Friday, October 28, 2011

St. Simon and St. Jude, Defenders of the Faith

A blessed Saint Simon and Saint Jude day to you all. This post will be very brief. But once I saw the church calendar this morning I couldn't help but recall a few thoughts related to Christian apologetics on this feast day. During college I attended several lectures by John Warwick Montgomery, perhaps the world's foremost Christian apologist in our lifetime. His works have been and will continue to be highlighted here for their wisdom and insight into Christian theology, especially in the defense of the Christian faith. His books have also had a huge impact on my own theological learning and apologetic training. But so has the work of his students, most notably, Rod Rosenbladt and Craig Parton. During that college lecture series I asked Craig Parton to sign my copy of his new book, The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyers Quest for the Gospel. After his signature he wrote the following inscription from Jude 3:

Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.

Everyone loves to quote 1 Peter 3:15 for apologetics. That is, after all, where the word comes from. Apologia. Defense. Thankfully, Peter wasn't the only one to write about this vital Christian word. Jude did. Paul did. All the early apostles all did this - they lived this - that is, the defense of the Christian faith. Some of them made their defense with their blood shed on upside down crosses or in coliseums or with stones piled high upon their frame. Not even death could silence their testimony. That which they saw from the beginning, which they heard and touched concerning the Word of life. The Word made flesh; the babe of Bethlehem come to die on the cross for the sins of the world. The eyewitness of Jesus' death and resurrection (and those that followed afterwards) clung tightly to this common salvation Jude writes about. They contended for the faith. And truly, truly, I say to you, an apologist is not above his master. 

Just like her Savior, the Church - and her eyewitnesses - are not hard to track down. Just follow the trail of blood. Look at the work of St. Simon and St. Jude. While precious little has been written about them and lesser yet is even known, what we celebrate today (and any feast day for that matter) is Christ who is known, revealed and manifested - first among the apostles and through them to us. That's part of the joy of feast days. The focus is on Christ. That's the way it was for Jude and Simon. That's the way it is for all witnesses of the truth, for all who contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, apologists past, present and future. Jude's letter was written long ago but his work - or, rather our Lord's work - continues on through His Word and those whom He sends to declare and defend it. For in this life, the defense never rests. The witnesses are never silent. The Word of testimony - the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation - is always an open case, with a clear verdict: you are justified - declared and reckoned righteous - by grace for the sake of Christ's blood shed on the cross. 

Thank God for his saints, past and present, who are diligent in writing concerning this common salvation - Christ Crucified - that we too may contend earnestly for the faith. "Praise, Lord, for Your apostles, Saint Simon and Saint Jude. One love, one hope impelled them to tread the way, renewed. May we with zeal as earnest the faith of Christ maintain, be bound in love together, and life eternal gain" (LSB 518:28).

  Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling,
      And to present you faultless
      Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy,
       To God our Savior,
      Who alone is wise,
      Be glory and majesty,
      Dominion and power,
      Both now and forever.

From Slaves to Beggars

John 8 is the appointed Gospel reading for Reformation Sunday. And for good reason. Of course, Romans 3 gets plenty of air-time, as it should. As all God's Word should, Old and New Testament. After all, Luther's tower experience was as much about Romans 3 as it was Habakkuk 2 and the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures for that matter. What Paul declares in Romans Jesus had already declared in John 8:

"Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” 

And what Jesus teaches in John 8, Paul picks up in Romans 3...

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

In other words, Jesus' Word is freedom. Jesus' life isfreedom. Jesus death is freedom. From what? Sin. Death. The threats and punishments of the Law. That was our Pharaoh, our captivity. For what? Life in Him. Life for the neighbor. Paul covers both sides of this crucified liberation throughout Romans (not to mention the other epistles.

 Over the course of his life – and especially at the end – this is what Luther came to know: the Gospel, the Good News. Free forgiveness. Captivity in the Egypt of sin, death and hell was over. Christ has led his people forth in a new - and better exodus - by means of his own flesh and blood. He has brought his people out of captivity. To die in the wilderness? No, to die in him. Die in Baptism. And therefore to rise in him and in Baptism. To be raised as beggars. That's the pattern of the Christian life: from slaves to beggars.

This was among Luther's last written words: "We are all beggars this is true." Like the Syro-Phoenician woman, "Yes, Lord; I know I am dog, but even the dogs receive the crumbs from the master's table."

