13 November 2017

Where Do We Go From Here?

{A presentation at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Granger, Indiana, following an earlier presentation at Trinity Lutheran Church in Elkhart, Indiana, by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Fort Wayne - South Bend Diocese, on the present day significance of the Reformation for Lutherans and Roman Catholics} 

It was an eye-opening experience, which left a deep and lasting impression upon me, even these 27 years later.  As a young seminary student in Fort Wayne, doing institutional visitations at a local nursing home, I found the little old lady Protestants boasting about all their years of service to the church, all their good works and contributions, whereas the little old lady Catholics spoke of their unworthiness, their faults and failings, and their hope in the mercy and forgiveness of Christ Jesus.  Somehow things were not adding up in the way I would ever have guessed or expected, and I had to ask myself why.  It has seemed to me that those little old lady Catholics, and no doubt many others, too, knew themselves to be sinners, but they had also learned to know Christ Jesus as their Savior through the Holy Gospels, the Creeds of the Church, and the Sacrament of the Altar.  And I would suggest that their experience and their faith were not so different from Martin Luther’s.

My own family and growing up years were not divided between different confessions.  We were deeply dyed-in-the-wool Lutherans, so that is something I have always known firsthand.  As an adult, however, my contacts and connections with Roman Catholic Christians have been close to home at times.  One of my own dear sisters married into a Roman Catholic family, and she and her husband are bringing up their children within the Roman Church.  In recent years, several of the young people I have been privileged to care for at Emmaus have since become Roman Catholics.  In these situations, I have known the painful sense of distance and separation that many of you have also experienced within your extended families.  But I have also had the opportunity, then, to see things from their perspective, and to gain a greater understanding of my brothers and sisters in Christ within the Roman Church.  Of course, as a doctoral student at Notre Dame, I spent a number of years working within a Roman Catholic academic environment and gaining a great respect for my professors and classmates across confessional lines.  Ironically, in my course work at Notre Dame I was often viewed as being “too Lutheran,” but as a Lutheran pastor I have more than once been told that I am “too Catholic.”  I’m inclined to wear both labels as compliments.

In considering the Reformation and what it means for us today, I should say that, throughout my twenty-two years as a Lutheran pastor, it has always been my preference to remember and give thanks for the Lutheran reformers and those events of the sixteenth century in close connection with the Feast of All Saints.  That is to understand the Reformation as it was intended, not as a division of the Church on earth, nor as a separation from the Church catholic, but as a call for the Church to be faithful in hearing, receiving, trusting, and confessing the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  In Him we are united as fellow members of one Body, as the children of one God and Father.  And within that holy communion of all saints, we are called to live and work together in faith and love.

Is the Reformation a cause for celebration or sorrow?  Or is it rather both?  A tragic necessity, as some have described it.  As Bishop Rhoades noted this past month, Lutherans have celebrated the Reformation as a recovery of the Gospel, whereas Roman Catholics have mourned the divisions of the Church on earth that developed and increased in the course of the sixteenth century.  Few if any would deny that there were abuses and errors that needed to be addressed and reformed.  It is no surprise that different answers and solutions were offered in response to those concerns, and it is to the credit of our fathers and mothers in the faith that they were passionate in their resolve.  We celebrate their convictions and commitments, while we do indeed grieve the animosities.

We dare not suppose that the only real issues and errors of the sixteenth century Reformation were volatile temperaments and mutual ill treatment of opponents.  It was not just a battle over words and semantic nuances.  There were those things, to be sure, which made it more difficult to address and resolve the real issues and errors.  But real issues and errors there were, which did not go away but solidified and calcified and entrenched themselves in the decades and centuries that followed.  What will help us now to address those real issues and errors is a willingness to speak and listen to one another, especially as we listen carefully (together) to the Word of the Lord and to the historic witness of His Church from the beginning.  We pray and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us.

Let us be honest with ourselves.  The Church on earth is never going to be flawless, infallible, or perfect, though she is indeed the Body and Bride of Christ Jesus.  His Church is a queen, even when she is dressed in the humility of beggar’s rags, because she is clothed and adorned with the righteousness and holiness of Christ, who loved her and gave Himself for her, even unto death.

In this life there will always be divisions, even within the Lord’s Church, just as there have been from the beginning — among the twelve disciples, between the Jewish and Gentile Christians, in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, and beyond, and so throughout the centuries.  The East and West were divided centuries before the Reformation.  Nevertheless, we do not resign ourselves to accept these divisions, as though they were of no consequence, but we address them with the Word of God and prayer, in the humility of repentance, in the confidence of faith, and with real charity.

Indeed, we are called to do in our own day what Martin Luther and many others (on all sides) sought to do in the sixteenth century, which is to heal and strengthen the Church on earth in the unity of the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  For it is certain that no other unity than that of Christ will do!  Which necessarily means bearing His Cross in faith toward God, and in love for the Lord and for each other in His Name.  We ought to suffer willingly all manner of wrongs against ourselves, to the extent that we can do so without ever compromising the truth of the Gospel.  And in that Truth, we must obey God rather than man, and suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.

Certainly, the aims of the Reformation were not the divisions that resulted.  But even those sad and painful divisions can help to clarify the Truth, much as the controversies of the early church served to clarify the confession of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God.

Where, then, do we go from here?  Already it is the case that we Lutherans and Roman Catholics do share a great deal in common, as the recipients of a common heritage.  When I visited St. Pius on a Saturday evening earlier this month, although your musical settings were unfamiliar to me, I was easily able to follow and participate in the Liturgy because we share the same order and ordinary of the Mass.  On any given Sunday, we are likely to hear the same Holy Scriptures.  We confess the same Creeds and pray the same Our Father.  We celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar with the same Words of our Lord, just as we baptize in the Name of the same Holy Triune God.  We have similar architecture and furnishings, similar vestments and other adornments, similar rites and ceremonies.  We look and sound alike.  Where, then, do we differ?  What is it that divides us?

It is clear that we cannot hope to address, even briefly, all of the differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in our time together this evening.  The challenge, I suppose, is to identify some of those areas of greatest concern and of the greatest potential for mutual conversation and growth.  So, as a Lutheran pastor and theologian, let me simply point to some of those key areas:

Areas of lingering concern and/or continuing significance

Foundationally, we have differed from each other in the ordering of the Church and Ministry, that is to say, in the way the pastors of the Church relate to each other and to the people.  Lutherans have generally not had the structured hierarchy that the Roman Church does, though there are some exceptions to that observation.  In any case, Lutherans have viewed apostolic succession, the office of the pope, and the magisterium of bishops quite differently than Roman Catholics.  We hold the office of preaching and teaching in high regard, as a divine institution, but we locate the authority and certainty of the Church’s teaching and practice in the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures.  We are not able to affirm or confess as an article of faith what is not clearly taught in the Scriptures.

The Roman Catholic teaching on Purgatory is a case in point, along with indulgences and prayers for the dead.  These matters clearly touch upon the fundamental matters of faith and justification, which are key to almost all of the differences between our churches.  But in the case of Purgatory, it is not set forth with any clarity from the Scriptures but from the teaching and traditions of the Church.  Lutherans understand the testing and purifying of each man’s work by fire (1 Cor. 3:13), not as a place or a process between death and the final judgment, but as the dying of the old man that is worked in us through Holy Baptism and daily repentance and is finally completed in death.

In other words, the “purging” of our sins, the cleansing of all unrighteousness in us, and the purification of body and soul without which no one will see God, occurs in the course of this life under the Cross, as we are confronted with the fact of our mortality.  And, again, it is completed with the actual dying of our mortal flesh, for the one who has died is freed from sin (Rom. 6:7).  It is the process of learning to live, not by our own works and efforts, but in faith and love within the household and family of God — within which we already live, and to which we already belong as beloved children of God in Christ Jesus, even now in much frailty and weakness.

In the Resurrection of Christ Jesus we are justified (Rom. 4:25), and in the resurrection of all flesh on the last day we shall be holy and righteous in body and soul, glorified like unto the glorious Body of Christ Himself (Phil. 3:21).  For now, we do not yet see things as they are, but then we shall see Him as He is, and we shall be like Him (1 John 3:2).  As our bodies shall be made new and perfected, with all sickness, suffering, and death forgotten like a dream that is past, so shall we also be purified, perfected, and made entirely new in heart, mind, soul, and spirit (Rev. 21:5).

Another area of significant concern and disagreement between Lutherans and Roman Catholics is the sacrifice of the Mass.  That was one of the most volatile points of controversy at the time of the Reformation, and it remains somewhat beclouded and confusing even now.  I am aware of developments in the way the Roman Church describes and teaches this sacrifice, and I applaud those efforts to clarify and correct some of the bold and extravagant assertions of the past.  But in my estimation, the underlying issue has yet to be resolved.  God grant that, by His grace, we might finally arrive at a more consistent and common confession of Christ the Crucified in this area.

As I have mentioned, all of the differences between us center in the doctrine of justification, in the way we understand the relationship of faith and love.  Though there is probably more agreement in this area than many have supposed over the past five centuries, there do remain key points of disagreement, as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) has demonstrated.  I’ll have more to say about this point momentarily, as it truly is foundational to everything else.

What is probably more obvious to many Lutheran lay people, as they consider the piety of their Roman Catholic friends and neighbors, is the place and importance of St. Mary and the saints in the Christian faith and life.  Honestly, Lutherans have often not given the attention to the saints that our Confessions recommend: that we should remember them with thanksgiving to God, learn from the example of their faith and life, and be encouraged by the mercies of the Lord upon them.  At Emmaus, we celebrate the saints throughout the year to the praise and glory of Christ Jesus, just as we have celebrated the Feast of All Saints on the 1st of November.  But where we differ from Roman Catholics in practice is that we find no command or promise attached to the invocation of the saints.  We acknowledge that the saints in heaven pray and intercede for the Church on earth, but we have no certainty from the Scriptures that we can or should call upon them for assistance.  We are even more cautious and skeptical concerning the appearances and miracles of the saints.  And we object to making the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of St. Mary into articles of faith, on the grounds that neither of these traditions are clearly taught in the Holy Scriptures.

