Monday, October 23, 2017

Feast of St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr



Today is the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr. St. James of Jerusalem (also known as “James the Just”) is identified as “the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19).  Much of the Church has considered James to be a kinsman of Jesus, but he may in fact have been a later child born to Mary and Joseph.  James did not believe in Jesus until after His resurrection (John 7:3-5; 1 Corinthians 15:7).  He quickly became an important leader in the Jerusalem church and played a significant role in the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).  He authored the letter that bears his name in the New Testament.  The ancient Jewish historian Josephus reports that James was martyred in 62 A.D. when he was stoned to death by the Sadducees.

Scripture reading:
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
Greetings.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:1-12)

Collect of the Day:
Heavenly Father, shepherd of Your people, You raised up James the Just, brother of our Lord, to lead and guide Your Church.  Grant that we may follow his example of prayer and reconciliation and be strengthened by the witness of his death; through Jesus Christ, Your  Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one  God, now and forever.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Mark's thoughts: The Luther sermon Lutheran pastors need to read




The Epistle lesson in the one year lectionary for yesterday, the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, was Eph 4:22-28.  There Paul writes:


Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.

Historically, Martin Luther’s sermon on this text has been an important one for confessional Lutheranism.  In fact, the Formula of Concord refers the reader to this sermon when explaining the third use of the law in article VI.

In article VI the Formula of Concord is confessing that while the “law always accuses” (lex semper accusat) it does not accomplish only one thing as it accuses.  In the second use of the law, the effect of the law on the sinner is that it reveals sin. However, in the third use of the law the effect on the sinner is that as the law accuses it represses and compels the old Adam/flesh.  FC Ep VI.4 states:


Likewise, it is necessary so that the old Adam not act according to its own will but instead be compelled against its own will, not only through the admonition and threats of the law but also with punishments and plagues, to follow the Spirit and let itself be made captive (1 Cor. 9[:27*]; Rom. 6[:12*]; Gal. 6[:14*]; Ps. 119[:1*]; Heb. 13[:21*]) (emphasis mine).

FC SD VI.9 then uses the same language and expands on what the Epitome says by adding quotations from Ps 119:71, 1 Co 9:27 and Heb 12:8:


Therefore, in this life, because of these desires of the flesh, the faithful, elect, reborn children of God need not only the law’s daily instruction and admonition, its warning and threatening. Often they also need its punishments, so that they may be incited by them and follow God’s Spirit, as it is written, “It is good for me that I was humbled, so that I might learn your statutes” [Ps. 119:71*]. And again, “I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” [1 Cor. 9:27*]. And again, “If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children” [Heb. 12:8*]. Similarly, Dr. Luther explained this in great detail in the summer part of the Church Postil, on the epistle for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (emphasis mine).

This issue at hand in Formula of Concord article VI is whether the Church needs to address the law to Christians. The answer of article VI is that yes she must because of the continuing presence of the old Adam in believers (FC Ep VI.4; SD VI.18, 23).  The confessors explain that an important effect of the law in the third use is that is compels and restrains the old Adam (it also teaches and instructs as it accuses; FC SD VI.2-3, 6, 9, 12). In this way the Spirit utilizes the law to assist the new man who struggles against the old Adam.  The Spirit supports the new man through the Gospel so that he can struggle against the old Adam/flesh. It is the new man who struggles against the old Adam (FC Ep VI.4; FC SD VI.18, 23). The Spirit applies the law to the old Adam (FC SD VI.3, 11-14) and the Spirit's utilization of the law to compel and repress the old Adam/flesh aids the inner man in his struggle so that the new man determines what the individual actually does on particular occasions. In this way (and this way alone) it is entirely correct to say that the Spirit’s utilization of the law helps the Christian live according to God’s will.

