Sunday, September 29, 2013

War in Heaven

Sermon on Matthew 18:1-11
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 29, 2013 (St. Michael and All Angels)

War.  Battle.  Strife.  Violence.  Not just here on earth, where wars and rumors of wars, floods, fires, famines, and so on are expected due to mankind’s sin.  Instead, war in heaven, of all places, where there is to be nothing but peace.  How can there be war in heaven?  How can division and conflict arise before the very throne of God Himself?  After all, heaven is a place of eternal peace.  Being at God’s right hand and before His face, it is outside time itself, and so a temporal and temporary event like war, in which one side wins and the other side loses, in which things are decided which affect the future and not the past, is impossible by definition.

But then again, as Christians we believe in the impossible, don’t we?  We believe that God, who is by definition unable to die, died.  We believe that His body and His blood shed on that cross are eaten and drunk by us every Sunday, and that they are never used up no matter how many Christians partake.  In fact, we believe that all of His body is contained in each crumb of the bread, and all of His blood is contained in each drop of the wine.  We believe that through baptism we were crucified on that cross outside Jerusalem on that fateful day, and that we were raised from the empty tomb the next Sunday, even though all of us here today were born almost 2000 years later.  We believe that the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world, even though His slaying happened in a specific place, at a specific date in this world’s history.

And that is the sort of thing we’re talking about here.  Something that is temporal and temporary happening in a place that is outside of time and space.  Michael striving with Satan.  The angels arrayed against the demons.  It’s the sort of war in which both the battle and the victory are present simultaneously.  It’s the sort of war in which the victory is won by means of the death of the God the Son.  It’s the eternal victory over sin, death, and the devil which was won by Christ on Good Friday.  It’s precisely the messengers of the God who loves us who are assigned to cast out the false messengers, the false angels.  The reality of this war takes place both here in time and there in eternity.  Here in time it looks like death.  There in eternity it looks like victory.  But make no mistake, the legions commanded by General Michael only won their battle because the Son of God died.  It is only because Christ took their viciousness and their violence upon Himself and swallowed it all that they had none left with which to oppose the holy army which faced them.

The other bizarre, mind-bending thing about this war outside of time, of course, is that when Satan is defeated on Good Friday and cast down to earth, he enters time.  The first thing he does after his defeat at the Cross in 33 AD, is to tempt Adam and Eve into sin.  You see, it’s not just since Good Friday that the war has already been won for us.  That was true even in the Old Testament.  The Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world.  Which means that Satan was already defeated even in the Garden of Eden.  All of God’s people, from Genesis to Revelation, live in the reality that Satan has been defeated and can no longer trouble us.  All of God’s people, of all times and places, are protected and upheld by His messengers, both the supernatural ones we celebrate today, as well as the natural, human messengers of God which bring us His gifts, both those which support us here in time, as well as those gifts which bring us to eternity.

It’s not just those who happen to be children right now whose angels always behold the face of God in heaven.  We are all children compared to what we will be in the resurrection at the last day.  All of us have the angels guarding and protecting us in so many ways, both from temporal death, and from eternal damnation.  And yet, while they are protecting us, they are at the same time beholding our Father’s face in heaven.  Remember, heaven is not a physical place within the universe which God created.  It is outside our time and space, and yet present in our time and space wherever Jesus is.  And Jesus is wherever the Christian is.  The angels aren’t slacking off in their duties while they are worshipping before His face.  It is precisely their duty, their battle, their service on our behalf, which takes place before His face, in eternity.  Their war takes place, in other words, precisely in heaven.  Heaven isn’t a place where we can pretend, like children, that all the bad stuff never happened.  Heaven is where we get to see Satan’s defeat, and celebrate God’s victory without end.  We can’t yet see it or experience it here in time, but at the resurrection of all flesh we will share in that glorious victory eternally.

