Friday, May 26, 2017

A crossless Christ for sinfree people. . .

The state of liberal Christianity was once characterized as “a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”  Though some may have complained that H. Richard Niebuhr was exaggerating when he first wrote those words, the perspective we see today knows just how prescient he was in his characterization of a Christianity consumed with happy talk instead of truth.

I was once told that the reason we should not have crucifixes is because they were ugly.  What can I say?  They are -- except for the ones that have attempted to hide the brutality of Christ's death and somehow make attractive what was always a scandal.  A month or so ago during Holy Week we read from St. Paul about how we preach Christ and Him crucified -- not with words of eloquence or lofty wisdom or to appeal to our better side but the simple, honest, cross of suffering wherein our salvation was won.

Those of us who grew up in an age when it seemed culture was friendlier to the faith certainly lament what it has become to hold to a truth found repugnant in a culture determined to make all truth relative and in a political environment in which religious freedom means the right to private worship and belief only.  Yet there is no return to a time when culture and church had at least the appearance of friendship.  It is a post-Christian world, as they keep reminding us.

We heard of the conversion of the popular evangelical radio personality known as "The Bible Answer Man" and president and chairman of the Christian Research Institute to Orthodoxy.  Hank  Hanegraaff  and his wife were chrismated on Palm Sunday at Saint Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.  While I might complain that he should have given Lutheranism a closer look, I understand his decision.  Evangelicalism has become a shell that includes so much it no longer stands for anything specific.  Mainline Protestantism has adopted the social justice menu and defined the Gospel as liberty to indulge desire.  Roman Catholicism seems at war with itself as Francis stirs up things without settling much but sets apart the kinds of cardinals who seem to choose love over truth.  Orthodoxy is certainly attractive but this is perhaps as much about the emptiness of the other choices in Christianity than it is about the positive attraction of Orthodoxy.

For Lutherans this should be a wake up call.  We cannot survive by mirroring the culture around us.  We cannot reverse our decline by embracing the newest and latest of what we see going on in the megachurches of evangelicalism.  We cannot hold up hope to the world with a skeptical heart toward the Word of God.  Lutheranism offers the Western mind and heart a fruitful opportunity of catholic doctrine.  Now, if we as a whole, but especially in the Missouri Synod, would fully embrace the catholic practice that reflects this doctrinal truth, we would have something to offer the Hank Hanegraaffs who want truth, authenticity, and catholicity.  We have it all in theory.  Now it is time to put it into practice.  Or someday the judgment of Niebuhr will be laid at our own feet (having chosen a cultural Christianity which no longer offends or a skeptical Christianity that no longer believes).

The crucifix is ugly because sin is ugly.  It is offensive.  It cannot be made attractive.  It is not nice.  So the preaching of Christ crucified will always offend those who believe in a happy God and happy people who just want to get along. . .

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The abuse of a holy day. . .

Trump is famous for his thinking that all publicity is good publicity.  He may be rethinking it now as President.  That said, however, worse than bad publicity is to be forgotten entirely.  There is no greater abuse than to erase the memory and delete the reference entirely.  Sort of like the old Jewish curse of having no children or grandchildren and thus being effectively expunged from the record of life -- to be as if you never were.

The Ascension of our Lord, like Epiphany, was once a major holy day on the Church's Calendar.  It still is, in theory.  In practice, not so much.  Rome has, at least in most dioceses, decided that Ascension will be forgotten unless it is observed on a Sunday.  Only the ecclesiastical provinces of Boston, Hartford, New York, Newark, Omaha and Philadelphia, which cover 10 states, mostly in the Northeast, have not transferred the Ascension to the Seventh Sunday of Easter. The rest of the country celebrates it on Sunday.  Lutherans are not far behind.  The numbers of parishes observing Ascension continues to decline and with it the attendance.  But not here. 

We have two Divine Services, morning and evening, and together their attendance comprises about a third of Sunday morning's average attenders.  While some are reducing the focus on Ascension, we are trying to expand it and restore its faded glory.  In large measure, the point is theological.  The presence of the Lord is now in Word and Sacrament.  With His Ascension He is present with us in the means of grace, where He has placed Himself and where He has made Himself and all His gifts accessible.  When we point to where Jesus is, we do not point to some cloud in the sky above but to the Word and to the Sacraments.  Here is where Christ is and by these means of grace He fulfills His promise to abide with us that we may abide in Him.  Here is where He continues to deliver to a people in grave need the fruits of His atoning death and life-giving resurrection.  Here is where the Church gathers, not with faded memory or feelings or ideas but with the concrete splash of water that gives new birth, the tangible voice that speaks absolution and our sins fall away, the taste of bread and wine that feed us His flesh for the life of the world and His blood that cleanses us from all sin.  Ascension is key to this.  He has not left us nor forsaken us (as He said He would not) but His presence is enlarged so that He may fulfill this promise everywhere.  Otherwise we are left like the disciples so long ago -- scratching our heads wondering what this means.  Their joy at returning to Jerusalem was the joy of a people who have been catechized in the Word, who by the power of the Spirit trust the promise, and who see no more by the blinders of the eye but by faith.  God give us such joy!

