Friday, October 30, 2015

New book on the history of Confirmation and the Lutheran church

I have had a number of people ask whether I will be sharing content from the presentation “Confirmation, Catechesis and First Communion – History and Pastoral Practice” that I am doing at a number of pastors’ conferences. The answer is yes – but you will need to be patient.  I am currently working on a book that will examine the history of Confirmation beginning with the New Testament material and then following the development in the western Church up to the sixteenth century, and in the Lutheran church up to the present day.

I believe such a book is needed for five reasons.  First, in order to understand Confirmation in Lutheranism today we need to know the entire history of its development rather than beginning in the sixteenth century (for example Arthur C. Repp’s classic Confirmation in the Lutheran Church devotes two and a half pages to the history of Confirmation before the Reformation).  Second, Repp’s Confirmation in the Lutheran Church which was published in 1964 is now dated in its scholarship and a new treatment is needed that engages work done since then.  Third, while Repp’s book is a classic and very helpful there are areas where correction is needed (such as in his taxonomy of confirmation). Fourth, the treatment of Confirmation in the majority of scholarship has adopted an approach that believes “Christian initiation” is a single whole comprised of water, anointing and eucharist.  An examination of this topic from the perspective of confessional Lutheran theology is needed.  Finally, parish pastors recognize that the Lutheran church’s practice of Confirmation is, to put it mildly, a source of many problems and questions.  A very strong argument can be made that Confirmation itself and the beliefs it promotes are a large part of the problem (though certainly cultural factors are also very important).

A book that examines these issues in a scholarly fashion is needed.  Yet such a book also needs to be written with a perspective that truly understands the landscape that parish pastors face today.  Writing from the setting of the parish, I intend to address both of these concerns.

I am currently in the process of working on the book.  I have been in contact with Concordia Publishing House.  Lord willing, if all goes as author and publisher hope, it will be published by CPH. This is a very large project, and it will take time.  But I believe it will make a significant contribution to our understanding of the Lutheran church’s present practice and will offer constructive suggestions for the future.    

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

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:
These things I command you, so that you will love one another.  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)

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.

Monday, October 26, 2015

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.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sermon for the Festival of the Reformation - Jn 8:31-36

