Thursday, May 26, 2022

A sermon, a sonnet, and some stanzas...

Accordingly, dearly-beloved, throughout this time which elapsed between the Lord's Resurrection and
Ascension, God's Providence had this in view, to teach and impress upon both the eyes and hearts of His own people that the Lord Jesus Christ might be acknowledged to have as truly risen, as He was truly born, suffered, and died. And hence the most blessed Apostles and all the disciples, who had been both bewildered at His death on the cross and backward in believing His Resurrection, were so strengthened by the clearness of the truth that when the Lord entered the heights of heaven, not only were they affected with no sadness, but were even filled with great joy. And truly great and unspeakable was their cause for joy, when in the sight of the holy multitude, above the dignity of all heavenly creatures, the Nature of mankind went up, to pass above the angels' ranks and to rise beyond the archangels' heights, and to have Its uplifting limited by no elevation until, received to sit with the Eternal Father, It should be associated on the throne with His glory, to Whose Nature It was united in the Son. Since then Christ's Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body is raised, whither the glory of the Head has gone before, let us exult, dearly-beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For today not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven, and have gained still greater things through Christ's unspeakable grace than we had lost through the devil's malice. For us, whom our virulent enemy had driven out from the bliss of our first abode, the Son of God has made members of Himself and placed at the right hand of the Father, with Whom He lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.  Pope Leo the Great



Salute the last and everlasting day,
Joy at th' uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash'd, or burnt your drossy clay.
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth He by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which hast batter'd heaven for me!
Mild Lamb, which with Thy Blood hast mark'd the path!
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.  John Donne



LSB 495 Look, Ye Saints, the Sight Is Glorious


1 Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious;
    See the Man of Sorrows now!
From the fight returned victorious,
    Ev’ry knee to Him shall bow.
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
    Crowns become the victor’s brow.
    Crowns become the victor’s brow.


2 Crown the Savior! Angels, crown Him!
    Rich the trophies Jesus brings;
On the seat of pow’r enthrone Him
    While the vault of heaven rings.
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
    Crown the Savior King of kings.
    Crown the Savior King of kings.


3 Sinners in derision crowned Him,
    Mocking thus the Savior’s claim;
Saints and angels crowd around Him,
    Own His title, praise His name.
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
    Spread abroad the victor’s fame.
    Spread abroad the victor’s fame.


4 Hark, those bursts of acclamation!
    Hark, those loud triumphant chords!
Jesus takes the highest station;
    Oh, what joy the sight affords!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
Crown Him! Crown Him!
    King of kings and Lord of lords!
    King of kings and Lord of lords!


Wednesday, May 25, 2022

One Church. . .

Though the Reformation is often blamed for the fracturing of Christianity, the truth is that the Christian Church has been divided many times and from the evening of the apostolic age.  Read of the problems St. Paul encountered and of the warnings and admonition given to gospels other than the Gospel he proclaimed, of the Supper of the Lord which was not a Lord's Supper because of their actions, and of the divisions to be marked.  Add this to the call to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and you have the circumstance of clear division.  Although not all congregations the one who is least of all the apostles planted caused him troubles, it is unmistakable that some did and were not of the same doctrine and faith as St. Paul.  Indeed, we know of this problem from the First Epistle of St. Clement and from St. Ignatius.  

Everyone, including those marked heretics, believed the Church to be one and theirs to be that one Church.  While St. Paul did not shy from appealing to his apostolic authority, it was and remains the doctrine that binds the Church as one and not persons, personalities, or particular offices.  Our oneness at the altar receiving the Eucharist has been and remains broken.  The first and larger breach came when East and West refused communion to each other and, although conversations have been held more recently, no progress had been made on its healing.  That said, our oneness is not nor has it ever been an achievement of man negotiating and conciliating consensus.  The unity of the body of Christ is and always has been from the perspective of Christ who knows His own.  The broken state of affairs we see should not ever allow us to be complacent about such division nor should it ease the burden upon us to make sure that such divisions are over substance, when and where they must be for the sake of the Gospel itself.  Yet it must also be said that such a state of broken communion was not and is not a judgment upon the faith of the individual.  Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.  As true as this was and is, it is just as true that until time ends, not all who call on the Name of the Lord will be united at the same altar receiving the same Sacrament.

