Monday, August 31, 2009

Taking Down Walls

"For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility" (Ephesians 2:14)

As people of sin, building up walls comes naturally to us. And we are good at it. We have been building walls for a long, long time. When our first parents Adam and Eve first sinned they feverishly set forth building a wall - a dividing wall of fig leaves, and of trees. After turning away from the gracious address of their Lord, they set to work on the greatest wall ever erected. A wall to hide from God.

They take the lovely trees of the garden and build up walls for a fortress to hide from God and to prepare for war against their neighbors. The history of all humankind generation after generation has set about on the same work - building walls - separating themselves from one another by fleeing from the voice of God.

We all know from the news, or history, or economics class all the walls that have been erected. The Israelites have built walls to separate themselves from Palestinians - due to rocket attacks. The Berlin Wall was erected by the communists to wage war against their own people by keeping them captive - as if it were a jail. There is the Great Wall of China that protected the empire for hundreds of year, which happens to stretch out over the Mongolian border for 5500 miles.

No wall however, is more destructive is more wretched than being walled up against our Lord and against the needs of our neighbor. We build up walls by withholding our love from all those around us. Often times we retreat inward and build walls up against our dear parents and withhold the honor that Christ has given them.

As students we have walls against even our teachers. I am a student as well. Where we ought to respect and cherish our teachers and professors always and make their work pleasureable, we often make it toilsome through laziness or gossip. Furthermore, we may be tempted to build walls against God by fleeing from His tender care, by not receiving his gifts of heavenly communion and life in the midst of the congregation. When all is said and done walls cannot save us or protect us and meet our fundamental needs.

After Jesus is arrested, mocked, tortured, and crucified, and killed, the disciples in fear - flee to a locked room - a barrier - the greatest wall - to hide from God and hide from their family and neighbor. But our Lord in heaven says to Adam in paradise and to us today "Where are you? not be afraid...come out from your hiding place...come out from behind that wall...I will lift your veil so that you may see me."

Fresh from the grave, the resurrected Jesus enters the locked room of the disciples and graciously breaks down our own walls that we have fearfully made. And he enters into our lives speaking to us - continually inviting us - saying "peace be with you." And this is not the sort of peace that we announce to each other on facebook. It is not the sort of peace that we send a friend after a conversation in an instant message. Nor is this a peace like the hippies thought it in the 1960's with flowers and free love.

No this peace is very different. This is the peace that God brings. The dividing wall of hostility has been broken down and ended in the peace of Jesus. This is a word of peace that dries every tear from every cheek. It is the peace that breaks down the hostile walls between us and those around us. This is the peace the answers all that which has gone wrong in our lives. It is the peace, a heavenly word, the voice of the living God that speaks to you, "Dearest student of Walther Lutheran High School...dearest son...dearest daughter I am well pleased with you...because your sins are forgiven...I have paid for them in full..I have borne your sin and agony - your humiliation, your depression in your home. I have destroyed the walls that enclosed you from family and friends, from teachers and parents."

In this heavenly word of promise we are called to freedom to be students, and sons, and daughters, and teachers, and build one another up in love and charity and seek after the good for one another.

You have peace because God became peace and is peace. We have mercy and show mercy to one another because Christ is mercy and brings us mercy. Our Lord has broken down in his very flesh the dividing wall of hostility by reconciling us to God and to one another through the cross. All things are new. In the peace of Jesus which passes all understanding. Amen.

(painting above by J.M.W. Turner "The Angel, Standing in the Sun" 1846).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Christian Vocation

Professor John T. Pless of Concordia Theological Seminary has an excellent short discussion on the Lutheran understanding of vocation - click HERE to view short video.

Friday, August 21, 2009

ELCA's Tragic Day

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has voted to fully sanction and support the ordination of and installation of practicing homosexuals. The official resolution says that the church is committed to help and support pastors and lay people - "accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church" - that is to say "as long as you are sodomizing consistently then you are doing great work!"

