Monday, June 29, 2015

Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul

Today is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul.  Peter was a fisherman who was called as one of the twelve apostles and accompanied Jesus during His entire ministry (Matthew 4:18-22; 10:1-2).  He confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God and Jesus recognized the role of leadership that he would have in the Church (Matthew 16:13-20).  However, he also rebuked Jesus when our Lord predicted His passion (Matthew 16:21-23) and denied Jesus three times (Matthew 26:69-75).  Forgiven by our Lord and commissioned again to care for the flock (John 21:15-19) he was an important leader in the early Church (Acts 2) and God used him to indicate that the Gentiles were being received as part of the people of God (Acts 10).  He wrote two letters that are included in the New Testament.  According to Church tradition, he died a martyr when was crucified upside down in Rome.

Paul, originally named Saul, was a zealous Pharisee who persecuted the Church (Philippians 3:4-6; Galatians 1:13-16; Acts 9:1-2).  The risen Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus and called him to be an apostle who would proclaim the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:3-18).  Paul engaged in three missionary journeys to Asia Minor and Greece (Acts 13-14, 16-18, 18-21).  While in Jerusalem he was arrested and then imprisoned by the Romans at Caesarea (Acts 22-26).  As a Roman citizen, he appealed to Caesar and at the end of the Book of Acts he is in Rome under house arrest waiting for his case to be heard (Acts 28:30-31).  Paul wrote thirteen letters that are included in the New Testament.  We have little information about the chronology of the end of Paul’s life (it may be that he was released from Rome and then was later arrested again after doing further missionary work). According to Church tradition, he died a martyr when he was beheaded in Rome

Scripture reading:
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. (Acts 15:1-12 ESV)

Collect of the Day
Merciful and eternal God, your holy apostles Peter and Paul received grace and strength to lay down their lives for the sake of your Son.  Strengthen us by your Holy Spirit that we may confess your truth and at all times be ready to lay down our lives for him who laid down his life for us, even Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Trinity - Lk 6:36-42

         Trinity 4
                                                                                                Lk 6:36-42

