Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A quote in Reply to postmodernism

"But it should give Christian theologians the necessary
candor to look their secularist opponent in the eye and confront
his arguments about rationality and intellectual honesty
head on: You are neither rational nor honest; on thecontrary, all
your important positions are dependent on theological points
of view which you have made it your raison de'tre to attack.
You think the world makes sense? It doesn't, if there is no God
to grant it. You build your argument on the idea that what you
say makes sense to another human being? Be careful, for you
may unwittingly have confirmed the idea that all human beings
are created in the image of God." --Knut Alfsvag

Monday, January 23, 2006

Sample Funeral Sermon

I've always loved the imagery Paul uses in 1 Cor. 15 relating to death and resurrection. For probably 6 years now I've wanted to write a funeral sermon on that text, and I finally had my chance in Preaching Workshop class here at seminary. We had to write a funeral sermon on a real or fictional person. And I knew all along which text I wanted to do. I chose a fictional character, so the sermon isn't actually for someone I know or who has died, but there are certainly real-life elements I tried to incorporate into it. Since I've dwelt on this text quite a bit for many years, it was really quite personal for me, and I greatly enjoyed writing this sermon.

“A Gardener For Life”
1 Cor. 15:35-49
“Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.”
To the end, Edith was a gardener. Anyone who knew her knew of her fondness for all sorts of green plants. At the end of every winter, as spring drew near, she’d rub her green thumbs together with excitement as she anticipated that first opportunity to dig around in the soil and plant those seeds in her vegetable garden and flower bed. And oh the joy she derived from nurturing those first tiny green shoots of life into big healthy green plants and glorious flowers! Carefully fertilizing, watering, digging up the weeds, anticipating the harvest—there was no doubt that when Edith was in her garden, it was a labor of joy. And anyone who wondered why would soon learn when they tasted those garden-fresh tomatoes and cucumbers and squash and all her vegetables.
As I sat with Edith in the hospital, those last few days before she died—we talked a lot about gardening, of a similar sort. You see, even though she didn’t quite know how it happened, Edith knew that when she planted those small, dried up, dead seeds in the earth—that very soon, as the sun shone on them, and the water soaked them, a new shoot of life would break out of that old husk or shell of the seed, and grow up into a beautiful living plant. And her eyes twinkled with the childlike joy of a Christian when I shared with her that this is just how St. Paul describes the Resurrection body in today’s text. So it’s particularly fitting today that as we sow Edith’s body like a seed in the ground, that we recall these words of Paul about Divine Gardening:

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed it’s own body. Paul was facing a troubling skepticism about the Resurrection among the Corinthians, and some were doubting how God could raise the dead—after all, once the body has gone to dust…But Paul rebukes such skepticism: “You foolish person!” They should have had faith, instead of doubting God’s promises. So Paul lays it out once more in a metaphor they can all understand. A seed cannot be made alive unless it first dies. That seed of course, is the human body—unique from animals, birds, and fish, as Paul goes on to tell. But when that seed is planted, the seed is not the body that is to be, but rather still just a bare seed. And admittedly, a little seed isn’t much to look at. Often they are dried up and shriveled.

And though I doubt we have any Corinthian skeptics here, many of us do struggle to believe that new life will come, when we see death staring us in the face. Edith’s wrinkled and frail, aged body might have reminded us of that little dry seed. It’s hard to see life there. Indeed, Paul goes on to say of this seed: 42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Edith’s body, the seed we will sow, will be sown as it was in this life: perishable, in dishonor, in weakness, and as a natural body. But that’s not the way it should have been—for her or for any of us. God did not create us to die, but rather The first man Adam became a living being. But because of his sin in the garden, and because of all our subsequent sin, we all together bear the image of the man of dust, Adam. Therefore it is right that we should mourn and grieve for the loss of this beloved friend of ours. Death is not part of God’s design, but it is a cruel invader in this life. But death must happen first before we are raised to life. Just like the planted seed must crack out of its dry, dead, outer husk before it grows up in new life to the surface.
You see, God made Edith a wheat seed, that is a believer, by her baptism into Christ. God gave her a body as He has chosen, a seed for a unique body, a unique believer. And she knew that this happened all by grace—she didn’t make herself that seed, and she wasn’t responsible for that tiny germ of new life that was inside her by baptism. She knew that she was a sinner, and couldn’t bring about new life within her. But that gentle sprinkling of water worked a miracle in her heart when she was baptized as an infant—the miracle of faith. She was adopted as God’s own child, paid for by Jesus’ blood shed for her sins on the cross. And while her new life continues now in heaven, where her soul is with the Lord, it is not yet complete, as her body will lie dormant like a seed in the earth…awaiting that Last Day.
Because 42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. And also, 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. What was once perishable, dishonored, weak, and natural, will be raised Imperishable, in Honor, in Strength, and Spiritual. No longer will Edith suffer with arthritis or a weak heart. No longer will she feel suffering or pain! She is at home with our Lord Jesus, and she awaits with us the day when our bodies will be raised as spiritual bodies. Bodies that bear the image of the man of heaven! Jesus Christ is that man of heaven, who took on the earthly body to redeem us perishable humans from our sin.

