Who do you say that you are? Saints, sinners and the Ascension

I have been reading through Ed Shaw’s thought-provoking book, The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction. Apart from the central subject matter of the book (Christians and same-sex attraction), one particular section stopped me in my tracks:

Sinners or saints?
But where’s the theological misstep that the evangelical church has made here? Have you missed it? Here it is: it’s the danger that some evangelicals often fall into of more generally defining ourselves as sinners rather than saints; as those in constant rebellion against God rather than his permanently adopted children (p. 40).

It stopped me in my tracks because what he writes of (British conservative) evangelicals is undoubtedly true of (at least English-speaking) Lutherans, too. We speak of Christians as “saints and sinners”, simul iustus et peccator, but much of our rhetoric puts the emphasis firmly on the sinner in us. I have a pretty firm hunch that Lutheran preachers and writers are more likely to refer to their congregations or readers as sinners than as saints. I know I have in the past.

But, as Shaw points out, the term “sinner” is applied to a Christian only once in the entire New Testament, in 1 Tim. 1:15. And even there, St. Paul applies it to himself, not to his reader: “sinners … of whom I am the foremost”. Moreover, the context suggests that this is more of reference to Paul’s past as a persecutor than to his present status as a Christian. Continue reading

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Liturgical Titbits: A Tale of Two Days

As we learned in the previous post, the church retained two different calendars side by side: the lunar and the solar. Thus there was a clash between two ways of dividing up the year.

But there is also another clash in the church’s time-keeping. We think of the new day as beginning at midnight. So did the ancient Romans. However, in Palestine, each day ended at sunset. As a result, from Old Testament times, Jews have marked the beginning of a new day at sunset. By Roman reckoning, the Sabbath began on Friday evening and ended on Saturday evening—but for the Jews, that was just one day, the Sabbath.
Christianity emerged out of Judaism, but soon spread into the Roman world. As a result, both ways of time-keeping exist side-by-side. On the whole, the church operates the Roman way, from midnight to midnight. At the same time, the Jewish way hasn’t gone away altogether.

For centuries, Christians in the West have begun the Lord’s Day (Sunday) with Saturday night vespers. Many churches also have the first Communion service on Saturday evening. At Christmas, we have Midnight Mass, which often finishes rather than starts at midnight.

The modern observance of the Easter Vigil is a mixture of the two systems. Originally an all-night service (hence the name ‘vigil’). In the Eastern Orthodox church, midnight is marked with particular festivity, with the lighting of fresh candles and the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection. In the West, it is common to have the service already on Saturday evening as the ‘first Mass of Easter’—since by biblical reckoning, the day of Christ’s resurrection began at sundown on Saturday.

This clash of times will no doubt persist until the end of the world—until the revelation of a new heaven and a new earth, where there will no longer be night but one endless day (Rev. 21:23), and no seasons, but a perpetual season of fruitfulness (Rev 22:2).

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More than Forgiveness

From Luther’s Epistle Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter (1 Peter 2:11–20):

We have heard above that the two parts are to be together in a Christian and emphasized in Christan teaching. The first part is faith, that we are redeemed from sin through the blood of Christ and have forgiveness. The second part, after we have [faith], is that afterward we should become different people and live a new life. In Baptism, or when we begin to believe, we receive not only the forgiveness of sins (which is the grace that makes us God’s children) but also the gift that must do away with the remaining sins and kill them. Our sins are not forgiven so that we would continue in them (as St. Paul says in Romans 6), as the insolent spirits and despisers of grace allege. Rather, even though sins have been blotted out through Christ’s blood, so that we do not need to pay or make amends for them, and we now are children of grace and have forgiveness, yet that does not mean sin has been entirely done away with and killed in us.

