Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Culture news: The arrival of American Kulturkampf

Kenneth L. Grasso has written an insightful piece that looks at how the United States handled religious pluralism in the past, and at how the worldview that supported this unique and successful approach has disappeared for many in our culture.  He argues that the HHS mandate marks a new phase in our nation's dealings with this important subject.  I highly recommend this piece.

Grasso states in conclusion:

Even if the mandate is eventually struck down by the courts or revoked by a future administration or Congress, by intensifying our polarization and further straining the bonds of civic amity, the mere effort to impose the mandate will have inflicted immense damage on the American body politic. By destroying the confidence that believers in America have traditionally had that their freedom to live in accordance with the dic­tates of their consciences—their freedom to fulfill obligations that they understand to be, in Madison’s terminology, “precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society”33—did not depend on the outcome of the next election (or the next Supreme Court appointment), the effort to impose the mandate will have intensified our divisions and dramatically raised the stakes of American politics. By its palpable disregard for the demands of reli­gious conscience and readiness to use large-scale state coercion to remake America’s civil society along secularist lines, the state’s effort to impose the mandate will have further eroded the mutual trust and sense of com­munal solidarity—the social capital, in the jargon of social science—on which the body politic depends for its vitality. Even if the mandate doesn’t prevail, the Kulturkampf whose opening salvo it is promises to make American politics a whole lot nastier, and our polity even more dispirited, divided, and dysfunctional.

The HHS mandate thus marks a water­shed in American political history. Making plain that our traditional understandings of both the scope of religious liberty and the relationship of government to civil society can no longer be taken for granted—and are, in fact, rejected by a significant and highly influential body of opinion—the mandate commences a new phase in America’s engage­ment with religious pluralism in which the old rules no longer apply, the old certainties no longer hold, and our traditional articles of peace are no longer operative. What the mandate signifies, in other words, is that the collapse of our traditional solution to the problem of religious pluralism has trans­formed our politics into civil war carried on by other means.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sermon for First Sunday after Christmas

                                                                                                Christmas 1
                                                                                                Gal. 4:1-7

