Heaven and Earth Bear Witness

As usual, the political divisions over various issues do not match the division between a Scriptural understanding and an idolatrous one. In this case, it’s the division between “conservatives” and “liberals”–or, better, between the rabid Republican and the rabid Democrat–on climate change (what an anodyne, meaningless phrase) and other, related environmental issues. You know it’s a disease because any response is immediately knee-jerking, fist-pumping, and unthinking.

But Christians ought not to be caught up in the extreme partisanship of what seem to be America’s twilight years. There is enough foolishness on either side to make any so-called “discussion” an exercise in engaging a fool according to his folly (Proverbs 26:4, not 26:5). When it comes to human responsibility for the volatility of the climate (and similar issues), too many Christians have been sucked into either viewing extreme weather as the moral challenge of our time, an issue of Biblical proportions; or into an involuntary muscle spasm of  mockery and denial.

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Passion and Temptation

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on March 30.]

It’s Holy Week, so what else would I be doing but watching two films about Jesus’ last few days? Two long movies. Two movies that inspired controversy and discussion and debate. Two movies that present two different Jesuses. And, frankly, I don’t care if movies want to use different devices to try to understand the most divisive, explained, written-about person in history, Jesus of Nazareth. I have trouble understanding people who protest religious movies (or any movies for that matter). The only thing such protesting serves to do is draw attention and publicity to movies that might otherwise (and sometimes rightly) fade away into the oblivion of thrift-store DVDs. It is exactly for these sorts of protests that the phrase “all publicity is good publicity” was coined. Roger Ebert’s 4-star(!) review barely even touches the film itself, acknowledging “that this entire review has been preoccupied with replying to the attacks of the film’s critics, with discussing the issues, rather than with reviewing ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ as a motion picture.” (That, for Ebert, is a confirmation of the film’s greatness.)

So I re-watched The Passion of the Christ and watched for the first time The Last Temptation of Christ. Since I found a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel at the library, I decided to read it first, to get an idea of what Scorsese was working with. I was only nine when The Last Temptation came out in theaters, so I didn’t see it then, but I do remember going to a little theater in St. Louis to watch The Passion, sometime during Lent, 2004.

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Modern Prodigals

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 25]

This contains spoilers (of a 2005 film) so you may want to watch first and read after.

I had to wait until the end to see if it was worth it, but the answer is an unequivocal yes to L’Enfant (The Child).

I found it on Image Journal‘s “The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films,” which also brought to my attention Ordet. This is the first film by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne I’ve watched, but the others are now on my list.

It’s one of those films where you simply don’t know if it’s going to pay off, but because it only runs 90 minutes, you’re willing to take the risk (or, at least, I was). You know things are not going to go well when the first scene shows a teenage mother, just released from the maternity ward, searching for the father of her child. She finds him involved in some sort of scheme, far more interested in a man coming out of a pub than in his newborn son.

Sonia (Déborah François) naively assumes that Bruno (Jérémie Renier—who, I assume, is the French counterpart to Jeremy Renner) will demonstrate some kind of paternal concern, but the viewer can see more clearly that he is only interested in using anything and anyone to make a little cash. You know from the synopsis and from the foreshadowing comments of his buyer that he’s going to try to sell the child, but his apparently total lack of care for the child is shocking, even in our anti-child culture. Regret comes only when he’s surprised(!) that Sonia isn’t happy at how much money he’s made from having the child “adopted.” And then Bruno assumes that when he gets the child back, Sonia will be pleased and automatically forgiving.

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“No, that I do not have strength to believe”

But I think it very difficult to believe in a mild providence who looks down upon our earthly hell and smiles graciously in his beard; when I remember Gethsemane it is hard to believe that.  The rag on the rock, He who calls God His Father, is for me a protest and a contradiction of a nicy nice faith in God the Father.  I read during the war about human beings in Hamburg who, during a bombing, melted down with the asphalt in the streets.  Afterwards you could see a little child’s hand stick up out of the congealed mass.  I wonder if it is not the horror of this sight that makes it impossible for me not to look at the Christ hands in our altar painting.  This is the kind of thing the Good Father in heaven ought to look down on.  Perhaps a bit sorrowful, perhaps lifting His finger like an inept school teacher in the seventh grade: “Now let’s all be nice.”  No, that I do not have the strength to believe.

