Sunday, April 29, 2007

The White-Robed Saints of Rev. 7 and Confirmation Sunday

I couldn't resist using the Rev. 7 epistle reading today. It was Confirmation Sunday and the related symbolism was just too tempting: white-robed saints and the blood of the Lamb. As many Lutherans know, Confirmation Sunday is not complete without the confirmands processing in wearing white robes and red flowers. Unfortunately the robes are too often of the "graduation" type, being rented from some collegiate cap and gown provider. This only symbolically reinforces the misconception among Lutheran youth that confirmation equals graduation.

In my parish they use the alternate "poncho" style robe that is sold in some church supply catalogues. Unbeknownst to me, one of the children asked the retired pastor assisting me why they had to wear those robes. And unbeknownst to him was that my sermon was intending to answer that very question. Now I don't know the particular history of the confirmation robe. In my limited reading prior to today I didn't see any helpful history on this topic. However, I do know that the white robe in Baptism is a significant part of the historic rite, going back to the Early Church of the first centuries. It is symbolic of the robe of righteousness in Christ mentioned in scripture (Isaiah 61:10; Gal. 3:27). I would imagine that the robe in confirmation is an extension of this robe.

At any rate it was a good "object lesson" in preaching on Rev. 7. And it was a good way to help them appreciate that the foundation and essence of confirmation for Lutherans is all about Baptism. Today we stand as those "clothed in Christ" through Baptism. This is the source of our righteousness before the holy God. It is not of ourselves, it is a gift of God. Thus, we are here today to witness to that truth, not to anything we have done.

Which is a point that needs to be made among Lutherans still convinced that confirmation is the "renewing of our baptismal vows." First of all we do not "renew" that which God has created and which He himself continually renews by His grace. He makes all things new, not us. Secondly, what is a "baptismal vow"? This sounds Reformed to me, where Baptism becomes Law - something I must do, not Gospel - something God does in and through His Son. True, confirmands promise fidelity and faithfulness to the confession and truth of the church. But there was no "vow" made by the infant as he was baptised. He believed, but "not by [his] own reason or strength, but the Holy Spirit has called [him] by the Gospel..." If there is a vow of any kind, it is God's. He pledges his grace and love on our behalf.

Like many pastors I struggle with confirmation. Despite what we say the inevitable happens - children begin that day to end their involvement in the church. Part of the problem lies in how we have pictured their place in the Kingdom. Too often we paint it in soft and subdued colors, or in bright vibrant and exciting shades. Yet the darker hues of suffering and death we avoid. Yet these white-robed saints are those who have passed through the "great suffering" (sorry, I avoided the word "tribulation" because of some wrong interpretations here). They have denied themselves, taken up their crosses and followed. So the red in those flowers, I reminded them, is the red of blood - the blood of martyrs and suffering for the faith. They did promise to remain faithful even to the point of death. It's in the rite, even if many young people recite the words with hardly a thought as to what it could possibly mean.

Confirmation has a lot of pietistic baggage that complicates its usefulness in the church. Luther initially abandoned the rite out of reaction to what he perceived were its abuses in the church of his day. How many pastors today are tempted to do the same! Still, it's a venerated tradition that is not likely to disappear any time soon. So, let's take the opportunity to use this occasion to direct their attention to the blessings of their Baptism, which Christians too seldom contemplate. The rite (in Lutheran Worship), to its credit, assists this well. We simply need to "connect the dots" and let them see where God is truly at work.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Regina Angelorum - Queen of Angels?

In my newspaper here in the northwoods, there was an article for the "Marian Day of Reflection," set for May 17. In the Green Bay Diocese their special emphasis will be on the theme "Regina Angelorum - Queen of Angels." I have to admit that before this I had not heard this title for Mary. Although, it does sound similar to the "Queen of Heaven" title I have heard.

It has been my effort over the years to understand and give fair treatment to Catholic doctrine, even when I disagree with it. As I have stated before, Catholic doctrine is not always accurately critiqued by Protestants.

Nevertheless, titles for Mary such as the above make it hard for me not to conclude that Catholic doctrine elevates this blessed mother of our Lord to heights never envisioned by sacred scripture.

To better understand this teaching I found an article entitled "Mary - Regina Angelorum" and surveyed their reasoning. The article was arranged under three headings: I. Mary, Queen of Angels and Mistress of Devils (Note: don't misunderstand that last part! There's nothing demonic here!), II. Mary: Queen of Angels in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, and III. Mary and the Distribution of Grace. The paper is provided by the organization called "Opus Sanctorum Angelorum" (Work of the Angels), and is an order that appears to have the approval of the church. A statement of their order can be found here.

What initially struck me was the confusion of roles between Mary and Michael. Up to this point I had always understood Michael as "captain" of the Lord's angelic armies. He is even pictured in Christian art with a sword and shield with the devil beneath his feet. Now Mary is the "General" over Michael? It is true that the angelic order does serve those who "are going to inherit salvation" (Heb. 1:14). That having been said, however, it is a large step to now conclude that a human such as Mary is now an virtual "commander" of the angelic hosts. This is an honor that ultimately goes to God himself, and by extension to Michael in the order he has provided.

Still, that point aside, what troubles me is the justification for the teachings that elevate Mary to such positions that seem out of proportion to what we read in Holy Scripture. Here Mary is a humble handmaiden of the Lord, admitting to her need for a savior in her beautiful Magnificat. She faithfully assumes her role as mother of our Lord, yet steps back once his ministry begins and informs others to serve him. Nowhere does Christ elevate her beyond her vocation. In fact, at the foot of the cross he establishes her again in this role as mother to John.

In the article referenced above I found that so-called scriptural justification for Mary's elevation was based, from my Lutheran perspective, more on inference than from clear indication. It was tradition, not scripture, that provided the ultimate form this teaching takes.

In a day when Catholics are trying hard to appear more scriptural and more Christian to the Protestant community, such teachings remain large stumbling blocks. I will be the first to say that much hyperbole has stood in the way of effective dialogue. No, I do not believe that Mary is the Catholic Church's new savior. However, the place she is accorded along side of her Son makes her appear far more equal than can be justified, and takes away from the ultimate glory that is Christ's alone. It is lines such as this that confound a Lutheran:

"However, as St. Maximillian Kolbe stresses, "from the moment of Mary’s immaculate entry into human existence, she was in profound union with the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit." In fact, her union with the Third Person of the Trinity was so intimate that she became, in effect, the "Incarnation of the Holy Spirit." That is to say she became the instrument used by the Holy Spirit to distribute all the graces destined by God the Father for all mankind" (From the above referenced article.)

Or statements also such as this:

"Mary has been called the mediator with the Mediator. Christ is the Mediator between us and God the Father, and Mary is the mediator between Christ and us. Now we can take this scheme one step further and say that our guardian angel acts, or can act if we ask him, like a mediator for us with Mary, the Mediatrix of all Graces."

To be fair I have taken only one source and this could be corrected by Catholics far more conversant with official dogma. Yet, how does the 'holy see' view such teachings? Pope John Paul II was very much a supporter of Mary and the teachings surrounding her exalted roles. According to information about the order mentioned above, it seems that the official church, while curtailing public proclamation of some of thier teachings, is in agreement with what they do proclaim, such as the statements quoted agove. It would be interesting to study this further.

For now I must say that "Queen of Angels" is much too 'over the top' for my theological tastes.

[Note: the picture above is "Regina Angelorum" by the Parisian artist William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1900.]