The episcopate, the canon of Scripture, and the regula fidei (tradition) were three norms of authority to benefit the orthodoxy and continuity of the one, true, orthodox and apostolic Church but only a fool would suggest that they were successful in preventing division.  And yet, it is doctrine that is the unity of the faith and the faithful -- doctrine sourced in Scripture, taught by the apostles, and confessed through the ages.  It is this that has and always will both unite and rightfully divide when error, falsehood, and other sources of revelation conflict with Scripture and the doctrine that flows from it. Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved, but when it comes to those who sup together at the Table of the Lord, a common confession is the minimal requirement of such visible unity and koinonia.  

While doctrinal debate is often castigated as fighting over words or trifles or babbling to hear one's self speak, doctrine is the kerygma (see Iraneaus) which like the sun, shines with the only and one true light so that all people might shine like the sun by coming to the knowledge of the truth.  For myself, I hate the modern day translation of didaskalia as teaching and think the King James got it right by using doctrine in nearly every case when that word appears in Greek.  Nobody over time and history confessed that they believe what their bishop believes but everyone -- even heretics! -- claim to confess what Scripture says.  In this regard, doctrine is confession.  When in Nicea they confessed we believe they were not venturing an opinion or taking sides or offering a perspective but insisting that this is what the Church believes, teaches, and confesses; what has been handed down through the ages; what is still taught by those who stand in Christ and with Scripture.  It is this that is the catholic and apostolic faith and this by which those who come to the altar are examined and admitted.  It is this Church that is the One Church -- not the one with a legacy or a Petrine Office or tradition or statistics.  It always was this way and it will always be.  While that says nothing against the clear confession that all who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved, it admits that this is not how the familial fellowship of the Table works.  That the two must live side by side is itself a confession of the fractured state of Christianity that can only and will only be mended by Christ when He comes in His glory.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

A blunt question. . .

Although Lutherans say that they have not abolished private confession and hold it in higher regard than their opponents, the history does not quite support that -- at least in practice.  Oh, yes, in theory we are all about individual confession and absolution but much of that is talk and not much of it is practice.  In the edition of the Small Catechism used when I was catechized as a youth, there was not even a rite for it and it was barely mentioned.  While that has been rectified, the practice remains on the fringes of Lutheranism and an anachronism for most Lutherans.

The absolution is, as Luther maintained, the heart and gift of private confession.  The focus is not even on penitence as precondition and certainly not on any kind of satisfaction.  The core and center not only of the rite but of the sacrament (which Lutherans have called it) is in the absolution.  Indeed, it is the reason why we confess.  We come not as a people uncertain what God will do with our confession but because of His mercy we confess, knowing that He will forgive and restore us.  

You can read of a recent effort to bring this sacrament to the mind of the faithful that they may avail themselves of its gift and blessing but it remains a hard nut to crack.  The truth is that this was a hard sell long ago.  Consider Luther's treatise Of Confession, where says, " I will let no one take away private confession and would not exchange it for all the wealth of the world, for I know what strength and comfort it has given me."' In his eighth sermon against Carlstadt (1522), who had abolished private confession in Wittenberg during Luther's absence, Luther preached "I know the devil well. If you had known him as well as I, you would not have thrown private confession so quickly to the wind." Also, in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church Luther writes, "Of private confession, which is now observed, I am heartily in favor, even though it [the requirement] cannot be proved from the Scriptures; it is useful and necessary, nor would I have it abolished; nay, I rejoice that it exists in the church of Christ, for it is a cure without equal for distressed conscience."   Luther rejects the ecclesiastical rule which requires confession in an absolute sense. It cannot be made a law, but it is, at one and the same time, an indispensable form of the gospel. It is therefore not a requirement but rather a gift which we cannot do without -- the law that cannot relieve the sinner compared to the unmerited mercy that can and does.