But what about my absolutism with respect to the right.  Perhaps it is a variant of this bland faith.  You put God a little farther away and change Him into a neuter; in that way you don’t have to reckon with His heart.

Klara Svensson in Holy Masquerade (53-54) [my annual Lenten reading]

Luther on Christ and Us

[Commenting on John 14:20:]

“By faith you also come to be in Me with your death, sin, and every trouble.  If you are sinful in yourselves, you are justified in Me; if you feel death in you, you have life in Me; if you have strife in you, you have peace in Me; if you stand condemned on your own account, you are blessed and saved in Me.”  For, my dear man, where am I if I am a Christian?  Nowhere else than where Christ is.  But where else is He but in heaven, in eternal life, joy, and bliss?  And He, of course, will not be condemned to death as a sinner any longer.  Since no sin can accuse Him, no devil can damn Him, no death can consume Him, no hell can devour Him, I must remain undamned and undevoured; for I am in Him.  “Consequently, sin, death, and every trouble in you are gone.  For all this I destroy in Myself.”  It cannot abide in Him, since He is and remains in the Father.  And it can have no power in us either, because we are in Him.

…Christ is in us, and…we are in Him.  The one points upward; the other, downward.  For we must first be in Him with all our being, with our sin, our death, and our weakness; we must know that we are liberated from these before God and are redeemed and pronounced blessed through this Christ. … We must be His own, being baptized in His name and then having taken the Sacrament.  Thereby sin, an evil conscience, death, and the devil vanish; and we can say: “I know of no death and no hell.  If there is death anywhere, let it first consume and kill my Christ.  If hell amounts to anything, let it devour the Savior.  If sin, the Law, and conscience can condemn, let them accuse the Son of God. … But since the Father and Christ remain alive, I , too, will remain alive; since He remains undefeated by sin and the devil, I, too, will remain undefeated.  For I know that just as Christ is in the Father, so I am in Christ.” …

Just as I am in Christ, so Christ, in turn, is in me. … Now He also manifests Himself in me and says, “Go forth, preach, comfort, baptize, serve your neighbor, be obedient, be patient.  I will be in you and will do all this.  Whatever you do will be done by Me.  Just be of good cheer, be bold, and trust in Me.” [AE 24:141-143]

“I see a strange and novel mystery”