Luther the Freedom Fighter. . .

You probably ought to be suspect of most of the stuff you find in TIME magazine so when that weekly decided to print an article on Luther in the fifth centenary of the shot across the bow that launched the Reformation, one ought to read it carefully.

Unlike Luther the hero of the Germanic people or the ultimate Protestant or even the conservative reformer, this article sees Luther as the primordial modern man working to invent and protect such things as individualism, privacy, and freedom.
In helping to free the inner person from the power of external authority, Luther’s theology contributed to the weakening of the very concept of external authority, including that of divine authority. The freeing of the inner person from the power of external authority restricted the exercise of absolute authority in all its forms.
It is hard to figure out whether the article thinks this is a good thing or a bad one.  Is the article written from the vantage point of Rome and its accusations against Luther or the modern man who wants justification for his own rebuke of authority (except the authority of desire)?

Luther’s protection of the soul from secular imposition led to the paradox of inner freedom with external domination. Nevertheless, the coexistence of apparently contradictory relations to authority could not indefinitely survive without one giving way to another. The recognition of a sphere where political rule could not legitimately coerce the individual ultimately undermined the status of absolutist authority in all spheres of life. It soon became clear that once individuals are granted inner freedom they find it difficult to unquestioningly obey any form of authority.When Luther suggested that he could not but obey his individual conscience, he provided the basis for an argument that was soon perceived as subversive. The very suggestion that individual conscience could oppose external authority would, in the years to come, crystallize into the affirmation of the ideal of individual freedom. That is why the English historian Christopher Hill went so far as to claim that the "essence of Protestantism — the priesthood of all believers — was logically a doctrine of individualist anarchy."
Apparently, Luther, singlehandedly, created the undoing of nearly all moral authority except the individual conscience and thus set the stage for the modern world.  Well, except for the fact that Luther's conscience was captive to the Word of God and conscience not the single or even partial basis for his truth, moral authority, or freedom to act.  Read Luther's Bondage of the Will in response to the emerging ideas of individualism, freedom, and conscience that had their source less in Luther than in Erasmus.  Finally Luther had no notion of freedom to serve the self but always freedom to live in subjection to Christ and in service to neighbor -- not hardly close to modern idea of freedom from all subjection or service.

We must be prepared for the many ways in which Luther will be misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted, and mislabeled.  I know that our current President is fond of the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity and that all publicity is good.  On the one hand I am glad that more folks are paying attention to Luther.  On the other I often wonder who the Luther is that they are paying attention to!

Luther had much in common with Pope Francis.  Both were good for a thirty second blurb, a soundbite that titillates but does not necessarily inform.  Some of Luther's witticisms are better soundbites than theology.  But if you want to know Luther, you cannot only read Luther.  You much also read the Lutheran Confessions.  Luther in his earthy moments informs and even entertains but the Luther that binds Lutherans is the Luther of the Lutheran Confessions.  Most of the time it is rather straightforward and easy to reconcile the two.  But even Luther would find it hard to approve everything he said or wrote.  In the end, Luther himself esteemed only a few of his writings as worth the long haul.  History has given us more but with it have come the Luther interpreters who inevitably tell us more about themselves than about Luther.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The kind of mess matters. . .

From a "conservative" Episcopalian:

Even if the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion are broken homes, they are as decently equipped with sacraments and Scripture as any other, and better than most. We are ideally both Catholic and Evangelical, but in practice we are neither one nor the other. Our canons may allow gay marriage in some places, but they insist upon the Nicene Creed in every place. Even the most liberal, establishment Episcopalians are forced into relative conservatism. No one gets everything they want, and everyone makes do with what they have. As [Sir Roger Scruton] puts it: “I rejoice that the Church to which I belong offers an antidote to every kind of utopian thinking.”
I will admit that most all churches are "broken homes" -- dysfunctional is the modern word.  I know that my own church body has all sorts of problems.  Sadly, even though our Confessions would seem to say otherwise, Lutheranism does not insist upon the Nicene Creed at the Divine Service even though we in the LCMS certainly do not allow gay marriage.  It is a bit of a mess, to be sure, but I am not sure I would agree with the author who seems to claim that, since all are messes, it does not matter which mess your choose to call your church home.  That is not something to which I can say "amen."  The kind of mess matters and there are messes which require you to leave, to depart, and to find a better mess to call your church home.  No, that does not mean you are prone to roam the sea of Christianity in search of a perfect (utopian) church but it does mean that some messes are deal breakers.

Lutheranism has it right.  It is, unlike the author of this article puts it, both confessionally catholic and confessionally evangelical (the good sense of that word).  The individual Lutheran church bodies reflect this "right" mix of catholic and evangelical to varying degrees.  Even the ELCA would admit that it has consciously departed from the doctrine and practice of Lutheranism (even though they would also probably argue that Lutheranism's hold upon the Gospel requires it).  Missouri holds it all right on paper but we have a problem with practices that challenge this identity (or at least the theory of it).  We have worship practices that are all over the page -- from simply goofy stuff to things that do conflict with what we say we believe.  What struggle with is how much uniformity is required for unity and how do we enforce and accomplish the unanimity and uniformity.  We have a distinctly individualistic and congregationalist bent that begs both questions.

