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.”
A STATEMENT FROM THE COUNCIL OF PRESIDENTS
[Note: Meeting February 9-13, the members of the Council of Presidents (35 district presidents, 6 vice presidents and the president of Synod) adopted the following statement as a document which “speaks to the church on behalf of the COP.”]
A STATEMENT OF ASSURANCE REGARDING ECCLESIASTICAL SUPERVISION
“Sanctify them by Your truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
In response to recently expressed concerns over maintaining sound doctrine in our synod as well as our need to follow the prescribed process for ecclesiastical supervision in our synod’s bylaws, we the Council of Presidents (comprised of the synodical president, vice presidents, and 35 district presidents of the LCMS), offer the following assurances:
- We remain committed to the authority of the inspired, inerrant Scriptures as the only source and norm for our doctrine and practice and the Lutheran Confessions as a true exposition of the Scriptures. That commitment includes our solid affirmation of our Synod’s stances on such Biblical teachings as these:
- In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth by the power of his Word, in six natural days. We reject the evolutionary hypothesis, including “theistic macro-evolution.” (Genesis 1; John 1:1ff.; Matthew 19:4-6).
- Holy Scriptures elevates the dignity and equality of both men and women in the sight of God (Galatians 3:27–28; Ephesians 5:21–33). The Scriptures also teach that men and women have distinct and complementary vocations. The Scriptures limit the office of pastor to qualified men, while inviting sanctified women to serve in many capacities (1 Timothy 2; 1 Corinthians 14).
- Marriage, instituted by God, is only between a man and a woman. Homosexual behavior, like all adulterous behavior, is sin against the Sixth Commandment (Matthew 19:4–6).
- We pledge our on-going due diligence in maintaining sound doctrine and practice in our respective districts.
- We promise to abide by and uphold the Synod’s bylaws guiding ecclesiastical discipline.
- Along the way of doctrinal supervision, we will continue to seek restoration and repentance in a process which honors our synod’s constitution and bylaws.
Responding to concerns in the Synod regarding the present process of ecclesiastical supervision and discipline, we, the members of the Council of Presidents, unanimously affirm the following:
- The doctrinal integrity of our Council of Presidents as we carry out our role of ecclesiastical supervision;
- The need for our present process of discipline to follow the existing bylaws of the Synod;
- Our desire to evaluate the current procedure of discipline, leading to a more effective process.
The Council of Presidents also cautions that members of Synod be careful in their analysis of matters of ecclesiastical supervision, especially in social media and blogs, lest we sin against the Eighth Commandment, marring reputations and making public what is required to be private.
Finally, the Council of Presidents requests members of the Synod to pray for us as we carry out our role of ecclesiastical supervisors in accordance with the Scriptures, the Confessions, and our Synod’s Constitution and Bylaws.
The Emmaus Conference is now in its eighth year of bringing together Lutheran theologians, pastors and lay people to the Pacific Northwest to facilitate discussions. It has proven helpful in renewing discussions under a free conference style among representatives of the former Synodical Conference. The desire for such discussions has been on the hearts and in the prayers of many who fondly remember the Synodical Conference since its break-up in the mid 20th Century.
This year’s conference information:
- Essayist: Rev. David Jay Webber, ELS Pastor in Scottsdale, Ariz.
- Reactors: Rev. Jon Buchholz, WELS District President in California/Arizona; and Rev. Herbert Mueller, LCMS First Vice President
- Topic: Objective Justification — The direction of our discussions will focus on the pastoral dimensions of the doctrine and how the truth of this teaching gives comfort and peace to the sinner.
- Dates: Wednesday, April 22 (morning and afternoon sessions plus evening banquet) and Thursday, April 23
- Location: Parkland Evangelical Lutheran Church; 120 123rd ST S; Tacoma, WA 98444
Registration and agenda: theemmausconference.org
Some 1800 years after Tertullian of Carthage wrote these words about Christian martyrdom at the time of Roman emperor, Septimus Severus, his prophetic utterance comes to mind at the news that radical Muslims murdered 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on the same north African coast not 750 miles from Tertullian’s home. It is a sad reminder of the horrid conquest by Islam of the once thriving and dominant intellectual center of Christianity in North Africa. Pope Francis’ words were right. We, too, stand with all martyrs and confessors of Jesus, no matter what Christian church or confession. These men died with the words, “Jesus, help us!” on their lips. That is the fundamental confession of a genuine faith. We mourn with the Coptic community, not only in Egypt and North Africa, but here in the United States.
