29 September 2013

Perspicuity of the Scripture

The perspicuity or clarity of Scripture is an important doctrine. ``Let miserable men, therefore, stop imputing with blasphemous perversity the darkness and obscurity of their own hearts to the wholly clear Scriptures of God.'' (LW 33:27) Amen. Scripture is clear. My understanding of it is not. I am the problem; not the Scripture. I am dull and do not see clearly, rather I see through an occluded lens. So I need to be taught first of all the grammar of the Scripture and then the norms of interpretation according to the tradition I have been taught. In these there is a presupposition, an over-arching rule (paradigm) or guiding formal principle which is never to be broken no matter what the actual text of the Scripture says. The rule for me is the following: I have a loving, forgiving and barmherzigkeit Gott. So when the perfect, accurate Word of God spoken by the apostle St. James says to show me your works my guiding formal principle immediately forces me to modify what would be the normally accepted exegesis of this passage with the similarly accurate Word of God by St. Paul saying it is not by works which we have done. Because of my dullness and inability I am not able to come up with a way to bring these two perfect passages into union. So as a Lutheran I allow St. Paul the trump St. James. I am not at liberty like some have done in the past and even Luther might have suggested to rip St. James out of the cannon. Romanists, Reformed, and Lutherans within each branch of Christianity bring to bear upon the Scripture their formal guiding principle. Rome is governed by “all must obey the Pope”. Reformed is guided by “God is the Almighty Supreme Being”. Lutherans by “clinging always to a gracious and merciful God”. So as a Lutheran I bridle myself to the guiding principle of the Lutheran church, never questioning the perspicuity of Scripture and always acknowledging the totally corrupt nature of mankind after the fall. Therefore I must let the Confessions guide me as I exegete the Holy Scriptures. In other words I interpret the Scriptures according to the confessions of the Book of Concord of 1580.

24 September 2013

American Top 40 Pop Sermons

In thinking about discussions of preaching that I've observed and overheard in recent years, I'm struck by how much the measure and criteria of "a great sermon" sounds like a description of Top 40 pop:

Short and catchy, with a memorable hook and emotional ka-ching.

The emotional ka-ching seems usually to be a matter of feeling good about feeling bad, and finding comfort in being convicted; as though such feelings of self-reproach and shame were tantamount to repentance.  Maybe I've simply been in the wrong places at the wrong times, but I haven't heard as much excitement about the actual preaching of the Gospel of forgiveness, as I regularly hear about the sharp preaching of the Law.  But that fits with the pop music analogy, too: Nothing packs quite the emotional wallop of regret.

I'm not sure whether American Top 40 pop sermons are good or bad.  I think it's a bit of both, so there's my cop out answer.  I do see the benefit to keeping sermons short and simple, focusing on one main point, and connecting with the hearers in a way that is memorable.  I'm constantly working at writing that way, although I doubt that I'll ever be good at it.  Maybe that's my problem: I'm envious and jealous of those who can do this.  The temptation, not unlike the world of commercial music, is to follow the formula and attempt to copy the chart toppers.  Been there, done that, and it doesn't work for me.  I go from bad to worse.

But I do wish it wasn't so easy to be distracted from the real heart and goal of sermons, which is, I believe, the preaching of repentance unto faith in the forgiveness of sins, and the comfort of the Gospel of Christ.  I know that is what I need, myself, and it is what I long to give to those entrusted to my preaching and pastoral care.

17 September 2013

St. Cyprian and the Fellowship of the Church

In thinking about St. Cyprian of Carthage this week, I posted on facebook, "The Missouri Synod could learn a thing or two from St. Cyprian concerning the unity and fellowship of the Church in the Ministry of Christ, and the fraternal fellowship and collegiality of pastors in the exercise of that Office."

I'm not an expert on St. Cyprian, and it's been too long since I've done any extensive reading of his work, but, when asked to elaborate on what I had in mind, I offered the following comments:

"St. Cyprian recognized that the unity of the Church is centered in the Ministry of the Gospel, and that the larger unity and fellowship of the Church is found in the conciliar fellowship and conversation of bishops, as the overseers of that Ministry in each place. It seems to me that the Missouri Synod has largely lost its bearings and its center of gravity in this regard. Congregations are defined and characterized by lots of other things, which compete with or practically take precedence over the Ministry of the Gospel; so that congregations are identified with and known by particular styles of practice, or programs, or whatever. And as far as our 'fellowship' is concerned, that seems to be more a matter of formality, of political and legal structures, a shared pension plan, and so forth, rather than an active theological engagement of brother pastors. Our bishops have, by and large, been taken out of the parish, and the parish pastors typically stick to their own 'turf,' guard their own 'territory,' keep their heads down, and ignore one another to whatever extent they can. I know that is not universally the case, and that there are notable exceptions. But, to my observation, most of the interaction between pastors is based upon personal friendship rather than fellowship in the Gospel, and is governed more by common opinions to begin with than by the catholicity of the Church in the common Ministry of the Gospel of Christ. I've been as guilty of falling into these patterns as anyone else; but it grieves me, and I don't believe it bodes well for the life and health and future of our Synod."

