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Bishop Michael Rinehart

Bach Cantata 16, BWV 16, Herr Gott, dich loben wir

Bach composed Herr Gott, dich loben wir (Lord God, we praise You), BWV 16 in Leipzig for New Year’s Day and first performed it on 1 January 1726 as part of his third cantata cycle. 

Herr Gott, dich loben wir is Luther’s German Te Deum from 1529. The Te Deum Laudamus was a long, early Christian hymn written proportedly by Saint Ambrose when he baptized Saint Augustine, along with his son Adeodatus, in Milan on Easter Vigil, April 24–25, 387. 

The Te Deum is sung at the end of Matins, at the election of a pope, the consecration of a bishop, the canonization of a saint or the signing of a peace treaty. Appropriate for all feast days, such as Pentecost. 

And get this, if you recite the Te Deum in public on New Year’s eve, you can be granted a plenary indulgence.

The hymn begins with the Angels, the Heavens and the Powers praising God. Then the cherubim in the seraphim, then the glorious company of the Apostles, the fellowship of the Prophets, and the noble army of Martyrs praise God. Then the hymn follows the outline of the Apostles Creed, mixing poetic liturgy with a proclamation of faith, naming Christ and recalling the virgin birth, his suffering and death, his resurrection and glorification at God’s right hand. The promise of his return. 

Bach’s cantata has six movements, scored for an alto, a tenor, and a bass soloist, a four-part choir, corno da caccia, two oboes, oboe da caccia, two violins, viola, violetta (alternative in a later performance) and basso continuo. The opening chorale is four lines from Martin Luther’s Deutsches Te Deum (1529). A poem by Georg Christian Lehms is used. The closing chorale is by Paul Eber, from 1580. 

  1. Chorus: Herr Gott, dich loben wir
  2. Recitative (bass): So stimmen wir bei dieser frohen Zeit
  3. Aria (bass, tutti): Laßt uns jauchzen, laßt uns freuen
  4. Recitative (alto): Ach treuer Hort
  5. Aria (tenor): Geliebter Jesu, du allein
  6. Chorale: All solch dein Güt wir preisen

Bach wrote this in his third year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. He begins with the melody of his Te Deum in the soprano, auf Deutsch of course, with the lower voices and oboe in moving counterpoint underneath. What follows is a creative and unorthodox mixture of recitative, aria and chorus praising God. 
Cantata for New Year’s

1. Chorus

Herr Gott, dich loben wir,

Herr Gott, wir danken dir.

Dich, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit,

Ehret die Welt weit und breit.
2. Recitative 

So stimmen wir

Bei dieser frohen Zeit

Mit heißer Andacht an

Und legen dir,

O Gott, auf dieses neue Jahr

Das erste Herzensopfer dar.

Was hast du nicht von Ewigkeit

Vor Heil an uns getan,

Und was muß unsre Brust

Noch jetzt vor Lieb und Treu verspüren!

Dein Zion sieht vollkommne Ruh,

Es fällt ihm Glück und Segen zu;

Der Tempel schallt

Von Psaltern und von Harfen,

Und unsre Seele wallt,

Wenn wir nur Andachtsglut in Herz und Munde

führen.

O, sollte darum nicht ein neues Lied erklingen

Und wir in heißer Liebe singen? 
3. Aria and Chorus

Laßt uns jauchzen, laßt uns freuen:

Gottes Güt und Treu

Bleibet alle Morgen neu.

   – Krönt und segnet seine Hand,

  Ach so glaubt, daß unser Stand

  Ewig, ewig glücklich sei. 
4. Recitative

Ach treuer Hort,

Beschütz auch fernerhin dein wertes Wort,

Beschütze Kirch und Schule,

So wird dein Reich vermehrt

Und Satans arge List gestört;

Erhalte nur den Frieden

Und die beliebte Ruh,

So ist uns schon genug beschieden,

Und uns fällt lauter Wohlsein zu.

Ach! Gott, du wirst das Land

Noch ferner wässern,

Du wrist es stets verbessern,

Du wirst es selbst mit deiner Hand

Und deinem Segen bauen.

Wohl uns, wenn wir

Dir für und für,

Mein Jesus und mein Heil, vertrauen. 
5. Aria

Geliebter Jesu, du allein

Sollst meiner Seelen Reichtum sein.

Wir wollen dich vor allen Schätzen

In unser treues Herze setzen,

Ja, wenn das Lebensband zerreißt,

Stimmt unser gottvergnügter Geist

Noch mit den Lippen sehnlich ein:

Geliebter Jesu, du allein

Sollst meiner Seelen Reichtum sein.


