Lectionary, Liturgy, Preaching

Over the past three years several pastors and congregations have expressed interest in my use of the Narrative Lectionary. This post gives some background on reasons for using, and the challenges and delights of using it.

Introduction

My life has been lived with the liturgy and the lectionaries (systems of Bible readings selected for each Sunday in the year). Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I worshiped in a church that used The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH, 1941) and the one year lectionary.

One Year Lectionary sample from CPH
One Year Lectionary sample from CPH

The 1970s were a time of transition (I was in the Navy). By 1982 when I began seminary and began preaching every third weekend, I was introduced to Lutheran Worship (LW, 1982) and the three year lectionary. That has been my worship life—until 2012. It was in January of that year that my lectionary life changed.

Exploring Options

I began serving my current congregation (in southern California) in August 2011. It didn’t take long to discover that this area was not the typical Midwest, church-life saturated community. The unchurched rate of the area is about 98%, and many who were coming into the church had little to no background in the Bible and Bible history.

In late 2011 I was preparing the Epiphany season (2012) readings and sermons. It dawned on me that the sequence of the readings would not necessarily connect to people. Here are the OT readings for that time period with the Sunday, and then the general time period of each reading:

Epiphany 1 Is 42:1–7 (7th century BC)
Epiphany 2 1 Sam 3:1–10 (12th century BC)
Epiphany 3 Jonah 3:1–5, 10 (8th century)
Epiphany 4 Deut 18:15–20 (15th century BC)
Epiphany 5 Is 40:21–31 (7th century BC)
Epiphany 6 2 Ki 5:1–14 10th century BC)
Epiphany 7 2 Ki 2:1–12 (10th century BC)

Granted, the Gospel readings are in sequence for Mark’s Gospel during that time frame. But if preaching on the Old Testament during that season, then the out-of-order sequence becomes not only noticeable but confusing. And throughout the year, the Gospel readings are not consistent in terms of sequence.

I considered alternative lectionaries such as: the Eisenach Selections, the Thomasius Selections, the Synodical Conference Selections (1912), and the Soll Selections. (Sermon Texts. Ernst Wendland, Editor. (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1984) The Soll Selections is unique in that it offers two Gospel readings for each Sunday. Each of these offer variations of the standard lectionaries, and each might be worth examining for lectionary use. But they still have the same problem with out-of-sequence readings particularly in the Old Testament.

It was at that point that I wondered whether there was something more helpful for our congregation. In my exploration I came across something called the Narrative Lectionary (NL). On the web site, the NL was introduced this way: “The narrative lectionary is a four-year cycle of readings. On the Sundays from September through May each year the texts follow the sweep of the biblical story, from Creation through the early Christian church.”

Why the Narrative Lectionary?

The NL seemed to be a possible answer to the dilemma I noted in the other lectionaries. So why the Narrative Lectionary? The short answer is simply: Because knowledge of the biblical story is crucial to a maturing Christian faith. But most Christian preaching assumes that worshipers already know the basic biblical story—and thus most Christian preaching does not seek to equip people to know the biblical story. The NL seeks to be one part of an approach that seeks to equip people to know God’s story—to discover God’s story and to find in that story the love of God in Christ for all, especially the reader/hearer.

Premise of Narrative Lectionary

A lectionary is a set of readings from the Bible for each Sunday of the church year. Lectionaries have been used since the time of the early church. Most, if not all, Lutheran congregations have been using either the one year lectionary or a three year lectionary. These lectionaries cover quite a bit of the Bible. However, most, if not all lectionaries used over the past 1600 years assumed a church and Bible knowledge. What happens if most people coming into the church have no such background? The NL is an experiment to help congregations with that very question.

The NL is a four year series of Scripture readings for Christian worship, which moves through the overarching biblical story in a nine-month period. The series starts in September and ends in May. The summer allows a variety of topical preaching, or even sections of the readings not covered during the year. At the same time, the narrative lectionary respects the traditional Christian church year, with its principal festivals and seasons — Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

Fall: NL moves chronologically through the Old Testament story—beginning in Genesis around the start of September and culminating with the promise of the Messiah during December (Advent).

