Why does the Rich Man in today’s Gospel go to hell? Why is Lazarus borne by the angels to Abraham’s bosom? Is it because of the life they lived? Is it because, in the end, God makes everything fair? The Rich Man had good things, so now it’s time for him to experience the bad? Lazarus starved, was unable to help himself in any way, and now lives in the lavishness of heaven that far exceeds what the Rich Man had? No. None of that is right, though we’d like it to be.
The Church Year has two divisions. The first half, which we just finished, follows the life of Christ—from His birth, through His life, and to His death, resurrection, ascension, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. The second half of the Church Year focuses on the activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church, how He causes us to grow in the faith and in Christian living, but always keeping us grounded in the work Christ has done to win our salvation. But as a hinge between these two semesters stands today, the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. Today we are taught about the God who acted in the life of Christ, and we learn about the God who works in us in our life today.
The holy spirit is the Spirit of confession. As Christ Our Lord said, the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” He confesses Christ to us, and by the faith He creates in us, we are able to confess Christ to others. That’s the whole point of this Feast of Pentecost. At Christ’s Ascension He gave His Church the solemn task of making disciples, that is, Baptizing and teaching, administering the Lord’s Supper, and forgiving the sins of all who repent. So just ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, He poured out the Holy Spirit on His chosen disciples. And the Holy Spirit caused the apostles to confess in amazing ways. At St. Luke recorded in Acts, the apostles preached in languages which they had not learned. They preached that Jesus Christ died to take away the sin of the world. They preached that He rose victorious from the grave, the Father accepting His atoning sacrifice. They preached that Christ was giving His forgiveness and eternal life through Baptism, the washing of rebirth. And because of their Holy Spirit-given confession of the faith about 3,000 people were saved that day.
"I will not leave you as orphans,” says Our Lord. What an odd-seeming thing for the Church to place on our lips on this “in between” Sunday, three days after Jesus has ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and still seven more days before He pours out His Holy Spirit at the Feast of Pentecost, the Spirit who points us back to Jesus in both joy and sorrow. That’s why our Introit began with that phrase of longing: “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud. … Hide not Your face from me.” We know that, even though we know the whole story, we know how the disciples felt in this intervening week. They knew the promise, but it had yet to become visible. We live that every day! We know we are citizens of heaven, but we still live on earth. We know that palpable tension of “now, but not yet.” So we know conflicting emotions that come from Jesus’ words, “I will not leave you as orphans.” The disciples believed it, but they were torn because they also knew what they saw, what seemed to be the truth. Today Our Lord reminds us that, despite appearances, He is with us always to forgive us, to guide us, and to give us His eternal joy which no one can take from us.
After hearing today’s Gospel Reading, we’re inclined to call Jesus a liar, or at the very least say He’s holding out on us. “Whatever you ask of the Father in My name He will give it to you.” As we hear it, Jesus tells us that whatever we ask for in prayer will be granted as long as we include His name at the end, as if it’s a magic spell, the “hocus pocus” and wave of the magic wand we need to get a positive answer to our prayers. But we know it doesn’t work that way! We all can think of things we’ve asked for “in Jesus’ name” and the answer comes back “no.” We can grudgingly allow that when we’re told “no” to frivolous things like waking up to an anonymous million-dollar check taped to the house door or seeing a sportscar in our garage. But what about the good things we ask for—a clean bill of health, unified families, the ability to pay all the bills on time, more friends, peace in the world—why does God say “no” when I asked for something that is good, that doesn’t seem like it would be against His will? Has He lied to me? Why is He holding out on me? The short answer is, No, God is not lying to you. He is not holding out on you. Instead, every answer to prayer is proof of His omniscience, His divine knowledge of what is for your good in this life and in the life to come.
Part of the Christian’s life is always looking ahead. We know that this life isn’t the end, so we are always looking forward to heaven. The Church Year always anticipates what comes next, as Advent prepares us for Christmas, Lent for Easter, and so on. Today Jesus prepares His disciples for their ministry after Jesus returns to sit at the right hand of the Father. He tells what the work of the Holy Spirit is and how He comes for our good.
In times of uncertainty or trial, there is a temptation to unbelief. We heard it in the Old Testament Reading when Isaiah confronts the children of Israel for their little faith, when he asks them why they say, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my just claim is passed over by my God.” In other words, Israel wanted to know why God was ignoring them, why it seemed He had abandoned them and left them to their own devices. And Jesus, knowing that the same temptation will exist for His disciples after His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, begins preparing them for His departure. When those same kinds of questions asked in the Old Testament are repeated by Jesus’ followers, He wants to make sure they have the right answer, that their gaze is redirected from themselves and their present trials to the joy and full consolation that is theirs by the Holy Spirit.
It was 3 pm on Friday, and Jesus was dead. This is most certainly true. He had undergone the agony of Roman scourging, mockery, torture, and execution. He did not deserve this death; this cross was placed upon Him. We did it to Him. Our sins did. For us He died. The Romans were especially efficient at these things. Had the scourging not done it, the crucifixion would have. And had the crucifixion not done it, the spear thrust into His side would have. Instead, it merely showed that Jesus was already dead.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for Forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed death by enduring it. He destroyed hell when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.” (Chrysostom)
O Death, where is your sing? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1 Cor. 15:55) Death, hell, and their master, Satan, have no victory, no power. They thought they did. Jesus died and they rejoiced. For a time, it looked like Death had taken the victory, swallowing up the Author of Life. It stopped His breath, it spilled His precious Blood. Death finally ate its fill on Good Friday as it devoured Christ as He bore the sins of the world.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.