Who We Lutherans Are, and What We Lutherans Are About

For the sake of our conversation and discussion, it is important that you know who we Lutherans are and what we are about.  Despite popular impressions, we are defined and identified, not only vis-à-vis the Roman Church, but also vis-à-vis the Protestant churches of various stripes.  Indeed, from their perspective (and ours) we are, in many ways, closer to Rome than we are to them!  As Luther once quipped in his arguments with the Protestant reformers on the Lord’s Supper, “Better to drink Blood with the pope than wine with Zwingli!”  It was a polemical comment, to be sure, but also a positive affirmation of what the Sacrament is, and of what we share with Rome.

The Lutheran Reformation was not simply a “protest” against the errors and excesses in the piety and practices of the Church at that time.  It was very much pro-Gospel and pro-Sacraments.  It was positively for the glory of Christ Jesus, and for the comforting of consciences with His Gospel of forgiveness.  And it was positively for the glorious freedom and the confident certainty that faith receives and finds in the solid, objective Word and promises of God in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the present day, especially, it is also necessary to distinguish the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (to which Trinity in Elkhart and my congregation, Emmaus in South Bend, both belong) in contrast to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran World Federation, with whom we are not in fellowship due to some rather sharp disagreements on many points of doctrine and practice.  Sadly, those disagreement have increased in recent years, rather than declining.

The Missouri Synod (LCMS) is more conservative in both doctrine and practice; in its approach to both the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions; in its engagement with other churches; and in its posture and position on such things as abortion, homosexuality, and women’s ordination.

Whereas the ELCA and the LWF have been aggressively involved in ecumenism on numerous fronts, their own more “liberal” and “progressive” attitudes toward abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women have presented a strong impediment to ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholics, as Bishop Rhoades indicated in his presentation at Trinity this past month.

Though the Missouri Synod (LCMS) has been more reticent about the ecumenical movement, it is very much a kindred spirit with the Roman Church in the defense of marriage, sexuality, and life.  It has also been eager to cooperate, where possible, in external works of mercy on every level.

The differences between the Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the ELCA/LWF are especially germane in considering the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, as that Declaration was between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church.  The Missouri Synod has not endorsed the Joint Declaration, in view of a number of weaknesses and unresolved issues.

The discussion and the desire for unity in the doctrine of justification are commendable, for that doctrine is foundational to the Church and central to the Christian faith and life.  However, it is premature to suggest that the matter has been resolved between us, or that the real issues and concerns of the sixteenth century have been more or less overcome by way of clarifications.

In my estimation, the Joint Declaration has helped to clarify the positions of the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, and has helpfully identified areas of agreement and disagreement.  It has done so with a friendly and fraternal spirit, no doubt with the sincerest intentions.  I appreciate all of these contributions, even though I believe that it is overly optimistic in its conclusions.

The Joint Declaration itself indicates differences of understanding, which go beyond differences in emphasis and nuance.  It also notes that other doctrines and practices of real consequence, such as Purgatory, are simply not addressed, though they clearly touch upon the doctrine of justification.  Even in signing the Joint Declaration, the Vatican issued an Addendum of “Clarifications,” which identifies several points of disagreement in decisive aspects of justification.  I can only agree with their assessment, that these several points remain divisive at the very heart of the matter at hand.

What these various points of disagreement come down to is whether or not our righteousness in the presence of God is located in us or in Christ Jesus; whether the new and holy life that we now possess and live in Christ is the cause or the consequence of our justification and righteousness before God; and whether we love God and our neighbor in order to become righteous or because we are accounted righteous by faith in God’s Word and promise of forgiveness in Christ Jesus.

The Righteousness of Faith and the Holiness of Life in Christ

As the Vatican pointed out in its “Clarifications” of the Joint Declaration, the distinctive Lutheran teaching of “Simul iustus et peccator” is a point of significant disagreement, which highlights the fundamental difference between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in the doctrine of justification.

For Lutherans, the notion that we are simultaneously justified and yet still sinful, both saints and sinners at the same time — Simul iustus et peccator — addresses the experiential reality that every Christian faces (along with St. Paul in Romans 7).  It embraces the seemingly contradictory Word of God, which confronts us with the demands, threats, and punishments of the Law, and yet it also comforts and consoles us with the free and full forgiveness of the Gospel.

In response to the arguments of the Roman Church that concupiscence is not truly sin, but simply the temptation to sin and the potential for actual sin, Lutherans would say that such a position fails to account for the serious depths of covetous lust, which St. Paul identifies as idolatry (Col. 3:5).  These arguments go back to the Reformation and demonstrate the real disagreement that remains.

For me, these differences in doctrine are not academic, semantic, or theoretical, but of pastoral and practical concern.  As Christians committed to my pastoral care come to me with their confession of sins and temptations, how shall I comfort and console them?  How shall I strengthen and sustain their faith in Christ?  How shall I instruct them to live?  To what (or whom) shall I point them?  In themselves they find both sin and death, from which they cannot set themselves free.  But in Christ Jesus they find and receive the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of life and salvation.

Saving faith, which is to say, not simply knowledge and assent, but confident trust in the Lord, is called into being and nurtured by the Word and promise of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins.  This faith is worked in us by the Word and Spirit of God (Rom. 10:17), as He creates all things out of nothing by His Word, and as He calls the Light out of the darkness with His Word (2 Cor. 4:6).  Such faith lays hold of Christ as it hears and receives Him in the Word of the Gospel and in the Holy Sacraments.  And in Christ it receives and possesses all righteousness, holiness, innocence and blessedness in the presence of God.  This is the comfort of consciences that glorifies Christ.

Having made this point, it is also the case that saving faith in Christ, which receives all things and possesses all things in Him, is itself the beginning of the new life in Christ.  Such faith is the first and foremost good work, the fulfillment of the first and greatest Commandment.  It is not in virtue of this work, nor by the quality of this good work, that faith justifies; for that is by Christ Himself, whose Righteousness and Holiness are credited to us by grace.  But the same faith that lays hold of Him and trusts Him for all things, also lives in love for Him and in love for others for His sake.

Thus, faith and love, righteousness and holiness can be distinguished and theologically separated, but they do not exist in practice apart from one another.  Faith alone justifies, but such faith is never alone.  It is a living, busy, active embracing of Christ, which is always working in love for God and man in Christ and in the neighbor.  Precisely because it is a fearless confidence in Christ.

When both justification and sanctification, faith and life, forgiveness and renewal, the Law and the Gospel are all located and centered in Christ Jesus, any tensions between these points are resolved in Him, in whom righteousness and peace, mercy and sacrifice kiss each other in perfect harmony.

He is all of these things for us, in the first place.  And He is all of these things in us by His grace through faith in His Word and promise of the Gospel — in and with the Holy Spirit, who lays Christ upon our hearts and brings us to the Father as beloved and well-pleasing children in Him.  The Righteousness of faith in Christ thus becomes the Holiness of life in Christ, as it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 2:20).  But as soon as we attempt to begin with ourselves, with what is happening in us, with our believing, living, loving, and working, then we inevitably shift, not only the focal point but the entire center of gravity, from Christ to ourselves. He is and remains ever for us, our merciful and great High Priest at all times and in all places, from beginning to end, unto the life everlasting.  He is not simply the starting point, but the entire story, both the Subject and the Object of our faith and life, the Source and the Summit of our salvation.

It is in Christ Jesus, and especially by way of our Baptism into Him, that we have received the gracious adoption of sons (Galatians 4:4–7).  In Him, we are beloved and well-pleasing children of God, named with His Name and anointed with His Spirit.  We are members of His household and family, of the One who knows how to give good gifts to His children, by whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.  And I have found this to be a particularly helpful way in which to understand the relationship of justification and sanctification, to speak in Lutheran terms.

As a child of God in Christ Jesus, you already belong to the Father; you already have a place in His home, at His Table, a place of Peace and Sabbath Rest which the Lord Jesus has prepared for you.  Within that place, as a member of the family, you are disciplined by the Father who loves you, as you are taught to live in love for Him and for your brothers and sisters in Christ.  But your growth in wisdom and stature, in faith, hope, and charity, in righteousness and holiness of life, is growth within the place that is already yours within the household and family of God.  You’re not earning the right to become a child of God, but learning to live as the child of God that you already are.  Your place in the family is your justification.  Your life within the household is your sanctification.

Areas of mutual concern in the faith and life of the Church on earth

Now, as the children of one God and Father in Christ Jesus, we are also the children of one holy Mother, the Church, conceived and born of her by the grace of God through His Word and Spirit.

We are thus called by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel to live in communion with the one Body of Christ, on earth as it is in heaven.  In practice, therefore, now as in the sixteenth century, we are called to nurture an evangelical catholicity, which is to find the fellowship of the Church in the exercise of the Gospel.  That is a fellowship of pastoral care, encompassing catechesis and Holy Baptism, the consistent preaching and teaching of Christ, mutual accountability and assistance, confession of faith, confession and absolution of sins, and the regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper with reverence and thanksgiving in the unity of a common confession of Christ Jesus.

Though we are not yet able to do many of these things together, we nevertheless share a unity in Christ in these ways and means of the Gospel.  The same communion that is ours in Holy Baptism is also strengthened as we participate in the Body and Blood of Christ within our own respective churches.  As the sparrow has found her home and made her nest in the altars of the Lord, and as the faithful departed now rest under His Altar in heaven, awaiting the consummation of all things, so do we shelter in the Lord’s Altar on earth, even as we pray, “How long, O Lord, how long?”  That very point at which our divisions are most painfully obvious is nevertheless the place where we are united in the one Body of Christ with each other and all His saints in heaven and on earth.

Within the life of the Church on earth, across confessional lines, there is a need for a reformation of reverence in the celebration and conduct of the Liturgy.  That includes a reverence for the Holy Scriptures in teaching and practice, and a reverence for the Sacrament in teaching and practice.  These sacred things are not in competition with each other; on the contrary, they belong intimately to each other.  The Holy Scriptures and the Holy Sacrament stand and fall together (in practice).

On that note, I must commend Pope Benedict’s Spirit of the Liturgy and his three little volumes on Jesus of Nazareth, which are so beautifully written and so helpful to the faith and life of the Church.  His writing is thoroughly scriptural, consistently Christocentric, and deeply evangelical.  His witness to the Gospel has more than once given me pause and a degree of optimism for the future, that Lutherans and Roman Catholics might find greater unity in our confession of Christ.