6. Chorale

All solch dein Güt wir preisen,

Vater ins Himmels Thron,

Die du uns tust beweisen

Durch Christum, deinen Sohn,

Und bitten ferner dich,

Gib uns ein friedlich Jahre,

Vor allem Leid bewahre

Und nähr uns mildiglich.

(“Helft mir Gotts Güte preisen,” last verse) 

June 11, 2017 is Holy Trinity

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a – In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Psalm 8 – When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 – The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Matthew 28:16-20 – “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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.”

There are too many Trinitarian hymns to mention all, but below are a few. The section on Trinity can be found in ELW 408-415.       

  • Eternal Father, Strong to Save – ELW 756
  • Holy, Holy, Holy – ELW 413
  • Come Join The Dance of TrinityELW 412
  • Holy God, We Praise Your Name – ELW 414
  • God, Whose Almighty Word – ELW 673
  • We Believe by The Newsboys is popular in many of our congregations. The refrain is low and singable. The theology is straightforward.
  • David Scherer (Agape) has a creed, as do Lost and Found, Jay
  • Beech, The David Crowder Band (Believe) and Hillsong (This I Believe).

Here is a YouTube video that might make for a meaningful prelude/gathering or contemplative piece during the service. It is a Ken Burns effect on Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity set to the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St John Chrystostom. The Russian Orthodox chant captures a sense of mystery.

Many thanks to Pastor Don Carlson Who helped prepare the posts for this summer. 

Holy Trinity

When the Father laughs at the Son
and the Son laughs back at the Father,
that laughter gives pleasure,
that pleasures gives joy,
that joy gives love,
and the love is the Holy Spirit.
Meister Eckhart, German mystic (1260-1328)

Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun- 
the interweaving of the three, the Father, Spirit, Son. 
The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, 
but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.
— Come Join The Dance of TrinityELW 412

Trinity Sunday is the only festival of the church year dedicated to a doctrine. A full discussion of its roots can be found on Wikipedia under Trinity. There is a lot of interesting information there, but as Pastor Don Carlson in our synod says, “It’s pretty hard to preach. Preaching doctrines can be a pretty dry business.”

One of the ways I have found to touch down in people’s lives is to talk about experiences of God. We experience God as creator (through creation and being in our own skin). We experience God in the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. We experience God in the Holy Spirit, the spirit of Jesus that blows through our lives and our communities.

Pastor Carlson suggests rehearsing Luther’s Small Catechism on the Apostle’s Creed. The Small Catechism is helpful included in the pew edition of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 1160. The portion on the Creed begins on page 1162. Luther focuses on believing not as intellectual assent to events or doctrines, but rather in trusting in God. In other words, faith is not intellectual assent to the doctrine of the Trinity, but trusting that God who is revealed in three persons.

I would not drag out the Athanasian Creed on this day. It has, in my opinion, little liturgical value. The product of 4th century polemics, it is a valuable historical document that has importance in study, but requires too much interpretation of the 4th century cosmology to be helpful, especially to newcomers. Pastor Carlson says, “It nails the coffin lid on Arianism and Adoptionism, but also nails the lid on interest about halfway through; and the anathemas smack of Christendom.”

Holy Trinity Sunday: whether to preach on the theme or on the texts? The day’s texts are assigned because of Trinitarian references or allusions. Matthew 28 was not chosen because of its well known Great Commission. It was chosen because of the Trinitarian formula.

The Trinitarian formulas of our creeds are an effort to maintain the mystery of the Trinity and not solve the puzzle of the Trinity. So, preaching on the mystery without venturing into our penchant to puzzle-solve can be a very slippery slope.

But there are real life political issues also at stake in the creeds; and so, first, a brief wade into the waters of Nicaea and the Council of 325. Marcus Borg writes:

To resolve the conflict, [Constantine] called the bishops of the church together at his palace on the shore of Lake Nicaea in Asia Minor, not far from today’s Istanbul. Constantine’s agenda was to reach agreement about the nature of Jesus, so that conflicts within Christianity would not lead to conflicts within his empire. He seems not to have cared what the bishops concluded-only that they came to an agreement. Both sides agreed that Jesus was divine. But was [Jesus] one with God- “of one substance” with God, “of one Being” with God?  Or was he a little bit less than God; divine, yes, but created by God and thus not equal with God? The first position was represented by Athanasius (293- 373), the second by Arius (ca. 250- 336). Athanasius won. 

