Thursday, April 30, 2015

Interview on Issues, Etc.: Does the Church Find Herself in the Same Culture as the First Century?

Today I did an interview with Todd Wilken on Issues, Etc. about whether the Church finds herself in the same culture as the first century A.D.  While there are many significant similarities between today and the first century, one of the biggest differences exists in what some parts of the Church have become.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Mark's thoughts: No gowns at Confirmation this year

If I told you that this Sunday there was going to be a group of people sitting together at the front of church wearing white gowns, what would be your guess in identifying them?  Most likely you would guess that they were confirmands and that it was Confirmation Sunday.  In the present setting of the Lutheran Church your guess would almost certainly be correct.  At the same time, that correct identification says a great deal about the piety and life of our Church today.

If you had asked that question of someone in North Africa or Italy in the fourth or fifth century A.D., the answer would have been quite different.  They would have correctly guessed that those in white gowns were the Christians who had just been baptized at the Vigil of Easter.  As they came up from the water of the baptismal font (something that was deep enough for them to enter the water up to their waist) they were clothed with a white gown.  This gown was meant to recall the apostle Paul’s words to the Galatians: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (3:27).  The newly baptized Christians wore their white gowns and sat together in services during the first week of Easter (the octave).

We see a remnant of this practice in the white chrism gown that is placed on a baby after he or she is baptized.  While the directions in the Lutheran Service Book Agenda simply say, “The pastor may place a white garment on the newly baptized,” we tend to assume that this only true of infants.  I don’t believe that I have ever seen an adult baptism in the Lutheran Church where the individual was clothed with a white gown after baptism.  I dare say that people would find this very odd.  They would probably say that it wasn’t “Lutheran.”  They might even call it “Baptist” since in that tradition individuals are known to wear white gowns for their baptism by immersion.

We don’t clothe non-infants in white gowns at Holy Baptism.  We do clothe non-infants in white gowns at Confirmation. We surround Confirmation in ceremonial that we are unwilling to apply to Holy Baptism.  Now I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that we act like we think Confirmation is more important than Baptism.  But if I didn’t know better based on what we claim to confess, I might wonder.  Which one is treated as a bigger event, a baptism or a confirmation?  It is common for Lutherans to have Confirmation parties or receptions to which friends, family and congregation members are invited. When was the last time you attended a similar Baptism party or reception?

This is surprising because, of course, theologically Confirmation is nothing.  It wasn’t instituted by Christ.  He didn’t command His Church to do it.  It has no divine promise of forgiveness or any other blessing. To be sure, we can think up good things that can be associated with it.  It is an occasion to acknowledge and give thanks that the Lord’s mandate of making disciples by baptizing and teaching has been carried out.  It is an opportunity for young people to confess the faith (though are we saying that somehow this is more “real” or important than when they confessed the Nicene Creed the previous Sunday?).  It is an occasion to pray for God’s blessing upon them.

These are nice things.  But do they really merit the kind of focus that the Lutheran Church in her piety today places upon Confirmation?  And there is another question that we need to ask as well.  Do we really want to pile this much focus and ceremonial upon a terminal event in catechesis?  Confirmation is the final event that concludes “Confirmation instruction” (catechesis).  By definition, when you are confirmed you are done being instructed.  You are finished.  In most settings it is the occasion when a young person receives the Sacrament of the Altar for the first time.  This too conveys the impression that the youth is done being instructed.  The goal has been reached and he or she is done.

Gowns at Confirmation are not simply ceremonial that conveys significance to the Rite of Confirmation.  They also bear a powerful cultural association: graduation.  The other times when people where gowns (usually of the same style) is graduation from high school and college (and increasingly, middle school).  If the goal is to send the message that Confirmation means the youth is done with learning about the faith (or worse yet, done having to spend time at church), having them wear gowns that resemble graduation gowns is a good idea.

Naturally this is not what we are trying to accomplish. And so this year the Rite of Confirmation at Good Shepherd will not include the use of confirmation gowns.  For reasons described above, this is an intentional attempt to de-emphasize Confirmation.  Instead we want to emphasize something that does have Christ’s institution, command and promise: the Sacrament of the Altar.  We want to focus more attention on when children receive the Sacramentfor the first time as we make use of the Rite of First Communion prior to Confirmation.  This is an event the follows after catechesis, but also leads into further catechesis.

We do not want to do things that focus attention on a terminal event in catechesis. We don’t want to send the message that a youth is finished. We certainly don’t want to make use of something that has the associations of graduation. 

Most congregations make use of confirmation gowns.  However, not all do.  I have been interested to learn from other pastors that they have already taken the step of discontinuing their use for the reasons discussed here.  Confirmation has had a long, and to be quite honest, a bizarre history in the Church.  Something that today many consider to be an important part of “Lutheran” life is in fact a practice that Luther and Lutherans centered around Wittenberg did not use at all.  Many of the things that people today consider to be important parts of Confirmation did not arise until the eighteenth century under the influence of Rationalism that proved so harmful to the Lutheran Church.  There is a need to examine what our practice of Confirmation has become, how it functions in our church and how this relates to what we confess as Lutherans.     

