Preaching with Luther in March






Luther often quoted the heavenly voice from Matthew 17. There, in the vision on the mountain that isolated Jesus in the bath of divine glory, the heavenly voice speaks to Peter, James and John:  "Listen to Him!"  Listen to Jesus who has just revealed His Messianic destination in Jerusalem as one of rejection, suffering and death by crucifixion. In the Transfiguration what had been spoken to Jesus at His baptism is now spoken to Peter, James and John on behalf of all disciples, so that today's auditors are all also addressed through their testimony: Listen to Him!


Transfiguration is a fitting occasion, then, to reinforce teaching on the Trinity as the specifically Christian thing to say about the self-surpassing, self-donating, self-communicating deity. In a book a few years back, I thought I had come up with an original explanation of the Trinity when I wrote of the Father who speaks the Son to be heard in the Holy Spirit: "God speaks, God is spoken, God is heard." I am chagrined to report, then, that in researching this study for Preaching with Luther in March I have found that Luther was way ahead of me.


In a sermon from late in Luther's life (1546), Luther began by emphasizing how the Baptism/Transfiguration stories emphasize the distinct identity of each person. The "divine Majesty revealed Himself: the Father in the voice, the Son in the humanity, and the Holy Spirit in the form of the dove [the bath of divine light]... [so that] the distinction of the persons in the Godhead may be plainly manifest to Christian believers, that they may know, retain, and believe the distinction [between the persons]. It was for this reason that this glorious and wonderful revelation from heaven took place and was revealed to the world by God." (LW 58: 359-60). "This is how," Luther continues, "God wants to be known, and this is our Christian Creed, on the basis of which we are baptized and named... [so that] without the knowledge and confession of this article, no one should attempt to get into heaven" (LW 58: 360).



Why does the Trinity bring saving knowledge of God? Here Luther gets really interesting. He finds our need for this knowledge of God in the fact that here "we are listening to the supreme Preacher, preaching from the highest and grandest pulpit -from heaven... His sermon is accordingly the highest sermon... which the almighty, eternal, merciful God delivers concerning His equally omnipotent, beloved Son, saying, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." So God speaks in the person of the Father and God is spoken in the person of the Son. Moreover, God is heard in the person of the Spirit: "the greatest Student and Hearer of this sermon is the Holy Spirit Himself, the Third Person of the divine Majesty. These are all sublime indeed - Preacher, Sermon and Hearer." So God speaking and spoken is also God heard. This hearing and believing of the Spirit takes place in the hearts of all believers who thus come to faith. Although we remain "unable to comprehend it adequately, much less to express it fully" (LW 58: 361), "if such preaching is to be believed, then the Holy Spirit, who is the supreme student, must be present... He is the one who accepts this, hears it and believes" (LW 58: p. 365).  The Spirit's brings the gift of faith graciously to receive the Gift of the Word of God spoken to us and for us in Jesus Christ.


In the Transfiguration story, the heavenly Voice confirms the newly disclosed teaching of Jesus that He will meet rejection, suffering and death in Jerusalem. This way of suffering for us is the baptism in which Jesus is to be baptized. So also Luther connects the saving revelation of the Trinity of persons, and thus saving baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, with the saving passion of Christ. In baptism the Holy Spirit extends the saving significance of Christ's death, even more the crucified and risen Christ in person, to each believer. "You should not separate your Baptism from Christ's Baptism. You must come with your Baptism into Christ's Baptism so that Christ's Baptism is your Baptism and your Baptism is Christ's Baptism, in every respect one Baptism" (LW 58: 362). So "we are not baptized into any other baptism, neither do we baptize otherwise than into the Baptism of Christ "(LW 58: 367).


If Luther is right, Sundays and Seasons is also right to mention the Trinitarian analogy: the man Jesus "is to God as a son is to a father," and that consequently, a by baptism into Christ Jesus the Son of God, believers become with Him joint heirs of the reign of His Father; as a result, the "children of God are not pitiful creatures struggling to live in a hostile environment."   As we shall see further in two weeks, the deep disquiet beneath the surface of contemporary experience is indicated here. Our scientific knowledge of nature and history seems to reveal a cosmos utterly indifferent, if not hostile, to the human hope for righteousness, life and peace.  Whether ultimate reality is aimless matter in motion or the eternal love of the Father and the Son in the Spirit opening its eternal life to creatures in the gospel, and anticipating the coming of the Beloved Community in the communion of saints, makes not a little difference between hope and despair in today's world.


