Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Feast of St. James the Elder, Apostle

Today is the Feast of St. James the Elder, Apostle.  James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, was one the first apostles to be called by Jesus (Matthew 4:18-22).  James, John and Peter, were the only apostles present at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the transfiguration and the agony in the garden.  James was the first apostle to suffer martyrdom and the only one whose martyrdom is recorded in Scripture (Acts 12:1-2).  He was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I, probably between 42 and 44 A.D.

Scripture reading:
Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. (Acts 11:27-12:5 ESV)
Collect of the Day:
O gracious God, Your servant and apostle James was the first among the Twelve to suffer martyrdom for the name of Jesus Christ.  Pour out upon the leaders of Your Church that spirit of self-denying service that they may forsake all false and passing allurements and follow Christ alone, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Mark's Thoughts: The blessings of private confession

I am currently in the midst of writing the portion of the forthcoming Lutheran Service Book Handbook that will deal with all forms of Confession and Absolution in Lutheran Service Book.  The following is the second in a series of four church newsletter articles about private confession that I am writing for my congregation:

The Fifth Part of the Small Catechism bears the heading, “How Christians should be taught to confess.”  It may be surprising to recognize that when it does so, it is seeking to teach about private confession. First it states: 

What is Confession? 
Confession has two parts.
First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is,     forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
Confession is very simple.  First it means admitting our sins.  As the psalmist expressed: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD” (Psalm 32:50.  We confess our sins – we admit before God that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.  By this act we repent.  We confess our sin before God and ask Him for forgiveness.

The second part of confession is that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness.  The word absolution is based on a Latin word that means “to loose.”  Absolution is the word of forgiveness.  Our Lord Jesus gave His Church the authority to forgive sins – to speak His forgiveness in His stead.  He said, “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18) and “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (John 20:23).

We call absolution, Holy Absolution, because it is God’s gift which He carries out in our midst.  When we receive forgiveness from the pastor in Holy Absolution, it is in fact God who is forgiving us.  We hear the pastor speak for God as he says “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The pastor serves as the means through which God forgives us.  The pastor is not able to do this because of who he is as an individual (because of his personal holiness or qualities).  Instead, does this because he has been placed in the Office of the Holy Ministry through ordination.  God has given the Office of the Holy Ministry to the Church in order to administer His Means of Grace, which include Holy Absolution.  And so the pastor says that he speaks “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ.”  As the Augsburg Confession states: “For it is not the voice or word of the person speaking it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin.  For it is spoken in God’s stead and by God’s command” (XXV.3).

Holy Absolution can be described as “the Gospel in its purest form.”    In fact the Apology of the Augsburg Confession calls it: “the very voice of the gospel” (XI.2). The Gospel tells us that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead in order to win us forgiveness.  The Gospel is about forgiveness, and in Holy Absolution we hear God speak to us in the first person singular and say, “I forgive you all your sins.”  This is the unique and special character of Holy Absolution.  We hear God speak directly to us and forgive us of our sins.

This brings us to the great blessings of private confession.  The first is that we receive the opportunity to confess those specific sins that trouble us.  Before God, sin is sin.  However, the devil is able to use some sins more than others in order to trouble us and cause us to doubt God’s forgiveness.  When we keep these sins inside, the guilt and anxiety they produce can be very destructive.  In private confession we have the opportunity to confess these sins and “get them off our chest” as we confess them to God.

Then, the second blessing is that not only do we confess them, but we also hear God’s forgiveness spoken to us and to us alone.  God deals with us individually as He forgives us through the absolution spoken by the pastor.  The Lutheran reformers cherished private confession for this very reason.  As Luther wrote: “I will allow no one to take private confession from the and would not give it in exchange for all the wealth of the world.  For I know what consolation and strength it has given me” (LW 51:98). 

The third blessing is that the practice of private confession aids us in our struggle against sin.  Confessing our sins out loud forces us to face our sin for what it is – sin against God.  In the absolution we receive the Gospel through which the Holy Spirit strengthens us to resist sin and temptation.  And during our daily life as we face temptation, the knowledge that an action is a sin – something to be confessed – helps us to resist and avoid it.

