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07.23.17 Eating in the Presence of Christ Luke 24:36-53 Sermon Summary

The interpretation of one verse continues to reform the church within the Reformed branch of Christianity. Eventually, one hopes, it will reform the whole church.

Summary Points

  • Zwingli’s interpretation of the sacraments
  • John 6:63 in context
  • Calvin’s reading of John 6
  • How God overcomes our weakness
  • The role of the sacraments in the life of faith

One verse, embedded in a very long and complex discussion between Jesus and crowds of disciples, set the course of sacramental theology for the Reformed wing of the Protestant Reformation. It is John 6:63, when Jesus says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer of Zurich who changed his mind about infant baptism, took this verse along with this thoughts about baptism, and denied the presence of Christ at the Lord’s Table. In his debate with Luther, it was this verse that convinced Zwingli that “is,” in the phrase, “This is my body,” means “represents.” Review his full argument here, but this verse sealed the deal for Zwingli, since it proves that the flesh doesn’t matter. The Spirit matters, and the Word matters, and our response, i.e., faith matters. But not the flesh.

This was Zwingli’s position against both Roman Catholicism and against Luther. And it would eventually lead to non-sacramental Christian fellowships like the Quakers and the Salvation Army. And it would contribute to the theology of the Anabaptists (and today’s Baptists) who observe the sacramental rituals but call them “ordinances,” since they are obedient responses to Christ’s command.

The context of John chapter six is that Jesus has just fed 5000 people with some loaves and fish. Now crowds are growing and following him, and Jesus offers the “Bread of Life” discourse to thin them out. We’re told that many disciples abandon Jesus over this teaching. To them, it smacks of “crass materialism”: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask.

Is John 6 talking about the Lord’s Supper? In its context, the literal answer is no. But within the context of John and the Christian liturgical practice, the obvious answer is yes. John has a complex relationship with the sacraments. Through narratives about water, bread, and wine, he offers us the most beautiful elaborations of sacramental theology. But John embeds these teachings in indirect narratives. He does this to deny an ultimate value to the sacraments.

Here, in the “Bread of Life” discourse, John presents Jesus as over miracles (the feeding of the 5000), over mana (the tradition inherited by the Jews), and over the meal (the Lord’s Supper as practiced by the early church). Jesus is over all these, but not against them per se.

This is the point Zwingli missed. He read this passage as saying Jesus is not only over these realities, but against them as well. And so he took the “uselessness of the flesh” literally.

Fortunately, John Calvin of the next generation of refomers, read John 6 differently. Whereas Jesus, Roman Catholicism, and Lutheranism could all be accused of “crass materialism” with regards to the flesh of Jesus being contained and eaten in the bread of the eucharist, Zwingli could be accused of “mere symbolism,” leading to the practice of the Quakers. Calvin saw that the problem was with the adjectives, not the nouns. The bread is material and symbolic; the real problem comes when these are crass and mere.

Calvin saw that when Jesus says the flesh is “useless,” he is being rhetorical. The emphasis in John 6 is on Jesus, yes. And on the Spirit. And on the Word. And on faith. To highlight these emphases, Jesus points out that relative to them, the flesh is “useless.” He has to do this because it is so easy to over-value miracles, mana, and the meal at the expense of Jesus.

How did Calvin arrive here? Remember that Luther was motivated by his search for peace. Zwingli was motivated by his search for precision. Calvin was motivated by the question of perseverance. “How can we survive the spiritual life,” Calvin would ask, “given that we are so weak?”

This weakness is evident at the end of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus had been appearing all day: First to the women at the tomb, last to the two disciples traveling to Emmaus, and in the meantime to Simon. Now, “while disciples were talking about these things,” he appears to them again. And STILL they are startled and terrified, fearing they are seeing a ghost.