Luther's words still ring true today.
In Luther’s day God was seen as a judge, full of wrath and recompense. And Jesus was no better. A new Moses. A most holy and righteous Law giver. Supreme Judge. If that’s who Jesus is all the sweat and torture all the works and relics in the land make sense. There had to be some way to appease this divine dictator. What joy then, you see, Luther came to know as he read the words of the prophets: "The righteous will live by faith" and in St. Paul, "The righteousness of God made known to us in the Gospel!" What freedom! What life.
In our day, however, God – if he is known at all – is questioned.  "Does he/she/it exist? Does it matter? I'm not religious, but I am spiritual. There’s no hell. Love wins!" And the list could go on. Today God the judge has been replaced by self. We have taken the bench and donned the black robes. We even have our own indulgences – Purpose Driven this and that. My vision. My best life now. My program. Mine. Mine. Mine. The church today is still in dire need of the Lutheran Reformation. For we are constantly tempted to throw the chains back on and march ourselves back into Egypt, back into slavery, sin and death.
What Luther once wrote to his brother in Augustinian order, Georg Spenlein, could as easily have been written for Christians today. "Father, my dear brother, learn of Christ, even Christ the Crucified! Learn to sing his praise and despairing of yourself, say to him: 'You Lord Jesus are my righteousness, but I am your sin. You have taken away what was in me and have given to me what I was not. Be careful never to let endeavor to obtain such purity that you no longer find yourself a sinner, much less desire to be one. Christ dwells only among sinners. This is why he descended from heaven, where he dwelt among the righteous, so also to make his dwelling among sinners. Take note of this his love time and again, and you will experience the sweetest consolation...And so only in him, through having despaired of yourself and your works, will you find peace. Here you will learn from Christ himself, that he, as he has received you unto himself, has made your sins his own, and his righteousness your righteousness'" (LW 48:12-13).
In other words, Christ has bound himself in our captivity and slavery in order to give us, and win for us, his freedom and life. Righteousness - like holiness, grace and everything else in Scripture - is not achieved, but received. As a slave does not free himself but is rescued. As a beggar does not feed himself but is fed and cared for. As a dead man does not resuscitate himself. So too our Lord Christ has won our freedom and our daily bread and our life by giving up his own in our stead. Fast bound in Satan's chains he lay, death brooded darkly over him so that we might be rescued. God cannot be caged. Christ cannot be enslaved. Christ's death is death's undoing. The Pharaoh of hell is defeated. Once again God drowns his enemies with a covering of water as Satan's chariots lay in ruins at the bottom of the font and you walk through the water to life in Christ. There's even a passover meal: Christ himself, the Lamb of God crucified, died, buried and risen for you. Give us this day our daily bread of Life. Christ still sets his table for sinners. And how he loves eating and drinking with sinners. What freedom! What life.
We are liberated from the vain endeavor of fluttering about, trying to go upward and get to God, for God has joined us here. He became a man and chose the things of our earthly world to bestow himself and his gifts to us: words, water, wine, bread. Do not look for God in the heavens – you will only chase after ghosts – but if you would have joy and have freedom and life – look for God where he has revealed himself for you. Bend down to find him in the manger as a boy who sucks, is washed and dies. Look to this boy as he hangs on the cross in bloody majesty. There’s the glory of God. This God is for you. You live by mercy, not merit. By grace through faith in Christ. And Christ is the most important part of that sentence. For Christ continues to pour out his inexhaustible riches - the Gospel, the Baptism, the Supper, the Absolution - gifts that are inexhaustible for all beggars.

Even if it is a few days early, a blessed Reformation Day to you all.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Apologetics 101 Part 2: The Truth Will Set You Free

The following post continues a series that began in the Redeemer newsletter with the title, "Apologetics 101 Part 1: Mr. Spock and World Religions." This is an ongoing introduction to Christian apologetics series that will be frequently posted throughout the next year or so. Stay tuned for the remainder of the series. And thanks for reading.
What is truth? Which truth? Whose truth? Yours? Mine? This spiritual figure or that? His holy book or hers? Which religious claim to truth is the real one? Will the real religion please stand up?! Last month’s newsletter article busted the myth of religious harmony. For it is a logical impossibility that all the world’s religions are saying the same thing. It is certainly possible that they are all wrong; but it is entirely impossible that they are all true. This month’s article begins to answer the next part of the religious question: how do we know which one out of the thousands of the world religions, if any, is true?
We are right back to the question of the day. What is truth? Long before A Few Good Men hit the screen and even before Pontius Pilate uttered the words, Satan toyed with this very same question in the Garden of Eden. “Did God really say?” In other words, “Is God’s Word true and reliable?”
What is truth? That was Pilate’s question to Jesus during his interrogation.  And people have been coming up with failed answer after failed answer. Many claim the question – what is truth? – can be answered by common sense, intuition, authority, sincerity or even religious experience. As we will discover, these sources of truth are entirely inadequate responses to the question.
Here a little bit of logic goes a long way. It also happens to be useful common ground in talking with non-Christians. Which is why, when we are trying to answer the question, “what is truth?” we must avoid begging the question. This is not what kids do on family vacations: “Are we there yet?” Rather, begging the question means simply to assume the conclusion you are trying to prove. For example: “Miracles do not exist because there is uniform experience against miracles; I have never seen a miracle; therefore miracles do not exist.” Or, “We know god exists because the book says so and god wrote the book so we know god exists.” In this manner, begging the question leads to another logical error: circular reasoning.
As we continue to defend the Christian faith through a well-reasoned argument, we do well to avoid begging the question and circular reasoning. Therefore, in good order, we begin first, with exploring the answer to the truth question.
Truth is fundamental to every human endeavor. Science, Law, History, Medicine, not to mention the entire education system of Western Civilization (and the list could go on) rests on the foundation that truth and knowledge are attainable. Both intellectual (is it true?) and existential meaning (what do I need?) in life is built upon truth. In addition we should also add morality, ethics and human rights.
So, when it comes to the quest for truth, let’s test some of the examples mentioned above and see why they fail to give us an adequate source of truth in defending the Christian faith. Though hardly exhaustive, here are several common ways people claim to have the truth on their side of the argument.
·         Common Sense and Intuition.  Common sense, as we well know, is not common at all. Quite the opposite seems to be true in our daily lives. Furthermore, people of incompatible religious  positions all claim to have common sense on their side. This cannot be so. If common sense were an accurate source of truth, we all would have the same common beliefs. Intuition is similar. If our intuition was a reliable source of truth for making religious claims, we all would believe the same thing. Intuition can be wrong just as common sense is uncommon. How do you know the voice of your common sense is really the voice of God or the voice of the devil? Many people claim to receive special messages from God – messages which frequently have to do with your wallet.

