A Sermon for Good Friday 2015
But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
We’ve all been there, and if you haven’t yet, you will be. I’m speaking, of course, of the deathbed of a loved one.
A few weeks ago, I was visiting a dear friend in the hospital with some brother pastors. We were there to sing hymns for our beloved professor, and it was great visit. But as we were leaving his room, a woman about my age came up and quietly asked whether we might be able to come to her mother’s room and sing there as well. So we did. Her mother was ninety-two. She was frail and unconscious, clearly nearing the end. And there at her deathbed, she was surrounded by her many children and grandchildren. The family was all there. And so was Jesus. You see, Jesus takes care of his family.
St. John is the only writer to record this intimate account of Jesus caring for his mother. The only other place where Mary is mentioned in John’s Gospel is at the very beginning, at the wedding at Cana, where she is alerted to the impending shortage of wine and tells Jesus, who replies: “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” And yet Mary tells the wine stewards in faith: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:4). You see, Mary knew that Jesus takes care of his family.
Mary knew that from the very beginning, when the angel spoke into her ears the incredible news of a child to be conceived in her womb by the power of the Most High, a child who would be called “holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). And Mary’s faith received those words from the Lord, and the Son of God was thereby conceived in her womb. As we confess of Jesus,
“. . . conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate
was crucified, died and was buried . . .” (Apostles’ Creed)
You see, Mary also knew of the pain that would come to her infant son. For at Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple at forty days old, Old Man Simeon had prophesied: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel . . . and a sword will pierce through your own soul also . . .” (Luke 2:34–35).
Here, at Calvary, when Jesus’ hour had finally come, that “dagger to the heart” came to Mary also, as she beheld the son she once cradled in her arms—now beaten, mocked, and crucified as a common criminal, bleeding, and dying in agony. Yet, in the midst of all of that, Jesus took care of his family.
And Jesus takes care of you, too. For Mary and the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” are a picture of you and me, a picture of Christ’s holy church, his family. “I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus promised his disciples (John 14:18). And he has not left you abandoned and alone in your sin. He has not left you alone to face death. He will not leave you alone at the deathbed of your loved one. And he will not leave you alone at own deathbed. For Jesus has already passed through death, for you. By his death and resurrection, Jesus has swallowed up death forever in victory (Is. 25:8; 1 Cor. 15:54). And through your Baptism, you have been buried with him into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, you too might walk in newness of life. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:4–5).
Jesus takes care of his family. As he took care of Mary and John at the foot of the cross, so also takes care of you and me, His Church. For “that same heart which began to beat in Mary’s womb and had been silenced on the cross, once again began to beat in that cold dark tomb, and it still beats to this very day. It still beats for you and me” (O.P. Kretzmann).
The following report was presented by President James Baneck at the LCMS North Dakota District Convention, January 18–21, 2015, in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you (I Peter 1:3-4).
You might consider it rather trivial as to choosing a convention theme, but I take it rather seriously. Representatives from our district come together but once every three years, and if we’re going to take the time and expense to be together as Lutherans, then it should be for good reason under a good theme and focus for worship, for study, and for mission and ministry for the next three years in our great North Dakota District.
I believe our current Synod convention theme is quite genius – Baptized for this Moment. But as I look back at the last three years of our district triennium, there have been a number of ongoing discussions that led me to refine “Baptized for this Moment” to “Lutheran for this Moment.”
One ongoing discussion involved the five Holy Communion Conversations I led throughout the District. These conversations proved to me that our people are hungry for the Word – as every event had 50-70 people in attendance. And yet, there were some who became rather indignant against Scripture concerning our Lord’s teaching on His holy supper.
Another ongoing discussion involves conflict situations in the congregation where the circuit visitor and I strive to move the congregation toward reconciliation. While in various discussions, it troubles me of the lack of a basic catechetical understanding of basic Christian truths, especially from those who have neglected to be in the study of God’s Word.
And one final ongoing discussion gave me reason to stop and reflect greatly on what it means to be Lutheran for this Moment. The phrase “Lutheran DNA” came to the surface – and many stared at that phrase like deer in headlights, wondering what it meant. Perhaps we should not mix words of science with words of theology, but the phrase does force us to ask a couple very important questions, like “What is Lutheranism” and “what does it mean to be Lutheran?” I would imagine most of us would feel fairly comfortable with the phrase “Lutheran DNA,” as long as we’re the ones who get to define what it means. Have we come to a point where each of us gets to define, or re-define, what it means to be Lutheran? Have we come to a point where “everyone does what is right in his own eyes?” (Judges 21:25)
I would maintain that there is a Lutheran DNA. There is that something that encodes who we are as we develop and function as God’s people. To be a Lutheran Christian is unique and distinct from any other brand of Christianity or religion. I am a Lutheran because I believe it is the most correct confession of faith in this sinful and fallen world. I have instructed children and adults, that when they are making their confirmation vows, they too are giving public witness that the Lutheran confession of faith is the most correct on this earth, and that if they did not believe that, then they should go to the church that is more correct – because this is about their soul and their eternal life.
First and foremost, the Lutheran Church is a Christological Church. Certainly, we believe and confess the Holy Trinity; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe there is one God in three persons. However, with the fall into sin and damnation, apart from the person and work of Jesus Christ, you and I would have no salvation, and hell would be our eternal home. As Lutherans, we fix our eyes on Jesus, who is the Word made flesh, who comes to dwell among us. This is the Divine Logos. He became our sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we would be made righteous and holy and pure in the sight of the eternal God.
Our Lutheran DNA is loaded up front with Christ, and everything He is and does. Lutherans believe in the holy incarnation and holy nativity of Christ for a reason. Lutherans believe in the baptism, fasting, and temptation of Christ for a reason. Lutherans believe in the agony and bloody sweat of Christ, His cross and passion, and His precious death and burial for a reason. Lutherans believe in the glorious resurrection and ascension of Christ for a reason. Because in Him we are justified, made right with God, forgiven of all our sins, and promised and secured the gift of eternal life.
Searching the Scriptures concerning Christ’s three-fold office as prophet, priest, and king… concerning Christ’s power to share attributes from his divine nature to his human nature… concerning Christ’s fulfillment of every prophesy spoken of Him to the most minute detail concerning Christ’s ability to put Himself into the water of Baptism in the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion… concerning the mystery of Christ taking your damnation and giving you His righteousness… concerning His person and work to turn us blind, dead, and enemies of God into His holy people – THIS IS OUR LIVING HOPE!
