Reformation, part four

Pontius Pilate asked, “What is truth?” but he did not wait to receive an answer from Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Fifteen centuries later, the followers of Jesus were still debating how to know the truth. Roman Catholic theologians, then and today, taught that God continues to reveal new truth to the leaders of his Church (that is, the Pope), but Martin Luther insisted that God’s truth is unchanging. Everything we need to know about God and about our salvation is clearly stated in the Bible, as written by God’s chosen prophets and apostles. No new revelations are to be expected; no additional truths will be given to the Church.

This applies to religious knowledge, not to all knowledge. Since Luther’s time, scientific study has learned much about God’s creation; no doubt, much more remains to be learned. Even scientific discoveries, though, do not cancel religious truths revealed in the Bible. Likewise, the Holy Spirit does not reveal new religious truths that contradict the Bible. Even while Luther was protected in the Wartburg castle, prophets arrived in Wittenberg claiming to have new messages from the Holy Spirit. Luther continued to say, as he said at the Diet of Worms, that he would not be convinced of any new religious truth unless it was shown to him from the Bible—not from popes or councils, and not from prophets who claimed new messages from God.

Luther did not mean that every Christian is free to interpret the Bible his or her own way. While placing all other Church authorities under the Bible, Luther also said that the Bible interprets itself. If it is confusing or unclear in one place, God’s people look for another part of the Bible that discusses the same idea, using that to enlighten their minds regarding the reading that is difficult to understand. The book of Revelation is best understood in light of the sixty-five books that precede it. Divisions that hindered the work of the Church in Luther’s lifetime and afterward largely developed from sincere misunderstandings of the Bible, but those sincere misunderstandings sometimes resulted from a determination to put reason and logic, or emotion and feeling, or some human authority, ahead of the Bible when seeking truth.

Ulrich Zwingli was a preacher in Switzerland at the same time as Luther. Zwingli claimed that he received his understanding of Reformation independently from Luther’s writings, although the time lag between Luther’s published work and Zwingli’s proclamations makes historians dubious about Zwingli’s claim. Luther and Zwingli met at Marburg to see if they could work together to oppose the Pope and lead the Church in Reformation. They agreed on eleven important points but disagreed on the final point. Luther insisted that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine served in Holy Communion; Zwingli said that the bread and wine are reminders of Christ’s body and blood. Luther pointed to the words from the Bible, “This is my body”—according to some accounts, he had written them in chalk on the table—saying that “this” and “is” and “body” all had to be taken as true; none of them permitted an interpretation of “reminds” or “represents.” Zwingli disagreed, and the two could not combine forces. Zwingli later died on the battlefield fighting against forces representing the Pope, the Emperor and the Roman Church.

A generation later, John Calvin became Zwingli’s heir in the Reformation. In many ways, Calvin represented a revival of the scholastic vein in Christian theology, seeking to combine reason and faith. Calvin suggested that, when receiving the Lord’s Supper, a Christian is lifted to heaven and enjoys Christ’s presence, while Luther’s heirs replied that Christ comes to earth and is thus really present in the Lord’s Supper. Where Luther had emphasized God’s love and mercy, Calvin emphasized God’s power. Calvin reasoned that, since God is Almighty, all those saved and going to heaven will arrive there because God wants them there, and all those condemned and going to eternal punishment will arrive there because God wants them there. This teaching of “predestination” counters Bible verses that say that God wants all to be saved and wants no one to be lost. Other Christians swung to the opposite approach, teaching that God saves those who want to be saved but condemns those who refuse to be saved. Luther’s teaching—and that of Lutherans since his time, a teaching called “election”—holds to the paradox that no one can be saved without God’s work but all who are lost have rejected God’s work. Calvin’s predestination and the opposite approach—labeled Pelagianism or Arminianism from the names of two advocates of this approach—are both more satisfying to logic and reason than the teaching of election. Luther and Lutherans assert that election is more faithful to Scripture than the more logical suggestions regarding who is saved and who is lost.

Calvin also held that only Christians should govern a Christian land. Luther affirmed that Christians could serve in government, but he did not demand that only Christians could lead; Luther even said that he would prefer a government led by a Muslim who is a competent leader to a government led by a Christian who is incompetent. Luther felt that the government should punish the wrongdoer and protect citizens from danger, but he also said that only the Church can forgive sins and preach the Gospel; the government should not enforce religious beliefs.