I see a strange and novel mystery: shepherds sound all around my ears, not piping a barren tune, but singing a heavenly hymn. Angels are singing, archangels are dancing, the cherubim are hymning, the seraphim are glorifying, all are celebrating, since they see God upon the earth, man in Heaven. [I see] the one who is on high lower because of His plan, the one who is below on high because of His love for humanity. Today Bethlehem resembled Heaven: in place of stars it received angels hymning, in place of the sun it contained the righteous One without confining [Him]. And do not ask how: for where God wills it, nature’s order is overcome. For He willed it, He had the power, He came down, He saved – all things follow upon God. Today, He who Is is born, and He who Ιs becomes what He was not. For being God, He becomes human, though He did not cease from being God. For He hasn’t become human by separating from His divinity, nor again has He become God by advancing from a human. But, being Word, because He could not suffer [as Word], He became flesh, His nature remaining unchanged. But when, on the one hand, He was born, Jews denied the strange birth, and Pharisees misinterpreted the divine Books, and scribes spoke what was in opposition to the Law. Herod sought the [child] who was born, not in order to honor Him, but to destroy Him. For today they saw [that] all things [were] opposed [to them]. For the psalmist says, “it was not hidden from their children for another generation.” For kings came, in astonishment at the heavenly King, for He had come upon the earth without angels, without archangels, without thrones, without dominions, without powers, without authorities, but walking a foreign and untrodden path, He came forth from an uncultivated womb, neither leaving His own angels deprived of His authority, nor having ceased from His own divinity in His incarnation with us. But kings came to worship the heavenly King of glory, while soldiers [came] to serve the commander-in-chief of power; women [came to see] the one who was born from a man, in order that He might change the woman’s grief into joy; the virgins [came to see] the child of the virgin, because the Creator of milk and breasts, who makes the fountains of breasts to produce naturally flowing streams, received a child’s nourishment from His virgin mother; the infant [came to see] the one who became an infant in order to furnish praise from the mouths of infants; the children [came to see] the child who produced witnesses because of Herod’s madness; the men [came to see]  the one who was incarnated and healed the woes of slaves; the shepherds [came to see] the good shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep; the priests [came to see] the one who became the high priest in the order of Melchizedek; the slaves [came to see] the one who took the form of a slave in order to honor our slavery with freedom; the fishers [came to see] the one who makes hunters of  people from among fishers; the tax collectors [came to see] the one who appointed an evangelist from among the tax collectors; the prostitutes [came to see] the one who offers His feet to the tears of prostitutes; and, that I may speak but briefly, all sinners came to see the lamb of God who takes upon himself the sin of the world, Magi accompanying, shepherds praising, tax collectors speaking the good news, prostitutes bearing perfume, Samaritans thirsting for the fountain of life, the Canaanite woman with undoubting faith. [St. John Chrysostom, “2nd Homily on the Birthday of Our Savior, Jesus Christ”, transl. Bryson Sewell]

See the rest here.

Merry and Blessed Christ-mass!


Until We Can’t Even Hear How Much Fun We’re Having

[T]he just, please note, are not stuffy religious types with yard-long lists of good works, but simply all the forgiven sinners of the world who live by faith–who just trust Jesus and laugh out loud at the layoff of all the accountants.

And the unjust?  Well, the unjust are all the forgiven sinners of the world who, stupidly, live by unfaith–who are going to insist on showing up at the resurrection with all their record books, as if it were an IRS audit.  The unjust are the idiots who are going to try to talk Jesus into checking his bookkeeping against theirs.  And do you know what Jesus is going to say to them–what, for example, he will say to his host [in Luke 14:12] if he comes to the resurrection with such a request?  I think he will say, ‘Just forget it, Arthur.  I suppose we have those books around here somewhere, and if you’re really determined to stand in front of my great white throne and make an ass of yourself, I guess they can be opened (Rev. 20:12).  Frankly, though, nobody up here pays any attention to them.  What will happen will be that while you’re busy reading and weeping over everything in those books, I will go and open my other book (Rev. 20:12, again), the book of life–the book that has in it the names of everybody I ever drew to myself by dying and rising.  And when I open that book, I’m going to read out to the whole universe every last word that’s written there.  And you know what that’s going to be?  It’s going to be just Arthur.  Nothing else.  None of your bad deeds, because I erased them all.  And none of your good deeds, because I didn’t count them, I just enjoyed them.  So what I’ll read out, Arthur, will be just Arthur! real loud.  And my Father will smile and say, ‘Hey, Arthur!  You’re just the way I pictured you!’  And the universe will giggle and say, ‘That’s some Arthur you’ve got there!’  But me, I’ll just wink at you and say, ‘Arthur, c’mon up here and plunk yourself down by my great white throne and let’s you and me have a good long practice laugh before this party gets so loud we can’t even hear how much fun we’re having.’  [Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, 283-284

Of Lords and Servants

Often, we hear how pastors (and others) ought to exercise “servant leadership.”  On the other hand, we hear criticism of how pastors are “lording it over” their congregations.  I don’t know anyone who would say that the latter is better than the first, or more accurately represents the Christ who is Lord of His Church.  After all, He came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.