What this means is that wherever His people dwell with His water on their heads, His word in their hearts, and His body and blood on their lips the angels’ defeat of the evil one is real and present.  Wherever God’s people are, there is Jesus.  Wherever God’s people are, the war has already been won.  Wherever God’s people are, there is the decisive eternal moment of victory, in which the accuser is drawn down to death, and those who are in Christ Jesus share in that eternal victory feast which has no end.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Office of Pastor, and the Job of the Pastor

This is a blog-only special edition, sparked by some further thoughts regarding my September newsletter.

In my September newsletter, I mentioned that even teaching the Catechism isn't properly something that I do, but something the parents do, and that when I teach confirmation class I'm helping the parents rather than doing something that is proper to my office, and that it is certainly acceptable for the parents (or anyone else they trust to assist them, not only the pastor) to do the actual teaching.

On the other hand, just about every pastor in the Missouri Synod (including myself) teaches the Catechism to almost all children and adults who wish to be confirmed, and their congregations would rightly accuse a pastor of not doing his job if he refused to do so.

So which is it?  Is teaching the Catechism my job or the parents'?  And what about this idea, very, very, very common among graduates of our various Concordia Universities, that teachers and other commissioned ministers partake, in one way or another, in the pastoral office?  How should we view that?

(It should be noted, by the way, that the idea that teachers are also pastors in some way - at least the male ones - is an idea which is actually the doctrinal position of the Wisconsin Synod and not the Missouri Synod.  Many Missouri Synod theologians usually call it, somewhat scornfully, the "Wauwatosa Theology," and it is one of the doctrinal issues which continue to divide these two former partner church bodies.  In the Missouri Synod, the formal doctrinal position is that the Office of the Ministry is distinct from any other Churchly job or office, in the sense that the office of the pastor is divinely instituted, while the other Churchly vocations are not.  But, as has been pointed out many times in many discussions of this matter by theologians, Missouri practices what Wisconsin  believes, while Wisconsin practices what Missouri believes.  Interesting mess, no?)

I think that, perhaps, we need to distinguish what is proper to the pastor's Office (no, not the physical room, which is properly called the "study" anyway, but certain aspects of what pastors are to do inherent in God's institution of the Holy Ministry), and what is his "job."  There are many things which are part of the pastor's "job," which congregations have a right to expect from him, which are nevertheless not part of his Office.  The "jobs" a pastor may be required to do vary from one congregation to another, from one culture to another, and from one time period in the Church's history to another.  The Office of the pastor refers to those things that only a pastor may do, and which, if someone else takes it upon himself to do them, should be regarded as a serious transgression of the Third Commandment (not to mention what we Lutherans confess in Article 14 of the Augsburg Confession).

The Office of the pastor properly includes the "public" preaching of the Word and administration of the Sacraments.  While there are some "gray areas" that, at least in Missouri's recent history, have been performed also by congregational elders, such as reading the Scriptures and assisting with the distribution of Communion, preaching the Word "publicly" and administering the Sacraments are those things which are proper to the Office of the Holy Ministry.  Whether even the readings and the distribution should be given to elders or not is something that is also a matter of some debate among certain Missouri theologians, but I'm not all that concerned about it because as a Synod we have much bigger fish to fry.  The elders assist the pastor precisely in his Office, and therefore they are to be men who could, at least theoretically, qualify to become pastors themselves. Because of this, the question of whether they should assist him during the Divine Service is a matter which, while I have my own opinion on it, is not really a major theological concern compared to some of the other things which Missouri has historically (and recently!) argued about.  By the way, I do believe that having women (or laymen who aren't congregational elders, for that matter) read the Scriptures publicly and distribute Communion (to say nothing of preaching from the pulpit and consecrating the Supper!) is a practice not in accord with the Scriptures or the Lutheran Confessions, as reading the Scriptures publicly is a form of preaching them (after all, a dramatic reading - or even an undramatic one - is a form of interpretation, that is to say, preaching).