Jesus himself seems surprised at this. He asks them incredulously why they are frightened and have doubts arising in their hearts. Don’t they know him? Can’t they recognize him? So he offers them his material body. “Look at my hands and feet! Touch me and see. I’m not a ghost. I’m not something to be feared. I am still truly Jesus, still truly here, still truly present.”

But still we are weak. The disciples are in their joy, but they are still disbelieving and wondering. So Jesus eats a fish in their presence. This is crass materialism. In only one other story does it get more crass. But it teaches that in no way is the flesh useless. On the contrary, Jesus uses his flesh to overcome our weakness. Far from useless, the flesh is indispensable.

Someone recently asked me, “Why do we rock when we grieve?” The answer has to do with the fact that profound grief is an extraordinary experience. We’re not practiced at it. We have a difficult time expressing it. But grief has to be worked out through our bodies. Why do we raise our hands when we’re elated? Why is our breath taken away at overwhelming beauty? Why do we cry involuntarily? It’s because we are flesh, and necessarily these immaterial aspects of being human must find physical expression.

The flesh is necessary because we are flesh and God wants all of us. God wants not just our disembodied spirits, or our exalted thoughts, or our sanctified memories. Jesus said we are to love God with our heart, soul, mind, AND strength—strength is a reference to our flesh.

But the flesh is weak and needs strengthening. God’s physical presence is that strength. God comes not to judge our weakness, but to help us despite it. This is why there are Old Testament sacraments which culminate in Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus means when he says, “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms are fulfilled in me.” In Jesus Christ the coming of the God’s Kingdom has begun. Where he is, the kingdom is. We experience it now in part only, but now nonetheless.

This is why Jesus lifts up his hands at the end. He is reminding the disciples of his presence even in his imminent absence. Luke is telling us that God meets our weakness by coming to us in the flesh. God strengthens us this way, and also calls us beyond our weakness. And so Jesus “withdraws” and is “carried up to heaven.”

In his absence, Jesus has left us the New Testament sacraments. They are symbols, but not merely symbolic. Jesus’ presence is material, but not crass materialism.

This perspective is articulated in the Scots Confession of 1560:

“in the Supper . . . Christ Jesus is so joined with us that he becomes the very nourishment and food of our souls. . . this union and conjunction which we have with the body and blood of Christ Jesus . . . is wrought by means of the Holy Ghost, who by true faith carries us above all things that are visible, carnal, and earthly, and makes us feed upon the body and blood of Christ Jesus . . . if anyone slanders us by saying that we affirm or believe the sacraments to be symbols and nothing more, they are libelous. . . On the other hand we readily admit that we make a distinction between Christ in his eternal substance and the elements of the sacramental signs. So we neither worship the elements, in place of that which they signify, nor do we despise them or undervalue them, but we use them with great reverence.”

The point is, we need the sacraments. The spiritual life is too hard. Our faith is too weak. We need a savior. We need the assurance of the Incarnation: God with us; of the Crucifixion: God loves us; of the Resurrection: God rescues us; of the Ascension: God calls us still; and of the sacraments: God is with us still.

Thanks be to God for giving us these assurances in Word, in Spirit, and in sacrament.

07.16.17 Arguing Over What’s Not There Acts 1:6-11 Sermon Summary

Jesus spoke Aramaic, a language which doesn’t require the utterance of the verb “is.” This means that what divided the Reformed Presbyterians from the Lutherans was a debate over a word Jesus probably didn’t even say.

Summary Points

  • Zwingli’s baptismal theology applied to communion
  • Zwingli and Luther on the word “is”
  • Zwingli’s three arguments
  • Luther’s perspective, including his famous illustration
  • Some ways Presbyterians might have gone, but didn’t

The reason Ulrich Zwingli rejected the arguments against infant baptism was because he realized baptism is the sign of the New Covenant. As circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant, as it included children, was administered once, and was administered on the basis of a communal faith, so baptism was to include children—boys and girls.

