Thursday, May 21, 2009

Saint Augustine and Ascension Preaching

Few preachers are more ‘Lutheran’ than Saint Augustine of Hippo – though he preceded Luther himself by 1000 years. In spite of the fact that he lived the ascetic life and in some ways never overcame his neo-platonic past, His preaching nevertheless confesses Christ’s Gospel in a supremely bright and clear light. Augustine’s personal journey toward faith is somewhat paradigmatic of every Christians wandering in the desert where one encounters a barrage of attractive and deceptive ideas or philosophies, which in turn are found to be fruitless, dry, and empty. Like Augustine we all must cast of our robes of earthly wisdom and be draped in the wisdom of Christ and him crucified. Augustine’s sermon for Ascension preaches as the finest of Lutheran sermons because it is fixed on Christ’s movement in the world – from the incarnation to death and resurrection and then ascension.

“He ascended in order to protect us from heaven above. Hence, we have our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ hanging on a cross, now enthroned in heaven.”

This ascension for Augustine, establishes the continuing work of Christ for His church. The ascension means not that Christ hides himself or withholds himself, but rather that He solidifies the great victory, pouring forth all good gifts in His preaching of the bodily Word and Holy Supper. The locality of Christ’s Ascension into heaven to be at the right hand of the Father does not restrict His presence but provides it. This Ascension means that he has joyfully handed himself over to the whole church to be present in His body wherever His gospel is purely preached and sacraments rightly administered. For Augustine, the glory and kingship of Christ is revealed first and foremost in the act of crucifixion, ‘Here, we have our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ hanging on a cross.’ Though the crucifixion is a onetime event stamped into world history at a specific point in time, ‘He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,’ its significance and benefits in fact define all of history and God’s creative work in the universe. Augustine understands this and dynamically sets it forth in his preaching, “When He has collected all whom He will gather together throughout all time, He will come at the end of the world jst as it is written.” Therefore only in this cosmically determinative event of the cross may one know God as the alpha and omega – as the seed of the woman who bruises Satan’s heal (Gen. 3:15), and the one who slays the dragon and rule all nations (Rev. 12:5). This mighty act of redemptive work, however, is the incarnation and the foolishness of the cross.

Like other early church fathers, Augustine speaks of the death of Christ as a sort of cosmic trick played on the devil, “The devil was overcome by his own trophy, for the devil rejoiced when, by seducing the first man, he killed him; by killing the last Man, he lost the first from his snare.” In this way the gentle lamb squares off against the lion and is exalted in His death and the devil is overcome, “he took food, as it were, from a trap.” Augustine recognizes that the great act of redemption must be claimed in faith. The Ascension for Augustine is to be seen with the eyes of faith which looks toward the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. That the church itself is the body of Christ means that where Christ is there shall be the church, “for there are two in one flesh; this is the great mystery in Christ.” It is here where we see the Ascension as a sign of Christ’s advent as the bridegroom and the great nuptial feast. In the preaching of Augustine he views the 40 days prior to Ascension as a time of joyful eating and drinking with the disciples that mirrors the feast that the church looks toward in the courts of heaven. Augustine of course does not limit this feasting simply to an eschatological hope, but sees in the Ascension Christ’s divine condescension in the life of the holy ministry, “…but he ate and rank during the forty days after the resurrection of His body as if to say: ‘behold, I am with you…even to the consummation of the world.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ethical Considerations of Marriage and Sexuality

Sexuality is grounded in the very speaking of creation, and is reflective of God’s creative and ‘very good’ work. Ethicist Michael Banner writes, “…knowing humankind as creatures of a good creator, Christian ethics will affirm, as Barth has it, that the ethical question in this sphere is essentially a question of things that are natural and right. With this affirmation sexual ethics is recalled to an important element of its proper task: the discernment and proclamation of what we are as the initial word of God’s command in the realm of sexual ethics.”[1] That human kind is created as man and woman, as embodied creatures, whom are given toward each other in marriage in a spiritual and bodily union is vehemently rejected culturally. A philosophical pro-choice culture in its deep distress and spiritual poverty attempts to imagine that even the duality of male-female is a matter of choice. It is held that sex itself and the very reality of male and female is more socially constructed than “given.” It is commonly accepted that gender and sexuality are not found within the duality of male and female but are negotiable realities, provided one’s personal preferences. Most textbooks in the fields of psychology and sociology locate gender along a “gender continuum,” with one each polar end being heterosexual for both male and female. The extremities are marked by the heterosexual and the ‘middle way’ for those who desire the same sex, or maybe open to both. Impressionable students are encouraged to identity their respective sexual orientation on the ‘gender continuum.’[2]

What is true is that gender is not a preferential matter for the creation of each sex itself is a “divine and good creation that pleases God himself.”[3] There is no say in the matter of being created as male or female. My identity is bound up in the biological reality of which I cannot excuse myself. The ‘way God made me’ is not dictated by personal sexual proclivities or psychological insecurities relating to how I may perceive myself in relation the opposite sex. As a consequence of the fall, every human creature in some way, shape, or form is uncomfortable in their bodies, usually accompanied by less than pure and holy sexual desires. The guiding principles by which we view sexuality and the duality of male and female ought not be found in the dark recesses of the human heart, with its insatiable appetite for lust and sexual conquest. Being created male and female is to be gifted life itself, and to be made co-operative agents in God’s continued creative work. Professor John T. Pless writes, “In this union, man and woman are not interchangeable. The distinctive features of male and female are biological realities with spiritual significance. The distinction that God has made between men and women cannot be dismissed by an appeal to the ideology of equalitarianism. That we are equally children of the one Father, redeemed by His Son, and given access to Him by the Spirit does not erase the creaturely gift and vocation of being man or woman.”[4]

The prevailing understanding of sexuality, as a preferential and consensual recreational act has little social discouragement and much philosophical and religious sanction. The idea which lends itself to this radical revision of the nature of sexuality, like most ethical matters, involves the presuppositions of autonomy and rigid individualism. Lutherans have a firm foundation theologically with the symbolical books and the Scriptural witness to speak a fundamentally different word about these broadly accepted assertions. The estate of marriage and its sexual expression is granted – given by God in the very economy of creation. Oswald Bayer observes, “Only through my parents is life given to me. This sentence sounds trite. But in a time of individualism and of the generational gap, it is hardly that; it is appropriate that one learn anew that the world and our own life, our own life history, do not begin with us ourselves. More properly we ourselves are indebted to a word, to a will, to an affirmation that preceded our life, that anticipated it. Only within this protected and opened space and I also enter into marriage.”[5]