(By the way, the congregational elders are those men(!) who work most closely with the pastor as he carries out his duties.  In addition to sometimes reading the Scriptures and assisting with the Distribution, they assist him with pastoral care by visiting the members of the congregation and encouraging them in their life of faith, helping him keep track of delinquent members as well as the sick and shut-in, and encouraging the pastor himself as he carries out both his job and his office, as well as being the "point men" for the right and duty of every Christian to judge the doctrine taught by his pastor.  And yet, even though these men are more closely associated with the pastor as he carries out his Office than any other Churchly vocation, they are never mentioned in the most important recent document regarding Churchly vocations among Missourians, The Ministry: Offices, Procedures, and Nomenclature, (1985, Commission on Theology and Church Relations).  This document (which, it should be noted, is not part of our formal confession of faith as set forth in Article II of our Synod's Constitution) is perhaps the most clear and influential presentation of the view that certain Churchly vocations are, in fact, either part of, or at least subsidiary to, the Office of the Holy Ministry.  And yet, that vocation within the Church which is most closely associated with those duties which are proper to the pastor's Office (i.e., preaching the Word publicly and administering the Sacraments), namely that of congregational elder, isn't even given a mention in that document!  That document only talks about Synodically rostered career Church workers.  Something is definitely fishy here!)

As to the pastor's "job," there are many things which pastors have been expected to do in the course of their daily and weekly duties which are not proper to their Office, but which are beneficial to the Church precisely because it is the pastor who does them (and which, therefore, congregations can legitimately expect the pastor to do).  One such "job" is that of assisting the parents as they catechize their children in the Christian faith.  This is not proper to the Office of the Holy Ministry, but it is highly beneficial in most cases that the pastor also be the teacher, since he happens to be the one who has a Master's degree in theology.  Lutheran school teachers also have a hand in this area as well, since they're also more educated than the average laymen regarding what Scripture teaches and the Catechism confesses.  And by the way, for this reason I do think it's a good idea for the Synod to keep track of (i.e., roster) those teachers and other paid church workers which have received such education.  My only quibble is with how our Synod's vocabulary has gotten somewhat confused regarding the relation of those who have been ordained to the Office to the other rostered church workers.  Admitting the catechumens to the Lord's Table upon examination and absolution, on the other hand, is proper to the Office, as it is an essential part of administering the Sacraments.  If it were part of my Office to teach the catechumens, then those parents who decide to do it themselves would be violating the Third Commandment (more on that below), despite the fact that the Catechism clearly makes catechesis a fundamental aspect of the vocation of parent, and not of the Office of the Ministry.

Some pastors in small congregations also serve as "church secretaries," preparing the Sunday bulletin and the newsletter, answering the phone, etc.  This was the case in several of my previous congregations.  Of course here at Holy Cross we have a paid secretary, partially because as a bi-vocational pastor I simply don't have the time to do all that (though I do prefer to prepare the liturgical part of the bulletin because it's easier for me as the preacher and administrator of the sacraments to set it up myself rather than doing a lot of back-and-forth with the secretary about which setting of the Service we're using, proofreading, changes in the liturgy due to festivals and other distinctive parts of the Church Year, etc., again due to a lack of time because of my bi-vocational status).  And there are many other things which a congregation may, because of circumstances or cultural considerations, rightfully expect the pastor to do which are nevertheless not a formal part of the Office of the Holy Ministry.  For example, in the early days of the Missouri Synod, the man most educated on many subjects (not just theology) in a frontier community was the pastor, and so he was also the schoolteacher, not just of religion, but also reading, (w)riting, and (a)rithmetic.  Again, not proper to the pastor's office, but a very helpful thing for him to do and therefore part of his "job" as congregations in that circumstance defined it.  (This, by the way, is part of the reason the Missouri Synod has always had such a heavy emphasis on congregationally-owned Lutheran Schools, because having those with a theological education as part of their teacher training, whether ordained or not, is a great blessing to the Church and her families.)

Perhaps the most useful tool for understanding these matters is the Third Commandment, which forbids Christians to "despise preaching and His Word," as Luther puts it in the Catechism.  If a Christian despises or avoids the public preaching of the Word and administration of the Sacraments (those things which are fundamental and proper to the divinely-instituted Office of the Ministry), he is failing to do as God requires in this Commandment.  However, if parents decide to home-school their children, or send them to public or other private schools (even ones owned by the Roman Catholics or the Assemblies of God, as well as Wisconsin Synod schools such as, e.g., Shoreland High School in Somers), they are not violating the Third Commandment.

