Category Archives: Spirit

Citizenship Glory? – A Pentecost Confrontation

6814wordle

Biblical Texts: Numbers 11:24-30, Acts 2:1-21 and John 7:37-39
Full Sermon Draft

There were several events that kicked off this sermon that are meaningful as Americans, but what Pentecost is a reminder of is that the City and the Unity we thirst for is not found in the Kingdoms of the world – those established by law. The City we long for is the City of God. The entrance to the City of God is Calvary which is the nullification of our self justifications our attempts to earn it. The citizenship we thirst for is only available by grace.

Here is the link to Carl Cannon’s article mentioned in the Sermon.

The Terms of Unity

51213wordle

Biblical Text: John 17:20-26
Full Sermon Draft

…But Jesus prayer for unity continues and we might say gets tougher in verses 22 and 23. The basis of the unity in these verses is the glory. The glory that you have given me, I have given to them…that they may be one.

Now we’d love to see glory, because we think we know what it looks like. And our thoughts are glory are not completely false, just out of order. I say that because I’m assuming that most of our definitions of glory would probably be gleaming surfaces, gold streets, never ending crops, basically what John sees in the reading from revelation. But bringing that definition in at this point is out of order. That is the glory of the world to come.

The glory of this world is the cross.

If you want to see how you get from that to Mother’s Day (or at least an attempt) read/listen to the whole…

Walking the Right Way


Text: Mark 3:20-35
Full Draft

This past Sunday we sang one of the most haunting hymns in the Lutheran Tradition – I Walk in Danger All the Way. It is one of those songs where the melody is clear and rather light, but the words are deep. It has a history within the LCMS as it was sung on the floor of a Synodical convention after a particularly ugly fight. My guess is that those there took the wrong message from its words. If I was picking my 10 favorite, this on has a place on that list. But we rarely pick it for the congregation because I think the words are just too far removed from comfortable American middle class existence. We live a daily existence that is largely materialist. Rarely do we give a nod to spiritual things outside of maybe Sunday mornings or that odd deja vu/coincidence. The third stanza talks about death. That is breaking the rules in the United States. It takes those three stanzas to make a turn and the fourth starts to remind us of the gospel. Basically my gut tells me when I have the congregation sing it, in one sense I’m putting falsehoods on their lips. Not that the words are false, just that we don’t feel them.

So what does that have to do with the sermon. Well, that hymn is a hymn of spiritual maturity. The text is a call to belief, and not just to belief, but discipleship. It presents us with three groups of people and puts on Jesus lips the challenge to do the will of the Father. The text doesn’t use the metaphor, but the disciple Walks with the Lord. And that is not always easy. We walk through the valley of the shadow of death (stanza 3), but we fear no evil (stanza 5). The mature Christian will accept that walk.

Autheticity of Faith (June Newsletter Pastor’s Corner)


Apologetics is the big Theological world that means making a defense of the Faith. You can see the word apology in there, but instead of saying “I’m sorry, I believe in Jesus” as modern usage would have it, it is based off of an older use of that word. An apology was a response, but it was a reasoned response, a defense. The other word you might see in there is logos – a report, a word, in the beginning was the Word (John 1:1). So when someone originally gave an apology, they defended their original words and actions. If they did not wish to defend them, or if they had a change of heart, they would repent and ask forgiveness. What a world. We now offer apologies looking for forgiveness. But maybe something remains of that understanding because modern apologies so often are not “I’m sorry, I did wrong” but “I’m sorry that you feel I did wrong”. An apology, a defense, is being offered, just without the hard work of putting words together.

The reason I bring up apologetics is that I have recently read a book that strikes me as deeply true. Traditional apologetics took place on the surface of things. The church would offer an apology or reasons for its teachings. You might be familiar with many of these from the traditional arguments for the existence of God to the typical confirmation class. The entire nature of the catechism, a book of questions and answers, is apologetic. It presents the faith, receives questions to that presentation, and then attempts to answer those questions. So, in a deep way, apologetics is for the faithful. Christ claims to be the Truth and the Word. Following Christ is not about blind faith, but revealed faith. But the ground of apologetics, the questions that are being asked, have moved. Either the standard apologetics have convinced and assuaged doubts or they haven’t. There is a mystery here. The sheep hear the voice of the shepherd. The Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies. We continue to use these arguments because they are true, but they no longer seem to answer the pressing problem. Instead the pressings questions present as psychological and existential.