The only begotten Son of God, who was imperishable, became perishable, dishonored, weak, and natural for our sakes. Jesus took on human flesh so that when He was brought to dishonor by our sins and weakened by the physical and verbal abuse He faced at His crucifixion, that He would die an innocent death, to bear that awful load of sin with Him to the grave. His natural body perished, sown in the earth—a dead seed. But death could not hold Him! After three days, He rose imperishable, raised in glory, raised in power—a spiritual body. But He was no ghost! And it wasn’t some totally different body—no, He still bore the nail and spear marks in His glorified flesh. The body was the same, but it was transformed! Like a new shoot of life grown from the dead seed, Christ’s new body was glorified, transformed, strong, magnificent even. And so shall we be, and so shall Edith be on that day when Christ comes again.

We shall bear the image of that man of heaven, Jesus Christ, because His death was for our sake, and He has gathered us like seeds to be planted in His field. Martin Luther said, “You can think of God as such a [gardener] and yourself as a small kernel which He casts into the ground, so that it may come forth much more beautiful and glorious…[Thus] the cemetery or burial ground does not indicate a heap of the dead, but a field full of kernels, known as God’s kernels, which will verdantly blossom forth again and grow more beautifully than can be imagined.” So therefore we know

To the end, Edith was a gardener. And that makes it particularly fitting that now she’s the seed, to be planted in the ground. And we know that as her body lies dormant in the field like a dead seed, her soul is at home with the Lord. But on that last day, when the Son shines down on the earth, and the clouds in the heavens break—the Son of God will appear to all. Shining down as He descends in His glory, the radiance of His light will stir every wheat seed that lies waiting in the grave. And when all humanity rises to life for the judgment, Edith and all the rest of those seeds that were watered with the gentle sprinkling of Baptism, shall rise to meet Him in the clouds, bearing the new image of the man of heaven! And clothed in His glory, we will bloom forth like new shoots of life, into that new heavenly life that awaits us. Amen. To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Losing Our Virtue: a Reaction

{{Here is a reaction paper I wrote for a theological ethics course, based on the book "Losing our Virtue: Why the Church must Regain its Moral Vision" by David F. Wells. }}

Perhaps no one needs to tell us that the moral fabric of North America has been unraveling for many years now. A plethora of Christian writers have bemoaned this fact, especially as Americans have more and more bought into the (nearly) ubiquitous post-modernism of this age. But the telling issue for the church as we face this moral decay, is how to bring about a recovery of our “moral vision” both in secular culture and in the church. David Wells takes up this issue with an insightful diagnosis of the post-modernism that inhabits our culture and is creeping into or already present in our churches. Precisely what challenges this moral climate presents for the church, and the implications this may hold for Lutheran ethical reflection, will be set forth here.

The root of the problem lies in the variety of attacks that have been made against morality in general. The attack has been both bold and direct, in the form of simple refusal by many to adhere to basic moral norms of our society and of our church, and it has also been subversive and indirect, in the form of undermining the very foundations of morality by the steady incursion of relativism into our beliefs, and the consequent denial of moral absolutes. This problem has been exacerbated by the Church’s assimilation of American business practices and psychology with the attendant weakening of moral language; the Church’s growing failure to understand and speak of sin in relation to God; and the consequent loss of the understanding of the sole sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross for sin. This simply cannot continue, as the church needs to be a beacon of morality to the world, so that they might come to know our Father and His dear Son (Matt. 5:14-16).