If we are to have that kind of unity as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, we must by all means resist the temptation to substitute politics, programs, or pop culture paradigms for genuine pastoral care and eucharistic life.  Where it has declined or been lost altogether, we must recover and nurture a sacramental piety and practice.  To do so is not an intellectual exercise, an academic achievement, or an emotional experience, but an active passivity, one might say, which receives, lays hold of, clings to, and trusts the Word-made-Flesh in the Liturgy of His Gospel.  It is in the hearing of His Word and the receiving of His Sacrament that we enter into the eucharistic sacrifice of faith and love, not only in the celebration of the Liturgy, but throughout our life in the world.

Our life as Christians, as individuals belonging to the communion of the Body of Christ, is to be offered up as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God (Rom. 12:1–2).  At work, at school, at home, in the community, up in the stands or out on the field: How we speak and how we live is determined and shaped by the Liturgy, in which the Lord gives Himself to us in love, His Body and His Blood, that we might live unto God in Him, in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

That life in Christ is what governs (or ought to govern) our thinking and example in the arenas of marriage, sexuality, procreation, and family.  Within those arenas, it seems to me that Lutherans and Roman Catholics ought to be talking and listening to each other in addressing such rampant challenges as divorce and the reigning birth control mentality that has become so entrenched within our culture, and which permeates the thinking of many Christians, as well.  Here is where John Paul’s Theology of the Body has made such a profound contribution to the benefit of us all.

These are but a couple examples of where we ought to be working together, learning together, and confessing together.  No doubt there are many other such places where we ought to stand together in common cause, to give witness to the one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3–6).  But it is easier said than done.  Not only because of the doctrinal differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, but also because of the diversity and disunity that exist within our respective communions in teaching and practice.  And as we have too often found it difficult to speak to one another, it is all the more challenging to speak together with one voice.  Not only because of the differences in the way our churches are structured and ordered, but also because of the distance between official positions and statements, the academic teachers of the church, the preaching and practice of parish pastors, and the piety, understanding, faith, and life of the laity at home and in the world.

The Roman Church has some advantages over the diversity of Lutheran churches, in that there is a clearly defined hierarchy of teaching authority, although it seems to me that a great deal of latitude is permitted among Roman Catholic theologians.  Among Lutherans, it has increasingly been the case that every parish pastor perceives himself to be a pope unto himself in his own parish.  There is not the kind of mutual accountability and responsibility between our pastors that would serve to strengthen and support our common confession of the faith in preaching and practice.  That concerns me deeply, and it is an area where I believe the Lutheran Church is in need of reformation in our own day.  If only the answers and solutions were as obvious as the critique.

Compounding these challenges, there is also the tension that exists between Lutherans and Roman Catholics with respect to the relationship and the relative authority of the Holy Scriptures and the teachers and traditions of the Church.  Caricatures are not helpful, but there are differences between us here.  It is clear that Roman Catholics hold the Scriptures sacred and, especially since Vatican II, they have increased their emphasis on the reading and preaching of the Holy Scriptures in the Liturgy.  It is likewise clear that Lutherans have historically held the teachers and traditions of the Church in high esteem, and have desired to honor them and to hold fast to that heritage in harmony with the Holy Scriptures.  But as we do not perceive or regard the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in the same way, it often hinders our ability to speak together in response to the present day challenges we face in the world.  The conversation concerning Purgatory in the Q&A with Bishop Rhoades at Trinity this past month was a case in point.  All the more reason that we must continue to engage one another in honest debate and fraternal dialogue, so that we might be taught by God to confess the Word of Christ with one voice, in one Spirit.

Lutheran contributions to the faith and life of the Church catholic

It is my belief that we can and should be listening to and learning from each other.  For example, the Lutheran Reformation and the Lutheran Church have contributed to a greater appreciation of Holy Baptism and its ongoing, lifelong, daily significance.  Luther’s clarion call, already on the Eve of All Saints in 1517, that the entire Christian life is to be one of daily repentance, was really a call to remember and return to the dying and rising of repentance and faith in Holy Baptism.  That was not to abolish the practice of penance, but to encourage Confession and Absolution as an exercise of faith in the Gospel.  Luther himself heard and received the Gospel from his father confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, and he knew well the pastoral care of the confessional.  (We commemorated Johannes von Staupitz with thanksgiving this past week, on November the 8th).

Luther also contributed a passion for the Lord’s Supper at the heart of the Church’s life, as the very embodiment of the Gospel.  His zeal in opposing the sacrifice of the Mass, on the one hand, and in defending the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament, on the other hand, seemed odd and over the top to many of his opponents.  But for Luther it was a matter of clinging to the Word of Christ and not allowing anything within or without to dissuade him from the profound simplicity of what the Lord has spoken.  He understood that faith and the Sacraments go together, hand in glove, as do the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church.  And it all depends upon the Word of Christ.  Hence the strong Lutheran emphasis, from the start and to the present day, on the necessity and value of preaching and teaching, on the importance of thorough catechesis, and on the writing and singing of sturdy hymns that praise God, proclaim the Gospel, and clearly confess Christ Jesus.  No one could doubt the Lutheran contribution to the musical heritage of the Church catholic.

The Lutheran Reformation did bring comfort and peace to many troubled consciences through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.  That is the Church’s greatest treasure, and still is ours today.  And far from discouraging good works, it is by faith in the free and full forgiveness of sins that the Commandments are kept and callings are fulfilled in loving service for the neighbor.  For it is in the certainty of the Word and promises of God that faith lives and abides in hope; and it is in the freedom of the Gospel that faith abounds in thanksgiving to God and in charity for all people.

These are Lutheran contributions which nobody can deny.  But so do these very treasures of the Reformation call for an ongoing self-critique on the part of Lutherans in our own day.  Where and how have we become a caricature of ourselves, emphasizing clichés at the expense of the Truth?  And in what ways have we jettisoned the evangelical catholicity of historic Lutheran theology and practice in favor of formulaic slogans and idiosyncratic sectarian “Protestantism”?

In the centuries since the Reformation, the actual practice of Confession & Absolution among Lutherans has languished and fallen by the wayside.  It has been largely unknown in many places, to such an extent that many Lutherans go to their graves without ever going to Confession; and where it is recommended or encouraged, it is resisted and decried as “too Catholic.”  Such attitudes and neglect are contrary to our Lutheran teaching and detrimental to the Christian faith and life.

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper has likewise suffered in a variety of ways.  The frequency of celebration has at times been dismal.  Thankfully, that has improved in recent decades, but it is still not understood that the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day is to be the norm.  Even where it may be celebrated more frequently, there is a lack of reverence for the Sacrament in many of our congregations, in which a casual and careless handling of the Body and Blood of Christ denies the very Word we claim to confess.  There is also a widespread practice of open communion, even in the Missouri Synod (LCMS), despite the consistent teaching and official position of our church.

I’ve already touched upon another area in which we Lutherans are in need of reformation in our own day, that is, with respect to the ordering of the Holy Ministry, the relationship of pastors to one another and to the Church at large.  I would be very glad to see our “bishops” able to function as pastors, rather than bogged down and consumed with administrative duties.  And I would like to see our congregations demonstrate and exercise a greater sense of fellowship and love, a real connection to one another in the common confession of Christ and in the Holy Communion, instead of living as islands unto themselves and acting as though they were in competition.

It is certain that the Christian faith is not a do-it-yourself or go-it-alone religion, and none of us should live as though it were, neither as individual Christians, nor as pastors and congregations.  Nor as church bodies, as Lutherans and Roman Catholics.  Though we are separated by differences in doctrine and practice, we are brothers and sisters in the washing of the water with the Word and in the confessing of the Holy Trinity in the baptismal and eucharistic Creeds of the Church.

Roman Catholic contributions to the faith and life of the Church catholic

From the Roman Catholic Church, to cite just a few examples, I believe that we Lutherans have much to learn, as well, as disciples of Christ Jesus called to carry the Cross in faith and love.

Though we have done somewhat better in recent years, we still have much to learn in the giving of alms and in works of mercy for our neighbors in the world.  In our emphasis on the Gospel, and in our distinction of faith and love with respect to our justification before God, we have at times been too slow to encourage, facilitate, and teach the activities, works, and sacrifices of love that our Lord Himself and His Apostles both taught and exemplified.  That is not a matter of doctrine but of our own sinfulness, laziness, and neglect, for which we need to repent and do better.

It is similar in the case of the other cardinal disciplines of fasting and prayer.  Lutherans have not neglected to pray — though none of us prays as he should — but we have generally not been as good about coming together for the daily prayer of the Church as such.  Perhaps that is a place in which both Lutherans and Roman Catholics have allowed the pace of the world to pull us away from the Body of Christ.  But my sense is that Roman Catholics have been more consistent and persistent in maintaining the daily rhythms of the Church’s liturgical life.  We can learn from that.  And all the more so when it comes to fasting, to which many Lutherans seem to be allergic.  Our Catechism affirms that fasting is fine outward training, but we have generally not encouraged or practiced it.  We have feared that fasting may become legalistic or contribute to self-righteousness, without realizing the dangers to be found in never fasting, in never denying our own selfishness.

Roman Catholics also have something to teach us about the place of penance in the Christian life.  First of all in actually going to confession, as (again) our Catechism clearly teaches us to do.  And then also in bearing the fruits of repentance and exercising the discipline of the Christian life.  These are matters of pastoral care which too many Lutherans do not receive because they do not rely on their pastors or confide in them as father confessors.

If it is not too daring, I suggest that we might also learn from Roman Catholics to appreciate and support the vocation of celibacy for those who are so gifted, for the sake of serving the Church and the neighbor, as St. Paul describes.  Not to disparage the goodness and holiness of marriage and family, but to encourage and assist the unmarried in the goodness and holiness of their callings.

The Need for ongoing Repentance and Reformation

For all of us, in every case, we are in a precarious position when doctrine and practice, faith and life are pitted against each other, or when any one of these are valued at the expense of any other.  But I fear that too many Christians, both Lutherans and Roman Catholics, are not only ignorant of their own history and theology, but are rather ambivalent and cavalier about it all.  They have been taught by the world to prize and follow their own thoughts and feelings, their own opinions and experiences, over against the Word of God and the Church’s doctrine.  That should not be.

