Friday, March 15, 2013

The Power of Weakness, the Wisdom of Foolishness

In his letter to the first century church in the city of Corinth, the apostle Paul constantly comes back to four words (and their cognates):
  • weakness
  • power
  • foolishness
  • wisdom
Worldly people, with shrewdness and cynicism, have their ideas about where wisdom and strength lie.

The worldly believe in themselves as the ultimate arbiters of what's best for them, looking out for their own interests above all, and being comfortable.

The worldly place their highest hopes in the things they can see, acquire, touch, or use. If they ever consider the God Who made them, their accountability to Him, or the needs of others, it's only in fits and spurts.

Such considerations leave them uncomfortable and they move to push them out of their minds.

From a worldly perspective, it's total foolishness to believe that a Savior Who died on a cross, a condemned man, could do anything to change my life, my perspective, my eternity. When you die, you die, the worldly say. Crosses bring an end to the human "pursuit of happiness." Until death comes, they strive to "build large barns" (think: self-storage units, pole barns, and junk rooms and rooms junked up with stuff) and say to themselves, "Soul,...relax, eat, drink, be merry," never dreaming that, at any moment, God could say to them, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" (See Luke 12:13-21)

The worldly extol what Jesus calls "making provision for the flesh," by which He means, I think, pursuing more than what we and our families need--Jesus calls it "our daily bread"--to pursue what we want.

When the worldly pursue what they want, whatever it is, they foolishly crowd out the only God, revealed in Jesus Christ, Who can give meaning to our lives here on earth and life with God beyond death.

Jesus' crucifixion proves how horrific and destructive the worldly life--sin--is. On the cross, Jesus experienced the death and condemnation that awaits anyone who insists on living this life on the basis of their own supposed wisdom and strength, by their own wits. Jesus died bearing our sinful worldliness. The Bible says that, "For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Jesus paid the price for human worldliness. "For the wages of sin is death," the Bible says, "but the free gift is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Through what the world consider His foolish submission to the cross, Jesus, sinless human and perfect God, paid the debt each of us owes for our worldliness and opens the way to eternity to all who will renounce their worldliness (repent for their sin) and believe in (or surrender their lives in trust to) Jesus.

When we come to faith in Christ, there begins an ongoing process that the worldly consider foolish, that those who rely on their own strength deem weak: Ongoing submission to Christ. It can be a painful process, bringing our sinful self to God to be crucified by God as we confess and trust in Christ for forgiving grace. But it's the only way to life!

Of course, we are all born worldly. We're all born looking out for number 1. Our human inclinations will always be to do what we want to do. We will even argue that a behavior that God has called sinful must be OK because we were, we claim, "born that way." It seems foolish to us to turn from behaviors that we were born inclined to pursue.

But Jesus Christ came to justify sinners, transforming those who surrender to Him from enemies of God to God's friends. Jesus did not come to justify our sins.

The God we meet in Jesus Christ is not an indulgent uncle who covers our selfish pursuits with a veneer of heavenly approval.

The only way we sinners will be justified, counted innocent and set free from the slavery of worldliness, is to submit daily to the crucifixion of our old sinful selves, so that the new self--foolish and weak in the eyes of the world, but redeemed, eternally alive through God's power and wisdom--can rise to live with God.

Through Christ and His cross and the daily crucifixion and repentance we undergo as we submit to Him as Lord, we live and see God "through a glass darkly" in this world, but perfectly on that day when, with all the risen in Christ, will see Jesus face to face.

In eternity, the difference between wisdom and foolishness will be on full display. And we will see that the lifestyle of daily repentance and renewal that the Lord Who set His Church to "turn the world upside down" commands of and commends to us, is the way of the only life worth living. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," Jesus says, "no one comes to the Father except through Me."

And He says, "If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose it for My sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?" (Matthew 6:24-26a)

That's why in 1 Corinthians, part of God's inspired Word in the Bible, Paul spends a lot of time setting us straight on the difference between our wisdom and God's wisdom, between our strength and God's strength.

God's wisdom and strength, he insists, is seen in Christ, the man of tears well-acquainted with grief, and in His cross, where He bought back from sin, death, and the devil all who believe in Him.

