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

The Lord Who Saves

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, 5 January 2014
Text: Matthew 2:13–23
You can listen to the sermon here.

La fuite en ÉgypteWhat’s in a name? For us moderns, not a lot. Names are labels chosen from a stock of traditional or (increasingly) non-traditional stock. We name children after relatives or celebrities, or we pick a name that we like the sound of. We avoid names that we dislike, or names that bring back bad memories. Yes, there are all sorts of more or less complicated reasons for our names, but in the end, it’s all about our preferences and tastes.

In the Bible, however, names have a far greater significance. Numerous times in the Old Testament, when a person is named, a little explanation is added to tell us the significance of that particular name. Adam called his wife Eve, which means life-giver, “because she was the mother of all living”. God took Abram, whose name meant ‘exalted father’, and re-named him Abraham, which means ‘father of a multitude’, “for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” Likewise, God took Jacob, whose name meant ‘he deceives’, and gave him the new name Israel, ‘he strives with God’.

And this Israel, the man who strove with God, gave his name to all his descendants, to whom God promised to give all that He had promised to Abraham and Isaac, all the blessings He had intended for His creation. In Israel and through Israel, God would do His work of restoring the creation that had fallen when Adam and Eve disobeyed the Creator.

It didn’t take long, however, before it seemed that God’s promise to Israel would be snuffed out before it had even begun to manifest itself. Jacob and his sons were on the verge of extinction, because there was a great famine about to fall on the land. The curse on the land that their forefather Adam had earned for himself and all his descendants, was about to undo the promise to the woman’s seed, that the serpent’s head would be crushed and the curse lifted.

But God’s promises will not be thwarted. God turned the evil intentions of the ten older brothers for His own good purposes. When they plotted to destroy their younger brother Joseph, God used their evil plot to send him ahead of them to Egypt—so that he might feed them and their families there. And so it was. Joseph, the younger brother, rose to power in Egypt just in time to feed his father and his brothers when they ran out of food, and to give them a home in the rich land of Goshen. He who was the son and the younger brother to Jacob and his sons, became a father to them, and under his care and by God’s blessing, they were fruitful and multiplied. For his name was Joseph, which means, ‘he will add’.

In the fullness of time, God took Israel out of slavery in this foreign land and led them home to the land He had promised them, a land flowing with milk and honey. During their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, they proved to be an unworthy bearer of their forefather’s name. For they strove not with God but against Him, again and again.

Nor did their rebellion end when they were safely established in the Promised Land. Time and again, they contended against God and the prophets whom God sent them to call them back to His good and gracious care. They were busy forfeiting the promised redemption through their idolatry and disobedience. Judge after judge, things got worse, until God gave them kings to be shepherds of his people. But king after king, things degenerated yet further. The kingdom was split, brother against brother after the image of Cain and Abel, and then first one, then the other half of the kingdom was destroyed by their enemies—a just punishment for the rebellion of Israel, their insistent striving against God. The nation that had been called to be a kingdom of priests, to shine the light of God’s truth in a fallen world, instead left her God and went the idolatrous way of the world.

And so Israel embodied in her history the history of all humanity: a called, redeemed creation refusing to heed the call of Him who made and redeemed it. Insisting on its own way, the broad highway of death, over the narrow way that leads to life. Rejecting the wisdom of God, preferring instead the folly of this world. Heeding the siren-call of what our eyes see and ears hear, here and now, rather than receiving by faith what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.

Separated from the Lord, whose name is יהוה, ‘the one who is’, the world is rushing head-long into oblivion.

But this name, יהוה, tells us something more about God than a mere label would. He is the one who is, the being one. And as He is, so is His word. As the one who is, He will endure forever. As He is, so is His word: it will endure forever.

Therefore, once He has made a promise, He will by necessity keep His promise. Otherwise, His word of promise would fail to endure. And so in the fullness of time, God sent His Son, born of a woman, and gave Him a name that would change everything: Jesus.

The English name Jesus comes to us from the Greek transliteration of Jesus’ Hebrew name Yehoshua, or Joshua. This name is made up of two parts, God’s own name, יהוה, plus the verb, ישׁע , which means ‘he saves’. God sent His Son, and called Him, יהוה saves’, ‘the one who is saves’, ‘the Lord saves’—for, as the angel told Joseph, He was to save His people from their sins.