I rather like Gorsuch but I am mystified by his church choice.  The Episcopal Church has allowed the likes of John Shelby Spong and has shown itself unwilling and unable to deal with those who violate the most sacred canons of Christian identity.  Part of me suspects that Gorsuch has found a niche that is comfortable and one that allows him to retain his conservative Christian identity.  Certainly there are many such "not in my back yard" spots that are pleasantly out of step with their own denomination but that is sort of like saying I ate some spoiled food once and did not get sick.  Okay, but don't do it again.

It does matter what the mess is.  When Scripture is but one of many voices that inform and shape and define belief, this mess cannot be tolerated.  When individual interpretation refuses to allow any catholic voice to the Scriptures or faith, this mess is too messy to tolerate.  When orthodoxy is no longer allowed, the mess requires an exit.  When the public identity of belonging to the mess overshadows everything else, the mess is too much of a mess to be ignored.  The Episcopal Church puts on a fine ceremonial but the sad truth is that not that many people belief what the ceremonial points to.  The Lutheran Church is ambivalent about the ceremonial but the belief is spot on.  I hate to say it but truth trumps ritual every time.   Nevertheless, that does not mean ritual does not count -- especially when it flows from a solid doctrinal confession.

The kind of mess does matter. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Sons and daughters. . . not orphans.

Sermon preached for Lent 6A by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, May 21, 2017.

    We all want comfort, security, and peace.  We all want to feel safe, not worrying about all the bad stuff in life.  But where do we go to find this comfort?  Who do we turn to?  Do we go to God the Father who’s given us life and promises to care for us?  Or, do we go to other things, to the false gods of our imagination? 
    Children know where to go, they go to their parents.  Often, when a child meets someone new they cling to their mom and dad because they know them.  When their scared after a nightmare they run to their parents room looking for that hug that makes all the bad dreams go away.  Kids seek out their parents for safety. 
    That’s what the people of Athens we’re doing.  They weren’t looking for a mom and dad to hug them, but they were looking for a sense of comfort and security and peace, and they did this by worshiping a pantheon of gods. 
    The Athenians worried about the bad stuff in life, stuff like debt and failure, hunger and disease, war and death, the same kind of stuff that we worry about today.  They thought that if they pleased the right gods then the bad stuff wouldn’t happen, that they’d be rescued from it.  So they prayed to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, craft, and war.  They made sacrifices to her hoping that she’d protect and help them.  And they did the same to many other gods, hoping that they’d lend a helping hand too.  And just to be safe, to be sure they included all gods in their prayers, they even built an altar to the unknown god. 
    These gods were made in the image of man.  They came from our imagination.  They were the embodiment of things that we value, things like strength and wisdom and beauty; but because they were created in our image, they also embodied our faults, our sin.  The stories of the Greek gods look very much like our sin filled lives, lives filled with jealousy, hate, violence, lies and betrayal, failure, the bad stuff in life.  And because of this, those pagans couldn’t find true comfort and security in their gods, and this is why we don’t have comfort and security when we go after the false gods of our imagination. 
     Our false gods aren’t necessarily gold, silver, and stone statues made by our hands, but they do come from our imagination.  We come up with all kinds of false gods to worship, thinking that they’ll give us the good in life.  We worship the false god of financial success.  We work and work and work, earning all that we can, hoping it will solve all our problems.  When we have money, it’s all we think about and when don’t have it, it’s still all we think about.  We worship the false god of popularity.    
    We want others to like us, that’s why we constantly check Facebook, to see how many likes we’ve gotten.  We believe that if we have friends and great relationships than life will be good.  We worship at the altar of human reason.  We strive to find rational truth in this world, setting ourselves up as the deciders of that truth.  If we know all, we can fix all.  We pray to the false god of health and physical strength, hoping they’ll keep death at bay.  We say to ourselves, “If I just get in shape, then all my physical problems will go away.”
     These are just a few of the false gods we bow down to, but none of them bring comfort, security, and peace, none of them give us life because all of them are made by us sinners.  All of them fail.  True comfort and security, true life can only come from knowing the true God, knowing our heavenly Father, knowing Him through His Son.
     This is what Paul proclaimed to the Athenians when he saw that altar to the unknown god.  He made the true God known to the people.  God made the world and everything in it.  He doesn’t live in our temples and he doesn’t need our service because He’s the Creator of life.  He’s our heavenly Father who’s given us life.  And this life is more than just our time here on earth.  This life is an everlasting life in His Son, Jesus Christ.  And it’s in Him, in His death and resurrection, that we find true comfort and security, peace in the forgiveness of sins.    
    Jesus gives us the peace of our Father.  Knowing our Savior, baptized into His death and resurrection, we’re made children of God, sons and daughters, and as God’s children, He promises to never leave us, to never abandon us.   
     Speaking to His disciples, Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.  Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me.  Because I live, you also will live.  In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn 14:18-20).  Jesus said this as He was headed to the cross where He would give up His life for the sins of the world, for the disciples’ sins and for our sins, and after His death, the world would no longer see Him.  No longer would He be with the disciples like He had been before, but He wasn’t abandoning them.  After 3 days, He rose from the tomb and came to the disciples.  Alive, He came to give them peace and from that moment on, the disciples had a comfort that couldn’t be taken away. 
     This is the same for you and me.  Christ doesn’t leave you like orphans, one’s without a Father.  You’re not alone in this world.  You don’t deal with sin and death by yourself.  God your Father sent His Son to overcome sin with His death and resurrection, and He’s always there with you.  He’s there with the reassuring and comforting words of His Gospel, with peace and mercy in the Means of Grace.  He’s there with the promise that because He lives, you too will live. 
     This is the Good News of Christ Jesus who died so that your sins might be forgiven, so that you might have the inheritance of everlasting life.  You receive this inheritance because you’re a child of God, adopted in Baptism.  There, in that water, God the Father saved you, He placed His name upon you and made you His own.  As your Father He gives you life, life here on earth and everlasting life in heaven. 
     The Athenians didn’t know the true God, but you do.  The Holy Spirit has made Him known to you through the Word.  He’s the Helper, the Spirit of truth, who’s revealed God the Father through the Son.  He dwells within you, pointing you to the Father and Son, comforting and reassuring you of the everlasting life you have in Him.  Because of this faith, you seek comfort and security in the only place it’s the arms of Christ that were once stretched out on the cross.    
     Christ promised His disciples that He wouldn't leave them as orphans, and He makes that same promise to you and me.  In Christ, we’re not orphans, children without a father.  Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we’re sons and daughters of God.  We’re children of the true Father who gives us all that we need.  He’s given us the Holy Spirit, the Helper and Comforter.  And the Spirit has given us faith, faith that knows our Father, faith that knows our Savior, faith that seeks comfort, security, and salvation in Him alone, faith that has the confident hope of everlasting life.  In Jesus’ name...Amen. 

