Homily for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Our sermon text is again the lectionary reading from St. Paul’s epistle to the
church in Philippi.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “Finally,
brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is
anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
And St Paul later proclaims: “I can do all things through Him Who strengthens me.” Dear
brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the ancient Greek philosopher
Aristotle—maybe you’ve heard of him before—he once defined human beings as being
foremost rational animals. That was his definition. His idea was that our rationality, our
capacity for reasoning and understanding, is, more than anything else, that which sets us
apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. A crab or a crow, they don’t seem to reason
quite like we humans reason, or so the thinking goes. And many throughout the ages have
bought into Aristotle’s logic here. We humans reason in a way that other animals don’t –
therefore, that is primarily what distinguishes us.
Now, the fact that we men and women are not actually animals at all but are rather
set over and above the animals, having been created in the very image of God Himself,
that fact set aside for just a moment, even the rest of what that famous pagan philosopher
suggests is terribly nearsighted and downright wrong. It is not our reason so much that
really sets us apart from the rest of the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, though
it might seem like that at first glance. Instead, it is our language. It is our capacity for
language. It is words; speech; the ability to communicate. That is what defines and
determines us as humans – that is what makes us men and women and not cattle and
other wild creatures.
God gave us, the pinnacle of His handiwork, the crown of His creation, the breath of life
and the power of speech – the power to name the rest of the animals, an authority granted
in the garden to Adam alone. And language, friends, when you really get down to it,
language, that gift and authority, is the very basis of our reason. You cannot reason
without language. Try your best to think sometime without words. Do it. Give it a shot.
And let me know how that goes for you.
No, language is the foundation of all reasoning and rationality, without exception.
We are, above all else, linguistic beings – we are speaking creatures – embodied souls
having both intellect and tongues. That is how God made us. And He made us different
from every other creature out there. God created everything in existence through
language, all the universe was created by His divine word. And in making us in His
image on the sixth day, He gave us words as well; words to create with, words with
which to share in the joy of creation. So in other words, God made us to speak. He made
us so that we could speak back to Him, so that we could communicate with Him. So that
we could love Him with words, in words, and through words. That’s in part why it was
not good for Adam to be alone – he needed a bride with whom to converse. But more
than all that, God did not solely create the universe with language and create us, His
finest work, for the purpose of language, but He furthermore continues to save us, His
fallen creation, through language. Language was the basis for our creation and for all
creation, but it is moreover the bedrock of our redemption.
How do I know that? Well, because the Word saves – and the Word is a linguistic
thing, it is writing and speech and articulation. It is a communication from the Creator to
the creature through the creature, as Johann Georg Hamann once put it. It comes from
God to us and to one another through bodily form, through physical means. Namely,
through one man. Remember friends, the Word became flesh, right? That is what St. John
tells us at the beginning of his gospel. Christ is the Word Who became a man. The Word,
as we understand it, is the Bible, without doubt. But the Word is also law and Gospel
proclaimed from this pulpit.
And even more wondrous and mysterious than that, the Word is just as much God made
flesh, a human being named Jesus Who was born at Bethlehem, Who taught with words,
and Who was crucified outside the walls of the holy city of Jerusalem for the sins of the
whole world. God is the incarnate, embodied Word. And God redeems us through that
Word. Through language. Through speech. Through words inspired, written down, read,
spoken, prayed, and preached. And through flesh as well. Through the Word made flesh.
God is not a God Who is far off. He is not just distant in the heavens. He is transcendent,
to be sure. But He nevertheless condescends to us, He reaches down to us, He bends
down to our childish level, He stoops down to our human lowliness, and He speaks to us
through our own native tongue. Just like Jesus once stooped down to scribble a message
in dirt that was unfortunately lost to future generations. God is right here, in the Word
read aloud, in the Word preached, and in the Word administered in body and blood at this
hallowed altar, the body and blood of the Word made flesh and named Jesus of Nazareth,
the promised Messiah. And all these things are essentially a matter of language – of a
word – of the Word in its glorious and various forms.
So here’s what I’m getting at, dear faithful. When you gather here on Sunday
morning and you confess your sins together as a congregation, I, as your pastor, then
pronounce the words of forgiveness or absolution. It is a part of our service, correct? But
here’s the thing. Those words I speak, they are not merely a reminder about your being
forgiven. They are not merely a broad declaration of forgiveness – it is not just a matter
of me telling you something you didn’t already realize. No, friends, the words I speak out
loud for the sake of your ears and your souls are the forgiveness itself. When I utter the
words of absolution in Christ’s stead and by His authority, by the authority of the Word
incarnate, that utterance from my lips, those very words, that is forgiveness. That’s where
it is – where it is located for the sake of your certainty – so that you can hear it and have
sure faith in it. That is how you hear about the good news of your forgiveness won on a
cross, which is conveyed through words and which is indeed now accomplished through
words. The means of grace depend on words.