Formula of Concord SD VI.9 says that Luther explains this in great detail in the Church Postil, on the epistle for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity.  The confessors direct our attention to Luther’s sermon and so if we want to understand their position fully, we need to look there.  In the sermon, Luther states:


1. This is once again an admonition to Christians to put their faith into practice through good works and a new life.  Even though through Baptism they certainly have the forgiveness of sins, yet the old Adam still sticks to their flesh and is always active with evil inclinations and desires to both worldly and spiritual vices.  If they do not resist and restrain these, they will again lose the faith and forgiveness of sins that they have received, and afterward will become much worse than they were before.  They will begin to despise and persecute God’s Word if they are rebuked through it.  Yes, even those who gladly heart it, value it, and intend to live according to it still need daily admonition and incitement. The old skin of the sinful flesh is so strong and tough, and the devil is so powerful and villainous that if he can get a little space where he can insert a claw, he presses in and does not give up until he has sunk the man down again into his former old damnable way of unbelief, contempt for God, and disobedience (LW



2. For this reason, the preaching office is necessary in the Church, not only to teach the ignorant – such as the simple, foolish populace and the young people – but also to awaken and exhort those who certainly know how they should believe and live, so that they daily restrain it and do not become lazy, reluctant, and tired in the battle which they must have on earth with the devil, their own flesh and all vices.

3. Therefore, St. Paul diligently emphasizes this admonition for his Christians, so that it almost seems that he is doing too much, since he everywhere presses it upon them forcefully, just as if they were so foolish that they did not know or were careless and forgot, so that they would not do it unless commanded and driven to it.
However, he also knows that even though the Christians have begun to believe and should be demonstrating the fruit of faith, this is not so quickly done or accomplished.  It does not do to think and say: “Well it is enough that the teaching has been given. Therefore, wherever the Spirit and faith are, there the fruits and good works will follow of themselves. Even though the Spirit is certainly there and (as Christ says [Matt. 26:41]) “willing,” and also works in those who believe, yet, on the other hand, the flesh is weak and lazy, and the devil does not stop trying to ruin that weak flesh through temptations and enticements.

4. This is why we must not let people go away as if they did not need to be exhorted and urged through God’s Word to a good life.  No, you dare not be negligent and lazy here, for the flesh is already far too lazy in obeying the Spirit; yes, it is all too vigorous in opposing Him, as St. Paul says elsewhere: “The flesh desires against the Spirit,” etc., “so that you do not do what you want” [Gal 5:17].  For this reason, God must here act like a good, diligent, householder or ruler.  If he has a lazy servant or maid, or careless officers (even if they are not otherwise evil or unfaithful), he must not think that it will be straightened out if he tells them once or twice what to do, unless he gets on their backs and forces them to do it. (LW 79:181-182).

Luther begins by stating the basic problem of the Christian life in this time of the now and not yet – the sinful flesh is still present. Just as in Formula of Concord VI, this is identified as the reason that Christians continue to need exhortation (the law).

Particularly relevant for modern Lutherans is Luther’s statement:


However, he also knows that even though the Christians have begun to believe and should be demonstrating the fruit of faith, this is not so quickly done or accomplished.  It does not do to think and say: “Well it is enough that the teaching has been given. Therefore, wherever the Spirit and faith are, there the fruits and good works will follow of themselves. Even though the Spirit is certainly there and (as Christ says [Matt. 26:41]) “willing,” and also works in those who believe, yet, on the other hand, the flesh is weak and lazy, and the devil does not stop trying to ruin that weak flesh through temptations and enticements (LW 79:182).

Prompted by the theology of Gerhard Forde and his “hilarity of the Gospel”, it has become common for modern Lutherans to emphasize the spontaneity of good works and new obedience.  For example, Steven Hein wrote:


Fruit, as we know, is simply the product of a healthy growing fruit tree or vine.  It just appears on the branches spontaneously and effortlessly as a consequence of the tree being alive according to the type of branch that God created.  It is just the nature of grape vinesto produce grapes or apple trees to produce apples.  It is as simple as that.  Reflect on what this means for a moment.  The vineyards are silent at night, are they not? There is no grunting or groaning as the fruit matures … and no whining questions: “Do we have to produce grapes? How many?” They just silently do it! 


There is an insight here about good works in the Christian’s life in Christ.  To live in Christ is simply to bring forth the works of Christ; works that he produces simply by being who he is through each of us by virtue of who we are in him.  As we live in Christ and his righteousness through faith, our faith is just naturally and spontaneously fruitful in works of loving service.  It is what faith does.  As an indicative statement, faith is active in love.  Moreover, God is love, and he created and redeemed us from sin to love.    It is not a matter of compulsion or coercion, as if works of love were something foreign to our recreated nature.  The grace by which we live and grow in Christ is the grace that empowers and engenders a fruitful faith.  Works of love are how faith expresses itself in   daily living. They are spontaneous and seemingly effortless, without calculation or self-concern (“Sanctification: The Powerful Pardon,” Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology 6 [1997]: 19-23, 22).

