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Saturday, May 31, 2008

When an apology isn't an apology

Father Michael Pfleger spoke from the pulpit of Trinity United Church last Sunday; he was very critical of Senator Hillary Clinton. After his remarks from the pulpit last Sunday, Fr. Pfleger said, "I regret the words I choose on Sunday. ... I am deeply sorry if they offended Sen. Clinton or anyone else who saw them." THAT'S NOT AN APOLOGY!

A true apology involves:
1. the law convicts and convinces you that you have sinned,
2. you are deeply sorrowful of that sin,
3. you repent of that sin and seek God's absolution.

Fr. Pleger did not truly apologize. He "regreted" the words he choose. Regret can be a verb used to indicate an apology, but in his case it fails to be so because of what he said later: "if". To use this preposition in this context is to make the statement a subjunctive, rather than a indicative, clause. If I offended you, then I am sorry; but if I have not offended you, then then there is no harm done and I am not sorry (because no offense has been given).

Sadly, Fr. Pleger's non-apology is symptomatic in our 21st American culture. He is another in a long line of public apologies that fail to truly be an apology. We are so concerned with political correctness, that we are tempted to not take responsibility when we misspeak.

One of the blessings of the liturgy is that when we confess our sins, we take responsibility for them. The old faithful confession goes like this: "O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray You of Your boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being." Now that's a confession! It's dripping with penitent words and is in the indicative mood.

Most importantly, this confession gets to the heart of the matter: we have sinned against God. He has the ability to punish us now and eternally for our sinfulness. He is the one we have offended with our sinful lives. But when the law convicts, the gospel is right behind to promise us full and complete absolution. True forgiveness follows a true apology. Our standing before God is certain and sure. Yes, we are sinners; we confess that and we hear God's gracious words of forgiveness, words that are all the more sweeter and comforting because we have owned up to our selves and admitted that we are sinners.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Matthew 6

Tomorrow's Gospel Reading has a lot to say about what currently gets broadcasted on the television in regards to Christianity. On the one hand, you have all sorts of channels and televised church services that focus on the things of this world, namely wealth. Such would be name it and claim it theology, prosperity gospel, and other similar false theologies. The underlying foundation is: Bigger is better, and more is a sign of God's blessings. On the other hand, you have vocal preachers who only talk about liberation theology that focuses on the things of this world, namely power. Such would be any message that makes Christ a political or social liberator instead of a spiritual liberator. The underlying foundation is: social gospel.

Christ promises neither prosperity nor temporal liberation. He does promise liberation from sin, death, and the devil. He does promise to provide for our needs. With just those two, we are richly blessed by God! Anything else He provides is sheer abundance.

The Holy Spirit has given His Church the Word and the Sacraments. With these simple means we find the Church, and when we find the Church we find Jesus, forgiveness, and the Spirit's help to believe and live our lives fully.

I recall in a seminary class taught by Dr. Nagel the following illustration. We come to God needing and wanting His grace. God gives us a cup and begins to fill it up with water. The cup becomes full, but God still pours the water. The water overflows onto the table, flows down to the floor, and runs out the door. God still hasn't stopped pouring the water! That is how Christ gives out His grace and forgiveness.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Athanasian Creed

Although attributed to Athanasius, the Athanasian Creed (Symbolum Quicunque) was originally written in Latin sometime in the 6th century, possibly in France, and by the 9th century it was used in the liturgy. In the Western Church, the Athanasian Creed is the last of the three great ecumenical creeds (along with the Apostles' and the Nicene). The Eastern Church does not use either the Apostles' or the Athanasian Creed. The only true ecumencial creed in all Christendom is the Nicene Creed.

While not Athanasian in authorship, it is Athanasian (and Augustinian) in doctrine, especially emphasizing his defence of the Nicene Creed and the deity of Jesus Christ. The creed's strong trinitarian confession makes it an obvious choice for Trinity Sunday. Since the 1960s, the use of the Athanasian Creed has declined to its sole use on Trinity Sunday, however, in the 19th century, Lutheran churches were apt to use the creed more often throughout the liturgical year.

The Creed confesses two main doctrines: the holy Trinity and the two natures of Christ. In doing so, the Creed neatly summarizes the orthodox councils and synods of the first four centuries.

Sadly, too many Lutherans seem to just roll their eyes and groan when we confess this Creed on Trinity Sunday. The Creed, however, is not going anywhere: it's in our hymnals and in the Book of Concord. We should follow the exhortation of the collect to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest what the Creed teaches about the holy Trinity and the two natures of Christ. Luther considered the Athanasian Creed as the queen of the creeds in the Church, and so should we.

