Thoughts on a Papal Visit

And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say. – Luke. 12:11-12

But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me – Acts 26:25-29

It might be slightly odd for a Lutheran pledged to the Lutheran Confessions, which call the Papacy the antichrist, to be interested in what a Pope says or does. Well, there is always a fascination with the anti-anything, but that is not all the confessions have to say. The same confessions that would call the Pope the antichrist are clear that it isn’t the office as Bishop of Rome that is the problem, but its claims. Bishops are fine human offices, it is when they claim authority beyond what is common to all pastoral offices and do so by claiming the divine name that they function as anti-Christ. (Catechism note 2nd commandment: “we should fear and love God such that we do not…lie or deceive by His name.” The claims of divine authority are a deception through the use of God’s name.) Specifically the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope had three objections: 1) The Pope’s claim by divine right to be above all other bishops and pastors in the church, 2) The Pope’s claim to possess authority in the realms of both Church and state and 3) The Pope’s demands that people acknowledge this authority as a requirement for salvation. The years since Luther have not been humanly kind to that office. Kings and Presidents no longer seek the confirmation of the Pope for their position upon coronation or inauguration, and the Papal States are a single hill in Rome. And the Roman Catechism itself acknowledges that while Luther might be damned as a schismatic, “one cannot charge with the sin of separation those who are born into these communities…the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers. (p818)” But the papal claim of being the Vicar of Christ, holding the Keys by divine right, is still front and center. Melanchthon’s short treatise – The Power and Primacy of the Pope – still has some amazing relevance as do many of the Confessional documents with a little thought.

But the real reason I’m thinking about the Pope is his recent trip to our shores. The Pope is probably the only Christian witness that would be invited to address a joint session of Congress after having an audience with the President. When Paul got his dime in front of Caesar, he didn’t waste time. He didn’t argue about Caesar’s tax plan or the Roman welfare system (bread and circuses!). Paul did two things. He proclaimed Christ risen, and he encouraged Caesar to respect his own laws and eyes. Whether it is Peter or Paul or later martyrs (witnesses!) this is a familiar pattern. Both Jesus is Lord and we Christians are your best citizens calling you to respect what is best among you.

The Pope’s recent address to Congress was interesting in that I believe it was effective at the second portion of that pattern. The Pope cited four Americans: Lincoln, MLK, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He used well each of those examples well. And each you could say fit well within this current Pope’s frame of mind of social justice. He wished at the beginning, through Congress, to enter into dialog (which seems to be a favorite word) with all Americans. And through that dialog to spur us to live up to the best of us.

Then I searched through the entire speech. Not one mention of Jesus. The word Christ is never used. The Pope opened with Moses, flattering the assembled legislators that they too are engaged in Moses’ task. But I want to quote that section in full.

Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

In one sense it was very appropriate. In a speech to lawmakers, it was all law. The unity of the people depends upon just legislation. Moses leads directly to God which is merely a stand in for the transcendent dignity of the human being. Right there you have the religion of rational man which knows nothing of Christ and faith. If our hopes for unity are in the law, we have none. If our hope for dignity rests upon Congress protecting us by the law, we are already stripped and in bondage.

I longed for Paul’s plain witness to the gospel of Jesus. Moses does not point to God directly other than the hidden God who never answers. The law tells us our need for something beyond it, something truly transcendent. We always fail the law and it never stops accusing. But that failure tells us our need for Jesus. And Jesus has won. Our dignity is not based in being human. Our human dignity is because Jesus took our humanity into God. That humanity is transcendent not by itself but because of the work of Jesus confirmed in the resurrection. Our image of God is cracked by sin, but God restores it in Christ, in baptism and through the indwelling of the Spirit.

Can you imagine a Pope, speaking to the gathered legislators not about a general human spirit, but The Spirit of Christ? An address that called on them to fulfill their vocations as lawmakers in the best American tradition, but also to trust in the grace of Jesus and to empower the body of Christ, the church, to be that grace, instead of shrinking it to a freedom to worship? An address that would make Chuck Schumer run for the nearest camera and say “Did the Pope really think he could so easily convert a NY Jew?”

That is what we are here for. Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me. Whether dialog or road to Damascus, would that you would hear Christ and believe. You are my witnesses, in Jerusalem and Judea, in Samaria and the US Congress. Don’t worry, the Holy Spirit has a few good words, and they begin with the name Jesus.

Religion and Truth in a Pluralistic Culture

This short write up is well worth the 3 mins on Pope Benedict’s conception of interfaith or ecumenical interaction. Its starting point in an event that just took place in Assisi. 25 years ago the previous pope was at the same place involved in prayer with “Buddhists chant[ing] to the accompaniment of gongs and drums, Zoroastrians tend[ing] a sacred fire, and an American Indian medicine man in traditional headdress smok[ing] a peace pipe and call[ing] down the blessings of the “Great Spirit.” Benedict has a different view, even if the picture nearby might not say speak that.