This is a pretty bizarre proceeding. Homosexuality is addressed and condemned consistently in the scriptures - (Gen. 19:4-29, Lev. 20:13, Mark 10:7, 1st Cor. 6:9-10, Rom. 1:26-27) – never is there an allowance for it – rather a call for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Homosexual acts are condemned in early Christian writings from 250 AD onwards; such as in the Didache, Justin Martyr, Clemet of Alexandria, Tertullian, St. Cyprian, Aristides, Cyprian, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrystostom, St. Augustine of Hippo, canon law, the Apostolic Constitutions, and Eusebius Caesarea’s statement which condemns the “union of women with women and men with men.”

The problem today in the church is not just an inability to speak honestly about homosexuality, but has more to do with despising God’s gift of marriage and sexuality itself. The problem is exchanging the truth of God for a lie and dishonoring our bodies. Shameless acts of homosexuality are just as perverse as despising marriage and pursuing heterosexual exploitations. The law must be preached. Sin must be uncovered, acknowledged and confessed. And the church must be ready to preach the radical nature of the Gospel to those who are sorry for their sins and desire Christ’s forgiveness – for the healing of their bodies – and a heavenly resurrection.

The church is the place for real sinners with real sin – for those who have sexual sin – those who have sinned against others and for those who have been sinned against. It is not true pastoral or Christian spiritual care to deny God’s heavenly revelation against all ungodliness and sexual sin. When we deny that sin is real – as to its origin and affects – we let the sin fester, smolder, and burrow into the Christian conscience. We cannot alleviate, remove, or forgive sin by denying that it is in fact sin. The effects of sexual sin are real – experienced physically (std’s), physiologically, emotionally, and spiritually. The Christian community cannot hide from sin or exegete it away “Did God really say?” (Gn. 3:1).

God really did grant Adam a helper. He really does desire that husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church – through all trials and tribulations – unto death – ‘death do us part.’ Homosexual acts are really condemned throughout the scriptures. But whats more is that God really became man to restore the crooked and contrite – to destroy wickedness and the power of the devil and to turn us from our sin. When we deny the destructive nature of sexual sin – deny that sin is in fact sin, we deny the real Christ who came to die for it – rob him of his glory and honor.

The decision of the ELCA to further separate themselves from the Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions, and Christ’s spoken Word is just plain sad and tragic. However, I confess - I personally feel tempted toward a pharisaical attitude, “I thank you that I am not like them (ELCA).” The problem however, is that we share a similar deafness toward God’s precious gift of marriage and sexuality. While conservatives have a rather unified voice against homosexuality, they tend to lack one when it comes to shaping and articulating a theology of the body. Sexual promiscuity and our cultural rejection of the holy order of marriage is just as tragic and saddening as any ELCA resolution. “Lord have mercy on us” ought to be our prayer - for we all stand guilty. We pray that Christ might strengthen us in his Word, turn us from our sin, and enlighten us with his gifts - restoring us to sexual purity and holiness in the forgiveness of sins.

I have written more here
(painting at top by Berthe Morisot 1888 "Woman at her toilete")

Friday, August 14, 2009

Theology of Martin Luther: A Contemporary Interpretation

In the preface to Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, Dr. Oswald Bayer raises the question whether Martin Luther was a systematic theologian in the sense of laying out a framework of loci, or an all-encompassing summa like Thomas Aquinas. Bayer suggests that with Luther, the character of theology is rather formed more organically by the experience of Scripture particularly the daily practice of praying the psalms, and a lifelong “intercourse” with the Word and promises of our Lord. In this way theology is not merely a set of theological propositions but rather the oratio, meditation, and tentatio in the Word made flesh – the pattern of hearing and laying claim to the promises of God within the drama and tension of faith.

The finest Luther scholarship will naturally move in one direction in their studies, toward Martin Luther the pastor. Bayer’s presentation of Luther’s theology captures the Pastoral Luther in a way that, I believe no other work has done. Bayer takes the brilliance of his theology and opens it up for a contemporary reader, who of necessity must grapple and confess in a religio-philosophical marketplace dominated by Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, and the broader conclusions of the enlightenment.