Friday, May 16, 2008

St. Athanasius

Athanasius I of Alexandria (293- 373) was a theologian, a Patriarch (Bishop) of Alexandria, a Church Father, and a noted Egyptian leader of the fourth century. Alexandria was the New York City of fourth century. He was ordained as a deacon by the current patriarch, Alexander of Alexandria, in 319. In 325, he served as Alexander’s secretary at the First Council of Nicaea. A recognized theologian, he was the obvious choice to replace Alexander as the Patriarch of Alexandria on the latter’s death in 328.

He is best remembered for his role in the conflict with Arius and Arianism. At the Council of Nicaea in 325, as a mere deacon, no less, Athanasius argued against Arius and his doctrine that Christ is of a distinct substance from the Father (i.e. that Christ is not really God like God the Father is God). He became occupied in theological disputes with the Byzantine Empire and the Arians which would occupy much of his life (leading to his banishment from Alexandria five separate times).

In 367, Athanasius was the first person to list the 27 books of the New Testament as we have them in our Bibles today. Up until then, various regions added other early Christian writings to the New Testament list. In 382, Pope Damascus supported Athanasius' New Testament list. By 397, Athanasius’ New Testament list was the standard canon throughout the Church.

Athanasius is one of the greatest Church theologians. He challenged the emperor and the many followers of Arius. He held to the decision of Nicaea and defended the Nicene Creed. This was no simple task, because the Byzantine emperors were fickle: one would support the Creed, and then his successor would support Arius, and back and forth for a number of years (this is why he was banished and reappointed numerous times from his patriarch). Although the Creed upheld Christian orthodoxy in 325, many Christians, bishops, pastors, theologians, and churches sided with Arius. The confessional and orthodox pastors, bishops, and churches were in the minority.

In spite of this challenge, Athansius and others moved forward to teach and confess the Nicene Creed as the true exposition of the holy Scriptures. After numerous hardships, Athansius and his colleagues won the day as the Holy Spirit worked through men and women like him to confess the faith even when they were in the minority and ridiculed.

We take forgranted today the orthodoxy we have with the Nicene Creed. Athanasius must be given much credit for spearheading the truths we now accept without much thought. Thank God, the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, for giving Athanasius to the Church as a defender of the faith, a pastor who preached the Word and administered the Sacraments, and lead the patriarch (diocese) of Alexandria for many years.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pentecost and Holy Baptism

Yesterday my nephew was baptized. I was honored and priveleged to be his God-father.

Luther's Small Catechism is so relevant and powerful. He writes on the Third Article of the Creed:

,,I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith."

And he writes on Holy Baptism, Part 2:

,,Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare."

The Holy Spirit works the same way today that He worked 2000 years ago on Pentecost Sunday. The law and gospel were preached, the Spirit created faith, and people were baptized. Preaching and holy Baptism go together. Faith and Baptism go together. The Spirit moves when and where He pleases, creating faith as He wills, when the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered.

We cannot improve on the Spirit's will. We can survey demographic studies, raise funds, canvas the neighborhood, and any other host of techniques. The Spirit will create faith when the Word is preached and the Sacraments administered. We can't force the creation of faith, but we must be patient with the Spirit to create faith when and where He pleases. This is why we cannot apply business techniques to the Church: if we do so, then we have turned the Church into something other than what the Holy Spirit has created. We can't stifle the Spirit by putting limitations and time-restraints upon Him; He will do things as He desires to do them, all the while demolishing our control and input on when and where faith should be created.

The Holy Spirit isn't a tameable dove, a nice pet we have hanging around our Church, but the Spirit is a powerful wind that terrifies with the law and soothes with the gospel, thereby creating and sustaining faith in Jesus Christ who suffered, died, and rose again for our salvation and justification.

Yesterday, the Holy Spirit came in great power. He didn't appear as a dove, and He didn't arrive in a gust of wind. He showed up with the words and water that were spoken and poured upon my nephew. He was baptized and the Spirit created saving faith in him. What a great day of Pentecost and Baptism.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Feast of Christ's Resurrection

Easter Sunday - March 23, 2008 - 1 Cor. 15.19-28 - Oberursel - Armin Wenz

If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. 20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "all things are put in subjection," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (ESV)

Dear Congregation!

Over and over, one has sought to explain the resurrection of Jesus from the dead with comparisons. There is from the mythology of the people the legendary phoenix bird, that rises forth from the ashes, and one is reminded of the butterfly that seemingly squirms itself out of a dead caterpillar. Also, there is the reference to the spring, in which year after year new life sprouts, which often plays a role in our latitudes especially since Easter falls on a different date each year in the southern hemisphere from Spring.