And this is what we call performative speech. I am not just telling you something
descriptive in a matter of words—I am not just describing something to you, not even just
the nature of your forgiveness—but rather, when I speak the words of forgiveness to you,
I am doing something with the words and through the words. Or put more accurately,
God is doing something for you through me by the words I speak to you. Does that make
sense? For instance, imagine when someone christens a ship. You ever seen a ship
christened before? So when this happens, the one christening the ship speaks some words
of blessing over the new vessel, they name the ship out loud—they give her a name and
speak it—and then they usually break a bottle of champaign over the ship’s bow. That is
the historical christening ceremony for a new ship. And after this ceremony is finished,
the ship is considered christened.
But here’s the question: what part of all that ceremony actually makes the ship
christened? What does the work, so to speak? What aspect of the ceremony does the
heavy lifting? What precisely in the ceremony christens the ship? It isn’t the champagne
bottle shattering over the bow, that’s for sure. But in truth, it is the words themselves that
do the work. When the blessing is spoken and when the ship is named out loud by its new
owner while the champaign bottle is broken, those spoken words do something. They
don’t just mean something, they don’t just relay new information, but they do something.
They perform an action. The words themselves christen the ship. The speech does the
work. The words make something new that wasn’t there before – namely, a christened
boat. That is what we mean when we talk about performative speech. Speech that
performs. Some words in human language describe things, yet other words do things.
That is how language works sometimes. And brothers and sisters, in this ceremony here,
in our Divine Service, the words you hear are what are important. The words do
something for you and they do something to you. And that something they do is
remarkable – something done seldom elsewhere in this earthly life.
The words of forgiveness forgive you. The words of absolution absolve you; they
cleanse you of your sin. You are changed afterwards. You are no longer the same sinner.
The words of the baptismal rite, for example, they don’t just describe your baptism, but
they make you, when you have faith, baptized; the words baptize you. God’s Word
spoken by a minister baptizes you. The water, while necessary, does not do the baptizing
– neither does the minister, for that matter, even by his authority; but the Word through
the power of the Spirit baptizes. The Word does the work. The words of Institution
spoken over the elements of bread and wine, they do something too. They don’t simply
retell the story of the Last Supper. Anyone who suggests as much is wrong. No, those
words consecrate the Supper here and now, such that our Lord is really and truly and
physically present. Words have the power to do this. Again, our God created with words,
He created all things out of nothing with a word voiced into the void. “Let there be light!”
Words are profoundly creative. And God gives His church the authority to speak
redemption and the language of new creation through words every single Sunday.
Forgiveness, life, and salvation: these promises are spoken and kept and ultimately
fulfilled through language, through the Word. Never forget, dear friends, that language is
so incredibly crucial. It is everything. Language brings the reality of what happened at
Calvary twenty centuries ago to life for you in your heart, and in your body and soul, on
this very day. Words bring the merits of that sacrifice offered up over six thousand miles
away to benefit for you right here right now. Words are the foundation of the means of
grace. God works His will for your salvation by way of words – and by way of the Word.
But okay, pastor: what’s your point though? What are you driving at with all this
highfalutin talk about language? Well dear flock, it is plain and simple actually. This is
why what I have said so far matters for us today. St. Paul, picking up where we left off
last week, he encourages us, through this letter to the Philippian church read shortly ago,
he encourages us to rejoice, to not be anxious, but to think about whatever is true,
honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. We are not
to spend our brief lives under heaven in worry and doubt, Paul says.
Instead, we are to be joyful always and we are to concentrate on what brings joy: on the
true, the just, and the pure in this life and in the life to come. Yet how exactly do we do
that when so much in this world is so dark and disgusting and dangerous? How do we
focus on nice things when there is so much conflict and chaos raging around us –
especially in the Holy Land as of late? When sin abounds as much as it does, how are we
supposed to concentrate on the good and the pure? Is it even possible? Or is that not
purely naïve, dear pastor?
Well, first of all, bear in mind again that Paul offered this much-needed advice
while still imprisoned, facing a great deal of conflict and chaos, danger and darkness
himself, arguably much greater than our own. But more than that, this is how we
concentrate on the good and the pure per Paul’s pastoral recommendation: recall friends,
that we are only able to reason because we have language. We can only think because we
have words with which to think. That being the case, whatever words we have in our
vocabulary, in our memory bank up here, whatever words we have at our intellectual
disposal, that is what we will think with. Whatever we put into our minds over time
through words is what our minds will work with. That’s how it works. You can only
think with what your mind has been given to think with. Even in your imagination, you
can only ever imagine with what has been placed into your mind by the senses and
through words. A unicorn is no more than a horse with a horn, after all. The mind is kind
of like a computer and it depends on data being fed into it. Therefore, the words that you
put into your mind, the speech that you spend your day dwelling on, the language that
you indulge yourself in, and the phrases you repeat in your head hour by hour, that is
really what you will end up thinking about. You will concentrate on whatever you feed
your mind. Your thoughts will be centered around your mind’s diet. And things will
become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Whatever you put in your mind and in your heart is
what will come out of your mind and out of your heart. That is guaranteed.