Zwingli also applied this thinking to the sacrament of Communion. For him, the bread, wine, and participation in communion, was a covenantal sign—but ONLY a sign. These were meant to be prompts, reminders, or substitutes only, NOT vehicles of grace. Today the language we use is “means” of grace. Zwingli denied this.

Thus, for Zwingli, when Christ says “This is my body,” “is” doesn’t mean is: “Is” means “signifies” or “represents.”

Not so for Luther. Luther was a literalist with God’s promises. For him, “is” means “is.” Jesus promised what the communion element “is,” and Luther believed it. His problem with communion was with the official Roman Catholic explanation of how Christ is present, which is called “Transubstantiation.”

Transubstantiation came from the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s. It is based on Aristotelian philosophy. It distinguishes between the way things appear to us through the senses, and the way things are in their essence. The appearances are referred to as “accidents,” and the essence is referred to as the “substance.” During the Mass, when the Priest recites in Latin Jesus’ words from the New Testament, “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is my body”), the accidents of bread and wine remain, but the substance changes. In other words, they appear to us as bread and wine—feel and taste and smell as such—but what they actually are is the body and blood of Christ.

(This is where magicians came up with the phrase, “Hocus pocus.” It comes from the medieval experience of laity knowing the bread and wine were changed with the priest’s words, but not hearing or understanding the words fully.)

Luther was offended that the church would depend on Aristotle, a pagan philosopher, to explain this divine mystery. “We don’t need philosophy,” Luther would say. “We only need faith.” “Is” means is: you either believe it or not.

So Zwingli and Luther were at an impasse over the word “is,” again, over a word Jesus likely didn’t utter.

Zwingli made three arguments. First, these words of Jesus were spoken while alive, at the Last Supper. There’s no way Jesus could be literal because his death hadn’t happened yet. His body and blood were still alive and contained with him. The original bread and wine could not be his body and blood.

Second, Jesus is presently at right hand of God—ONLY at the right hand: He couldn’t be present in the bread and cup or at the table also. Acts, Hebrews, Paul, and some of the Gospels all agree that Jesus was raised to God’s right hand. Here, Zwingli is the literalist.

Third, Zwingli argued from a verse in the “Bread of Life” discourse of John 6. Even though he denied this passage is about the Eucharist, he nonetheless seized on verse 63: “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” For Zwingli, it is the words that matter, and our response to the words, not the accompanying material symbols. It is remembrance and faith, not flesh, blood, or eating that counts. Communion, like Baptism, is a sign, a badge, a marker ONLY. Christ himself is not presently active.

For Luther, Christ is not limited by the flesh. Because Christ is both human and divine, and because God is Spirit, Christ also is not limited by the flesh. He can be in two places at once—at God’s right hand, and with the bread and wine of communion—just as God could be in the Old Testament sacraments, just as in the waters of baptism. The clearest example of this possibility is the Incarnation itself: God was with us in Christ, but also in heaven.

Luther used a famous illustration to make his point. Imagine a horseshoe placed deep in hot coals, so deep you are not able to see the horseshoe. It is still distinct from the coals, but it is in, with, and under the coals. After a while, you remove the horseshoe. It glows hot with the fire of the coals, which appears in, with, and under the horseshoe. The two realities are distinct, but they also appear as one. So, Luther argued, the body and blood of Christ is in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine, just as the bread and wine are in, with, and under the body and blood of Christ. (This way of explaining the dual reality of the bread and wine came to be called consubstantiation—two substances at the same time.)

In 1529 Philip of Hesse called Luther and Zwingli to a colloquy at his castle at Marburg. He was interested in uniting the two reform movements because the Holy Roman Emperor was finally fixing his sights on the Protestant reformers. An alliance would strengthen their position against the Emperor. The two parties agreed on 14 out of 15 articles—all except how to describe the presence of Christ at the Supper. From that time until the last century, the Lutherans and the Reformed would be separate reform movements.

