Jesus, the Vine, the Branches, and the Fruits

St. John writes, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear (carry) fruit he prunes, that it may bear (carry) more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear (carry) fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5).

As with many other passages in John’s gospel, Jesus uses “I am” followed by an image. For example, “I am the bread of life” (John 6). “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10). “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14). Here Jesus is the vine. In the Old Testament (Exodus 3) God reveals himself to Moses as I AM YHWH (Yahweh) which means ““I am who I am.” In other words, it is God who determines who God is, not we with our sinful hopes, dreams, and demands.

In John’s imagery in Chapter 15, Jesus is the vine. His Father is the vinedresser, and those who believe are the branches. If one is connected to Jesus, one has life and bears fruit. In fact, apart from Jesus as the vine, we are lost and fruitless in so many different ways.

The world, however, thinks differently. The world views being connected to Jesus or his Father as meaning that one has really gone out on a limb, so to speak. In fact, one is not really a branch but instead is just a fruit, or a nut, or a flake, or a whole bowl full of Muesli (granola). In fact, the world would like to spare Christians the proposed to pruning in this passage by cutting down the whole vine altogether. The world tried that once, roughly 2,000 years ago. They cut down the vine, hung him out on a trellis to dry, and then buried him in the ground. The vinedresser, however, raised the vine again, who says, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11).

In the self-centeredness of our sin, we unfortunately view this imagery not with ourselves as branches of Jesus but instead with ourselves in the middle. God and Jesus are behind us providing us with the sustenance which we as branches need to exercise our mighty powers to bear fruit. Viewed with another image, we unfortunately become thereby little religious Jack Horners, putting in our thumb, pulling out a plumb, and thinking, “What a good girl/boy am I.”

So it is, and most of us are pretty quick to consider our “good” deeds as signs that we are actually good. Throughout Christian history, Christians have used “good works” to decide who is and who is not a proper Christian. Are “they” bearing the fruit which we expect, then “they” must be true Christians. Are “their” words and actions suspect, then suspect is “their” place in the kingdom of God. In this grand scheme of things, we get tangled up in all manner of categories of right and wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, right?

How right are we? On one hand, we say with St. Paul, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, …” (Romans 3:22b-23). On the other hand, we would also agree with St. Paul who seems confident that our sinfulness has distinct categories and offenses, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:28-32). How many of us gossipers would put ourselves in the same category as murders or haters of God? Like it or not, we are in the same sinking boat.

So, why do we devise categorizations for our sins? Although all sin is deadly from a theological perspective, not all sins are immediately deadly from an experiential perspective. “I was the only one who got an ‘A’ on the test,” is certainly boastful, and most of would think, “Rightly so!” In our everyday lives, we tend to categorize our sins by the damage which they do either to us or to our communities or to both. “Our family does it this way,” one often learns very early on. That which damages the community of family is “bad.” How does that play out when a really dysfunctional family things something generally considered “good” is instead “bad”? As “branches” we spend a lot of our time deciding who is bearing good fruit and who is not, and the latter gives us plenty of opportunity to be gossips, and rightly so, or again, perhaps not.

If we reconsider the imagery in John Chapter 15 with our sin slightly removed from our eyes, we see things a little differently. We as branches are connected to the vine who is dressed by the vinedresser, his Father, but what does the vine as a whole actually bear or carry? We are quick to reply, “Fruit, which we bear!”

That, however, is not quite correct. The vine whom the world tried to kill and hang on a trellis died and was raised to bear or carry the sin of the whole world, for each and every one of us sinful human beings, both individually and collectively. Thus, when we as branches bear or carry fruit, that fruit is not our self-selected “good deeds.” Instead, through Christ and on behalf of Christ as extensions of Christ, the fruit which we bear or carry is the brokenness of the sinners within and around us.

Correspondingly, the more damage which that sin has caused, the heavier is the load of the fruit to be borne. Paradoxically, sometimes those who seem to have been “pruned” the most in life are exceptionally gifted at bearing the damaged fruit. This is so because the whole weight of human brokenness is borne and carried by the resurrected Christ who bears us sinners healed and forgiven to live forever in his Father’s vineyard.

Fight the Good Fight?

Churches are great places to fight! Think about all the discord and conflict that has occurred in the church from the time Jesus started to gather disciples. Who would be the greatest? Who would sit at Jesus’ right hand? Who would best betray and deny him? Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, the church continued to fight for its life, so to speak, both within and without. When we fight in the church, and sometimes we must, what criteria do we use to do so? St. Paul in First and Second Timothy gives some guidance:

“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (I Timothy 6:12),

and then when all is said and done, so to speak, St. Paul bows out of ministry by saying,

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Both of these examples give the impression that we are able to “fight the good fight,” but are we? Do we know what the “good fight” is? If we might know, would we be able to fight it and win, or would we just make a good show if it, going down swinging? If we were to go down swinging, what night we swing, fists, a bat, playground equipment, or perhaps some type of big band music?

