Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
“Do you close with a benediction?” I wonder how many times I have been asked that question at funeral homes and gravesides. I always answer in the affirmative, because I close all services with a benediction. I suppose I never really gave it a second thought that there might be another way to close. Of all the funerals I attend, I probably officiate at 90 percent. Most of the remaining ten percent are for other Lutherans. Some time ago, I attended a funeral mass and interment conducted by a Roman Catholic Priest. Neither service concluded with a benediction and the undertakers were not completely positive, in either case, that the last prayer had been spoken. I noticed that they hesitated in stepping forward until the priest nodded to them to proceed. For undertakers, the advantage of a benediction is that it clearly marks the end of the service.
There are other blessings (if you’ll pardon the pun) in benedictions. Most people do not like to say “Goodbye” — especially to those we love. The end result of this reluctance is the strange ritual that often occurs at the end of a phone call or visit from a loved one. In 1984, I read a paragraph reciting this ritual that made me wonder if the author had eavesdropped on one of my own conversations. Here it is:
“It’s been good to see you.” Yeah, nice talking to you. “Right, take care.” You, too. “Okay, maybe we can get together again real soon.” Yes, I’d like that. “Remember what I said about. . .” Sure, I won’t forget. “Tell your family ‘Hi’ for me.” Sure will — yours, too. “So long.” Have a good day. “Thanks, you, too.” I’ll try. . .
I realized today that, at some occasions, I am compelled to translate “Goodbye.” I don’t think I said it once today. Over and over, I said what I meant: “God be with you,” “God bless you.” A benediction reminds us that, even though we are parting from each other, God is going with each of us. We never have to bid farewell to God.
Sunday’s first lesson is the big “HELLO!” It is the first chapter of the Bible, the first story of creation.
The other two lessons contain words of farewell or “Goodbye.” Paul’s closing words in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, and Jesus’ closing words to the Gospel According to Matthew both contain commands or marching orders. Both also contain clear statements about God being with us.
Paul’s directions are, “Mend your ways; take my appeal to heart; agree with one another; live in peace.” He adds that as a result of doing these things, “the God of peace will be with you.” Then he urges the Corinthians to share the kiss of peace, and offers greetings from all God’s people. Finally, he closes: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” The Trinitarian Benediction is the obvious reason for choosing this lesson for Trinity Sunday.
The Trinitarian Formula for Baptism is the obvious reason for choosing the Gospel Lesson. Jesus’ marching orders for His Church are known as The Great Commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” His closing promise is: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Have you ever noticed that whenever we talk about the Trinity, we almost always use the order mentioned in that Baptismal Formula? Even when we speak of the roles each Person takes, we seem to maintain the same order: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Theologically, we state clearly that the order is not one of either authority or time sequence, since the Persons are “co-equal and co-eternal.” Yet, the sequence seems to have pretty well universal acceptance. Since that is true, look again at Paul’s Trinitarian Benediction.
He begins with “The grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” He starts the blessing with the Redeemer, the Son, not the Creator or Father. It is more than just interesting. Before he experienced the grace of Christ, Paul’s knowledge of God was limited, even warped. He knew Him only as a God of Law and laws. Only after he had experienced the undeserved favor and forgiveness of the Son, did Paul come to know the God of love, and the love of One he could call Father.
Paul had gained his original knowledge of God from the Old Scriptures, but under the tutelage of some legalistic Pharisees. His life had been motivated by fear, not love. His view of others was judgmental and condemning, not accepting or forgiving. His personal righteousness, defined as obedience to the laws, may have been exemplary and far above the norm, but it had led him to approve the murder of Stephen for the crime of proclaiming Christ.
Many people today lack even Paul’s discipline. Their god is the god of nature — who parcels out in a seemingly willy-nilly manner feast and famine, drought or flood, a breathtaking sunset or a life-taking tornado, etc. These people will likewise never know the Fatherhood or love of God until they discover Him through His grace and forgiveness in Christ. It was not just Paul’s preaching that began and ended at the cross — it was his entire concept of God. “Christ Crucified” was not a topic for one sermon, but the heart of Paul’s message, and the heart and soul of his life!
With the love of the Father made known through the grace of the Son, it should be no surprise that the work of God’s indwelling Spirit will result in a fellowship among God’s other children. After giving us faith, it is His goal to make us more and more Godlike. There should be no doubt that grace and love will be revealed not only to us, but also through us. Our fellowship with the Holy Spirit creates a fellowship with the Father whose love is known in the grace of His Son. It cannot likewise fail to create a fellowship with the rest of those who are graciously loved in the same way.
Jesus said, “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” One pastor has paraphrased these words of Jesus as, “The Holy Spirit will make me real to you. He will take this Gospel of mine out of history and off the pages of the New Testament, plant it deeply in your hearts and ratify it redeemingly in your souls.”
In the Old Testament, when God calls prophets into service, an almost ritualistic conversation takes place. These dialogues resemble a ritual because most of them follow a similar pattern. God says, “I want you.” The prophet responds that God must have the wrong man. God says, “No, I want you.” The prophet gives some reason or excuse that proves he’s not the right man for the job. God says, “I will be with you.” The debate may continue for a while through more dodges and attempts to duck away from the responsibility, but God’s promise to be with the man of God is a pretty unshakable argument.
The last words in the Gospel of Matthew are such a promise from Jesus: “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” We may forget that we are not alone, but He doesn’t forget, and He doesn’t abandon us. A rabbi once described a secular Jew as someone with a Guest in the attic that refuses to leave. The Guest is there patiently waiting for the day when He will be invited to move downstairs as part of the family. Would you describe yourself or someone you know as a “Secular Christian?” When will the Guest in the attic, who is with us always, be invited to become part of the family? He has made us part of God’s family, by unfathomable grace and with no cost spared. It is a fellowship that transforms everyday life and fills the saddest, most difficult moments with power, courage, hope and love.
The grace of the Lord, Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.