October 16, 2017- The Priesthood of Believers, Called to Be “Little Christs”- 1 Peter 2:9, Matthew 16:18-19

priesthood of believers.jpg

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,  in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 1 Peter 2:9 (NRSV)

(Jesus said): “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:18-19 (NRSV)

In the Matthew passage, Jesus was addressing His disciples (plural) who were gathered with Simon Peter.  The name Peter means “rock.”  Even though Jesus called Simon by the name Peter, in this passage He wasn’t just addressing Simon Peter, or referring to him alone as the “rock,” but he included all the disciples as well.  The slight misinterpretation of taking the “you” of this passage to be singular rather than plural led to the establishment of the Roman Catholic papacy and of a concept called apostolic succession.

The difference between the priesthood of believers, in which every member of the Body of Christ is intended to be and invited to be the rock upon which Jesus builds His church, and apostolic succession (authority and leadership is concentrated in the hands of One Guy) is a very important distinction.

In human history it never fails that when power is concentrated in the hands of one person (dictatorship) or held by a small group of select people who share a like mind (oligarchy) that power will be misused. Absolute power, as the expression goes, corrupts absolutely.  Human beings are by our very nature, fallible (prone to error) and in need of correction.  We need community. We need to act as checks and balances on each other.  The “Great Experiment” of American government (still fallible, but in many ways self-righting) is based on the concept of government by consent of the governed, and on the premise that all people have a role in government and in the community.

In the Roman Catholic teaching of apostolic succession, the declaration to the disciples  regarding both the establishment of the Church and the authority to bind and loose (known as the office of the keys) is taken to mean a singular rather than plural “you,” and was interpreted to mean Jesus was only addressing the apostle Simon Peter and not the other disciples.  So in Catholicism, the Pope is considered to be a direct spiritual descendant of the apostle Peter, as Peter is considered to be the first Pope.  This keeps the line of authority firmly in the hands of One Guy- the Pope.

The Pope was considered to be the “Vicar of Christ.” A rule was set down making him a sort of “substitute Jesus” here on earth. The Pope was considered to be infallible, meaning he was not capable of being wrong or of making an error. Unfortunately the only person who ever lived who could claim to be infallible is Jesus Himself.

Throughout the history of the Church, (and to this day, we as Lutherans share common history and many, but not all, doctrines with the Roman Catholic Church) the doctrines of papal infallibility and apostolic succession have proved time and time again to be rather damaging. Many Popes in early Church history were thoroughly corrupt and more concerned with secular politics and building their own wealth than with being Jesus followers here on earth.

Under the government of the Popes – with One Guy in charge rather than all believers contributing to the growth and development of the Church- the Gospel got lost in a lot of man-made rules and silly superstitions. The average person couldn’t read the Bible in his or her own language.  The knowledge of Scripture was reserved for the priests and monks- who could interpret it in any way they pleased, or not interpret it properly at all.   The Church claimed authority over granting absolution (forgiveness of sins) rather than acknowledging the truth that Jesus had already paid the price for our sins, and that our forgiveness is entirely a free gift from Him.

By the time the sixteenth century rolled around, the Church was full of profiteers and others who had completely gotten out of touch with the original message of the Gospel. The small misinterpretations of the doctrines of the priesthood of believers (the call to be the Body of Christ, and to embrace Jesus as our Savior is for ALL Jesus followers, and is not determined on the authority just one human, fallible guy) and the office of the keys (the authority to bind and loose, aka: make rules for the Church) led to countless abuses of power and severely weakened the Church and its mission in the world.

This was the primary and the most radical premise of the Reformation- that ALL people are invited into the Body of Christ, and to BE the Church. It’s all about Jesus, and not about one, human, fallible guy being in control.

ALL believers have the power to interpret and live out their calling as the Holy Spirit leads them.

Jesus died on the Cross to save us from sins.  At His death the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was torn in two- (Matthew 27:50-52) and the Holy Spirit was set loose over all the earth. We no longer needed a priest as a mediator, because Jesus became our Mediator. We are free to go directly to Him with anything, any time, all the time.

ALL believers have the authority to be as Martin Luther put it, “Little Christs,” doing Jesus’ work here on earth- forgiving, healing, restoring, and letting the Holy Spirit work in and through us.

October 9, 2017- This IS…My Body, This IS…My Blood, Matthew 26:26-28

bread and wine

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you;  for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26:26-28 (NRSV)

One of the smallest words in the English language can be one of the most expansive: the word “is.”

When we as English speakers read the Bible we need to take care that the message in Scripture doesn’t get lost in our translations. Many thoughts expressed in the Hebrew or Greek languages are difficult to pin down in English.  The English word “love” for example, has many shades of meaning depending on the context- “love” as in, “I love this fish sandwich,” or “I love art,” or “I love the human race,” or “I love you and want to marry you,” use different meanings of the same word.  Hopefully nobody wants to marry a fish sandwich- but here is the difficulty of translation.