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Crucifed Christ vs. Resurrected Christ - Cascione's Novel View of the Supper

On April 14, in my post "We Receive only His Body and Blood and Not Him? Huh?", I openly wondered how Lutherans could talk about the received body and blood in the Lord's Supper apart from his actual and real presence. It didn't make sense. A comment to that post agreed.

Well at least now I think I've received any answer to the thinking behind such a claim. In the April 23 issue of Christian News there is a report from Reclaim News, which is essentially the theological views of the Rev. Jack Cascione of St. Clair Shores, Michigan. The brief report on page 3 of CN states the following:

"When Christ says, 'Take, eat, this is my body given for you' He means the body that was crucified, dead, and buried, not the resurrected body....The Lord's Supper is not about the risen Christ, it is about the crucified Christ.....We do not receive the whole Christ in the Lord's Supper, we receive His body and His blood. According to Baier, Chrst's soul is not present in the Lord's Supper. Therefore, the Lord's Supper can't possiblly be the whole Christ."

[Note: The quote from Baier does not support such a claim regarding the Supper. According to his own notes the footnote in Pieper's Dogmatics was referring to the reality of the death of Jesus as separation of soul from body. Baier does not appear to be addressing the presence of Christ at all in this quote.]

This logic escapes me. Or perhaps it is the same logic that lies in part behind the likes of Zwingli or Calvin? After all, it was the Reformed who wished to separate the real human presence of Jesus from his spirit (leaving the humanity in heaven out of reach of the Christian!). It is this theological understanding that essentially denied the unity of the two natures of Christ. Note what the reformers say in Article VII of the Formula, Epitome regarding the "Sacramentarians."

If the body and blood of Jesus is the real body and blood of Jesus, how can it be less than the "whole Christ"? Is there a part of our Lord that includes more than "body and blood" - or is "body and blood" only a 'part' of Jesus? And how do we separate the crucified Jesus from the resurrected Jesus? And Jesus' soul is not present in the Lord's Supper? Who has ever taught such nonsense? At least Zwingli and Calvin didn't excise out the "soul" of Jesus from his presence, even if they denied it could be here and now in the Supper.

Pr. Cascione's views on the Supper should be understood as novel at best, and false teaching at worst. His teaching here is not in keeping with the orthodox faith. While I have felt that his other views, such as those on church governance, were narrow and legalistic, these teachings are beyond this. They strike at the center of the teaching of Christ. Beware of this. Christ is the foundation of all that the church is and all that it teaches. One trifles with the doctrine of Christ only to the damage of all other doctrines.

GERALD VOLM 1917-2007

Many of you reading this blog have probably never heard of Gerald Volm, although he is the founder of one of the 75 largest private corporations in Wisconsin. The company, now called Volm Companies, Inc., started out about 50 years ago in Antigo as a business providing bags to potato growers. It has expanded far beyond this, and now encompasses a variety of products including erosion fencing and windscreening for pro golfers. Still, the bag is still at the heart of the company's work.

But Gerald is important to me as more than a successful businessman. For although he was the patriarch of a locally-owned international corporation that now brings in upwards of $75 million and employs at least 300, this humble man who came of age in the Great Depression, never forgot who he was as a child of God. He was a model of the Christian businessman who understood that His Lord came first, not the money or the success. And you know what? The more he gave away the more he received.

Gerald was deeply devoted to the church and throughout the years served this rural congregation as elder and congregational president, as well as on the board of evangelism (a total of 18 years of elected service.) On a wider scale he also worked hard to increase investments for LCEF (Lutheran Church Extension Fund), which provides money to build churches throughout the country. One of his sons entered the ministry of the Lutheran church - the Rev. William Volm - and continues after his retirement from the Volm corporation to serve as an assistant pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Antigo. His dear wife, Dorothy, also faithfully serveed our rural parish in Polar in the altar guild and Ladies Aid and Sunday School, until she passed away late in 2005.

For all of the earthly wealth that was entrusted to this man, he treasured the gifts of God in family and church more than all others. He was faithfully and happily married for over 60 years to the woman he fondly referred to as his as his "sweetheart." He raised five daughters and one son who have remained faithful to the church as well, yet in their own right have also developed vocations in the business where they serve the community.

Personally I will miss Gerald. He was a pleasure to minister to, for he was always so appreciative, and he demonstrated such a servant attitude in everything he did. I pray that his example will inspire other laypeople to pursue their God-given vocations with the same hard work and proper spiritual priorities, with a servant's heart that cares.

We will bury Gerald this coming Monday, April 30. That's the same day he was baptized. How fitting! The day he entered the Kingdom of God through water and the Word became the day he was ushered into that Kingdom in all its glory.

Rest in peace my dear friend. God blessed you, and through you has blessed us.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Missed Opportunity to Proclaim the Gospel

Occasionally I take a look on the Crossings website to see what Dr. Schroeder has written. We are on different places of the theological spectrum, yet that does not mean that our convictions do not converge every now and then. His latest post is one of those. He reacts to the words of the ELCA campus chaplain, the Rev. William King, during a "campus convocation" at Virginia Tech as they recorded in an official ELCA news brief. Even before I read Dr. Schroeder's assessment, I found myself asking: Where is Christ? Where is the resurrection, the hope to eternal life through Jesus? I know that such public campuses are very diverse, but Schroeder is right - if you are the "Christian message," then proclaim it!

You can read his "open letter" to Pastor King under Thursday Theology #462 - April 19, 2007 - "Topic: What NOT to Say after the Virginia Tech Massacre."

As happened at the "Yankee Stadium" affair following the Trade Tower collapse, many opportunities to clearly proclaim the real hope of Christ crucified and risen are unfortunately avoided by chaplains today intent on not offending other faiths. The generic God of American Civil religion takes center stage and pushes from the podium any who might proclaim the divisive Christ. But the Gospel, as Paul tells us, is a "stumbling block" to the Jews and "folly" to the Gentiles. It's going to offend. It always does. But it also saves and gives hope. So chaplains - Proclaim Christ!

Pope Revises Limbo - What Does That Mean?

In a recent AP article, Pope Benedict XVI was reported as having "reversed centuries of traditional Roman Catholic teaching on limbo, approving a Vatican report released Friday that says there were 'serious' grounds to hope that children who die without being baptized can go to heaven." The report came from the International Theological Commission, which is a Vatican advisory panel. This commission recommended reassessing the traditional teaching on limbo "in light of 'pressing' pastoral needed - primarily the growing number of abortions and infants born to non-believers who died without being baptized."

Limbo, according to The Harpercollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (1995), is a "place or state of natural happiness for the nonbaptized dead." At issue for the Catholic church in developing this doctrine is " the reality of original sin and the necessity of Baptism for salvation." The doctrine of limbo was developed by medieval theologians who wished "to mediate the harshness of Augustine's position," who contended that unbaptized babies go to hell. This was in response to Pelagius' position that Baptism was not necessary for salvation. Augustine, though stating that the unbaptized babies went to hell, did assert that they would not "suffer all its pains because they are not guilty of personal sin."

Technically speaking, limbo "is a place or state where unbaptized persons enjoy a natural happiness, though they remain excluded form the Beatific Vision." However, although long taught by the church, there is no "formal doctrine" on this matter. Apparently, from a Catholic theological perspective, it is, as we Lutherans might call it, an "open question."