Bayer identifies in Luther’s work the starting point of theology: the sinning human being and the God who justifies. The foundational motif of Luther’s theology is a “summons to freedom” which flows forth from “justification by faith alone.” Bayer sees in Luther’s explanation to the first article of the Creed the introduction of a theology of justification, coming into being ex nihilo, and “without any merit or worthiness in me.” Therefore creation must be confessed as an article of faith in the triune God who acts in both the old and new creation as one, who for Bayer, is “categorically the one who gives.”

“…justification is not simply an isolated topic, next to which other topics can exist, it has essential importance and is connected with every topic. Justification does not affect just my individual life, not even just the history of the world, but impacts the history of nature as well; it affects all things. It is thus not sufficient to speak of the article on justification solely as the articulus stantis et cadentis eccesiae – as the article on which the church stands and falls. Instead, the meaning of justification must be taken seriously in its breadth, with ramifications that have application for a theology of creation and for ontology. In a prominent position in the Smalcald Articles Luther says: ‘One cannot go soft or give way on this article, for then heaven and earth would fall.’ ‘Without the article on justification the world is nothing but death and darkness.”

There is an especially helpful treatment on the doctrine of the three estates, church, household, and government (status ecclesiasticus, status oeconomicus, status politicus), which provides a biblical and catechetical model for more fully opening up a robust theology of creation. Luther’s teaching on the three estates, though holding remarkable consistency and continuity throughout his career (from early Psalm lectures to Genesis lectures), have been largely neglected, with greater weight given toward two kingdom theology. By Luther’s own judgment, the catechetical unfolding of the three estates was more significant than the teaching about the two realms. The unintended consequence is that an overemphasis on the two kingdom theological framework often causes an irresponsible divorce of the “temporal” from the “spiritual” that profanes the former, creating a forced dichotomy in creation. Bayer’s succinct and insightful interpretation of the three estates provides a holistic way to look at God’s holy orders in the world as spaces of freedom granted by God out of pure goodness and mercy.

Over and above all else, this work serves as a theological handbook that drives at pastoral care, homiletics, and catechesis. I find three particular points of theological emphasis that frames Bayer’s work into an inexhaustible tool and reference for the cure of souls. The first point is that Bayer identifies in Luther’s theology the reformational hermeneutical breakthrough that God is bound up inextricably in a word of promise. The Triune God exists as a linguistic speech event, narrated by the person of Jesus Christ in His Word and Sacraments. The linguistic speech events – that of baptism, preaching, and the Lord’s Supper actually bring about a new state of affairs which has not existed previously. Though this may seem a rather intuitive idea, we must confess and teach among a theological battleground still is many ways dominated by the work of Bultmann and Schleiermacher, both of whom were occupied with moving beyond the text, seeking either an existential or transcendental experience in the religious consciousness or affection. In so doing the church erroneously seeks to move beyond Christ our Lord himself, and therefore also the sure forgiveness of sins and resurrection of the dead.

Secondly, Bayer highlights Luther’s understanding of sin and the bound will, as to its constitutive role in all theology. The perversion of the human will is taken seriously as to its implications in how we confess and appropriate the work of Jesus Christ. Thirdly, Bayer provides a fresh way of thinking about the brilliance of Luther’s theology and moves the struggles that he engaged with into a contemporary context which both addresses like-struggles and also new ones – with new philosophical and theological foes to deal with.

The spirit in which Bayer engages the modern and post-modern mind is not in intellectual loftiness but rather in the wisdom of confession – making particular use of the Small Catechism. In March of 2009 I had the pleasure of attending an international conference on the work of Johann Georg Hamann held at Hunter College at the University of New York, of which Oswald Bayer provided the keynote address. His own work and presentation of Lutheran theology is evangelically directed in such a way that it greets the ontological and soteriological curiosities of our time in a way that confesses the gift and wisdom of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, by speaking simultaneously to our contemporary situation in a faithful and enlightening way.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity," (Ps. 133:1).
I received a visit from Rev. Cholak and Vicar-elect Benny Bulletins

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Desperation of the Gospel

painting by El Greco - "Tears of St. Peter"

“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Even though Jesus heals the sick, raises the dead, feeds the 5000, and walks on water, many of the disciples still turn around and walk away. By today’s standards of preaching, Jesus was not always a blockbuster hit. He did not always fill up the pews. He did not always preach a message that appealed to those hearing. After he tells his followers that he is the bread of life that has come down from heaven they actually become frustrated, so much so that they actually walk away. They say, “Jesus this is a hard saying! Who will listen?”

