20 April 2008

Honoring the Fathers

Before I ever became a daddy with daughters and sons of my own, of course I was myself a son with a Daddy of my own. Today is his birthday, in honor of which I offer him "cheers," with thanks to God for this dear man through whom I received my life and my name and much more. Indeed, I have been more than doubly blessed to have had my Dad also as my gradeschool teacher, as my pastor while I was in high school and college, and as a colleague in the Office of the Holy Ministry for these past twelve years. In this he has been my father several times over, and there is no sufficient thanks with which I can fully repay my debt of gratitude.

Aside from all the benefits of body and soul, heart and mind, which I have received from God the Father through my father here on earth, I am in any case instructed and commanded to honor my father. Luther rightly understood and taught that, with this Word, the Lord has clothed my earthly father with His own divine and holy majesty, even though it is hidden under the frailty and weakness of mortal flesh. My Dad is a good man, but it is not finally for his own goodness that I am to honor him. Rather, it is unto the Lord, in faith and love toward God, that I honor my father, love and cherish him, serve and obey him. My father on earth is not perfect (nor is his son), but he is the man whom my Father in heaven has given me in this office and vocation, and for this gift I return thanks.

Today is also the commemoration of Johannes Bugenhagen, Dr. Luther's pastor in Wittenberg, a stalwart confessor of the faith and reformer of the church in the sixteenth century. He is a father in Christ, also for me, as he was Luther's spiritual father by the preaching of the Gospel. We give thanks to God on this day, as we should, for His gift of this pastor. In particular, we honor Father Bugenhagen, with thanksgiving to God in Christ, by remembering and retaining his confession of the faith, and also by honoring those spiritual fathers who are called by God and sent to us as our own pastors now. Considering that such a great teacher of the faith as Dr. Luther also had his own pastor, to whom he made confession and from whom he received the forgiveness of sins and the teaching of the Word, calls us to mind of the fact that we are not self-sufficient in our own faith and life, nor independent Christians who proceed according to our own wisdom, reason and strength. For what do we have that has not been given to us? What Gospel have we received apart from those whom God has bestowed upon us as our fathers in Christ?

As I am in the midst of teaching a course on the early church fathers, I am daily being reminded of those who have gone before us in the faith as preachers and teachers of the Word. They were mortal men and sinners like myself, yet men of tremendous abilities whom the ascended Lord Jesus graciously gave to His Church on earth for the care and tending of His sheep in those days. How shall I rightly honor them, who are not only "church fathers" but my own fathers in Christ, as I am also a member of His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church? Martin Chemnitz has written, in a little treatise on how to read the fathers (which I here summarize and paraphrase as best I can from memory), that we honor the fathers with thanksgiving for that which they have said well, by the grace of God, and in love we set aside and pass over whatever they have said poorly or in error. We do not condone false teaching, but neither do we condemn the fathers for their imperfections; instead, we rejoice in their faithful confession of the Word of God, and we cover their weaknesses with charity, as we also are covered by the charity of Christ.

It has been said that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is no longer my grandfather's church. That is true of my father's father, who now resides in the Church triumphant of his dear Lord Jesus Christ, to which he was called from this vale of tears almost twelve years ago. But the LCMS, for good or ill, with warts and all, is still the Church of my children's grandfather. In due time, I expect that it shall also become the Church of my grandchildren's grandfather, the good Lord willing. My heartfelt hope and prayer is that it will continue striving to confess the Word of God with clarity and confidence, steadfastly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, training pastors and other workers for the Church on earth, and sending missionaries to every place where Christ Himself would go. We shall be well served in those godly endeavors by honoring the fathers and grandfathers who have gone before us. Not because they were perfect, but because they have been given to us by the God and Father of us all, for Jesus' sake.

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