Our society is full if fighting talk. We may think that we “fight the good fight” when we often disease, crime, injustice, pollution, and so forth. Sometimes we even give ourselves the impression that we might win some of these battles, but do we ever win the battles or not to mention the war? What has been the outcome of the “war on poverty” or the “cold war” or the “war on drugs”? According to the news, the rich have got richer, and the poor have got poorer. The once dangerous, atheistic socialist-communist threat has faded in some countries only to arrive in another guise in US politics. As to the war on drugs, how many US states have “legalized” marijuana, even though it is still a federal crime? Maybe we win the wars when we give up the fight and capitulate to human sin. So, what is the good fight, and what is right?

From the time of our birth, we are born into a fight for our lives. For some, the fight is relatively benign, like fighting with siblings about who inherits the family fortune. For others, from birth onwards, the fight is daily, grueling, fraught with despair, desperation, and devastation. Most of us experience life in-between. For all of us, the daily fight of life ends in death. When that moment comes, will we be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”? Think about your daily routine. How many of us can hand on heart say, “I have kept the faith” every day in every way, come hell or high water or indifference or disregard? Think of something really mundane. If most of us cannot stick to a simple healthy diet as if our lives depended on it, and sometimes they do, what chance do we have of fighting a truly good fight? So, to distract ourselves, we fight the mean, petty fight of exerting our self-righteousness over against all and sundry, claiming ourselves the victors and “them” to be the losers.

We Lutherans have a fight song, one near and dear to our hearts. It goes like this:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A sword and shield victorious;
He breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod,
And wins salvation glorious.
The old satanic foe,
Has sworn to work us woe.
With craft and dreadful might
He arms himself to fight.
On earth he has no equal!

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

Though hordes of devils fill the land,
All threatening to devour us.
We tremble not, unmoved we stand,
They cannot overpow’r us.
Let this world’s tyrant rage,
In battle we’ll engage.
His might is doomed to fail,
God’s judgement must prevail!
One little word subdues him.

God’s Word forever shall abide,
No thanks to foes, who fear it.
For God himself fights by our side,
With weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house,
Goods, honour, child or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away,
They cannot win the day.
The Kingdom’s ours forever.
(Lutheran Service Book, Hymn 657)

That translation of Martin Luther’s hymn “Ein’ feste Burg” describes the war and also each and every battle therein. It is a fight which Adam and Eve so easily and willingly lost in the Garden of Eden. Thereafter, each laborious birth bring forth a child to be another casualty of inherited sin and death. No human effort, strength, talent, wealth, intellect, and so on can put an end to human sin and death. We fight and fight and fight, but in the end we too often become too tired or ill to swing any more.

When they were swinging their hammers onto the nails in Jesus’ hands and feet, the forces of sin and death believed that in crucifying Christ they were fighting the good fight, that they would win the race, that they were keeping the faith. When God the Father raised God the Son from the dead and then sent his word into the world by the power of God the Holy Spirit, God declared the forces of sin and death to be vanquished.

When you are next feeling weary of the war of our sinful world or fatigued by the battles of mundane daily life, when disease, despair, and death are knocking at your door or beating on your heart, remember the words of “A Mighty Fortress,” remember, “Now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected. You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he. Christ Jesus mighty Lord, God’s only son adored. He holds the field victorious.” and thereby be reminded, “ The Kingdom’s ours forever.” Amen.

New Years

In Luther’s day, the new year began with Christmas Day. In a way, that is very fitting since the incarnation of Christ means the beginning of the new creation which is granted to all who believe in Jesus as the Christ.

As many are aware, Luther wrote hymns, not only because he was musically adept but chiefly because he wanted people to learn and live the faith, and song is a good medium so to do. From ancient times, meter and rhyme have provided a cadence for remembrance. In a day and an age when many could not read or write, learning through verse was effective, and still is today. Think of how easily an advertising jingle or the refrain of a pop song takes residence in our memories.

Through the advent of the printing press and with the widespread ease and abundance of reference materials, multiplied exponentially today with the internet, modern people seem to have been significantly relieved of having to learn through memory. Some would question whether people today really learn much at all but rather parrot what they see on their smart phones. (Do smart phones make dumb people?)

One of Luther’s great Christmas songs is entitled Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, which I would translate as From Heaven above I Come Here. Other translations of the same include From Heaven Above to Earth I Come (Lutheran Service Book, 358) and From Heaven on High I Come to You as translated and printed in Luther’s Works. The full translation of the latter is below.

From Heaven on High I Come to You

1 From Heaven on high I come to you.
I bring a story good and new;
Of goodly news so much I bring,
Of it I must both speak and sing.

2 To you a child is come this morn,
A child of holy maiden born,
A little babe so sweet and mild—
Your joy and bliss shall be that child.

3 It is the Lord Christ, our own God.
He will ease you of all your load;
He will himself your Savior be,
And from all sinning set you free.

4 He brings you all the news so glad
Which God the Father ready had—
That you shall in his heavenly house
Live now and evermore with us.

5 Take heed then to the token sure,
The crib, the swaddling clothes so poor;
The infant you shall find laid there,
Who all the world doth hold and bear.

