Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Kingdom of Heaven Belongs to Such as These

My friend and I have an ongoing debate about the relevance of Matthew 19 for the discussion of infant baptism. He says it has nothing to do with the Sacrament of Baptism, and I insist it does. Some were bringing children to Christ that He might lay His hands on them. When the disciples saw it, they tried to prevent them. But our Lord responds, "Let the little children come to Me and do not forbid them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."
On the surface, my friend is right; baptism is not explicitly mentioned. But the failure to see the connection between this text and the Sacrament of Baptism says something about the way he views Baptism as well as revealing the way he does theology.
First, what does Scripture tell us Baptism does? For many evangelicals the question itself does not make sense. When I ask the question in person, I often get a response similar to the one I get when I hit the wrong button on my computer and the computer doesn't know what to do with it. It doesn't compute. That's because most evangelicals are taught that baptism is an outward sign of an inward thing. In other words, Baptism is merely symbolic. But is that true?
According to Scripture, Baptism washes away sin (Acts 22:16), grants forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), and saves us (1 Peter 3:21). Awww, did he just say Baptism saves us? No, he just pointed out that Scripture tells us Baptism saves us. Baptism washes away sin, forgives sin, and saves because in Baptism we are joined to the work of Christ, "Don't you know that all of you who were Baptized into Christ Jesus were Baptized into His death. We were, therefore, buried with Him through Baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so you too may have new life." In Baptism were are united to Christ and enjoy the benefits of His saving work.
So, we see that Baptism is not an empty sign. It is not an outward sign of an inward work. Far from it. Baptism is truly a Sacrament that really DOES SOMETHING for us.
Baptism, according to the apostle Paul in Romans 6, unites us to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Being united to Him in baptism, we belong to Christ and His community. Paul's language is Baptismal language. Often we see Paul writing the phrase, "in Christ." This, "in Christ," language is baptismal language.
And to be Baptized into Christ is to be united to His Church, the community of believers. Paul uses this language in 1 Corinthians 12, "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body." To be Baptized into Christ is to be Baptized into the Church, Christ's community. Acts 2: 41 says, "So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls."
In Matthew 19, it is clear that the disciples believe that the children being brought to Christ do not belong there. Obviously, they think that Christ should not be bothered by these little curtain climbers. But you can sense Christ's indignation in His answer, "Let the little children come to me and do not forbid them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." If the Kingdom of heaven belongs to "these," then the gifts of Christ's kingdom belong to them as well.
How can the kingdom of heaven belong to the little ones? Does it belong to them by nature? In other words, are children innocent and natural members of the Kingdom? No. Romans 5 makes it clear that Adam's sin has impacted all of humanity with no exceptions. Everyone born in Adam is dead in sin and condemned. David tells us in the great penitential Psalm 51, that we are conceived and born sinful. By nature we are alienated from God and His kingdom and are children of wrath. Christ says, "That which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit." (John 3:6)
So how can little children be part of the community of Christ? The answer is the same as it is for adults. "You must be born again," and "unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:5) One is not a member of the kingdom of God by nature, he must be born again. It's true that God does not have any grandchildren, but God graciously makes our children his in the waters of baptism, "for this is for you, and FOR YOUR CHILDREN, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call. (Acts 2:38)
Children become part of the community of Christ through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. The children in Matthew 19 similarly were part of the kingdom through the Old Testament rite of circumcision. Now, in the community of Christ, children belong to the kingdom through the waters of Baptism where something actually happens, they are united to Christ in His life, death and resurrection and now belong to Him.

Monday, May 19, 2008

At the seminary, I remember most of my professors opposing the policy of first communion separated from catechesis and confirmation. For a long time, when I would hear of it, I opposed it also. This had less to do with traditionalism than the conviction that we should not give the Sacrament to those, "who do not know what they are receiving or why they are receiving it. " (Luther's Large Catechism) All the examples I saw of early communion confirmed that conviction. Most churches that practice early communion take the children through a short 3 or 4 week course on the specific topic of the Lord's Supper. But the question is, do the children understand what sin is so that they see their need for the Sacrament. Do they have a working definition of sin as defined by the Ten Commandments? Also, do they know who that God is whom they are to fear and love? It seemed to me that a conscientious partaking of the Lord's Supper required an informed knowledge of the faith in all its chief parts. I still believe that.

But recently, godly men and pastors whom I respect for their faithfulness to the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions have taken a somewhat different approach than that which has been held historically by most American Lutheran Churches. Three churches that I am aware of have moved to an early communion practice for young children. Their arguments seem to me to be solid. The primary reason for their new practice is a desire to get the precious Sacrament of the body and blood of Christ to the children at the earliest possible age. I, also, share that desire.