March 9, 2014 / Lent 1


The very rich selection of texts today cries out for a dozen sermons, but a single one can be drawn from them by discerning the connection between the texts in the Adam-Christ comparison made by Paul in Romans 5: as one man's disobedience led to death for all so another man's obedience leads to life for these dying.  In Matthew's story of the testing of Christ by Satan, the failure of Adam, who wanted to be as God  knowing good and evil, was undone by the obedience of the Son of God who was willing to be human and obedient even to death on a cross.  Sundays and Seasons picks up on the baptismal renunciations of Satan (that Kolb and Wengert have restored in their edition of the Book of Concord, see pp. 371-5) and points us to Luther's slaying of "the old Adam" as the repentance that comprehends the "entire life of the believer" (according to the first of the 95 Theses).
Luther's "theology of the cross" is shorthand for this interpretation of the Adam-Christ typology. As I described it in my Luther and the Beloved Community a few years back: 
"What Luther meant by the theology of the cross is that God heals us by afflicting us. The theologian of the cross "knows that it is sufficient if he suffers and is brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more. It is this that Christ says in John 3 [:7], 'You must be born anew.' To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up with the Son of Man. To die, I say, means to feel death at hand."(LW 31:55). The death of the centered self and the birth of the ecstatic self by bodily union with Jesus Christ in faith - that is what Luther meant by the theologia crucis. A generation ago, John Douglas Hall wrote about what Luther's meaning would mean for theology in North America: it will require us to dispense "with the habit of regarding the gospel as a word that meets, answers, conquers and so annuls the negative. Instead, one would have to look upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as a vantage point from which to engage the negative: to engage it, not to overcome it. To live with and in it, not to displace it with a theoretically unassailable positive" (John Douglas Hall, Lighten our Darkness: Towards an Indigenous Theology of the Cross (Philadelphia: Westminister, 1976) p. 209). The negative is to be lived with and engaged because, taken from our hands and restored to God's, it becomes the "severe mercy" (Augustine) of "costly grace" (Luther) that brings us to the Beloved Community.
"There is no doubt, on the other hand, that this theologia crucis raises dangerous and sensitive questions of theodicy, which theology cannot refuse to consider. The world in which the cross of Jesus stood is a world in which the One he called Father permits the natural evils of flood and famine no less than the moral evil of created wills actually contravening His own. In such a world, affliction belongs to life and human beings can no more disown their pains than the bodies which feel them from birth day to death day. The gospel never delivers us from natural evil as such and does not easily or cheaply deliver us from moral evil. Indeed, even to understand this much as a theologian of the cross is to have owned one's affliction as the very birth pangs of God's new humanity. Such insights cannot be shared with the old Adam.  Theologia crucis is wisdom for those who boast in "in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world" (Gal. 6: 14). It is the new 'epistemology at the turn of the ages' (J. Louis Martyn).
"Nowhere is Luther's insight into this controversial contention of the gospel for human transformation towards the Beloved Community more pointedly and yet as problematically articulated than in the 1518 statement of the theologia crucis , "The Heidelberg Disputation." "The law says, 'do this,' and it is never done. Grace says, 'believe in this,' and everything is already done." Left on the level of anthropology, this is unintelligible. Such rhetoric only yields ambiguous paradoxes, vulnerable to misunderstanding, not to say also misuse. That occurs when it is not clear that the "this" which grace commands us to believe is the Christ who comes to live in us as the One who was, is and will be for us; but apart from this new power and possibility of Christ with His earthly body, it is not clear why the doing of the Law never accomplishes salvation, that is, inclusion in the Beloved Community. In fact the final thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation eloquently tells of thus this new power and hence possibility. "Thus Christ says: 'For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners [Matt. 9:13]. This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person. 'It is more blessed to give than to receive' [Acts 20:35], says the Apostle. Hence Ps. 41 [:1] states. 'Blessed is he who considers the poor.'" Whether as successful doer or as failure by the same promethean measure, the centered self is and remains isolated, ultimately from the body itself whose pain must be disowned; but salvation is communion, in the redeemed Body, bearing one another's burdens. This is the total Christ, agent of the new humanity and harbinger of the Beloved Community, the Israel of God." (Paul R. Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010) pp. 358-61).