·         Appealing to Authority (or multiple sources of authority).  Many claim to have authority on their side: Muslims have the Qur’an, Mormons have the Book of Mormon, Christians have the Old and New Testament, and Jews reject the New but retain, at least in some manner, the Old Testament. Making a claim to authority is not the same as establishing the truth of the authority any more than my opinions and claims to know everything about the weather qualify me to be a meteorologist. We must ask whether or not the source of authority itself is trustworthy. Just because an authority claims to be from God hardly means it is. Plenty of people on the boardwalk in Venice Beach claim the same thing but are void of all trustworthiness. Or consider that Mormon doctrine teaches that the Garden of Eden was located somewhere near Jackson County, Missouri. And that God spoke to Joseph Smith by means of special golden plates which have never been found and have no archaeological evidence whatsoever suggesting any of the places or names in the Book of Mormon actually existed outside of Joseph Smith’s brain.
Having multiple sources of authority only further complicates the problem. Every religious position has a source of authority, whether that source is a book, a person, or some kind of inner burning of the bosom. Again, we know that they all could be false, but not all of these claims to authority can be true. The question is, how do we determine which ones are false? In order to answer that we must test and examine the source of authority from the outside, with a criteria that is separate from the source of authority you are studying. This will yield an objective answer. Stay tuned in the months to come for this kind of criteria applied to the defense of the truth of the Christian faith. Because when it comes to the authority of the Old and New Testaments, we can have strength and confidence in the historical reliability and veracity both in the manner of transmission of the text and the trustworthiness of what it says.

·         Sincerity.  Many have thought that the sincerity of your faith is a good factor in determining whether or not something is true. Sincerity is not a good source for truth. Stalin was very sincere about his systematic extermination of political opponents just as Jim Jones convinced his followers that the Kool-aid they were drinking was sincerely good for them. Both examples demonstrate that you can be sincere about many things, and more importantly, sincerely wrong. Even sincerity of faith is a dangerous position to hold. Many religious teachers have said, “If you just believe enough, or pray hard enough, or are sincere in your faith, you’d know these things to be true.” How do you measure sincerity? You can’t have faith in faith. That’s nonsense. Neither is faith magic. What is critically important is the object of faith. I may sincerely believe that my pet rabbit, Milo, will lay a golden egg on Easter morning worth millions – but my faith would be foolishly misplaced. And similarly, I may sincerely doubt that Disney Land is in Anaheim, California rather than in Minot, North Dakota. In either case, neither my faith nor my doubts change the underlying facts. And facts are stubborn things.

·         Religious Experience.  We’ve all met people like this. Testimonies and personal experiences abound. However, there are just as many religious experiences as there are religions. They can’t all be right because they make mutually contradictory claims to truth. There’s another logical problem here. We can’t equate “what is” with “what ought to be.” This is also known as the sociological fallacy. Here’s an example: If we say, “65% of college students engage in x behavior,” we have said nothing of whether or not x behavior is true, much less right or wrong. Simply claiming truth on the basis of a religious experience does not in fact make it true. This is falls into the “buy it and try it” trap. “Give Jesus, or Buddhist meditation, Christian Science or the Kool-aid a try, you’ll like it. It works for me!” Religious positions require total commitment on the part the person. The question is, is it true? And this requires investigation. Something Christianity is entirely open to since it has nothing to hide, no magic pills or goofy drinks. St. Paul lays it all out on the table, read 1 Corinthians 15.

So, if all of these methods are inadequate, what then, is the best way to go about investigating a religious truth claim? And where does Christianity fit into all of this? In the coming months, this Apologetics 101 series will continue and follow up on this question leading us to explore the empirical/historical method, used by lawyers, historians and apologists to give us the best argument in defending the Christian faith. The next installment, Apologetics 101, part 3 will look at the best way to investigate any religious truth claim and apply that same method to the Christian faith.
Thankfully, when it comes to the Christian faith – what we believe, teach, confess and defend – we don’t have to rely upon the level of our genuine sincerity, the power and emotion of our religious experience, our common sense, or even circular reasoning. We have historical, trustworthy, eyewitness testimony about the life and work of Jesus who took on human flesh to suffer and die for the sins of the world. He claimed to be the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and backed that up by dying and rising from the dead. With that in mind, the question is not really: what is truth? Rather, who is truth? And if you get the answer to that question right, all the others fall into place.
If you’re interested in reading more about defending the Christian faith in a simple, understandable way, check out the following books:
·         Religion on Trial by Craig A. Parton, Esq.
·         The Defense Never Rests by Craig A. Parton, Esq. available from Concordia Publishing House.
·         Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.
·         History, Law and Christianity by John Warwick Montgomery.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Funeral Sermon: Christ's Table Reserved For You

+ In Memoriam – Barbara Koijane – October 22, 2011 +
Isaiah 25:6-9

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

            Whether you knew her for years or just a few minutes, anyone who knew Barbara knew she loved food. She’s in good company. For no one loves food more than our Heavenly Father:

Upon this mountain
      The LORD of hosts will make for all people
      A feast of rich food,
      A feast of well-aged wines,
      Of fat things full of marrow,
      Of aged wine, well-refined.
 And He will destroy on this mountain
      The covering cast over all people,
      And the veil that is spread over all nations.
       8 He will swallow up death forever,
      And the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces;
      The rebuke of His people
      He will take away from all the earth;
      For the LORD has spoken.
       9 And it will be said in that day:
      “ Behold, this is our God;
      We have waited for Him, and He will save us.
      This is the LORD;
      We have waited for Him;
      We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”