Paul says, for example: "...the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18).

In the next verse he remembers God's promise from Isaiah in the Old Testament, "For it is written, 'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart'" (1 Corinthians 1:19).

And then, "...since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks [by which Paul here means Gentiles, all non-Jewish people] desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jesus and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:21-25).

My experience is that wisdom and power are more likely to be seen at the deathbed of a person who trusts Christ than they are in the halls of economic or political power, or displays of military conquest, or the ringing words of idealists touting the so-called rights of human beings.

God's power and wisdom are seen in those who are humble enough to own that they are imperfect, worldly sinners whose only hope for this life and the next is Jesus Christ.

A friend of mine, Chris Wissmann, has written her autobiography, My Life: A Testimony of His Love. There, she recounts something I've shared before about visits I paid to her husband, Sig, as he lay dying at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati. She recalls that many of us, friends of Sig and Chris, "did not want to leave because it was so peaceful. The atmosphere was God's atmosphere..." She remembers me telling her, "I don't want to leave; it is so holy in here."

Holiness is the opposite of worldliness. That person is holy who has believed in Jesus Christ. They entrust their sins, their desires, their pretensions to perfection, their arrogance to Christ, trusting that not only will He no longer hold those things against us and allow us to be eternally condemned for them, He will set us free from all the compulsions of this sinful world.

Those compulsions place demands on us. They tell us to perform, to be, as I've said in a phrase I stole from somebody, human doings, rather than human beings.

They even (always) come disguised as good things, like good works done for the applause of others instead of the glory of God; like sex to placate a pressuring partner rather than the expression marital fidelity between a husband and wife it was intended to be; like working hard to make a comfortable mark in the world instead of providing for the needs of our families and ourselves while dedicating some of the income to the work of God in the world.

True power and true wisdom is seen in Jesus and His cross. True power and true wisdom is experienced by those who follow the Christ of the cross and surrender their sins and their whole beings to Him and to the crucifixion of our inborn worldly passions and desires.

It was so that none of the people in Corinth with whom he first shared the good news, the Gospel, of Jesus, would be confused about what's truly important in the message about Jesus that Paul made a firm resolution:
"...I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified...I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of [God's] power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God" (1 Corinthians 2:2-5).
Yesterday, in a homily delivered during Mass with the College of Cardinals, the new pope, Francis 1, said,
"When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we proclaim Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly." 
"In the cross of Christ I glory, tow'ring o'er the wrecks of time!" a Christian hymn proclaims. Follow the crucified and risen God of all creation, Jesus. Learn the power in admitting your weakness, the wisdom in acknowledging your foolishness. See how God gives the foolish and the weak His wisdom and His strength.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thrilled by Francis' Call to Mission

Words spoken by the new Roman Catholic leader, Pope Francis 1, in an informal homily delivered to the College of Cardinals today, thrilled me. (Thrilled is not one of my usual verbs. But that's exactly how I felt.) From The Los Angeles Times account of the Mass at which Francis preached:
Stressing the power of prayer, Francis told the cardinals, "He who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil. When we don't proclaim Jesus Christ, we proclaim the worldliness of the devil, the worldliness of the demon."

"When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we proclaim Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly."

He added, "We may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, all of this, but we are not disciples of the Lord."

Francis issued a strong warning to the cardinals, telling them the Catholic Church risks becoming a compassionate nongovernment organization unless it sticks to its spiritual path.

Building a solid Church, he added, was vital to stop it from crumbling like a "sand castle" built by children.
Wow! This is exactly the message that not only Roman Catholic Christians need to hear, but we Lutheran and other Christians need as well.

There is no point to the Church's existence if we don't keep on the mission given to us by Christ Himself:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
We Christians, as part of the larger Church (the Body of Christ, in Biblical terms), each have our missions. In fact, Peter, the man Roman Catholics say was the first pope, that Christ has saved us from sin and death not only as a gift for us to enjoy, but as a gift to share with others: 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. (1 Peter 2:9)
Peter also tells Christians this:
Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:15-16)
It displays a profound lack of faith in Christ when church bodies or congregations give up on fulfilling the mission Christ commands and the Holy Spirit empowers us to do to, instead pursue political or social agendas. In these pursuits, they impatiently attempt to coerce others into living under their versions of the kingdom of God, rather than sharing the Gospel as Christ commands and letting Him reign, do His will, and build His Church.