Winter: NL moves in order through one Gospel—tracing the story of Jesus in canonical order from birth, through ministry, passion, and culminating with the story of the resurrection at Easter. There are four years to the cycle, so NL covers all four Gospels. Thus, year 4 focuses on the Gospel According to John. In other lectionaries, John is relegated to a few readings to fill in gaps in Mark.

Spring: NL engages part of the story of the early church, as told in Acts and other New Testament writings.

Summer: This is not provided by the developers of the Narrative Lectionary. So pastors have some options. One summer I preached on additional texts in the Gospel for that year. Another summer I preached on two short New Testament books.

What makes the Narrative Lectionary different?

This lectionary is not simply a series of stories; rather, it is a series of stories that provide an understanding of and appreciation for the broader biblical story. The NL differs from other lectionaries in several ways.

1. The NL seeks to tell the biblical story in historical sequence that is also in basic canonical order, in a nine-month cycle. It moves rapidly through the biblical narrative, in canonical order. The Old Testament segment covers the sweep of history in 16 weeks. Thus, with four years, the theme for the 16 weeks remains the same, but readings vary within that theme. Let’s look at Week 1, with the Creation theme:

Year 1 (Matthew) Gen 6:16-22; 9:8-15
Year 2 (Mark) Gen 2:4b-25
Year 3 (Luke) Gen 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8
Year 4 (John) Gen 1:1-2:4a

Thus, the Creation theme is explored in four ways. Week 2 focuses on Abraham, Week 3 on Jacob and Joseph, etc.

2. By the very nature of NL, the primary focus is on narrative passages. The exceptions would be prophetic writings toward the end of the Old Testament segment.

3. The NL focuses on one reading each week. While only one reading is provided, we have three readings plus a Psalm (see below, Filling the Gaps), but the main reading and sermon will focus on that pivotal text provided in the basic structure NL.

4. Because the NL is shaped this way, one concern had been the church calendar. Thankfully the basic church calendar is not abandoned — the birth of Christ Jesus is still celebrated at Christmas, the resurrection of Christ is still celebrated at Easter. The time of Advent is kept by focusing on the promise of the Messiah. Appropriate readings have been chosen for church commemorations, such as Reformation, All Saints, Ash Wednesday, and Holy Week.

Filling Gaps in NL

As I began seriously exploring the Narrative Lectionary, I noticed some gaps in what was provided on the web site. Is one reading sufficient for a liturgical, lectionary program? I didn’t think so. Likewise, there was no support work that would complement the liturgical text. Thus, about six months prior to beginning the NL, I spent time filling those gaps.

One reading per Sunday provided

Filling the first gap, the use of only one reading per Sunday, required considerable time to go through each week and supplement the one main reading with the “missing readings.” The year we began in the congregation was actually year 3 in the NL cycle. So for the first Sunday in September the Old Testament reading (theme: Creation) was Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8. I added the Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel readings (Psalm 130, Romans 5:12–19, Luke 11:1–4) that fit with that theme. (Sample is not complete, but for illustration purposes)Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.45.42

I have done that for every Sunday since September 9, 2012. I usually plan these at least six months ahead. For instance, I completed the post-Easter readings through the end of August about February 1. So I have years 3 and 4 completed. As we begin year 1 in the fall of 2014, I have already prepared several of those additional readings.

Is it a lot of work? Yes. But there is an added benefit to me as pastor. I find that it helps me in long term planning, as well as preparation for each Sunday. Even more, I knew the full set of texts so well, because I had read every reading several times to make sure they fit together for each Sunday. On occasion as part of my sermon preparation I have added or changed a reading in the week or two prior to the actual reading.