The sermon the Pope's preacher preached to the Pope. . . Preacher of the Papal Household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap., gave his fifth Lenten Sermon to Pope Francis on Friday morning in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel.  The theme of the Lenten meditations is: “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’, except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). This fifth iteration carried the title: 'The Righteousness of God has been Manifested: The Fifth Centenary of the Protestant Reformation, an Occasion of Grace and Reconciliation for the Whole Church.'

You read his words here and consider what he said:
Fifth Lenten Sermon 2017
THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD HAS BEEN MANIFESTED”: The Fifth Centenary of the Protestant Reformation, an Occasion of Grace and Reconciliation for the Whole Church
1. The Origins of the Protestant Reformation
The Holy Spirit, who, as we saw in the preceding meditations, leads us into the fullness of truth about the person of Christ and his paschal mystery, also enlightens us on a crucial aspect of our faith in Christ, that is, on how we obtain in the Church today the salvation Christ accomplished for us. In other words, the Holy Spirit enlightens us on the important question of justification by faith for sinners. I believe that trying to shed light on history and on the current state of that discussion is the most useful way to make the anniversary of the Fifth Centenary of the Protestant Reformation an occasion of grace and reconciliation for the whole Church.

We cannot dispense with rereading the whole passage from the Letter to the Romans on which that discussion is centered. It says,

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. (Rom 3:21-28)

How could it have happened that such a comforting and clear message became the bone of contention at the heart of western Christianity, splitting the Church and Europe into two different religious continents? Even today, for the average believer in certain countries in Northern Europe, that doctrine constitutes the dividing line between Catholicism and Protestantism. I myself have had faithful Lutheran lay people ask me, “Do you believe in justification by faith?” as the condition for them to hear what I had to say. This doctrine is defined by those who began the Reformation themselves as “the article by which the Church stands or falls” (articulus stantis et cadentis Ecclesiae).

We need to go back to Martin Luther’s famous “tower experience” that took place in 1511 or 1512. (It is referred to this way because it is thought to have occurred in a cell at the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg called “the Tower”). Luther was in torment, almost to the point of desperation and resentment toward God, because all his religious and penitential observances did not succeed in making him feel accepted by God and at peace with him. It was here that suddenly Paul’s word in Romans 1:17 flashed through his mind: “The just shall live by faith.” It was a liberating experience. Recounting this experience himself when he was close to death, he wrote, “When I discovered this, I felt I was reborn, and it seemed that the doors of paradise opened up for me.”[1]
Some Lutheran historians rightly go back to this moment some years before 1517 as the real beginning of the Reformation. What transformed this inner experience into a real religious chain reaction was the issue of indulgences, which made Luther decide to nail his famous 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. It is important to note the historical succession of these facts. It tells us that the thesis of justification by faith and not by works was not the result of a polemic with the Church of his time but its cause. It was a genuine illumination from above, an “experience,” “Erlebnis,” as he himself  described it.

