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Lenten Series (The Spirituality of the Cross)


Rev. Alan Taylor

Epiphany 1, series A
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Thu, Jan 16, 2014 

Lenten Series—Ash Wednesday St. John, Galveston 3/9/11

“The Spirituality of the Cross—

The Cross and its Refined Image”

I Corinthians 2:1-5

+ In Nomine Jesu +

“And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God.  For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.  And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

Let us pray…

“No bread of earth alone

Can fill our hung’ring hearts.

Lord, help us seek Your living Word,

The food Your grace imparts.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

It may seem evident that all Christian understanding and all Christian teaching fall beneath the blessed umbrella of the spirituality of the cross.  After-all, Jesus' crucifixion is that singular event in world history that reconciled the world to God.  For centuries Christians have been marked in their baptisms with the sign of the cross, confessing that Jesus, and He alone, is the Way, the Truth and the Life, the only hope of mankind for salvation.  Some have even died horrid deaths confessing their allegiance to Christ.  They are the Christians martyrs of whom “the world is not worthy.” The cross and the blessings won for us on that cross are the foundation on which all Christians and the Church itself stands.  As St. Paul, God’s cross bearing servant, once wrote, "I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified."  (I Cor. 2:2).

And yet, the cross that saves our miserable souls from the unending torment of hell can so easily be left behind for something that appears better, brighter, perhaps something that is deemed more fitting of God’s greatness and majesty.  There is a temptation, even among Christians, to consider the cross simply an historic event instead of an event that is descriptive, and even prescriptive of the way in which God deals with and relates to His fallen creation throughout the ages.

Within Christendom there is to be found an opposite to the spirituality of the cross.  In fact, Dr. Steven Hein, an LCMS pastor, once said there is a “Continental Divide” in Christian thought such that God is perceived in different ways, even by Christians who exist under His blood bought gift of forgiveness.  The opposite of the spirituality of the cross is the crosses refined image.  It’s a refined image because it’s been buffed up and polished in order to remove the vestiges of suffering and shame.  It too is firmly believed upon by many who bear the name Christian.  The refined image is a spirituality of glory.  For sure, it confesses that Jesus Christ saved the world from sin by His death on the cross, but, it is inclined to the leave the suffering and shame of the cross in the past, that we Christian’s might move on to bigger and better things.  It insists that God will deal with His redeemed people today in a manner that outshines His humble death on the cross. 

It is this strong desire for glory frankly that engulfs much of American Christianity today.  It does so because it presents an appealing message, one that is deemed acceptable to our cultural sensibilities.  As it turns out, you and I, as fallen sinners, always want to see the bright side, if you will, of God's dealing with humanity.  We want to see God work in miraculous and wondrous ways.  In short, we want God to be who we want Him to be and we want Him to act in the way we want Him to act.  As such, we want to be able to identify and measure His presence and His activity in the world in which we live. 

The spirituality of the cross stands in stark contrast to the “show me” mentality that is such a prominent feature of our culture.  Christ redeemed the world in suffering and shame, and even though He is Risen from the dead our victorious Lord, He none the less calls us to “take up our cross and follow Him.” He says, “tomorrow is going to bring plenty of trouble, but, take heart, I have overcome the world.”

A pastor accepted a call to serve at a university chapel.  Since congregations supported the chapel program with their offerings, he was asked to address a gathering of other pastors at a district function.  His words came from a heart molded by the spirituality of the cross.  He said…

“I refuse to tell you gentlemen how great my current ministry is.  It’s bad.  All the numerical indicators are down.  I am losing members.  I am losing leaders.  Confusion reigns among those who are staying.  They are sad.  I don’t know what will happen next week much less next year.  I have no five-year plan.  I just barely have a five-day plan.  Yet, gentlemen, despite this terrible news I still think that God is doing just fine in my church, and I think I am too.  Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.”