(It should be noted that confusion on this matter almost led to a split between Missouri and Wisconsin way back in the 1890's and 1900's, long before the split over Missouri's leftward drift and other serious theological problems regarding the doctrine of Holy Scripture and Law and Gospel in 1961.  Back then, while both Synods were still predominantly German and the whole controversy over Scripture (which dominated Missouri from the 1950's to at least the 1980's and to some extent even down to our own day) had not even begun to show itself on the horizon, a serious division arose regarding the nature and status of Lutheran schools.  What happened was this: there was a Missouri Synod congregation in Cincinnati which excommunicated a family because they decided to send their children to the local public school rather than the congregation's Lutheran school.  The reasoning given was that by not making use of the Lutheran school the parents were violating the Third Commandment.  Well, the Missouri Synod disagreed, and suspended the congregation from its membership in the Missouri Synod over the matter.  While the Wisconsin Synod refused to accept the congregation's application for membership (likely for the same reason that we would rightly refuse a transfer from somebody who had unresolved sin and forgiveness issues with his former congregation), many of the local Wisconsin Synod congregations practised fellowship with this congregation and agreed that they were right to excommunicate the family in question.  Now, there were other questions that were raised, such as whether the suspension from the Missouri Synod constituted an "excommunication," since it indicated a break in communion fellowship, or whether only congregations, and not church bodies, can properly "excommunicate," and that question itself led to all sorts of other debate, but the primary question here, that of whether the family did, in fact, violate the Third Commandment, can be viewed as the beginning of Missouri and Wisconsin's disagreement over the subject of the Office of the Ministry and its relation to other Churchly vocations.  The history of this matter is set out in Rolf Preus's online document, The Old Ministry Debate in the Synods of the Synodical Conference and in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod Today.  Many of you at Holy Cross will remember Rolf as the pastor of St. John's here in Racine preceding Pastor Quinn.)

All Churchly vocations are a great blessing to the Church.  In fact all legitimate vocations are a great blessing from God both to the Church and to the world, and all serve God in one way or another.  The reason why the discussion I've set out here is important, however, is because each vocation is unique, and each has its own unique contribution to make to the body of the Church (and indeed, the body of humanity in the world).  As St. Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 16, just because the hand is not the eye, doesn't give it the right to complain that it's not part of the body (nor even that it's not an important part of the body), nor does it give the eye justification for looking down at the hand and despising its contribution to the body.  To make every part of Christ's body, the Church, equal and identical with the Office of the Holy Ministry, is to violate this principle.  Everyone has his own God-given proper role, and we despise those roles when we start making "everyone an eye," as if everyone (or everyone who has a Church-related career, for that matter) were the same part of the body.  (By the way, check out last fall's Disney movie "Wreck-it Ralph" for an interesting example of someone stumbling upon the Lutheran doctrine of vocation, as each video game character, not just the "good guys" and the non-player characters, have their own unique contributions to make to the good of the whole game and even to the whole video-game arcade.)  Everyone is a servant, everyone has a calling.  But each has their own service, each has their own vocation (the Latin word for "calling").  Instead of complaining that things aren't "fair" in terms of how God places each in his own role, we rejoice that God has given so many good and unique ways to work in the Church and in the world.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The (Un)righteous Steward

Sermon on Luke 16:1-15
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 22, 2013 (Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

It’s not about the money.  It’s not about the power and glory that comes from being “first” in this life.  It’s not about proving that you can be just as good, just as capable, and wield just as much authority and power as anybody else.  Christianity isn’t about you, in other words.  But when I say that, I mean it in a way that is completely contrary to the way Rick Warren means it.  The way he means it, it means that we’re to serve God selflessly, and not serve ourselves.  And of course, by itself that’s also a true statement.  But Christianity is not about what we do for God.  It’s what God does for us.  When I say Christianity is not about you, I (and the Bible, and the Lutheran Confessions) mean that Christianity is not about what we do.  It’s about what God has done and continues to do, in creating, redeeming, and sanctifying us.  Which is also why Christianity is not about this life, it’s about eternity.