If the Church is indeed to lead the culture in this regard, it must regain and reclaim the language of sin and morality. It cannot use the flimsy language of psychology to describe sin as lack of self-esteem or self-fulfillment, and should move away from the subjective language of “values” understood as the preferences, beliefs, feelings, habits or conventions that guide our moral action. By taking sin out of relation to God, and putting it into relation to self, the language of psychology prevents sin from being seen as a moral offense in the face of a Holy and Righteous God who cannot tolerate sin. The shift in language from “virtues” to “values” has also aided the post-modern attack on morals, as Wells notes, “The inevitable outcome of treating the self as the locus of all meaning and of all moral values, however, is that both meaning and values become relative to each self.” Instead we must return to the objective source of morals, found in the Ten Commandments, and also reflected in natural law. We must acknowledge that even if we do hold certain beliefs because we were raised with them, that does not make them subjective, because we are not the ones who define morality—God is, and He has established and revealed these objective truths to us in the Bible.

As the Church moves to recover the foundation of morality in the Ten Commandments, it will also be struck by the challenge of making people realize that they have actually broken the commandments. Wells states that the great majority of Americans believe they have kept the commandments, but only 13% believe that each of the commandments has moral validity. The Lutheran response to this is preaching of the Law in its full sternness, so the Word of God can do its work in convicting human hearts of their sin, and showing them the full depth and extent of God’s Law. Christ’s preaching in the Sermon on the Mount showed how the full spirit of the Law required obedience beyond mere outward adherence to the letter of the law. Then repentant sinners will rightly be prepared to hear the Gospel proclamation of Christ’s forgiveness through His death on the cross.

This will move people beyond a mere legalism like Wells describes, where the realm in which “good character” and self-restraint governs one’s behavior has been so narrowed that a tendency develops to polarize issues not between what is right and what is wrong, but what is legal and what is illegal. It is then assumed we are free to do what ever is legal—but in the absence of an accompanying honesty or self-restraint to govern behavior, now many resort to litigation to protect themselves. Instead, with proper preaching of Law and Gospel, they will instead see the Ten Commandments as the shape of the moral life that God wants us to lead, and that though we certainly and indeed daily fail to keep them, that God forgives us in Christ Jesus. In this way, our ethical conduct will not be selfishly motivated by seeking our own righteousness through the Law, but by virtue of our justification by faith alone, the Gospel will move us to altruistically serve our neighbor in true faith and love, as God desires. And out from the realm of mere legalism, the Christian life will be guided and shaped by the character of the new man in us, which will not seek the bare minimum of obedience or legality, but joyfully does good and sees the intrinsic value of all human life, and judges ethics accordingly.

In this same vein though, as the Church strives to be a beacon of morality, the ever-present cry from culture will be, “Ah but you Christians are hypocrites!” Here is the golden opportunity for Lutherans especially to speak of the simul justus et peccator. Though we indeed strive to live according to God’s commandments according to the justified, new man living in us, we recognize that by virtue of our old, sinful Adam we still sin much in this flesh, and are often found to be the hypocrite. Yet the Law unmasks this hypocrisy once again, and we are restored in forgiveness by Christ’s death. Especially in light of our sinful nature, Lutherans have the opportunity to speak in marked contrast the culture’s refusal to give up “their freedom of choice.” Here we must teach and preach that the human will is not in fact free or autonomous, that we do not develop our own values , but that once again God reveals truth from above, and that what He sets is absolute. To believe that God actually brought judgment against sin in Christ’s death, and that sin is not a matter of moral indifference shows that moral relativism simply doesn’t wash. Like an upset bottle of ink on a white tablecloth, the slowly spreading stain of moral laxity cannot be corrected by merely returning the ink to the bottle…the stain remains and it must be purged clean. It is Christ’s death that purged us clean of the stain of sin, and to go on living in sin is to despise of His death.

So the challenge for Lutheran ethics is to continually turn people outside themselves for the source of our knowledge and our moral vision. This is part of the problem with the whole shift from speaking of (moral) character to personality. “It was a shift away from the invisible moral intentions toward the attempt to make ourselves appealing to others.” Turning inward for answers, self-reliance, or inner knowledge runs counter to the Word of God that is revealed to us from outside ourselves (extra nos). But the Christian ethic must always be shaped primarily by the Gospel, as reliance on the law alone has led many legalistic churches to create unattainable standards in man-made laws that drive a person to false guilt or shame.