It is the spirituality of the cross.  God is at work redeeming, renewing, providing, even when all the measurable signs seems to suggest otherwise.  God can’t be required to perform to our standards in order to receive our thanks and praise.  In fact, the spirituality of the cross shows us that it is precisely when we think that God absent, when we think that the day has been lost and there is no hope, that He is going His greatest work.  For St. Paul, he would find strength in his suffering as that thorn remained in his flesh.  So it was that the cry of the derelict rose up on high from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me.” In that which appeared feeble, even pitiful to men, God was working His greatest work, the reconciliation of the whole world to Himself. 

It is the spirituality of the cross…

“Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure

By the cross are sanctified;

Peace is there that knows no measure,

Joys that through all time abide.”

In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Lenten Series-2nd Mid-Week St. John, Galveston 3/16/11

“The Spirituality of the Cross—

What we can’t say about God”

Exodus 33:23

+ In Nomine Jesu +

And (God) said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

Let us pray…

“Lamb of God, pure and holy,

Who on the cross didst suffer,

Ever patient and lowly,

Thyself to scorn didst offer.

All sins Thou borest for us,

Else despair reigned o’er us:

Have mercy on us, O Jesus!”

A pastor holds the Bible, God’s Word in his hand, and he thumps it against the other and he boldly declares that it contains the answer to every one of life’s questions.  All the while there sits the mother who lost her child at tender age, who continues to ask “why?” The father who suffers with a debilitating illness that renders him unable to care for his family continues to listen quizzically to the pastor, and yet, still, he asks “why?”

For sure, God is good!  God is gracious!  Christ crucified compels us to come back to Him time and again, to trust Him, even to love Him.  Still, He doesn’t always indulge our curiosity or explain His ways, even if His silence leaves our hearts wrenched with hurt as well as fear and anxiety.  What He does do though, through the power of His Word and the grace of His sacraments, is come back to us time and again to give us the love and forgiveness that so gently move us to continue to hope and trust. 

LCMS Professor, Robert Kolb makes the following observation about the hiddenness of God.  “Luther observed that God is to be found precisely where theologians of glory are horrified to find him: as a kid in a crib, as a criminal on a cross, as a corpse in a crypt.  God reveals himself by hiding himself right in the middle of human existence as it has been bent out of shape by the human fall. Thus, Luther’s theology of the cross is a departure from the fuzziness of human attempts to focus on God apart from God’s pointing out where he is to be found and who he really is.”

There is a temptation, in the theology of glory, to say too much about God.  And yet, it is clear from our experience, as well as from Scripture, that there are things about God that we simply do not know.  In other words, He doesn’t necessarily give the answer to every question that life poses, nor does He choose to always reveal the motivation for His actions.  There remains then, of God, a hidden side, if you will.  Behind that hidden side of God lays the explanation to all those “whys” for which we have yet to find an answer. 

In an article by Rev. Burnell Eckardt (Concordia Theological Quarterly, January 1985) he speaks of Luther’s understanding of the hiddenness of God.  “Luther alludes to Exodus 33:23 in discussing the ‘backside' of God.  The theologian of glory attempts to look directly at God's majesty by recognizing such things as "virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth" as true greatness and as central to theology.  But, says Luther, "the recognition of all these things does not make one worthy or wise.'' Rather, we must look, as did Moses, upon God's backside at ‘suffering and the cross.' Luther weaves the suffering of Christ with the suffering of the Christian in such a way that he speaks of each interchangeably with the other.  Both are beneficial for like reasons.  Both serve the Christian's eternal good, the former in a primary way, and the latter in a secondary way.  The Christian's "cross" is shown by the theology of the cross to be beneficial to him, in the same way that the theology of the cross shows that the cross of Christ is beneficial.”

We don’t always see how God is working in our lives.  Much of what He does remains hidden to us, likely for our own eternal good.  And yet, though the “whys” may linger in our minds and hearts, we remain confident that God is never against us, but that He is always for us.  “What then shall we say to these things?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?...For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present not things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31-32, 38-39)

The theology of the cross gives us the wisdom, even the boldness to say of God, “I don’t know!” “I don’t know why this or that happens!” What I do know, however, is that God has smiled on me through the person of His Son. 