I welcome thoughts in response, especially from those who may be in a better position to clarify and further elucidate St. Cyprian's thinking on the unity and fellowship of the Church.  I'm likewise interested in pursuing whatever we can do, as pastors and congregations, to put into practice an active fellowship in the Ministry of the Gospel.

01 August 2013

They Don't Need Cool

This  is worth the quick read.  

Do you think that pretty soon the "cutting edge" congregations in our midst will signing up for Gottesdienst conferences?  What is real is the doctrine of the blessed Apostles, the very Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament and the pure preaching of the Gospel from the pulpit, sans power point, dramas, dancing girls, drum set and the like.

HT:  Shawn from Hamel

27 July 2013

Lost Pastors can be Found

If your parish is vacant, don't be afraid to look here - http://www.lostpastors.org .  There are shepherds waiting to serve.

23 June 2013

A Shoulder Set Upon the Plowshare of the Cross

To be a disciple of Christ Jesus is to take up the Cross and follow after Him, through death and the grave, into the resurrection and the life everlasting.  Those who have set their shoulder to that plowshare, dare not look back, but are called to set their face like flint upon Christ the Crucified.  We should not suppose that it is easy to persevere, nor that our progress will always be apparent.  The Christian life is one of suffering, before we enter into glory; for it is through many trials and tribulations that we enter the Kingdom of God.  And while that is the case for every disciple of the Lord Jesus, is it especially so for the pastors of His Church on earth.

This week, in particular, exemplifies the Cross that is laid upon those men who are called and ordained to preach the Word of Christ and to confess His holy name in the face of sin and death. The prophets, apostles, martyrs, and saints who are remembered in these coming days provide a sober and serious warning to all those who follow after Christ in the Office of the Holy Ministry; but so are they also an encouragement to faith and faithfulness. We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, in order that our eyes might be lifted up unto Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. As we are called to die with Him, and for His sake and for the Gospel, so are we raised with Him to live forever in the presence of God the Father.

On Monday the 24th, we celebrate the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. He wasn't born to die in quite the same way that Jesus was, but his entire life was pointed toward that Lamb of God, who takes upon Himself the sins of the world and bears them away in His own body to the Cross. So, like the Prophets before him and the holy Apostles who follow after, St. John the Baptist also suffers the Cross in his own flesh, that his very body and life might also proclaim the Savior who is sacrificed for our transgressions and raised for our justification. Already as we sing and confess the Benedictus with Zacharias, we know that his holy child, St. John, the Prophet of the Most High, will be imprisoned for his faithful witness and finally beheaded (as we'll commemorate in a few months on August the 29th). Yet, his miraculous birth and his martyr's death proclaim not only Christ and His Cross, but also the dying and rising and new birth of Holy Baptism; even as King Herod perceives the resurrection of St. John in the life of Christ Jesus!

On Tuesday the 25th, we commemorate the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, and we give thanks for the preaching of the Holy Gospel throughout the centuries to the present day. It is not exactly the case that Luther and Melanchthon and the other reformers were martyred in the same way that St. John the Baptist was, but they were persecuted by church and state, and they surely suffered for their faithful preaching and confession. Luther himself could not even be present at Augsburg for the reading of the great Confession, recognized by all as a public testimony of his teaching. Luther's life was under the Cross, even until his death. So, too, in our own day, the confession of the Gospel still brings wrath and woe on every hand — not only by the world, but by those who consider themselves to be the Church, who suppose that by their violence they are serving God. The promise of suffering should by no means dissuade us, but the example of those who have fearlessly faced the fire should steel us for the fight unto the end.

On Wednesday the 26th, we commemorate the Prophet Jeremiah, whose prophetic preaching of the Word of the Lord brought him grief and heartache. Indeed, the suffering of his life was as much a part of his preaching as anything he said, anticipating the Cross and Passion of the Lord Himself, whose Word he proclaimed. For Christ Jesus would take upon Himself the wrath of God that Jeremiah preached against Jerusalem, so that His people would be recalled from the exile of sin and death, and granted peace and rest in the Kingdom of God. Accordingly, poor Jeremiah not only suffered at the hands of the people to whom he preached, but then he also suffered together with them in the deportation to Egypt.

On Thursday the 27th, we commemorate St. Cyril of Alexandria, one of the most significant of the early church fathers, who vigorously defended the deity of Christ and the unity of His Person against the heretic Nestorious and others who were determined to divide and detract from the one Lord Jesus Christ. Nestorian sympathizers, both ancient and modern, have done their best to villify St. Cyril, as though his politics and personality (good, bad, or otherwise) had any bearing on the faithfulness and truth of his confession. In recent generations, Roman theologians have betrayed the weakness of their western christology by defending Nestorious as far as they dare against that "old meany," St. Cyril. But such detractors are nothing new. On the occasion of his death, someone wrote to a friend concerning St. Cyril:

"At last with a final struggle the villian has passed away. His departure delights the survivors, but possibly disheartens the dead; there is some fear that under the provocation of his comapny they may send him back again to us. Care must therefore be taken to order the guild of undertakers to place a very big and heavy stone on his grave to stop him coming back here" (quoted by Norman Russell in Cyril of Alexandria, p. 3).