March 16, 2014 / Lent 2


John 3:16 - a marvelous preaching opportunity! Let's see what Luther did with it in a from 1522.


"With these words [Christ] leads us directly into the Father's heart, that we may see and know that it was the great and wonderful counsel of God, resolved from eternity, that we should receive help through the Son... In the first place, the Giver is not a man, an emperor or a king, nor even an angel; but he is the exalted, eternal Majesty, God himself, compared with whom, all men, however rich, powerful and great they may be, are nothing but dust and ashes... He is incomprehensible, immeasurable, inexhaustible. He is, then, no more a taskmaster, who simply makes demands upon us, as Moses calls him (Deut. 4: 24), a devouring and consuming fire-but a rich, overflowing, eternal fountain of grace of all gives, who justly deserves to be called Gephardt (a prince or champion of givers)... Compared to such a Giver and gift, everything in heaven and on earth must be very small and insignificant. In the second place, why does he give, and what incited him to it? Nothing but pure inexpressible love. He does not give because it is a debt or duty, nor because any one has asked or pleaded, but he is move to do so by his own goodness, as the Lord who willingly gives, and delights in giving gratuitously and without solicitation. As there is no greater Giver than God, so there is not greater virtue, either in God or men,  than love...  In the third place, consider the gift itself... Not great kingdoms, not one or more worlds full of silver and gold, not heaven and earth with all they contain, not the entire creation, but his son, who is as great as he himself. That is an eternal, incomprehensible gift, even as the Giver and his love are incomprehensibly great. He is the fountain and source of all grace, goodness and kindness; yes, the very essence of the eternal blessings and treasures of God. That is love, not with words, but in deed... What more can he do and give...? Certainly, everything must have been given with him, who is his only begotten, beloved Son, the Heir and Lord of all creation... In the fourth place, how and in what manner is the Son given? Look upon him, in what he has done and suffered! For us he becomes man, is put under the Law, that is, under the wrath of God (on account of our sins). He is put to death, even the most ignominious death -lifted upon the cross and suspended in the air... All this he gave us that it might be our own, that we might possess both him and all that he accomplished... freely given and bestowed out of purely benign grace. The receiver shall and can do no more in this case than to open his hand and take what God so graciously gives him, and what he truly needs, with love and thanksgiving." -- Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. John Nicolas Lenker, 8 volumes [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, reprinted 1983] III: pp. 353-5.
Sundays and Seasons notes that the Bible and the theological tradition based upon it honor Mary as Theotokos , the "bearer of God," and icon of the ecclesia, "the mother of us all," who, as Luther affirms in the Large Catechism (Kolb and Wengert, p. 436: 42), bears every believer through the Word of God. Unfortunately, rather than explore this important theme of the total Christ of Head and Body, Sundays and Seasons goes on to add without attribution or argument to announce:  "Recently, also God is described as the mother who births a new creation." Who says that? Who says so? It is certainly not the Bible and the theological tradition based on it that describes God in this way. The effrontery here unfortunately continues in the suggestion that this "recent" birthing imagery balances or "nuances" Paul's image of God as the judge in justification.
Luther is a far better guide. He understands that the Father, who spared not His own Son but gave Him up for us all, is no monster of human patriarchy or male machismo, but God surpassing God as the incomparable, infinite and creative fountain of love that makes all things from nothing, thus also the righteous from the sinful and life from death.  That is not a natural birth but a new birth whose content is the death of the old Adam by baptismal union with the incarnate Son of God in His death and resurrection. So God the Father gives birth to the new creation, the icon of which is Mary's "I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me as you have said" (Luke 1: 38).