Monday, April 27, 2015

Mark's thoughts: No, it's not the first centuries all over again for the Church

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the Church finds herself living in a post-Christian world.  When we look around, the parallels with the world in which the Church of the first centuries lived are striking.  Once again the Church of the west lives in a world of religious pluralism and syncretism, and practicing Christians find themselves in the minority. The sexual ethics of today have completely reversed the dramatic transformation that Christianity had worked upon the Greco-Roman world and have returned accepted behavior to the sexual free for all of the first centuries (though no one in the first centuries was so foolish as to believe that two people of the same sex could be married).

It is important to recognize these similarities and to understand that the culture addressed by the New Testament stands closer to our own than at any time in 1500 years.   As Christians survey the cultural scene they often take comfort in the thought, “Well, the Church has faced this before.”  However while there is truth to this, there is also another reality that cannot escape our attention.

The sad fact is that the Church is not the same as she was in the first three centuries.  The Church of that time believed in the authority of Scriptures as God’s revelation.  She believed that doctrine grounded in Scripture was a key component in her life.  As one Body she rejected the world’s sexual ethics and instead spoke the truth of God’s design for his creation.

The Enlightenment of the 1700’s with its emphasis on the priority of reason has changed all of this.  It began an intellectual trajectory that has prompted large portions of what is now called the Church to reject the authority of God’s Word, and therefore to dismiss notions of truth and error in doctrine.  Where this has occurred, this same group has been carried along with the culture and has accepted the sexual ethics of today.  Homosexuality, ordained homosexuals and now same sex marriage have become accepted parts of life.

Christians who are orthodox in belief will dismiss such abdication to the world.  Yet the difference from the Church’s situation in the first centuries is important.  The Church of the first centuries stood in opposition to the world.  Now, large portions of that which calls itself Church stand with the world.  The world certainly notices this and it weakens the Church’s witness to the world.  An excellent example of this can be found in William N. Eskridge Jr.’s piece in the Sunday New York Times in which he argues that it’s not gay marriage vs. the Church anymore.  The presence of Christians who accept homosexuality and same sex marriage provides proof that these things are true and that all Christians should accept them.

Again, it is easy for orthodox Christians to dismiss this argument.  But existence of this “alternative Church” presents a threat to the Church.  In addition to weakening the witness of the Church to the world, it also threatens the future life of the Church.  Those being raised in the Church face powerful cultural forces that seek to draw them away. Simultaneously they see an alternative way of being “Church” – one that does not require struggle against the world. This a challenge that the Church of the first centuries did not face.

The Church is the Lord’s Church and so she will be sustained according to his will. At the same time, we need to be clear minded about what we face as we seek to be faithful in this time and place.  The existence of a “Church” that has become part of the world is a new threat that did not confront the Church of the first centuries.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Easter - Jubliate Jn 16:16-22

                                                                                    Easter 4
                                                                                    Jn 16:16-22

