Preaching with Luther in April






April 6, 2014 - Lent 5


Considerable wisdom is to be found in the notes for today in Sundays and Seasons when it admonishes preachers to join the Bible in giving "stark attention to the reality of death... both the "death" that is sin and the finality of death when our bodies die" (p.  146). For you cannot have a resurrection without first a death. Only so can we affirm with the creed "not some immortality of the soul but rather the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, the life of the world to come" (p. 146). This attitude of faith in face of real death is what Luther, commenting on today's Epistle lesson from Romans 8, called the "prudence of the Spirit."


The eminent German philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, famously focused on the problem of one's stance (conscious or unconscious) towards death as revelatory of the way one lives life. It is a little known but instructive fact that for a brief time in the early 1920s as Heidegger struggled to this insight he came under the spell of the early Luther's Lectures on Romans. In particular, he was taken by Luther's contrast between the wisdom or "prudence of the flesh" in conflict with the "prudence of the Spirit" in the exposition of Romans 8. Heidegger learned from Luther's interpretation of Paul the difficult truth that human thinking and divine thinking about death do not form a seamless whole.


Only Heidegger went with the prudence of the flesh! What Heidegger did with Luther's insight is quite another story, then. As he matured to atheism and left Christianity behind to welcome  the National Socialist "revolution" as a courageous stance in face of death and absurdity. Heidegger's story is an instructive one for us today at the end of Christendom; his passage from being a Catholic philosopher to herald of post-modern, post Christian thought is a paradigm of that cultural sea-change. But we can take the other fork in the road than Heidegger did by catching up with Luther's pioneering insight into Paul's wisdom of the Spirit.


"This is the prudence with directs the flesh," Luther writes, "i.e., concupiscence and self-will.  It enjoys only itself and uses everyone else, even God: it seeks itself and its own interests in everything: it brings it about that man is finally and ultimately concerned only for himself. This is the idolatry that determines all that he does, feels, undertakes, thinks, and speaks. Good is only what is good for him and bad only what is bad for him." So profound is the state of being "curved into oneself," as Luther colorfully put it in another place, "as if one's belly where the center of the universe," that, as Luther continued expositing Romans 8, "without grace, it is not only incurable but wholly unrecognizable." It is manifestly the case in contemporary culture where Nietzsche's "will to power" or Dawkin's "selfish gene" or Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good," is the very air we breathe; as Karl Barth once captured Luther's teaching of Paul on the prudence of the flesh, "The crooked man thinks crookedly and speaks crookedly even about his own crookedness."


By contrast, Luther writes, the prudence of the Spirit "chooses the common good and seeks to avoid what can harm the common life. It rejects self-interest and chooses what is disadvantageous to the self. For it directs the love that 'seeks not its own' (1 Cor. 13:5), but that which belongs to God and all his creatures. It regards as good only what is good to God and everyone and as evil what is evil to God and everyone. For its concern is only God as he is in himself and it is interested anything only in relation to God. Hence, it enjoys everything in God and with God." (Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, ed. W. Pauck  [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961] pp. 225-6, emphasis added).


Notice that what is at stake is a conflict of values, that is, in what the heart loves and desires. The mind, for Luther, follows its heart's desire - and that is why the prudence of the flesh is blinded to the actual evil of its greed, but the prudence of the Spirit is enlightened even to enjoy, that is, to desire and take pleasure in God above all and all creatures in and under God their common creator and common good. Here Luther echoes the teaching of his own great teacher in faith, St. Augustine, who lifted up Jesus' double love commandment (Matthew 22: 37-39). This commandment, Augustine had taught Luther, instructs us about "what is above us and what is close to us" and as such stands at the center of Christian doctrine (St Augustine, On Christian Teaching trans. R. P. H. Green [Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999] p. 20). Following Jesus's own ordo caritatis (heirarchy of values) Augustine saw that proper love of self as of neighbor is not for one's own sake or even for the neighbor's sake apart its true existence as a precious creature of God, but for the sake of God who is Creator of both self and neighbor and thus the transcendent bond of their equal and common value. It is God who unites self and neighbor in the Beloved Community -civitas Dei, as Augustine named it, the society of God-- that the Creator intends for His creation. To know this and live accordingly is the prudence of the Spirit.