The manager in this parable knew the jig was up.  The stuff he had been given charge over, he misused.  He did things with it that were contrary to his master’s wishes, and contrary to the purposes for which these things were given.  Sound familiar?  It should.  “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.  He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have.”  And how have you done with the body and soul, eyes, ears, and all your members you have been given charge over?  How about the clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all you have?

Not so good, eh?  Well, me neither.  So what now?  There’s nothing we can do to fix the problem, is there?  Not even doing good works for our fellow men, either inside or outside the church walls, will make up for our misuse of what belongs to Him (and remember, it’s not just our stuff, but our own bodies and souls that belong to Him, since He made us as well as our stuff).  Even when we do good and follow every letter of God’s law, we were still only doing our duty.  God doesn’t give bonus points to make up for a bad grade on the test.  He doesn’t accept anything besides lifelong perfection.  We can’t bribe our way out of this one.  We can’t put forward the fact that we’ve been serving Him or giving ourselves to Him, either.  You can’t give someone something they already own, so any service we do for Him with the expectation that He’ll appreciate it, is an insult, because it implies that He didn’t own it in the first place.  And that even applies to our worship, whether liturgical or not.  I’ve heard it said by some Christians that the reason we sing and praise God is because He craves our worship.  The idea that the almighty Creator of heaven and earth would, or even could, “crave” anything we have or do, is nothing less than blasphemy.  He owns it all anyway.  He has no lack by definition.  To say that God “craves” something we can give Him is to imply that we can help God out.

And by the way, that’s part of the problem when men try to compete with one another for God’s attention instead of simply recognizing and confessing Him as the one who continues to uphold us.  That’s part of the problem when anyone desires something other than the station in life God has given him (or her) rather than simply being, by quietness and meekness, a reflection of God’s own humility.  That’s why St. Paul says what he says in today’s epistle lesson: because fighting and arguing with one another, and putting oneself forward rather than simply carrying out one’s own calling in life, is contrary to God’s will.  It’s not more God-pleasing to be the preacher and teacher, than it is to serve God quietly and modestly.  As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the lowly near-minimum-wage Walmart associate who helps his customers find the right electronic gadget or TV or phone, serves God just as much as the preacher does (or any other church worker, for that matter).  And those who claim the “right” to be pastors contrary to His will in creation, as if by being the guy (or, hypothetically, gal) standing up here in the strange robes were somehow a better or more God-pleasing way of serving Him, are frankly criticizing Him for His gifts, rather than rejoicing in the goodness of what He has given to them in their own vocations.  When we try to put ourselves forward, we don’t serve God better, we only insult and criticize Him.

So, what now?  We’ve misused His gifts.  We’ve even tried to bribe Him with His own money.  And that obviously didn’t work.  All that got us was more wrath.  It’s hopeless.  There’s nothing we can do.

But here is where the parable changes.  Here is where someone else steps in and plays our part in the story.  Here is where someone else does the work we are unable to do, and shows the humility and quietness we are unable to muster.  There is only one human being in all the world who can step in and fix the problem we have with God.  There is only one recipient of God’s gifts who can ever be commended by God for what He has done, especially since what He has done itself seems so bizarre and wasteful.  And that is the one who steps into our place in the parable, takes on Himself the accusation of wasting our Lord’s gifts, and then turns around and forgives the debt that was owed to His Master, by giving, not to the Master, but to the Master’s debtors (that’s us), the oil and wheat of His sacraments.  Even though we really were the steward who wasted God’s gifts, the steward in the parable isn’t us.  It’s Jesus.  It was Jesus who, unlike us contentious men and uppity women, became the perfect example of humility and peace.  Though being in very nature God, he didn’t consider equality with God something to be displayed as spoils from battle, something to be bragged about.  Instead, He made Himself nothing, becoming obedient even to the most humiliating death possible for an Old Testament Jew: the death by hanging from a tree.  It is that One who then is able to turn around and forgive the debts owed to His Father.  It is only that One who is ever able to give God something that He truly “craves,” because He craves it not out of need or want, but out of love for His creation.  It is He who is able to redeem and restore the crown of His creation to its rightful place at His right hand and before His face, eternally.