The forgiveness of sins and the killing of them are two different things. Both of them must be proclaimed against those who confuse and turn things upside down with false doctrine. Against the first, the pope and many others have taught that the forgiveness of sins is to be obtained through the trickery of their own self-chosen and invented works and their own satisfactions. This error always continues in the world from Cain at the beginning to the end. Then, when this error has been put down, there are again false spirits on the other isde, who have heard the preaching about grace and boast about it and yet produce nothing more from it, just as if that were enough, and forgiveness should do nothing more in us than that we remain as we were before. Afterward, there were just as many as before, when we still knew nothing at all about Christ and the Gospel.

Therefore, those who want to be Christians must know and learn that, since they have obtained forgiveness without their own merit, they must from now on not allow or indulge in sin, but rather oppose their former, evil, sinful lusts and avoid and flee their work and fruits. That is the summary and meaning of this Epistle reading.

Luther’s Works, Vol. 78: Church Postil III (St. Louis: CPH, 2014), 154–155

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Liturgical Titbits: A Tale of Two Calendars

The Christian Church was borne out of the mixed soil of the Old Testament Scriptures, first-century Judaism and the Græco-Roman world. This mixture of influences is still with us today when it comes to measuring and marking time in the Church’s life.

The worship of the Old Testament, and much of the Judaism of Palestine in the first century, operated with a lunar calendar, where the change of months was determined by the cycle of the moon. Months, and therefore festivals, would not always occur at the same time of the natural year.

This is why the chief festival of the Church, Easter, which is based on the Jewish festival of Passover, can occur on any time between 22 March and 25 April, depending on when the first full moon of the spring occurs.

On the other hand, the Romans (like us) used the solar calendar, so that months always occur at exactly the same time of the natural year. Festivals that have no Old Testament precedent but were introduced by Christians, such as Christmas, therefore have a fixed date.

Some of the seasons of the Church Year relate to fixed dates (e.g. Advent for the 4 Sundays before Christmas), some to movable dates (e.g. Lent for 40 days before Easter), and others vary depending on how the two relate (Epiphany and Pentecost).
The Church Year has kept both calendars side by side, giving us a number of fixed festivals, with Easter moving to and fro. As a result, in any given year, we might have a short Epiphany season and a long Pentecost (Trinity season), or vice versa.

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The Humble King

A sermon on Palm Sunday, preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham
20 March 2016
(You can listen to the sermon here.)

Texts: Zechariah 9:9–12; Philippians 2:5—11; Matthew 21:1–9; Matthew 26:1—27:66


 

Behold, your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey.

The people of Jerusalem recognised their king. They knew Him because they knew the Scriptures and they had come to know Jesus. The Scriptures promised a king to sit on the throne of David, who would bring about the restoration of Israel and the restoration of creation. Jesus came with authority over the powers of evil and over the power of death. And so they recognised Jesus to be the promised king. And so they sang, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

But the rulers of Jerusalem did not recognise their king, because they knew neither the Scriptures nor Jesus. They expected a triumphant king who would come and rule in the way that they understood ruling: to lord it over the people, as the kings of the Gentiles, and their puppets in the Jerusalem, lorded it over God’s people.

And the rulers of the synagogues also failed to recognise their king, because although they studied the Scriptures, they did not recognise Him to whom those Scriptures pointed. They sought the Scriptures in order to establish their own righteousness, and did not recognise Him who was coming to bring to them the righteousness of God. And so the rulers of Jerusalem ,and the rulers of the synagogues shouted, “Crucify!”

And the Roman soldiers failed to recognise Jesus as their king, because they neither knew nor believed the Scriptures, and they saw only the weakness and the defencelessness and the abandonment of yet another Jewish man given over to them to crucify. So they mocked him, shouting “Hail, king of the Jews”, and they crucified Him.

And at the end of that week, the shouts of “Crucify!”, the voices of mockery, and the thrust of nails against human flesh drowned out the songs of “Hosanna”, cast out the faith and the joy of the disciples, and draw the lifeblood out of the battered and abused body of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. That night, disciples, enemies and bystanders alike were in agreement: Jesus’ claim to kingship had turned out to be a vain hope, an empty claim. Even the centurion’s otherwise remarkable confession, “Truly, this was the son of God”, was in agreement: this was the son of God. But what is he now? A corpse, a piece of history.

