Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Mark's thoughts: To my Roman Catholic friends in this time of crisis

In recent days it has been nearly impossible to ignore the stream of shocking revelations and allegations regarding the Roman Catholic church.  New evidence of widespread sexual abuse by priests has come to light.  There has been the revelation that now ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was well known among church leaders for his homosexual activities.  And then there has been the allegation by Archbishop Carlo Maria ViganĂ² that Pope Francis himself has been involved in ignoring McCarrick’s behavior, while instead giving him new responsibilities.  It has become clear that homosexual behavior and acceptance has a strong presence among the Roman Catholic clergy – especially among those in positions of leadership.

As I have watched these developments, my thoughts have often turned to the effect this is having on my Roman Catholic friends.  During the time that my children attended a Roman Catholic parochial school I had the opportunity to get to know many faithful and pious Roman Catholic congregation members. These have been traumatic revelations that have caused great pain, frustration and anger.  They shake confidence in the church, and there is the potential for Satan to use them undermine faith in Christ himself.  And so I pray for you as fellow baptized Christians who confess the same ecumenical Creeds and with whom I share in so much catholic faith and practice.
I also pray that the truth of these matters will be revealed, and that in this process the Roman Catholic church will be enabled to hold onto and actually practice the biblical teaching about sexuality she confesses.  This is important for the well being of the Christians who are part of your fellowship.  It is equally important for me and all Christians who hold a biblical view about sexuality.  If the forces in the Roman Catholic church that promote homosexuality (and I can only view Pope Francis, at the very least, as being sympathetic to this cause ) succeed in increasing the Roman Catholic church’s official acceptance of homosexuality, it will have a devastating impact on Christianity as a whole.  The sheer ecclesial weight of the Roman Catholic church aligned with the immense cultural power of homosexuality would make homosexuality nearly impossible to resist.  Only God knows how it would be possible.

Because the media seeks to advance the cause of homosexuality, it has refused to acknowledge what analysis has made clear. While certainly there are priests who have sexually abused girls, the majority of abuse has involved homosexual activity by priests directed at boys who have passed through puberty.  This abuse, in turn, is part of the larger homosexual culture that has established itself in the Roman Catholic clergy.

I have seen Roman Catholic writers honestly and courageously confront this fact.  But in these responses there is, to me, a puzzling inability and unwillingness to address another issue.  To be sure, all kinds of sexual abuse exist in the churches of all fellowships.  But it seems undeniable that the preponderance of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church is directed at boys, male youths, and seminarians. This, in turn, is one symptom of the fact that homosexual activity has a strong presence among Roman Catholic clergy and seminaries.

On the other hand, sexual abuse by non-Roman Catholic pastors is weighted more heavily toward female victims.  Pastors removed from office because of sexual sin with adults, usually engage in sin involving women.  In those fellowships that have not followed in the way of liberal Christianity by accepting homosexuality, homosexual activity among clergy is basically unheard of.  Pastors may commit adultery. They don’t typically have sex with other men.

To many outside the Roman Catholic church, there is an obvious explanation for this striking difference and for the character of the current Roman Catholic crisis: The Roman Catholic church alone requires priests to be unmarried and celibate.  I encourage my Roman Catholic friends at least to consider this possibility, and ask themselves if it rings true.  Although the Roman Catholic church officially rejects homosexual activity as sinful, among the churches that hold this biblical view, she alone is plagued by the common problem of homosexual clergy. And it is she alone who denies her clergy permission to live as married men.

If one is willing to engage this possibility, it leads to a consideration of the ways that this requirement contradicts what Holy Scripture actually says. There is no passage in Holy Scripture that says a priest/pastor must be unmarried and celibate.  In fact, quite the opposite, Paul writes:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? (1 Timothy 3:1-5; see also Titus 1:5-6).

Because of this clear biblical teaching, there is a long history of married priests.  The Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. refused to require celibacy and it was only at the end of the eleventh century when Pope Gregory VII enforced celibacy in a general way.  At the time when he did this, priests in Germany were still allowed to marry.

The requirement of celibacy contradicts what God has revealed in his Word about the ordering of his creation. God created man as male and female and gave them the mandate to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:27-28).  He said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genes 2:18), and created Eve from Adam to be joined in the one flesh union of marriage (2:21-25; see also Matthew 19:4-6).  Scripture clearly teaches that the married state was instituted by God to avoid sexual immorality.  The apostle Paul stated, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband (1 Corinthians 7:2), and then went on to say, But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9).

To be sure, Paul recognized that the man who was single and celibate can devote all his attention to service in the Church.  He wrote:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:32-35)

Yet the Lord Jesus explicitly stated (Matthew 19:9-12) that this is not something everyone can do. When the disciples heard Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce they said, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10).  Our Lord responded, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given” (Matthew 19:11). He knew human nature and the fact that few people have the gift to live a celibate life.