While Luther and the Reformers had much to say against what confession had become in Rome, the Lutheran doctrine confessed was not the creation of an opposing doctrine to Rome.  It was, to be sure, a correction of abuses, not simply in theology but in the received practice of the day.  It would be a false characterization of Luther and those who followed him that the adherents to the Augsburg Confession went about establishing a new doctrine and practice antithetical to Rome. The Lutheran doctrine placed confession, which is the work of man, over against absolution, which is the work of God. In his brief admonition to confession, Luther says, "Now mark well what I have said often, that confession consists of two parts. The first is our work and doing, that I lament my sins and desire comfort and renewal of my soul.  The other is a work which God does, who absolves me from my sins through His word spoken by the mouth of man. This is the most important and precious part, as it also makes it lovely and comforting. Up till now the confession has all been our work without going any farther than recognizing a good confession, and the other most important part was not recognized nor preached, quite as if it all were a good work with which to pay God. And whenever the confession was not complete to the last detail, then absolution could not be effective nor sins be forgiven."'

However, the problem of restoring private confession lies, in part, with the identification of this sacrament's benefits as solely with the absolution.  Is there a Lutheran pastor who has not been asked Do I need to confess my sins to a pastor for Confession, or can I simply say sorry to God in my head?  

For our God, the God we have, is not so stingy that he has left us with only one comfort or strengthening for our conscience, or only one absolution, but we have many absolutions in the gospel and we are richly showered with many absolutions. For instance, we have this in the gospel: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” [Matt. 6:14]. Another comfort we have in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses,” etc. [Matt. 6:12]. A third is our baptism, when I reason thus: See, my Lord, I have been baptized in thy name so that I may be assured of thy grace and mercy. Then we have private confession, when I go and receive a sure absolution as if God himself spoke it, so that I may be assured that my sins are forgiven. Finally, I take to myself the blessed sacrament, when I eat his body and drink his blood as a sign that I am rid of my sins and God has freed me from all my frailties; and in order to make me sure of this, he gives me his body to eat and his blood to drink, so that I shall not and cannot doubt that I have a gracious God. Thus you see that confession must not be despised, but that it is a comforting thing. (Sermon of 16 March 1522; LW, Vol. 51, 97-98)

The center of private confession is absolution but the benefit is the comfort of the troubled soul, the counsel given to those who struggle to recognize and confess their sins with excusing or justifying them, and the clear conscience to those who feel so deeply the shame of their sin.  Again, Luther in the Smalcald Articles (VIII, 1): "Confession or absolution ought by no means to be abolished in the church, especially on account of [tender and] timid consciences and on account of the untrained [and
capricious] young people, in order that they may be examined, and instructed in the Christian doctrine." In other words, private confession is meant to be an essential instrument of pastoral care.  It is here that the pastor knows his people and what lies upon their hearts -- all the while he hears their confession and is privileged to be the voice of our Savior in absolving them of their sins.

How foolish of us to presume that the preaching of the Gospel, the baptism into Christ, the general absolution in the liturgy (though much later), and the reception of the Sacrament of the Altar are all simply redundant means of grace that offer exactly the same thing and therefore offer the penitent a choice!  How even more foolish of us to presume that the private prayer of the individual to God, while effective in both offering repentance and receiving God's mercy, is an exact substitute of the gift and blessing of all the means of grace in general and private confession in particular!  We have an embarrassment of riches from God but they are all distinct and, though the forgiveness of sins is at the heart of each, they offer additional gifts and blessings particular to them.  It has not helped us in any way to heighten the focus solely on the forgiveness of sins while neglecting the other benefits and blessings associated with each means of grace and, in the case of private confession, this has been an effective force in detracting from that which our forebearers considered essential.  In reality, both in John 20 and in the ministry that proceeds from that Easter evening ordination, forgiveness and the pastoral care of the penitent and impenitent is at the heart of the Lutheran office of the ministry every bit as much as preaching and catechesis.

Monday, May 23, 2022

The face of strangers. . .

