Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Pentecost Tuesday

During the octave (the eight days) in which we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, today is Pentecost Tuesday.  We continue to rejoice in the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom Christ poured out upon the Church on Pentecost.  The text for today tells of how the Spirit dramatically showed that the Gospel was to be preached to non-Jews in Palestine - the Samaritans.

Scripture reading:
 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17).

Collect of the Day:
Almighty and ever-living God, You fulfilled Your promise by sending the gift of the Holy Spirit to unite the disciples of all nations in the cross and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus Christ.  By the preaching of the Gospel spread this gift to the ends of the earth; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Mark's thoughts: A good tree bears good fruit?

“A good tree bears good fruit.”  In discussions among Lutherans about the Law, it seems to be inevitable that this theological axiom will be quoted.  It is usually taken to mean that the Christian, who is a new creation in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit in baptism, does not need to be told what to do.  Instead he or she will naturally and automatically produce the manner of life that reflects God’s will.  Typically it is quoted as proof that the Christians do not need the Law addressed to them in the form of exhortation.

Two things need to be noted at the outset. First, the statement, “A good tree bears good fruit” is not some kind of special revelation provided by the Lord.  Instead it is an aphorism – a brief statement of widely accepted wisdom. Davies and Allison note that it “is known from other texts and must be judged a commonplace” (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1:706).  Second, it must be recognized that while Jesus uses versions of this phrase, he never uses it to make this specific point.  The specific use for which Jesus employs the saying is to make the point that the character of an individual is recognized by what he says or does (Matthew 7:16, 20; 12:33; Luke 6:44).  Jesus applies this truth to false prophets (Matthew 7:15-20), Pharisees who blaspheme the Spirit (Matthew 12:33-36), and people in general (Luke 6:43-45).

Jesus never uses the general truth, “A good tree bears good fruit,” in order to say that those who have received regeneration through the work of the Spirit will naturally and automatically produce the manner of life that reflects God’s will. This has not stopped Lutherans from speaking as if he did, or from using it to describe the spontaneity of good works.  For example, Steven Hein has written.

Fruit, as we know, is simply the product of a healthy growing fruit tree or vine.  It just appears on the branches spontaneously and effortlessly as a consequence of the tree being  alive according to the type of branch that God created.  It is just the nature of grape vines to produce grapes or apple trees to produce apples.  It is as simple as that.  Reflect on what this means for a moment.  The vineyards are silent at night, are they not? There is no grunting or groaning as the fruit matures … and no whining questions: “Do we have to produce grapes? How many?” They just silently do it! 

There is an insight here about good works in the Christian’s life in Christ.  To live in Christ is simply to bring forth the works of Christ; works that he produces simply by being who he is through each of us by virtue of who we are in him.  As we live in Christ and his righteousness through faith, our faith is just naturally and spontaneously fruitful in works of loving service.  It is what faith does.  As an indicative statement, faith is active in love.  Moreover, God is love, and he created and redeemed us from sin to love.  It is not a matter of compulsion or coercion, as if works of love were something foreign to our recreated nature.  The grace by which we live and grow in Christ is the grace that empowers and engenders a fruitful faith.  Works of love are how faith expresses itself in daily living. They are spontaneous and seemingly effortless, without calculation or self-concern (“Sanctification: The Powerful Pardon,” Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology 6 (1997): 19-23, 22).
The law has no role to play here.  The only thing it can do is show people their sin (second use of the law) so that they turn to the Gospel (what Hein calls “full-strength law”; “The Two-Faced God,” Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology 5 [1996]: 5-10, 8-9).  Hein writes:

What does effective ministry of the law do for the new self?  Nothing in any direct way, but it does create a powerful hunger and thirst for our Lord’s bread of life and living water of the gospel. The law itself imparts no spiritual nutrition or power for Christian living, but it is God’s great appetite builder that sends us running for the word of life.  And the ministry of the gospel is how our Lord feeds the new creation to sustain and mature our faith and life in Christ (“The Two-Faced God,” 10).  
For this reason Hein is quite negative about exhortation.  He opines that, “Exhorting good works does not produce or increase them. They are empowered and increased only by the continual impact of God’s Word of forgiveness as we live and grow in Christ" (Justification: You Have It All, But You Always Need More).