Other groups of Christians were distinct from Luther, Calvin, and the Pope. Some called for violent revolution to establish the kingdom of God on earth, while others withdrew from the world and tried to remain pure from worldly concerns, including government. Some went beyond Zwingli, not only saying that bread and wine are merely reminders of Christ’s body and blood, but also that Baptism is merely a reminder of our commitment to God, and therefore only adult believers should be baptized. Politically, some parts of Europe including the southern parts of the Holy Roman Empire remained within the Roman Church; northern parts of the Holy Roman Empire held to the teachings of Luther, as did the Scandinavian countries; while parts of Switzerland, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Netherlands favored Calvinism.

King Henry VIII of England at first favored the Roman Church. He wrote an essay against Luther’s teaching, for which the Pope rewarded him with the title “Defender of the Faith.” All of Henry’s heirs, including Elizabeth II, have claimed that title. But a few years later, Henry ran into a practical problem. His wife Catherine, a princess from Spain, had been pregnant six times, but four of the children were stillborn, a fifth died within a month of birth, and only a daughter survived into adulthood. Henry knew he could father healthy sons—he had done so with other women—so he assumed his marriage was cursed. Catherine as a child had been married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, who died young, and Henry needed special permission from the Pope to marry his brother’s widow. Now he wanted special permission to divorce his wife and marry a woman who could provide him with a son.

Pope Leo had died by this time, and the new Pope (also from the Medici family) had to make a decision. Pope Clement could agree with Henry and please this king of part of an island at the west end of Europe, or he could agree with the Spanish princess and please her nephew, Charles, who was king of Spain, the Netherlands, and the New World, as well as Austria, and also Holy Roman Emperor. Obviously, Pope Clement decided in favor of Charles’ aunt. Henry then declared himself head of the Church of England and broke with the Pope. Negotiators sought to ally Henry’s movement with the Lutherans, but when their theologians learned Henry’s reason for breaking with Rome, they were unwilling to declare an alliance.

Nevertheless, the English Reformation at first followed Lutheran guidelines. Henry—who married six times in all—eventually died and was succeeded by his only son, Edward. Edward was in poor health and died soon afterward. His older sister Mary became queen and tried to lead the Church of England back into the Roman Catholic Church, but she failed. Eventually, she was replaced by her sister, Queen Elizabeth I, who guided the Church of England largely on Calvinist paths, although with a broader tolerance for diversity in the Church than was being observed in most European nations.

Meanwhile, under Clement and his successors, the Roman Catholic Church tried to resolve its internal problems. The Council of Trent affirmed penance, indulgences, purgatory, and the authority of the Pope, but the council took steps against misuse of power within the Church. Meanwhile, Ignatius of Loyola provided the Romans with a mind equal to that of Luther and Calvin, Ignatius had been a soldier, but was seriously wounded; during his long recovery, he read the Bible and other Christian works. He wrote Christians works himself, including devotional works still studied today. He also organized another movement like the Augustinians, Franciscans, and Dominicans. The Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, would become the ground troops defending the Church of Rome in Europe and bringing its teachings wherever European governments were sending explorers and colonists. J.

Christ’s new covenant

(a sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 10:35-45)

              We take it for granted, and generally we don’t even think about it. When we do stop and think about it, the topic confuses us. Sometimes it seems to rush by quickly; other times it seems to drag. Physicists like Isaac Newton assumed that it is the same for everyone everywhere, but Albert Einstein insisted that it is relative. Many modern philosophers say that it doesn’t really exist, that it is only there when we notice it.

              This strange quality is called time. We measure time with years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Without time, nothing could move and nothing could change. Nothing would be new or old if time did not exist. Time has a direction: we move from past to present and from present to future. Because of time, we have worries; and because of time, we have hope. Our lives are shaped by time. Yet the more we think about time, the less we understand it.

              God created time. He made the universe and all that exists in it “in the beginning.” God established time by making evening and morning, the first day. Our relationship to the sun creates days and years; our relationship to the moon creates months. Weeks are special; God created weeks by making the world in six days and resting on the seventh day, giving the people created in his image a day of rest every seventh day. God’s commandments of sabbath rest extended to sets of seven years, in which farmland got to rest every seventh year. God also created the Jubilee Year after every seven sets of years. On the Jubilee Year, debts were canceled, slaves were set free, and land was returned to the families who had received that land from God.

              God created time. We live in time. Our relationship with God works in time. When God speaks to us, he mentions time. Yet time does not limit God. He exists in time, but he also exists beyond time. To God, it is always “today.” God is eternal and unchanging. He sees all time at a glance. To God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. “Old” and “new” do not have meaning to God as they have meaning to us. Therefore, when God speaks to us, he uses our sense of “old” and “new.” Yet to God, everything is new and nothing is old. What seems old to us might be very recent for God, and what seems new to us might be old news for God.