A big heavy stone did not prevent the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ; nor would it mean anything to the resurrection and the life that He, our Savior, has bestowed upon His servant Cyril — not any longer in Egypt, to be sure, but in the true and everlasting Canaan. So shall it also be for us, when our Baptism into Christ, the crucified God-Man, is completed in our death from this vale of tears, and we finally cross that great Jordan River into the promised land of peace and rest. In the meantime, we should fully expect to be ridiculed and villified for our faithfulness; and of course, to whatever extent the old Adam in us emerges with the faults and failings of our mortal flesh, our enemies will delight to hold those weaknesses against both us and our doctrine. God prevent us from falling into such temptations, which risk the reputation of the Gospel itself, especially if we are called and ordained to preach that Holy Gospel in its truth and purity. For our own sins, let us daily repent and do better. But for our brothers in the Ministry of Christ, who also bear the burdens of the flesh, let us defend them for the sake of their faithful preaching, and cover them with love for the sake of their Office. Even if some of them do happen to be unpleasant fellows and recalcitrant rascals, the measure of the truth is still the truth itself and neither politics nor personality.

On Friday the 28th, we commemorate St. Irenaeus of Lyons, of such tremendous importance to the history of the Christian faith and doctrine. He may not have been a martyr himself, but he was a friend of martyrs. To begin with, he became the new bishop of Lyons, upon returning from Rome, because his predecessor had been martyred while he was away. In his opposition to the rampant gnostic heresies of his day, he emphasized the goodness and the significance of creation, including the Christian's body, which shall be raised from death to the life everlasting. It is in that confidence of the resurrection, the surety of which is bodily received in the Holy Communion, that St. Irenaeus and his friends and colleagues and parishioners faced the constant real threat of martyrdom. It is in that same holy faith and certain confidence that we teach and confess the truth of Christ, come hell or high water against us.

Finally, on Saturday the 29th of June, we celebrate the great Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, the Apostles, one of the oldest festivals in the history of the Church. We remember and give thanks unto God, that the denier of Christ was restored to faith and discipleship, and that the terrible persecutor of Christians was called to repentance and converted to the very faith he once tried to destroy, and that these two men were sent by Christ as His Apostles to the world. In that apostleship, St. Peter learned by experience the Cross of Christ, the Son of the Living God, and St. Paul likewise learned what he would suffer for the Name of the Lord. By the grace of God, by His Word and Spirit, both men rejoiced to be counted worthy to share the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ. They bore in their own bodies the marks of His Cross, for the benefit of those to whom they were sent to preach. When it came down to it, each of them was put to death for his faithful witness; and in that, death itself became a witness of the Gospel (a martyrdom). Even now, by the inspired record of their preaching and teaching in the New Testament, they continue to serve and support the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Whatever our own respective vocations may be, whether we are called to preach or to listen, or wherever we are called upon to confess the Gospel in our lives, let us not lose heart. Though we are being put to death all day long for the name of Christ, our faith and hope in Him shall not be disappointed. If there is anything to be gained by compromise, it shall be lost before too long, and gone forever; but whatever we lose for the sake of the Gospel, even if it be our very lives, we shall have gained a hundredfold in the everlasting Kingdom of our God and Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

For those who are called and sent to preach, it is most likely that suffering of one sort or another will come, but it is also most important that the Word be taught and the Gospel preached with all clarity and consistency. We may die for it, but by that proclamation shall we and our hearers be saved. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Spiritual Fathers

For anyone who is interested, my new book on the doctrine of the Ministry, Spiritual Fathers, is now available. See this web page for more information.

19 June 2013

Lutheran Marriage Initiative

I commend this new site to you  Lutheran Marriage Initiative.   Pastor Robert Baker is sure to bring the goods in his new venture.  The introduction gives you a taste of what is to come.

16 May 2013

Semper Virgo, Clauso Utero and the Womb of the Church

I wrote a paper some years ago for a pastor's conference entitled: "Semper Virgo, Clauso Utero and the Womb of the Church." Some pastors were a bit suspect of it. Some even were a bit threatened, I think; after all, their entire ministries they'd taught, "Why, of COURSE Christ had natural brothers and sisters." They had assumed we DON'T confess the Semper Virgo (much less the Clauso Utero!) and suddenly, my paper put that in question. By the end of it, I think I had succeeded, if not in convincing, at least in casting these articles in a Gospel light. It's not about Mary or virginity but about CHRIST and His Gospel. One pastor even said, "If this is so much about the Gospel - as it seems from your paper - why AREN'T we teaching it?" I thought that was an excellent question.

Anyway, for anyone interested, here is a link to my paper from a few years back.


