14th Sunday after Pentecost September 3, 2023
1 John 1:12-17
16, 457, 399, 43
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Sermon Audio: https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/ministrybymail
Prayer of the Day: Heavenly Father, who through the work of your Son Jesus Christ restored to us Your peace, we give You all glory, thanks, and praise. Strengthen our friendship with You through Your Word and Sacraments. Through the Spirit’s work strengthen our relationships with friends here on earth. We ask this in Jesus’ saving name. Amen.
“Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.
“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” (NKJV)
Dearly Beloved Fellow Believers,
In times of war it is not always easy for a soldier to identify friends and enemies. Those who are wearing the uniform of the enemy may be easy to spot. But there may be others who do not appear to be hostile, but who are in fact enemies; given the opportunity they will betray you or attack you.
Also in everyday life, it can be hard to distinguish between those who are our friends and those who are not. Who among us has not made the mistake of thinking of someone as a friend and then finding out to our dismay that we were wrong? Or, we may have made the opposite mistake: thinking that someone was indifferent or hostile toward us, only to find out later that the person was really a friend.
Why do we make mistakes like these? One reason is that we can mistake friendliness for genuine interest, not understanding that friendliness can be superficial. Or, there are people who may like to be around you only because of what you do for them. When the time comes that you no longer serve their selfish purposes you won’t see them anymore. We learn these things from bad experiences, and as time goes on we become more careful in choosing our friends.
In our text Jesus says something about this, though He doesn’t use the word friend. He does, however, use its opposite: He warns us about enemies, saying that we may find them in places where we least expect to find them. At the same time, Jesus here shows us who our true friends are. He answers for us a very important question: WHO ARE MY FRIENDS?
In addition to considering who our friends are, we should also ask who is our best friend. Some among us may be able to name one person who is their best friend. Others of us might not think of one such person but might instead think of several whom we would call very close friends. But for all of us there is one person who holds that special place in our hearts and lives. That is of course Jesus Christ. If we don’t immediately think of Him when we discuss the subject of friendship, it is because He is in a class completely by Himself. There is no other friend like Him, and there will never be anyone who could replace Him.
When we say that Jesus is our “best and truest Friend,” as we do in one of our hymns (The Lutheran Hymnal #399:2), we are not exaggerating, for He laid down His life for us. Nor are we being presumptuous: Jesus used the word “friend” to speak of His relationship to His disciples (John 15:13-15), so He has given us the right to speak of Him as our Friend. More than that, Jesus says here that He wants us to speak of Him as our Friend and to speak of ourselves as His friends. He wants us to “confess Him” in the presence of other people. He wants us who believe in Him to let it be known that we believe in Him.
There are various ways that we show that we consider Jesus our best and truest Friend. One way is by going to church regularly. By our attendance at worship services and Bible classes we make a powerful statement that Jesus is important to us, important enough for us to set aside time to praise Him and listen to His word as it is taught. Our attendance at church is a public statement because that is something that we do openly and publicly, where anyone can see us.
But of course, we also know that church isn’t the most challenging setting for confessing Christ. The most challenging setting is probably where you are in a group where something comes up about Christ and you have an opportunity to say something that will identify you as one of His disciples. Maybe the name of Christ isn’t even mentioned, but the subject is religion or morality. We confess Christ when we show that what we think and do we is guided by His word. And that isn’t so easy to do when we are in the company of the children of this world. We may not be afraid the way the disciples were during and after Jesus’ trial and crucifixion; we are not afraid of being arrested, imprisoned, or put to death for being disciples. But we may be uncomfortable, realizing that our friendship with Christ makes us stick out and not fit in.
At such times let us remember that however displeasing our confession of Christ may be to other people it is always pleasing to Him. To all who confess Him before others Jesus promises to acknowledge them before His Father in heaven. It is always gratifying to be remembered and acknowledged by someone whose station in life is above ours. How wonderful it will be to have the Son of God acknowledge us as His own disciples and friends!