And because salvation is something that is accomplished for us, and not something we do, we do get to be meek and humble, both as men and women, in our own callings in life.  We do get to receive His gifts rather than trying to earn them.  We get to have the oil of His Word and Spirit poured on our heads in water.  We get to have the grain, the bread, that is His body placed in our mouths.  We get to serve Him in whatever we do in this life.  And we get to enjoy the feast we have been invited to, because someone else paid our debt for us.  We get to be invited to the Father’s house and dwell there eternally.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

Saturday, September 14, 2013

True Doctrine


Sermon on Luke 15:1-10
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 15, 2013 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

This man welcomes sinners!  Well, what a free-thinker!  Way to break with tradition, Jesus!  Way to stick it to those traditionalists!  Way to show everybody that it’s love, not stodgy old doctrine, that counts!  Way to be a rebel!  Wa...it a minute.  What was it Paul wrote to Timothy?  To command certain people not to teach false doctrine?  To distinguish, in other words, between truth and error?  That it is, in fact, false doctrine that promotes a lack of love, rather than love and doctrine being contradictory to one another?  That it is the free-thinkers, and not the doctrinally orthodox, who wander away into foolish ideas and myths that don’t promote the love of God?

Every church has doctrine.  Every church has something that they teach.  After all, that’s the definition of the word doctrine: that which is taught.  Every subject matter has doctrine.  Every class in school has things that are taught as the content of that particular class.  Math has doctrine.  Science has doctrine.  Grammar has doctrine.  Literature has doctrine.  History has doctrine.  Social studies have doctrine.  (By the way, this is why those who have achieve the highest academic rank in a particular subject matter are called doct-ors.)  Every organization out there has certain ideas it wants to educate people on, and other, contrary, ideas it strives to counteract.  Even the atheists have doctrine they firmly cling to.  They teach that supernatural things (including supernatural supreme beings) do not exist.  And many well-known atheists are quite doctrinaire on this point.  And so it’s not surprising, nor is it a negative thing, to note that Christianity also has doctrine to which it is committed, while rejecting and, yes, condemning that which is contrary to it.  It is not harmful to the body of Christ to be focused on what we, as Christians and as Church, teach.  It’s not even a bad thing to be quite clear on what we reject and condemn as false doctrine.  But that’s not because the abstract idea of “doctrine” is a good thing in itself.  It’s because the content of Christian doctrine in particular is vitally important, eternally important, that doctrinal purity and the rejection of false doctrine is, rather than being a distraction from the mission of the Church, synonymous with the mission of the Church.  It is precisely in promoting the true doctrine and rejecting false doctrine that people are converted.

Now, that may be a startling, and perhaps even offensive, statement to some of you.  And if “doctrinal purity” is pursued as a way of promoting our own correctness, our own righteousness, then it really is counterproductive and, well, in fact contrary to sound doctrine, as paradoxical as that sounds.  And, yes, that is a very real temptation among those who are concerned about the difference between true and false doctrine, namely to make it about ourselves rather than God.  But when doctrinal purity is understood rightly, which is to say, when the central doctrine, the central teaching of Christianity is understood rightly, then doctrine and mission, rather than being contrary to one another or even held in tension with one another, are in fact the same thing.  The reason why it’s true becomes clear when we look into the content of what Christianity teaches.  Here’s the way Paul describes the heart and center of Christian doctrine: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”

In other words, it is precisely the lost sheep that Christ comes to find.  It is precisely the lost coin for which heaven throws a party when it is found.  It is precisely the man who was the worst sinner that Jesus came to save, so that that man, Paul, could be the prototype, the pattern, that shows that everyone else’s sins can be forgiven too.  Stated yet another way, the heart and core of Christian doctrine is that sins are forgiven solely by God’s gracious love towards us for the sake of His Son’s death on the cross.  That’s why it’s completely illogical (though very tempting) when those who are concerned about true and false doctrine end up filled with pride in their own correctness: by making it about themselves they’re denying the very heart and center of the doctrine they wish to confess.  That’s also why it’s completely wrong-headed to judge a congregation on how big it is, how active it is, and so on.  It’s precisely Christ coming to save sinners that is the central focus of this place, and not anything that we do.

