Preaching with Luther in May 






May 4, 2014 - Easter 3

The epistle lesson today from 1 Peter reads in part: "You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways you inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like gold or silver, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish." Luther had this passage on his mind when he wrote prose poetry explaining the Second Article of the Creed. In words from his Small Catechism that many generations once memorized:

"He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. He has done all this in order that I may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally. This is most certainly true" (Book of Concord, Kolb & Wengert, p. 355) In the Large Catechism, Luther expanded on the liberation motif of Christ the Victor: "Those tyrants and jailers have now been routed, and their place has been taken by Jesus Christ, the Lord of life, righteousness and every good and blessing. He has snatched us, poor lost creatures, from the jaws of hell, won us, made us free, and restored us to the Father's favor and grace. As his own possession he has taken us under his protection and shelter, in order that he may rule us by his righteousness, wisdom, power, life and blessedness" (Kolb & Wengert, p. 434).

In the traditions of Christian theology there have been three leading atonement motifs, drawn from Scripture itself but often played against each other: Christ's by His cross pays the price to ransom helplessly indebted sinners; Christ by His resurrection overthrows the devil and its powers holding sinners captive like "tyrants and jailors;" and Christ by His obedience pioneers the path for us to follow through death to life and from sin to righteousness. What is remarkable is that Luther refuses to play these three motifs off against one another but rather ties them tightly together. All the unjust power that forces of evil have is only the power to accuse of sin those whose accumulated failure and debt holds them fast in captivity. That evil power was overthrown when the accusers overstepped and accused Christ of sin for His love for sinners. Now the Father has confirmed the Son's love by His resurrection and vindicated His solidarity with sinners, so that both sin and accusation have lost their right. By His death, Christ has broken into the strong man's house and bound him; by His resurrection He is at work plundering His goods. Coming into Christ's holy possession, ruled now by His "righteousness, wisdom, power, life and blessedness," discipleship is not the hopeless task of imitating Christ in one's own power, but pure freedom that gets to love as Christ has loved and follow Him in the obedience of faith in the power of the Spirit.

May 11, 2014 - Easter 4

Today is often called, "Good Shepherd Sunday," since the beloved text from John 10 is always read on this day. The Latin word, "pastor," means "shepherd." In 1522 Luther took this occasion to outline his evangelical understanding of the "office of the ministry, how it is constituted, what it accomplishes and how it is misused." (From the Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. John Nicolas Lenker, 8 volumes [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, reprinted 1983] III: 373). Because the good news of Christ is something that comes to us from outside of ourselves, and therefore must be learned, not once intellectually but every day existentially from baptism day to resurrection day, "the office of preaching is second to none in Christendom" (373). Luther takes the verse about climbing into the sheepfold in some other than by the door as a reference to unauthorized and uneducated preachers who excel in the exploitative business of religion but are faithless as pastors of Christ the Good Shepherd.

We have occasion, then, to teach why the Lutheran tradition insists upon an educated clergy ecclesiastically authorized, i.e. that has been vetted for personal aptitude and professional competence and undertaken a conscientious obligation to pastor in accord with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. Incidentally, Luther here notes the traditional exclusion of women from the pastoral office, but qualifies his comment with the reflection: "If it happened, however, that no man could be secured for the office, then a woman might step up and preach to others as best she could..." (375). While this is not exactly a ringing endorsement of the ordination of women, it shows that there is for Luther's theology no theological reason to oppose women in the pastoral office, since with education and vetting women can surely preach as well as men.

From teaching on the rite vocatus (the "regularly called" preacher) of the Augsburg Confession Article 16), Luther continued that the preachers preach nothing but Christ the Good Shepherd, "namely, that no rival or supplementary doctrine be introduced" (375). "He who would enter by the door must be ready to speak the Word concerning Christ and his word must center in Christ... (376). Those who enter not by the door -that is, those who do not speak "the true and pure Word of God, without any addition-do not lay the right foundation; they destroy and torture the sheep" (377). The authentic preacher of Christ, accordingly, knows how to preach law and gospel; he "shows that the Law exists and must reveal to us our helplessness; that the works of the Law do not help us, and yet they are insistent. He then opens to the Shepherd, that is, to Christ the Lord, and lets him alone feed the sheep. For the office of the Law is at an end; it has accomplished its mission of revealing to the heart its sins until it is completely humbled. Then Christ comes and makes a lamb out of the sheep - feeds it with his Gospel and directs it how to regain cheer for the heart so hopelessly troubled and crushed by the Law" (377).

Luther exhorts his lay hearers to test the spirits. "Remember well that the sheep have to pass judgment upon that which is placed before them. They should say: We have Christ as our Lord and prefer his Words to the words of any man and to those of the angels of darkness" (378). Of course, this is not an absolute right, any more than being rightly called into the pastoral office gives one a right to preach whatever one dreams up. Rather both preacher and auditor are subject to testing by the criterion of the Word concerning Christ the Good Shepherd. But the laity should be "aroused by this passage of Scripture to hew to pieces everything that is not in harmony with the gospel, for it belongs to the sheep to judge everything that is preached" (380) by the standard that is Christ, rightly dividing the Word as law that afflicts the comfortable and Gospel that comforts the afflicted.