Why, given Zwingli’s way of thinking about things, didn’t we Presbyterians go the way of the Baptists? They didn’t retain the language of “sacraments” and “means of grace,” but instead talk of “ordinances” that we observe because Christ commanded them.

Or why didn’t we go the way of the Quakers? They don’t use any material elements at all—not water for baptism or bread and wine for communion. They simply cogitate on the realities symbolized by these elements.

Or what does Jesus mean when he says he will not partake of the bread and wine “until the kingdom of God comes”? When does that kingdom come? Is it only at the end of the world? Or sooner? These are the matters we will take up next week.

07.09.17 Baptism for Children Too Galatians 3:21-29 Sermon Summary

The difference between God’s Law and God’s Promise is the dynamic that continually reforms the church. This is nowhere more evident than during the Reformations of the sixteenth century.

Summary Points

  • The difference between Law and Promise
  • How context affects the interpretation of the Bible
  • How the promises of God apply to our children
  • The biblical, theological answer to the Anabaptists

The Bible has a complex relationship with the Law of God. In some passages, it is the Law that reveals God and guides us to life. But in other passages, it is the Law that contributes to our condemnation. This is because the Law reveals sin. It convicts and imprisons us. It cannot save us. The rediscovery of this truth started the reformation of the 16th Century.

But the Law also separates us from one another. It encourages the making of rules—of categorizing who’s in and who’s out.

By contrast, God’s Promise reconciles us to God, and reconciles us with one another.

The Swiss Brethren surrounding Zurich at the start of the Reformation adhered to Luther’s position of sola scriptura. Instead of the Pope, the priesthood, the councils, or tradition, Luther argued that the Bible alone was the ultimate authority for the church and the Christian. Zurich’s reformer Ulrich Zwingli was attracted to the Swiss Brethren for application of this principle.

But upon further theological reflection, Zwingli abandoned one of the Swiss Brethren’s signature reforms, the rejection of infant baptism. Zwingli’s turn from critique of infant baptism to staunch defender illustrates how “the Bible says so” is an insufficient impetus for reform. He realized that the Bible must be read in context, or better, contextS. When done so, other truths emerge that govern how we read the Bible and how we conduct our worship and our lives.

Zwingli began with the surrounding verses. For example, the Anabaptists appealed to Acts 2:38 in which Peter urges a response of repentance and baptism. It was clear to them that since children cannot repent, they should not be baptized. But in context, Peter goes on to say that the promise of God, “is for your children.” The question asked by the text is, What does “to our children” mean?

Grammatical context is also important when considering the Great Commission. The Swiss Brethren’s “Bible says so” approach paid careful attention to the sequence: Go, make disciples, baptize, teach. Children should not be baptized until they have been made disciples. But the grammar suggests something else.

The principle verb is to make disciples. This is the verb that governs the others. The others are secondary. (Imperative vs. participle, for your grammar geeks. And further, completed action verses ongoing present action.) Most precisely, the Great Commission is translated, “Make disciples, having gone, baptizing and teaching.” The irony is, if we were to be literalists with this sequence, we wouldn’t teach until we baptized. This would lead to the baptism of children as soon as possible, wouldn’t it? I point this out in jest.

What about other verses from last week’s message? These verses describe the baptism of converts, who understand the Bible, who believe, who repent, and who request baptism. Children can do none of these things. Zwingli’s ultimate conclusions address all these circumstances.

How DO God’s promises apply to children? To answer, Zwingli broadened his reading.

In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul is answering questions posed to him by the congregation. They have asked about mixed marriages, where one spouse is a follower of Christ but the other is not. Paul says the Christian spouse should not separate, because the unbelieving spouse is made holy by the believing spouse. The entire household is made holy, Paul argues, including the children (see verse 14). Such a perspective challenges the understanding that an individual and “mature” response to the promises of God is the criterion for recognizing those promises. The mature spouse rejects the promises, and children are incapable of such a response. Nevertheless, they are holy.

