Thursday, October 31, 2013

Festival of the Reformation

Today is the Festival of the Reformation.  In October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five theses – or statements – to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany.  By this simple action, Luther initiated the Reformation.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s Church was called back to the truth that she can only live by Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone.  Today, we are reminded again that Scripture alone is the source of doctrine and practice in the Church.  We are reminded that salvation occurs on the basis of God’s grace alone – His undeserved love and favor towards us.  We are reminded that salvation occurs on the basis of faith alone – faith in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection for us.

Scripture reading:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
(Romans 3:19-28)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty and gracious Lord, pour out Your Holy Spirit on Your faithful people.  Keep us steadfast in Your grace and truth, protect and deliver us in times of temptation, defend us against all enemies, and grant to Your Church Your saving peace; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Unjust stewards or forgiven and faithful stewards?

One of the most puzzling parables that our Lord Jesus told is the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-8).  Jesus begins the parable by saying, “There was a rich man who had a manger, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager’” (Luke 16:1-2 ESV).  In preparation for being unemployed, the manager has those who owe the rich man reduce the amount they owe on their bill.  In doing so he gains friends who will help him in the future. At the end of the parable, “The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness” (Luke 16:8 ESV).

While the exact point Jesus is making in the parable may not seem entirely clear, the circumstances of the manager are.  The manager does not own the property and wealth that he is supervising.  Instead, it all belongs to the rich man.  The manager has the responsibility for supervising how it is used.  He is to see to it that the rich man’s property and wealth are managed in ways that cause them to increase for the rich man.  When it turns out that the manager has not been doing this – that he has been wasting the possessions – he is told to turn in the books because he can no longer serve as manager.

The word translated as “manager” in the parable can also be rendered as “steward.”  The man in the parable is the steward over the rich man’s possessions.  It is the same word that Paul applies to those who serve God in his Church.  The apostle writes, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2 ESV).  He says of those who may become pastors, “For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach” (Titus 1:7 ESV).

While not everyone is called into the Office of the Holy Ministry as a steward of the mysteries of  God, every Christian is in fact a steward of God.  We are God’s stewards because he created us, and then through Holy Baptism he recreated us.  In the Small Catechism’s explanation of the First Article of the Creed, we confess, “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that he has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.”  God made us, and so we belong to him.  We may talk about “our body” but the fact remains that if God does not continue to take care of our body it cannot live.  Our body, mind and all that it can do is a gift from God, but it never ceases to belong to God.  It is a gift that God puts into our management.

In the same way, we acknowledge in the Small Catechism that, “He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals and all I have.  He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.”  God gives these things to us, but like our body they never cease to belong to God.  As Paul wrote to Timothy, “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (1 Timothy 6:6-7 ESV).  God gives us these things to manage during the time of our life.  We are God’s stewards of these things while we live.

God creates us and provides in this way. And then he does something more.  He recreates us as we are born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism (John 3:5).  He gives the gift of faith and joins us to the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:12).  God gives us the first fruits of the Holy Spirit – the guarantee that we will share in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:23).  He provides the assurance that when Christ returns in glory on the Last Day he “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21 ESV).   He promises the day when our bodies will never again die (1 Corinthians 15:50-55) and the world itself will be very good once again (Romans 8:18-21).

These facts of creation and recreation guide how we think about our life and possessions.  They lead us to recognize that we are God’s stewards in everything we do and have.  We have been created and recreated by God’s grace and now “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV).

Our stewardship of all that God has given us is now a matter of faith active in love (Galatians 5:6) – love that serves God by serving those around us (Galatians 5:13-14). It is not hard to recognize where are to do this.  We do it in the vocations – the callings in life where God has placed us. The Small Catechism lists these in its “eighth part,” the Table of Duties.  There we learn that God has us serve as his stewards in relation to his Church and in relation to the government.  We are stewards in our family and at work.  As congregation members and citizens; as husband, wives, parents and children; as workers and employers, God has called us to use the talents, time, abilities and resources he has provided to us in order to serve him by serving others. He has called us to be stewards of the gifts that belong to him.

