Thursday, July 28, 2016

Mark's thoughts: Which Bohlmann do we remember?

The recent death of LCMS President Emeritus Dr. Ralph Bohlmann has prompted many to recount his service to the Lutheran Church –Missouri Synod.  He has been lauded as a true churchman, and in particular his faithful stand during the contentious 1960’s and 1970’s has been praised. 

It is natural that in death we attempt to remember the good about a person.   In Dr. Bohlmann’s case there certainly is much to recount as he helped the LCMS to remain faithful to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions during a crisis in our history.

But we are not helped in our understanding of the present if we are not also honest about the past.  As we look back, the question must be raised: Which Dr. Bohlmann are we remembering?  Dr. Bohlmann was president of the LCMS from 1981-1992.  During this period, a different Dr. Bohlmann emerged.  I was not a pastor during these years (finishing college in the last year of his presidency).  However, during that period I heard much about what Dr. Bohlmann was doing.  My grandfather, Dr. Raymond Surburg, was on the faculty at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN and during our many visits to see the grandparents I heard about the increasingly liberal approach that Dr. Bohlmann was pursuing.  Indeed, it is not without reason that conservative and confessional Lutherans were thankful that Dr. Alvin Barry defeated Dr. Bohlmann in 1992 and became the new LCMS president. 

The decade that followed the walkout and its aftermath was an important one for the LCMS in helping to chart the trajectory that has brought us to where we are today.  Dr. Bohlmann’s leadership was a significant factor in this.  This must also be remembered.  And so I was very interested to see the piece that Dr. Matthew Becker wrote on his blog about Dr. Bohlmann.  Dr. Becker was, of course, removed from the roster of the LCMS because he has long publicly advocated positions that are contrary to the biblical faith.  His assessment of Dr. Bohlmann and the description of their interaction provides a needed balance to the recent discussion.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Mark's thoughts: Take the Small Catechism challenge

The following will appear in the August newsletter at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Marion, IL.:

When I entered Concordia Seminary as a first year student, I was quite sure that I was done with Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.  As a pre-seminary student at Concordia College, Ann Arbor I had received an introduction into the study of theology.  I was thrilled by the experience and was eager to learn more – to go deeper.  The last thing I expected this to include was the Small Catechism.  After all, what could a text I had studied in Confirmation class during seventh and eighth grade teach me?

I maintained this attitude during the first year of my seminary education.  Yet during my second year at the seminary I received my introduction to a professor who would prove to be one of the greatest influences on me as a pastor and theologian: Dr. Norman Nagel.  Dr. Nagel is a brilliant theologian and I did indeed learn much from him that is profound.  Yet I also soon realized that that Dr. Nagel was not finished with the Small Catechism.  In fact he often quoted and made reference to it.  And eventually I concluded that if Dr. Nagel was not finished with the Small Catechism, then I wasn’t ready to be done either.

It is, of course, important to distinguish between the Catechism and the Small Catechism.  The Catechism is the collection of basic Christian texts that state the Christian faith.  Luther and the Lutherans did not invent these, but rather received them as part of the catholic heritage shared by all Christians.  The Catechism consists of: 1) The Ten Commandments 2) The Apostles’ Creed 3) The Lord’s Prayer 4) Matthew 28:19 (Holy Baptism) 5) John 20:22-23 (Holy Absolution) 6) The Words of Institution (Lord’s Supper).  These texts are the Christian faith “in a nutshell.”  They are a summary of the essentials of the Christian faith. 

Martin Luther wrote explanations for each of the parts of the Catechism in the Small Catechism.  The intended purpose and audience is quite clear because almost every section is introduced by a statement that says, “As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.”  There are two things to note about this statement. First, we learn that the Small Catechism provides a simple and basic explanation of the faith for those who need it in this way (usually children and youth).  Second, we find that the Small Catechism was written as an instrument for parents.  It was written so that they can teach the faith to their children in the home.

In the Small Catechism, Luther explains the parts of the Catechism in a simple way. But that doesn’t mean that the explanations are simple.  In fact, in their wording and organization they contain deep theology.  The words Luther has chosen to use invite deeper reflection and express profound truths .  