A question immediately arises: how do we explain the earthquake that was caused by the position Luther took? What was there about it that was so revolutionary? St. Augustine had given the same explanation for the expression “righteousness of God” many centuries earlier. “The righteousness of God [justitia Dei],” he wrote, “is the righteousness by which, through his grace, we become justified, exactly the way that the salvation of God [salus Dei] (Ps 3:9) is the salvation by which God saves us.”[2]

St. Gregory the Great had said, “We do not attain faith from virtue but virtue from faith.”[3] And St Bernard had said, “What I cannot obtain on my own, I confidently appropriate (usurpo!) from the pierced side of the Lord because he is full of mercy. . . . And what about my righteousness? O Lord, I will remember only your righteousness. In fact it is also mine because you became God’s justification for me (see 1 Cor 1:30).”[4] St. Thomas Aquinas went even further. Commenting on the Pauline saying that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (see 2 Cor 3:6), he writes that the “letter” also includes the moral precepts of the gospel, so “even the letter of the gospel would kill if the grace of faith that heals were not added to it.”[5]

The Council of Trent, convened in response to the Reformation, did not have any difficulty in reaffirming the primacy of faith and grace, while still maintaining (as would the branch of the Reformation that followed John Calvin) the necessity of works and the observance of the laws in the context of the whole process of salvation, according to the Pauline formula of “faith working through love” (“fides quae per caritatem operatur”) (Gal 5:6).[6] This explains how, in the context of the new climate of ecumenical dialogue, it was possible for the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation to arrive at a joint declaration on justification by grace through faith that was signed on October 31, 1999, which acknowledges a fundamental, if not yet total, agreement on that doctrine.

So was the Protestant Reformation a case of “much ado about nothing?” The result of a misunderstanding? We need to answer with a firm “No”! It is true that the magisterium of the Church had never reversed any decisions made by preceding councils (especially against the Pelagians); it had never forgotten what Augustine, Gregory, Bernard, and Thomas Aquinas had written. Human revolutions do not break out, however, because of ideas or abstract theories but because of concrete historical situations, and unfortunately for a long time the praxis of the Church was not truly reflecting its official doctrine. Church life, catechesis, Christian piety, spiritual direction, not to mention popular preaching—all these things seemed to affirm just the opposite, that what really matters is in fact works, human effort. In addition, “good works” were not generally understood to mean the works listed by Jesus in Matthew 25, without which, he says, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Instead, “good works” meant pilgrimages, votive candles, novenas, and donations to the Church, and as compensation for doing these things, indulgences.

The phenomenon had deep roots common to all of Christianity and not just Latin Christianity. After Christianity became the state religion, faith was something that was absorbed instinctively through the family, school, and society. It was not as important to emphasize the moment in which faith was born and a person’s decision to become a believer as it was to emphasize the practical requirements of the faith, in other words, morals and behavior.

One revealing sign of this shift of focus is noted by Henri de Lubac in his Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture. In its most ancient phase, the sequence of the four senses was the literal historical sense, the christological or faith sense, the moral sense, and the eschatological sense.[7] However, that sequence was increaingly substituted by a different one in which the moral sense came before the christological or the faith sense. “What to do” came before “what to believe”; duty came first before gift. In spiritual life, people thought, first comes the path of purification then that of illumination and union.[8] Without realizing it, people ended up saying exactly the opposite of what Gregory the Great had written when he said, “We do not attain faith from virtue but virtue from faith.”

2. The Doctrine of Justification by Faith after Luther
After Luther and very soon after the two other great reformers, Calvin and Ulrich Zwigli, the doctrine of the free gift of justification by faith resulted, for those who lived by it, in an unquestionable improvement in the quality of Christian life, thanks to the circulation of the word of God in the vernacular, to numerous inspired hymns and songs, and to written aids made accessible to people by the recent invention of the printing press and distribution of printed materials.

On the external front, the thesis of justification only by faith became the dividing line between Catholicism and Protestantism. Very soon (and in part with Luther himself) this opposition broadened out to become an opposition between Christianity and Judaism as well, with Catholics representing, according to some, the continuation of Jewish legalism and ritualism, and Protestants representing the Christian innovation.

Anti-Catholic polemic was joined to anti-Jewish polemic that, for other reasons, was no less present in the Catholic world. According to this perspective, Christianity was formed in opposition to—and was not derived from—Judaism. Starting with Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), the  theory of two souls in early Christianity increasingly gained ground: Petrine Christianity, as expressed in the so-called “proto-catholicism “ (Frühkatholizismus), and Pauline Christianity that finds its more complete expression in Protestantism.

This belief led to distancing the Christian religion as far as possible from Judaism. People would try to explain the doctrines and Christian mysteries (including the title Kyrios, Lord, and the divine worship owed to Jesus) as the result of contact with Hellenism. The criterion used to judge the authenticity of a saying or a fact from the gospel was how different it was from what characterized the Jewish world of that time. Even if that approach was not the main reason for the tragic anti-Semitism that followed, it is certain that, together with the accusation of deicide, it  encouraged anti-Semitism by giving it a tacit religious covering.

Beginning in the 1970s, there was a radical reversal in this area of biblical studies. It is necessary to say something about it to clarify the current state of the Pauline and Lutheran doctrine of the free gift of justification through faith in Christ. The nature and the aim of my talk exempt me from citing the names of the modern writers engaged in this debate. Whoever is versed in this subject will not have difficulty identifying the authors of the theories alluded to here to, but for others, I think, it is not the names but the ideas that are of interest.

