29 September 2014

The Pastoral Care of Catechumens and Communicants

(Paper presented at the St. Michael's Conference, Zion, Detroit)

Thank God, we confess with Dr. Luther, even a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is: lambs and sheep who hear and follow the Voice of their Good Shepherd.

That is to define the Church in pastoral terms, and thus to emphasize the centrality of the Pastoral Office.  From St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Augsburg Confession, from the Word of our Lord to St. Peter, and from St. Paul’s words to the Church at Rome and to the elders of Ephesus, even to the present day, the Lord’s flock is gathered by and around the Ministry of the Gospel.

There is something lacking when the sheep have no shepherd.  So the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Good Shepherd of the whole flock in heaven and on earth, provides pastors and bishops to care for His Church in this world.

I. The Goal and Purpose, Ways and Means of Pastoral Care

So, what does a shepherd do?  How does a pastor care for the sheep of the Good Shepherd?  He is duty bound to feed and nurture the flock, and to guard and protect the sheep from the ravenous wolves and raging lions that would fleece them and devour them through falsehood and deception.

In the Name and stead of Christ, in the Spirit and the Truth, the pastor leads the lambs and sheep through the green pastures of the Word of God and the living waters of Holy Baptism to the Feast of the Lord’s Table in the Lord’s House.

Which is simply another way of saying that he makes disciples of the Lord Jesus by the way and means of Baptism in His Name and Catechesis in His Word, and that he also then communes those same disciples with the Body and Blood of the same Lord Jesus Christ, in remembrance of Him, with the proclamation of His death until He comes.  We could hardly summarize the Pastoral Ministry and Pastoral Care more comprehensively or more simply than that.

Use the old means in the old ways, Wilhelm Löhe advised and admonished the pastors in his day.  That means the preaching and teaching of the Word of Christ, and the faithful administration of the Sacraments in accordance with the Gospel.  And that is exactly right.  That is what pastors do, and that is how they care for the flock of God entrusted to their oversight.

Ordinary Pastoral Care is thus liturgical in its character and content.  By “ordinary” I describe what is primary and persistent.  Extraordinary Pastoral Care is more personal, addressed to the particular needs and circumstances of the one sheep who is wandering, lost, hurt, in danger, or caught up in some dire straits.  This “extraordinary” care is vital, but is not the norm by which everything else is determined and governed.  It is the exception that proves the rule.  Not only because it is incidental and intermittent, but because it is still rooted in the Liturgy of the Word and Sacrament, and it has for its purpose the reconciliation and restoration of the individual to the liturgical life of the Church, that is, to the green Pastures, the quiet Waters, and the banqueting Table of the Lord in His House.  On the cusp between the ordinary and extraordinary is the practice of Confession and Absolution, which preaches the Gospel of Christ to the individual from the Sacrament of Holy Baptism to the Sacrament of the Altar.

“Word and Sacrament” is not simply a cliché, but really is the definitive and decisive content of Pastoral Care.  The means of grace are the Lord’s own Staff and Stay for both His shepherds and His sheep.  We dare not lose sight of that fact, nor lay aside those means and let them go.

Nevertheless, using the old means in the old ways does not mean following a mechanistic checklist.  Pastoral Care does not “just happen” by way of an automatic assembly line process.  It is rather undertaken with paternal discernment and discretion.

The Lord does not simply provide a book of instructions, with rules and regulations for each and every situation.  There surely are rubrics to follow, both divinely given in the Holy Scriptures and established in love by the Church.  But the Lord also provides shepherds for His sheep, and fathers for His children, both at home and in the household and family of His Church.  Among His good gifts are these men who know and love the children under their care, who deal with them according to the Word and Wisdom of God, and who also adjust and accommodate their work and service, as needs may be, in the genuine freedom of the Gospel.  Indeed, the faithful exercise of this fatherly flexibility is the evangelical place and purpose of adiaphora.  The reason the Lord has left so many of the details and particulars unspecified, is not so that every man may do whatever seems right in his own eyes, but so that the Church in each time and place, and the pastor in each parish, may care for the flock in the midst of mortal life in this perishing world.  Adiaphora are not for the sake of anarchy, but for adaptability within the parameters of the Lord’s sheepfold.

Within this evangelical freedom of faith and love, the pastor does not compromise the confession of Christ, but engages the hard work of listening to and learning from His Word, in order to confess Him clearly and concretely in language appropriate to each context.  Whether to the congregation gathered for the Divine Service, or to the individual Christian who has come for Confession and Absolution — to the catechumens and communicants entrusted to his Pastoral Care in a variety of circumstances — the pastor labors to speak of Christ with tangible clarity, transparent simplicity, and faithful integrity.  It is not an easy job, but a necessary one.

In approaching the task of preaching and teaching the Word of Christ and caring for His lambs and sheep with His good gifts, the pastor should take to heart and be encouraged by the exemplary faith of little children.  It is the Father’s good pleasure to give them His Kingdom, and so, by His good and gracious Will, He reveals His divine Wisdom to them through the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus.  We confess this truth in our practice of infant Baptism, and in the baptismal rite itself, because we trust the Word of God to work faith, where and when it pleases Him, in those who hear the Gospel.  We baptize according to His divine command and with His Holy Name, and we are confident of His Word and promises, which are for us and for our children.

This confident confession and practice are in tension with many common assumptions and assertions about infants, toddlers, and young children, as to what they can and cannot do.  Without a Word of the Lord to support the claim, it is often stated that little ones below a certain age are unable to believe, comprehend, or confess the Gospel of Christ Jesus.  Or, if it is acknowledged that even infants may have such faith, it is still maintained that, prior to an age of discretion, these young Christians are unable to discern or grasp the particulars of the Gospel.

Admittedly, there is development of cognition, linguistic ability, and reason over time.  The Scriptures do speak of an age prior to which a child does not yet know “to refuse evil or choose good.”  And there are ways in which Christians are admonished to grow up from childishness into maturity.  Our Lord Himself grew and increased in wisdom and stature.  Yet, it is also made clear that infants and little children are able to believe and rejoice in the Gospel.  In fact, the greatness of their faith is the model for all Christians, which puts to shame the sophisticated knowledge and intelligence of this world.

Aside from the testimonies of Holy Scripture, it has seemed to me, in the course of my lifetime, that the more we learn about the human brain, infant life, and child development, the more we discover rather amazing capacities for learning, language, and relationships of love and trust.  Frankly, I don’t believe that anyone really knows or understands all that’s happening in the mind of an unborn or newborn infant, or even in the case of a toddler, although there’s already a great difference between an infant and a two-year-old, as any parent can testify from experience.  My sense is that science will continue to discover and demonstrate that little ones are capable of far more than past assessments and expectations have supposed.  Such insights can be helpful to us in discerning how best to teach and care for the youngest disciples of our Lord Jesus.  But to a certain extent, such things are still beside the point at hand.  Faith is obtained and nurtured by the Word and Spirit of Christ, and not by anyone’s reason or strength, regardless of age or ability. Pastoral Care seeks to know and love the flock as well as possible, but, from first to last, it relies upon the ways and means of the Gospel, rather than attempting to read hearts and minds.

My purpose in referring to these considerations of early childhood is simply to suggest that, in these matters, we ought to be agnostic in our assumptions and cautious in our conclusions.  By contrast, we are right to proceed with bold confidence in that which is sure and certain, because it is given to us by the Word and Wisdom of God, no matter if it seems foolish and odd in the perception of our fallen flesh.

Infant Baptism is a case in point, and the way the Church has gone about it, the Lutheran Church included, is instructive.  The infant baptismal candidate is addressed and regarded as a Christian, a servant of Jesus Christ.  He or she prays to the Lord, renounces the devil, confesses the Holy Trinity and the faith of the Church, and requests the gift of Holy Baptism, albeit through the lips and mouths of parents, godparents, pastor and congregation.

Lutherans do not consider this practice to be a pretense or play-acting in the case of infants, because the Lord is faithful and His Word does not return empty.  The infant comes to the Font embraced by that Word and promise of the Lord; he comes to the water already immersed in the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and that, not only before, but during and after the rites and ceremonies of Holy Baptism.  The little lamb is cared for by his shepherd, and his Baptism into Christ provides the precedent and pattern of ongoing Pastoral Care for his Christian faith and life.  His pastor continues to pray with him and for him, to call him to repentance and faith, to assist him in resisting the devil, and to bring him to the Father by the Spirit in the Son.

Remarkably, Dr. Luther points to the importance of this ongoing Pastoral Care, not only for the benefit of the baptized child, but also for the sake of the Church.  Far from regarding the little children as helpless liabilities or burdens, he admonishes pastors and parents to catechize them and bring them to the Lord’s Supper, in order for them to serve and assist the whole Church in fighting against the devil.

II. Ongoing Catechesis: to and from the Font, to and from the Altar

It is the Word of Christ that arms and armors the Christian of whatever stage in life against the assaults and accusations of the old evil foe.  That is why Pastoral Care, broadly speaking, is a continuous Catechesis.  In many and various ways, the pastor is always preaching, teaching, confessing, and exemplifying the Word of Christ.

