Sound Words

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. – 2 Tim. 1:13-14

The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod might be the only church that still follows the Trinity Sunday practice of reciting the Athanasian Creed. I’ve never run across it anywhere else and a good number of ministers outside of the LCMS I’ve mentioned it to have never heard of the creed itself. Part of my fascination was simply the language. As a geeky kid, once a year saying something like “the Father infinite, the Son infinite and the Holy Spirit infinite” was an impossible invitation to mystery. I imagine every kid who ever liked math and ran across the Athanasian creed was invited to ponder the infinite. And how I can give you a perfectly valid proof that is completely understandable in simple language that one infinity is bigger than another infinity. (Observe that the numbers 1, 2, 3… and so on are infinite. Observe that 1.1, 1.2, 1.3…and so on are also infinite. The 2nd infinity is bigger than the first. And you can intuitively grasp that.  But what the hell does it mean that one infinity is bigger than another infinity?)  “And yet there are not three infinities, but one infinite.” There are three infinite persons, but there is only one infinite God.

It is not meant to be understood.  If we could understand it, it wouldn’t be God. He is meant to be adored.

And yet in our hearts we have a desire for understanding. The apostle Paul certainly understood that. “That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and may share in his sufferings…(Philippians 3:10).”  It is this tension that makes Paul’s letters still sing today. Whatever he was facing he was constantly searching for a way to describe what God is and what he is doing for His people. The way of Love: “I will show you a still more excellent way.  If I speak in tongues of men and of angles, buy have not love…(1 Cor 13).”  The mystery of God’s election and Israel: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.  Oh the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God…(Romans 11:32-33).” The way of a man and a woman: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church…(Ephesians 5:32).”  As Paul more or less rightly bragged, “if anyone has reason to boast, I have more (2 Cor 11, Phil 3).”  Yet Paul reaching to know God, always returned to adoration. All theology ends in doxology.  He is meant to be adored.

So what we have in the creeds, and I would say especially in the Athanasian Creed, is a sound pattern of words. And in a religion where one infinite person of the Trinity is sometimes called “The Word of God,” words are important. There is a reason Satan is always changing the definitions of words, attempting to confuse things that God made plain. The creeds are a sound pattern of words. When Satan, the World or our own flesh want to pull some tricky business with us, the creeds are a light in a dark place. When our brains are tired of thinking, the creeds guard the good deposit given to us. They are not The Faith.  They are not the love in Christ Jesus.  They are not even the Holy Spirit that dwells within. These things – faith, love, Spirit – are more important. But faith, love and even the Spirit express themselves in words.  And these are a pattern of sound words.

When our own words fail us, the Scriptures promise that the Spirit intercedes. Think of the creeds as part of that intercession. A pattern of sound words leading us back to adoration. A theology in short, so that we can sing the doxology. Praise God from whom all blessing flow.  Including words…like “this is the catholic faith.”

Dry Bones Clean Cut Off

Biblical Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Recording Note: Sorry about the voice, might be a little scratchy, especially early. A member was nice enough to get me a bottle of water shortly in. Thought the minor cold had past, but it caught me in the pulpit.

That said, if you can put aside the voice, I think the message is a good one. It is Pentecost day – which is Feast Day of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the world. But I chose the OT lesson. Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Which I think is a timely message for the church of today. We spend a good amount of time talking like Israel. We might feel like Israel in exile. And God does not deny the diagnosis. What he does deny is their vision. Because God is not a God of medical therapy or incremental improvement. God works by death and resurrection. A field of dry bones is exactly what God will work with. This sermon expands on that hope. That God will raise us from our graves and give us our own land. He has promised, He will do it.

Sin, Righteousness and Judgement

And when He comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement. – John 16:8

Sometimes there are phrases that just jump off the page and grab the imagination.  I think the one above is one of those phrases. Today is the Feast of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church. And that phrase is what Jesus says the Holy Spirit will accomplish.  In a world where standards seem to be up for grabs the idea of the Holy Spirit convicting the world about anything seems doubtful. Convicting this world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement is quite the boast.  It is worth pondering those three words and two others in that phrase – convict and world.  What do they mean?

We think of convict purely in a negative legal sense – convicted.  The word used here does have that meaning, but it might be better to remember an older sense of a trial.  The purpose of a trial is to bring to light, to force what was hidden or in the darkness out into the open.  The Holy Spirit will bring to light.  And what will the Holy Spirit force into the open?  The world.  The entire cosmos. John likes that word cosmos. God so loves the cosmos. The Holy Spirit will expose how the world works.

