Devotional Thought of the Day:
23 God, examine me and know my heart, test me and know my concerns. 24 Make sure that I am not on my way to ruin, and guide me on the road of eternity. Psalm 139:23-24 (NJB)
Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and above all that you may prophesy. 2 For the person who speaks in another •language is not speaking to men but to God, since no one understands him; however, he speaks •mysteries in the Spirit. l 3 But the person who prophesies speaks to people for edification, encouragement, and consolation. 4 The person who speaks in another language builds himself up, but he who prophesies builds up the church. 1 Cor 14:1-4 HCSB
771 God exalts those who carry out his will in the very same things in which he humbled them.
There is a joke about being cautious as you pray for things like patience and faith, because surely God will hear those prayers, and give you the opportunity to see your growth. Of course, the only way to see growth in those things is when you have to demonstrate them.
Even though the idea of having to be patient is scary, the idea of praying the psalmist pray this morning is even scarier. To give God permission, to beg God to investigate every nook and cranny of our heart, our soul, our very being, and to make sure I am not doing anything offensive, anything evil, anything that would lead me to ruin.
God knows our right and our wrong, our acts of rebellion, our sin, but to invite Him in to purge them from us? That is a hard prayer, that is one that scares me, for somehow I think that what I hide from him, what I deny to myself, somehow doesn’t count, it doesn’t affect me and others, it just was a passing moment, something I barely remember.
And yet, it is only after I pray that, only after letting Jesus carefully circumcise my heart, that I can begin to understand how great His love his and be in awe of His mercy. It is only then that I can begin to realize what it means to be the one He loves, and adore God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is only then that life begins.
A focus on such love, pursuing such love is essential for those of us who preach, who prophesy, who teach. Whether it is to a parish of thousands, or to two or three in a elementary sunday school class. I believe there is a distinct impact on preaching and teaching that comes from knowing we are loved. Not just knowing it as a fact, but living in the midst of that love, knowing that love so well that we easily trust Him, even with the darkest parts of our lives.
It is as we are rescued from that darkness we can speak of it in a way that edifies the church, that lifts them up, that convinces them of the love of God. THat allow them to realize that God loves them as well, that they can trust Him to transform them.
That when God humbles us, it is so that, cleansed of all that has damaged us, we can be lifted up, healed, and in awe, knowing He loves us.
Such is our calling, such is our relationship with HIm… and though this prayer still scares me, can we pray it together?
Heavenly Father, we count on our love, we acknowledge the need of the Spirit to come through our lives, cleansing us from our sin, our brokenness, our pursuit of things we know distress you. Lord, help us to pursue the love you told us you have, and counting on that love, search our hearts our souls and minds, Find the things that displease You and take them away, so that you may guide us on this way of everlasting life.
Escriva, Josemaria. The Way (Kindle Locations 1785-1786). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Devotional Thought of the day:
5 For you can have 10,000 instructors in Christ, but you can’t have many fathers. For I became your father r in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17 This is why I have sent Timothy to you. He is my dearly loved and faithful t son in the Lord. He will remind you about my ways in Christ Jesus, just as I teach everywhere in every church. 1 Cor. 4:15-17 HCSB
How beautiful is this gaze of Jesus, how much tenderness is in there!
Brothers and sisters let us never lose trust in the patience and mercy of God!
But what is it to pray that his name may become holy? Is it not already holy? Answer: Yes, in itself it is holy, but not our use of it. God’s name was given to us when we became Christians at Baptism, and so we are called children of God and enjoy the sacraments, through which he so incorporates us with himself that all that is God’s must serve for our use.
As I was working through my readings this morning, the first, the reading from Paul’s letter to a church he loved (and struggled to love) kept coming back to mind. And then as I read Pope Francis, and Pastor Martin Luther’s words, I saw great examples of what Paul was teaching.
Anyone can deliver a lesson, a sermon that is exegetical and explains the Bible passage more completely than someone can see at first glance. To be honest, you don’t even need a good preacher to do so, for we have 2,000 years of commentators like John Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Lenski, Matthew Henry and William Barclay who will do that for you.