Misunderstanding the giveness of marriage and human sexuality arises out of a fundamentally different conception of creation and mans understanding of himself as he acts within it. The sexual libertine must fool himself in ascribing to his own person autonomy, and some degree of self-creation – essentially what we may call the first sin. His dignity and action must be personally directed and personally achieved. This great delusion involves an incredible amount of inward retreat (incurvatus est) from the world - usually a result of guilt or fear. Marriage however, in fact every human relationship, is relationally defined by an infinite web or economy of God working in man through man. As man encounters the rest of creation and the loveliness of human fellowship and love, his bodily and spiritual worth is not self-defined or created but imparted by another. Oswald Bayer writes, “The dignity of any human being lies in the indissoluble intertwining of element and instituting word. It is attributed to him or her – bestowed, given on loan – by the One who promises and gives himself unconditionally to humankind: namely, God. Thus, my dignity as a human being is attributed to me ‘without any merit or worthiness on my part.’ This dignity is at the same time categorically withheld from me and categorically granted to me; it is given to me totally without merit…This categorical gratuity provides the decisive viewpoint for ethical judgments.”[6]

We cannot underestimate the importance of this fundamental theological axiom as relates to sexuality, in fact all ethics. Though maybe more apprehensible and intuitive for multiple generations past, this understanding of one’s ontological makeup is radical in light of today’s philosophic culture which increasingly sees personhood and human dignity as self-determined. That one’s body is formed from the dust and receives the breath of God and interacts with fellow creatures in God’s continued creative work in the universe completely shatters the myth of autonomy. Ethical discussions, as relates to human sexuality, must begin at this starting point – that the human body is a spoken word and not self-created. The simple observation that every human has a belly button is a reminder that one if formed through another by another. The breath of life and the natural world are one and not partitioned off from one another.

God attends to every cry and desire of his creation. As Adam experienced the tinge of human loneliness, God was already as work anticipating and meeting his creature. He saw that it was not good that man was alone and initiated this divine work of human community. Our Lord speaks “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mt. 19:6). Jesus is not referring to long –winded aspects of Mosaic law thus addressing a post-fall world. Rather, Jesus speaks the very words of creation itself. Even in paradise it was not good that man be alone without a helper. As Eve was created so every man in marriage and by faith must declare, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” A wife comes by way of a gift to men, a delightful wonder from God himself, for Adam was sleeping when God formed Eve. Unbeknownst to him a wife was formed from his very body, to be a love and help to him, a joyful companion in the garden. Furthermore, Adam did not choose her but she was graciously brought to him. Likewise, in the ceremony of the church, a wife is brought through the chancel of the church by a father or a family member dear to her. Through the greater corporate life of the church all blessings are announced and brought – not taken.

It is considered that sex is for those who reach a certain "mature" age, to be enjoyed by those who are "responsible," "consenting," and "ready." Yet, sex apart from the marriage bed is only an abortive act, an alien act. It is never responsible or safe apart from a holy union. It is a defilement to the body and spiritually corrosive and degrading. In the abortive act, a baptized and consecrated body is carelessly manipulated apart from the performative statement of God himself that two shall become one and never be cut asunder. Pre-marital sex is adulterous in that one's future spouse is slavishly exploited by another. In the blindness of sin, the human creature rationalizes such activities by an active sort of theological Gnosticism which separates the action of the body from the existence of the soul, as if what is done with the body is inconsequential in matters of the spirit. Living amongst a philosophical culture of neo-Platonism likewise supports such thinking. Yet, Christians do not only look forward to redemption of the soul but also of the body (Rom. 8:23).

There has never been a more confusing time for young people to deal with sex, life issues - birth and death, and marriage. Baby boomer parents and 'generation x' have missed the mark when it comes to defining and articulating a 'theology of the body' - how one ought to regard one's body. For the same generation to legalize abortion en mass has likewise ripped sex out of the marriage bed and placed it as a spectacle in the public sphere - little else that pleasurable colisions of flesh. When the human body is defined as a lump of cells from the womb it would seem that what is done with those cells is essentially of no importance - with no physiological, pychic, or spiritual consequences.Because sex is considered a 'personal matter' few people have the courage to speak to one another honestly in a spirit of truth and love. Yet, marriage, family, sex, and its possible abuses are not at all 'private,' but in a true way 'public' - and corporately directed. The ecclesia witnesses the acts of the congregation. Sex, as a matter of course traditionally has brought forth life when two are brought together. There are visible signs of sex - physical and natural expressions of it. Love and children are heavenly gifts that proceed from that which takes place in marriage. The unmarried sexual encounter is abortive in promise and sacramentum, abortive of family and children, abortive of one's very body. It aborts the traditional order and responsibility to one another. It is not an inconsequential matter that sex and marriage were provided historically prior to the fall into sin. Therefore sex is a loveliest expression of that which is joined together in marriage, in which God himself made all provisions - joining, creating, and sustaining Adam and Eve. Marriage, sex, and family are God's concrete creational acts. They are not self-willed anthropocentric acts. They are God-breathed gifts, not given as thorns and thistles, but life multiplying blessings.Sex, as an abortive, non-married act is not only defiling to those involved but provides a confession which rips God's creation wide. Sex is robbed of its sanctity and divorced from God's creation life-giving order. Gift is torn away from God's creational arrangement and made into a burden and cause of sorrow, heartache, disease. The pre-marital sexual encounter is held to be a mark of self expression and freedom, though it often causes immense suffering and depersonalization. It is commonly understood among most religions and cultures that some intertwining of divinity is involved in the act of sex. Experientially one senses that ‘something greater’ is going on even when the gift of sex is exploited outside of the marital bond. Whether or not one intends it, something is being given, and something received. It is not a mere collision of flesh with bodily pleasure. One is dabbling in the elementary God breathed work of a union of flesh and blood – the work of being fruitful and multiplying” (Gen. 1:28). It is John Kleinig’s pastoral observation that here is a frighteningly close link between personal unbelief and sexual guilt:

“…problems of intellectual doubt and personal unbelief God are often closely linked with sexual guilt. The advocates of sexual liberation bear out the truths of this in their own way. They make it quite clear that they don’t just aim to break from bondage to the ‘Jewish-Christian God.’ God is their real enemy. Sexual liberation is thus liberation from the Triune God and guilty conscience before God. Belief in God is for them the main cause of our sexual misery…they are at least aware the God is somehow tied up with their sexuality. They know that such a God does not exist. But such a God does exist.”[7]

It is man’s sinful appetite that always seeks to take God’s good and holy gift and divorce it from His Word and intent – and claim it as his own – that he may name, define it and defile it. The prayerful life of chastity proceeds by faith in the resurrection of the body. Kleinig looks toward this event, “Our bodies will then no longer mask our true selves, as they have since the fall of our parents, for we will have nothing to hide and nothing to fear from disclosing ourselves. We shall be fully at home in our bodies. They will be utterly translucent and able to show us fully as we are. Then at last we shall be truly chaste. We shall be as totally and radiantly chaste before God as Christ would have us be and as he promises to make us. Our Lord will present us to his Father holy and splendid, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.”[8]