All that to say, dear flock, don’t put garbage in your heart and mind. Stop
worrying about and fretting over all that σκύβαλον – all that refuse and distraction that is
useless in eternity, which we addressed last week. And instead of all that trash, put good
words in your heart and in your soul and in your mind. Put true, honorable, just, pure,
lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy words in your precious head. Meditate on those
things. And do you know where those things are? [Walk over to get bible] Right here.
This is where they are. These are the words you must put in your heart and mind if you
ever want to be free of the chains of anxiety and doubt and despair that tether us to this
disordered world. If you ever want to be free to think about the good, the true, and the
beautiful – you have to turn right here. These words, contained in the Holy Bible, let
these words become your vocabulary, your memory bank. Let them become your new
alphabet. Learn to think, speak, read, and write again through these words, through the
grammar of God’s language, inspired by the Holy Spirit and recorded by the patriarchs,
prophets, and apostles. Let Holy Scripture become the very water in which you swim.
Surround yourself with it. Read, mark, and inwardly digest the Word of God. Memorize
Scripture as well, as best you can. Allow it to become a part of you. Take it to heart and
absorb it like the medicine it is. Come to church week after week and hear it again and
again. Tie the Word on your hands, bind it to your foreheads, and write it on your
doorposts, remember? And eventually, I assure you, doing so will positively impact how
you think, and how you live, and even how you hope.
And let the words spoken here, in this gathering, the performative words of the
absolution, of the sermon, of the Supper, let them flow through you. Do not put up a
guard against them. Do not lose attention or focus. Don’t just come here for the sake of
coming here and making an appearance. Instead, let the words of forgiveness and
salvation have their way with you. Let them melt your hardened heart. Let God love you
through these words. That is how He loves you –through His Word.
Through the absolution at the beginning of the service, through the lectionary readings,
through this sermon, through the hymns we sing and the language of the liturgy, through
our collective prayer, through the words of Institution and those most intense and
intimate words of all: “The body of Christ, given for you; the blood of Christ shed for
you.” Let God create a new creation Sunday after Sunday through these most pure words
of all, through His own saving Word. And let that new creation be you. Permit your God
to redeem you. And don’t think that that happens in some overly spiritualized,
mysterious, ascetic or ecstatic way apart from what happens here in space and time and
history. It doesn’t happen that way, I’m afraid. Not usually. It isn’t usually a big,
dramatic thing. On the contrary, God creates and sustains and saves and forgives you
simply through language. Through common human language, through something very
physical, audible, and seemingly ordinary. Like what you hear within these walls.
But really, these aren’t only ordinary words you are hearing. That is what I need
you to believe and to trust. I am not just having a nice conversation with you up here. I
need you to be convicted of the truth that words have the power to do something
powerful. And that is just what they do, week after week, in this sacred space. Don’t
underestimate the ability of language to transform and transfigure you. If we are, at the
end of the day, what’s up here [point to head] and right here [point to heart], just know
that what is here [point to head] and here [point to heart], it all begins – or it all once
began – with language. When you were a baby – a toddler – a child – language was given
to you, as a free gift from your parents and teachers. However, more than that, it was a
free gift from God above, from the Author of all things and the Author of your own life.
That gift of language was the alphabet, the building blocks, given for your mind to grow
– and for your personality, who you are as a person, to blossom. So language is, in a very
real sense, what you are. You are a linguistic creature, God’s child imbued with the gift
of speech. Language is what you use to think with and to communicate with. As such,
you must always be mindful of the words you use and cling to. Be thoughtful of the
words you spend your day hearing and speaking.
Let your words and thoughts be good words and good thoughts. Let the words you
imbibe be honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy words. Let
them be biblical, Christian, and life-giving words. That’s the pastoral advice for the
sermon this Sunday. Pay attention to words. Because words matter. Words save. And
words are also how we confess our saving faith to the world out there.
“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these
things, and the God of peace will be with you.” This is what else St. Paul promises us
today. His message is straightforward. What you learn and receive and hear and see in
written words; in speech; and in the Word made flesh, Christ Jesus, becoming visible in
Holy Communion, hidden yet still revealed under the form of bread and wine; practice
these things, Paul urges. Concentrate on these things. If you do, then the God of peace
will most assuredly be with you always and everywhere. And the God of peace will
strengthen you, such that you, too, can do all things. We, as baptized children of God, can
do all things through Him Who strengthens us. We can endure all things, suffer all things,
overcome all things, accomplish all things. Paul is right on the money, once again. But if
we want that strength from God, if we sincerely desire it from the bottom of our hearts,
then we have to recall from whence it comes. We have to remember where to find it. It
comes through words. It comes through the Word. The Holy Bible and the Sacraments,
that is where it is now found. So cling to these blessed and holy things. Grasp your Lord
by grasping those gracious means through which He comes to you presently – through
the Word. In His name. Amen.