Prayer of the Day

I should note that the Narrative Lectionary website now offers Prayers of the Day to match the NL. However, when I began I did not find any of the prayers. Therefore, because the Sunday themes in NL did not match the one year or three year series, I began writing a Prayer of the Day for each Sunday to match that specific theme. That was a challenge for me, but I plunged ahead. Early in the process of preparing for introduction of the LN, Pastor Hank Simon (LCMS) contacted me about using the NL. In the conversation, we agreed that I would supply him with the additional readings, and we would share writing the Prayer of the Day for each. What a blessing he has been in this specific phase of NL implementation. My prayer writing (and prayer life) has been enriched because of his thoughtful, clear, appropriate prayers. Our congregation has been blessed by his work as well.Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.46.33

In our congregation we have one person who has been a prayer partner. This last fall I asked the person to consider helping me write some of the prayers. The person agreed and has written one quarter’s worth of prayers. I proof-read each prayer, making suggestions, but leaving the general thrust of the prayer in place. This has been of great benefit to me, the congregation, and this person. As we finish the full four year cycle in in the spring of 2016 (we started with year 3), we may revise some of the early prayers. In that case, we now have three other individuals in the congregation who have demonstrated a deep prayer life and who love to write. My goal would be to incorporate them into the reviews and rewritings of the prayers.

Introducing NL

Serving as a pastor over the years I have been aware of the importance of preparing a congregation for any change in worship. Depending on the changes, it might take a few weeks or a few months to prepare. In the case of the NL, I looked at six months as the time necessary to implement the transition to using NL.

The first step of preparation was to go to the Elders and then the Church Council and explain the use of lectionaries, and the most common lectionaries in use (three year and one year). In these two meetings I helped the leaders realize the gaps in our peoples’ knowledge of the overall Biblical history, and then the difficulties of the reading sequences in the three year and one year lectionaries filling that gap. The entire leadership, Elders and Council, were 100% committed to moving toward using the Narrative Lectionary. It was at this same time I began preparing the additional texts to be included each week.

In the three months prior to beginning the NL I would include a bulletin insert that explained the purpose of the NL and its application in our congregation. At regular intervals during the summer I announced the NL that would begin the Sunday after Labor Day. During the last month we included a bulletin insert with the Fall themes for each Sunday.

Introductory Powerpoint for NL
Introductory Powerpoint for NL

The first Sunday I introduced the topics by means of a timeline (on Powerpoint). Each week I added a new theme. That way the worshipers had a reference to previous weeks’ themes. Again the purpose was to give that unfolding salvation history according to a basic timeline. This visual orientation was more critical in the Old Testament segment, given the vast time periods covered and the multiple Old Testaments books used. In the Gospel segment (Christmas to Easter), each week’s reading came from the Gospel, strictly in canonical order, although not every passage of every Gospel was covered. If the Epistles were used as the primary teaching, then a simple New Testament timeline could be used.

Complementary Resources

As I considered using the Narrative Lectionary, I realized that it could only be part of the solution to providing a Biblical framework for understanding the texts. Back in 1989 I was one of the 70 pastors who introduced LifeLight into the LCMS. About the same time I was developing similar Bible studies for my own congregations. By 1991 I had completed development of an 11 week Old Testament Survey class and an 11 week New Testament Survey class. I have taught these in several congregations over the years. So I decided to use these study guides to complement the NL.Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.50.32

The same week we began using the NL, we began the Old Testament Survey class. I taught it on Wednesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday morning. Although I had not checked how the Survey course would match the NL readings, as it turned out, the sequence fit very well together. Although the Survey course finished the week before Thanksgiving, it was a blessing for all who participated. The combination of the Survey and NL gave the needed historical and canonical framework for better understanding.

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 10.50.54

After Christmas I began two sessions of the New Testament Survey. The correlation with NL wasn’t as tight as the Old Testament because the Survey covered all the New Testament, whereas the NL covered only the Gospel According to Luke. Nevertheless, the Survey was useful for all participants.
I plan to offer the two survey classes about every third or fourth year. This will catch up new people in the congregation and provide a useful review for those who have taken the courses in prior years.