              The prophet Jeremiah lived centuries after the time of Moses. When God called Moses, he had Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. On the way, Moses and the Israelites stopped at Mount Sinai, and God made a covenant with his people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God spoke about the behavior of his people under that covenant. They would have no other gods. They would respect God’s name, God’s time, and the human authorities that represent God’s authority. They would love their neighbors and respect their lives, their marriages, their property and their reputations. They would be content with what God provided them; they would not covet the things God provided to their neighbors.

              Under the terms of this old covenant, God would bless his people when they obeyed him, and God would punish his people when they disobeyed him. While his people obeyed, God would provide favorable weather, fertile fields, abundance of crops, and security from their enemies. But if they broke the covenant, God would withhold the rain and would let the crops fail. He would allow enemies to invade and to harm his people. If they obeyed the old covenant, they could stay on the land God had given to them; but if they broke that covenant, God would take them away from the land and would force them to live among their enemies, even though their enemies were also God’s enemies.

              When Jeremiah came, the Israelites had been breaking the old covenant for generations. They had worshiped false gods, the gods of the Canaanites and other neighboring nations. They had taken advantage of one another, forcing their neighbors into poverty for their own wealth and comfort. They had broken the sabbath commandments about rest and freedom and restoration. Under the terms of the old covenant, God had no reason to provide for them or protect them. Jeremiah, like the prophets before him, warned that consequences were coming because of the broken old covenant. Enemies would destroy the nation Israel, killing many of its citizens and carrying others away from the land. God had no obligation to prevent these bad things from happening, because his people had already broken the covenant God made with them. The Assyrians and Babylonians were tools in the hands of God, instruments used to accomplish his plan according to the terms of the covenant he had spoken to his people at Mount Sinai.

              Terms of the old covenant seem natural to us. Some people call it karma. We expect good things to happen when we do good things; we expect bad things to happen when we do bad things. If we obey the commands of God, we expect God to reward us. If we break his commandments, we expect God to punish us. We all know how the old covenant works: what comes around goes around. You harvest whatever you plant. In the end, we all get what we deserve. Therefore, if something good happens to you, sometime in the past you must have done something good. If something bad happens to you, the first question you ask is, “What did I do to deserve this?”

              Jeremiah spent much of his career warning God’s people of the consequences of breaking God’s covenant. But Jeremiah, like the other prophets, knew that God has an old covenant and a new covenant. Under the old covenant we get what we deserve. Under the new covenant, God forgives our sins and blesses us. The new covenant is based on God’s grace, not on our obedience. Under the new covenant, God rescues us from our sins. He rescues us from what we deserve. He rescues us from the power of evil, because God forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more.

              The new covenant is not fair. The new covenant involves an exchange. In that exchange, the Son of God becomes one of us and lives among us. He obeys the commandments and earns God’s blessings. He deserves nothing but good. But, in the new covenant, the Son of God takes the burden of sins and iniquity, and he pays the price in full. The guilt of the world’s sins falls upon him, and he consumes the punishment that sinners deserve. In return, when God has forgiven iniquity and forgotten sin, he is able to bless those who broke the old covenant. God is able to claim us as his people and to give us the good things that Jesus deserves. He is our God and we are his people, just as he said in the old covenant. But the sins of our past have not destroyed that relationship. He remains our God and we remain his people, because through the cross of Christ God has forgiven our iniquity. He remembers our sin no more.

              The old covenant is fair. It makes sense. The new covenant is unfair. It transcends our understanding. In a perfectly fair world, the new covenant would not be allowed. Jesus could not suffer, because he never did anything wrong. Each of us would get what we deserve. Because we have all sinned—we all have broken the commands of God—we all have fallen short of his plan for our lives—he would no longer be our God, and we would no longer be his people.

              But God is not fair according to the terms of the old covenant. He replaces it with a new covenant that is unfair. He allows good people to suffer so he can suffer on the cross to pay for our sins. He allows sinful people to receive good things so he can give us good things we do not deserve. He is unfair for our benefit, breaking the terms of the old covenant and replacing it with a new covenant that allows him to remain our God and allows us to remain his people.