Marriage therefore is an arena of cross bearing, where God’s creative work of mutual love, children, teaching and faith are brought forth. That marriage as a one flesh union is a ‘station of the cross’ implies that besides the activity of mutual love is also mutual suffering. Man cleaves to his wife as God cleaves to his church on the cross. As man is bound to take care of his own flesh so he must love and honor a wife as he honors his own body. He does so joyfully because creation was not made to operate autonomously but rather dependently upon a greater economy of grace. As a wife is brought to man to become one flesh so a Christian is brought to Christ’s altar to join him. God’s word should guide the Christian ethic of marriage and its implications in matters of sexuality. Paul writes to the Ephesians:Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord that church” (Eph. 5:25-29).That a husband is called to love his wife as Christ loves his church is a mystery without parallel. Culture has us believe that “spouses” are to be chosen – selected for various attributes that we might reap maximum pleasure, minimum pain, for smooth ride into the setting sun with our loved one. Yet God’s holy gift of marriage is wrought with defection because we do not love indiscriminately and selflessly. Sin makes us think of a relationship as 50/50, an equal system of rewards, punishments, with a litany of grievances, and rectifications. Husbands however, are not called into a relationship to calculate that which they might reap but rather give. As Christ came not to be served so does a husband come to serve. And he serves not 50%, expecting a like-return but pours out all, emptying all. Luther writes, “But over and above all these is married love, that is, a bride’s love, which glows like a fire and desires nothing but the husband. She says, ‘It is you I want, not what is yours. I want neither your silver nor your gold; I want neither. I want only you. I want you in your entirety, or not at all.’ All other kinds of love seek something other than the loved one: this kind wants only to have the beloved’s own self completely. If Adam had not fallen, the love of bride and groom would have been the loveliest thing.”[9]

The fall of course has disrupted the marital bond and sin lives on within this estate. Besides the more virtuous elements of marriage such as faithfulness, love, and self-giving there also exists selfishness, self-witholding, and lust, “Behold, I was brought forth in inquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (ps. 51:5). Luther in his genesis lectures defines marriage as “the divine and lawful union of male and female in the hope of children, or at least to avoid the cause of fornication and sin, to God’s glory. Its ultimate end is to obey God; to remedy sin; to call upon God; to seek, love, and educate children to God’s glory; to live with one’s spouse in the fear of the Lord; and to bear the cross”[10] Therefore, God uses this bond to curb human sinfulness and to include man and woman in his life giving work of procreation.

Husbands provide safety, security, comfort, and love without end – as does our Lord. In times of great trouble and distress husbands and fathers ought know that Christ went to a cross, to death for his bride. Likewise, the faithful husband finds that he also at times is stripped, sore-vexed, and twisted about in his own calling. More than once he will be tempted to doubt and despair, feeling himself forsaken. And in this careless flight he will be enticed to cast off his cross and the holy suffering in which God has so graciously wrapped him. The faithful husband nurtured in the true faith finds in his wife a temple in which to bring his sacrifices of toil and thanksgiving. He sees a place of worship in which faith finds its expression and a certain home until the final resting place in Christ. Sexuality is given and expressed in marriage as a good gift to be enjoyed within the sphere of the one flesh union. The great trouble with an articulation of a sexual ethic in our times is that it has been uprooted and snatched from the sacraments in which God creates and gives marriage. God gave himself sacramentally with Adam and Eve through pleasing food, the tree of life, and living waters from the very beginning. Today, God daily and richly provides married Christians through his holy sacraments – that of baptism, the pleasing food of his eternal supper, and the Words in which he speaks. To define and explain marriage apart from whence it finds its very life is an impossible task. Though God intended marriage from the beginning we ought not assign to it the status of sacrament, based upon the Roman misinterpretation of Ephesians 5:32. God has desired and willed marriage from the beginning but does not make it into a means of grace – that one may find redemption in and through it by means of clerical oversight or ecclesiastical courts.

The mysterious center of the married life is that it revolves around an unceasing font of forgiveness and is truly a holy order. Married couples encounter one another in such a way that exposes secrets, sins, personal failures, and all the missed marks that are more easily concealed from the rest of the world. In the blessed union of marriage God puts himself into the one flesh of man and wife seeking that each ask “dearest love do you forgive me.” The answer is always the same and each never tires of hearing it and receiving it. Forgiveness is freely given and usually wholly undeserved. A Christian ethic of marriage which seeks to be “practical,” seeks to set forth a philosophy on marriage which breaks it down into an economically compromising, graceless, give and take sort of movement in the union. In light of what Christ reveals about marriage in both a pre-sin and post-sin world, it is made clear that there is little about the union that can be interpreted with mere human or practical wisdom – for it is a mysterious gift. The church can be the only interpretive mechanism in which to deal with marriage – for it is birthed, consecrated, sustained, and prayed for in the church. That men and women are naturally attracted to one another and wish to serve each other is itself a testament to God’s creation and unceasing love. In marriage, there is a wealth of treasure regarding God’s word which provides an inexhaustible study and meditation which reveals much about God’s economy of grace and Christ’s work.

(Painting at top by Lucas Cranach the elder, "The Paradise" 1530.
[1] Banner, Michael C. Christian Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 270.
[2] This was the experience of this writer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
[3] LW 45, 18.
[4] Pless, John T. A Small Catechism on Human Life. St. Louis, Mo: LCMS Life Ministries, 2006, 24.
[5] Bayer, Oswald. Martin Luther's Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2008, 142-143.
[6] Oswald Bayer, lecture given at Humboldt-University, Berlin on 29 November, 2000 during the ninth Werner-Reihlen-Lecture, “Die biologische Machbarkeit des Menschen” (The Biological ‘Makeability’ of Human Being). The main text of this essay was translated in English by Martin Abraham and Tim Beech, and the notes by Jeff Cayzer.
[7] Pless, John T. A Reader in Pastoral Theology: Articles from LOGIA a Journal of Lutheran Theology. Fort Wayne, Ind: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 2002, p. 139.
[8] Ibid., 140.
[9] LC part I, paragraph 207, p. 414.
[10] Peters, 257.

Monday, May 18, 2009

second annual bocce ball party

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wake, Awake for Night is Flying

This cantata was written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, which is the last Sunday in the Church Year or the “ultimate Sunday.” This means that a performance of this cantata should occur immediately before Advent, the four-week period of repentance and preparation anticipating Christmas. The original hymn “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” in the Lutheran Service Book is rightly located in the “End Times” section. It deals with the eschaton, the coming of the Bridegroom and the great wedding feast of the Lamb of God – Jesus. That this cantata is sung and prayed on the last Sunday of the year points to Christmas and the incarnation, meaning that this child was born to go to the cross. The atonement – the price of dowry has been paid by this groom. The crucifixion is the source of glory in the hymn, which moves the church to gather round the radiant throne – the body and blood of Holy Absolution. It is worth noting that this particular feast, the 27th Sunday after Trinity, is a rare occurrence, since it can only happen when the preceding Easter comes early in the year.