Pastoral Catechesis does impart knowledge, it does assist with a growing comprehension of the Mysteries, and it does provide guidance in the way Christians are called to live.  However, at its heart, Pastoral Catechesis is always proclaiming the Law and the Gospel unto repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins.  That is the foundational word and work of all Pastoral Care.  As it precedes, accompanies, and follows the administration of Holy Baptism, so does it also extol and establish the pattern and shape of the entire baptismal life.  It is the Word that accomplishes the daily dying and rising of the Christian with Christ Jesus.

Catechesis is not simply nor even chiefly academic.  It is far broader and more comprehensive than that.  Perhaps it is helpful always to think of Catechesis and Pastoral Care in tandem, so that care is not attempted apart from the Catechesis of the Word, nor Catechesis attempted apart from the care and compassion of Christ, as a shepherd caring for the sheep, as a father for his children.

This catechetical care does not coddle.  It does include discipline and training: In knowledge, yes; and in the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of all true wisdom; and in the righteousness of faith and life.  It is a discipleship in the Way of the Cross, a lifelong apprenticeship in the Way of Christ, crucified and risen.  So it includes the Bible stories, as more than great stories, more than historical facts and information, as the very Life of Christ by which we live in Him.

The Ten Commandments, likewise, are the way that we should live in faith and love, and the criteria by which we examine ourselves and seek Absolution for our sins, because they are the way that Christ has lived in love for His Father and for all of us, for our salvation.

The Creed and the Our Father are prayers and confessions of faith in the Gospel.  We teach and learn them best by praying and confessing them, and we hand them over to our children and our catechumens by praying and confessing with them, in the confidence that whoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.

Memorization of these key texts is beneficial and ought to be encouraged and stressed for the sake of instilling the Word of Christ in the heart and mind of every Christian.  But, in any case, whether sooner or later, Christian disciples will believe, and they will learn to pray and confess, in the way they are catechized.  The Word of the Lord that is spoken to them, for them, and with them, is the Word that is near them, in their ears and in their hearts, which also opens their lips and mouths to show forth the praises of God in Christ Jesus.  The stories of the Bible, the chief parts of the Catechism, the Psalms and hymns and Spiritual songs of Christ will shape the Christian catechumens in heart and mind, in body and soul, and provide them with a pattern of sound words for their confession and prayer of faith.

Now, then, here is the problem and challenge: Contrast this comprehensive view of Catechesis with what “Confirmation” has often been, driven as it is by its competing interests and concerns.  There are positives, no doubt, among them a consistent use of Luther’s Small Catechism with its profound, straightforward simplicity and its rather unique quality as a prayer book.  An emphasis on the basics of the faith, on the need for instruction in the Word of God, and on the seriousness of the sacramental life must also be applauded.  In these ways “Confirmation” has been a positive blessing.  Unfortunately, that is not all there is to it.

“Confirmation,” as we have come to know it, does have a checkered history with questionable origins and convoluted developments.  It began as a subtle-sacramentarian response to a crass-sacramentarian challenge, when Martin Bucer attempted to answer Anabaptist criticisms of infant Baptism by requiring a mature personal confession, a commitment to Christ, and a vow of obedience to the discipline of the Church as prerequisites to the Holy Communion.  Implicit in this move were doubts about the faith and confession of infants, and a shift away from confidence in the Word and Sacraments to a focus on human reason and resolve.

I’m not going to attempt a rehearsal of “Confirmation” history, especially since this has been done often enough and well enough by others.  It is a tedious tale, which leads further and further away from the catechetical center which has always been its only real merit.  There has been little unity or consistency in the various ways it has been used and understood over the years.  From its suspect start, it was further skewed by the dogmatism of Scholastics in the 17th century, by the subjectivism of Pietists in the 17th and 18th centuries, and by the secularism of Rationalists in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The end result has been a pseudo-sacramentalized graduation ceremony and coming of age party.  Not a great pedigree.

All of these developments are bad enough, in turning away from the objective Gospel of Christ to the intellect, emotions, and experience of the confirmands.  Even more unfortunate and troubling is the combining of Catechesis in preparation for the Holy Communion with a stress on personal maturity, commitment, and academic achievement.  The consequence of this combination has been a later age of “Confirmation,” and thus a later age of First Communion.  Whereas Lutherans in the 16th Century were typically admitted to the Sacrament between the ages of six and twelve years, Lutherans of subsequent generations have generally not communed until anywhere from twelve to sixteen years of age or later.

Despite all the rigor, expectation, and hoopla surrounding it, “Confirmation” has been marked by frustrations and failures.  And notwithstanding the good that has resulted through instruction in the faith, attrition rates have been notoriously high among “graduates” of this process.  At the same time, it is disturbing to hear Lutherans speak of their “Confirmation” and their “vows” in terms reminiscent of a protestant altar call, and in higher esteem than their Holy Baptism.

The ghost of Martin Bucer’s contribution haunts the Lutheran practice of “Confirmation” to this day.  Brothers, it should not be so.  That other Martin, Dr. Luther himself, was ambivalent at best about any such thing as “Confirmation,” but he did insist upon the need for ongoing Catechesis.  That is where our focus needs to be.

With or without a rite of “Confirmation,” Catechesis in the Word of Christ should undergird and permeate the entire life of the Church.  It is not a terminal degree program.  As the Christian is to pray without ceasing, so he must be catechized without ceasing.  So, too, the Christian home and family ought to resonate with the Word of God and prayer throughout the week.

Homeschooling provides a unique opportunity and a clear advantage in this regard, although, of course, that option is not universally possible or necessary.  Fathers and mothers will, in any case, certainly make time to pray with their children, to engage them in conversation with the Holy Scriptures, to observe with them the festivals and seasons of the Church Year, and to lead them by example.  They will also bring them to the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day, no matter where and how they are being schooled.

Lutheran parochial schools do not replace the roles and responsibilities of parents in the Christian home and family, but they are able to assist parents in providing a context of Catechesis in the Word of God and daily prayer.  A solid Lutheran school with a sound theological base and a rich liturgical piety can be tremendously valuable in this regard.  Obviously, a less pious, heterodox, or secular educational environment will require an extra effort and proactive vigilance on the part of Christian fathers and mothers, who remain accountable to God for the Catechesis of their children.

The responsibility for family Catechesis belongs especially to the father as the head of his household, although it is often the mother who will be the main catechist of the children, especially in their youngest years.  I am persuaded that young Samuel, for example, was catechized at Hannah’s breast and on her knee before she entrusted him to the Lord and to Eli the priest at Shiloh.  Certainly, Luther has taught us that the head of the household is to catechize his children in the chief parts of the Christian faith and life: How they are to live, how they are to remember their Baptism, how they are to examine themselves and confess their sins, and how they are to pray and confess the Word of God.  Fathers should also teach their children, or have them taught, what the Sacrament of the Altar is, what it is for, and how they are given to eat and to drink the Body and Blood of Christ in faith and with thanksgiving.  As Pastoral Care is paternal, so is paternal care pastoral in a father’s Catechesis of his children.

In all of this, Luther clearly places the catechetical burden, not on the catechumens, but on the parents and pastors.  Those children (and servants) who refuse to receive instruction or rehearse the faith are to be disciplined.  Luther’s emphasis, however, is not on the catechumen’s achievement, but on the persistence of the Catechesis that fathers and mothers in the home and pastors in the Church are to provide.

The aim and purpose of memory work in this process is to establish a stable scaffolding and structure for securing the Word of God in the catechumen’s heart, mind, and life.  A similar but superior scaffolding and structure are provided by the context of God’s Word and prayer in the home, and by the family’s consistent participation in the liturgical life of the Church.  A child immersed in that catechetical context will be formed and filled up by it.  He will learn the faith by heart, so that he is able to recall his Baptism and the Gospel, to call on the Name of the Lord in every trouble, and to praise and confess Christ Jesus throughout his life.  Thus, the good and gracious Will of God is done among us also.

It should already be evident that the Catechesis of a Christian home and family takes its cues and draws its content from the Divine Liturgy, which is itself the primary Catechesis of the entire Church in the Word and Sacraments of Christ.  In fact, all Catechesis finds its orbit in the Liturgy, and its gravitational center in the Sacrament of the Altar.

The catechetical rhythm of daily prayer moves from the Divine Service on the Lord’s Day, through the week, back to the Divine Service on the Lord’s Day again.  That is the weekly ebb and flow of the Liturgy, whether gathered for Matins and Vespers with the congregation or with the family for morning and evening prayer at home.  The Christian is always living from the Font to the Altar, and from the Altar through all his days and nights back to the Altar again.

There is also the larger rhythm of the Church Year, the Sundays and Seasons of which are a school of faith in the Gospel of Christ.  Luther points to this liturgical Catechesis of the Church Year in his discussion of the Second Article in the Large Catechism.  It’s actually one of the shortest sections of the Catechism, precisely because, Luther says, the confession of the Son of God, His Person and Work, are treated in detail and at length through the Gospels and Festivals of the whole year.  We note that Lent and Easter, in particular, are catechetical in their origins.