Someone whose primary goal is preaching can do the studies, or borrow them from someone else, and lecture you, mailing you on what you did wrong, showing you how you must behave, and reminding you of who God is, helping you explore the incredible knowledge we have in scripture. They are instructors, and we need that kind of information.
But a sermon, a real sermon, is something a pastor crafts and delivers. It is a pastor, someone who acts as a spiritual father. Someone who has learned from their errors, and cares enough to help you when you are in error, guiding you back to the way that is “in Christ”.
The pastor brings you to see God in all His glory, the glory that comes from our love and our mercy. He wants you to experience the healing that happens when seeing Christ, you respond to His love being poured out upon you. When you realize as Luther said, that God through His word and sacraments, just doesn’t teach you, but see you incorporated into Christ that our thoughts turn to Him, depending on Him to care for us.
A pastor shepherds you to the place where you realize what a treasure it is to know God as your Father, when you realize the difference that makes in your daily life, no matter how challenged, no matter how boring, no matter how broken.
you see this in the words of Pope Francis, and Fr. Martin Luther. You see them not just wanting to impart knowledge of God, but helping people experience the love.
Imagine a boy learning to teach. The instructor tells him all about the bait, all about the rods and reels, all about the way to study the river or the lake. The pastor father takes the young man fishing, watching him learn, urging him to be patient, applauding him when he catches something, consoling him when the big one gets away. This is the father-pastor at work, and that care needs to occur in the midst of the sermon, in the midst of the worship service. Helping people “catch” God, who is never far away….reading to be caught, ready to be devoured, ready to be incorporated i our lives, as we are incorporated in His.
This is a pastor’s calling… to help people experience the love of Christ, even though it is too great ot understand fully (see Ephesians 3:19) while being made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. AMEN!
Pope Francis. (2013). A Year with Pope Francis: Daily Reflections from His Writings. (A. Rossa, Ed.) (p. 216). New York; Mahwah, NJ; Toronto, ON: Paulist Press; Novalis.
Tappert, T. G. (Ed.). (1959). The Book of Concord the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. (p. 425). Philadelphia: Mühlenberg Press
Devotional Thought of the Day:
5 You welcome those who gladly do good, who follow godly ways. But you have been very angry with us, for we are not godly. We are constant sinners; how can people like us be saved? 6 We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind. 7 Yet no one calls on your name or pleads with you for mercy. Therefore, you have turned away from us and turned us over to our sins. Isaiah 64:5-7 (NLT)
193 To disparage works like the confession of doctrine, afflictions, works of charity, and the mortification of the flesh would be to disparage the outward administration of Christ’s rule among men. Let us add a word here about reward and merit.
194 We teach that rewards have been offered and promised to the works of the faithful. We teach that good works are meritorious—not for the forgiveness of sins, grace, or justification (for we obtain these only by faith) but for other physical and spiritual rewards in this life and in that which is to come, as Paul says (1 Cor. 3:8), “Each shall receive his wages according to his labor.” Therefore there will be different rewards for different labors.
In the middle of the quote from Isaiah I underlined and italicized a “popular” verse.
Popular for those who abuse it, as they use it to call people to convert, or to repent. Some will wax on with great eloquence about how wrong EVERYTHING we do is, how even our best words are nothing more than filthy rags, or as the ESV says, “polluted garments”, those things made unclean because of blood or other bodily fluids. SOme, trying to get the gut check factor in, will assume that the blood is from a female’s menstrual cycle. But the idea is that everything we do is horrid, unclean, unable to please God.
I have heard this used as well, by good meaning pastors who are trying to properly distinguish between law and gospel, saying that all our works, even after God has baptized and cleansed us, are still nothing more than filthy rags, that we will never be able to fulfill the “Law”, and therefore we shouldn’t encourage people to try and keep the Law, or even try to apply it to our lives, lived in Christ Jesus. (In Lutheran theology, we would refer to this as denying the Third Use of the Law)
Theologically, that isn’t the Lutheran position, as you can see in the quote in green above, from the Lutheran confessional document known as the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. It clearly states there that we cannot disparage works of man that demonstrate Christ’s rule, His benevolent work in and through men and women. It even talks there of mortification of the flesh, the work that Paul talked of in 1 Corinthians 9. The confessions do quickly remind us that these works don’t merit salvation, but they do merit a reward from God, Even if that reward is simply hearing Him say, “well done. my good and faithful servant!” (that comment alone would bring me joy that would last an eternity, as I assume it would for any Christian!)