Perhaps it is true, as we Lutherans have suspected, that Roman Catholics are tempted to go through the motions, relying on a mechanical administration of the Sacraments.  But Lutherans, for their part, have sometimes marginalized the Ministry of the Gospel and the means of grace as though they were incidental to the Christian faith and life, perhaps even irrelevant, or simply supplemental “vitamins,” as it were, instead of the real meat and potatoes of the Meal.  The Gospel calls forth faith, and faith clings to the Gospel, and maintaining that connection requires constant vigilance.

The fact is that the Church on earth, her ministers and all her members, are constantly being called to repentance, to faith, and to newness of life in Christ — both individually and collectively — on the basis of the Holy Scriptures.  We are called back to the foundation of the Law and the Prophets, the Apostles and Evangelists, to the faith fulfilled in Christ Jesus and once delivered to the saints.  And that faith and life are found in the Font and at the Altar of the Lord’s Cross and Resurrection, in His Body given and His Blood poured out.  The Church lives in and from the Liturgy, defined and constituted by her Lord in and with His Word and Flesh.  This Divine Liturgy is appropriately adorned and confessed with a cornucopia of beautiful traditions from across the ages and from around the globe.  But the Liturgy itself is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

In thinking about the past, and in approaching each other now and in the future, let us do so in the humility of mutual repentance and forgiveness, with the confidence of faith in Christ Jesus, and with a gentleness and peace that are born of God.  Let us be instructed by the Holy Spirit through the Word and within the liturgical life of the Body and Bride of Christ, which is indeed, by His grace alone, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, on earth as it is in heaven.

To engage one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, charity of heart and clarity of thought require the consistent definition and use of key theological terms, such as grace, faith, forgiveness of sins, justification and sanctification, holiness and righteousness, love, works, and salvation.  Agreeing to disagree on such fundamental matters would be untenable as a basis for fellowship.  But it is no less untenable to be so intent on our disagreements that we refuse to agree on anything.  God grant that we not fall back into those tired old patterns of animosity.

I have been encouraged by an example I have recently discovered in the group, Evangelicals and Catholics Together.  I’m in the process of reading the statements they have drafted over the past twenty-some years (since forming in 1994). What I’ve encountered so far has been very positive and instructive, and I would be very glad to see some Lutheran pastors and theologians involved in that effort, or in similar ventures with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ.

While speaking of encouraging and positive examples, I would be quite remiss if I did not express my delight in learning something of Pope St. Pius X, for whom this parish is named.  I find it quite interesting, even exciting, to discover that he was a truly pastoral reformer of the Church in his day.  And in particular, the areas in which he focused his attention and energies coincide with my own foremost concerns, as he emphasized catechesis, pastoral care, and the holy Eucharist.

Indeed, Pope St. Pius X is reminiscent of one of my personal Lutheran heroes of the faith, Wilhelm Löhe (a 19th century German Lutheran pastor), who emphasized preaching and the Sacrament, missions and works of mercy, the training of pastors and teachers for the Church, and the reverent celebration of the Liturgy.  He also saw the need for ongoing reformation in the life of the Church.

So, where do we go from here?  As I have said, the sixteenth century Lutheran Reformation was about glorifying Christ and comforting consciences with the Gospel.  And to be sure, to glorify Christ by caring for His people with His Word is what the Church is always about.  To those ends, I suggest that we take our cues from Pastor Wilhelm Löhe and Pope St. Pius X in focusing on the pastoral care and catechesis of the Church, on Holy Baptism and the Divine Eucharist, and on the Life that is given and received in the Liturgy of the Gospel.  For therein do the people of God find Peace and Sabbath Rest in the Lamb upon His Throne, to the praise and glory of His Holy Name, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is one God, now and forever.

12 November 2017

Alert and Ready for the Bridegroom

When your Lord Jesus Christ admonishes you to be alert, as He does this morning, He does not call you to the frantic non-stop drivenness and sleepless exhaustion to which your fallen flesh is prone in pursuing your own self-chosen ambitions.  He calls you, rather, to watch and wait upon Him, to live and to work in daily repentance, in the constancy of faith, and in love for God and man.

To be alert to the coming of your Lord does not mean pulling constant all-nighters, but doing your duty at the proper time, and being ready and prepared to do your duty when you are called upon.

It means a faithful stewardship of what the Lord your God has entrusted to you — a responsible use of your time, treasures, and talents — so that you are able to do what He has given you to do.

It means living by His grace in the confidence of His promises.  Not working all the time and never resting, as though to make a life for yourself, but living by faith in the Gospel and according to the Word of God within your own office and station.  It means working faithfully in obedience and love, but so also resting in the Sabbath Peace of Jesus Christ, your Savior and Redeemer.

It is in this way, that is, by living and working in faith and love, that you let your light so shine before your neighbors in the world, so that all may see your good works — and hear your good confession of Christ Jesus — to the praise and glory of the Bridegroom and His Father.

It is your duty to do so, as a member of the Bridal Party, clothed in the royal wedding garments of Holy Baptism.  You are called to meet and greet the Bridegroom whenever He shall come to lead home His Bride, the Church, and to accompany the Bride and Groom into the Wedding Feast.

The lamp that you take with you — with which you confess, and honor, and glorify, and worship the Bridegroom — that is your body and life in the world, your mouth and hands and feet, your words and actions.  Thus do you welcome Him, and you call others to follow Him into the Feast, by the good works of your calling, with whatever skills and opportunities the Lord provides you.

But, now, do not neglect to take along the oil for your lamp!  For your body and life, your words and your actions, are not able to burn brightly or to give any light without the necessary oil.

That oil which you need, by which you live and your lamp burns, is the Gospel of Christ Jesus, His forgiveness of your sins, His free gift of life and salvation, and His anointing with the Holy Spirit — such as Guinevere received in her Holy Baptism two weeks ago, and of which Benjamin and Julianne were reminded in the Confirmation of their Baptism last week.  You receive and bear that oil of Christ and His Spirit in your body and life by the way of faith in His means of grace, that is, by the hearing of His Word; by the eating of His Body and the drinking of His Blood in His Supper at His Table; and by living to and from the Liturgy of His Gospel throughout your life on earth.

Go, then, to the dealers to get that precious oil.  Do not delay or put it off, but do it now while you have the opportunity.  Avail yourself of the Gospel.  Go to church.  Give attention to the preaching of Christ.  Remember and return to the significance of your Baptism in His Name.  Repent of your sins and seek out His spoken Word of Holy Absolution.  And partake of His Supper often in faith and with thanksgiving.  Not as though the Gospel were a commodity for sale, but as Christ Jesus freely gives His good gifts through the ministry of those whom He sends in His Name and stead.

True wisdom, therefore, which begins and continues in the fear of the Lord, proceeds in faith, with oil for your lamp, by receiving and relying on the Ministry of the Gospel.  By contrast, it is utter foolishness to rely on your lamp apart from the flask of oil, that is to say, apart from faith in the Gospel.  Indeed, there is no true or saving faith apart from the hearing and receiving of the Gospel.

But whether with or without the necessary oil, both the wise and the foolish get drowsy and fall asleep as they await the coming of the Bridegroom.  And you also will grow drowsy and sleep, if He is yet delayed for long.  Your body will grow weary and wear out; your life on earth will end.

Even now in the meantime, there is both working and resting, as there is both life and death, for you and for all people.  That is the rhythm of the body and life that you are given here and now.  But the character, content, and consequences of your working and resting, your dying and your living, all hinge and depend on whether or not you have the oil that you need for your lamp.

Those who live and work by faith in Christ shall fall asleep in Christ Jesus; and they shall rise, in and with their bodies, to live with Him in the Feast of His Kingdom forever and ever.  Amen.  But those who live and work apart from Christ, that is, without His Gospel, they shall “fall asleep” and die apart from Him.  They, too, shall be raised up at the last, only not for eternal life with Christ in His Kingdom, but for condemnation and eternal death in body and soul, outside of His Feast.

So, again, being alert, watching and waiting on the Lord, is not a matter of keeping yourself awake and working 24/7, day in, day out, all year long.  It is to live by faith in the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  Which is to work at the tasks your Father has assigned to you by day; and at night you lie down to sleep in the bed that your Father has provided for both your body and your soul in Christ.  For when you sleep in that bed, in the Sabbath Rest of Christ, within your Father’s house, not only are you safe and sound and at peace, but you are right where you belong.  You are ready and waiting.

But if you sneak out of your Father’s house, whether to party till you drop or to burn the midnight oil working, then, even while you manage to keep yourself awake and always going, going, going, you are not alert and attentive to the Lord; you’re not awake to His call or ready to do your duty.

In any event, whenever the Bridegroom comes in glory to lead home His Bride, the Church, then, wherever you are, and whether or not you are ready, you will be woken up.

And those who have fallen asleep in Jesus, who have died in the faith, shall awake and arise, well prepared to meet Him, their bodies and lives well supplied and brightly burning with His Gospel.

But at this point in the Lord’s Parable, there is a troubling and challenging scenario, which may be confusing and difficult to understand.  Clearly, when the Bridegroom comes in all His glory for the final Judgment, on that great and final day when all the dead shall be raised from the dust of the earth, it will be too late at that point to repent or to seek out the Gospel any longer.

Yet, the Parable describes a passage of time between the summons to rise and the actual coming of the Bridegroom; and when the foolish ask the wise for help, for a share in their oil, the wise decline that request and send the foolish to the dealers instead.

It is important that you not attempt to press the chronology of the Parable too sharply, and that you not misinterpret the actions and the counsel of the wise.  For the Lord has told His Parable in the here and now, while there is still time for repentance, and while His Gospel is still being preached throughout the world.  He has given this Parable here and now, as a warning and an admonition to you and to all, to seek out the Ministry of the Gospel and to receive it while it may be found.

Take His Word to heart, therefore, and heed it faithfully.  Seek out and cling to His Gospel.

It is precisely in this respect that the wise tell those who have been foolish to go to the dealers, to the ministers of the Gospel of Christ, to get the oil they need.  It is meet and right so to do.