07 May 2013

Saved Again - in Matins

I’m mindful how easy it is for me to lose my mind; well, beyond just the senility that often comes with age. I mean, losing my mindfulness; going through the motions in an empty, thoughtless, distracted sort of way. You know, when you’ve prayed the Lord’s Prayer in Matins with the School kids or at home with your own kids and then immediately after saying “Amen,” you start with “Our Father” all over!

Maybe something like that has happened to you. Maybe not. It’s a shame that I must admit that I can all too easily mouth off words before God without even paying attention to them! That’s not what our Lord is teaching when He commands us to pray. Rather, as our children beseech their dear earthly parents for the things they desperately want or desperately think they need, so our Father in heaven wants us coming before Him not simply mumbling words even we don’t care to hear, but in and through them learning to truly grab hold of our heavenly Father’s ears as His dear children. We have a wonderful privilege, after all. Who else can climb into the lap of the God of all creation and be confident of being heard but those who have been given His Name in baptism, who are called by the Gospel and enlightened with His Gifts working a true and genuine faith in His Mercy for Christ’s sake?

Today in chapel, I explained prayer to the children, since this is the week of Rogate Sunday, rogate being the plural command, “Pray, y’all!” Did I mention I live in Mississippi? After having talked to them about the genuine praying they do when begging Mom and Dad to go to the movies or McDonald’s or Disney World, I said that God sincerely wants to hear their eager and heartfelt prayers in Jesus’ Name. The words He gives form our lips, but He also wants them to form our hearts and minds; to have their way with us, not just vocally but all the way through. That’s why Luther said the Lord’s Prayer is so easy to speak but harder to actually pray!

Prayer is a school, of sorts, and today in Matins was no different for me. My mind wandered, but as is often the case, there are moments when the Lord brings me back. Suddenly I am aware of what I am praying and why! There are a couple of moments in the prayer service called Matins that do this for me. I call them my Sgt. Phil Esterhaus moments, but since most of you probably don’t remember that character from the groundbreaking ‘80’s television series, Hill Street Blues, I also call them my Bilbo Baggins moments, since at least I hope that Peter Jackson has made Tolkien’s characters and world familiar with most modern readers.

In Hill Street Blues, the character of Sgt. Esterhaus, played by Michael Conrad, used to say right before sending “the troops” out to their street patrols, “Hey, let’s be careful out there.” A good reminder to anyone walking or driving a beat! And if an 80’s cop show is too far removed for you, Frodo Baggins quotes an old saying of his uncle Bilbo’s to Sam in the movie, The Lord of the Rings. I don’t have the book here in my study at church (I know, heresy!), but I believe it’s somewhere in chapter three of that book. Anyway, Frodo says to Sam, quoting Bilbo, It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Indeed!

There are multiple points, really, where Matins “wakes me up.” These include the opening versicles’ “make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O Lord” from Psalm 51. You don’t pray that way unless “the streets” are dangerous! I also am minded of this in the Te Deum’s “when You had overcome the sharpness of death.” I think of the wages of sin and my own death one day, but also of the countless daggers, spears and sword points the devil has aimed against us every moment, as Luther says in the Large Catechism. But today, as I drifted off somewhere other than where my mouth was, it was the following that brought me back . . .

“We therefore pray You to help Your servants, whom You have redeemed with Your precious blood. Make them to be numbered with your saints in glory everlasting.”

Why do we pray that? Because if HE doesn’t make it so it shall not be done, and we are constantly beset by our enemies who don’t want it to be so; the world, the devil and our own sinful flesh, which do not want us to hallow God’s Name or let His kingdom come.

My daily distractions are often interrupted also by the Te Deum’s “O Lord, save Your people and bless Your heritage. Govern them and lift them up forever.” I can’t tell you how many of God’s dear ones entrusted to my care come flooding to my mind when these words, coming out of my mouth and the children’s, strike my ears and rouse me from my daydream. The dear parents who struggle so against this world’s pressures, wanting to be faithful and getting – like me – too often distracted. The children, facing so much, needing more of what Christ has for them, not less. Precious and beloved members of my congregation whom I haven’t seen in awhile. Those dealing with illnesses, difficulties, family and marital issues, personal wars which God would so love to help them with. Myself and my wife and family. Those who stand firmly in the glad receiving of the Word of Truth, and those I can see perhaps drifting away from it.

You know about your life flashing before your eyes in an instant? Often, that’s what happens to me in Matins, as I suddenly am grabbed by the reality of that for which the Church is praying. By the end of Matins, I am usually back from whatever mental trip I have taken and praying the Collect for Grace with something approximating sincerity. “Defend us . . . with Your mighty power and grant that this day we fall into no sin” (Didn’t we just pray that? Oh, yeah, it was in the Te Deum! Thanks to repetition, even guys like me EVENTUALLY get it!) . . . “Neither run into any kind of danger, but that all our doings, being ordered by your governance, may be righteous in your sight; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord . . .”