[However, another] issue was at stake that Constantine seemed initially not to understand. Like Roman emperors before him, Constantine was hailed as divine, Son of God, and Lord. But he was not, to use the language of the creed, “begotten and not made.” He was not “of one substance,” “one Being” with God. Athanasius’ interpretation put Jesus above the emperor. Within a few years of Nicaea, Constantine realized this and became “Arian,” that is, an advocate of the lesser status of Jesus advocated by Arius. So did his imperial successors for much of the fourth century. 

Thus a major issue at stake in the Nicene Creed is: Is Jesus above all of the lords of this world or is he one among a number of lords? The issue continues to come up for Christians today. Is Jesus above the lords of culture or is he one allegiance among a number of allegiances? Are we to give our allegiance to Jesus in the religious realm and our allegiance to others in the other realms of life? Are our religious and political loyalties separate? Or is Jesus lord of all lords? The answer of the Nicene Creed (and the New Testament before it) is clear. Jesus as Lord and Son of God transcends all other lords. Given this, standing and saying the Nicene Creed is a subversive act. Its affirmations negate the claims of other lords upon us. God as known in Jesus is Lord, the one and only Lord. The lords of culture- and they are many- are not.

BORG, MARCUS J. (2011-04-12). SPEAKING CHRISTIAN: WHY CHRISTIAN WORDS HAVE LOST THEIR MEANING AND POWER-AND HOW THEY CAN BE RESTORED (PP. 205-207). HARPERCOLLINS. KINDLE EDITION.

The Greek word for “person” – πρόσωπον – often gets misunderstood as “the separate individual” in modern usage.  πρόσωπον was much more nuanced than that.

The “prosopon” was the mask that an actor wore. That gives a little different twist to “God in three persons (masks?) blessed Trinity.” Halloween is the night when we all get to put masks on our masks, because prosopon can also mean “face” (In truth, the public face we put forward is often already a mask). Prosopon is the exact word that Paul uses for face in 1 Corinthians 13:12.

βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον.” – “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”  Then we will see prosopon to prosopon; but for now we see αἰνίγματι – from which we get our word “enigma” – and we are back to the mystery again. Who really is behind mask #1, #2, or #3? Who really is behind our own mask? What is your face on the world?

While the word Trinity is never mentioned in the Bible, it is implicitly there and became the way the church understood divinity, as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. There may be no mention of the Trinity in the Bible per se, but the theology of it is everywhere. Once Christians began to contemplate the God who creates, redeems, and makes us holy, one God in three persons, they began to notice it in other places. They wondered about the three divine messengers Abraham encountered at the Oaks of Mamre. The personification of Holy Wisdom in the Scriptures came to be understood as the Holy Spirit. The Trinity was not a new idea; it had been there all along, like the Theory of Relativity. They noticed that you have God, Word, and Spirit in the first Genesis creation account. Jesus became identified with the Word in John’s gospel.

Understanding Jesus as The Word, took on significant importance as the Word, the Divine Logos, had special significance in Greco-Roman culture. Heraclitus had used The Word as a philosophical term to describe knowledge and the underlying order of the universe 500 years before Christ. In Greco Roman culture, The Word is a reference to the rules that govern the known universe; The Word is the DNA of the cosmos.

The Stoic philosophers identified the Word/Logos as the divine animating principle pervading all things. In Roman theology, the Logos was the first emanation of the Pleroma (the fullness of all divine powers). For Greek Christians, identifying Jesus with the Divine Logos meant something in pagan society. It communicated, and that communication had cosmic implications. For Jewish Christians, identifying Jesus with the Word that God spoke at creation, the creative force of the universe, also had cosmic implications. Even the Jewish philosopher Philo (20-50 A.D.) had incorporated the concept of the Logos into his philosophy.

Genesis

The first lesson is the later creation account from the Priestly tradition. This needs to be preached in such a way that it avoids any “7 day creation” literalism. If people want that, they can head for north Texas and visit the Creation Evidence Museum or the Museum of Earth History.

If you preach on this text, consider focusing the God, who creates through the Word, a world where the Spirit blows. Preach on the breath/wind/spirit of God bringing order out of chaos.  Take the ELCA “God’s work. Our hands.” and explore the ways in which we are to be about the business of ending the chaos of life.