Christ has said that new life comes only to those who turn from sin and believe in Him and the Good News, the Gospel, that His death and resurrection have unleashed in the world. Sharing this Good News is our mission and it is not of Christ for us to get sidetracked for human agendas. Whenever the Church forgets to keep the main thing the main thing--sharing the Gospel through Word and Sacrament--you can be sure that the devil cackles with delight. There's nothing he likes more than the Church going off-target!
Many of his fellow Christians won't agree with Francis on everything. For example, I have profound disagreements with the Roman Church on relying on the intervention of dead saints, such as Mary, when we are privileged to approach God directly through Jesus Christ, God in the flesh.

But I am excited that leading the largest Christian body in the world is a person who is challenging His flock to focus on the mission Christ commands all His people to pursue and trust that, as we do so, the lives of those who receive Christ by faith will be so transformed that they spend their doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with their God (Malachi 6:8).

My prayer is that God will help me to live such a life: a life of repentance for my sin, of gratitude that Christ died and rose for a sinner like me, of the purpose that belongs to those live life in the company of Christ, and of hope for eternity with God.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Confession of Sin (Part 10, The Augsburg Confession)

Today, as we continue to look at what it means to be Lutheran Christians, we’re going to talk about confession. This subject is so important that The Augsburg Confession, one of the basic statements of our Lutheran understanding of Biblical faith, devotes two of its 28 articles to them, Articles 11 and 25.

There are several ways in which the word confession can be used, of course. But today, we’re talking about the confession of sin. Confessing our sin is essential to being a Christian. As Christians, we must let go of our sin in order to grab hold of the forgiveness of sin which the crucified and risen Jesus offers to all who turn from sin and believe in Him.

The confession of sin is so important that in His model prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses.” That’s because to continue in sin even after God has clearly shown us that we’re violating His will by doing so is to place ourselves under judgment, to separate ourselves from God, and to refuse God’s grace.

A Lutheran bishop I once knew told me how the guys in his barracks when he was in the Army would say to him and some of the other soldiers there, "You Lutherans and Catholics are all alike. You think that you can do whatever you want on Saturday nights, then say a few words of confession on Sunday mornings, and everything will be OK." The bishop told me that it's true that some Christians, even some Lutheran Christians do take such a lackadaisical attitude about their violations of the Ten Commandments and of the meaning of confession. And it's true: Some who call themselves Christians take forgiveness for granted and see it as license to do whatever they want, when they want.

But to any Christian intent on following Christ, living for Him, and receiving the blessings He reserves for those who trust in Him, such attitudes are unthinkable! To members of the first century church at Rome who wouldn’t acknowledge their sins against others, Paul wrote: “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:4-5).

God is love, 1 John 4:8 teaches, meaning that everything God does is done from His self-giving love
But God’s love does not mean (and cannot) mean that He will force His forgiveness and the gift of life with Him on people who refuse those gifts.

Unless we lay our lives before God in confession of sin, we block the Holy Spirit access to our lives, keeping Him from convicting us of sin or of convincing us of the forgiveness that God wants to give to us through Jesus Christ. (This is what the Jesus calls the sin against the Holy Spirit.)  

If we want life with God, we must confess our sins to God, seeking forgiveness through Jesus, Who died and rose to set sinners free from sin and death. Since God came to earth in the Person of Jesus, belief in Jesus is the only way to life with God. (See John 3:16-18 and John 14:6, for example.)

When the evangelical reformers of the Sixteenth-century, led by Martin Luther, began their work, they did so amid a Church that wasn’t teaching in accordance with Scripture regarding the confession of sin.

You see, starting in 1215, official Church teaching was that believers were required to go to their local priest every year and confess every sin they had committed in the preceding year. If they didn’t or couldn't do so, they couldn’t receive Holy Communion. The priest could then tell the parishioner what "good works" they needed to do to make up for their sins.

The reformers looked at these practices and raised two objections.