If we were only a new creation in Christ, we would never have to talk about this.  Pastors would never have to write about this! But because the fallen, old man is still present in us we need to continue to be reminded about this – and even at times admonished.  We need to continue to hear that our time is not our own; our talents are not our own; our money is not our own.  Instead, they all belong to God and we are God’s stewards of these gifts.  Where we have been unjust stewards, we find the assurance through our baptism that we are also forgiven stewards. And because we are forgiven stewards, we can joyfully seek new ways to be faithful stewards. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Does the Reformation still matter? The Roman Catholic Church in her own words

October 31 is the Festival of the Reformation.  Almost five hundred years later, it is legitimate to ask whether the Reformation still matters.  Lutherans who confess Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone may wonder whether the issues that existed in the sixteenth century still exist today.  A brief look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church soon provides the answer to this. Below are relevant quotations that deal with the key Reformation issues concerning the source of revelation, justification, penance and purgatory, and the Sacrament of the Altar.  The divide has actually expanded due to the Marian dogmatic assertions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which so dramatically illustrate the contradictory views about God’s revelation.

I. Revelation

A. 82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.

B.  891 "The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter's successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium," above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine "for belief as being divinely revealed," and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith." This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.

II. Justification

A. 1999 The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification:48

B. 2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.
III. Penance
A. 1446 Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as "the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace."

B. 1459 Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance."
C. 1471 The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance.
D. What is an indulgence? "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints."
E. "An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin." The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.

IV. Purgatory

A. 1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

B. 1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.606 The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

V. Sacrament of the Altar

1367 The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: "The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different." "And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. . . this sacrifice is truly propitiatory."

VI. Mary

A. 491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, "full of grace" through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.

B. 493 The Fathers of the Eastern tradition call the Mother of God "the All-Holy" (Panagia), and celebrate her as "free from any stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature". By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.

C. 966 "Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death." The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians:

D. 971 "All generations will call me blessed": "The Church's devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship." The Church rightly honors "the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of 'Mother of God,' to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs. . . . This very special devotion . . . differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration."516 The liturgical feasts dedicated to the Mother of God and Marian prayer, such as the rosary, an "epitome of the whole Gospel," express this devotion to the Virgin Mary.

E. 2682 Because of Mary's singular cooperation with the action of the Holy Spirit, the Church loves to pray in communion with the Virgin Mary, to magnify with her the great things the Lord has done for her, and to entrust supplications and praises to her.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sermon for the Festival of the Reformation