The report and its endorsement by Benedict therefore "does not carry the authority of a papal encyclical or even the weight of a formal document form the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," according the AP article. Thus, the pope seems to have given a mild stamp of approval to those who wish to call into question a non-essential doctrine that nevertheless remains accepted within the broader sphere of Catholic Tradition. Or something like that.

It is interesting, however, to note that report stressed that "these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge." It then went on to further indicate that "No one can know for certain what becomes of unbaptized babies since Scripture is largely silent on the matter."

From a Lutheran perspective we have long held that one should speak only to the degree that the Scriptures do, and where they are silent we should remain silent as well. Thus, Calvin's doctrine regarding election was a problem when he decided to say more than the scriptures said concerning those who were not elected to salvation, coming up with his 'logical' solution of a double-predestination. It is understandable that a doctrine such as limbo would have come about, especially considering the discomfort theologians had with Augustine's conclusions. It is also understandable how Augustine arrived at his position in reaction to Pelagius. However, the proposed solutions in both cases ventured to conclude beyond what God had revealed.

No one, naturally, wants to conclude that unbaptized babies would be lost in any way. Nor do we need to. However, saying that God automatically welcomes these into heaven independent of his means of grace by some other means is also saying more than we should. So what should we say? We know that God is indeed a merciful God. And it is to his mercy that we commend them. Period.

One pastor commented in response to this issue that God has limited us to the means of grace, but He certainly has not limited himself. That is an appealing thought and seems to easily solve the unsolveable paradox here. However, where in scripture does God ever indicate that He works independent of Word and Sacrament? Even when he created the world he brought all things into existence by the power of his spoken Word, through which he has created faith in every believer since that day.

There are many unanswered questions in theology. And answering that which is intended to remain hidden in the private counsel of God alone is always tempting. Although mystery may be appealing in one sense, it is frustrating in another. We have an insatiable need to know.

However, we are called only to act on that which we do know. What we know is that the Lord has called his church to make disciples of all nations by Baptism and the proclamation of the Word. That's the means He has given to us with which to accomplish this mission. These are the means to which he has revealed as being the only source of salvation. Nothing more and nothing less. So we endeavor to baptize our children as we always have. We don't wait. We recognize the importance of this means and emphasize it to our parents. As was mentioned before, the theological issues at state involve original sin (which brings death) and Baptism as a means to salvation. And for those who are not baptized? We leave them to the mercy of God. Period. What more can we say?

Friday, April 20, 2007

What Happened To Them Before They Were Resurrected?

This is one of those questions I have discovered that hasn't received much attention. Maybe for good reason, maybe not. However, it came up in Bible class recently and again at our winkel this month. The question I am referring to has to do with the handful of people who were raised from the dead in both the Old and New Testaments, and what their state was between death and resurrection. In other words, did they go to heaven, and if so, why would they be recalled from such a glorious place? The resurrections, are, to wit:
1.) The raising of the widow's son in Zerephath under the prophetic ministry of Elijah (1 Kings 17:17ff).
2.) The restoring to life of the Shunamite's son during the prophetic ministry of Elisha (2 Kings 4:32ff).
3.) The raising of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43; Luke 8:40-42, 49-56)
4.) The raising of the widow's son in Nain (Luke 7:11-17).
5.) The raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44)
6.) The opening of tombs following Jesus' death (Matthew 27: 52, 53)

As I did some research yesterday for class, I was surprised that no one really had anything to say about the questions I was encountering. Again, that may be for good reason. Turning these events around in my mind it occurred to me that there are some things appropriately hidden by our God from our knowledge. One such area, as I recall the Confessions, especially the FC, is the doctrine of election. Calvin got himself into all kinds of trouble by peering too deeply into this area, and by reason attempting to fill in the blanks that God wished to be left alone.

We know that when a believer dies they "depart to be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23). Jesus told the penitent thief on the cross that he would that very day be with him "in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). We also understand that death is, by definition, a separation of soul from the body (Eccl. 12:5-7). In the "intermediate state," as it is called, we live in a disembodied condition. However, the goal of our salvation is our eventual resurrection on the Last Day, and for this reason, I believe, the scriptures do not dwell on the intermediate state. It is transitional, not permanent. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul goes to great lengths to show the critical importance of our resurrection in relation to Christ's, and says nothing of the state preceding.

So, now that we have established this, back to our original question. What has troubled some people is that those believers who died and were privileged to see and experience heaven's glories, were "yanked back" into sinful reality. It didn't seem fair. And this especially in light of the fact that we believe the dead no longer have any intimate knowledge of life on earth or interaction with the living after their death, even though they do indeed pray for us (Yes, the saints do pray for us. As Lutherans we, however, do not pray to them!)

I will admit that I do not have a very conclusive answer for this dilemma (according to the curiosity of some.) And part of me realizes that it is never good to ask more questions than God is willing to answer. But this much I can conclude:
1.) Each of those raised did in fact die.
2.) This death constituted a separation of soul and body (1 Kings 17:21, 22).
3.) Since scripture does not teach "soul sleep" or the JW belief of the annihilation or destruction of the soul, the only other conclusion would be that these believers were welcomed into "Abraham's bosom" and into heaven itself.
4.) What they experienced there is unknown. Although, one can be sure that being in the presence of the living God is a place of peace and joy.
5.) That they had to "return" from this place is not, by definition, unnecessary cruelty. In some ways their experience was not so different than Paul's visionary experience in 2 Corinthians 12 or John's in his extended vision on the island of Patmos as recorded in the book of Revelation. Each of these men, in a sense, stood in the presence of heaven for a time. And each of them returned again for additional work and suffering in the name of Christ. But they now had the unique blessing of seeing even more clearly the goal of their salvation, the eventual permanent resurrection of their bodies.
6.) Since each of these resurrections was of temporary benefit (that is, each eventually died again), it is still true that Christ is the "first fruits" of all who rise from the dead. Our Lord's resurrection was in a glorified body and he would never die again. Thus, only Christ has risen in the fullest sense as revealed in 1 Corinthians 15.

One other question, though, also needs to be addressed that has not been included. In Luke 9:28ff we read of the presence of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration of our Lord. They appear, we read, in "glorious splendor." Does this not constitute a prior resurrection? No, I do not believe it does. Their "form" identifies them as individuals, but it does not conclusively indicate that such "forms" are glorified and resurrected bodies. They appear here, but they never leave the mount. They are never touched. Just as angelic beings can assume forms for our limited visual benefit, obviously Moses and Elijah were allowed the same. That is the only way I know how to explain this.

So, now that we have come to this point, what can we learn? Each resurrection is by nature limited in itself, for it is only an anticipation or foretaste of Christ's own resurrection and our resurrection through his own. They demonstrate Christ's control over death and life and show his divine ability to bring back to life that which was dead, which he would do himself after his own death on the cross. Thus, they are only "pointers" to something greater, and not an end in themselves.

Each resurrected person was uniquely privileged to give witness to this power of life in Christ. Did they speak also of what was seen in heaven? Paul refrained. John was commanded to write his experiences down, although they are in highly symbolic prose. As to the others - we don't know. And that's OK. Sometimes it's better to leave the period at the end of God's sentence without needing always to place a comma or endless "dots" for more to say ("....") The point is: in Christ you have risen to new life through the life-giving waters of Baptism, and at the last day you will rise again never to die again. That's enough.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Denominations on the Verge of Division

We have heard in the recent past of the strife currently affecting the unity of the Anglican community. Conservatives within this communion have served ultimatums demanding change from their more liberal counterparts, especially those in the U.S. Episcopalian church who are pushing the envelope on homosexuality. Will this church be able to maintain its unity as is? Stay tuned. The story is still unfolding.