The ancient catechumenate focused on Procatechesis during Lent, in preparation for Holy Baptism and participation in the Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil, and then on Mystagogical Catechesis in the meaning and significance of the Holy Sacraments throughout the Octave of the Resurrection.  There is still a benefit to thinking of these distinctions between Procatechesis in preparation for the Liturgy, and Mystagogical Catechesis in explanation of the Liturgy.  The one focuses on stories of the Bible and on the first three chief parts of the Catechism, the other on the Holy Sacraments and on their significance for the Christian faith and life.  But this is not a one-shot program culminating in “Confirmation.”  It is the pattern of the Divine Service itself, and of the daily, weekly, and yearly cycle of Christian prayer and Catechesis in the Word of Christ.  It is for this reason, for example, that I deliberately use the term “catechumen,” not only for baptismal candidates or confirmands, but for all Christians, notwithstanding their growth and maturity in the faith.  Even pastors, parents, and other catechists are still catechumens in this sense.

Not only what is said in the Liturgy, but also what is done; and not only what is done, but how it is done, confesses Christ and catechizes His Church.  The way a pastor approaches his preaching and conducts himself in the pulpit, and, above all, the way he administers the Sacrament, his reverence and decorum at the Altar, catechize the congregation in the Mysteries of Christ.

The Lord made clear in the Old Testament that His Name would be sanctified before the people by the construction and treatment of His Tabernacle and its furnishings, and by the vestments and conduct of His priests.  Though we now live and serve in the broad freedom of the New Testament, it remains the case that ceremonies confess what we believe and catechize the people in that faith.

Christian Catechesis, in all of these ways and means, is always aiming at a worthy and fruitful communion with Christ in His Body and His Blood, by way of faith in His Word and Holy Spirit.  As constant Catechesis is necessary for the sake of ceaseless prayer, so is ongoing Catechesis needed for the ongoing faithful reception of the Holy Communion.  We are not concerned with the completion of a once-in-a-lifetime program of study.  Rather, every Divine Service includes the Catechesis of God’s Word and the preaching of it, in order to bring the congregation to the Altar as worthy communicants.  Such Catechesis is fundamental to Pastoral Care.

III. The Holy Communion: Fellowship in the Body of Christ

Pastoral Care and Catechesis do include both preparation for and explanation of the Holy Communion.  But that is not all.  The actual administration of the Holy Communion is also an exercise of Pastoral Care, undertaken within a context of ongoing Pastoral Care and Catechesis.  The preaching, teaching, and confessing of the Word of Christ belong to the right administration of the Sacrament “in accordance with the Gospel.”  There is no Holy Baptism apart from the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and the Catechesis of all that Jesus has commanded.  Nor is there any Lord’s Supper apart from the remembrance of Jesus; for as often as we this bread and drink this Cup, we are to do so in remembrance of Him, by and with the proclamation of His Cross.  That proclamation happens by way of the Verba, which consecrate the Sacrament, but so also by the Propers, the Preaching, and the Prayers of the Day.  The giving and receiving of the Body and Blood of Christ are comprehended within this Catechesis of His Word.

So it is that “discerning the Lord’s Body” in the Sacrament necessarily begins with the Pastoral Ministry.  First of all, by the consecration of this bread and this cup with the Word of the Lord, which is the very thing that actually distinguishes the Sacrament from ordinary food and drink.  Then, also, the pastor discerns the Body and Blood of Christ by his reverent conduct at the Altar, and by His carefully deliberate handling and distribution of the Sacrament.  His preaching and teaching catechize the congregation in what the Sacrament is, what it is for, where it is found, and how it is rightly received.  But it is by the liturgical rites and ceremonies of the consecration and distribution that the pastor identifies the Sacrament itself and gives it to the disciples of Jesus.  There are no other ways or means by which anyone discerns the Body and Blood of the Lord than by this Pastoral Ministry.

The self-examination of those who would receive the Sacrament is likewise not a do-it-yourself exercise or personal achievement, but is always by the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus.  No one is able to examine himself rightly without help, for there is nothing in the self to begin with other than sin and death, from which no one can set himself free.  Recognizing the reality of that sin and death, repenting, and calling on the Name of the Lord in the righteousness of faith is accomplished in the heart by the Spirit through the Law and the Gospel.

It is the Holy Spirit who convicts the world of sin, of judgment, and of righteousness through the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ Name.

The self-examination of repentance is not achieved by cognition, intelligence, reason, or philosophical introspection.  The “self” is not so much the subject as the object of examination.  It is worked in each Christian’s heart, mind, and soul through whatever capacities the Lord has given to the person, but always and only by the Word and Spirit of God.  As also in the case of the renunciations and confession of Holy Baptism, we rely upon the Lord to search the heart and try the mind, to kill and make alive, to bring to repentance and bring forth faith where and when it pleases Him.  And that does not exclude the little children who are baptized and believe in Christ.

Again, as Dr. Luther exhorts in his Large Catechism, the little children are also to be catechized and communed, in order to help the grown-ups fight against the devil.  If St. Michael and his holy angels are known for defeating that old dragon and throwing him down, they do so beholding the face of the Father in the face of His little ones.

Whether literate or illiterate, everyone has help (and must have help) of one kind or another.  That help comes from the Lord through the means of His Word, whether it is spoken, written, memorized, or otherwise expressed and explained, depicted, or signified.  As the Catechism puts it, “the pastor may ask, or one may ask himself” the questions prepared for those who would receive the Sacrament.  The answers, too, are not self-invented, but are provided from the Word of the Lord.  To be sure, it is no child’s play, but it is for both young and old.

We need to guard against an intellectualizing of examination and discernment, as though they were an academic exercise, pursued and accomplished by one’s own reason and strength.  Neither age, nor ability, nor academic achievement is adequate preparation for the Sacrament, though all of the above will participate in the fine outward training of the body.  But these personal qualities and capacities are no more germane to a worthy reception of the Holy Communion than wealth or poverty, genealogy or gender.

The worthiness to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ comprises nothing else, nothing more nor less than repentant faith in His Word.  Such repentance belongs to the lifelong significance of Holy Baptism, which cleanses the conscience (also in the case of infants, toddlers, and young children) through the Resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead.

The Six Chief Parts of the Catechism are an excellent summary of such faith.  It may also be confessed even more simply or at far greater length; not as any merit or achievement, either way, but as a good fruit of the very faith that is confessed.  There is growth and maturing in this confession, but also a need for daily renewal.  We benefit, not only from Dr. Luther’s Catechisms, but from his own example and encouragement:

To become like a little child every day, by returning to the Ten Commandments, praying the Creed and the Our Father, recalling our Holy Baptism, confessing our sin and being absolved, and waiting on the Lord to open His hand and feed us with His Bread of Life.

Repentant faith in Christ derives from and depends upon His Word.  There is a need, therefore, not only for a solid foundation of Catechesis, but for ongoing Catechesis in the Word of Christ.  It is this Catechesis that brings the catechumen, week after week, to a worthy reception of the Holy Communion in the faith and confession of Christ Jesus.

The Holy Communion is the beating Heart and Center of the Church and Ministry, because it is the Gospel of Christ giving Himself most intimately to His disciples with all of His gifts and benefits.  This Sacrament confirms the baptismal faith and life of the catechumen.  It gives not only the assurance of forgiveness, but the actual forgiveness of sins, and with it the life and salvation of Christ.  It is union with Christ in body and soul, and the unity of the Church in and with Him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  The Body and Blood of Christ are the Christian’s Spiritual Food and Drink, his Manna in the wilderness, the Medicine of Immortality, the Surety and Pledge of the Resurrection.

The Holy Communion is also Catechesis, teaching disciples the Love of God in Christ Jesus, and so also to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things, and to love the neighbor as He does.  These are among the reasons, Dr. Luther indicates, for which we desire to receive the Sacrament frequently.  And from the earliest days of the Church, as also in Luther and Chemnitz, the bread made from many grains and the wine made from many grapes signify the communion of many Christians in the one Body of Christ.  The Sacrament actually achieves what it teaches.

The Holy Communion is not interchangeable with Holy Baptism or Holy Absolution; neither is it in competition with any of the Means of Grace.  It has its own proper place and purpose in the life of the Church.  As such, it should not be flattened out into a general theoretical category of “Sacrament,” nor reduced to a generic means of forgiveness.  No, the Sacrament of the Altar is what it is, an irreducible gift of the Lord Jesus Christ, which He gives to His Christian disciples to eat and to drink — that is, to those who are baptized, catechized, and cared for in His Name.  Pastoral Care for the Lord’s flock will therefore seek to serve His lambs and sheep with His Body and His Blood as faithfully as possible.

IV. The Pastoral Fellowship of the Church

Along with everything else the Sacrament is and does, it is more than simply an expression of fellowship.  The Holy Communion is the Church’s Fellowship in and with Christ Jesus.  We who are many are one Body in Christ, because we all eat of His Body.  We share this fellowship of the Sacrament with those who share the same Catechesis and Confession of the faith, because the preaching and teaching of Christ belong to the administration of the Holy Communion.  The Word and Sacrament belong together and are inseparable in practice.

Admission to the Sacrament of the Altar is therefore an exercise of Pastoral Care within the fellowship of the Church; not only within the local congregation, but in the larger fellowship of each pastor and congregation with other pastors and congregations.  Whoever communes at one Altar participates in all the other Altars of the same fellowship, under the shared Pastoral Care of the entire fellowship.  We commune the members of our sister congregations because they are under the care of brother pastors.

