The following was preached by the Rev. Dr. Raymond Hartwig, secretary of Synod, on Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, at the LCMS International Center. The text for the day was Heb. 4:14-16.
On this day on the Church calendar, we remember the Early Church father Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna.
Polycarp lived during the first and second centuries after Christ. He may have had, in his younger years, opportunity to spend time with John, the last surviving apostle; he may actually have been a disciple of John and he may have been ordained bishop of Smyrna by none other than John. In any case, he lived to an old age as the bishop of Smyrna, the location of one of the congregations of Asia Minor addressed by Jesus in the Book of the Revelation of St. John, chapter 3. Jesus had this to say to the congregation at Smyrna:
I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried; and you shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life.
The congregation at Smyrna did suffer, and so did Polycarp, culminating in him being burned at the stake for not offering incense to the Roman emperor. He is recorded as saying — on the day of his martyrdom — when asked to deny Jesus Christ:
“Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? Bring forth what thou wilt.”
And then there is one other thing: History and tradition also suggest that he may have been involved with assembling the books of the New Testament, one of which is the Book of Hebrews, the source of our text for this morning, the second of our subjects to consider together.
This brings us to our text for our meditation this morning: Heb. 4:14–16.
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Could it be that Polycarp was familiar with this text? If so:
- He certainly would have appreciated its imagery more than we. “Since then we havea great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God” (Heb. 4:14a). Even as the high priest in Old Testament times killed the bullock and the goat and delivered their blood through the veil into the Holy of Holies to sprinkle it on the mercy seat to remove the sins of the whole people, so Jesus, the great High Priest, delivered His blood, passing through the heavens to deliver the forgiveness of sins for all people. Polycarp could certainly have said, “How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?”
- He certainly also would have appreciated, especially when tempted on the day of his martyrdom to deny Christ, the words of verse 15: “For we do not have a high priestwho is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Polycarp was in good company, in company with his Savior and His Savior’s far greater sufferings. He could certainly have said, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong.”
- And he certainly would have found courage in the words of vv. 14b and 16: “Let us hold fast our confession. . . . Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Polycarp found that “grace to help in time of need” and the courage to say, “Bring forth what thou wilt.”
That leaves us to consider the importance of this text also for our day.
Ordinarily texts like this, especially from the Book of Hebrews, might strike us as rather obtuse, not commanding our interest. But in the context of this day on the church calendar and the things going on in the world in which we live, we may see otherwise. Here in this text, first of all, is the heart and core of our Christian faith — that Jesus has become one of us:
- to face temptations to sin that we often cannot withstand;
- to suffer far more severely than we ever will;
- to shed and then deliver to His Father in heaven the only blood that could suffice for our forgiveness of our sins.
Already in its first verses there is plenty in this text to cause us to sit up and take notice.
But it is also the encouragements to “hold fast our profession,” to “come boldly” and “find grace to help in time of need” that are taking on greater urgency and significance now every day. How rapidly things are changing for us as the bright conditions that we have been privileged to enjoy most of our lives begins to grow dim. In my childhood, the words “let us hold fast our profession” predominantly meant, “Beware of what they teach in that church down the street from our parochial school.” Or it meant, “Keep the faith while diving under our school desks for the latest nuclear bomb drill.” Now we are beginning to recognize that possibilities for personal suffering we once thought preposterous are no longer so; that we, too, might have to “find grace to help in time of need” because our Christian way of life and faith or even our lives might at some point be direly threatened.
I expect I will never get out of my mind the recent picture of the 21 Coptic Christians, young men dressed in orange, waiting to be martyred on the seashore. I felt I owed it to them, my brothers in Christ, to watch the video disseminated by their executors. I was disgusted, of course, but more so I was amazed — at their calm demeanor as they kneeled with knives at their throats and at the last word on their lips: the name of Jesus. I wondered how they could do that. But they, like Polycarp, had the encouragement of God’s Word. And they clearly had the last word: the name of Jesus clearly the last word on their lips. They are the best commentary of our text this morning: “Let us hold fast our confession,” to which the only thing more for us to say is, “Amen.”