March 23 / Lent 3


Luther focused his preaching of the Samaritan Woman at the Well on Jesus' statement in John 4:10. If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you: Give Me a drink! you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water. His point was that God spoken is spoken in vain if God is not also heard, i.e. if the Spirit does not give the gift of faith to receive the Gift who is Christ, that is, to recognize who Christ is as the Father's Word incarnate and what He means for us. It is as if Christ were saying, so Luther preaches:  


"I would be happier to reverse the order and give you a drink. In fact, this is the reason for My presence here. I am asking for a drink to quench My physical thirst that I might have occasion to give you a drink. If you only realized what a gift is now to be found on earth, you would ask Me for it, and I would give you a drink that would taste better than this water. It is of the utmost importance to recognize this gift and to know Him who gives it. But neither the gift nor the Giver is known." This is also our lament... My dear friend, how few there are among us who esteem this as a genuine treasure, as an eternal gem, as everlasting life! There must be some, however, who will hazard life and limb for it. In Matt. 13 we read of a man who found a pearl in a field. He sold all his possessions in order to buy pearl and field (Matt. 13:45-46). Thus we find many who are willing to endure tortures because of it; they, too, will receive the drink. But the other crowd says flippantly: "What do I care about it?" You will find a hundred thousand people who regard silver mined from the earth as a real treasure. They will not shrink from laboring night and day to acquire such a perishable treasure... 

"One dare not despise the treasure because of the person. Our God wishes to impress this on us all, not only on this young woman. Christ wishes to say: "I am not so much concerned that you give Me a drink as that I supply you with living water." It is a disgrace that Christ must go begging on earth, even among His own followers. It is a shame that He must cry: "For the sake of God, give Me bread!"  He wants to rouse us to give gladly to those who serve in the ministry. But although Christ pleads and cries: "For the sake of God, give Me bread!" His plea is not fulfilled; for people assume that it is a poor pastor speaking. Verily, Christ does not stand in need of heaven and earth; He could eat and also satisfy His own with food. But He wants to say: "I am begging that you may obtain food and drink. I use your help to feed Me and My own. In this way you might recognize Him who dispenses the true, eternal drink of water and learn what sort of Word He possesses. After you know that it is I and that the Word is Mine, you will say: 'After all, everything belongs to Thee; we will gladly return all to Thee. Dear Lord, give us who are truly hungry the real bread and drink.' This is the reason why I beg and say: 'For the sake of God, give Me bread!'-that you may recognize Him who is speaking to the young woman." (If He were to ask her for a drink, then she, in turn, would ask Him; and He would give her the water of everlasting life, and she would never die.) This is also what Christ wishes to do to us. But first we must learn to know the gift and the Teacher. Then we should be ready not only to give all but also to say: "Oh, dear Lord, give me some of the eternal water too! Without it I must die of eternal thirst and hunger!" Christ says: "I am asking you to give Me bread for the sake of God because I want to give you the everlasting bread.""


Sundays and Seasons suggests that we "reflect on the creed not as a statement of propositions but as a declaration of faith in the source of living water."  For Luther, as we have just read, the Creed points to the person of Christ who is the living water on which faith depends and which faith therefore must recognize . That is where the "propositions" of the Creed come in, which individually and together describe Christ Jesus so that faith can recognize Him. Earlier in his preaching on John, Luther put the point about doctrinal description  of Jesus as the Christ sharply:
"In the Creed we pray and confess: "Who was conceived and who was born"-that is human; and "sits at the right hand"-that partakes of the divine, although it may also be human. Thus the Child who drinks His mother's milk is eternal; He existed before the world's beginning, and He created heaven and earth. Since the two natures are united in one Person, the effect is that the properties are also united. Admittedly, the properties of the divine nature have nothing in common with human nature. I shall go beyond this and say that there is still less relation between God and man. Yet these two natures are so united that there is only one God and Lord, that Mary suckles God with her breasts, bathes God, rocks Him, and carries Him; furthermore, that Pilate and Herod crucified and killed God. The two natures are so joined that the true deity and humanity are one. Now if the true God dwells in Christ, who was born of Mary, that is, the God who made and created all, we must say that the deity and the humanity joined not only their natures but also their properties, except for sin (LW 22:492-493)... Thus the human nature in Christ shares in the glory of all the properties which otherwise pertain to God. Since the human nature, which did not possess these properties formerly, now receives them, the text properly states that all things are given to Him. Therefore it is true and proper to say that the Son of God and of Mary was from eternity; that Christ, the Son of God and of Mary, is still Lord over all; and that Christ, the Son of God, received all from the Father. Outside this Man Christ, who was born of the Virgin Mary and who suffered, you must not seek God or any salvation and help; for He is God Himself. The Jews are offended by this. They regard us as stupid people, and they cite the First Commandment against us (Ex. 20:3): "You shalt have no other gods." And the Turk says: "You are big fools, for you worship three gods." But we are not such stupid asses as to fabricate two or three gods. No, we worship only one God, and He is very God. Yet in this one God there are three Persons, one of whom is Christ, of whom we heard earlier that the whole fullness of deity dwells in Him (Col. 2:9). "Of His fullness we all receive grace upon grace" (John 1:16). And "he who believes in the Son has eternal life" (John 3:36)" (LW 22:494-495).