Here again the Lutheran faith offers an answer to the challenge of the moral climate of our culture, as we face the issue of how to correctly deal with shame and guilt. First, by properly distinguishing law and gospel, we eliminate false shame and guilt by discerning what is God’s Law and what is in fact merely human invention. Secondly, as the renewed preaching and teaching of the Law in its full sternness will create true guilt and shame at one’s sin, there will continually arise opportunities to administer the healing balm of the Gospel through private confession and absolution. For those who are burdened with the realization of past sins exposed by the full light of the Law, private confession can be a safe place for the sinner to release the unconfessed sin and guilt, laying it upon Christ, and hearing the living voice of the Gospel proclaim, “Your sins are forgiven.” And instead of wearing the shame of our sins, we are clothed in honor, which Wells says comes in God’s reverse world through our rebirth , which we as Lutherans recognize comes about by baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.

When Wells challenges the church to restore its moral vision by 1) being courageous enough to call sin sin, and 2) to become more authentic morally , the Lutheran church can respond by bringing to the table a strong Christocentric understanding of morality, vocation, and sanctification. Pointing to the full height and depth of the law as revealed in Christ’s perfect obedience and love, we can show how all the commandments are concretely rooted in God’s active love for people, and are not arbitrary whims or regulations. By sharpening Christianity’s understanding of Christian vocation, we can show how our responsibility toward God and our neighbor is lived out in every realm of our lives, not merely those that are governed by civil laws, and how we should act accordingly. And by rooting our ethics in a Christocentric understanding of sanctification, we always begin with the cross of Jesus and our justification, in order to understand that the source of our motivation and ability to live as holy people is not found in our own moral strivings, but in the love of Christ that dwells in us by faith.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Sermon on Luke 2:21, New Year's Day

In the name of Jesus, Amen. Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The sermon text is Luke 2:21, “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise Him, He was named Jesus, the name the angel had given Him before He had been conceived.”

A blessed New Year to you all! Even if you didn’t stay up for the countdown to midnight last night, you probably all remember the New Year’s Eve parties from years past—staying up late with friends and family to watch the countdown till the New Year began. When I was growing up our relatives the Lights would come over for New Year’s Eve, and we’d all watch the big ball in New York City on TV, and count down the seconds in eager expectation for the ball to drop. There’s always a certain joy and festivity that surrounds the long-expected beginning of a new year—a time to start afresh, to wipe the slate clean from the past year’s mistakes and begin again.

This New Year's Day we remember another great countdown—the beginning of a New Year of a different sort. It began with a countdown, and was filled with great expectations for a new beginning. That New Year was the Year of the Lord’s favor, which Jesus’ announced when He began His ministry in Nazareth (Lk. 4:19). This New Year of the Lord’s favor was not a literal 365-day year, but was the new era of God’s mercy unveiled in the life of His Son Jesus Christ. But unlike our New Year’s celebrations, no one knew when the countdown to the New Year of the Lord’s favor was to begin. God’s people had waited many long years in expectation…but soon, unbeknown to all but a chosen few, the countdown began. And Jesus’ circumcision was another tick on that clock as the time of fulfillment edged nearer, and the New Year of the Lord’s favor would begin. Each prophecy and law fulfilled was another tick on that clock: John the Baptist’s birth; the virgin Mary giving birth to a Son; eight days later that Son being circumcised—and named Jesus, which means “He will save His people from their sins.” It was now eight days closer to New Year’s. But even though there would be no celebration here on earth, except for the angel choir in the shepherd’s field, all of heaven was gathered round the Christ child to watch the countdown to the New Year of the Lord’s favor, as they watched the long-expected Jesus come to earth. Time was ticking and the excitement in heaven was building in a slow crescendo till the great fulfillment of all God’s promises would come to pass!

So what was so significant about this eighth day of the young Jesus’ life? And why did this matter in the greater scheme of God’s unfolding plan of salvation? Well the eighth day was the day every Israelite boy was to be circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, and to be named. Turning back the clock a few thousands of years earlier, God made a solemn covenant with Abraham. He promised that Abraham would have a son of his own, and that his offspring would become countless like the stars, and that they would live in the land of Israel. And God promised Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his seed. Because Abraham had faith in this promise of God, God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness, and gave Abraham a sign to mark this covenant God had made. The sign of this covenant was circumcision. This circumcision in the flesh was a mark of God’s covenant, and for any male to remain uncircumcised in the Old Testament, would be a sign of rebellion against God’s covenant. Luther noted that this covenant of circumcision made it known that it was from this circumcised nation that the Savior would be born, and not from the uncircumcised Gentiles.