              In our travel through time, we encounter the old covenant first and then the new covenant comes later. Sinai happens first in history, and then comes Calvary. We are born knowing the justice of getting what we deserve, good in return for good and bad in return for bad. We then are told about the new covenant, an agreement when God reverses everything we took for granted. He absorbs our guilt upon the cross, paying our debt, reducing his wrath to zero; and he forgets our sins, gives us good things we do not deserve, and changes us to be his people. As a result, we also forgive those who sin against us. We also give good things to our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We also are unfair, showing love and mercy to our neighbors and loving them, even and especially when they do not deserve our love.

              For us, grace and mercy are a new covenant. For that reason, God speaks of an old covenant at Sinai and a new covenant at Calvary. But to God, nothing is old and nothing is new. In fact, the new covenant is (in a sense) older than the old covenant, because the new covenant is truer to the nature of God. God responds to sin with punishment; he reacts to evil by judging and condemning evil. At the core of his nature, though, God is love. He wants to give good things even to those who do not deserve good things. He wants to rescue victims of sin and evil. He wants the world to be good, and therefore he restores what is good, fixes what is broken, and reshapes us into the image of Christ after we first sinned and lost the image of God. He is our God, and we are his people, because that is what God desires. Forgiveness is more natural to God than judgment. He sees our sins for a while, but the blood of Christ erases our sins. Every day, in the sight of God, we are new people—cleansed, restored, and spotless in the eyes of God. Every song of praise we sing is a new song to God, and every time he tells us to love each other is a new commandment, because we never stop being new in the new covenant God has established with us through the cross of his Son.

              The old covenant comes in the course of time. The new covenant stands outside of time. Before God began to create, before he said, “Let there be light,” he had already planned our salvation. He knew that we would sin. He knew that his covenant based on our obedience would be broken. He knew the price he would pay to rescue us from the punishment we deserve. But God had already chosen his new covenant. That new (and timeless) covenant rests in the eternal and unchanging love of God, love by which God chooses to become a victim of evil on the cross to rescue us victims of evil and give us a share in his victory over evil and sin and death.

              We live under the terms of the new covenant. The old covenant no longer threatens us with punishment for our sins. But sometimes we forget where we live. We still want the benefits of the old covenant, so long as its judgment applies to others and not to ourselves. James and John, the disciples of Jesus, were thinking of the old covenant when they asked a special favor of Jesus. They wanted to be at his right hand and at his left when he claimed his glory. They were thinking in Old Testament terms of the kingdom, the power, and the glory when they made this request. They were not considering the unfair new covenant that Jesus had come to fulfill. Jesus denied them a place at his right and at his left when he claimed his kingdom and came into his glory. Those places belong to others—not to Moses and Elijah, not to Simon Peter, not to Martin Luther or any other great Christian heroes. Jesus claimed his kingdom and accomplished his glory on a cross. At his right and his left were two thieves, being punished for their crimes under the old covenant. Because Jesus was establishing his new covenant, when one of those thieves confessed his faith, he was promised a place with Jesus in Paradise. James and John and the rest of us are also promised a place in Paradise, not under the old covenant where people get what they deserve, but under the new covenant where, by grace through faith, we are forgiven of our sins and claimed as the people of God.

              Speaking of both covenants, Jesus speaks of a baptism and of a cup. Baptism washes and purifies. Jesus endured the cross as a baptism of fire, a baptism of his Father’s wrath, so we could be spared that wrath and our sins could be forgotten. The cup of God’s wrath is filled with our guilt and our sins. This cup contains a poison that kills, for the wages of sin is death. But Jesus drinks the poison in that cup. He consumes the wrath of his Father so he can adopt us into his family, making each of us a child of God.

              Jesus has another baptism, one of water rather than fire. Having endured the fire for us, Jesus washes us with water in Holy Baptism. As the new covenant is stronger than the old covenant, so the water of Holy Baptism extinguishes the fire of judgment and gives us eternal life in God’s kingdom.

              Jesus has another cup, the cup of salvation, the cup of the New Testament. At his Table, Jesus trades cup with us. He takes our cup, the cup of wrath, the poisoned cup, and he drinks from it until it is empty. Jesus did not want to drink from that cup. In Gethsemane, he prayed that the cup of his Father’s wrath would be taken from him. But he accepted the will of his Father and drank from that cup. Now, in exchange, Jesus gives us his cup. “This is the cup of the New Testament,” he says, “given for the forgiveness of your sins.” His blood removes our sins, because he shed that blood to take away our sins. They are forgiven and forgotten by God because of the work of Christ on the cross. As often as we drink from his cup of salvation, we proclaim the death of Christ until he comes. We proclaim the death that conquered death, the death that was followed by resurrection so we could rise to eternal life according to the terms of God’s new covenant.