April 13, 2014 -Sunday of the Passion/Palm Sunday


In order to read the Passion story many congregations will, for the sake of time, omit the sermon. That's a shame, especially when the Epistle lesson for today is the great hymn of Christ's humiliation and exaltation in Philippians 2 - not a bad way for preachers to frame entrance into the Holy Week now beginning.  One could also connect in this way with Sundays and Seasons' counsel (p. 149) to embrace and teach Martin Luther's paradox of royal servanthood and serving kingship from his great treatise, The Freedom of the Christian


I would add to that good counsel one other comment. In the tradition of Lutheran Christology, the humiliation of the Son of God lay not in the Incarnation -the Son's coming to dwell with humanity is not the shame but the glory of God! Rather, the humiliation was the obedience, even to death on a cross, of the Incarnate Son; it was on Golgotha that He laid aside the "form of God" fully to embrace "the form of a servant."


On Palm Sunday in 1524, Luther preached on Philippians 2. Here, Luther begins, Paul "again presents us with the powerful example of the heavenly eternal fire - that is, the love of Christ..."  Christ is He who "sought nothing for Himself but has done everything for you and for your sake." Being in the "form of God," Luther says, can be taken in three ways: First, the "form" (Greek: morphe) is not the essence in itself of deity, but rather the divine essence's "appearance or manifestation" to us creatures:  "the essence is secret, but the manifestation happens publically. The essence is something, but the appearance does something, or is a deed" expressing the essence outwardly, to others, that is, to creatures. So God is visible to creatures as God in His form, though the essence of the form remains veiled.


 Second, when "God hides Himself and does not let Himself be seen, there is the divine essence but no divine appearance... " This is for Luther the meaning of divine wrath. Wrath is not an essential absence of God, for God as the continuing Creator is essentially present to all creatures, immediately, even in their experience of Godforsakenness. But in wrath, God appears to them as abandoning or forsaking the sinner to the just wages of sin. By the same token, "when He shows His grace, then both essence and appearance are there." That is to say, here God appears as God for us, in our favor, intervening for us to save. This is the form of God in Jesus Christ.


Third, Luther writes, only the devil, who pretends to be God and is not truly, that is, essentially God, seeks to appear as if God and act as God even though it is not God.  This is what Adam did when he fell: he wanted to be as God, determining what is good and what is evil for himself.  "All of Adam's children are the same: we ought to be God's servant, but we want to be God Himself." We adopt the form of God though we are not the essence of God.


In light of these sharp analytic distinctions, the message of Philippians 2 becomes crisp and clear: although Christ "had the essence together with the appearance... He did not take up that divine appearance as He took up [instead] the form of a servant." Luther underscores the little word, "was," in Paul's "although He was in the form of God" because it indicates the divine "becoming" of the Incarnation (as in John 1:14, "And the Logos became [what he was not previously, i.e.,] flesh"). The so-called "pre-existence" of the Son in the divine life, Luther notes, "contains that authority that He had the divine essence"  so that, unlike Adam, it was no robbery or sacrilege for Christ to claim being as God, which was rather "His natural, eternal possession." That is the natural sense of the passage. "If Christ were a mere man, what need would there have been for him to say that He became like man...?"


Just because the eternal, natural Son of God is not reducible to His relation to creatures, His becoming human and taking on the form of a servant is precious beyond all telling, since "whoever becomes a servant does not and cannot take anything, but only gives of Himself..." Luther elaborates this servanthood of the Son of God, then, not as abandoning the essence of deity but forsaking its public appearance and use; He remained God in essence, though through His birth from Mary He became a natural human being and assumed the form of a servant, "taking on human needs." But even more "beyond this, He did something else and became less than all people, lowered Himself, and served all people with the highest service: that He gave His body and life for us," subjected not only to people but "also to sin, death and the devil, and bore all of that for us" in the "death on a cross" as if "the chief evildoer of all evildoers."