As it is also for the Presbyterian Church (USA). The New Wineskins Association of Churches recently voted on Feb. 7 to "initiate a significant shift in the Reformed world" (Christianity Today, April 2007.) This dissenting group has "voted unanimously to ask the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) to create a transitional, non-geographic presbytery for congregations leaving the PCUSA. The arrangement would run for five years. The EPC's General Assembly will note on the proposal in June."

The EPC is a "small denomination with 185 churches and about 70,000 members."

Could these 'shifts' elsewhere be a foreboding of things to come within Lutheran circles as well? The upcoming convention of the LCMS this summer could well determine future actions of a similar sort if liberally-minded leaders within the denomination are able to secure firmer control on the church body and continue to initiate significant changes to the doctrine and practice of the church. Stay tuned. This summer could be interesting for us Lutherans.....

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Tribute to the Boy Scouts

With recent events Boy Scouts have come again in the news - but in a good way. At the Virginia Tech shootings, one victim by the name of Kevin Sterne, who was described as an "Eagle Scout," was credited with helping to save his own life by improvising a tourniquet for his bullet riddled leg (see story here.) In another story a bit before, scouts ended up calling authorities to save a couple of people whose fishing trip went awry ("Scouts Return to Scene of River Rescue".") There are an amazing number of accounts of Boy Scouts as exemplary citizens doing extraordinary deeds of charity and service.

My son is in Boy Scouts and I am honored to be able to serve on the troop as a parent volunteer. With each activity and camp out I see additional examples of character and skill building that are helping to make him into a solid citizen and a responsible man. For some of the boys in my troop we have become a secondary family, and many a male leader becomes the mentor a young boy cannot find at home.

Some will criticize the scouts on a religious level, pointing to the pluralistic nature of the organization. Admittedly I did encounter one awkward situation since my involvement began when the cub master asked me to do a table prayer, but to keep it "generic," that is, without the name of Jesus. I told her I could not. Just before crossing over from cub scouting to boy scouting, I was asked one last time, and of course, refused. Another parent was recruited at the last minute. A smile crosses my face every time I remember that prayer and the cub master's restrictions on me. As we bowed our heads I heard: "Come Lord Jesus....." God got the last laugh.

Now in Boy Scouts I have been called on to offer a prayer at courts of honor and have done so gladly, always praying in our Lord and Savior's name, and never once being asked to do otherwise. One boy early on made a cross out of lead with a leather cord and gave it to me, which I proudly wore at my first Eagle Court of Honor as I offered the opening prayer. Stamped in the cross was the profound title: Emmanuel. Our troop is by no means solidly churched, but I have noticed an openness to reach out in Christian love to people who live on the fringes of the church, as well as those who work and live within its walls.

In the Scout Law a boy is called on to be "reverent." It is, of course, understood to be reverence to a rather ill-defined deity that encompasses many religious understandings. Scouts, interestingly enough, have been criticized from the other side as well, since they will not allow openly atheistic boys to be part of the organization. In the end they are no more pluralistic than the nation they serve, and their reference to "God" no more generic than our own Pledge of Allegiance. But a discussion of American Civil Religion will have to occupy a different post.

The bottom line, though, is that they are not a specifically "religious organization." They are a group that endeavors to promote and instill the highest ideals of our country, and they work to build up useful skills and knowledge much needed in our society. In many ways they assist in helping boys to be good citizens, which is a godly vocational call for all who live within a country and serve their fellow man.

So a salute to the young promising citizens of Boy Scouts!

Daily Rising and Daily Dying: Easter 24 Hours at a Time

While many have now moved beyond Easter into other anticipated springtime rituals, the church has only begun its lengthily celebration. However, the reality of Easter stretches far beyond even this 'season.' It is an event that became real for each believer in the tomb and womb of Baptism. And this reality is a daily reality where dying and rising are part of the rhythm of life. As Luther has taught us from Romans 6, we know that "the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and newness of life." By God's grace we die each day to the slavery sin demands of us and the darkness of death's creeping shadow. Yes, we sin. And yes, we die. But these are not the defining aspects of our life in Christ. They do not have dominion in the Kingdom in which we live. The call of death, though, is the voice of repentance. We must die to live, and to die we must come clean on our sin.

However, in this Kingdom we also enjoy a daily resurrection of new life as Christ himself declares us forgiven. The absolution declares again the voice of God as he calls us his children and releases us from the penalty of what we rightly deserve. We are freed from the punishment. We are reassured of the life. We are raised and we live again. Death has no power. Sin is emptied of its force. We are alive.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Pastor's View of the Virginia Tech 'Massacre'

First of all, let me say that my heart goes out to the many devastated families who lost children in this unexpected slaughter. It is difficult to capture the horror such an event evokes, even in our calloused and violence-numbed age. I pray that those who grieve are people of faith who can find true comfort in the Risen Christ through whom we have eternal life.

It is now reported that they know the killer (Cho Seung-Hui), and that he was a 23-year old English major at Virginia Tech who displayed his deeply troubled mind in his creative writing. There may have also been some domestic issues as well. The details, it appears, are still sketchy. Authorities are rightly guarded about saying too much.

But aside from the immediately personal "motive," may I venture another perspective? The massacre of 32 people in cold-blooded murder for whatever "reason," is simply the work of pure evil. A retired FBI profiler on the morning news said that mass murderers like Cho are not usually mentally ill. Their rage has built up over a long period of time, and now that it is released, they "dehumanize" their victims. Again, I see the hand of Satan all over this. It is his handiwork for sure. He milks anger for all it's worth until it becomes both internally and externally destructive. And it has always been his method to assist us to "dehumanize" life. People are only objects, things to be manipulated and used. For all of our talk of respecting people's rights, we often show little care for them as people. We exploit them sexually for pleasure. We eliminate the pre-born for convenience. The list goes on.

Jesus called the devil "a murderer from the beginning" (John 8:44). You may remember that it was by the fourth chapter of Genesis that the first murder took place. It was motivated by jealousy and misplaced anger (anger, it could be said, that was at least partly directed against God himself!). But it was fueled as well by the evil that lurked in from the shadows of chapter 3. It was the same evil that motivated Lamech at the end of chapter 4 who killed a man "for wounding" him, and "a young man" for "injuring" him. Evil uses personal pain as a catalyst for wicked revenge.

Herod personifies best the man driven by evil rage to kill the innocent. History bears out that he killed many of his own family before turning on the infants of Bethlehem. Yes, Satan was there too. His fingerprints are on the murder weapons. We bear our own guilt, to be sure. But Satan never misses a chance to exploit a troubled mind.

I am thankful that God has provided the Kingdom of the Left to protect us from great violence and danger. But evil will always be creative and persistent in bringing about destruction and pain regardless of what we do. That is why I would not be so critical of the security on the campus that day (as some have been because they did not immediately 'lock down' the campus after the first two shootings, or that the campus was so open and vulnerable.) We can try as hard as we might to contain evil. But the battle will rage until our Lord returns in glory at the end of time. So it is with places like Iraq as well. We need to always fight for peace and safety. But we should not be discouraged that attaining these goals perfectly in this life is not possible. Instead, we look for hope to the day when the devil is cast permanently into hell and the last enemy of death is finally destroyed and victory is complete.