What I have described to you is a part of our distinctively Lutheran DNA. Rome teaches that a person must do good works to earn salvation, to which the Confessions conclude, then there is no need for Christ. The Reformed Church teaches that Christ has done some of the saving work, but you have to do the rest. Some church bodies teach that Jesus is one way to heaven, but not the only way.
Jesus taught that He was the Bread of Life, Manna from Heaven, and that those who eat of His flesh and drink of His blood shall have eternal life. Then St. John tells us that when many of his disciples heard this, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” And After this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” And Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” And after Jesus’ ascension, Peter and John stand before the Council, he said, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) No one else teaches, believes, or confesses Christ the way we do.
Martin Luther says it this way in the Smalcald Articles, “The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification. This is necessary to believe. Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine.” Dear friends – CHRISTOLOGY IS PRIME IN OUR LUTHERAN DNA.
The Lutheran Church is also a Scriptural Church. In his letter to Pope Leo X, titled “The Freedom of the Christian,” Luther writes, “One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God. The soul can do without anything except the Word of God and that where the Word of God is missing there is no help at all for the soul.” Those are pretty sobering words for the Lutheran who does not go to church or for the Lutheran who refuses to learn the Holy Scriptures, that which makes one wise unto salvation.
No football team, no food for the stomach, no automobile, no piece of technology, no ego, no worldly power – can feed your faith and life at all. Only God’s Word can do that. And why should we trust mere words? More than being the inerrant, infallible Word of God – the Holy Scriptures is the very living breath of the Triune God that strikes dead the sinner and raises to new life the repentant.
And yet, while we claim the authority of the Word, we wonder who has the authority to interpret the Word. The Pope says he alone has the authority to interpret God’s Word. Time and again, I have heard people confidently acknowledge that they have every right to interpret God’s Word in a way that suits them best. Whole church denominations gather around the Bible, read a passage, and each says, “This is what this verse means to me” – allowing for a whole assortment of wrongs that damages the soul.
Lutherans interpret the Scriptures as Jesus describes in John 5, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; but it is they that bear witness about me.” Lutherans interpret the Scriptures through the lens of Jesus Christ, as we call this our hermeneutical key. So – when we study the Scriptures concerning salvation, we come out at a different place than Rome and their works-righteousness. We believe… through Christ – we are saved by grace alone through faith alone.
When we study the Scriptures concerning the end times, we come out at a different place than the Evangelicals and their millennialism. We believe… through Christ – we live in the end times now and He will come again on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead.
When we study the Scriptures concerning Baptism, we end up at a different place than the Baptists and their age of accountability. We believe… through Christ – we are washed of our sins at infancy.
When we study the Scriptures concerning the office of the holy ministry, we end up at a different place than the ELCA and women’s ordination. We believe… through Christ – the pastor represents the God-man Christ to His people on earth.
When we study the Scriptures on creation, we end up in a different place than Rome, the Episcopal Church, the ELCA, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, and Methodism – with their teaching on evolution. Through Christ – the world was created in six 24-hour days.
And when we study the Scriptures concerning the Scriptures, we end up at a different place than liberalism and historical criticism. We believe… through Christ – the Word made Flesh who comes to dwell among us pours His inerrant, infallible, inspired Word of life and salvation into our ears and soul.
As a Scriptural Church, the Lutheran Church has fought and defended this strand of our DNA in the early 1970’s walk-out in St. Louis – coming out in the end of confessing the inerrancy of Scripture. During the sermons and Bible studies in this convention, every Sunday-morning sermon, the various Bible studies offered to God’s people – this is not extra-curricular or optional for the Christian – this is how Jesus gets into our ears and souls – through His holy, powerful, life-saving Word. There is no doubt – being a Scriptural Church is a part of our Lutheran DNA.
The Lutheran Church is a Sacramental Church. Being a sacramental church is more than just having sacraments in the church. But let’s start there. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes, “This is how one should regard us [as apostles or pastors], as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (I Corinthians 4:1). … Stewards of the μυστηριϖν of Christ. This word “μυστηριϖν” is the Greek word for “Sacraments.”
The question and answer part of Luther’s Small Catechism tells us that “At first, this word μυστηριϖν described all the saving truths of the faith, such as the Trinity, the incarnation, the redemption, and the church. Later it was narrowed down to this: A Sacrament is a saving act instituted by God in which God Himself has joined His Word of promise to a visible element, and by which He offers, gives, and seals the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ.
The Lutheran Church thrives and lives off of predominately two Sacraments – Holy Baptism and The Lord’s Supper, however the Confessions would readily include Confession and Absolution as well. These Sacraments are our life-blood, rather, Christ’s lifeblood coming to and in us. Baptism is the initiation into the eternal family of God. Here our sins are washed away and we are robed with Christ’s righteousness. This Sacrament is no way a dedication of a person toward God, but rather in every way this Sacrament is God pouring Himself over, in, and through the damned child of God, making Him righteous and holy in God’s sight. Holy Communion is the ongoing gift of Christ’s body and blood given to the repentant sinner for the absolute forgiveness of sins and eternal life, even as His blood now marks our door and death passes over.
Lutherans confess that these Sacraments is who they now are in Christ Jesus every single day of our lives – as daily we die with Christ in our Old Man and we rise with Him in our New Man. The power of Baptism is so strong that it even goes even to the grave with us – the deposit of Christ that keeps our remains to the day of the resurrection of the flesh when Christ calls us alive again.
Being a sacramental church is more than just having sacraments in the church. Being a sacramental church confesses and testifies to the truth that Christ is Immanuel, that He is “God with us” in His Very Presence – just for you! When water and the Word is poured over you – all of the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God washes over you and daily bathes you to be pure and holy as He is. When the bread and wine connected with the very Word of God goes into your mouth – the full infant, crucified, and risen God surges into your body, soul, and life. This kind of presence kills and damns the impenitent, but heals, forgives, and recreates the repentant in Christ Jesus.
Being a Sacramental Church is uniquely Lutheran. Rome teaches a sacrament that is ex opera operato – meaning man is doing the work, man’s work and sacrifice toward God. The Reformed and Calvinists Churches do not hold to the Sacraments at all, but rather believe that God is Sovereign, out there somewhere, but not Immanuel (God with us) for me! In you!