I would draw your attention to the very passage the quote about filthy rags comes from in the first place. This is not a theological passage by literary style. It is a narrative, the words of the prophet, repentant and contrite, pleading with God. Pleading with God to rip open the divide between heaven and earth, to come into our midst, and save us. To come and mold is, to do the very work Paul will describe in Phil. 2:10 – where we are described as God’s poiema – His masterpiece, as we are led to do the works God has prepared for us. Isaiah’s pleading is one of repentance, one of praying that God would reconcile and restore us. That God would come and save us, bearing our sin, and suffering that we would be healed and restored. This section about filthy rags was hoping for Jesus to come and die on the cross, and for us to be reborn with Him.
And that my dear friend, has surely happened.
No wonder the Lutheran first generation talked of denigrating the work of God’s people as denigrating the very work, the very ministry of God!
So be careful how you fling around this passage, and the doctrines you create or try to sustain it. For teaching, those things to people will give them the wrong idea, and you will liable for trying to paralyze the people of God.
Know that God works through His people, all His people, as He walks with them, and will do amazing things! And proclaim this and encourage it, as God renews and revitalizes the church!
G., ed. The Book of Concord the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Mühlenberg Press, 1959. Print.
Devotional Thought for our seemingly broken days…
16 “I am not able to,” Joseph answered Pharaoh. “It is God who will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”
37 The proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. 38 Then Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find anyone like this, a man who has God’s spirit o in him?” Genesis 41:16, 37 HCSB
33. Although the sacred liturgy is above all things the worship of the divine Majesty, it likewise contains much instruction for the faithful34. For in the liturgy God speaks to His people and Christ is still proclaiming His gospel. And the people reply to God both by song and prayer.
Moreover, the prayers addressed to God by the priest who presides over the assembly in the person of Christ are said in the name of the entire holy people and of all present. And the visible signs used by the liturgy to signify invisible divine things have been chosen by Christ or the Church. Thus not only when things are read “which were written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4), but also when the Church prays or sings or acts, the faith of those taking part is nourished and their minds are raised to God, so that they may offer Him their rational service and more abundantly receive His grace.
It is taught among us that nobody should publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church without a regular call.
One of the most challenging things to teach on in the church is the concept of the ministry. Specifically, who can and should preach and administrate/officiate the sacraments.
Some would open up the doors to anyone to do so, and God can and does choose a group of diverse people to serve Him, that doesn’t mean all can/should preach, or administer the sacraments. To follow this path leads to chaos, and everyone teaching what is right in their own eyes. Even worse, when someone is speaking on God’s behalf, and by His order, there is doubt about it. When we make the ministry about our “rights” to be the pastor, we aren’t listening to God.
Others would follow the opposite extreme, reducing every part of ministry to those who are called and ordained as pastors. This would include things like evangelism and even to teach Bible studies. This leaves the church weak, undernourished, and unable to meet the needs of a broken world. The pastor surely is the primary messenger, when he is speaking God’s word” but that doesn’t make him the only servant of the church!
I wish it would be as simple for us as it was for Pharoah, that every person could see clearly whom God chose to shepherd them. That every shepherd could do their job perfectly, without fault or hesitation. Such a thing would be an incredible blessing.
Pastors and priests are human though, and we do screw up, sometimes royally. We stand in God’s presence as we lead His people, and there are times we do act as Jesus, speaking for Him, feeding His people, drawing them to Him at the cross. It is in those times where it is not our perfection that matters but His. We are at our best when we realize as Joseph did, that we aren’t able to, but God can.
You see the ministry is never about the man, it is about the Man whom he stands in for, the Man who works through our voices and our hands. The ministry is about those who receive God’s word and promises, whom the sacraments, these sacred moments are there to bless. And when we make it about the man standing there, preaching, standing there, putting Christ’s body into the hands of hungry souls, that we have sinned. We then have taken our eyes off of the Lord, off of the promises, and orbit outside the relationship in order to critique and judge it.
