Friday, May 30, 2008

Looking East?

There has been a discussion on the Lutherans Looking East list comparing and contrasting Lutheran and Orthodox sermons. First, I wish to state that I have not participated in this discussion because I have concluded that I am not the sort of list member that they desire – that is, I am not a Lutheran looking East. I guess I would have to describe myself as a Lutheran observing the East, watching the East, gleaning from the East when appropriate, but not Looking East with a goal (whether long or short term) of going East. In that regard, I am a Lutheran observing the West as well – West, as in the Western Church, the Roman Catholic Church. I’m sorry Episcopalians, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, etc., I am neither looking nor observing, watching nor gleaning from you, for you are playing an altogether different ballgame. No, though I may be a disgruntled and dissatisfied Lutheran at times, I am a Lutheran, and will remain a Lutheran, for I am drawn to the Truth (and He incarnate!), and I continue to find that Truth in the confessional faith that remains the bedrock of the Lutheran Church. Yes, yes, yes, I know, I know, I know – look at the disparate practice of Lutheran congregations; look at the varying interpretations of the Lutheran Confessions that exist; look at the lack of ecclesial authority to reprove and correct false teaching within the Lutheran Synods; yes, yes, yes, I know, I know, I know. The Truth is not affected, nor can It be changed. There is no visible Church – God continue to keep and protect the invisible Body of Christ.

Now, about sermons. What makes a sermon Lutheran? One might rightly presume a careful division of the Law and the Gospel, with the Gospel predominating. Though you will likely not find this coming from every Lutheran pulpit, I think that this sort of homiletic is emblematic of Lutheran preaching. Where this distinction is not made with intention I observe that Lutheran preachers often fall into the trap of proclaiming only the Gospel or admonishing with only the Law. In the case of the former, the people are at risk of antinomian indulgence. In the latter case the risk is self-righteousness or overbearing guilt, fear, and despair. That being said, one of the reasons that I am a convicted Lutheran is because I have never heard the Gospel proclaimed as sweetly in any other denomination as in even the most moderate of Lutheran churches.

Beyond the Law / Gospel distinction, however, there is little that could be said to be unique to or emblematic of Lutheran sermons. This is due to the myriad problems that I listed above. The greater part of North American Lutheran history would suggest that the sermon was the highpoint of the Divine Service. But no small minority of Lutheran pastors today would say that the Holy Eucharist is the clear pinnacle of the Divine Service with the Introit, Lessons, and even the sermon serving as preparation for the banquet in which Christ comes to us physically and spiritually and dwells with and in us, His flesh united with ours, His blood coursing through our veins. Viewed as preparation for this foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end, preaching will utilize highly sacramental and incarnational imagery and didactic. The goal is that Christ’s people come to His banquet in humble but confident faith, in selfless, sacrificial love for both God and neighbor. For me, and for many of my colleagues, this is emblematic of the typical Lutheran sermon.

The participants in the Looking East discussion also have stated that Orthodox sermons tend to focus on love much more than Lutheran sermons. Perhaps that is true, but again, I know that I preach about the love of God in Christ Jesus and the implications of that love for Christians in the world but not of the world in nearly every sermon I’ve ever preached. Certainly I’ve heard Lutheran sermons that were essentially Bible studies read from a pulpit, but I’ve heard many more that proclaimed the selfless, sacrificial love of God in Christ Jesus that enables us to love others as He has so abundantly loved us. Come on, love is what the Christian faith is all about! God IS love. Greater love is NOT POSSIBLE than one lay down His life for His friends. LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS I HAVE LOVE YOU. Divine love is known in action; divine love is a creative activity. It is useless to pontificate about love, to philosophize about love, to quote the fathers on love -- love must be experienced and love must be given (shared). Divine love is known in the Eucharistic Feast (which the sermon helps to prepare you to receive).

I often think that the “church” on earth is going through a humbling trial in this present age. Faithful Christians are being forced to return to the Word alone as they watch their institutional structures plagued by division, scandal, financial crisis, ceaselessly dividing. Even as my own institutional house is in disorder, the Truth remains unchanged. The invisible Church cannot be divided or broken, nor defeated. Where should we go? Christ Jesus has the Word of eternal life. There’s no need to look East, West, North, South or any other way the wind might blow.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Pirate Christian Radio?