A great verse from the Trinitarian hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” – ELW 756:

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Matthew

Lots of themes here. This is the “Great Commission” text and Matthew’s ascension story, selected, of course, because of the Trinitarian formula that is spoken by the ascending Jesus.  How does one make disciples of all nations? (ἔθνη) Two actions: baptize (βαπτίζοντες) and teach (διδάσκοντες – from which we get didactic and Didache).

I’ll leave to you the discussion/debate as to whether in practice it should be baptize > teach or teach > baptize; but I think that – especially in Matthew where Jesus is painted as the New Moses – the teaching issue is critical. How is the faith best taught? What does “teaching the faith” look like in a postmodern world? What in fact is being taught? (One ought review Kenda Creasy Dean’s book, Almost Christian, with regard to these questions).

And lastly, are we really willing to involve “all nations” (ἔθνη)? Are we interested in teaching – and learning from – people different from ourselves? I think that those are important  questions being asked by Christian teenagers at a time when the people in their “teaching places” – the church and the school – are looking increasingly dissimilar.

What to Preach?

A few years ago (2007) Canadian author William P. Young self-published a book of fiction called The Shack, which went on to become a New York Times best-seller. It is now been made into a movie, which I have not yet seen. After a tragedy with his daughter, Mack Phillips enters the shack and encounters manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity. God takes the form of an African American woman who calls herself Elousia and Papa. Jesus Christ is a Middle-Eastern carpenter. Finally the Holy Spirit physically manifests itself as an Asian woman named Sarayu. The book provides a stimulating opportunity to consider how God is manifested, particularly through suffering.

If you want to imagine the way to preach this doctrine in a compelling way, take a look at how Rob Bell starts his 2-hour walk through Scripture, talking about the Trinity.

However you come at this, remember the words of my homiletics professor Paul Harms, “So what?” What is the Good News about the way God comes to us, even those of us sitting here today?

Pastor Pan’s Second Retirement at First Taiwanese

June 4, 2017 is the Feast of Pentecost A

Prayer of the Day
O God, on this day you open the hearts of your faithful people by sending into us your Holy Spirit. Direct us by the light of that Spirit, that we may have a right judgment in all things and rejoice at all times in your peace, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Acts 2:1-21 – When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b – When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 – Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

John 20:19-23 – When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

Acts

Many thanks to Pastor Don Carlson who did much of the research and writing for these next 12 posts. 

The movement of Luke is from the world to Jerusalem. The movement of Acts is from Jerusalem to the world.

Pentecost is the signal that the outward movement is to begin. “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.”

This “world > Jerusalem / Jerusalem > world” movement also bears witness to the ongoing activity of God through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is mentioned in Luke/Acts more than in any other gospel – 34 times in Luke and 67 times in Acts.

Pentecost is not the birth of the Holy Spirit. It is the launch of the Post-resurrection church. There is plenty of Spirit in Luke/Acts before Pentecost. You only have to get to Luke 1:15 before the Holy Spirit is mentioned; to 1:2 in Acts. Spirit is president Jesus baptism. And we read about the spirit plenty in the Hebrew Scriptures as well. Isaiah says, “the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…” In fact, the Spirit is mentioned in the opening verses of Genesis, where the Spirit moves over the face of the deep.

Most of the early Christian community – Paul included – believed that Christ would return in their lifetime.  When Luke/Acts was written (85-95 CE?), some questioning must have arisen within the community.  “What’s going on?”  “Why the delay?”  “Were we wrong about Jesus being the one?”  The answer of Luke/Acts is found the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.  “Just look at what’s happening. The ‘delay’ of Jesus’ return in no way truncates the saving activity of God!”

Now we are at almost 2,000 years of “delay”. What do people make of that? Perhaps we should ask our congregations to find the many places where the Holy Spirit – which is also “the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:19) – is working and active (Trinitarian formulas will be addressed next week).

It is also helpful to listen to the rest of Peter’s sermon (which goes through 2:36) and to begin to hear the anti-imperial subversiveness of the text.  Luke/Acts is very much an anti-imperial counter cultural work. Just a sampling:

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
– Luke 1:51-53

They said, ”If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If  tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”
– Luke 22:67-70 (See: Pantocrator mosaic from the Hagia Sophia.)

Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.”
– Luke 23:1-2

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
– Luke 23:42

As Borg and Crossan point out in The First Paul,

To proclaim “Christ crucified” was to signal at once that Jesus was an anti-imperial figure…  The empire killed Jesus. The cross was the imperial “no” to Jesus. But God had raised him. The resurrection was God’s “yes” to Jesus, God’s vindication of Jesu – and thus also God’s “no” to the powers that had killed him. The twofold pattern executed by Rome and vindicated by God appears twice early in the book of Acts. The authorities crucified Jesus, but God raised him up (Acts 2:23-24). 