The Complexities of Dissension

Although the CTCR came out with their booklet in December of 2006 on their response to "Expressions of Dissent," I only got around to addressing it with my winkel this month. Aside from the issues themselves (which would be several additional posts alone), my question involves how to interpret what the Synod expects regarding assent to official resolutions of the Synod. In other words, it seems as if it's not enough simply to not agree. You actually have to teach and speak in support of the resolutions even if you don't agree with them. Otherwise, find a new church.

Synod bylaws indicate that synodical resolutions "are to be honored and upheld until such a time as the Synod amends or repeals them." Then they quote the 1971 Resolution 2-21 which says that "the Synod expects every member congregation to respect its resolutions and to consider them of binding force (Bylaw 1.09 b)...." Furthermore, it states that "If a member cannot for conscience' sake accept a doctrinal resolution of the Synod, he has the obligations and opportunity through mutually approved procedure to challenge such a resolution with a view to effecting the changes he deems necessary. Failing in that, he is completely free by reason of his wholly voluntary association with the Synod to obey his conscience and disassociate himself from the the Synod. Meanwhile every member of the Synod is held to abide by, act, and teach in accordance with the Synod's resolutions." (36) And finally, they say that "To 'honor and uphold' means not merely to examine and study them, but to support, act, and teach in accordance with them until they have been shown to be contrary to God's Word..."

Now my specific issue at present has to do with the resolution from the '04 convention that permitted women to hold all offices in the church, save the pastorate. My congregation's constitution does not allow women to be the president or an elder. And I'm sure that when this constitution was put together it was understood that the contents were supported by Holy Scripture. Yet, the synod in convention said that the scriptures now allow this. How can I say no and they yes and not be in dissension? Yet, when I queried the CCM about this dilemma, they seemed to solve it with a "do as you wish." After bringing this up at winkel (pastor's circuit meeting), I'm not sure we came to any satisfying solutions either. Synod has for a long time been a "live and let live" institution. As long as one does not rock the boat and interfere with another church or pastor and simply minds his own business, then all is OK.

So, what "honor and uphold" actually means, if I grasp the point, is just don't voice your opinion so loudly that someone else can hear. As long as I don't know that you disagree, it's as if you agree. But is this honest? Does it even make sense? Or should I even care?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Second Sunday of Easter - A Great Gospel Text

This Sunday's Gospel was one of those texts that requires multiple sermons. There is simply too much to cover in one 15 minute proclamation. If you didn't hear it or can't remember it, the text is John 20:19-31.

A list of points to ponder and fodder for future sermons or Bible classes:

--"Peace be with you!" - Jesus' Easter greeting is repeated no less than three time in this text. Its importance to the church is obvious each time the celebrant shares the Pax Domini after the Consecration, elevating the chalice of Christ's blood for all to see. True peace comes only through the shed blood of our Lord which paid for the sins that separated us from God. Romans 5. Furthermore, his greeting is an absolution as well. These ten men were locked behind closed doors for fear of the Jews. They had abandoned their master, and one had openly denied him. Certainly they were crushed with guilt and shame. Yet here is Jesus declaring divine peace to them!

--"Whenever you forgive someone's sins..." - There is hardly a clearer verse in all of Holy Scripture for the sacrament of Holy Absolution (Yes, a "sacrament" - Even though it does not have a 'visible element,' the catechism allows for its inclusion.) As Jesus told the 72: "The person who hears you hears Me, and the person who rejects you rejects Me" (Luke 10:16). Our Lord empowered His church to speak His living voice of absolution with the same authority as if He Himself were visible before us saying it. Many Protestant Christians resist this gift believing it is in conflict with the truth that "only God can forgive sin." It seems terribly presumptuous for a pastor to say "I forgive you..." Yet here is the promise and the command, which a pastor does "by virtue of [his] office as a called and ordained servant of the Word..." What a blessing even Lutherans have forgotten in the loss of Private Confession and Absolution which our confessions clearly support and encourage. To know the direct voice of Christ pronouncing forgiveness on MY sins!

--"My Lord and My God" - I will never understand how the Jehovah's Witnesses can deny the divinity of Jesus with such an absolutely crystal clear confession such as this. If Jesus was not God, should He not have corrected Thomas right then and there? Yet He allows the confession and simply mentions that many will believe as he did, but without the benefit of their direct encounter with the risen Lord. Thomas' confession was a natural faith reaction to the resurrection. Who but God could defeat death itself? No man could do so. Jesus had raised others from the dead, but who was there to raise Him? The Easter miracle is the most direct indication of Christ's divinity. And why is this truth so important? Again, consider the JWs. They are on an endless quest for a works-secured righteousness because they do not have a God who can save them. How sad. If only they too had met the real resurrected God in human flesh.

--"But these things are written...." - What a testimony to the purpose of the Bible. Many things could have been written, but only those things were recorded which serve faith in Christ. We often wish that we knew more details of the personalities of the Bible. There are other curious events we wonder about. But the Bible's goal to to present Christ and Him alone. The one scarlet thread connecting it all is the thread of his life and work. This is important as well for those Christians who would make the Bible into another rule book for holy living. It is about Christ. Period.

--Beyond the above points we should not forget the person of Thomas. Aside from his inclusion in the list of apostles, his only appearance, as such, is a few places in John's Gospel. In John 11 before they go to Bethany he calls on the other 11 to go "and die with Him." Was this courage, or just a pessimistic realization that it was inevitable? A few verses before this the other disciples show reluctance to go because of the danger to Jesus from those who wanted to stone him. In John 14 it is Thomas who is the honest one and tells Jesus that they do not know the "way" where He is going. His admission is met with one of the clearest statements of salvation: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life...." Finally, we meet him for the last time in John 20. Known as "Thomas the Doubter," I think that he has gotten a bad rap. Yes, he doubted. But so did all the others. Remember last Sunday's Gospel from Luke? They thought the report of the women was "nonsense," or "an idle tale" (as ESV has it). Why single Thomas out? No, I am thankful for his honesty here. Faith rightly is founded on the solid, objective truth of the evidence of his resurrection. We benefit in faith today because of what Thomas needed to see and touch. By the way, once armed with this evidence, his faith came alive in clear confession, and He went on to become a tireless missionary. History places him eventually all the way east in India, where he is still known today as "The Apostle to India."

Well, I'm sure there is more to clean from this text, but those are the highlights. It's too bad I didn't have a week to preach on all this.......

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

We Receive only His Body and Blood and Not Him? Huh?

Back in March the Concord site again addressed an issue that has been bugging them: Lutherans should not refer to recieving Jesus Himself in the Sacrament, but only his body and blood - if I'm understanding them correctly. Check out their review of one of CPH's children's books on the Lord's Supper here. They take issue with the author's phrase "This Jesus places His real self in the bread and wine - the real presence - for us."

Now I may be dense, but when did we as Lutherans start talking about the body and blood of Christ apart from his actual presence? I'm lost. I didn't think that you could separate the two. Yet those who take issue with the book above accuse those of speaking this way of leaning toward Rome. Huh? I'm lost.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Higher Things - A True Positive for the Synod

I was the recipient the other day of a demo DVD from Higher Things, an organization that serves high school and college-aged youth in the Lutheran church. Higher Things and their magazine (first rate!) were familiar to me already, but I have to commend the producers of the DVD. They did a great job of presenting this absolute gem of an organization. My daughter was pleased to go to their summer conference last year in Colorado and loved every minute of it, especially the worship. In a day when so many see confessional Lutherans as capable of only criticizing and condemning, this positive blessing goes unnoticed by the critics, or so it appears. But they should be commended highly for their tireless work with the Lutheran youth of today. They are making a difference and I only wish that the powers that be were more supportive of their efforts. If you are interested in learning more, their web site can be found here.

