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.
The following sermon was preached at the LCMS International Center Chapel service on September 11, 2014 by The Rev. Michael Meyer, Manager of LCMS Disaster Response.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Paul had to deal with the accusation that he was arrogant and that he was shamelessly promoting himself. He writes of the Corinthians that they are his “letter of recommendation” from Christ to the church and to the world. But he is sensitive to the thought that people think he is bragging. So Paul writes, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.” This is the heart of the passage. Paul confesses that in and of himself, he is not particularly sufficient or competent for the task he is performing, and the work he does is not successful because of his talent or intelligence. He acknowledges, instead, that everything comes from God. His competence and his success are God-worked. God has made him sufficient to the task. He writes, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God.”
Similarly, when I preach, my confidence is not that I am something, but that God is at work through His Word. The good things that may happen are not the pastor’s work or that of the evangelism committee, rather they are God’s work. My sufficiency and my confidence are from God. If I measure up to the task, it is the gracious working of God.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, that is the truth of everything in general, and the Holy Ministry in particular. No one who holds the office of the ministry is competent for the task, in and of himself. Their sufficiency is also from God. Surely there are pastors that you have liked more than others, here at the IC, or at the seminary, or in your congregation. Some may have been better speakers. Some may have been just wonderful at calling on the home-bound and sick, making them feel right at home. Some may have fit in like a glove, while others may have seemed odd and out of place. The truth, however, is that whether you like them or not, the power and sufficiency for doing the work of the ministry is God-given. Faith does not come by the eloquence of the preacher, or his intellectual arguments, or even his personal appeal. Faith comes by hearing, and that hearing is by the Word of God.
We confess as much in the Small Catechism, in the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the one true faith. In the same way, He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it in Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
God must create faith, because, ‘a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually dead.’ So, our faith does not depend on us or on the skill of the preacher, but on God. As long as a pastor is faithful and teaches the whole counsel of God faithfully, God is at work through him, making him sufficient for the work which God has called him to do and granting the success which God Himself has planned for His Word in that place.
Of course, the pastor must preach the whole counsel of God – both the Law and the Gospel. That is what Paul writes about when he mentions the ministry of condemnation and the ministry of righteousness. Paul first writes about the Law. He calls it “the ministry of death.” He describes it as “engraved in letters on stone.” That is Mt. Sinai. He says that the Law came with glory — such glory that the Children of Israel could not stand to look at the shining face of Moses. He had to cover his face for a time, until the reflected glory of God faded. Paul writes that the “letter kills.” That is the work of the Law. It condemns us. You may have heard the Latin phrase- “lex semper accusat” – “the law always accuses”. Now, that’s not the only thing it does, but it always finds us guilty of sin.
“And the wages of sin is death.” Our sin, revealed so clearly (and cleverly) by the Law, causes death and makes us worthy of death — and not just death of the body, but that eternal death which we call hell — which is more than just being “dead and gone” and unconscious of everything forever. It is misery. It is regret. It is condemnation. That is why the work of the Law is called the “Ministry of Condemnation”.
And the Law is true – it is good and wise as we sing in the hymn. It came with glory, and still possesses the glory of being God’s own will and law. And yet such truth and glory is not enough. The Law has no power to save us, only to kill us. In Romans, Paul tells us that “the Law was given in order that sin might increase.” That does not mean that its purpose is that we might become more sinful. The purpose of the Law was that we would see our sinfulness. That we would recognize our corruption and helplessness in sin, learn our deserved condemnation, and despair of our own righteousness and of our own ability to save ourselves.
This is why we need a Savior. The Law always accuses and always condemns and leaves us no hope. But God wants us to live. He wants us to have hope, and to trust in Him. So, He sent Jesus. Jesus accomplished what we could not. He kept the whole will and Law of God perfectly — without failure or sin or exception. He earned life where we had earned death. Because He is true man He was able to earn life, just as He was liable to death if He had sinned. Because He is true God His obedience was sufficient to exchange for all sin. His life was of ample value to cover all of our lives. His death was sufficient ransom for all of us. “By His stripes, we are healed,” not made a little better, but healed, as Isaiah the prophet said.
