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.

Reformation, part three

My last post described the political and economic factors that led to the Reformation of the Church, as sparked by Martin Luther. I did not mention Jesus Christ or redemption; I described the Church only as a political entity, not as the Bride of Christ and the mission agency established to bring Christ’s Gospel to the world. Martin Luther was aware of the political implications of the Reformation, but those implications did not change his thoughts, his words, or his behavior. He was deeply committed to Jesus Christ. He cared more about redemption than about all the kingdoms of the world. He saw the Church as Christ’s own people, not as the possession of any pope or archbishop or emperor.

The young Luther is often pictured as a troubled man, deeply aware of his sin and his guilt, desperately seeking a way to be reconciled to God. Genuine Christianity, it often is implied, had disappeared from the world until Luther rediscovered the true faith. Luther did want to know God and to be right with God. He was, for a time, drawn to seek God through his own penance, his own good works, and his own efforts to love God and serve God. But the true Christian faith had not vanished. In many parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, men and women and children were still calling on the name of the Lord, seeking redemption in Jesus Christ. The movements of John Hus and Peter Waldo had brought many Europeans to a proper knowledge of Christ. Even within the accepted movements of the Church in western Europe, many Church leaders knew and shared the Gospel. Luther had a mentor named John Staupitz who encouraged Luther to read the Bible and to believe the promises it contains. Staupitz even assigned Luther Bible classes to teach, hoping that teaching others would make Luther aware of the Bible’s message of the grace of God, of salvation by that grace through faith, and of the love of God who wants to be reconciled to sinners. On the cross, Jesus paid the debt of sinners; he gave his life to reconcile sinners to his Father and to claim those sinners for his kingdom. The Bible clearly teaches this promise, and Luther came to believe this promise.

Therefore, Martin Luther challenged the faulty theology used to sell indulgences and to acquire money for the Church through that marketing. He posted 95 theses to be debated in the seminaries—that is what seminaries did back then; instead of playing football and basketball, they debated theology. In the 95 theses, Luther wrote that repentance is not an occasional act of penance or a one-time act, but is an on-going reality in the life of a Christian. He said that, if Church leaders want to release sinners from purgatory, they should do so out of love and not for money. Luther did not want to split the Church or start a new movement in the Church—he was calling all Christians to understand and believe what the Bible says about redemption and forgiveness, about repentance and faith.

The more Luther defended these ideas, the more he studied the Bible and the early leaders and thinkers of the Church. The more he studied, the more firmly he believed that redemption and repentance and faith were being taught wrongly by many in the Church, all for the sake of money and of political power. By the time he was called to answer for his words at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther was firm in his faith. He demanded that his accusers show him from the Bible where he was wrong. He would not accept the statements of popes and councils, because they contradict one another and are sometimes wrong. “Here I stand,” he reportedly said, “I can do no other.”

Pope Leo had already declared Luther a heretic and had excommunicated Luther, claiming that Luther was not part of the true Christian Church. Now Emperor Charles also called Luther an outlaw, saying that anyone who killed Luther would be doing a favor for the Empire and for the Church. Luther was kidnapped on his way from Worms back to Wittenberg. He was taken, not by enemies, but by friends, by servants of Elector Frederick. For about a year, Luther was hidden in a castle called the Wartburg. He was disguised as a knight, Sir George (not to be confused with Boy George!).

While at the Wartburg, Luther continued studying and continued writing. He began translating the Bible into German. After that year, he returned to Wittenberg. He continued teaching at the University of Wittenberg and preaching in the Church. He redesigned the traditional Christian worship service, removing elements that supported false beliefs and emphasizing the true promises of redemption and forgiveness, with traditional and with new material. He wrote catechisms—books of instruction to instruct children and adults the basic teachings of the Bible and the Church. He wrote several hymns. He lived two dozen more years in Wittenberg, remaining condemned by Church and Empire. He married a former nun, and together they were the parents of six children.