This reversal  involves the so-called “third quest of the historical Jesus.” (It is called “third” after the liberal quest of the 1800s and then that of Rudolf Bultmann and his followers in the 1900s). This new perspective recognizes  Judaism as the true matrix within which Christianity was formed, debunking the myth of the irreducible otherness of Christianity with respect to Judaism. The criterion used to assess the major or minor probability that a saying or fact about Jesus’ life is authentic is its compatibility with the Judaism of his time—not its incompatibility, as people at one time thought.

Certain advantages of this new approach are obvious. The continuity of revelation is recovered. Jesus is situated within the Jewish world in the line of biblical prophets. It also does more justice to the Judaism of Jesus’ time, demonstrating its richness and variety. The problem is that this approach went too far so that this gain was transformed into a loss. In many representatives of this third quest, Jesus ends up dissolving into the Jewish world completely, without any longer being distinct except through a few particular interpretations of the Torah. He is reduced to being one of the Hebrew prophets, an “itinerant charismatic,” “a Mediterranean Jewish peasant,” as someone has written. The continuity with Judaism has been recovered, but at the expense of the newness of the New Testament. The new historical quest has produced studies on a whole different level (for example, those of James D. G. Dunn, my favorite New Testament scholar), but what I have sketched out is the version that is most widely circulated on the popular level and has influenced public opinion.

The person who shed light on the misleading character of this approach for the purposes of serious dialogue between Judaism and Christianity was precisely a Jew, the American rabbi, Jacob Neusner.[9] Whoever has read Benedict XVI’s book on Jesus of Nazareth is already familiar with much of the thinking of this rabbi with whom he dialogues in one of the most fascinating chapters of his book. Jesus cannot be considered a Jew like other Jews, Neusner explains, given that he puts himself above Moses and proclaims that he is “Lord also of the Sabbath.”

But it is especially in regard to St. Paul that the “new perspective” demonstrates its inadequacy. According to one of its most famous representatives, the religion of works, against which the Apostle rails with such vehemence in his letters, does not exist in real life. Judaism, even in the time of Jesus, is a “covenantal nomism,” that is, a religion based on the free initiative of God and his love; the observance of his laws is the consequence of a relationship with God, not its cause. The law serves to help people remain in the covenant rather than to enter it. The Jewish religion continues to be that of the patriarchs and prophets, and its center is hesed, grace and divine benevolence.

Scholars then have to look for possible targets of Paul’s polemic: not the “Jews” but the “Jewish-Christians,” or a kind of “Zealot” Judaism that feels itself threatened by the pagan world around it and reacts in the manner of the Maccabees—in brief, the Judaism of Paul prior to his conversion that led him to persecute Hellenistic believers like Stephen. But these explanations appear immediately unsustainable and result in making the apostle’s thinking incomprehensible and contradictory. In the preceding part of his letter, the apostle formulates a indictment as universal as humanity itself: “There is no distinction; . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3: 22-23). Three times in the first three chapters of this letter he returns to the wording “Jews and Greeks alike.” How can anyone think that to such a universal evil a remedy corresponds which is aimed at a very limited group of believers?

3. Justification by Faith: A Doctrine of Paul or of Jesus?
The difficulty comes, in my opinion, from the fact that the exegesis of Paul is carried on at times as if the doctrine began with him and as if Jesus had said nothing on this matter. The doctrine of the free gift of justification by faith is not Paul’s invention but is the central message of the gospel of Christ, whether it was made known to Paul by a direct revelation from the Risen One or by the “tradition” that he says he received, which was certainly not limited to a few words about the kerygma (see 1 Cor 15:3). If this were not the case, then those who say that Paul, not Jesus, is the real founder of Christianity would be correct.

However, the core of this doctrine is already found in the word “gospel,” “good news,” that Paul certainly did not invent out of thin air. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus went around proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15). How could this proclamation be called “good news” if it were only an intimidating call to change one’s life? What Christ includes in the expression “kingdom of God”—that is, the salvific initiative by God, his offer of salvation to all humanity—St. Paul calls the “righteousness of God,” but it refers to the same fundamental reality. “The kingdom of God” and “the righteousness of God” are coupled together by Jesus himself when he says, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Mt 6:33).

When Jesus said, “repent, and believe the gospel,” he was thus already teaching justification by faith. Before him, “to repent” always meant “to turn back,” as indicated by the Hebrew word shub; it meant to turn back, through a renewed observance of the law, to the covenant that had been broken. “To repent,” consequently, had a meaning that was mainly ascetic, moral, and penitential, and it was implemented by changing one’s behavior. Repentance was seen as a condition for salvation; it meant “repent and you will be saved; repent and salvation will come to you.” This was the meaning of “repent” up to this point, including on the lips of John the Baptist.