Following Jesus, as a disciple, is not marked by constant devotion and confidence. Following Jesus in everyday life is not marked by constant spiritual enthusiasm. Being a Christian is by no means an unwavering journey, but more so a lifetime of spiritual drama – times of temptation and desperation. We see this in the lives of all the disciples, and certainly Peter. And our own lives bear witness to this.

Peter’s confession to our Lord here is not an especially romantic expression of devotion. After Jesus offers His Word, meal, and drink of eternal life to the disciples, our Lord sensing the tension in Peter - seeing the torn and confused look on his face, gently asks him, “Peter Do you want to go away as well?” As the cool breeze of the Galilean sea wafts across the shores of Capernaum he is in a desperate crisis. Peter’s knees shake and he likely feels the world as he knows it slipping out from underneath him.

Dearest Christians, can you imagine the feelings of Peter’s situation – this drama of faith – hearing the incredible promises of God from the Holy one of God – God’s Son - Jesus. Here is Peter stammering about, somewhat confused, and frustrated. Many of those whom Peter knows that have been following Jesus have turned away and left. Many you know have walked away. And here it is you and Jesus. We are tempted maybe to follow the world, turn around, and walk away – to go back to a more familiar way of living – without the hard sayings of Jesus. However, we know, in desperation that we have nowhere else to truly go. Jesus our Lord and God is what matters more than anything else.

And here is Jesus tenderly and lovingly inviting Peter to stay close. Yet Jesus is not attractive that we should highly esteem him, He is a man sticken, smitten, and afflicted. He is the neighborhood carpenter – known as the son of Mary and Joseph. God comes so close to Peter. God made man in Jesus comes so close to the disciples that it causes an offense – so much so that many of his disciples – it was the 72 at this time – actually turn and walk away!

This is the loveliness of our Lord that he comes among us, stooping down in such an amazing way. Peter with a heavy heart, eyes of desperation and cracking voice pours out his confession, “Lord, where else can we go? There is no one else to save us. There is no one else to help. Only you Lord can forgive sin. There is nowhere else to go. You have the Words of eternal life. We believe. We know you. You are the Holy One of God.”

This rather somber, desperate confession of Peter, truly becomes are own confession. For like Peter - for true help – for faith – for life itself we have no one else to flee too. The president of the United States cannot forgive the sin of the world and feed us the bread of heaven. He cannot repair a broken world ravaged by sin, murder, and spiritual decay. We cannot receive eternal life through celebrities or movie stars. Self-help books cannot finally ease our heartache and heal our wounds. Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil, as well-intentioned as they may be, cannot give us the heavenly word and promise of forgiveness and eternal life. We all naturally flock to many other things, people, and places that we think can offer us peace, security, and healing. However, when we have exhausted all our hopes, we will come up empty again and again and again.

Dear Christians, only God can feed us. We will never come up empty in God’s great mercy. We can never expect too much from him. We can never ask for too much when we pray in His name. We can never exhaust his grace. Before the foundation of the world, God so desperately desired us that he formed us with His own hands and breathed His own very breath of life into our lungs. When He looks down from heaven and beholds us in desperation, we must know that God himself is so desperate for our love that He willingly goes to die a bloody death so that he may win us back and claim our love.

Jesus speaks to us “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever…As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.” And in our hearts we may say “Jesus, this is a hard saying, who will listen to it?”

We cannot by our own reason or strength listen to or believe in Jesus Christ. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of God himself who opens our ears and opens our lips – opens the lips of Peter – to cry out – to sing out – to pray “Lord to whom else shall we go. It is you Lord, only you that can help me.”