Eight years after Luther left the Wartburg, another Diet was held at Augsburg. Charles had concluded his war with France and needed to discuss three issues with the kings and dukes and princes and margraves and archbishops of his Empire. He needed to discuss the economy. He needed to discuss defense against the Ottoman Empire. And he needed to discuss division among Christians in the Empire. Luther’s supporters used the occasion to present the Emperor with a document stating their beliefs. Longer and more detailed than any creed, the Augsburg Confession explained what Lutherans believe and teach, showing that Lutheran beliefs and confessions match the teachings of the Bible and the early Church. Along with the ancient creeds of the Church and the Catechisms of Martin Luther, the Augsburg Confession remains a document that describes Lutheran beliefs—church workers among Lutherans pledge to follow the teachings of the Confession, not in place of the Bible, but because it correctly summarizes the Bible’s teachings. Luther did not write the Augsburg Confession; it was written by a fellow professor from the University of Wittenberg, a man named Phillip Melanchthon. But Melanchthon’s writing summarized Luther’s own thoughts; Luther himself said that Melanchthon was more tactful than Luther could be, but that he was correct in what he had written.

Lutherans—and other Protestants—celebrate Reformation Day on October 31, the anniversary of the day when Luther posted his 95 Theses. For Lutherans, the Augsburg Confession and the Catechisms of Martin Luther are far more important than his 95 Theses. And there are many other results and ramifications of this Reformation that must still be addressed in future posts…. J.

Reformation, part two

Albert of Brandenburg was born June 28, 1490, in what is now part of the city of Berlin. His father, John, was Elector of Brandenburg. This position gave John political authority over a region in the Holy Roman Empire which, around that time, consisted of roughly 10,000 square miles and contained about 400,000 people. More importantly, the Elector of Brandenburg was one of seven Electors in the Empire. When an Emperor died, the seven Electors (three archbishops, one king, one duke, one count, and one margrave) would meet, discuss, and vote to choose a new Emperor. Albert had an older brother, Joachim, who was destined to inherit the political office from his father. Therefore, Albert went into church work, ambitious to become as important a man as his father.

Albert studied at the University of Frankfort. In 1513, the Archbishop of Magdeburg died (reportedly of syphilis), and Albert was named new Archbishop, even though Albert was only twenty-three years old. (According to Church Law, an Archbishop needed to be at least thirty years old. However, the pope could make exceptions to that rule.) The next year, the Archbishop of Mainz died, also under unusual circumstances. (It is said that he had a fight with his cellarmaster over missing wine; some historians claim that the Archbishop murdered the cellarmaster and then fled the country, with the cellarmaster buried in the Archbishop’s tomb.) Albert wanted this job, since the Archbishop of Mainz was, like the Margrave of Brandenburg, one of the seven Electors. But Albert was still not yet thirty, and Church Law also prohibited any person from being Archbishop in two places at the same time.

The Pope at this time was Leo X. Leo was the son of Lorenzo de Medici, a wealthy and powerful leader in the Italian city of Florence. All the Medicis were wise in the ways of the world concerning political power, money, and Renaissance art and culture. Leo, seeking funds for the beautification on Rome, was willing to appoint Albert as Archbishop of Mainz, for a price. Albert borrowed money from the Fuggers, a wealthy German banking family, and he was granted the job he sought.

Now Albert was deeply in debt to the Fuggers. He appealed to Pope Leo for help, and Leo knew how to help. He proposed that indulgences be sold in Mainz and the surrounding area. Half the money would go to Archbishop Albert to repay the Fuggers. The other half would go to Pope Leo to pay the expenses of building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. (Michelangelo was one of several architects employed to build this basilica, and one of his most famous sculptures is contained therein.) Among the church workers brought to Mainz to sell indulgences for Albert and Leo was a Dominican friar, John Tetzel. Tetzel’s extravagant claims about the power of his indulgences prompted an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, to post ninety-five ideas, or theses, regarding penance and forgiveness. Luther, a Doctor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, was deeply concerned about penance and forgiveness. Luther also believed that Albert and Leo would renounce the salesmanship of Tetzel and would approve of Luther’s attempts to explain God’s forgiveness to the Christians living in Europe at that time. Luther even sent copies of his ninety-five theses and explanations of their meaning to the Pope and the Archbishop, expecting a favorable response from these Church leaders.