It is faith, created and sustained by the Holy Spirit, that lays hold of this and claims it as its own. That is “the ministry of the Holy Spirit,” “the letter of the spirit, written in our hearts.” “He that believes and is baptized will be saved”. We who believe have life everlasting already, and will rise from our graves on that great day when Jesus returns to create for His people a new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness and glory dwell.
It is the ministry of Christ’s righteousness, which works righteousness in us and for us. The Holy Spirit makes those in whom He dwells holy. And it is glorious, for it is life and salvation for all who believe. Thus, the Law, which is true, and perfect and glorious, and came with great glory, cannot hold a candle to the gospel. The gospel is as much better than the law than life is better than death. The glory of the Law, which is great, is overwhelmed by the glory of the Gospel like a candle, which serves quite well as a light at night is overwhelmed by the bright light of the sun shining in broad daylight. You cannot always even see that the candle is lit, if the sunshine is bright enough. So, when we compare the Law with the Gospel, the truth and glory of the Law are simply not enough.
The Law is still true (and good and wise). But the Gospel is better. It is not ‘more true’, it simply gives what the Law cannot. Forgiveness trumps condemnation, and the righteousness received by grace through faith trumps sinfulness, and eternal life trumps death. It is received by those who believe, the gift of God, worked through the Holy Gospel. It is faith that Paul describes as confidence through Christ toward God – confidence in forgiveness, salvation, and life eternal; and confidence for this life here and now for you.
Thus, we are made sufficient by Christ. And with Paul we confess: “such is our confidence through Christ towards God.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In a deeply personal narrative, the Rev. Steve Schave, associate executive director, LCMS Office of International Mission, offers a powerful witness to the calling we have as children of God to proclaim the Gospel and share the hope that we have in Christ Jesus, particularly in the face of a devastating event. Schave recently returned from a week in the Philippines, where he served as a member of the LCMS advance disaster response team responding to a call for assistance from our partner church, the Lutheran Church in the Philippines, in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. Below is that narrative.
Mud, blood, tears . . . and hope.
I have served as an inner city pastor acquainted with crime and violence. I have served as a hospital chaplain familiar with trauma and death. I have served as a prison minister experiencing some pretty rough criminal elements. I have also served as a disaster relief coordinator witnessing devastation and grief. But nothing could have prepared me for what I would witness in the Philippines. The chaos, the mourning, the whole-scale destruction and desperate need. I went to represent our Synod, to offer our support and concern to our partner church there and to ensure smooth operations were maintained with our Manila office, our missionaries from the Asia Pacific region and our Mercy Operations team. I thought our team might be the equivalent of a knight in shining armor coming to the rescue. But once we found ourselves in the areas that were affected the most, surrounded by endless cries for help and insurmountable unmet basic needs, all I could feel was empathy . . . and pure, unadulterated helplessness.
Surely I would be a changed man, fully aware of the weakness of our human frailty. When I sit at the dinner table, will the memory of a family kitchen turned watery grave be etched in my memory? When I embrace my children upon my return, will I hear the echoes of the father’s account of his children being snatched from his arms by wind and wave? When I walk down the halls of my kids’ school, will I see the faces of hundreds of beautiful children who lined the streets with their hands out begging for food to survive? Will I ever forget the smell of death that enveloped me, the sights of family members sifting through rubble to find the ones they love and the body bags placed on the curb among the debris to be taken away? Can I process the sheer force with which the inescapable beauty of a garden paradise was now covered by a thick layer of the deadly effect of sin, where so many were still reeling from the effects of a recent earthquake? Filled with images of God’s wrath and judgment, with doubts and fears, they were left to ask, “Why”? So much suffering: where to begin in this land of mud, blood and tears? A whole island ravaged: where to begin?
Where else can we begin . . . but the cross? The place where God meets us in our suffering and sorrow. In unspeakable grief and indescribable devastation, we find the mercy of God in His Son, the crucified Christ. At the place of the skull on Mt. Calvary, a hill covered in mud, blood, sweat and tears, the anchor of God’s grace was dropped into the depths of hell and death. Even as I stood at what can only be described as the gates of hell, I could walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil.