            According to Isaiah God loves a good feast. Jesus is no different. That’s what he does best: he feeds his sheep now and forever. Sheep like Barbara. Sheep like you and me. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For God so loved the world that He sent his only Son to die on the cross for Barbara and for you.
            Yes, Barbara loved food. But even her love of chocolate was surpassed by her greater love for hospitality, family, neighbors named and unnamed, but above all, her God-given love for Jesus, her Savior. Yes, Barbara loved many people. But as much as Barbara loved, Christ our Savior loves much more, infinitely more.
            That’s why out of all the things that we could say about Barbara – undoubtedly there are many – the best and surest thing we could say about her is that Christ died for her. That’s really the best thing you can say about any Christian after all: when you think of them, they point you to Jesus. Barbara would not have us look to herself, but to Jesus who gave His life for her on the cross. Jesus who gave, sustained and nourished her faith even in death. Jesus who fed her with His own life-giving body and blood, holy food for a holy saint Baptized into His holy death and resurrection. Even when her memory failed toward the end of her life – Christ, her Savior had not forgotten her. He never forgets His promises, not to Barbara or to you. Barbara’s Shepherd is our Shepherd. Christ’s love for Barbara is also given to you. On the cross God displays the greatest love of all: Jesus’ love poured out for sinners like Barbara, like you and I.
            This is where her love came from in the first place. As loving and caring as she was, Barbara’s love and care didn’t come from Barbara. She was born into sin and death just like you and I. That’s what our first birth brings – life perishable, defiled and dead in sin, always an expiration date. It’s our second birth – Baptism – that bails us out of our first birth. In Christ, she was born again to a living hope through the living waters of Baptism. In Baptism Christ put His name upon Barbara– you are my own dear child. As he does for all you who are baptized.
            That’s how our Heavenly Father cares for all his children. He clothes us in His Son’s death and resurrection and then he feeds us now and forever. Just as He fed and nourished Barbara with Jesus’ body and blood placed into her mouth for the forgiveness of sins. Barbara’s hope is your hope. And in this you rejoice, though now for a little while you have been grieved by various trials, by sin and death.
            But death is not the end for Barbara. Just as it was not the end for Jesus. It all happened on a mountain, just as Isaiah prophesied. A table was spread in the presence of his enemies. God’s cup of wrath overflowed. Christ drank the bitter wine; He tasted the sourness of suffering, sin and death. And there on Calvary, he swallowed up death forever. Barbara’s death. Your death. Not a drop left. Death had its way with Jesus that He might have His way with death. And so Jesus is not dead but lives. The tomb could not hold the Lord of Life. The earth spat him out three days later. Death does not get the last word. Jesus does.
            Death does not get the last word over Barbara or you, his saints. Jesus does. And that is the comfort today: in Jesus, Barbara lives. She rests from her labors until that Last Day when Christ will come again to call her out from the dust of the ground to a resurrected, glorified body. So it will be for all the dead in Christ. In Jesus, you live for he who believes in Christ will live even though he dies.  The grave can’t hold your body down. There’s a feast to attend. Rich food to dine on. High cholesterol forgiveness. The trumpets will ring out like a joyous dinner bell. Come, Lord Jesus!
            And Christ will gather us, along with Barbara and the saints in heaven and earth, around His heavenly banquet table for a meal spread out by loving, pierced hands. Yes, God loves a feast. This is what he does best. He feeds his sheep now and forever. Because even more than the feast, he loves his guests. Barbara’s place is set and so is yours. All is ready.

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

St. Luke, Apologist

October 18th marks the the Festival of St. Luke, Evangelist. St. Luke was one of the holy men of God carried along by the Spirit to write the Gospel that now bears his name. If you want to read more there's a great summary of the work of Luke and his place in the early church here, posted on another Lutheran blog. He's called the Evangelist and rightfully so, since his book bears witness to the evangel, the Gospel, the Good News that Christ is born, Christ died, Christ rose and ascended and he does it all for you. However St. Luke deserves another title that is all too often overlooked, that of Apologist, defender of the Christian faith. Listen to the opening of the Gospel:

1 Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.

Eyewitness. Orderly account. Certainty. Delivered. Instruction. These are important phrases right out of the gates in Luke's Gospel. It's no accident, no coincidence. While Luke was not an eyewitness himself of the events described and told in the Gospel, he was a good reporter, an early journalist and a close associate of people who were eyewitnesses from the beginning. In other words, he did his homework. Talked to the right people. Asked the right questions. And recorded this faithfully. No wonder there are portions of Luke's Gospel that you don't find in the other Gospels. While at the same time, it's no wonder you find significant portions that are. The four Gospels are working like four eyewitnesses to an auto accident, each reporting the same event from a different street corner, or vantage point. But we also know that Luke was an eyewitness of many of the events in the book of Acts, part two of Luke's Gospel. Those are the "we" sections in Luke. Yes, Luke is writing a Gospel of Jesus' life and work, but he's doing it as any historian worth his rust would.  If St. Luke was trying to fudge the facts of history he simply would not have put as many historical details in both Luke and Acts. Check out the historical specifics in Luke 3:

1 Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.

If you're trying to cleverly devise a myth and make Jesus into something he didn't claim to be and fabricate the whole story, this is the wrong way to go about it. Any reader can pick this up and go check out the facts. And you know what? The facts check out.Caesar and Pilate (not to mention the rest of this lot) were real historical figures involved in the real, historical events of Jesus saving work on our behalf. That's why we confess "under Pontius Pilate" every Sunday in the Creed. Note, the famous "Pilate Inscription" found in the 1960's shedding valuable archaeological light on Pilate's existence.  No wonder F.F. Bruce commented once that Luke is a writer of habitual accuracy. And thank God for it. I'm sure Theophilus did. We all should.