All because Jesus died at the hands of others. Kings who do that cease to be kings, and pretenders—people making a claim to the throne—lose their claim if they die at the hands of others before they manage to take their throne. That’s common knowledge.

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Righteousness—by working or through faith?

An insight from tonight’s Bible study on Romans 4:

It’s not just that we can’t work our way to righteousness by perfect law-keeping. Moreover, the sort of relationship that comes by working is of a different kind from a relationship based on faith.

A servant works for wages, and the relationship depends on the work of the servant. A child is in a relationship prior to any behaviour on its part.

So although God does demand perfect law-keeping, He wants something even better than perfectly obedient servants: children who will allow Him to be their Father.

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Rejoice in the Lord

Sermon preached at Vespers for the 61st Annual Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Coventry
2 October 2015
Ps. 119:145–52; Philippians 4:4–9; Luke 11:5–13

There are certain commands that almost always have the opposite effect from what they actually command. An exasperated parent’s “For goodness sake, stupid child, stop being so miserable” is likely to add to rather than reduce said child’s misery. A drill sergeant yelling at privates to “stop being afraid or else” will only add to their fear. When I was a young schoolboy, I was often told by playground bullies to do something or I would cry and do it. It didn’t take us long to come up with what we thought was a great witticism: cheer up, or you’ll cry and cheer up.

At first sight, it appears that in the reading from Philippians, chapter 4, the apostle Paul is guilty of issuing such counter-productive commands. And not only one of them, but several.

Rejoice in the Lord always!
Do not be anxious about anything.

You can’t tell people to rejoice. They either do, or they don’t. Your telling them to do so won’t change a thing, except perhaps put pressure on them to be joyful, thereby killing whatever joy they had to start with.

Likewise, if someone has a tendency to be anxious, telling not to be anxious simply makes matters worse. Before, they were anxious about X, Y and Z. Now they are anxious about X, Y, Z and the fact that they are anxious when they shouldn’t.

It seems that Paul is being as profound as Bobby McFerrin—Don’t Worry, Be Happy—without the catchy tune at least to cheer us up for a moment.

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Rest and Recreation

Here’s an article I wrote for another local church’s community magazine. The issue in question was cancelled, so I’m posting it here instead.


Rest and Recreation

I have been writing articles for Pipeline for some years now. So far, the editor has had to remind me of the impending deadline for publication every single time, sometimes more than once.

This article has been more troublesome for him than usual, as the usual reminder came to me right at the very start of my holiday – and was promptly forgotten as I got into the serious business of holidaying. As a result, these words are being written very late in the day, but by an unusually rested and refreshed me.

For many of us, holidays have become a central part of our lives. Those who can, spend a lot of money to take themselves somewhere fun, or interesting, or just restful, as often as they can. And whether it’s a cottage in Wales, a villa in Italy, Disneyworld, or a beach resort on the Mediterranean, we are willing to devote a lot of effort, time and money to having a break from the daily routines of life. And even if we don’t, our weekly life is punctuated by the weekend and the opportunities for relaxation every Saturday and Sunday.

What isn’t so well-known these days is that both the weekend and the holiday are ideas that come from the Bible. According to the story of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, making the seventh day (in the Old Testament, Saturday) a day of rest when every person got a rest, together even with farm animals – the invention of the weekend. Moreover, the year was punctuated by various festivals, when people stopped working for the day, the weekend or even a whole week – the first holidays.

This wasn’t rest only for the sake of rest, or for mere fun. Rather, both the day of rest and the festivals were for the purpose of recreation – in the original sense of the word, of being created anew. In other words, they were times for worship, holy days: of resting by allowing God to refresh us through the forgiveness of all our faults, through his word, through prayer and through participation in the life of the community.

From the very beginning, the Christian church, too, has celebrated holy days (or holidays, as the word came to be known). To the weekly remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection on Sundays were added festivals commemorating events in the life of Jesus as well as other important people from the Bible and the history of the church. Like the people of the Old Testament, Christians, too, were given time off work for recreation.