“What God ordains is always good;

He is my friend and Father;

He suffers naught to do me harm

Though many storms may gather.

Now I may know Both joy and woe;

Someday I shall see clearly

That He has loved me dearly.”

(LSB # 760 stanza 4)

In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Lenten Series-3rd Mid-Week St. John, Galveston 3/23/11

“The Spirituality of the Cross—

What we must say about God”

Revelation 3:14-22

+ In Nomine Jesu +

“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. “ ‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.  For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.  I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.”

Let us pray…

“Shine in our hearts, O Spirit, precious Light;

Teach us Jesus Christ to know aright

That we may abide in the Lord who bought us,

Till to our true home He has brought us.

Lord, have mercy!”

Last week’s message was about the temptation that assails us as God’s people to try to say too much about God.  This is one of the pitfalls of the theology of glory, to speak where God hasn’t spoken.  Interestingly enough the theology of glory poses another problem on the other end of the spectrum, that is, the temptation to say to little about God, to remain silent when God has, in fact, spoken.  Jesus’ harsh words in the book of Revelation, spoken against the Church of Laodicea call us today to stand up and confess what be believe and say what must be said. 

Culturally, from television, to the print media, to the internet, we are confronted by a world view, even by a theology that is afraid to speak, afraid to stand, afraid to say “this is the truth.” As a case in point, consider the following interview between a well known television personality and a prominent preacher on the American Christian scene.  The interview was televised on June 20, 2005.  As you hear the dialogue, bear in mind that the congregation served by this pastor is 30,000 members strong.  Now, bear with me, I’m going to quote the interview directly, so the grammar and so forth may not be spot on.

We've had ministers on who said, your record don't count.  You either believe in Christ or you don't.  If you believe in Christ, you are, you are going to heaven.  And if you don't no matter what you've done in your life, you ain't.

Yeah, (says the minister) I don't know.  There's probably a balance between.  I believe you have to know Christ.  But I think that if you know Christ, if you're a believer in God, you're going to have some good works.  I think it's a cop-out to say I'm a Christian but I don't ever do anything ...

What if you're Jewish or Muslim, you don't accept Christ at all?

You know, I'm very careful about saying who would and wouldn't go to heaven.  I don't know ...

Those who say you have to believe in Christ are wrong then, aren’t they?

Well, I don't know if I believe they're wrong.  I believe here's what the Bible teaches and from the Christian faith this is what I believe. But I just think that only God will judge a person's heart.  I spent a lot of time in India with my father.  I don't know all about their religion.  But I know they love God.  And I don't know.  I've seen their sincerity.  So I don't know.  I know for me, and what the Bible teaches, I want to have a relationship with Jesus.

And then the interview continued with some other point.

The theologian of glory cannot bear the loss of his vast following, and thus he says less about God than can and should be said.  Though there are things about God that remain hidden, there are things about Him that have clearly been revealed and can and must be confessed.  Salvation; the forgiveness of sins, for instance, is a blessings won for fallen humanity through the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross.  And there is no salvation outside of Christ.  Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.  No one comes to the Father but by Me.” (John 14) And thus, in a sermon preached to the religious leaders of his day, St. Peter affirmed “Nor is there is salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

Jesus and His cross can never be ancillary to true faith.  To approach God, or to try to even conceive of Him outside of the suffering and death of His Son, is to stand in terror before the God who judges sin and who rules all things with His might and power.  To conceive of God outside of the cross of Jesus is to try to relate to Him in His unmasked glory and majesty. 

The bottom line is God’s Word is either true or false.  Because God speaks in absolutes in the Bible, saying that a person can only be saved from the guilt and consequence of their sin through the atoning blood of Jesus, He binds all of humankind to that single means of salvation.  If we say anything less about God we say too little about Him.  The central message of the Scriptures is clear.  “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” (II Corinthians 5:19) What God says about Himself we can trust and we can confess without doubt or reservation. Indeed, what He says about Himself becomes the very basis of our confession. 