Here's one more reason to honor St. Luke with the title, Apologist. As noted above, Acts is the sequel to Luke's Gospel. However, the dating of the book of Acts is an interesting case in the defense of the Christian faith. The major players - Peter and Paul - are reported to have died under the Neronian persecution of the Christians, most likely around 64 A.D. However, the book of Acts records neither the death of St. Peter nor St. Paul, which is more than odd since they are chief players in the book. It is more likely that the book of Acts was not written yet and they were still alive, otherwise their deaths would have been recorded. Also, the temple, the center of the world in 1st century Jerusalem, was destroyed in A.D. 70. Guess what? Not mentioned in Acts. Would Luke, a good historian, leave such a major historical detail out? Not likely. It's more likely that the events of Jerusalem's overthrow (as predicted by Jesus) had not happened yet and Acts was written before it occurred. So, why all the hullabaloo? Well, if Acts is part 2 of Luke's Gospel and it is written sometime around 64 A.D., Luke's Gospel must precede it. And if Luke's Gospel is written before 64 A.D., most scholars agree that Matthew and Mark were written before Luke. Whether you prefer Markan or Matthean priority matters not (at least for the sake of argument here). Jesus' death occurred somewhere around 33 A.D. Do the math. The time gap between the writing of Luke's Gospel (and others) and the events he records (Jesus' life, death and resurrection) becomes so short as to be meaningless. Luke's writing is historically reliable, veracious and trustworthy.

For that belov'd physician
All praise, whose Gospel shows
The Healer of the nations,
The One who shares our woes.
Your wine and oil, O Savior,
Upon our spirits pour,
And with true balm of Gilead
Anoint us evermore. LSB 518:26

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jesus Renders Unto You

+ 18th Sunday after Pentecost – October 16, 2011 +
Text: Matthew 22:15-22

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

            You wouldn’t want to play Jesus in a game of chess. But for some reason, the Pharisees always seem to try. The Passover is near. They’re gathered in the temple. It’s Holy Week. The plot to kill Jesus is being hatched even as they plot this little game of entrapment. Everyone’s gathered for the big match: the power-hungry Herodians and the oh-so righteous Pharisees. A strange alliance proving that even in Jesus’ day, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
            So they sent their disciples to Jesus. The game is on. 1st move:

            The Pharisees blow a little smoke up Jesus’ tunic with sarcasm thick enough to build another wall around Jerusalem: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you don’t care about anyone’s opinion, you are not swayed by appearances.”
           2nd move. Check. “What do you think, Jesus, is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar, or not?” Good move. Jesus is trapped between Rome and Jerusalem. If Jesus says no, the Herodians get all upset: “He’s a traitor to Rome, an insurrectionist, a tax-cheat and a threat to national security – why, he may even claim to be king.” If Jesus says yes, he’s a traitor to his own people, a Roman loyalist, and a supporter of the occupying foreigners, an enemy of Israel and an enemy of God.
            They think they have Jesus right where they want him.

            Or is it the other way around? Jesus has them right where he wants them. Think you can out-wit and out-play Jesus? “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites, you - two faced liars and pretenders. Show me the money. Bring me the coin for the tax.”
            “Whose image, icon or likeness is on the coin? Whose inscription?”
            “Well, then. There’s your answer. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. It’s his image, his inscription. So give him the coin.” But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He’s got one final move.
            “Render to Caesar the things of Caesar and to God the things that are God’s.” Checkmate.
            Jesus avoids the trick question and catches the Pharisees in their own trap. Give to God the things that belong to God.

            So what, exactly, is God’s? If the coins are Caesar’s because they bear his image and inscription, then what, or rather who, bears God’s image and inscription? Caesar gets the coin. But what does God get? Follow Jesus’ illustration all the way through. Who bears God’s image? What has God’s inscription written on it?

            You do!  You are made in the image and likeness of God. Yes you are marked by sin and death from Adam. Yes the law is inscribed on your heart and it condemns you all the more. But your Baptism – your 2nd birth - bails you out of your first birth. You are Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, who has taken your sin, death and condemnation. God writes his inscription in blood and water on your forehead and on your heart: “Forgiven. Saint. Holy.” You are marked and branded by Christ Crucified. God doesn’t want your coin. God doesn’t demand taxes. He wants you. And not just part of you. All of you. Your heart, soul, mind and strength. Your fear, love and trust. He wants you.

            It’s quite different when it comes to taxes, however. What’s the bare minimum payment I can make and stay out of jail? Loopholes, credits and deductions. Avoid, not evade taxes, that’s the key. In the end you give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but not a penny more.
            But that’s exactly how we – and the Pharisees - end up using God’s Law too. What’s the least common denominator when it comes to the 10 commandments? When the Law says, “Love your neighbor.” You’ll ask, “Well, who’s my neighbor?” And then define it so narrowly you can keep it perfectly and pat yourself on the back.
            We treat God the same way – like a divine IRS agent. Render to God the things that belong to God. What does that mean? How much? 10, maybe 15% to show how generous I am. What’s the bare minimum I can give God and stay off the naughty list this Sunday, this week, this year? I’ll put in my tax - 10% of time, talent and treasure and get on God’s good-side.
            Counting. Keeping score. Numbers, charts and percentages – that’s all Law. That may work in Caesar’s realm, but not in God’s. The kingdom of God doesn’t work by the Law. It’s Upside down, inside out, and sometimes just plain crazy.  The last are first, the first are last. Losers are winners, and tax collectors and prostitutes slip through the pearly gates ahead of life-long Lutherans.  Jesus doesn’t just want 10% of you in his kingdom, he wants all of you. And He is restless until He has all of you - your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength, your fear, your love, your trust.