Lutherans do not hide the Sacraments to bring in seekers from the world; they teach and reveal the Sacraments so that the seekers desire the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. Lutherans do not bring out the sacrament for special occasions or limit it for the sake of time, but they eat this ordinary eternal ongoing meal at every chance and as often as it is served. Lutherans do not push aside the font, but keep it front and center or back and center so that we can run into our baptism as often as possible. Being a Sacramental Church is a part of our Lutheran DNA.
The Lutheran Church is a Confessional Church. You may very well be familiar with Luther’s famous words to the Emperor of Europe, Charles V. At the Diet of Worms, Luther was ordered to recant his writings and teachings, and up against the entire Roman Church, the Emperor, and the Devil himself, Luther confesses, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”
This is the confession of every pastor, and for that matter, every Lutheran. At every ordination, at every installation, and even those sworn into office at the end of this convention will make confession of their Lutheran faith by publically accepting the statement and exposition of the Word of God as stated in the three ecumenical creeds and the Book of Concord.
We confess that we hold to the entire Lutheran Confessions because they are faithful to the Scriptures, not insofar as they are faithful to the Scriptures. As a confessional church, there are some things we believe, teach, and confess. And, there are some things we reject and condemn. To say you are Lutheran means you hold to all the articles of faith in the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, The Smacald Articles, The Power and the Primacy of the Pope, The Small and Large Catechisms, and the Epitome and Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord. We don’t pick and choose, rather, as Lutherans we say, “Here I stand.”
Being a Confessional Lutheran is to be Lutheran. It’s not an adjective to be ridiculed. It’s not a stereotype to be mocked. It’s not a title of which we need to be ashamed. Reading and studying the Confessions is good, right, and salutary for clergy and laity alike. It is the standard of Biblical confession we teach our children and pray into the dying. It is the standard of Biblical confession we preach from the pulpit and live in our lives. It is the standard of Biblical confession in times of disaster, war, and persecution. Being a confessional church is a part of our Lutheran DNA.
The Lutheran Church is also a Homiletical Church, which mean that we are a preaching Church. Preaching Christ, interpreting the Scriptures, speaking God’s Word in the ears and souls of the hearer, shaping Lutherans for generations to come – is all a part of being a homiletical church. Preaching is vital and it is important. Preaching is not child’s play – neither for the preacher nor for the hearer. Preaching takes a lot of work. Whether from the pulpit or the table around the Bible Study – the pastor is shaping and forming the Christian for faith and life. It involves clear, sharp, and penetrating law. It involves pure, precise, and applicable Gospel. The sermon kills the sinner and raises the penitent. It strips away all self-righteousness and clothes the hearer with the righteousness of Christ.
One of the fundamental components of preaching is pastoral care. The sermon certainly begins with Christ and the Scriptures. It is difficult, however, for the shepherd to intersect with the faith and life of the hearer if he does not know his sheep. As the pastor visits his sheep throughout the week, he learns of their worries, he is made aware of their temptations. He interacts with the troubled marriages and the new mother and her infant child. He sits at the kitchen table with his shut-in, which he sees is becoming more and more feeble with every visits. He sees the fear in the eyes of the usually grumpy member who is now receiving his fifth chemo treatment. He interacts with the youth and sees how they think. He visits the quilters and observes their joy of serving. The list goes on. And when he’s preaching about the Good Samaritan, the Widow at Nain, Abraham who is to sacrifice his son, or Jesus who rises from the dead – the pastor speaks God’s Word into the ears of His people for their faith and life.
And under the pastor are all the auxiliary offices of the church – the Lutheran School Teacher, the DCE, the Deaconess, the Sunday School Teacher, and more. From the pastor’s Christological, Biblical, Sacramental, Confessional preaching, teaching, and pastoral care, these auxiliary offices work with the pastor in Lutheran education, mercy care, working with our youth and families, caring for the aged. Being a homiletical (or preaching) church is a part of our Lutheran DNA.
The Lutheran Church is also a Liturgical Church. Who can deny that being a liturgical church is our history? It’s in our roots and it’s been a part of who we are for decades and centuries. While the liturgy is not our hermeneutic, our hermeneutic does guide and form our liturgy. Martin Luther definitely held to the liturgy of the Church – there is a whole volume of Luther’s Works devoted to this one topic, Volume 53. I contend that what Luther espoused concerning the liturgy in the Lutheran Church would make our liturgical guys look reformed.
The liturgy is meant to do a number of things. First of all, it places us in the right relationship with God, primarily God coming to His people with His gifts of Word and Sacrament, thus Divine Service. God needs nothing that we would offer Him, but we are beggars in need of everything that God offers and gives us, that is, forgiveness of sins, His holy Word, the preached Word, His blessed meal, just to name a few.
The liturgy also teaches the faith – the Advent of Christ in the Kyrie, the nativity of Christ in the Gloria, the Epiphany of Christ in the Creed, the Passion of Christ in the Agnus Dei, and the resurrection of Christ in the Sanctus. The colors, the vestments, the candles, the stain glass windows, the songs, the lectionary, the cross – is all meant to teach the faith. Whenever a custom and high liturgy is demanded – that is legalism. Whenever a diet of theologically reformed songs are sung – this is heterodox. While adiaphora is a topic of our confessions, yet the unity of life and practice is also.
Being a liturgical church does not force a certain hymnal or specified orders of service, and yet the Church works and lives together in “striving for uniformity in church practice, yet also to develop an appreciation of a variety of responsible practices and customs which are in harmony with our common profession of faith.” The church service is not about the pastor and his likes and his whims, but rather about Christ and His gifts and grace to His people.
One of the words used often in the Confessions related to the Mass is the word “reverence.” Another is the word “dignity.” The Divine Service is not the adoration of a sports hero in a public arena, rather it is Moses taking off his shoes at the very presence of God in the burning bush. Lutheran liturgy reflects the posture of creature standing in the presence of the creator; the sinner standing in the presence of the Redeemer; the unholy standing in the presence of the Sanctifier. Melanchthon writes in the Augsburg Confession, “Therefore, since the Mass (the liturgy) among us follows the example of the Church, taken from the Scripture and the Fathers, we are confident that it cannot be disapproved. This is especially so because we keep the public ceremonies, which are for the most part similar to those previously in use” (Art. XXIV). While the church on earth may continue to debate what it means to be liturgical, being a liturgical church is a part of our Lutheran DNA.
We have come together at the convention as a unique group of Lutherans called “The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.” As a district in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, we say that we are “synod in this place.” Within this context, we, who have come together in this place, are a Synodical Church. “Synod” means, “walking together.”
