The Future of the Lutheran Church

If the Lutheran Church has a future, it will be as the Lutheran Church. It will not be as imitation Baptists, Presbyterians, or anything else. If people are to become, remain, and rejoice in being Lutheran, it is because they understand the distinctively Lutheran way of being Christian. Being Lutheran is an evangelical catholic and catholic evangelical way of being in unity with the entire Church of Christ.  The present state of American Lutheranism is not just “not satisfactory.” It is a sickness unto death. The alternative is not beating the drums to revive flagging spirits, nor is it to move evangelism a few notches up on the bureaucratic agenda.   The alternative is renewal — theological, pastoral, sacramental, catechetical.  The alternative is to be something that others might have some reason to join.

Richard John Neuhaus, 1986 (quoted in Forum Letter March 09)

HT: Pr Matt Harrison

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Worthless Things

I love it when my daily lectionary readings come together and really punch me in the chest!  This morning’s Psalter reading (from BoC) and Gospel reading (from LSB) did just that…and it was awesome.

In Psalm 119, I read:

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.  (Ps 119.37, ESV)

That line was enough to get and keep me thinking about the worthless things of the world that so often entice us away from what is truly important.  Surely we could all provide a litany of these sorts of things that almost continually threaten to pull our attention away from Christ and his kingdom.  Quite honestly, I was driven to repentance over all the times that I wander, pursuing these worthless things instead of clinging to Christ–and pleaded with God for grace to focus more on him than the world.

Then in Matthew, I read:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Mt 4.1-11, ESV)

No sooner was my prayer uttered than it was answered in this account from the life of Christ!  Here he faced temptation to chase after what are clearly ‘worthless things’:

  • Necessary (but mundane) necessities over which Christ has taught us not to worry
  • Spectacular and miraculous manifestations, which can actually be sinful tests of God
  • Personal glory and honor, which clearly is wrong when sought out, esp. through sinful means

To beat the temptations of these worthless things, Jesus relied continually on the Word of God to focus on the revealed will of God.

Sure, it’s simple.  Sure, we’ve heard this countless times.  Sure, we know these things to be true…

…and yet, like all the blessings of the God in Christ Jesus, we cannot hear these words too often.  Thanks be to God for his grace!

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Bonhoeffer on God’s Will (from Ethics)

Last week I picked up Bonhoeffer’s Ethics.  I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this work, but I did anticipate a satisfying challenge to wrestle again with this 20th-century theological giant.  Having only read his Cost of Discipleship, however, I was unprepared for the struggle that lay ahead of me…this book is not an easy read!

While I’m not yet finished with the first chapter, I came across the following thought-provoking quote today in my reading:

“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the will of God” (Rom 12.2).  “I pray that your love may about yet more and more in knowledge and discernment, that ye may prove the different situations (i.e., what is in each case right)” (Phil 1.0 and 10; cf. Rom 2.18).  “Walk as children of light…proving what is acceptable unto the Lord” (Eph 5.8ff.).  These sayings show the error of the view that the simple recognition of the will of God must take the form of an intuition which excludes any sort of reflexion and that it must be the naive grasping of the first thought or feeling to force itself upon the mind, the error, in other words, of that psychologizing misrepresentation of the new life which has begun in Jesus.  It is not said at all that the will of God forces its way into the human heart without further ado, charged with the accent of uniqueness, or that it is simply obvious, and identical with whatever the heart may think.  The will of God may lie very deeply concealed beneath a great number of available possibilities.  The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be.  The heart, the understanding, observation and experience must all collaborate in this task.

In short, I think Bonhoeffer is saying, “In any given situation, the will of God is not necessarily an easy thing to discover.”  How far this is from what we often read and hear in the contemporary Church!

So what does anyone think?  Is Bonhoeffer on to something here?  I plan to write more later but wanted to throw this quote out to whet the appetite…

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CoD Part 7, Hidden Righteousness

In Cost of Discipleship, while moving from his exposition of Matthew 5 to Matthew 6, Bonhoeffer raises an interesting paradox that our devotional or homiletical reading of Scripture in little chunks often overlooks.  In chapter five, Jesus goes on and on about the visible nature of the Christian life:

  • Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven…(v.16)
  • If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…(v.38)
  • Do not refuse the one who would borrow from you…(v.42)

In chapter six, however, Jesus begins with what seems to be a great contradiction.  “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (v.1).  Taken at face value, these teachings are seemingly irreconcilable, and yet they are spoken almost in the same breath, (which a continuous reading of the Sermon on the Mount readily shows).  How can this be?  What is Bonhoeffer’s answer to his question?  In short, “We have to take heed that we do not take heed of our own righteousness.”  Surely this answer will take some flushing out…

To reword his answer, the Christian life and good works must necessarily be visible, but they must not be visible for the sake of their visibility.  “There are of course proper grounds for insisting on the visible nature of Christian discipleship,” Bonhoeffer says, “but the visibility is never an end in itself; and if it becomes so we have lost sight of our primary aim, which is to follow Jesus.”  More simply, if we do our good works childishly in order to win ‘gold stars’ or accolades in the eyes of others or ourselves, we have missed the point.

Bonhoeffer’s explanation of these chapters becomes even more clear (and more pointed) when he asks the question, “From whom are we to hide the visibility of our discipleship?”  He answers:

Certainly not from other men, for we are told to let them see our light.  No.  We are to hide it from ourselves.  Our task is simply to keep on following, looking only to our Leader who goes on before, taking no notice of ourselves or of what we are doing.  We must be unaware of our own righteousness, and see it only in so far as we look unto Jesus; then it will seem not extraordinary, but quite ordinary and natural.  Thus we hide the visible from ourselves in obedience to the word of Jesus.

In giving this seemingly difficult teaching at the beginning of Matthew 6, the resolution of which Bonhoeffer shows is really quite simple, our Savior has again struck to the core of human sin and pride.

We are to hide our good works from our own selves, because failing to do so unfailingly generates pride and puffs us up.  Jesus knows all too well that if we perform good works with conscious focus on the works themselves, our inclination…no, our inevitable desire…is to rest on the laurels of our accomplishments and turn our focus inward to self instead of keeping our gaze on Christ and the cross.  Turning our focus towards ourselves is a tragic first step towards self-righteousness (at best) and an un-Christian theology of salvation by works (at worst).  The solution, of course, is to keep our eyes on Christ.  “Genuine love is always self-forgetful in the true sense of the word.  But if we are to have it, our old man must die with all his virtues and qualities, and this can only be done where the disciple forgets self and clings solely to Christ…Love, in the sense of spontaneous, unreflective action, spells the death of the old man.”

Lord Jesus, grant us the grace and strength to keep our eyes firmly fixed on you, our Captain, and keep them from turning inward to ourselves.  Amen.