We are not the ninety-nine.  We are not the majority who are being put upon by the selfish minority.  When it comes to spiritual things, we all want to be part of the “occupy” movement, but the reality is that we are the one lost sheep which God goes to all that trouble to find.  And any claim to be one of those who stayed in the sheepfold, who has been faithful to God, who has done something for Him, merely demonstrates how lost we really are.  In the parable of the prodigal son (which immediately follows today’s gospel lesson), the older brother is just as lost as the younger son is, but he is in a much more dangerous position because he refuses to recognize himself as one who needs saving. To make our relationship to God and to the Church focus on our own activity, our own “ministry,” our own sheer busy-ness in connection with the visible church, and not on what God, in love, has done for us, is make ourselves into the older son.  It’s a fable, a delusion, a doctrine of demons, that anything we do earns us a place at His feast.

It’s precisely because Christian doctrine is about what He did, and what He does, that contending for true doctrine is synonymous with the mission of reaching the lost.  It is precisely the false doctrine that people can go through life without concern for eternal things and still come out okay that is rejected whenever the message that Christ came into the world to save sinners is proclaimed to the world.  It is the false doctrine that men can earn their way into heaven by being “pretty good people” that is condemned when we speak to our friends and neighbors about the hope that is within us.  That’s because the hope that is in us is all about what God has done, not about what we do.  It’s about His love for us, and for all those for whom Jesus died, not about our love for Him or our consecration to Him.  We don’t invite people to listen to Jesus so that they can straighten out their lifestyle and live better lives.  We invite them so that God will, by water and the word, put to death in them the old life that is centered on itself and raise in them the eternal life which is centered on Him.  We don’t invite them to be workers in the field who, like the older son, think they’re earning the fattened calf, we invite them to the eternal party of which we partake today, the party in which only sinners can partake (and that’s why we practice closed communion, by the way: not because only the good and the pious are worthy, but precisely because it is only those who know themselves to be lost for whom this table is prepared).  We don’t invite them into their best lives now, we invite them into an eternity before God’s face.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Christ is our Salt


Sermon on Luke 14:25-35
 

For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI

September 8, 2013 (Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost)