How specifically will the Holy Spirit do this?  The first thing will be concerning sin.  And what is the sin of the world brought into the light? “That they do not believe in me (John 16:9).” The Holy Spirit will expose the fact that the World does not fear, love or trust in God above all things.  That the World fears the mighty.  It loves money and pleasure. It trusts in its own strength.  All of which are temporal.  The day the mighty dies, his plans die with him (Psalm 146:4).  The fool thinks I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones (Luke 12:28), yet tonight my soul is required of me.  The Holy Spirit will bring to light our foolish belief, our disbelief in God.

The Holy Spirit will bring to light righteousness. Jesus’ explanation here might be a little less immediate. “Because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer. (John 16:10)”  It is not immediately apparent why the ascended LORD is the Spirit revealing righteousness. I think this is something of an answer to Psalm 24.  That Psalm asserts that the earth is the LORD’s and the fullness of it.  And then it asks “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?…He who has clean hands and a pure heart. (Paslm 24:3-4).” Paul ponders this in Romans 10.  “The righteousness based on faith says, ‘Do Not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend?’”  According to the law we are always worried who could stand before the throne, and the answer is not a single person is righteous.  But Christ the Lamb was worthy to ascend and take the seat at the right hand.  The Holy Spirit bringing to light righteousness is the testimony that Christ sits at the right hand of God, and that our righteousness is dependent not upon our ability to ascend, but upon faith in the one who has ascended.

The Holy Spirit brings to light judgement? Should this place us back into the fear of not ascending? No, because what the Holy Spirit reveals is that “the ruler of this world is judged (John 16:11).” The important judgement is not ours, but Satan’s. He’s judged, the deed is done, one little word can fell him.  The sin that is brought to light and confessed has no power over us.  Because the one who sits on the Throne has had mercy, and brings to naught the plans of the evil one, who has been cast out of heaven and can no longer accuse us.

He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement. He will testify to the light that shines in the darkness.  A light that the world cannot overcome. In this light is the life of all who receive it.

What Do We Do Now?

Biblical Texts: Acts 1:12-26, John 17:11-19

The texts for Easter 7B (the Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost), which often happens to be Mother’s Day as well, are just terrible for that. The general feel in both I would say is one of abandonment. Jesus is ascended and the Spirit is not yet present. Or in the Gospel, it is late Maundy Thursday and Jesus will be taken from them soon and is contemplating very Ascension Day thoughts. On top of that, you’ve got Judas. But it is Judas that gives the Apostles the chance to reflect on what Jesus tells them and to act on it. In real life those “what do we do now” moments often start with a call to mom. This sermon is a meditation on how we are given to act when the world seems to be falling apart.

Ascension Troubles

It was last Thursday (or today if you are reading this electronically). What was Thursday? Ascension Day. It is something of the forgotten feast day of the Life of Christ.  Why is that?  The easy answer is that it is on a Thursday – 40 days after Easter.  And while Epiphany can be forced by a Pastor as a nice late ending to the Christmas season.  It doesn’t hurt that everyone loves the story of the Wise Men and the star connected to Epiphany.  And Holy Week seems appropriate piety.  By the time you get to 40 days after Easter, Summer is starting. It is one thing to be in church when it is cold and dark.  It is another thing to sacrifice sun and good weather. Less joking, more serious, Ascension I think hits on all the modern church’s hangups.

What do I mean by that?  Well, among respectable educated folk, there is a tendency to spiritualize the more miraculous events of the life of Jesus. Not that the bible allows this, it is just that we are all educated as de facto materialists (i.e. there is nothing but matter). So anything that borders on the woo-woo must be a metaphor. The first step in much of mainline Protestantism’s losing the faith was spiritualizing Easter.  The resurrection is a metaphor for new beginnings.  If it’s just a metaphor, to hell with it.  I want to thrust my hand into the side with Thomas. 

Because then I know that my six foot slumber is temporary. If it’s a metaphor, there is no new beginning from that, unless you count being mulch a new beginning. What does Ascension say? That Jesus Christ was bodily taken up into heaven (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:6-11, Matthew 28:16-20).  And that in heaven he has been seated at the right hand of God the Father (Creed, Revelation 4-5). Ascension says that Jesus Christ is reigning right now.  And that is not some metaphor. The King is on his throne.  And it is not some King in Parliament scheme.  “The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders and every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them fell down and worshipped (Revelation 5:13-14).” This King is the judge of the quick and the dead.  Good luck turning that into a metaphor.

The second reason is what the Royal decree of Ascencion Day is – evangelism. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).”  Luke’s version is “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the Ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8).” Having been clothed with power from on high, the Holy Spirit, the disciples are to make more disciples. Again, really hard to make a metaphor.  That’s a concrete mission.  The Gospel of John doesn’t have an explicit Ascension story, but it has an implied one that explains it a bit further.  From John 16:7-8, “I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you. And when He comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement.” Ascension Day, for it’s woo-woo happening, is very concrete. It is about sin and righteousness and judgement.

