Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Commemoration of David

Today we remember and give thanks for David.  David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, ruled from about 1010 to 970 B.C.  David was gifted musically. He helped to organize the music for the temple and was the author of 73 psalms. His public and private character displayed a mixture of faithfulness (for example, his defeat of the giant Goliath; 1 Samuel 17) and sin (as in his adultery with Uriah’s wife, followed by his murder of Uriah, 2 Samuel 11).  In 2 Samuel 7:12-16, God promised that He would establish David’s kingdom forever, as He promised that the Messiah would descend from David.   It was under David’s leadership that the people of Israel were united into a single nation with Jerusalem as its capital city.

Collect of the Day:
God of majesty, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven, we give you thanks for David who, through the Psalter, gave your people hymns to sing with joy in our worship on earth so that we may glimpse your beauty.  Bring us to the fulfillment of that hope of perfection that will be ours as we stand before your unveiled glory; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs.  In the attempt to kill the infant Jesus, King Herod the Great murdered all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger (Matthew 2:16-18).  Since they were killed because of Christ, the Church very early honored these babies as “the buds of the martyrs,” killed by the frost of hate as soon as they appeared.  The Holy Innocents remind us of the terrible cruelty which sin has brought into the world.  Their deaths point forward to the death and resurrection of the Innocent One, Jesus Christ through whom God has conquered sin and death.

Scripture reading:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:13-18)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, the martyred innocents of Bethlehem showed forth Your praise not by speaking but by dying.  Put to death in us all that is in conflict with Your will that our lives may bear witness to the faith we profess with our lips; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Mark's thoughts: The "missional" Martin Luther

“Missional” is an adjective that one encounters in discussions about the Church today.  I do not presume to understand all that the term entails for those who use it.  Certainly it involves a focus on speaking the Gospel to others as the Church engages in the mission of making disciples of all nations through baptism and teaching (Matthew 28:19-20).

Implicitly, and at times explicitly, “missional” is often set in contrast to pure doctrine. The concern for maintaining pure doctrine in the Church is seen as an approach that is closed off to the world – one that is more concerned about right teaching than about the sharing the Gospel.

When “missional” describes practice, this often does not have a strong emphasis on the Sacraments.  The language and worship forms are taken from the world of American evangelicalism where the Sacraments, of course, do not hold a central place in the understanding of the Gospel. 

In general, we are told that Lutherans are not “missional.”  To be sure, everyone must admit that they could be more bold in sharing Christ.  No doubt there are Lutherans who have allowed a Germanic cultural heritage to insulate them from the challenge of speaking the Gospel to others.  At the same time the Lutheran understanding of how God works through the Word and the Sacraments (Augsburg Confession, article VI) will operate in ways that are very different from those who hold to Arminianism.  Likewise in an American religious culture that has been shaped by Arminianism, those efforts will produce more of what the world calls “success.”

It was therefore with great interest that I read Martin Luther’s Church Postil on the Epistle for the Second Day of Christmas, Titus 3:4-8.  As Luther discusses the text he writes that “Christ has saved us once for all in two ways”:

First, He has done all that is necessary for our salvation, namely, He conquered and destroyed sin, death and hell, so that nothing remains for anyone to do.  Second, He has given all this to all of us in Baptism, so that whoever believes that Christ has done this, immediately in that moment has everything, and all his sins along with death and hell are gone, so that he needs nothing more for salvation than faith (LW 75:236).

In this way, God does away with idea of works that merit salvation, and instead works are done for the benefit of the neighbor and the glory of God:

God pours such superabundant blessings over us in Baptism in order to abolish works by which fools presume to obtain heaven and be saved.  No, dear friends, you must have heaven and already be saved before you do good works. Works do not merit heaven, but just the opposite; heaven, given purely by grace, does the good works, without seeking merit, simply for the benefit of one’s neighbor and for the glory of God, until the body is redeemed from sin, death and hell. Therefore, all of life which a right-believing Christian lives after Baptism is nothing more than a waiting for the revelation of the salvation that he already has (LW 75:236-237).

