From God Can Nothing Move Me

Some notes on the hymn that will be sung at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Brighton Lutheran Mission as the hymn of the day tomorrow, Trinity 14, 2016:

This hymn was written by Ludwig Helmbold (1532–98), a teacher, academic, poet and (in later life) pastor in central Germany. While he was serving as headmaster in Erfurt in 1563,a terrible plague broke out in the town, killing about 4,000 people. When a family of friends was about to flee the town, leaving the Helmbolds behind, he wrote this hymn (of 9 verses) to console the two mothers about to be parted from one another.

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What makes a Pharisee?

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 11th Sunday after Trinity
Date: 7 August 2016
Text: Luke 18:9–14

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Those of us who are familiar with the teachings of Jesus, and have been steeped in the Christian doctrine, know exactly what to think of this very familiar parable of Jesus. Our sympathy is with the tax collector, and we shake our heads in disbelief at the blind arrogance of the Pharisee. How can he be so blind to his own faults, and so oblivious to the mercy of God towards all sinners? How can he boast so blatantly of his spiritual achievements, and have so little concern for the salvation of his humble and penitent fellow-creature in the corner?

But before we settle down too comfortably, it might be worth asking how Jesus would tell the parable were he the one preaching this morning. Who is the Pharisee today, and who the tax collector? Is this a story told to comfort us, or to shake us out of our comfort zone?

So let’s remind ourselves who the Pharisees were. Far from the pantomime villains that we tend to think of, the Pharisees were the good people of their time. They were devout Jews who had dedicated their lives to the study of God’s word, and of applying God’s word to their lives. In the words of the New Testament letter of James, they strove to be more than just hearers of the word, and to be doers of the word as well.

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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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