              Jesus did not come to claim what belonged to him under the old covenant. The Son of Man did not come to be served. He came to serve and to give his life as a Ransom. Because he is a Ransom, our debt is paid. Our sins are forgiven and forgotten. The God who made all things—who created time itself—has chosen to be our God. He has chosen us to be his people. We are new every day because of the new covenant, the covenant fulfilled by Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross. To our Savior Jesus Christ be glory and honor and praise, now and forever.                 Amen.

A message from God (part two)

The Bible is the Word of God, the only trustworthy communication we have with the Creator of heaven and earth and the Redeemer of sinners. As God’s Word, the Bible can be used to test and judge other messages—not only dreams and visions, thoughts and feelings, but also preachers, teachers, and writers. If their message contradicts the Bible, their message is not from God. Because our understanding and interpretation of the Bible’s message can sometimes be diverse and unclear, I have written about how to reconcile different Christian interpretations of the Bible here.

But once we have acknowledged that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is the only test of other messages, how can we be sure that the truth of the Bible is true for us? Written long ago in foreign languages and foreign cultures, the Bible might not seem like a very personal message to Christians in the contemporary world. Therefore, some Christians seek and trust additional connections to God, additional ways that they can receive his Word and apply it to their lives.

Jesus knows everything. He knew this yearning for closeness could lead to problems. Therefore, Jesus promised that he could be found. “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Where did Jesus promise to be found? Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Some Christians are frustrated with the Christian Church on earth. It is filled with sinners. It sometimes fails to protect members and visitors from sinners in offices of power. The Church sometimes neglects the most needy and pays too much attention to worldly wealth and power. Yet Jesus promised to be present where people gather in his name. A study on discipleship I took when I was in high school proclaimed, “There are no Lone Ranger Christians.” The Church is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. Those things that happen in the Church give us a closer relationship to Jesus—closeness that we will not find by enjoying Creation, meditating quietly in our rooms, or waiting for dreams and visions and quiet voices.

We see sinners in the Church. Jesus sees saints, already forgiven through his work. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Because the Church is his Bride, Christ does not allow us to seek a relationship with him apart from the Church. If you love him, you must love his Bride and see her with his eyes. When we see the sins committed in the Church and remember that those are forgiven sins, we are reminded that our sins also are forgiven through the cleansing work of Jesus.

What happens when people gather in Jesus’ name? The forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and believed. The Word of God is read and explained. Prayers are raised to God on behalf of the Church, its members, and the world in which we live. Sacraments also happen in the Church. It is no mistake that Paul uses baptismal language when talking about Christ’s cleansing of the Church, “by the washing of water with the Word.”

To some Christians, Baptism is a thing they did for God, an act that shows that they love and trust Jesus. They see Baptism as obedience to a commandment. But Baptism is a gift from God. It makes a Christian new every day, able to obey the “new commandment” to “love one another.” Studying the commandments does not make us better; God’s grace and forgiveness makes us better. Only through God’s grace and forgiveness are we restored to our Maker’s plan, being transformed into the image of Christ. Baptism is one of God’s expressions of this grace.

The other expression of God’s grace is called the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of the Altar. Again, some Christians eat and drink at the Lord’s Table as obedience to a command. They are remembering Jesus and showing that they love him. But Paul calls this Sacrament participation in the body and blood of our Savior: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Corinthians 10:16). Jesus says of the bread, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.” He says of the wine, “This is the cup of the New Testament, given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He urges Christians to “do this often, remembering me.”

A quiet whisper like the one Elijah heard, a message from the Lord that springs into the mind unbidden, might seem like the closest relationship a believer can have with the Lord. But receiving his body and his blood in the Sacrament is even more intimate than hearing a whisper or receiving a message. It seems that the Christians most determined to experience God through dreams and visions and inner thoughts and voices are those who are neglecting the intimacy of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The Bible urges us to cling to these Sacraments for confidence of our salvation and for connection to the Lord. I joke with Jesus about receiving messages from him through the radio, but Jesus earnestly reminds me to base my relationship with him upon the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. J.

The cup of wrath

God’s eternal and unchanging nature is love. In love he responds to sin and evil with anger; but in love he also finds a way to rescue sinners from his anger. On the cross, Christ faced the wrath of God, consuming it fully so no wrath is left for sinners who trust in Christ.