A Story You Have to Read

Easter Sunday is a high point in the life of the church, and for any pastor it is the pinnacle of worship. But for one little congregation in Daphne, Alabama, this was an Easter they will not forget. The account of their Easter worship that day demonstrates in a powerful, but simple way, the true beauty of the unity of the faithful and the grace of the blessed Office of the Ministry. Beyond these few comments you will have to read the story for yourself. It is on the blog "Chaplain To the World."
BTW, I have not been writing this week due to the fact that I have been out in the woods turkey hunting - or attempting to do so. The weather has been strange with an unexpected April snow storm, and I think that it's confused these birds. At any rate, I'm still hopeful that I'll get a tom by week's end. I'll keep you posted.....

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

America Gets an "F" in Religion

So how does America's citizenry fare with general knowledge of the Bible and world religions? According to Stephen Prothere, head of the department of religion at Boston University, our illiteracy in these areas as a nation is "a major civic problem." In an interview for U.S. News & World Report (April 9), Pothhero was questioned about how a nation often acknowledged as the most religious of modern industrial nations could be among the most ill-informed on matters of religion. "While chose to two thirds of all Americans regard the Bible as a soruce of answers to life's questions," they note, "only half can name even one of the New Testament Gospels. Similarly, in a land of growing relgious diversity, only 10 percent of U.S. teenagers can name the world's five major religions."

Surprisingly he lays much of the blame not at the feet of secularists or government rulings banning prayers and Bible reading in school - traditional targets - but at the church itself. He traces the problem's origins back to the mid-19th century when churches began to "debate over the Bible" they would read, referring, I would suppose, to the debate over the scripture's reliability as a sacred text.

The second reason he identifies strikes at the change of emphasis in the church today, which many of us have seen even within the ranks of Lutheranism, especially with the advent of "church growth" as a movement within the church. He said that this problem of knowledge began "when they started focusing on loving Jesus rather than listening to him." The Bible, he notes, "became a kind of ornament and a source of authority rather than the book you actually read. Sermons became more about ordinary life and less about biblical narratives, which Sunday schools focused more on morality than on learning about your own particular denomination."

Evangelicalism, which Prothero identifies as the dominant Christian emphasis in this country from the early 19th century, changed the focus of their Puritan predecessors, focusing "on experience and emotion" whereby they "slowly turned Americans away from religious learning." Leaders within Evangelicalism have begun to sound the alarm of this deficit, but it would appear that for the majority the need to pack pews and fill churches is still the dominant driving force.

But this change in emphasis has also affected how we view our religious identity as a nation. Prof. Prothero was asked how Americans went from describing their civic religion as Christian to calling it Judeo-Christian. He noted that "The shift came in response, first, to the Nazis' use of Christianity to advance their anti-Semitic program and, second, to the postwar threat of communism. In order to distance themselves from anti-Semitic fascists and to fight 'godless' communism. American Christians made common cause with Jews."

With all this diversity, one would think that teaching religion in our schools would be a natural effort. However, Prothero admits that "fear of controversy" still holds us back. Still, he suggests that "we need to have courses about the Bible in middle schools and high schools" and he thinks that they should be mandatory, as an "opt-out program." "One course would cover the five and seven great religions. The other would be about the Bible. Students would learn the basic stories and characters, but they would also learn about the uses of the Bible in world and American history, in literature, and in politics."

There is no doubt that raising the 'literacy' of Americans with regard to the Bible and religion in general would have a positive benefit for the nation as a whole. Much of our struggle with Middle Eastern politics comes from a lack of understanding of Middle Eastern religion and culture. However, the illiteracy problem should not have to be solved by the nation's schools alone, especially as regards the Bible itself. As a church we have failed. The church must again assume leadership in this area within the churches themselves. This is not the state's problem! It is a crisis of catechesis, and Lutherans are failing much like the rest of the nation.

Monday, April 9, 2007

A Place for Humor in Church and Pulpit?

Is there a place for humor in church, especially in the pulpit? Such is the question that guest essayist Peter M. Berg wrestles with in a recent article in the Passiontide/Easter issue of Gottesdienst under the title "Ha! Ha! Among the Congregants." He observes that "cute, self-effacing humor" seems to be increasing with pastors in our time, in part, he would observe, to please the people and project themselves as "a regular guy." Even confessional pastors have fallen prey, as such humor was all too common even at chapel at the recent Symposia in Ft. Wayne this January, according to Berg.

The heart of the issue for Pastor Berg, though, is the nature of God's House as a "holy place" deserving of proper reverence. "Finally," he writes, "isn't that the root of the problem: a loss of the sense of the holy? So convinced that grace is ours and beyond our losing, we trifle with grace."

I can understand and sympathize with Pastor Berg's concerns. In my current pastorate I have endeavored in my own movement on the altar to project a sense of deliberate reverence befitting a place where holy things are received and given. But admittedly it is not easy in our current culture to maintain such reverence in all areas. Since I entered the ministry twenty years ago there seems always to have been a desire on the part of congregants for a friendlier atmosphere at the expense of reverence, if that need be. And it's not that people want to be irreverent or openly disrespectful to God. They don't see it that way. It's just that there has been a modern reaction to what others have seen as coldness and indifference in traditional churches, and of course, a driving need to make people happy enough to return the next Sunday. Pastors, unfortunately, are tied closely to these sentiments, and thus their own actions reflect what the people desire.

Confessional pastors endeavor to restore reverence where it has been compromised, but their efforts are often met with resistance from churches that see this as disrespect for their own traditions and practices. Or in the case of which Pr. Berg is specifically addressing, pastors without any projected sense of humor are interpreted as too serious and even aloof.

Is there a "happy medium" in this issue? Is a 'touch' of humor necessarily completely inappropriate, even in the pulpit? Pastor Berg observes that "you can scan the Prophets for one-liners and you'll always come up empty-handed. You'll find laments, woes, threats, rejoicing, praise, promises, and prophesy aplenty, but no jokes." Thus, his answer, is a clear no.

As I said, I sympathize with his concern. I value the reverence of God's House. By nature I am a serious person. But I am also trapped in a cultural expectation. People need to see their pastor as both a man of the people and a "called and ordained servant of the Lord." Pastor Berg would certainly agree that both can be achieved, but not, he would say, in the pulpit. There he is the servant of God. While I do not often use humor in the pulpit, it has been employed. I'll have to give this some more thought......

Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Easter Vigil

On the night before the mass of the Resurrection of Our Lord, the church historically observed a vigil service at which the newly catechized were baptized. Lutheran Worship made an effort to restore this ancient practice to the LCMS, at least through its agenda rite in the early 80's. I experienced my first vigil at my home church in Wausau, Wisconsin not long before my graduation from the seminary in 1987. It was introduced by Dr. John Brunner, who is now president of the Eastern District. He was also the first to wear a chasuble in that parish, as I remember.