Do you think you have what it takes to be a Christ-follower? Do you think you have what it takes to be a soldier in God’s army? Do you think you have what it takes to be one whose life and ministry is devoted to serving Him? Do you think you have what it takes to be . . . a Christian? Well, if so, you’ve got a problem. A huge problem. You haven’t counted the cost. You haven’t realized how big your sin is, if you think you in any sense can do what God commands and desires from His people. That’s the problem with most of what passes for Christianity today. That’s the problem with much of what passes for Christianity even in conservative churches. That’s the problem with most of what passes for youth ministry in the vast majority of churches in our nation. That’s the problem with what passes for Christianity even among those who wish to make a career out of serving God by being employed by the Church in one capacity or another. In fact, that latter category, in which I include myself, by the way, is in the worst danger of all here. It is those who are constantly doing something that is obviously and openly “for God” that are in the greatest danger of thinking that they’re actually contributing something to their relationship with Him. It is especially easy for those whose daily work is done in relation to the Church to get their faith in God mixed up in their own work for Him. And that’s why (and by the way I’m still speaking autobiographically here) it is so easy for those who have been trained for such work to fall into anger and even despair when things happen which take that career that is supposedly devoted to God away from them. See? I’ve left everyone behind, gone to a Church college when I could have been going to a party school, studied theology and lived among people who are also desiring to “serve God,” and done all this stuff that proves I put Him first, and then it all gets taken away from me, and I end up working at Walmart. How could God do that to me after everything I’ve done for Him? How could God despise and ignore how much and how well I’ve devoted my heart to Him?
Well, here’s the problem. Someone who talks that way is not loving God above all things. He’s not hating even his own life for the sake of Jesus. Yes, one can say that he puts God before father, mother, wife, children, and so on. And much harm has been done to pastors’ and church workers’ families because they misunderstood this text as if putting their own church career before their family were what God demanded here. But who is the subject of the verbs? Who is the one doing the doing, if you really think you’re doing what Jesus says here? It’s not God. The subject of all those verbs is the Christian, not the Christ. The one who thinks he can do what Jesus is talking about here, is the one who has the least understanding of what Jesus is talking about.
You see, hating your own life doesn’t mean that you act like some medieval monk, thinking you’re more holy because you’ve supposedly devoted yourself (and even your entire career) to serving the external institution we often think of as the Church. Hating your own life means that you realize that there’s nothing you can do to improve your relationship to God. Hating your own life means that even those life choices you have made that are supposedly sanctified, supposedly more Godly than the vast majority of your peers and your neighbors, is not worth a single thing before God. Hating your own life means realizing that even your best good works, even your most fervent consecration to Him, even your most pious desire to devote yourself to Him, is nothing. In fact, those things are even worse than nothing, because it is precisely those things that get in the way of our true relationship with Him.
You see, before we can approach Him at all, we need to count the cost. But what is the cost of approaching God? What do we need to have in order to come and meet Him with our own resources and our own piety and our own holiness? Perfection. And not just outward moral perfection, but perfect humility, too, because pride itself is nothing but idolatry. And that includes especially pride in one’s own good works, and one’s supposed consecration to Him. That pride, that idea that you think you can please God on your own terms, is itself idolatry. It is nothing less than worship of yourself.
So, do you have what it takes to come to God on your terms? Do you have enough good works banked up to build a tower from here to God’s throne in heaven? Do you have enough of those we have brought to the church by our own witness and our own example of living a Godly life, to storm the gates of heaven? Do you? If you think you do, then you’re a fool. You haven’t given up father or mother or wife or children, let alone your own self, if you think that anything you’ve been or done in this world is going to help you in the slightest before Him. In fact, instead of giving up on yourself, you’re treating yourself as if you are God. You’re actually destroying in yourself the salt that you claim to have. You’re actually proving yourself to be unsalty salt, worthless salt, if you think that anything you do can change God’s heart in the slightest.
Which is why it is only the One who made Himself nothing who can save us. It is only the One who gave up everything, and quite literally hated his own life (to the point of willingly allowing it to be taken from Him on the cross) who can conquer heaven for us. It is only the One whose greatest work of carpentry was wooden fixture He didn’t even build but from which He was hung, who can build us a dwelling in His Father’s house. It is only the one who really did give it all up who can truly accomplish anything before God, precisely because He is God of God, light of light, very God of very God.
And so, because we know that we can’t do anything for Him, that we can relax in everything He has done for us. We can make all sorts of decisions about our life. We don’t have to do something to prove ourselves to God, because He’s the one that has made us salty and useful in His kingdom. We don’t have to turn ourselves into monks by spending all our time and energy at Church to the detriment of our own families, because our families are also gifts of God who also stand in need of our loving service. My job at Walmart is just as much a service to God and my neighbor as is my job standing here and preaching His Word on Sunday mornings. It’s not about me or what I do for Him. It’s about Him, and what He has done for me and continues to do through me. That’s what being salt for the world is about. It is He who is the salt and the light of the world. When we try to be the salt and light by what we do, we dilute and ultimately destroy the true salt and the true light, which is Jesus Christ Himself. But because He is the true salt and the true light, we go through our lives and even come to heaven itself, knowing that the cost has already been counted, the victory has already been won, and we don’t need to worry about it. Heaven is already ours. We have no need to prove ourselves. We simply get to live the life He has given to us to live, both now and in eternity. Amen.
+Soli Deo Gloria+