The readings occur from 2nd Corinthians 5:1-10, 1st Thessalonians 5:1-11, and the Holy Gospel from Matthew 25:1-13. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins forms the corpus of the thematic movement of the hymn, though it is not limited to it. It includes paraphrases of Saint John’s Revelation concerning the marital union between the Lamb and the Bride:

"And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints. And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith unto me, These are the true sayings of God" (Rev. 19:6-9).

The 1st, 4th, and 7th movements mirror this sort of calling, readying, and meeting. No doubt we may see it as a call to worship and to be gathered around the Lord’s preached Word and precious Sacraments. The final chorale erupts in this call to worship, “In Your city we are companion of the angels high around Your throne. No eye has ever perceived, no ear has ever heard such joy like our happiness, Io, io, eternally in dulci jubilo!” The inhabitants of this city are the heavenly hosts of God’s saints who are surrounded by angels. The alleluias and rejoicing is not a subtle form of celebration but the ultimate angelic chorus which reigns throughout all eternity.

The concept of marriage is not a new Christian image but one rooted throughout the Old Testament. Israel is often illustrated and spoken to as Yahweh’s wife. The theology of Hosea stands out as a particularly revealing testimony to how God lovingly interacts with His people. The prophecy contained here reveals a dark time where apostasy and the worship of Baal is common for Israel (4:6). The use of marriage between Hosea and Gomer is used to represent the relationship between God and His people. Hosea deals with an unfaithful bride whom does not return His love. Hosea is continually gracious and takes her back after all kinds of infidelities. Yahweh promises through the prophet, “I will betroth you to myself forever” (2:19), and “I will betroth you to myself in righteousness and in justice and in mercy and in compassion (2:20). Nicolai’s hymn also finds a voice in the prophet Ezekiel, “I passed by you and saw you, and behold, your age was the age of love. So I spread my garment over you, and I covered your nakedness. I swore to you and entered into a covenant with you..and you became mine” (Ezek. 16:8). Here we see how we in the church are continually being reconciled back to God through repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. We may learn from Nicolai that God deals with his church not in cold commands, but rather relationally, in affectionate and even sensuous language that may be perceived as bordering on the scandalous.

In Nicolai’s hymn we see two features, two separate events: a betrothal and the wedding feast itself. In the first movement we sing of the betrothal, “Midnight the hour is named…Make yourselves ready for the wedding.” What is involved in this waking – this readying? Surely it is God’s work that clothes his chosen one with the garment of righteousness. The lectionary for the 27th Sunday after Trinity provides the helpful text from 2nd Corinthians, “For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked” (5:2-3). Therefore, this movement of readying ought not be seen as a feverish work to be carried out on the part of the virgins but rather God’s work in readying the church by dressing Her in Holy Baptism and the heavenly feeding of the sacraments. The betrothal is marked by a payment, which Christ himself has made. The wedding garment is defined as the “righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:8). In this final chorale the saints gather around the throne, around the lamb who was slain. The betrothal then is marked by faith found in God’s claim to His church. Jesus the Christ, the bridegroom, fashions this wedding garment with his own body and blood given for the remission of sins so that His bride may in purity and truth present herself before the throne of God in heaven.

"And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass" (Rev. 21:21). This passage is sung in the final chorale, “Of twelve pearls the portals are made, In Your city we are companions of the angels high around Your throne.” The twelve pearls may very well refer to the twelve tribes of Israel but more likely the twelve apostles. For the church “was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ as the capstone” (Eph. 2:20). In this text we have a sung confession of the meaning of the apostolic office - the office of pastor. Jesus builds his church by using pastors to preach his bodily word and administer His sacraments.

It is worth noting that Nicolai has tapped into a traditional song type known as the “Tagelied” a sort of “day break song.” This song form is otherwise known in the German tradition as a “Wachterlied,” or “watchman song.” In the French tradition it is called an “Albe” or “Aube.” It is one of the oldest song types from the European continent and goes back to ancient times. It is a troubadour sort of poem in which lovers either part or come together around the strike of midnight. A watchman often warns the couple, sounding an alert of the coming day, or for danger of being discovered. The chorale text in turn has replaced the more secular exchange between lovers, with the sacred text from Christ’s parable.

Philipp Nicolai was born August 10, 1556 at Mengeringhousen in Waldeck, Hessen, Germany. He studied theology at the Universities of Erfurt and Wittenberg from 1575-1579. He himself was the son of a Lutheran pastor and set out also to be one in the midst of religious wars and theological controversies. For years after graduation he lived in Volkhardinghousen, preaching for his father’s congregation. He was appointed as pastor at Herdecke in 1583 until the invasion of Spanish troops in April, 1586, which is turn led to the re-establishment of the Mass, causing Nicolai to resign his post. In 1588 he became Hofprediger (Court Preacher) to the widowed Countess Margaretha of Waldeck and tutored her son Wilhelm Ernst, Count of Waleck in Wildungen. When Nicolai’s student died as a result of the bubonic plague he was spiritually positioned to pen this brilliant hymn of consolation. He was violently moved by the death of his fifteen year old student

He was an ardent theological writer and spent a great deal of time fending off Calvinism. This hymn is clearly an expression of Nicolai’s joy for the Lord’s Supper which stands in total contrast to the mere spiritualizing theology of the reformed theologians. The Sacramentarian controversy was front and center for Nicolai and it is clear that his understanding of the sacraments dominates his hymnody. As a pastor in Westphalia, the plague took over 1300 of his parishioners, at one time 170 in a single week. It was in this context that he wrote “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme). Along with “Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern” these hymns begin a somewhat new and alternative expression of Lutheran orthodoxy.

In 1601 he was elected chief pastor of Katharinenkirche (St. Katherine’s Church) in Hamburg. At this time Nicolai was widely esteemed as a brilliant and influential preacher, being called the “second Chrysostom.” At this church he died of a violent fever on October 26, 1608. During the fearful time that the plague ravaged Westphalia Pastor Nicolai was surrounded by the sights and smells of death. He turned to God for hope of Christ’s promise of heaven and deliverance from evil. He wrote in the preface to his Frewden-Spiegel:

"There seemed to me nothing mere sweet, delightful and agreeable, than the contemplation of the noble, sublime doctrine of Eternal Life obtained through the Blood of Christ. This I allowed to dwell in my heart day and night, and searched the Scriptures as to what they revealed on this matter, read also the sweet treatise of the ancient doctor Saint Augustine [De Civitate Dei].... Then day by day I wrote out my meditations, found myself, thank God! wonderfully well, comforted In heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content; gave to my, manuscript the name and title of a Mirror of Joy, and took this so composed Frewden-Spiegel to leave behind me (if God should call me from this world) as the token of my peaceful, joyful, Christian departure, or (if God should spare use in health) to comfort other sufferers wham He should also visit with the pestilence.. . . How has the gracious, holy God most mercifully preserved me amid the dying from the dreadful pestilence, and wonderfully spared me beyond all my thoughts and hopes, so that with the Prophet David I can say to Him "O how great is Thy goodness, which Thou hast laid up for them that fear Thee" (dated Aug. 10, 1598).