                                                                                                            Rom 3:19-28

            Things have been very interesting for the Roman Catholic church since Pope Francis was chosen as the successor for Pope Benedict.  Francis was something new for Roman Catholics since he is the first South American to become pope.  He immediately aroused interest with his informal style. Francis chose not to wear some of the traditional papal clothing, and instead went with the far more simple dress of a regular priest.  He showed a desire and willingness to go out and meet crowds in unannounced ways.
            The new pope has continued to draw attention because of the interviews he has given.  Many of these have not occurred using the normal media outlets of the Roman Catholic church.  Instead, Francis has gone outside of normal channels.  He has tended to do this in a very conversational manner.  And the results have been … interesting.
            When you are the new leader of a church that has 1.2 billion members, people take what you say seriously. People have evaluated every single word in the attempt to understand what Francis wants to see happen in the Roman Catholic church.  It is clear that he wants to see changes – but the question is how much and what kind of change? 
            Francis has spoken in a far looser style than his predecessor, and on a number of occasions the mainline media has enthusiastically taken up comments and proclaimed that now the Roman Catholic church was moving toward acceptance of homosexuality or that it would no longer be so firm in the opposition to abortion.  On each occasion, the Vatican has then followed up by saying that, no, that’s not what Francis meant.
            One announcement about this new “hip” pope caught the public’s attention this summer.  The Vatican made known that those who followed the “rites and pious exercises” at the weeklong Catholic World Youth Day on television, radio and through social media could receive an indulgence. It was immediately reported by the media that now Roman Catholics could get time off of a purgatory by following the pope’s “tweets” in the social media format Twitter. Once again, the Vatican had to provide the correction that no, things weren’t quite that simple.
            Beyond the Twitter angle to this story, the thing that probably caught the attention of many Lutherans is the fact that the Roman Catholic church is still in the indulgence business.  Indulgences are, of course, the very thing that helped to prompt the beginning of the event that we are celebrating today.
            In the time leading up to 1517 a three-way business deal had been worked about between Albrecht, the archbishop of Magedburg, Pope Leo X and the Fuggers banking house.  Albrecht wanted to become the archbishop of Mainz and Pope Leo X wanted to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.  Both of those things cost money – money that Albrecht and Leo X didn’t have.  The Fuggers wanted to loan money at interest in order to make money.  So a scheme was worked out in which the Fuggers would loan money and then Pope Leo would allow a special indulgence to be sold in Albrechts lands.  The money raised by the indulgence would go to the Fuggers and the Pope.
            The Dominican preacher, John Tetzel, would head the indulgence sale effort.  However, just as the indulgence and twitter story this summer came out garbled, so did the message that accompanied Pope Leo X’s indulgence.  You could compare John Tetzel to the personalities who do those “infommercials.” He was there to sell, and it didn’t bother him if he stretched the truth in order to do so.  If people came away with the impression that the indulgence did more than church doctrine said, Tetzel wasn’t particularly concerned.  He just kept telling people, “As soon as the coin in the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
            The indulgence wasn’t being sold in Luther’s area. But people crossed over to where Tetzel was selling in order to buy them and then brought them back.  In this way, Luther came into contact with the indulgences.  He encountered these indulgences at time when he was beginning to wrestle with what God’s word said about Christ, grace, faith and the law.
            Although Martin Luther preached regularly and was very pastoral in character, he lived in an academic setting – he taught as a professor at the University of Wittenberg.  And so in response to the indulgence, he did what academics of that day were supposed to do.  He publicly posted theses – 95 of them to be exact – as he called for an academic discussion.
            Luther had no way of knowing what this seemingly minor action would cause. In fact, according to Luther himself, he had not yet made the full Reformation break through.  But the controversy over indulgences began a process in which Luther continued to study the Scriptures, and in that process the Gospel came clear.
            The Church of Luther’ day, like the Roman Catholic church of today, had no clear texts of Scripture upon which to base her teaching about indulgences.  It was instead the Tradition of the Church which supplied this teaching.  The Church also taught they while wounded by sin, God’s grace enabled people do their part in the process of salvation.  Where they sinned and didn’t fully do their part to correct this, they needed to make satisfaction for this in order to remove the temporal penalties of sin.  This could be accomplished by doing penance, or paying for masses to be said, or by purchasing indulgences.
            Luther had been taught this theology. Yet as he continued to study the Scriptures – and in particular our text from Romans chapter 3 – he began to realize that this had things all wrong. For starters, he began to realize that such a teaching could only be found in the Tradition of the Church – in the writings of men – and not in the Holy Scriptures that came from God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And worse yet, he realized that it actually contradicted what Scripture said.
            The theology of the medieval Church, and of the Roman Catholic church today, is built on the assumption that people have a role to play in achieving full salvation.  God may begin the process but as the current Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church states, Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.”
            Yet what Luther found in Scripture was nothing so positive.  In our text Paul says, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”  The whole world is accountable, because as Paul has just said earlier in this chapter, “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” Ever since the Fall we have been under the power of sin. We have been slaves to it.  That is why Paul goes on in the next verse to quote the Old Testament that says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.”
            It is for this reason that the way of doing – the way of our works – can never bring peace or full fellowship with God. The way of doing, the way of the law, will always show us that we fail to do things in a God pleasing way. Paul says in our text, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
            Clearly, the law shows us that we fail to do God’s will.  It shows us that we put others things before God.  It shows us that we do not love our neighbor as ourselves.  But a true understanding of the law also reveals that even when we do the right acts, it is often with mixed motivations.  So for example, we do the good thing that helps people – but deep down we know that part of the reason we do it is because of how it will cause others to perceive us.
            As Luther knew all to well from his own experience as a monk, brutal honesty reveals the truth of Paul’s words.  The works of the law – the way of doing – cannot put us right with God. Instead the way of the law – the way of doing – shows our sin.
            But then in our text, Paul goes on to write the words that Luther identified as the key to his new insight into the Gospel.  The apostle writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” The righteousness of God – the saving work of God that declares us righteous – has been made known apart from the Law.
            The Gospel tells us that in spite of our sin we are innocent before God by his grace through faith in Christ.  Paul says in our text, “We are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
            It is God’s grace – his unmerited and undeserved love – that prompts him to work in this way. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that is the source of forgiveness.  It is faith that receives this gift.  And because it is God’s gift, there is nothing to earn.  As Paul goes on to say, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
            As the baptized children of God we now live by faith in Christ.  Because we no longer have to seek to do in order to have fellowship with God, we are freed to do in order serve our neighbor in love. Paul says later in this letter, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”  As Luther said, we are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone.
            On this Festival of the Reformation we give thanks to God for the work of his servant Martin Luther.  We rejoice that in the sixteenth century the Gospel came clear again through his work. Luther reminded the Church about what the apostle Paul had really said.  Of ourselves, people are fallen sinners who have nothing they can contribute to being saved.  Instead, it is a matter of God’s grace – his undeserved lose.  We are saved because of Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. We are saved by faith in Christ apart from works of the Law.  And because we know this to be true, we are free to live lives that give service to others.