The message of Christmas is huge, of eternal proportions and significance: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman….” (Galatians 4:4-5). This hugeness of Christmas is so important to bear in mind, its dimenions having been so diminished in our day, often reduced to mere tinsel and trappings.
No hymn captures that hugeness better than that of Prudentius of the 4th century, aided by the 12th century plain-song tune we have sung many times (TLH 98). We do well this Christmas season to devote a little personal time its proper perspective:
Of the Father’s love begotten ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been, And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.
Oh, that birth forever blessed when the Virgin, full of grace
By the Holy Ghost conceiving bare the Savior of our race,
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer, first revealed His sacred face
Evermore and evermore.
O ye heights of heav’n, adore Him; angel hosts His praises sing;
Pow’rs, dominions, bow before Him and extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent, ev’ry voice in concert ring
Evermore and evermore.
This is He whom heav’n-taught singers sang of old with one accord;
Whom the Scriptures of the prophets promised in their faithful word.
Now He shines, the long-expected; let creation praise its Lord
Evermore and evermore.
Immersed in and bombarded by a society and culture that have relegated Christmas to a cute little story in a faraway little town, we do well to join Prudentius in pondering the eternal dimensions of this holy day and its celebration:
Christ, to Thee, with God the Father, and, O Holy Ghost, to Thee
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving and unending praises be,
Honor, glory, and dominion, and evernal victory
Evermore and evermore.
Love the story of the British child whose family was very excited because his grandfather had been elected to a high office in the Church of England, the office of ‘Moderator.’ Going out to play, the child could not keep the news to himself. He blurted out to his friends, “My grandfather has been elected a ‘radiator’ of the church!”
Truth be told, we have all been elected ‘radiators’ of the church. St. Paul writes, “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be ‘manifested’ in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11). The life of Jesus will show in how we live out our lives on this earth and, so importantly, in how we regard and treat one another. Again Paul writes, “From now on we regard no one according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16).
We have in our Synod a group of people whose high office and calling is specifically that of ‘radiator.’ Each of our 35 districts has four of them, appointed by their districts’ boards of directors to serve as Synod ‘Reconcilers.’ I have met with nearly all of them over the past 2 1/2 months in regional meetings around the country. I can tell you that they do ‘radiate’ the Gospel, especially when called upon by district presidents, district secretaries, or the Secretary of the Synod to help members of our Synod reconcile differences and disputes.
They are truly a best-kept secret of our Synod, largely because they work quietly and confidentially behind the scenes, going about their business of manifesting the life of Jesus and helping troubled fellow Christians not to regard one another according to the flesh. Reconcilers’ efforts play large part (along with the work of our district presidents and circuit visitors) in maintaining the relative calm that our Synod enjoys.
You will want to find out who your district’s reconcilers are. You may want to invite them to your church to provide a Bible study regarding their work. And should should there be an occasion where a little help is needed to work out some differences in your congregation, you may want to speak to your district president about the possibility of having one of these ‘radiators of the life of Jesus’ provide some assistance.
A while ago I renamed my blog a “blahg.” This is one of those. Not real exciting. More of the “blah” kind of thing. But important for our life together as a synod.
The 2010 Synod convention sought to restore visitation circuits to their primary purpose. The 2013 convention decided to reflect that restoration by also restoring the historical name “circuit visitor.” Some of us, myself included, have trouble making the switch from “circuit counselor” to “circuit visitor.” Earlier today I sent out an email to district presidents in which I got it consistently wrong. Consistent, but wrong. Old habits die hard.
The convention also sought to enhance the procedure for electing circuit visitors, moving away from congregations mailing in ballots to having circuit forums meet to select these important officers. Several of the postcards that congregations have been receiving to call attention to their convention preparation responsibilities have called particular attention to preparations for the circuit forums that will select circuit visitors for the next three years. One of those preparations is the nomination of one or more active or retired pastors for consideration by the forum for the circuit visitor position.
Every congregation of the circuit should consider nominating one or more pastors from within the circuit or possibly living just outside the circuit to serve in this important position. The name(s) and biographical information, including specific experience, number of years as a member of the Synod, present position, offices previously held in the district or the Synod, and any particular qualifications for the office, should be sent to the current circuit visitor prior to the forum.