            Have you rendered unto God the things that are God’s? No. You haven’t. You won’t give it. You can’t. You and I are so wrapped up in ourselves that we won’t give to God the things that are his. It’s my time. My treasure. My talent. Mine. Mine. Mine. You can’t have it God. I’ll give you every other Sunday and an hour a week. But the rest of the day – the rest of the week is mine. And don’t you dare interfere with my plans. Repent. The law has no loopholes or credits, only punishment and death. God wants everything, your whole life and you won’t give it up.
            But he knows that. He knew the Pharisees were hypocrites and he knows we are too. That’s exactly why Jesus comes to rescue, save, suffer and die for you. Have you rendered unto God the things that are God’s? No. More importantly Jesus gives to God the things that are God’s for us who haven’t. His perfect obedience. His perfect life. His perfect death. He does it all for you. Jesus, the image and likeness of God nailed to the cross, there’s the coin of the kingdom: Christ crucified for you. Whose inscription does this sacred fleshly coin bear? Yours. Your sin and death, engraved by Roman nails in Jesus’ hands, feet and side. On the cross, Jesus renders to God what is God’s and to you what is His. Your punishment is His. His blessing is yours. Your sin is His. His forgiveness is yours. Your death is His. His life is yours. All of Christ – his perfect, fear, love and trust in God – for you. All of Christ, his heart, soul, strength and mind - is spent on saving you. Jesus loves his neighbor as himself – even better than Himself - He loves you to death, literally.
            Debt settled. Penalty paid. Eternal amnesty. Jesus is the sacrifice offered up, perfectly, once and for all, for you. Game over. It is finished. The Law is fulfilled. Not partially. Not 10 or 15%. Not by loophole or deduction. But by His holy, precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. That you may be his own and live under him in his kingdom.

            For Caesar’s kingdom is coming to its end. Rome burned and collapsed. So will our nation one day. And that coin of Caesar Jesus used as an object lesson is now a museum piece and a bulletin cover. An artifact of history. The kingdom that once proudly and defiantly stood behind it is no more. The same is true of our pennies, nickels and dimes. Just like all earthly governments – they are temporary. The kingdoms of this world and all their famous images will die. They serve the purpose of the law. That’s why God sets them up. And the end of the Law is always death.
            But the kingdom of God has come among us in the flesh and blood of Jesus...His kingdom comes with His dying and rising.  His kingdom has no coin because there are no transactions in his kingdom.  No deals to cut. No taxes to pay. No tariffs or duties. It is all free, grace, gift, gratis, thanks to the king who hung on a cross to reign. 
            This kingdom has no end. Jesus comes to you in His kingdom - his image and likeness, his very body and blood - here on the altar. And his kingdom will come down from heaven on the world’s Last Day as Christ gathers to himself everything that belongs to God. To gather you, his children, created, redeemed, baptized and made holy in the image of His eternal Son and your names inscribed forever in the Lamb’s book of life.

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Of Elves and Angels

Extremely Nerdy Theological Content

Yes, yes, I know. Michaelmas was last Thursday. A blogger is never late nor is he early; he writes precisely when he means to.

Last week as I was preparing for a guest appearance on Higher Things Radio, which you can listen to here, I couldn't help but notice that the more I read and studied angels in the Scripture - St. Michael in particular - the more elves and angels seemed to have in great deal in common (the interview, btw, was a grand time as always; a joy and an honor to be a frequent guest). Now, I'm not referring to those blessed house elves of Harry Potter fame. They  have a rich Christian symbolism all their own. Nor am I talking about little Christmass elves or big humans dressed up as ginormous elves in the mall or on the silver screen (i.e. Will Ferril in the hilarious movie Elf).

Rather, I have in mind Tolkien's elves of Middle-Earth. The Eldar. The Elder Kindred. The children of Iluvatar. The Quendi. Or the Kalequendi - elves of light - as opposed to the Moriquendi - elves that never saw the light. The latter have more alike with the fallen angels mentioned in Scripture as much as Melkor and his minions have a great deal in common with the great dragon, that ancient serpent the devil. But back to good elves and holy angels. It's not a one-to-one correspondence. Tolkien didn't write that way - nor did he intend to write in the same way as Lewis. While both neither can be categorized as narrowly as allegorists, they each have allegory or symbolism of sorts - and very often rich symbolism - of the Christian faith. For Tolkien this was simply part and parcel of the deep myth which he created. Elves have a great deal in common with angels, as you will see from the list below. However, elves are not angels. At best this is a helpful comparison. One which, if applied wisely and thoughtfully given the writing in hand, can point us to the truth of Scripture and Christ's saving work through the many wonders of Tolkien's world, which point to the wonders of the real world. This was the genius of his work as sub-creation, writing which reflected Primary Art. So, it comes as no surprise that there are glimpses, shadows and all out bright stars in Middle-Earth that point us toward the fulfillment, the reality and the true Light of the world. And in the process, even if it is intentional and unintentional (more so for both men the longer they wrote and the more they discussed this in letters, essays, etc.), the stories of Tolkien (and the Inklings) provide a valuable defense of the Christian faith. Call it right-brained apologetics. Or, as John W. Montgomery calls it, apologetics for the tender-hearted. Not the hard-nosed intellectual arguments. Yet it's no less intellectual. And it is infinitely joyous, having the joy of the Gloria in view (see Tolkien On Fairy Stories).