Albert and Leo were not pleased. But they could not respond to Luther as quickly and emphatically as they would have liked. The Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian Hapsburg, was in ill health and would soon die. An election would be held to replace him. Archbishop Albert and his brother Joachim were two of the Electors, but a third Elector was the Duke of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. Frederick had established the University of Wittenberg. Technically, Doctor Luther worked for Frederick. This was not a time to have Frederick become angry with Albert and with Leo.

Maximilian died in 1519. One of the candidates to replace him was his grandson, Charles, who inherited power over the kingdom of Austria at Maximilian’s death. Charles had already inherited the kingdom of Spain from his other grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella. This made him ruler, not only over Spain, but also over Belgium and the Netherlands, and over most of the western hemisphere recently claimed by Spain. That was a lot of power for one man to hold. Pope Leo was not comfortable with the prospect.

Another candidate for Emperor was Francis I, King of France. Combining France with the Holy Roman Empire would also create an overwhelming European power that might threaten the rest of the continent. Leo preferred a compromise candidate. While Charles and Francis campaigned, making generous gifts to the seven Electors, Pope Leo sought a compromise candidate. His first choice was Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony and founder of the University of Wittenberg, where Luther taught.

Frederick declined the honor. When the seven votes were cast and counted, Charles was declared the winner. Now Pope Leo felt free to publicly condemn Luther and his ideas, which he did. But by this time, Luther had gained a large audience. Many of the rulers in the Empire agreed with Luther, some for purely religious reasons, and others for political reasons. Frederick wanted Luther to have a fair hearing, which he knew would not happen if Luther met the Pope in Rome. As a result, Luther was instead invited to a Diet (a meeting of leaders in the Holy Roman Empire) scheduled to be held in the city of Worms in 1521. Luther was not the only item on the agenda; members of the Diet would consider many topics, including the military threat of the Ottoman Turks. (Ironically, Charles would spend more energy at war with Francis than with the Turks.) But the famous Diet of Worms—not a weight-loss program, but an important political gathering—would make Martin Luther famous and would solidify the progress of the Reformation of the Christian Church. J.

Reformation, part one

The Christian Church contains sinners. We are forgiven sinners, made saints by the work of Christ, heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Yet at the very same time, we remain sinners, desperately needing a Savior. For this reason, the Church from time to time needs reformation. The Church needs reminders why it exists: to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, to rescue victims of sin and evil, to announce the forgiveness of sins and call sinners to repent, and to share Christ’s victory with the people he loves. The Church is not a private club, nor a business selling a product and making a prophet. The Church is a hospital for the healing of broken lives. The Church is a lighthouse to steer people away from danger. The Church is a haven on the battlefield, equipping soldiers and assisting those who have been wounded by the attacks of the enemy.

The Cluny Reform around the year 900 healed the Church and the monastic movement from some of the abuses that had been building within them over time. The ministries of Saint Dominic, Saint Francis, and Saint Peter Waldo helped to reform the Church around the year 1200. A movement of inner spirituality led by teachers such as Meister Eckhardt and Thomas Kempis aided Christians during the later middle ages. Troubles with the papacy, including its relocation to Avignon and then rivals claiming the office, encouraged a conciliar movement that had potential to steer the Church in the proper direction. As the time of Martin Luther’s reformation drew near, John Huss in Bohemia and John Wycliffe in England and Girolamo Savonarola in Florence, Italy, all raised their voices to call for reform. Luther, though, would be the heroic figure who could not be silenced or ignored.