To be sure, it belongs to the duty of each and every Christian — and so it is your duty, also, as a Christian — to share the Gospel with your neighbors within your own proper station in life.  But your faith in the Gospel, the oil in your lamp, cannot save anyone else.  It is rather that you speak to your neighbor and pray for your neighbor, in faith, that he would repent and believe the Gospel.  For no one shall be saved without such personal repentance and faith.  Neither you nor any other Christian can believe and be saved for anyone else, no matter how desperately you wish it.

Therefore, be on the alert!  Live and work by faith in the Gospel; not abstractly, but concretely, by faith in preaching and the Sacrament, by faith in the Divine Service.  Hear and heed the Word of Christ Jesus.  Seek Him while He may be found, and so live by His grace and mercy in His peace.

Notice, too, that both the wise and the foolish are in groups.  They are not isolated individuals.  There is a community of wisdom, and a community of foolishness.  It is a fact: The crowd that you follow and hang out with has a great deal to do with your wisdom, or with your lack thereof.

Bring yourself to and place yourself within the company of the wise.  Belong to the community of true and abiding wisdom, to the Holy Communion of the Church, which is the Body of Christ.  After all, you are called to be a member of His Bridal Party; you are called to await the coming of the Bridegroom in the company of His Holy Bride, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

If you would enter the Feast of the Bridegroom in His Kingdom, then dwell in the courts of the Lord’s House here within His Church on earth.  For here it is that you find your true house and home, your safety, peace, and rest, which God the Father has provided for you in Christ, His Son.
Abiding as a member of His Body and Bride, the Church, you have peace and rest even while you are awake and working hard.  And by the same token, you are alert and ready for the Advent of your Lord, by faith in His Gospel, even when you are sleeping in this body and life on earth.

In the way that you approach and receive the Lord’s Day now, so do you await and so shall you receive the Day of the Lord at His appearing.  And in the same way that you approach and receive the Lord’s Supper here and now within His Church on earth, so do you anticipate the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, of which the Sacrament of the Altar is a blessed Foretaste.

Therefore, with bridal care yourselves prepare to meet the Bridegroom who is near.  For here, indeed, we enter all the wedding hall to eat the Supper at His call.  And joining with the choir immortal, with saints and angels and archangels, with all the host of heaven, we gather round the Lamb upon His Throne, to receive and to adore Christ Jesus at the heart and center of all things.

He is the One who calls you to Himself in love, who comes to you in love both now and forever.

It is His Lamp, His Body and Life, which burn so brightly with His perfect Faith and holy Love, with His Justice and Righteousness and Holiness, all of which enlighten you and light your way.

As He was well-prepared and ready when His Father called, and as He perfectly fulfilled His duty when that Day and that Hour came upon Him, so do His Word and Holy Spirit fill you and clothe you, within and without, with His Wisdom and His Peace.

His justice rolls down like water, His righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, cleansing your heart and mind, your body and soul, and quenching your deepest thirst: as in your Holy Baptism, so also in His Chalice, the New Testament in His Blood, poured out for you and your forgiveness.

And so it is that, just as you are given your Sabbath Rest in Christ Jesus here at His Altar, so shall you fall asleep in the same Lord Jesus Christ, each night in your bed at the end of every day, and so also at the end of your life on earth.  So shall you also be awakened and raised up in Him, to live with Him in His Kingdom, glorified in body and soul, just as He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns forever.  That is why, dear Christian, you fear the grave as little as your own bed.

The truth of the matter is, that you are not simply a member of the Bridal Party with duties to fulfill and responsibilities to the Bride and Groom, but the dear Lord Jesus comes to you and calls you to be His Bride, to be united with Him in body and soul, to be one flesh and one blood with Him.

He comes to woo you to Himself in grace, mercy, and peace.  He comes in love and gathers you to Himself, that He might bring you home.  In His strong arms, He embraces you, and He carries you over the threshold into His own house, wherein you share His life and all that is His, and you celebrate the Wedding Feast with Him, your heavenly Bridegroom, forever and forevermore.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

05 November 2017

Faith and Life in the Body of Christ

Not only for Benjamin and Julianne, who are being confirmed on this day, but for everyone who has been confirmed, for each and all of our catechumens, for all the baptized, and for all who will be baptized, here is the faith and life to which you are called in the Body of Christ Jesus:

It is first of all to hear and receive the Word of God, to believe and confess His Word, to pray and to live by His Word in love for God and man.  For you have one Teacher, Christ, who catechizes you in the Word and the Wisdom of God.  Listen to Him, and learn from Him.  And as you hear and learn, so also speak and pray; for it is by such faith in His Word that you live by His grace.

Hear and heed His Word while you have this opportunity, while it is near and spoken to you, lest He remove it from you and leave you with nothing but darkness and silence, death and despair.

Not only listen to His Word, but trust and rely on His Word, and so also do what He commands.  Work and labor, faithfully and righteously, within your own office and station in life.  Submit to the authorities that God has placed over you in this world, as unto Him, according to His Word.  And be a faithful “father,” as it were, in exercising whatever authority you have been given within your own calling, under the one Father in heaven by whom all fatherhood on earth is named.

Do not serve for the love of money, nor to make a name for yourself, to be seen and acknowledged by other people.  Rather, work and labor in the fear of the Lord, in faith and love for Him, and in love for your neighbor, in harmony with God’s Word.  His Word is always your reference point.

As He has named you with His Name and given you Himself and all good things by His grace, rely on Him for all that you need, and receive His good and perfect gifts in the Gospel of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son.  And for the same reason, love and serve your brothers and sisters in the same Lord Jesus Christ, since they and you are children of one and the same God and Father in heaven.

Discipline yourself and your flesh, and “possess your own vessel,” that is, your body, in holiness and honor.  For as your body also is redeemed and sanctified by Christ — who bore all your sins in His Body on the Cross, and who was raised bodily from the dead for your justification — and as your body has been cleansed, along with your soul, by the washing of water with His Word in Holy Baptism; and as your body is fed, along with your soul, with the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion; and as your body shall be resurrected at the last and glorified forever — so, too, the life that you live here and now in the body really matters.  It does make a difference.

Your life in the body matters and makes a difference, whether you live in faith and love unto the righteousness and holiness of Christ, or in laziness, lust, and licentiousness, unto death.  For as faith lays hold of life in Christ, so does sin lay hold of death by denying and departing from Christ.

Your righteousness and life in Christ Jesus are free and clear; for they are by His grace alone, prior to any works of yours.  That is certainly true.  But that is not an excuse or permission for laziness or licentiousness.  It is rather grounds for holiness in word and deed.  Whereas good works do not lead the way into heaven, nor can they ever get you there, they do follow after faith in Christ.

Good works do not make the saint; but good works do follow after the saints, who live by faith in Christ Jesus.  And their good works of love glorify the Name of their God and Father in heaven.

So, then, beloved of the Lord, do not be lazy.  Do not make others have to make up for your slack and serve you.  But work hard at your job, provide for your family, and care for your neighbor.

Give yourself over to the good works that God has prepared for you to do within your office and stations in life.  Not only is this good and right, according to His Word, but it focuses your time, attention, and energy on loving your neighbor, and on giving life to your neighbor, as the Lord loves you and gives you life by the Word and work of His Gospel.

Discipline yourself to live and work in love, rather than leaving your heart and mind and eyes to wander in lust.  Do not by any means pursue your lust, which, left unchecked and undisciplined, leads to bodily impurity and to sins against your neighbor (and against your neighbor’s spouse).

If you do not struggle with sexual temptations, praise God for that.  But still be on your guard against the covetous lusts that do rage within your heart, mind, and body, whether it be for money or fame, for music or sports, for popularity or power, or for whatever else it might be.

Do not be deceived, and do not kid yourself.  What you do with your body matters.  When you set your heart and mind upon that which is contrary to the Word of God — to desire what He has not given to you — when you turn your eyes to gaze upon it, and move your feet toward it, and set your hand upon it, then your covetous lust has conceived and given birth to sin.  And when your sin is fully grown, it will bring forth death.  It may or may not be the death of your mortal body, but the pursuit of your sinful passions and impurity will put to death your faith and life in Christ.

But the Lord is the Avenger in all these things.  He avenges your neighbor against your sins, to be sure, but He also avenges you against the assaults and accusations of the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh.  As your body participates in your sin, so does the Lord discipline your body, not only to curb and temper your wickedness, but also to alert you to the danger and call you to repentance.  He likewise sends His true Prophets to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in His Name.

He does not chase you down and chastise you in order to embarrass and shame you, but to save you from sin and death, and to bring you to Himself in love.  He humbles you in order to exalt you.

Be humbled, then, before both God and man.  Fear, love, and trust in God.  Rely upon His Word, instead of striving to make a life for yourself.  And as you are loved by Him and cared for by His grace, so humble yourself to love and serve and care for your neighbor in the Lord.

Do not worry about yourself, but follow Christ Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith.  Follow Him by listening to Him, by hearing and heeding His Word and the preaching of it.  Trust His Word, and live according to it.  And follow His example.  For He is your Leader — already in your life in the body here on earth, and so also through death and the grave into the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting in heaven.  He leads not only by His Word, but also by His example.

And yet, for all of that, He is far more than just a good example.  In His true divine greatness and almighty strength, He has become your Servant.  He has come down from heaven to serve you, and to save you, at the cost of His own body and life.  He has taken all your sin, all your suffering and sorrow, all your mortality and death upon Himself.  And He has humbled Himself under the mighty hand of God; He has become obedient, even unto death upon the Cross.  He has thereby suffered all your punishment, for He has given His life and shed His blood to atone for all your sins.

In this you see His perfect faith and holy love.  He did not talk the talk without walking the walk.  He did not bind the heavy burden of the Law upon your shoulders, but He took its full back-breaking load upon Himself and bore it for you.  He trusted His Father and He submitted Himself entirely to the Word and will of His Father.  In such faith, He gave Himself up for you and for all.

And God the Father raised this same Christ Jesus from the dead.  Indeed, He has highly exalted Him, and given Him the Name above every name.  The Father has glorified His incarnate Son — in His Body of flesh and blood like yours! — and has seated Him at His right hand for all eternity.

He is thus your merciful and great High Priest.  He is your Righteousness and Holiness forever.  His Cross and Resurrection are your repentance, by which you are now called and carried out of sin and death, and out of the grave, into faith and life, to be seated with Him in the heavenly places.  That is what your Holy Baptism has given and done for you, and that is what it signifies and works in you, day after day, throughout your life on earth.  It puts you to death to your sin, and it raises you up, again and again, to newness of life in Christ Jesus through His free and full forgiveness.