Yet when described only in this fashion, the law has no role to play in assisting Christians to live in ways that are true to God’s will.  The only thing it can do is to reveal a Christian’s sin and drive him to the Gospel (second use of the law).  Hein has stated:

Proper preaching and teaching good works with appropriate admonitions are not designed to reveal your virtue or make you feel good about yourself. They are intended to expose your poverty—what you should do, but don’t. This is a good thing for your spiritual health and, oddly enough, such preaching actually has an important role in doing good works.
How? Just be patient Virginia, I’ll get there.
Because good preaching of works commands the spirit with the letter of the Law, it always exposes our weak faith and nails us for our impoverished, often self-centered works. While this may make us squirm, it is a good thing. The Spirit of the Lord uses this to expose false works and indict our poverty to make us hungry for the Gospel—to make us hungry for the all-sufficient works and righteousness of Christ. So, is proper preaching and admonishing of good works a setup for the Gospel? Yes!

This then yields Forde’s “hilarity of the Gospel.”  It produces “Works of faith without Legal compulsion.”  The law can’t provide any kind of assistance to the new man.  Hein judges: “What does effective ministry of the law do for the new self?  Nothing in any direct way, but it does create a powerful hunger and thirst for our Lord’s bread of life and living water of the gospel” ( Steven A. Hein, “The Two-Faced God,” Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology 5 [1996]: 5-10, 10).

Note how different this is from what Luther says in this sermon.  For starters, we must recall the text that Luther is preaching upon.  In Eph 4:22-28 Paul is not telling Christians that they have not done these things and are sinners. He is not trying to show them their sin and drive them to the Gospel.  Instead, he is exhorting them to live in these ways because of the Gospel they have received! Paul describes the baptismal life.  He refers to baptism in Eph 4:5 and 5:26-27. The language of Eph 4:22-24 closely parallels that of Col 3:9-10, and in Colossians the baptismal grounding is very clear: 2:12-13; 2:20; 3:1-4.  “Putting off the old man” (Eph 4:22) expresses an idea similar to the old man being crucified with Christ (Rom 6:6) through baptism (Rom 6:3-5).  “Putting on the new man” (Eph 4:24) uses the same verb as “clothing oneself [ἐνεδύσασθε] with Christ” through baptism in Gal 3:27.  The verb that expresses “renewing of the spirit of their minds” (4:23) is cognate to “renewing [ἀνακαινώσεως] by the Holy Spirit” in baptism (Tit 3:5).    

Based on the content of the text he is preaching on, we know that the exhortation Luther has in view is language that urges and encourages Christians to live in certain ways and not live in others.  He warns, “It does not do to think and say: ‘Well it is enough that the teaching has been given. Therefore, wherever the Spirit and faith are, there the fruits and good works will follow of themselves’” (LW 79:182). Things simply don’t work this way because the old Adam is still present.  Instead, exhortation is needed:


This is why we must not let people go away as if they did not need to be exhorted and urged through God’s Word to a good life.  No, you dare not be negligent and lazy here, for the flesh is already far too lazy in obeying the Spirit; yes, it is all too vigorous in opposing Him, as St. Paul says elsewhere: “The flesh desires against the Spirit,” etc., “so that you do not do what you want” [Gal 5:17] (LW 79:182).

Luther says that regular exhortation is needed.  This is an important corrective for today’s Lutheran “agnostic” approach to preaching.   Often, Lutheran pastors say things like:


I think the preacher should just preach the text and have confidence the Holy Spirit will use it as he chooses.  The law always accuses and we can’t choose the use of the law.  Only the Spirit can do that.  So, when I preach I don’t worry about which use it is — I just preach the text and try to stay out of the Holy Spirit’s way.

While it is true that only the Holy Spirit can utilize the law to accomplish the effect on the hearer (the use) that he desires, this does not negate the fact that because of the old Adam pastors need regularly to include exhortation in their preaching. That is the apostolic model for addressing Christians that has been provided by the Spirit in Scripture.  That is what Luther says explicitly in this sermon – a sermon cited by Formula of Concord Article VI in order to aid our understanding of what the confessors mean.  Paul could not control how the Spirit utilized the law any more than we can, and yet he constantly exhorts those who are hearing him (Paul's letters were received as the equivalent of the apostle speaking to the congregation).  This inspired, apostolic model has provided the content of Luther's instruction to us.

