Rejoice with Me! Sermon for the Funeral of Jim Hellwinckel

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by James Tissot

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Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So He told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance (Luke 15:1-7).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

As we met to plan for this service, you shared a few stories about Jim. Bob recalls the day that his mom and dad brought baby Jim home. You talked about Jim’s goofy sense of humor. How he knew all the words to classic rock songs and his favorite movies. You also talked about how he played hard and had fun. He’d stop to enjoy a 6 pack of Keystone with whomever would join him. How he’d admit that he hadn’t always made the best decisions in life. And how Jim’s dad said Jim always liked to run with the big dogs, but when the authorities arrived, they would scatter and Jim would just stand there like a lost pup and be the only one to get caught. That’s who Jim was. Jim had a colorful history.

We’re not going to glorify those stories, but we won’t ignore them, either. One of the most remarkable features of the biblical narrative—and one of the most instructive—is how it makes no attempt to clean up embarrassing—even scandalous—episodes from the lives of God’s people. Righteousness Noah gets drunk, passes out, and shows the world his birthday suit. King David, the “man after God’s own heart” seduces another man’s wife and has him killed to cover up the affair. When push comes to shove, Peter denies even knowing Jesus. Paul persecutes the Church. Yet God chose to use each of these sinners to fulfill His promise of a Savior and for the furthering of His Kingdom.  

In our Gospel reading for today, we see that Jesus’ willingness to associate with the “wrong people” shocked many of His fellow Jews. In the eyes of His pharisaical critics, it was bad enough that Jesus had any dealing with sinners and tax collectors. More provocative still was the fact that Jesus repeatedly shared table with such people. Within Judaism, eating with someone had religious implications. Jesus’ opponents made this aspect of His ministry a special target of their attacks.

In response, Jesus offers three parables. All three have to do with joy over finding what was lost. First, a shepherd calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” A woman calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost coin.” A father gives a joyous banquet to celebrate the return of his son who had been lost. Why did Jesus reach out to sinners and tax collectors? Because there is great rejoicing in heaven over even a single sinner who repents.

And that is good news for Jim and you and me, and anyone who has ever left the straight and narrow way and took a dangerous detour, no matter how close or far off the beaten path, whether for most of a lifetime or a momentary lapse.

The younger son in our Gospel, amasses an impressive list of skeletons in his closet. When he demands his father give him his share of his inheritance now, he’s saying, in essence, “Old Man, I wish you were dead. But since you’re not, let’s pretend you are so I can pocket my inheritance, move out of the house, and go live it up in the world.” Astonishingly, the father heeds his request. The son packs his suitcase, heads off to a distant land, and soon gets down to the business of squandering “his property in reckless living.”

You’re familiar with the story. He has an impressive rap sheet. He’s insulted his father; shamed his family and no doubt made them the laughingstock in the community; wasted his wealth on selfish pleasure. And he’s made himself the center and god of his own pathetic little universe.

When his pockets are empty and a famine plagues the country, he settles for the only job he can find—a feeder of pigs. So raw is his hunger that he longs to drops to his knees and belly up to the slop trough with the swine. With the bottom fallen out of his world, he comes to his senses. What’s he doing, starving so far from home? His father’s servants have it much better than this.[i]

Now, to be clear the son still isn’t repentant at this point when he “comes to himself.” All he realizes is that he’s reached the end of his rope. He devises a plan for re-acceptance: He will earn his way back into the family’s good graces. He will say to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” In other words, he returns on his own terms. He plans to atone for what he did by relinquishing his place in the family.

But the father will have none of this. The moment he spots his son off in the distance, his heart overflows with compassion. He sprints out to meet him, takes him in his arms, and kisses him. Before his son can finish his rehearsed plea for re-acceptance, his father proclaims, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:22-24).

This moment of complete acceptance was the moment of his repentance. The father’s embrace was this son’s day of resurrection. The father’s love repented and restored him. This parable enacts in narrative form what Paul meant when he wrote to the Romans, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” Repentance was the father’s work, the father’s gift, to his wayward son.[ii]

Here’s the hard yet simple lesson. Repentance is not a work that we perform, but a gift that Christ gives. It’s not an emotion that we stir up within ourselves, but a motion that Christ enacts within us. This motion is always away from us—away from guilt, away from self-devised methods of atonement—and towards Jesus.