Next month: Private confession - How is it done?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sermon for Trinity 6 - Rom 6:3-11

                                                                                    Trinity 6
                                                                                    Rom 6:3-11

            It will probably not surprise you to hear that I love to study the Bible.  It is after all, God’s Word. It is his revelation in which we meet Jesus Christ our Savior and learn about how we live according to God’s will in response to the salvation of the Gospel. 
            And then on top of that, the study of Scripture that we expect of our pastors involves the use of the languages Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. It involves learning about the history, geography and culture of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world.  It involves learning about how Christians, both ancient and modern, have interpreted the Scriptures.
            Now for me, this is fun. As I have described in the past, I figured out quickly in high school that languages, history and literature were my strengths and that math and science were not.  Don’t get me wrong, I got A’s, but I didn’t enjoy it and clearly I was never going to excel in it. And so I headed down the path that has led me here.
            As one of my favorite professors and now friend likes to say: “The Bible is a big book.”  There so much stuff in there that you will never run out of new things to learn. At the same time, I have found that some of the most interesting discoveries are not information that is completely new.  Instead, it is learning that something you assumed you knew – something straightforward and basic – isn’t what you thought it was.
            That is the case for our text for today from Romans chapter 6.  Now we grow up in the Church confessing every Sunday in the Nicene Creed that there is “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”  We learn in the Small Catechism that baptism, “works the forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this as the words and promises of God declare.”
            It’s understandable then, that when we come to a text about baptism we are primed to read it as if that it is talking about the forgiveness of sins. The problem is that not all verses about baptism are talking about the forgiveness of sins – at least not directly. For sure this truth is always present and can be assumed. But sometimes this is not the thing that the biblical writer is calling our attention to – not directly.
            And that is the case with our text this morning from Romans chapter 6.  In our text Paul begins by saying, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
             Now without a doubt this text does describe why baptism gives the forgiveness of sins.  Paul says that to be baptized is to be baptized into Jesus Christ’s death.  In fact, the apostle says that to be baptized is to be buried with Christ. Through baptism you have shared in Christ’s death for you. This was a death – a sacrifice – that he made for you.  It was a death in your place.  As Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” By sharing in Jesus’ death through baptism, the saving benefits have become yours. This means that you have received … the forgiveness of sins.  You know it for sure. Why? Because you have been baptized!  Christ has combined water with his Word to give you something objective you can hold onto in faith.
            However, that’s not specifically the thing Paul is talking about here.  Instead, to understand his point, we need to go back up to the first two verses of the chapter that are not included in our text.  Near the end of chapter five Paul had written, “but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”  Now one could be inclined to say: “This is great! I like to sin and God likes to forgive! This is perfect!”
            In response to this impulse that all sinners share, Paul writes, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”  In our text, Paul is not talking about the forgiveness of sins, but instead about living in ways that don’t sin.  Paul says that we have died to sin because we have died with Christ. But it’s not just a death that has occurred.  There has also been a resurrection.
            Jesus Christ died on Good Friday. But on Easter God raised him from the dead. And it’s the resurrection that really drives what Paul is saying in our text.  The apostle says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  Did you notice what the apostle just did there?  He said that Jesus died and you have died with Jesus through baptism. Then he said Christ was raised from the dead. And so we expect that the next thing he will say is that we too will be raised from the dead.  But instead he says, “we too might walk in newness of life.”
            Paul isn’t talking about the future.  He’s talking about right now.  This “newness of life” is what is what you already have now because you are “in Christ.”  It is the forgiveness and salvation you have because of Jesus.  But in the setting of what Paul is talking about it also includes the way we live. And this fact is tied to Jesus’ resurrection. For Paul leaves no doubt that your baptism also means that you will share in Jesus resurrection.  He goes on to say in the next verse: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