A few verses later, in only slightly different language, it is repeated: this Jesus who was crucified by the authorities God has made both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36)…   Vindicated by God-raised by God – meant Jesus is Lord, and thus the powers that executed him were not. In language that confronted and countered Roman imperial theology: Jesus is Lord-Caesar is not. 

(BORG, MARCUS J.; CROSSAN, JOHN DOMINIC (2009-02-19). THE FIRST PAUL: RECLAIMING THE RADICAL VISIONARY BEHIND THE CHURCH’S CONSERVATIVE ICON (PP. 131-133). HARPERCOLLINS. KINDLE EDITION.) 

As individuals and as congregations, in what ways are we as followers of Jesus the Christ called to live counter to the imperial theologies of our day?

Pentecost Pandemonium

In the midst of crucifixion confusion, The Spirit’s plan was Pentecost pluralism. A multi-sensory, multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic event. The Spirit’s plan was an explosion of diversity.

Look at this map. This is my favorite map of Pentecost in Acts 2.

“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven in Jerusalem… Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphyllia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes… Cretans and Arabs…” Sounds like Houston.

And they were amazed and astonished, because it worked. “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” Eric Law asks, “Is Pentecost a miracle of the tongue or of the ear?” “How is it that we hear… each of us in our own native language?”

The Spirit empowers them to bridge the cultural gap. All were amazed and perplexed, so they said to one another that great catechetical question: “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

I love that. There’s so much creative disruption. Remember the word that John Nunes used at assembly last year with us? “Creative disruption.” There is so much creative disruption, so much energy, that the newcomers think they’re drunk. So much so that Peter has to begin his sermon with the words, “These people are not drunk as you suppose…”

When was the last time you had to begin your sermon “These people are not drunk…” More like, “These people are not dead as you suppose, it’s just 9 o’clock in the morning.”

And then Peter quotes the prophet Joel. God will pour out the Holy Spirit on all flesh. All flesh. Not just prophets, priests and rulers like Isaiah and David, but all flesh. All flesh. Not just men. Men and women. Sons and daughters. Old and young. Rich and poor, even slaves. All flesh.

The power of the Spirit was given to all people to proclaim a new world, a new vision, a humanity, a new hope that transcends race, culture, ethnicity, and gender identity, for there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The reign of God knows no borders, no boundaries of culture or language. What then becomes of our human divisions? They are irrelevant in the reign of God. This is the church we are called, enlightened, sanctified, and empowered by the Spirit to be: not a culture club, but a church that includes Parthians, Medes, Elamities and residents of Mesopotamia, Samaritan women, and Ethiopian eunuchs – a church without walls, a house of prayer for all people, not defined by culture but defined by faith, hope, and love.

This can only happen with the power of the Spirit. Without the Spirit, our divisions define us, because they are so very compelling. But good news, God has promised to pour out the Spirit freely to all who will receive it. You are empowered to lower your walls, your defenses, and allow the Spirit to blow your life, your congregation, and your community.

John 20

This is “Pentecost” in the Gospel of John.  Just a couple of things about this text; which was also the text back on Easter 2.

First, what does it mean to “forgive sins”?  I suggest that we think a bit broader than just the pardon of individual transgressions. Remember all the great dialogues and encounters in this gospel.

  • Nicodemus needed to see the “light”
  • The Samaritan woman needed restoration to community
  • A paralyzed man at the pool Bethsaida needed to walk
  • The crowds following Jesus needed to be fed
  • The woman caught in adultery needed freedom from condemnation
  • The man born blind needed his sight
  • Lazarus needed to be restored to life

In short, since the consequences/effects of sin are multifaceted, the understanding of forgiveness needs to be multifaceted as well. From Speaking Christian:

Imagine Christian liturgies and preaching that emphasize that we are Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt and need liberation, that we are exiled in Babylon and need a path to return home, that we are blind and need to see again , that we are sick and wounded and need healing and wholeness. And, yes, that we are sinners who need forgiveness.

Imagine- to become more specific than I wish to be- that a confession of sin and absolution were part of the liturgy one Sunday out of five. Imagine that on the other four Sundays, the confession of sin were replaced by images of our predicament as bondage, exile, blindness, and infirmity. 