It is important for pastors and congregations of the same fellowship to have and use the same criteria for admission to the Sacrament of the Altar.  Which is why it is so alarming that the Missouri Synod is all over the map on precisely this point.  I’m not referring to a diversity in age, ability, or academic achievement on the part of communicants, since these differences are of no theological consequence but simply belong to the variety of gifts and the diversity of many members in the one Body of Christ.  The troubling diversity is that which is found in Catechesis, Confession, and Pastoral Care, the very things that ought to be the basis and the common ground of our fellowship.  What I mean is not simply that we are inconsistent in our preaching, teaching, and administration of the Gospel, but that we do not respect or adhere to these criteria in our Communion practices.  Not only is open Communion rampant across the Missouri Synod, but what is meant by “closed Communion” also varies dramatically.  Couple these trends with wide variations in catechetical methods and standards, and with a vast range of opinions regarding the Pastoral Office, and it becomes difficult even to identify what or where our fellowship is.

The inconsistencies are especially obvious in cases, such as I have witnessed, where members are not permitted their First Communion until their eighth grade Confirmation, while yet the same congregation welcomes visitors of every stripe to commune at a fully open Altar.  By contrast, even a much earlier First Communion does not equate to open Communion, not when the criteria of genuine Church Fellowship are consistently applied.  Those Christians who are baptized, catechized, and cared for by pastors of the same fellowship are communed within that fellowship, whether at home or away.  And by the same criteria, those Christians (or otherwise) belonging to another fellowship (or to no fellowship at all), because they are under a different Pastoral Care, are not communed at our Altars.  It is not a measure or judgement of worthiness in the heart, but an objective fact of Church Fellowship: The Sacrament is given within a context and fellowship of ongoing Pastoral Care and Catechesis, and not apart from that context.

The practice of Church Discipline, on the other hand, functions within the context of Pastoral Care to exclude from the Sacrament those members of the congregation who would commune unworthily on account of their persistence in false doctrine or some other blatant sin for which they refuse to repent.  The goal, of course, is to call them to repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  In the meantime, it is an exercise of Pastoral Care to withhold forgiveness and the Sacrament from the unrepentant, so long as they do not repent.

Such discipline applies, wherever it is called for, without respect or prejudice to persons or their age.  Young communicants who persist in false doctrine or immoral living should be put under discipline until they repent.  But here is where their lack of sophisticated reason serves the little children very well, since it is quite rare to find a young Christian guilty of unrepentant sin or heresy.  They do routinely sin and commit theological errors, but they also tend to accept correction from their pastors and parents, to repent of their sins, and to learn from their mistakes.

The point is that the vital unity of our Church Fellowship is found in a common Catechesis and Confession of Christ, and in a mutual context of Pastoral Care.  I do not refer to some abstract doctrine or theory, but to the work of the Ministry in practice, the preaching, teaching, and administration of the Gospel by pastors who are committed and accountable to one another.  That also requires an active communication among those pastors, especially within circuits, but as broadly as circumstances permit.  There is never enough time for everything we should like to do, but there needs to be time made for the exercise of our pastoral fellowship.

It is a false and superficial sort of unity to rely on the rite of “Confirmation” at some standardized age or grade level as our bond of peace.  The question yet remains, What is the character and content of the Catechesis preceding, undergirding, and following that rite?  And again, What is the nature and practice of the Pastoral Care encompassing all of the above?

In the interest of full disclosure, let me offer my own pastoral practice as an example of what I have in mind.  It has been fairly settled now for the past five or six years, although I continue to wrestle with the questions and concerns that touch upon my practice, especially as it pertains to the unity of our fellowship.

When I was ordained at Emmaus in 1996, there were no confirmands, nor any on the foreseeable horizon.  It was an aging congregation with very few children on the rolls, even fewer in church.  Among the children who were attending regularly were my own DoRena and Zachary, ages nine and seven, and of course we were teaching them the Catechism at home.

Early on, it was brought to my attention by the Board of Elders that Emmaus had a precedent for giving First Communion prior to Confirmation.  Already then, on the basis of what I knew of early Reformation practice, I was in favor of an earlier First Communion.  I was also leery of the exalted, even “sacramental” terms with which I heard the people speak of their “Confirmation.”  So, in view of past precedent, and with the blessing of the Elders, I began to offer First Communion to younger children following a public examination in the primary texts of the Catechism (along with the basic explanations of Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Holy Communion).  DoRena, Zachary, and another young lady, the three of them ranging in age from eight to ten years, were the first of my First Communicants.

In subsequent years, and really for quite awhile, I generally began Catechesis — one-on-one with each catechumen — between the ages of six and eight years.  Usually after a year or so, when I was confident they knew the basics of the Catechism, I would publicly examine a group of them at Vespers, and then admit them to the Holy Communion at the next Divine Service.

As the number of children at Emmaus increased, I made the move to holding regular catechesis classes, since I could no longer meet with each and every catechumen individually.  It was in the context of such classes that I noted the differences between the various children, with respect to their piety and personalities, their maturity and academic abilities.  Nothing shocking in that, but it pressed me to consider the criteria I was using for their First Communion.  What was I looking for and measuring in these children?  Was it simply a matter of memorization?  I had some very bright catechumens who were in class every week and able to memorize and recite the Catechism easily enough, but who weren’t in church with any consistency, and whose families were not exactly proactive in daily prayer.  I also had some other catechumens, who were not only in class every week but faithfully in church, often several times a week, and whose families were praying and confessing the Word of God at home every day, but who struggled with their memory work.

It was in light of those observations that I began to consider the family context as a higher priority and more decisive than memory work.  I’m still a fan of memorization, and I require it of all my confirmands, but I don’t treat it as a pre-requisite for the Holy Communion.  Where a family is faithful in Catechesis at home and in the liturgical life of the Church, I know that, sooner or later, the children will know the Catechism by heart.  In the meantime, I recognize that one can know something without having it memorized, or have something memorized without really knowing it.  So I’m looking for a stable context of ongoing Catechesis, and I work at establishing a pastoral relationship and rapport with each and all of my catechumens and their families.

One of the reasons I am able to take this sort of approach at Emmaus is that most of my families are homeschooling.  Not all of them, but almost.  The parents are proactive in educating their children, and they emphasize Catechesis as a fundamental part of their curriculum.  They’re also able to participate in weekday prayer offices and festival Services at church.  They don’t think of education in terms of grade levels, but are geared to thinking of each child as a unique individual.

My weekly catechesis class comprises children ranging in age from seven to fifteen or sixteen years, and each of those children is likely to be in that class with me for about that span of time before they are finally confirmed.  Prior to my class, they have catechesis class with Deaconess Rhein on Sunday mornings, usually from three or four years of age until six or seven.  So, there’s no lack of formal Catechesis at Emmaus, and the children all learn to know the Bible and the Catechism well, along with Psalms, Hymnody, and the Church Year.

And, from very early on, the young catechumens of Emmaus are also receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion.  No one communes automatically at any particular age, but almost all of the children of the congregation are receiving the Sacrament by the time they are five or six years old.  My youngest First Communicants have been three or four, admitted to the Sacrament on the basis of their family context, my pastoral communication with them, and their confession of Christ and His Body and Blood according to their own abilities and vocabulary.  Some of them are quite precocious, but what I’m measuring is their Catechesis and Confession, not their intelligence, bravado, or eloquence.  I don’t put them under the spotlight of a public examination, but I care for them, examine and absolve them individually.

I realize that I’m pushing the envelope with respect to the age of First Communion, but I haven’t done so to be provocative.  I simply aim to be a faithful pastor to the families and children under my care.  It is with caution that I have proceeded, in conversation with many colleagues, including open discussion in my Circuit Winkel.  I have not done anything covertly, but have sought the guidance and feedback of fathers and brothers in Christ.  I desire to be a faithful steward of the Mysteries of God, and so also a faithful shepherd of the lambs and sheep of Christ.

The first time I communed a three-year-old was after that particular child had been asking me for months already to give her the Sacrament.  When she looked me in the eye and asked me point blank, one Sunday at the Altar, why I wouldn’t give her Jesus’ Body and Blood, I spent the next several weeks trying to answer that question, even to my own satisfaction, and I could not.  She was baptized, catechized, and cared for.  She knew and confessed the Gospel.  She knew and desired the Holy Communion, clearly discerning the Body of Christ from ordinary bread.  And she did actually know the primary texts of the Catechism, well enough to pray them by heart with her family and the congregation.  She would often chant the Verba right along with me from her pew during the Divine Service.  I could not in good conscience deny her request for the Sacrament, which her parents also desired for her.

What I have found over the years, and what should not surprise any of us, is that the Holy Communion bears good fruits of faith and love in the lives of young Christians.  The children of Emmaus who began communing at a comparatively early age have remained faithful and active in the life of the congregation.  The attrition rate has been extraordinarily low.  The young communicants have continued in catechesis classes without dropping out, and have continued coming to church week after week into adulthood.  They tend to be quite loyal, in fact, because they love the Liturgy and, above all else, they love the Lord’s Supper.