Reflections on Narrative Lectionary

After 3 ½ years of using the NL, my overall assessment is that it is well worth exploring for any pastor or congregation. For congregations, I definitely think it offers people new to the Christian faith a good framework for following the Biblical story; this is particularly important in the fall season with 16 weeks with the Old Testament themes. And for those who have been Christian for years, this is either a good review for them, or even the first time they have been able to follow the Biblical narrative.

For preaching purposes, I especially liked the opportunity to preach through John’s Gospel. The one year and three year series offer relatively few pericopes from John. Because most of John’s Gospel is “new” for preaching, it allowed me to explore the Gospel in a refreshing way. In the Synoptic Gospels the introductions tied together the historical sequences leading up to the current text. But for John’s Gospel my introductions each week focused more on relating the thematic structure of the Gospel to the current pericope.

To me, the use of four readings (OT, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel) in a liturgical service is strongly recommended. I was disappointed that NL did not really offer anything for that aside from one or two verses in the Gospels to correspond to the Old Testament readings. My initial thought was I can choose additional readings as I go forward. That sounded nice at the beginning, but once I got into the use of NL, at times I was a little overwhelmed (timewise, as I have another position besides pastor) with choosing additional readings. I should note, too, that because of the length of a few readings, I have on occasion omitted either the Old Testament (non-fall period) or the Epistle reading. This happens only about once or twice in a quarter’s worth of pericopes.

Over the past 25 years I have always worked out a grid for planning sermons at least three months ahead. This is even more crucial for the NL. So, it is now April and I am beginning to add readings for the Fall season, Year 1. At the same time, I have benefited from this detail work of finding readings. Once I finish Years 1 and 2 I will have four readings for all four years of the NL. That will make the next cycle easier for planning and preparation. So also with the Prayers of the Day.

One thing that I will pursue in the coming years is to perhaps reach out to other pastors who use NL. I would like to connect with them, perhaps meeting once a month for an exegetical and homiletical exchange and discussion. Since I teach seminary classes using live video, that might be an appropriate venue. The closest Lutheran church is about 50 miles away, so face-to-face meetings would not be practical. But I do think this would benefit me as well as the other pastors.

In summary I find the switch to and the use of Narrative Lectionary to be a very positive benefit to me and to the congregation. At the same time, I have gained an even greater appreciation for the historic one-year lectionary and for the three-year lectionary.

As for the future, I am looking at what to do this summer. Do we continue the Narrative Lectionary? Or do we use the one year lectionary or the three year lectionary? I will decide by Easter 2016.

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Trinity Sunday— Athanasian Creed

Trinity Sunday and Athanasian Creed

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday in the liturgical calendar. For most Christians who follow such a calendar, it means that we speak together the Athanasian Creed. For some that might conjure images of drudgery, reciting words, upon words, upon words. Some would like to sit down, and snooze while the rest drone on.

But it need not be that way. In our congregation, we use the responsive reading form that CPH put out a few years ago. It breaks the creed into sections that become antiphonal (you can look up that word), and the responsive sections break into male and female responses. Excellent resource, CPH Athanasian Creed

Not again!?!

Over the past six decades I have heard sermons preached on Trinity Sunday that try to “explain” the Trinity, without much success. The apple (core, meat, skin), the three-leaf clover, and especially H2O (water, steam, ice), and the list goes on. Long ago I gave up on this approach. Each one might offer a glimpse into one small aspect of the Trinity. But most people walk away with a modalist view of the Trinity (one God taking three forms) rather than the Biblical view of the Trinity.

So a sermon on the Trinity? Obviously any of the texts chosen for the day can be used. If we preach one of those texts, let’s be honest and preach the text, not trying to force it into a doctrinal presentation of the Trinity. Likewise if we preach on the Trinity, let’s be honest and do so as a doctrinal confessing point, rather than trying to maneuver a Biblical text to fit what we want to preach. I think as we keep these two approaches in mind, we can avoid the “not again” problems of Trinity Sunday. Rather we can faithfully peach the Trinity without trying to explain the unexplainable.

