How are you Righteous/Just?

Biblical Text: Romans 3:19-28
Full Sermon Draft

This is a reformation sermon reflecting on the divisions and questions of our day. My central contention is that in Luther’s Day people assumed the Justness of the collective: the unity of the church and her pronouncements, the majesty of the mass and the sacraments, the divine right of Kings and the entire sacred order. And if the society was just, then it should produce righteous members. That was Luther’s conflict. He didn’t see or feel righteous. I think ours is somewhat the inverse. We assume that at least my tribe is righteous. And if we have righteous members, we should be able to build the just society. Both of these quests are quests for righteousness/justice (the same word in the biblical languages) are pursued through the law.

But we hold that no one is justified by works of the law. One is righteous by the blood of Christ given by his grace and received in by faith. The just society is not found or made with human laws or efforts, but is see from a distance – the New Jerusalem. One day we will get there. Now, we do not seek our justice in the law, because we will be forever angry as it slips away. Now, we live by faith. And only if we life by faith are we truly free.

From the Days of John Until Now


Biblical Text: Matthew 11:12-19
Full Sermon Draft

There are two lectionary gospel texts for Reformation Sunday. This is the alternate text. It is actually my favorite because I think it reminds us of something necessary. The nature of the Kingdom here is not one of apparent power and victory. The Kingdom is comes in weakness. It is often veiled. It is violated, and violent men seize her. Yet the victory is won. Christ is risen, and there is always an angel with that eternal gospel. You might have to go to the wilderness to hear it, but the Word remains.

Recording note: I’ve left in the Hymn of the Day which was Lutheran Service Book #555 – Salvation Unto Us Has Come. A Mighty Fortress is often considered The Reformation hymn, but my money is on this one. We sang the odd verse which tell the full story of grace. I also left in the concluding short Hymn, God’s Word is Our Great Heritage, LSB 582. I think if Luther was around to say what the purpose of the Reformation was, 500 years later removed from the arguments of the day he would say what this hymn does. We have been given and entrusted with the Word. We betray the Kingdom if we forget this.

Denominations, Traditions & Teleology

There is a big word for you. Ontology is the statement of origins. Teleology is the statement of endings. The ontological argument is the argument for the existence of god* that boils down the unmoved mover – it all had to come from some where. Teleology is the opposite. It all has to go somewhere. The teleology of an embryo is to become a baby (sorry if that makes pro-choice a little uncomfortable). Religiously we say things like Jesus Christ, the alpha and the omega. The ontology and the teleology.

So why is Parson Brown stumbling around in Philosophy class? Well, Roger Olsen has written a man-bites-dog essay about denominations. All being good post-moderns we hear the world denomination and go “eww”, right? Dr. Olsen confesses his undying love for them, hence man-bites-dog, very interesting. And in the middle of it he says this.

I recently interacted with a well-known ecumenical theologian who has been intimately involved with the World Council of Churches for many years. He expressed the hope of someday seeing one worldwide Christian denomination. I don’t share his hope. He portrayed the existence of multiple denominations as evidence of “brokenness” in the body of Christ. I don’t see them that way. At least the plurality of denominations does not have to evidence brokenness in the body of Christ.

Now, let me first say that my gut loves this article and what it says. It is not that I have undying love for denominations – I don’t. What I do like are clear statements of belief – like this one, the Epitome of the Formula of Concord. As Lutherans we say we “believe, teach and confess” a bunch of things. If you don’t agree, you might still be a Christian, but you are not a Lutheran. For example, if you believe that “God is unwilling that all people repent and believe in the Gospel” you might make a perfectly good Calvinist. When you are worried that your are one of those people God has it in for on your death bed, come back to Luther and make a good confession. That puts me more in the Traditions wing. But, the lingering question comes from John 17:20-23. Jesus wishes that we are all one.

Is that a statement of ontology, we all have our being in Christ? Is that a statement of teleology, we all will be joined in one church? An enduring strain of Christianity longs for that prayer as a teleological reality. If we were not such sinners, the church would be one structure here and now. And there is truth there. There is one church – I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church as the creed says. But is there any way to see the results of the reformation as a good thing as Dr. Olson clearly does?

If I was going to attempt to answer yes, I have to see Jesus prayer as one of ontology. We all have our foundation and being in Christ alone. I am so used to thinking of Jesus’ prayer as being unanswered in the here and now and taking it as teleological that I’m not sure. It is easier to think in terms of a messed up world. That is probably why I’m a Lutheran and Dr. Olson is an Arminian. He can escape original sin while I can’t.

* – the god of philosophy is not the revealed God of the Bible.

It’s about the gospel…

This post from Scot McKnight strikes at a theological nerve. It is the latest and most clear in an grouping of posts.

First the caveats. McKnight is a big-tent evangelical. He has a new book to sell. My sympathies lie with McKnight’s general bent. Last caveat – Luther said a lot of things, most of them polemical, but if you want to get a real sense of the core of his faith, you read his sermons and hymns.