When a church demands requirements that contradict God’s Word and what he has revealed about his ordering of creation, the result will always be harmful for God’s people.  In 1530 the first Lutherans stated in the Augsburg Confession regarding the prohibition of clergy marriage: “From everyone, both of high and low degree, a mighty, loud complaint has been heard throughout the world about the flagrant immorality and dissolute life of priests who were not able to remain chaste; their vices reached the height of abomination” (XXIII.1).  Those words continue to ring true as we survey the Roman Catholic crisis today.

In the prohibition of marriage and the demand for celibacy among clergy we see one small example of what happens when a church establishes teachings that have no basis in Scripture, or that in fact contradict it.  There are others that could be discussed such as the distinction between “guilt” and “punishment” that provides the foundation for the teaching about Penance.  If anything I have written here about the crisis invites further consideration, there is a place where this can be done.  The Lutheran church shares in the same catholic heritage you have known that confesses the Creeds, the work of the Spirit in Holy Baptism, and the true body and blood of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar.  You will find the catholic practice of the liturgy.  But you will also find teaching based on what Holy Scripture actually says.

I write this in Christian love for my Roman Catholic friends.  The events that are taking place are so terrible, and I have seen from their comments how they have been hurt. If you believe that there are specific reasons that have caused this crisis, then how can love remain silent?

My Roman Catholic friends are of course free to reject any connection between the requirement of clergy celibacy and the present crisis.  They are resourced in views about Tradition that can be used to explain and justify the practice of clergy celibacy, despite what the text of Scripture says.  For all my friends who continue in this way it is my prayer that the truth about these events will be revealed; that your church will stand firm in confessing what God’s Word says about sexuality; and that you will remain firm in faith toward Jesus Christ who died for our sins and rose from the dead. Together we pray “Come Lord Jesus!” as we look for the Day when the crises will be no more, and we will be united as every knee bows and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


Commemoration of Augustine of Hippo, Pastor and Theologian

Today we remember and give thanks for Augustine of Hippo, Pastor and Theologian.  Augustine was one of the greatest of the Latin church fathers and a significant influence in the formation of Western Christianity, including Lutheranism. Born in A.D. 354 in North Africa, Augustine’s early life was distinguished by exceptional advancement as a teacher of rhetoric. In his book Confessions he describes his life before his conversion to Christianity, when he was drawn into the moral laxity of the day and fathered an illegitimate son. Through the devotion of his sainted mother Monica and the preaching of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (339–97), Augustine was converted to the Christian faith. During the great Pelagian controversies of the 5th century, Augustine emphasized the unilateral grace of God in the salvation of mankind. Bishop and theologian at Hippo in North Africa from A.D. 395 until his death in 430, Augustine was a man of great intelligence, a fierce defender of the orthodox faith, and a prolific writer. In addition to the book Confessions, Augustine’s book City of God had a great impact upon the church throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Collect of the Day:
O Lord God, the light of the minds that know you, the life of the souls that love you, and the strength of the hearts that serve you, give us strength to follow the example of your servant Augustine of Hippos, so that knowing you we may truly love you and loving you we may fully serve you – for to serve you is perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Feast of St. Bartholomew, Apostle

Today is the Feast of  St. Bartholomew, Apostle.  Bartholomew was one of twelve apostles chosen by Christ (Matthew 10:1-4).  Most likely he is called Nathaniel in the Gospel of John (John 1:45-51).  If this identification is accurate, then his personal name was Nathaniel and Bartholomew is an Aramaic patronymic (i.e. identifying the person as the son of someone: “the son of Tholomaeus” or the like).  Nathaniel was from Cana and was present with six other disciples when the risen Lord appeared by the Sea of Galilee and hosted a breakfast for them (John 21:1-14).  According to some Early Church Fathers, Bartholomew brought the Gospel to Armenia, where he was martyred by being flayed alive.

Scripture reading:
 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”   John 1:43-51

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, your Son, Jesus Christ, chose Bartholomew to be an apostle to preach the blessed Gospel.  Grant that Your Church may love what he believed and preach what he taught; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity - 2 Cor 3:4-11

                                                                                    Trinity 12
                                                                                    2 Cor 3:4-11