This is contrary to the gift Jesus gives the church, as a simple gift of men He calls the church to recognize His call upon. Men who are qualified to serve based on God’s teaching. Men whom He will speak through, and limit their words to drawing people into God’s glory. men who see the ministry as simply God and the church, and find great joy in seeing them together.
Focus there, on people hearing God say, “you are my people” and the people saying “You are our God!”
Catholic Church. “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium.” Vatican II Documents. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011. Print.
Tappert, Theodore G., ed. The Book of Concord the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Mühlenberg Press, 1959. Print.
Devotional THoguht of the Day:
20 But dear friends, use your most holy faith to build yourselves up, praying in the Holy Spirit. 21 Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the Lord Jesus Christ with his mercy to give you life forever.
22 Show mercy to some people who have doubts. 23 Take others out of the fire, and save them. Show mercy mixed with fear to others, hating even their clothes which are dirty from sin. Jude 20-22 NCV
“I noticed,” Pastor Crabtree told me, “that as I told the story of God’s identification with us, of the pain God himself experienced in the death of his son, that the weeping stopped, that people, including Rebecca’s mother and father and fourteen-year-old brother leaned forward in their seats and listened intently. God’s story was touching them where they hurt most and giving them hope.
“Many people in this small town were deeply touched by the story of God. A high school history teacher, for example, said to me, ‘What I took home from that funeral message was this: this world is turned upside down, and Jesus is the only one who can fix it.’
“ ‘You got it,’ I said, and he answered, ‘Yes I did!’ ”
What can I say? There is no story in this world that is more profound than the story of God’s embrace. My dinner companions heard the gospel in a new way. And each of them, in their own way, is growing in the life-changing embrace of God, as I am and I trust you are too. For there is no story but God’s; no God but the Father, Son and Spirit; and no life but the baptized life.
As I looked on FB this morning, to see who I should add to my prayer list, it revealed ot me that this is a special anniversary, the day I took my then 7-year-old son home for the first time. Not home as in the place we live, but home as in the place that I consider my home. Not a house, nor a place where the family gathered, but the place I want to be more often than not. Not even a church, but a simple road.
It is the place where we could be still, or walk slowly, and just rest in God’s peace.
I mentioned it in a sermon once, a sermon delivered before other pastors, a sermon that was to be critiqued, and shredded, but there were tears instead. You can read about that time here: https://asimplechristian.org/2014/10/21/walking-with-god/
The reading from Dr. Weeber this morning also reminded me of this. My job as a preacher, as a shepherd is not to dazzle people with my theological acumen, or grind them into the ground with guilt, only to let them up at the last second. It isn’t to make statements about politics or drive them to give and support just causes.
That will happen, as I disciple, as I teach and counsel, as people realize what I am here to tell them.
That God’s story is their story, that their story completely involves God. We don’t walk on deserted stretches of road alone, nor do we drive the freeways of Southern California unaccompanied. Whether it is at the beach, or a party, or crying alone in a park, or even on our deathbed, He is here…. with us.
That’s what our people need to know, that God doesn’t leave us alone, and in order to be here, He does what is necessary, forgiving us, cleansing us, healing us, loving us, comforting us, welcoming us to share in His glory and peace.
He is here…in our story, we in His. He is our God, we are His people…..
That’s what we need to tell them…and that is what we preachers need to hear. AMEN!
Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.
Discussion Thought of the Day:
14 My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, 15 this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. 16 I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength— 17 that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, 18 you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! 19 Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19 (MSG)
I have already referred to contemplation as one of the two realities of the spiritual life, the other being participation. I have identified Christian contemplation with Mary who “pondered … in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Christian contemplation ponders, reflects, gazes, and delights in the wonders and the mysteries of God active in this world “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). In Christian contemplation God is the subject who acts in history; contemplation enters God’s vision of the world and is stunned, filled with wonder, amazed, full of inner delight and joy. This contemplation is, in sum, an experience of God’s presence. The realization of his presence in the world, creation, incarnation, death, and resurrection and the ultimate presence of God in the fulfillment of history in the new heavens and the new earth is the subject of our contemplation.
