27 January 2014

Sasse on What Constitutes the Church

A fabulous quote from Hermann Sasse on what constitutes the Church:
The essence of the church is defined in purely theological terms by our confessions, and never anthropologically or sociologically. The church proceeds from God and not from men. Distinct from all other confessions, Lutheranism knows of only two notae ecclesiae ["marks of the church"]: the Word of God and the Sacrament. Where the Gospel is clearly and purely preached and the Sacraments are administered according to the institution of Christ, there is the church, there the church will be. The church is not constituted by any human qualities (not our faith or the holiness of our lives) nor by any sociological state of affairs (a particluar form of structuring the relationship of congregation and office of the ministry). The church is constituted only by the real presence of Jesus Christ the Lord, who in his Gospel and in the Sacraments is really and personally present. And through these he builds his congregation on earth. Everything else--our faith, our love, the external appearance of the congregation, its worship, its caring associations [Bruderschaft], its configuration as a legal organization--is a consequence of this church-constituting presence of Christ. (Hermann Sasse, "The Lutheran Confessions and the Volk," in The Lonely Way: Selected Essays and Letters, Volume I (1927-1939), 128-129.)

23 January 2014

Brit Hume: In Defense of Life

On January 22, 2014, Brit Hume, political analyst at Fox News, had some pointed and poignant things to say in defense of life. And he did it on the 41st anniversary of the despicable, evil Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion--the killing of innocent, unborn babies--in the U.S.

Some are calling Hume's commentary a "rant." Seriously? Let's call it what it truly is: an honest, incisive, and welcome defense of life.

Here's what Brit Hume said:

21 January 2014

Seeking the Approval of Men?

Horror of horrors! “American trust in clergy members hits new low.” So says an article at CBS-DC as it explains a recent Gallup poll. According to that Gallup poll, “Americans' rating of the honesty and ethics of the clergy has fallen to 47%, the first time this rating has dropped below 50% since Gallup first asked about the clergy in 1977. Clergy have historically ranked near the top among professions on this measure, hitting a high rating of 67% in 1985.”

Should such findings lead pastors to adapt how they serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry, or lead parishioners to be suspicious of the work and conduct of their pastors? While pastors certainly should take care to lead “a holy life,” they ought not seek the approval of men.

Reacting to the Poll
The CBS-DC article gives only a brief overview of the Gallup poll before extolling the “virtues,” according to the American mainstream media, of Pope Francis.

The Gallup poll states, “If views of a certain profession have changed, it usually has been a function of scandal surrounding it.” It then concludes: “The Catholic priest abuse stories from the early 2000s helped lead to a sharp drop in Americans’ ratings of clergy, a decline from which the profession has yet to fully recover.”

CBS-DC then contrasts that conclusion with Pope Francis, whom Time magazine named its 2013 “Person of the Year,” and who ostensibly “has changed the perception of the 2,000-year-old institution in an extraordinary way in a short time.”

In what way has Pope Francis supposedly changed that perception? CBS-DC claims, “he has urged the Catholic Church not to be obsessed with ‘small-minded rules’ and to emphasize compassion over condemnation in dealing with touchy topics like abortion, gays, and contraception.” Translation: In the eyes of the American mainstream media, Pope Francis seems to teach and work in a manner more copacetic with their thinking. (Whether Pope Francis really is changing the ways of the Roman Catholic Church remains to be seen and is beyond the scope of this post.)

So, let’s be cautious of such opinion polls. Such polls tell us more about the media who report them because, after all, positive or ordinary news rarely makes good headlines. Also, such polls may serve primarily to shape mindsets and only secondarily to report facts and trends. More than that, such polls also reveal what it takes to seek the “approval of man.”

Clergy Do Need to “Be Above Reproach”
That said, the recent Gallup poll can serve as a clarion call to all clergy, especially those of us who take our ordination vows seriously. One of the final questions asked of a man being ordained (and installed) in a Lutheran congregation is: “Will you honor and adorn the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy life?” (Lutheran Service Book: Agenda, p. 166, emphasis added) As the Gallup poll would indicate, there is always room, and need, for improvement.

St. Paul gives this instruction to those aspiring to and carrying out “the noble task” of “the office of overseer” (pastor):
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil (1 Timothy 3:1-7).
Ask any pastor, Lutheran or otherwise, and he will no doubt hear St. Paul’s words as a salutary, albeit unrealistic, ideal. “That’s such a high standard! Who can measure up? We clergy types are sinners, after all.” Indeed, we are! And yet we are not relieved of the solemn duty of honoring and adorning the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy (“set-apart-for-God’s-purposes”) life. St. Paul’s words still provide our sought-after “character description.”

The Gallup poll zeroes in on the priest abuse scandals of the early 2000s. We could easily add pastors divorcing their wives (or being divorced by their wives), clergy indulging in internet pornography, clergy quarreling with each other, or clergy being less than charitable on social media (see Pr. Joshua Scheer’s excellent article here). We could easily speak of a pastor spending so much time at the church or on various church-related matters that the congregation becomes his “wife,” his true wife feels like “the mistress,” and his children grow up virtually “fatherless.”