We must be careful when we read and interpret Scripture, and be mindful of the translations we use, especially if we do not speak or understand the original languages. We need to be sure we understand what the writers meant and that the translations are saying what God was saying through those writers.   The Holy Spirit is ready and willing to guide us if we ask Him for help in rightly interpreting and applying God’s Word.

There isn’t any confusion on the meaning of the word “is” as Jesus used it when He said, “Take and eat, this IS My Body,” and “Take and drink, this IS My Blood.”  The word “is” means exactly what Jesus said.

The Sacrament of the Altar – or Communion- in the Lutheran understanding, takes Jesus at His word. He IS present in, with and through the bread and wine.  When we partake of the Sacrament (the Word combined with the physical elements of bread and wine) we are taking in and taking part in His Body and Blood.

In some traditions Communion is merely taken as symbolism- something you do because Jesus did it at the Last Supper, but for Lutheran Christians the Sacrament of the Altar is much more than just sharing a piece of bread and a shot of wine or grape juice.

Martin Luther wrote extensively on the value of coming to the Communion table, and the importance of remembering that the ability to share in the Body and Blood of Christ is a gift of grace to us. While it is good for us to come to the table understanding why and what benefit it is for us, we can’t really completely “be worthy” or “get it.”  We have to trust that God is at work in and through the elements, and that we are worthy because Jesus said so, because He is the one extending the invitation to “take and eat.”

Now, what is the Sacrament of the Altar!

Answer: It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in and under the bread and wine which we Christians are commanded by the Word of Christ to eat and to drink. And as we have said of Baptism that it is not simple water, so here also we say the Sacrament is bread and wine, but not mere bread and wine, such as are ordinarily served at the table, but bread and wine comprehended in, and connected with, the Word of God.

It is the Word (I say) which makes and distinguishes this Sacrament, so that it is not mere bread and wine, but is, and is called, the body and blood of Christ. For it is said: Accedat verbum ad elementum, et At sacramentum. If the Word be joined to the element it becomes a Sacrament. This saying of St. Augustine is so properly and so well put that he has scarcely said anything better. The Word must make a Sacrament of the element, else it remains a mere element. Now, it is not the word or ordinance of a prince or emperor, but of the sublime Majesty, at whose feet all creatures should fall, and affirm it is as He says, and accept it with all reverence fear, and humility.

With this Word you can strengthen your conscience and say: If a hundred thousand devils, together with all fanatics, should rush forward, crying, How can bread and wine be the body and blood of Christ? etc., I know that all spirits and scholars together are not as wise as is the Divine Majesty in His little finger. Now here stands the Word of Christ: Take, eat; this is My body; Drink ye all of it; this is the new testament in My blood, etc. Here we abide, and would like to see those who will constitute themselves His masters, and make it different from what He has spoken. It is true, indeed, that if you take away the Word or regard it without the words, you have nothing but mere bread and wine. But if the words remain with them as they shall and must, then, in virtue of the same, it is truly the body and blood of Christ. For as the lips of Christ say and speak, so it is, as He can never lie or deceive. – from the explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar, Luther’s Large Catechism

The simple answer to why we take Communion is because Jesus IS present. He is one with the elements that we consume, and He becomes part of us.  In the Sacrament of the Altar, we literally take Him in.

 

October 4, 2017- Baptism for All Ages- Isaiah 55:10-11, Ephesians 4:4-6

infant baptism picture

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:10-11 (NRSV)

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:4-6 (NRSV)

The big deal about the universality of the sacrament of Baptism – why it is something meant for all, regardless of age or cognition or profession of faith- is that it’s God doing the calling.

God has a way of calling the unlikely, the underdog, the weak. This isn’t to say that baptism is not for those who come to faith as adults, but that it is always God’s Word that makes it effective regardless of who is brought to the font. It is God’s calling, whether through our own volition or through our parents and sponsors, that names and claims us through the water and the Word.

I have had the privilege of witnessing Baptisms of all ages, from an infant at the age of three days to my own grandfather who was baptized three days before he died at age 91.   Whether the person was aware of what the pastor was doing and why, or not, the power of the Sacrament is still manifested there.  God is the Author of our salvation and of our faith. It is His promise being given.

We can have confidence in what God promises, even though we might not fully believe and comprehend His promises. It’s always God doing the calling and the equipping.