The fruits of the Holy Communion that I have witnessed in my catechumens and communicants at Emmaus have confirmed for me the approach that I have taken.  Yet, I am fully aware that other pastors and congregations of our fellowship are at a variety of different points in their practice.  Many do not understand or agree with my approach.  Others are sympathetic, perhaps enthusiastic about our practice at Emmaus, but would not be able to follow the same path in their own context.  Which is why I teach my families to honor the practice of congregations they visit, and to respect the discretion and care of the pastors in each place.  Sometimes that is difficult and disappointing, but I believe it is the only way to proceed.

What I ask of you, and of my colleagues across the Synod, is a similar patience with me, and a serious consideration of these matters, perhaps from a new perspective.  My chief concern is to emphasize the central and salutary significance of the Sacrament, the necessity of ongoing Catechesis from infancy to old age, and the pastoral character of Church Fellowship.  Where these criteria are clearly defined and established, the age of First Communion will no longer be the issue.

On that note, I suppose that I do need to say something about Infant Communion, since it has been a topic of interest and of some controversy in our circles.  Given my references to Holy Baptism and infant faith, and the relatively young age of my First Communicants at Emmaus, you might conclude that I am advocating Infant Communion or inching toward that practice.  However, that is not the case.  I am actually not in favor of the practice.

I do not believe that a newly baptized infant would be an unworthy communicant, but neither do I believe that he or she should be communed at that point.  First of all, because it would break with our tradition and our fellowship.  Lutherans have begun communing children across a diversity of ages, but, historically, not infants, who are unable to speak.  Although it is somewhat inconsistent to accept the confession of infants by proxy in the rite of Holy Baptism, but to deny the confession of infants otherwise, the fact remains that we have baptized infants, and that we have not communed them.  Even my youngest communicants at Emmaus are able, in their own simple way, to confess their faith in Christ and His Sacrament.  So that is a decisive point for me.

Second, I am persuaded that a child should be weaned, at least, before being given the solid Food of the Holy Communion.  I know the ancient and Eastern churches have found ways of providing the Sacrament to nursing babies.  Yet, there is a natural transition from mother’s milk to solids, and it seems to me that should be respected.

Finally, because I am convinced that the administration of the Sacrament includes and requires an active exercise of Pastoral Care, I need to be able to engage the catechumen in conversation, even if only at a very basic level, before admitting him or her to the Holy Communion.  With some of my youngest communicants, depending on their personality, my communication may be very simple, and their responses limited and quiet.  However, there is a threshold that has been crossed, typically between three and four years of age, after which I am able to connect and engage with the child in a way that I could not before that point.  That is one of the key things I am looking for, and another decisive factor for me, in assessing a candidate for the Holy Communion.

Conclusion: Earlier First Communion, Ongoing Catechesis, and Delayed “Confirmation”

What, then, do I advocate?  Not a new age of First Communion, but a focus on the criteria of Catechesis, Confession, and Pastoral Care.  I want to see the Christian disciples of Jesus communed as early as feasible, but also faithfully “in accordance with the Gospel.”  That means ongoing Catechesis in all that Jesus has commanded, unto daily repentance and faith in His forgiveness of sins.  Such Catechesis will be liturgical, rooted in Holy Baptism and always leading to and from the Sacrament of the Altar.  It will include a lively practice of Confession and Absolution for both young and old.

As far as “Confirmation” is concerned, if we are going to keep and use the rite as we have received it, I would just as soon reserve it until 18 or 21 years of age, or until the young adult is leaving home for higher education, military service, or to get married.  I certainly prefer to wait as long as possible before asking a child to make the vows and promises included in the rite of “Confirmation.”  But I do not want the reception of the Holy Communion to be contingent upon the maturity expected and implicit in such vows.  Rather, let us revel and rejoice in the Gifts Christ freely gives, which enable us and our children to grow up into Him who is the mature Man, who became the little Child for us, that we might become the children of God in Him.

28 September 2014

The Author and Giver of Life

It is by and through, and in and with the Word of God that all things are made, and you cannot separate the true divine Authority of God from His Word.  The Father speaks His Son, and so breathes His Spirit, and so does the Holy Triune God create and give life.  All Authority is His, because He is the Author of all things and the Giver of Life to all of His Creation.  To man, in particular, He gives Himself in Christ Jesus.  He shares His Life and His Love by His Word.

To live according to the Word of God, therefore, is Life.  And to disregard and disobey His Word, to depart from it, is death.  At its heart, that is what all sin is: a departure from the Word of God.  The outcome is death: not so much as punishment as the inevitable consequence of sin, because departing from the Word of God is a departure from His Life.

Repent, therefore, and live.

Why should you pursue death, and die, when the Lord who created you in love still speaks to you in mercy, to give you life with Himself, and health and strength and every good?

In one respect, it is so simple and so obvious: Turn away from evil, and do good.  Turn away from sin and death, and live unto God in faith, unto righteousness.  Stop doing what He has forbidden, and do what He has commanded.  Use your freedom to pursue a greater knowledge, love, and understanding of His holy and precious, life-giving Word, and in all things live according to it.

Not only is this good and right: It is good for you.

It is the way of life, whereas the soul that sins shall die.

But of course, it isn’t obvious or simple at all.  Because your sin is more deeply rooted than even your thoughts and feelings.  It is deeper than your words and actions — deeper even than your intentions.  It is rooted in your ego and your will.  It permeates your heart and darkens your mind.  It’s got your tongue, your ears and eyes, your hands and feet, because it’s got you.  You’re not simply a person who sins, but you sin because you are a sinner.

You do not see things clearly.  You do not understand them.  Your perceptions, opinions, and conclusions are off; they are fallen, along with the rest of you.  Even your efforts to please God, to keep His Word and live according to it, are muddled and misguided.  The problem is not with His Word, but with your heart, mind and spirit.

Thus, instead of the righteousness of faith and the life of love, there reigns in you — apart from Christ and His Spirit — the selfishness of lust and the self-righteousness of pride (or else the despair of unbelief, which is nothing else but the flipside of pride).

It is for this reason that tax collectors and prostitutes enter the Kingdom of God ahead of the religious elite.  Not because their sins are acceptable or harmless — far less commendable — but because they are exposed for what they are, and broken and contrite, and called to repentance.

Ironically, their rescue is found and received, first of all, in the recognition of their helplessness and hopelessness.  Their life of selfishness and sin is laid bare for the foolishness and futility it really is — self-destructive, deadly, and damnable.  In this respect, the Word of God has not simply informed or educated them, but has convicted them and hastened their death: that is to say, it has put them to death to themselves, to their sins, to their idolatrous pursuits, and to the fallen world.

But the Word of God speaks more than condemnation.  It speaks life and light and love.  It shows not only sin, but salvation.

To those whom it convicts and crucifies, it grants the peace of forgiveness.  It pardons and spares.  It justifies the ungodly with a righteousness not of themselves.  It does not simply drive to despair, but raises from death and reconciles to God.  It not only speaks about life, but actually bestows life.  It enlightens the heart and mind with the Spirit of Christ Jesus.

The Lord, the Author and Giver of Life, takes no pleasure in the death of any sinner, be it publican or pharisee, but He desires all people to be saved.  That’s not just wishful thinking on His part, but He becomes the Author of Salvation: your Savior!  He not only calls you to repentance, but He Himself comes to save you, to bring you out of death and the grave into life in and with Himself.

The Lord Jesus Christ has divine Authority as the Son of God from all eternity, and as the Word by whom all things are made.  But now He has obtained and received a New Authority — in the flesh, “for us men and our salvation” — by authoring repentance, resurrection, reconciliation, and righteousness on behalf of the fallen and far off — for lost and condemned sinners like you.

He has done so by living as true Man, in your place, by faith and love.  From His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, He does so.  From His holy Nativity, He does so.  From His Baptism by St. John in the Jordan River, He does so.  He takes upon Himself, not only human nature, flesh and blood just like yours, but also the fallen condition of all Adam’s children, and thus mortality like yours, the full curse and consequences of sin.

He humbles Himself, and submits Himself to the will of His God and Father (for the salvation of His creatures), and He becomes obedient, even unto death upon the Cross.  He does it voluntarily, in love for His Father and for you, with divine compassion and tender mercy.

It is not easy for Him, nor at all pleasant, but this is how He uses His strength, His almighty power, His divine Authority.  He subjects Himself to the judgment, condemnation and punishment of the Law for all your sins (for the sins of the whole world), in the confidence and hope, the trust and the prayer, that God His Father will raise Him up again, vindicate Him, exalt Him and glorify Him.

All of this He does so that you, also, in Him, should be raised up, justified, exalted and glorified; so that you should not perish, but be saved and have eternal life in Him.

By His Incarnation, by His Cross and Resurrection, He has become the Author of Salvation, and, as such, He has been given Authority to forgive sins, to save sinners, to rescue from death and the grave, to make disciples out of men and women from all nations, and to give them life with God.

Repent, therefore; trust Christ, and live.

As He has entered upon His story of salvation by the way of His Baptism, so then, you also be baptized, or return to your one Holy Baptism for the remission of sins.  That is to say, remember your Baptism, what it signifies and indicates.  Return to its cleansing, refreshing and life-giving waters by contrition for your sins, and by repentance.

Follow Christ Jesus to the Cross in the sure and certain hope of His Resurrection from the dead.