Because Christ did all this in obedience to His Father's will, "St Paul opens up heaven with a word and makes room for us to see the abundance of the divine majesty and to gaze on the inexpressibly gracious will and love of the Father's heart toward us, so that we would feel that God from eternity has been pleased with what Christ, the glorious person, would do and has now done for us." Wherefore "God has again exalted Him so that He is Lord over all angels and creatures, death, devil and hell." Now the incarnate Son of God who was crucified has laid aside the form of the servant and resumes by the resurrection and exaltation the form of God. Though this reign of Jesus Christ remains invisible, Luther concludes, that is, accessible to faith alone, "on the Last Day it will be obvious." In the interim, we who have the mind of Christ "are to lay aside our glorious form and serve others..., [each] a servant of his neighbor." (Luther's Works 76: 415-423).


April 20, 2014 - Easter Sunday


In his Easter sermon before the Elector of Saxony in 1538, Luther lamented that we hear the words spoken by the angel to the women on the first Easter morn "like a cow walks by a sanctuary," that is, "to have heard and known such words, and still to let them lie, cold and dead, outside of the heart, as If they were spoken and written altogether for naught." So "consider," Luther continues, "what these words contain and offer: 'Go my dear sister[s],' for thus He would undoubtedly address these women, since He appeared unto them first, 'and tell the denying and disloyal disciples that they are called, and shall be, my dear brethren. ' Is not this, in a word, including and placing us with Christ into the complete tenure and inheritance of heaven and of everything Christ has? Rich and blessed indeed must be the brethren and sisters who can boast of this Brother, not hanging now upon the cross, nor lying in the grave under the power of death, but a mighty Lord over sin, death, hell and the devil... 'But I have done all this,' Luther continues in the voice of the risen Christ, 'for your sake, as your dear Brother, who could not bear to see that you, eternally separated from God by the devil, sin and death, should so miserably perish; hence I stepped into your place and took your misery upon myself, gave my body and life for you that you might be delivered; and I have risen again to proclaim and impart this deliverance and victory to you, and receive you into my brotherhood, that you might enjoy with me all that I have and hold." (From the Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. John Nicolas Lenker, 8 volumes [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, reprinted 1983] II: pp. 253-5).


Sundays and Seasons makes a point of warning against literalism with regard to the earthquakes, angels and spatial locomotion figured in Matthew's resurrection narrative (p. 175). That kind of necessary theological teaching that deliteralizes the narrative in order to decode it theologically - going back to Luther himself who deliteralized the Ascension narrative in order to affirm the bodily presence of the crucified and risen Lord in the Eucharistic meal-is certainly necessary. But it better conducted in the classroom where there can be give and take than from the pulpit, where the gospel narrative is simply and purely to be proclaimed in all its glorious scandal. Indeed, Sundays and Seasons does better in warning preachers against "trying to "explain" the resurrection" (p. 176) rather than proclaim the resurrection. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us, in Lutheran Christology the primary question in regard to the Biblical wonders attesting the person and work of Christ is not "how," but "who." Easter is the wonderful word of God the Father that the crucified, dead and buried Jesus, who, having loved His own, loved them to the end, is indeed His own beloved Son, vindicated in His love for us, vivified and exalted to prevail in this very love for one and for all.


April 27, 2014 - Second Sunday of Easter


Docetism was the first Christological heresy in the early Church; it alleged that Jesus had not really come "in the flesh" (e.g. I John 4: 1-4). Docetism is a particular doctrine of despair - despair that we who truly are flesh are as such capable of salvation; instead, it thinks of salvation as some kind of "spiritual" deliverance from the flesh, not the Pauline "redemption of our bodies (Romans 8: 23). In this light, we can see how misleadingly the story of Doubting Thomas is construed today, if we are thinking that what Thomas doubted was the possibility of a dead person coming back to life. Examined more closely, what Thomas doubted was not that the disciples had seen something strange and wonderful but rather that it was Jesus who had been crucified. The identification of the risen One by the bodily marks of His crucifixion with the Jesus who, having loved His own, loved them to the end - that is the key.  At this, Thomas kneels in adoration before his Lord and God. This insight sharpens the preaching of the victory of Christ as Christological medicine against human despair - not least despair of bodily existence.