As Bilbo said, “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door” each day. “If you don’t keep your feet” – or your wits about you – your heart and mind clinging to the Word of Christ’s Truth, in particular His precious and saving Gospel – “there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to!” So, Luther tells us that if we could see how many are the armaments that Satan aims against us and the ones we love, we’d be eager to go the Sacrament, where the Liturgy teaches us to pray and pay attention and live from the Table Christ has set for us in the presence of our enemies.

I am still learning to pray and believe. I am like Frodo and the liturgy of the King, whether in prayer offices or the Mass, or simply in my daily devotions with the Word, well, the King’s liturgy is like the Tolkien character, Strider/Aragorn, who in The Fellowship of the Ring asks Frodo: “Are you frightened?” Frodo says, “Yes,” to which Aragorn replies: “Not nearly frightened enough. I know what hunts you.”

In the services we pray I am reminded of who hunts us, but more so, of the befriending of the Rightful King and the Table-guests He has made us. By Him Who died and rose and now gives us the right to appear before His throne of Grace in His Name, calling on our Dear Father like the co-heirs and dear children we are, we are bold – not just to ask for the help we need, but to live, confident that we have it in the One Who has given us His Son, and that Son Who - seated now at the right hand of the Father - has given us His Spirit and His Name! That means a lot! Sometimes, God even wakes me from my walking, talking, rote prayer-slumber to make sure I believe it. Then, fully armored and knowing He will be the One to make it so, we go forth with His Benediction thinking: “Hey, let’s be careful out there.” Because it’s dangerous business, but He is in the business of bringing us safely through - as well as making sure our prayers are heard and ever-so pleasing to Him, not because we're as attentive as we should be, but because He is when we aren't, and has given us His Son!

Pastor Rick Sawyer + Good Shepherd + Brandon, MS

29 April 2013

The Catholic Consensus of the Church

I've recently made passing reference to the "catholic consensus of the Church," but without offering any specific definition of what I mean by that, and without indicating what the "content" of that "catholic consensus" might include.  A brother in Christ has helpfully prompted me to give some further thought to this, and to comment on it.

In part, I have not been more specific regarding the "catholic consensus of the Church," because it seems to me that the contours of what that comprises continue to grow and develop in the actual life of the Church.  Even so, what I do have in mind, especially, is that we (pastors and congregations of the Church catholic) ought to begin with what we have received from the saints who have gone before us, and that we should then proceed to live and to pray, to serve and assist one another, in continuity with both the past and the present communion of the Church.  Some aspects of that catholic tradition would be more obvious than others, at least in my view, such as following the Church Year, adhering to the basic Ordo of the Mass, using a Chalice for the Holy Communion, confessing the ecumenical Creeds, using clerical vestments in the celebration of the Liturgy, and so forth.  Although such things are, in one sense, "adiaphora," forsaking them for some novel alternatives would not be without significance to the confession and life of the Church.

The "catholic consensus" becomes more "narrow," if that isn't a self-contradiction in terms, within the particular "families" and "jurisdictions" of the Church on earth.  Here what I have in mind are such things as our Lutheran heritage and identity, which would include the Catechisms and hymns of Luther, for example; and then also the particular "synods" or territories of the Lutheran communion (albeit that "Lutheran" has become a more ambiguous and amorphous term in the course of generations; I use it positively here).

I don't believe that it contradicts catholicity for there to be different "local customs, traditions, and practices," from one place to another; but I would assert and maintain that the defining locus for those differences belongs, not to each individual congregation or parish (although each place, as each pastor, will have its own personality), but to the larger fellowship of congregations within a geographical proximity to one another.  This is where I struggle for a greater clarity in my own perspective and thinking, and yearn for clarity and consistency, as well, in the life of the Church at large.  In contrast to the past, modern transportation and communication have, on the one hand, given us a global community, while, on the other hand, they often separate us from those who are, in fact, our real "neighbors" (those whom God has placed right next to us).

Within our Synod, our Districts, and our Circuits, for example, my sense is that many, if not most, of our congregations tend to live as islands unto themselves, and that our pastors (myself included) have as much or more interaction with our self-determined online circles of like minds and kindred spirits, than active fraternal conversation, camaraderie, and consensus with those who are closest to us in the particular "loci" where God has actually stationed us.  So, I would offer that the current pattern of doing things, and the current "status quo," is certainly not "the catholic consensus of the Church."

23 April 2013

ACELC Free Conference on Worship

The papers presented at the ACELC Free Conference, "Christ For Us: The Divine Service," and six of the sermons that were preached at the daily prayer offices during the conference, are now available online at the ACELC website.

In addition to my own paper, in which I attempted to address my assigned topic, namely, to represent and defend a "High Church" attitude and approach to the Liturgy and worship, I would call special attention to the papers by Pr. Rick Sawyer and Pr. Bryan Wolfmueller, and to the sermons by Pr. Scott Porath and Pr. Carl Roth. I don't highlight these several contributions to make light of the others, but simply to say that I found these to be especially helpful.  I appreciated the contributions made by my colleagues, Pr. Philip Hale and Pr. David Langewisch, and I thank them for the opportunity to engage in dialogue, discussion, and debate.  I thought the preaching throughout the week was really quite good.