Modern Lutherans use the logic of the “agnostic” approach in order to avoid exhortationIt deploys a pseudo-sophistication about what it means that the law always accuses, and on this basis it abandons the regular use of exhortation in preaching.  Yet Luther’s sermon on the epistle for the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity says that this is completely mistaken.  Luther says that exhortation needs to be present regularly.  Indeed Luther didn’t believe that exhortation had to be present in a text in order to speak about how Christians are to live in a sermon.  When it comes to the need for regular exhortation in sermons this point it is made not just by Luther, but Luther cited by the Book of Concord.  This is a text that has "secondary confessional authority."  For confessional Lutherans, those Luther texts quoted and cited by the Book of Concord have a position that is superior to others in his voluminous writings. Modern Lutheran preaching would look quite different if more pastors read Luther’s sermon, and then practiced what he preaches.  To do otherwise is to reject the teaching of Formula of Concord Article VI.




Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity - Gen 28:10-17



                                                                                                Trinity 19
                                                                                                Gen 28:10-17
                                                                                                10/22/17


            In our text this morning we see that Jacob was in quite a mess.  And the sad truth was he had brought it upon himself. Of course he didn’t get all the credit for it. Mom had a hand in it too.
            Jacob was the son of Isaac, and the grandson of Abraham.  Isaac’s wife Rebekah had given birth to twins: to Jacob and his brother Esau.  Esau had been born first. Twins, of course, share the same day of birth. They are the same age.  But that doesn’t change the fact that one is born first and the other is born second.  Matthew likes to remind his sister that he is older than she is … by about ten seconds.
            Esau was born first.  And in the ancient world this meant more than just bragging rights about which twin was older.  It had very important implications for the future. The first born son received preferential treatment in the inheritance.  They may have shared the womb for nine months, but because he came out first, Esau was going to inherit the most as his birthright.
            Esau was a manly man. He was a skillful hunter – an outdoors kind of guy.  Jacob was a homebody who liked to stay inside the tent, and even did some cooking.  One day, Esau had been out hunting and returned exhausted and famished.  Jacob was cooking stew, and Esau demanded some.  Jacob said he could have some … in exchange for Esau’s birthright.  Clearly Jacob was breaking the Ninth Commandment – he coveted his brother’s inheritance and was scheming to get it. Esau was impulsive.  He thoughtlessly despised his birthright and sold it to Jacob for some stew.
            Isaac loved his manly son Esau.  Rebekah loved her mama’s boy Jacob.  When Isaac was very old, he asked Esau to go out hunting and to prepare a meal for him, so that as father he could impart his blessing on Esau his first born son.  However, Rebekah overhead this and looking out for her favorite she prepared a meal. She had Jacob dress in Esau’s clothes and cover himself with the skins of goats so that he would pass for his hairy brother before Isaac who could not see. And Jacob pulled it off. He fooled Isaac into speaking the blessing over him instead of his brother.
            When Esau learned what had happened he was incensed.  He plotted to kill Jacob after his father had died.  He spoke to others about his intention and the word got back to Rebekah.  So she told Jacob that he had to leave.  She sent him to live with her brother Laban in Haran, northeast of Palestine. Rebekah instructed Jacob that he was not to take a wife from the local Canaanites, but instead to marry one of Laban’s daughters.
            In our text we see Jacob on the run.  He has nothing.  His brother wants to kill him.  Just like so many of the problems in your life, it is sin that has caused it.  He coveted. He lied.  Rebekah showed partiality.  She schemed to deceive her husband and take from her older son.  And of course all of this sinning occurred in the setting of family.  If this sounds very familiar, that’s because you are no different.  Your sins in the setting of your family cause problems and heartache. They mess things up.
            Jacob stopped for the night and had to sleep out in the open – with nothing more than a stone for a pillow. That night he had a dream in which he saw a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. The angels of God were ascending and descending on it, and above the latter stood Yahweh.
            Then, God spoke to Jacob and made four promises.  First he said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring.”  Next he said, “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Finally he added, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
            Now for the reader of Genesis the first three promises are no surprise. They are the same thing that God had promised to Abraham and Isaac.  Yahweh promised to give them the land.  He promised to give them many descendants.  And he promised that in their offspring all nations would be blessed.