What did the Synod founders of the Articles of Incorporation on July 3, 1894 have in mind? The founders of Synod had in mind “to unite in a corporate body of Evangelical Lutheran congregations that acknowledge and remain true to the Book of Concord, to establish Lutheran congregations and preaching stations, to provide for ecclesiastical supervision of congregations and pastors, to support the establishment of theological institutions and institutions of higher learning, to spread the Gospel, and to provide resources for congregations. This is walking together to build one of the most influential and dynamic church bodies in the world with her theology, education, mercy, and more.
Being a part of Synod, or a member of Synod is voluntary. And yet, upon this voluntary membership, a pastor or congregation does indeed agree to walk together as we have charted our map with our Constitution and Bylaws. It is interesting, that even in this convention, we have no resolutions concerning Christ, or Scripture, or the Sacraments, or the Confessions, homiletics, or even the liturgy. Our resolutions come at this Synod level of the church with electing officers, talking about a business manager, and defining our outcomes of Witness, Mercy, and Life Together as a unified direction for our district.
There’s no doubt, we’ve had our speedbumps, bruises, and all-out battles in this Church body. Some of our Synod presidents have had nervous breakdowns, we’ve battled over the doctrine of election, the authority of Scripture, and worship. We’ve slung mud with labels such as bureaucrat, collared-guys, and liberals. And yet, we are the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Some have called us the sleeping giant. Others have called upon us for giant help in time of disaster. Church bodies all around the world are contacting us, saying, “what you have theologically, we want ” – Churches like Madagascar and Ethiopia with millions of Lutherans. We have some of the best pastors, educators, missionaries, teachers, and laymen with a host of vocations in the world – by the grace and equipping of the Triune God. Being a Synodical Church is a part of our Lutheran DNA.
And finally, we are a Missional Church. Missional is determined, directed, and influenced by all those preceding it. Missional does not define Christ; Christ defines missional. Missional does not define our Confessions; our Confessions define missional, and so on.
Being a Missional Church places us in the second table of the law. This is our love toward our neighbor. This is our mercy care at home, in our community, and all around the world. This is our auxiliaries in their superb work of “aiding the Synod, specifically in programs that extend the ministry and mission of the Synod.” This is every Christian in his/her vocation as a child of God in whom Christ dwells.
Missional doesn’t start here, but it finds its fruition from the beginning – that is Christ. Missional is shaped by the Holy Scriptures. Missional is the urgency to have the unbaptized baptized and the faithful communing at the Table of the Lord. Missional is defined by our Confessions. Missional is preaching the Word of Christ into the ears of God’s people. Missional is the passion to have all people stand in the liturgy of heaven, singing, “Worthy is Lamb who was slain.” And Missional is the ongoing activity of our Synod, described in the very objectives of our Church body’s constitution. Being a Missional Church is a part of our Lutheran DNA.
Being Lutheran for this moment is important stuff. And we have some pretty important Lutheran stuff to hear, discuss, and decide here in this convention. We will hear from campus ministry and the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League. We will hear of the work of the Lutheran Laymen’s League and the Lutheran Extension Fund. We will hear from Shepherd’s Hill Camp and mercy care at Grafton State School. We will hear from our Lutheran Elementary Schools and development work in our District. We will decide on matters of Kenya, and Chile, and term limits. We will decide matters of church starts and Sudanese ministry. None of these things are autonomous or independent in and of themseles. They all come through the strands of our DNA. Each entity, every decision, our thought process and our words, our work together and our individual congregations – they all come through the DNA strands of our Christology, Holy Scripture, the Very Presence of Christ in His Sacraments, our Lutheran Confessions, our homiletics (or our preaching and teaching), the Liturgy of the Church, our life together as Synod, and our missional faith and life.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we are indeed Baptized for this moment. And I am convinced that we are Lutheran for this moment. And while I understand the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saint, yet we are not Roman Catholic for this Moment. We are not Calvinsts for this Moment. We are not Pietists or legalists for this Moment. We are not The Emerging Church or the Evangelicals for this Moment. We are not Methodists or ELCA for this Moment.
We are Lutheran for this moment, and I believe being Lutheran is a very, very good and vital thing. I pray that we leave this convention with great Lutheran integrity – that we BE who we say we are! I pray that we return to our congregations with great Lutheran faithfulness – that we DO what we say we are! I pray that our Witness, Mercy, and Life Together in this new triennium will be lived out in Lutheran excellence – that we EXCEL at what we say we are.
Fellow Lutherans, Fellow Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod brothers and sisters in Christ, Fellow North Dakota District Baptized Children in Jesus Christ – YOU AND I ARE BAPTIZED LUTHERANS FOR THIS MOMENT! We are Christological, Scriptural, Sacramental, Confessional, Holimetical, Liturgical, Synodical, and Missional Lutherans for this Moment! Amen.
The German evangelical journal IDEA conducted the following interview with The Rev. Hans-Jörg Voigt, Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany.
On October 31, Protestant Christianity celebrates Reformation Day. This is in remembrance of the start of the Reformation with Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg (a town between Berlin and Leipzig in the Province of Saxony-Anhalt). What is the significance of the Reformation today? Here an interview with Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of the SELK in his office in Hannover. The interviewer was Karsten Huhn.
IDEA: Bishop, you lead a rather unusual church. Liturgically the SELK is almost catholic; its organizational form is that of a free church; and spiritually you try to be more Lutheran than the Lutherans.
Voigt: I do not consider ourselves to be unusual. But I can understand that people are somewhat astonished. Yes, our worship services are quite liturgical. But we also use some newer forms of worship; but that is more a case of normality and exception. Financially we are organized as a free church: We do not participate in the church tax system; rather we depend on free-will offerings. Our synodical and episcopal structure is not typical for a free church. And whether we are more Lutheran than other churches? We attempt to organize our spiritual life in accordance with the Lutheran Confessions. We respect them as fully adequate expositions of the Holy Scriptures.
IDEA: You are theologically very conservative. For instance, you celebrate the Lord’s Supper exclusively with wine and you attach great value to confession and absolution (Beichte). And the SELK is one of the few churches in Germany that steadfastly refuses to have women serve in the Office of the Ministry.
Voigt: The facts you stated are correct. But likely a number of our congregations would bridle at being referred to as “very conservative.” We are indeed dealing with the questions of our time and we openly discuss them – and that also includes the question of women’s ordination. But we attempt to take seriously the message of the Holy Scriptures. For many of these questions the Bible is the critical guide in regard to what many people think and believe today. And we have to live with that tension.