6 Hence let us all be gladsome then,
And with the shepherd folk go in
To see what God to us hath given,
With his dear honored Son from heaven.

7 Take note, my heart; see there! look low:
What lies then in the manger so?
Whose is the lovely little child?
It is the darling Jesus-child.

8 Welcome thou art, thou noble guest,
With sinners who dost lie and rest,
And com’st into my misery!
How thankful I must ever be!

9 Ah Lord! the maker of us all!
How hast thou grown so poor and small,
That there thou liest on withered grass,
The supper of the ox and ass?

10 Were the world wider many fold,
And decked with gems and cloth of gold,
’Twere far too mean and narrow all,
To make for thee a cradle small.

11 The silk and velvet that are thine,
Are rough hay, linen not too fine,
Yet, as they were thy kingdom great,
Thou liest in them in royal state.

12 And this hath therefore pleased thee
That thou this truth mightst make me see—
How all earth’s power, show, good, combined,
Helps none, nor comforts thy meek mind.

13 Dear little Jesus! in my shed,
Make thee a soft, white little bed,
And rest thee in my heart’s low shrine,
That so my heart be always thine.

14 And so I ever gladsome be,
Ready to dance and sing to thee
The lullaby thou lovest best,
With heart exulting in its guest.

15 Glory to God in highest heaven,
Who his own Son to us hath given!
For this the angel troop sings in
Such a new year with gladsome din.
(Luther’s Works, 53:290-291)

So, if you were to write a song to tell others about Jesus’ birth, life, death, or resurrection, how might it go? The Parish Rebuilder will publish in forthcoming editions song submissions of 5-15 verses edifying others about Jesus. So, open your Bibles, put on your thinking caps, find your creative crayons or keyboard, and send submit a song or two. Perhaps we could put some of them to music and sing them in church!

Christmas and Coronavirus Spacing and Stress

Well, the Advent and Christmas seasons have arrived, and this year promises to be a little different from previous years. The whole world seems to be caught between Christmas and the Coronavirus. Will the governmental grinches allow Christmas? Who in the Whoville knows? If Christmas is allowed, will the Whos in Whoville be allowed to be loud and to gather or to feast or to sing? What about the Whos who will not be allowed to travel to Whoville? Will those Whos at least get to be on First, or is such a hope simply off-base? How would the good Dr. Seuss diagnose the situation, a situation characterized by confusing, constantly changing rules, regulations, recommendations, political recriminations, and cannabis recreations? Speaking of which, why is the media abuzz about the high time which the Governor of California had at dinner in a French Laundromat with indoor-outdoor carpeting?

In times like these, people need to turn to their Bibles. The Bible tells the story of Joseph, not that Joseph but the other one. Joseph was a nice Jewish boy who was engaged to a young Jewish girl who claimed to have seen angels and got herself mysteriously pregnant by the “Holy Spirit.” Quite understandably, Joseph thought it best to get out of that relationship before things got really cuckoo. Sadly, poor Joseph himself started hearing voices and seeing angels. Then, on what seemed like a bad trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, in the St. Nick of time Joseph came to his census, and that is what really counts. Suffering from hallucinations meant that both Joseph and his princess bride would not be accepted by the inn crowd. So, they were forcibly “social distanced” in an animal shelter where the baby Jesus was born into stable family environment.

In “normal” times, Christmas is stressful enough. One needs to write Santa, buy and wrap presents, procure and prepare the food; all done in the pursuit of gathering with loved ones whom we often do not like. Somewhere along the line we might go to church, if we have time and if we have not had too much to drink.

This year, however, things will be different, but no one really knows how different. Will “social distancing” prevent Santa from delivering his wares? Will the reindeer herd be culled if they become infected? If so, will Amazon jump in the breach and wrap and deliver the presents for Santa? Following the hoarded paper products out the door, will the shops be pilfered of poultry, potatoes, and pumpkin pie? If so, will we at least be spared having to mingle with our less than liked loved ones? Thank God that the liquor stores and “dispensaries” will be open (and that most churches will be closed). It gets so annoying when the Spirit of the latter interrupts the spirits of the former.

Nothing, however, seems to interrupt the omnipresence of coronavirus, nor its deleterious effects on our lives. When we are not being divided and conquered, we are being watched, counted, regulated, and controlled. For the well-being of all, we are told not to gather with subversive groups, like friends and family, whom we cannot not trust and thus must fear. If we do not comply, then we just might die. So, shamed or bullied we comply.

Social distancing is now our Saviour, and the ubiquitous, controversial face mask has become the hallmark of loyalty and compliance to the Saviour’s science. Once innocuous, face masks have now become ominously omnipresent, something akin to the “mark of the beast” in the Book of Revelation. This beast “forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, …” (Rev. 13:16-17). Who can buy or sell without a mask? Who can do just about anything anywhere without a mask? Such enforced facelessness is not social distancing but socially dehumanizing. It isolates, alienates, ostracizes, and abandons, not just physically but also psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. As a result, some of our most vulnerable members of society have been left to wither and die at our new Saviour’s behest.

