Posts tagged Persecution
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 Rev. Juhana Pohjola, Dean of the recently formed Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, has been defrocked by the nominally Lutheran Church of Finland. His offence was participating as a founder and leader of the Mission Diocese, which the CoF considers to be “violating his ordination vows.” Dean Pohjola earned a STM at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, in 1999 and will defend his doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki on August 15.
The following report is written by The Rev. Samuli Siikavirta, a doctoral candidate in New Testament at Cambridge University who was ordained in the Mission Diocese earlier this summer.
Dean of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, Rev Juhana Pohjola, Defrocked by the National Church
On 5 August 2014, the Cathedral Chapter [Consistory] of the Diocese of Oulu ordered Rev Juhana Pohjola to forfeit his pastoral office in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, invoking ELCF legislation (ELCF Church Law 5:3.3). The decision came into effect immediately.
Rev. Pohjola was ordained by former Bishop of Oulu, Rt Rev Olavi Rimpiläinen, in 1999 to serve the newly founded Luther Foundation Finland within the Church of Finland. The intention of Rev Pohjola’s work in the Luther Foundation was to build up confessional Lutheran liturgical life within the ELCF and to insure that members holding to the apostolic view of the Office have places where they can receive the Sacraments and hear the Word.
In 2013, the congregations that were part of the Luther Foundation Finland and a handful of other independent ones formed the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland. From 2005 until last year, the LFF was a supporting member of the Mission Province in Sweden. What began as the work of one part-time Pastor (Pohjola) and one congregation in the capital city in 1999 has today grown into a network of 30 congregations and missions nationwide. The Mission Diocese sees itself as an independent, confessional and non-geographical churchly structure in Finland that lives out the official confession of the ELCF that the ‘national church’ has largely abandoned.
The Cathedral Chapter of the ELCF Diocese of Oulu argued for its decision in the following manner:
“The Cathedral Chapter deemed it to be clear that Juhana Pohjola, who had been a member of the clergy of the Diocese of Oulu, has acted contrary to the duties of the pastoral office and transgressed the ordination promise [vow] that he had made on 18 Dec 1999, and turned out to be obviously unfit to be a pastor by becoming the Diocesan Dean of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, by directing the head office of the Mission Diocese, by belonging to its College of Pastors, by acting as a member of its Consistory and under it, together with being under the pastoral oversight and acting as the aide of the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, Risto Soramies.”
“The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland was founded in March 2013. The said community that is an unregistered association [a Finnish legal term] has organised itself resembling a Christian church by having its own congregations, diocese and bishop. The Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland have stated together in March 2013 that the newly formed Mission Diocese has no organisational status in our church and neither is it attached to the structure of our church. According to the Bishops’ statement, a Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland who acts in the Mission Diocese stands in obvious conflict with the loyalty expected of a pastor and with the ordination promise.”
The defrocking of a pastor is the most severe punishment that the ELCF can issue. Excommunication or the revoking of membership is no longer a possibility. The Diocesan Chapter appealed to paragraph 5:3.3 of the ELCF Church Law, stating,
“A pastor who acts against the duties of the pastoral office and the ordination promise, or neglects them or behaves in a way unfit for a pastor, may, according to the quality of the matter, be given a written warning or suspended from the pastoral office for a minimum of one and a maximum of six months by the Diocesan Chapter. If the pastor’s unseemly behaviour, neglect in the pastoral office or other behaviour indicates him/her to be obviously unfit to be a pastor, the Diocesan Chapter can order him to forfeit his pastoral office [i.e. be defrocked].”
In a blog post on the Mission Diocese website, Rev Pohjola acknowledges that the decision to be defrocked pains him deeply but that it was also to be expected in the current church-political situation.
“The words ‘obviously unfit’ leave no room for interpretation. They are rough especially when talking about the office in which one is to act constantly with the great Day of Judgment in view. Being defrocked also contains shameful dimensions. Hardly anyone wants to be unfit and dismissed.”
The defrocking of those Mission Diocese pastors and bishops who were ordained in the ELCF before the Luther Foundation or Mission Diocese were formed may also have wider consequences on the identity formation of the Mission Diocese.
“The message, ‘you are obviously unfit for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’, has been sent to thousands of people attending Mass in the Mission Diocese”, Rev Pohjola writes.
He maintains that the decision shows the theological decline that is going on in the ELCF.
“This decision of the Diocesan Chapter is yet another step within the reformation [in Finnish: ‘purge of the faith’] that is going on in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. Instead of the Church being purged with God’s Word, she is being purged from God’s Word.”
Despite being now defrocked by the national church, Rev Pohjola will continue preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments, now as a pastor only of the Mission Diocese.
“What now after this? One friend reminded me of a liberating Bible verse: ‘set apart for the Gospel of God’ (Rom. 1:1). That gives me, too, enough to do in the Apostolic Office until the end of my life!”
An interesting church historical quirk is that Rev Pohjola will be defending his doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki on 15 August on the topic of ordination rites in the ELCF between 1963 and 2003 and their understanding of ordination and the pastoral office. His Opponent at the defence will be Rt Rev Jari Jolkkonen, ELCF Bishop of Kuopio.
Link to Dean Pohjola’s statement (in Finnish):
Links to reports on the confessional Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland:
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