Monthly Archives: September 2011
Paul McCain over at Cyberbrethren posted Pope Benedict’s remarks at The Augustinian Cloister where Martin Luther became and served as an Augustinian monk. The Pope has a keen eye for Lutheran Theology, and, as some of the comments to McCain’s post suggests, BXVI knows our theology better than a lot of Lutherans out there. Benedict observes that Christianity as we know it is changing dramatically. Despite the fallenness of this world, the sin and depravity, even among Christians the primary question is no longer “How do I receive the grace of God?” And yet, as it was for Luther, this question needs to be the question of our time:
The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God? – this burning question of Martin Luther must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.
Another important point: God, the one God, creator of heaven and earth, is no mere philosophical hypothesis regarding the origins of the universe. This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ – who is both true God and true man. Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.
Christocentric means Christ centered. Martin Luther, and orthodox Lutherans that follow his example, preach the cross — Christ and Him crucified for our sins and raised for our justification and the redemption of the world. It is clinging to the cross and, as Paul teaches, seeking to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. It is living your life in the shadow of death under the cross with the present reality of serving in the kingdom of God and His Christ as a son or daughter, bought with that life giving blood. Being Christ centered means not abandoning the cross so as not to offend so-called seekers or visitors. It means not hiding who you are so as not to turn people away. For if we do, we abandon the very source of the Grace of God and the life giving power of the blood of our Savior. And yet every ounce of our being as Christians should be dedicated to knowing Christ and Him crucified so that He can live and accomplish His saving work through us as His hands and feet in this fallen world. Jesus will accomplish His work with or without me, and in spite of me and any obstacle I throw in the way.
Pope Benedict observes that Christ and His cause is the source of what we have in common as Christians. He is the beginning and end of our faith and heritage. This common witness to Christ is what has enabled Christians across denominational lines to make ecumenical progress toward unity. Sadly, however, the impetus to water down Christianity, to remove the moorings of Christian denominations from the Body of Christ as grounded in time and space of this reality in which we live, the willingness to compromise doctrine in order to achieve so-called unity risks any ecumenical progress accomplished to date:
The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.
The second challenge to worldwide Christianity of which I wish to speak is more profound and in our country more controversial: the secularized context of the world in which we Christians today have to live and bear witness to our faith. God is increasingly being driven out of our society, and the history of revelation that Scripture recounts to us seems locked into an ever more remote past. Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization, and become modern by watering down the faith? Naturally faith today has to be thought out afresh, and above all lived afresh, so that it is suited to the present day. Yet it is not by watering the faith down, but by living it today in its fullness that we achieve this. This is a key ecumenical task. Moreover, we should help one another to develop a deeper and more lively faith. It is not strategy that saves us and saves Christianity, but faith – thought out and lived afresh; through such faith, Christ enters this world of ours, and with him, the living God. As the martyrs of the Nazi era brought us together and prompted the first great ecumenical opening, so today, faith that is lived from deep within amid a secularized world is the most powerful ecumenical force that brings us together, guiding us towards unity in the one Lord.
The task for Christians in any age of this world, as Benedict points out, is always to bring the person and work of Christ into our present reality. Christ is a reality who is present and active in this world. He is not merely an idea from a book. Nor is He simply a historical fact or a mythical figure. No person, idea, or thing has made such an enduring impression on this world and its inhabitants — ever! God in the flesh made manifest for us to restore this fallen world and fallen humanity to a right relationship with Him — the Triune God. Christ entered this world to bring truth and certainty to man, to bring light to the darkness brought on by our doubt and sin. And yet we deny Christ when we say that to be a Christian is to know nothing, that all each of us has are questions, questions that lead us each, individually, to seek and find our own way. Claiming to be wise, we become fools. Even in the church. Benedict’s point here seems to be that the roots of faith must be laid deep, nourished and fed so that we live it out to its fullest. Put another way, we are so deeply rooted and steeped in the faith handed down through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles, that it makes us who we are called to be — carriers of Christ in this world. Lights shining in the darkness, pointing to the cross.
So what is the Question of our time? Are we concerned with what God’s position is toward us individually? Or are we more concerned with standing before Him on our own two feet to experience something? Is the question of our time here and now how can we make Christianity be “authentic” or “relevant” in the culture of today? Or is the question, “What does Christ mean to take up your cross and follow me?” What does it mean to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified? Who is Jesus? My buddy? My friend? My coach? In our zeal for being relevant, do we sacrifice the reality of who Christ is and what He did in the past and accomplishes now in the present through His disciples? I think it is a call to be “authentically Christian” or really be a Christian — be who Christ called you and me to be.
Last week, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and told his father he was dead. Interestingly, he was sold to the Ishmaelites, cousins of Jacob. Ishmael was Isaac’s brother. The Ishmaelites sold Joseph to Potiphar, one of Pharoah’s officers, and a captain in the guard. God preserved Joseph’s life, and he soon came to have responsibility for the operation of Potiphar’s entire household. Yet he also found favor with Potiphar’s wife who sought to seduce him. Joseph was truly a man of God, and, trusting alway that the Lord was watching over him, refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife. He was falsely accused of trying to take advantage of her for refusing her advances, and thrown into prison. Again, however, God was moving and preserved Joseph’s life. He soon gained favor in the prison with the jailer who put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners.