One of their arguments is, first, most adult converts are not required to undergo all the memorization, so why should we insist that it be done by children. More to the point, why should children be denied the Sacrament until they have mastered the memorization work when adults are given a pass? Is this a double standard? Why should we deny communion to children who have not completely mastered the memorization of the Small Catechism and give it to adults who haven't even tried? What about children who are developmentally handicapped who may never be able to master the memory work? Also, as every pastor knows, there are many children who have been confirmed when they have not fully memorized the Small Catechism. We go ahead and confirm them anyway, because confirmation has become another rite of passage.

Rev. William Weedon makes the argument that our system of catechesis was not part of the age of Lutheran orthodoxy but a later development of Pietism, a movement that was more about personal devotion and introspection than objective faith in Christ. Are we going to say that Luther and the Reformers did not have a solid confirmation practice. Luther saw the parents as the primary catechists. Many old Lutherans learned the catechism from their parents then were brought to the pastor for examination. In this way they were admitted to the Sacrament.

Rev. Richard Stuckwisch makes the argument that catechesis is never really complete. It is a process that begins with baptism and ends with our ascent to glory. He also makes the point that many congregations require memorization of the six chief parts as a sort of hoop that children jump through to show their worthiness to receive the Lord's Supper. In fact, as our catechism states, "That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, 'given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.'"

The new synodical hymnal makes a provision for first communion providing a rite for it. This shows that our synod is already taking steps to make this possible for congregations. In fact, congregations who wish to do it can.

As the people at Gethsemane know, we have been moving confirmation to younger ages for some time now. I still believe that a thorough catechesis for the young has value in that it prepares children to withstand the onslaught that Satan will throw at them. On the other hand, I wish for children to receive communion as early as they desire it and can receive it responsibly. The Lord's Supper itself is a faith building means of grace that strengthens and confirms us in the faith. Children coming to communion must have a handle on the six chief parts of the catechism. Luther said every Christian should know the Ten Commandments, the Apostle's Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. Without these how can we examine ourselves, believe in the One true God who has created, redeemed, and sanctified us, and how can we call upon Him.

Maybe the answer is to take the children through an introduction to the Small Catechism of about ten to twelve weeks, making sure they know the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer. They should know something about what God has done for them in Baptism. They should know something about confession and absolution and be able to examine themselves. They should know all about the Lord's Supper, or at least the catechism material. This is, after all, what we require of adults. Later, when they are able, we can take them through again at a deeper level. But, rather than calling it first commuion, my gut feeling is, if we do this, to just go ahead and call it what it is, confirmation.

This blog, of course, is on the world wide web. I welcome all comments, but I am especially interested in the comments of my own congregation. My plan is to present some material to the congregation for them to read and consider and then to present this to the Voters' Assembly meeting in July. I look forward to having a conversation about this.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Missions Gone Wild

Thanks to 'the Old Parson' for posting this blog. It's bad enough when members of the synod try to accommodate the Divine Service to reformed sensibilities, but to have the chair of the missions department at one of the Concordia's suggest that we should accommodate it to Muslim sensibilities is unthinkable.

The professor in question is Herb Hoefer, chair of Missions at Concordia, Portland. He begins with apparent giddiness that a group of Muslim academics visiting the chapel service approved of the fact that the hymns, assuming they sang hymns, did not mention the name of Jesus, saying, "They discussed that they could have worshipped with the same words that they heard, for it so happened that the songs they heard only referred to God and not to Jesus." What a shame that a chair of missions welcomes their approval. Sadly, it doesn't end there; he goes on to wonder what else could be changed for the sake of mission in the "the Muslim context."

Perhaps, making Jesus the, "object of our worship," is a mistake. He says, "We have strong biblical authority for using the most common term 'Lord' when addressing the Resurrected One. That term would not feed Muslim misconceptions, as the term :Jesus' does." Well, there goes the ancient Church's earliest confession that, "Jesus is Lord."

He proposes changing the wording of the creeds to avoid Muslim misconceptions about Christians worshiping more than one God. He proposes that the third article of the Creeds be changed to avoid the offensive words, "Christian," or, "catholic." Instead he advocates using the word "umma," a Muslim term that suggests a fellowship of believers.

He also asserts that we remove the epistles from the Divine Service, or any worship service, since the epistles are largely Pauline and Muslims think that Paul was a false teacher who altered the Christian message from its previous pristine purity. This was a purity that conformed to the teaching of Muhammad. Of course, if you take out the Pauline epistles you don't hear unhelpful things like, "I am not ashamed of the gospel," and, "The Word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness."

The gist of the Professor's proposals is that we should alter Christianity itself, at least in the Muslim mission context, and seems to want to allow the Muslims to interpret our faith according to their own. Take out anything that is offensive in the Christian faith and what do you have...nothing, or maybe in that context, Islam.