Come to think of it, this gives us a rather fitting summary of angels' work in the Scriptures: to declare and defend. To be heralds, messengers, harbingers of the Lord and servants of Christ. And to defend true Israelites in both the Old and New Testaments, from the exodus to Daniel, from the flight to Egypt to Christ's victory over Satan meted out by Michael and the angelic host. If they're on your side it's a good thing: holy angels are a blessing to God's people, ministers and guardians. They march through the tree tops in defense of Israel and they guard and protect us, even passing over us. But if you're on the other side, angels are rightfully feared, just look at Exodus and throughout the OT. Perhaps most important of all, they point to Christ's coming and announce his infant advent (Luke 1-2, Matthew 1). They surround his presence both in Isaiah's depiction of the throne and John's (Isaiah 6, Revelation). And the list could go on. Here are but a few similarities and wherever possible I have given some examples. Perhaps as time goes on the list will grow both from my reading and yours. Of elves and angels, a list of comparisons. The good elves of Middle-Earth are:

  • Messengers
  • Mysterious
  • Arrive during important/critical events/times
  • Defend against evil
  • Help/minister in time of need. Recall the help Frodo receives on his way to Rivendell, having been pierced by the ring wraith.
  • Their songs - as is true of the angels, see Rev. 5, 7, 19, Luke 2 and Isaiah 6 among others - are joyous. The dwarfs later, but Bilbo especially, come to appreciate their songs in parts of the Hobbit, especially in the House of Elrond. And Frodo and Samwise both find comfort in these songs the closer they get to Mordor and the footsteps of Mt. Doom. Even though Rivendell and Lothlorien were a distant memory, the elven song remains with them all the same. Just as the light of Earendil remained with them when all other lights went out. One can't help but think of Jesus' proclamation: I AM the Light of the world, the light which no darkness can overcome.
  • Bring rest to the weary. Rivendell is such a place for a time until both journeys set out (Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Ring) only to return to its solace. Lothlorien too, but not nearly as much as the former.
  • Wise and powerful, even transcendent in a way. Think of Legolas and his constant guidance, eagle eye and his bow at the ready. Or Elrond and his Solomon like countenance. Not to mention Galadriel and her appearance/disposition.
  •  Immortal. Arwen, Elrond, etc. This is mentioned much throughout LOTR. Something the movies made a few slips of the story line with. But the details are all in Tolkien's appendices as well as in the major works of Middle-Earth, especially the Silmarillion.
  • Revered and looked upon in honor. Tolkien's verbal illustration of the elves throughout encompasses this.
  • Angelic in form and appearance. I especially have in mind Gimli - a gruff, hard-nosed dwarf being softened by the beauty of Galadriel.
  • They inspire both awe and fear - almost a holy reverence about them. And yet for those pleased to be an elf-friend (an Elendil) it is most joyous to be in their presence.
 Everything said here of elves could be said of angels. Because as Tolkien reminds us, the story is part of a larger, greater, more joyous story.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long
been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in
a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy story,
or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain
many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self contained
significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable
eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and
aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ
is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of
the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency
of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which
so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to
sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any
specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history,
without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had
possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a
quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as
the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth.
(Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this
regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the
same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous.
But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and
of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

But in God's kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man
is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated
legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work,
with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his
bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with
which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he
may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come
true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give
them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

- Tolkien, On Fairy Stories.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Free and Not Free

My good friend and brother in the holy ministry, Mark Jasa, was recently on Issues Etc. talking about the primary - indeed most significant - difference between Christianity and all the other world religions: Free and Not Free. All the world religions - except for Christianity - in some form or fashion, all come down on the other side: Not Free. You must earn, merit, reward, achieve, make your self worthy, submit, excel, and so forth up and down the ladders of the law. That's the difference between heaven and hell. Jesus and his cross for you or you and your merits without Jesus. However, it is only Jesus who claims to be your Savior, to live a perfect life, suffer, die and rise again and to do it all for you, in order for you to receive his life, salvation, forgiveness of sins and the blessings of the new creation which come as a result. Free grace. Free forgiveness. Free life. Free for you because it cost Jesus so dearly.

E-nklings has done several pieces on this in the past and it was a joy to hear Pr. Jasa on Issues. Pr. Jasa continues to be a regular guest at Redeemer Lutheran, HB with our ongoing series on evangelism and apologetics: Declare and Defend. The next one is coming up on Saturday October 22, 2011 from 8:30-12 at RLC, HB. You can also check out some of those early seminars on our church website by going to our media page.

But be sure to check out Pr. Jasa from Tuesday, September 27, 2011 to hear this excellent interview.

Pax Tecum
Jude 3

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Marvelous Rock in the Vineyard

 + 16th Sunday after Pentecost – October 2, 2011 +

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

            “Hear another parable,” Jesus says.  Here we go again…another Sunday, another parable, another vineyard. This time the wicked, murderous tenants. Next week the parable of the wedding feast. That’s no coincidence. The vineyard and the marriage feast go together. God loves a party and wants nothing more than to share his bounty, goodness and joy with all. O give thanks to the Lord for he is good and his steadfast love endures forever.  As Good Friday approaches, God’s outrageous grace continues to be poured out like rich wine from the mouth of his outrageously gracious Son.  Meanwhile, as the Pharisees’ plot to arrest and kill Jesus thickens, Jesus tells a parable.
            Vineyard planted. Hedge put around it. Wine press dug. Even a tower to keep the bad guys out. So far so good.  Then the owner makes his first mistake.  He lends it out to tenants.  If He had just kept the vineyard for himself all the joy of the harvest, the grapes and wine, profit would be his.
            Then the owner messes up again.  He goes off to another country.  Takes a holiday.  What a dumbie.  While the boss is away, the workers will play. Everyone knows, “if you want things done right you’ve got to do it yourself.” Better keep an eye on those tenants’s work, they might take advantage of you.
            And that’s just what they do. This landowner must be a few bottles short of a full cellar. He expects the tenants to do the work, gather the grapes, and join him in the generous harvest.
No way! The tenants reply. No sharing, no joy in the harvest. “Why should we? Less for us. The Landowner’s off on a holiday; he’s not here; what’s he gonna do to stop us?” So the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.
            Still the landowner doesn’t get it. He sends his servants again. More than the first. And the tenants do the same thing all over again. The outrageous wickedness of the tenants is surpassed only by the outrageous optimism of the owner. 