Jesus also warns us against denying Him before others. Those who will not confess Him as their Savior when they are put on the spot reveal that they are not His friends. This is not to say that we cannot be forgiven for failing to confess Him. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea pretended not to be believers in Jesus for a time. They were surely forgiven. Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus, yet Jesus restored him to his place as an apostle. So, when we realize that we have let the Lord down we should repent and believe that we are forgiven, for the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sins. (1 John 1:7) And then let us ask for the strength to be bold and confident in our confession of Christ.
Since Jesus is our best Friend, it follows that those who are His enemies are not our friends. We can’t be friends of Christ and at the same time stay on good terms with everybody. Oh, we should try to stay on good terms with everybody. Paul says, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” (Romans 12:18) But it isn’t always going to be possible, as Jesus warns here when He says, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” People have puzzled over this saying, asking how it fits with His being the Prince of Peace. But Jesus explains what He means here. He brings peace to the hearts of those who believe in Him; He brings peace among those who believe in Him. But in the world at large the coming of Christ brings division and strife. Jesus isn’t the cause of it, but there are many who will not believe, and they will not be at peace with those who do; conflicts are inevitable.
Sadly, those divisions and conflicts will arise even within families and households. Jesus warns of this by quoting a passage from the Old Testament book of Micah, “A man’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Now those close to us who do not believe in Jesus are not enemies in the sense that the world uses the word; we do not want to harm them or even cut ourselves off from them. But we need to recognize that they do not have Christ’s interests at heart, and they do not have our own spiritual interests at heart. In that sense they are enemies.
The same must be said of “friends” who are unbelieving. We may want to maintain ties with them, always hoping and praying that they will come to faith, but we need to be careful. If we have friends who are drawing us away from Jesus, then they aren’t real friends. If we have friends who discourage us from worship and from hearing God’s word, they aren’t real friends. If we have friends who try to lead us into sinful behavior, they aren’t real friends. Standing for Christ will put us at odds with friends and relatives who do not share our faith in Him or our devotion to Him. This is the cross that Jesus speaks of here. We take up our cross when we follow Jesus and put Him first.
Who then are our real friends? Those who are the friends of Jesus. A true friend is someone who has your interests at heart and cares what happens to you. A fellow Christian who encourages you in your faith is a true friend. A Christian pastor or teacher who wants to help you grow in the word is a true friend. A fellow Christian who sees you wandering off the path to heaven and warns you is a true friend, even if at first the warning annoys or angers you.
Jesus here directs us to such friends when He tells us whom we should “receive,” that is who we should welcome in our life. First of all, we should receive the apostles of our Lord. Whoever receives them receives Jesus Himself, for they are His representatives who bring us His word, the gospel of life. Some of our best friends are Matthew, John, Paul, and Peter. We always do well to spend time in their company and listen to them.
Jesus also says that we should receive prophets and righteous men. Prophets are teachers of God’s word. To “receive a prophet in the name of a prophet,” as Jesus says here, is to welcome a prophet because he is a prophet. It is to listen to a sermon or Bible Class because you recognize that this is someone who is faithfully teaching you the word of God. The righteous people mentioned here are believers, perhaps those we especially identify as devout and strong in the faith. We should value such people and want them in our life. They will encourage us to believe what is right and do what is right. They will also help us when we are in need.
Jesus promises that when we receive prophets and righteous people we will receive the same reward that they receive. That reward is eternal life, the reward of all who believe in Jesus. (“Rewards” here are of course not earned rewards but what God gives us by grace through Christ.) If we treat Christian pastors and Christian people as our friends; if we listen to them and let them influence us, then we will continue and grow in the faith and in the end inherit eternal life together with them.
Jesus also tells us to be a friend to Christian people; and not just pastors, teachers, or others we might look upon as exemplary Christians, but those whom Jesus here calls “these little ones.” The expression includes not only little children but all Christians who may be beginners in the faith. It includes those who are weak, perhaps straying or faltering in their confession of Christ. In other words, it includes any Christian who is in need of your help, encouragement, or assistance. Jesus promises to notice and to reward even the smallest act of kindness done to such people.
Friendship is a precious gift of God. True friends are a great help to us. They enrich our lives; they give us companionship, support, and good counsel. Let us learn to distinguish between those who are true friends and those who are friends in name only. And in the name of Christ may we be true friends to the little ones who are precious to Christ. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.