Luther challenged the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. The roots of this problem extended back to early Church times, before Constantine, when Christians were being persecuted by the Roman government. During times of persecution, some Christians would leave the congregations, obey the government’s commands to honor false gods, and so spare themselves the trouble that their fellow Christians endured. When the persecution ran its course, many of these fallen Christians sought to return to the Church. Those who had endured the persecution reminded the lapsed believers of the words of Jesus, who said, “Whoever disowns me before men, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” But the returning believers reminded the leaders of the Church that Jesus came to rescue and forgive sinners. Jesus forgave Peter, who denied knowing Jesus. The mission of the Church is to forgive. A compromise was reached: Christians who left the Church to avoid persecution and then wanted to return were forgiven, but they were required to undergo a time of probation. They had to show that they truly believed and that they were truly sorry for their sins. They had to do works of penance—essentially, a milder persecution from the Church to replace the fierce persecution imposed by the Roman government.

Penance first was required only of those who had denied Christ to avoid persecution. Later, it was extended to all sinners. As the book of James urges Christians to confess their sins to one another (thus providing an opportunity to receive absolution, the spoken guarantee of Christ’s forgiveness), so all Christians were expected to confess their sins, receive absolution, and then be given penance, a set of tasks that would express their sorrow over sin and complete the process of being forgiven. When some Christians wondered what would happen to believers who died before completing their penance, they were told of a place called Purgatory, where believers could complete their penance before ascending to Paradise. The poet Dante, in his Divine Comedy, located Purgatory on the far side of the globe from Italy, a mountain surrounded by the great ocean and accessible only to the Christians traveling to Paradise.

Penance did not always involve money. It could take many forms: prayers, pilgrimages, kindness to strangers, and other good works. The completion of an act of penance was called an indulgence; in the case of a gift of money, the indulgence might take the form of a piece of paper, a receipt that acknowledged the good work. Soldiers who fought in the Crusades were given indulgences, saying that they had done a good work for Christ and the Church. Those who paid the expenses of a crusading soldier were given indulgences. Those who gave gifts of money to Christian hospitals were given indulgences. Those who gave money to build churches or maintain and beautify churches were given indulgences.

In theory, an act of penance and receiving an indulgence were not equivalent to buying or earning God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness was earned by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and was given freely to all sinners who repented and sought forgiveness from Christ through the Church. Absolution—the promise of forgiveness—followed confession, and penance followed the absolution. But many Christians misunderstood the subtlety of penance and indulgences, and some people in the Church took advantage of those misunderstandings. Because of the perception that God’s forgiveness could be bought, could be transferred to another person already dead and in purgatory, or could even be treated as a license to sin, the Church was in desperate need of Reformation. This need set the stage for Martin Luther’s dramatic act in 1517, an act that is still remembered and celebrated as the Reformation of the Christian Church. 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’!”

Confession and Absolution

The Bible says: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).

Luther explains: “What is confession? Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution—that is, forgiveness—from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven. What sins should we confess? Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer, but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts. Which are these? Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments.
Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?”

Salvageable adds: Martin Luther is famous for protesting the system of Penance that the Church had developed over the centuries as part of Confession and Absolution. Some Christians and historians mistakenly believe that Luther was opposed to Confession as well, but that is not the case. In the Augsburg Confession of 1530, Lutherans affirmed that they would continue the historic practice of private Confession and Absolution. Only the thought that Penance is needed to finish Confession and Absolution was rejected.

When other Christians visit a Lutheran congregation, they are sometimes surprised by the Confession and Absolution at the beginning of the service. The worshipers pray to God, confessing their sins and throwing themselves upon His mercy. The pastor then responds, “In the place and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This Absolution shows the Office of the Keys at work in the congregation. When sugar or salt is dissolved in water, the sugar or salt is still there, as anyone can tell by tasting the water. When sins are absolved, they are gone. They are nailed to the cross with Christ, killed with Christ, and buried with Christ. They do not rise with Christ. They have been washed away by Holy Baptism, which is why the Absolution concludes with the same Name of God that is used in baptism. The practice of Confession and Absolution is an expression of repentance. It is repeated often, because we sin often and need God’s forgiveness often.

