Thursday, September 30, 2010

Faith, What It Is and Is Not

As I ponder the upcoming texts for this Sunday, it is clear that a red thread runs through all of the texts, and it is a similar thread that will be in several lessons for the next few weeks. Faith. We talk about faith a great deal... it is central after all to the life of the believer.

In fact, doing a rudimentary search through the bible, I found that in the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew words for faith and trust (aman and batach) appear 382 times. In the New Testament pistis (noun, "faith") and pisteuo (verb "have faith" or "believe"), are found in 444 verses. That is a fairly big number, as should be expected.

The question that remains though is what exactly IS faith? Even the disciples seem to misunderstand when they ask for their faith to be increased... as if it were some sort of magical commodity.

I turned today then to Melanchthon's Apology of the Augsburg Confession where he talks about faith and in particular justifying faith. He writes:
But that faith which justifies is not merely a knowledge of history, [not merely this, that I know the stories of Christ's birth, suffering, etc. (that even the devils know,)] but it is to assent to the promise of God, in which, for Christ's sake, the remission of sins and justification are freely offered. [It is the certainty or the certain trust in the heart, when, with my whole heart, I regard the promises of God as certain and true, through which there are offered me, without my merit, the forgiveness of sins, grace, and all salvation, through Christ the Mediator.] And that no one may suppose that it is mere knowledge, we will add further: it is to wish and to receive the offered promise of the remission of sins and of justification. [Faith is that my whole heart takes to itself this treasure. It is not my doing, not my presenting or giving, not my work or preparation, but that a heart comforts itself, and is perfectly confident with respect to this, namely, that God makes a present and gift to us, and not we to Him, that He sheds upon us every treasure of grace in Christ.]

49] And the difference between this faith and the righteousness of the Law can be easily discerned. Faith is the latreiva [divine service], which receives the benefits offered by God; the righteousness of the Law is the latreiva [divine service] which offers to God our merits. By faith God wishes to be worshiped in this way, that we receive from Him those things which He promises and offers.

50] Now, that faith signifies, not only a knowledge of the history, but such faith as assents to the promise, Paul plainly testifies when he says, Rom. 4:16: Therefore it is of faith, to the end the promise might be sure. For he judges that the promise cannot be received unless by faith. Wherefore he puts them together as things that belong to one another, and connects promise and faith. [There Paul fastens and binds together these two, thus: Wherever there is a promise faith is required, and conversely, wherever faith is required, there must be a promise.] 51] Although it will be easy to decide what faith is if we consider the Creed, where this article certainly stands: The forgiveness of sins. Therefore it is not enough to believe that Christ was born, suffered, was raised again, unless we add also this article, which is the purpose of the history: The forgiveness of sins. To this article the rest must be referred, namely, that for Christ's sake, and not for the sake of our merits, 52] forgiveness of sins is given us. For what need was there that Christ was given for our sins if for our sins our merits can make satisfaction?

53] As often, therefore, as we speak of justifying faith, we must keep in mind that these three objects concur: the promise, and that, too, gratuitous, and the merits of Christ, as the price and propitiation. The promise is received by faith; the "gratuitous" excludes our merits, and signifies that the benefit is offered only through mercy; the merits of Christ are the price, because there must be a certain propitiation for our sins. 54] Scripture frequently implores mercy; and the holy Fathers often say that we 55] are saved by mercy. As often, therefore, as mention is made of mercy, we must keep in mind that faith is there required, which receives the promise of mercy. And, again, as often as we speak of faith, we wish an object to be understood, namely, the promised mercy. 56] For faith justifies and saves, not on the ground that it is a work in itself worthy, but only because it receives the promised mercy. (from

I am drawn to that phrase in the begining of this quote that faith is "to assent to the promise of God." I think this phrase is a good place to start our thinking about what faith is and is not.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Yet we eat our morsel alone...

I use the devotional guide For All the Saints, and have been using it for years... probably almost ten, ever since my grandparents gave me the four-volume set for Christmas my first or second year in seminary. Despite having gone through the volumes several times now (it is a two-year lectionary), I still come across things in it that I either skipped over or just don't remember.