This line of thought leads to a question about the nature of God’s promises. Here the clearest answer comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In his defense of justification by faith rather than works, Paul asserts that all are heirs according to the promise of God. All are children of Abraham. All are justified by the faith of Jesus. This includes Gentiles and Jews, slaves and free, and men and women. We may wonder, Does it also include young and old?

The sign of God’s promise to Abraham is circumcision. It is given before individual and mature consciousness. It is administered outside the will of the one receiving it. It is performed on the basis of parentage and community. Circumcision is a sign of belonging. It is given once, it is not repeated, and it is permanent.

Paul’s thought in Galatians is described in Colossians 2:11-12 with relation to baptism. Baptism is recognized as the new sign of the covenant community that is created in Christ. Like the Older Testament sign, it applies to the children of the community of faith, long before they can appreciate what being a child of the covenant means. Baptism never needs repeating because God’s promises, symbolized by circumcision and baptism, are valid before or even after our individual belief. For God to be faithful to his promises does not depend on us. That is the definition of grace.

For these reasons, Zwingli rejected the reform movement of the Swiss Brethren, who re-baptized those who were baptized as infants. (That’s what “Anabaptism” means.) Zwingli’s theology recognizes the continuity between the Older and Newer Testaments. His position is thus thoroughly “biblical”—a comforting observation for those who say infant baptism isn’t biblical because it isn’t attested to directly in the Bible.

Zwingli’s theology emphasizes God’s faithfulness to God’s promises even while at the same time expressing the faith of the community. And one of my favorite implications of Zwingli’s argument is that it now recognizes girls. We are all, regardless of age or sex, recipients of the promises of God. The baptism of children proclaims this good news in a unique way, and we have Zwingli to thank for keeping us mindful of that.


07.02.17 Baptism, Adults Only Matthew 28:16-20 Sermon Summary

Luther’s reform replaced ecclesial authority with scriptural authority. That came with its own problems.

Summary Points

  • The problem with “sola scriptura
  • Two other reform movements beyond Luther’s
  • The case against infant baptism

One of the Protestant slogans arising from the 16th century Reformation is “sola scriptura” which means
“scripture alone.” Luther’s critique of indulgences led him to conclude that only the Bible should enjoy primary authority in the church and in the lives of Christians. He supplanted the authority of the Pope, priests, councils, and tradition.

To the south, in Zurich, Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli, a practicing priest, was also initiating reform. Luther’s motives began with the personal and pastoral concern for the guilty conscience, then moved to theology. Zwingli’s reforms were motivated first by fidelity to the text of the Bible. Then he also developed his theology.

This attention to the text attracted Zwingli to the Swiss Brethren, a third reform movement that sprung from the “sola scripture” principle. Under the leadership of Conrad Grebel and later Michael Sattler who wrote the Seven Schleitheim Articles, this third group came to be known as the “Anabaptists,” which means those who “baptize again.” They believed the baptism of young children was wrong, so they re-baptized one another as adults.

Zwingli’s initial attraction to the Anabaptists reading of scripture, and later rejection of it, offers a case study in the problems of “sola scriptura.” It turns out that when you assert the authority of scripture alone, it isn’t long before competing interpretations of scripture emerge.

The Anabaptists begin with the “Great Commission”: Matthew 28:19-20. According to Matthew, this is Jesus’ last utterance and final direction to the church. The Anabaptists were literalists in a way different than Luther. Luther was a literalist in that he took seriously God’s faithfulness to his promises. When the Bible promised justification by faith apart from works of the law, Luther believed it.

The Anabaptists were different kinds of literalists. They believed that verses in the Bible mean exactly what they say. For example, the sequence of the Great Commission is obvious and clear: Go, Make Disciples, Baptize, Teach. Baptism follows the making of disciples. Since young children are not yet disciples, they cannot be baptized.

