Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Through Christ Alone!



THE GOOD news for the Third Sunday after Pentecost comes to us from the witness of Saint Luke. The lesson provided here speaks of Resurrection power…

“Soon afterward he (Jesus) went to a city called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a large crowd from the city was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ 
 And he came and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’  And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother. 
 Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’  And this report concerning him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country. “ 
                                                                                                            (Luke 7:11-17)

A New School?
In this singular gospel narrative, as recorded only in Luke, Jesus approached the gate of Nain with his disciples and followers. A funeral procession was coming from the city bearing the body of a man who had died, leaving his widowed mother without support.
 After reassuring the mother, Jesus touched the bed carrying the body. This act alone… put this wondrous occasion and his participation outside of accepted old world practice, for no rabbi would deign to touch a deathbed. It was considered unclean. And it was, that is unless the person doing the touching was a prophet.
 Indeed this move by Jesus, firmly rooted in historical tradition, placed him as a self-revealed prophet amongst the people. He boldly stood before them as a healer and prophet, working in the order of at least two earlier traditional predecessors… Elijah and Elisha. We read in the Old Testament that Elijah brought to life the son of a widow in Zaraphath; as referred to earlier in another, earlier Lukan narrative (Luke 4:26). This deed echoed again in ancient writ as Elijah’s successor Elisha was driven by God through Israel. However, major differences arise between today’s lesson, and the recorded raisings by both Old Testament prophets. Neither man did the actual healing! God’s attention to the plight was requested by both persons during those occurrences. We first read in the story of Elijah’s ministry…

 “And he cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, hast thou brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?’ 
 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, let this child's soul come into him again.’ 
  And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.”  (1 Kings 17:17-24)

Additionally, in the Second Book of Kings we find Elisha’s ministry followed this pattern. In echo of the former, we read…

 “When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. So he went in and shut the door upon the two of them, and prayed to the Lord. 
 Then he went up and lay upon the child, putting his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands; and as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. 
 Then he got up again, and walked once to and fro in the house, and went up, and stretched himself upon him; the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes.”  (2 Kings 4:32-34)

 As persons now living in a medically-modern technological age, those having mastered CPR classes may get caught up by the descriptive unfolding of both prophetic accounts. We may relate that the scenes well could describe such resuscitations, which may have been understood and proclaimed by the ancients as miraculous resurrection events. While this argument may hold true for some, in that day the event was surely miraculous in that the prophet’s request was honored. The subject person’s life continued in this world. The events were thus viewed indeed as miraculous, and I offer that many a parent today would claim such a miracle even for a modern day resuscitation of their beloved child.
 However, we must note with importance that Jesus raised the dead man who had been prepared for burial and was being carried from the city. As well, it was reported that he did so without first praying to God for empowerment. Thus Jesus raising the man heralded a new, profound era in which he demonstrated that he in himself possessed the divine power of resurrection.
 Here was no CPR measure, as might be claimed by modern doubters. Jesus simply touched the unclean bed and raised the man without touching his body. Only be the power of the creative Word, Jesus commanded life to return from chaos and corruption.., something God has done from the very beginnings of creation. We note that other gospel records tell of healings done in similar fashion by Jesus. Notably, we cite the raising of Jarius’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43), and also the raising of Lazarus, who had been dead for an extended time. (John 11:1-44)

Why This Account?
Because of the evidence that this story comes only from Luke, we may rightly ask, “What did the story mean to the people of Luke’s communities? We may speculate and also ask the symbolic value of such narrative for them? Given the pressure placed upon the new Christian factions within the Jewish communities of the late first century, we may wonder whether the man represents a dead faith that had fallen upon the dispersed people of Israel. It may have been charged by many Christians that the faith of the mothering synagogues in place for centuries had waned, and the Jews... though keeping the rituals, catered to the whims of the surrounding Roman society as they morosely waited for the Messiah. It seems that they had replaced enduring faith with expedient compromise. Expressed faith in the God of the Jews was in peril! Notice that the man’s father was dead, which could have described the synagogue’s communal relationship with our Creator. For Luke, could this also have expressed the distance that the gospel hearers felt from God, because of the persecutions that had already begun.
 You see, as the root of their collective Jewish identity the participants of the synagogue saw either liturgical traditions being a law unto itself; or they noted the rise of unorthodox Christian progressive forms of worship as a threat. The synagogue may have seemed like a widow without hope.
 However, Jesus tells the grieving widow not to weep. Today's narrative therefore relates to us that our Lord comforted those who were waiting for deliverance. He arrived on the scene and demonstrated his power to resurrect not only a physical human body, but the faith body of the infant church... whether it was still attached to its mothering synagogue community or not. This being true, by the power of God in given Christ and nurtured by the Spirit, we today who experience the tidal wave of changing worship laced with questionable entertainment and heretical theology expressions... are also informed that the orthodox and traditional faith shall surely endure.
 The telling seems to report that Jesus’ prophetic resurrection power shall indeed spread across the world. It is this final aim that we need to carry with us today from the quill of this gospel writer. We need center on the miracle of Resurrection… that by the Word the man was raised. We see then that the cure exists in that the good news proclaimed, and still is by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is therefore the everlasting prophet! It is our Lord who was then, and yet still is the eternal Prophet, our great High Priest and the King of all Creation. In keeping to the voice of orthodox, traditional faith expression, those around us shall learn that Jesus was raised and has ascended, and yet sends his Spirit to breath life into his church.