The Christian possesses salvation, but for now it is hidden in faith. And so Luther can say:

Therefore the rest of life after Baptism is nothing more than a looking forward to, a waiting, and a longing for the revelation of what is in us, so that we may take hold of what has taken hold of us, as St. Paul says, “I pursue it to take hold of it, because Christ Jesus has taken hold of me” (Philippians 3 [:12]), that is, that I may see what good things have been put into the shrine of faith.  He is curious to see his treasure, which Baptism has given and sealed to him in faith (LW 75:237).

It is when Luther turns to comment on this time of waiting that his thoughts take a fascinating turn.  He writes:

This waiting and the rest of life after Baptism serve [first] so that He may mortify our bodies and display the power of His grace in the conflict against the flesh, the world, and the devil; and finally so that He may benefit our neighbors through us and bring them also to faith through our preaching and life. Although He could do that through angels, He wants to do that through us, so that faith would remain and things would be done pleasantly.  No faith would remain if the angels unceasingly walked among us. That would not be so pleasant as is the nature which is like us, with which we are familiar, and which we know.  If we all were taken to heaven immediately after Baptism, who would with their words and good example convert the others and bring them to God? (LW 75:238; emphasis added).

Luther lives in a world where everyone is baptized, but he is under no illusions about that status of those who are not fed through Christ’s Means of Grace during their lives.  His thought is grounded in Holy Baptism. Saved from having to do anything for salvation, the life of faith is active in a love which shares Christ in word and deed with the neighbor.  Luther stands ready to fight for pure doctrine, but defined in Lutheran terms, that sounds rather “missional” indeed.


Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Today  is the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist.  John and his brother James were among the first apostles called by Jesus.  He was present with our Lord at His transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemane.  From the cross, Jesus entrusted the care of His mother Mary to John.  He is the author of the Gospel that bears his name, as well as three epistles and the Book of Revelation.  According to tradition, John was banished to the island of Patmos (off the coast of Asia Minor) by the Roman emperor Domitian.  In his later work John is associated with Ephesus and he is believed to have been the only apostle who did not die a martyr’s death as he lived to a very old age and died at the end of the first century A.D. 

Scripture reading:
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 

So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.  Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:20-25)

Collect of the Day:
Merciful Lord, cast the bright beams of Your light upon the Church that we, being instructed in the doctrine of your blessed apostle and evangelist John, may come to the light of everlasting life; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sermon for the Feast of St. John - 1 Jn 1:1-2:2

                                                                                                St. John
                                                                                                1 Jn 1:1-2:2