            Letters – actual physical pieces of paper sent through the U.S. Postal Service – are becoming less and less common.  One wonders if someday they will be like a phone booth with a pay phone inside – something that dates a movie or television show to the time when it was made.
            Things haven’t arrived at that point yet.  Not everyone operates in a purely digital way. And there seem to be settings where there is still almost a preference for a physical letter.  In my experience, that seems to be the case with letters of recommendation.
            As a pastor, I get asked to write letters of recommendation on a fairly regular basis.  A pastor is supposed to be an honest individual who is concerned about a person’s character, and who knows something about the members of his congregation.  Not surprisingly then, people ask the pastor to write letters of recommendation for members as they apply to scholarships and pursue opportunities.  A letter of recommendation from the pastor is usually a pretty good bet.  He is a respected source who should be able to write an articulate letter that will be helpful.  And when asked to do this, I have noticed that quite often, it is still a matter of printing a letter on church letterhead.
            Letters of recommendation were even more important in the ancient world than they are today.  If you want to learn about a person today you have several different resources you can use.  You can simply “google” the person and that can provide a huge amount of information.  You can look on social media to see the kinds of relationships they have.  You can look at the kinds of things they post and “like.”  In a very short time you can get a good idea about who the individual is and what they are about.
            Of course, none of those things were available in the first century.  You couldn’t send an email or make a phone call of inquiry.  Instead, if someone came to you asking for help or claiming to be involved in doing something, the only real assurance they could provide was a letter of recommendation.  These were very important in the functioning of the ancient world.
            Letters of recommendation were also extremely important in the functioning of the early Church.  There were small groups of Christians spread throughout the Mediterranean world.  They relied on hospitality – the provision of food and lodging for strangers – in order to support mission work and other activities of the Church.  Letters of recommendation were a key instrument in making this work.
            Some men had come to the congregation at Corinth.  They bore letters of recommendation that indicated they were people to be taken seriously.  Once there in Corinth, they stared to cause problems. They made claims about themselves and their importance. They also attacked Paul and his ministry. Paul had changed his travel plans and had not come to Corinth as scheduled.  This was used to call into question whether he was trustworthy.  Other specifics are not entirely clear, but we do know that Paul viewed them as a serious threat to the church at Corinth as he dealt with this congregation that already had enough problems of its own, without anyone coming from the outside and bringing more.
            The apostle Paul has just explained about the change in his travel plans – changes that were caused by the Corinthians’ own actions.  The apostle had gone on to say, “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.”
              Then immediately before our text, Paul had said, “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all.”  Paul’s opponents may have needed letters of recommendation, but he didn’t.  He was the one who had first preached the Gospel to them.  Their very existence as a church was his letter of recommendation.  And indeed, in his love for them, Paul can say that they were written on his heart and that of his co-worker Timothy.
            Next, continuing the metaphor of writing, Paul shifts to a discussion of the Spirit’s work.  He says, “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”    Alluding to the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, Paul says that the Spirit had written on their heart as he made them believers.
            This work of the Spirit in Christ’s new covenant is what gives Paul confidence.  And so he says in our text, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
            Paul says that he has confidence through Christ toward God.  Though you and I aren’t apostles, the same thing is true for us because we too have been included in the new covenant. God had made the first covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai as he took them to be his people.  But Israel was never meant to be an end in herself.  From God’s promise to Abraham that in his offspring all nations would be blessed, it was always God’s plan to work through Israel to bring salvation to all people – to bring salvation to you.
            The first covenant with its Torah – its Law – was meant for the time until the coming of Christ.  But it was never meant to be the final word.  Instead, God said through the prophet Jeremiah, "Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.” God said that in this new covenant he would put his law within them and write it on their hearts.
            Around the same time, through the prophet Ezekiel, God revealed more about this end time action. He said, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
            God’s Spirit began this end time salvation as through his work the Son of God was conceived in the virgin Mary.  True God and true man, Jesus Christ established the new covenant by the shedding of his blood. That is why he said in the institution of the Sacrament of the Altar that the cup of wine is the new covenant in his blood.
            Jesus Christ established the new covenant by dying for you sins.  In fact in this letter Paul says about God’s action in Christ, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Yet Jesus Christ did not remain dead. The Holy Spirit raised Jesus on the third day.  As Paul said in the same chapter, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
            You have been included in this new covenant.  It was the Spirit’s work as he created faith in Jesus.  It was the Spirit’s work as you received the washing of regeneration and renewal in Holy Baptism.  The letter of the law with its demands kills. But the Spirit has given you new life.  As those are in Christ your sins are forgiven – even the sin you commit when you do what is right!  On account of Christ God now considers your good works to be good, and the Spirit of Christ leads and enables you to do them.
            Paul says in our text, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.”  The challenge then for us is not to forget that we have the confidence of belonging to the new covenant through the work of the Spirit.  On the one hand, there is always the temptation to overlook Jesus Christ and all he means to us.  The old Adam always wants to find the sufficiency in himself, as if he has no problems when in fact he is the problem. 
            And on the other hand we are tempted to forget that we have this confidence because of Christ.  We can allow ourselves to become bogged down in guilt and regret.  Yet this is to forget that we have received blessings from a ministry of the Spirit, not a ministry of death. 
            At the end of our text Paul alludes to how Moses’ face used to shine after he had been in the presence of Yahweh, and that he would then cover his face with a veil in the presence of the people until this appearance faded away.  Paul then says, “Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.”
            Through this ministry of righteousness God has given you forgiveness and reconciliation.  He has made you part of the new covenant through a ministry that exceeds even the glory of what he did in the Old Testament.  How can we lose sight of God’s forgiveness and love when we receive the blessings of such a glorious ministry from him?
            And note what Paul says in the final verse of our text: “For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.”  The New Covenant is the covenant of the end times.  It is permanent.  The blessings of forgiveness and life with God will never wear out. They will never fade away.  Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.