What does this mean but to renounce the devil, all his works and all his ways, and to seek and find your life in the Holy Triune God.  Stop trying to make a life for yourself, and receive the life that only He can give.  Turn away from your sin — from your lust, your pride, your selfishness, your false gods of whatever kind — away from your false belief, despair, and shame, and vice — and trust the Crucified and Risen Lord Jesus.

Flee to His forgiveness, lay hold of His Life, and seek His salvation where it may be found.

As the Gospel begins with the Baptism of St. John, the Forerunner of the Christ, so does the Gospel continue to the end of the age with Holy Baptism in the Name of the Holy Trinity, by the Authority of Christ the Crucified.

“All Authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me,” He says to the Apostles.  “Therefore, go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them all of My Words.”

You come to that same Lord Jesus Christ, and you enter the Kingdom of God through Him — like tax collectors, prostitutes, and countless other sinners before you — by your Baptism into Him; by the preaching and teaching of His Word; and by the gathering of His disciples to His Table, to eat and drink His Body given and His Blood poured out for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.

By these ways and means, the Author of Salvation sets you free to live.

Now, then, use your freedom to love and to serve, to give life to your neighbor.

That is what the way of righteousness and the life of God in the flesh looks like: faith toward God in Christ, and love for one another (also in and through Christ Jesus).

That is what the scribes and pharisees, the chief priests and the elders of the people, by and large, did not get, despite their valiant and zealous efforts to keep the Law of God and to live according to it.  Lacking faith and love, they missed the heart of the matter, and the whole point eluded them.  They sought a righteousness of their own before God, and so they looked with contempt upon their neighbor.  They did not recognize their sin, and so they could not recognize their Savior.

But now the Author and Giver of Life and Salvation has written His story and revealed Himself to you, in the flesh, in the waters of your Holy Baptism.  For as that Sacrament is the fountain and source of your discipleship, so is it also the shape and pattern of your faith and life in Christ.  In it you have been recreated and reborn with a new heart of faith and love, endowed with the mind and the Spirit of Christ Jesus, the beloved and well-pleasing Son of God.

Your Holy Baptism has brought you into the Temple of God — into His Church, the Body of Christ, on earth as it is in heaven — and so into the Kingdom of God.  Here He is still preaching and teaching, and by this Word of Christ, the Father speaks to you by His Son, in order to give you life with Himself.  He enfolds you in His Love, and He enlightens you with the Holy Spirit.

Here you are seated with Christ in the heavenly places, and your life is hidden with Him in the bosom of the Father, as surely as He is here with you in this place, at this Altar.

Here you are fed with His Body and His Blood, which are your Meat and Drink indeed.  Do not doubt that He has the Authority to feed you in this way, but rejoice and delight in His grace, and give thanks and sing for what He says and does and gives to you here.

For He has tasted the sour grapes of your sin and death, with His own teeth, in His own Body of flesh and blood, so that you might drink freely the Choicest of Wines from His Chalice, from the Cup of Blessing which we bless, which is the Cup of Salvation.  It is for you, now and forever.

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

21 September 2014

A Denarius for the Eternal Eighth Day of Christ

By what reckoning do you suppose that God owes you a salary?

The only wage that you have earned is death, now and forever, on account of your sin.

Thankfully, the Lord does not pay you the wage that you deserve.  Instead, according to the grace of God, solely because He is good and He desires to be generous, He grants to you the free and full forgiveness of all your sins.  And with forgiveness, He also gives you life and salvation.

The Lord reckons you righteous by His kind generosity for Jesus’ sake, and He provides for you a place in His Kingdom, before you have even begun to do any good work at all!

He surely does not “owe” you anything.  The Lord your God is not obliged to you, nor is He in your debt.  But He gives you everything by grace.

You live in His Vineyard by His grace, through faith in His Gospel.

Here, then, is the fruitful life to which He brings you in peace: He calls you to share in His Life and His Love, and He sends you to live in love within your own place.  Not because He needs your help, but because He loves you, and He delights to perfect the good work He has begun in you.

You thus share His life by way of discipleship and your Christian vocation.  Which is to say that you follow after Christ Jesus, and, in His Name and at His Word, you serve your neighbor in the place where the Lord has positioned you.  There you pursue the labor of faith and love, and in this way you offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, which is the only thing you can give to God.

Before you ever begin to work or serve on behalf of others, you are first of all served by the Ministry and work of the Gospel, which is the Lord’s ongoing care of His own blessed Vineyard.  For He has hired others before you to work and serve on your behalf, that you might live with Him in His Kingdom in the righteousness of faith.

And then it also happens, within your own particular office and station in life, wherever you are called to be, that you care for that portion of the Vineyard, be it big or little.  Not for any wages earned, but in thanksgiving and at the Lord’s Word.  For love’s sake, you bear the Cross of Christ, the true Vine, for your neighbor; and you do so in the confidence of the Lord’s promise to you, for He is faithful and just, and He will do what He has spoken.

Although you exercise whatever wisdom, reason, strength, and talents the Lord has given you, and whatever resources He entrusts to your stewardship, you are not on your own to fend for yourself, to sink or swim by your own ingenuity and effort.

You are called to work and sweat, to bear the Cross, and to serve your neighbor in this world.  But you are sustained in that labor, in holy faith and Christian love, by what the Lord has done for you, and by what He continues to do and say and give to you by His grace and mercy.

It’s not “cheap grace,” as they say.  Not at all!  For Christ the Lord has borne the whole burden and the full heat of the day on your behalf.  Through the long dark night of His Passion; in the early morning hours at the rooster’s crow; at the third hour before Pilate, at the sixth hour on the Cross, and at the ninth hour when He cried out with a loud voice to bestow His Spirit; even to the final hour of the day, when He was laid to rest in the tomb — He has worked for you, in order to grant you His Peace and Rest.  As one of our shut-ins said it so well this past week, Jesus did the job!

He suffered the wages of your sin by His death, and He bore the good fruits of faith and love by His own hard labor, by His dreadful agony and bloody sweat.  All of this He does for the purpose of granting to you His own inheritance as the Son of God, as well as the righteousness, life, and salvation of His steadfast faith and perfect love.

Thus has He done and accomplished, for you and for all, throughout the long brutal day and the harsh punishing hours of His Passion, even unto death upon the Cross.

But that is not the end of the story.  For He continues to care for His vineyard, to give it life and sustain it, by those whom He sends in His Name to preach and administer the Gospel of His Cross.

According to His tender mercy, by His good and gracious will for you and your salvation, He provides for all your needs, and far more than you need in this body and life, and all the more so for your resurrection from the dead and your life everlasting in Him, in both body and soul.

It is for this reason, in Christ and for His sake, that your life, also, in the body, has meaning and purpose, significance, and value.

Do not suppose that the finished work of Christ has made the work He gives you to do pointless.  The fact that your forgiveness and salvation are by grace and not according to your merit does not cheapen but sanctifies your calling to cultivate and care for the Lord’s Vineyard.

The Kingdom of Heaven, which is the Kingdom of God in Christ Jesus, is not like the politics or economics of this world.

What you do in the Lord’s Name, according to His Word, is valuable and precious; not because you are earning a wage or making a profit; and whether or not you are productive and successful in the eyes of the world; but because you are the Lord’s and the Vineyard is His.

Consider the price that Christ has paid for you, in order to atone for all your sins, and to redeem you in body and soul from sin, death, the devil, and hell, for life with Himself.  So, too, rejoice in the good work and fruitful labor that Christ performs and accomplishes in you, and through you, as well, for the blessing and benefit of your neighbor, and for the care of His Church on earth, that is, for His royal Vineyard.  You already know that your labors are not in vain, because Christ is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity.

Go about your work, therefore, whatever it may be — big or small, much or little, for many years, or only for a short while — in the confidence of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus.

Resist the temptation to compare and contrast, and to compete with others.  You and your place and your “pay” are not measured by your neighbor, but by your Lord.  Focus on His Word to you, and on the promise that He spoke to you when He called you by His Name to be His own.

According to His Word, do your job and perform your duties faithfully.  Not as though to “earn” what has already been given and promised, but in thanksgiving, peace, and hope, in faith and love.

Your labors will be rewarded, have no fear, for they are pleasing to the Lord, as you are pleasing to Him in the righteousness of Christ.  Not the death you deserve, but the life and wages that He has promised in His goodness and generosity, these shall be yours at the end of the day and always.

Indeed, the Lord Jesus Christ has pledged Himself to you, with all His gifts and benefits.  By His Incarnation, by His Cross and Resurrection, He has made you equal — not only to the Prophets and Apostles, who labored long and hard before you — but equal to Himself: He has named you with His Name, anointed you with His Spirit, and made you a child of His own God and Father.

By virtue of your Baptism, you are a son of God in Christ, and, as such, you are an heir of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Beloved of the Lord, He does you no wrong, but He gives you every good thing.  Don’t worry.  You shall not be short-changed.  See here, how He presses into your hand the sovereign Coin of His Realm — a Denarius for the neverending Eighth Day — His own holy Body, given for you, and His holy, precious Blood, poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.