The most succinct phrase might be Marx, “religion is the opiate of the masses”, but the deeper claim leveled today is that faith is just a crutch or a mirror. The fact of death scares me, so I along with society have created something called religion to mollify my horror. Or I have a desire for meaning in life, and I live in a certain way, so I along with those likeminded have banded together to create a culture or a religion that affirms my life. The charge being leveled is that instead of being created in the image of God, we have created God in our own image. The corollary is that anyone who holds onto the crutch or the mirror is naïve or childish in some way. The inverse of St. Paul who would argue it was time to put away childish things and grow up in the Faith. The apologetics here are no longer surface answers, but dwell in hearts. The apologetic answers here are a defense of the authenticity of faith. Why is the Christian Faith not just wish projection?

In this season of Pentecost the first answer must simply be the presence of the Spirit. The Spirit that dwells in us calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies. And I know that is a nonsensical answer. As I said above it is a mystery. In this day and age many of us might have “tried on” a different religion or no religion, but something didn’t feel right. Why? The Spirit in us testifying to the truth.

But for those of a less mystical bent, what other answers might defend the authenticity of faith? Recognizing that this is a newsletter and not a philosophical treatise, I can only offer an outline. So, my quick outline is this. If I were creating my own religion, if I were making a God that conformed to my image, it wouldn’t be Father, Son and Spirit. It wouldn’t have a call to the cross as part of it. It would probably look more like Joel Osteen and a call to Wall Street or success. If I was making it, it wouldn’t have a Jew who died at the hands of Romans at its center. That is way too particular. It would be much more universal and welcoming. Instead of the image of being grafted into one vine, I’d invent one where each plant could grow on its own, follow its own path to truth. Many paths lead to the same place. And it certainly wouldn’t have such a thing as: I believe in the resurrection of the dead. Instead it would talk about spirituality and how this body is merely atoms that we one day will escape and return to the essence of all.

Instead, my apology for authenticity is the apostolic witness. We saw his hands and his feet. We saw him lifted up to heaven. That cross is really the Son being faithful to the Father and freeing us from bondage to this world’s ruler. The Spirit has been poured out on this generation. As always it is foolishness to those who are perishing, but the power of God to us who are being saved. God is not conformed to us, but we are converted by the Spirit and conformed to the likeness of His Son – a likeness that the world always rejects.

Memorial Day:Pentecost::Law:Gospel

Text: John 15:26-17, John 16:4-15
Full Draft of Sermon

Poor Pentecost, it is one of the three High Holy Days of the Church Year (Christmas, Easter and Pentecost), and yet it is the one that often gets forced to share its celebration with a secular holiday. A couple of years ago it was Mother’s Day. This year Memorial Day. In a odd way though that might be appropriate. The Spirit doesn’t call attention to himself. The other thought is that its really hard to make a materialist celebration out of the Spirit.

Putting those thoughts aside, the juxtaposition of Memorial Day and Pentecost makes for some tough but I hope enlightening comparisons. The driving force of memorial day is to hallow something, to make it holy. The graves of soldiers who died fighting the nation’s ware we have a good and natural desire to make holy. The problem is that our efforts still are over the dead. Even the most powerful and permanent of our memorials have limits. These too will pass. But Pentecost, the work of the Spirit, is not to make dead tributes but living stones. It is the work of the Spirit that sanctifies our efforts, gives them life and turns them to the glorification of Christ who released us from our dead stone.

Sanctified Freedom or how finance is a great school of the law


Biblical Text: John 17:11-19
Full Text – note, I deviated more from this text than I typically do.

Here is the question you need to ask yourself – are we bound creatures needing freedom, or largely free creatures needing strict guidelines?