The argument that “A good tree produces good fruit,” is not new in Lutheranism.  Formula of Concord Article VI was written in order to address those who were saying that while the Law convicted of sin in the conversion of individuals, it was not needed by the regenerate (this is known as the second antinomian controversy; in the first antinomian controversy, Agricola had argued that it is the Gospel rather than the Law which works repentance).  Martin Chemnitz writes about this in his Loci Theologici:

Therefore, they argue, the regenerate has no use for the Law, not even for teaching, because “His anointing will teach you all things,” 1John 2:27.  Again, Rom. 12:2, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may approve the things which God wills,” not by encouragement or urgings because the new obedience ought to be voluntary, just as there is no need to give a good tree commandments to bear good fruit, but of itself and by its own nature it does this. They can expand on this idea in a marvelous and popular manner (2:440; emphasis mine).

The similarity to what Hein and other modern Lutherans say about the good tree is quite striking.  To be sure, there is an important difference.  Chemntiz’s opponents in the second antinomian controversy denied that the law should be spoken to Christians in any form.  Modern Lutherans like Hein are absolutely clear that sharp accusatory law (“full-strength law”) should be addressed to Christians in order to reveal their sin (second use of the law).  In this sense they are not antinomians.  However, in another way they are.  They do not believe that exhortation and paraenesis directed at the Christian has a role to play in aiding them to live like Christ.  In order to articulate this difference I have called it “soft antinomianism” which is an inability and even a refusal to preach about new obedience and good works.  It does not exhort, admonish and teach in sermons about how Christians are to live because of what Christ has done for us.  Unfortunately it has become a common problem in the Lutheranism that has come out of the second half of the twentieth century,  and is exemplified in the theology of 1517./Christ Hold Fast.

At first glance, “A good tree bears good fruit” seems like a strong argument against exhortation and paraenesis.  After all, Jesus said it.  However, beyond the observations with which I began this post, it must also be recognized that when the Lord uses this saying he is not providing a comprehensive biblical anthropology.  He is making a very specific use of a saying that is a general truth. To employ this as some kind of guiding principle about how pastors should address Christians is deeply misguided.

Sadly, the Christian is not only a good tree.  He is also a bad tree at the same time.  The Formula of Concord says, “However, since believers in this world are not perfectly renewed – the old Adam clings to them down to the grave – the battle between spirit and flesh continues in them (SD VI.18).  Therefore speech addressing the Christian must also take this reality into account.

Martin Chemnitz was a key player in the development of the Formula of Concord, and was one of the original six theologians who signed it.  It seems safe to believe that he had a good understanding of what is confessed in Article VI.  After referring to the antinomians who spoke about the Christian being a good tree, he went on to describe what he confessed and taught. He writes in the Loci Theologici:

Because in this life the renewal of the Spirit does not wholly take away our old nature, but at the same time the old and the new man remain (the outward and the inner man), therefore there is a use of the Law in the regenerate that it may contend and coerce their old man (ut arguat & coerceat vetustatem); and the beginnings of the new obedience are weak and are not supported by our whole spirit and mind.  But Rom. 7:25 shows that “with the mind I serve the law of God but with the flesh the law of sin”; and again vv. 22- 23, “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see another law ….” Therefore these weak beginnings must not only be encouraged (fovenda) by the earnest treaties of the Gospel but also fostered by the precepts, exhortations, warnings and promises of the Law (sed & praeceptis, exhortationibus, comminationibus, promissionibus Legis excitanda, urgenda).  For we experience that the new obedience is not so voluntary a thing as a good tree which brings forth its new fruit without any command or exhortation (2:441; emphasis mine).
In the third use of the law, the term "use" refers to the effect that the Law has on the hearer (the way it is received).  There is one Law and it can have different effects. In fact, because of the complexity of the sinner there can be more than one effect at the same time. This effect (this use of the law) is determined by the Holy Spirit alone as he utilizes the law to produce the effect (the use) he intends (FC SD VI.3, 11-14).  A pastor cannot decide that he is going "to do some third use preaching."

