Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thanksgiving, 2005, San Diego, California.

These years have given me bitter deprivation and some sweet recompense...a few years back, as I was preparing to leave Salt Lake City, the participants in the Tuesday morning Bible study I sometimes facilitated gave me a gift from one of the local Christian stores; I keep it on the windowsill in my bedroom so I can regularly remember that group, admire the design and make note of the text! It's a 6" x 5" plaque decorated with flowery flourishes and features a version of Philippians 4:6, with bold text as I've formatted:
Don't worry about anything – instead, pray about everything. Tell God your needs and don't forget to thank Him for His answers.
Philippians' legendary author frequently is called the Theologian of Grace, and I'm recalling the times Paul wrote about again, again and once more again finally getting the "aha" of grace and the obligatory response in thankful living and sacrificial giving. From centuries later, Martin Luther also has been called a Theologian of Grace—no one remotely matches the way Paul and Martin present and juxtapose the infinite demands and the infinite freedom of both law and grace! For this eve of the American Thanksgiving for Harvest Festival, here's Luther, from his 1529 Small Catechism:
Give us today our daily bread.

To be sure, God provides daily bread, even to the wicked, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that God may make us aware of his gifts and enable us to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.
Luther then asks,
What is meant by daily bread?

Everything required to satisfy our bodily needs, such as food and clothing, house and home, fields and flocks, money and property; a pious spouse and good children, trustworthy servants, godly and faithful rulers, good government; seasonable weather, peace and health, order and honor; true friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.
And another, far more recent explanation of the fourth petition of the Lord's Prayer—from the Study Catechism 1998 of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):
Question 130. What is meant by the fourth petition, "Give us today our daily bread"?

We ask God to provide for all our needs, for we know that God, who cares for us in every area of our life, has promised us temporal as well as spiritual blessings. God commands us to pray each day for all that we need and no more, so that we will learn to rely completely on God. We pray that we will use what we are given wisely, remembering especially the poor and the needy. Along with every living creature we look to God, the source of all generosity, to bless us and nourish us, according to the divine good pleasure.
Dag Hammarskjöld, from Markings:

For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.

Amen and Amen!!!

Monday, November 14, 2005

God's Politics: Jim Wallis

This coming Wednesday at our Faith, Order and Witness meeting, it will be my turn to moderate our discussion—parts III and IV of God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It [HarperSanFrancisco, January 1, 2005 | ISBN: 0060558288] by activist evangelical preacher and Sojourners sage Jim Wallis. To keep our discussion on track, I've made chapter-by-chapter notes to take with me, but for now I want to say a little about my perception of the book thus far. Some of this might interest some of my readers. Here's a beginning, then.

General Observations

God's Politics cover Although Jim Wallis is a pastor, technically this is not an actual theology book. However, throughout what I've read so far, over and over again Wallis underscores the central biblical themes of justice, equality and human worth. He's well aware of the biblical texts (of course!) and of the incessant, insidious temptations of imperial religion, which at one and the same time seeks to turn God into a flunky at humanity's beck and call while ultimately seeking to transform humans into gods. Whether initiated and sustained in ecclesiastical quarters or by governmental action and decree, imperial religion is imperial religion, needs to be prophetically exposed and revealed for the agent of death it is and at the same time, the people – "the nations" – need life-affirming and life-generating alternatives shown to them. As Jim Wallis reminds us on page 145: The confrontation with evil is a role reserved for God, using imperfect people, churches and nations as God wills. confuse the roles of God and the church with those of the American nation, as George Bush seems to do repeatedly, is a serious theological error that some might say borders of idolatry or blasphemy.

Since I've only been keeping up with the assigned reading, admittedly I haven't finished reading the book, but so far Wallis is outstanding at analysis and at reframing in broader terms the details he lays out, but he's done little about putting the pieces back together again and showing us the foretaste of the apocalyptic vision of a restored humanity - and creation - so necessary to keep us going and for us to know exactly where we're going! At times I'm almost too acutely aware of my background in the theological traditions of the Reformation and their more contemporary updated expressions, but still I miss a consistent and persistent call to live as persons in the shadow of the cross and the light of the empty tomb, which is another way of saying I miss the eschatological vision of a redeemed creation. Nevertheless, on page 153 he finally gets to our lives under the cross...after his assurance on page 151: "...Jesus is Lord. We live in the promise that empires do not last, that the Word of God will ultimately survive the Pax Americana as it did the Pax Romana." On page 167, he quotes Stanley Hauerwas: the world didn't change on September 11, but in 33 A.D. My point exactly! And, the world also changed 33 years earlier, when the tiny defenseless baby in Bethlehem's manger began showing us what divine strength really was like!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Pentecost 25A: Proclamation