I do not know how it for you, but on most Christmases and Easters, I look out on the face of strangers.  Yes, some of them are well known to me because I have been here almost thirty years and their attendance is limited to the high and holy days.  They have become familiar strangers but strangers none the less.  In some places it is that way on Ash Wednesday and on Confirmation Day (whenever that is observed).  If you will permit me this lament -- I hate it.  It is not because I am looking into the faces of the familiar alien to the House of God but that these are the people who should be here every Sunday.  It is the lament not of those who are present on the high and holy days but of their absence from the rhythmic life of the Lord's people in the Lord's House around the Lord's Word and the Lord's Table on the Lord's Day.  They are the occasional visitors whose names may be recorded on membership rolls somewhere and who may fulfill the duty of at least a couple of communions and attendances per year but they are not really members.  They are occasional, even regularly occasional guests.

I am sure that many know the feeling.  Almost every pastor or priest has looked out into a congregation that is barely recognizable to him and yet not quite visitors or guests.  Among them are many familiar faces of those who regularly attend irregularly.  What an oddity!  It is the curse of membership statistics and rules that set minimums for belonging but it is the letter and not the spirit of those intentions.  Yet, as sad as this is for those on the altar and pulpit side of the rail, it is even more sad and lamentable for those on the pew side.  They are strangers.  Like the guests at their first formal dining experience, they watch to see what others are doing because they do not know what to do.  They read the bulletin looking for cues to what is familiar and almost instinctive to others.  It is not simply that the Church greets them as strangers but they find strange and odd the ways of God's House.  This is not because the liturgy or pastors have changed over the years (good grief, the liturgies in LSB, like most hymnals, have been pretty much the same for more than two generations!).  It is because they have so seldom participated in them that they are like ill-fitting clothing rather than the comfortable and well worn garments of salvation.

If this is true of the liturgy, how much more true is it of God's Word?  It is not that people do not recognize a few of the familiar passages from Scripture -- even pagans and heathen do in this day and age.  It is that they do not recognize these words as being the living voice of the Good Shepherd addressing them as His beloved sheep.  Again, they are as strangers with the voice and the words that should be as familiar as their own.  While it is a loss lamentable to Him who speaks, it is a loss even more lamentable among those who hear but do not recognize who or what they are hearing.  That is the the state of things for many who count themselves among the flock of God but are not regularly gathered within the sheepfold.

If today is anything, it is a time of sifting.  The time is coming when those bloated membership rolls will no longer define the Church but the regulars who gather around the Word and Table of the Lord will manifest the identity of Christ's Church at this time and in this place.  The time is coming when it will no longer be desired for the familiar strangers to gather at all -- not even on the high and holy days.  It is this kind of thing that many are speaking of for the future of the Church and I am but an echo of their warning.  In a way, it may be a relief to some.  No longer will we have to presume a connection that is, for all intents and purposes, not there.  But for me it will also be a time of great loss.  As long as the familiar strangers show up occasionally, there is the chance for the Word and Spirit of God to address them and work in them to bring them nearer God's presence in the means of grace.  I have witnessed just this renewal many times.  But as the familiar strangers are pressed by culture to distrust or find less interest in the Church and a cost is attached to even their occasional belonging, many will have to make a choice.  For those without the habit of meeting together (Hebrews 10), the choice they make will be to forego even the occasional presence for the feasts and festivals a couple of times a year.  And when that happens, we will remember that the Church has always been and will always be a Church Militant, an outpost of God in an alien and foreign place, in but not of the world.  When the sifting is complete, the Church may be substantially smaller but more determined to be the Church then ever before.  Such is the hope of one who believes that all things work together for the good of those called.  The wheat from the chaff may not be one cataclysmic event but a gradual process that will not be seen until the Lord announces it is done.


Sunday, May 22, 2022

The problem of patience. . .