One can certainly recognize in the Creation God’s creative power overcomes death or what often seems like death. Nevertheless, all of these comparisons are lagging when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

The Bible says that the resurrection is not a metamorphosis nor is it a miraculous transformation from one form to another. The resurrection is also not a spiritualization, so that one could say: Jesus’ body is really dead, but His spirit is awakened by God to life. Or even, as it was claimed in the 60s by many German evangelical theologians, who proclaimed, Jesus certainly remained in the grave, but that the subject of Jesus’ resurrection should continue.

The opinion of the Corinthians came quite close to this, and thus Paul was concerned. They also wanted to reinterpret the resurrection. They did not directly deny the resurrection of Jesus, but they denied that there would be a resurrection of the dead in the future. They thought they were already complete. They supposed that, after Jesus fully accomplished salvation, nothing new would come. And so they also supposed, they could no longer fall from salvation, no matter what they would do, no matter how laden they were with their wicked sins.

Paul preaches against this error of the Corinthians, their opinion that they already live in the perfect time of salvation. He does so by distinguishing the resurrection of Jesus at three times, which, he clearly says, follows one on top of the other, by which all three times have to do with the resurrection of Jesus.

The first time lies in the past; it is the time of the Jesus’ Easter victory. The second time is the time of Jesus’ struggle against doomed powers which are still raging; this is the present. The third time, however, is the time when Christ’s death will finally overcome and God alone will prevail.

First is the time of Jesus’ Easter victory. The New Testament unanimously proclaims the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as an unique and completed event. No one could have observed the resurrection, but numerous witnesses have arisen who saw and heard Christ. Paul lists them at the beginning of the chapter. The testimony of everyone is this: Christ is alive.
However, as was testified truthfully, because it was even officially sealed by the spear thrust in Jesus’ side and by the burial, it is certain that Jesus had truly died.

The resurrection has not reversed the death of Jesus; it is not a journey into the past, but it is the miracle of the new life that God has worked on the one who was dead, absolutely dead, lifeless, and forsaken by God.

The resurrection of Jesus is not a metamorphosis, but it is a victory, a victory of God over death. As previously indicated time and again, as God spared Isaac in his sacrifice, as Jonah was miraculously saved from drowning, as Jesus called Lazarus from the grave, which occurred with Jesus in a radically new way.

Because Jesus is the first to be raised from death, who will not die again, thus the resurrection of His Son was the seal and confession of God the Father to His Son: This is My beloved Son.

That’s why Paul proclaimed with unwavering certainty: Christ is truly risen. And He is the first to rise. Up to this moment in world history, there was never such a thing. But it is God’s will that Christ should not remain the only one; according to God’s will, He opens the resurrection to all people who will follow in His footsteps and experience what He experienced: Death is in God’s hand, and the resurrection from the dead, the new life, is by God’s power.

Admittedly, says Paul, there is an order in this series. Nobody can trade places with Christ. He is the first resurrection. He already lives in the glory of the Father. He is the first. For every one else, however, Paul says, these wonderful events still lie in the future. But everyone in his order: first Christ, then when He will come, those who belong to Christ.

But there is no doubt: the Corinthians are wrong, if they think they already have already attained the goal as Christ has already attained the goal. No, the physical resurrection from the dead is still pending for those who believe in Christ. They live in a sort of interim state.

This second time, St. Paul says, is the time of Jesus’ struggle against doomed powers which are still raging. This power and might will become the first to be destroyed by Christ at the end. The last enemy, which will be destroyed, is death. Only in the new heaven and new earth will it be said: There will no longer be death (Revelation 21).

The interim period, in which we live as Christians, is also marked by two things: First, death is already defeated by Jesus’ resurrection. Second, death is not yet destroyed, but this terrible state of affairs flourishes until the last day.

That is however: Death is like all the doomed powers of this world which are under Jesus’ feet and reign. All power in heaven and on earth is given to Me, the Risen says to His disciples before He sends them out into the world, where they will not only baptize and teach, but where they will repeatedly expose all the tyrants of the world.

However all blood witnesses, all martyrs of the Church, proclaimed and died in the certainty that they had already vanquished the most brutal rulers for they stand on the side of the victor, even when the world was sure that it dealt with notorious losers.

It is clearly evident that this period in which we live is, for us Christians, a time of temptation. Yes, temptation hangs together with fighting. In other words: when we live our faith, we meet in and around us powers which oppose us and do not peacefully surrender. We stand in a war, as Paul says, not with flesh and blood, but with powers and authorities, namely the rulers of the world, who prevail in this darkness, with the evil spirits under heaven (Ephesians 6.12).