Before going to the cross, Christ prayed, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39). He prayed about the cup of God’s wrath, which is described by the Old Testament prophets: “Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17); “Thus the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me, ‘Take from my hand this cup of wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it” (Jeremiah 25:15); to Judah, God says, “You have gone the way of your sister; therefore I will give her cup into your hand. Thus says the Lord God: You shall drink your sister’s cup that is deep and large; you shall be laughed at and held in derision, for it contains much; you will be filled with drunkenness and sorrow. A cup of horror and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria, you shall drink it and drain it out, and gnaw its shards and tear your breasts; for I have spoken, declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 23:32-34). Imagine in heaven a cup with your name written on it. Every time you sin, a drop of poison falls into that cup, the poison of the wrath of God. For every lie, another drop of poison. For every careless deed that causes harm, another drop of poison. For every neglected opportunity to help a neighbor, another drop of poison. Imagine that cup of God’s wrath waiting for you when the Day of the Lord comes, the Day when all sinners will be judged.

But now that cup is empty. Jesus took your cup and drank all that it contained. In exchange, he gives you his cup, the cup of salvation (Psalm 116:13; I Corinthians 11:25-26). As in a comic movie, one cup is poisoned and the other is pure; but Jesus purposely takes the poisoned cup and gives to you and me the cup that is pure.

For this reason, Christians do not fear the wrath of God. Nor are we terrified of the Day of the Lord. Because Jesus drank the cup of wrath and gave us the cup of salvation, we are confident that we belong to the Lord and will dwell in his kingdom forever. The wrath of God is real; but Christians will never face that wrath. It was consumed and finished on the cross, granting us forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

No one can teach the whole message of Scripture without speaking of the wrath of God. God’s commandments (his Law) show us why we deserve his wrath; God’s promises (his Gospel) show us how we are spared his wrath through the saving work of Christ. God is love, which is why Christ provided an atoning sacrifice to save us from God’s wrath. No Christian should seek to be a wrath-monger; we should always delight to share the grace of God with sinners. The purpose of teaching the Law is to show our sins and our need for a Savior. This leads to repentance and the joy of sharing the Gospel, which shows us our Savior. The full message must be taught for sinners to come to repentance and faith and thus receive the Lord’s salvation. J.

Holy Communion (part four)

The Bible says: “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (I Corinthians 11:28).

Luther explains: “Who receives this Sacrament worthily? Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require all hearts to believe.”

Salvageable adds: Many traditions have become attached to the celebration of Holy Communion. Some Christians eat no food before going to church and receiving the Sacrament, so that they break their fast with the Lord’s body and blood. Some wear their best clothing to church on Sunday, and they do other physical things to prepare for the Sacrament.

Luther calls those actions “fine outward training,” but he says that the most important preparation is faith. Someone who does not believe that Jesus is Lord should not receive the Sacrament. Someone who does not believe that his death on the cross brings forgiveness of sins should not receive the Sacrament. Someone who does not want to be forgiven because he or she loves a sin more than he or she loves the Savior should not receive the Sacrament.

But we do not receive the Lord’s Supper because we are good enough for it. We receive the Lord’s Supper because we are not good enough for God. We do not receive the Lord’s Supper because we have risen above our sins. We receive the Lord’s Supper because we need forgiveness for our sins.

Moreover, we need a share in the Lord’s victory over sin and evil. None of us is personally responsible for all the evil in the world. The devil remains a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. The sinful world around us tries to drag us down to its level. The sin within each of us agrees with the devil and with the sinful world. God limits the power of evil, but he permits evil to exist. He permits his people to suffer the consequences of evil around us, even though we have been forgiven all our sins. God then strengthens us for our life on this battlefield. With his Holy Supper he equips us to battle the devil, the sinful world, and our sinful flesh. With his Holy Supper he shares the victory he has won—for where there is forgiveness of sin, there is also life and salvation.

A Christian is truly prepared for the Sacrament when that Christian knows that he or she is a sinner needing a Savior and when that Christian knows that Jesus is the Savior he or she needs. Knowing our need for forgiveness, we approach the Table of the Lord, prepared to receive his body and blood, and with them forgiveness, life, and salvation. Thanks be to God for this precious gift! Amen.

Holy Communion (part three)

The Bible says: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Corinthians 11:26).

Luther explains, “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things? Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, along with the eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’”

Salvageable adds: Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something we do for God; faith is something God does in us. Faith is a relationship that trusts God’s promises. Without God’s grace, our faith would be pointless. Without faith, God’s grace does not reach us and we remain in our sins.

Our faith comes to us through the Word of God. Whether that Word is spoken as an absolution or read from the Bible, whether it is accompanied by water in Holy Baptism or by eating and drinking in Holy Communion, this Word creates faith and strengthens faith. These ways of delivering the Word of God are the gifts of the Holy Spirit by which he enlightens us and brings us into Christ’s kingdom.