And in this Jesus, all the promises to Israel were to be fulfilled: the promise that Israel were to be His chosen people, that Israel were to be blessed through the keeping of God’s Law, that Israel were going to receive an eternal heritage from God in a land flowing with milk and honey, that Israel’s prayers were going to be pleasing to God, that Israel was going to have a means of atonement and God’s forgiveness forever—and that through Israel, all the nations of the world would be blessed.

And what Israel according to the flesh, Jacob and his offspring, failed to do, the Son of God undertook to do. And so God took the evil intentions of Herod who wanted to destroy the beloved Son, and used them to take Joseph to Egypt. There, Joseph became father to the one who was his creator and his elder brother, by taking care of his wife’s son, Jesus. And having been taken to Egypt, Jesus traced the way of the Israelites: from exile in Egypt back to the land of Canaan. There, he grew in Galilee, the land of the people living in darkness, obedient to His earthly parents and to His heavenly Father.

In the fullness of time, He took upon Himself the sins of the whole world by taking on the sinners’ baptism of repentance from John the Baptists. He faced the wilderness for forty days, but resisted the temptations of the evil one, repelling Him with the word which both Adam and the people of Israel disregarded to their own peril. Keeping the Law to the end, He strove with God in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking the cup of suffering to be taken from Him, but only if it was the Father’s will. Thus, having been obedient to the point of death, He was crucified and destroyed for all of Israel’s transgressions—and for the sins of the whole world. When the first Israel, Jacob strove with God at the brook of Jabbok, God relented and let Jacob go with His blessing and the new name. When the second Israel, Jesus, strove with God on the cross of Calvary, God did not relent but forsook His obedient Son, so that He might bless all the disobedient sons and daughters of Adam and Israel who had incurred His wrath by their disobedience. Thus, the cross of Christ was set up as the beacon for the world, where those weighed down by sin may leave their fatal burden and find a gracious God, and the crucified Saviour was the priest who brought the light of God’s truth to all the people.

But what has all this to do with you?

Everything. When you were baptised, you were truly Christened: you received the name of Christ and were made a Christian. Your incorporation into Him by the circumcision of the heart in baptism made you a member in Him—a member of Israel. Thus, all the promises of God to Israel throughout all of Scripture are His promises to you. He striven with God for you, so that you need not strive but to rest in His salvation. You have been brought from the Egypt of slavery to sin into the freedom of the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom, where you are not a slave but a son and heir. You, a member of His body, are as beloved as the head. He has defeated Satan, and all of Satan’s accusations and temptations, for you. He is your mighty fortress, to which God has gathered you from among the nations, as we sang in the  Gradual.

In short, יהוה, the Lord, has saved you. Now you are a member of that nation of priests, Israel, called to proclaim the excellences of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light. He who has done this, He who has promised all this, is the one who is and stands forever, whose word stands forever. Whatever temptations, anguish, discouragement, persecutions come your way, He will see His promise through as long as you stay in the One who has done all this and who has won the victory for you, Jesus, the Lord who saves.

May God give you His grace in this New Year to enjoy His great gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, seeking His kingdom in the joyful knowledge that all other things will be added to you as well.

In the holy name of ✠ Jesus. Amen.

The extraordinary ordinary

Homily preached at the Lutheran Women’s League of Great Britain Workshop at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham
9 November 2013
Text: Romans 16:1‒16; Luke 8:1‒3; 10:38‒42

The lists of names in the final greetings of the New Testament Epistles tend to pass us by in our daily reading. When I first started reading the Bible regularly as a teenager, I was very keen, so I read everything. But after a few years, I began to skip about, to leave out certain bits. And the first thing to go were the lists of names. They just didn’t seem to have any spiritual value, nothing in them for me. Later, at university I learned that they were not entirely without worth: scholars of the New Testament use these lists to cross-reference names in different books to try and get a sense of what was written when, who knew whom, and so forth. Very interesting, if you are into that sort of thing. But still, hardly heart-lifting spiritual edification.

Are you with me?

Well, I hope you are not, because I was just plain wrong. These lists, these names of people about most of whom we know nothing at all except that Paul knew them—they are you and me. Ordinary Christians who were known to the apostle, who had sat in the services where he preached and been members of the churches he had planted. Some of them had served him, or served the churches in various capacities. Others were fellow-preachers, tasked with proclaiming the same apostolic and prophetic message that had been entrusted to the apostles.