How you answer that question will determine how you hear (or don’t hear) the gospel.

The stories come from the papers and the world of finance. The bottom line, the fact that everything can be reduced to a number and measured, and the relentless pressure to turn in a specific number drive home the lessons of the law and how we are all bound to unobtainable expectations. Only in Christ by the power of the Spirit are we free to produce real fruit.

How do you know?


Scripture Text: Luke 24:36-49
Full Text of Sermon

Facts, assertions, methods, inferences, hypotheses, stories. Facts are nice. We all like facts. But lets also be straight: 1) facts are usually boring or maybe better inert and 2) a lot that parades as fact just isn’t. My 3rd grader does a lot of learning of facts and methods. There are some things that come home as fact that I might question. I’ll challenge her every now and then to evaluate or analyze the facts, but that is not the role of a 3rd grader. That is the role of an adult. Unfortunately, in our postmodern world, that is a responsibility that we often neglect.

Probably the biggest reason that we have come to metaphysical despair is simply the question in the title – How do you know? I can (and do) proclaim the wounds of Christ, the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and all of the apologetic strategies. As the great lenten hymn says, proofs I see sufficient of it, ’tis the true and faithful word. Those are the facts of the Jesus story. The question is what to say about them: A ghost, like the disciples at first, a fraudulent conspiracy, a mass delusion, a myth, a resurrection triumph over sin, death and the power of the devil? You can tell most of those stories with a purely materialist mindset. You can’t tell that last one. How do you know that Christ is arisen? The Spirit who spoke by the prophets lives in me, lives in the live of the church, the people of God.

The adult task of the Christian is to work with the Spirit – in word and deed. Be in the Word on a daily basis. Live that word out in our daily lives. We are witnesses of the resurrection – starting in Jerusalem.

Bad Religion – The Confusion of Law and Gospel edition

Our news cycle is so compressed these days. And that might be part of the problem, because real theological thinking takes some time. It is hard work primarily because as Dr. Haidt would say: we are elephants with a rider. What he means by that is that our intuitive systems (what the classic writers would call the passions) are the elephant. Presented with some happening, we intuitively make a decision to learn toward it (this is good!) or away from it (the is bad!). The intuitive systems have a rider, namely reason. What the rider normally does is justify the elephant’s lean and probably encourage a harder charge. Dr. Haidt would hold that the rider has some ability to push the other way but quite limited. It is nice to see academic writing getting to where Luther was 500 years ago – i.e. ‘Reason is a whore’. What little theological reasoning we can do is because the Spirit lives within us. It sure isn’t natural. Maybe by Confucius’ 80 years of formation we can do the will of heaven without effort.

Why I bring this up is that I’m convinced that the basic problem underlying so much of our modern problem is bad theology. Most of what goes by the title of theology is little more than the rider justifying the elephant’s lean. A good job for a lawyer or PR-person, but not for a theologian.

I saw one real clear example starting with Andrew Sullivan (for those not familiar a Gay Roman Catholic British Tory) who wrote the Newsweek annual Easter takedown of the church. (Ok, if I’m being more fair his article doesn’t deserve the cover title – Forget the Church Follow Jesus – but lets be honest. Would Newsweek (or Time or the New York Times) ever publish something with a headline – Forget the Heretics, Follow the Body of Christ. Didn’t think so.) But that article isn’t what I want to bring up. Mr. Sullivan, especially on grace, is a capable theologian. But he is a good example of the elephant and the rider when it gets close to himself. He is gay. I think even he would say that is a defining trait. So he links to things like this. The person recommending is Dan Savage who is also gay and a widely read advice columnist. The elephant is picking up steam. The comments on that last link are instructive although they are not for innocent eyes. Eventually you get to this and this. What you have is a 21 year old gay male with the brains to attend Harvard, a Christian upbringing and the honesty to recognize a conflict and try to address it.