With such treasures, freely given to you by the Lord, you lack nothing at all.  For life and salvation with the true and only God are yours in Christ Jesus, that you may live with Him in His Kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

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

14 September 2014

This Voice Has Come for Your Sake

You did not choose Him, but Christ the Lord has chosen you; and He has called you to Himself by the preaching of His Holy Cross, that you should follow Him through death into life, in order to be with Him where He is, and that you should bear much fruit to the Glory of His Holy Name.

It is in Christ Jesus that you come up to worship at this Feast, that is, the Feast of His Holy Cross, the celebration of His servant Pastor Loughran’s anniversary, and the Eucharist of His Body and His Blood, given and poured out for you and for the many.  You come up to worship the Lord in this Feast by the way and the means of Christ the Crucified, as He, the incarnate Son of God, is glorified in His flesh and goes to the Father on your behalf by the way and means of His Cross.

Now is the Hour of His Glory, which here unfolds for you against the backdrop of this Feast in the Holy Gospel from St. John.  As per the Word of the Lord in Leviticus, the crowds have come up to Jerusalem for the Passover, and for the Feast of Unleavened Bread that follows immediately afterwards for a full week.  It is one of several pilgrim festivals, in which the people are gathered together in the place where the Lord has caused His Name and His Glory to dwell among them.

It is also during these celebrations, on the day following the Sabbath in the week of Unleavened Bread, that the first fruits of the year are offered and consecrated to the Lord on behalf of Israel.  If you do the math, you’ll realize that these first fruits are offered on that Easter Sunday when our Lord Jesus rises from the dead.  It involves the waving of a sheaf of grain before the Lord in His Temple, the sacrifice of a one-year-old male lamb without defect as a whole burnt offering, as well as a grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, and a quantity of wine as a drink offering. Until then, the people are not to eat anything made from the grain of the new year’s harvest; but after the harvest is dedicated to the Lord with this offering of the first fruits, then they are able to enjoy the produce of the good Land, which the Lord gives to His people according to His promise.

So, I want you to think about this Old Testament Feast with its God-given rites and ceremonies in light of the Word that Jesus speaks to you this morning: The grain that was buried in the ground has now, by the grace of God, brought forth a great harvest; and with the returning of the first fruits back to Him, He opens up His hand to satisfy His people with the bounty of the Land, flowing with its milk and honey, abundant with its bread and wine; so also to provide for the poor and needy, for the widows and orphans in distress, and for the strangers, as well, in order that all might feast.

Now, then, is the Hour when the Son of Man is to be glorified, when the Christ is to be lifted up as the Sacrifice of the Lord in fulfillment of the entire Feast.  He is the Passover Lamb, and He is the Whole Burnt Offering, the Grain and Drink Offering, and the First Fruits of the New Creation.  He is the Grain which is buried in the dust of the earth, who by the Tree of His Cross now bears much fruit after His own kind — fruits including you and your life, in, with, and under His Cross.

It is in and with Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, in His death upon the Cross, in His Body crucified and risen, that you are buried to this world and born again from death to a new life, and that you now bring forth the good fruits of His Cross within your own vocation and stations in life.

That Holy Cross of Christ, which you now bear and carry after Him as a disciple, is such a foolish and offensive scandal in the eyes of the world, and no less so in your own fallen and perishing flesh, in your native way of thinking, and in your feelings and emotions.  Even so, that scandalous Cross is the very power and wisdom of God for the reconciliation, resurrection, and righteousness of the whole world; and for your salvation, too; all because of the crucifixion of Christ.  It is His Body that sanctifies the Tree with its hard branches; His Blood that stains it a royal purple.

Pastor Loughran may recall from our days together in Fort Wayne, some twenty-four years ago now, that the children of the seminary students were given little ceramic crosses that a women’s group had made for them.  My daughter DoRena, who was three at the time, received one of those crosses, which featured spring flowers in the center, no doubt in celebration of the Resurrection.  Well, it was shortly after she received that gift, that she was with me shopping for a crucifix for our home.  As I was looking at the variety of crosses, she got my attention and pointed to one of them, telling me that she wanted one for herself.  When I pointed out that she had just gotten a new cross, she immediately answered, “That cross has flowers on it, Daddy.  But flowers didn’t die for me!  Jesus died for me!  I want a cross with Jesus on it.”  Needless to say, I got her one that day.

My three-year-old DoRena had it exactly right: It is the Body of Jesus, nothing else and nothing less, that makes the Cross holy.  Not suffering and death for its own sake, but the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God in the flesh, His Cross and Passion, for your sake!  That is what sanctifies, not only His Cross then, but the Cross and suffering that you bear in His Name.

His Cross is the power and wisdom of God, and the Glory of God in Christ Jesus, because His death upon the Cross is the defeat of death and the devil, and the judgment of God for the salvation of sinners.  Because sin is condemned in the Body of Christ, and atonement is made by His Blood, so that man is reconciled to God and justified in the Resurrection of this same Lord Jesus Christ.

The Father is thus glorified in Christ, His beloved and well-pleasing Son, by the way and means of His Cross, by His obedience even unto death.  And the Father glorifies and honors His Son by raising Him from the dead and seating Him at His right hand in the heavenly places.  As the Son of God thus returns to the Father by the way of the Cross, so do all those who follow after Him.

The Father honors those disciples from all nations, whatever their genealogy may be, who follow Christ and serve Him in life and death, in faith and love.  The same is true for you, who have been called to repentance and faith, to take up the Cross and follow Jesus through the waters of your Holy Baptism, through death and the grave into the Resurrection and the Life.  Whereas clinging to your life in this world can only end in death, because the whole world is perishing, yet, dying with Christ Jesus brings you into life everlasting with Him in both body and soul.

This dying and rising of repentant faith in Christ is what it means to have the Lord as your God, and to worship Him above all other gods: Namely, that you look to Him and trust Him for all that you need and for every good thing; that you entrust yourself entirely to Him, to the point of death; and that you gladly receive all things from His hand, both the Cross and the Resurrection.

Dying to yourself and to all of your selfish ambitions, you live unto God and unto righteousness in Christ, and you bear much fruit for the benefit of others, to the Glory of His Holy Name.  Or, to say it better, it is Christ who bears the good fruits of His Cross in your body and life on earth.

They are the fruits of His Cross, because it is by His Cross, by the proclamation of His Cross, that Christ calls you to Himself, and draws you to Himself, and brings you to the Father in Himself.

There is this attractive power to His Cross.  Certainly not for those who are perishing in unbelief, but for all those who are being saved by grace through faith in Christ.  I’ve noticed this especially in the case of very small children, such as the Lord Jesus described in last Sunday’s Holy Gospel.

If you’ll indulge me another example from our bygone seminary days: I remember my eldest son, Zachary — he’s in his mid-twenties now, but he was just a little guy then, barely a toddler at the time I’m thinking of — whenever I’d have him with me on campus, each time we’d go in and out of the Seminary library, there was this large crucifix right by the door, and he’d make me stop and get close to it, so that he could lean forward in my arms to kiss Jesus’ ouchies.  Like his big sister, he recognized the power and significance of the Body of Jesus on the wood.  He was so drawn to that crucifix, so captivated by it, and so moved with love for his dear Lord Jesus on the Cross.

Thankfully, it is not only little children who have been taught to love the Lord Jesus.  You also, by the grace of God, have become like a little child and are drawn to Christ the Crucified by the preaching of His Cross.  As He was lifted up and His Father was glorified in that Hour, so is He now lifted up and glorified through the Ministry of the Gospel of His Cross.  It is by that Ministry that He draws all people to Himself, even from the ends of the earth, and even you.  Which is how that one Grain which died and was buried now brings forth a great harvest from all the nations.

The Cross bears good fruits after its own kind, both for you and in you, in this life and in death, unto the Resurrection of your body and the Life everlasting of your body and soul in Christ Jesus.

That is true for every Christian within his own vocation and stations in life.  All the more so for those servants of the Word who follow in the footsteps of Christ and His Apostles, so that you may see Christ portrayed before your eyes as the Crucified One in the preaching of His Gospel.

The preaching of the Cross is not only news and information about the Cross.  It is itself the fruit of the Cross, and it bears the Cross in the world.  The preaching and the preacher alike suffer the ridicule and rejection of the world, even as the Word of the Cross calls the whole world of sinners to die the death of repentance.  The same preaching must put the preacher himself to death, as well.

So it is that your Pastor Loughran is a fruit of the Cross, in whom the Lord bears good fruits for your benefit, and through whom the Lord brings forth good fruits in you for the benefit of others.

He was and could have been a salesman.  Or a professional musician, perhaps, playing his trumpet in a metropolitan symphony somewhere.  Maybe even a golfer on the pro circuit.  The fact that you can’t  picture Pastor Loughran actually doing any of those things for a living is not due to a lack of ability or aptitude on his part; not really.  It is because you have learned to know the calling and compassion of his heart, which has been conformed to the Image of God by the Cross of Christ.

The truth is that Pastor Loughran has been called and ordained by God to preach and administer the Gospel of the Cross.  And that calling of the Lord, that ordering of this man’s life in the world, crucifies and puts to death the frailties of his flesh, and whatever other ambitions and aspirations would compete with the Ministry of the Gospel.  He is put to death and raised up to preach.