Henry David Thoreau famously observed that "the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation." While he was speaking of the anomie of modern life, the insight fits well with Luther's view that the pastoral target of Christian preaching is the despair of human hearts that lies barely concealed beneath the visible surface of daily routine.  The victory peace with which the risen Christ greets the disciples on Easter eve means for Luther a victory addressed to the despair that afflicts them. In the same sermon from 1538 as referenced for Easter Sunday, Luther depicts the frightened disciples hiding behind closed doors to lay out the sense in which the message of the risen Christ defeats despair and lends courage.


 "The Apostles crouched behind barred doors, not only discouraged and cowed, as sheep that are scattered without a shepherd, but also trouble in conscience. Peter had denied and renounced his Lord with an oath, and cursed himself; and the others had all fled and proved themselves to be disloyal. That was indeed a fall so deep and terrible that they might well think they would never be forgiven for denying the Son of God, and so shamefully forsaking their dear Lord and faithful Savior. How could it have ever entered their hearts that Christ would send such an affectionate greeting and such a kind good-morning to them who had been so disloyal and denied him, and would not only forgive everything, but also call them his dear brethren? Or who can believe or grasp it today? I myself would like to believe it at all times, but I cannot get it into my heart so completely that I dare rely upon it wholly, and dare count it to be really true. Yes, if only we could, we would be in heavenly bliss already in this life, and would fear neither death, nor the devil, nor the world, but our hearts would constantly bound for joy, and sing to God an eternal Te Deum Laudamus, i.e., We praise Thee, O God!"


Somewhat later in this same sermon, Luther picks up the theme of despair again: "Who can fully comprehend this? And what heart can sufficiently believe that the Lord is so completely ours... [E]xamine and ask your own heart, whether without doubt and wavering you can thus say from the bottom of your heart" "Our Father;" whether you are firmly grounded upon and can be assured before God: I consider myself thy dear child, and thee my dear Father, not because I have merited it, or could ever merit it, but because my dear Lord wants to be my Brother..." Try and see, Luther preaches. "Soon you will discover what an unbelieving knave is hidden in your bosom.... 'Oh, I am such a poor sinner, nature exclaims, how dare I exalt myself so highly, seat myself in heaven and boast that Christ is mine, and I am His brother.'" 


What is to be done when doubt and despair assail in this way? "With all confidence and boldness reply to such thoughts of the devil," Luther admonishes: "'I know very well what I am, and you [old unbelieving knave within] need not tell me or teach me... I will not and must not listen to thee. Here is my Lord Jesus Christ, God's only Son, who died for me and rose again from the dead; he tells me that all my sins are forgiven, and that he will be my Brother, and that I likewise am to be His brother." (Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. John Nicolas Lenker, 8 volumes [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, reprinted 1983] II: pp. 252, 256-7). I may feel like a fraud, and even in ways known and unknown be a fraud, but I cannot and will not make a fraud out of Christ, who has befriended me, the sinner, claimed me, redeemed me, and made me His own this day and forever.


Luther's antidote to despair is thus to interpose the crucified and risen Christ - a task for preaching in Easter and indeed on every Lord 's Day, the day of the resurrection. Once again this week, as through the preceding weeks in April, Sundays and Seasons excels when it asks preachers, "How clear and strong is the proclamation of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in your regular Sunday preaching?" - that is,  not just in Easter season. And it continues with an imperative, "Examine whether it is something that is clearly and regularly proclaimed." It even embraces the teaching of the Gospel of John that the sheep know the voice of their shepherd and will not listen to the voice of a stranger: "Ask one or more members who are good listeners to offer you periodic critiques of your sermons from that perspective" (p. 191, emphases added), i.e.,  whether the crucified and risen Christ is proclaimed in such way that He interposes Himself between our despair and the promise of God to give as a gift to the hearer the victory that He has won.