God comes by His patience naturally.  He does not cultivate it as virtue or character trait but it proceeds from His nature.  God is patient.  We say this all the time even though we may use different words.  There are different words that get translated as “patience” in the Bible. In Nahum 1:3, the prophet says God is “slow to anger”—greatly patient—yet the acknowledgement of His patience does not leave us without the promise that He “will not leave the guilty unpunished.”  Wickedness will not go unpunished by God but it happens in His own timing and not ours.  One of the most beloved statements in Scripture is that God is  “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This means that His restraint is tied to His saving will and purpose and not simply a mark of His personality.  The word used to describe Christ’s patience in 2 Thessalonians 3:5 is “steadfastness,” or “perseverance;” or even “patient endurance.” Check your translation.  In any case, it is again tied to His saving will and purpose.  The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.  I Peter 3:9-10  Again, the patience of the Lord is tied to His saving will, a mark of His mercy, and the goal of it is our repentance.

God is patient until He is not.  The people in Babel, in the days of Noah, in the forty years of the journey to the promised land, and in the exiles, among others, found out that God's patience is not without limit.  It comes to an end -- unpredictably so.  He does not give us a three minute warning or send a shot across the bow -- unless you consider the voice of the prophet calling the people to repentance such a warning.  In any case, Scripture is also replete with examples of how God came to an end with His patience and His wrath was visited upon those who have presumed God's patience to be indifference.  God's longsuffering nature is a blessing and a problem.  It often becomes a stumbling block for the hard-hearted who choose to abuse that patience and ignore the warning and the call to repentance until they find their end at the hands of God's destruction.  Solomon perhaps warns us of this, ‘A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy.’” 

I wonder if it is about time for us to rethink the patience of the Church with those who refuse correction, who ignore the reproof of God's own Word, and who persist in their own understanding even when it conflicts with His clear revelation.  The Roman Catholic bishops have long had patience with Roman Catholic politicians who openly and defiantly refuse the teaching of their own church with regard to sexual desire, gender identity, abortion and the sacredness of life, and a host of other things.  The politicians wait for friendly bishops or popes or those who love worldly power and prestige more than they love the truth of God's Word and what has it bought Rome?  Little good.  Instead the non-famous in the pews have presumed the silence of Rome and its patience to be license to push the limits even further and ignore the teaching of Rome without recrimination.  So we end up with Roman Catholics who cohabit, practice birth control, abort, approve of the GLBTQ+ agenda, support the violation of secular law for political purpose (like immigration), and now do not even believe that the Christ is present in the Eucharist.  How has that worked for Rome?

Before Lutherans smile smugly, we have had our own patience problems.  We have presumed that if you can agree on some generic thing about Jesus nothing else matters -- it does not matter how much of Scripture you reject, who you welcome at the altar rail, who is ordained, how you worship, if you worship, etc...  Look at the ELCA.  They have gone from being against but politically neutral on the issue of abortion to now insisting it is the right of the mother, indeed a civil right, that must be protected at all costs.  They went from typical Lutheran Eucharistic practice to an open table that offers merely a symbolic Christ to those who only believe that far.  They went from a liturgy that must be preserved because of what it says to words that sound nice but do not intersect with actual faith (Virgin Birth).  They went from allowing theologians to say that the historicity of many things in the Bible did not matter to an insistence that even when the Bible speaks clearly it does not mean what it says.  Missouri is not quite there yet but we are headed on the same strategic trajectory -- if only because ecclesiastical supervision has become rare and when applied, selectively used.  Think here of the furor created when a person who openly taught and fought for such things against Scripture and Missouri's confession as the ordination of women and the historicity of Adam and Eve was challenged and finally removed.  Think here of the way we struggle to find the line between what can and cannot be taught and practiced on our Lutheran universities.  

Those cohabiting have seen the patience of the Church as proof that marriage does not matter.  Those using the patience of the Church to have sex without marriage and marriage without love have been confirmed in this error.  Those who allow questions about Scripture to overpower what Scripture clearly says have learned that God is a toothless lion and His Word powerless to do anything unless and until we give it power.  So maybe the time of patience has come. . . and gone.  At least it is time to consider if our patience and our silence have worked against the cause of repentance instead of for it.  Again, I do not presume to have all the answers but it is worth our time to have a serious conversation about what we are saying, how we are saying it, and what people are hearing -- inside and outside the Church.