The above is the narrative dictated by those who live their lives in service to the fear of disease, doom, and death. The following is the narrative of the God who gave his son’s life in service to those who live in fear of disease, doom, and death.

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” 15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them (Luke 2:1-20).

Those are two diametrically opposed services. On Thursday, 24 December, St. Luke’s has scheduled two very similar services, one at 6:00 pm and the other at 8:00 pm. Hopefully there, the people will also hear God’s angel again say, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

Coronavirus and Confirmation

In March, the Catechism II class and I were planning to spend a Saturday afternoon together for a special catechism session. The nascent coronavirus was starting to gain ever increasing attention of the media and the medics. Like the virus itself, fear of the unknown was infecting society. The governor of California prophesied that 25.5 million Californians would have the coronavirus by mid-May. So, our catechetical afternoon together got postponed and then shutdown. It was a great disappointment because it is not everyday that one gets to eat exceptionally good pizza and talk theology with hungry, young theologians.

At that same time, other church activities were grinding to a halt under state and county directives contrary to the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Arguably at a time when people needed to be in church the most, many politicians and heath officials in California had decided that church was too great a threat to public health and well-being. In contrast, crowding into supermarkets in search of quickly dwindling stocks of toilet paper was, strangely, not a problem, although the lack of toilet paper was a problem for those without. The politicians and health officials were plainly on a roll, flushed with excitement, or something like that.

In the course of time, legal challenges put pressure on the governor of California to loosen restrictions on constitutionally protected but apparently easily suspended religious rights. By the end of May, churches could again hold in-person services indoors, but quickly that became only outdoors, which after about six weeks became indoors again. To facilitate all these changes, the church council considered installing revolving doors on all entrances to assist church attendance and to symbolize the various officials’ predilection for having the citizenry go round and round and round in socially distanced circles separated by plexiglass.

With autumn approaching, worship services moving back indoors, the school on campus holding in-person classes aided by a waiver, and some other schools returning to in-person instruction either partially or fully, the resumption of in-person catechism was proposed and agreed. There had been helpful and hopeful suggestions of holding catechism via other methods. For example, using Zoom was one idea, but unfortunately that would have mistakenly given the impression that catechism moves quickly with excitement! Of course it doesn’t.

More importantly, resuming catechism in-person (not rezooming in cyberspace) has been very important because it reflects the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the word made flesh who came to dwell among us. When Christ took on human flesh and entered into a world racked with human sin and death, the second person of the Trinity entered into our time and into our space in-person to be with us as one of us in the midst of our sinfully sick, fallen lives. With each passing day, Jesus seemed to become ever more enmeshed and mired in our human failings, but rather than recoiling therefrom, he reached out to others. He healed the sick and broken, welcomed the outcasts and unwanted, he challenged the authorities, he raised the dead, he forgave their sins, and with his word and example he gave those whom he met and touched new faith, hope, and love; things which the government of his day wanted to deny its citizens. Eventually, Jesus went way out on a limb (of a cross) and risked his life to bring God’s love and the gift of eternal life to people like us, locked down in the woeful uncertainty of our world.

In comparison, holding in-person catechism classes, socially distanced with other hygienic precautions, carries virtually no risk to life or limb. It seems almost trivial, but it is not. The word of God and its resultant Christian faith have very real, life-giving power. Since their earliest days, Christians have risked everything to gather, to teach, to learn, to sing, to pray, and to care in the same way that Jesus the Christ had embraced death so that others could embrace the promise of life which only he can give. Taking risks to share the gospel of Christ with others is thus essential and integral to being part of the body of Christ, i.e. the church. For us Lutherans, learning how Martin Luther defiantly risked his life to give us a pure proclamation of that same gospel has been figuratively and literally exemplary for the past five centuries.

All going according to plan, on Sunday, 29 November, St. Luke’s four catechism pupils will be confirmed. In so doing, they will have the opportunity to confess the faith publicly which was given to them in baptism. In so doing, they will confirm that they wish to continue to live as part of the body of Christ whose members they became in their baptism. In so doing, they will take on new responsibilities and new risks by living the miracle of faith which confesses Luther’s interpretation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed:

“I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and to all who believe in Christ. This is most certainly true.”

Lutheran Freedom

The 31st of October is Reformation Day. As I have explained more times than people may want to hear, Martin Luder changed the spelling of his surname to Luther to reflect the Greek letter theta (θ = th) in Greek words referring to being free (eleutheros). As a prelude to Reformation Sunday, I thought it appropriate to hear something from Luther himself. The following excerpt is from Luther’s commentary on Galatians 5:1. Luther writes:

“1. For freedom (eleutheria) Christ has set us free (eleutheroo); stand fast therefore.