IDEA: Possibly women’s ordination in the SELK is but a question of time. In 2006 you were elected Bishop by a vote of 42 to 40. The other candidate had confessed himself to be in favour of women’s ordination.
Voigt: We are discussing this question very openly in our church. This debate shows how we are wrestling with the truth. But the core issue is: What is our understanding of the ministerial office? The service of word and sacrament is a special ministry, and for it you need the gift of the Holy Spirit through ordination and a proper call. In this question the SELK is part of the majority worldwide, just consider the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches. In this regard we are not as lonely as people like to assume in Germany. We are, of course, convinced that the equality of women is a great progress in society and we attempt to practice that in our church. Thus we have established the office of Pastoral Deaconess (Pastoralreferentin), with a qualification equal to that of the pastors and with the same salary. But according to our understanding preaching and administering the sacraments requires ordination. These functions are carried out in God’s name and by his command, “as if God’s very voice would sound from heaven,” as the Augsburg Confession of 1530 puts it.
IDEA: In your understanding of the ministry you are closer to the Roman Catholic Church than to the EKD (the Federation of the Protestant Territorial Churches).
Voigt: We see ourselves as the unifying centre of the various denominations. In regard to ordination my question is this: Is it merely an administrational act or a real event in which the Holy Spirit is passed on? If I see it correctly, the EKD generally derives ordination from the “priesthood of all believers.” We consider this to be a big misunderstanding.
IDEA: For many contemporaries this seems a surreal debate, because they have quite different concerns.
Voigt: When there is a convention of cardiologists they also debate the finer, more intricate issues – while the Ebola disease and hunger are spreading around the world. Does that mean the discussion of the cardiologists is superfluous? I do not think so. We expect physicians to be meticulous in their work, and we theologians should do the same. The question about truth should always be of concern to us. Of course, that includes such practical problems of how to deal with refugees.
Why is your Church also declining in numbers?
IDEA: Holding fast to traditional doctrine doesn’t seem to do the SELK much good. While Pentecostal groups and free Evangelical congregations are growing, the SELK is declining by about 1% a year (quite like Baptists and Methodists).
Voigt: The church is an instrument of the Holy Spirit. Martin Luther once said: “We are not the ones that can maintain the church. Our ancestors were not able to do that either. Our descendants will also not be able to do that. Rather it is he, it is now and it will be he who said: I am with you always until the end of the world.”
IDEA: Basically that is true, of course. But it is easy to use this statement as an excuse for doing nothing.
Voigt: We are a missionary church with our own mission society, the Lutheran Church Mission (LKM). We organize faith seminars and offer diaconic services. And we do have growing congregations where people from other parts of the earth find a spiritual home. And, of course, we have congregations that are declining.
IDEA: Perhaps the liturgical formality of SELK worship services are turning people away?
Voigt: When you attend a soccer game for the first time, you will understand little of the rules and rituals of the game. You need someone who explains things to you and accompanies you. And that’s the way it is with the worship service. The language of faith needs translation. And liturgy arises wherever people meet regularly. Even in a home Bible study group, at the latest when they meet for a third time, a liturgy arises, that is a given way of doing things: you begin with supper, then you have prayer, reading the text, discussion, the Lord’s Prayer and a word of blessing. That is exactly what happens in the worship service: There is a set way of doing things, and in the centre is the sermon and the Lord’s Supper.
If possible Communion and Confession every Sunday
IDEA: There are different rules for the worship services in free church congregations, like the Baptists: A woman could preach the sermon, and laymen can institute the Lord’s Supper. And generally the latter takes place only every four weeks. And likely there is no confession and absolution. Don’t you just shake your head in disbelief in view of such liturgical laxity?
Voigt: We treat all fellow Christians with respect. But it is my observation that there is an increased interest in liturgical forms. They are of particular significance when human language fails. This is especially true in crisis situations which make you speechless. Then it is of great help to have words for which you do not have to go searching. Every worship leader knows how difficult it would be to invent the course of the worship service every Sunday anew. That is the real value of the liturgy.
IDEA: It is conspicuous that the SELK regularly disagrees with the EKD in regard to ethical questions. In contradistinction to the EKD Paper on the Family, which moved away from the understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman, you published the Pastoral Letter “Marriage and the Family as Gifts of God.”
Voigt: Good relations between churches are more important to me than disputing about opinions. For instance, we are having friendly talks with the churches belonging to the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (VELKD). But basically we attempt to go our way in accordance with the Lutheran Confessions and the Holy Scriptures. This, obviously, can lead to disagreements with others, for instance, in regard to the understanding of marriage and the family.
No Joint Communion with EKD Churches
IDEA: Because of doctrinal differences there is no sacramental communion between the SELK and EKD. What would have to happen to change that?
Voigt: The unity of the church is not ours to make. We attempt to speak to one another; in such discussions we offer our Lutheran heritage; and we fully rely on the fact that in celebrating the Lord’s Supper the Body and the Blood of Christ are really and substantially present in, with and under bread and wine.
IDEA: You believe in “Wandlung” (“change” of the elements) – almost like the Catholics.
Voigt: The concept of “Wandlung” appears in the Lutheran Confessions, but of course not in the sense of the doctrine of transubstantiation of the Roman Catholic Church.
IDEA: Despite my theological studies I never did understand the difference between the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the Lutheran concept of consubstantiation.
Voigt: Basically the Lutheran Confessions state that the Body and Blood of Christ is substantially and really present under bread and wine. That is obviously quite close to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the latter continues to maintain that the substance of the sacramental elements of bread and wine changes into another substance, that is, only the Body and Blood of Christ; and only the outward appearance of bread and wine remain. I admit those are fine distinctions.
IDEA: This past May the EKD has published a Paper of Theological Principles for the Reformation Jubilee 2017, called “Justification and Freedom.” There was some agreement, but also severe criticism. Could you sign that paper?
Voigt: It is good that in the paper core issues of the Reformation are addressed. But I cannot agree with the view of Holy Scripture expressed in that paper. It says: “Since the 17th century the Biblical texts have been studied historic-critically. Therefore, unlike at the time of the Reformation, they can no longer be understood as ‘the Word of God.’” The significance of the Bible as the decisive norm is thus weakened. According to the Lutheran understanding the Holy Scriptures are the highest doctrinal authority in the church.