Continue reading The extraordinary ordinary

The Holy Spirit in Context

A sermon preached on Exaudi, 12 May 2013, at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham
Text: John 15:26—16:4
A recording of the sermon is available here.
What follows below is unedited, typos and all.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In the name of ✠ Jesus.

But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.

Throughout the Church’s history, there have been approaches to putting together the lectionary, the sequence of readings from one service to another. Often in the early church, they used a continuous lectionary: one one Sunday, the preacher would expound a part of a book of the Bible, and the following Sunday he would simply carry on from where he left off, until he got to the end of the book and start on another book.

Continue reading The Holy Spirit in Context

Per Fidem Solam: Romans 3:24 in the Würzburg Glosses

It would seem that Luther’s decision to add the word ‘allein’ (alone) to Rom. 3:28, for which Roman Catholic apologists have pilloried him and his followers ever since, wasn’t quite such an innovation after all:

A N G L A N D I C U S: Per Fidem Solam: Romans 3:24 in the Würzburg Glosses

Here’s what Luther had to say about the matter in his Open Letter on Translating.

HT: Anthony Sacramone

Quick to hear, slow to speak

Sermon on Cantate—28 April 2013
Preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, and Oxford Lutheran Mission
Text: James 1:16–21
A recording of the sermon from Our Saviour, Fareham, is available here.

* * *

In the holy name of ✠ Jesus.

Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

What starts as a piece of common-sense advice on good manners and a constructive attitude to conversation—essentially: speech is silver, silence is golden—very quickly turns to something a whole lot more serious. St. James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, is not writing a letter to the Christians of Asia Minor in order to improve their social skills or make them better learners. What he has in view is nothing less than the righteousness of God.

Continue reading Quick to hear, slow to speak

Give her something to eat

Standing over the lifeless body of the daughter—the only-begotten child—of Jairus, Jesus brought her life back by his life-giving words. Wonder of sonders and miracle of miracles.

Now what? How do you follow that up?

“He told them to give her something to eat.”

Death to life to being fed. That’s resurrection life in a nutshell.

Jesus’ silence

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Reminiscere Sunday
Genesis 32:22–32 Matthew 15:21–28
24 February 2012

A recording of the sermon is posted here.

In the name of ✠ Jesus.

Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”

Why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?

The Canaanite woman was not alone. Her need so desperate, and her only hope implacably silent. Jesus is silent, and when he opens his mouth, he speaks only to discourage and to repel, seemingly impervious to her cries, showing no interest in her plight, determined only to push her away.

In her plight, she joined that dark place inhabited by king David, the author of the psalms you have just heard, and the patriarch Jacob himself, the man named Israel, in whose name Jesus was driving her away: “I have come for the lost sheep of Israel—only for the children of Jacob. Why do you bother me?” That dark place where our desperate prayers are met with rebuttal or, worse, with complete silence. She may well have wondered with the Psalmist, “Has forgotten to be gracious?”

Continue reading Jesus’ silence

Non, je ne regrette

[Health warning: the first part is mildly technical and a little dry, but ‘contemporary application’ follows further down!]

In today’s NT reading in the Lutheran Service Book Daily Lectionary (Matt. 27:1–10), the ESV tells us that Judas, seeing that Jesus was condemned to death, “changed his mind” and attempted to return the 30 pieces of silver he had been paid for betraying the Lord.

Reading this, I was intrigued by the weakness of the expression. He merely “changed his mind”, yet this was enough for him not only to throw away the considerable sum of money but his very life. For he went and hanged himself.

The earlier translations in the tradition to which the ESV places itself, namely the Authorised (‘King James’) Version and the RSV, as well as the NRSV, plump for the opposite end of the spectrum, by telling us that Judas “repented [AV adds the reflexive ‘himself’]”. That doesn’t seem right, either: repentance is within the NT and consequently in Christian theology a technical term with connotations that are incompatible with Judas’ subsequent actions. In short, repentance properly understood will never lead to suicide.