Next they turned to Mark’s version of the Great Commission, Mark 16:16. Here it is seen that salvation is defined as belief followed by baptism. Since young children don’t show evidence of belief, they cannot be baptized. What is more, according to this verse, salvation is the result of belief followed by baptism, but condemnation is the result of non-belief only. In other words, baptism is rendered a non-essential.

(Interesting point of fact here: with this verse Luther was a literalist in the manner of the Anabaptists. He taught that water baptism was necessary for salvation.)

The Anabaptists turned next to Acts 2:38, the culmination of Peter’s Pentecost Sermon in which 3000 people ask how they should respond. “Repent and be baptized” is the answer. Young children do not repent, and thus cannot be baptized.

Later in Acts, as people respond to the preaching of Philip in 8:12, it says they believed and then were baptized. Here again, since young children don’t show evidence of belief, they cannot be candidates for baptism.

In this same chapter, Philip evangelizes the Ethiopian Eunuch, helping him first to understand the Bible, then acknowledging that nothing now prohibits his being baptized. This is what happens in Acts 8:36, 38. Since young children don’t understand the Bible, they cannot be baptized.

If you have a Bible informed by contemporary scholarship, it probably moves Acts 8:37 to a footnote. This is because some early manuscripts don’t include the verse. The question for scholars, then, is “Was verse 37 added by someone, or taken out by someone? Is it original?” Because verse 37 specifies a doctrinal standard for baptism, scholars say it is a later addition. The hypothesis is that for some community of faith, the basis of the Ethiopian Eunuch’s request for baptism was too ambiguous. In that community, you had to confess the faith of verse 37 in order to be baptized, so they added verse 37 to the narrative.

The point is that at the time of the Anabaptists’ reading, the narrative included verse 37, and since young children cannot articulate that kind of faith, they could not be baptized.

Finally, the Anabaptists pointed to Acts 16:31-33 as evidence that the baptism of young children is an unfaithful practice. Here Paul and Silas are imprisoned overnight, but sing and praise God nonetheless. An earthquake occurs, freeing them from their chains, but they remain in jail. Their Jailer, terrified at first that they had escaped, asks how they can be so joyful and trusting in God through their ordeal. He wants to know how he can similarly be “saved.” The answer? “Believe and you will be saved.”

So Paul and Silas proclaim the Word to him, he believes (and is presumably saved), then baptized. Until children believe, then, there can be no baptism.

Are you convinced? The Anabaptists were. And Zwingli was at first. Next week we’ll revisit these verses. Because as Zwingli studied them more carefully, he rejected the interpretations of the Anabaptists and instead became a staunch defender of infant baptism. We’ll see the importance of interpreting the Bible with various contexts in view, and how theology also plays a part in the worship practices of the church.

Almighty God, your Word has transformed the lives of those who hear it and believe. We think of the converts who heard your Word through Peter, Philip, Paul, and Silas. We think of how our own lives have been transformed by believing in your Word. Help us this week to continue listening for your Word, to believe your promises, and to follow where you lead us in Christ. May his word of commissioning guide us until we are no longer lost, and so that others in our paths who are also lost, may see and hear in our lives the Good News of Jesus Christ. Amen.


06.25.17 The Wedge that Started it All Romans 3:9-31 Sermon Summary

To reform the church Luther took God at his word about sin. But also about grace. In this 500th year since his reformation, we could benefit again by following his example.

Summary Points

  • The reform Luther started
  • Indulgences and purgatory
  • Luther’s discovery: the faith of Christ saves us

We’re calling this year the “500th year anniversary of the Reformation.” It’s not really THE beginning of the Reformation. Across Europe, serious attempts at reforming the church had been started and extinguished for over 300 years. But an obvious marker occurred on October 31, 1517, when the Augustinian professor Martin Luther challenged the itinerant preaching Dominicans to a debate. This is the wedge that started the reform that could not be stopped.

The debate was about “indulgences.” In the Roman Catholic thought of the day, Christ’s death on the Cross created a storehouse of righteousness, grace, or merit. The Pope could access this merit on behalf of others, applying it to them in order to reduce their time in Purgatory.