I did not participate in another vigil until my last parish in Traverse City, Michigan, another larger church. Dr. Charles Gieschen was the senior pastor of that parish who not only taught me again how to do the liturgy (according to Harry Krieger specifications!), but opened to me a rich liturgical heritage in a beautiful church edifice. Processing into a darkened sanctuary, led by the newly lit Pascal Candle, I can still hear the chant: "The light of Christ!" as it was repeated all the way to the altar. We were not always successful in arranging to have children to be baptized, but the readings and emphasis of the service was still on this blessed sacrament, which has such close and intimate ties to the Resurrection.

The historic shape of the baptismal font reveals this in itself. With eight sides it brings us again to the new creation. Here what was dead in sin is made new again in the risen Christ. The image lost in the Fall is being restored again in the person of God's Son in whom our lives are hid. Creation's decline into chaos and destruction and death is reversed in the new day of re-creation in Christ, the first fruits of all who will rise from the dead on the last day when He returns again in glory in the company of the angelic hosts.

As we anticipate the glorious celebration of his resurrection tomorrow, it is good to remember how that resurrection is made real in our own baptisms. For here we were buried with Christ unto death, but raised again to newness of life. Living out our baptisms we die daily to sin through repentance, and we rise victorious in Christ as forgiven and restored children of the Father.

A blessed vigil to all.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Good Friday

Almighty God, graciously behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, to be given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death on the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Throughout Lent I have been preaching on the Seven Last Words from the cross. Although this is technically the 6th word, it seemed the most appropriate of the last words to reserve for today. For here his work finds its completion. Actually his entire life has been leading to this point in time. He was born to live and die on our behalf. It has been over 30 years of often quiet, unnoticed labor - living under the law, living to fulfill the law. It culminates as the skies above darken and veil the earth in deep sadness, and our dear Lord must now enter into the utter blackness of hell's pit. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" he cries from Psalm 22. The mystery of his suffering is greatest now. Who can begin to comprehend the forsakenness of the Son? Who can understand how God abandons his own to such pain? God himself stands in the dark gap and shoulders the world's entire guilt. Nothing more can be done. Yet, nothing more needs to be done.

And what a comfort this is! For all those who have thought that they had to do something to earn God's favor, hear him again: It is finished. For all those who often wondered if their sins were too great to be forgiven, hear him again: It is finished. For all those who struggled to believe that this could be enough for all of eternity, Him him again: Iit is finished. He has done it all. Paid the entire price. Offered the whole, unblemished sacrifice. Our sins are forgiven, as he prayed in the very first word from the cross. We are saved.

This word from the cross, unlike many of the others, is only one word in Greek - tetelesthai. In the perfect tense it means: "It has been finished and will remain finished." This is why we still look to the cross in our earthly journey. Where else do we see the assurance of our salvation in such fullness and certainty? And unlike so many of the loose ends of life, the equipment that always needs to be repaired and updated, the records that are broken by the next contestant, the efforts to get well that require another treatment, -this work will never be updated or need to be completed again. It is finished. For all time.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Maundy Thursday

O Lord Jesus, since you have left us a memorial of your Passion in a wonderful sacrament, grant, we pray, that we may so use this sacrament of your body and blood that the fruits of your redeeming work may continually be manifest n us; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Today receives its name, curiously enough, from the "command" of Jesus to "love one another," from the Latin mandatum. This command to love is recorded only in the Gospel of John, along with the traditional foot washing that is still practiced in some parts of Christendom.

However, the focus of today is more specifically the institution of the blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Lord's Supper. The Three-Year series Gospel is Luke 22:7-20.

This account would actually play well for a Reformed preacher this evening. Given the fact that Jesus' words from the cross "Father forgive them..." are recorded only in Luke, I am a bit surprised that the gift of forgiveness is not recorded here in the institution of the Supper as it is in some other accounts. The Reformed would naturally emphasize "Do this in remembrance of me" as Luke does record. Now remembering Jesus in the sacrament is good and salutary. But it is not all there is. This is not a memorial dinner for an absent master. This is a meal where the Host himself is living and present. "Is not the cup a blessing which we bless a participation in the blood of Christ?"

For Lutherans and other sacramental faiths, the truth of Jesus "real presence" and what that means for the Christian at the Table, is the heart and core of the meal. When the psalmist says "Taste and see that the Lord is good," we actually can taste and see the real goodness of God in our midst in the living and resurrected person of Jesus Christ. And with that presence we have the gift of forgiveness, and as Luther reminds us, life and salvation as well.

Each year in the Passiontide we seek to 'reenact,' in a way, the spirit of those moments so long ago. Tonight the altar will be stripped as we recall how our Lord was stripped of his clothing in humiliation before his suffering and death. However, our worship tonight and this week is not about reenactment, as such, but about the reality of that Savior with us yet today. We merely remember one who is no longer here, as we might at a typical funeral. But this is the one who promised "Lo, I will be with you always, to the very end of the age." Tonight we dine with the living Savior who gives us his true and real body and blood. Tonight we touch and see and taste the Savior on our hands and on our lips.

What a blessed gift we celebrate today! For the Christian church this has historically been the center of its worship for 2,000 years. The Early Church included the "Breaking of Bread" as one of the four essential components of its worship, and they "broke bread" weekly as did even the early Lutherans themselves. May we this night remember what has been given to us in this Sacrament, and may we take true delight in its wonderful gift of forgiveness and new life.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Wednesday in Holy Week

Merciful and everlasting God the Father, who did not spare your only Son but delivered him up for us all that he might bear our sins on the cross, grant that our hearts may be so fixed with steadfast faith in our Savior that we may not fear the power of any adversaries; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lies and reigns with your and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The Gospel for the One-Year Series is Luke 22:1-23:42. In the Three-Year Series it is Matthew 26:16-25. Both accounts record the revealing of the betrayer during the Passover seder. However, the One-Year Series also includes the institution of the Lord's Supper, which duplicates the Gospel in the Three-Year Series tomorrow (Maundy Thursday.) Therefore, these devotional thoughts will concern mainly the Matthew 26 account.

Judas has always been a fascinatingly tragic figure in the Passion. The only non-Galilean in the group, it seems that he was destined to have a unique history from the beginning. With the recent appearance of the Gnostic "Gospel of Judas," there is renewed sympathy for him and his need to betray the Master. It is claimed that Jesus even wanted him to do so. However, we know this is far from the truth. Just like to today there is always a need to soften the blow of the law as it condemns sin. We always want to rehabilitate the sinner and give excuses.

Judas was a man consumed by greed. This could not be clearer than to imagine that someone would betray his own master and friend into the hands of his enemies for any amount of money. Greed is a sin that can destroy a person and the gifts God has given to him. Witness the many who lose so much by an addiction to gambling. It can alienate a man from his family as he puts career before all else in a mad climb to the top. Yet even in lesser mistakes the sin of greed causes problems for the believer: dissatisfaction with jobs and pay, compulsions to shop for the newest clothing to stay in style, jealousy of neighbors who are more blessed. The last two commandments call us to contentment, a virtue not easily maintained in our modern materialistic world. Judas was a man who coveted and was willing to do anything to have what he wanted.

One may wonder why the Savior bothered to reveal the betrayer to the group. But this is a warning to Judas. He is giving him one last chance to repent and turn from his path. Some may feel that because of the prophesies of Holy Scripture Judas never had a chance. He was "locked in," as it were. Not true. Jesus reached out to him to the last minute. But Satan has entered the man and now directed his path from here on.