IDEA: In 2017 the EKD will celebrate a great festival in Wittenberg on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Will you celebrate with them, or will you celebrate separately, perhaps in Hermannsburg, which is considered one of the founding places of the Old Lutherans?
Voigt: To be in on their celebration we’d need an invitation. And we would have to assess whether our participation would even be possible. We are talking to the EKD, but everything is in the initial planning stage. For 2017, I can envision a Confessional Service of our Church on the Day of the Augsburg Confession, 25 June, possibly in Wittenberg.
IDEA: Are you a thorn in the flesh for the EKD?
Voigt: That’s not the way we see ourselves. We are going our way, self-confident, confessional, Lutheran.
IDEA: You Old Lutherans are looking back to almost 200 years of your history. What would your church have to confess in that confessional service in 2017?
Voigt: The church is a fellowship of believers. But there are two things that are entirely individual: Baptism and Confession. I view critically that in our own history there have been tendencies toward divisions. If it were possible, I wish it had not happened. And I also view critically that at times our church has enjoyed its solitary status too much.
IDEA: Shortly it will be 31 October. Many are now observing Halloween. How would you persuade the fans of this creepy feast to celebrate Reformation instead?
Voigt: Originally Halloween referred to the evening before the high festival of All Saints. That is we are reminded of the saints, our examples, like King David, the apostles and prophets, or the church fathers like Augustine and Boniface. It’s a day still observed in the Lutheran church. We could supplant Halloween by more consciously taking note of the examples of the faith that went before us. Certainly one of them would be Martin Luther. And that brings us to October 31, 1517, the day when Luther posted his 95 Theses concerning repentance and indulgence on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. What the theses stated is important: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said: Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand, then wanted that the entire life of the believers is one of repentance.”
IDEA: Repentance – how do you do that?
Voigt: My brother is a master carpenter. When he works on a piece, he takes careful measurement and, if necessary, corrects it. Repentance: like a good artisan we should measure our life against God’s standard and, where there is a difference, correct it, be set straight.
IDEA: Thank you very much, Bishop Voigt.
OCTOBER 10, 2014
I want to express my profound thanks to all of you who are here this afternoon. Your presence makes this occasion special. I thank those who have spoken and brought greetings to our University. Admiral Kibben from the United States Navy, Ms. Vogen from the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation, Dr. Carroll from Dominican University and the Associated Colleges of Illinois, Dr. Mueller of The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, Dr. Wenthe of the Concordia University System, President Gilbert of the Northern Illinois District and the University’s Board of Regents, Mr. Garcia of the University’s Student Government, Dr. Spurgut representing the Emeriti Faculty, Dr. Smith of the University’s Faculty Senate, and Mr. Hanson of the University’s Staff Council. And a special thanks to Pastor Wietfeldt for his expert directions to all participants. I thank the faculty and staff for their presence and labor. Behind the scenes have been many people including faculty and staff that have spent hours planning and laboring to make this celebration possible. Finally, I want to recognize the most important person here today: the student.
On a personal note, I want to publicly thank those people closest to me and who share their lives with me. My wife Annette who married me 32 years ago on what turned out to be the false promise that she was getting a country pastor. My children as well. Rachel, who cannot be here because she lives in London and has just begun her new career there. Hannah, a junior at this University, who has willingly allowed me to invade her territory. And Caleb who left the only home he had known in Indiana to begin a new life in River Forest. I love them all and am grateful that the Lord has placed them in my life.
I realize that by its very nature a Presidential Inauguration focuses attention on the new president. In a real way, that attention tends to be misplaced. Truly that attention ought to be upon the University, its faculty, staff and students and its future much more than on a single individual. Concordia University Chicago has a 150 year history of service to the Church and the world and is today poised to continue that service for another 150 years. More importantly, a University is more than bricks and mortar and more than the latest technology – a University is flesh and blood human beings engaged in learning and service to humanity in the Church and the world.
THE CHALLENGE OF BEING A LUTHERAN UNIVERSITY
As we look around today and anticipate the future, we know that there are challenges before higher education in general and a faith-based institution such as a Lutheran university in particular. Concordia was founded for a specific purpose in 1864 – and that was to train German teachers for Lutheran schools. At the very heart of its inception was the recognition that all academic endeavors are to be shaped and informed by a commitment to the Word of God. One might speculate about how much easier that was 150 years ago than today as we, like every generation before us, look at the past and imagine it to be filled with golden ages that shine in comparison to our current age of stone. But our colleagues in history departments have a habit of undermining our best theories with facts. Those supposed “golden ages” were in fact as filled with challenges as our own.
But we do not live in the past, though we honor it. Nor do we live in the future, though we prepare as best we can to embrace it. We live in the present. And in our present and our culture, religion and its implications are increasingly marginalized. The “god” of the public square is supposed to be neutral enough that all can assent to him, her or it and as a result is a god that nobody can, in fact, recognize. The underlying culture of relativism, at work for so many decades, has become a culture of theological relativism. This impacts faith-based higher education in a dramatic way.
When an institution of higher learning dares not only to confess a Creed but to live out its implications in the realm of morality and ethics, that institution can do so only with the expectation that there will be a backlash from the dominant culture. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, in his famous sermon on Luke 11:5-6 “A Knock at Midnight”, wrote:
It is also midnight in the moral order. At midnight colors lose their distinctiveness and become a sullen shade of gray. Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. For modern man, absolute right and wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing. Right and wrong are relative to the likes and dislikes of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly describes the physical universe, to the moral and ethical realm. Midnight is the hour when men desperately seek to obey the eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not get caught.”
King preached that sermon 56 years ago, on September 14, 1958, right here in Chicago, Illinois. He could have preached it today anywhere in western civilization.
A University of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod shares common cause with all faith based institutions of higher learning. Aristotle once wrote, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Faith-based colleges and universities represent a broad spectrum of religious thought and the right to that thought must be supported by all. To support one another in the free exercise of religion does not mean seeking a compromise in faith.
Rather, it means engaging in respectful conversation. It means speaking with a united voice. It means being prepared to take together the actions necessary to meet the challenges before us.
Though differing in theological orientation, we must stand together and face the current challenges to the free exercise of religion in higher education. In the words attributed to Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” When government, accrediting agencies or public opinion require the religious commitment of any faith based university or college to be separated from a worldview, lifestyle and morality that arise from that commitment, everyone is threatened even if their own faith commitments differ. Faith must inform actions and attitudes. Without faith, our actions are shallow attempts at the intellectually dishonest subterfuge of “I personally believe such-and-such but would never let it affect my public position.” This becomes institutional obedience to that eleventh commandment described by Dr. King as “Thou shalt not get caught.”