Purgatory was the place where people went after they died to have any remainder of their sin “purged” from them. This was necessary before they could enter the presence of God. The doctrines of purgatory and indulgences work well within Roman Catholic thinking.

The problem for Luther was two-fold. First, Luther was obsessed with his lack of righteousness. He did everything he could, everything the church taught, in order to bring peace to his conscience. Nothing worked. Second, indulgences were now being peddled by the Dominicans who really didn’t have the authority to grant them as they were designed.

Luther saw the sale of indulgences as a further alienation from the righteousness he so wanted. He could not square the practice of indulgences with his stricken conscience. And in his search for relief, he discovered he could not square it with scripture either.

Luther’s main text was Romans 3:9-31. Paul was writing the churches in Rome to introduce himself, to raise money for mission work, and to address conflict in Rome between Jews and Gentiles. His opening remarks are followed by a harsh assessment of Gentiles in chapter 1, then of Jews in chapter 2, to bring him to this foundational passage.

In his reading of this passage, Luther really believed Paul. When Paul writes, “there is no one righteous,” “no one who seeks God,” “no one who shows kindness,” that peoples “feet are swift to shed blood,” and that “the fear of God is not before anyone’s eyes,” Luther agreed. He recognized that Paul is not describing some THEM out there, but ALL people, including US.

That’s worth contemplating, because we’ve all become glib about our lack of righteousness and our need for grace. I remember going to football games while a student at Notre Dame. I was a little envious at how casually the Roman Catholics could engage in such drunkenness based on their confidence in the sacraments to erase it all away. Meanwhile, when I was a student at Princeton Seminary I regularly drove out the one way entrance because it was shorter and “we are not under law, but under grace.” Paul wouldn’t tolerate such shenanigans with sin and grace. Neither did Luther.

But Luther also believed Paul when he wrote that, “now apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed in the faith of Jesus Christ.” In other words, God’s righteousness is revealed not by our faith and faithfulness, but by Christ’s faith and faithfulness.

The law cannot save us because it exposes sin. It results only in condemnation. Yet so many of us, including Luther, try to live up to its demands. We do good deeds. We judge others. We refuse the truth that righteousness and justification are gifts. Salvation is a gift, given by God, to humanity, in grace, through Christ.

But we want to boast so badly! We want to take credit, to feel good about ourselves, and to feel better than others. But, Paul writes, such boasting is excluded by the law of faith.

When Luther remembered that in his opening comments Paul said the Gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith (Romans 1:16-17), he realized that scripture alone—not the Pope, not indulgences, not penance—only God’s promises in the Bible could give him spiritual relief. This is the wedge that began the splintering.

It raised questions about the priesthood, about the church, about the sacraments, about the Bible, about what it means to be “holy,” about how Christians ought to relate to the state—about everything!

Luther took God at his word to reform the church. Today, to reform our church and lives, can we take God at his word about us? Can we take God at his word about others?

06.04.17 Only Together Can We Grow Ephesians 4:1-16 Sermon Summary

Ephesians is my favorite book on ecclesiology, which means how to be the church. I could pick a number of single verses from this letter to build an ecclesiology, but on this Pentecost I want to focus on this one: “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

When the author speaks of the “unity of the Spirit” he’s not referring to an esprit de corps, but rather is indicating something that only God can do. In fact, in Ephesians, God has already done it. God has made us one in Jesus Christ by the Spirit.

But when the author refers to the “bond of peace,” that is something that we maintain. Whereas God effects the unity of the Spirit, we maintain the bond of peace. In the words of the Belhar Confession of 1986: “We believe unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought.”

Unity is accomplished by the Spirit of God, but it is still our choice. What a great mystery. How do we “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”? According to Ephesians, it is through the diversity of gifts we receive from Christ through the Spirit.