            At that moment, these promises must have been hard for Jacob to fathom.  After all he had nothing.  He was running away from his own family so that his brother didn’t kill him.  Land? Descendants like the dust of the earth? All families being blessed in him and his offspring?  At that moment, Jacob’s goals probably weren’t much bigger than getting through the next day.
            And so Yahweh added a fourth promise: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”  Jacob needed encouragement.  And so God declared that he was with Jacob.  The dream – the vision – of the ladder, and angels and Yahweh drove home that point.  God was with Jacob. He was going to keep Jacob and God would not leave Jacob until he delivered on his promise.
            When he awoke, Jacob knew for sure that God was with him.
He said, “Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I did not know it.” Then he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
            Jacob was in the midst of the mess that sin had caused. But God knew where he was.  He knew what was going on.  And he spoke his promises to Jacob. He spoke promises that were fulfilled in Israel as God created a nation form the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and gave them the land of Palestine.  He spoke the promise about the One who would descend from the patriarchs and be a blessing to all families.  And he spoke the promise that he would be with Jacob and keep him in God’s care.  Yahweh made his presence known to Jacob in a way that left no doubt.
            Yahweh kept his promises.  In fact he did it in a manner that has gone beyond anything Jacob could have imagined.  Not only did he create Israel and give them Palestine.  But in Jesus Christ, the offspring of Jacob, the patriarch’s descendants have indeed spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south.
            You are among those descendants.  Paul told the Galatians that because they were baptized, they were in Christ.  They had been united with Christ who is THE descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and so now they too were descendants of Abraham.  He wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.”
            It is in Jesus Christ that blessing has come to your family through the line of Jacob.  His experience at the place he would name Bethel left quite an impression. And it did so for a reason.  When Jacob woke up, he was afraid. and said, “How awesome is this place!”  We could also translate this as, “How fearful is this place!”  Jacob had come into the presence of the holy God, and his reaction was the same as everyone else in Scripture who had this experience: he was afraid.  That’s the way it always is when sinners find themselves before the holy God.
            But Yahweh had not come to cause fear.  Instead, he had come to comfort and encourage.  You find comfort in Jesus Christ the descendant of Jacob because through his death and resurrection God has provided atonement for your sins.  Your sin is no longer a barrier that keeps you from God.  It no longer causes fear in God’s presence.  As Paul told the Galatians, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  You have been covered with Christ’s righteousness and so when God looks at you he does not see your sin.  He sees the holy righteousness of his Son.
            And in Jesus Christ, you find encouragement.  Jacob needed encouragement.  He had a long way to go – and I am not just talking about his journey to Haran and his uncle Laban.  He had a long way to go in life with many twists and turns.  He would experience the deception of his uncle as he sought a bride.  He would return to Palestine and face the fear of the impending reunion with Esau.  He would experience the devastating loss of his son Joseph whom he believed was killed by a wild animal.  He would experience the elation of learning that Joseph was in fact alive, and was even second in charge of Egypt.
            The experience that we hear about in our text was meant to tell Jacob that Yahweh was with him.  God has acted in Jesus Christ to tell you the same thing.  In fact Jesus Christ is God with us – Emmanuel.  God has acted in the flesh of Jesus Christ to reveal his love for you – in flesh nailed to a cross.  But then on the third day he raised that flesh, and transformed so that it can never die again.  The living hope of the resurrection of Jesus gives us the encouragement that we need.
            This is not encouragement to do the spectacular.  It is encouragement to walk step by step through the course of life.  It is encouragement to live in your vocations, doing the things that God has given you to do – the things God uses you to do for others.  It is encouragement to trust that God is with you when there is depression or cancer … or a brain tumor.
            This is encouragement that we need.  And that is why you come here each week.  Good Shepherd is not the biggest church you are ever going to see.  If you are looking for that you need to go to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Good Shepherd is not the most ornate church you are ever going to see.  If you are looking for that, there are a lot of options, but I recommend St. Mark’s in Venice, Italy. 
            But because Christ’s Means of Grace are present here, Jacob’s words are true of Good Shepherd: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  Jesus is here to encourage you – to build you up through his Spirit.  As the crucified and risen Lord, he is here to speak to you through his Word and to give you his true body and blood, given and shed for you.  He is hear through Word and Sacrament to say, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”