here's a version of last Sunday's sermon—"a version" because I ended up ditching my script and notes, but the essence of what I said is there (here?)
Matthew 25:1 13
1 "The Reign of Heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were silly but the others were wise. 3 The silly ones took their lamps but did not take any oil to light their lamps. 4 However, the wise ones took their lamps and they also carried some oil for the lamps along with them. 5 The bridegroom was taking a long time to arrive, and all ten of the bridesmaids became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 "At midnight the announcement came: 'The bridegroom is here! Come on out to meet him!'
7 "Then all ten of the young girls woke up and trimmed their lamps,8 and the silly ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil because our lamps are going out.'
9 "'No,' the wise ones replied, 'there's not enough for us and for you, as well. You need to go into the marketplace and buy some oil for yourselves.'
10 "But as they went on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived, and the five wise young bridesmaids who already had oil for their lamps went in to the wedding celebration with him and the door was shut.
11 "Later the other five, the silly young bridesmaids, also arrived and called to the bridegroom, 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door to the celebration for us!'
12 "But the groom answered, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.'
13 "'Therefore, keep looking out for the Reign of Heaven and be prepared for it, because you do not know the day or the hour of the Lord Jesus' arrival right here in our very midst."

Be Wise, Be Ready
Let's pray together:

All living creatures with the same breathe you sustain
And to your Spirit's well nobody comes in vain.
Give that we understand the language of your call,
Uphold us by your hand; write your name on us all! [C. Michael De Vries, alt.]
The story or parable we just heard from Matthew's gospel tells about a bridegroom and a wedding celebration: in the culture of Jesus' world, the about to be married groom would travel from his own house to the home of his intended to conclude the wedding contract. After that, both bride and groom would go back to his house to celebrate the wedding feast; instead of going away on a honeymoon, the wedding couple would hold sort of an open house for their friends and relatives. Just as in this parable, the bridesmaids would wait outside the groom's house. At night they did not allow anyone out in the streets without light, and they didn't have street lights, so you needed to have both lamps and oil to light those lamps with you at all times. No wedding invitations specified a starting time or necessarily a particular day—the groom could arrive whenever, even at midnight or in the middle of the night. Once the wedding festivities began, they locked the door to the groom's house, and no one else could enter the party. In other words, it was not possible to be too early, but it was possible to be too late and miss the opportunity for getting in to the feast and the dancing.

A parable is an allegory—closely related to a metaphor. Many interpreters suggest this passage from Matthew's gospel refers to the marriage, the union in love, between God and the people of God's creation. The parable tells us to prepare and be ready for the "Reign of Heaven" or Rule of God, which, just like the wedding banquet, would arrive at an unspecified time. Throughout history God has given commandments to help people live in ways that begin leading the world into the heavenly reign or rule of God Himself. From the gospel according to Mark, chapter 12:

Mark 12

28 One of the teachers of the law came and…asked Jesus, "Which is the most important of all God's commandments?"
29 Jesus answered, "The most important one is: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31 The second is: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

It is impossible for me, for any of you, for anyone completely to keep all of the commandments perfectly all of the time. Jesus Christ came into the world showing us how to live; in his death on Good Friday's cross of Calvary and God's raising him to new life on Easter Sunday dawn, Jesus took the offense of sin and its consequences for us, so we have the gift of forgiveness and new beginnings whenever we break the commandments—even that most essential one to love God, self and one another. The cross of Jesus Christ carries the Great News of the Gospel.

The parable we just heard is almost completely about what we are supposed to do in order to be ready for the Reign of God. But regarding the idea of preparing and waiting for the Reign of God to begin…that's just it: the Lord Jesus Christ already has come, and the grace filled Kingdom of God is here! God is here, making new life out of all the deathliness in this world and in each of our lives. But we need to be prepared, awake and alert, because Jesus Christ, the bridegroom comes not just once, but over and over again, opening wide the door to the Reign of Heaven and inviting all of us into its presence. However, the good news of the gospel goes further than warning us to be ready and prepared; it also tells us there is nothing you and I or anyone can do to get ready for the Lord's coming! In chapter 2 of his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul makes clear it is not something I have to do, you need to do, or we have to do, that will cause the love and justice filled Reign of God to begin flowing in our lives and world, because it is by the grace of God we live in the power of the new life granted us in Christ's dying and rising again. As the apostle Paul expresses it:

Galatians 2:16b,20a

16b So we, too, have trusted Christ Jesus, so that we may be made right before God by trust in Christ and not by keeping the law, because by observing the law no one can be righteous. 20a Because of this, I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.