Kudos to the ACELC for organizing and sponsoring a great conference, and to the pastor and people of Trinity, Austin, for their gracious hospitality and their excellent hosting of the conference.  Well done, one and all!  I was impressed with the tenor of the gathering, and with the way that everything aimed at promoting and facilitating theological conversation.  It was an encouragement to the rigorous engagement of the Scriptures and the Confessions, in a way that is often hailed but seldom found.

Of course, it added tremendously to my enjoyment of the conference, that my daughter and son-in-law, and three of my grandchildren, were in attendance.  Can't beat that with a stick!  But, in addition to the conference itself and my soak-it-up-while-you-can family time, I especially treasure the opportunity provided to share the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.  I was reminded, again, as I have been in the past, of what a blessing and a benefit that is, and I am truly grateful to have received that good gift of God this past week.

22 April 2013

Those Who Believed Had All Things in Common

Here is Part XI of my ACELC free conference paper (16 April 2013).  It is one of the sections that I omitted in my presentation of the paper, because of time constraints.  The entire paper will be made available on the ACELC website.

The Lutherans of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries regulated the practices of the churches within each territory, in the interest of a unified confession of the faith they held in common.  We in our day could, and should, learn something from them.

There does not need to be, nor could there be, a “lock-step uniformity” in all ceremonies.  However, a unity and harmony and consistency of practice, as belonging to our confession of fellowship in the Gospel, is desirable and would be edifying.  That was true at the time of the Reformation, and it is not less so in this modern age of internet communications and rapid mobility!

As Luther and others often cited, it is appropriate that we Christians should have common rites and ceremonies for the administration of the Sacraments, since we have the Sacraments themselves in common.  Indeed, we have one Lord, one faith, one Holy Baptism, one God and Father of all.  We are called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified by one and the same Holy Spirit, and we all partake of one Holy Communion.  We are all one Body in Christ Jesus, because we all eat of the one Bread, which is His Body; so do we all drink of the one Cup, which is the New Testament in His Blood.  As our fellowship is found in the Sacrament, it is appropriate that our celebration of the Supper be similar.

The regulating of adiaphorous rubrics, rites, and ceremonies within the good order of the Church’s fellowship, within a particular jurisdiction of the Church’s life on earth, is not contrary to the Gospel, but serves the confession and catechesis of the Gospel within the Church’s catholicity of faith and love.  Such commonly agreed-upon rubrics, coupled with the supervision of an overseer, or “bishop,” provides for a common practice from place to place, and from week to week, while it also allows room for genuine pastoral care of the Church in each time and place.

This approach to the life of the Church, as a fellowship of congregations in the unity of the faith, is beneficial, not only to the mutual relationships of the congregations with one another, but also to the life of each congregation, and to the relationship of pastors and people within each congregation.

Pastors benefit from the use of what has been received and adopted in common.  Especially because  it is the case that pastoral piety, in both large and small ways, is never simply personal or private, but is public, “political,” and pedagogical.  The people learn from their pastor’s practice.  They also pick up on discrepancies between his preaching and his practice (as in his handling of the Sacrament).

Parishioners benefit, too, when pastors use the common rites and ceremonies of the Church, rather than inventing their own practices, or else importing practices from outside of the Lutheran Church.  Wilhelm Löhe advised, for example, that a layperson should be able to discern where there is Lutheran doctrine and Lutheran worship, by comparing what the pastor preaches and teaches with the Small Catechism, and by comparing what the pastor says and does in the Divine Service with the rubrics, rites, and ceremonies of the Lutheran Liturgy.  In any event, the people of God should not be asked or expected to pray and confess words which they have never seen before, and which they will most likely never see again.  How shall they give their “Amen” to such things, without even knowing where they came from?  Of course, they listen attentively to the sermon, which they haven’t heard ahead of time; but they are not asked to pray and confess the sermon, nor to give their “Amen” to it, without first being given an adequate opportunity to follow it through and to consider it against the Scriptures.

19 April 2013

The Sacred Tradition of Christ in His Church

Here is Part III of my ACELC free conference paper (16 April 2013).
The entire paper will be made available on the ACELC website.

It is with His own Institution of the Holy Supper that our Lord Jesus Christ establishes the Ministry of this Sacrament for the Life of His Church.  His divine command, “Do This in remembrance of Me,” is the power and authority by which the pastor acts in the place of Christ; so that each celebration of the Holy Communion, even to the close of the age, is not the pastor’s supper, but the Lord’s Supper.

Therefore, the “remembrance” of Jesus, here, is not simply (nor primarily) our recalling of the past, but it is first of all His own active remembering of us in love, and so also the Father’s remembering of Him on our behalf.  And then, for us, it is not only an intellectual and emotional “remembering,” but a bodily receiving and trusting of Christ, who gives Himself bodily to us, by and with His Word.