Imagine the absolution replaced by the proclamation that God wills our liberation from bondage, our return from exile, our seeing again, our healing and wholeness. Sin matters. But when it and the need for forgiveness become the dominant issue in our life with God, it reduces and impoverishes the wisdom and passion of the Bible and the Christian tradition.”

BORG, MARCUS J. (2011-04-12). SPEAKING CHRISTIAN: WHY CHRISTIAN WORDS HAVE LOST THEIR MEANING AND POWER-AND HOW THEY CAN BE RESTORED (P. 152). HARPERCOLLINS. KINDLE EDITION.

We need to be spiritually cognizant of the complexities. If a person has been raped, a narrow understanding of “forgiveness” is not the immediate real issue. One does not proclaim forgiveness to slaves or victims of abuse.

Second, and this ties in with the first point, Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Jesus’ words are not some theory as to who holds the “heavenly purse strings of grace.” His words are simply the truth about where and how the Spirit functions. If Jesus’ disciples don’t forgive, Jesus’ forgiveness – freedom, restoration, healing, wholeness – cannot come.  If we leave people in their sin, Jesus cannot free them. If we do not grant people the “peace of God”, they cannot know it. If we exclude people, Jesus cannot include them.

The Spirit is not just given to bring us comfort and assurance as we face the doubts and uncertainties of our lives – like Thomas in the upcoming part of the story. The Spirit is given so that, through our lives, the risen Lord might be alive in the world.

May 28, 2017 is Ascension of Our Lord

Thursday, May 25, 2017 is Ascension of Our Lord, celebrated on Sunday, May 28, 2017.

Acts 1:1-11 – As they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Psalm 47 – The Lord has gone up with a shout, with the sound of the trumpet!
OR
Psalm 93 – The Lord is king, robed in majesty, whose throne is of old.

Ephesians 1:15-23 – God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Luke 24:44-53 – While he was blessing them [at Bethany], he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The Feast of Ascension 

The Feast of the Ascension marks a novena, nine days of prayer for the gift of Holy Spirit after Ascension Thursday, before the Feast of Pentecost on Sunday.

The ascension is a foreshadowing of our entrance into heaven. It is a mystical understanding of the transition from this life to the next both in body and spirit.

Several characters in the Bible are declared to be assumed into heaven: Jesus, Enoch, and Elijah. Lutherans do not subscribe to the Assumption of Mary, but in 1950 Pope Pius XII declared:

By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

Other religions, besides Judaism and Christianity, believe in ascensions. For example, in Hinduism, Yudhishthira of the Mahabharat is believed to be the only human to cross the plane between mortals and heaven in his mortal body. In Islam, Muhammad is believed to have ascended into heaven at the site of Dome of the Rock. The Ascension, therefore, was a mystical way that ancients proclaimed the uniqueness of the human character with divine qualities.

The Ascension is professed in all three creeds. Ascension is a public holiday in some countries. It is not mentioned by Matthew, Mark, or Paul (of the undisputed epistles), though the author of Ephesians mentions cryptically that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, who has placed all things “under the feet.” It is unknown if Matthew, Mark, and Paul are unaware of the story of the ascension or if it simply doesn’t figure prominently in their theology. It appears in Acts (Luke) and is mentioned in John.

There are at least five Ascension sermons by Luther, in Luther’s works. You can find them in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, volume 3. They tend to focus on the things that the post-resurrection Jesus said to the disciples in the 40 days between the resurrection and ascension. Two things strike me about these sermons: first, I am struck with how long these sermons are. I have been told by Luther scholars that Luther’s sermons were actually shorter than those of his contemporaries, but these particular sermons are not short by modern standards. Second, I am interested in how mission-focused these sermons are. It’s Luther the evangelism guy. The John sermons are shorter, focused on faith and gospel, as usual. None of them spend time on the actual physical act of ascension. Luther seems more interested in the implications: Jesus’ expectations for his church.

Being Witnesses

Our texts consist of Luke 24:44-53, the very last verses of Luke, and Acts 1:1-11, the very first verses of Acts. The texts for Ascension, one of the six great feasts of the church year (including also Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Trinity, and Pentecost) are the same for all three years of the Revised Common Lectionary. There are only two post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in Luke, both unique to Luke: the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and this appearance to the disciples which includes the ascension. Here are both texts from the NRSV:

Luke 24:44-53
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Acts 1:1-11
In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Acts is volume 2 of Luke’s gospel. The first words of Acts, “In the first book,” refer, of course, to the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 24:49, Jesus orders them to stay in Jerusalem until clothed with power from on high. The same admonition is made in Acts 1:4. There are a number of similarities. This story connects Luke and Acts.