That is: “Be firm!” Thus Peter says (1 Peter 5:8–9): “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” “Do not be smug,” he says, “but be firm. Do not lie down or sleep, but stand.” It is as though he were saying: “Vigilance and steadiness are necessary if you are to keep the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Those who are smug and sleepy are not able to keep it.” For Satan violently hates the light of the Gospel, that is, the teaching about grace, freedom, comfort, and life. Therefore as soon as he sees it arise, he immediately strives to obliterate it with all his winds and storms. For this reason Paul urges godly persons not to be drowsy and smug in their behavior but to stand bravely in the battle against Satan, lest he take away the freedom achieved for them by Christ.

“Every word is emphatic. “Stand fast,” he says, “in freedom.” In what freedom? Not in the freedom for which the Roman emperor has set us free but in the freedom for which Christ has set us free. The Roman emperor gave—indeed, was forced to give—the Roman pontiff a free city and other lands, as well as certain immunities, privileges, and concessions.1 This, too, is freedom; but it is a political freedom, according to which the Roman pontiff with all his clergy is free of all public burdens. In addition, there is the freedom of the flesh, which is chiefly prevalent in the world. Those who have this obey neither God nor the laws but do what they please. This is the freedom which the rabble pursues today; so do the fanatical spirits, who want to be free in their opinions and actions, in order that they may teach and do with impunity what they imagine to be right. This is a demonic freedom, by which the devil sets the wicked free to sin against God and men. We are not dealing with this here although it is the most widespread and is the only goal and objective of the entire world. Nor are we dealing with political freedom. No, we are dealing with another kind, which the devil hates and attacks most bitterly.

“This is the freedom with which Christ has set us free, not from some human slavery or tyrannical authority but from the eternal wrath of God. Where? In the conscience. This is where our freedom comes to a halt; it goes no further. For Christ has set us free, not for a political freedom or a freedom of the flesh but for a theological or spiritual freedom, that is, to make our conscience free and joyful, unafraid of the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7). This is the most genuine freedom; it is immeasurable. When the other kinds of freedom—political freedom and the freedom of the flesh—are compared with the greatness and the glory of this kind of freedom, they hardly amount to one little drop. For who can express what a great gift it is for someone to be able to declare for certain that God neither is nor ever will be wrathful but will forever he a gracious and merciful Father for the sake of Christ? It is surely a great and incomprehensible freedom to have this Supreme Majesty kindly disposed toward us, protecting and helping us, and finally even setting us free physically in such a way that our body, which is sown in perishability, in dishonor, and in weakness, is raised in imperishability, in honor, and in power (1 Cor. 15:42–43). Therefore the freedom by which we are free of the wrath of God forever is greater than heaven and earth and all creation.

“From this there follows the other freedom, by which we are made safe and free through Christ from the Law, from sin, death, the power of the devil, hell, etc. For just as the wrath of God cannot terrify us—since Christ has set us free from it—so the Law, sin, etc., cannot accuse and condemn us. Even though the Law denounces us and sin terrifies us, they still cannot plunge us into despair. For faith, which is the victor over the world (1 John 5:4), quickly declares: “Those things have nothing to do with me, for Christ has set me free from them.” So it is that death, which is the most powerful and horrible thing in the world, lies conquered in our conscience through this freedom of the Spirit. Therefore the greatness of Christian freedom should be carefully measured and pondered. The words “freedom from the wrath of God, from the Law, sin, death, etc.,” are easy to say; but to feel the greatness of this freedom and to apply its results to oneself in a struggle, in the agony of conscience, and in practice—this is more difficult than anyone can say.

“Therefore one’s spirit must be trained, so that when it becomes conscious of the accusation of the Law, the terrors of sin, the horror of death, and the wrath of God, it will banish these sorrowful scenes from its sight and will replace them with the freedom of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, life, and the eternal mercy of God. Although the consciousness of these opponents may be powerful, one must be sure that it will not last long. As the prophet says (Is. 54:8), “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid My face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.” But this is extremely difficult to bring about. Therefore the freedom that Christ has achieved for us is easier to talk about than it is to believe. If it could be grasped in its certainty by a firm faith, no fury or terror of the world, the Law, sin, death, the devil, etc., could be too great for it to swallow them up as quickly as the ocean swallows a spark. Once and for all this freedom of Christ certainly swallows up and abolishes a whole heap of evils—the Law, sin, death, the wrath of God, finally the serpent himself with his head (Gen. 3:15); and in their place it establishes righteousness, peace, life, etc. But blessed is the man who understands and believes this.

“Therefore let us learn to place a high value on this freedom of ours; not the emperor, not an angel from heaven, but Christ, the Son of God, through whom all things were created in heaven and earth, obtained it for us by His death, to set us free, not from some physical and temporary slavery but from the spiritual and eternal slavery of those most cruel and invincible tyrants, the Law, sin, death, the devil, etc., and to reconcile us to God the Father. Now that these enemies have been defeated and now that we have been reconciled to God through the death of His Son, it is certain that we are righteous in the sight of God and that all our actions are pleasing to Him; and if there is any sin left in us, this is not imputed to us but is forgiven for the sake of Christ. Paul is speaking very precisely when he says that we should stand in the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Therefore this freedom is granted to us, not on account of the Law or our righteousness but freely, on account of Christ. Paul testifies to this and demonstrates it at length throughout this epistle; and Christ says in John 8:36: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” He alone is thrust into the middle between us and the evils that oppress us. He conquers and abolishes them, so that they cannot harm us any longer. In fact, in place of sin and death He grants us righteousness and eternal life, and He changes slavery and the terrors of the Law into the freedom of conscience and the comfort of the Gospel, which says (Matt. 9:2): “Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven.” Therefore he who believes in Christ has this freedom.