Issues, Etc. is (or soon will be) back on the air, internet, and downloadable podcast. Details of when and where you can listen are forthcoming. For the meantime, check out
for a foretaste of what’s to come. Jeff Schwarz and Todd Wilkin will return with engaging, thought provoking interviews with experts, worldwide church leaders, and newsmakers that impact our Christian lives in the world today. The new Issues, Etc promises to be even better than the previous. If you’ve never tuned in before, there is no better time to start.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Lamb Standing As Though Slain

The cliche "forgive and forget" is pure law, not to mention unbiblical. I can't forget. You can't forget. Let's be honest, it's hard enough to forgive! Moreover, God doesn't forget either. What about Hebrews 8:12 and 10:17? Well, the key word there is "remember", there is no mention of "forget". Further, it is contrary to God's immutable and omniscient qualities to forget. If God could forget, then it stands to reason that His promises of remembrance would necessarily lose some degree of their certainty and comfort.

In the passages from Hebrews mentioned above, remembrance is a conscious act of the will, an act of volition. God says " I will remember...". Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures does it say that God forgets sins or that he has forgotten them. Passages such as Psalm 103:12 speak to the fullness and perfection of God's forgiveness, but in no way to His forgetting.

Legalists and Pietists (pardon the redundancy) read into God's Word a new law commanding that we must forgive and forget like God. Like their Pharisaical predecessors, they place new shackles upon those whom God had freed, binding them under impossible commands and burdening consciences with guilt and fear. No, the faithful need not oppress themselves striving to forget the sins committed against them; rather, the faithful strive to not remember them, and when painful sins are remembered, to remember that forgiveness has been given, first to the trespassed against, and also to the trespasser.

Forgiveness is a selfless, sacrificial act of volition. One cannot be forced to forgive, but forgiveness must flow from forgiveness, just as love flows from love, sacrifice from sacrifice, mercy from mercy, etc. Understood in this way, the revealed truth that God forgives but does not forget can be seen for the selfless, sacrificial act of volition that it is. God forgives despite the burden and the hurt of sin, He bears it willingly and releases you. Does this not make His forgiveness all the more meaningful. He hasn't forgotten your sin, but He forgives you anyway; and His forgiveness is perfect, meaning, He will never bring it up again. Likewise, when you forgive others, you do not always forget -- some hurts you will never forget -- but you forgive anyway, you let it go, you release the ones who hurt you and do not hold their sin against them, because in this manner God has so richly and abundantly forgiven you.

Of course, God forgives you on account of the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And as an eternal mnemonic device of the sin forgiven and the sacrifice that made that forgiveness possible, the Lamb of God still bears the wounds of His atoning death. When the Father gazes upon His Son's wounds He remembers the width and the breadth and the depth of His love for His Son and for you -- selfless, sacrificial love. When we gaze upon those wounds we remember the debt we owed, the price He paid, and the value of the forgiveness we have. We want to, we need to behold those glorious scars, for there is the proof and the guarantee of our forgiveness. We know all too well that God has not forgotten and that by all rights we deserve His wrath and eternal damnation. This is why we remember those wounds when we eat the Lamb's broken body and drink His shed blood -- it is a proclamation of His death, a reminder to ourselves and to the Father that we are forgiven.

The homiletical illustration of the nail in the fencepost is a bit cliched, but in reference to the wounds of Christ for our sin remains powerfully visual. The illustration has, typically, a young person being made to hammer a nail into a fence post each time he or she, say, loses their temper. After a while, usually a long while, the young person begins to lose their temper less frequently; it's easier to control the temper than to continually drive nails into the post. Once the proverbial corner has been rounded, the young person begins to remove nails each day they manage to control their temper. Once all the nails are removed, the young person is directed to gaze upon the holes in the post that remain. The moral of the story being this: no matter how many times you apologize or try to right a wrong, even with the forgiveness of the offended, the wounds, the hurt, the hole in the post still remains.

God forgives, but He does not forget. The wounds of Jesus are an eternal testament to the Father's forgiveness and His selfless, sacrificial love poured out in His Son. Thanks be to God that the holes remain. Thanks be to God that the Lamb stands, alive, victorious, as though slain, still bearing the marks of His atoning, selfless and sacrificial death.