin, and hold to our Lord and His Word. But then John leaves us with these words: “But if you do sin, you have Christ Jesus standing before the Father and pleading your case. Jesus paid for your sin – your sin is forgiven and no longer held against you. Jesus is your advocate, your mediator, your atonement, and He will never stop advocating for you or being your propitiation, your atonement.”

Dear children of God, you have nothing to fear from God for His judgment rests on His only Son who died and behold, is risen again! In Christ, God has INscribed His name on you, and you belong to Him forever. Remain, therefore, in daily repentance and a sure faith so that His absolution stay with you each day. Amen.