“Reason does not see how great a matter this is; but when it is seen in the Spirit, it is enormous and infinite. No one can realize with language or thought what a great gift it is to have—instead of the Law, sin, death, and a wrathful God—the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, eternal life, and a God who is permanently gracious and kind. The papists and all self-righteous people boast that they also have the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, etc.; they also lay claim to freedom. But all these things are worthless and uncertain. In temptation they vanish instantly, because they depend on human works and satisfactions, not on the Word of God and on Christ. Therefore it is impossible for any self-righteous people to know what freedom from sin, etc., really is. By contrast, our freedom has as its foundation Christ, who is the eternal High Priest, who is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Therefore the freedom, forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and life that we have through Him are sure, firm, and eternal, provided that we believe this. If we cling firmly to Christ by faith and stand firm in the freedom with which He has made us free, we shall have those inestimable gifts. But if we become smug and drowsy, we shall lose them. It is not in vain that Paul commands us to be vigilant and to stand, because he knows that the devil is busily engaged in trying to rob us of this freedom that cost Christ so much, and to tie us up again in the yoke of slavery through his agents” (LW 27: 3-6).

What Now?

It is not uncommon as of late to hear people say, “We are living in unprecedented times,” or “These are very uncertain times.” To say the least, the times are certainly unusual. To borrow a phrase from the internet, the world has really “gone viral.” Except, instead of people referring to online cat videos or come other cute internet clip or quip, one is actually referring to humanity in living in the shadow of the so-called novel coronavirus. Nonetheless, are these really “unprecedented times” or are they perhaps just inconvenient times?

If one views the reactions to the coronavirus locally, nationally, and globally, these reactions and overreactions provide an interesting reflection of humanity. When one compares these reactions with previous epidemics and pandemics, it seems striking that humanity seems to have lost a considerable capacity to confront illness and death. On the brighter side, modern medicine has become very good at curing or at least at treating an unprecedented number of ailments. To “get better” is the expectation, not the exception.

In comparison to the miracles of modern medicine, society as a whole seems to be heading in the opposite direction. The disintegration of the family, of neighbourhoods, of common values and morals, and even of the common sense of being a nation is evident everywhere. Many call this disintegration “progress,” but it needs to be asked to what is this progressive disintegration leading? To what are we supposed to be progressing? How will we know when we have arrived?

The church throughout history has fallen into the same trap. For most of the church’s history, even into our times, the church has been dogged by the idea that we sinful human beings should and can make “progress” in or towards our salvation, in or towards our relationship with God. According to this thinking, if one just attends church enough, follows the rules enough, prays enough, reads the Bible enough, and gives enough money, one will get closer and closer to the kingdom of God, the pearly gates, etc., but how much is enough?

These hopes are all based on the notion that one can somehow get one’s sinful human “flesh” to improve. If the church can just motivate sinners to be more church-going, more rule-following, more God-fearing, more Bible-reading, and more holy all around, then in time the whole world will become a better place to be. Sadly, like the rest of society “church people” seem to be getting worse rather than better at these things. In contrast, non-churched people seem to think that the world is actually getting better by not doing these things. Maybe “church people” are getting worse at these things because they believe that non-churched people are actually right.

In light of the coronavirus, how do non-believers gauge what is saving for them? Do they even care? Some do, and some do not. For those who “care,” protecting themselves and others from the coronavirus is a moral duty. It is represented in all manner of ways, like lockdowns, face masks, hand washing, hand wringing, closing gyms, restaurants, schools, churches, etc. Not that those are bad things if necessary, but are they and when are debated? Where are the studies to support some of these measures? Scientific or not, the prevailing rationale in all this seems to predicated on the notion that it is “good” for humanity to put life on hold in order to save lives. That seems to be a contradiction in terms, one designed more to avoid litigation than actually saving lives. By the way, what does saving a mortal life actually mean?

Across the board regardless of the category or crisis, human efforts of the religious and non-religious, of believers and non-believes, of the churched and the non-churched seem hell bent on making things better, on progressing to some better point, all in the hope at some point eventually to defy death through human determination. All these efforts and all this energy and all the associated exertion and expenditure, however, seem to have overlooked the fact that at best we may or may not be delaying death in a significant way.

In relation to what can and cannot be achieved by our sinful, human efforts, God has already done what none of our efforts could ever do. When God the Father sent God the Son into our broken, sinful world to be broken by our sin and killed on a cross, God did not proclaim the merits of human progress. Instead, the cross reveals the reality of all human efforts to achieve or acquire eternal life. In other words, all such human efforts are a dead end.