Like the shepherd looking for the lost sheep in the parable of Luke 15, Christ trails after us when we go astray. He finds us, put us atop His shoulders, and rejoices to restore us to the fold. Notice that He is the active one: He seeks, He finds, He brings us back. It is not so much that we repent as that He repents us.

Do we contribute anything to this? No, not a thing. From beginning to end, repentance in the divine work of compassionate restoration. Lost sheep don’t find their way back; they’re the object of a search-and-rescue mission. This is repentance: a gift we receive, not a work we do.[iii] This is amazing grace.!

I have one last story about Jim I’d like to share with you:

Four weeks ago, I finally got the chance to meet Jim. He was in the rehab unit at Good Samaritan. Because of COVID it was first time I was able to see anyone there in a year. When they asked who I wanted to see, I added Jim to my list because Bob had asked me to visit with him if I had a chance.

I introduced myself as the pastor of St. John’s at Trosky. Jim told me it had been a long time since he had gone to church. He would probably go back to Trosky because that is where he and his family had gone when he was growing up, but now it was tough for him to get there. I invited him to come home. I told him if he wanted to rejoin, that I would bring the church to him. Even if he wasn’t able to make it there himself, I would keep visiting him and serving as his pastor.

That day I welcomed Jim back as a member of St. John’s. That day Jim joined in worship with his fellow Christians for the first time in a long time. He confessed his sins with fellow redeemed sinners. Jim heard Christ’s absolution, the good news that he was forgiven for all his sins in the triune name into which he’d been baptized back in 1956. Jim confessed with fellow believers his Christian faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Jim received Christ’s very body and blood for the forgiveness of his sins and the strengthening of his faith. That day the angels in heaven rejoiced!

And so can we rejoice today. Rejoice with me! For Jim, death is not the end of the story, but the next chapter of everlasting life, as he awaits the Day of Resurrection, a never-ending story of love and peace and wholeness in the presence of the Lord.

And always remember: There’s room for many more in the household of the Lord. No matter how lost you’ve become, no matter how far you’ve strayed, no matter how poorly your life has turned out, you can always come home. You can always come back and the loving, gracious Father will receive you with open arms, freely forgiving, no strings attached. I’d love to have a chance to talk with you about it more. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[i] Chad Bird, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 52-53.

[ii] Chad Bird, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 108-09.

[iii] Chad Bird, Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 107.

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The Antidote for Fear and Doubt

“The Disbelief of St. Thomas” by James Tissot

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On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.”

Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:19-31).

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Reports of Jesus’ resurrection, in and of themselves, did not change much for the disciples. They had heard about Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the garden (John 20:18). They had even (presumably) heard from Peter and John about their race to the empty tomb (John 20:3-10). But there they were, on the evening of the first Easter Sunday, ten of them hiding behind locked doors. Why? They were afraid. John tells us the doors were locked “for fear of the Jews.” The disciples were afraid that they would be arrested for supporting Jesus’ alleged conspiracy against the authority of imperial Rome.

Fear is a powerful force. In their case it was understandable, too. Jesus had been subjected to a disgraceful death at the hands of an angry mob, after being passed back and forth between antagonistic religious leaders and pragmatic secular authorities. He had warned them the night before His death to expect the same. “A servant is not greater than his master,” Jesus told them. “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Lest they thought they could slip by unnoticed, Peter learned laying low would not be easy (John 18:15-18, 25-27). After three years of traveling with Jesus, it is likely that someone would recognize them as Jesus’ disciples. Or their Galilean accents would arouse suspicion.  

They could not hide from Jesus, of course. And locked doors prove to be an ineffective barrier to the risen Son of God. Reports became reality as the crucified Lord came and stood among them with words of peace. Then He showed them His hands and side so they could see it was truly Him who had been born of Mary and nailed to the cross, the One who had died, been buried, and risen from the dead.

Jesus’ first words to them, “Peace be with you,” was the antidote to their fear. It gave them joy, which fulfilled another promise from Jesus: “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20). Then, having turned their sorrow and fear into joy and peace, Jesus sent them with His Spirit to continue His mission. “As the Father sent Me, even so, I am sending you” (John 20:21). “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23).

But there was one of their number who was absent that evening. For some undisclosed reason, Thomas was not with them when Jesus came. When the other disciples happily reported, “We have seen the Lord!” he did not believe their testimony. Thomas remained deeply skeptical and demanded tactile proof of Jesus’ physical resurrection. “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

The following Sunday, the disciples were again gathered inside the room. Once more the doors were locked, but Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and My God!” He needed no further proof. All the doubt and unbelief vanished, having been turned to faith and joy by the hearing of the risen Jesus’ Word of peace and His call to faith. The antidote for doubt and unbelief is Jesus’ Word of peace.