This recreation, moreover, is something better than just a press of the ‘reset’ button before the return to the relentless world of labour. Rather, it is an anticipation of something that this world cannot offer but which God has promised to all who have faith in Jesus: life in a new creation to be revealed at the end of the world – a life of continual rest in God’s care, where we will be continually refreshed by His gifts. In the words of the fifth-century bishop, St. Augustine, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.

As the summer holiday season draws to its close and people return to school or to work, many of us can be grateful for the opportunity to rest and to relax – or to be stimulated by new experiences. It is also a great opportunity to remember that the rhythm of toil and rest is not all that there is. By his anguished toil on the cross, his three-day rest in the tomb and his resurrection, Jesus has opened up the possibility of eternal rest and eternal well-being in God’s kingdom, available freely through faith in him.

I hope that many of you will take the opportunity to participate in the foretaste of the rest promised by God in one of the local churches at the weekend and on the holy days of the year.

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Law and Gospel—Taxis or Praxis?

The proper distinction of the Law and the Gospel in God’s Word is, according to the Lutheran understanding, the mark of a true theologian. Confuse, mix, or otherwise mishandle them, and the Gospel will be lost. And when the Gospel is lost, faith is destroyed, and salvation is lost also. Plenty has been written on the subject, and C.F.W. Walther’s Law and Gospel remains a great work to go to (or Bo Giertz’s Hammer of God, if you prefer fiction to non-fiction, story to proposition).

Over the last couple of years, this topic has been the subject of renewed frenzy in the blogosphere, thanks both to a seeming controversy over the so-called third use of the Law, and also with the high-profile adoption of the Law-Gospel distinction by high-profile non-Lutherans. The most high-profile of this crop is probably Tullian Tchividjian, who has written several books on the topic, fallen out with The Gospel Coalition and started a whole new online ministry, Liberate [at the time of writing, Liberate.org is on a hiatus].

All of this has been very controversial, in the sense of stirring a controversy.

It seems to me that this controversy has in part been over mere words, with people talking past each other. Jargon is to blame for this, at least in part. When jargon and other shorthand is used, each speaker comes to the conversation with their pre-loaded semantic field for each term. If those terms are not unpacked in longhand, misunderstandings are inevitable.

However, there is more at stake, as Anthony Sacramone, Mark Surburg, Jordan Cooper and others have pointed out far better than I could.

There is a radical distinction between the Law and the Gospel in God’s word. The Law contains God’s demands on what we are to do, whereas the Gospel is God’s unconditional promise of grace through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So much is uncontroversial (if you are a Lutheran, at least). What manner of distinction it is, however, is another matter. This is where we risk running into problems.

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Preaching to the Strong

CC BY-SA 3.0 de
CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge these famous, much-abused words on 30 April 1944:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience — and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by “religious.”

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form — perhaps the true form — of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless — and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any “religious” reaction?) — what does that mean for “Christianity?” It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our “Christianity,” and that there remain only a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as “religious.” Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervour, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity — and even this garment has looked very different at different times — then what is a religionless Christianity?

… What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God — without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even “speak” as we used to) in a “secular” way about “God?” In what way are we “religionless-secular” Christians, in what way are we the εκ-κλησία, those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favoθred, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? What is the place of worship and prayer ina religionless situation? Does the secret discipline, or alternatively the difference (which I have suggested to you before) between the penultimate and ultimate, take on a new importance here?

The Pauline question whether περιτομή is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation. Freedom from περιτομή is also freedom from religion. I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.” While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people — because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable) — to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course. Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail — in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure — always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I’ve come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness. As to the boundaries, it seems to me better to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the “solution” of the problem of death. God’s “beyond” is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. That is how it is in the Old Testament, and in this sense we still read the New Testament far too little in the light of the Old. How this religionless Christianity looks, what form it takes, is something that I’m thinking about a great deal, and I shall be writing to you again about it soon. It may be that on us in particular, midway between East and West, there will fall a heavy responsibility. (Letters and Papers from Prison [London: SCM, 1971, 279–282)

The letter is famous, because it opens up several enormous questions, each of which could be (and has been) turned into many books.