Jesus’ cross and resurrection have revealed to sinful humanity that God is not interested in progress, in us getting better bit by bit. Instead, God has delved into death to conquer death itself. In the cross, God put an end to all human efforts to better their lives in pursuit of eternal life. In the resurrection, God takes dead sinners and creates them anew and thereby grants them the image of his Son. This begins now in baptism, being killed and raised already in this life. The promise of the resurrection means that regardless of what happens in this life, we do not need to put life on hold. Instead, we are called to live life here and now to the fullest, as a gift, believing that something better, something more fulfilling, something more living has already been given to us in the life, death, and resurrection of the word made flesh, of Jesus Christ.

Keep Your Clothes On!

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians:

“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (II Corinthians 5:1-5).

As is common in the Bible, Paul is speaking in metaphors. We human beings often use figurative language to communicate complicated ideas. When we do so, however, the images which we use sometimes bring along with them connotations which are not helpful.

For example, in the passage above Paul talks about having a “building from God” which then becomes a tent which then seems to become clothing. The building is “eternal in the heavens” but is a tent in which we dwell without which we would be naked! That said, neither the building nor the tent nor the tent become clothing, if worn on earth, would prevent us from being naked in an earthly sense. If you think that this is all too risque, keep your clothes and your hat on too!

In a passage like this, Paul is speaking metaphorically chiefly about baptism. As Paul says in Galatians 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Does that mean through baptism that Jesus could launch home, camping, and clothing produce lines and secure a tidy prophet?

The Bible is full of ways of trying to describe and define the seemingly improbably if not impossible with pictures. How can one adequately or even rationally talk about the idea of God becoming a human being? How does one convincingly describe the Trinity, one God in three persons? What does it really mean in baptism when we say with Scripture that we have died and are raised to newness of life when it only appears that we are just a little wetter? Furthermore, Lutherans say that no matter who appears to be performing the baptism, it is really Jesus who is doing it. How can that be?

Similarly, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Lutherans confess that the bread and the wine are actually the body and blood of Jesus. Even though the bread and wine remain bread and wine, Jesus promises to be present in the bread and wine forgiving our sins. Furthermore, regardless of who is speaking the word of institution, i.e. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when he was betrayed …,” Lutherans say that Jesus is saying those words. How can that be?

In Matthew 10:40, Jesus says, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” In other words, or perhaps better, with the words from the Word incarnate, Jesus’s words create their own reality, just like the words of God at creation. When God speaks, it is true. It happens. God’s word by nature is promise, is reality.

This concept is very difficult for us to grasp because we know that human words are so often frail, fallible, and false. To confuse matters even worse, the same mouth which can speaking fallacies one moment, might be speaking God’s truthful promises the next. So, how do we know which words to believe and which words to reject? Sadly, we don’t, but God does.

In the his explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther writes,

“I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and to all who believe in Christ. This is most certainly true.”

Look at that opening line, “I believe that … I cannot believe…” All by ourselves, our own faith is at best a faith in our faithlessness – such a contradiction in terms! Luther continues, “But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel … just as he calls … the whole Christian church on earth…”

This is part of the good news, God calling us through the gospel. It is all God’s doing, done for us by God as a gift. In spite of ourselves and our sin, God brings Jesus’ words to us sinners through us sinners to proclaim his forgiveness of sins to us sinners. The Holy Spirit takes what appear to be human words and through them creates a divine, living faith in our dead hearts through our deaf ears. How does God make this happen? As Luther explains,

“It is God’s nature to make something out of nothing; hence one who is not yet nothing, out of him God cannot make anything. Man, however, makes something else out of that which exists; but this has no value whatever. Therefore God accepts only the forsaken, cures only the sick, gives sight only to the blind, restores life only to the dead, sanctifies only the sinners, gives wisdom only to the unwise. In short, He has mercy only on those who are wretched, and gives grace only to those who are not in grace” (WA 1:183-184). To which we can only, say, “Amen!” or maybe even, “Hallelujah!” That, however, might be just a little too exuberant for us Lutherans!

Luther on Law and Gospel

[The following paragraphs are taken from Luther’s 1535 Commentary on Galatians 2:14]

“Therefore whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian. I admit that in the time of temptation I myself do not know how to do this as I should. The way to distinguish the one from the other is to locate the Gospel in heaven and the Law on earth, to call the righteousness of the Gospel heavenly and divine and the righteousness of the Law earthly and human, and to distinguish as sharply between the righteousness of the Gospel and that of the Law as God distinguishes between heaven and earth or between light and darkness or between day and night. Let the one be like the light and the day, and the other like the darkness and the night. If we could only put an even greater distance between them! Therefore if the issue is faith, heavenly righteousness, or conscience, let us leave the Law out of consideration altogether and let it remain on the earth. But if the issue is works, then let us light the lamp of works and of the righteousness of the Law in the night. So let the sun and the immense light of the Gospel and of grace shine in the day, and let the lamp of the Law shine in the night….