God’s grace is evident throughout Joseph’s life. When one is faced with such cruel events, there is the temptation to become angry and bitter. We are tempted to reject God and blame Him for the evil that has befallen us. And while the difficulties in our life are not always God’s doing, they are quite often something He does to us in our lives. We like to see such things as bad, unjust, wrong, and evil. For Joseph, as a young boy he is torn from his family, betrayed by his very own brothers, the ones who are to watch over him and protect him. He is taken away to a foreign land and sold to a strange house. Joseph certainly would have been justified in becoming bitter and vengeful toward his brothers. We certainly could have understood if he would have embraced the gods of Egypt and rejected Adonai Elohim, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and his father Jacob. This is especially so when he suffers a further grave injustice at the hands of his master’s wife when he is falsely accused of trying to take advantage of her and thrown into prison. Yet Joseph does none of these things. Instead, he trusts in the God of his fathers to protect him. He does so despite the awful circumstances that are worked upon him by his God, our God. You see, God does not always give us what we want. He does not always come to us in ways that we can see or even expect. Our sinful flesh is opposed to God — we want to be god and not let God be who He is, submit to Him and let Him rule over us. Joseph experiences the suffering of the cross, and in faith receives God’s grace as his life is preserved. In so doing, as we will see in the next lessons, he is raised up to preserve the lives of his family in a time of desperate need.
Today the Church remembers the writer of the first Gospel, Matthew, the tax collector. Mark identifies him as Levi, the son of Alphaeus. Mar 2:14. Jesus was by the sea of Galilee, teaching the crowds when He passed by a tax booth. He said to Matthew, “Follow me,” and, he rose and followed Jesus. Matthew tells us in his Gospel account that it was near Capernaum where this took place, just after Jesus had healed a paralytic after coming into town. Matthew 9:1, 9 (see also 4:13 — Jesus went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, after John was arrested). Matthew worked for Herod Antipas, but collaborated with the Romans as well, and so was not well liked by his countrymen. Matthew’s response to the call of Christ was immediate and unquestioned — he rose, left his post, and followed Jesus, his Lord and Master. Jesus then ate with Matthew at his house, along with many other tax collectors and sinners. Luke tells us that Matthew made a great feast, and there was a great crowd. The scribes and pharisees criticized Jesus for associating with tax collectors and sinners — tax collectors were in a special class all by themselves. Jesus told them that, “[t]hose who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:31-32. Mark and Luke’s Gospel agree. Matthew adds that Jesus told the pharisees to “[g]o and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice…”” quoting Hosea 6:6.
In the early days of the church, the four Evangelists were associated with the four living creatures around the throne of God noted in Ezekiel 14, and Revelation 4. Matthew is traditionally associated with the human/angelic figure; Mark the Lion; Luke the Ox/Bull; John the Eagle. This association has come down through the ages in some beautiful art in the churches and cathedrals of the world. How each apostle became associated with each creature is not clear. It seems that, for some, the connection is based on how each Gospel starts. Matthew begins: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The genealogy then runs through the course of the human patriarchs through the line of King David to Joseph, the husband of Mary. Matthew 1:1-8. Thus Matthew is associated with the humanity of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel starts with the priesthood of Zechariah the priest offering incense, the prayers of the people, in the Temple in Jerusalem. Thus, his Gospel is associated with priestly duties symbolized by the bull or ox of sacrifice. Under this theory, Mark is the Lion because his Gospel begins with John the Baptist in the desert. John of course soars above all, and his lofty themes of divine things gives him the spiritual wings of the Eagle. A brief outline of this theory can be found in Against Heresies, Book 3, Ch. 11, Irenaues of Lyons, AnteNicene Fathers, ed. Phillip Schaff. Others examined the theme of each Gospel and drew different conclusions for Mark and Matthew and switched the living creature with which they were associated.
Not much else is known about Matthew outside of his work as the author of the Gospel bearing his name. Matthew is thought to have preached the Gospel to his own people before going out into the ends of the earth. Some of the places mentioned where Matthew may have traveled spreading the Gospel are Syria, Macedonia, Persia, and to an area just south of the Caspian Sea. Even less is known about the manner of his death, whether it was as a martyr or the blessings of old age. Regardless, in Matthew, Christ gives mercy and shows how the low are lifted up by the righteousness of Christ. In turn, the Spirit is breathed upon St. Matthew, and we are given the gift of the eternal Gospel by the pen of his hand through the working of the Holy Spirit.
If you have ever had an annoying, know it all, favorite son, little brother, then you can relate to the story of Joseph and his brothers found in Genesis 37. Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son born of Rachel whom Jacob had to work 14 long years to be permitted to marry. After many years of being unable to conceive a child, and after watching her sister bear Jacob six children, Rachel’s womb was opened. Joseph, the second youngest son — Benjamin was the youngest — was a pest. He tagged along with his brothers when they went to shepherd the flocks in the field, and then tattled on his brothers for the things they did. Jacob had a lavish coat of many colors made and gave it to Joseph. The brothers could not speak to Joseph nicely as a brother.