Ascension Day is this forgotten day, probably because we don’t always like the message.  Jesus reigns. And He has given us a Royal quest. It is not the myth of Camelot or some far away story, but it has come very close to you.  That Helper abides in you. Do we say Christ is Lord? And if so, do we mean it…by following his commandments? By being his witnesses? It is an uneasy message in these later days.


Biblical Text: John 15:9-17

The text comes from the long Maundy Thursday section of John’s gospel where Jesus issues a new command – “love one another as I have loved you.” And like all things John he turns it over and over. Our particular turning focuses on the direction of that love. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” And it is a meditation of what abiding in the love of God means, what it looks like and what the ends of it are. The sermon develops each of those ideas. It also has an opening meditation on what a sermon is supposed to be.

Rogate – What Shall We Ask?

Every 6th Sunday of Easter I somehow get pushed into the same meditation. When we date things we find a calendar and just write say 5/3/24 – May 3rd, 2024. And that time encodes where we are in the earth’s annual trip around the sun.  It is handy for calculating interest owed or accrued as the days are easily countable. In other words it is a practical notation, but it is also a skinny one. Through at least the 19th Century, something on May 3rd might have been dated – On the Feast of Philip and James.  This Sunday would have been known as Rogate. The Sundays all took their names from the first words spoken in service from the Introits originally in Latin.  Rogate means to ask.  The First Sunday in Easter was Quasimodogeniti which means “as newborn babies.” You might recognize Quasimodo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He was born on that Sunday.  Marking time in those ways is thick.  It isn’t as practical for calculating interest, but it communicates a lot more than simply where this rock is in its yearly journey. It is centered on what we the people of God are asked to be in contemplation about that week.  And if you are a mystical sort, it might communicate what God is about at that time.

So if you come across a document dated Rogation week, what we are asked to contemplate is asking.  Originally this Sunday was tied to the Spring Planting.  Whether the seeds were already planted or if you were behind and still needed to get some in, Rogate was the Sunday that you asked God for his blessings on the ground and on the crops.  Deep rural congregations would often exit the sanctuary and turn the soil while asking for blessing.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And that daily bread starts with these seeds and this soil.

Rogate for a long time also had a specific meaning in parish life. Sometimes just the Pastor, sometimes it would be an entire procession, if you were Roman Catholic a Eucharistic one, would walk the boundaries of the parish. As the community prayed for its daily bread and the planting, so also would you pray for the entire people entrusted to the care of the parish.  The idea of a congregation and the idea of a parish get treated as synonyms today, but they are quite distinct. You could have many congregations within a parish.  You could have “rogue” congregations.  A congregation is ultimately just a gathering of people.  The parish was a defined geographic space full of sinners and saints and everything in between.  The parish priest/pastor/vicar was called to hold a spiritual office for the parish – all those within it.  Those seen daily, and those never seen. Rogate was the week to be seen.  And to ask God for the soil, that it might prove good soil.

I get to thinking in the same veins because I think these changes tell us a lot about ourselves.  We no longer really have parishes, even the Roman Catholics.  We are all “rogue congregations”.  Singular outposts of believers gathering around word and sacrament. And this is still meaningful.  And the promises are still present.  But it is thinner.  It is the church admitting that she no longer influences larger areas.  At the same time the boundaries which once were very easy to recognize – you walked the boundary stones yearly. They are now moved all over to who knows where. Which means questions about what exactly one is called to. And if you bump into the neighboring vicar walking the boundaries, what do you owe him?  But maybe more importantly who and what are we asking for these days?  At the same time as our lives have often become so busy, they have become so thin.  The thickness of living with family and known neighbors, has thinned out in many ways.  Lifelong work partners now come and go every six months.  People who you might spend 10 hours a day with for months leave and rarely cross our minds. The mystic cords of memory are thinner.  No longer strands of 3 connected by water, blood and spirit, but cords of one. So thin that we would rather worry about people half a world away than our literal neighbor.

We can see and feel the thinness and know it isn’t good.  But the thicker actually binds us. And are we binding ourselves to the right thing? St. Patrick knew what he was binding himself to (LSB 604). So I return yearly, made more difficult by myself having uprooted and moved a long way, and my Son heading back where we left for school, to questions about thick and thin.  To what needs Rogation.  For what should we ask the Father? 

Vines and Vinedressers

Biblical Text: John 15:1-8

For a second week we have one of the “I AM” sayings in the Gospel according to John – “I AM the vine”. And I think this saying invites us to ponder a couple of things. First what it reveals about God which is central to the mystery of suffering or in this case spiritual struggle. The Father as the vinedresser and the son as the vine with the point being greater fruitfulness invites meditation on pruning coded as struggle and how God prunes or limits himself in some ways. The second revelation is what it says about fruitfulness. Vines and branches are made to bear fruit. It will happen. The deeper question is if the branches stay connected to the vine. Measuring fruitfulness is usually fruitless, because it is aimed the wrong way. If there is fruit you will see it. The main concern of the branch is to stay connected – to abide – in the vine.