First, they said, it’s impossible for human beings to know all their sins. They pointed to Psalm 19:12, which says: “Who can understand his errors? [Then the psalmist offers this prayer:] Cleanse me from secret faults.”

Second, the reformers said, the priest’s job is not to make up good works for a repentant sinner to do in order to be worthy of receiving Christ’s body and blood, but to declare God’s forgiveness to anyone who authentically seeks forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ. Good works are an essential part of Christian living, of course. They're the outgrowth of faith in Jesus. But good works aren’t necessary to gain God’s forgiveness.

Originally speaking to believers in Ephesus (and now to all who believe in Christ, like you and me), Ephesians 2:8-9 say: “ grace you have been saved through faith, and that not  of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast...”

The Lutheran reformers were saying: You can’t tell a repentant believer in Jesus that their repentance and belief isn’t good enough. To do so is to render Christ’s suffering and death and His promise of forgiveness and new life to all who believe in Him irrelevant. By adding non-Biblical conditions for a repentant believer in Jesus to have forgiveness, you actually poor contempt on the cross on which Christ died and the empty tomb from which He physically arose.

The Lutheran reformers were also saying: You also can’t tell repentant sinners that they have to do good works proscribed by a human being in order to receive God’s forgiveness. To put a human being--be it a priest, a pastor, or some self-appointed holy person--above Christ, denying God’s word of forgiveness to a repentant believer, the Lutheran reformers held and we who are Lutheras today hold, was and is an abuse of the “office of the keys.”

You remember the office of the keys, right?

Just to refresh your memory, turn to Matthew 16:19. To set the stage, Peter has just confessed his belief that Jesus is both the Messiah (or the Christ), the anointed king for whom God’s people had been waiting, AND “the Son of the living God,” a phrase meaning that the Holy Spirit had led Peter to believe that Jesus was (and is) God in the flesh. Then Jesus explains a power and a responsibility that He will give His whole Church:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
What this means is that it’s the job of the Church to tell the whole truth about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Lutheran confessions insist that there are two elements in the Word of God about Jesus that the Church must faithfully proclaim:
  • First, we must proclaim the Law, God’s moral commandments embodied in the Ten Commandments, and explained elsewhere in both the Old and New Testaments, and 
  • Second, we must proclaim the Promise, the truth that in spite of our sin, all who repent for sin and believe in Jesus Christ, are saved from sin and death, given forgiveness of sin, and life everlasting with God. 
That means that the Gospel truth every unrepentant sinner needs to hear in order to have life and peace with God is that their sins are not forgiven, that they’re still dead in their trespasses, yet that can have life and forgiveness through Christ alone. It’s the Church’s responsibility to bind the unrepentant in their sin with the hope that they will confess their sins and trust in Christ.

The Gospel truth every repentant sinner needs to hear is that their sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ, Who died and rose for sinners, and that they do have life with God.

But the Reformers said, the power of the Keys, this responsibility to speak the truth in love to both repentant and unrepentant sinners is not an authorization for priests, pastors, or anyone else to impose a regimen of required good works on a repentant sinner.

Every Christian is authorized by Christ to exercise the office of keys, but they dare not add to or take away a letter or a syllable from God’s Word. As Proverbs 30:5-6 say: “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words, lest He rebuke you and you be found a liar.”

The Roman Catholic theologians of the 16th-century read what the Lutheran theologians were saying about confessing sin and were horrified!

They even accused the Lutheran Reformers of doing away with private confession of sin, which is something they never did. Nor, by the way, have we who call ourselves Lutherans in 2013 done away with private confession either. As a Lutheran Christian in 2013, we are bound by our confessions and by the teachings of the Bible to believe in private confession too!

Take a look at the first article about the confession of sin in The Augsburg Confession, one of the basic statements of we Lutherans’ understanding of Biblical Christianity. It’s Article 11:
Our churches teach that private absolution [that is, the private proclamation that sins are forgiven] should be retained in our churches, although listing all sins is not necessary for Confession....
While the Lutheran reformers certainly wanted everything to be done “in good order"(they were Germans, after all), they also wanted to set all Christians, clergy and laypeople, free to do their ministries, including the exercise of the office of the keys.