According to Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology, this hymn first appeared in the Appendix to the Frewden-Spiegel, 1599, in 3 stanzas of 10 lines, entitled “Of the Voice at Midnight, and the Wise Virgins who meet their Heavenly Bridegroom. Matt. 25.” Julian notes that the opening “Wachet auf! ruft uns die Stimme Der Wachter sehr hoch auf der Zinne” is borrowed from one of the Wachter-Lieder, a form of lyric popular in the Middle Ages. There seems to be a consensus that the melody itself was penned by Nicolai. I have not found any sources that say otherwise. It has however, been called to my attention that the melody essentially mirrors tone 5, going back to early Gregorian chant, and now commonly found in the Liber Usualis and common Breviaries.[1] Julian’s analysis of this hymn continues, “It has been called the King of Chorales, and by its majestic simplicity and dignity it well deserves the title.” The first harmonized version of this hymn appeared in the mid-16th century in the Scandinavian collection Piae Cantiones of 1582. Later it was popularized by Praetorius and then of course J.S. Bach.

This opening fantasia is one of Bach’s most beautiful creations. The well known tune from Nicolai’s hymn is woven into pure gold. It proceeds in the key of Eb major which is also known as the “key of love” or devotion, dealing with intimate communion and speaking. It is in this sense of affection that this opening chorus gently takes flight with an awakening, “Awake, calls the voice to us of the watchmen high up in the tower.” There is a summons to meet. There is a mysterious celebration here – a calling that the expected one is coming and desires readiness for the great occasion. One can hear a knocking in the opening movement responsively between oboes and violins. There is a certain dissonance, an opening of a melodically chaotic awakening, from disorientation to orientation toward the sounding call. The congregation is waking, one voice after another – speaking to one another and affirming the good news. There a repeated sequencing, notes flying higher and higher – each virgin waking the next, “Awake, awake!” This chorus is accompanied by oboes, horn and strings. The twelve repeated dotted notes in the first four measures may symbolize a chiming of the midnight bell or perhaps the very knocking of the bridegroom. We get the sense of a processional with the rhythm – a marching of the bridal party. The cantus firmus chorale melody with the Soprano is repeated by the horn, expressing an excitable state – a state of readiness, given the text. There is a glorious dialogue between the strings and oboes which are announcing the news of the coming Savior to each other. The rhythmic motif persists throughout the movement driving home the final text, “You must go to meet Him.” The calls of the watchmen, sung initially by a soprano, cascade across the expanse of the congregation. In the second movement there is the notification, the great announcement that the Bridegroom is coming, “Er kommt, er kommt, der Brau’gam komm!” The bridegroom is compared to a young, leaping stag.

The 3rd aria movement contains a more intimate address of longing and comfort, “When will You come, my Savior?...I wait with burning oil.” It is a curious fact that Nicolai and J.S. Bach do not reference the foolish virgins from Matthew 25. This is a perplexing omission but may be very telling concerning their understanding of the parable and the musical task of preaching the Gospel. In this proclamation the foolish virgins simply do not have a place in the narrative. It may be Nicolai’s, as well as Bach’s position, that agonizing over the foolish and damned virgins simply is not necessary in speaking Christ’s gospel, and comforting sinners. It is likely assumed that the hearers are indeed the wise virgins who are already sealed in Christ’s Holy Church. It may not serve the gospel to speculate which virgins have oil and which do not -for the hearers of this heavenly message are in the pews where their Lord have promised to meet them. This duet introduces the solo violino piccolo which gives a brightness to the scene and joy to the Bride’s preparations. Against the melisma of the violin and steady continuo, the Bride continues to urge and call her Groom, “Now open the hall…Come, Jesus!”

This lovely second chorale movement proceeds in a three part chorale concerto. This movement is unforgettable and sublime in nature – it is one of Bach’s most recognizable pieces. The hymn tune is sung by tenors with the famous and heavenly melody played by unison strings. One may very well see the graceful procession of the maidens going out to meet Jesus, the heavenly bridegroom. The fulfillment is drawing near – there is premonition of a lovely and future bliss, “Her heart leaps for joy within her…Now come, precious crown, Lord Jesus, the Son of God!” The obbligato in the strings begins at a different time than the chorale, which in turn clarifies both lines, sounding similar to the final movement in the Christmas Oratorio. There is a sense of a graceful dance and wooing in this movement.

This bass recitative is accompanied by violin, piccolo, and strings. Jesus announces to his church, “So come to me – you my chosen bride!” The Lord announces that He has had his church, eternally betrothed. The union is announced here in its fullness that the Lord wakes his church, after much suffering and heart ache. Jesus desires that the bride rest on his left hand and receive a kiss from his right. There is a sense of encouragement, given by the bridegroom, “I am yours, love will never part us.”

In this dialogue between Christ and the Christian soul is the extravagant bliss of unification. The key is in B-flat major which suggests a cheery and hopeful affection – one of clarity and the utmost of comfort. The roses refer to Holy Absolution, which also occurs also in the Bass Recitative in Saint John’s Passion (31st mvt). In the passion this follows the violent scourging of Jesus where roses of Christ’s blood flow forth from the crown of thorns.

We might consider this “io, io!”the poetry of heavenly rapture – that there exists a natural and apparent discrepancy between God’s promise of our heavenly home and the present circumstance of feeling disconnected and quite far from it. There is a ecstatic “sighing” for the magnificent homecoming which of necessity finds a magnificent tension between promise and the present circumstance which cannot fully apprehend the wholeness of heaven. But nevertheless the soul seeks the Bridegroom of the Church.

A more mystic and stylistic detailing of the relationship between Bridegroom and the church takes place in J.S. Bach’s meditation in the 5th movement, “So come in to Me, you My chosen bride!” which certainly mirrors Solomon’s Song 2:10, “My beloved spake, and said unto me, rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.” The movement opens with the thought that “My beloved speaks to me.” Besides a linguistic exchange, the relationship between lover and beloved is described in rather lofty terms more illustrative of a graceful ballroom dance than anything else:"My Friend is mine – and I am yours, love will never part us. I will with you – you will with me – graze among heavens roses."