Further, we say that we are not so much concerned to know whether the person baptized believes or not; for on that account Baptism does not become invalid; but everything depends upon the Word and command of God. This now is perhaps somewhat acute but it rests entirely upon what I have said, that Baptism is nothing else than water and the Word of God in and with each other, that is when the Word is added to the water, Baptism is valid, even though faith be wanting. For my faith does not make Baptism, but receives it. Now, Baptism does not become invalid even though it be wrongly received or employed; since it is not bound (as stated) to our faith, but to the Word. –from the explanation of infant Baptism, Luther’s Large Catechism

Today’s children and young adults have tremendous challenges ahead of them. It is easy to get caught up in the things this world tempts us with and not give the things of God a second thought. Often teens and young adults stray from the faith and don’t understand or don’t acknowledge the promise they were given in their Baptism.  Yet God is still at work in them and in their lives whether they acknowledge His work or not.

Baptism, and particularly infant baptism, clearly is an affirmation that God is in control. It is God Who redeems.  It is God Who names and claims and restores.

Therefore I say, if you did not believe then believe now and say thus: The baptism indeed was right, but I, alas! did not receive it aright. For I myself also, and all who are baptized, must speak thus before God: I come hither in my faith and in that of others, yet I cannot rest in this, that I believe, and that many people pray for me; but in this I rest, that it is Thy Word and command. Just as I go to the Sacrament trusting not in my faith, but in the Word of Christ; whether I am strong or weak, that I commit to God. But this I know, that He bids me go, eat and drink, etc., and gives me His body and blood; that will not deceive me or prove false to me.

Thus we do also in infant baptism. We bring the child in the conviction and hope that it believes, and we pray that God may grant it faith; but we do not baptize it upon that, but solely upon the command of God. Why so? Because we know that God does not lie. I and my neighbor and, in short, all men, may err and deceive, but the Word of God cannot err. –from the explanation of infant Baptism, Luther’s Large Catechism

Many of us have children or grandchildren who have strayed from the faith or who fail to acknowledge God. Yet we can call on God- and know that His promise given to them through His Word in their Baptism will not be empty.

If we have loved ones who have been raised in faith and baptized, but have strayed from God, we can take comfort that in their Baptism they too have been named and claimed, and that God will find a way to restore them.

October 1, 2017 – Named and Claimed by God in Baptism- Matthew 3:13-16

JohnBaptizesJesus

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. Matthew 3:13-16 (NRSV)

Lutherans observe two sacraments. A sacrament is defined as a special way to connect with God that was specifically instituted by God, and that has a tangible connection to the elements of the earth. When the Word is brought together with an earthly element, such as water or bread and wine, God makes that a sacrament.

Baptism is the first of the two sacraments. We baptize because Jesus was baptized, and we are baptized into His death- and into His resurrection.

Baptism is first and foremost an act of God, a tangible reminder of His covenant of grace. It may be done with human hands, through a human pastor, with plain city tap water, but it is the Word flowing through the water, the Word being spoken through the pastor, that accomplishes the saving work of God.

In Baptism God names and claims us as His own. In Baptism we are given the gift of salvation, freely and without any condition save our faith in Christ, which is also a gift from God. We do not “choose God.” God chooses us.

This is why it is not only appropriate but fitting that we baptize people of all ages, regardless of cognitive ability. One does not need to understand or make a conscious choice to come to the font for the water and the Word to be effective.  It is all God’s doing.  It doesn’t matter if the person is three days old or ninety five years old.  It doesn’t matter if the person is sprinkled with water or dunked in the river.  God is the One at work in Baptism, and it is not just a one-time event but a way of life.

Luther taught that we are to “put on Baptism as daily wear.” When we wash our faces or take a shower it is an opportunity for us to remember our Baptism- that through the water and the Word we have been named and claimed by God, and set apart by Him for the purpose He created.

It is always good to take a moment now and then to remember that in Baptism we are named and claimed and set aside as children of God.

September 5, 2017 – Justice vs. Mercy and Life Together- Romans 3:21-25, John 8:5-7

honest

Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up. For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. I fear that when I come again, my God may humble me before you, and that I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced. Romans 3:21-25 (NRSV)

(Jesus said, speaking of a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery and who was brought to the scribes and Pharisees for judgment): ”Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” John 8:5-7 (NRSV)

It’s not easy trying to do the right thing. There is a fine line between justice and mercy, and a vexing paradox between, “should we dish out what they deserve,” or “should we just forgive it all and move on?”

Part of us wants to seek out vengeance and justice and not be merciful at all. Here in the earthly kingdom we necessarily categorize- and levy sanctions for- individual transgressions based on their impact and the damage they do to society. The purpose of law on earth is to maintain order in society. When there is no consequence for breaking the law, anarchy, rioting, looting and all sort of debauched behavior become the norm.

“Everything goes” is not a good way for humans to live. This is why God gave us the gift of the Law, and the Ten Commandments, to put protective boundaries around our behavior so we don’t hurt ourselves and others.