Which brings me to the email I sent earlier today to the district presidents (with terminology now properly corrected to protect the embarrassed):
EMAIL MESSAGE TO ALL DISTRICT PRESIDENTS:
We are receiving questions regarding circuit forum elections of circuit visitors, namely, if congregations do not submit nominations or do not submit them prior to the forums, what is the forum to do?
Bylaw 5.2.2 (d) (1) appears to make floor nominations at the time of the circuit forum less than possible. If the current circuit visitor is to have all of the information at hand to make his presentations to the forum (including such information as is listed in Bylaw 220.127.116.11 [c]), he will need to have the names and required information prior to the meeting.
This makes suggestions of names by district presidents important (Bylaw 5.2.2 [b]), especially if they are made aware that no nominations are coming or expected from circuit congregations. District presidents then have the opportunity/responsibility to suggest names (along with accompanying bio information) to circuit visitors prior to their forums so that the forum will have names to consider.
Circuit visitors should note, therefore, that if they are not receiving nominations, the solution is to inform their district presidents so that the district presidents have time to suggest names and provide information. District presidents have the opportunity to suggest names anyway, even if nominations are made by circuit congregations, which names the forum may (or may not) choose to consider. But in such case when no nominations are made by circuit congregations, it is essential that the district president become involved so that the forum does have names to consider.
It is good that district presidents have the opportunity to suggest names for circuit forums to consider. It is especially good that district presidents are able to suggest names when there are insufficient nominations. But I expect district presidents would also agree that it is best when a circuit selects the pastor who will serve as its circuit visitor for the next three years using primarily a list of nominees provided by the congregations of the circuit.
It is quite unique among Christian denominations, in use since 1992 when the LCMS convention adopted Res. 5-01B “To Adopt New Process for Conflict Resolution,” which the floor committe proposed “a. is thoroughly biblical; b. stresses the reconciliation of members within the family of God (encouraging a win-win rather than win-lose resolution of conflict); presents a positive witness to the secular community as to how Christians resolve their conflicts; provides for final resolution of disputes in a timely manner; is less costly in terms of money and time; discourages the secular approach of adversarilal litigation; and requires face-to-face meeting of the complainant and respondent in a spirit of Christian reconciliation.”
The dispute resolution process that was adopted was to be used for all disputes and required four pages of the convention Proceedings. Today there are five distinct processes (dispute resolution and expulsion) with applications also for other specific disputes (e.g., campus conflicts) covering 55 pages of the Synod’s Handbook and accompanied by nearly 200 pages of operating procedures manuals, every convention since 1992 making significant changes and additions to the bylaws governing dispute resolution.
While there continue to be mixed opinions regarding the Synod’s dispute resolution processes and some of its results, with calls to return to the former adjudication process submitted to every convention, the general response in the Synod continues to be positive for the reasons given in the 1992 convention action. Required involvement of trained reconcilers and face-to-face meetings between disputants often fosters reconciliation early on, before disputes reach the Synod level. Disputes that reach the Synod level are handled in an orderly manner in answer to St. Paul’s encouragement in 1 Corinthians 6 to “lay them before” the church.”
Because of regular changes to the bylaws and procedures governing the various kinds of conflict resolution, I (as Secretary of the Synod and administrator of the Synod’s dispute resolution process) will be hosting a series of meetings around the Synod to review current bylaws and procedures manuals with those most involved (reconcilers) and those providing good order (hearing facilitators). Also encouraged to attend are those who serve as administrators of the processes on the district level (district secretaries) and those who have significant roles in both the conflict resolution and expulsion processes (district presidents). The meetings will take place during September (eastern U.S.), October (central U.S.), and November (western U.S.).
I am happy to add that of the approximately 220 reconcilers, hearing facilitators, district secretaries, and district presidents invited to participate, nearly 200 have indicated that they will be able to attend one of the regional meetings, their attendance made possible by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans funding as well as a decision by the Council of Presidents that districts will assume travel costs. God bless our meetings together, that they will enable our Synod ever better to satisfy the intention of that 1992 resolution to provide for our Synod “a process for conflict resolution that is based upon thescriptural principles of reconciliation (Matt. 18 and 2 Cor.5).