A young man approached me as I stood at ground zero of Typhoon Yolanda (where they were still recovering bodies after 10 days with no end in sight). Seeing my clerical shirt and the crucifix that draped my neck, he asked me if I was a priest. I explained that I was a Lutheran pastor. Knowing then that I was one of Christ’s men, he asked, “Sir, would you come and pray for my dead.” I asked for the baptismal names of the three deceased family members, and while not expecting to be in this situation, I quickly turned to the end of the Commendation of the Dying in the Pastoral Care Companion that I had in hand. In this liturgy was a prayer of baptism, redemption, resurrection and a return to the garden paradise in a new creation restored. In this liturgy is the beautiful Nunc Dimittis that we so often sing after communion along with saints and angels. With it we announce to the world and the devil himself that we have received Christ’s body and blood, and we have seen our salvation and are ready to depart from this world in peace. We await the great reunion that is to come with all those who died in the faith before us. Those whom, even though it might seem they slipped through our fingers, we will once again embrace.
At one of the churches we visited, the nearby residents took refuge beneath the altar when the storms hit. Indeed, when we find our refuge at the altar, there is no tempest or whirlwind that can sweep us away because our hope is anchored in Christ. In Him alone are we ready to face the Son of Justice who sits on the throne of judgment. On Good Friday, the earth shook and the waters poured, as Christ bore the full wrath of God against sin. As a result, we can stand at the gates of death and hell, but they will not prevail. We will storm the gates, bringing Christ with us.
So here we find our place to begin on a ravaged island with that which is in most scarce supply — hope. Working with our missionaries, our church partners and our disaster response team, we will give not only shelter, food and water, but the water that gives eternal life — water that allows us to never thirst. We will give the food and drink that offer forgiveness, life and salvation that we would hunger no more. We will give shelter that is not only temporary, but an eternal dwelling place. We will give the Good News of Christ crucified and risen again and the message of how God can use all things for good. Yes, this may have been the strongest recorded typhoon in which 7 feet of water passed through the streets in front of one of our partner churches, carrying homes and bodies, but when the Word of God is attached to the water of Baptism, there is no stronger force on this earth. With all the strength of Noah’s flood or the walls of the parted Red Sea that came crashing down, the water of Baptism drowns our sinful nature and rescues us from death and the devil. It connects us to Christ’s death and resurrection, so that like Lazarus, Christ will one day call us from our tombs; the smell of death will no longer be able to cling to us, but only the sweet aroma of eternal life.
Let there be no doubt, brothers and sisters in Christ, there is hope in the Philippines. We saw it in the smiling faces of the brothers and sisters in the faith who were there. We heard it when they spoke of how God gave His only Son, and if that was all they had, it would be enough. We shared in it when we sat at their tables, and they gave to us from what little they had. We participated in it as we gathered together around God’s Word. There is hope, and you, too, can be a part of it. You can help your Synod to work with the Lutheran Church in the Philippines to pick up the pieces of so many shattered lives and lost livelihoods. With the right team in place, your Synod was able to get to the most affected areas bringing the most needed resources and spiritual care to our brothers and sisters in the Philippines. This is what the body of Christ does–it bears one another’s burdens, it suffers together, it brings relief and it comforts. This is what God does–He turns panic into fervent hope, and He turns chaos, violence and danger into order, peace and safety. Yes, even from out of death, God brings new life in the most storm-torn nation . . . AND YOU CAN HELP.
Prayerfully consider joining with your baptized brothers and sisters in Christ to share the baptized hope that is in Christ Jesus. You can make a Giving Tuesday (Dec. 3) gift to the LCMS Global Mission fund at http://www.lcms.org/givenow/givingtuesday. To share hope with typhoon victims in the Philippines or tornado victims in Illinois, visit www.lcms.org/disaster. Together as the Synod, we can make a difference.
— Rev. Steve Schave