            In his letter to the Romans, Paul doesn’t show you all of his cards as at once.  It’s not until chapter eight that he reveals a key point that runs throughout his thinking. There he writes: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” Paul says that the Spirit who raised Jesus Christ is in you.  How do you know?  You’ve been baptized!  It is the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, and he is going to do the same thing to your body on the Last Day.
            What does this mean for us right now?  Paul says in our text: “We know that our old man was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.”  Pauls says that the old man was crucified with Christ in under to nullify the work of sin in our body – and the purpose of this is for us no longer to be slaves to sin.
            This isn’t only about death.  But it’s also about life – the resurrection life of Christ worked by the Spirit.  Paul says at the end of our text, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  Notice how Paul returns again to the resurrection of Jesus, and how the resurrection becomes the basis for how we now live.
            Now you are probably sitting there thinking: “Yeah, but pastor it’s not that simple. I am still messing up in sin.  I still find myself doing stuff I don’t want to do, and failing to do the things I should.”  You are right. And Paul knew it too.  That’s why in the verse after our text he writes, “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.”
            Paul doesn’t talk like this life that avoids sin is automatic.  And remember what I said earlier about how Paul doesn’t show all of his cards at once.  If here in chapter six Paul announces freedom from sinning because through baptism we have shared in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in chapter seven he deals with the fact that sin is still present and offers an ongoing challenge.  Paul writes the famous words in chapter seven: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
            However Paul’s discussion is moving towards chapter eight.  And there Paul finally comes right out and talks about the Holy Spirit. There he says, “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
            Paul has told us two truths.  He has told us that through baptism we have shared in the saving death of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit who will raise our bodies on the Last Day is already at work in us now – the power of Christ’s resurrection is at work in our lives today.  And he has told us that we also still have the flesh – the fallen sinful nature that is not yet completely gone and can still drag us down into sinful thoughts, words and deeds.
            The question then for us as Christians is what we are going to do with these truths.  Are we going to just excuse sin?  Are we going to assume that falling in sin is just to be expected? That’s not what the apostle thinks.  He says, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”
            Paul says that by the Spirit we are to put to death the deeds of the body.  Make no mistake. The inspired apostle acknowledges that there is a struggle.  He doesn’t deny that failure occurs.  But he refuses to believe that falling into sin is always inevitable or unavoidable. And that is because the Spirit who raised Jesus Christ from the dead is at work in you now. 
            Our life as Christians is therefore very simple.  When we fall into sin we return in faith to our baptism, for there we have the assurance of forgiveness because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We view sin as something that we will need to struggle against.  In faith we believe God’s promise that through baptism the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in us so that we can put to death the sin present in us and instead live in faith toward God and love towards our neighbor.
            Few people have understood this more profoundly than Martin Luther who wrote in the Large Catechism: “Therefore let all Christians regard their baptism as the daily garment that they are to wear all the time. Every day they should be found in faith and with its fruits, suppressing the old creature and growing up in the new. If we want to be Christians, we must practice the work that makes us Christians, and let those who fall away return to it.”



Friday, July 21, 2017

Commemoration of Ezekiel, Prophet

Today we remember and give thanks for the prophet Ezekiel.  Ezekiel, son of Buzi, was a priest, called by God to be a prophet to the exiles during the Babylonian captivity (Ez. 1:3). In 597 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army brought the king of Judah and thousands of the best citizens of Jerusalem—including Ezekiel—to Babylon (2 Kgs 24:8–16). Ezekiel’s priestly background profoundly stamped his prophecy, as the holiness of God and the Temple figure prominently in his messages (for example, Ezekiel 9–10 and 40–48). From 593 B.C. to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 B.C., Ezekiel prophesied the inevitability of divine judgment on Jerusalem, on the exiles in Babylon, and on seven nations that surrounded Israel (Ezekiel 1–32). Jerusalem would fall, and the exiles would not quickly return, as a just consequence of their sin. Once word reached Ezekiel that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, his message became one of comfort and hope. Through him God promised that his people would experience future restoration, renewal and revival in the coming Messianic kingdom (Ezekiel 33–48). Much of the strange symbolism of Ezekiel’s prophecies was later employed in the Revelation to St. John.

Collect of the Day:
 Lord God, heavenly Father, through the prophet Ezekiel, 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.