In this mystical dance and interchange between the groom and bride it is the groom who is doing the leading and performing toward and for his bride. The theological proposition of the verbiage of the action is that Christ is doing the work. The dance is not guided and led by the bride but solely by the coming, hastening, and drawing near of Christ. This movement does not render the bride lifeless but her life arises from a more passive interaction marked by “watching,” “hearing,” and “turning” in reaction toward her lover. In this way Bach begins with the great starting point of theology - that God intervenes, leads, and ultimately carries the church to the wedding feast. The bride, the church, does not meet the groom on the middle of the dance floor. She does not meet him “50/50.” Rather the groom condescends completely to the bride who is eagerly watching and waiting to be addressed and taken.

The groom’s action is not to be considered a projection of mystical illumination but instead as initiated and performed through means. Christ performs through “watchmen,” “angelic messengers.” He is present in the flesh and addresses the bride through apostles. Therefore Christ’s speaking, his coming, hastening, and drawing near is not a contemplative pursuit on the part of the church but is achieved on the part of apostles and Christ’s encounter in the flesh. Philipp Nicolai and certainly J.S. Bach must have the apostolic ministry in mind with the priestly duties of the preaching office and administration of the sacraments. Therefore the church meets Christ through pastors who are entrusted to preach the gospel and feeds his dearly beloved his Holy Supper.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Homily on the Good Samaritan

Vincent van Gogh, "The Good Samaritan," 1890

What shall you do to inherit eternal life? This is not just a lofty transcendentalist question for the lawyer in Luke’s Gospel. It is not just for society’s elite who have overcome more fundamental needs, and only then may pursue thoughts of acquiring the riches of heaven. No, “what shall I do” is the most elementary and natural phenomenon in every man’s heart. This question is universal for all of humanity, in all places, and in all times. Seeking self-justification, “what must I do,” is a physiological craving shared by all creatures. With our appetites we hunger and thirst for it – to feast on the fat of self-fulfillment - to drink from the chalice of spiritual conquest.

In fact all of world history is an interplay – a battle of “what must I do.” Every human heart when faced with the inevitable confrontation with death seeks out a feverish movement of action and panic. That nation rises against nation, household against household, and neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother arises out deep distress of “what must I do?” The history of humanity is an endless succession of passing each other by in an endless obsession of self-preservation – seeking justification – vindication – retribution – claims – grievances - payments - profits – and settlements.

Man has always wanted to do it alone, cast God off, reconcile his perceived discrepancies, and seek his own self preservation. When we perceive and face the approaching fog of death man naturally gazes inward, asking “what must I do?” In our state of incurvatus est, no statement from our Lord is more terrifying than this, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.”

This is devastating law for the man of action – man as “doer” – man as “knower” – man as “thinker” – man as self-justifying agent. He cannot think away the bloody corpse of Abel at his feet. We cannot undo our sexual exploits with Bathsheba. We cannot quiet our lying lips, which for years have slandered and mercilessly lacerated hundreds of our neighbors. We cannot rationalize away all the times we have passed our neighbor by who was desperately in need for the mercy of friendship, the mercy of affection and bodily need. We were busy! – occupied with our work – occupied with the law – occupied with a demonic dialogue with our Lord asking, “What must I do to reap heaven.” And asking, “Who is my neighbor?” We were walking along our own road toward greener pastures.

Dearest Christians, please rest from your performance. The curtain has come down in the final act, the final scene. Humanities great theatre of action has ended in each persons personal quest for mutual recognition and great glory. Histories great tribunal of retributions and vindications has ceased in a heavenly message, from another court.

What must I do and who is my neighbor are not questions spoken to God in the courts of heaven. They are the questions of sinners. They are our questions. Questions by sinners who have been beaten, robbed, and left for dead by sin, death, and the devil.

Dearest Christians, repent. As we have sought the law we have despised it. And in our seeking for justification we have hid ourselves from the justified one. The law was not given for your individual performance on the stage of world history.The great commandment that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself" is not to your condemnation. Before we consider what we are to do, we must first believe in what is given. This great commandment is the most precious, pure, and Holy Gospel. It is the promise of our Lord that is descriptive of the promised land, the promised relationship and new testament. This promise is descriptive of your God – descriptive of the faith and action of the good samaritan. In the name of Jesus you love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all mind. And because God has promised it you may love neighbor as yourself.

In the giveness of all creation, God comes first to fall among robbers, to be brutally stripped and beaten. To be left for dead – as a worm of men – to be passed by by the religious establishment – the spiritual questers – the self-justifiers – the self proclaimed divine actors of the kingdom. Our Lord comes as this good and lovely Samaritan – the foreigner and enemy of natural man’s religion - to snatch man from the jaws of death and defeat. Our Lord’s bowels are twisted in deep pity and compassion by our cruel treatment of one another. Our Lord is deeply grieved by the worst sinners and jealously seeks them out. Our Lord does not find those who are pleasing to him but creates those who are pleasing to him. For he comes for the worst sinners. He comes for the priest who fears the spiritual defilement of the bloody man and he comes for the Levite who in the depth of sin, withholds his mercy, fearing the compromising of his political and social capital.

Our Lord is unmercifully beaten and stripped that he may show us mercy. He attends to the cries of creation by coming in the flesh. He journeys across Calvary to where you are. He sees you and desires to meet you. He is grieved in his very body by your sin. He loves stooping down to meet you. And he does not love you in a generic sort of way. Your beaten body on the side of the road was not for God just another sinner to be saved.

No you are a distinct pearl in His creation. To your heavenly Father, you have a name, a face, a distinct personality. You have a peculiarity that he completely delights in, for God poured you out as milk, clothed you with flesh, and knit you together, bone by bone, numbering each hair on your head. God, coming in flesh – this Samaritan – this stranger – risks life and limb – pouring himself out to take you to safety. For you, He journeys to hostile territory. He journeys to Jerusalem.

Do not misunderstand this good and lovely Samaritan. Though he descends to His church with the gentleness of a lover and anoints you with the cleansing oil of forgiveness and heavenly drink, He rises violently against you oppressor – Satan and all the devils of the world. He bashes them against the rock of Peter’s confession – against your confession – that Christ and the power of God is on your lips. If you doubt it simply ask your brother to speak it from his own – and God will give His angels charge over you that you may believe.

What must you do? Nothing. Christ binds you into his heavenly body and gives you heavenly drink. He anoints you with His Holy Name and seals you in His Holy church. He forgives all sins, settles all debts, only asking you to rest in his Inn.Only in Christ’s Sabbath rest, may our work begin. Work begins because there is no work left to do. We encounter all of creation, with the wisdom of the incarnation – that God has made himself known in the man left for dead – known in the broken hearted and the captive – known in the outpouring of mercy for the passers-by – the priest – the Levite – for sinners – for us.