Walter Brueggeman picks up the theme of the Ascension in his 2007 Christian Century article. The Ascension is about Jesus’ departure, instructions, and promise to return. The instructions are the church’s marching orders – its action plan. To wit:

  1. Stay here
  2. Receive the gift of power
  3. Be witnesses

Acts 1:8 is the theme verse for Acts. The rest of the book is based on the words spoken by Jesus in this verse:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Acts begins in Jerusalem, then moves to Judea, Samaria, and then to Paul’s missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire, or what the writers would consider “the ends of the earth.” Peter, John, Stephen, and the disciples begin in Jerusalem and Judea. By Acts 8, Philip is in Samaria. Eventually we spend the largest part of Acts following Paul to the ends of the earth, in places from where our synod delegation is just returning: Turkey and Greece.

I have always been struck with the outward-focus of these instructions. Jerusalem was the city in which they were currently located. Judea was the wider region in which Jerusalem was located. Samaria was the area to the north, the people with whom Jews did not associate. The ends of the earth left the mission field wide open: the rest of the world. This vision would be realized on Pentecost when people came from all over the Roman Empire to Jerusalem to experience the wind of the Spirit, and then return home to spread the good news and be witnesses of what God is doing.

The net effect of all this mission activity was to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

Would we get accused of this today? Would we be accused of having a witness so compelling and a vision so expansive that it was turning the world upside down?

Homiletical opportunities abound. What is witnessing? In North America, immersed with frontier conversion theology, the idea of witnessing leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths, but a witness simply testifies as to what they have seen and experienced. We are not called to convince, cajole, or arm-twist, but only to testify to our own experience, in word and deed.

The ascension looks to the future, to being clothed with power, power to go forth and be a witness to hope in Christ and to Christ’s return. “Why do you stand there gazing into heaven?” Perhaps this is a warning for a hyper-spiritualized church. Getting lost in an otherworldly spirituality that doesn’t focus on the suffering of this world is not consistent with Jesus’ reality-engaging, earthly ministry. Don’t stand there gazing merrily up into heaven. Engage in a gritty earthly ministry as Jesus did. Jesus’ church is called to mission.

Tie your sermon to evangelical efforts.

Jerusalem: What does it mean to be witnesses in Jerusalem, among your people? How are we growing our own people?

Judea: How about Judea, as our wider community? How is God calling us, as a congregation, to reach the community around us?

Samaria was the home of those crazy Samaritans, who were considered “other” because of their race and syncretistic religious practices. How are we called to engage those who are racially or religiously different? You may want to recall the fact that Jesus made a Samaritan the hero in one of his stories.

Ends of the earth: Finally, how are we proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth? What does global mission look like? How are we supporting it? Are we tithing and beyond? Are we sending missionaries?

Perhaps this is a good Sunday to preach a sermon on mission, as did Luther.

Life-giving God, before leaving, Jesus commissioned his followers to be witnesses. Grant that your church today may proclaim the love of Christ and the hope of the resurrection at home, in the community and to the ends of the earth, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

May 21, 2017 is Easter 6A

Acts 17:22-31 – Paul at the Areopagus/Mars Hill in Athens. Altar to an unknown God. In him we live and move and have our being, as your own poets have said…

Psalm 66:8-20 – Make a joyful noise to God all the earth. Come and see what he has done.

1 Peter 3:13-22 – For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison.

John 14:15-21 – If you love me, you will keep my commandments and I will ask the Father to send the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.

Mars Hill

On his second missionary journey (Acts 15-18), in 50 A. D. Paul arrives in Athens, the philosophical center of the universe. Plato established a school there, just outside the city gates, in 387 B.C.

Paul would have heard Plato’s ideas filtered through Cicero and Seneca, who believed that virtue was its own reward and that righteousness was a human quality. They believed righteousness was a craft that could be learned. In The Republic, Socrates says that righteousness is beneficial to rulers (whereas Thrasymachus says that crime does pay). But Paul teaches that righteousness is unattainable by humans. Righteousness is not a human quality but a divine quality.

For Paul, to reflect on the law is to contemplate the huge gulf between human perception of what is good and our ability to attain it. (Romans 7). No one can do good except by the grace of God. The world has gone awry. The condemned criminal, the crucified righteous one, becomes not just the savior of Israel, but of the whole ruined cosmos. The powerless tentmaker is laying the foundation for a European religious/political/cultural upheaval: a confrontation between Caesar and Christ. The exalted divine emperor versus the crucified powerless criminal.