There’s good reason for allowing laypeople to exercise the power of the keys. You see, not everyone feels comfortable going to talk with their pastor about their sins. This is why the Lutheran confessions retain private confession, but don’t say that pastors are the only people to whom Christians can confess their sins.

Of course, we all can confess our sins to God in the Name of Jesus in personal prayers that don’t involve other human beings. In fact, we should confess our sins in that way every day, often.

But it’s good sometimes to have people who are devoted Christians to whom we can confide our sins and receive from them the Word about Christ’s forgiveness. It’s too easy for us to go solo as Christians, telling ourselves either that our sin is too big for God to forgive or that our sin is too insignificant to matter. But private confession and absolution can help us to see the truth and know God’s guidance in our lives.

I remember once when I had unintentionally fallen into a bad habit that I only realized after a time was a sin. One day over breakfast, I confided my sin to a friend. He heard me out, pointed out what I had done wrong. I was sad about my sin. There was a long silence as I sat there, running my fork around the surface of an empty plate, feeling sorrow for sin and wanting to be reconciled to Jesus. And then, seeing my repentance and my belief in Jesus, my friend told me, “Your sin is forgiven, Mark. Be at peace with that.”  My friend hadn't just tapped me in the should and said, "Oh, that's OK." But, like the father in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, he let me experience the full depth of my sorrow for my sin and let me express that sorrow in confession that also included regret that I had hurt the feelings of the God Who made me and gone to a cross for me. When he saw authentic confession of sin coming from me, he knew that as a Christian, it was time to loose a sinner from the straitjacket of sin and set me free to be Christ's child once more.

But there are times when we must be willing to use the office of the keys to announce that God has not forgiven a person. Several years after the incident I recounted, a woman of a former congregation came to me in tears and confessed a sinful relationship with a married man in which she had been involved for decades. “I know it’s wrong,” she told me. “But I also know that if he phones me tonight, I’ll go to him and sin again. I’m not forgiven, am I?” It would have been an abuse of the office of the keys for me to have lied to her. But I tried to put a positive spin on things. I told her, “You can be forgiven. Jesus died and rose so that you can be forgiven. But no, at present, you’re not forgiven because you don’t believe in Jesus enough to lay this sin at God’s feet and ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ Name.” I had to bound that sinner in hopes that, like the prodigal son in Jesus' parable, she would come to herself, confess her sin, and receive the assurance of God's forgiveness!  

But why, we may wonder, is it necessary for Christians to keep confessing their sins? "If we tell God once that we're sinners," we may reason, "what more can he expect of us?"

The answer is simple. None of us is perfect. I keep a written prayer journal. I now type it out on my computer, according to the ACTS formulation: A for Adoration; C for Confession; T for Thanksgiving; and S for Supplication or prayer requests. Personally, when I look back on my confessions of sin that I offered one year ago or two years ago, I find myself confessing the same stupid sins to God now. I may be bring those same sins and same sinful inclinations before God for forgiveness for as long as I live. The only time I should get worried is if I stop confessing that sin, even if that sin is still something I turn to. I'll need God's forgiveness and help in seeking to live a life pleasing to Him as long as I'm on this earth.

When we confess our sins to God, we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We confess, “God, this sin is bigger than me. But You are bigger than my sin. Cover my sin in the forgiveness Jesus bears for those who repent and believe in Him.” The God Who took on flesh, died on a cross, and rose from the dead in the Person of Jesus Christ is always glad to answer that prayer!

But when we confess our sins in the presence of other Christians, whether in private confession with one trusted Christian or during public worship, God helps those of us who walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:6-7), to hear Christ’s words of forgiveness that we can’t hear when we're just praying to God personally on our knees.

Words like: “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for His sake God forgives you all your sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.” They’re good words to hear!

In Psalm 32, David says that before he confessed his sins, his “body wasted away...for day and night [God’s] hand was heavy upon him..” But then, he tells God, “I acknowledged my sin to you...I did not hide my iniquity...and You forgave the guilt of my sin.”

Whenever we confess our violations of God’s will--in our personal prayer time, in confidence to a trusted Christian friend, or in public worship--confession is the road to the healing of relationship with God that God wants all of us to know.

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, and our friends and guests on Sunday.]