A UNIVERSITY WHERE CHURCH AND WORLD MEET
So, where does that lead a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod University? As with any faith-based University, it leads us to a place where our faith intersects the world. Here is where the needs of the world are to be engaged with answers that arise from our central convictions about God. It is here that the Church and the academy meet and where conflicting claims can be evaluated, debated and perhaps resolved through a foundational commitment to unchanging truth rather than the ever changing ethos of our culture which is, as one person put it, “feet planted firmly in mid-air”.
Foundational to Lutheran education is the truth that those human beings who comprise a University, though as broken and pain-filled as anyone else, have the obligation to see our world as God sees it. We confess that He is the Creator of all and that He loves His creation even in its worst manifestations. He loves it so much that in Christ He has redeemed the world. His mercy to us compels us to see the world through His eyes of acceptance and love. His acceptance and love in turn compel us to embrace all who share our common humanity and to walk with them no matter how crooked and winding the path may be.
The manner in which the Church engages the world at Concordia may not be satisfying to those who would silence the voice of communities of faith. If I may quote Dr. King once more:
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.
In his context, Dr. King spoke about peace, economic justice and racial justice. Those struggles continue to this day but have been joined by a myriad of other issues including the obvious hot button topics like the sanctity of life from conception to natural death and marriage as a life-time monogamous union of one man and one woman. How we respond to issues of peace, economic justice, racial justice, life, marriage and so many others is the outcome of what we believe about God.
More specific to a faith-based University is what I will term “educational justice”. By that I mean a system and structure that opens opportunity to students and faculty alike not only to learn but to integrate the life of the mind with a commitment to live for something greater than self. There are barriers, real or perceived, that have prevented many from the benefits of higher education. Those barriers must fall. Concordia must continue to seek out those students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as all other parts of our society and open the door that they might earn a Concordia degree. Our student body must be diverse in all of its dimensions to prepare every student for life in a culturally diverse and globalized world.
That very term “globalized” has become something of a catch-phrase in academic circles and runs the risk of becoming simple another trite phrase. Concordia is positioned to use it in more ways than as a simple buzzword that sounds contemporary and yet can be hollow and devoid of real meaning. “Educational justice” means that we must take seriously the reality that our world is interconnected and interdependent. This campus already has the presence of students from many nations – a number that will multiply in the next few years. The presence of the international community or lack of such a presence says much about a University’s commitment to global educational justice. Our campus is also diverse in its American student population who represent multiple economic, racial, language and religious backgrounds. A student at Concordia studies alongside of a broad spectrum of the crown of God’s creation – the human race in our diversity. That is globalization at its best.
“Educational justice” also means bringing a Concordia education to those who cannot physically be here in River Forest, Illinois. We must find new ways to deliver education to men and women around the world through our Graduate School and undergraduate programs even if the requirements of their lives do not permit attendance at a brick and mortar school. In doing so, however, the quality and depth of that education cannot be compromised if educational justice is to be served. This is no small task. But it is one that must be undertaken. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” While I would argue as a Lutheran theologian that it is the Gospel that is in fact the most powerful weapon, a University of the Church has been given the educational task, grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as its mission and through that educational task brings change to the world.
AT THE CENTER: THE STUDENT
At some point we need to bring this address and a long Inauguration ceremony to a close. I think it is also important to state the obvious.At the center of all educational theory and planning is one concrete reality: the individual student. Please let me emphasize this. It is not “students” as some faceless, generic and abstract concept but the flesh and blood reality of the individual. He or she is why a university exists. Neither Concordia nor any other school has an existence apart from this reality. If we did, we would simply be intellectuals talking to each other in meaningless chatter. It is all about the student. Whether the topic is finances, globalization, technology, academic disciplines or anything else that topic has no meaning apart from the individual student.
Each student is a unique creation of God who is loved by the Creator. Each has immeasurable value by virtue of who he or she is as a human being and as a student given to us as a gift of God. Nothing is more important. The real work of a University is not accomplished on a campus or through distance education technology. The real work and the lasting legacy of the faculty and staff of a university are found in the concrete life of its individual student and alumnus.
By intentionally and self-consciously opting to continue to be a LCMS university filled with the message of the love of God in Christ, Concordia will continue to fulfill a unique mission. Graduates will continue to be formed for Church vocations to serve the Church and the world by lives dedicated to the work of God through Word and Sacrament. Pastors, Teachers, Deaconesses, Directors of Christian Education, Church Musicians and others will impact both Church and world because of this University.
But we form servants also for vocations throughout society. Allow me to name but a few of the many. Concordia needs to prepare men and women to be physicians, nurses and health professionals who serve Christ in their vocations of mercy and healing. The world needs business leaders and lawyers whose professional lives are guided by the ethical implications of the Christian faith. The world needs military leaders guided by the ethics of faith that inform their decisions. The culture needs artists and musicians who use the beauty of God’s creation to glorify Him. Humanity needs Concordia trained leaders who have the convictions and courage to advocate for and to serve those who are in need, those who suffer, those whom the world looks past as if they did not exist, those whom Jesus described as “the least of these my brethren.”
Above all things, Concordia must be what it was formed to be: a place where the Word of God reigns supreme and where that Sacred Word shapes and informs all that is done. As an institution of the LCMS, Concordia is united to a confession of faith and practice that cannot be compromised even under intense external or internal pressure from the contemporary culture. This University, as part of the Church, is to be “in the world but not of the world.” We are a voice toward the conscience of the world. Only by recognizing that and rededicating the University to what it in fact truly is – the place where Church and academy meet – can Concordia serve the Church and the world. This is a different and special place. The ancient words of Joshua to Israel speak directly to the Lutheran universities of 2014, “Choose this day who you will serve……….but as for me and my house (and our University!), we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14).