Because the temple curtain has come down our Lord gives us a new place to worship – the very body of our neighbor. Here we are free to offer our worship and praise – joyfully pouring out our sacrifice before God. For we no longer have to pass our neighbor by to get where we need to go. We have reached a dead end in heaven. We are free to be the broken and beaten man – free to be the Samaritan – free to be both Lord and servant – free to be sinner and saint – and free from the deadly disease of self-justifying thinking and self-justifying acting.In Christ’s mercy we are free to be merciful – to receive it and lovingly pass it on. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Thank You Fort Wayne Bach Collegium

Today I had the pleasure of hearing the Fort Wayne Bach Collegium perform J.S. Bach's Easter Oratorio (BWV 249) and the Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11). I am sincerely grateful for all the singers and musicians who share their talent, passion, and faith through this presentation of Bach's sacred oratorios. Thank you Kantor Reuning for handing over Bach's music to the people of Fort Wayne - that Bach's music may preach to the human ear with angelic choruses that reach beyond the grave, into the true Sabbath rest.

In the fifth scene Peter Ponders Death as Slumber, seeing the empty shroud that bound Jesus. Peters sings:

"Sweet will be my death and gentle, but a slumber./ Jesus, Thou has stilled my fears./ Death will be my liberation, ease my pain and dry my tears, Bring to pass my sure salvation."

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Two Kingdoms: Implications for a Christian Ethic

Luther’s writings “Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved” and “Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should Be Obeyed” are helpful resources for encountering a sound biblical understanding of two governments: spiritual and secular. Approaching what may be called a Christian ethic, one must see that God divinely orders both realms in his infinite and inscrutable mercy and love. It is impossible to overemphasize Luther’s breakthrough concerning Christian freedom and the radical nature of justification by faith alone when considering the implication for a Christian ethic, and daily life under an established political and social order. For a Christian is simultaneously lord and servant, sinner and saint, spiritually subject to God in faith, and physically subject to all in God’s orders of creation. The freedom of the forgiveness of sins received through faith granted in Christ opens up the orders of creation to man. Where man had once been curved in on himself, dead in sin, and blind to his divinely fashioned post, faith has ripped him out of his obsession of self preservation and placed him at the doorstep of his fellow human creature.

As the freedom of a Christian deals with receiving faith, life, and salvation from God, Luther views vocation as a position where the Christian freely serves his or her neighbor in fervent love and acts of mercy. Although this love is created and fed by faith, vocation does not exact a governing role over faith. In the way that salvation is claimed by God in Christ in the spiritual realm, love takes root by and through faith in daily vocation. The works that take place in vocation do not merit any divine or redemptive favor but remain on earth where they belong. In Luther’s Large Catechism he further distinguishes the two kingdoms: “In God’s sight it is actually faith that makes a person holy, it alone serves God, while our works serve people.”[1] Gustaf Wingren, summarizing Luther’s theology aptly puts it “God does not need our good works but our neighbor does.”[2] God does however, desire faith – a faith which is ultimately claimed in Christ’s reordering of the cosmos in the crucifixion and resurrection. Visually, vocation and the temporal realm can be seen as existing on a horizontal plane in which a Christian does not escape from the world but is rather organically reincorporated into it for the purpose God’s love toward his creation. The spiritual realm is accessed vertically by Christ’s descent into the flesh of the virgin – who encounters man and remakes him at the event of the cross. Although these are distinguished realms (temporal and spiritual) they are not wholly separated for the Christian but rather reconciled and brought into a divinely ordered harmony.

Considering Luther’s formative years among Augustinian ascetics, whom denied the earthly for all things spiritual, it is quite remarkable how Luther so completely destroyed the medieval conception of “spirituality,” in turn handing over the true holy orders of creation back to the church and family. The incarnation and Christ’s bodily Word and Sacrament for Luther puts man back into communion with God and makes the temporal realm not something to be denied, but rather to be declared good (Gen. 1:10). That the fullness of God desired to become human flesh and blood and dwell among men proves that God loves his creation – desiring to be intimately near. A Christian ethic proceeds from this goodness - the goodness of creation, the goodness of Christ, and the goodness that man may boast as his own, through faith in Christ. The goodness of the spiritual realm in turn, becomes earthly in the sacraments and the bodily Word. A sacramental theology sanctifies daily life and contextualizes the temporal/earthly kingdom in Christ’s cross and the gifts that flow from it. The temporal kingdom of the sword and earthly law and justice now operate for the Christian rather than against him, for all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus Christ.
It is Luther’s understanding that coerced social order by temporal governance is not necessary for the baptized Christian who is faithfully nurtured in the spiritual milk of Christ’s cross but remains divine in its origin serving the common good, suppressing evil and preserving peace. The ‘realist’ might be critical of this assessment, yet Luther is ever focused on the wholly new creation who finds true freedom in the new and joyful bondage of God’s justifying act in and through Christ. This faith which is freely granted does not move the Christian to live in idleness but makes the law and works unnecessary for any mans righteousness and salvation. True good works – the ripest fruits of faith only proceed when one may see that there is no work left to be done – that Christ has truly finished all the work. When the promise of forgiveness of sins and heaven are physically handed over to the church the Sabbath day rest finds its true meaning – that we may rest that Christ may work in us. When man’s activism is crushed and the universal battle for self justification and heavenly assent is silenced by the Gospel, he may return to his earthly post with the faith-filled eyes which need not stray any longer. God’s divine condescension, incarnation, and movement into the human heart focuses man’s sight not on a lofty spiritual realm but on the earthly where God has promised to be – in the sick and the needy, the broken hearted, the captive, the child, in fact all of creation who is dependent upon God and fellow creature for love and mercy.

The spiritual freedom which opens one up to the earthly realm is lived by and through another – Jesus Christ, marked by God’s reestablished communion with his creation, in which God is creator, man is creature, and the alienation from the law is consumed and buried – forever forgotten. This relationship in Christ has a “vertical” quality, which contrasts the earthly realm of family, neighbors, rules, and various social roles. This is to say that the established relationship between Creator and creature is unassailable by all that which exists throughout the bitter despairs, challenges and temptations of daily life. Luther notes however, that God is ruler of both kingdoms, “First we must provide a sound basis for the civil law and sword so no one will doubt that it is in the world by God’s will and ordinance.”[3] However, later on in Luther’s treatise on temporal government he also writes that redeemed Christians suffer and persist in daily life apart from coercive civil law:"…among themselves (Christians) and by and for themselves, need no law or sword, since it is neither necessary nor useful for them. Since a true Christian lives and labors on earth not for himself alone but for his neighbor, he does by the very nature of his spirit even what he himself has no need of, but is needful and useful to his neighbor. Because the sword is most beneficial and necessary for the whole world in order to preserve peace, punish sin, and restrain the wicked, the Christian submits most willingly to the rule of the sword, pays his taxes, honors those in authority, serves, helps, and does all he can to assist the governing authority, that it may continue to function and be held in honor and fear.”[4]