But let’s take a test case to determine whether we really want pastors to be lords over or servants to their congregations: closed Communion, or maybe we could simply talk about all the practices surrounding the Lord’s Supper.  For example, the pastor who receives the Body and Blood from his own hand, and wishes to proclaim the Gospel to each communicant.  To a random observer (who may, however, find exactly what he is looking for in any given pastor’s practice and piety), it may appear that the pastor is exercising an arrogant lordship by receiving the elements from his own hand, and by reserving to himself the proclamation of the words, “Given for you, shed for you.”  It is quite the contrary.  The pastor who is truly a servant knows his duty.  He knows that it is his responsibility to oversee a reverent distribution (a distribution, let’s not forget, of Christ’s actual Body and Blood), as well as to proclaim the Gospel (of which Christ’s Words at the Supper are the epitome) in that place.  He knows that Jesus’ words apply to him: who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves?  Is it not the one who reclines at table?  Jesus says, but I am among you as one who serves.  So also the pastor; even, at the Supper, to his own sinful flesh.

And what about the practice of the ancient, universal Church to celebrate the Supper in the true unity of agreement in Christ’s words (doctrine)?  Again, to the random (though rarely disinterested) observer, it may appear that the pastor who invites some to the altar and tells others to wait until unity in confession is acknowledged is acting as lord over his congregation (and others), while the one who invites all to the altar is acting as servant of those who have gathered to hear God’s Word.

I suggest it is exactly the reverse.  The pastor who invites some and turns others away knows he is the servant of One greater than himself, that he did not create the practice of closed Communion, and that it is not his to change (arbitrarily, according to his own opinion of those who come) the practice of the Church.  He serves Christ before he serves people; better, he serves the people by serving Christ.  He does not ask people to reveal what is in their hearts (what they believe)–which he cannot see, anyway–but only what they confess publicly (where they regularly commune, and from the hand of which pastor).

On the other hand, the pastor who tries to search out what is in people’s hearts (by asking them what they believe), or who invites all because he does not want to appear unloving or arrogant is actually the one who lords it over people’s hearts and consciences.  He is the one who arrogates to himself the ability to change the ancient, Scriptural practice of closed Communion (1 Corinthians 10, 11) and decides to base his decision not on their public confession but on his own fallible opinion of what a given person says he or she believes.  Those who want to share in the unity of a particular altar often say, “You can’t see my heart!  You’re judging my faith!”  But then they want to reveal their hearts, and try to prove that they are really Christians.  The pastor who wants to hear what is in a person’s heart and base a decision about communing on that revelation is acting as judge over whether that person is worthy.  This is Christ’s role alone.

It is the pastor who refuses to judge a person’s heart, but rather will only acknowledge a person’s public confession who is, in fact, acting as servant both to Christ and to the individual’s own conscience.  He does not want that person to be a hypocrite, or to make one confession by mouth and another by action.  He desires both integrity and unity.

As a Christian, as a pastor, in my pastoral care and in my preaching, I absolutely do want you to trust only in Christ’s fully sufficient death and resurrection for your salvation and forgiveness.  But for the purpose of the Sacrament of the Altar (and only for that purpose) it is not my concern what you believe.  I cannot know it or judge it.  I leave that to Christ.  He alone sees your heart and mine.  What I want to know is whether you intend to confess the unity of this altar, or of some other altar?  If you intend to participate (commune) in the unity of another altar, with which we are not in fellowship, then you cannot, at the same time, participate in the unity of this altar.  To do so is inherently self-contradictory, because it claims to hold two contrary confessions at the same time.  At the same time, I’d love to discuss with you whether what you say you believe fits better with our altar or theirs, but it is up to you to recognize which altar you are in fellowship with.  And I refuse to lord it over your conscience by demanding you commune at our altar when you believe something else, or that you commune at another altar when you say you believe what we teach.

Whom would you rather have me serve?  Christ, or your demand to commune at an altar with which you are not in agreement?  Or might I actually be serving you more faithfully by asking you to consider the temporal and eternal consequences of both your belief and your confession (which should coincide)?