I don’t think I’m stretching something to say that “That old time religion” just doesn’t seem to be working. And I think we can say that regardless of what side of any of the various schisms you are on. (For conversation’s sake I’m really talking about the American church and not the global south.) With that fact, a believer is confronted with a few unappealing choices: God has chosen to pass over this time and place (verse of horror Amos 8:11), this time and place has rejected the word (verse of horror Heb 6:4-5), we have bent the Word in the easiest way to our own liking (Matt 5:19, 2 Tim 4:3).

I would in general skip that first choice because of Pentecost and the parable of the Sower. In this age the Word of God is thrown extravagantly, the Spirit has been poured out. I don’t think that second one can be ruled out. But if we take that seriously, we need to redouble our efforts. If we think that is the case, it might not be too late yet. Maybe the Lord will relent (think the story of Hezekiah, Isa 37:15-38:7). The letter to the church in Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22) is key. The third one is what Scot McKnight is getting at. And he is pointing at all the various schisms.

To the religious group mainly represented by the old mainline protestant and the “cafeteria” catholics the gospel has become about the word justice. It is a gospel of social justice. This is tougher for me because it isn’t my native tribe, but they have “proof texts” and the spirit of the OT prophets. To the religious group represented by the various bands of evangelical bible churches and the denominations of a more theological bent (LCMS, PCA) the gospel is all about justification. (Hence McKnight’s quotation about Luther, a Luther quote that proudly lives around these parts). Both groups have bent the gospel. It is still possible to hear the word from both, but not at a full throat-ed roar.

The effects of that bending are: the frozen chosen and the unholy saints. (And a bunch of people who just don’t seem to have ears.) Just a little challenge here. How many calls for help or action or the church doing something in a congregation focused on personal salvation go unheeded? If a preacher walked into a church and said you need to tithe (at a minimum) so that this church can fund {a soup kitchen, a free preschool, a missionary, fill in the blank good of the kingdom} what kind of reaction would he get? Similarly if a preacher walked into a mainline church and started preaching chastity (Matt 5:27-30) and the evil of divorce (Matt 5:31-32) how fast would he or she be removed?

Now look for a second at “A Mighty Fortress”. We sang that this past week – Reformation Sunday. Why was the reformation so strong?

No strength of ours can match his might, We would be lost rejected
But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected
You ask who this may be? The Lord of Hosts is he.
Christ Jesus, Mighty Lord, God’s only son adored
He holds the field victorious.

Luther’s preaching and hymns were all about Jesus. Jesus defeating sin, death and the power of the devil. Jesus the Lord. The same way that there are two natures in one Christ. The gospel is not just about justification. It is not just about social justice. The gospel is about Jesus. A Jesus who would say – “be holy” (Matt 5:48) and “my yoke is easy” (Matt 11:30) or “come all who are heavy laden” (Matt 11:28) or John 3:16.

Scot McKnight likes 1 Cor 15. For a statement of how we live that Jesus gospel I like Paul in Phil 3:10-16. “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection…not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on…if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”

The Puzzle of Reformation Day

Scripture Text: John 8:31-36
Full Text of Sermon

Traditions tend to pile up. There is nothing inherently wrong with traditions. Most traditions are in fact healthy and good. But they tend to pile up. Just think about Christmas. How many things are there that you “have” to do? Does the holiday just stop if you miss baking the sugar cookies or you don’t get the lights hung? Have you ever said the holiday has been ruined because we didn’t get to do X (fill in with your X)?

Churches are like dumping grounds of traditions. Churches hold on to traditions long after the last people who knew what they were about have been carried out the door. To make matters worse, they often add theological reasons for a tradition. Here is an example. You probably have a US flag at the front of your sanctuary. Why is it there? Are the Kingdom of God and the United States equivalent things? What would happen if it wasn’t there one day? My guess is that someone would make an argument – put it back, Jesus and Paul both said something along the lines of Caesar is the appointed authority, that flag is our recognition of that authority, so put it back. A theological fig leaf for a tradition. Not that the tradition is bad, just that it is a human tradition.

But traditions can pile up to toxic levels. To levels where the core of what we are about as Christians becomes obscured. The original creed was Jesus is Lord. If you listen to the stirring reformation hymns – especially A Mighty Fortress – that is what you will hear. The reformation was about stripping out some toxic levels of tradition and reminding people that our salvation is found only in Jesus, that Jesus is Lord. Our lives should be shaped by that very direct statement. At all times and in all places, a people willing to live like Jesus is Lord do revolutionary and remarkable things. And the best part of that is that if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. You will be part of the house forever. That is what this very personal Lord has done for you.

Reformation Day Sermons

Full Text

Two choices with any Special Day sermons, preach the day or preach the text. Preaching the day is by far the more popular. People expect it. It is actually easier (maybe why it is more popular) – no translations to do, find some simple stories preferably cute about the people involved. But I think that puts the cart before the horse with most things Christian. The text or the Word drives the Christian story…drives the Christian. Preaching the day drains it of its vitality. The day becomes just another museum piece. One more birthday, anniversary or commemoration to remember. Preach the text and the living Word might show up.