In Jesus Christ, God's loving justice and righteousness flows from the cross as a cascading stream of reviving water washing us clean from any shortcomings, misgivings or transgressions. Christ Jesus' life is with us, in this community, right here and right now. Jesus Christ, the church's bridegroom, comes into this world and into our lives not just once, but over and over again, with a wide open invitation into his feast of hospitality. When we know God's righteousness in Jesus Christ as a free gift from God and we live in the reality of forgiveness and new beginnings, then we can live each day in love and justice for others, and in love for ourselves, as well! Then we can hear Matthew's parable telling us to be ready with a new ending: when the bridegroom, Christ Jesus comes to us, he brings with him enough oil for everyone, making us ready to be lights in one another's lives and lights in our own city.

Yes, God's Reign is something God establishes right here in our midst, but the Reign of Heaven also is something God charges us to help bring to life, by loving God, neighbor and self, by responding wherever we see anyone in need. As we read about Jesus' life in the Gospels, we observe the Reign of God in love and justice in action. When we are in Christ, alive with loving justice and righteousness, we help bring our community and world closer to the Reign of Heaven.

God is right here in our midst with us! Let us be wise and ready, looking around us and among us to see signs of the Reign of God.

To God alone be glory, forever and ever!


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification

Close to a year ago, in December 2004, I began this post and planned to write more (which I've done, but as notes for discussion rather than formal presentation); now 10-months-and-counting later, my intended ideas remain in an outline and I've been thinking and writing about other things, but the Joint Declaration is so important and I am so into being an ecumenist, I needed to post something about it here. Here's the gist of my original post:
Next month—January 2005—at Faith, Order and Witness, again we'll discuss the Joint Declaration; I had made a few notes about some points in the text of the Joint Declaration and about the Annex, and at some point I'd wanted to compile them into at least somewhat coherent form so they could go on this site and possibly I could distribute them... that long-past January meeting, but I got so involved with my usual endeavors of reading theology and writing theology my ideas never made it further than our live discussion at the meeting. Nonetheless, here are parts of the text we discussed, and here's the complete document: The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification

1. The doctrine of justification was of central importance for the Lutheran Reformation of the sixteenth century. It was held to be the "first and chief article"1 [footnote 1 The Smalcald Articles, II,1; Book of Concord, 292.] and at the same time the "ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines."2 [footnote: 2 "Rector et judex super omnia genera doctrinarum," Weimar Edition of Luther's Works (WA), 39, I, 205.] The doctrine of justification was particularly asserted and defended in its Reformation shape and special valuation over against the Roman Catholic Church and theology of that time, which in turn asserted and defended a doctrine of justification of a different character. From the Reformation perspective, justification was the crux of all the disputes. ...

2. For the Lutheran tradition, the doctrine of justification has retained its special status. Consequently it has also from the beginning occupied an important place in the official Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue.

5. The present Joint Declaration has this intention: namely, to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church9 [footnote: 9 The word, "church" is used in this Declaration to reflect the self-understandings of the participating churches, without intending to resolve all the ecclesiological issues related to this term.] are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.

1. Biblical Message of Justification

9. In the New Testament diverse treatments of "righteousness" and "justification" are found in the writings of Matthew (5:10; 6:33; 21:32), John (16:8-11), Hebrews (5:3; 10:37f), and James (2:14-26).10 In Paul's letters also, the gift of salvation is described in various ways, among others: "for freedom Christ has set us free" (Gal 5:1-13; cf. Rom 6:7), "reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5:18-21; cf. Rom 5:11), "peace with God" (Rom 5:1), "new creation" (2 Cor 5:17), "alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom 6:11,23), or "sanctified in Christ Jesus" (cf. 1 Cor 1:2; 1:30; 2 Cor 1:1). Chief among these is the "justification" of sinful human beings by God's grace through faith (Rom 3:23-25), which came into particular prominence in the Reformation period.