When opinion polls suggest that trust in clergy, especially in matters of honor and ethics, is on the decline, pastors most certainly should listen up. St. Paul reminds us that a clergyman “must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” Yes, brother pastors, people are watching. Just as children learn much by the example of their parents, so also people in the church and in society learn much by the example of the clergy.

Yes, clergy truly are poor, miserable sinners who sin in thought, word, and deed. They fall short of the glory of the “noble task” of their office. And they too—perhaps more than most!—need and receive the forgiveness of sins brought into the world by the Savior who reveals Himself as “God in man made manifest.” That same Incarnate Lord Jesus died and shed His innocent blood to redeem sinful, faltering pastors. That very forgiveness of sins—and trusting it with heart, soul, strength, and mind—enables pastors to “honor and adorn the Office of the Holy Ministry with a holy life.”

“Do Not Be Surprised!”
Having admitted our pastoral shortcomings and relied on Christ’s cross-won forgiveness, let’s also encourage our pastors. The Gallup poll serves as a call to repentance, yes, but it need not compel us to seek “the approval of man.” As St. Paul exemplifies for us in Galatians 1:10, we do not seek the approval of men, especially by way of opinion polls. Instead, we seek the approval of God Himself.

John the Baptist serves as prime encouragement for pastors. Crowds were flocking to John to hear him preach and to be baptized by him. Then along came Jesus the Christ. According to John 3:25-30, some of John’s own disciples worried that many were leaving John in order to follow the “new guy,” Jesus. To the naked eye, John’s approval ratings were dropping. John, though, saw things differently. He said, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27) and then he reaffirmed that he was not the Christ. Then come John’s immortal words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

A faithful, Gospel-centered, Christ-preaching pastor receives only what is given by God, both in his call to shepherd the flock and in his “approval.” A faithful, Gospel-preaching, Christ-centered pastor need not be worried about the approval of man-made opinion polls. Rather, that faithful pastor must actually decrease in order that Savior Jesus may increase.

Jesus Himself encourages pastors by alerting them to the fact that they will not do well in approval polls. He said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). The world may hate, or at least be suspicious of, faithful pastors, but our Lord Jesus chooses faithful pastors “out of the world.”

Finally, let’s encourage pastors with St. Paul’s words:
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God (1 Corinthians 4:1-5).
Pastors are called, not to be successful or approved by men, but rather to be faithful—faithful as Christ’s servants, eager to be approved by Him and Him alone. Pastors are called to be stewards (managers, administrators) of God’s “mysteries,” His Word and Sacraments.

Notice how St. Paul does not even judge (render an approval poll on) himself! He knows that pastoral work is done “in secret,” so to speak. Pastors do not know their successes or failures until the Last Day. In fact, we can even say that God actually hides pastors’ successes in order to keep them from pride.

The truth of the matter is that pastors are not called to be successful in the eyes of society or the media, nor are they called to rank high in cultural, media-driven opinion polls. Rather, pastors are called to be “God’s men,” faithful to Him in proclaiming the message of His salvation accomplished through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

For faithful pastors, the only “approval poll” that truly matters will come on the Last Day and from the lips of our Lord Jesus:
“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).

Homily for Epiphany 2

"Glory in the Wine"
Text: John 2:1-11

Christmas and New Year’s have come and gone. The holiday excitement is over. Back to the ho-hum, hum-drum, everyday life. The whole month of January seems like one huge Monday. We’d much rather hit the snooze button, curl up under the toasty blankets, and go back to sleep—for the whole month. What could there be to celebrate now that the celebration has come and gone? Have all the Christmas and New Year’s parties left us too pooped to party anymore?

Our Lord’s miracle at the wedding at Cana gives us reason to celebrate when other celebrations seem to be long gone. Just think of what it must have been like for Mary, the mother of our Lord. She knew what “Christmas” was all about. She knew her Son was more than special. He was the Savior, the Son of God. He was much more than a cute little baby. He was the glory of Israel, the light for the Gentiles. The angel told her what to expect. The shepherds proclaimed the good news to her when her Son was born. Simeon and Anna saw and praised the Infant Savior. The Magi bowed down before her small Child. All this celebrating caused her to pause and ponder these events in her heart.

No doubt Mary’s “after-Christmas-let-down” went well beyond January. About 30 years passed. No more visits from angels, no more grand proclamations. As the Child grew, there was little indication that He was any different from the other kids in Nazareth. He grew up, He played, He went to school, He worshipped with His family. He led a typical Jewish life. All the Christmas excitement was followed by a 30-year Monday morning. You can just imagine how Mary must have felt.

So Mary is anxious for the “true meaning of Christmas” to be revealed. “When is He going to show who He really is?” she must have asked herself. She had sung about her Son as the One who “has filled the hungry with good things.” When was He going to get on with it? The wedding banquet at Cana seemed like the perfect time. The caterers ran out of wine. A social disgrace! Either they had more guests than expected, or the guests drank much more than they planned, or both. What a glad time! The wine was the perfect opportunity for the Christ to reveal Himself!