One very important theme here that has particular currency in that part of the church that today wants to remain faithful to the Reformation understanding of the Gospel: the preaching of the Gospel to people when they are strong, not only when they are weak (a theme that must have had particular resonance in National Socialist society).

At various times, Augustine, Luther and others have been blamed for the inward turn of the Christian faith, to what Krister Stendahl styled the “introspective conscience”. While I’m not convinced that the charge sticks to Augustine or to Luther, it certainly is a central feature of modern Protestantism in a great number of different disguises: charismatic experiantialism, do-gooding moralism, Arminian conversionism and its sub-heresy, revivalism.

But there’s also a conservative variant, which is currently all the rage in English-speaking Lutheranism (among both professing Lutherans and Lutheranising others, such as Tullian Tchvidjian). This particular variant quotes a lot of Luther, but also has existentialism in its family tree. Its watchword is the sharp disjuncture of Law and Gospel, and it is introspective in its own, unique way.

In this particular view, the relationship between Law and Gospel is both contrastive and basically linear: the Law (because it always accuses) crushes, while the Gospel (because it always only gives), brings to life.

Which is true. As far as it goes.

This particular hermeneutic has its very important place in caring for ‘terrified consciences’, in bringing consolation to those who mourn and building up those who are broken.

But it’s not the whole truth, and it’s not the whole story. It is tremendously important and powerful in lifting up the weak. But it has less to say to those who are not weak.

The spiritual malaise of our day is not weakness and fear but strength and boldness. And if the only narrative we have is that the Gospel takes those who are broken or weak, and heals them and gives them strength, then we have very little to say to those who feel on top of the world, those whose lives are full of meaning, those who are contented and confident.

Moreover, as Antony Sacramone has pointed out very powerfully and, to my mind, persuasively, this hermeneutic risks infantilising (my word, not his) the Christian, with nothing to give other than a broken record of a Christian life lived in a steady circle of condemnation and redemption. It’s not very difficult to demonstrate that this is not how the New Testament authors speak, and it is not how Luther himself speaks.

But if this is our narrative, then the only entry into this narrative is through weakness. It appeals to the weak; those who are not weak must be made so. And if they’re not game for weakening, we have nothing to say. That is to say, the only sermon we have is the final flourish of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, and the only evangelistic strategy we have is Paul in the Philippian gaol.

And if this is so, the surely Nietzsche was right (and Freud not far from the truth) in identifying Christianity as the religion of the weak, of the infantile. Psychologically, that is.

But the Gospel is for all the world. It’s for the weak, but it’s also for those who think they are strong. What message does the Church have for those who are not weak? What does Jesus have to say to the St. Pauls of this world, as well as to the St. Peters?

Of course, theologically speaking those who think they are strong are in fact dead in their trespasses—weaker than the weak, without a living leg to stand on. But we mustn’t confuse that theological truth with psychology.

Nor should we reduce those who have been strong in the Lord repeatedly to a state of psychological weakness by “the Law”, to which a psychologically motivated “Gospel” then provides the answer. That’s to turn Law/Gospel preaching into yet another “religion”, where the forgiveness of sins functions as nothing but a deus ex machina in formulaic preaching.

It’s lazy preaching, it’s monochrome exegesis (if that), and it is utterly alien to the biblical proclamation, which is never without the cross of Christ in its centre but which brings the fulness of life in Jesus Christ. You won’t find it in the pages of Scripture (how many times does Paul address 1st century Christians as sinners, as opposed to saints?), and you won’t find it in the sermons of Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther or Gerhard. Not unless it’s in the actual text which they are expounding, that is!

Since the Scripture is the Word of God, we can have confidence that it can do what it does with people when they are exposed to it. If we only have one ordo salutis into which to squeeze all of humanity in order to speak God’s Word meaningfully to all creation, perhaps there’s a problem with our religion, and we need to recover the living voice of the Gospel.

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