In the thesis’ that Dr. Luther penned about “the theology of the cross,” he said, the theologian of the cross, or, what I’m calling the person who abides by “the spirituality of the cross,” “calls a thing what it is.” In other words, he speaks when God speaks even though what he says may not be popular and his words may, in fact, cause some to turn away from him.  He is bound by God’s word, because it is ultimately that word that will set Him free.  Jesus said, “if you abide in Me and my words in you, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

God grant us the wisdom and the fortitude to say what must be said about God, and, if need be, to suffer for it beneath the theology of the cross.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

Lenten Series-4th Mid-Week St. John, Galveston 3/30/11

“The Spirituality of the Cross—

The Works of God”

Isaiah 53:2-6

+ In Nomine Jesu +

“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and

rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

In Thesis 4 of Luther’s work, where he expounded on the “the Theology of the Cross,” what we are calling “The spirituality of the cross,” he proposed the following…”although the works of God always seem unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.”

It is a peculiar way to refer to the “works of God,” don’t you think?  “They always seem unattractive and appear evil.” In fact, Luther’s assertion seems to verge on blasphemy.  He refers, however, not to what God’s works are, for, as he says subsequently “they are nevertheless really eternal merits.” The key to Luther’s assertion is in what God’s works “seem” and “appear,” in other words, to us.  Remember, by nature we are all theologians of glory.  As such, we simply wouldn’t do things the way God does them.  We wouldn’t have created as God created.  We wouldn’t have redeemed as God redeemed.  We wouldn’t judge as He judges.  We wouldn’t forgive as God forgives.  And, we wouldn’t love as God loves. 

The best way to understand Luther’s point about God’s works, and the way He works is through the greatest of His works, through the horror and the seeming defeat of the cross.  In fulfillment of Isaiah 53, Jesus hangs from the cross as the One “despised and rejected by men, a man sorrows and acquainted with grief.” We, like all of humanity, looked to the cross, and “we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised and we did not esteem Him.” Missing in God’s redemptive act, at least from our perspective, is the Might and power, the unfettered vengeance that the sovereign Lord should carry out on those who ridiculed Him, mocked Him and killed Him.  The whole thing smacked of injustice and the victory of evil over good. 

In that moment when God redeemed His broken creation His effort, His work, appeared unattractive, and perhaps even evil, for in the crucifixion of Jesus the Father turned His back on His only-begotten Son as those who put Him there shouted cheers of victory. 

C.F.W. Walther, Lutheran theologian and first president of our Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, wrote an Easter hymn entitled “He’s Risen!  He’s Risen!” Perhaps you are familiar with the hymn…”He’s risen, He’s risen, Christ Jesus the Lord.  He opened death’s prison, the Incarnate True Word.  Break forth hosts of heaven in jubilant song.  And earth, sea, and mountain their praises prolong.”

Some wrestle with the words of verse 2 of that hymn…

“The foe was triumphant when on Calvary

The Lord of creation was nailed to the tree.

In Satan’s domain did the hosts shout and jeer,

For Jesus was slain, whom the evil ones fear.”

The objection, in particular, is with the words “the foe was triumphant.” Satan, of course, never has the victory over God.  He is but a pawn, a dog, as it were, on a short leash in the unfolding drama of earth and heaven.  However, in the unattractive and apparent evil moment of the cross, it appeared that Satan had indeed won the victory.  Since the old evil foe is not privy to the foreknowledge of God, he, no doubt, assumed, in the forsaken cries of God’s Anointed One, that he had won the victory!  Why, even Jesus’ Apostles apparently assumed the same, for, after Jesus’ death, they huddled in that upper room in Jerusalem for “fear of the Jews.”

Even in a post-resurrection world, scoffers look at the cross, and its supposed merit, as a fairy tale that only the most gullible accept because the whole thing is simply not fitting of their perception of the works of God.  It is little wonder that St. Paul, in writing to the Church at Corinth, says that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” and that “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (I Corinthians 2:18 & 2:14)

And yet, subjection, humility, and death are precisely works of God that won for us eternal merits.  As those who live beneath the “spirituality of the cross” we are continually called to see those seemingly unattractive and apparently evil “works” of God in our lives even today.  Remember, “His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways.  And yet, as high as the heavens are above the earth so far are His ways above our ways.”