Breath of Fresh Air

What makes the Athanasian Creed refreshing? It is not meant as a common sense explanation or science explanation of the Trinity. Rather the creed is conprehensive, but is confessed, not explained. Sometimes the speaking of the creed is far better than trying to explain something that is unexplainable. In the Church today I think we need more confessing of the faith in the creeds than explanations or dissections and arguing over the creeds. Note: there is a place to hold such doctrinal discussion. But worship is not the place for such discussions.

I think in the grander scheme of history of the Christian Church symbols of the Trinity have served the Church well rather than explanations. Thus, the designs used on the paraments, stoles, etc. function as visual reminders of the truth of the Trinity and what is confessed, not explanations.

Let’s believe, teach, and confess this wonderful creed, not only on Trinity Sunday but whenever necessary and helpful.

You can find the three ecumenical creeds here: Ecumenical Creeds

Bible teaching and method

In Sunday morning Bible study we have been studying The Gospel According to Matthew. Since September 2011. We finally reached Matthew 26 two weeks ago!! A week ago Sunday as an introduction to chapters 26:2-28:20, I showed several connections in the beginning and end of the section, and how some previous threads (chapters 1-25) were coming together.

There are many ways to look at the structure of Matthew’s Gospel, but I think this particular view is most helpful. This basic five division structure comes from noting these specific passages:

7:28 And when Jesus finished these sayings,
11:1 When Jesus had finished instructing
13:53 And when Jesus had finished these parables
19:1 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings
26:1 When Jesus had finished all these sayings

These five verses mark out the concluding boundaries of five major sections. Each section has a group of deeds related to one aspect of Jesus’ ministry, followed by a group of words that expand and explain the deeds. So when we get to Matthew 26, we read the last concluding comment or division marker:

When Jesus had finished all these words, He said to His disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man is to be handed over for crucifixion.” (Matthew 26:1-2 NAS)

The last section of Matthew’s Gospel begins with the plot to kill Jesus:

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people were gathered together in the court of the high priest, named Caiaphas; and they plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth and kill Him. But they were saying, “Not during the festival, otherwise a riot might occur among the people.” )Matthew 26:3-5 NAS)

Anointing of Jesus

Then I briefly mentioned the anointing of Jesus by a woman in 26:6-13. A question arose about the anointing and when it took place, because John’s Gospel seemed different. I noted that each author had his own purpose and style. Attempts to reconcile the various accounts have to be undertaken cautiously: 1) to let the individual uniqueness of each Gospel remain intact, and 2) to not force a reshuffling of any Gospel account just to achieve “a harmony.” I spent a little time on each point.

During the week, I realized that such an answer, while true, didn’t provide a more complete answer to the specific question in class. So last week I was thinking how to address the issue again. In my teaching experience, if I can draw a Timeline, map, chart, or diagram, I can teach most topics. So I began a reading of all four Gospels, using Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the base point (since all four Gospels have the entry in the same basic position leading into Passover).

Here are my handwritten scribbles; not very helpful for most people, but I knew what each portion meant and how I would proceed. And it gave me ideas about how to organize the material

Anointing Initial

As I began to write down the two events (entry and anointing), it became clear that the order of events was not identical. Further, the other details of the anointing weren’t all of one piece. Notice, that Matthew and Mark essentially tell the same story line in the same sequence with the details of the anointing corresponding. Luke, however, has an anointing, but unrelated to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. At that point I was realizing that the location was different, but also different in John’s Gospel, and with different people involved.

So I began thinking in terms of table showing each Gospel, then looking at the sequence (entry, anointing), as well how, how, what, and location the anointing took place. I came up with this approach in class Sunday, filling in the spots as I taught.

Triumph-Anointing

Sunday night I realized I needed to formalize this from handwriting to computer organization. This was the result.

AnointingTriumphalEntry

General Observations:

It appears from this table that there are at least three anointings, an early one in Luke (7:36-50, taking place in Galilee), plus two separate anointings in Holy Week. In John’s Gospel, the anointing takes place in Bethany, in the house of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, prior to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In Matthew and Mark, the anointing occurs in Bethany, but in the house of Simon the leper, and it is after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Notice that the anointing in Matthew and Mark is done by “a woman,” (as also in Luke’s account), whereas in John’s account, the woman is identified as “Mary,” but we don’t know which Mary. In Matthew and Mark, the woman anoints Jesus’ head, in Luke’s and John’s accounts, the woman anoints Jesus’ feet.