Such repentance and forgiveness are not thwarted, undone, or defeated by your death.  They are rather completed in your bodily death from this vale of tears, and then they shall be fully realized in the resurrection of your body unto the life everlasting of your body and soul in heaven.  Today, in the rite of Confirmation, we all together affirm and confess that gracious gift of Holy Baptism.

It is in the confidence of your Baptism, in the certainty of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, that you live and work and labor.  And it is in the same confidence and certainty that we remember and give thanks for the faithful departed, that great cloud of witnesses with which we are surrounded.  For as they live and abide in the Body of Christ, as they are cleansed by His Blood and clothed in His Righteousness forevermore, so are we also one Holy Communion with them in the Body and Blood of the same Lord Jesus Christ.  So are you cleansed and clothed by Him, as a Bride made beautiful for her Groom.  And so do you also live and abide in Him, both now and forever.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

01 November 2017

Awaiting the Appearance of Christ in Hope

Behold the host arrayed in white!  And fix your eyes on Jesus!

But that is easier said than done.  On the Day of His appearing you shall see Him as He is, because you shall be like Him.  But for now it has not yet appeared what you shall be.  And though you are surrounded by so great cloud of witnesses, all the Prophets and Apostles, the holy martyrs, and all the saints — all the faithful who have departed in Christ Jesus — for now you cannot see them.

What you behold is not the Resurrection, not the glorious life of heaven, but the Cross, suffering, sin and death, and all the trials and temptations of the great tribulation.  That is what you see in your neighbor, even where it's not!  And that is what you see and experience in yourself, in your mortal flesh and blood, in this poor life of labor.  That is what you behold especially in those whom you have loved in this life on earth, who have died, who are now but dust or ashes, hidden away in boxes.  Their bodies and their life in Christ Jesus are out of sight, invisible to your senses.

Often as not, what you perceive and feel is emptiness, loss and sorrow, the pain of separation, doubt and fear and uncertainty; which scare you all the more because your faith is threatened and you are tempted to despair, or else tempted to become cold and harsh and hard.  Cynicism creeps in where the catholic faith ought to hold sway, and you are tossed about within and without.

Beloved of the Lord, do not despair, and do not lose heart.  Though it does not yet appear to be so, you are a beloved and well-pleasing child of God in Christ Jesus; and at the last He shall appear, and He shall stand upon the earth, the Crucified and Risen Lord, and every eye shall see Him.  And you also, with your own eyes, from your own risen and glorified body, shall see Him as He is.

Because you are a child of God in Him, by the grace and waters of your Holy Baptism, so shall you be like Him: righteous and holy, innocent and beautiful, never to die again, but alive forevermore. Your body shall no longer be tired or sore, frail or falling apart, but immortal and imperishable, glorious indeed, like unto His own glorious Body.  This is most certainly true.

But for this present time, you fix your hope on Jesus — a sure and certain hope — not with your eyes, but with your ears, by the hearing of His Word and promise in the Gospel.  By repentant faith, and not by sight.  By the confession of His Name in the face of sin, death, and hell.  By the daily remembrance of your Baptism, and by the eating of His Body and the drinking of His Blood.

Thus are you cleansed, both body and soul, with the pure waters of life which flow from the riven side of Christ, the Lamb who has been slain.  Your ears hear and receive His Gospel, His Word of forgiveness, and the gracious outpouring of His Holy Spirit.  Your heart believes, and with your mouth you confess, you eat and you drink.

And for all of that, your eyes do not yet see the risen, exalted, all-glorious Christ Jesus.  You see Him, instead, as the Crucified One — in the hurts and heartaches of this mortal life in a fallen, sinful world.  You see the Cross all around you in the curse of sin and death.  And it is likewise the Cross that you behold in the Ministry of the Gospel, since it is the Gospel of the Cross.

What, then, shall you say and do in response to these things?

Fix your hope on Christ the Crucified by hearing and confessing His Word of the Cross, ironic as that seems.  Return to the significance of your Baptism by contrition and repentance, confession and absolution. And proclaim His death in the confidence of His Resurrection, until He shall appear in glory, by eating His Body and drinking His Blood in faith and with thanksgiving.

And as you share His death by your Holy Baptism in His Name, and as you receive His sacrificial body and blood into your own mouth and body in the Holy Communion, so also rejoice when you are counted worthy to bear and carry His Cross in your vocations and stations in life.

When your eyes behold the hurt and heartache of your neighbor, then behold Christ the Crucified in him or her, and fix your hope on Jesus by helping as you can in the confidence and confession of the resurrection of the body.  That sure and certain hope puts all things into perspective, for the sufferings and death of the body are neither insignificant nor final.

It is in the faith and promise of the Lord’s own bodily resurrection from the dead that you love and serve and care for your neighbor's body while you can.  And it is in the hope of the resurrection that you lay to rest the bodies of your loved ones who have departed in the faith of Christ Jesus.

Blessed are they who die thus — in the Lord — for they rest from their labors, and their works of faith and love do follow after them in Christ.

So do your works of faith and love likewise follow after you in Christ Jesus.  Your good works do not lead the way, but they do follow after, as you live and walk in the way of Christ, your Savior.

Already here and now, as you are given to bear the Cross in this poor life of labor, you are like Him who bore your sins in His own body on the Cross.  Indeed, He made Himself to be like you, so that you should thus become a son of God in Him, by grace through faith in His redemption.

He has borne your poverty, in order that you should receive the inheritance and all the riches of His heavenly kingdom.  He has come down from heaven to earth in gentleness and meekness, in flesh and blood like yours, even unto death, so that all of creation is redeemed, made new, and sanctified in His crucified and resurrected body.  And just as He is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity at the Right Hand of the Father, so it is that, even here on earth, while yet on your pilgrimage, you also are at home with God the Father through faith in Christ, His Son.

The same Lord Jesus Christ has compassion on you.  He has mourned for you and for your loved ones, and He has died for you and for all.  So are you comforted in Him who is your Resurrection and your Life everlasting.  For He has reconciled you to His God and Father by His Cross, and He grants you His peace, such as the world cannot give, with His forgiveness of your sins.  He feeds your deepest hunger, He quenches your deepest thirst, and with His grace and mercy toward you He purifies you through His Ministry of the Gospel, day in and day out, throughout your life.

When you are persecuted and accused of all kinds of evil, and when you are insulted for the sake of Christ, and if it comes down to it that you are even put to death for His Name’s sake, rejoice and be glad.  For He has also been persecuted for the sake of righteousness; He has been insulted, falsely accused, and put to death upon the Cross.  So, too, His Prophets and Apostles, His martyrs and all His saints, indeed, all of His disciples who take up the Cross and follow after Him.

So also shall you and all those who bear the Cross, who suffer and die with Christ Jesus, rise with Him, as well.  Even though you die, yet shall you live, and you shall never die again forever.

To be gathered here around the Lamb upon His throne, around His Altar in the Tabernacle of His Church, is to worship and confess Him by faith.  Neither you nor the world can yet see Him here, and yet you love Him because He has first loved you.  He has given Himself for you.  He has died for you and risen for you.  He is here with you, a very present Help in the midst of every trouble; and He shall never leave you nor forsake you.  As your heavenly Bridegroom, He gives Himself to you here and now, and He abides with you, that you may live and abide in Him forevermore.

That is the sure and certain hope that you confess, and that is the new song that you sing — with the voice of His Word and Holy Spirit — when you remember and give thanks for the saints who have gone before you in the faith of Christ.  You set the Word of His Gospel, His Cross, and His Resurrection, against the apparent devastation and finality of sin and death.  You boldly declare that, not these temporal and perishing things, but Christ the Lord is trustworthy and true.

It truly is meet, right, and salutary so to do.

In the great tribulation of the Cross, you also have been washed in the blood of the Lamb.  Your nakedness is clothed and your shame is covered by the white robes of His perfect righteousness.  And here at His Altar, in the company of angels and archangels and all the host of heaven, with the great cloud of witnesses who surely do surround us, though hidden from your eyes, you drink the blood of that same Lamb and eat His flesh.  His blood shelters and protects you, and His flesh nourishes and strengthens you in body and soul, even through the wilderness and in the deep, dark valley of the shadow of death, unto the resurrection of your body and the life everlasting.

Even now, by His means of grace, by His Gospel–Word and Sacrament, your body, soul, and spirit live safely and securely in His Body.  For so it is that all the saints of God, in heaven and on earth, live and move within the Body of Christ, the Lamb who was slain, and yet, behold, He lives!

It is this same Lamb who is also your Good Shepherd, who willingly laid down His life for you and all His sheep, and who took it up again, that you should have abundant life in Him.  As He has done all that, do not doubt that He will also freely give you all good things.  As He leads you by the quiet waters of your Holy Baptism and through the lush green pastures of His Word to His Table in His House, so shall He surely raise you up in glory at the last, to live with Him eternally.

Do not be ashamed of the tears that you cry in the here and now, whether of joy or sadness.  These, too, are sanctified by the tears of Christ and redeemed by His Cross.  But do know this, dear child of God, that in the resurrection He shall dry your tears once and for all.  No longer will you mourn or weep.  No longer will you hunger or thirst.  No longer will you suffer the ravages of heat or the bitter cold.  No longer will you hurt or have your heart broken in any way.

Then, at last, and ever after, you shall see Him as He is, and you shall be like Him, and you shall live with Him in the glorious Kingdom of His God and Father, sanctified by His Holy Spirit.

In that sure and certain hope, in the Word and promise of Christ Jesus, eat and drink the foretaste of that Glory here and now.  Taste and see that He is very good, whose mercy endures forever.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

29 October 2017

On Christ All the Law and the Prophets Depend

By the washing of the water with His Word, Christ the Lord has cleansed you and sanctified you in Holy Baptism.  He has clothed you in His own righteousness and holiness.  He has anointed you with His Holy Spirit, and He has named you with His Holy Name.  You are therefore to be holy, as the Lord your God is holy.  But, whereas the Holy Triune God is holy in Himself, by His nature as God, you are sanctified by His Word and Holy Spirit to be holy in Christ Jesus, by His grace.