Monday, May 23, 2016

Bold and Enduring Love!



ON THE Second Sunday after Pentecost, we find that our lectionary schedule brings us to read from the Gospel According to Saint Luke. The reading, which has as its source the community of the dear and glorious physician, deals with God’s healing power that comes through Christ, and the attempted restrictions that we sinful humans often place upon his mercy…

After he (Jesus) had ended all his sayings in the hearing of the people he entered Capernaum.
 Now a centurion had a slave who was dear to him, who was sick and at the point of death. When he heard of Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his slave. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue." And Jesus went with them.
 When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it." 
 When Jesus heard this he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." 
 And when those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave well.”   (Luke 7:1-10)

Response to Faith
Our Lord Jesus entered into Capernaum after delivering his Sermon on the Plain. The text immediately highlighted a healing that was accomplished far beyond the arena thought proper for a Jewish rabbi. The miraculous healing did go forward at the request of some elders of the Jews, but the healing itself set the stage for tensions about Jesus identity, and broadened those geographic influences that would endure long afterward.
 I find the occurrence of multiple witnesses to be profound. Biblical research shows that the same telling is found also in the synoptic account of Matt 8:5-13, and also in John 4:46-53. Matthew described the centurion as personally entreating our Lord, but Luke tells how he had first approached Jesus through the Jewish elders, and then through friends. The only major difference occurs in the Johannine account. In that record, the descriptive identity of the requesting official differs. Rather than a Roman centurion (hekatontachou) requesting healing for a servant (doulos), we find that in John’s telling the requesting persons is changed to be a reigning official (basilikos). In John, it is the Gentile “ruler” who asked for Jesus’ attention to the man’s own son (huious). As biblical students we thus ask, “Is the centurion and the official the same person?” I argue that given the overall similarity between the accounts, though from an unidentified source material… the setting demands our affirmative opinion.
 We note that the account is not found in the earlier Markan narrative, written down about 65-68 A.D.  Therefore the event was either left out due to shortness of available Markan scroll, or it comes from a separate, but common “signs” narrative of stories that also existed at the time of Mark’s writing. Indeed, in gospel research we find many such accounts that have major agreement among the later gospels, but are not alluded to in Mark. The existence of such a narratives gives us two research possibilities. Either a yet to be discovered written source that we term “Q” for “quelle” or “signs” is reflected in this healing story, or the telling comes from a common oral tradition that existed about healing deeds and sayings of Jesus. In either case, however, we find that the multiple attestation allows that Jesus’ love and ministry immediately went beyond the barriers of Jewish religious bigotry.

Why Does Jesus Go Out?
My questioning begins with why the Lord even chose to go out? In other accounts he had specifically restricted his ministry among the Jews. In this account, however, the Jewish elders expressed a desire about one who might deserve assistance. Note that this was spoken in spite of Jewish legal religious zealotry. They espoused that the centurion requesting Jesus’ ministry deserved his attention because of the Roman soldier's “good works” for the Jews. He had been a generous giver of a new synagogue.
 Consequently we may truly wonder about their motivations. Was it that a “valued” foreign authority needed our Lord’s healing attention, or did they question whether Jesus was the man of the hour ans want to test him? Or was it meant by them to lure Jesus into a ministry to an unclean, troublesome foreign alliance… one which would make him unable in purity to do ministerial activities among the Jews? Or were they simply testing the breadth of Jesus’ power and authority beyond the Jewish realm? Indeed, any of these motivations that I mention may be true.
 Whatever their reasons, while Jesus was on the way to meet with the centurion we find that the official had sent servant emissaries. The centurion seemed to want to save Jesus trouble… those difficulties that would be encountered by a rabbi who would be made “unclean” by going into a Gentile’s home. He related that he believed that Jesus had the power to heal just by saying so.
 The centurion, having expressed faith and foreknowledge of Jesus’ authority and power to heal, thus demonstrated that faith to him even while attempting to save the Master some social and religious turmoil. Thus, in response to the message given by a compassionate Gentile, Jesus marveled greatly. Our Lord held up the centurion as a faith example before those around him, noting the difficulty of those in Israel to match the leader’s expressed sensitivity. Then, in answer to the faith statement made, those who were sent to greet Jesus were told to return. They did so... and found that the servant was healed from his grave illness.
 Consequently, we of the church should ask ourselves… “Why did Jesus go out and risk the blather of being “unclean”.” My first reaction is, “Are we sinful men that we should dictate where the love of God should go or not go?” I believe that Jesus wished to broaden the minds of those who though that they had an exclusive handle on the love of God. Through this text then, we modern readers may indeed find that our faith needs to apprehend the immense and unbounded power of the authoritative Word. Our works cannot purchase such vision; only faith secures that it has no boundaries.
 We might ask… “How did the centurion come by such faith?” Surely, with he being a Roman, it was not likely a work of Hebrew scripture study or catechism, but upon hearing of Jesus' power…. and thus it was a gift granted by the Spirit of God, laid upon his soul in response to love or regard for another. We may attest that it was through God's grace and loving care that he recognized the commanding authority of Jesus!
 Consequently, our Lord Jesus was pleased with the centurion's faith expressed, and we of the church need to realize that even today he never fails to answer the requests of faith that honor his power and love poured out. As a gathered people then, we need remember that our Lord’s love observes no boundaries, nor honors any human works seeking favor.., but instead rejoices in our faith expressed to him as provided by the Spirit.
 We of the church need to echo the response of the centurion’s servants to this revelation of God’s love.., and we repeat in part the centurion’s words that come to us from across the centuries… saying “Lord, just say the Word and we shall be healed.” Indeed, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God who is himself Jesus Christ our Lord… comes to us and gives us healing Truth. Our eternal God reaches into our beings from the great expanses of time and space… and heals us eternally.