            It didn’t take very long for me to recognize a significant way that Good Shepherd differs from my first parish, Zion in Lyons, IL.  Lyons is inner suburban Chicago – really part of the fringe of the city itself.  It was a congregation that had a long history – a couple of years ago they celebrated their one hundred and twenty fifth anniversary. Many of the members had been at Zion their whole lives.  They had attended the parochial school at Zion before it closed.  Their parents and grandparents had lived in Lyons.  They had grown upon in Lyons.  Many of them had retired in Lyons.
            When I arrived at Good Shepherd I soon learned that almost no one in the congregation is originally from Marion.  Our congregation is a relatively young one – we just celebrated our twenty fifth anniversary. This part of southern Illinois is not exactly a hot bed of Lutheranism, and so it’s not a place that has had long history of Lutheran families.  Instead, during her history, the majority of members at Good Shepherd have come from some place other than Marion – and of course quite a few haven’t lived in Marion at all, but instead have lived in the surrounding communities.
            For the most part, we all come from somewhere else.  Now if we were to have a contest to see who has come the farthest from their place of birth to be at Good Shepherd today, there are two members who would win … and it’s not even close.  Shaelen and Dani would win because they were born in China.  It think it is really interesting that in a congregation our size we have two members who come originally from China. Shaun and Charlene, and Jim and Barb made the trip to China in order to bring these girls back and make them part of their families.  The adoption of these children has been a great blessing for everyone involved – for the girls, for their parents and for our congregation here at Good Shepherd.
            On this First Sunday after Christmas, the epistle lesson reminds us that in a far more significant way, all of us are adopted.  God the Father sent forth the Son into the world at Christmas in order free us from the slavery generated by sin.  He sent the Son so that we could be adopted – so that we could become the sons and daughters of God. 
            Paul had preached the Gospel to the Galatians on one of his missionary trips.  However, some other Christians had come to the church who claimed to have impressive ties to the church at Jerusalem. They told the Galatians – who were Gentiles, that is, non-Jews – that if they really wanted to be part of the people of God, they needed to begin to do the works of the Law of Moses. Apparently they emphasized three aspects of the Law as a starting point for this: circumcision, food laws and certain Jewish religious days and festivals.
            For Paul, this was no small thing.  It was in fact a denial of the Gospel because it was an act that said that people needed to do something in addition to Christ’s sacrifice in order to be fully saved. Paul wrote earlier in this letter, “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
            In the previous chapter Paul has used several different arguments to show the Galatians that they are already the children of God in Christ, through faith, and that the doing of the law can’t bring salvation.  The law can’t bring salvation.  Instead it brings a curse.  Paul wrote, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’”  The law brings a curse because no one can do the law perfectly in thought, word and deed.
            However, in Jesus Christ God had provided the answer to this.  Paul goes on to say, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”  The apostle says that Christ freed us from the curse by being cursed in our place on the cross.  The law that brings a curse can no longer hold us in slavery because of what Christ has done.
            Now this didn’t mean that the Torah given to Israel at Mt. Sinai was bad.  Just before our text Paul has compared it to a pedagogue that was common in the Greco-Roman world.  As strange as this may seem to us, the moral training of the child was often entrusted to a slave in the household.  For a period of time – usually until the early teens – the child was under the supervision of the pedagogue who was charged with reigning in unruly behavior and teaching proper behavior.  This was true until the age of maturity was reached.  And at that point the youth was no longer under the slave’s authority.
            Paul has described the role of the Torah between Sinai and the coming of Christ as being like that of a pedagogue.  It reigned in sinful behavior.  It guided Israel in the ways the reflected God’s will.  And perhaps most important, it kept Israel separate from the pagan nations around them, so that instead of worshipping their false Gods Israel continued to believe in Yahweh as they looked for the coming of his Messiah.
            However, in our text Paul reminds the Galatians that they don’t live in that time. They don’t live in that time because of what we are celebrating during these twelve days.  They don’t live in that time because of Christmas.  Christ has come, and so now, everything is different. The time of the Torah has come to an end – that’s why it is ok to worship on Sunday, and to eat bacon and bratwurst.
            Viewed from our present experience of the Gospel, Paul in our text describes the time under the law as a time of slavery.  It was slavery because it brought a curse - a curse that the Galatians will bring upon themselves once again if they listen to Paul’s opponents and begin doing the law. To do this will actually put them in the exact same situation they had been while they were pagans – they will be cut off from God once again.
            Paul tells them – and us – to embrace the change that has taken place.     He says, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”  Paul says that at precisely the right moment in the timing of God’s salvation – in the first century A.D. – God sent forth his Son into the world.  He was born of a woman as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  He was born as a Jew – obligated to live according to the Torah.  And then by his death on the cross he freed us from the slavery of the law’s curse by receiving that curse upon himself.
            The Son of God was sent into the world, died on the cross and rose from the dead for a reason – he did it so that we might receive the adoption as sons.  He did it so that instead of being cursed and cut off from God, we are now the children of God. Through baptism and faith God has joined us to these saving benefits.  Paul had concluded the previous chapter by saying, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a pedagogue, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.”
            The apostle returns to these themes in our text.  He says, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”  God has joined you to Christ in baptism and worked faith through his Spirit.  He has made you to be the sons and daughters of God.  And so his Spirit enables you to call God, “Father.” It is the Spirit of God who prompts and enables the adopted sons and daughters of God to address the Creator of the cosmos as dear children ask their dear father.  Because of what God has done for us in Christ we are not only forgiven but we know that God has embraced us as his own dear children.
            This is what God has made you to be.  This is the status you enjoy. This is the privilege that belongs to you.  You have been freed from the curse of the law and the slavery of sin.  However, before Paul finishes this letter he offers a reminder that we need to hear.  He says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
            Paul says that you have not been freed in Christ in order to do whatever you want.  Instead, you have been freed so that through love you can serve others.  This loving service is, in fact, what faith does. Paul says in chapter five, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”
            Faith acts in love.  And when the baptized Christian acts in faith, he or she is fulfilling what the Torah was all about. Paul writes, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” 
            It is the Spirit who creates and sustains this faith.  And it is the Spirit who produces these fruits of faith in us – what Paul calls fruit of the Spirit.  Paul goes on to say, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” 
            As Christians, we are no longer concerned about being circumcised for religious reasons or eating the religiously clean foods or offering the right sacrifices.  Instead, as we live by faith in Christ our concern is now focused on being patient with others; showing kindness to others; being self controlled in our own actions so that we are sharing the love of  Christ rather than the old Adam that is still within us. 
            We know that we never do this perfectly.  Paul described this when he wrote,  “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”  Yet because of the work of the Spirit within us we take up this struggle and on many occasions we do live by faith active in love.  And in the midst of it all we have the constant comfort of knowing that through Christ we have received the adoption as sons and daughters of God.  We have the received the Spirit and so are able to call out in faith to our loving God, “Abba! Father!”