            Recently I was reading and took note of these words: “When adding ingredients to a measuring cup, be sure no air pockets are trapped inside the cup and the ingredients are level with the top.  A ‘regular spoonful’ means the ingredients in it should be rounded, but a ‘level teaspoon’ means the ingredients are even with the top of the spoon.  When using kitchen measuring spoons, be sure all measurements are level with the top.  There are several places in this book where I mention using a ‘heaping cupful.’  This means you scoop up a full cup of the ingredients, letting the cup hold all it can.”
            Now upon hearing this, it would be understandable if you thought that I have been baking cookies for today’s gathering at the Surburg house.  It sounds like language out of a cookbook.  However, this language about getting proper measurements comes from a very different source.  And those of you who come by the house today will quickly understand why I have been reading it.
            I have been involved in model railroading with my dad for all of my life.  I have helped him build his current model railroad layout that he has been working on for more than thirty five years.  However, I use the word “helped” loosely here. When it comes to the layout itself, I have been the second pair of hands.  So I have seen my dad do everything, but before building my first layout in Brookfield, IL I had never actually done any of it myself.  I built, detailed and decaled engines, freight cars and passenger cars and became very good at that.  But I had never actually built benchwork, or laid track and done wiring.
            Naturally I had seen my dad do these things.  I also talked to others who had done it. But it probably won’t surprise you to hear that one of the things I found most helpful was to read about it.  I purchased several really good how to books and read them carefully and this helped greatly.  And so when it comes to the bench work, track and wiring of my layout I am very pleased.
            However, if you have a chance to visit today, you will immediately see that one significant element is missing – my layout does not yet have any scenery.  There’s no grass; there are no trees, or hills or mountains.  It’s just plywood.  Now I have been working on buildings – especially in the steel mill area – as I get ready to build scenery. But as of yet there is none.
            And so I have been reading about building scenery.  The statements with which I began the sermon are not about measuring ingredients for cooking or baking.  Instead, they are about measuring ingredients for building model railroad scenery – for mixing things like plaster.
            In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus talks about a measure that is used.  He says that it is full measure, compacted and running over.  He tells us to use this full measure in dealing with others, because the measure that we use is the one we will receive from God.  Yet as we listen to the words of the our text, we can never lose sight of the fact that Jesus speaks these words as the One in whom God has already given the over flowing measure to us.
            In our text this morning, we jump mid-stream into what Jesus is saying.  This section begins by telling us that a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all over the area gathered with Jesus at a level place.  We hear, “And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.’”
            If these words sound very familiar, it is because similar ones are found in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.  The fact that we find similar words in different settings is not surprising.  First of all the Gospels are theological biographies.  While they accurately portray real events, it is not their goal to provide an exact chronological account. And second, it is highly unlikely that Jesus never said the same thing twice – or at least something very similar.  Like any teacher he came up with good ways to say things, and then used it with different audiences.
            I mention these first words, because they are key to understanding what Jesus says in our text.  If you listen to our text, you will find that we are being told to engage in a lot of doing: be merciful; judge not; condemn not; give.  As a teacher, I certainly repeat things that I find to be helpful. And so many of you have heard me say a hundred times: the Law is what we must do; the Gospel is what God has done for us in Christ. These are statements of law.  But the beginning of the sermon makes it clear that they are not bare statements of law.
            Jesus begins by saying that to the poor – and here the Old Testament background indicates that we are talking about those who recognize their spiritual need and who trust in God – to them belongs the kingdom of God now.  As you know, when Jesus says the “kingdom of God” he is not referring to a place.  Instead he is talking about the saving reign of God that entered into the world in him and his ministry. As Jesus will say later in the Gospel after casting out demons: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
            Jesus speaks because he is the One who is freeing people from Satan, sin and death.  This saving work will reach its culmination as he dies on the cross for your sins.  But then, through the work of the Spirit, he will rise from the dead on the third day.  He defeated death and now has been exalted to the right hand of the throne of God.
            This is how God has loved us.  This is how he has shown mercy to us. This is how God has given to us.  And so in our text, Jesus says, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”  God has shown us mercy in his crucified and risen Son.  And now through the work of the Spirit in us, we show mercy to others.
            In particular, Jesus says that we show mercy in the way that we judge and forgive and give to others.  He says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
            When Jesus says judge not, he’s not teaching that we never call sin a sin.  This is, of course, the way the world today wants to hear these words.  Yet Jesus is the One who told his disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” There is forgiveness where there is repentance. And there is repentance where sin is confronted.
            Instead, Jesus is teaching us that we are not to be critical of others just to find fault with them.  We are not to look to speak about their faults in order to make ourselves feel better.  We are not to find fault with them while also ignoring the fact that the same things are present in us.  It is not that we are to be silent in the face of sin. Instead, we must repent of the same things that we confront in others.
            And we are to forgive.  Just like the language in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “forgive, and you will be forgiven.”  Jesus speaks as the One who has already given you forgiveness. You have been baptized for the forgiveness of all your sins, as Jesus’ saving work was applied to you.  You receive his true body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar for the forgiveness of sins.  You are forgiven.  But Jesus also says that in this divine dynamic the forgiveness that you refuse to pass on to others cannot remain yours either.
            It becomes clear that for those who have received the gift of salvation from Christ, the orientation is directed toward others.  He says, “give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” We who have received the superabundant grace of God in Christ now seek to give abundantly to others. 
            To be sure, these words of our Lord can strike us in several different ways.  On the one hand, no doubt, we hear them and recognize that we fail to do them. We are critical and judge.  We don’t forgive. We don’t give. And so when we see this log in our own eye, we do what Christians do: we repent. We confess the sin that is present and return to Christ’s Means of Grace through which we have the assurance of forgiveness.  And in this we find forgiveness and peace.
            But at the same time, we hear these words and know that we want to do them.  You are not a stone.  The Holy Spirit has given you the washing of regeneration and renewal.  You have been born again of water and the Spirit and so you are a new creation in Christ.  You have put on the new man and so by the Spirit’s leading you hear these things and know that they are right.  You know that they are good. You know that you want to do them.  And guess what?  Because of the Spirit it is possible to do them.
            No, it won’t be perfect.  It won’t be without fail.  The old man is still present as you live in a fallen world. But when we listen to Christ; when we seek to follow the Spirit’s prompting; when we are nourished by Christ’s Means of Grace these are things that we can do.  We can do them not because of who we are, but because of what Christ has made us to be.  For we are those who have received the saving reign of God that arrived in Jesus.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Dr. Wilhelm Weber Jr. speaks about the Lutheran past ... and our present in dealing with marriage

Dr. Wilhelm Weber Jr. is Rector at Lutheran Theological Seminary, Tshwane (Pretoria, South Africa).  I first became aware of Dr. Weber when he came to speak at the 2012 Southern Illinois District convention. At the time he was also bishop of the Lutheran Church in Southern Africa.  He has written an excellent piece that reflects on today's marriage issue from the perspective of the Lutheran experience in Germany in the past.  I deeply appreciate hearing a voice of confessional Lutheranism speaking out of a different context to matters that concern us all. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Commemoration of Jeremiah, Prophet