I’m not sure how Mr. Vines financed it, but the student took a couple of years off of school to answer his conflict. It is a perfect example of two things: 1) the elephant is in complete control. The student is gay and Christian. He must reconcile these things. But the intuition has already ruled. These thing must be completely ok together. (“And for some reason, a lot of people have a big problem with anyone who believes in God and is gay.”) The two years of research and reasoning were not for attempting to be a good theologian and placing himself under the Word of God, but they were two years for the rider to construct arguments for the way the intuition was already leaning. 2) Bad theology is driving the debates in the country.

You name the argument there is bad theology at the root: Health care, sexuality/marriage, and even economic regulation. Our collective elephants are leaning one direction and our riders are pushing further that way constructing bad arguments as it goes.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I understood the intuitive lean of the collective elephant in the direction of homosexuality. I get the liberty and caring arguments for gay marriage. My elephant says, “hey, gay marriage makes perfect sense.” My rider could even chime in with St. Paul, “in Christ there is no make or female.” The problem is that is very bad theology. First, what St. Paul describes in Gal 3:28 is an eschatological reality. When the kingdom comes in its fullness there is neither jew nor greek, slave nor free, male nor female. As Jesus says elsewhere, in the Kingdom we will not marry or be given in marriage (Mark 12:25). There are parts of that eschatological reality that have been grasped, but even those are often tenuous in this world. We think that slavery has been done away with, but just start with a google search for human trafficking or modern slavery. For theology to approach truth, it must start out describing reality. Paul’s statement is a reality as far as the gospel, as far as our relationship with Christ depends on nothing that we bring. The Gospel is pure grace. But we live in an overlapping of the ages. The Kingdom has been inaugurated, but this world is still passing away. The law still has a place in this world.

Mr. Vines attempts to address this when he discusses Lev 18:22 and the OT in general. In what I take as his core summary statement, Mr. Vines dismisses the law.

But after the Council of Jerusalem’s ruling, even those central parts of Israelite identity and culture no longer applied to Christians. Although it’s a common argument today, there is no reason to think that these two verses from the Old Law in Leviticus would somehow have remained applicable to Christians even when other, much more central parts of the Law did not.

He will acknowledge that, “the Old Law does contain some rules that Christians have continued to observe – the Ten Commandments, for example.” But not that any of the prohibitions against homosexual activity have anything to do with the Ten Commandments. What he holds is that, “Christ’s death on the cross liberated Christians from what Paul called the “yoke of slavery.” We are not subject to the Old Law.” It is right here that Mr. Vines has confused law and gospel or that he has not understood both have a continuing roll in our existence. Mr. Vines has taken the freedom of the Gospel as the excuse to go and sin as we please (Rom 6:1). He is right that we are free from the law in regards to our salvation and maybe more importantly our identity. We find our identity in Christ. Christ found his identity in doing the will of His Father. His Father, who we are instructed to call our Father, revealed his general will in the commandments. They no longer have their sting – death has been defeated, but they still remain to instruct and guide. Until the final revelation of the Kingdom, the law has a place, and even there I would speculate that since they are the Word of God they will not pass away but just be a true dead letter as we will be a new creation without the sinful nature.

What I would point Mr. Vines toward is how Jesus interprets the commandment on adultery in the sermon on the mount, Matt 5:27-32 and also pay attention to all discussions on divorce especially Matt 19:1-12. Yes, Romans 1 is important, but that is not the heart of Christian sexual teaching. The heart of Christian sexual teaching is that anything outside of the one-flesh bond of marriage between one man and one woman is a breaking of the commandment against adultery. Is this a tough teaching? Hell yes. That is probably why Jesus goes hyperbolic with the cutting off of hands and gouging out of eyes. He’s serious. The law is serious stuff. There is probably no better place than sexual morality for today’s culture to feel the hopelessness of the law and hopefully the sweetness of the gospel. Our intuitions, our elephants are charging toward sexual openness because we desperately want love. We want to feel that connectedness. We want to find our identities in relationship. But as our divorce statistics and rate of marriage counseling might tell us, this is not the primary identity. The relationship between Christ and the church, the bridegroom and the bride, is not the primary identity. Christ’s first identity is loyal son. Our first identity is as a child of God. Within that identity God has purpose for us. It might include a call to marriage. It might not. There are eunuchs for the kingdom. (Matt 19:12) To a great many, God might leave this as a free choice. To others, not. If we attempt to satisfy our identity and purpose through sin, it can’t but come to naught. But even when we’ve made a complete wreck of things, Christ forgives, God welcomes home.