But the theme of the suffering God can thrive only when it is anchored in love for God and in a prayerful recourse to his love. According to the encyclical Haurietis aquas, the passions of Jesus, which are depicted as united and uniting in the Heart, are a justification and a reason for the fact that even in the relationship between God and man the heart—that is, the capacity for feeling, the emotional aspect of love—must be included. Incarnational spirituality must be a spirituality of the passions, a heart-to-heart spirituality. Precisely in that way is it an Easter spirituality, for the mystery of Easter is, by its very nature, a mystery of suffering, a mystery of the heart.
3 After all, the chief purpose of all ceremonies is to teach the people what they need to know about Christ.
The last quote above, the short one, is my favorite from the Lutheran Confessions. It forms the basis for most of my ministry, and how I teach others to serve the people of God and their communities.
Yet over the sixteen years since I realized the truth of this, my understanding of it has shifted, it has changed.
All because I have asked, what do people really need to know about Jesus. What does it mean to give them what they need to know about Jesus? What do they need to know? How will the way I minister give to them what they need to know?
Let me explain, using the examples of Preaching and Liturgy.
When I was trained in Homiletics, the emphasis was on what is called expository preaching. That is, you take the passage apart, using Greek/Hebrew, studying the individual words, the grammar, the style of literature, and what it meant to those who heard it first. Pretty in-depth stuff, pretty powerful as the ancient languages were full of marvelous word pictures.
So I preached exegetically, revealing to people the wonder of this treasure we had in scripture. Like many of my peers, we could take apart the passage with great skill and find application, without ever bringing Jesus into the picture.
With hymnody, many have taken words like those from the Augsburg Confession and concluded that our hymns must primarily teach. They love the old hymns that are rich in doctrine, that are more like a lecture put to music, that communicate on a horizontal plane, as we share in the wonderful teachings of the faith.
In both cases we talk about Jesus from the position of an observer, somewhat distant, somewhat disconnected. We think about God’s work and urge people to accept it based on our logic and reason, and the wonder of the system that we have been able to describe. And we teach them all about the system, and the church service becomes the primary place of such teaching.
It is all good stuff and beneficial. However, it is not what they need to know about Jesus Christ.
It can accentuate that, but it is not the main thing our church services, our sermons, our worship is to communicate, to teach, to reveal.
I think the other three readings that head this discussion talk about it in depth. First, from Dr. Robert Webber, the words in blue about contemplation, a lost art among us. He gets to the heart of the matter when talking about pondering “the wonders and mysteries of God active in this world “reconciling the world to Himself.” It fills us with wonder, amazement and inner delight and joy because we are experiencing the presence of God. To contemplate this means we realize we are part of the story, we are the ones reconciled, we are the ones who God loves,
This is what Pope Benedict XVI was writing about (back when he was Joseph Ratzineger) as to our including the capacity for feeling, the emotional aspect of love, it must be a “heart to heart spirituality” This is what we so need to know. That we are not alone, that God is here, present, sharing in our lives.
This is what Paul urges for the people in Ephesus as well. Not just to know the theology, but to experience the extravagant dimensions of God’s love. The vivid picture Petersen’s “The Message” uses gives us an idea of the power of this, to realize the depth of God’s love, His great passion for us, the passion that causes God not only to be patient, but to endure the suffering it takes. With one goal in mind, that we would be His people, that He would be our God.
Our preaching must reveal this love, it must help us explore its dimensions, even as our sacramental ministry must help our people participate in it. Our prayers, our liturgy, our hymnody and praise music must help us contemplate it, experience it, respond to it.
We need to give them what they need to know about Jesus Christ, true God, true man. That in realizing His love for us, we begin to see the Father’s love for us, and God draws us to Himself.
This is what we need to teach, this is the gospel, and without it, our meetings our empty and vain.
Lord have mercy on us, and help us to draw people into communion with you, revealing the love you have for them, even as we celebrate that love together! AMEN!
Devotional Thought of the Day
34 Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. 35 This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet: “I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world.” Matthew 13:34-35 (NLT)
After a brief pause, Jack said, “Explain yourself. I’m willing to hear you out.”