“In silent pain the eternal Son

Hangs derelict and still;

In darkened day His work is done,

Fulfilled, His Father’s will.

Uplifted for the world to see

He hangs in strangest victory,

For in His body on the tree

He carries all our ill.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

Lenten Series-5th Mid-Week St. John, Galveston 4/6/11

“The Spirituality of the Cross—

The Works of Man”

Galatians 3:10-14

+ In Nomine Jesu +

“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”

Let us pray…

“Yet, O Lord, not thus alone

Make me see Your passion,

But its cause to me make known

And its termination.

Ah!  I also and my sin

Wrought Your deep affliction;

This indeed the cause has been

Of Your crucifixion.”

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Last Wednesday we considered Luther’s premise that, under “the spirituality of the cross” though “the works of God appear unattractive and evil, they are actually eternal merits.” Jesus, God’s Son, hangs from a cross and dies the death of a common criminal, suffering even the abandonment of His Father.  And, in that seemingly unattractive and evil work, a work ordained by God, God reconciled the world to Himself.  So it is today that we look for God’s work, His blessing and grace, in the seemingly unattractive and apparently evil situations into which life thrusts us. 

Tonight we shift our attention from the works of God to the works of man, which, as Luther says, “although they always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.” Hopefully you see the contrast between these two theses of Luther.  What God does appear unattractive and is actually good.  What man does appears attractive and may actually be mortal sin.

This is the first time in the Heidelberg Disputation that Luther distinguishes between types of sins.  Of course, here he only mentions the mortal sin.  Its mere mention though suggests that there is, in fact, another type of sin.  The Reformation fathers were accustomed to speaking of mortal sins, those that lead to spiritual death, and venial sins, those that are grievous as is any sin, but that do not finally lead to spiritual death. 

You should note that while those distinctions still have merit they are used in a different sense in Roman Catholic verses Lutheran circles.  In Roman Catholicism those sins that are considered mortal are listed, things such as murder.  They are mortal because they are so serious that they drive the Holy Spirit from the heart. 

As Lutherans we recognize that any sin could become a mortal sin.  A sin becomes a mortal sin when it has such an effect on the sinner that it drives him from the grace of God in Christ Jesus.  That sin might be relatively minor, or, in the case of this thesis of Luther, might even be something that appears good in the sight of men.

The question here though is "how can the works of men, which seem attractive and good, likely be mortal sins? " In other words, how can those "works" lead to death, spiritual death?  The answer is really quite simple.  It has to do with trust.  When a person does something that people consider good and he trusts in that work for his salvation, when he believes that his works impress God, even as they impresses men, he toys with a deadly sin.  As Paul says, " For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse.”

Luther warned us about prizing works that appear valuable and holy over those works that appear lowly and meek.  In his Large Catechism he wrote..."It seems to me that we shall have our hands full to keep these commandments, practicing gentleness, patience, love toward enemies, chastity, kindness, etc., and all that these virtues involve. But such works are not important or impressive in the eyes of the world. They are not unusual and pompous, restricted to special times, places, rites, and ceremonies, but are common, everyday domestic duties of one neighbor toward another, with no show about them.  On the other hand, those other works captivate all eyes and ears. Aided by great pomp, splendor, and magnificent buildings, they are so adorned that everything gleams and glitters.  There is burning of incense, singing and ringing of bells, lighting of tapers and candles until nothing else can be seen or heard.  When a priest stands in a gold-embroidered chasuble or a layman remains on his knees a whole day in church, this is considered a precious work that cannot be sufficiently extolled.  But when a poor girl tends a little child, or faithfully does what she is told, that is regarded as nothing. Otherwise, why should monks and nuns go into cloisters? " (Large Catechism, Close of the Commandments)

The short of it is...while certain works may appear great and wonderful to the eyes of men, they may, in fact, be sins that lead to death.  Conversely, even the simplest, the most mundane duties of a Christian are good and acceptable in the eyes of God when they are sanctified, that is, when they are made holy by the blood of Christ.