As Christians, we plead in prayer for secular leaders everywhere, and certainly for our own. We also plead in prayer for our brothers and sisters in the faith all over the globe, and particularly in the morass of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Asia, Nigeria, and wherever else the irrationality of radical Islam and Islamic states threatens the lives of not only Christians, but also Jews and of anyone who dares to contradict the dictates of their insanity. As Christians we know Tertullian’s words are true. We know that, in the divine plan of the suffering and cross of Christ, the victory belongs to Christ. We know that martyrdom is the normal course of Christianity (Luke 21:12). “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:9–10). Even as we know the Lord’s recompense must come, we will continue to pray for the souls of those who are possessed of the devilish delusion that such murderous action is pleasing to God. “Pray for those who persecute you,” is a mandate of the Savior (Matt. 5:44).
We also stand and bear witness to the genius of Luther’s two-kingdom doctrine. Religion and government are distinct. “Our churches teach that lawful civil regulations are good works of God. They teach that it is right for Christians to hold political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by imperial laws and other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts to hold property . . .” (Augsburg Confession XVI 1–2). “The Gospel does not introduce laws about the public state, but is the forgiveness of sins and the beginning of a new life in the hearts of believers” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XVI 58). “Therefore the two governments, the spiritual and secular, should not be mingled or confused” (Augsburg Confession XVIII 12). Governments do not possess authority over the mind and heart, and certainly not faith. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). We seek no Christian government per se. We seek governments that recognize the basic and universal dignity of all people, the right of free speech for all people, and the right of freedom of faith and worship for all people and all religions. Such freedom guarantees the free course of the Gospel. Islam’s “one-kingdom” dogma—that is, that state and religion are one—is a gross confusion of what God has determined ought be distinct and separate, and it threatens not only Christianity but free intellectual discourse as well as the rational functioning of the state in carrying out its divinely mandated and rationally determined functions. The state exists for the protection of life, property, and freedom. The governing authorities, according to the Bible, “do not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). No soldier or government official is criticized for his vocation per se in the New Testament (Luke 3:14). Governments are to punish evil and wage just war. Wanton violation of the rights of Christians, and any and all citizens in this world, demands the recompense of legitimate authority.
By all accounts, Christianity in America is following the path it has taken in Europe. Luther, whose death we commemorate today (February 18), prophesied that the Gospel is like a passing rain shower, which comes for a time and then leaves. He correctly foretold that after a time in Germany, the Gospel would leave, and they would have Islam. That is coming true today, even as many German Muslims are converting to Christianity. The reason the Gospel passes away, according to Luther? Thanklessness (Luther’s Works, 23:261).
On this Ash Wednesday, and during this Lententide, may the horrid events of the past days in Libya and beyond, remind us of what a precious treasure the Gospel is and the freedom to believe and act upon it as we see fit. Lord, have mercy upon us, and grant us ever thankful hearts.
Matthew C. Harrison
February 18, 2015
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today is Ash Wednesday, when the Church begins her slow and measured journey to the cross, where we see Jesus: the Savior who hangs — bloodied and scourged — for us. It is a time of reflection and repentance for me and also for you, for all of us as the LCMS, and for the Church throughout the world.
And yet in the midst of our dusty Lenten ashes, we also look forward to Easter, when our Lord is raised from the dead, triumphing over sin and Satan, all for us. Yes, even during our Lenten fast, joy abounds!
That’s why I want to share two important things with you, so that you may see and know that our Lord is at work in and among each one of us, and is using us collectively as the LCMS to bear witness to Him.
First, our Synod treasurer, Jerry Wulf, shared at our Board of Directors meeting last weekend that together as the Synod we have reduced internal borrowing of restricted funds to cash flow operations from some $16 million four years ago to zero. You read that correctly. Zero! And we’re not stopping there. To get our financial house in order, we have also achieved a three-month cash reserve for operations, which is the minimum for a responsible non-profit.
Second, I’m delighted to announce that we are closing in on doubling the number of career missionaries internationally, which is a goal set by the Synod in convention in 2013. We are working to find a measured pace that will ensure that a sound system of missionary care remains in place but, by God’s grace, will also enable us to continue to add men and women, lay and clergy, to our worldwide mission team. The international moment unfolding worldwide before us as the LCMS is truly astounding!
So, thank you. Thank you for taking part in getting our finances in order so that we may be hearty stewards of all our Lord has to give. And thank you for being a part of our church’s mission work, that our fellow members may go to the ends of the earth to bear witness to Christ to those who have not yet heard that they are loved and whole on account of His death and resurrection.
Thank you. Thank you for your faithfulness to God’s Word and to the Lutheran Confessions. Lay people, thank you for loving your pastors. Pastors, thank you for loving your people.
Thank you for living boldly as the baptized children, loved by God, that you are. And thank you for the privilege of serving you. I covet your prayers and promise you mine, this Lenten season and always.
Under the cross,
Pastor Matt Harrison
President, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod