Friday, October 28, 2016

Feast of St. Simon and St. Jude, Apostles

Today is the Feast of St. Simon and St. Jude, Apostles.  The New Testament contains four lists of the apostles (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13).  In these lists the tenth and eleventh places are occupied by Simon and Jude.  Simon is a called “the Cananean” which may mean that he was from the city of Cana.  However, it may also be a transliteration of the Aramaic word for “zealous,” which is what Luke and Acts call him (“the Zealot”; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).  It is unclear whether this describes his character or associates him with a later group in Judaism that opposed Roman rule. Jude was apparently also known as Thaddeus (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18).  According to Church tradition, Simon and Jude journeyed together as missionaries to Persia and were martyred there.

Scripture reading:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. (John 15:17-21 ESV)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, You chose Your servants Simon and Jude to be numbered among the glorious company of the apostles.  As they were faithful and zealous in their mission, so may we with ardent devotion make known the love and mercy of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Mark's thoughts: Take comfort, the end has begun

Recent events on the baseball field have people talking about the Last Day. The Chicago Cubs have not only made their first World Series since 1945, but even seem capable of winning their first World Championship since 1908. The prospect that this year the Cubs may end more than a century of futility has people joking that if this happens it will be a sure sign of the second coming of Christ!

If the World Series goes six games, it will extend into November. However in the life of the Church, November is a month that every year makes us think about the Last Day. The Last Sunday of the Church Year falls in November. The Church Year leads us through the whole scope of God’s saving action in Jesus Christ, and so the end of the Church Year focuses our attention on the end – on the Last Day when Christ will return in glory. We are reminded that Jesus’ return will happen. And when it does, it will be sudden and unexpected. In the Epistle lesson the apostle Paul says, “For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2 ESV). In the Gospel lesson Jesus tells the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins as he describes his return and concludes by saying, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13 ESV).

The events of the present have many Christians longing for Christ’s return. We see a world where the Church faces the greatest persecution, both in geographical extent and in the number of believers who are suffering, that has ever occurred. In the public square, the Sexual Revolution has all but erased the Sixth Commandment and we now live in an Alice and Wonderland world where we are told that a man is really a woman, and a woman is really man.

The month of November is also the time when the new Church Year begins. The last Sunday in November is the First Sunday in Advent. During Advent we begin our preparation to celebrate the birth of the incarnate Son of God – we prepare to celebrate Christmas. Yet the Second Sunday in Advent may give us a sense of déjà vu. The Gospel lesson for this Sunday is once again a text in which Jesus talks about his second coming. The Church simply cannot think about the first coming that has occurred without also thinking about the second coming for which we wait and keep watch. 

We watch and pray for the second coming of Christ. Yet as we do so, we take comfort in what the first coming of Christ means for us. We take comfort in the knowledge that the end has begun. Jesus proclaimed that in his person the kingdom of God – the reign of God – had arrived. He told the Pharisees, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28 ESV).

God’s reign has broken into this sinful world. By his death on the cross and resurrection , Jesus Christ has redeemed you. He has freed you from sin. Through the work of the Spirit he has called you as his own in the water of Holy Baptism. And by his resurrection from the dead he has defeated death and begun the victory of the resurrection that will be yours. You already know for certain it yours because of your baptism. As Paul told the Romans:
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. 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. (Romans 6:3-5 ESV)
Already now, everything is different. That’s why Paul described Christians as those “on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11 ESV).

This fact encourages and sustains us. We look for the return of Jesus Christ which will bring an end to all suffering and vindicate God’s people. Yet we live now as those who have already received God’s saving work in Christ. We already know the verdict of the Last Day, because as Paul tells us, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1 ESV). We live knowing that in Jesus Christ, the end has already begun.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Commemoration of Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann and Paul Gerhardt, Hymnwriters

 Today we remember and give thanks for Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt, Hymnwriters.  Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608) was a pastor in Germany during the Great Plague, which took the lives of 1,300 of his parishioners during a sixth-month period. In addition to his heroic pastoral ministry during that time of stress and sorrow, he wrote the texts for “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” and “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright,” known, respectively, as the king and queen of the Lutheran chorales. Johann Heermann (1585–1647), also a German pastor, suffered from poor health as well as from the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). His hymn texts are noted for their tenderness and depth of feeling. Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676) was another Lutheran pastor who endured the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War. By 1668 he lost his pastoral position in Berlin (for refusing to compromise his Lutheran convictions), and endured the death of four of his five children and his wife. He nevertheless managed to write 133 hymns, all of which reflect his firm faith. Along with Martin Luther he is regarded as one of Lutheranism’s finest hymn writers. 

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, the apostle Paul taught us to praise You in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.  We thank You this day for those who have given to Your Church great hymns, especially Your servants Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt.  May Your Church never lack hymnwriters who through their words and music give You praise.  Fill us with the desire to praise and thank You for Your great goodness; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Commemoration of Dorcas, Lydia and Phoebe, Faithful Women

Today we remember and give thanks for Dorcas, Lydia, and Phoebe, Faithful Women.  These women were exemplary Christians who demonstrated their faith by their material support of the Church. Dorcas (also known as Tabitha) was well-known and much loved for her acts of charity in the city of Joppa, especially for her making clothes for the poor. When Dorcas died suddenly, the members of her congregation sent to the neighboring city of Lydia for the Apostle Peter, who came and raised her from the dead (Acts 9:36–41). Lydia was a woman of Thyatira, who worked at Philippi selling a famous purple dye that was so much in demand in the ancient world. She was also a “worshiper of God” at the local synagogue. When the Apostle Paul encountered her in prayer among other proselyte women, his preaching of the Word brought Lydia to faith in Christ. She and her friends thus became the nucleus of the Christian community in Philippi (16:13–15, 40). Phoebe was another faithful woman associated with the Apostle Paul. She was a deaconess from Cenchrae (the port of Corinth) whom Paul sent to the church in Rome with his Epistle to the Romans. In it he writes of her support for the work of the early Church (Rom 16:1).

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, You stirred to compassion the hearts of Your dear servants Dorcas, Lydia, and Phoebe to uphold and sustain Your Church by their devoted and charitable deeds.  Give us the same will to love You, open our
eyes to see You in the least ones, and strengthen our hands to serve You in others, for the sake of Your Son, Jesus  Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Mark's thoughts: The Lutheran Reformation and the Forgiveness of Sins

This month we celebrate the Festival of the Reformation. Almost everyone associates this day with Martin Luther’s action of posting the Ninety-five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Many people probably know that Luther’s actions were related to subject of indulgences that were being sold in the Church. 

However, what is less well known is the central issue that ran through all of this. That issue was penance. In the medieval Church “penance” (paenitentia) meant both to be penitent (to have the attitude of repentance) and also to do penance. In the practice that developed in the medieval Church, it is the latter that received strong emphasis. 

The development of penance was a long and complicated process. It involved serious sin that was confessed in an open and public way as an individual entered into a class of penitents who were set apart during Lent, and also other sins that were confessed in private. Although the confession in private with penance assigned by a priest became the most common form, the public version continued to exist in many areas up to the fifteenth century. 

Two themes are striking about the material from the early medieval period, and though expressed in slightly different ways they never disappeared from the medieval Church’s practice of penance. The first is the notion that it is hard to get God to forgive. It is as if the sinner needs others to convince God to forgive the individual. The priest or monk interceded for the sinner asking God to forgive. Mary and the saints were asked to intercede for the same purpose. 

The second theme is the idea that a sinner must do something in order make satisfaction and remove the sin before God. The focus of medieval penance was fasting (though it also involved other actions such as giving alms to the poor, going on a pilgrimage to a holy site and speaking psalms). Long periods of fasting were required in penance that could last years. This action “made satisfaction” to God. As the seventh century A.D. Penitential of Cummean stated:

What is it then to make satisfaction for a fault unless when you receive the sinner to penance, and by warning, exhortation, teaching, lead him to penance, correct him of his error, amend him of his faults, and make him such that God is rendered favorable to him after conversion, you are said to make satisfaction for his fault? When, therefore, you are such a priest, and such is your teaching and your word there is given to you a part of those whom you correct, that their merit may be your reward and their salvation your glory. 
In Luther’s day this requirement of doing something took the form of having to make a complete confession of every sin while also being contrite in the proper way. The priest’s absolution forgave the guilt of sin that damned, but not the “penalty” that required expiation. Acts of penance were required to remove this penalty. Those who had not sufficiently dealt with the penalty of their sin would go to purgatory at death in order to be purified in what was normally described as an experience that involved fire. The indulgences that Luther addressed in the Ninety-five Theses were a means by which one could pay off time in purgatory for oneself or for loved ones who had already died. 

By his own admission, Luther didn’t have everything figured out in October 1517. But he knew that something was very wrong. As he studied the Scriptures the Gospel came clear and Luther realized that both of the themes mentioned above are false. Central for Luther in this recognition was the word, “promise.” St. Paul wrote in Romans: 

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all. (Romans 4:13-16 ESV)
Luther saw that inherent in the idea of “promise” is the fact that God wants to forgive. After all, that is why God the Father sent his Son into the world in the incarnation in the first place! Christians do not have to try and convince God to be gracious and merciful to them. God is already gracious and merciful. He wants to forgive and gave his Son on the cross as the sacrifice for sin to make this possible. 

Luther also discovered that because salvation is based on God’s promise in Christ, there is nothing we can do for forgiveness – there is nothing to earn. St. Paul also wrote in Romans chapter four: 
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:1-8 ESV) 
Instead, forgiveness and salvation is a completely unmerited gift of God. It is received by God’s grace, on account of Christ, through faith. This biblical and Reformation truth continues to be our treasure today.