This diversity includes apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers, according to the list in Ephesians. But it also includes people especially gifted for encouragement, administration, hospitality and generosity. And many more.

Ephesians says all these gifts come from one source—the Spirit, and move toward one end—maturity in Christ. And the common aspect of this movement—from one Spirit, through many gifts, to one Christ—is love. The Body of Christ, the church, “builds itself up in love.”

This should not surprise us. In John 13 Jesus washes the disciples’ feet and says, “As I have done to you, so you should do to one another. As I have loved you, so you ought to love one another. The world will know you are my disciples by your love.”

This is actually the purpose of the gifts, and one role of the Spirit. These gifts of the Spirit are our abilities, but they are also our opportunities. And when we take our abilities and offer them in various opportunities out of love, we recognize the unity of Spirit. And it establishes peace. It also makes Christ present to us and to each other.

As individuals and as the church, we only grow as each of us uses our gifts of abilities and opportunities to serve in love. And so this passage asks each of us two questions. The first is, How has the Spirit gifted us—what abilities do we have, and what opportunities can we engage? The second is, How can we love one another and the world better?

As we answer these two questions, we will grow as individuals, and we will grow as the church, for by the Spirit’s power, and only together, can we grow as the Body of Christ.

05.28.17 Faithful Remembrance Hebrews 11:1-10, 13-16 Sermon Outline

On Memorial Day it is appropriate to remember everyone who has sacrificed in faith for the good of others.

I’ve heard it said that Hebrews 11 is “The Hall of Fame of Faith.” In a cascade, it moves from Abel through Noah and Abraham and Sarah to countless unnamed saints. All these endured this life’s hardships and still await the fulfillment of God’s promises. Why are they still waiting? Hebrews says it’s because “they are not, apart from us, made perfect.”

In other words, their faith awaits our faith. It is now our time to be faithful, and they inspire and encourage us, the next chapter says, as a “great cloud of witnesses.” On Memorial Day, when we remember the faithfulness of others to our country, it is appropriate to remember also these faithful.

We remember Abel who was murdered by his brother Cain. His blood cried out to God from the ground, and Hebrews says he “still speaks to us through his faith.” His faith was that he offered himself to God and accepted God’s approval. May we also accept God’s approval.

We remember Enoch whose faith “pleased God” not just because he believed in the existence of God, but that God would reward him if he sought him. Later Jeremiah would promise that if we “seek God with our hearts, we will find him.” (Jeremiah 29:13) Jesus also promised his disciples that when we seek, we shall find. (Matthew 7:7) May we seek God with all our hearts.

Last Thursday morning I was working on renewing my passport. As I held it in my hand I thought about the security, safety, assurance, and pride of being a U.S. citizen. I thought about my homeland compared to other countries I’ve visited. These reflections of my “homeland” dissipated instantaneously when my phone rang and interrupted me, informing me that my wife had been in a car accident.

In that moment I had a glimpse of our true homeland which Hebrews reminds us is not of this world. Our true homeland is resting in God with all the saints, enduring faithfully through this life and through this world until we do.

It helps to remember Abraham and Sarah whose faith started with a promise and journeyed through the unknown. And even after they had arrived at what was promised them, their faith compelled them to continue seeking.

Our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt bear testimony to this. Like Abel’s blood, this morning their faith speaks to us. They had just set out for prayer at a monastery last Friday when they were martyred and joined the list of Hebrews 11. But the reality of Egypt’s Coptic Christians is the truth of all Christians, only pushed to the extreme.

We have not arrived. Like Abraham and Sarah we are strangers and foreigners on the earth. Our homeland is beyond borders of this country. God has prepared a city for us.

So let us remember and give thanks for the faithful of Hebrews 11 and the faithful who have served the United States with their lives. And let us honor the sacrifices all these have made by keeping our sights on the heavenly home that God has prepared for all nations. And let us honor them by enduring faithfully the hardships of this life until we rest with all God’s people.