March 30 / Lent 4


The story of the Man Born Blind in John 9 is a "drama," modern scholarship has realized, written "on two levels" (J. Louis Martyn): one level is the historical event of Jesus' conflict with the authorities of His day over His healing ministry and another level the risen Jesus' conflict taking place in the Johannine community's experience of expulsion from the synagogue (John 9: 22). This double perspective is possible because, if Jesus is risen from the dead, it is one and the same Jesus who trod the dusty byways of Galilee and sojourned into Jerusalem and still today by His Word and Spirit penetrates into the world, causing the same krisis in the life of His community.
Here the "light that shines in the darkness" is John's promised paraclete, the Spirit who "calls" those who cannot by the own understanding or strength, as Luther put it in the Small Catechism, come to their Lord Jesus Christ or believe in Him, but who calls them by the gospel and enlightens them with His gifts. As Augsburg Confession V reminds, the Holy Spirit works through the Word to enlighten and create faith "where and when it pleases God," just as Jesus had instructed Nicodemus, "The wind blows where it will." Luther comments:


"But how? Simply by giving ear to the message that he who believes and is baptized is saved (Mark 16:16). The Holy Spirit reproves us because of sin (John 16:8-9), and He also comforts us. When I receive the absolution from my brother and derive comfort from it, what I hear is the voice of the Holy Spirit, His blowing and whistling. But how man attains this, how it all begins and comes to pass-that I do not know. It is incomprehensible how he who is baptized will be saved, and how he who is absolved of sin will obtain eternal life. Our reason and nature are incapable of comprehending this or of believing in Christ; this has never entered into the heart of man (1 Cor. 2:9). Likewise, when we die, we know not where we go; for this is the Holy Spirits work, not man's. Since we cannot know anything about the nature of physical wind, whence it comes and where it goes, even though we feel it on our bodies, how could we understand where the Holy Spirit resides and dwells?

"Then what about the teachings of all the others-the Turk, the Jews, the pope, and the monks? They have introduced some very foolish and erroneous doctrine with their orders and brotherhoods, as though forgiveness of sin and the new birth were matters of their zeal, their pleasure, their own arbitrary choice. They all teach a way to salvation which I can comprehend. I know whence it comes and how it operates. It is easy for me to say: "I will don a cowl"; for I can understand how the cowl originated, namely, from human choice and decision. Furthermore, I can understand how the cowl came from the tailor, how the cloth was woven by the weaver, and how the wool was taken from the sheep. This is easy to understand. Thus I can comprehend all their important doctrines, which deal with nothing but physical matters such as food, drink, clothing, and the like.


"But I cannot comprehend that I must believe in Christ, that I must be baptized in order to be saved, that I must die in such faith in Christ, and that Paul and Peter suffered affliction and tribulation for the sake of the Christian name. Whence this comes, no one can explain; for there a spiritual life is at work. The Holy Spirit is given to us, and His gifts are bestowed on us in a way that we cannot grasp. No one can determine the time or the place or the person, how and when one is to be converted to God. The Holy Spirit and His gifts are not granted according to human will. If this were based on reason, then the pagan teacher Aristotle, our papists, and our monks could have ascertained and determined it. For in the papacy we ardently sought it; we prayed much, and we mortified our flesh with fasting. Yet we did not find it. One entered a Carthusian monastery, another became a priest, another a monk or a nun. At length God came along and granted it to us without our cowls or good works and without such searching for it.


"Whoever is converted to faith cannot say anything else than that the Holy Spirit comes when He wills and where He wills and to what person He wills, all in His own good season. He comes when and where He chooses, and He confers as many gifts as He pleases. In the papacy they still hear nothing of the Gospel; and even if they do hear, they do not understand it. We now hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, but that is not due to any human power" (LW 22:301-302).