There was bitterness and envy between them, and when Joseph told them of the dreams he had about the son, moon, and stars and the wheat in the field all bowing down to him, they hated him even more. Yet little did they know that Joseph was making a prophecy, not just of the salvation of his family from famine, but of the salvation of the world. For Joseph’s dream introduce an important theme that runs through the story of salvation that the older shall serve the younger and the younger shall rule over the older. Put another way, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Or the greatest among you shall be the least and servant of all. This is ultimately fulfilled in the person and work of the Christ. Joseph does become for his brothers an example of the Christ and what He will do for His people. While Joseph’s older brothers sold him into slavery and told his father he was dead, eaten by a lion, Joseph did not repay their evil with evil when the time came to rescue them from the devastating famine in the land. Joseph, second in command to the Pharoah in Egypt, ruling at the right hand of the king, had mercy on his brothers, forgave them for what they had done, and brought them into the land of Egypt where they lived and prospered the rest of their days.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011 marks the celebration of Holy Cross Day in the church. Sadly, across Christendom, we are abandoning our symbols and reinventing ourselves so as not to offend those outside the church. Campus Crusade for Christ dropped “Christ” from its name because research showed that 9% of Christians and 20% of non-Christians were offended or alienated by the name of Christ. His NAME was getting in the way of accomplishing their mission. Christ Community Church in Spring Lake Michigan removed its cross and changed its name to C3 Exchange to be more inclusive. Click here to read the story and see the video of the cross being removed. The cross, according to C3’s pastor, has become a negative symbol for people. He compared to the church’s use of the cross to remember the work of Christ akin to using a bullet to remember Martin Luther King, Jr. A British church removed a 10 foot tall crucifix from the outside of its building a couple of years ago because it was scaring young children. It was considered a horrifying depiction of pain and suffering and putting people off. You can read the story here.
It used to be that we proudly displayed the symbols of our Faith. Often these symbols draw us closer to the Faith and the story of the cross. That is how the Feast of the Holy Cross began for the church. It is traced back to Helena, mother of Constantine the Great who made it safe and legal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. His mother was a devout Christian. Around 320 A. D., Helena made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to recover the holy sites of Christendom. She began an excavation around the site of what she believed to be the tomb of Christ. It was rumored that the true cross had been buried in a ditch. One of the few people who are said to have known exactly where the cross was buried, a man named Judas, coincidentally, was inspired to point the location out to Helena. Not one, but three crosses were found in the excavation. Pilate’s inscription was not on any of the crosses. To determine the true cross, people who were sick were brought to the crosses to touch them. It is said that when they touched what was believed to be the true cross, they were made well. One report states that a dead man was brought back to life. Upon this discovery, Helena commissioned the construction of the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands in that spot to this day. Holy Cross Day was instituted as a Feast Day in the church to commemorate the dedication of the Holy Sepulchre which is said to have occurred on September 14, 335 A. D.
There was a time during the course of Christian history when our symbols, our heritage inspired us to do great things. They moved Helena to find the holy spots where Christ walked and lived and mark them for all time. To this day what she did lives on and provides us with the opportunity to visit places where God Himself incarnate walked the earth, where He lived, and where He died. Certainly, pious superstitions and cult like rituals and observances grew up around the stories of our holy symbols and have littered the path through time. Yet there is fact that anchors these stories, and makes them timeless. That fact is the fulcrum around which all of human history turns: Jesus Christ, God’s one and only Son, became flesh and blood like you and me, lived on this earth, died on a cross, and rose from the dead.
The Cross will always be a scandal for humanity, the worst scandal in history. For with the bloody Cross, we physically nailed the Christ to a piece of wood and killed the God of the universe. One cannot deny that death is man’s reality, for it is certain that this life on this earth will end one day. Yet for the Christian, the True Christian, the Cross is our reality. For it is there that God meets man in death. The Son of God died in the flesh and, in that death, unites our flesh to His, leading us into life eternal. The Cross is and always will be the symbol of Christianity, defining who and what we are.
Today is the remembrance of Zachariah and Elizabeth, father and mother of John the Baptist. From the “Commemorations Biographies,” Lutheran Service Book, LCMS Commission on Worship:
Zachariah and Elizabeth were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Zechariah, a priest in the Jerusalem temple, was greeted by the angel Gabriel, who announced that Zechariah and Elizabeth would become parents of a son. Initially Zechariah did not believe Gabriel’s announcement because of their old age. For his disbelief Zechariah became unable to speak. After their son was born, Elizabeth named her son John. Zechariah confirmed his wife’s choice, and his ability to speak was restored. In response he sang the Benedictus, a magnificent summary of God’s promises in the Old Testament and a prediction of John’s work as forerunner to Jesus (Luke 1:68–79). Zechariah and Elizabeth are remembered as examples of faithfulness and piety.
[From “Commemorations Biographies,” Lutheran Service Book, LCMS Commission on Worship]