Mary would have remembered the Old Testament prophecies from her catechism classes. The Old Testament prophecies used wine to talk about the blessings of the Messiah. The Savior would bring the wine of prosperity and celebration. Jeremiah said that nations would flock to Zion and drink the wine of God’s goodness (Jer. 31:12). Amos said that when the day of salvation came the mountains would drip with sweet wine, the hills would overflow with it (Amos 9:13-14). With this in mind, Mary expected Jesus to show Himself to be the Savior. The shortage of wine would be the perfect opportunity.

But there was one glitch with Mary’s plan. It was not yet Jesus’ time. Jesus wouldn’t show Himself—fully, anyway—to be the Savior until Good Friday—the day of the cross. Mary would have to wait another three years, when her Savior Son would be lifted up and glorified on a tree of bloody execution. But in the meantime, Jesus would grant a glimpse, a sneak-peak, of His glory. He would give a foretaste of the feast to come!

You would think the promises of God would have been enough for Mary. She should have simply trusted God to reveal Himself in His way and in His time. But she was sinful, just like us. She wanted proof. She wanted results. She wanted it now. And we are like Mary. We don’t trust God the way we should. We turn Jesus into an idol. We expect Him to work according to our wishes. We are impatient. We want action. We want to see results in the church’s labors. We want excitement. And we want it all right now. Psalm 66 teaches us to sing and pray and thank God for His awesome deeds. He does do them. But, honestly, we haven’t believed it or relied on it.

It’s hard for us to glory in the glad wine of salvation that Jesus brings. Just as they did at the Cana wedding banquet, we’ve run out of our own wine. We’ve used up all our own resources. We’ve left ourselves “high ‘n’ dry.” Instead of joy and celebration in life, we have anger and frustration, sadness and disappointment. Instead of tipping the cup of God’s goodness and saying, “Cheers, God!”, we wring our hands with despair and worry. And it’s our own sinful fault. We mess up as we try to rely on ourselves. We’re always messing up—in our marriages and families, in our work or at school, in all the plain, ordinary activities of life. The wine of gladness runs dry. Careless words slip out or spew out. Thoughtless remarks—from ourselves or from others—vex us. We hurt the ones we love the most. We bring sadness on our own heads.

And if that weren’t enough, we run around like mad trying to make our own wine and find our own joy. We try many quick fixes to conjure up joy in ourselves. We even rely on ourselves—on our own good intentions, on our own upbeat moods—to bring gladness to our sadness and joy to our dreary life. But you cannot find the joy within yourself. You won’t find true, lasting gladness in your circumstances of life. You’re out of wine. The celebration seems to be over.

So, we like Mary, must look outside ourselves. We must look to Christ for the joy and gladness that He brings. “Dear Lord, we are out of wine. We can’t make it on our own. We need your help.” So we turn to Jesus who reveals His glory to us now in His holy Word and blessed Sacraments. Here He soothes our impatience. Here He fills us with the glad wine of His forgiveness.

When Jesus turns water into wine, He is revealing His glory. Truly an epiphany! Our Lord gives a brief flash of His presence to save us and make us glad. You see, Jesus’ time would come later, on Good Friday. Even now we in the Church begin looking forward to Holy Week, to Good Friday, the day and hour of the Lord’s salvation.

In John’s Gospel wine shows up only at two events—first, at the wedding of Cana, and second, at the cross. First, Jesus provides gallons and gallons of joyous wine to gladden people’s hearts. Second, Jesus drinks the bitter wine of God’s wrath—He drains the cup, bitter dregs and all! Now, that’s what truly gladdens the heart! As Isaiah put it, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Is. 62:5). Jesus drank up God’s wrath for you. Now God delights in you. So you get to drink up that Good News from now to eternity!

It’s no accident that Jesus turned purification water into wedding wine of gladness. This illustration gets us ready for the cross. The blood that flowed from Jesus’ sacred veins fills our empty cup. Now our cup runs over with gladness. For “the blood of Jesus [God’s] Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7). Now Jesus “nourishes and cherishes” His bride the Church (Eph. 5:29).

What’s even better than the miracle at Cana is the miracle that happens at the altar every week. Here we get to glory in the wine of Jesus’ Supper. The Blood that purifies the soul is in the wine that gladdens the heart. Since we are empty of our own wine—empty of joy but full of sadness and heartache and frustration and lovelessness—the place to come is the Lord’s Table. Here He fills you with the wine of His delight. Here He reveals to you the glory of His presence. Here He gladdens your hearts with the same blood shed from the cross, with the same forgiveness won on the cross.

Epiphany is about Jesus revealing Himself as the Savior—God in Man made manifest. In Cana He revealed His glory in the wine of celebration. On the cross He revealed His glory in shedding His own innocent blood. Today, for you and for your life of gladness, He reveals His glory again in wine and again with His cleansing Blood. Here’s reason to celebrate! Here’s reason to glory in the wine! Here’s the Lord who makes us glad! Here the Lord fills to the brim our cup of salvation! Here we have a foretaste of the feast to come! The celebration is far from over. It’s just beginning. It’s ongoing. Your Lord Jesus makes sure of it! Amen.