“Okay,” I said, “but to explain myself I have to tell you a story.” I sensed a puzzlement on his part, so I quickly added, “All spiritualities are based on a story. You have to know the story of a particular religion to understand its spirituality.”
This statement aroused the curiosity of everyone. “Tell the story,” said Jack. “Maybe I don’t know the story; as a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Christianity told as a story.”
“Okay,” I responded, “but I have to tell you I can’t prove the story.”1
“I like that! I don’t like it when religious people try to prove their faith. Just the fact that you say that we shouldn’t try to prove the story with history and science makes me want to listen.”
899 The children of God are present and give witness in the world to draw others, not to be drawn by them. They should spread their own atmosphere, the atmosphere of Christ, not let themselves be won over by a different atmosphere.
One of the hardest lessons to learn in preaching is that it is very different from teaching, very different from teaching, very different from giving a lecture.
The goal isn’t merely to impart knowledge and information, but to draw someone into a relationship, to draw someone into the story, to reveal to them that they have a part, a role, and are wanted. (This is true not only about the sermon but about any time we bear witness to Jesus, that we share His love with others)
This is profoundly different than the way I was taught in the early days, in classes like Expository Preaching and Homiletics. I have written similarly before on apologetics, that the idea is not to win a case, to convince someone to judge Christianity right based on the proof I present.
We simply need to tell the story, to tell it so well the people are drawn into their place in the story,
This is why the post-modern sermon needs to be transparent, that the messenger be willing to tell his portion of the story transparently, the brokenness, the sin and shame (though not in great detail) the hopelessness that exists when we take our eyes off of Jesus, and His continual drawing us back, and the peace that comes when we see Him again. For if they know God can help us, then we are writing on their hearts the word of the story, the “God so loved (me)”, the “body broken/blood shed for (me).
I would assert that teaching the Bible without making the connection to the listener is not preaching, it is not bearing witness to Jesus. It is simply giving people, overloaded with facts, more facts to deal with intellectually. It appeals to their baser instinct, that they are the judge of reality. But they aren’t the judges, they are not just interested observers. So why preach to them if they were. Telling them the story involves them, it helps reveal to them that they aren’t observers and judges, but part of the story.
This takes the objective truth of salvation and helps it become subjective as well. It takes the historical information stored in our minds and makes it meaningful to our heart and soul.
This is the mystery that has been revealed, that which has been hidden from the beginning of the world. The mystery of God and His people, the people He makes His own, the mystery of how you and I, broken by our sin and the sin of the world, are picked up, healed, brought home.
That is preaching, that is bearing witness to God’s love, that is giving people what God wants them to comprehend.
Tell me the story, write on my heart every word, tell me the story of Jesus (and us), greatest that every was heard.
Webber, Robert E. The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006. Print. Ancient-Future Series.
Escriva, Josemaria. The Forge (Kindle Locations 3181-3182). Scepter Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Devotional Thought of the Day:
For though I am no man’s slave, yet I have made myself everyone’s slave, that I might win more men to Christ. To the Jews I was a Jew that I might win the Jews. To those who were under the Law I put myself in the position of being under the Law (although in fact I stand free of it), that I might win those who are under the Law. To those who had no Law I myself became like a man without the Law (even though in fact I cannot be a lawless man for I am bound by the law of Christ), so that I might win the men who have no Law. To the weak I became a weak man, that I might win the weak. I have, in short, been all things to all sorts of men that by every possible means I might win some to God. I do all this for the sake of the Gospel; I want to play my part in it properly.
1 Corinthians 9:16 (Phillips NT)
Her (the Church) purpose has been to adapt the Gospel to the grasp of all as well as to the needs of the learned, insofar as such was appropriate. Indeed this accommodated preaching of the revealed word ought to remain the law of all evangelization. For thus the ability to express Christ’s message in its own way is developed in each nation, and at the same time there is fostered a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people.22 To promote such exchange, especially in our days, the Church requires the special help of those who live in the world, are versed in different institutions and specialties, and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers. With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage. (1)
Back in the days of my youth, a phrase similar to the title of this blog caused a reaction in me. I was at a seminar on preaching, actually 3 sections on preparation and one final one, on the actual delivery.