But this is true, it certainly is that we already stand in these struggles that stand entirely under the reign of Christ, which belongs to Him, for He guarantees that He defends, protects, carries, comforts, where He helps to make them bold, give strength, and then at the end – dying as a martyr or a natural death – He will also raise them up.

We live in the time of Satan’s fighting retreat. If we look into the world, you would think that he builds his reign ever further from our Lord and is moving ever backwards. In reality, the doomed powers always become furious since they know that their time is coming to an end. The fact is: a war becomes increasingly more fierce as the fighting comes to an end, so we must also know that the same is true in this war and therefore we should not be surprised when it becomes fierce. But we can also be certain that the unseen Victor is now behind us, that He stands in front of the door and awaits us.

The means by which Christ fights are His Word and His Sacraments, whereby He has sent His disciples to all people. It is the greatest miracle in the history of the world, that this non-violent Word and these plain and simple gifts of the Sacraments remain today and have not fallen, despite all the tyrants and despite all the aberrations of the Church. Here, where His Word is preached and His Sacraments administered in accordance with His will, is the living, risen Christ and they give the doomed powers one defeat after another.

What is most shrewd to Satan, is the fact that in everything, Christ, in His dying on the cross and in His non-violent reign as the Risen One, in His reign by His Word and His Sacraments, does not follow Satan’s diabolical advice, in that Jesus does not aspire to usurp world domination by his diabolical standards.

Jesus could have done it, He could have become the ruler of world by Satan’s favor, and He would have lost His Father in heaven just like Adam and Eve in Paradise; however, Christ does not do everything for Himself, but He does everything in obedience and loyalty to His Father and out of love for the children of men.

Because that is so, Paul must still speak about the third time, which for us is still pending. It is the time, when Christ will finally overcome death and God, the Heavenly Father, will alone prevail: after the end, when the reign of God, the Father, will be handed over, after He has destroyed all rule and all power and dominion.

After the Father puts His Son in charge of the resurrection, at the end the Son will commit to His Father and give back to Him the reign over men: all of Creation belongs to Him.

The Son’s mission is fulfilled, when death and all doomed powers, Satan and his angels, will finally be destroyed, when the war with men will be past.

Then, only then, will we have no temptation, no tears, no doubt, no hesitation, no more dying. Then, only then, is God finally justified before the entire world, when the Son will hold court and His Father will place before Him those who have confessed Him. Then, only then, it ends in our salvation, since we are sealed in our Baptism, in the consummation, the visible life in communion with God.

We owe all the fidelity of Jesus Christ to His heavenly Father. That fact that He became subordinate, has remained obedient to Him, although He forever and ever is together with Him true God. That He has not rebel against the position of His Father from whom He is a Son who is distinct and separate – even though He is the same God with power and honor.

That in His place Christ executes the true mission of His Father for us until the end, upon which we owe our entire redemption, our salvation with God and the certainty that neither death nor life, neither angels nor powers, nor authorities, neither the present nor the future neither height nor depth nor any other creature is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.38 f).

So death and also the terrible experiences in the course of our lives is nothing that can separate us from God. So we must – whether we live or die – safely wait in anticipation upon our own resurrection, that then we will really have peace. Not peace in the grave, but peace with God, after the victory over His enemies, and ours, becomes final, through Jesus Christ, His Son. Amen.

Translated by The Rev. Peter A. Bauernfeind

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Silent No More

Yep, it's been a while since I posted something here. I have been busy translating a sermon (which I will post in the next couple of days). Translating a paragraph here and a paragraph there took more time than I had anticipated.

I do want to address something I heard the other night about Christian churches and the message of self-empowerment and self-improvement. Such a message is not Christian preaching. It is only a proclamation of the law. Preaching only the law or only the gospel is not Christian preaching. Preaching law and gospel is true, evangelical (read: Lutheran) Christian preaching.

We don't have the ability to empower ourselves. We don't have the power to improve ourselves. If we try to do so, then what need have we of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Word, the Sacraments, and the other means of grace? Christ in His infinite wisdom gave us the means of grace because we cannot empower or improve ourselves in the spiritual realm. Only by the power the gospel and God's almighty hand can we improve our lives in the physical realm. And how often do we try to do something better in our lives only to muck it up?

Beware of those hawking self-empowerment and self-improvement from the pulpit. They are preaching another gospel, which is no gospel at all. If we want to improve ourselves, there are plenty of free books at the local library that can help us in that endeavor. If we want the be assured that we are forgiven, even after we have failed to improve our life, then run to church and hear the Word of God in all its glorious law and gospel.