Thursday, May 28, 2015
Today Surburg's blog reached 200,000 pageviews. I want to thank everyone who has read and shared the blog since the first post on Feb. 4, 2013. In a way that I never could have imagined, this has become a means to share material with others in the hopes it will be of use to them. I want to thank my wife Amy and my parents Paul and Ellen who strongly encouraged me to start a blog: You were right.
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
During the years 111-113 A.D. a Roman named Pliny served as the appointed governor over the area Pontus-Bythinia in what is today Turkey. Although communication was by our standards painfully slow, governors like Pliny constantly consulted the Roman emperor by letter and asked for his decisions and judgments on matters. A large part of the job of a Roman emperor was to answer this endless correspondence that came in from all over the empire.
In Pontus-Bythinia Pliny encountered a group that prompted him to write to the Emperor Trajan. They were called “Christians” and Pliny was not exactly sure how to deal with them. In writing his letter Pliny provided the following description:
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition. (Letters 10.96-97)
Pliny provides us with a very early description of Christian practice. He says that the Christians were “accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn.” From the New Testament and other early Christian evidence, we know that this day was Sunday. What we want to note here is that they met “before dawn.” Pliny says that they also used to meet in the evening of Sunday, but had ceased to do this since on Trajan’s instruction Pliny had placed great restrictions on all of these kinds of gatherings out of fear they might provide the setting for political agitation.
About fifty years later a Christian named Justin Martyr wrote a defense of Christianity to the Roman emperor. He provided a description of Christian worship (the earliest that we have) and reported:
On the day named after the sun, all who live in city or countryside assemble. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read for a long as time allows … It is on Sunday that we all assemble, because Sunday is the first day: the day on which God transformed darkness and matter and created the world, and the day on which Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead. He was crucified on the eve of Saturn’s day, and on the day after, that is, on the day of the sun, he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them what we have now offered for your examination (Apology I, 67).
Pliny tells us that the Christians of the second century gathered on a fixed day before dawn and Justin Martyr tells us that Christians gathered on Sunday and listened to the reading of the Scriptures “as long as time allows.” Because of our own experience of life in the Church, it is not immediately apparent why they gathered before dawn and had limitations on how long the service could go.
The reason for this was that Sunday was a regular work day. As Justin describes, because Sunday was when Christ rose from the dead, Christians worshipped in the morning on the first day of the week when the resurrection was made known (Matthew 28:1). Yet this theologically motivated choice ran headlong into a practical reality: Sunday was a work day in the ancient world. In order to worship on Sunday morning, it was necessary to celebrate the Divine Service before going to work. Sunday for a second century Christian meant getting up before dawn, attending worship, and then going on to a full day of work.
In 313 A.D. the Emperor Constantine acted to end the persecution of Christians. In his own growing commitment to Christ he took actions that favored the Church but which could also be understood by pagans as honoring their beliefs. He passed laws that paid homage to Sunday and could be seen as honoring Christ and honoring the sun god. The first law passed in March 321 said that: “All judges and the people of the towns and all craftsmen are to remain at rest on the venerable day of the sun.” Only agricultural work could be exempted from this in order to take advantage of the weather. In this way, Sunday became a day when no work was done, so that Christians were free to worship with ease.
The practice of Christians before the legalization of Christianity and the promulgation of Constantine’s laws prompts us to reflect upon our own attitude toward Sunday and the Divine Service. In the Small Catechism the explanation to the Third Commandment says: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Would we be willing to get up before dawn in order to attend the Divine Service and then head off to a day of work? Do we consider the Lord Jesus and his Means of Grace so precious that we are willing to put them before other things in life?
Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25 ESV). As the era of the post-Christian world continues to advance in our culture, we are encountering more and more situations that reflect the experience of our early Christian forefathers. Sporting events, school activities and a growing list of other endeavors are scheduled for Sunday morning. The faithful practice of the Christian faith will require an ever greater commitment.
It will require sacrifice in order put Jesus Christ first as the Lord of our life. The saints who have gone before provide both a model and an encouragement. They show us what Christians have done in order to be faithful, and they demonstrate how by his grace God enabled them to do this. On Feb. 12, 304 thirty one men and eighteen women were arrested for illegal assembly during the Great Persecution of Emperor Diocletian. They appeared before the Roman proconsul in Carthage who accused them of disobeying the imperial edicts. In the trial that occurred before they were killed as martyrs, Emeritus, a lector confessed that he had been involved in Christian worship and that it had been held in his house. He said, “Yes, it was in my house that we celebrated the Lord’s Day. We cannot live without celebrating the Lord’s Day” (Bibliographia hagiographica Latina, no. 7492).
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.
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 24, 2015
I have been very open about the fact that I don’t want to sell a house again and move. Now hopefully, you think that is a good thing because basically – you are stuck with me. Amy and I did a lot of moving during the first decade of our marriage. We lived in Alexandria, VA for a year; St. Louis for two years; Dallas, TX for three years; Chicago for three years; and then we moved to Marion in 2006. We moved five times over the course of nine years. This coming July we will have been in Marion for nine years – three times longer than we have lived in any other one place.
Two of those moves involved selling a house. And after selling two of them, I can say that I don’t want to sell another one. Selling a house is a lot of work because you have to do many things to get the house in the best condition possible. Rooms get repainted; new floors or carpet are put down; little repairs that that have been on the “to do” list for a long time finally get done. Basically in my experience, you work hard to get the house in the best condition it has been during the time you have owned it … so that someone else can then live in it.
Even after all of this is completed there is still constant work and busyness. Since you never know when showings are going to occur, you have to live in a way that maintains the house in the constant state of being neat and tidy – or at least neat enough so that on very short notice you can get the house whole house ready to be seen. If you have several small children, that is quite a feat.
However, the thing that I really dislike about selling a house is the waiting. The fact of the matter is that you don’t know how long it is going to take to sell a house. It may happen quickly. It may not. Showings of the house are scheduled and take place. And each time you wait for the phone to ring – you wait to hear that an offer has been made on the house. You don’t know how long you it is going to be and so you wait expectantly.
That’s what Jesus’ disciples were doing on the first Pentecost – they were waiting expectantly. Our text this morning is found in the book of Acts. The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are really a two volume set. The end of Luke and the beginning of Acts overlap since they both include an account of Jesus’ final words to the disciples and his ascension.
What unites both of these accounts is that the disciples are told that they will receive power from God, and that they are to wait in Jerusalem until this happens. At the end of Luke Jesus says, “And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” At the beginning of Acts Luke reports, “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but 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.’” And then Jesus says, “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.”
Jesus had ascended ten days earlier. For ten days – basically a week and a half – they were waiting for Jesus’ promise to be fulfilled. They were waiting, but they couldn’t have even known what they were waiting for – what did it mean to be “baptized with the Holy Spirit”?
We learn that on Pentecost as they were gathered together suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And what looked like little tongues of flame appeared and rested on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues – other foreign languages - as the Spirit gave them the ability.
There were faithful Jews from all over the Mediterranean world living in Jerusalem. There were also Jewish pilgrims who were there. Attracted by the sound they were amazed to find Galileans – not the most sophisticated folks - speaking in their language. In their own language they heard these people talking about mighty things that God had done. And their question was the good Lutheran one: “What does this mean?”
Peter stood up and dismissed the accusation that they were drunk. After all, it was too early in the morning! Instead he announced that they were witnessing an amazing moment in the final stage of God’s saving plan. He said, “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.”
God had poured forth the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Joel. But this moment was really about what had happened fifty and forty days earlier. Peter announced that Jesus of Nazareth was a man attested to them by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in their midst. However they had crucified and killed Jesus through the hands of the Romans. But this had not been the end of Jesus. Instead in fulfillment of a psalm written by King David, God had raised up Jesus from the dead. He had not allowed his Holy One to see corruption.
But he had done more than just raise Jesus from the dead! Jesus Christ had ascended into heaven and been exalted to the right hand of God. And it was in this status as the risen and exalted Lord that Jesus had given the Spirit. Peter said, “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.” Christ had given the Spirit and so Peter told them, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
When Peter had finished, those listening were cut to the heart and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” The apostle replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” He told them to confess their sins and to be baptized in the name of Jesus. He told them to receive the washing of water that united them with the crucified and risen Lord, and so, gave them forgiveness. He told them to be baptized because in the water of baptism they too would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit - the Spirit whose arrival had been announced by the dramatic events of Pentecost.
Obviously, Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit. But in truth, because Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit it is really about Jesus. It is Jesus Christ who has poured forth the Spirit because he is the crucified, risen and exalted Lord. The outpouring of the Spirit bears witness to who Jesus is and what he has done for you.