In calling you to be holy, the Lord God calls you to share His divine Life, to rest yourself in His divine Love.  He calls you to live your life in Him, in harmony and peace — to be loved by Him — and so to love the Lord your God above all things, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

To love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, is to entrust and submit all your thoughts and feelings, yourself, and your entire life to Him, so that all your words and actions are governed by His Word, and your every breath glorifies His Name.

And to love your neighbor as yourself is to love and serve your neighbor, and to give life to your neighbor, by and with and for the Love of God.  In short, you love your neighbor as the Lord your God loves you.  Receiving and sharing His love, you manifest His holiness in your love for others.

See, when you fear, love, and trust in the one true God above all things, then you are not afraid of anything else in heaven or on earth, and so you are not afraid to give yourself in loving service to your neighbor.  Rather, you delight to be like God in your love for others.  You desire to know and to follow His good and acceptable Will in all things.  And His holy Will is summed up in love.

Again, what is natural for God, is for you by His grace alone.  You dare not rely upon your own wisdom, reason, or strength to know what love is, or to know the way of love.  But you hear and heed the Word of God, and you rely on His Word.  Consider the example of Christ Jesus.  As true Man, He relied upon and so confessed the Holy Scriptures in resisting every temptation, and in answering all questions.  For all things in heaven and on earth are sanctified by the Word and Spirit of God, who creates all things, gives life to all the living, and establishes what is good and right.

The holiness of God, and so also the holiness of His people, abides in the certainty of God; and it is manifested in the charity of God.  What I mean is this: The Lord your God — the Holy Trinity — He alone is fully alive, fully complete, fully realized, and fully sufficient in Himself.  He alone is Love; which is to say, not only that He is loving in His attitude and actions, but that He is Love in Himself, in His very Being and Identity, in the Love of the Father for the Son in the Holy Spirit.

You have such divine certainty and charity, and such holiness of God, not from within yourself, but from outside of yourself: from the Holy Triune God, who reveals and gives Himself to you for the sake of His divine and holy Love, that is, for His own sake, because of who and what He is.

Because it is by and with His Word that God reveals and gives Himself to you — by the preaching of His Prophets and Apostles, and above all by the Person of the incarnate Son, Christ Jesus — and because it is by and with His Word that He names you with His Name, and sanctifies His Name in you by the generous outpouring of His Holy Spirit through your Savior, Jesus Christ — so it is that your holiness as a child of God depends entirely upon His Word.  That is your certainty, your confidence and hope in Christ, which is expressed and exercised in a godly life of holy charity.

Within your own calling, in your own place, it is for you as it was for the Apostles, who trusted the Word of the Lord and preached that Word faithfully, even unto death.  They did not lord it over those to whom they were sent, but they loved them and took care of them with tenderness, like that of a nursing mother for her newborn infant, and with the strong and steady kindness of a father for his own dear children.  Not only did they deliver the Gospel–Word and Sacraments in the Name and stead of Christ, but they gave their bodies and poured out their lives in love for His Church.

So are you also called to sacrifice your body and life in love for your neighbor, in the charity and certainty of the Holy Triune God who has called you by His own Name in Holy Baptism.  That is a serious commitment for the entirety of your Christian life on earth, unto the life everlasting.  Even for a newborn infant like Guinevere, Baptism stations you on the front lines of a fierce battle, armed and armored with nothing else — and nothing less — than the Word and Spirit of God.

Thus have you confessed, as Guinevere has confessed this morning, that your entire life and your salvation are found in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, in the Church and Ministry of His Gospel, in His Word and Sacraments.  And so have you and Guinevere categorically renounced and rejected the devil, the world, and all the sinful lusts and desires of your fallen flesh.  You have died to all of that, and you live unto God alone.

What, then, does that look like, practically speaking?  What are you supposed to do and say, and how are you supposed to live?  The Lord has not left you without clear guidance and instruction in this regard.  His Law for you is summed up in Love for Him and for your neighbor, as Christ has stated forthrightly this morning.  And that Love for God and man, on which all the Law and the Prophets depend, is spelled out for you as the Ten Commandments are brought to bear upon your own particular place in life, in much the way the Lord has done for His people in Leviticus.

It is to that same end that Dr. Luther wrote his Catechisms, so that pastors and parents, fathers and mothers would be assisted by the Word of God in fulfilling the duties of their callings, in training up their children to fear, love, and trust in God and to love their neighbors in the peace of Christ.

Bear that in mind, Nicholai & Hannah, Kelvin & Melissa, Nathaniel & Sarah, and all of you other fathers and mothers, no matter how old you and your babies may be — that love for God and for your children requires, above all else, that you give attention to the Word of the Lord and teach it to those entrusted to your care; that you be faithful in going to church and bringing them with you.  As surely as a nursing mother feeds her infant, and as surely as a father clothes and shelters and protects his family, all the more so must you bring up your children in the fear and faith of God.

Thus are you and your children catechized by God to pray and confess, to call upon His Name, to praise and give thanks to Him.  He calls you to hear and heed His Word, and to hold it sacred in all that you say and do.  He teaches you to remember your Baptism, as we will teach Guinevere to remember her Baptism; which is to examine yourself with the Word of God, to confess your sins, to avail yourself of Holy Absolution, and to hunger and thirst for the Body and Blood of Christ.

So are you and your children also taught that love, which is the fulfilling of the Law, does no harm to the neighbor.  But love does not simply refrain from doing harm; it actively strives to help and serve, to protect and defend, to support and strengthen the neighbor in his body and life, in his family, his property, his name and reputation.  And not only do you honor and obey your parents and other authorities, but you love and cherish them; you reverence your father and mother, and you submit to them in the Lord.  And when you are married, you fully invest yourself, your time and energy, your heart, mind, and body, in self-sacrificing love for your own wife or husband.

This is what your holiness as a child of God looks like in practice.  This is how you are to live in faith and love, according to the Word of the Lord, to the glory of His Name which you now bear.

But do you?  Do you live a holy life, as the Lord your God has commanded?  Or how often do you expect Him to stand in line and wait behind your legion of idols — your work and your play, your hobbies and other interests, your money, your music and sports and other entertainments?  And how often do you neglect your neighbor in favor of yourself, even when the neighbor in question is your own spouse or child, your own dear father or mother, your own dear brother or sister, or your fellow Christian?  How often do you trust your own wisdom over and above God’s Word?

When you examine yourself rightly, honestly and truthfully, according to the Word of God, you are silenced by His Law — no less than the Scribes and Pharisees, the Sadduccees and Lawyers, who were not able to answer Jesus anything, and who did not dare ask Him any more questions.

The Law of God leaves you with nothing to say but to confess your sins.  Indeed, it exposes not only your ignorance and weakness, and not only your sins and failings — what you have done wrong, and what you have failed to do right — but also your inability to do any better on your own.  Not only your failure, but your impotence to fear, love, and trust in God.  You cannot do it.

But there is another Word of God — the Gospel of Christ Jesus — which gives to you a voice, a confession and a prayer.  From the waters of your Baptism and throughout the Holy Christian Church, this Word of the Gospel forgives your sins, rescues you from death and drives out the devil, sanctifies you with the Spirit of Christ Jesus, and gives to you eternal life and salvation.

That is so, because great King David’s Lord has indeed become King David’s Son, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and the same Son has been anointed in His human flesh and blood by the Holy Spirit to be the Christ, your Savior and your King.  What He has given Himself to do by submitting Himself to St. John’s Baptism of repentance in the waters of the Jordan River, He has fully accomplished in faith and love, for you and for all, by His Sacrifice upon the Cross.

So has He loved His God and Father with all His heart, with all His soul, and with all His mind; with all His strength, with His whole body and life, with His holy and precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death.  He has given Himself fully and without any reservation, in the fear, love, and trust of His Father above all things, and with divine and holy love for you and for all people, for Guinevere Glenda Marie, and for all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.

His relationship to the Law is much like His relationship to David.  He is both Lord and Son.  He is both the Author and the Fulfiller of the Law.  On Him do all the Law and the Prophets depend.  In Him the great Commands are realized.  In Christ, you are loved by God and Man; and as you learn to love Christ Jesus in return, you are taught to love both God and your neighbor in Him.

He has fulfilled and perfected all the Law and the Prophets, not only in your stead and on your behalf, but for you, and for your benefit, in order to save you, and to sanctify you, and to give you life with God forever in Himself.  He does you no harm, but He helps and supports you in every way, in both body and soul, in this life on earth, and for the life everlasting in heaven.  He takes nothing from you but your sin and death, and in exchange He gives you Himself, His holiness and righteousness, His innocence and blessedness, His Name, His Holy Spirit, His own dear Father to be your God and Father in Him, and all the wealth and riches of His eternal Kingdom.  He does not divorce you; He forgives your unfaithfulness, woos you to Himself in tender peace, cleanses you of every blemish, spot, and wrinkle, and cherishes you as His own beloved Bride.  He does not testify against you, but with His Gospel He defends you, speaks well of you, and justifies you.

And as the great God and Father of this same Lord Jesus Christ has highly exalted Him, and has raised Him from the dead, and has given Him the Name above every name, and has seated Him at His Right Hand forevermore — in the same human flesh and blood that He received from His Mother Mary and shares with you — so has God the Father raised you also from death to life, and given you the Name of Christ Jesus in your Holy Baptism, as He has here done for Guinevere.  He has seated you with Christ in the heavenly places.  Your life is safely hidden with Christ in God, even as you go about your life under the Cross, living by His grace through faith in His Gospel.

This is a faithful saying, and it is most certainly true.  For the surety and certainty of your faith and life are not found in yourself, nor in your frail mortal flesh, but they are fixed for you, and secure, in the crucified, risen, and ascended Body of Christ Jesus.  He is not far away from you, but He is here for you in His Church on earth, in His Ministry of the Gospel, in the preaching of His Word, in the Holy Absolution of all your sins, and in the Holy Communion of His Body and His Blood.