You and I are continually driven back to the goodness and mercy of God in Christ Jesus, for, it is in Him that we possess a righteousness that the eye simply cannot see.  You are, my friends, the righteous sons and daughters of God who live by faith.  Your righteousness doesn’t move you to believe.  Rather, by faith, the faith He has given you, God has declared you righteous.  Consequently, even the simplest, most mundane things you do are accepted, even prized by God, for you do them as one who has been redeemed by Christ, the crucified.

We’ve come full circle, haven’t we?  We are back to treasuring those works of God that appear unattractive, even evil at times, all the while wishing we could do more to honor Him who has loved us unto death, even death on a cross.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Lenten Series-6th Mid-Week St. John, Galveston 3/16/11

“The Spirituality of the Cross—

God’s Work in Us”

Galatians 3:1-6

+ In Nomine Jesu +

“O foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?  It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.  Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish?  Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?  Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?  Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

Let us pray…

“Lord Jesus, think on me,

By anxious thoughts oppressed;

Let me your loving servant be

And taste Your promised rest.”

In teaching the New Testament to students at Concordia University, I find that when the students read the book of Galatians their reaction is almost always the same.  They see St. Paul as angry and, perhaps even bitter.  You know where that reaction likely comes from.  Paul calls down anathemas on those who preach a gospel that is contrary to what has been received, the gospel of Christ crucified and risen from the dead.

What the students mistake for anger, is really passion, passion that is deeply involved in the message Christ’s gift of salvation.  Paul realizes that our salvation is “by grace through faith,” and that, “there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved.” He realizes that all “who rely on the works of the Law for salvation will be lost.” He realizes as well that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” and that “no one will come to Father but by Him.”

As you continue reading through Paul’s letter to the Galatians you find that he is as passionate about “our works” after we come to faith as he is about those “works” before we come to faith.  As Christians, we are continually tempted to base the certainty of our faith on the way in which we live it, rather than, on Christ, “the author and perfector of our faith.”

You see, in referring to the “works of God” we distinguish between those works that God does outside of us, which are objective in nature, and those works that God does within us, which tend to be subjective.  For instance, Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world.  This is the work of God.  It is an objective fact.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” (John 3:16)

Whether or not a person believes that Jesus died for them does not change the fact that He did.  “God,” the Bible says, “was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” (II Corinthians 5:19) Faith is the hand, if you will, that takes hold of the gifts of life and salvation.  It receives and trusts in the work of God, the eternal merit of Christ.  Faith itself is a “work of God” in us because it is given to us by Him.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourself, it is the gift of God and not of works lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Now, even as God works faith in us by the power of His Word (Romans 10:17), He also blesses us with many other gifts of His grace.  To love, for instance, is the work of God in us.  “We love,” the Bible says, “because He first loved us.” (I John 4:19) It is this “work of God” in us where the objective becomes much more subjective and the temptation is to base our faith, the certainty of it, in how well we are living it.  And so, a person says, I know I’m a Christian because I don’t drink anymore, I don’t smoke anymore and I don’t curse anymore. 

In one of his theses about “the theology of the cross,” Luther warns us that “the works of God (those which he accomplishes in and through us) are thus not merits, as though they were sinless.” (Thesis 6) In other words, as Christians, we don’t do anything in a sinless fashion. 

Another renowned Lutheran theologian reminds us that “deadly sin lurks in the most pious places.” The point is, it is all too easy for us to put our faith in our faith, rather than in the objective gift of God, namely His Son, crucified and Risen for us.  Again, the issue here is one of trust.  Paul addresses the subject this way, he says, “having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” It is a rhetorical question intended to cause us to consider the certainty of our salvation in Christ.  Where, and in what, or whom, is your faith? 