And there is another way that Pentecost is about Jesus. Yes, the ascended Lord is no longer visibly present in the way he was during his earthly ministry. But Pentecost means that Jesus is not in any way absent because the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Christ – is present and at work in a new and unique way. The Spirit is the presence of Jesus now with his Church.
Where the Spirit is, there the crucified and risen Christ is. And where sinners meet him in faith, there is the forgiveness of sins. As Luther said about the Holy Spirit in the explanation of the Third Article of the Creed: “In the Christian church he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” However, it is not just any kind of sinner who receives this. Instead, it is the sinner who follows Peter’s instruction: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
Pentecost focuses our attention on the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet it also reminds us about the kind of person who benefits from the work of the Spirit. It is not just the sinner – after all, every person is one of those. Instead, it is the repentant sinner. And that means there is the continuing need to confess our own sins. We confess that we have sinned in in thought, in word and in deed. We confess that we have sinned by things we have done, and also by things we have left undone. We confess that have not loved God with our whole heart. We confess that we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.
We confess, but as baptized Christians there is no need to get wet again. Instead in faith we believe that we have forgiveness because we are already baptized. We embrace in faith the fact that we have already been joined to the saving death of Jesus through our baptism and so we receive forgiveness.
You are able to do this because you have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit. You received the Spirit in your baptism. There you received the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. There you were born again of water and the Spirit. It is in baptism that you received the same gift that the disciples did on Pentecost. You received it just like the three thousand who were baptized that day.
That link between the gift of the Holy Spirit and baptism means that we just had our own Pentecost moment earlier in the service. When Elliot Jean Kline was baptized, she received the gift of the Spirit just like on the day of Pentecost. She was brought to the font as one who was spiritually dead – spiritual road kill as the catechumens have heard it described. And in the water of baptism something awesome happened – no less awesome than the sound of a rushing wind and tongues as of fire. She was reborn as a new creation – as a child of God. Through same work of the Spirit she was buried with Christ into his saving death and so she received the forgiveness of sins.
This is a fact that will never change for her.
This morning Casey and Erin brought Elliot to baptism. Her parents and this congregation will now carry out the second part of the Lord’s mandate to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. As she grows in knowledge she will learn that for her – like all of us – the blessing of forgiveness through baptism always remains, ready to be received in faith. When we believe what God’s word says about our baptism, we have exactly what it promises – the forgiveness of sins and salvation.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost. It is the day when we remember that we have not been left without our Lord and his saving power. Instead, in these last days – in the final stage of God’s plan of salvation – the risen and exalted Lord has poured forth the Holy Spirit. This Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, and through the Spirit our Lord Jesus is present and at work in power. Each one of us has experienced our own Pentecost event - just like little Elliot today. And so as repentant sinners we know that we have forgiveness of all our sins.
Saturday, May 23, 2015
It is said that “if it has not been for the second Martin, the first Martin would have been lost.” The “first Martin” is someone with whom you are very familiar – Martin Luther. You may not know the “second Martin” – Martin Chemnitz. However his work was crucial in preserving and advancing the confession of the Gospel and biblical truth that Martin Luther began.
Without seeking to do so, Martin Luther began the Reformation in 1517. Over the course of the next thirty years he worked to reform the Church. After the response that the Augsburg Confession of 1530 received, Luther and the confessors realized that the established church of their day was not going to reform. They were not going to give up beliefs and practices that were based in ecclesiastical tradition, but were contrary to Scripture. Because this was so, during the later years of his life Luther attended to the task of putting in place a church that would be able to continue to confess the Gospel – a church that would come to bear the name Lutheran.
Obviously, Martin Luther was the giant of the early Lutheran church. While he was alive his presence helped to guide the Lutherans through various questions about doctrine. However, Luther died in 1546. The next year, the Lutherans suffered a disastrous military defeat at the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. What followed was a period of turmoil as the Lutherans tried to feel their way through life under a power that promoted the Roman understanding of what it was to be catholic. It was a time when a number of theological questions that had been simmering erupted as different groups attempted to claim Luther’s legacy.
Martin Chemnitz was a Lutheran theologian who during the second half of the sixteenth century labored tirelessly to get Lutherans to work through these questions. A brilliant scholar, he sought to be faithful to the Scriptures and to confess the doctrine that Luther had taught. Working with other Lutheran theologians who had the same goal he helped to lead a process that eventually produced the Formula of Concord – a work in which he was a major author. After thousands of Lutheran pastors signed the 1577 Formula of Concord, it was collected together along with other texts such as the Small and Large Catechisms and the Augsburg Confession to form the Book of Concord of 1580. If it had not been for the second Martin, Martin Chemnitz, it is very likely that the Lutheran teaching of the first Martin, Martin Luther, would have been lost.