And who was the “seed of Abraham” through whom all nations would be blessed? It was none other than this child Jesus Christ, who was now passively keeping the covenant of circumcision as His parents took Him to be circumcised this eighth day. The life and death and life of this child Jesus was going to be a blessing to all nations. And now the time was arriving for promises to become reality. The angel that had announced Jesus’ conception to Mary had also given Him this name “Jesus” which means “He will save His people from their sins.” To fulfill the meaning of His name though, Jesus would have to perfectly keep the Law in our place, to fulfill it on our behalf—and then suffer and die for our sins on the cross. So here at Jesus’ circumcision was His first fulfillment of the Law, by keeping the Law of Moses and the covenant to Abraham that every male child of eight days was to be circumcised.

So what was so significant about this was that Jesus’ life of perfect obedience to God’s Law was set in motion, as He who was born under the Law began to redeem those under the Law (Gal. 4:4). Here at Jesus’ circumcision, Christ shed His first precious drops of divine blood, the blood that was the price of our redemption. It was Jesus’ first suffering for our sin, as He took on the obedience of the Law for our sake, passively keeping the Law by His parent’s obedience. For He was the one to bring about the Year of the Lord’s favor, and this would not be accomplished quickly or painlessly. It was our sin, and the sin of Abraham and all humanity before and after him that brought this necessity upon Jesus. For the New Year of the Lord’s favor to begin, the guilt of all the world’s sin had to be taken away, so we could begin the New Year afresh. Those first drops of blood Jesus’ shed on the eighth day were a foreshadowing of the blood He would have to shed on the cross for our sins, as drop by drop the full price of the world’s sin was drained from His bruised, dying, and then dead body.

As we begin this New Year of 2006, let us think back upon the sins of the past year, and all the wrongs that we have done, which were laid upon His cross. Remember our unfaithfulness, our using God’s name in vain, our neglect of worship, our disobedience to parents or others in authority, our selfishness toward neighbors. Let us examine our lives according to all of the 10 Commandments and see where we have fallen. And see what good we have not done. For here in our failure to do the good things commanded by the Law, and by our breaking of the commandments, we see the guilt for which Christ suffered. A suffering that was to be ours. Our punishment, our blood shed, our eternal damnation. Here we see what Christ did for us. But do not despair…repent! For Jesus brings in the New Year of the Lord’s favor.

In keeping the law perfectly on our behalf, Jesus fulfills the meaning of His name, given on this day of the Circumcision of our Lord. He fulfills the meaning of His name by saving us all from our sins. He has brought in the New Year of the Lord’s favor, begun in His fulfillment of the Law in those first drops of blood shed in His circumcision, and completed in His death for our sake. By His blood shed on the cross, He inaugurated a New Year, fresh and clean, new starts, new beginnings. By washing away the sin of many years past and many years yet to come, Jesus unveiled a new era of God’s mercy, shown in His own death and resurrection. Done so that we could perpetually live in the New Year of the Lord’s favor, with a fresh start, clean from our former sins.

And this New Year has been brought to us in our baptism. How so? Hear the Apostle Paul: “In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Col. 2:11-12). In our baptism, we were passively brought into a new covenant. The old covenant of circumcision in the flesh was obsolete, as Christ had fulfilled all things. But now a new circumcision made without hands has been given, and this circumcision is the circumcision Christ gives to us in our baptism. In our baptism, we are spiritually circumcised as the old sinful flesh is cut off from us, and we are raised with Christ through faith in God who raised Him from the dead. Here in baptism we have become passive recipients of the new covenant, as Jesus has fulfilled the Law in our stead to save us from our sins.

We have received all grace and forgiveness from Him, so that as we begin this New Year of 2006, we begin it in the New Year of the Lord’s favor—baptized into His blessing, the blessing promised to Abraham, a blessing for all nations. Living in this New Year of the Lord’s favor, we continually put behind us that old sinful flesh as we daily repent of our sins, and strive to live in all righteousness and purity forever. Living a life that delights to walk in the commandments of the Lord, joyfully worshipping our God and Savior and mercifully serving our neighbors in love. Each new day is a fresh start as we are washed clean in our baptism and live anew in the New Year of the Lord’s favor. And we can celebrate this New Year with an exuberance and joy unlike any joy this world knows, because we know the redemption that has been given and the favor that has been shown to us in Christ Jesus. And we know that this New Year’s celebration is just a tiny picture of the heavenly celebration that knows no days or years, but continues in peace forever!
The peace of God that passes all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds this blessed New Year. Amen.