At the same time, the explanations also provide language that guides the way we think and talk about the faith as Lutherans.  This is important for two reasons.  First, it equips us to speak to others about what we believe.  And second, it keeps us grounded in the evangelical catholic faith as we are surrounded by a culture that wants to draw us into error.

In order for the explanations of the Small Catechism to function in this way, they need to be in our head.  This happens as we learn them by heart.  The first step in this process is to begin using them as we seek to commit them to memory.  The second step is that we continue to use them so that they go beyond memorization.  Memorized items are learned and then forgotten.  Items we have learned by heart are things that we use over and over until they become part of us.  Once they are part of us, they begin to shape and form the way we think and speak. 

With this goal in mind, I am challenging each member of Good Shepherd to commit to memory, (re-commit to memory?) the explanations of the Small Catechism during this school year and to begin to make them part of your devotional life.  If we use them daily, they soon begin to stick in our mind (though as our mind gets older we may have to be a little more intentional about trying to commit them to memory). And by continuing to use them daily we move beyond memorization to learning them by heart and all of the benefits this brings.

Each Sunday our Learn by Heart text is printed on the back of the bulletin and we speak this during the opening announcements. We will begin the Small Catechism anew on Sunday, August 15.  For the most part we take up one explanation a week (two weeks on some of the longer ones).  Use this as the Small Catechism text in your personal and family devotions.  Work on this as families and couples.  Challenge one another to learn these by heart.  Speak about what they mean with one another.

A flash card format supplied by Concordia Publishing House is available, as is the Small Catechism set to music for children. These are simple words and they are profound words that equip us to think and speak about the faith.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Commemoration of Elijah

 Today we remember and give thanks for the prophet Elijah.  Elijah, whose name means, “My God is Yahweh [the Lord],” prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel, mostly during the reign of Ahab (874–853 B.C.). Ahab, under the influence of his pagan wife Jezebel, had encouraged the worship of Baal throughout his kingdom, even as Jezebel sought to get rid of the worship of Yahweh. Elijah was called by God to denounce this idolatry and to call the people of Israel back to the worship Yahweh as the only true God (as he did in 1 Kgs 18:20–40). Elijah was a rugged and imposing figure, living in the wilderness and dressing in a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt (2 Kgs 1:8). He was a prophet mighty in word and deed. Many miracles were done through Elijah, including the raising of the dead (1 Kgs 17:17–24), and the effecting of a long drought in Israel (1 Kgs 17:1). At the end of his ministry, he was taken up into heaven as Elisha, his successor, looked on (2 Kgs 2:11). Later on the prophet Malachi proclaimed that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah (Mal 4:5–6), a prophecy that was fulfilled in the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist (Mt 11:14). 

Collect of the Day: Lord God, heavenly Father, through the prophet Elijah, you continued the prophetic pattern of teaching your people the truth 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.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity - Rom 6:19-23

                                                                                             Trinity 7
                                                                                              Rom 6:19-23

“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?” That’s how the apostle Paul began this chapter of his letter to the Romans. Paul had just described how God had responded to the sin of the one man, Adam. He had written, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.”

The apostle has just described God’s answer to sin in Jesus Christ. At the end of chapter five he had told of how God’s grace had outstripped sin in order to give us life. He said, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

God’s grace in Jesus has abounded beyond sin in order to give us eternal life. God’s righteousness – his saving action to put all things right – has justified us through faith in Christ. The apostle has made it clear that all of this is a matter of God’s grace, and not of works. It can’t be earned. Instead it is God’s grace in Christ that has overcome sin.

You are forgiven. You don’t have to do anything. In fact, you can’t do anything. But as fallen people, we are always looking for an angle we can work. If I am forgiven by God’s grace in Christ and I don’t have to do anything, doesn’t this mean that I am now free to do what I want? Paul answers this directly with that rhetorical question in the first verse of chapter six as he asks, ““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?”

Paul says that it can’t work this way because we have shared in the death of the risen Lord. The apostle takes us back to our baptism. In now famous words he writes, “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.”