Here are some other gems from the professor:
"Whenever we use the term 'Son of God,' Muslims immediately think blasphemy. We need to explain to Muslims that the term is a biblical metaphor that is used of individuals and even of Israel. It is not a biological description but a theological affirmation using a human metaphor. The Second Person of the Trinity is a 'chip off the old block.'"

"We need to make that explanation, but public worship typically is not the proper venue for that discussion. It would be best simply to avoid the term (Son of God) in our preaching and guide our people also to avoid it in their witnessing."

"In all of these matters, the process of discussing the reasons for the changes would become a great opportunity for educating and training our Christians as well as they try to witness effectively to their Muslim neighbors."

Of course, orthodox Christians would say that were we to adopt these proposals we would not be witnessing at all but compromising the truth of the gospel. The Apostles words are appropriate here, "even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we have preached to you, let him be accursed."

In an earlier blog, I took Tiny Muskins, a Danish Roman bishop, to task for suggesting that Christians adopt the name "Allah" as a title for God in order to accommodate Muslim sensitivities. These suggestions by one of our own are just as bad.

Rather than altering the historical Christian witness and removing traditional language from the Divine Service in order to be "effective," perhaps Concordia should alter the status of the professor and remove him from his position at one of our colleges.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Sacramental Docetism

Docetism is a term that comes to us from the Greek word "doketo." Doketo means "to think" or "to seem." An early heretical group, the gnostics, claimed that Christ did not truly appear in the flesh, but merely "seemed" to possess a body. Thus, the gnostics taught docetism. This was a denial of the true flesh of Christ and a heretical challenge to the fundamental doctrines of the incarnation and the substitutionary atonement. If Christ merely appeared to be human or have a body, He did not pay for the sins of the world on the cross. In fact, He did not become human and has in no way shared in our humanity. The apostle John addresses this error in his first epistle to the church, saying, "every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God." 1 John 4:2

But the reformed denial of the true, bodily presence of Christ in the supper is a sort of sacramental docetism. That is, they deny the very words of Christ in the institution of the Supper as being in any sense real. Classically, the reformed have done this on the same basis as the underlying philosophical position of the gnostics. That is, they deny any real connection between the human and divine natures of Christ. The communication between the divine and human natures has always been a problem for the reformed. That denial has real consequences in their view of the nature of the Lord's Supper. They deny that Christ's body is actually or really present, distributed and received in the Sacrament at the Altar. They are in effect Sacramental Docetists.

Lutherans boldly confess the true, bodily presence of Christ in the Holy Supper. We confess it in word and deed. How can we confess the true, bodily presence of Christ by our deeds? Christians have historically done this by reverencing the elements at the consecration. First, it should be clear which elements we reverence. We do not, as some say, reverence the bread and wine. That would be idolatry. We reverence the heavenly elements of Christ's true, physical body and blood which are, "in, with, and under," the earthly elements. We do so by bowing deeply or genuflecting at the consecration and elevation. With these bodily actions we are making a bold confession of the true, bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Christ has come physically and really into our presence in the consecration. How can we do other than humbly and reverently acknowledge that presence?

This may seem foreign at first, maybe a "little catholic." Of course, it is. It's what catholics, Lutheran, Roman, and Greek, have done for centuries. It is also a confession against the Sacramental Docetism of American Evangelicalism.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On Making the Sign of the Cross

Most rites of baptism include signing the cross over the one to be baptized. "Receive the sign of the holy cross both on your forehead + and upon your heart+ to mark you as you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified." In baptism we are united to Christ in His life, death, and resurrection. This baptism comforts us throughout our lives, assuring us that all the benefits of the death and resurrection of Christ have been delivered to us personally.

It is appropriate, then, that Christians through the ages have made the sign of the cross to remember that they have been redeemed by Christ the crucified. As early as the third century, Tertullian wrote that Christians make the sign of the cross, "in all our travels and movements. " Chrysostom in the fifth century said that making the sign of the cross reminds us of the price that has been paid to remove sin. In the Small Catechism, Luther prescribed making the sign of the cross at the opening and closing of the day.

In the Divine service we also make the sign of the cross. We do it at the invocation to remind us that God has called us together as His baptized people. At the absolution we make the sign of the cross, recognizing that absolution, along with the other sacraments, derives its power and authority from the salvation won on the cross. Also, absolution is a renewal of our baptism. At the last line of the creeds the cross is made because the creeds are a summary of the gospel that the Christian Church proclaims. The Nicene Creed was an expansion of the baptismal creed in Jerusalem, just as the Apostle's Creed is used in the in the west for baptism. In some churches the practice of making the sign of the cross at the last petition of the Lord's prayer is observed. God has truly delivered us from evil by the cross. It is appropriate to make the sign of the cross during the consecration, when you receive the elements, and at the dismissal from the table. At the benediction the sign of the cross is made. Just as God called us together as His baptized people, He sends us back out into the world as His baptized people.