It was the third section that bothered me at first, and yet now I wish it was taught to every preacher, every pastor, every priest.
It is not enough to know the word of God, to be able to know the background of the passage, to be able to study all the words in the original languages, to know what scholars from every age thought about it. All these studies are good, all are necessary, along with times of devoted prayer.
But what is also needed is what Paul describes, and what Vatican II’s pastors noted. We have to understand ( to use a pastoral term “exegete”) those who are listening. We have to understand who they are, where their fears and anxieties haunt them, where their guilt and share show that God’s law (whether it be natural law or the covenant) is convicting them, or should be.
Think of it this way, preaching is part of the ministry of the word of God. That word of God is a means of grace – a conduit through which the Holy Spirit pours out grace, the mercy, love and peace that God would desire we all know, that affects every aspect of our lives. Those who preach and teach the word of God are expert at connect the conduit to the source.
But have we figured out how to preach what Luther called “real law” and “real gospel” Have we thought and prayed about making sure the conduit is connect to the other side? Do we bother to think of how our people will hear what we preach? Or do we preach God’s law to convict those not there, and the gospel to people whose sin does not afflict them?
This is what Paul is getting at when he describes becoming like those under the law, or recognize his own weakness, or becoming like those who aren’t bound by the Old Testament. He strives to preach Christ in a way they will hear it, so that they may be saved. This includes all who God would have hear of His love, the believer, and those who as of yet do not believe.
This is what Vatican II was advising in the selection, to understand the world so that the revealed truth of Christ can deeply penetrate those who hear it, and so that He can be understood, and so they can know His love and presence and peace.
May those who preach tomorrow, and those who listen, find this connection made, and people realize the height and depth, the breadth and width of God’s love for them, revealed in Christ Jesus. AMEN
(1) Catholic Church. “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium Et Spes.” Vatican II Documents. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011. Print.
devotional Thought fo the Day:
9 How can the young keep his way without fault? Only by observing your words. 10 With all my heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments. 11 In my heart I treasure your promise, that I may not sin against you. 12 Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes. 13 With my lips I recite all the judgments you have spoken. 14 I find joy in the way of your testimonies more than in all riches. 15 I will ponder your precepts and consider your paths. 16 In your statutes I take delight; I will never forget your word! Psalm 119:9-16 NAB-RE
The last sentence of his Gospel tells us, for instance, that when the disciples had seen Jesus ascend into heaven, they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Lk 24:52). The Acts of the Apostles repeats the theme: “… they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). They went their way after they had seen the Lord ascend into heaven—and their hearts were filled with joy. From a purely human point of view, we would expect their hearts to be “filled with confusion”. But no! One who has seen the Lord not just from the outside; whose heart has been moved by him; who has accepted the Crucified One and, precisely because he has done so, knows the grace of the Resurrection—his heart must be full of joy.
There’s no man living on earth who knows how to distinguish between the law and the gospel. We may think we understand it when we are listening to a sermon, but we’re far from it. Only the Holy Spirit knows this. Even the man Christ was so wanting in understanding when he was in the vineyard that an angel had to console him [John 12:27–29]; though he was a doctor from heaven he was strengthened by the angel. Because I’ve been writing so much and so long about it, you’d think I’d know the distinction, but when a crisis comes I recognize very well that I am far, far from understanding. So God alone should and must be our holy master.”
Part of the duty of those who preach is to determine what Lutheran theologians call the “distinction between law and gospel”. This is what others may call the terms of the covenant and the blessings of the covenant. It is that which convicts us, and causes us to turn to Christ for the only relief that is possible, and the very promise, the guarantee of that relief.
As Luther noted, it isn’t that easy, and towards the end of his life and ministry, he became even more aware of the difficulty doing so created, especially in our times of crisis, as we face trauma, like anxiety, and even the fear of death burdens us more.
Part of the challenge is that in the Old Testament scriptures, there are multiple uses of the words for law, the words that describe God speaking, and forming. For in one place the Law is the entire covenant – the parties, terms (law) and promises (Gospel). But the same words and phrases on another describe the law as in the terms – the way God has planned for us to live, as we live as His beloved.