Friday, December 27, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Listening to the language of the Christmas epistle readings

Paul’s letter to Titus is so brief (three short chapters) that it is surprising to find it featured prominently in the services of Christmas.  Both the One Year lectionary and the Three Year lectionary have Titus 2:11-14 as the epistle for Christmas Midnight.  Likewise, both lectionaries have Titus 3:4-7 as the epistle for Christmas Dawn, while the One Year lectionary also has this as the epistle for Christmas Day.

It soon becomes apparent that Church has been drawn to these texts because of the language about the “appearing” of God’s salvation in Christ. Titus 2:11 begins by saying, “For the grace of God has appeared (Ἐπεφάνη), bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11 ESV) while 3:4 states, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared” (ἐπεφάνη)
(Titus 3:4 ESV).  Both texts contain beautiful statements of the Gospel.

However, the picture becomes even more interesting when we look at the language of these Christmas epistles and consider how they are functioning in their context. Titus 2:11 begins with the world “for” (γὰρ).  This word links 2:11-14 to what has preceded it as the text provides the reason or support for what has just been said.  In chapter one, Paul has charged Titus with appointing “elders” (what we would call pastors) in each town (1:5).  He has provided the qualifications for these candidates (1:5-9) and described how they will need to refute false teaching on Crete (1:10-16). 

Paul then goes on to describe what Titus and the pastors he is involved in appointing are to teach the people.  He begins by saying, “But as for you, teach (literally, “speak”; λάλει ) what accords with sound doctrine (literally, “teaching”; διδασκαλίᾳ) (2:1).  The section that begins at 2:1 with its command to “speak” is then framed by 2:15 where Paul writes, “Declare (literally, “speak”; λάλει) these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.”

Within the section 2:1-10, Paul then describes how different groups of Christians are to live as he provides instruction regarding older men (2:2), older woman (2:3), young women (2:4-5), young men (2:6) and slaves (2:9-10).  In this section Paul uses language that the Greco-Roman world would have recognized as being laudable conduct.[1]  Paul tells Titus, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works” (2:7).  Not only is Titus (and by extension the pastors he appoints) to preach and teach about living the Christian life and doing good works, but he is to teach by his own conduct.

Paul emphasizes a recurring theme about why Christians are to live in these godly ways. They are to do it because Christian conduct impacts how the Gospel is perceived and received.  Young women need to live the ways taught by Titus so “that the word of God may not be reviled [literally “blasphemed]” (2:5).  Titus is to serve as a model of this conduct “so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (2:8).  Slaves are to act in this way “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10).

In a concentrated form filled with Greco-Roman vocabulary that speaks of appropriate and laudable conduct Paul tells Titus that he and the pastors are to teach the people to live in ways that reflect the Christian faith.  This is important because in that missionary setting it will be seen and evaluated by others. And then Paul proceeds to give the reason why they should do this – it is because of the Gospel.   He introduces 2:11-14 with the word “for” (γὰρ) as he explicitly introduces the reason and says: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

In the language of apocalyptic eschatology Paul describes how God’s grace has been revealed to all men (2:11).  The grace itself is described in 2:13-14 as the great God and Savior Jesus Christ who gave himself on behalf of us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people of his own possession.   At the same time this grace trains Christians how to live in the present time (literally, “the now age”; ἐν τῷ νῦν αἰῶνι ) (2:12) as we await the appearing of Christ (2:13). Christians who are Christ’s own possession are to be “zealous for good works” (2:14). Even within this statement that provides the ground for 2:6-10 and its description of Christian conduct, Paul still continues to emphasize that God’s saving action in Christ prompts Christians to live in God pleasing ways. In fact the last statement in 2:11-14 is that Christians are to be “zealous for good works” (2:14).