            Then comes the biggest blunder of all. Finally, he sends them his Son. “They will respect my Son.” No they won’t. Not these tenants. This is their big moment. The landowner is away. And with the Son out of the picture the vineyard, the land and the inheritance are theirs for the taking. So they do the unthinkable. They take his Son and throw him out of the vineyard and kill him.
            But the tenants forgot something amidst all their scheming. Listen as Jesus carefully sets the spring and pulls the pin.  “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? And the trap is set.

            What will he do? “He will put those wretches to a wretched death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him fruit in due season.” Commit the crime, do the time. You get what you deserve. Those wretched, damnable tenants all deserve to die. Pay back. Isn’t that how we’d answer Jesus’ question?
            Or try it another way, “As you believe so you have” (Luther).  If you treat God as one who’s only trying to get things out of you, who’s stingy and deprives you of what you think is rightfully yours, who takes what is his, demands his rights and pays back evil for evil, then that is the God you have.
The Pharisees’ answer reveals their unbelief. In speaking judgment on the tenants they spoke judgment on themselves. They expected Jesus to act as they would. Selfishly. Tit for tat. Quid pro quo. As you believe so you have.

            That’s the fatal warning in this week’s parable. Reject the mercy of God and lose it all. Aim for the landowner’s Son and you get the vineyard thrown in, aim only for the vineyard and you get neither (paraphrasing Lewis’ quote: aim for heaven and you get earth thrown in, aim only for earth and you get neither).
            Jesus sugar coats nothing: “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” The kingdom of God will be taken away from you - you religious do-gooders, you commandment keepers, you moralists and legalists, you who bargain and transact with God. And it will be given to a people who will produce its fruits - to tax collectors, losers, people who are burned out on religion, those who can’t seem to keep their lives in order, to those who have nothing to say to God but “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

            The good news for wretched tenants is found in the same Rock they kicked out of His own vineyard. “Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes?”

            What’s so marvelous about rejection? Where’s the joy and celebration in that? The vineyard, the wine, the festival – it all seems so far away from Good Friday. But there it is, don’t you see it? Here’s the great twist, the blessed irony: “Let’s kill the son,” they said, “and the vineyard will be ours.” Those wicked tenants were right after all! What they meant for evil; God used for good.  O, give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.
            If you want something done right…do it yourself. And that’s exactly what Jesus does – Good Friday for you. The Son killed and his inheritance is ours.  Forgiveness, life, salvation, an eternal inheritance, all for you, from the Father in the death of His beloved Son. His rejection for your reconciliation, his forsakenness for your acceptance before the Father. It’s true what Isaiah prophesied about Israel: the hedge removed. The walls crumble. The vineyard devoured. Trampled. Briers and Thorns. Sour grapes. Death and Destruction.
            But then Jesus comes along and speaks as if Isaiah’s words are his Words. Jesus comes along and takes the punishment of Israel’s sins, of the Pharisees sins, yours and mine – he takes it all on himself as he is thrown outside the vineyard walls of Jerusalem, beaten, and killed. Buried beneath stone. His clothing removed. The earth crumbled. The Son is devoured in death and destruction for his vineyard. Briers, thorns, sour grapes and all. The precious Vine withers and dies to give life to dead branches. O, give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.

            The Lord has done all of this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. Simply marvelous! This is what he wants more than anything: to give you his vineyard, fruit, and wine, the joyous harvest, his bountiful goodness and steadfast love.
            Jesus lives, dies and lives again the words of Psalm 118. A psalm of thanksgiving for triumph over the enemy. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His steadfast love endures forever.” Indeed, in Christ his love endures all. It’s the “hosanna” psalm. “Hosanna; Lord save us. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Words shouted as Jesus, earlier in this chapter of Matthew, rode into Jerusalem atop a donkey.
            “Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.” Words sung as Jesus comes riding atop the altar and into your mouth in bread and wine. What a feast! What a joy! As you believe, so you have.              
            You see; the vineyard and the marriage feast go together.
            Whether it’s the wedding feast at Cana or the Upper Room, when Jesus talks about wine, he points us to his joyous kingdom of heaven. “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.” Jesus’ blood poured out in death for your death. His life for your life. That’s the incredibility of Jesus’ love Jesus for us. What we had coming to us for our sins He took in our place.
            Jesus’ death is the ultimate horror of all history – but it’s your greatest joy. If you can face that, there’s nothing you cannot face. Whatever pain you know, Jesus has born for you. Whatever suffering you face, Jesus has endured for you. Whatever temptation you are assaulted with, Jesus has withstood. There’s no misery that goes deeper than the cross. The Crucified One is there and deeper down still. For you. Everything that would destroy us, Jesus has already faced. For you. And it wasn’t even able to destroy him nor will it destroy you who are His.
            Let me sing a love song for my vineyard. What more is there to do for my vineyard that I have not done? Nothing. All is done. It is finished.
            Go in peace, your sins are forgiven. Satan’s accusations are empty and the chalice is full to the brim. God has put us in his vineyard. And we know what a vineyard is for. Come and eat at his table and drink with him in his kingdom. That’s right, even Jesus is not one to drink alone. Jesus still loves eating and drinking with sinners. Wine of the vineyard for the blood of Jesus’ death for our sins. Wine of the vineyard in the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom which has no end. As you believe so you have.
            O, give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.

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