Russell Saltzman here has heard or given one to many sermons on the Day. He gives some great examples of the species. It is also a great example of loss of hope. When the day has lost its vitality, it can’t inspire hope. The Word that inspires is absent.

Red flag of the parsons own views here – we made/make too much of the politics and the piety that came out of the reformation, and not enough of the original insight. For centuries the camps of Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed have gloried in their people and places and documents. And those things are important, but they don’t capture the complexity of the people – their tragic incompleteness. The original reformation insight allows for that incompleteness, and lets God complete things. And that insight came from the Word.

For no one is justified by works of the law…but now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the the Law – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 3:19-22).

If you read Saltzman’s last paragraph – he put his hope in the wrong place. Even the church, which will be protected until the end, is an imperfect and incomplete vessel – waiting to be made complete…waiting for the saints to be revealed…waiting for the righteousness of God through faith.

A Thousand Miles in the Footsteps of Martin Luther

Here is a WSJ article about an interesting trip. Here are the author’s ongoing site.

a snipet…

But we and Luther do share one significant similarity: We’re both living in the midst of a communication revolution. For Luther it was the printing press. He and his followers were able to use pamphlets and ever-cheaper printed books to promote the Reformation cause. This ability to spread the word also hardened the opposing teams in a divided and dividing church…In the discourse between Lutheran and Catholic ecumenists over the past half-century, however, a new picture of Luther has emerged. Both sides have acknowledged that the claim of a severe cleavage between pre- and post-Reformation Luther is simply inaccurate. Luther’s revolutionary insights were firmly grounded in the long tradition of the church. Both Catholic rejection and Protestant triumphalism fail to do justice to the real man and his work.

Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Word Alone. Those are the three “solas” of the reformation. And they are all radical positions. By radical I mean that put on a spectrum, none of them are the middle path, a reasonable man would not gravitate to those poles. And I think that order is telling. Nobody ever really debated grace alone. There were debates over obscure terms like prevenient grace and saving grace, but that was splitting hairs. It was all grace. The debates intensified at faith alone. Faith alone to Lutherans really repeated grace alone. We are saved through faith which is a gift of God by grace. Faith is a visible form of grace. The Catholics of the time and still today will nod that yes it is faith that saves, but faith is fruitful in works. The last sola, Word Alone, is often misrepresented. We often take it today as just the scriptures. The Scriptures were definitely the source, but the reformation understanding is larger. Think through the foolishness of preaching, the proclaimed word, an almost mystical understanding of the active Word in our lives. The Catholics made the same leap we often do. They heard Word Alone as sola scriptura and gagged. The scriptures require interpretation. Tradition, the church, the creeds and the teachers of the church are required. The mystic monk met the legal institution and they talked past each other.

Its a blog, so I can be grossly wrong and retract it later. At heart I’m real simple. It’s all grace. The Christian proclamation is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. While we were driving the nails and saying we don’t want this grace, the Father gave it anyway. Faith alone, yes, true, but because its all grace. Word alone? That one also, but because God condescended to tell us anything. Everything else kinda falls under Paul’s words, “All things are possible, but not all things are profitable.” Am I going to divide over Word alone – no. Am I going to divide over Faith alone – very doubtful. Am I going to divide over grace alone – yep. If you think anything you do will earn you merit, we part company. I’m not strong enough or wise enough to figure it all out. I need the grace.

So, I wish Sara Wilson grace on her 1000 miles. And in her endeavor. Once things are divided, putting them back together takes a lot of grace. Thankfully I believe in the resurrection – when things do get put back together.

Scriptures & simple reason…

That title was Luther at Worms. He would not recant (what he as being commanded to do) unless someone could show him from the Scriptures and simple reason why he was wrong or where he had made error.

The thought comes up as Reformation Day is coming up and I was reading something out of the normal way by C. S. Lewis from Christian Reflections.

The authority of many wise men in many different times and places forbids me to regard the spiritual world as an illusion. My reason, showing me the apparently isoluable difficulties of materialism and proving that the hypothesis of a spiritual world covers far more of the fact with far fewer assumptions, forbids me again. My experience even of such feeble attempts as I have meade to live the spiritual life…forbid me again.

A mid-20th century Oxford Don well schooled in logic and reason concludes that reason has shown him “the isoluable difficulties of materialism” and employs Occam’s Razor to rule in a spiritual world. How different than today!

His central argument is that our fight, the struggle of the Christian life, is not between faith and reason, but between faith and sight.

When once passion take part in the game, human reason, unassisted by Grace, has about as much chance of retaining its hold on truths already gains as a snowflake has of retaining its consistency in the mouth of a blast furnace.

Reason has its starting points. It is always a minister and never the master. The question moves to what do you see as real. Are the passions or dis-passions of this world what are real, or the revelation of Jesus Christ. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (Heb 11:1) We do not get reasoned out of faith. We get scared by what it means if our religion is actually real – if we saw the reality in all its glory.