Easy Reading

The Reformation itself is grounded upon a doctrine with a terrible name – the perspicuity of scripture.  Perspicuity, a word that I can’t even pronounce, that most people probably don’t recognize, means something real simple. It is the doctrine that normal people can read the scriptures and understand them.  “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John. 20:31)”  That taps into “the priesthood of all believers” and Luther at Worms stand on conscience. Luther would also stand in his great work “The Freedom of a Christian (1520)” on a semi-mystical point that “God would make us theodidacti, that is those taught by God (John 6:45).”   And all of it gets summed up in the Reformation slogan “sola scriptura” – word alone.

At the time the Roman church argued that, “no, the scriptures were not comprehensible by ordinary people.  You need the pope to tell you what they mean.”  And given the situation today, it might be much harder to argue with them.  As they satirically argued, “you are replacing 1 pope with millions of popes.”  And that might not seem so satirical today.  Of course the Roman argument has to wrestle with Paul saying things like, “not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, (Phil. 2:12 ESV)” just as much as with those verses from John. Luther was a sharp reader of scripture.  And Luther’s real radical streak was his willingness to trust God for his people.  “My sheep hear my voice (John 10).”

There is always the tension in the church to want to over control things. Whether that is to put God in the box. Saying to God that he must act this way.  Or if that is to put all the sheep under one shepherd who is not Christ. The Spirit blows when He wills.  We all like sheep have gone astray and only one shepherd is the good shepherd.  There are a bunch of reasons, but those are some of the reasons I love our First reading from Acts 8:26-40 this week.  The reading about the Ethiopian Eunuch.  It is a happening about all these confusing things.

It concerns Philip who was one of the 7 appointed deacons.  The deacons were supposed to take care of the widows and orphans fund.  But as soon as they are “ordained” you find Stephen preaching himself into martyrdom.  And you find an Angel of the Lord telling Philip to “rise and go (Acts 8:26).”  That spirit tells Philip to go out to a desert place.  He blows where he wills. He uses the means he desires. Somehow along this desert road the Ethiopian Eunuch is traveling in a chariot reading Isaiah. The Spirit sends Philip up to him, and the scriptures are not all that perspicuous. “Do you understand what you are reading?  How can I, unless someone guides me? (Acts 8:30-31)”  Now that might seem to be a slam dunk passage for the Pope, but Luther might say that it seems to be a perfect case of God ensuring teaching, of the Ethiopian Eunuch being a theodidacti. Our slogans never capture the full complexity.  Moving from preacher or teacher to Pope is a big step.  One that doesn’t seem authorized.  A usurpation of what Christ alone fulfills.

Because the Eunuch immediately runs past the teacher.  Somehow, out in the desert, “see, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized? (Acts 8:37)” And the answer is nothing.  They stop, Philip baptizes, and when they come up “the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away.” That Spirit of the Lord was now abiding in the Ethiopian.  (The Ethiopian church to this day maintains a story about his work on his return.)  And that Spirit of the Lord had other work for Philip to do.  “Philip found himself in Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns (Acts 8:40).”

We have this desire to make everything neat.  A Pope to make things clear. A confession to give us surety. An office that would guard the teaching.  And God often kindly works though such means. But our surety is never in the means, it is always in the one – in Christ. In the Spirit.  “We are all beggars” were Luther’s last written words. And what we are begging for is not some magical talisman or wise teacher or scroll.  Every earthly prop gives way.  We are begging for God himself to stop and not pass us by.  That we too might have that water of life.

Knowing and Being Known

Biblical Text: John 10:11-18

This was “Good Shepherd Sunday”. The Gospel text is from John 10 which includes one of Jesus’ “I Am” statements – “I Am the Good Shepherd.” He says it twice and after each saying expands a bit on what it means. At least that is my read of what John/Jesus is doing with these I Am statements. For me the core of the passage comes from Jesus saying, “I know my own and my own know me.” The I Am statements reveal to us something about God. In this case that God treats his creation and especially his “sheep” like an owner of something precious. The sheep are life and death things to God. The core of the Good Shepherd is that we have a God who knows, but He wouldn’t be much of a God if he didn’t. Although this one went to the extreme of becoming one of the sheep. But we also have a God who has chosen to be known. He has revealed himself. And his sheep harken to his voice. This is a God for whom this relationship with the sheep – his creation – is not some minor thing, but his engrossing mission, life and death.