Now, there are many other things that could be said and studied. But I approached this task from the standpoint of a lay person who likely will not have access to detailed commentaries. Rather, the only necessary tools to achieve this kind of study are: the Bible, paper, pen/pencil (or computer). Then the process involves looking at each account within that specific Gospel, note major features, and after all four are examined, note parallels and challenges.

This approach allows the student to continue to appreciate the integrity of each Gospel, and the ability to note that we don’t have to destroy one (or more Gospel) accounts to satisfy an urge to see or resolve inconsistencies. Granted, not all such endeavors will work as well as this, but at least we don’t have to automatically capitulate to critics of the Bible.

This is by no means the end of the story (how do you think we lasted 3 ½ years in studying Matthew so far?). But, at least this serves both as a tool for further study, and a method that people can follow without the maze of academic trails to follow.

Hope this helps someone in the study of God’s Word.

Forgiveness for the fallen

Christ Calls to Calvary…the Fallen

This is our theme for tomorrow night’s midweek Lenten series: Christ Calls to Calvary. Tonight, Christ calls the fallen.

Now he who was betraying Him gave them a sign, saying, “Whomever I kiss, He is the one; seize Him.” Immediately Judas went to Jesus and said, “Hail, Rabbi!” and kissed Him. And Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you have come for.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and seized Him. (Matthew 26:48-50)

This may be the hardest call to understand and accept. In the end it will be the most important call of all. Judas’ name has been attached to all kinds of images, stories, explanations, excuses, protests, and empathy. Judas is the one who betrays Jesus to the Jewish leaders and their guards.

Judas—was one of the twelve that Jesus called to follow him.

 Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Him. (Matthew 10:1-4 NAS)

Judas—sold his friend and master for some money.

Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests, and said, “What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?” And they weighed out thirty pieces of silver to him. (Matthew 26:14–15 NAS)

Judas—sat with Jesus when Jesus instituted the Supper. The Supper which continues to offer the body and blood of Jesus even today.

While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26–28 NAS)

Judas—tried to deny his own plot. At the supper, Jesus says that someone will betray him. Judas joins the other disciples and asks the fateful question, a question that reveals his own plotting even before the meal began:

And Judas, who was betraying Him, said, “Surely it is not I, Rabbi?” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself.” (Matthew 26:25 NAS)

Judas—led the group to Jesus to fulfill his “contract” with the chief priests.

Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?”  (Matthew 26:14 NAS)

While He was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, came up accompanied by a large crowd with swords and clubs, who came from the chief priests and elders of the people. (Matthew 26:47 NAS)

Judas—realized his sin, and he regretted what he had done. Instead of repenting, though, he was led to despair and ultimately his death.

Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders. (Matthew 27:3)

But…

Jesus—endured the betrayal of Judas, the denials of Peter, the abandonment by the other disciples, for our betrayal, our denials, our abandonment of Jesus.

He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Romans 4:25 HCSB)

Jesus—came to fulfill His heavenly Father’s perfect will.

This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:3-4 HCSB)

Jesus—came to be betrayed, by every one, including Judas—and me. He knew what waited for him, betrayal and death, death on a cross.

[Jesus said:] “Behold, the hour is at hand and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners.” (Matthew 26:45 NAS)

Jesus—died on the cross for the sins of every one, Judas—and me.

“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 HCSB)

Jesus—is God’s perfect amen to every promise he made—for the fallen.

For every one of God’s promises is “Yes” in Him. Therefore, the “Amen” is also spoken through Him by us for God’s glory. (2 Corinthians 1:20 HCSB)

Jesus—came for the fallen, for every person—including me. There is hope.

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:11-13 HCSB)

Jesus—has the last word, forgiveness for fallen.