In the third use the Spirit utilizes the law so that the actual behavior of the Christian reflects God’s will. The Lutheran Confessions are absolutely clear in stating that Christians do fail in the struggle against the old Adam/flesh (Ap IV.175-176; LC I.316; III.86-87; FC Ep II.12.).  On the other hand they are also clear in confessing that the regeneration worked by the Spirit creates a change in the Christian that impacts the way we live (Ap IV.45-46, 64-65, 125-127, 136, 175, 250-251; Ap XII.82; LC II.1-4; II.53, 67-69; LC III.52; LC IV.64-67, 74-76; FC SD II.39, 48, 70, 89; FC SD IV.10-12, 38).  It is the Spirit who always supports the inner man through the Gospel so that he can struggle against the old Adam/flesh. It is the inner man who struggles against the old Adam/flesh (FC Ep VI.4; FC SD VI.18, 23).  The Spirit applies the law to the old Adam/flesh and the Spirit's utilization of the law to compel and repress the old Adam/flesh aids the inner man in his struggle so that the inner man determines what the individual actually does on particular occasions.  In this way (and this way alone) it is entirely correct to say that the Spirit’s utilization of the law helps the Christian live according to God’s will. 

The preacher today can’t control how the Spirit will utilize the law.  When it comes to the deployment of exhortation to Christian living, we must recognize that Paul couldn’t control how the Spirit utilized the law either. And yet, Paul exhorted, admonished, and taught Christians how to live.  Formula of Concord article VI was developed on the basis of apostolic exhortation like we see in the Paul – the paraenesis which is so common in the New Testament.  Article VI explains why this language is needed, and how the Spirit utilizes it in the third use of the law.  Secure in this understanding, Lutheran preachers need to follow the apostolic example of Paul’s letters in exhorting and admonishing Christians to a life of new obedience and good works. They can do this in the knowledge that Spirit can and does utilize this exhortation in the manner confessed by Formula of Concord article VI.  Because of the inspiration of Scripture, the apostolic pattern of exhortation and admonition discussed by Formula of Concord VI in relation to the third use of the law is in fact a key Spirit provided model and pattern for addressing Christians.

For more on this subject see my article that has just been published: "Speaking like Paul and Luther: Pauline Exhortation and the Third Use of the Law." Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology 27 (2018): 15-25.

Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost - Gen 11:1-9

                                                                                                Gen 11:1-9

            I am currently weighing a question in my mind, and I am not yet sure what the answer will be.  The question is whether I should teach myself to read Syriac or not.  Now many of you are aware that I am working on a book about the history of Confirmation in the western Church and Lutheranism.  The goal is for the book to trace the development of Confirmation from the very beginning through the medieval period in the western Church, and then to follow its history in Lutheranism. I say the western Church because Confirmation is something that only developed in the west.
            However, as I have worked with the material it has become clear that for a number of reasons – I won’t bore you with what they are – I will also need to include a treatment of early baptismal practice in the east – in particular, in Syria.  In west Syria the language was Greek, so that is no problem.  However in east Syria the language was Syriac.  If Aramaic is a cousin of Hebrew, then Syriac is basically Aramaic written in a completely different alphabet and script.  I know Aramaic so in theory, Syriac should not be all the difficult. But of course things can’t be that simple.  There are in fact two different versions of Syriac – similar yet different enough that they are discussed and taught separately. So the question is whether it is worth all that work to learn Syriac.  It would be helpful, but is it really necessary?
            The many languages that exist today, and have existed during the history of the world, present challenges all the time.  They are the cause of tremendous human effort and work.  We see in the Old Testament lesson for the Feast of Pentecost that this problem has been caused by human pride.  But at the same time, on the first Pentecost the speaking of many languages became a sign bearing witness to the answer God has provided for sin.
            Our text from Genesis chapter eleven takes place after the flood and begins by telling us, “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.  And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.”  The people were united by one language, and as they settled that had big plans. They said, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” We learn that they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  Here was human ingenuity at work – the use of technology to solve problems. They may not have had stone, but by firing bricks that had a perfect substitute.   
            They had building materials. And they had a plan as they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”   You’ll notice who is not mentioned here – God.  He is clearly not on their mind.  Instead the people are all about themselves. They are going to build a monument to their own ability and importance.  In pride they are going to make a name for themselves.
            This description strikes uncomfortably close to home.  How often do you make plans and set goals that have no place for God?  How often do you live in ways that demonstrate God is not on your mind?  How often does pride guide your actions as you ignore God and his will?
              God saw what they were doing and said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”  Created in the image of God to have dominion over creation, even after the Fall, man is still gifted.  The problem is that we use those gifts in ways that ignore God. We act like we are God.  You see this in all the ways that biotechnologies use aborted babies as the raw material for ever more daring projects.
            So God said, “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.”  There is very intentional irony here.  God is described as having to “come down” to see their puny effort.  He confused their language and dispersed them over the face of the earth.
            The existence of the many languages in the world has been caused by sin. Yet on the day of Pentecost, the many languages became a sign of the fact that God has provided the answer to sin.  We heard in the second reading, “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
            Jesus had ordered the disciples to remain in Jerusalem.  He instructed them to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  On Pentecost this baptism occurred, accompanied by the sound of a mighty rushing wind and tongues as of fire on their heads.
            It also resulted in the disciples speaking in other tongues. The text clearly indicates that these were foreign languages – the languages of the many faithful Jews from other parts of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world who had chosen to live in Jerusalem.  Attracted by the sound they were amazed to find Galileans – not the most sophisticated people around - speaking in their own languages and telling about the mighty works of God.
            Some attempted to dismiss the whole thing by saying that the disciples were drunk.  But Peter responded, “For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.’”  Peter declared that this was an end time event.  It was a fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s words because God had poured out his Spirit.
            Throughout the history of the Church, people have been drawn to focus on the mighty works of the Holy Spirit. And the problem is that they have often done so in ways that put all the attention on the signs and wonders, or on the Spirit himself. Yet Peter was absolutely clear that all the things happening on Pentecost were about Jesus.
            He proclaimed that Jesus had been crucified – in fact the Jews listening to him had been complicit in this.  However Peter announced, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”  God had not allowed his holy One to see corruption. Instead Peter declared, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
            You were complicit in Jesus’ death too.  In fact, you caused Jesus’ death. It was because of your sin that Jesus was numbered with the transgressors and died on the cross.  It was because of your sin that Jesus received God the Father’s judgment. But this was also God’s plan to give you forgiveness and salvation.  It was God’s plan to defeat death and give you resurrection life.
            Peter says that the outpouring of the Spirit demonstrates Jesus is the risen and exalted Lord.  In Jesus’ ascension we see his exaltation.  His ascension does not mean that Jesus has left us.  Instead, he is closer than ever before.  This is true because he has poured forth the Spirit on his Church.  The Spirit is the continuing presence of the risen Lord everywhere at once! Today, Christians all over the world are gathering to hear Christ’s Word and receive his Sacrament.  Some must do so in secrecy because of the threat of persecution.  They do so using hundreds of languages.  Yet through his Spirit, Jesus Christ is present with all of them giving them the forgiveness he won on the cross.
            The Spirit is doing the same thing in our midst today.  It is the Spirit poured out on Pentecost who has called you to the faith through the Gospel.  He nourishes and strengthens you through Word and Sacrament to continue to live as the forgiven child of God.
            As we think about the Spirit on Pentecost, we must never forget about what Jesus said to the disciples when he told them about the coming gift.  He said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 
            You have received the Spirit through baptism. Blessed with the comfort of forgiveness and life, the Spirit now uses you to bear witness to Jesus.  He doesn’t send you to all Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  Instead, he sends you to Marion, Carterville, Herrin, Johnston City and Carbondale.  He uses you to speak with the people you know about Jesus and the salvation found in him. This very speaking becomes the Spirit breathed means by which he uses the Gospel to call others to faith in Jesus. 
            So whom do you know in your life who does not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? Whom do you know who has had some ties to the Church but no longer attends on Sunday?  Whom do you know who are still members of this congregation, and yet have not been seen in this place for many weeks or months?  You have received the Spirit so that you can be forgiven in Christ.  You have received the Spirit to speak about Jesus to these people and to invite them to join you here in receiving his gifts.