Daniel L. Gard
Week of Pentecost 17, 2014
The following sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Kevin Golden, pastor at Village Lutheran Church—Ladue, Missouri
St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
September 21, 2014
It was a beautiful spring day in April. The sky was blue; air was invigorating; the sun was brilliant. It was the kind of day to spend outside from dawn to dusk. But that evening everybody was packed into the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus because it was “call day” at the seminary. The images from the day are still vivid in my mind. During the processional I saw Joy holding Claire, who was only 18 months old though now she is taller than her mother. Hymns were sung; scripture was read; a sermon was delivered; prayers were offered. And then over a hundred men walked forward one by one in dark suits and clerical collars. It was my turn and I heard as I walked forward. “Kevin Golden; the Missouri District; pastor; Grace Lutheran Church, Holts Summit, Missouri.” I was shocked. He said, “Missouri District.” I expected to hear South Wisconsin District or Michigan District because I had interviewed for associate pastor positions in suburban Milwaukee and in Ann Arbor and I was sure I was going to one of those locations. After the service the chairman of the Board of Elders of my new congregation and his wife met us outside the chapel. My first question for them was: “Where is Holts Summit?” I am from Missouri but I had no idea where I was heading.
That is how I remember Christ calling me to be a pastor. And then there is St. Matthew. I was called by Christ through His Church; St. Matthew was called immediately, not through the Church, but by Christ in person. Surely he must remember all the vivid details of the weather and the people and his shock at Jesus’ call just like I remembered all those details. But St. Matthew gives us none of that. He records the eternal God appearing to him in the flesh and calling him directly this way. “And going along there, Jesus saw a man sitting at the tax collectors booth named Matthew and He says to him, ‘Follow Me.’ And standing up, he followed Him.” That’s all Matthew gives. Matthew refuses to let the account of his call be about him; it’s all about the One who called him. It’s all about Jesus. There’s a lesson for me to learn about my own call as a pastor. It’s not about me. It’s about the One who called me. It’s all about Jesus. And what a Jesus He is!
His calling is simple enough. “Follow Me.” But notice where Matthew follows him – immediately into a house full of the most undesirable of folk – tax collectors and sinners. If you’re looking for glitz and glamour, if you’re looking to hang out with a better sort of folk, then don’t follow Jesus. Look who He chooses to hang out with. And to make it worse, Jesus is reclining at table with them. With whom do you eat? You see some poor soul on the side of the road with a sign reading, “Homeless. Hungry.” What do you do? You probably do not give him money because you want to be sure that he doesn’t use it to his own detriment with alcohol or drugs. But maybe you’ll hand him a granola bar or the sandwich that you had planned to eat for lunch. Maybe you’ll swing through the drive-through and bring him a burger and fries. But would you even entertain the possibility of saying to him, “Meet me over at that burger joint.” And then sit down to eat with him. I know all the reasons we use for not being that bold. You can smell him from five feet away. You don’t have the time; there’s a schedule to keep. And what about safety? Even though he never enters your car and you’re with him in a public space with dozens of people nearby, still who knows what he will do? But now imagine that instead of the stereotypical homeless man, you are approached by your favorite celebrity. I’ll go with Yadier Molina. He asks you to join him for dinner. I’m in! But I don’t know him any better than the disheveled guy on the corner. Molina has a fine reputation, but I don’t know the man. Yet it is so easy to accept his invitation. It is so easy to refuse to sit at table with the rejected and undesirable and then in the next breath to accept an invitation from the prominent and famous. It is so easy to go from saying, “He made his bed; let him lay in it.” to saying, “Isn’t it grand to sit at table with somebody like that.” It is so easy for us to do that because we all are adept at being Pharisees. There they are shocked that Jesus would recline at table with the likes of tax collectors and sinners. You can see them looking down their noses at the wretched ilk reclining with Jesus and so they get the disciples attention and ask incredulously, “Doesn’t Jesus know who He is eating with?” Your question has been cut from the same cloth – “Who would want to be with somebody like that?” You say it about the guy on the corner; you say it about that good-for-nothing at work; you say it about the black sheep of the family; and you even say it about a brother or sister in Christ who just doesn’t match up to your standards.
If it weren’t bad enough that we act that way, we make it all the more perverse by justifying our actions in pious language. Looking at the mess in our world today – marriage treated as a throw-away institution or a wax nose to be twisted into whatever you want it to be; children treated as either trophies or a nuisance; a nation in the firm grip of economic entropy; the fabric of society falling apart at the seams – you look at that mess and say, “Things wouldn’t be this way if we just had more good Christians.” What is a “good Christian?” Listen to Jesus. “The strong have no need of a doctor, but those who have it bad [need him.]” Those who have it bad – that is how Jesus puts it literally. That is who Jesus identifies with. That is with whom Jesus reclines at table. If you have your life put together, if you are not sick with sin, go home. You don’t need Jesus. But if you are a mess and your life is a train wreck, if you know that you have it bad and you can’t seem to find a way to get it right, then Jesus is the One for you. He called Matthew away from the tax collectors booth where he had it bad, making himself rich by cheating others. And Jesus calls you away from your own sin because just like Matthew, just like the tax collectors and sinners reclining at table with Jesus, just like the Pharisees though they are too blind to see it, you’ve got it bad. And only Jesus can cure what ails you.
There is no pretense with Jesus, only honesty. Be honest with who you are because Jesus is honest about who you are. He says, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” You’re a sinner. And what a wonderful thing to be because that is whom Jesus calls. There is no delight in your sin. All it is has done is bring death and destruction into your life and the lives of others, most of all those you love. But there is delight in having a Savior who calls you in the midst of your sin. You’ve got it bad, but Jesus makes you good, all by His call, even good enough that you might recline at table with Him.
You’re called just like Matthew. Jesus says to you, “Follow me.” To where do you follow Jesus? To the same place as Matthew. You follow Jesus into a fellowship of sinners, known as the Church, where Jesus reclines at table with those who have it bad. So Jesus called you in Holy Baptism to be part of His Church. He calls you anew with the exhortation and confession of sins, specifically He calls you to repentance because He will not have you be comfortable with having it bad. Knowing that your sin has brought you guilt and shame, He then calls you to peace in the absolution. At His call, your sin is gone and with it goes the guilt and shame. He calls you to kneel at table with Him. And so you enjoy an intimacy far exceeding what the tax collectors and sinners enjoyed because Jesus is not only present here with you, but He even gives you His body to eat and His blood to drink. Jesus continues to call you day by day, calling you to faith as you face trial and tribulation. Again and again, Jesus calls you. And His call is effective. His call accomplishes what He says. He keeps calling, “Follow Me.” And so you keep following Him because that is what His word accomplishes. Jesus promises to keep calling you even until He calls you to rest at your last hour, bringing you into the joy of His heaven. And then you will wait… until that great day when He will call you one last time. The day is coming when He will stand before you, He in His resurrection glory and you in that same glory. And He will say to you, “Follow Me.” And off you will go with Him into life everlasting.