Orphaned No More (Sermon)

Rev. Dale Krueger

Editor’s Note: It is fitting that this sermon by Rev. Dale Krueger, an emeritus LCMS pastor who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is paired with Dr. Edmund Schlink’s classic essay, “Christ and the Church.” Pastor Krueger studied with Professor Schlink in Heidelberg in the 1957-58 academic year. Pastor Krueger lived in the Ecumenical Student House (Studentenwohnheim) that is connected with the Ecumenical Institute that Dr. Schlink had founded at Heidelberg after WWII (and which was funded largely by American Lutherans). Dr. Schlink was the director of the Institute and the overseer (Ephorus) of the Studentenwohnheim. During the year that Pastor Krueger studied in Heidelberg, there were twenty-five theology students from around the world who lived in the Studentenwohnheim. 

Pastor Kreuger preached the following sermon on the Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 17, 2020). The text was the appointed Gospel reading for that day: John 14.15-21.

There was a boy born in Korea to a Korean prostitute and an American soldier. His name was Gung. He never knew his father. He never heard a word or a promise from him. Such American-Asian children in Korea were hardly even considered human and were left in the streets to fend for themselves. They were truly orphans, deserted and desolate. In order to survive, they had to fight for just about everything they needed. Gung was an angry child. He was angry that his father had deserted him, and that everybody treated him like dirt. But there is good news in this story. At the age of twelve, Gung was adopted by a Lutheran couple in St. Paul, Minnesota. Yet, even though, he was no longer an orphan, it took years before Gung really trusted them, and even more years before there wasn’t some incident every day in school. There always seemed to be a part of him that was still orphaned.

The Gospel lesson for today contains conversation that Jesus had with His disciples on the night before He was crucified. Jesus knew that His hour had come to go to the Father, that He would be glorified through His death on a cross, His resurrection and ascension. He prepares His disciples for His departure. He tells them, “I will not leave you as orphans;” “I will not leave you desolate.” He promises them, “I am coming back to you.” “And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another comforter /helper to be with you forever… the spirit of truth.” Some fifty days later, on the Jewish Festival of Pentecost, the spirit of truth was poured out on the believers.

His word, “I will not leave you as orphans,” and His promise, “I am coming back to you,” were fulfilled when you and I were baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In our baptism, we are joined to Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. In our baptism Jesus came back to us and adopted us into His family. We are no longer orphans, left to fend for ourselves. In our baptism another comforter/helper came to us, the spirit of truth. And because Jesus is in the Father, the Father is also in us. No longer orphans, but adopted, warts and all, into God’s family. That’s good news!

It is difficult to diagram today’s Gospel lesson because what Jesus says to His disciples cannot be neatly sorted out. He blurs the distinctions between his activities and those of the Father and the Spirit. An activity attributed to the Spirit in one sentence is attributed to the Father a sentence later and still later to Jesus. It is as if Jesus and the Father and the Spirit are one. He also blurs the distinctions between the intentions and activities of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and those of the disciples, the church. “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” The church, the disciples of Jesus, are to be as entangled and intertwined with Jesus in mutual love and service as Jesus is with the Father and the Spirit. What the disciples do is what God does. God and his church are one! Jesus says, “If you love Me, you will obey My commandments.” His commandments can be all boiled down to one: to love one another as He has loved us.

What motivates us to love, to be faithful foot washing disciples of Jesus? What motivates us to bring the Gospel to people? The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation may help us think about this. Take, for example, a musician at work. Extrinsically motivated by things outside of himself, he may be moved by visions of a hit record, or by gratitude to his parents for the sacrifices they made to pay for his music lessons, or because it seems like a good way to impress members of the opposite sex. On the other hand, an intrinsically motivated musician, would be moved by what was within him. He would work at his music because it is the only way to express the gift of harmony and melody and rhythm that is with him and makes him who he is. Research into the intrinsic-extrinsic distinction has revealed one reliable finding: whenever individuals begin to perceive their own motivation for a task as primarily extrinsic, they begin to lose interest in that task, and they experience difficulty in continuing to invest energy in it. It becomes difficult to be faithful. They tend to fall away.

One of my favorite stories is about an old man who, every day, just outside a small village in India, sat cross-legged stirring ordinary dirt mixed with water in an old pot. After hours of stirring he reached into the pot and pulled out a large gold nugget. Day after day, people watched him sit, and waited for the moment when he would reach for the gold nugget. They were simply amazed. One day, a brazen young man approached him. “Show me how you do your trick, old man?” “Certainly. It isn’t difficult. All I have here is an ordinary pot, a simple stick, dirt that you can find anywhere, and water from the town well. I pour the dirt and the water into the pot and begin to stir. After a while, a lump of gold forms, and I reach in and remove it.”

Immediately the young man found a pot, stick, some dirt, and small bucket of water. He poured the dirt and the water into the pot and began to stir. He stirred all day long, stopping frequently to see if the gold had begun to form. He continued stirring the next day, but no matter how long he stirred, no gold nuggets could be seen. Finally, he went back to the old man for further instructions. “Tell me, step by step, what you have been doing,” the old man said politely. Quickly the young man recounted everything he had done. When he finished, the old man said, “Ah, it seems I neglected to include one important detail. While you stir, you must never think about the gold.”

We Christian people have been called by the Spirit of God to love one another, simply because that is who we are in Christ. We are more than believers in Christ. We are disciples of Jesus. That means we are in this world to be foot washers. The task ahead of us is to interest people in foot washing as a way of life. What is going to motivate us to model that Christian life of foot washing? As disciples of Jesus, we are invited to move beyond extrinsic motivation, beyond looking into the pot for the gold nugget. In our baptism we have become the disciples of Jesus, we have been declared the adopted children of God. We are who we are by the grace of God.

The Father has loved us so much that he sent His only Son, Jesus to die for us, in our place, to redeem and rescue us, to reconcile us to Himself and to each other. The cross of Jesus Christ is the focal point of our faith. The Father raised Him from the dead in victory for us. We love because that is who we have become in Christ. The intrinsic motivation comes from within us, from the Spirit of God. But the old orphan part of us still hangs around as a cloud, still trying to get us to do things for extrinsic reasons.

Jesus takes the risk of blurring the distinction between what He does and what the church does, and at that point the issue of motivation begins to disappear. We love and reach out with the Gospel because that’s the only way to express who we have become through our baptism into Christ. “You know Him, because He remains with you and will be in you.” The Spirit of God remains in us, daily and richly forgiving us our impure motivations, and all other sins. It is because of who we are, that we do what we do. Orphans no longer. We are adopted children of the Father, forgiven disciples of Jesus, moved by the Spirit of God to love.

One final word: friends are a wonderful gift. A friend is someone you can count on them to be a part of your life, to go with you to different places, to listen to you, to give you gentle but honest feedback. Wouldn’t it be great if a trusted friend would sit down with you at the beginning of every day to listen to you and help you plan your day? Wouldn’t it be great to have a friend assist you in making all your decisions? You could always count on this friend to be on your side and to give you expert advice. And if you got into trouble, this friend would not judge you but be on your side. That friend is with us right now to feed us His body and blood in this Holy Meal. What a friend we have in Jesus and in the Father, and in the Holy Spirit. Let’s shout Amen to that!! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!

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