In speaking of the Christians desire to grow, to become a better example of what it means to live as a disciple of Christ, Luther once said the following.  Actually, these words of Luther are from a letter that he wrote to friend who despairing of his faith because he was bemoaning the sin that he knew was still within him.  In other words, this is a very personal, pastoral response of Luther.  He said, “My dear brother, learn Christ and him crucified.  Learn to pray to him and, despairing of yourself, say, ‘You, Lord Jesus, are my righteousness, but I am Your sin.  You have taken upon Yourself what is mine and have given to me what is Yours.  You have taken upon Yourself what You were not and have given to me what I was not.” In his counsel to his friend, he continues, ‘Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one.  For Christ dwells only in sinners.  On this account he descended from heaven, where he dwelt among the righteous, to dwell among sinners.  Meditate on this love of his and you will see his sweet consolation.” (The Minister’s Prayer Book, Doberstein, p. 230)

It isn’t anger, its passion!  “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?  Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?  Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Lenten Series-Maundy Thursday St. John, Galveston 4/21/11

“The Spirituality of the Cross—

Lord, to whom shall we go?”

John 6:60-71

+ In Nomine Jesu +

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51).

Let us pray…

“Lord, Thy kindness did so constrain Thee

That Thy blood should bless and sustain me.

All our debt Thou has paid;

Peace with God once more is made:

O Lord, have mercy!”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Words, much like theology, can sometimes seem unimportant or insignificant.  On the other hand, they can sometimes be hard to grasp, even hard to accept.  I saw on television the other day that a famous basketball player was fined 100,000 dollars for something he said to a referee.  Apparently the word he used was on the radar of “political correctness” as “forbidden.” When asked about his comment, the star athlete said, “I said it, and I was wrong.  But, we say all kinds of things on the basketball court.  We don’t necessarily mean what we say.”

When our Lord speaks though, He means what He says.  Even though Christendom is divided today over what He really “meant” to say in regards the sacrament of His body and blood, Jesus was, nonetheless, clear.  “Take and eat, this is My body.  Take and drink, this cup is the New Testament in My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”

I preached a sermon series a number of years ago on the “hard sayings of Jesus.” The point being, Jesus’ words can strike us as somewhat disturbing.  For instance, “He who loves father or mother more than me cannot be my disciple.” “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” “The bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”

Some hear these difficult words of Jesus and they turn away.  In a post-enlightenment age, in other words, in a time when mankind has come of age, the supreme test of everything, even religious truths, is human reason.  Consequently, some hear the words of our Lord and they change them, or, they turn away.  Even the twelve were troubled by what Jesus said here in John 6.  So, Jesus asked them, “Does this offend you?  Do you also want to go away?” (John 6:61 & 67) And His disciples said to Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

We have reached that point in our walk with Jesus, haven’t we?  The Holy Spirit has worked in our hearts, even by these words that we can hardly fathom, much less understand, to draw us to Jesus and to bless us with the gifts of life and salvation.  When we want to stray, when God, in a sense confuses us, or disappoints us, at that point we are called to deny our senses, what our eyes see, and to cling to those sure and certain promises of His Word.  There is really nowhere else for us to go, is there!?  Every other teaching, every other religious “system,” though they may bring a certain level of temporal peace, cannot give what Jesus gives, namely, the forgiveness of our sins, life, and salvation. 

Robert Kolb, professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, in an article titled Luther on the Theology of the Cross (Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. XVI, 2002) observed the following…”The theology of the cross involves not only the cross itself, as the (central event) that has determined human history.  It involves also the Word that conveys that event and its benefits to God’s people. The word of the cross is folly to the perishing; this word is God’s power for those whom he saves through it.”

Now, let’s apply that statement of Kolb.  Luther believed that when God speaks, reality results. The cross and the Word that delivers it have created a new reality within God’s fallen creation: a new reality for Satan (since God nailed the law’s accusations to the cross and rendered them illegible by soaking them in Christ’s blood); a new reality for death (since it was laid to eternal rest in Christ’s grave); a new reality for sinners (since they were buried, too, in Christ’s tomb and raised to new life through the death and resurrection of the Crucified One);” finally, a new reality wherein God blesses us through means that we can hardly fathom.