The Lord your God is thus glorified in the Ministry of your Pastor.  And the same Lord glorifies you by your Pastor’s preaching of the Gospel in the Name and stead of Christ Jesus.

This Voice is for your sake!  The rolling thunder of the Law and the sweet message of the Gospel are the ways and means of the Cross by which the Lord calls you to repentance and faith, that is, to die and to rise with Christ Jesus.  As Pastor Loughran preaches the crucified and risen Christ; as he serves the Lord by serving you with Holy Baptism and the ongoing catechesis of the Word of Christ, by hearing your confession and absolving you in Jesus’ Name; and as he celebrates the Sacrament of the Altar with praise and thanksgiving, for the remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ and the proclamation of His death until He comes — by each and all of these fruits and benefits of the Cross (for that is what they are), sin and death are defeated; the devil with his assaults and accusations is cast out of your conscience; and you are drawn to Christ in faith, and to the Father in Him, in the Peace and reconciliation of His Spirit and the righteousness of His Resurrection.

For as surely as the Son of Man is now lifted up in the Ministry of His Gospel, so are you lifted up and exalted in Him, in His Body crucified and risen, by the life-giving fruits of His Holy Cross.

So does the Father glorify His Name in you.  And He glorifies you in Christ Jesus, wherever He has called you to be.  He does not promise to protect you from pain and suffering, nor to preserve your body and life in this perishing world.  But He does protect your faith and life in Christ, in order to preserve your body and soul for the Life everlasting with Him.  He draws you to His Son, and He brings you to Himself in Him, in the Body and the Blood that were given into death upon the Holy Cross for your atonement, which are also given and poured out for you here in this Feast for the forgiveness of all your sins, that you may see Jesus face to face, now and forevermore.

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

08 September 2014

My Favorite Series of Juvenile Literature

I shared this on facebook earlier this year, but apparently didn't post it here.  Slightly updated since then, having now added the Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan.  The list includes series of three or more books of juvenile literature: These are my favorites, based especially on my experience in reading them aloud to my children over the years.  I expect that the list will continue to be modified and to grow in the months and years ahead, but here is where it stands so far.  Enjoy, y'all.

Harry Potter, by J. K. Rowling

Gregor (Underland), by Suzanne Collins

Great Brain, by John D. Fitzgerald

Narnia, by C. S. Lewis

Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander

Beyonders, by Brandon Mull

Ranger's Apprentice, by John Flanagan

Mr. Benedict, by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Missing, by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Tales of Magic, by Edward Eager

Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull

Percy Jackson, by Rick Riordan

Jimmy Coates, by Joe Craig

Jack Blank, by Matt Myklusch

Michael Vey, by Richard Paul Evans

Five Children and It (Psammead), by E. Nesbit

Shadow Children, by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Ordinary Boy, by William Boniface

Peter & the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson

Tunnels, by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams

Keys to the Kingdom, by Garth Nix

Edge Chronicles, by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi

Redwall, by Brian Jacques

07 September 2014

The Greatness of Forgiveness

Jesus calls the little child to Himself, and sets him in the midst of His disciples.  And He calls you, as well, to become like such a child in the humility of repentance, in the discipline of faith.

It is by the Cross of Christ that you are thus born again as a child of God the Father, as a little one of the Lord: By your Baptism into His death, which is not simply a one-shot deal that you outgrow, but a decisive beginning with an ongoing, lifelong, daily significance.  As the Son of God Himself became a little Child, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and the same Lord Jesus humbled Himself, taking the form of a servant, and became obedient, even to the point of death.

The greatness of the little child in the Kingdom of Heaven, therefore, is the greatness of humility before God, like that of Christ the Crucified.  Not just modesty, but genuine dependence and need, as well as confident trust in the Father’s gracious providence.

In point of fact, everyone alike has such dependence and need, but the humility of repentant faith recognizes and acknowledges that need.  And where there is such humility before God, which fears the Lord and also loves and trusts in Him, there is also love for the neighbor.

Outwardly speaking, insofar as life on earth is concerned, little children in particular have an utter dependency and need that adults generally do not have.  Not only for their bodily well-being, food and clothing, shelter and protection, but also for discipline, instruction, and training; for correction and guidance in the way they should go; and for mercy and forgiveness wherever they go wrong.

To live as a child of God in Christ, in His Kingdom, is to live by faith in His gracious forgiveness of sins, and so also to learn from Him, from His paternal correction and loving discipline: All of which flows from and with and in His love, and aims at your life and salvation in Christ forever.

Within the Kingdom of God, within His household and family, you and your brothers and sisters in Christ are all alike in your need for His mercy, and in His grace toward you in Christ Jesus.  For there is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all Christians, one Holy Spirit poured out upon you in Christ, and one divine Name with which you are named; and so do one and all depend upon one and the same forgiveness of sins, obtained by one and the same Cross.

Therefore, love and care for each other.  Not only as you love and care for yourselves, and as you all desire to be loved and cared for, but as your dear Father in heaven loves you and cares for you.

Fundamental to the loving care of God the Father, and of His children for each other, is the free and full forgiveness of sins; which belongs to the way He has taught you to pray, and to live.

To be sure, such forgiveness does not excuse, ignore, or make light of sin.  It rather confronts sin head on, and removes it by the Cross of Christ, by the repentance of His atoning sacrifice: As a father disciplines his son in love; as the governing authorities punish crimes for the protection of all the citizens; and as a doctor cuts out a cancer, or amputates a gangrenous limb, to save the body.

So the humility of repentance is both a contrite turning away from sin and every evil, because these are deadly and damnable, and a turning to the forgiveness of sins by faith in the Gospel of Christ.

In this life on earth — even for the Church, living under the cross — and for each and every Christian in the frailty of mortal flesh — there is inevitable stumbling, falling, and going astray.  Love does not excuse or rationalize such errors and sins.  But neither does love grow weary of seeking out, raising up, bringing back, and reconciling the lost, by calling to repentance and forgiving sins.  Just as a parent does not tire to the point of giving up in the training of the toddler, the two-year-old, or even the teenager, but continues to love and serve and care for the child.

You discipline your own heart and mind and flesh, or you certainly should, with self-examination, repentance, and confession, in order to lay hold of life and love in the Gospel of Christ Jesus.

In the same Spirit, and with similar care, call your brother or sister to repentance, in order that your brother or sister may live by the same grace as yourself, in the same Body of Christ, as a member of the same household and family, as a beloved child of the same God and Father.

Learn to see the face of your God and Father in your brother or sister; which is really to see Christ Jesus, the only-begotten Son, the Image and Likeness of the Father, in your brother or sister: As our Father in heaven sees Christ Jesus, His beloved Son, in you and in all your fellow Christians.

Because Christ has taken His stand with sinners, especially by His Baptism in the Jordan River, and He has united Himself and bound Himself to His Bride, the Church; not because she was so pure and holy and faultless, but so that she by grace receives and shares His purity and holiness, His righteousness and innocence and blessedness, in the outpouring of His love for her.

Thus the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, eats with gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes, and all manner of sinners, and in His mercy and forgiveness He calls them to become His disciples — to be the children of His own God and Father — and to eat with Him at His Table in Peace.

And here is the true divine greatness with which He has done all of this, also for you, and for all:

He has, in fact, become the little Child; and from infancy to adulthood, He has lived as the one true Man in perfect faith and holy love.

As a Child, He depended on His Mother Mary and His stepfather Joseph.  He also honored them, served and obeyed them, loved and cherished them.  He submitted Himself to His parents in all things.  And He received good things from them, as well; He learned from them!

And as true Man, in real flesh and blood like yours, He experienced hunger and thirst, tiredness, heat and cold, hurt and pain, and finally death upon the Cross under the judgment of the Law.

Though He had no sins of His own, He took upon Himself the sins of the whole world, and He bore the consequences, the guilt and shame, and the responsibility for all of them.  He bowed His head to wear around His neck the heavy millstone of the entire curse of all sins, and He submitted Himself to be drowned and die in the depths of the sea.  He thus made Himself dependent on His Father’s forgiveness of all those sins, trusting in the promise of His Baptism.

To such an extent did the Lord Jesus humble Himself like a child, unto His death on the Cross, in the confidence that His Father would justify Him and raise Him from the dead in righteousness.

So it is that His Cross and Passion are the way of repentance by which you are born again as a child of God and raised to newness of life in His Resurrection from the dead.

And so it is that real greatness is found in the Cross.  Not only by the humility and repentance that it works in you, but chiefly by way of the forgiveness of sins that it freely grants to you and to all.

For the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, the beloved and well-pleasing Son of God, are the patience and persistence of your Father in heaven: These are the ways and means by which He recalls you, and reconciles you to Himself, and forgives you all your sins through the Gospel.

His good and gracious will for you is that you should not perish but live.  And it is for this reason that He rejoices over your forgiveness, your recovery and salvation, even more than He would rejoice over a hypothetical ninety-nine sheep who never strayed.  For in raising you from the dead, from the depths and damnation of your sin, He beholds in you His own dear Son, crucified and risen from the dead, and He calls you His dearly-beloved child and heir.

In His forgiveness of all your sins, in Jesus’ Name, His good and gracious Will is done: on earth, as it is in heaven.  And all the angels and archangels rejoice, give thanks, and sing with all of us.

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