This confusion is often seen in the Psalms, especially in Psalm 119, which lauds and praises God’s law, commands, precepts, judgments, testimonies, and path. Is this the law that convicts, and gives us the choice of confession o living in guilt and shame? Or is this the incredible law and gospel covenant?
The simpleton in me finds that answer in the joy, both anticipated and known, in this section of the Psalm. That would indicate to me that the psalmist knows the entire schematic, that God’s law convicts us, and drives us in despair to cry out “Lord, Have mercy!”, But it also knows the answer. That God desires, wills and has promised to show us that mercy. That is why the praises and blessings ensue, the glorious revelation of the Love of God, the love that we just want to bask in, explore and know, and yet we know we can’t fully.
It is what ungirds our praises; it drives us to celebrate this and to share it with those around us. As Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict noted, it brings a calmness and joy to the place where there should logically be confusion. It is when we know Christ Jesus, and the power of His resurrection and assured of it, and our place sharing in His glory (Col. 1:27ff)
This is why our church services are celebrations of the Eucharist, why the post communion hymn (for us often the nunc dimitis) should be an incredible song of praise! It is why going up to the house of God should become more and more desired, more and more a place of comfort and release of burdens. And if a church leaves without celebrating the magnificent mystery of the love of God, then Law and Gospel were not kept in tension, and the pastor failed. Celebrating it doesn’t mean necessarily dancing in the streets, it can be a jaw dropping sense of awe, or simply unspeakable joy….
But it is there, the knowledge of God’s love, and the peace that passes all understanding, for that how Christ protects our hearts and minds. This is why making sure that we realise that baptism is not just about the forgiveness of sins and repentance, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is why absolution includes a prayer for strength and comfort to walk in our calling, and why the Lord’Supper is the feast celebrating a new covenant, a new life with God. it is the fullness and fulfillment of the Law – that which Christ commanded we teach all people to guard, to keep, to treasure.
This is our feast, this is our joy, this is God and man, together. This is what God established and made to be His complete law… AMEN!
(1) Ratzinger, J. (1992). Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year. (I. Grassl, Ed., M. F. McCarthy & L. Krauth, Trans.) (p. 153). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
(2) Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 54: Table Talk. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 54, p. 127). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
A Devotional Thought of the Day:
5 God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.
Matthew 5:5 (NLT)
8 No, the LORD has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.
Micah 6:8 (TEV)
The simple faith of simple souls merits the respect, the reverence of the preacher, who has no right simply to pit his intellectual superiority against a faith which has remained simple and which, by its simple and intuitive comprehension of the Faith as a whole, can, in some cases, understand the essence of that Faith more profoundly than is possible for a reflective faith that is fragmented by division into systems and theories . (1)
Whether I agree with him completely or not, Pope Benedict XVI has to be counted as one of the most brilliant theologian-pastors in the last 100 years. He wrote documents and letters that are stunning in how profound they are, and yet they are intimately pastoral, a look into the life of an introvert who pastored a billion people.
Seeing writings like that in blue above, perhaps it would be better phrased to call him a pastor-theologian, a man who kept his priorities straight, and recognizes it is the faith in Christ, our trust, and dependence on God, that matters more than our meager intellectual pontifications. That is why those of us who would count ourselves as theologians, as professionals in the world of religion, need to respect and honor the simple and deep faith of the simple soul.
It is that Jesus points us to in the Beatitudes, that Micah calls us to, to realize that God’s silliness is far greater than our wisdom, and to live our lives in recollection of this.
For, in the end, it is not the stimulating blogs, our journal articles we write, or the great tomes on doctrine, or our understanding of the great theologians and philosophers in the past that matters.
Rather, as the former pope, who before was responsible for all the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church wrote, the understanding of the essence of our faith.
The joy we take in hearing and responding to phrases like this:
“He is Risen!”
“The Lord is with you!”
and finally, knowing that God will hear and answer our cry,
“Lord have mercy!”
So keep it simple my brothers, reveal to them the height and breadth, the depth and width, of God’s love for them, seen in Christ Jesus! AMEN!
(1) Ratzinger, J. (1992). Co-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year. (I. Grassl, Ed., M. F. McCarthy & L. Krauth, Trans.) (pp. 94–95). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.