Many have debated whether Judas actually partook of the Supper that now followed. According to Matthew he could very well have left at this point, although we are not told. In the Lukan account Judas is still there after Jesus institutes the Supper. Although we are not told if he partook or left. But what if he did? We know from Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 11 that there were some in those days who ate and drank "unworthily." We also confess that all those partake of the supper receive the true body and blood, whether to their condemnation or their salvation, depending on faith. If Judas did partake, he obviously did it to his own condemnation. It would have been the final appeal of love from one who always gave of himself to all.

Tomorrow we will celebrate the institution of the blessed Sacrament. To see it framed by this treacherous act of greed, though, makes us remember that those who commune do so always as sinners in need of the Gospel's liberating power of redemption. Although one must commune "worthily," we are never "worthy" of God's grace. We are poor, miserable sinners, just as guilty as Judas or Peter or any of the others at the Table that night. Yet, by God's grace we are spared, we prayed, from being hardened in our sins and controlled by the evil one.

May we be thus preserved in God's grace again today, that at the Table tomorrow night we might experience again the true joy of our salvation and the comfort of his divine presence.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Tuesday in Holy Week

Almighty and everlasting God, grant us grace so to pass through this holy time of our Lord's Passion that we may receive the pardon of our sins; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The Three-Year reading continues yesterday's Gospel from John 12, with verses 20-36. The One-Year Series has verses 24-43. The thoughts here will combine both readings.

Our section begins with the Greeks who had sought out Philip and expressed a desire to "see Jesus." Many years ago I saw the words of the Greeks printed and placed on a pulpit, visible only to the preacher. The idea was that every time he proclaimed God's Word the hearers should "see Jesus." Although probably not the true application of this passage, it makes a valid point. The Scriptures as well as all preaching is first and foremost about Jesus. He said the same of himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter evening.

Yet when we desire to see Jesus, what are we looking for? Some Christians today do not like the suffering and dying image of the Savior. They insist on an empty cross and avoid the crucifix. They also do not like the idea of suffering and pain in the Christian's life. Thus, they flock to preachers who tell them that all they have to do is want wealth and health and God will give it to them.

But Jesus equates his "glory" with his suffering and death. He also shows that the idea of the believer's life is not to hang on to this life here in desperation to the loss of one's true life in Christ, but to "hate" one's life "in this world." That is, we ought to have more love and desire for the life that Christ gives. We are strangers and pilgrims on this earth. We are simply passing through. Our citizenship is in heaven.

Still, the idea of glory is not always the same for Christians. Glory is seen in terms of earthly success and numerical increase. A good church is an actively growing church; a church with many programs to offer. But this glory is more of the world. The Father has glorified the name of His Son even in the midst of rejection and suffering. His glory comes from the defeat of the evil one and the sacrificial death on the cross, where "lifted up" he will "draw all people unto himself."

Glory will not be seen in an earthly way this week. Already by the end of his teaching on the first day the people still question him: "Who is this 'Son of Man?'" They will not believe and Jesus goes away from them. It is a fulfillment of the prophet: "Lord, who has believed what they heard from us?" God allows them to be blinded and hardened. John 6 is repeated again.

Beyond our reading we hear Jesus' final remarks, which are worth reviewing as well in verses 44-49. He reminds his hearers that those who hear him, hear the Father, thus God himself. He warns them not to remain in darkness. His mission, however, is not to condemn the world but to save it. Final condemnation awaits the Last Day. Now is the day of salvation, of redemption, of God's proper work in the death of His Son. And so we medicate on that alone today and pray for all who still reject the Son of Man. We pray that the light of the Word may still be seen, the welcoming voice of the Father still be heard. It is not too late for those still living. May God in mercy draw them yet to himself. May their hardened hearts melt in His love.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Monday in Holy Week

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ chose to suffer pain before going up to joy, and crucifixion before entering into glory, mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find this path to be the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The Gospel reading for Monday in Holy Week is from John 12. The Three-Year series includes the first eleven verses, which includes only the events in Bethany. The One-Year historic series includes the first 23, bringing us to the meeting of Jesus with the Greeks. Technically, this Gospel is part of the Palm Sunday gospel, if the John account is used.

In John 11 Jesus had miraculously raised Lazarus, declaring himself the "Resurrection and the Life." This is the third recorded raising from the dead in his ministry, and intentionally carried out at this critical moment. He is on the verge of going to his death. Thus, it is a foreshadowing of the Easter resurrection to come in one week.

However, this miracle also serves to create two opposite reactions to Jesus. On the one hand there is a surge in His popularity among the Jews. Some were purely curiosity seekers. But many, we are told, "believed in Him." The religious leaders, on the other hand, have seen this growing popularity and they panic. What if the Romans learn of this and interpret it as open rebellion? What if they retaliate and destroy their Temple and nation? The rabbi must die!

To this point there have been multiple attempts to arrest and assassinate Jesus. This sentiment did not evolve over night, and has been brewing for three years. However, with the Feast in Jerusalem bringing in record crowds to the city, and the presence of Roman troops and leaders, toleration of Jesus has reached its limit. He is an unacceptable risk to the status quo. Spies are recruited to track Jesus. The final plans for his execution are taking shape.

Meanwhile, Jesus spends a restful day in Bethany dining with his friends Mary, Martha and newly raised Lazarus. At the dinner Mary took an expensive perfume and poured it on Jesus' feet. Judas protests the supposed 'waste' of this costly nard when it could have been sold and supposedly given to the poor. Here we have another foreshadowing of what is to come. Judas greed becomes evident again, a greed that will serve as a catalyst to the eventual betrayal to the religious leaders later in the week. And this is done in stark contrast to Mary's actions, which unknown to her, becomes a sign of the anointing of his body for burial.

Following this time in Bethany, the crowds that heard of Jesus' miracle, streamed in to meet him at the city gate in Jerusalem. They were pilgrims to the Feast of Passover, one of the three feasts that required a pilgrimage to the Holy City. Breaking from his avoidance of public appearances even as recently as the end of chapter of 11, Jesus now comes into the city openly and in royal fashion. The pilgrims chant "Hosanna" and call upon him as the "King of Israel." It heightens the fears of the leaders, but it also sends a clear signal to all: Israel's true King has arrived, but not as one to conquer the occupying Romans, but as the Prince of Peace. Palm branches are enthusiastically waved as symbols of victory. Even as Jesus marches to his suffering and death he does so on a triumphant note. This will not be a defeat, no matter now others will view it. This is the victor's parade in anticipation of the defeat of sin, death and the devil himself.

It is clear that despite the leader's resolve to quiet him and keep him away, the people still come out to find him and be with him. The Greeks inquire of Phillip: "Sir, we want to see Jesus!" The power of his presence, the living Word of God, draws "all men unto himself." Again we see the future when the resurrected Savior will send his disciples "to all nations" to baptized and teach.

Terrible agony and pain and suffer looms heavy on the horizon, and Jesus is aware. He is troubled as he thinks of its approach. But it is not a time of fear or defeat. The account for this day ends in triumph: "The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified," Jesus proclaims.

There are still mixed reactions to the coming King even today. With the holy days upon us, major news magazines typically run special articles that gather together liberal scholars to call into questions the truths of the scriptures. There seems to be in our time a concerted effort to tarnish the Faith through popular movies and books, to confuse the gullible and uninformed. Yet the faithful still come to Jerusalem. The Greeks still seek to see him. And no matter what his evil enemies plan to do, they cannot rob the cross of its power to save, or keep him from his victorious resurrection three days to come. The time has come again for the Son of Man to be glorified. But we glory this week in the cross, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles. Yet for us it is and always will be God's power and God's wisdom.