When you were baptized you were buried with Christ. Only one kind of person is buried – a dead one. The apostle is saying that in baptism you shared in the saving death of Jesus. His death became yours, and therefore you received the saving benefits he won for you. Martin Luther described this as the “great exchange.” Jesus Christ received your sin and judgment. You received his righteousness and the status of being a child of God.

Jesus Christ died for you. But then, on the third day, God raised him from the dead. Now Jesus’ resurrection provides the guarantee that you will be raised too. In 1 Corinthians Paul describes the risen Lord as the “first fruits” of the resurrection – he is the first part that assures us all the rest will follow. God raised and transformed Jesus’ body, and therefore you know that he will do the same for you on the Last Day when Christ returns in glory.

But in this section of Romans, Jesus’ resurrection and defeat of death has another significance. It is one that applies not to the future, but to the present. Paul 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.” The connection Paul makes is between Christ being raised from the dead and we as Christians walking in newness of life.

At this point in the letter the connection remains implicit. But in chapter eight Paul makes it clear. The Holy Spirit is the One who links Jesus’ resurrection with how we live now. He says, “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.” 

The Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is in you as well. On the Last Day, the Spirit will do to you the same thing he did for Jesus. But it’s not as if the Spirit is just “hanging out” until then. Instead, the Spirit is at work in Christians to enable them to live in ways that fulfill God’s will. The power of the resurrection is already at work in you to help you live as a child of God.

Now if that was all there is to it, I could stop this sermon right here. In fact, we could end the service right now. But unfortunately, it’s not. While we are a new creation in Christ through the work of the Spirit, we are also still old man. The sinful, fallen nature still clings to us. That’s why Paul will go on to say in chapter seven, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” We find it easy to act in selfish ways. We find it easy to act in ways that ignore God and our neighbor, and instead serve me.

Because of this reality, just before our text Paul 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.”
Because of the work of the Spirit we have been brought from death to life. And so Paul urges us to present our bodies to God as instruments of rightouesness. The apostle says that we are slaves to whatever we obey. He writes, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” 

So in our text Paul goes on to say, “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” The apostle says that before the Romans were Christians they presented their bodies to sin in a way that simply resulted in more sin. But now he urges them to present their bodies as slaves to God’s saving action which results in their sanctification. It makes them holy before God’s eyes because of Christ, and also through God’s Spirit causes them to live in ways that are true to God’s will.

This past Monday we celebrated the Fourth of July – Independence Day. We celebrated the fact that our nation became free from England and then went on to guarantee freedoms to the citizens of this nation. We like to think of ourselves as being free. But the apostle says that when it comes to spiritual matters, there is no freedom. We are either slaves of sin, or we are slaves of God and his righteousness. Paul says in our text, “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”

You can be free from doing things God’s way. But that only means that you are a slave of sin. And to be free from God’s and his righteousness – his action to put all things right – can only result in death. Those are the wages of sin. That is what sin gets you – death. It brings physical death. It also condemns to eternal death – to separation from God.
On the other hand, those who have been freed from sin are still enslaved. Yet now they are enslaved to God. And where God’s saving righteousness is at work it produces the fruit of sanctification. It produces fruit that leads to eternal life.

It produces fruit that leads to sanctification and eternal life because the source of this fruit is the righteousness of God. It’s not what we do that produces this life. Instead, as Paul says at the end of our text, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
You have died with Christ in baptism. You have been buried with him. Because of Jesus the risen Lord your sins have been forgiven and now the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is a work in you. This is a gift. You have received it only because of God’s grace – his undeserved loving favor. You receive it only by faith and not by doing. In Christ the righteousness of God – his saving action to put all things right – has given you salvation and eternal life.

Your calling now is to be what God has made you to be. This can only happen if your life remains focused on what God used to make you a justified believer in the first place. It must remain focused on God’s Means of Grace. We return in faith to baptism for there we have the certainty of forgiveness and the source of the Spirit’s work in our life. We listen to the life giving Word of God preached to us. And we come to the Sacrament for here Jesus feeds the new man.

Through these means God enables us to listen to Paul’s words in our text when he says: “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” We do this because of what God has done for us; because of what God has made us to be. We do this because we know that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”