When forgiveness becomes enabling and we make excuses for our bad behavior as well as for others’, we are not living the life that God has intended for us.

We are called to forgive. We are called to leave judgment to God. But we are also called to encourage each other (in love) to strive to become the people God created us to be. In the earthly kingdom we have an obligation- if we respect the rights and livelihoods of others- to administer justice and to keep people safe from those who would do them harm. Those who commit crimes against others should face the consequences of their crimes.

Martin Luther speaks in depth of the obligation of society to maintain order and safety in his explanations of the fifth, sixth and seventh commandments in the Large Catechism.

Even though we must have order in society to live together, we must always be willing to help, to forgive and to encourage each other.

How do we encourage in love? How do we find that balance between justice and mercy that we need to have as Jesus followers?

March 20, 2017 -Marked with the Cross of Christ Forever… Acts 10:44-48 and Luke 15

Come-Holy-Spirit

Marked with the Cross of Christ Forever…

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said,  “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.  Acts 10:44-48 (NRSV)

In Baptism we are spiritually buried with Christ. We enter into His suffering and death, as well as we are welcomed into the promise of His Resurrection.

In the Lutheran tradition any person may be baptized regardless of age or cognitive ability. This tradition affirms the truth that God’s Kingdom is open to all, and that it is God doing the choosing, not us.  God chooses us, even when we fail to choose Him.

When infants or children or the infirm are baptized it becomes the parents’, caretakers’ and the greater community’s obligation to see that these most fragile and impressionable members of the community are cared for and instructed in sound Biblical teaching. It is both an obligation and a delight to lead children in the way they should go even though today’s prevailing culture and social mores don’t make it easy.

Often we get discouraged when we see teens and twenty-somethings fall away from a life of faith. Unfortunately for parents and for people who care for young people, often there are times when our children and loved ones take a little hiatus in the pig pen.

It’s challenging for us to keep from distancing ourselves from our children when we can’t agree on their life choices or mode of living, but it is so essential for us to look to Jesus’ example and love them unconditionally, even if we don’t love their current philosophy or approve of their behavior.

Our hearts ache for them to come back to the church, to worship, to study, to love Jesus and live as Jesus followers. The reality is that none of us can do those things apart from the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Even those of us who strive to be Jesus followers miss the mark.  This is where the promise of Baptism gives us hope.

We are- and our children- are, in Baptism-marked with the Cross of Christ forever…not just when we’re behaving, or when we feel like it, or when we acknowledge God is with us.

So he (Jesus) told them this parable:  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.  Luke 15:3-7 (NRSV)

In other words, as Jesus also illustrates in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), a person who belongs to Christ might take a trip to the pig pen, but those who belong to Christ also belong in our Father’s house, and He will find a way to get us back there. We may choose the easy way or hold out for the hard way, but we can trust that God finds a way to bring His own home.

Martin Luther once said that we should “put on Baptism as daily wear.” In the morning when we look in the mirror or stand under the shower, maybe, is a good time to remind ourselves that we are baptized. Chosen. Washed clean.  Named and claimed as a child of God.

March 17, 2017 – Light and Dark, Saint and Sinner – 1 John 1:5-10

saintsinner

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.  If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;   but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.   If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.   If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.   If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.  1 John 1:5-10 (NRSV)

While we as Jesus followers walk this earth we are Simul Iustus et Peccator – as Martin Luther put it in Latin. We are justified (Iustus) in Christ, but sinners (Peccator) at the same time (Simul) because we are still human, and we are still living in the “here now, but not yet.”

We live with one foot in the tangible earthly kingdom and one foot in the Kingdom of God. Paradox is not easy but it is part of our journey on this earth.

Time and time again in Scripture God is portrayed as being light, without darkness. Yet in our lives we see darkness all the time, all around us. We live in the darkness, and sometimes it’s hard for us to find a way out of the darkness.  When we live through illness or strained relationships or other difficulties it can be hard to see the light.

In our thought lives and actions we often have to choose to embrace the light and let the darkness go.  This is why we need to make time for prayer, for study, and for encouraging other believers.  We should seek to “put on our Baptism as daily wear.”  The gift of confession should be seen not as something scary or shameful, or even formal, but as a sanctuary, a blessing and a release.  In Christ we have the privilege to come to Him and let that darkness go, and let Him fill us with the light of the Holy Spirit.

sinner-saint-banner

The good news of this teaching is that in knowing we are sinners and our only justification is in Christ alone, is that we are reminded of our reliance on God. We can’t walk in the light apart from Him. We look to Him – the true Light- to keep us from walking in the darkness.

Jesus is indeed the Light of the world, the Light that no darkness can overcome.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. – John 1:5 (NRSV)

And that is the Good News that a dark world needs to hear.