Aristocracy versus the people.

The Areopagus is the Hill of Ares (or Mars). It is a spur, jutting out from the western end of the Acropolis, and used as a place for legal processes and debates. The pictures here was taken by Pastor Don Carlson on the LEAD trip “In Search of Paul” April/May 2014.

The first is from the Areopagus (Mars Hill), looking up at the Acropolis. The second is from the Acropolis looking down upon the Areopagus (Mars Hill).

Temple of Poseidon (Neptune) on the acropolis; can be seen from Mars Hill.
Temple of Zeus, as seen from Mars Hill.
Temple to the gods, Augustus and Roma, which the Romans built directly in front of the Parthenon.

 

The legend had it that Mars here cleared himself of the murder of Hallirhothius, son of Neptune, hence its other name: Mars Hill. (A. N. Wilson, “Paul,” p. 156).

Here we have a study of interfaith dialog. Paul respectfully interacts. He does not denigrate their religious beliefs. He affirms their religiosity. “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way (v. 22).”

Rather than smashing the idols, he picks one. Looking through their pantheon, their “objects of worship,” he points out an altar to “an unknown god.” Let me tell you about this unknowable deity you worship. He doesn’t exclude, he incorporates. Later there will be other things to work out, but this is a beginning conversation. One step at a time.

Let me tell you about the God who gives life, who doesn’t live in shrines, “in whom we live and move and have our being, as your poets have said. We too are the offspring.”

Paul is quoting Epimenides and Aratus (a Stoic), their own philosophers. I find this a fascinating lesson in interfaith dialog. Paul makes his case for the gospel not by trashing their beliefs and philosophers, but rather by quoting them. He immerses himself in their thinking and uses their symbols and ideas. Imagine having a respectful dialog with Muslims and quoting the Koran to them. One cannot dialog without immersing oneself in the other’s worldview.

Paul is building bridges, just as Jesus did with the woman at the well in John 4, where Jesus did not trash her beliefs. “Yeah, you worship on this mountain and we worship on that one, but the days are coming when we will worship God in Spirit and truth.”

The apostle who wrote the “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, follows closely the Lord of love, who taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor (Shemah, Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:18, Matt. 22:36-40). In the coming Sunday’s gospel, Jesus says, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” This phrase “my commandments” or “my commandment” only appears four times in the New Testament, all in John (14:15, 21 and 15:10, 12). What is Jesus’ commandment? John 15:12: “My commandment is this – to love one another just as I have loved you.” And how did Jesus love his disciples? To the end, as a shepherd, as a servant, washing their feet, and in the end by giving his life. “No one has greater love than this – that one lays down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Living in the love of Christ means sharing our faith in a respectful, loving way. “Love does not insist upon its own way.” (1 Corinthians 13)

Here then is Paul’s proclamation of God in Christ, his apologetics in Athens, according to Luke.

An Athenian creed if you will:

  • God made the world and everything in it
  • God does not live in temples made by humans
  • God is not served by humans, as if God needed something
  • God gives life and breath to everyone
  • God made every race from one person
  • God set times and fixed the limits of the places where humans live
  • God is somewhat hidden, so that we must search, but those who do inevitably will find God (Echoes of Jesus: “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened…” This is also picked up in Luther’s lectures on the Deus absconditus, the hidden God).
  • God is not far, not removed (as the Greek gods are)
  • We live and move and have our being in God
  • We are God’s offspring
  • Even pagan poets understand this
  • This God is not made out of handcrafted silver and gold
  • This God calls us to repent
  • God will judge the world on judgement day
  • God has appointed Jesus to be that judge
  • Jesus’ resurrection is proof of this

This kerygma has considerable shades of Luke’s theology (it is Luke’s document after all), but we still get a glimpse of Paul’s missionary preaching and approach through the eyes of a third party.

This text may help us think through how we talk about the gospel to unchurched folks out in the world, who are nevertheless religious. At our synod assembly Dr. Michael Pasquier reminded us that most of those “nones” (no religious affiliation) believe in God, pray and believe in ghosts.

Even more, for the preachers, I hope it will remind us that we do not preach to a homogenous group as we sometimes imagine. Every Sunday we are preaching to a pluralistic community with a wide range of beliefs. In our increasingly secular society, we must imagine ourselves standing before the Areopagus, speaking in love about the God of Jesus in whom we live and move and have our being.

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