For many twenty-first century Lutherans, this group experience of Confession and Absolution is the only form they know. Private Confession and Absolution remains an option, even though it is not required. A Christian may look a pastor in the face, confess to that pastor a sin that is troubling one’s heart, and hear a clear and unconditional guarantee of forgiveness. This gift of the Church is even protected by secular law; the confession heard by a pastor, priest, or minister is completely confidential. When we need a personal assurance that the sins troubling our hearts are forgiven, the pastor or priest or minister or other fellow Christian is there to hear our confession and to announce our absolution.

The Church’s neglect of Confession and Absolution has led to its reintroduction in other walks of life. Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs that fight addition include a fifth step in which the recovering addict admits all his or her sins and wrongdoings to another person. Many people visit counselors to relieve their consciences of the burden of sin and guilt that is spoiling their lives. Some people confide in friends, only to have those friends whisper their secrets to others, so that a private confession becomes a matter of gossip. How much better it is when the Office of the Keys can function as Jesus intended, conveying forgiveness to sinners through the powerful Word of God, spoken to them by fellow believers.

The Office of the Keys

Jesus says: “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23).

Luther explains: “What is the Office of the Keys? The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. What do you believe according to these words? I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”

Salvageable adds: Who has the power to forgive sins? As the Pharisees said to one another, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7) Jesus has authority to forgive sins because he is the Son of God. Moreover, he has authority to forgive sins because he sacrificed himself on a cross to purchase forgiveness for sinners. When Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, he was granting Peter authority to forgive sins. With that came authority also to withhold forgiveness from sinners who do not repent.

Who exercises the office of the keys in the Church today? Some say that the keys belong to one person at a time; they say that the head pastor in Rome, the pope, is the only person who has those keys. Others say that all the apostles were given the same authority in Matthew 18:18 and in John 20:23. They suggest that church workers—especially pastors and ministers—hold those keys. On Easter night, though, when Jesus repeated his authorization to forgive sins or to withhold forgiveness, he preceded that by breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” From this, I conclude that every Christian has the power to share Christ’s forgiveness. When the congregation gathers, the pastor exercises that authority. The keys are given to the pastor by Jesus through the call of the congregation. Outside the gathering of the congregation, every Christian possesses the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Every Christian can use God’s commandments to warn sinners of their need for forgiveness. Every Christian can use God’s promises to share forgiveness with sinners.

When would a Christian, especially a pastor, withhold forgiveness? When a sinner does not want to be forgiven. When a sinner loves the sin more than the Savior. When a sinner clings to a sin and does not repent. Jesus gave a four-step process for dealing with stubbornly unrepentant sinners: deal with them first one-on-one; then raise the matter again with one or two witnesses; then tell it to the church; and if they will not listen to the church, treat them as pagans and tax collectors.

Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors as mission opportunities. In fact, the only Gospel that contains that passage about how to treat stubborn sinners is the Gospel written by Matthew, the former tax collector. When Christians share God’s commandments, their goal is to share forgiveness. When Christians warn sinners to repent, their goal is to share forgiveness. But Jesus also tells Christians not to cast pearls before swine or to give dogs what is holy. Announcing forgiveness to a sinner who loves the sin more than the Savior is casting pearls before swine. Promising forgiveness to a sinner who does not want God’s forgiveness is giving dogs what is holy.

Jesus spoke far more often about bringing forgiveness to sinners than he spoke about making disciples. In his model prayer, he told his followers to promise to forgive trespassers, but he did not have them promise to make disciples. The Great Commission is best accomplished through the Office of the Keys. When Christians use the commands and the promises of God to bring God’s forgiveness to sinners, they are fulfilling the purpose for which Jesus came and the purpose for which he established his Church. J.