The great religious question of our age is inclusivity vs. exclusivity. Were all those people praying to the same God, or was it an example of syncretistic worship on the level of ancient Israel’s “high places”? (1 Kings 12:27-32) Do all roads go up the same mountain, or is Jesus Christ the way, the truth and the life? (John 14:6) Let’s make it real clear. We read it in worship a couple of Sundays ago. Isaiah 45:5 – “I am the Lord, there is no other, beside me there is no other.” If the bible counts as your scripture, you can’t hold the “all roads view”. And holding worship services with people chanting, tending and smoking to other dieties hopelessly confuses things. It is no wonder people might just assume that there is no truth in any of them. Then Cardinal Ratzinger said as much:

The cardinal later wrote that “multireligious prayer” of the kind offered there “almost inevitably leads to false interpretations, to indifference as to the content of what is believed or not believed, and thus to the dissolution of real faith.”

Such prayer should occur only rarely, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, and to “make clear that there is no such thing . . . as a common concept of God or belief in God, that difference not merely exists in the realm of changing images and concepts” but in the substance of what different religions claim.

It is the now Pope Benedict’s next step that is almost uniquely Lutheran.

As he told a European ambassador last week, social justice is based on norms accessible to all, derived not from divine revelation but from “reason and nature”—that is, from “universally applicable principles that are as real as the physical elements of the natural environment.”

He is using Catholic natural law language there. A Lutheran would appeal to two concepts: a theology of two kingdoms and the fundamental law and gospel distinction. We are able to work together in social justice areas because social justice is part of the law or part of the kingdom of the law. The law is universally written on all hearts. (Romans 2:14-15) And the law is good and wise. There is a righteousness that comes from the law – a civil righteousness. But the civil righteousness is not the saving truth of the gospel. In worship – we are separate. Because all roads don’t lead to the same place. Because we proclaim Christ crucified, risen and ascended as Lord. He is Lord, there is no other. Confusing law and gospel only leads to loss of faith.

A German Pope at the Erfurt Agustinian Monastery

Benedict XVI, a German, is on a trip to Germany. One of his stops is in Erfurt at the monastery that trained and sheltered Luther. Here is the link to the full text of his comments. The full comments are short, but this is a clip. Benedict has clearly been formed in some way by Luther’s thoughts. He doesn’t mention Law and Gospel, but he talks about the revealed God/(hidden god) and talks about the deep question of how does God interact with me. You don’t get more Lutheran. Especially coming from the Anti-Christ whore of babylon Roman Pontiff. Interesting through-out….

As the Bishop of Rome, it is deeply moving for me to be meeting representatives of Council of the EKD here in the ancient Augustinian convent in Erfurt. This is where Luther studied theology. This is where he was ordained a priest in 1507. Against his father’s wishes, he did not continue the study of Law, but instead he studied theology and set off on the path towards priesthood in the Order of Saint Augustine. On this path, he was not simply concerned with this or that. What constantly exercised him was the question of God, the deep passion and driving force of his whole life’s journey. “How do I receive the grace of God?”: this question struck him in the heart and lay at the foundation of all his theological searching and inner struggle. For him theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God.

“How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make an impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching? Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. Insofar as people today believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us? I could go on. No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful. The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God? – this burning question of Martin Luther must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.

Another important point: God, the one God, creator of heaven and earth, is no mere philosophical hypothesis regarding the origins of the universe. This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ – who is both true God and true man. Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.

A question of authority…

Text: 1 Cor 9:1-15

In the wake of Pope Benedict’s appeal to Anglicans, a reading on Apostolic authority comes up in the 2 yr reading cycle.

Paul was always defending his apostleship. People were always questioning his right to authority. His responses could be read as whining in the best Jewish mother sort of way. “If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you…” Can you not hear the guilt trip? But later Paul gets more onto the grounds of his apostleship. “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ…I have made no us of these rights (to call for financial support), nor am I writing to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have any one deprive me of my ground for boasting.”

Who looks more like an authority – Pope Benedict or the Archbishop of Canturbury? Is the Pope giving up his claim to authority – his ground for boasting? But has he asked for anything from the Anglicans who could keep their married ministers, liturgy and even seminary houses? From a Pope who is well schooled in Paul, this is a very Pauline move…and a man very confident of his authority to do it as he trampled on his own Cardinals, moved the body (they call them congregations) that issued the order away from the ecumenical talkers to the doctine congregation and surprised AB Rowan Williams. From a leadership standpoint, it is inspiring…not that I’d swim the tiber.