As we meet here today, obviously we are not hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. None of have faced threatening questions like Peter did on the night of Jesus’ trial. As far as I know, none of you have said you will not believe unless you are given some solid proof that you can see and touch. None of you are mourning the loss of your Lord and Teacher, trying to figure out what’s happening given the recent tragic events. You know that He is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia! But you still come here today with your own fears and doubts, your own sorrows and unbelief.

What is your fear? What causes you doubt? What keeps you up at night? I’m quite certain that your fear will be different than the fears of the disciples on Easter evening. Though attitudes toward Christians are changing in our country, and our opponents are more vocal now than they were even five years ago, we still have little reason to fear physical harm or imprisonment. Nobody is doing mass roundups of Christian believers in our country yet. Which is to say your fears are probably less related to your association with Jesus and more a result of your individual circumstances or consequences of sin.

What are those circumstances? You may be afraid for a variety of reasons. There are those common fears like fear of death or sickness or the fear of losing a loved one or being left alone. Uncertainty regarding the future is a frequent culprit. So is the potential for being shamed or letting others down. Others fear repercussions from past mistakes and habitual sin.

At the heart of such fear and doubt are the sins of idolatry and unbelief. The consequences of our sin or the effects of the sins of others. The fallout of living in a fallen world or the temptations of the devil.                       

The only antidote for such fear and doubt is the peace spoken by Christ.

I obviously am not Jesus, so simply standing here among you will not do the job. That work belongs to the message I proclaim, which is nothing less than the promise of the risen Christ. In his homiletical lectures, Bonhoeffer emphasizes the connection between the promise of Christ and His presence: “The proclaimed Word is the incarnate Christ Himself… The preached Christ is both the Historical One and the Present One… He is the access to the historical Jesus. Therefore the proclaimed Word is not a medium of expression for something else, something which lies behind it, but rather it is Christ Himself walking through His congregation as the Word” (Worldly Preaching, 123).

This promise that brings about the presence of Christ and creates rejoicing, is the peace that Jesus brought to the disciples that night behind locked doors. This peace is the way things should be—peace with God and peace with our fellowman. Grounded in the resurrection of the Son of God, it bursts forth. Resurrection peace arises from the delight of genuine forgiveness, the adventure of an abundant life, and the thrill of eternal salvation. It celebrates the promise of Jesus’ return to reconcile, restore, and revive. It is the kind of joy which led the psalmist to sing: “I sought the Lord, and He answered me and delivered me from all by fears” (Psalm 34:4). He delivered the disciples from their fears, and through the proclamation of His promises, He delivers you, too!

It’s by that Word of peace that we declare Christ’s victory over sin and death. It’s by His Word that we show people Jesus’ hands and side and say, “He died for you.” This is for you!” It’s with this Gospel that we say, “Peace be with you.” It is by that Good News that Easter continues—all the time, not just once a year—until the Lord returns in glory.

In our present day, we look at Easter and think of it as a once-a-year celebration, as a big Sunday. For the early Christians, it was different: every Sunday was a little Easter. This remains true today. Whenever the people of God are gathered together around His Word and Sacraments, Jesus is in the midst of them. He is present to give them the victory He has won by His death and resurrection. He is present to say, “Peace be with you.” He is present to give you His Word, that you might have the privilege of taking it to others. And He is present to say, “I forgive you all of your sins.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Proclaiming the Lord’s Death until He Comes

“Last Supper” by Jon Mcnaughton

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 “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, ‘This is My body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way also He took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).

Return to the Lord: Return and See

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Isaiah 25:1–7 (ESV)

25 O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure. For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the foreigners’ palace is a city no more; it will never be rebuilt. Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. For you have been a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a storm against a wall, like heat in a dry place. You subdue the noise of the foreigners; as heat by the shade of a cloud, so the song of the ruthless is put down. On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.

This sermon is adapted from a series called “Return to the Lord,” written by Eric Longman and published by Concordia Publishing House. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Return to the Lord: Return to the Church

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John 19:28–37 (ESV)

28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35 He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. 36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” 37 And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”

This sermon is adapted from a series called “Return to the Lord,” written by Eric Longman and published by Concordia Publishing House. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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