A mental illness called anorexia causes a person to deny himself or herself of nutrition needed for the body. This disease is devastating toward the person who suffers from it, and his or her condition is agonizing for family and friends to see. We take spiritual anorexia far more lightly. A person says, “I’m a Christian—I believe in God. But I don’t have time to read the Bible or pray or go to church. God understands. I don’t need church to be a Christian.”

Luther wrote about such a person this way: “But what should you do if you are not aware of this need and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament? To such a person no better advice can be given than this: first, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood. Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it… Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say… Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace, within our without, as the Scriptures picture him….”

Because we sin often, we need forgiveness often. We eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, receiving his body and his blood from the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. The Ten Commandments tell us why we need forgiveness. The Apostles’ Creed expresses our faith in the forgiveness of sins. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for forgiveness and promise to share forgiveness. The Christian Church is all about forgiveness, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion is likewise all about forgiveness. J.

Holy Communion (part two)

The Bible says: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Corinthians 10:16)

Luther explains: “What is the benefit of this eating and drinking? These words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,’ show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”

Salvageable adds:  If the bread were merely a reminder of Christ’s body and the wine a reminder of Christ’s blood, then eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper would be something we do for Jesus, a way to show that we remember him. Indeed, many Protestant Christians focus on the words, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and they consider the Lord’s Supper a work they do for Jesus. Luther and Lutherans focus on the words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” They focus also on Paul’s word, “participation”—also translated as communication, fellowship, or communion. We participate with people, not with pictures. We have fellowship with people, not with reminders. In Holy Communion, our link is to Jesus himself, not to reminders of what Jesus did.

Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” wanting us to remember him every time we eat and drink the Sacrament. Otherwise, we are just going through the motions of religion. God hates seeing his people going through the motions of religion. He disparaged the sacrifices offered in the Old Testament, even though he had commanded those sacrifices. He spoke bitterly about those sacrifices because his people were going through the motions of religion without faith in God and his promises. Likewise, Jesus wants people to eat and drink the sacrament thinking about him, believing his promises, and claiming what he offers—namely, the forgiveness of sins.

Even though we are Christians, we sin often. We need forgiveness often. We repent daily, renewing the relationship established with God through Holy Baptism. We confess often, hearing the absolution and being assured that all our sins are forgiven. We receive Holy Communion often, coming as close to Jesus as is possible before the new creation, since he says that his body and his blood are truly present when we eat and drink at his Table.

“Where there is forgiveness of sins,” Luther says, “there is also life and salvation.” The three come as a package. We cannot have eternal life without the forgiveness of our sins. We cannot be rescued from sin and from all our enemies without the forgiveness of our sins. But when our sins are forgiven, eternal life is guaranteed to us and we share Christ’s victory over all our enemies.

Holy Communion (part one)

The Bible says: “The Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also He took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the New Testament in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (I Corinthians 11:23-25; see also Matthew 26: 26-28, Mark 14: 22-24, and Luke 22: 19-20).

Luther explains: “What is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.”

The question of Holy Communion (or the Lord’s Supper) divides Lutherans from other Protestants, even as it divided Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli during the course of the Reformation, keeping them from cooperating in their resistance to Rome. When Zwingli said that the bread represents the body of Christ and the wine represents his blood, Luther pointed to the words of the Bible and insisted, “’Is’ means ‘is’!”

Lutherans do not believe that the bread changes into Christ’s body or that the wine changes into Christ’s blood. They believe that Christ’s body is present with the bread and that his blood is present with the wine. The Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament can be compared to the mystery of Christ’s two natures. As Jesus is completely God and completely human at the same time, so the bread in the Sacrament is completely bread and still completely Christ’s body; the wine is completely wine and still completely Christ’s blood.

Jesus instituted this Sacrament during a Passover dinner. In the Passover dinner, God’s people remembered the lamb that was killed in Egypt, its blood painted on their houses, so they would be spared death and rescued from slavery. John the Baptist identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Part of the Passover meal was bread made without yeast, a picture of a life without sin. Jesus took that bread and said, “This is my body, given for you.” He took the cup of thanksgiving (the third of four cups served during the Passover meal, the one after supper) and said, “This cup is the New Testament in my blood.” Holy Communion replaces the Passover meal from which it was taken. The Sacrament is celebrated, not once a year like the Passover meal, but often when God’s people gather in the name of Jesus.