Today there was a passage from Job, where Job says,
If I have withheld anything that the poor desired,
or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,
or have eaten my morsel alone,
and the orphan has not eaten from it—
for from my youth I reared the orphan like a father,
and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow
if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing,
or a poor person without covering,
whose loins have not blessed me,
and who was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep;
if I have raised my hand against the orphan,
because I saw I had supporters at the gate;
then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder,
and let my arm be broken from its socket.
For I was in terror of calamity from God,
and I could not have faced his majesty. (Job 31:16-23, my emphasis)
In conjunction with this passage, the devotional used a poem by William Alexander, Archbishop of the Church of Ireland in the late 19th century. The poem as presented in For All The Saints used an ellipsis so I knew the poem was not complete. I managed to find only one complete version through Google. It was in a volume of The Lutheran Witness, volume 34, published by Concordia Publishing House in 1915, which appears to be a compendium of Lutheran news and devotional and catechetical material. In a section entitled simply "Job" the work republished Archbishop Alexander's entire poem.
"If I have eaten my morsel alone"--
The patriarch spoke in scorn;
What would he think of the Church,
Were he shown Heathendom, huge, forlorn,
Godless, Christless, with soul unfed,
While the Church's ailment is fullness of bread,
Eating her morsel alone?

"I am debtor alike to the Jew and the Greek,"
The mighty Apostle cried,
Traversing continents, souls to seek
For the love of the Crucified;
Centuries, centuries, since have sped;
Millions are famishing; we have bread;
But we eat our morsel alone.

Ever of them who largest dower
Shall Heaven require the more;
Ours is affluence, knowledge, power,
Ocean from shore to shore;
And East and West in our ears have said,
"Give us, give us your Living Bread";
Yet we eat our morsel alone.

"Freely, as ye have received, so give,"
He bade, who hath given us all;
how shall the soul in us longer live,
Deaf to their starving call,
For whom the Blood of the Lord was shed,
And his Body broken to give them Bread,
If we eat our morsel alone?
Some might hear this poem as meant to induce guilt. If it does it is likely only because folks recognize the reality. But at the heart of this poem, Alexander hits upon the great abundance that God has given us in the person of his Son. "Ours is affluence, knowledge, power..." not necessarily as the world measures it, but in the body and blood of Jesus, in his atoning death, we find meaning and purpose and connection with the divine life.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lazarus, the Rich Man, and Life... but Which Life?

I find myself in an interesting position. I am not preaching this upcoming Sunday, and yet today, I led my Tuesday morning bible study on our normal weekly romp through the upcoming Sunday's gospel lesson. This gathering is really helpful for me. I have an early crack at the upcoming text every week. It is not uncommon for our encounter with the text to significantly shape how I will be preaching. But this Sunday I don't have to do it. I can drop it this week. Focus on something else. But this text, Lazarus and the Rich Man, has grabbed a hold of me. Perhaps it is just the way I have been formed these nearly seven years in the parish. Or maybe it is THIS passage. I feel guilt whenever I think about this passage since in 2001, while I was on internship, I feel like I crashed and burned on my preaching of this text. Maybe I am not sure I will ever do this text justice because of that, but I feel like I must keep on trying.

Whatever the reason though, this passage Luke 16:19-31, has stuck this week. And while it is not nearly as confusing and problematic as last week's reading, it certainly gives us some possible avenues for interpretation. Without a doubt, one avenue to explore is the whole afterlife image. Over at Working Preacher, Greg Carey opens his reflection about this passage with this line. He writes:
For example, the parable might reflect Luke's view of what happens after we die. At the moment of death, it seems Lazarus journeys to Abraham's bosom while the Rich Man descends into torment. Does death deliver us immediately to our eternal fate? Such a view would seem to contradict that expressed by Paul in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. In those early letters, Paul regards death as, well, death. The hope for life resides only in the resurrection. (Paul may voice a different view in Philippians 1: "to live is Christ, but to die is gain.") Luke's story of the thief on the cross also suggests an immediate transition into the afterlife: "Truly I tell you: Today you will be with me in Paradise" (23:43). Moreover, does this parable teach that the wicked suffer torment in the afterlife? Few mainline preachers devote significant pulpit time to that distressing prospect.
Today I was using THE Lutheran Study Bible from CPH (I reviewed it here) and right there in midst of this passage was a special page dedicated to the question of what happens when we die. This parable (and yes, I do think it is a parable) leads a number of folks to think this way and I understand that. However given the placement of this text in the flow of Luke, it seems to make much more sense to be dealing with Jesus' continued discussion of wealth.