Ephraim Syrus on “Holy Adultery”

For Thy sake women sought after men. Tamar desired him that was widowed, and Ruth loved a man that was old, yea, that Rahab, that led men captive, was captivated by Thee.

Tamar went forth, and in the darkness stole the Light, and in uncleanness stole the Holy One, and by uncovering her nakedness she went in and stole Thee, O glorious One, that bringest the pure out of the impure.

Satan saw her and trembled, and hasted to trouble her. He brought the judgment to her mind, and she feared not; stoning and the sword, and she trembled not. He that teacheth adultery hindered adultery, because he was a hinderer of Thee.

For holy was the adultery of Tamar, for Thy sake. Thee it was she thirsted after, O pure Fountain. Judah defrauded her of drinking Thee. The thirsty womb stole a dew-draught of Thee from the spring thereof.

She was a widow for Thy sake. Thee did she long for, she hasted and was also an harlot for Thy sake. Thee did she vehemently desire, and was sanctified in that it was Thee she loved.

May Tamar rejoice that her Lord hath come and hath made her name known for the son of her adultery! Surely the name she gave him was calling unto Thee to come to her.

For Thee honorable women shamed themselves, Thou that givest chastity to all! Thee she stole away in the midst of the ways, who pavest the way into the kingdom! Because it was life that she stole, the sword was not able to put her to death. [Hymn VII on the Nativity]


Body and Blood; Body and Soul

In Lutheran Service Book, the most recent hymnal in The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the prescribed (suggested?) dismissal from the Lord’s Altar runs like this: “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting.  Depart + in peace” (LSB 164, 181, 199, 210, 218).  This is significant because the previous LCMS hymnal had this form: “The body and blood of our Lord strengthen and preserve you steadfast in the truth faith to life everlasting.  Go in peace” (Lutheran Worship 152, 173).  Lutheran Book of Worship (primarily used in the ELCA, but used by some LCMS congregations) had a shorter (and lamer) dismissal: “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and keep you in his grace” (LBW 72, 92, 115).  The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) had the dismissal in a sort of split form: “May this [body or blood] strengthen and preserve you in the true faith unto life everlasting!” and then: “Depart in peace” (The Lutheran Liturgy 24).  But theEvangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book (1931 ed.), published by Concordia Publishing House, had “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ and His precious Blood strengthen and preserve you in the true faith unto everlasting life” (14).  This seems to be a word-for-word translation of the dismissal in the Kirchenbuch I have (for which I don’t have a publisher or date, since those pages are missing; if anyone can check, it’s a black book with “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” on the front).

I do this exercise simply to point out the seeming novelty of the LSB dismissal.  Whatever their differences, none of the other hymnals have anything like the “in body and soul” of LSB.  (Although, interestingly, the modern Finnish Lutheran Mass has: “May the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve our spirit, soul and body [, the entire being of each of us,] [sic] until eternal life.”)  The question is, what does the novelty (and every novelty should be extensively interrogated) do?  I have heard one pastor oppose it based on the fact that my body is still dying, still subject to disease, still dealing with physical ailments after I receive the Supper.  Thus, the Supper applies to me only spiritually and not physically.

With (admittedly minor) apologies to that pastor, who wants to take seriously what we experience in this world and life, such a view raises a number of troubling questions: is salvation (and the Body and Blood of Christ can be nothing else) only for souls now, and for bodies only later?  What does it mean for Christ’s Body and Blood to preserve us unto life everlasting?  Do the Body and Blood of Christ, which we believe are actually and really eaten and drunk, only affect “half” of us?  How is that possible?  Is Jesus Himself present only according to His human spirit (or even His divine Spirit)?

The answers to all of those questions go to the heart of what it means to eat this Body and Blood and to be saved by this Christ.  And the LSB dismissal (whatever its provenance; someone with more resources at hand will have to see if it truly is a novelty in the Lutheran Divine Service) acknowledges what I take to be the serious implications of actually eating and drinking the fully divine, fully human Christ’s actual Body and Blood.

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