While recognizing that all the persons of the Holy Trinity are equally God, Jesus describes something similar in the Gospel of John. In the Gospel lesson for Pentecost Eve Jesus says, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
Jesus promises to send another Helper, the Spirit of truth. It is not that Jesus’ work is somehow insufficient. Rather it will be the Spirit’s job to take Jesus’ saving work and extend it to others. The Spirit will help the disciples to understand who Jesus is and what he has done, and will help the disciples to remember what Jesus said. Jesus says just after our text, “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
Jesus promises in the next chapter that the presence of the Spirit will enable the disciples to bear witness to Jesus. He says, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.”
Our Lord says that the Holy Spirit will enable this witness. And the witness will be all about Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and so he does not call attention to himself. Instead, he points to Jesus. Our Lord will say in chapter sixteen, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
In this portion of John’s Gospel, Jesus makes it very clear that events must happen in this way. Our Lord says that he is about to depart. He is about to return to the Father, just as the Father had sent him into the world in the incarnation in the first place. Jesus would soon complete the mission for which he, the Son of God, had become flesh. He would sacrifice himself as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He would be lifted up on the cross so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. And he would rise from the dead, for as Jesus had said: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
The departure of Jesus is something that would sadden the disciples. Yet Jesus says, “But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
On this Pentecost Eve we begin the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost. We rejoice in the fact that Jesus kept his word. He did send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, upon his Church. And the Spirit has done exactly what Jesus said. He called to remembrance in the disciples what Jesus had said. He took what belonged to Jesus and made it known. He enabled the disciples to bear witness about Jesus.
That witness took place in the preaching and teaching of the apostles as they spread the Gospel in the Mediterranean world. But it didn’t stop there. Indeed it continues on now through the inspired apostolic word. As John says in this Gospel, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
What happened at Pentecost can be viewed from several different angles. Tonight I want to focus on the Spirit borne witness to Jesus that continues on through the inspired, apostolic word. Jesus said it was better for us that he depart so that he would send the Helper, the Holy Spirit. We now meet Jesus through his Spirit inspired word. And this word is not only the audible word that is heard as it is read and preached. It is also the visible word of the sacraments as Jesus gives us his saving word through the located means of water, and bread and wine.
Pentecost leads us to ask how we are receiving the Spirit’s witness. It prompts us to consider whether we are despising preaching and God’s word, or whether we are holding it sacred and gladly hearing and learning it. We like to set the bar pretty low in our evaluation of gladly hearing and learning it. Look around tonight if you need evidence of that. You could have done the same thing last Thursday when it was the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. If the reading and preaching of God’s Word doesn’t take place on Sunday, well, then it doesn’t really count; no big deal if you are not there.
I am struck by how this contrasts with places in Africa where people will travel great distances and endure hardship in order to take advantage of any opportunity to hear the word proclaimed and to receive the Sacrament.
Of course, you are here tonight, and so in one sense I am preaching to the choir. Yet this example leads us to ponder other places where we set the bar very low. Many of us spend far more time watching sports or doing hobbies than we spend in worship, Bible study and devotional reading of Scripture. We spend far more time thinking about matters of leisure than we do pondering God’s word.
Pentecost leads us to confront this fact and to confess it. In that same Spirit inspired word we find assurance of forgiveness in Christ. And through the work of the Spirit we also find the desire and motivation to make changes. Pentecost leads us to see that in his word Jesus gives us something that required him to ascend and send forth the Spirit. Stop and think about that. Jesus said that if he didn’t go away, the Spirit would not come to us – the Spirit who called Jesus’ words to the apostles’ remembrance; the Spirit who bears witness about Jesus; the Spirit who takes what belongs to Jesus and makes it known to us in the inspired word. Yet Jesus has ascended into heaven in order to make this work of the Spirit possible. It is a work that we receive through the Scriptures – through God’s Word. When we put it in those terms, we realize that this is a blessing we want to receive.
On this Pentecost Eve we rejoice in the knowledge that Jesus sent forth the Spirit to empower the Church’s Gospel witness in the world. And especially, we give thanks that the outpouring of the Spirit on the believers in Jerusalem has given to us the word of Scripture through which the Spirit gives Jesus and his salvation to us.