Friends, there is life in what Jesus’ says and in what His words convey.  .  If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” What can we say, but, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Lenten Series-Good Friday St. John, Galveston 4/22/11

“The Spirituality of the Cross—

Everything is already done”

John 19:28-30

+ In Nomine Jesu +

“After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.  When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Let us pray…

“What language shall I borrow

To thank Thee, dearest friend,

For this Thy dying sorrow,

Thy pity without end?

O make me Thine forever!

And should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never,

Outlive my love for Thee.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

God’s Law says “nothing is ever finished.” His Gospel, on the other hand, says, “Everything is already done.” Martin Luther grabbed hold of that seeming contradiction in his discussion of the “Theology of the Cross,” what we are calling in this Lenten series, “The Spirituality of the Cross.” The Law is always poking and prodding.  It’s always demanding and is never satisfied because no matter what has already been done there is always something more that could be done.  By contrast, by His Gospel, Jesus offers peace and rest.  “Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” “It is finished,” Jesus said, “and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.”

It is that contrast between the demands of God’s Law and His grace freely given in Christ that we find so hard to apply in our lives on a daily basis.  Oh, it is relatively easy to determine when we are dealing with the Law in God’s Word.  If a verse says “do this, or, do that,” or, “if it leaves us condemned, knowing that we haven’t fulfilled it,” we are dealing with the Law.  The Gospel, on the other hand, demands nothing.  It simply gives.

Our struggle is in applying one or the other in our daily lives.  The fact is the Law is written in our hearts.  It is there to guide us, to give us a compass for our journey, to teach us the difference between right and wrong.  But, because we are, at our core, wrong, it is also always there accusing us, unsettling us, condemning us.  Even when we have repented of our wrong it continues to hammer away at us.  What is difficult for us to do is to learn to leave the Law behind in those moments and to cling to the grace of God in Christ, to His work fully accomplished for us. 

The other danger with the Law is that we begin to see it as our hope of salvation, as the means whereby we will make ourselves perfect in the eyes of God.  Sometime back there was a knock at the front door of our home.  Two men stood there hoping to bring me around the “truth” of God’s Word.  Everything is based on how we perform as God’s children!  I said, “I’m a Lutheran pastor and I know what you believe.” “I know that you deny the deity of Jesus and that you hope to earn your way into heaven.”

The two young men said, “the Bible does call us to earn our way into heaven.” I said, “where does it do that?” One of them proceeded to quote from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 verse 48, where Jesus said, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

These folks have a way of flustering you.  I knew those words of Jesus were not intended to save us, rather, they were given, that in our frustration and sheer despair, we would be driven to His cross.  I wish I would have thought to look them in the eye and ask, “are you perfect?” “Have you ever had an evil thought?  Have you ever done something you shouldn’t have done?  Or, have you ever not done something you should have done?”

For those who think that God’s Law can be fulfilled, or, that they have fulfilled it, they are sadly mistaken.  God’s demand for perfection is relentless.  And it is precisely when we think we have satisfied all His demands that we are confronted with that terrible vice of pride, which will ultimately damn our souls to hell.

All the while Jesus says, “It is finished!” The cup of suffering that He so dreaded to drink He consumed fully.  He hung from the cross “having become sin.” Friends, can you even image that?  Jesus, God in the flesh, became sin.  Not in some general way, as if sin was only a concept or an idea.  No, “He became sin,” your sin and mine.  He became your lust and pride, your anger and hatred, your envy and discontent.  Having become your sin, He took your place in death.  “It is finished!” The whole ugly business of God making atonement for sin is done! 

Friends, when the Law accuses you, when frustration overtakes you and you begin to doubt that God could still love you and accept you, remember these final words of Jesus from the cross.  “It is finished!” And wear the righteousness that He gave you in your baptism, for it was there, in that cleansing water, that the completed work of the cross was credited to you.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen. 

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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