Again, is that a very tough teaching? Yes. Would I expect lots of failure trying to keep it? Yep. Probably about the same amount of trouble as unmarried, good looking, rich, 21 year old straight guys have being chaste. Probably about as tough as a rich man finding his primary identity in Christ and not in his own work and possessions. (Mark 10:17-31) Probably about as tough as a learned man admitting that he is a fool. (1 Cor 1:20) Probably about as tough as being told to pick up the cross. (Matt 16:24) “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed…therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Pet 4:12-13, 19) Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom. (Matt 5:3). That is the entry door. Good theology starts in recognizing our own poverty of spirit, in letting The Spirit be the rider and form our Elephant.

Sentence to Ponder

What is needed in our churches is not more education but more embodied practices that can shape our affections and behavior along with our attitudes. The virtues I focus on in Unclean involve the practices of welcome and hospitality, what Miroslav Volf calls “the will to embrace.”

That is from this interview with Dr. Beck who also writes here. Unlcean is one of his books that is one of the best works I’ve read in a long time.

Thinking of the last post, this might be a more concrete example of listening to the Spirit. This is one of the discussions that a member and I get into quite often about how do you instruct in the faith. Do you start with the head and push toward the heart (standard Lutheran methodology) or do you start with the heart and push to the head (standard pentecostal). And that is probably the polarity – extreme head Lutheran to extreme heart pentecostal – with other tribes falling in along that spectrum. Presbyterians real close to Lutherans. Methodists closer to the pentecostals. Catholics blow this up because you have both – Franciscans and Dominicans. An embodied practice, a taking action on a virtue, is a combination of both. Listening to the Spirit today might mean less outright upfront doctrine and more lets do a VBS in the city (hope and charity), or the protestant equivalent of adoration of the host – a lenten prayer vigil (faith, fortitude and patience). Could one congregation maintain a prayer vigil for 40 days around the clock? What might be heard by the congregation in prayer?

A Remembrance

Oct 9th was my brother’s birthday. It’s actually been two years since he passed away. The actual date of his death is never the one that hits me. It’s the birthday. I think I remember more picking up the phone that first Oct 9th and dialing his number to wish him happy birthday and hearing ‘this number has been disconnected’ and going ‘oh, that’s right’ and putting the phone back in the cradle thinking ‘of course, you only drove his car into work this morning.’

One of the great stories I was told by one of his co-workers was about moving a data-center. Having worked in the business that phrase is something of an oxymoron. You don’t move data-centers. You build data centers. You move the traffic from the old to the new. You decommission the old. There are just too many things that would never make the transition. Aaron worked for a government security agency. I can only imagine why they were moving a data center. It must have needed to be done. Of all the crap jobs, moving all those boxes and wires would place somewhere high up the crap pile. And that was what the boss said. “I have no idea how this is going to happen.” So he asked Aaron to do it. That was the only name that popped into his head. And he did it. In the process he found a couple of crossed wires. He wrote them up in his report. The boss stared dumb-founded at that fact. A moved data-center should have been full of them. This one had two wires better.

So the next time you are tempted to say, ‘good enough for government work’. It isn’t. Find the two wires.

Even if the system is ok, if you know it could be better, find the two wires. Hell most of us live our lives embedded in systems that are metaphorically missing doors. If someone tries to sell you on the glories of the system – such a great hood ornament – while excusing the missing doors, don’t accept it. Find the wires. Ask for the doors. And if you have the responsibility, it’s being done on your watch, especially you, find the wires.

If you are asked to do a crap job, do it with excellence. If you are just asked to do your job, do it in a way that you find the wires. Don’t settle for having the title – the great hood ornament – and driving a car without doors and hiding crossed wires. Life is too short to live with crossed wires.

So, to the best of the Brown brothers, that is all I have to say about that.