When Jesus speaks of repentance, metanoia, its moral meaning moves into second place (at least at the beginning of his preaching) with respect to a new, previously unknown meaning.  Repenting no longer means turning back to the covenant and the observance of the law. It means instead taking a leap forward, entering into a new covenant, seizing this kingdom that has appeared, and entering into it. And entering it by faith. “Repent and believe” does not point to two different successive steps but to the same action: repent, that is, believe; repent by believing! Repenting does not signify “mending one’s ways” so much as “perceiving”  something new and thinking in a new way. The humanist Lorenzo Valla (1405-1457), in his Adnotations on the New Testament, had already highlighted this new meaning of the word metanoia in Mark’s text.

Innumerable sayings from the gospel, among the ones that most certainly go back to Jesus, confirm this interpretation. One is Jesus’ insistence on the necessity of becoming like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. A characteristic of children is that they have nothing to give and can only receive. They do not ask anything from their parents because they have earned it but simply because they know they are loved. They accept what is freely given.

The Pauline polemic against the claim to be saved by one’s own works also does not begin with him. We would need to exclude an endless number of texts to remove all the polemic references in the gospel to a number of “scribes, Pharisees, and doctors of the law.” We cannot fail to recognize in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector in the temple the two types of religiosity that St. Paul later contrasts: one man trusts in his own religious performance and the other trusts in the mercy of God and returns home “justified” (Lk 18:14).

It is not a temptation present only in one particular religion, but in every religion, including of course Christianity. (The Evangelists didn’t relate the sayings of Jesus to correct the Pharisees, but to warn the Christians!) If Paul takes aim at Judaism, it is because that is the religious context in which he and those to whom he is speaking live, but it involves a religious rather than an ethnic category. Jews, in this context, are those who, unlike the pagans, are in possession of revelation; they know God’s will and, emboldened by this fact, they feel themselves secure with God and can judge the rest of humanity. One indication that Paul was designating a religious category is that Origen was already saying in the third century that the target of the apostle’s words are now the “heads of the Church: bishops, presbyters, and deacons,” that is, the guides, the teachers of the people.[10]

The difficulty in reconciling the picture that Paul gives us of the Jewish religion and what we know about it from other sources is based on a fundamental error in methodology. Jesus and Paul are dealing with life as people lived it, with the heart; scholars deal instead with books and written testimonies. Oral and written statements tell us what people know they should be or would like to be, but not necessarily what they are. No one should be surprised to find in the Scripture and rabbinical sources of the time moving and sincere affirmations about grace, mercy, and the prevenient initiative of God. But it is one thing to say what Scripture says and leaders  teach and another thing to say what is in people’s hearts and what governs their actions.

What happened at the time of the Protestant Reformation helps us to understand this situation during the time of Jesus and Paul. At the time of the Reformation, if one looks at the doctrine taught in the schools of theology, at ancient definitions that were never disputed, at Augustine’s writings that were held in great honor, or even only at the Imitation of Christ that was daily reading for pious souls, one will find there the magnificent doctrine of grace and will not understand whom Luther was fighting against.  But if one looks at what was going on in real life in the Church, the result, as we have seen, is quite different.

4. How to Preach Justification by Faith Today
What can we conclude from this bird’s-eye view of the five centuries since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation? It is indeed vital that the centenary of the Reformation not be wasted, that it not remain a prisoner of the past and try to determine rights and wrongs, even if that is done in a more irenic tone than in the past. We need instead to take a leap forward, the way a river that finds itself blocked resumes its course at a higher level.

The situation has changed since then. The issues that brought about the separation between the Church of Rome and the Reformation were above all indulgences and how sinners are justified. But can we say that these are the problems on which people’s faith stands or falls today? I remember Cardinal Kasper on one occasion making this observation: For Luther the number one existential problem was how to overcome the sense of guilt and find a gracious God; today the problem is rather the opposite: how to restore to human beings a genuine sense of sin that they have completely lost.
This does not mean ignoring the enrichment brought by the Reformation and wanting to return to the situation before it. It means rather allowing all of Christianity to benefit from its many important achievements once they are freed from certain distortions and excesses due to the overheated climate of the moment and the need to correct major abuses.

Among the negative aspects resulting from the centuries-old emphasis on the issue of the justification of sinners, it seems to me one is having made western Christianity be a gloomy proclamation, completely focused on sin, that the secular culture ended up resisting and rejecting. The most important thing is not what Jesus, by his death, has removed from human beings—sin—but what he has given to them, that is, his Holy Spirit. Many exegetes today consider the third chapter of the letter to the Romans on justification by faith to be inseparable from the eighth chapter on the gift of the Spirit and to be one piece with it.

The free gift of justification through faith in Christ should be preached today by the whole Church and with more vigor than ever. Not, however, in contrast to the “works” the New Testament speaks of but in contrast to the claim of post-modern people of being able to save themselves with their science and technology or with an improvised, comforting spirituality. These are the “works” that modern human beings rely on. I am convinced that if Luther came back to life, this would be the way that he too would preach justification by faith today.

There is another thing that we all—Lutherans and Catholics—should learn from the man who initiated the Reformation. As we saw, for Luther the free gift of justification by faith was above all a lived experience and only later something about which to theorize. After him justification though faith became increasingly a theological thesis to defend or to oppose and less and less a personal, liberating experience to be lived out in one’s intimate relationship with God. The joint declaration of 1999 very appropriately points out that the consensus reached by Catholics and Lutherans on the fundamental truths of the doctrine of justification must take effect and be confirmed not just in the teaching of the Church but in people’s lives as well (no. 43).