Clearly the parable shows that how we use (or misuse in this case) wealth matters. And in this vein, this story clearly has much to do with THIS life, not our afterlife. At the same time however, the Rich Man is clearly so malformed by his misuse of wealth that his afterlife is affected as well. How we live in this world does in fact have some bearing on our afterlife. The other example that we see in this story is the great chasm. The great chasm fixed between the two parties, the wicked and the saved, is there first Abraham says so that those on his side (the saved) cannot pass over to the other. The only way I can read that the saved might want to cross over from their bliss to the agony of the wicked is because they would wish to alleviate the suffering of those others. Those resting in the bosom of Abraham have been so formed by their life of suffering (if Lazarus is typical, and given Luke's stressing of the great reversal, such as in the Magnificat) that they would seek to alleviate any suffering of others. Only the great chasm that stands fixed between them stops the saved from carrying out their aid.

Engaging in this life, so that we are formed with the virtues of the Kingdom ahead of time, is vital for this passage. The law and prophets agree, says Jesus. And the resurrection of one in particular will also point to the Kingdom's reality and fruit bearing of followers in this world. Not that everyone will listen... but maybe we will.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Possession of the Holy Cross

Yesterday, September 14, was the Feast of the Holy Cross. This day might seem an odd day to commemorate the Cross. Why not Good Friday? Isn't that when we do the Adoration of the Cross? But the 14th of September is connected with the activity of Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. Early in the reign of Constantine, Helena went to Jerusalem to find the holy places of Christ's life. She destroyed the temple of Aphrodite, which had been built, so tradition said, over the tomb of Jesus. Constantine then had built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher on that spot. Legend tells that three wooden crosses were found on that spot during the excavation. They were immediately venerated and the cross became a more prominent symbol of Christianity. The cross was still fresh in people's minds as the symbol of death for those opposed Rome, even Christians if they refused to worship Roman gods.

The cross indeed has central place. It is the symbol of our salvation. The message of the cross foolishness to those who are perishing, wrote St. Paul, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God (1Cor 1:18). I used this passage the other night at our youth group while making ice cream. Making ice cream is actually somewhat counter intuitive. Most of the kids present kept thinking that the ice surrounding the ice cream dasher was cooling and ultimately freezing the creamy mixture within. Not so. The cold of the ice does not flow in. If that were so, we would not need the salt. So as we made the ice cream, I explained how it all worked, and that the key was to know that ice and salt need energy to enter in so that they can react. The energy in this case comes from the heat stored in the creamy liquid. The whole idea of making ice cream is to pump heat out. Cold doesn't exist, technically speaking. Energy in the form of heat flows out. Ice cream, made this way, does not go the way we think it might. God's work of redemption, rescuing his chosen people, does not go the way we think. God does not send the Son to come and conquer. Rather God sends the Son to come and die, defeating the enemies of sin, death and the devil.

The cross marks and shapes our lives. We mark it on the newly baptized as the reminder that we are bound to the one who died on the cross so that we might live by it. The Feast of the Holy Cross is a good day to remember that our lives are to be cruciform. Luther picks this up in his treatise On the Councils and the Church, where he lists the "Possession of the Holy Cross" as the seventh mark of the church. Just as with the first "Possession of the Word of God," the mark does not mean the simple possession of the physical thing. The possession of the Word of God means the Word proclaimed. The possession of the Holy Cross means people whose lives show the reality of the cross. Luther writes,
Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. And the only reason they must suffer is that they steadfastly adhere to Christ and God’s word, enduring this for the sake of Christ, Matthew 5 [:11], “Blessed are you when men persecute you on my account.” They must be pious, quiet, obedient, and prepared to serve the government and everybody with life and goods, doing no one any harm. ...
But when you are condemned, cursed, reviled, slandered, and plagued because of Christ, you are sanctified. It mortifies the old Adam and teaches him patience, humility, gentleness, praise and thanks, and good cheer in suffering. That is what it means to be sanctified by the Holy Spirit and to be renewed to a new life in Christ; in that way we learn to believe in God, to trust him, to love him, and to place our hope in him, as Romans 5 [:1–5] says, “Suffering produces hope,” etc.
The Feast of the Holy Cross is the day to ponder the sacrifice of Christ, how it is so counter intuitive, and yet how its good news shapes and forms our lives.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Response by Religious Leaders Aided by Former Synodical Bishop, Rev. Don McCoid