And help He does. He gives us the faith to believe and by the desperation and agony of the cross raises us up to live – to live in the newness of life that only the Gospel can bring. The Lord forgives his church for ever doubting or walking away, and turns us around again and again, to say “stay with me…do not go…I have the Words of eternal life.” Sunday after Sunday He carries us back to this place so that we may hold each other up on the rock of Peter’s confession. Lord to whom else shall we go? We go to Jesus again and again so that we may love one another as he has loved us. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

I had the privilage to teach the Lord's prayer to the children of Lake Sachigo in Northern Ontario

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lord, to whom shall we go?

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 6:51). When Jesus says these words to the disciples they do not say “Amen Jesus!” They do not say Jesus, “I believe!” They do not erupt into songs of praise. They do not sing glory to God in the highest. When Jesus tells them that He will feed them the bread of heaven and give them eternal life, what do they do? When the disciples hear this beautiful Gospel of eating and drinking. When they hear these words about rising, feasting, and living forever, instead of bursting into praises they become frustrated and grumble to our Lord, saying, “Jesus, this is a hard saying, who can listen to it!”

Yes, they grumble and challenge their Lord as to how this difficult teaching will fit into their lives, and the lives of others. “This is a hard saying.” Not much has changed in the last 2000 years. The Words of Institution is still what we might call a difficult saying. Back then it was not politically correct to live by the Words of a man – eat the body and blood of the Messiah – and to look toward the forgiveness of sins and resurrection of the dead. And today, not much is radically different. The words of Jesus, hearing Jesus is foolishness to those who are perishing.

For example, if you are asked tomorrow morning at your place of employment how your weekend was – and you answer “I heard and met with my risen Lord Jesus – and feasted on His Heavenly feast of communion – he has granted me the forgiveness of sins – the resurrection of the dead – and immortal life” – I can pretty much guarantee that you – you may get less than a warm reception. You certainly may not be on the fast track for a promotion, and extending your social network around the workplace.

The wisdom of the world does not hang on the precious and Holy Words of our Lord. That is why the workplace is often toilsome and stressful. Because we close our ears and are careless with our mouths, our friendships are often wrought with fractures. Even within our own families, we see that there are those who have turned away from the faith, trying to find their own way, as sheep without a shepherd. In our own communities we see violence, strife, racism, and human cruelty. And violence and warfare rages on in nearly every corner of our world.

Lord to whom shall we go? At times it seems as though our Lord withholds himself, delays his coming. Or maybe it seems as though he has lost the battle. Yet our Lord does not come as a political ruler to fix every instance of social injustice. No, he does something far bigger and better. He comes to feed us, to stoop down to us in our lowly estate and show us mercy, that we may be merciful to one another. He comes as the beloved one, our beloved one, to be love for us, and to pour us out toward each other in love. He comes to bear in His body the brokenness of all creation, to bear our sin and to raise us up to live – to live as he desires us to live. And how does God desire us to live? To whom shall we go? When the disciples turn away from Jesus, He lovingly asks Peter if he is leaving too. Peter replies, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

So to whom shall you go? Nowhere, for in this very sanctuary the risen Lord Jesus Christ grants you the freedom that forgiveness brings – the freedom to be children of heaven. How does he desire us to live. He desires that we live with our ears opened up. Opened to the Lord’s promise that we may be faithful Fathers, Mothers, Sons, and Daughter - faithful workers and friends, who attend to the broken cries of a broken world.

Dearest Christians - you have listened and heard. Like the disciples, we have been turned toward our Lord, and He has made listeners of us, hearers of His heavenly Word. We have been brought here to feast on a Word of peace that the world cannot give us. The world considers you foolish people. Look at you all – gathered at this place – worshipping – standing – kneeling – singing praises to God – anticipating todays communion – the very feast of heaven and immortal life. Yes, you are a foolish bunch.

For you do not have the wisdom of the world but the wisdom of God. For He speaks to you, He baptizes you, He feeds you, and call you out of death to life. And in the foolishness of God’s infinite love, you have infinite wisdom and strength, you have peace and truth. We live by faith not by sight. Like Peter we are turned back to our Lord and say, “Lord to whom shall we go. You, only you Lord, have the Words of Eternal Life.” This is our confession. And God looks down from heaven and beholds us as his dearly beloved and speaks the very first words of creation again, “You may surely eat.” In the Name of Jesus - Amen.