            I am very glad that the birth of our three youngest children did not take place like that of our first one.  Timothy was our first child and with no health concerns about mother or baby the plan was always for Amy to give birth without any surgery. 
            As Amy approached her due date she showed no signs of going into labor and her blood pressure started to rise.  The decision was made to induce labor. But as I have described on another occasion, two attempts at inducement failed. The third time finally worked – but that is not to say things happened quickly.  Timothy’s birth was a long ordeal that took several days.  It was an unsettling experience that left no question in my mind about how mothers and babies often died in childbirth during earlier periods of history.
            When Amy was pregnant with the twins, the experience with Timothy’s birth was still fresh in my mind.  I found the thought of doing that twice rather scary.  I was therefore relieved when it turned out that one of the babies was turned the wrong way, and the decision was made to deliver them via c section. Amy and I were going to enjoy Memorial Day, with the delivery scheduled for the following day.  However that morning her water broke and so she delivered a day early.  The experience of the c section was seemed much less stressful.  It was only after the fact that I learned that the doctor rapidly delivered Abigail after Matthew because the placenta had been cut. Their birth certificates say they were born a minute apart – it was really more like ten seconds.
            Because of the c section with the twins it was a foregone conclusion that Michael would be delivered that way as well.  And in his case everything went as planned.  This means that only in the birth of one out of our four children, did Amy fully experience what Jesus describes in our text today.  Our Lord uses the example of a woman going through the travail of labor in order to talk about the sorrow the Church experiences right now as we wait for Jesus’ return.  He acknowledges the difficulty of the present, but contrasts this with the joy that will be ours when he returns.
            Our Gospel lesson is part of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” that takes up chapters fourteen through seventeen.  Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for the fact that he is going to depart from them. They are not always going to have him present in the manner that they have experienced during the previous three years.
            In chapter fourteen Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’”  Our Lord says clearly that he is going away.  He assures them of his peace, but just before our text he acknowledges that this news does not leave them feeling peaceful.  He says, “But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.”
            The departure of Jesus is not what the disciples want.  And Jesus tells them – and us – what it is going to be like while he is gone.  He says in chapter fifteen, “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.” 
            Jesus says that his disciples must expect that the world will hate them.  After all, that is how the world reacted to Jesus.  In fact the world is so twisted by sin that those of the world will think they are serving God when they seek to kill Christians.  Our Lord says at the beginning of this chapter, “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.”
            It is impossible to listen to these words and not think of what happened this past week as Muslims in Libya executed thirty Christians from Ethiopia.  Across the Middle East and Africa we see Muslims who think they are serving God when they kill those who worship Jesus Christ, just as Jesus said would happen. 
            I am thankful that in our country we do not face such direct threats to our lives.  But the pressure of our culture to think, speak and act in ways that reject God’s will grows by the day.  The reality is we are very good at rationalizing why we watch that show or listen to that music or act in that way or remain silent in that situation.  We are very good at justifying ourselves in our own mind.  But the truth is that all too often we are just lame. We would rather take the easy way and avoid discomfort of suffering with Jesus.  We are too busy entertaining ourselves to death, to bother dying with Jesus.
            This is something that we have to confront.  We need to confess those ways that we take up the world’s side. We need to confess all of the ways we try to justify our actions.  We need to confess all of the ways that we deny Jesus Christ is our Lord and instead make the devil our Lord.
            At the end of this chapter Jesus says, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Jesus reminds us that in him we have peace.  We have peace because Jesus Christ is the risen Lord who forgives our sins. 
            Two weeks ago we heard in the Gospel lesson about how on that first Easter evening Jesus appeared in the midst of the disciples and twice said, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  He showed them the marks left by his death on the cross through which he took away the sins of the world. And then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
            Jesus showed that we have peace because he has risen from the dead and defeated death.  He showed that we have peace because in Holy Absolution he applies his cross to us and takes away our sins – he forgives us.
            Now Jesus has departed in his ascension which we will celebrate in a little under two weeks.  This is not how we want things to be done. But in this chapter, Jesus says that we are wrong.  He says, “But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
            In the mystery God’s working, the departure of the Son enables the sending of the Spirit.  It is the Spirit of Jesus who creates faith and applies what Jesus had done for us.  It is the Spirit who gave us the apostles’ writings.  Jesus said to the apostles, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”  It is the Spirit who reveals Jesus as our Savior.  Jesus said, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”
            It is the Spirit who gave you new life as you were born again in the water of Holy Baptism.  The Spirit called you to faith in Jesus Christ and sustains you in that faith.  And indeed, the words of our text inspired by the Spirit give us encouragement for the present and hope for the future.
            In our text Jesus says to the disciples: “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
            Jesus says that for now we weep and lament, while the world rejoices. We see what sin does to people and we mourn. The world looks at the sin and rejoices – even calling it “good.”  But Jesus says that this will not last forever, and that when he returns in glory and brings the final deliverance it will cause us to forget all the grief.
            Our Lord compares this experience to a pregnant woman who gives birth.  In the ancient world there was no anesthetic.  There was no epidural.  A woman experienced the full force of the pain of labor as she gave birth to a child. Jesus says, “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.”
            The woman giving birth has pain and sorrow.  Yet when she holds that new born baby there is the joy of having brought a life into the world.  Jesus says, “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
            Jesus fully acknowledges the sorrow that is present for us now as we live in this world. But as the risen Lord who has defeated sin, death and the devil he declares that the last word belongs to him.  He will return and when that happens our hearts will rejoice and no one will take our joy from us.   


Friday, April 24, 2015

Culture news: What will same sex marriage bring? Look at Canada

It seems likely that same sex marriage will be coming to every state in the U.S.  The reaction to the Indiana' religious freedom law has provided a glimpse of the future.  It's not hard to get a better picture of what that future will look like.  Same sex marriage has been federally mandated in Canada for ten years and Dawn Stefanowicz describes what this has come to mean for citizens there.

Commemoration of Johann Walter, Kantor

"Christ lag in Todesbanden" in Walters Chorgesangb├╝chlein (1524)
Today we remember and give thanks for Johann Walter, Kantor.   Johann Walter (1496-1570) began service at the age of 21 as a composer and bass singer in the court chapel of Frederick the Wise. In 1524, he published a collection of hymns arranged according to the church year. It was well received and served as the model for numerous subsequent hymnals. In addition to serving for 30 years as kantor (church musician) in the cities of Torgau and Dresden, he also assisted Martin Luther in the preparation of the Deutsche Messe (1526). Walter is remembered as the first Lutheran kantor and composer of church music.

Collect of the Day:
O Lord God, through the life, death, and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the revelation of Your salvation mystery is now revealed and made known to all the nations. Grant that this mystery of salvation, as confessed by Johann and all those who now rest from their labors, continue to guide Your Church on earth as we wait for the day when You come from heaven one last time and usher in the new creation; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.