ELCA News Service reported that the Rev. Don McCoid, Executive for the ELCA's Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations was part of the committee that drafted the statement that denounced the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric. Rev. McCoid is quoted as saying, "This was an exceptional gathering of Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders. In the midst of so much frenzy against Muslims, these diverse religious leaders stood together in solidarity to address the prejudices and bigotry that have surfaced in the media and in politics. The right to free exercise of religion in this country is very basic."

Rev. McCoid is my former synodical bishop and someone incredibly important in my discernment and becoming a pastor. It is not a reach at all to say that if not for him I might not be a pastor today. I am pleased that he continues to play such a role in interfaith affairs. Our common humanity must be respected. Living in a pluralistic society as we do, our efforts to work for the common good will be hampered by such actions. In addition witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot include hate such as the burning of another tradition's sacred text. Such an action in no way shows love for our enemy. Rather it incites them and strengthens their opposition and determination to hearing of the love of God in Christ Jesus.

The full text of the religious leaders' comments can be read here. One paragraph that I particularly like is
We are committed to building a future in which religious differences no longer lead to hostility or division between communities. Rather, we believe that such diversity can serve to enrich our public discourse about the great moral challenges that face our nation and our planet. On the basis of our shared reflection, we insist that no religion should be judged on the words or actions of those who seek to pervert it through acts of violence; that politicians and members of the media are never justified in exploiting religious differences as a wedge to advance political agendas or ideologies; that bearing false witness against the neighbor—something condemned by all three of our religious traditions—is inflicting particular harm on the followers of Islam, a world religion that has lately been mischaracterized by some as a “cult.”

The list of leaders who signed is impressive. I would local leaders will be just as vocal in their communities.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Hawking and God - A Necessary Challenge

It should be no surprise that as a former physicist, I am always interested in the ways that science and religion intersect and interact. So it was with great interest that Hawking's newest book The Grand Design, written with fellow physicist Leonard Mlodinow. From my preliminary understanding, the argument from M-Theory (a kin of string theory) allows that gravity and energy can spontaneously pop out of nothing, thereby taking God (according to Hawking) out of the equation.

A nice review can be read at the New York Times, "Many Kinds of Universes, and None Require God" by Dwight Garner. Garner writes:

At its core “The Grand Design” is an examination of a relatively new candidate for the “ultimate theory of everything,” something called M-theory, itself an extension of string theory, which tries to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics. “M-theory is not a theory in the usual sense,” the authors write. “It is a whole family of different theories.” According to M-theory, “ours is not the only universe,” the authors say. “Instead M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing.” The image that comes to mind here, others have written about M-theory, is of a God blowing soap bubbles.

But Mr. Hawking and Mr. Mlodinow assert that “their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. They are a prediction of science.” Many of these universes would be quite different from ours, they add, and “quite unsuitable for the existence of any form of life,” or at least any form of life remotely like ours.

So this comment and argument is certainly provocative. If energy and gravity can in fact cancel each other out, this will be a powerful argument for those who don't require God in the first place. But this would be how God puts it together. After all if God can be detected and thus proven, then faith is unnecessary. If faith is unnecessary then creation ceases to be "promise-driven, future-oriented" as R.R. Reno wrote in the introduction of commentary on Genesis, which I talked about here.

I look forward to reading this book. If for no other reason than challenges to the faith, help us sharpen our witness and proclamation.