So, then, with King David and Queen Guinevere, in the Spirit you also call Jesus “Lord.”  For He has entered in to save you, to ransom and redeem you, to set you free from the bondage of Satan, sin, and death, and to bring you into His glorious Kingdom.  He is not ashamed to call you His brother, His sister, His friend, but all that belongs to Him He freely shares with you forever.  Recline here at His Table, and receive from His right hand the pledge of His undying love, the gift of His indestructible life, while He puts all your enemies, your sin and death, beneath His feet.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

22 October 2017

Rendering the Image of God unto the Lord

The political strife and rancor of these past few years has made it all the more important that we hear and take to heart the Word of our Lord from this morning’s Holy Gospel, that we should “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Regrettably, this well-known saying of Jesus has not always been well-understood.  In fact, it is oftentimes abused — for example, by those who take the separation of Church and State to absurd extremes, so as to say that God has His “place” over here, and the state has its “place” over there, and never the two shall meet.  Yet, that is certainly not what Jesus says; nor can such a view find any support in the Holy Scriptures.  For the whole earth is the Lord’s and all the fulness thereof.

What Scripture does say, both here and elsewhere, is that “Caesars” have been given a temporary place within the Lord’s governance of His creation.  And so it is that, as Christians, we obey the governing authorities for the Lord’s sake, because of their lawful place under Him.

The Word of Christ at hand is therefore not a two-part equation.  Whoever the “Caesar” might be in any given time or place, he is there by the tolerance of God; and he is there, as St. Paul writes, to serve as a minister of justice and peace.  In rendering unto Caesar, you already begin to render obedience and honor to the Lord your God, the Maker of the heavens and the earth.

But the Pharisees were not so concerned about a proper understanding of political authority.  Their real intentions were malice and hypocrisy.  They hoped and assumed that Jesus would be trapped by their question: If He said that taxes should be paid to Caesar, then pious Jews would see Him as a Roman sympathizer, especially since He was known to hang out with tax collectors, anyway.  But if He said that taxes should not be paid, then the Pharisees and Herodians could accuse Him of insurrection and rebellion.  That was the plan.  But Jesus saw the bigger picture and knew the treachery of their hearts, and He not only shut their mouths but revealed the higher order of God.

The bottom line is cut and dried:  The Holy Triune God is the Maker and Preserver, the Ruler and Provider of all things.  As the Author and Giver of life, He is the Lord of His entire creation.  He is the One who stretched out the heavens above us, piled up mountains around us, filled up the oceans with water, and brought forth in His careful design — by the power of His Word — every living thing that lives and moves upon the face of the whole earth.  From the tiniest grain of sand to the mightiest solar system, there is nothing in all the vast universe that exists apart from His grace and power and permission, including all political power and authority.

There is no authority on earth except what God Himself ordains and permits.  And that is so, whether the leaders of this world acknowledge it or not.  The Lord alone is in control of human history from beginning to end, as you have heard, by way of example, from Isaiah this morning.

The pagan ruler, Cyrus, was chosen by the Lord to be an instrument of His deliverance.  Cyrus, like others before him, might have thought that he was in control, making his own decisions and making a name for himself.  But that was not the case.  Yahweh had chosen him; He had taken Cyrus by the hand and summoned him by name to free the Israelites from Babylonian Captivity.

The same reality is at work behind the scenes in the case of every other “Caesar” in this world.  Which is not to say that any ruler is perfect, nor that any ruler follows the Will of God in all things. We sadly know better than that!  But even among pagans, that which is “Caesar’s” is given to him by the Lord of lords and the King of kings, to whom all things in heaven and on earth must submit.

The same thing is true for you, as well.  Though you may not be a “Caesar” with a nation to govern and protect, your office and station in life are no less a trust from the Holy Triune God.

What do you have from the Lord?  Every breath and every moment of your life; the food that you eat, the clothes that you wear, the sunshine and rain.  Your help comes from the Lord, the Maker of the heavens and the earth.  He keeps you from all harm; He watches over your life; He guards your coming in and going out, now and forever.  Your life and hope and strength are found in Him alone, who provides all that you need for both body and soul, for here and for hereafter.

One of the ways by which you acknowledge your dependance on the Lord is by recognizing His authority and His institution in those He places over you in this life: your parents and teachers, pastors and leaders, whoever they are.  You serve, honor, love, and obey those authorities on earth out of “fear, love, and trust” in God, until such time when you must obey God rather than men.

In a way, that is the question of the Pharisees in this Holy Gospel — notwithstanding their wicked purposes in asking.  In the case of a pagan emperor, such as the Roman Caesar who views himself as a god, does obedience to God require that the faithful should refuse to pay their taxes?

In His response to this question, Jesus begins with the coin that was used for paying taxes.  That might seem strange, if this story were not already so familiar, but it actually made perfect sense.  In their day-to-day commerce, the Jews were permitted to use special coins that were minted without the image of Caesar.  But for the Roman tax, they were required to use the standard coin of the realm, the silver denarius.  For a devout Jew, a coin of this sort — engraved with Caesar’s image and likeness — would have been useless for anything other than paying the national tax.

Beyond this point, there are several other factors operating just below the surface.  For one thing, St. Matthew has already written of denarii in two other places — in parables that you have heard over the past month or so.  In one case, the denarii signified the debt of forgiveness that you owe to your fellow servants; and in the other case, a denarius signified the reward of our Lord for all of His servants, for each and all alike.  The denarius, therefore, is a gift from God with which you are to serve your neighbor.  It comes to you from the Lord for the benefit of those around you.  So, for example, in paying your taxes you are serving and supporting your fellow citizens.

The second underlying point is found in the question Jesus asks concerning the denarius: “Whose image or picture is this?  Whose icon, and whose epigraph?”  The first word, “icon” or “image,” is right out of the story of creation in Genesis, when “God created man in His own Image; in the Image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

So, if the coin with Caesar’s image should be rendered unto Caesar, then men and women, who are created in the Image of God, must render — not just their money — but themselves unto Him.

The truth is, though, that you have fallen far short of God’s Image.  You have not lived to the glory of His Name, but like your father Adam you have lived in sin, even unto death.  And yet, St. Paul writes that Christ Himself is the Image of God; and He has not fallen short at all.  Christ has fulfilled every intention of His God and Father for you and your salvation; and He has also paid, on your behalf, the debt of all your failure.  As the Image of His Father, the incarnate Son of God has rendered Himself entirely unto God — in His flesh and with His blood — for you and for all.

He did so on the Cross.  And, lo and behold, that is where the other word shows up, that is, the “epigraph” or “inscription” of the coin.  In fact, that is the only other time the word is used in the Gospels — when Pilate nailed the epigraph on the Cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

Ironic, isn’t it?  Crying out for the crucifixion of their Savior and their God, the Jews told Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar!”  Whereas the pagan Pontius Pilate, though he knew not what he said, rightly confessed that Jesus is the King of the Jews.  He is all of that and so much more, hanging there on the Cross.  He is the King of all kings and Lord of all lords, who holds Caesar and Pilate and Herod, the U.S. of A. and the whole world in His almighty, outstretched hands.  Money and taxes and politics seem far less important when viewed from the Cross of Christ.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Truth of God, who speaks the Truth of God in all things, without regard for human achievements or the standards of this world.  This Lord is neither impressed nor persuaded by popularity or power, by appearance, personality, or wealth.  All people are alike in His eyes:  All are sinners, in need of His forgiveness by grace alone.  All are His creatures, for whom His Blood is shed upon the Cross — for Caesars and peasants, Presidents and street people.

Now, by His grace and Holy Spirit, you do the same.  That is to say, you look at people through the eyes of Christ; and so you pay your taxes to Caesar, and you love your neighbors, for the sake of the Lord.  You serve and support the governing authorities as servants of God; and you serve the people around you — even the least, the last, and the lost — as an opportunity to show your thanks and love toward Christ Jesus Himself.  Whatsoever you do for them, you do it for Him.

The fact is, that God doesn’t need your money.  It’s all His in the first place, along with every other blessing in your life.  Your neighbors may need your money from time to time, as the law of love demands.  And the ministry and mission of the Church need your money and support, as does your country.  But the Holy Triune God can get along just fine without your help, thank you very much.

What He does require of you, though, is not your money but your life.  For you were created in His Image and Likeness; His Epigraph is written on your forehead and your heart — the Sign of the Cross, marking you as His.  And His Word to you is clear: “Render unto God what is God’s.”

The beauty of it is, that in rendering everything you are and have to God, you find that all the while He is showering you with grace and every blessing: free and full forgiveness of your sins, eternal life, and salvation in Christ Jesus.  That is what faith is all about.  You trust Him completely with your entire being and life, and you receive all things from His hand with thanksgiving.

St. Paul thus writes about the Christian life as a stewardship of “faith,” “hope,” and “love.”

“By faith,” which is created and sustained in you through the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the Gospel, “in the hope” which you have in Christ Jesus, who has suffered all the punishment of your sins, who has perfectly satisfied the demands of the Law on your behalf, and who, by the means of His Word and Sacrament, bestows on you His forgiveness, life, and salvation, and restores in you the Image of God, “you love” your neighbor, even your enemy, as Christ loves you.

That is what Christian stewardship really entails.  It is not a little corner of your life that you set aside for the church or for charity.  It is rather a commitment and a trusting of your entire life — everything that you are and all that you have — into the hands of your heavenly Father.  When you entrust a portion of that total commitment to the Ministry of Christ and the Mission of His Church, you do so for the sake of the Gospel, as a confession of your faith and hope in the Holy Trinity.

You do the same thing by faithfully doing your job, whatever it might be; by faithfully taking care of your family and your responsibilities at home; and by looking out for the welfare of your neighbors and the needs of your community — as for example in paying your taxes to “Caesar.”

In all of these ways, you render the Image of God unto the Lord by receiving His many gifts with thanksgiving, and by using them to the glory of His Name for the benefit of those around you.

As you find that you still fail miserably on a daily basis to live in this way, as the Lord commands, in accordance with His holy Image and divine Likeness, repent, and believe the Gospel of Christ.

Were it not for Christ Jesus, you would find yourself hopeless and undone.  Thankfully, the Image of God does not depend on you; not on your faith and sincerity, nor on your best efforts and stewardship.  It depends entirely on Christ, and it is always upheld by Him.  He has reflected that perfect Image, and He has rendered it unto God the Father, by going to the Cross in your stead; by sacrificing everything for you and your salvation; and even now, by forgiving your sins, and by feeding your body, soul, and spirit with His very own Body and Blood, unto the life everlasting.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.