Today we remember and give thanks to God for Jeremiah, Old Testament Prophet.  Jeremiah was active as God’s prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah around 627 to 582 B.C.  As a prophet he predicted, witnessed, and lived through the Babylonian siege and eventual destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.  In his preaching he often used symbols, such as an almond rod and a boiling pot (Jeremiah 1:11-14), wine jars (13:12-14), and a potter at work (18:1-17).  His entire prophetic ministry was a sermon, communicating through word and deed God’s anger toward His rebellious people.  Jeremiah suffered repeated rejection and persecution by his countrymen.  As far as can be known, Jeremiah died in Egypt, having been taken there forcibly.  He is remembered and honored for fearlessly calling God’s people to repentance.

Collect of the Day:
Lord God, Heavenly Father, through the prophet Jeremiah You continued the prophetic pattern of teaching Your people the true faith and demonstrating through miracles Your presence in creation to heal it of its brokenness.  Grant that Your Church may see in Your Son: our Lord Jesus Christ, the final end-times prophet, whose teaching and miracles continue in Your Church through the healing medicine of the Gospel and the Sacraments; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mark's thoughts: Take the Jesus quiz!

Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. (Luke 6:36-38 ESV)

Sometimes God’s Word doesn’t allow us to avoid questions.  This is part of the Gospel lesson in the one year lectionary for Trinity 4.  So take the Jesus quiz.

Does Jesus speak these words because:
A. He wants to show believers that they can’t possibly do this and that they are sinners.

B. He wants believer to know that they should and can do this.

If you answered A. you are a good modern Lutheran.  You believe that the Law only does one thing when it accuses.  Statements like this in Scripture are meant to drive us to the one true reality of the Christian life that Paul expresses in Romans 7: we can’t do anything but fail and sin.  Yet in magnifying our failure and sin, words like this also create a contrast with the Gospel that in turn exalts God’s grace.

If you answered B. you are a good exegete and a good Lutheran who confesses what the Book of Concord actually teaches. You realize that this sermon begins with the words, “And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’” (Luke 6:20 ESV).  You understand that Jesus speaks about the life of those who have received the saving reign of God that is present in him.  As Jesus will say in 11:20, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”  Jesus speaks these words because something new and dramatic has happened, and this changes things. The saving reign of God has reached its culmination in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Through the work of the Spirit this has changed us and so not only should we live this way, but we also can live this way.

Now answering B. does not mean that you must believe Christians will always do this.  The very fact that Jesus has to say these things (and in imperative forms no less) indicates that there is more to the story.  Rom 7:14-25 is set within the bracketing texts of Rom 6:1-11, 7:4-6 and 8:1-17 that state how the Christian who lives in the Spirit has been freed from sin (see especially 6:2, 4, 6; 7:4, 6; 8:2, 4, 5-9, 13).  Yet like Luke 6, the fact that Paul has to say in Rom 6:12-13, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (ESV), tells us that there is more to the story.  We learn in Rom 7:14-25 that Christian life is not completely free from the old man. There is a tension.

Answering B also does not mean that the Spirit is going to use these words in only one way. Jesus wants believers to know what they should and can do because of the reign of God.  The Spirit may use these words to show the believers that often this is not what they are doing (see previous paragraph!).  He will use these word to convict believers of sin – what we call the second use of the law.

The Spirit may also use these words to repress the old man who in fact wants to judge and condemn and does not want to forgive and give. The Spirit does this so that the old man does not determine the behavior of the individual.  In accusing the old man of what he wants to do, the Spirit may be teaching what is the true will of God (notice that when the law always accuses it is not only doing one thing).  Both of these are included in what we call the third use of the Law. And in fact because of the complexity of the believer who is new man and old man, the Spirit may be using these words to do all of these things at the same time.

What must not be lost in this discussion is the fact that Jesus Christ has really brought the reign of God and that the Spirit has given rebirth to the individual as a new creation in Christ.  The new man hears these words and rejoices because they are exactly what he wants to do.  When the Spirit uses these words to repress the old man it is part of the process by which God enables the new man to guide the behavior that actually takes place (though of course the new man’s ability to do anything is provided by the Spirit).

When B. is the answer, the reality of the believer’s interaction with this text is more complex than answer A.  But this does not change the fact that answer B. is the true answer. Answer B. takes seriously what it means for the reign of God to have arrived in Jesus Christ. It takes seriously the work of the Spirit in the believer.  The complexity is a reflection of the believer is who is new man in Christ, and yet is still also old man in a fallen world.