            “Suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  We speak this phrase of the Apostles’ Creed again and again.  In doing so we speak the name of the Roman prefect in Judea during the years 26 to 36 A.D.  We are so used to saying his name, that the surprise he is even mentioned two thousand years later never occurs to us.
            You see, in the setting of the leaders of the Roman empire Pontius Pilate was nothing. He was just one of thousands of governors who ruled over provinces during the history of the empire.  He wasn’t even of the senator class.  Instead, he was of the lower equestrian class – wealthy but no big deal.  He didn’t rule an important province.  Judea was a second rate province – a point revealed by the fact that its governor was chosen from the equestrian class and not from the senators.  Pontius Pilate didn’t have any Roman legions under his command. The three closest ones were in Syria under the command of that governor – now there was an important province.  Pilate only had the command of some Roman auxiliary forces.
            When considered on his own merits, there is absolutely no reason that anybody would remember Pontius Pilate today. But there he is in the Creed, and he is there for a very specific reason.  The name Pontius Pilate anchors the confession about Jesus Christ in history.  This is not like Star Wars – a fictional story that took place “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”  Instead the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ took place at a real time and place in this world.  It occurred at the beginning of the first century A.D. in Palestine.
            Today is the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist.  Just as the reference to Pontius Pilate anchors the confession of Jesus Christ in a specific place and time, so also the term “apostle” anchors John in that same place and time.  When it came time to replace Judas in Acts chapter one, Peter said the candidate for this position must be “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
            John as an apostle was an authorized representative for Christ.  But he was also someone who had heard Jesus’ words and seen his miracles.  He is someone who had seen Jesus die on the cross, and then had encountered the risen Lord on multiple occasions during the period of forty days, before he then also saw Jesus ascend into heaven.
            We hear John emphasize this fact at the beginning of his first epistle: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
            John speaks with authority about Jesus Christ because he heard these things; he saw these things; he touched these things.  And so in his writings John emphasizes the truth of the incarnation.  It is John who has given us the classic statement that we heard in the Christmas Gospel reading. After saying that the Word is God who created all things he writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  Heresy is nothing new. Already there were in the first century teachers who denied the incarnation.  And so John says in this letter: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”
            In this letter, John confesses the incarnation of the Son of God.  And along with this he has a strong emphasis on how Christians live – words that pick up what Jesus says at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel.
            John begins our text by saying, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”  At first glance this seems daunting.  God is light. There is not darkness – no sin – in him.  But to say we have fellowship with God while walking in darkness means that we are lying.  Of course, the problem is that we do sin. We know we do.
            But then John goes on to say, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”  The apostle says that if we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.  So fellowship with God, his Son, and the apostles is not about a perfect life.  The life of walking in the light is one that is lived in relation to Jesus.  It is life lived by faith in Jesus Christ.
            John leaves no doubt that sin is a continuing struggle for the Christian.  In words that we know so well from Setting One of the liturgy in the hymnal, John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
            Sin is a reality for us.  It’s there. We can’t deny it. To do so is it deceive ourselves.  Often this occurs by explaining sin away.  We justify our actions – yes I got angry, but that person caused it.  Or we follow the way of the world, which defines away sin.  Yes, lust breaks the Sixth Commandment, but it’s not like the things I am watching and looking at are hard core porn.
            John is also clear that sin is something that we are to avoid.  We are to live in ways that seek to follow God’s will.  This means that we need to be intentional about avoiding things that are temptations.  To fall to a temptation that we placed in front of ourselves is just plain dumb.  John says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”
            But we do. And so in our text John also adds these comforting words: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.          He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
            John declares that the good news in the face of sin is Jesus Christ.  He is our advocate.  He speaks on our behalf with the Father because of who he is and what he has done.  He is the only begotten Son – begotten eternally of the Father.  He is righteous.  He has no sin, not simply because he is true God, but also because he lived as the incarnate One in our world and did not sin.
            And he is the propitiation for our sins.  Propitiation is an interesting word. To “propitiate” is to make favorably inclined; to appease; to conciliate. It describes the act of gaining a favorable disposition from another, usually when something a person has done threatens this disposition.  This is how the word was used in the ancient pagan world. The gods needed to be propitiated so that they would be favorable towards people.
            But the Old Testament background for the use of the term is very different.  Here it describes the sacrifices and the cover of the Ark of the Covenant itself, that were given by God to remove sin. True, the wrath of God is in the picture. That is why the sacrifices are needed. But it is God who graciously gives them to Israel with the assurance that through them fellowship with God is maintained.
            In our text, John applies the language of propitiation to Jesus.  Jesus himself is the One who has received God’s wrath against our sin as the one great sacrifice. Because of Jesus, we are now reconciled to God. But this is not our doing.  Instead, it is the means that God himself has provided. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God does forgive us.
            But for the apostle John, things don’t stop there. They can’t.  He writes later in this letter: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
            It is the same thing that Jesus said at the Last Supper.  After washing the disciples feet our Lord said to them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
And then later he added, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  The loving service of our Lord’s death for us now leads us to act in loving service towards others.
            The apostle John carried out his ministry as an apostle – a member of a unique one time only group who had been with Jesus. He writes about what he had heard, seen and touched – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. 
            He writes about the truth. And the truth is this.  God the Father sent his Son Jesus Christ into this world in order to be the sacrifice for our sin.  He sent him as the propitiation by which God’s judgment is averted from us and we are reconciled to God.  Through faith in Jesus Christ we have forgiveness and fellowship with God. This love now leads us to love one another with acts of service.  We love, because God loved us in Christ.