“In society, on the other hand, obedience to the Law must be strictly required. There let nothing be known about the Gospel, conscience, grace, the forgiveness of sins, heavenly righteousness, or Christ Himself; but let there be knowledge only of Moses, of the Law and its works. When these two topics, the Law and the Gospel, are separated this way, both will remain within their limits. The Law will remain outside heaven, that is, outside the heart and the conscience; and, on the other hand, the freedom of the Gospel will remain outside the earth, that is, outside the body and its members. And just as soon as the Law and sin come into heaven, that is, into the conscience, they should be promptly ejected. For then the conscience should know nothing about the Law and sin but should know only about Christ. On the other hand, when grace and freedom come into the earth, that is, into the body, you must say: “You have no business here among the dirt and filth of this physical life. You belong in heaven!”

“Peter had confused this distinction between the Law and the Gospel, and thus he had persuaded the believers that they had to be justified by the Gospel and the Law together. This Paul refused to tolerate. Therefore he rebuked Peter. He did not want to put him to shame, but he wanted to separate these two very sharply again, namely, that the Law justifies on earth and the Gospel in heaven. But the pope has not only confused the Law with the Gospel; but he has changed the Gospel into mere laws, and ceremonial laws at that. He has also confused secular matters and church matters, which is really a satanic and infernal confusion.

“The knowledge of this topic, the distinction between the Law and the Gospel, is necessary to the highest degree; for it contains a summary of all Christian doctrine. Therefore let everyone learn diligently how to distinguish the Law from the Gospel, not only in words but in feeling and in experience; that is, let him distinguish well between these two in his heart and in his conscience. For so far as the words are concerned, the distinction is easy. But when it comes to experience, you will find the Gospel a rare guest but the Law a constant guest in your conscience, which is habituated to the Law and the sense of sin; reason, too, supports this sense” (LW 26:116-117).

Reopening Religious Services

The State of California has decreed that in-person religious service may resume with certain conditions and continued restrictions. In general, these guidelines and key prevention practices include:

✓ physical distancing to the maximum extent possible,

✓ use of face coverings by employees and volunteers (where respiratory protection is not required) and congregants/visitors,

✓ frequent handwashing and regular cleaning and disinfection,

✓ training employees and volunteers on these and other elements of the COVID-19 prevention plan.

Most members of St. Luke’s and of society are already familiar with these general principles. Nonetheless, St. Luke’s will be developing protocols to help ensure that the church resumes regular worship and other activities in a safe manner.

The church’s concern in this matter is primarily the health and well-being of its members, visitors, and the general public. Churches should be places of healing and care, the forgiveness of sin, and the promises of new life in Christ. So, working to keep everyone safe and sound is part of the church’s ethos and reason for being.

The church is also concerned to keep everyone safe and sound because society, and particularly the media, are becoming ever more hostile to Christians. Having the church become a “hotspot” for conronavirus infections would only confirm their antagonism towards the church. It is akin to the difference between a small airplane crash and a car accident. The media loves to report airplane accidents out of proportion. In comparison, they could generally care less about car accidents, unless someone drives into an airplane.

A third aspect to reopening general church activities is the disposition of each member or visitor. Some people due to health conditions, age, or other factors may be hesitant to return to church immediately. Others would have been here “yesterday” had they been able to avail themselves of the opportunity. The church supports its members and their decisions regarding their timing for returning.

In addition to the resumption of specifically faith-related activities, the church also has a number of business matters which need the congregation’s attention. Although it seems as if the world has closed down, and in many ways it has, the church’s business side has continued and is awaiting member input. The April congregational meeting was postponed and a special congregational meeting needs to take place. These will be scheduled most likely on Sunday, 07 June, after church services. Even if you may not want to attend church on that day, attending the meetings would be important. The congregational meetings can be held in the sanctuary if necessary to allow more space for people to congregate for the meeting.

Many other, important church activities will resume in a more gradual way. In March, WSL, academy classes, Sunday School, catechism classes, Bible studies, choir and other activities went dormant. Church leaders in each of these areas will be working to resume those services and activities in a measured way. Some of those may start earlier and others latter. The church council and activity leaders will be providing as much information as soon as possible. So, be on the look out for further information regarding resumption of services and activities in the coming days and weeks.

Finally, the church council is not certain that the church will be able to hold Vacation Bible School (VBS) the week of 13-17 July as originally anticipated. First, the La Mesa Flag Day Parade has been cancelled. So, one of our main advertising events is not available to us. Also, due to the uncertainty regarding reopening, the church has not been able to plan or prepare in a timely fashion. Finally, given the present circumstances, given the high amount of interpersonal interaction involved in VBS, the church is not certain how things like “social distancing” would be managed or even feasible.

On the bright side, this “coronavirus recess” has provided opportunity to reflect, take stock, and find different ways of doing things. If you have suggestions for the future of services and activities at St. Luke’s based on your experiences in the past few months, please let church leadership know.

Mark Menacher PhD. Pastor

Copyright © 1996-2021 Pastor Mark's Blog. All rights reserved.
Jarrah theme by Templates Next | Powered by WordPress