After drawing the section 2:1-15 to a close with the inclusio at 2:15 (“speak these things”; cf. 2:1 “speak that which is fitting for sound teaching”), Paul then returns to the topic of living the Christian life in 3:1-2.  This time he frames the discussion in terms of general instructions about living as a Christian in society by referring to being submissive to rulers.  The instructions are not aimed at any one group of people such as in 2:6-10. Instead, they are more general in character (“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people,” 3:1-2).

Like 2:6-10 and 2:11-14, in 3:3-8 Paul again provides the reason that Christians are to act in manner described in 3:1-2.  The reason (introduced by “for”; γάρ ) is the Gospel, and specifically the Gospel as it has been received in baptism.  Paul says that Christians were once sinful and lost in every way (3:3).  Then he goes on to say, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (3:4-7). 

Just as in 2:11, Paul describes God’s salvation as something that has “appeared” (3:4).   Throughout the letter as Paul has given instructions to Titus about what he and the pastors on Crete are to teach the people he has repeatedly emphasized good works and Christian conduct (2:6-10, 12, 14; 3:1-2).  Yet now he makes clear that we have not been saved on the basis of works that we have done in righteousness (3:5).  Instead, it is on the basis of God’s mercy that he has saved us through baptism – a washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (3:5).  In this action he has poured out the Holy Spirit upon us richly through Christ our Savior (note the trinitarian shape of 3:4-6) in order that being justified by God’s grace we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (3:6).

A Lutheran could not ask for a clearer expression of the Gospel!  Salvation is not the basis of works (3:5).  It is instead a matter of God’s mercy (3:5) and grace (3:6) as he works through the Holy Spirit in baptism (3:5) to justify us (3:7).  Paul highlights this teaching by adding in 3:8 “The saying is trustworthy” (literally, “The word is faithful”; Πιστὸς ὁ λόγος), a statement that refers to 3:4-7 and identifies it as being part of the common teaching of the Church.  Yet Paul then immediately adds, “so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (3:8b).  Even as Paul emphasizes the primacy of the Gospel, the corresponding good works that flow from this are never far from view.

It is significant that within this brief letter that provides instruction for pastors on Crete we have two sections that explicitly ground the life of good works in God’s saving action.  Each time Paul describes the Christian life (2:1-10; 3:1-2) and then provides the theological basis for the life of faith (both passages are introduced by “for”; γάρ) as he emphasizes God’s saving action (2:11-14a; 3:3-7).  Finally he provides a summary statement that explicitly states how Christians are to do good works (2:14b; 3:8).  What is more, in the second instance Paul grounds this theological basis in the Christian’s baptism (cf. Rom 6:1-7).

The instruction Paul provides to Titus for the pastors on Crete makes it clear that the Gospel must remain at the center of all that Church preaches, teaches and believes.  Yet it also makes clear that God’s salvation in the Gospel cannot be separated from the life the Gospel produces.  What is more, this Christian life bears witness to the faith and is important for the way the faith is perceived by the world.  Titus repeatedly provides this as a purpose of living the life of faith and good works (2:5, 8, 10).  The Christian life of good works that flows forth from God’s saving action bears witness to God’s saving action (2:10).  This was the message that the apostle Paul wanted pastors on Crete to preach and teach.  We continue to hear Paul preach it to us on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

[1] See the careful lexical work in Jerome D. Quinn, The Letter to Titus (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 128-177.

Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Today  is the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist.  John and his brother James were among the first apostles called by Jesus.  He was present with our Lord at His transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane.  From the cross, Jesus entrusted the care of His mother Mary to John.  He is the author of the Gospel that bears his name, as well as three epistles and the Book of Revelation.  According to tradition, John was banished to the island of Patmos (off the coast of Asia Minor) by the Roman emperor Domitian.  In his later work John is associated with Ephesus and he is believed to have been the only apostle who did not die a martyr’s death as he lived to a very old age and died at the end of the first century A.D. 

Scripture reading:
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.  Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:20-25)

Collect of the Day:
Merciful Lord, cast the bright beams of Your light upon the Church that we, being instructed in the doctrine of your blessed apostle and evangelist John, may come to the light of everlasting life; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.