At the seminary, the baptismal font stood at the entrance of the nave. As we passed the font, many of the seminarians would put our fingers into the font and sign ourselves upon entering and leaving the services. For some time now, our church has had a font near the entrance of the nave to give people the opportunity to remember their baptism in that way.

The sign of the cross is made either with two or three fingers. Two fingers represent the two natures of Christ. Three fingers represent the Holy Trinity. It begins at the forehead and goes down to the breastbone; it rises to the right shoulder and over to the left shoulder. Some go from the breastbone to the left shoulder and over to the right. The number of fingers or precise directions are not important.

Making the sign of the cross, of course, is neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture. It is simply and ancient and commendable practice of the Christian Church. The gestures and postures of Christian worship exist simply to instruct us and remind us to offer service to God with reverence and awe. I commend this practice to you as God's baptized children.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Reverence and Awe

With the advent of contemporary worship, there has come a radical paradigm shift in the way that Christians approach God. The friendship of God is so emphasized that the worshiper forgets the glory and majesty of God. Yes, Hebrews invites us to approach God with boldness and confidence, but does that mean we approach Him so casually without any reverence and awe?

A local church recently pulled its pews from the nave in order to accommodate tables and chairs. Now the worshipers can come with their lattes and relax while the band plays really rad music. I suspect the church lady might say something like, "Isn't that special? Where did you get the idea for that? Could it be....SATAN?"

In the past there were some good, solid customs established in the worship of the Church that helped inspire a sense of reverence and awe for the majesty of God. The pews had kneelers and the worshipers knelt to offer prayer and thanksgiving to God. Before entering the pew you would kneel toward the altar as a sign of reverence for God's gifts. At the name of Jesus people would bow their heads. Christians would bow slightly at the Gloria Patri. When it came to the "incarnatus est" clause of the creed, the parishioner would bow deeply as a sign of reverence for the doctrine of the incarnation. Christians would make the sign of the cross at the invocation, absolution, the end of the creed, at receiving the elements, and at the benediction. Another old custom, and one that is worthy of imitation, was to bow at the consecration of the elements. They recognized, as we should, that Christ is truly and physically present in, with, and under the elements because of the consecration.

Now, of course, this can all be done in a hypocritical fashion without any true reverence in the heart for our Savior, but these old customs also had the advantage of reminding people they were in the presence of God. God is to be treated with reverence and awe. Although we approach God with boldness and confidence, we do not approach Him in a casual way.

Think about how the worshipers in the Scriptures approached God. When Moses met God at the burning bush, he not only took off his shoes but fell on his face. When Isaiah was ushered into the presence of God, He cried out, "Woe is me; I am undone. For I have seen the Holy One of Israel." When the apostle John saw the image of Christ in a vision in the book of Revelation he fell on his face, John says, "as a dead man." Don't we believe that God Himself is truly present with us in worship anymore?

So leave your latte at home and remember that it is no small thing to be in the presence of a holy God. Come and worship with a sense of reverence and awe.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Confessions of a Lent Lover

The Season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and continues 40 days, Sundays excluded, in preparation for Easter. Lent is a season of repentance and reflection, a time to turn from our sin and to look to Christ in faith. It is especially a time to remember the sufferings of Christ and His atoning work.

The gospel lessons during Lent highlight our Lord's struggle with the evil one. The first Sunday, Invocabit, reminds us of our Lord's struggle and victory over the temptations of Satan in the desert. On Reminscere Sunday Christ delivers the Canaanite woman's daughter from the demon. On Occuli Sunday Christ delivers a deaf-mute from demons and is accused by his human enemies of being the prince and ruler of the demons. Laetere Sunday is a respite with Christ feeding the five thousand, but on Judica Sunday the struggle intensifies with the enemies of Christ attempting to stone him. This struggle finds it culmination on Passion Sunday and Good Friday where Christ triumphs over sin, death, and hell on the cross.

Although Sundays are considered excluded from the 40 day count in Lent (Sundays are always celebrations of the resurrection), the mood of the Sundays in Lent is more subdued than most Sundays. The alleluias are absent, and there is no Gloria in excelsis. The gospel verse is changed in Lutheran Worship from "Alleluia, Lord to whom shall we go..." to "Return to the Lord Your God..." There are no flowers on the altar except on Laetere Sunday. During passiontide, beginning Judica Sunday, the crosses and crucifix are either removed or covered in purple.

Lent is also a season of catechesis. In the ancient church catechumens were prepared during Lent for their baptism at Easter Vigil. The Lutheran Church has customarily used the Lenten season for sermons on the catechism. This year we are looking forward to baptizing several people at Easter Vigil and during the Lenten season.

I love Lent. I love the Wednesday soup suppers, the increased focus on repentance and confession, and the anticipation of the celebration of Easter. I love the hymns and the responses. I love the Dorian chant. I love it all. Blessings to everyone during this blessed season.