Because Jesus is human, he can give us his true body and his true blood. Because Jesus is God, he can keep on giving and never run out. When he appears in glory, he will be missing none of his body and none of his blood, even after feeding his body and blood to his people over many centuries. Yet the body and blood from his crucifixion are truly present whenever his Sacrament is observed. Even unbelievers who mistakenly eat and drink the Sacrament receive his body and his blood, but because they do not believe, they encounter a Judge rather than a Savior.

Human flesh is not kosher; it is not among the meats permitted in the Law of Moses for God’s people to eat. Even animal blood is forbidden; meat is not kosher until all the blood has been removed. Why, then, does Jesus give Christians his body to eat and his blood to drink? He does so because of the New Testament, which unites Christians with Christ in a special way. The metaphor of eating and drinking appears in many parts of the Bible to describe a believer’s relationship with God. In Holy Communion, the metaphor becomes reality, for as Luther said, “’Is means ‘is’!”

Maundy Thursday

On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus sent Peter and John into Jerusalem to make preparations for their Passover Seder. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there had been no room for him and his family in the inn. Now a borrowed room was available for Jesus and his followers. (The same Greek word is used in the Bible for the Bethlehem inn and the borrowed room in Jerusalem.)

That night Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and told them that they were to be humble servants to one another. He gave them a new commandment, telling them to love one another. (Of course that commandment had been given before. It is new in the sense that his people are new every day through the work of their Savior. Therefore, every day this commandment is new to his people.) Jesus prayed for his disciples and for all who would believe in Jesus because of their testimony. That same night Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him, that Judas would betray him, and that all the disciples would abandon him.

Jesus took the bread of the Passover meal—bread made without yeast—gave thanks, broke it, and distributed it to his disciples. “Take, eat,” he said, “this is my body, given for you.” He took the cup of thanksgiving—the third cup of wine in the Seder meal—and said, “Drink of it, all of you. This is the cup of the New Testament, shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He also said, “Do this often, remembering me.” Christians continue to obey this command of grace, remembering Jesus and rejoicing in his gift of forgiveness and eternal life, promised through his sacrifice and through this act of remembrance.

After the Seder, Jesus took his disciples and went to a garden called Gethsemane (which means “olive press”) to pray. While he prayed, they fell asleep. Jesus prayed that a cup would be taken away from him—the cup of God’s wrath, the anger deserved by sinners. Jesus had already given his followers a cup, the cup of the New Testament. Now he was taking the poisonous cup deserved by sinners and drinking it dry for the rescue of sinners. While Jesus prayed, his disciples slept. It was late at night. They had eaten a large meal with a lengthy ceremony of prayers and Bible readings. Jesus had added many new thoughts to the ancient ceremony. Each of them had drunk four cups of wine during the meal. Now they were tired. Already, as Jesus prayed, they were abandoning him.

Judas Iscariot brought guards from the Temple to arrest Jesus secretly in Gethsemane. Trying to defend his Lord, Peter swung a sword wildly, slicing off a man’s ear. Jesus healed the man, his last show of divine power before being led to the cross. The disciples fled. Jesus was taken to a series of hearings in Jerusalem. During those hearings, outside the building, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

Jesus was put on trial for blasphemy. The Law of God required that no one be condemned to death without identical testimony of a crime by two witnesses. The prosecution failed to find two witnesses who agreed about Jesus, even as they tried to recall what he had said about destroying the Temple. In frustration, the chief priest put Jesus under oath and asked him if he was the Christ, the Son of God. If Jesus did not claim to be the Son of God, he could have escaped condemnation and punishment. Instead, he affirmed under oath that he is the Son of God, and the authorities condemned him for blasphemy, saying that he insulted God by claiming to be his Son. They began to beat him and insult him.

According to God’s Law, because he was convicted of blasphemy, Jesus should have been taken to the gate of Jerusalem and stoned to death. Stoning was the “firing squad” of ancient times. When a criminal was stoned, the entire community participated, rejecting his crime and cooperating in his death; yet no one person could be said to have thrown the one fatal stone.

According to Roman law, though, no criminal could be executed in the provinces until a Roman official had reviewed the case and the evidence. Evidently, this law prevented a community from rising against the Romans by first convicting and executing supporters of Rome. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, happened to be in Jerusalem because of the Passover celebration. (His presence gave him an excuse to bring extra Roman soldiers into the city while it was crowded with Jewish believers from all over the known world because of the holiday.) When the sun rose on Friday, the authorities intended to bring Jesus to the governor and to seek permission to stone him to death according to God’s law. J.