11. Justification is the forgiveness of sins (cf. Rom 3:23-25; Acts 13:39; Lk 18:14), liberation from the dominating power of sin and death (Rom 5:12-21) and from the curse of the law (Gal 3:10-14). It is acceptance into communion with God: already now, but then fully in God's coming kingdom (Rom 5:1f). It unites with Christ and with his death and resurrection (Rom 6:5). It occurs in the reception of the Holy Spirit in baptism and incorporation into the one body (Rom 8:1f, 9f; I Cor 12:12f). All this is from God alone, for Christ's sake, by grace, through faith in "the gospel of God's Son" (Rom 1:1-3).

13. Opposing interpretations and applications of the biblical message of justification were in the sixteenth century a principal cause of the division of the Western church and led as well to doctrinal condemnations. A common understanding of justification is therefore fundamental and indispensable to overcoming that division. ...

3. The Common Understanding of Justification

14. The Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church have together listened to the good news proclaimed in Holy Scripture. This common listening, together with the theological conversations of recent years, has led to a shared understanding of justification. ...

15. In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.11

18. Therefore the doctrine of justification, which takes up this message and explicates it, is more than just one part of Christian doctrine. It stands in an essential relation to all truths of faith, which are to be seen as internally related to each other. It is an indispensable criterion which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ. When Lutherans emphasize the unique significance of this criterion, they do not deny the interrelation and significance of all truths of faith.

4.5 Law and Gospel

31. We confess together that persons are justified by faith in the gospel "apart from works prescribed by the law" (Rom 3:28). Christ has fulfilled the law and by his death and resurrection has overcome it as a way to salvation. We also confess that God's commandments retain their validity for the justified and that Christ has by his teaching and example expressed God's will which is a standard for the conduct of the justified also.

32. Lutherans state that the distinction and right ordering of law and gospel is essential for the understanding of justification. In its theological use, the law is demand and accusation. Throughout their lives, all persons, Christians also, in that they are sinners, stand under this accusation which uncovers their sin so that, in faith in the gospel, they will turn unreservedly to the mercy of God in Christ, which alone justifies them.

4.6 Assurance of Salvation

34. We confess together that the faithful can rely on the mercy and promises of God. In spite of their own weakness and the manifold threats to their faith, on the strength of Christ's death and resurrection they can build on the effective promise of God's grace in Word and Sacrament and so be sure of this grace.

35. This was emphasized in a particular way by the Reformers: in the midst of temptation, believers should not look to themselves but look solely to Christ and trust only him. In trust in God's promise they are assured of their salvation, but are never secure looking at themselves.

36. Catholics can share the concern of the Reformers to ground faith in the objective reality of Christ's promise, to look away from one's own experience, and to trust in Christ's forgiving word alone (cf. Mt 16:19; 18:18). With the Second Vatican Council, Catholics state: to have faith is to entrust oneself totally to God19, who liberates us from the darkness of sin and death and awakens us to eternal life20. ...

4.7 The Good Works of the Justified

38. According to Catholic understanding, good works, made possible by grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, contribute to growth in grace, so that the righteousness that comes from God is preserved and communion with Christ is deepened. When Catholics affirm the "meritorious" character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace.

39. The concept of a preservation of grace and a growth in grace and faith is also held by Lutherans. They do emphasize that righteousness as acceptance by God and sharing in the righteousness of Christ is always complete. ...

From The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification Annex

... 2. Together we confess: "By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works"(JD 15). ...

D. Grace as fellowship of the justified with God in faith, hope and love is always received from the salvific and creative work of God (cf. JD 27). But it is nevertheless the responsibility of the justified not to waste this grace but to live in it. The exhortation to do good works is the exhortation to practice the faith (cf. BSLK 197,45). "The good works of the justified should be done in order to confirm their call, that is, lest they fall from their call by sinning again" (Apol. XX,13, BSLK 316,18-24; with reference to 2 Pet. 1:10. Cf. also FC SD IV,33; BSLK 948,9-23). In this sense Lutherans and Catholics can understand together what is said about "the preservation of grace" in JD 38 and 39. Certainly, whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it" (JD 25).

E. By justification we are unconditionally brought into communion with God. This includes the promise of eternal life; "If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Rom 6:5, cf. Jn 3:36, Rom 8:17). In the final judgment, the justified will be judged also on their works (cf. Mt 16:27; 25:31-46; Rom 2:16; 14:12; 1 Cor 3:8; 2 Cor 5:10 etc.). We face a judgment in which God's gracious sentence will approve anything in our life and action that corresponds to his will. ...Any reward is a reward of grace, on which we have no claim.

3. The doctrine of justification is measure or touchstone for the Christian faith. No teaching may contradict this criterion. In this sense, the doctrine of justification " an indispensable criterion which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ." (JD l8)