Luther concludes the sermon on John 10 by reminding that preaching that persuades to faith by the Spirit cannot be coerced; "mad and foolish" are those who "undertake to drive people to believe by means of force and sword" which cannot "force the heart and bring it to faith. In view of this inability, [the civil authorities] must keep silent in matters of faith; here one must enter by the door, and preach the Word and make the heart free. Only in this way are [we] led to believe" (380).

May 18, 2014 - Easter 5

Luther's well-known, but not so well -understood doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" might claim its Biblical foundation in the text from today's epistle lesson in 1 Peter 2: 2-10: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." The common idea that Protestantism gives everyone their own, individual access to God while Catholicism makes access to God depend on the mediating agency of the Church may in fact hold for large swaths of modern Protestantism, both on the left and on the right. But nothing could be more foreign to Luther, for whom the church "is the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the Word of God" (Large Catechism, Kolb & Wengert, p. 436); moreover, his point is that one is liberated by the mediation of the Christ-centered preaching of the church (as we heard last week), not to be a priest for oneself, but to be a priest, i.e. a mediator of divine love for others, just as the text from 1 Peter goes on to describe. The priesthood of all believer thus means for Luther that being loved in Christ by the mediation of Word and Sacraments in the church, believers get to love neighbors in need in their daily lives in the world.

Another facet of Luther's teaching that correlates with the "holy secularity" of baptismal priesthood for the sake of others in the world that is poorly understood today is how the priesthood of all believers connects with his teaching on the so-called "left hand kingdom," i.e. political sovereignty. Here too Luther was following the Biblical text where, "for the Lord's sake [believers are to] accept the authority of every human institution..." as 1 Peter 2: 13 continues. Because of a long intervening history of the "alliance of throne and altar" in European lands that accepted the Lutheran Reformation, Luther's teaching was often put to uncritical service in the most servile obsequiousness to the powers that be. For Luther, however, loving neighbors in the world as the way of Christian discipleship entails critical solidarity with them, here and now, under the conditions of political sovereignty. The alternative, for clear thinking, is an Anabaptist separation from worldly authority and the attempt to erect a comprehensive alternative culture, as we see in the Amish and the Mennonites. Certainly, embracing worldly life under the rule of civil authority as the place of discipleship also means embracing all the moral ambiguities of existence in the still fallen and not yet redeemed creation, where the state that violently suppresses violence is as populated with sinners as the population it controls.

But Luther never envisioned uncritical obedience to the state. In a sermon on our epistle text from 1545, Luther said:

"That was the trouble of the Christians: they preached about the Son of God as King, and about His Kingdom, and boasted that they were kings, as Peter says. For the reason [the heathen] called them a seditious people, as in Acts 16... If we say "royal priests," they take it as an insult... When Satan takes possession of such people, then they always intertwine idolatry into secular government... the king starts in, "You should believe as I do." They intertwine and mix their false believe in with their royal majesty... It is worth nothing [to them] that we say, "We want to be obedient." They are not willing to separate imperial majesty and idolatry. If we do not comply (with their idolatry), then it is said, "[They did] not honor the emperor, but [were] rebellious... Kings want us to think and believe the same as they do. We cannot do that; rather, we distinguish faith from secular dominion... Your majesty, for us, is not above God, but under God and Christ" (LW 58: 228).

The long road to the democratic revolution against the "divine right" of kings was in historical fact set in motion by Luther's critique of what we today called political "ideology" that clothes the exercise of the state monopoly of coercion with an sacral and unquestionable aura of divinity.

May 27, 2014 - Easter 6

As the Easter season draws to a close we hear from Jesus' Farewell Discourse in John the promise of "another Paraclete," the Holy Spirit. Who is He and what is His Work? Luther asked and answered this question in a sermon from 1523.

"What kind of a kingdom it is and how is it to be governed? This he indicates in the words: "The Holy Spirit will convict the world." It is not to be a government constituted and organized in a worldly fashion by human wisdom, power and might, but a government of the Holy Spirit, or a spiritual kingdom, in which Christ rules invisibly and not with external, bodily power, though the Word alone, which the Holy Spirit will preach and thereby work in the hearts of men. For the Holy Spirit will preach and thereby work in the hearts of men. For the Holy Spirit, he says, will convict the world. That does not mean to coerce with armor and weapons and worldly power, but to use an oral word or an office of preaching, called the Word of God, or of the Holy Spirit, send by Christ. This Word is to pass through the world and attack it... both Jews and Gentiles, the learned, the wise and saints, who in their own government have the most beautiful and laudable organization. For by "world" he does not mean the humble, common folk, the populace, but that which in the world is best and most excellent, and in external government blameless; especially those who claim to be holy above all others...." (From the Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. John Nicolas Lenker, 8 volumes [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, reprinted 1983] III: 134-5). For Luther, it is a true sign of the work of the Spirit that preaching does not attack easy and obvious targets, reinforcing the self-righteousness of preacher and audience. Rather, the preaching of the Spirit penetrates the dense cloud of self-deception that surrounds us, not at our worst but at our best. Moreover, the Spirit does this work of leading to truth not in order to humiliate us or others but to reconstruct our lives in true holiness.


This series will now take a summer time break and resume in September.