Luther is careful to continue with a precise distinction between his understanding of the spiritual and earthly kingdoms. His theology never borders on Christians utopias as remotely possible. Although he retains a belief that the new creature in Christ fulfils and exceeds temporal law obediently and joyfully, such theocratic or Christian governance is impossible, “…for the world and masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in name.”[5] From Luther’s own personal experience with “anfechtung,” his awareness of the enormity of sin and the human condition without external restraints he describes as, “…loosing the ropes and chains of the savage wild beasts and letting them bite and mangle everyone…” This worldly government he sees as necessary to subdue disorder and evil passions while administering earthly justice. In Luther’s lecture on Genesis he historically pieces together how the fallen man made the care-free social order of paradise into a coercive order through which civil law must function:“Moreover, there was no government of the state before sin, for there was no need of it. Civil government is remedy required by our corrupted nature. It is necessary that lust be held in check by the bonds of the laws and by penalties. For this reason you may correctly call civil government the rule of sin, just as Paul calls Moses also the minister of death and sin.”[6]This post-sin justice from the law is universal and cross-cultural and maintains social order in a way to protect people in body and property. The earthly life of a free Christian is bound to secular authorities and its social, financial, and physical demands. The spiritual life of a free Christian is not jeopardized by the various offices of vocation expressed in the horizontal plane with all the possible elements of diversity assumed by a given post.It is common for many to confuse the kingdoms of heaven and earth, to merge them, contort them, or alternatively to completely separate them as did the Gnostic heresies of both ancient time and of today, leading either to moral libertinism or self-righteous asceticism and pacifism. For example, some protest the act of war and killing as intrinsically evil and contradictory to the faith of Christian. Although Luther is well aware of the misery of war and injustice, he also clearly sees the other side of war, “But when I think of how it protects the good and keeps and preserves wife and child, house and farm, property, and honors and peace, then I see how precious and godly this work is; and I observe that it amputates a leg or a hand, so that the whole body may not perish”[7]
Retributive killing in response to murder, Luther sees as divine in its origin, rooted in Cain’s fear of the sword after killing Abel, as well as God’s extremely definitive laws after the flood, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Luther sees capital punishment as a basic precept of earthly justice which remains constant regardless of the winds of political or moral persuasion, “The credit or blame belongs to men if this law instituted by God is not carried out; just as other commandments of God, too, are broken.”[8]It is important to understand vocations defined by war and punishment, to highlight the visualization of the volatility of various earthly offices, to grasp Luther’s conviction that the free and faithful Christian is undisturbed in matters of faith. We have seen the necessity of the offices of the civil judge, the soldier, and the executioner. These offices, in which violence and killing can be commonplace, can be maintained by the free Christian fulfilling his or her civil duties commanded by God. Luther insists that while the soul is bound up in the body of Christ, the body remaining in this earthly life remains bound to worldly rulers. Therefore the duties that go along with these offices pertain to earthly justice and matters of civic duty, which can neither jeopardize nor nullify standing with God when performed in faith. Earthly justice therefore must be carefully distinguished from spiritual justice which is only defined through means of grace and Christ’s encounter with his dearly beloved.In Luther’s treatise to comfort the consciences of soldiers he writes, “For the very fact that the sword has been instituted by God to punish evil, protect the good, and preserve peace is powerful and sufficient proof that war and killing along with all the things that accompany wartime and martial law and have been instituted by God.”[9] The violence and “all things that accompany” wartime having no impact on salvation for the free Christian seems very much a liberating concept for the consciences of those holding offices dealing in such works of violence and turmoil. Luther makes certain to even reach out to the executioner, the most feared villain in medieval society – to extend mercy and calm his conscience, “There must be those who arrest, prosecute, execute, and destroy the wicked…”[10] One can imagine a masked executioner holding a bloody sword after severing the head of a criminal, yet if Christian, remains faithful and righteous before God in both spiritual and civic realms. Therefore there is a distinction between person and office – between spiritual and earthly. The distinction is that God creates and defines man in his post rather than his illusionary self-creation in his various spheres of life. For all Christians, in fact every human creature, God has the first and last Word, whether it be under the mercy of the cross or under His wrath, “I don’t know you..depart from me” (Lk. 13:27).
Luther’s reverence for social order as directed by civil government is absolute, yet for the free Christian does have its’ limits. Where temporal government has dominion over the citizenry and property, its’ authority comes to a screeching halt where it encroaches on spiritual matters, “Therefore where the temporal authority presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads souls and destroys them.”[11] This type of infringement would be for a government to coerce a soul to believe that which is contradictory to Scripture, or to inhibit the hearing of the gospel and the reception of the sacraments of the church. The teaching and treasures of the church are handed over to Bishops and Pastors to be servants of Christ and freely give to all. As for heresy, government is also incapable of serving the church – for the sword is of no use, “Here God’s Word must do the fighting.”[12]In response to a government which coerces unbelief in matters of faith or hinders Christ gifts, Luther instructs the free Christian to rebuke the corrupt authority by saying, “It is not fitting that Lucifer should sit at the side of God. Gracious Sir, I owe you obedience in body and property; command me within the limits of your authority on earth, and I will obey.”[13] Therefore, government has no divinely ordained right to sit with God and intrude upon matters of the soul. This passage also highlights the confusion of the two kingdoms that such a government would seek. Luther never entices a Christian reader to raise up against such an authority but rather only deny its’ power in the territory of the spiritual realm, which carries faith. The matter of faith for the free Christian is not to react with hostility or anger to temporal rule. Luther’s every thought and argument is focused squarely on new life in Christ, which leaves no room for violent or hostile resistance to authority, “Christians do every good thing of their own accord and without constraint, and find God’s word alone sufficient for them.”[14]A Christian ethic is a new state of affairs where liberty is marked by release from the law and condemnation where a submissive and peaceful heart operates joyfully in the social order under temporal authorities. Luther asserts that God has dominion over both spiritual and earthly kingdoms, where only the Christian in faith can find harmony between the two, mediated by God’s act on the cross. The Christian who receives citizenship in heaven is not spiritually deterred or jeopardized by faithful execution of ones God-given vocation. God divinely rules through civil government and works all things for his creation through his established social order. As for the intricacies of social justice as relates to temporal matters, Luther is not excessively entrenched, for his meditations are focused wholly on the condition of the soul for the free Christian, where temporal rule cannot tread. For a Christological Interpretation of Temporal Authority I have written here.

[1] Kolb, Robert, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p. 406.
[2] Somewhere in Gustaf Wingren’s Luther on Vocation.
[3] LW 45:85.
[4] LW 45:94.
[5] LW 45:98.
[6] LW 1:104
[7] LW 46:92.
[8] LW 45:88.
[9] LW 46:95
[10] LW 46:103.
[11] LW 45:105.
[12] LW 45:114.
[13] LW 45:112.
[14] LW 45:118.