We must never lose sight of the main point of the Pauline message. What the apostle wishes to affirm above all in Romans 3 is not that we are justified by faith but that we are justified by faith in Christ; we are not so much justified by grace as we are justified by the grace of Christ. Christ is the heart of the message, more so than grace and faith. Today he himself is the article by which the Church stands or falls: a person, not a doctrine.

We ought to rejoice because this is what is happening in the Church and to a greater extent than commonly realized. In recent months I was able to attend two conferences: one in Switzerland organized by Protestants  with the participation of Catholics, and the other in Germany organized by Catholics with the participation of Protestants. The latter conference, which took place in Augsburg this past January, seemed to me truly to be a sign of the times. There were 6,000 Catholics and 2,000 Lutherans, the majority of whom were young, who had come from all over Germany. Its title was “Holy Fascination.” What fascinated that crowd was Jesus of Nazareth, made present and almost tangible by the Holy Spirit. Behind this effort was a community of lay people and a house of prayer (Gebetshaus), which has been active for years and is in full communion with the local Catholic church.

It was not an easy ecumenism. There was a very Catholic Mass with lots of incense celebrated once by me and once by the auxiliary bishop of Augsburg; on another day, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated by a Lutheran pastor with full respect for each other’s liturgies. Worship, teachings, music: it was an atmosphere that only young people today are able to create and that could serve as a model for some special event during World Youth Day.

I once asked those in charge if they wanted me to speak about Christian unity. They answered, “No. We prefer to live that unity instead of talking about it.” They were right. These are signs of the direction in which the Spirit—and with him Pope Francis—invite us to go.
Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle Williamson
[1] Martin Luther, “Preface to his Latin Works,” Weimar ed., vol. 54, p. 186.
[2] Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, 32, 56 (PL 44, 237).
[3] Gregory the Great, Homilies on Ezekiel, 2, 7 (PL 76, 1018).
[4] Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the “Song of Songs,” 61, 4-5 (PL 183, 1072).
[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa  theologiae, 1-IIae, q. 106, a.2.
[6] Council of Trent,  “Decretum de iustificatione,” 7, in Denziger and Schoenmetzer, Enchridion Symbolorum, ed. 34, n. 1531.
[7] The classical couplet that sets forth this sequence is “Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria. / Moralis quid agas; quo tendas anagogia”: “The literal sense proclaims the events, the allegorical sense what you should believe. / The moral sense what you should do, the anagogical sense where you are going.”
[8] See Henri de Lubac, Histoire de l’exégèse médiéval. Les quatre sens de l’Écriture (Paris, Aubier,1959), vol. 1, 1, pp. 139-157.
[9] Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000).
[10] Origen, Commentary on the “Letter to the Romans,” 2, 2 (PG 14, 873).

Monday, May 22, 2017

The generosity of prayer. . .

Having now the advantage of bowing my head on those Sundays when my associate leads the Prayer of the Church it has allowed me the opportunity to consider these prayers.  It struck me not long ago that this prayer is perhaps the place where the generosity of the Christian faith is most evident.  The Prayer of the Church is not strictly local at all.  We pray for all manner of people and concerns and for some with great regularity.  We do not pray for agendas only but for people, some by class and many by name.  We do not prayer only for those of the household of faith but for all people as they have need.  God's mercy is by nature generous and that generosity is supremely evident in the regular prayers of God's people within the Divine Service.

On any given Sunday in our churches you will hear the people of God there assembled praying for the leaders of this and every nation, for the causes of peace and justice for all people, for the protection of life, for the victims of man-made and natural disaster, for the sick (those of the household of faith and all people, particularly the names brought forward from the faithful), for those who witness the Gospel and for those who hear the Word proclaimed, for those considering church vocations and those preparing for church work, for pastors, for the dying and the families of those who have died (both known to the household as the faithful and those whose names are brought forward from the faithful), for good weather and a fruitful harvest, for the caring vocations and those who serve us at home and abroad, for those who commune and for the catechumens, for those who teach and those who learn.  .  . and the list goes on.  Especially we pray for our enemies and those who oppress us, those persecuted Christians, and those outside the household of faith.  It is a generous list of those who are regularly and faithfully lifted before the Lord in prayer, for the sake of His Son, and for the cause of His mercy.

In a conversation with a Muslim who converted to Christianity, the generosity of the prayers of God's people and the generosity of the God who is known in Jesus Christ was a profound influence upon his conversion.  Though God's people may be parochial in interest in other areas, our prayers, in particular the Prayer of the Church, is generous and inclusive.  It is testament to the mercy of God which is lavish and generous beyond all expectation.  Sometimes we forget that.  Often we are reminded of this more profoundly by the Prayer of the Church than even our preaching and catechesis.

It is one of those things you learn when you listen to the sound of God's people gathered in prayer in the Divine Service.  We believe in a generous God and His generosity is what encourages our prayer -- He hears and answers us, by nature a generous and merciful gift!