PinosMtn2011

Christ Calls to Calvary 1

Christ Calls to Calvary…

That’s the title of the series of sermons for midweek Lenten services. The various weekly themes finish that statement:

…the Faithful, Luke 18:31-33

…the Fallen, Matthew 26:50

…the Erring, Luke 22:61

…the Worldly, John 18:34-37

…the Ignorant, Luke 23:34

The series finishes in Holy Week

(Maundy Thursday)…the Penitent, Matthew 26:17–30

(Good Friday)…the Confessing, Matthew 27:27–61

Call to…the Faithful

The focus is not just the Law that identifies and condemns our sins, but more importantly the Gospel that shows Jesus as the one who suffered and died for our sins. His resurrection confirms his defeat of even death itself.

 This is the third passion prediction in Luke’s Gospel.

Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again.”

But the disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said. (Luke 18:31-34. NAS)

The text for tonight reminds us that Jesus calls each person, including the faithful. Those who are faithful have been saved by grace. They have heard, believed, and continue in the faith. The saving message of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection is not only for those who are outside the church. The faithful in the church need to hear the message again, and again.

The reality is that we don’t grasp all that God reveals in his Word. And even if we “know” the core doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ, we face temptations, subtle manipulation, and outright attacks on this core of our faith.

The call to Calvary for the faithful tonight is a reminder that we can never outgrow, move beyond, improve upon what Christ has done. Our life of faithfulness is not measured by what we achieve, but what Christ has already achieved for us. The call to the faithful is a call to confess sins, a call to receive forgiveness, a call to remain faithful.

So if you have heard that your sins are forgiven a thousand times, come tonight and receive that wonderful news for the one thousand and one times. It is a life-saving message. You need it, I need it, all the faithful need it.

Psalms_Scroll_Cross

Forgiveness in the Church

How does the Church live together day in and day out? It isn’t programs, musicians, leadership, spiritual giftedness. Rather the Church lives and breathes in the environment of forgiveness. There is no short-cut, not a handy bypass to avoid dealing with sin. Ignoring sin will foster an atmosphere of approval of sin. Refusing to forgive leads to arrogance, on the one hand, and the desire to cover sins, on the other. No, dealing with sin can be done in no other way than through forgiveness. It means dealing with sin, not to “win” but to “win the brother” — that is, to restore the brother or sister to the fellowship. Thus, this process is for the purpose of restoring relationships. It means forgiving, even in the midst of a crises. It means letting God have the first word and the last word.

Forgiveness is not the same as saying, “Oh that’s okay.” No, the reality of sin is that it is destructive of people, relationships, and especially relationship with God. When we as Christians face sin, it can be unpleasant. But, forgiving sin is restorative, it is the mending of broken relationships, and it is foremost the bringing together the forgiven sinner and the God who forgives.

 

Who are you to forgive?

You will often hear something to this effect: “Only God can forgive sins.” Or “Who do you think you are to forgive sins?” But Jesus says the opposite. Tomorrow our Gospel reading is Matthew 18:15-35 (also basis for the sermon)—see below. The theme is forgiveness; namely, Jesus tells us how to deal with sin: in love confronting the person about the sin (not attacking the person). When the person repents, we forgive the person, freely, even as God has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32).

We do not forgive on our own authority but on the authority of Jesus himself. Note in 18:18

Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

In other words, the forgiving we do is done on the basis that it has already been forgiven in heaven. We are not in control, but rather declaring what God has already done.

Also he says in 18:20

“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”

Note that 18:20 is often taken out of context and used to apply to any and every gathering of Christians—except forgiveness. However, in this context, Jesus’ promise to be there with us is in the forgiving of sins. Let’s not ignore the central aspect of the Christian life: forgiveness of sins. Let’s not downplay the role in the gathering of Christians. Let’s not pretend we are super pious by claiming “I would never dare take the authority to forgive sins.” Indeed, Jesus says the very opposite. We fail to live in Christian community when we do not confront sin (with the Law) and forgive (sin (the Gospel). And it isn’t self-appointed, it is Jesus’ description and commission of Christian living.