There, on the Altar, is the Lamb upon His Throne in the midst of His Church on earth.  And where He is, there is heaven, and all the company of heaven: The angels and archangels, the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures, the saints and martyrs of all the ages, are gathered together around Him at the Altar of His Church on earth.  For it is there that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus reveals and gives Himself to His disciples in the Breaking of the Bread.  Right there is the Gospel: in the Flesh.

So it is that everything else — in the Liturgy, in the Church’s worship, and throughout the Christian faith and life — everything else leads to and from this central high point, that is, to Christ Jesus at His Altar, to His Body and His Blood, which are given and poured out for us Christians to eat and to drink.

Catechesis aims, not only at making disciples of Jesus, but at bringing them to His Holy Sacrament, to eat and to drink His Body and His Blood in repentant faith.  It brings them to and from the waters of Holy Baptism, to the Altar of the Holy Communion.  Not only to begin with, to get them going on the way, but catechesis continues in pastoral care, whereby the Lord our Shepherd leads His lambs and sheep beside the still waters, and through the green pastures, to the Feast at His Table in His House.

The pastoral care of ongoing catechesis and discipleship, which is rooted in the ongoing significance of Holy Baptism, is also continued in the regular practice of Individual Confession and Absolution; so that the baptized faithful are regularly brought to the Holy Communion, by the Spirit through the Gospel, in the holiness, righteousness, and worthiness of faith in the forgiveness of Christ Jesus.

It ought to be noted that pastoral care is the context in which the Sacrament is administered; and that the administration of the Sacrament, itself, is a fundamental aspect and exercise of pastoral care for the Church.  The catholic practice of closed Communion also belongs to this context of pastoral care.

Preaching, likewise, always aims at bringing the disciples of Christ Jesus to and from His Supper.  Liturgically speaking, the Sermon has for its primary task the bringing of the people from the Lectern to the Altar, from the Word to the Word-made-Flesh, by proclaiming His death “until He comes.”  By the same token, the right administration of this Holy Sacrament, in accordance with the Gospel, includes and requires ongoing catechesis and the preaching of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ (which is the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His Name).  To be specific, the pastoral care that brings people to the Supper, also belongs to the right administration of the Supper.

“Word and Sacrament” is not simply a cliché, nor a “short list” of necessary parts to be performed. Indeed, the means of grace are not “parts” and “pieces” for us to put together like some kind of puzzle, but they are the means by which the Lord Himself lays hold of us in love, and puts us back together.  His Word and Sacrament are the heart and soul of the Liturgy, as well as its flesh and blood.  For these are His good gifts, and His good works, which He gives and does for us by the Ministry of the Gospel.

As we then live and worship the Lord by faith in His Ministry of the Gospel, by receiving His good gifts at His Altar, our Christian faith and life is characterized by thanksgiving (eucharistia), which culminates in the celebration of the Holy Communion: as Christ Himself gave thanks at His Supper.  From there, His Cup of Thanksgiving “runneth over” into the Christian life of love within the world.

Love for the neighbor is the fruit of Christ’s Love for the Christian in the Holy Communion.  That is the priestly vocation of all the baptized faithful, as they live to and from the Lord’s Altar, into the world wherever God has stationed them.  In the Divine Service, they stand in faith before the Father in Christ, hearing His Word and receiving His Gifts with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.  So do they offer up themselves, their bodies and their lives, to serve their neighbors as Christ has served them.

This Divine Service is the sacred Tradition of the Church — the seat of true catholicity — namely, Christ in His “Word and Sacrament,” as the Lord’s Supper and its administration are handed over.  For Christ is the Head of His Church, and He is actively present with all of His speaking and doing and giving, within each congregation, wherever He gathers disciples, “in His Name,” by and for the preaching of His Gospel and the administration of His Sacraments in accordance with His Gospel.

It is the Tradition that begins on the night when He is “betrayed,” or, better to say, “handed over.”  Judas betrays Him, that is true, but it is the Father, first of all, who hands over His Son to the Cross. And the Son of God hands Himself over: To His voluntary suffering and death, yes, but so also to His Church, to His disciples as the first communicants, and to His Apostles as the first ministers of His Gospel.  The Apostles, in turn, hand over the same Lord Jesus Christ to the Church that comes after them, in the preaching of His Cross and Resurrection, and in the distribution of His Body and Blood.

The Divine Service is not a malleable tool in our hands, to be “used” by us to achieve some purpose (no matter how noble, sincere, or well-intentioned the purpose may be).  It is, rather, a sacred Tradition of the Lord, to be received from Him, and to be handed over faithfully to His Church, by His grace.

20 February 2013

2nd Amendment, Gun Free Zones, Carry permits & The Church

Congress, the media, State Legislatures, Face book, and nearly every other social media source is alive with the conversation, debate, antagonism about, Guns, Gun owners rights, and the 2nd Amendment both of the American Constitution's Bill of rights and the same at State levels. With all of this "noise" coming from all directions, has the Church made any kind of a statement, should she, and what should that be?