So ad fontes it was: what does Matthew actually tell us? Well, he tells us that Judas returned the pieces of silver, μεταμεληθεὶς (metameletheis).
Now that word can mean a change of mind (as in Mt. 21:30 ff.), and it can mean repentance (several places in the Septuagint, for example). But its root meaning is something different. According to Liddell & Scott, the basic meaning of the verb is to regret or to rue something.

Hence, the NAB rendering of this verse: “Judas deeply regretted what he had done”. Which, to my mind, is right on the money. He regretted, rid himself of his unjust wages, and, full of regret, tragically took his own life.

Had Judas not merely regretted (μεταμέλομαι, metamelomai), but repented (μετανοεῖν, metanoein), the story would have ended very differently. Judas wasn’t the only one who messed up with Jesus. Peter did, too. Later, Saul played an even more directly violent part against Jesus. Judas regretted what he had done. Peter and Paul repented. He died. They were resurrected.

When it comes to human sin, to the errors of which people are guilty against one another and against God, the worse thing you can do is to harden your heart and deny your guilt, and thereby declare black white and white black, and call God a liar and yourself a god.

But spiritually, you are no better off if you recognise your faults, but your only reaction to them is regret, guilt. Because regret is only a recognition of the problem, but it can offer no way out of it. If you merely regret, you are faced with your guilt, and then left to wallow in it. It is wholly negative.

This is presumably why it has become so fashionable for people to look back on their lives, in autobiographies, on Desert Island Discs, and in casual conversation, give a frank description of the follies of their past, and then conclude that of course “I have no regrets—all those things have made me who I am”. Frank Sinatra, who surely had much to regret, speaks for whole generations of moderns.

And I agree: we should not regret the past. I would like to encourage you to sing with that rough-edged sparrow, Édith Piaf, Non, je ne regrette rien.

Do not regret. Repent!

Confess your sins, and receive absolution! Move on, not in spite of your guilt, but without it.

When Peter explained to the people of Jerusalem that they were guilty of the death of God’s Messiah, they were horrified, cut to the heart: “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) As well they should have been.

What Peter didn’t say was, “Feel guilty, very guilty.” He didn’t tell them to feel or express mere remorse and regret. Nor did he tell them to pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes and move on, like some modern-day politician caught with his pants down.

Instead, he told them: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Repent! Acknowledge your sin. And then run to the Lamb of God who deals with the sin of the world. He deals with your guilt by removing it. Not just the feeling of guilt, but the actual guilt. So that you are no longer guilty but innocent. With a colourful past, but no regrets, because your past is buried with Christ, and your present is the resurrected life His forgiveness gives you.

What does such baptizing with water signify?
— Answer: It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever. (Small Catechism: Part IV, Question 4)

The Finger of God

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Oxford Lutheran Mission 2012 on 26 August 2012, Trinity 12.
Text: Mark 7:31–37

A recording from Our Saviour is available here.

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum under Creative Commons Licence 3.0

As is well known, the Gospel according to St. Mark is the shortest of the four gospels by quite a margin. Of all the evangelists, Mark is the most economical with words. Where Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount and other long discourses of Jesus, where Luke records long parables and John gives us nearly chapter-long sermons by Jesus, Mark hardly ever quotes anything longer than short snippets and summaries of Jesus’ teaching. He leaves out many of the events and details that we find in the other Gospels, as if in a great hurry to get to the Passion Narrative, the description of Jesus’ death. So breathless is Mark’s account, that one of the most common words in his Gospel is the Greek word e)uqu’s: immediately. Mark uses it 41 times, whereas in the rest of the New Testament it only appears ten times. Jesus was baptised and immediately he was taken to the wilderness by the Spirit. Immediately, Jesus went into the synagogue. Immediately, immediately, immediately. Hurry along.

One effect of this breathlessness is that when Mark does slow down, we need to sit up and pay attention. When he gives us more than the bare bones, when he pauses to dwell on some detail, we need to slow down with him and follow his gaze to that detail. If it wasn’t important, Mark if anyone would pass over it. In Mark’s account of Jesus, it’s not the devil that’s in the detail but the Gospel!

We are before one such moment in this morning’s Gospel selection. Most of this passage is not unlike other healings by Jesus. Mark records several of them in the short space of his Gospel. But unlike at other times, here he draws us in to observe in detail how Jesus heals, what the Lord actually does: Continue reading The Finger of God