The text is Matthew 18:15-35 (NAS)

[Jesus said:] 15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.’ 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”

21 Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made.

26 “So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.

28 “But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32 Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.
33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’

34 “And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

May we live together in community based on the forgiveness of sins!

“Incomplete” Lutherans

The book, Here We Stand: Nature and Character of the Lutheran Faith, reflects Sasse’s battle against the Protestant attempt to present a unified statement of faith against the Nazi movement in Germany in the 1930’s. From the Protestant view, all movements coming out of the Reformation would be best combined, even if there was no acknowledgement of the theological/doctrinal differences. Karl Barth was the major proponent of such a declaration (eventually the Barmen Declaration). 51ljQIsee0L._SL500_SL160_

One area of interest was (and is) how the Reformation is viewed historically and theologically. For many, the Reformation includes many strands of equal importance: Lutheran, Reformed, Calvinism, etc. And yet is that how we as Lutherans understand the Reformation?

The Accusation against Lutherans

Sasse presents the general Protestant view of the Reformation, which is a skewed view as if the “Lutheran Reformation” was incomplete, didn’t go far enough. That still is a problem today, perceiving the Reformation through the lens of the general Protestant perspective. Sasse lays out the accusation against Lutherans this way.

This is the accusation that we Lutherans overestimate our reformation by thinking of it as the Reformation of the church, and by thinking of our church as the church of the Reformation. In truth, however, the Lutheran Reformation is only the beginning, and only a part, of the Reformation as such. There were other Reformers in addition to Luther, and besides the Wittenberg Reformation there were, of course, others—such as the Zürich and the Geneva Reformation. The Reformation is made up of all these reformations put together. Luther’s new insight of faith is not the “Reformation faith” until it is supplemented by the insights of faith which the other Reformers contributed. Inasmuch as the Lutheran Church has overlooked or forgotten this, and has isolated itself from the other churches of the Reformation, it has slipped into a false relationship both to the Roman Church and to those other Reformation churches. It has not remained sufficiently apart from the Roman Church, and it has not realized that, for better or worse, its fate is intimately bound up with that of the other churches of the Reformation. Thus the Lutheran Church has taken its stand in an uncertain middle position between the other two. It has not found its way entirely out of Catholicism. It still needs to be drawn from the limitations of its narrow horizon to an experience of the whole Reformation—the whole Reformation in the double sense of a complete and radical reform which has its roots in obdeience to God’s commands and consequently triumphs over Catholicism, and of an inclusive reform which does not limit itself to Luther’s teaching alone.

This is the accusation which is lodged against our church by all the other Protestant churches—the charge which has been made incessantly for the last four hundred years, especially by our sister church, the Reformed. (Sasse, Here We Stand, pp. 85-86)

Yes, I still hear and read of such charges against Lutherans. Yet as Sasse begins to deal with this accusation, he rightly addresses the problem from the perspective of “The Reformation and the Confessional Problem” (pp. 86-96). And from there he addresses “the Lutheran and Reformed churches” (pp. 97-109).

Sadly even some Lutherans do not want to address the issue of what it means to confess the faith. In today’s world, such a stance is critical. To take a confessional stance does not mean that we follow Martin Luther himself (as often assumed). Rather, we confess the faith as Luther did and as the Christian church has from the very beginning. “Justification by grace through faith in Christ” (or expanded: “justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone”), is not one of many doctrines, but rather the chief article of faith, the center of all else. The other “alone” statement is “Scripture alone.” (I will post more on these topics in a future post).

Note, too, that taking a confessional stand does not mean arrogance, pride, haughtiness, verbal attacks, personal insults. None of those are from the fruit of the Spirit and do not reflect what our confessional documents desire. Rather, it means that we take seriously what it means to “believe, teach, and confess” the faith. And we take seriously the confessional documents (the Book of Concord) which repeatedly claim, “The Church has always taught.” There is for us as Christians who confess the faith as Lutherans the continuity with the Christian church through the ages, not an independent movement disentangled from anything prior to 1517.