I must admit that I am not a proponent of "Gun Free Zones" anywhere, and that includes the Church and her worship space. I am a proponent of swift and severe punishment of those who commit crimes/acts of violence with firearms of any sort. I will not quote statistics nor do I like to listen to them for "figures lie and lairs figure" has always been a mantra for me ever since my college days and my entry into the world of high finance a.k.a. the stock market and trading.

I know of  a fellow pastor whose congregation warned him the day he came into town that he had better carry a firearm because during certain times of the year, wild game ran through the streets and you would need it for self-defense. What is the view of your brothers about "pistol packing preachers"? Should there be the ability to protect the flock should a violent person enter the sanctuary or should that just be a case of "turn the other cheek" give them what they want and continue to worship. Of course, the question of personal protect or that of a pastor's family is very different.

Just yesterday, a story broke on Fox News about a Muslim in New Jersey who had murdered two Coptic Christian men who had recently emigrated to the USA from Egypt. They were beheaded and had their hands cut off. Definitely a ritual type of killing. This is not going to be an isolated incident, not with the American people blind to this religion of the devil that is propped up as a "peaceful" religion. There are Muslim worship centers near most larger towns and the radicalization of American Muslims is growing rapidly. (No, I am not paranoid or a conspiracy guy)

What should or shouldn't a pastor do to possibly prepare for such an occurrence? Tough for me, former Marine Infantry, to not think about what could happen and think about ways to prevent or contain such a horrid situation just like Sandy Hook, or Aurora.  I look forward to your sage advice and emotional responses.

28 January 2013

Marching for Life with the Common Service

I attended the 2013 March for Life and was glad to walk with fellow Missourians and thousands of others on the National Mall, up Constitution Avenue, past the Capitol to finish at the Supreme Court Building.  Between the Capitol and the Supreme Court the LCMS folks gathered prayed the Our Father and for the end to the legalized murder of unborn children in this land.  The LCMS Life Conference, held in conjunction with the March, was worth the price of admission.  I hope it is held again and that thousands more LCMS people attend.  One presenter exhorted us to encourage all District Presidents to be present next year and to lead a delegation from their district.  Huzzah to that!

Of particular note was the Divine Service prior to the March for Life.  Presided by Father Christopher Esget of Immanuel Church, Alexandria, Virginia with sermon preached by our Synodical President, the Mass was joyous and yet somber.  We Missourians present were not there on a junket funded by the Synod’s bank, (Full Disclosure:  I recently became a “Partner in Ministry” with LCEF, which I guess is what one becomes when they sell their home, move into a parsonage and have to park their money somewhere) but rather to speak, confess, march and pray for those who cannot speak for themselves and to mourn the 55 million children legally killed in the womb since Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton in 1973.  I must confess I had a sense of mourning and grief as I arrived in the Federal City.  I would think any pastor having done a decent amount of time in the Holy Office can rejoice in those lives saved through his ministrations, but also mourn over those lives taken despite his every effort.  All pastors need to repent of when we kept our mouths shut, when we did not open our mouths for the dumb and for those appointed to die or when our words were so convoluted that we hurt more than helped. 

So the Common Service (Divine Service III LSB) was a welcome gift.  Even though it was conducted in the ballroom of a hotel, one could close their eyes and consider that they were home.   Such is the strength of the Common Service.  Father Esget was Eucharistically vested, President Harrison was in cope, the Day of Saint Paul’s Conversion was observed, the Gospel Preached, the prayers were prayed and the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of Jesus were given for us poor sinners.  I was graciously asked by Father McClean, also of Immanuel Church, to assist in consuming the Holy Body and Blood and was given food and drink of life even more.  It was needed.  How thankful I am for Fathers Esget, McClean and Harrison and for their ministrations to those gathered, it steeled me for the March for Life, knowing that I, a poor sinner was cleansed of my wickedness and can speak with a forgiven voice for Life – Christ. 

How thankful I am for the Common Service.  Arriving a day before the March, I went to the National Mall to see my Uncle’s name on the Vietnam Memorial.  PFC Dennis L. Harmon, USMC, was killed in action 21 July, 1966 at Quang Tri Province, Vietnam.  I have his copy of The Lutheran Hymnal in my study, given to him on the day of his confirmation just a few years before his death.  He knew and prayed the Common Service, as do the children and grandchildren of his sister – Missourians, just like him.  So praying the Common Service, no real frills or extras added, Lutheran hymnody, Christ preached, Christ delivered, calmed me as my mind was filled with thoughts of the unborn killed, an uncle killed so long ago and my own gross sins.  The Common Service unites me to my uncle as it unites my mother, siblings, children, nieces and nephew to me in a way that is beyond our shared bloodline, but rather in a way that is of Christ, His Church and His Father.  It settles my soul.  If I am willing to listen, its familiar harmony brings me to the rest that has been enjoyed by so many for Sunday after Sunday and will in the future.  The retention (and re-introduction where necessary) of the Common Service in 21st century Lutheranism following its near destruction in Lutheran Book of Worship/Lutheran Worship era will be a laudable and needed help toward true unity in practice within Missouri, if we all are willing to listen.