Monday, May 16, 2016

Promising Promise!



FOR HOLY TRINITY Sunday, we have two possibilities of gospel text. First, from one denominational aspect comes the reading of John 8:48-59, which is used primarily by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). That text was covered here in our study three years ago and is repeated in this blog. That selection was made by me since we were newly of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC). To obtain that witness, click here obtain the previous commentary.
 Today, however, we concentrate on the text received from John 16:12-15, used by many congregations within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). This text covers the instance in John’s gospel when Jesus explained the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the life of the disciples. The text reads…

“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the Truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  (John 16:12-15)

Literary Flashback!
As we read this, let us be reminded that we have just celebrated Pentecost. By doing so, we have heard of the work of the Holy Spirit, in that during the “Feast of Fifty Days”, the disciples received empowerment for witnessing. The Spirit enabled them to speak out using many languages amid a crowd gathered for the festivities. From that time and place... the church grew within a century into Galilee, Syria, Asia Minor, Egypt, Rome and beyond.
 In considering this rather explosive growth during what historians sometimes term as the Roman peace… the Pax Romana… we can see where the infant church was dynamic in geographic reach. By doing so, it quickly encountered the need to explain to both the learned and the uneducated, the holy relationships that had eternally existed between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They were hard pressed to explain the work of our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. The difficult task, begun here greatly by this discourse in John… was picked up in other authoritative writings that we now find gathered together in the New Testament.
 The problem they wrestled with, was answered by what we Christian now know as “apologetics”. Though do not be confused, for it is not that we are apologizing for our Lord in any way, but instead attempting to explain the Holy Trinity to the world around us. This became an important task for the early church as it was assailed by various heresies that tried to make Jesus Christ a lesser being than the Father… and promote other such untenable waverings. Be assured as well, that it is yet the task of the modern church as we counter a universalistic thrust trying to blend our faith with other forms of worship from around the globe.
 To guide us in a more stable way, we find that the early church struggled in the Spirit to offer the “Apostles Creed”, which appeared out of the need to communicate the faith to new proselytes. We notice that this creedal formula established a methodical precedence in argumentation... because it dealt logically with each person of the Trinity, one at a time, as it was recited by persons undergoing catechetical instruction. However, afterward to outsiders, the church elaborated theologically in creed by offering up a more thorough apologetic… and the Nicene Creed came into being. The Nicene statement was more detailed in citing not only the Trinitarian view, but offered a bit more concerning each divine person’s attributes in working for our salvation.
 Finally, in approximately 325 A.D., in the midst of yet more internal and heretical turmoil within the church... concerning the character of the Trinity… the Athanasius Creed was developed. This creed goes farther in enlightening our theological understanding, in that instead of simply saying what God is… that creed now also firmly tells us what God is not.

Why So Many Creeds?
As time passed, it seems that the Athanasius Creed recognized fully the tough job of describing that which is indescribable… the awesome person of God… revealed as the divine Father revealed through Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. We find that despite our finitude and sin, the church endured while working in a rather difficult position in trying to explain the unexplainable love of God. This happened by the power of the Holy Spirit as we tried to wrap words around the Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnipresence that is beyond all understanding… and find that in the end we always fall short. Thus we often find ourselves dragging a wounded theological limb when we boldly speak to the atheists or agnostics in our society. We are however encouraged by this gospel text, in that it tells us that God poured out the Spirit of the Father and the Son upon us at Pentecost… and does so also upon those with whom we witness. We know that God has declared to us the salvific secrets of the kingdom made available in Baptism, Holy Eucharist and proclaimed Word. All we need do is walk peaceably in the footsteps of our apostolic predecessors, simply telling the faith of the church using the historical creeds. The entire historical work, as we do this, goes far toward the salvation of those with whom we interact. All we need to do for Christian evangelism is to do as our Lord’s instructed… go… baptize… preach… teach… in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Holy Trinity Sunday thus reminds us… Proclaim the gospel!