                                                                                    Jn 8:31-36

            If you have watched NFL football – or really any sports recently – you probably have noticed an avalanche of ads for the companies “Fan Duel” and “Draft Kings.” It seems like these ads are constantly on TV – and in fact they are.  In the week leading up to the start of the NFL season, Draft Kings was the television’s No. 1 advertiser as it showed a commercial every minute and a half.  Fan Duel cannot have been far behind.
            “Fan Duel” and “Draft Kings” have cashed in on the fantasy football craze – a game in which people select their own team of players and then compete against other people based on the individual statistics of players they select and put in their line up each week.
            Fantasy football is huge.  Millions of people take part in leagues, sometimes just for bragging rights at the end of the football season and sometimes for the sum of money which all the participants have contributed. What Fan Duel and Draft Kings have done is to place this process online in one week formats.  Instead of waiting a whole season, people can play a week at a time.  People pay money to play, and then they can win money each week.
            Now that may sound like gambling to you.  But according to the law – with the exception of Washington, Louisiana, Arizona, Montana, Iowa and now Nevada – it’s not because a 2006 exemption says that the term “‘bet’ or ‘wager’ … does not include … participation in any fantasy or simulation sports game.”
            What legislators did not foresee in 2006 was how online fantasy football would explode in popularity. In particular it has been extremely popular with 18-35 year old males.  And that is now being recognized as a real problem because young men are the people who are most susceptible to becoming problem gamblers.  Research has shown that gambling can be addictive.  It stimulates the brain’s reward systems much like drugs do.  People, usually men, fall into patterns in which they find themselves unable to stop gambling.  They continue to gamble in spite of the fact it is obviously destroying their finances, their marriage and their family.  The thrill of gambling becomes a slavery that controls and destroys their lives.
            In the Gospel lesson for the Festival of the Reformation, Jesus addresses an unrecognized slavery.  He speaks about the slavery of sin and declares that only he can set people free. We describe the Lutheran Reformation that Martin Luther started as being about Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone.  And this is absolutely true.  But our text this morning reminds us that the Lutheran Reformation was also about recognizing the true depths of sin so that the glory of the Gospel could come clear.
            In our text this morning, Jesus is in Jerusalem and he is in a running discussion with those who oppose him, even as others are listening to the conversation.  Jesus had said, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” The Jews were puzzled by this, so Jesus added, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.”
            Our Lord declared that only faith in him could rescue people from their sins.  He said that he was from above.  The Jews were even more puzzled and so they asked, “Who are you?” Jesus said that he was what he had been telling them from the beginning, and that he had been speaking what he heard from the One who sent him. The Jews did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” And as he was saying these things, many believed in him.
            In our text Jesus now says to those who believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  Yet this prompts the response, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”  In spite of their long history of subjugation, they declared that they had never been enslaved to anyone.  And so Jesus replied, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
            Human beings want to believe that we are ok. We want to believe that we are our own masters and that we can take care of everything on our own.  The first temptation was the suggestion that we could be like God, and we’ve been trying to play that role ever since.
            Now if you are a Christian, it becomes rather obvious very quickly that everything is not ok.  The Law revealed in God’s Word shows us our sin.  It shows that we mess up in thought, word and deed.  And the central event of Scripture is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of sins.  You can’t avoid the fact that sin is a real problem and that God has acted in Jesus Christ to do something about it.
            But even after granting this, it doesn’t mean that you have to give up totally on the idea that we can take care of things – that we can be like God.  You just have to modify things a little.  That is what the medieval Church had done.  She recognized that God’s grace was necessary for forgiveness and salvation. But she set it up in a way that God’s grace equipped the Christian to do his or her part in order to achieve full salvation. 
            And so at the beginning of the sixteenth century, being a Christian was about doing.  In fact the Church had made up the “evangelical counsels” of poverty (the renunciation of private property), chastity (the renunciation of marriage) and obedience to religious superiors that were said to go over and above the Ten Commandments in obtaining merit before God.  To be “religious” was to become a monk or a nun and take up the performance of these evangelical counsels.
            Martin Luther did this. And he did it all the way.  He was the monk’s monk.  And what he found was that his doing – even when it was supposed to be assisted by God’s grace – could never bring him peace.  It could never bring him peace because Luther knew that his doing was always plagued by sin.  It was never perfect.  It was never pure.  It was never holy.
            The flip side of Luther’s discovery of the Gospel is the recognition that ever since the Fall we are warped and twisted by sin.  We have lost the image of God.  Rather than loving and serving God and our neighbor we are turned in on ourselves.  We have a God.  It’s the unholy trinity of me, myself and I.  And even after we have been reborn through the work of the Spirit in Holy Baptism, this old Adam continues to cling to us.  St. Paul described this as the Spirit and the flesh when told the Galatians, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
            Because this is so, any version of Christianity that gives a role to our doing in order to attain full salvation – or in order to achieve assurance that we are in fact a believer and are saved – is doomed to failure.  It is doomed because it has failed to come to terms with what God’s Word teaches about fallen humanity.  Martin Luther’s experience told him that something was very wrong.  His study of Scripture revealed what that problem was – the true depths of our slavery to sin.
            Yet at the same time, as Luther studied God’s Word the Gospel that provides the answer to this slavery became clear.  In our text today Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  Luther discovered that the Church had not been abiding in Christ’s word. She had lost sight of the fact that Jesus alone has provided forgiveness and salvation through his death and resurrection.  There is nothing to add.  There is nothing to do. There is nothing that we can do.
            Jesus says in our text this morning, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  Jesus the Son of God has set you free.  It is completely a matter of God’s grace.  It is an undeserved gift.  It is a gift that is simply received by faith – by believing in Jesus who died on the cross and rose from the dead.
            In Romans chapter 4 St. Paul defines this faith as the opposite of doing.  He wrote, “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.”  The illustration that I use with the catechumens is this.  If I tell you I am going to give you a million dollars, what can you do to make that happen?  Nothing!  All you can “do” is trust me and wait to receive it. In the same way faith passively receives the blessing of forgiveness that Christ has won.  After all, as Jesus says in our text today, it is the Son who sets you free – you have nothing to do with it.
            The truth about human beings is a bummer. Spiritually we are completely messed up from the moment we are conceived.  Physically we are headed for death from that first moment when we are alive.  Sin has caused all of this.  Even when we have been made a new creation in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit in baptism, we still have the old Adam clinging to us and fighting against the good every step of the way.  The Spirit does enable us to begin to love God and our neighbor instead of ourselves, but this love is never perfect.
            The Good News of the Gospel that Luther rediscovered in the Reformation is that Christ saves us in spite of this sin.  Indeed, he saves us because of this sin – because we are completely incapable of doing anything to free ourselves from the slavery of sin.  Instead by God’s grace, Jesus Christ has done everything for us. And he says to all those who believe in hin, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”