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November 2016 Archive for Reformation 500

RSS By: Metropolitan New York Synod

Marking the commemoration of Reformation is an exciting time for us as Lutherans. As we all prepare, this blog will offer resources, tips, and background on a number of issues. 

Faith Alone

Nov 14, 2016

by Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo 

 

bprt16.031I am so grateful for the witness of all of you especially those who brought their reflections on Lutheranism today. Your reflections and meditations have been gifts to us and offer us bread for the journey of our life together.

 

Today I want to talk about Faith Alone, which has been something of an issue from the beginning of the Lutheran movement.

 

My friend, Tim Wengert, told me that in 1550, four years after Luther’s death, there was a fight between some super-Lutherans–the so-called "gnesio Lutherans"–remember them?–and a professor at Wittenberg named Georg Major. It was about the role of good works in salvation. One of the accusations against this professor was that he failed to use the phrase sola fide enough. And he replied that from then on he would always use it in his writings and always capitalize it–S-O-L-A  F-I-D-E–so it would be seen which seems a lot like a good work to my thinking. Faith Alone.

  

The Augsburg Confession is very clear on this central insight:

It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. (Article 4)

 

To quote one of our presidential candidates: Wooo! That was one sentence!

 

The point is not just that we have faith, since one can have faith in anything–a friend or family member, one’s own ability, the Chicago Cubs. Christians aren’t justified by the strength or sincerity of our belief but by the one in whom we believe. Only faith in Christ restores our relationship with God, because such faith trusts the promises God has made–and kept–in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

 

"Out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith"–this is so central to the way Lutherans think about the Christian faith that it has been called "the article by which the church stands or falls."

 

But justification by faith alone is not the last word that the Confessions and Luther have for us. It’s only the beginning of the Lutheran understanding. Faith in Christ isn’t just about what happens when we die. It’s about how we live. And it’s about how we live not just for ourselves but for and with others.

 

My seminary professors said it’s the hub of a wheel from which the spokes radiate out. Without the center, without the hub, all you have is a bunch of disconnected parts. With the right center, everything falls into place. Everything else in the Augsburg Confession–sin, the sacraments, worship,married clergy, the role of bishops–everything else is developed in relation to the core belief of justification by faith alone. Including where all of us fit in as pastors of the church.

 

Following Article IV on justifying faith, is Article V on the office of the ministry which declares where such faith comes from and Article VI which tells us what such faith does.

 

So, Article 5 says:

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, God gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, when and where the Spirit wills, in those who hear the gospel. (Article V)

 

Faith is not my own personal connection to God. I have had more than one conversation with a parishioner who claimed "I can worship God just fine on a golf course on Sunday morning." I suppose it’s true that one can praise God sitting on a mountaintop or watching a sunset or playing golf (though that is particularly hard to believe for me). But those experiences only tell part of the story. They don’t communicate the great good news that God in Christ is Savior–my Savior, our Savior. "How Great Thou Art" is true, but it’s incomplete unless I can also sing "Jesus Loves Me!" We call Word and Sacrament means of grace because they point to where and how God ministers to us with the promise of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Worship is our response to God only after God’s gracious initiative first reaches out to us.

 

Luther knew firsthand how easy it is to get trapped in our own mental and spiritual ruts. He insisted that the Word of God comes to us from outside ourselves, breaking into our sinful self-centeredness. We hear God’s gracious "for you" most clearly when we hear it in a voice other than our own. We feel God’s gracious "for you" when we are washed with water from the font. We receive God’s gracious "for you" when we taste the bread and wine and Christ’s own body and blood give life to ours.

 

The most frequently quoted passage from the Bible in the Lutheran Confessions is John 15:5: "Apart from me you can do nothing."

 

Faith alone–only faith–justifies. But in the Christian life, faith never is alone. In his lectures on Genesis, Luther wrote, "We know indeed that faith is never alone but brings with it love and other manifold gifts." In his preface to the New Testament, Luther described faith as "a living, busy, active, mighty thing." He said, "It is impossible to separate works from faith, Quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire." Article 6 of the Augsburg Confession calls this "The New Obedience." So you catch the 4, 5, 6 sequence of the Confession?

 

I think of it as something that we don’t "have to" do but something we "get to" do.

 

God comes to us in word and sacrament, in Jesus himself. And through us God reaches out to others. In a very real sense we are means of grace, too.

 

So while we speak clearly against works righteousness we also boldly proclaim that righteousness works.

 

____________________

At the 2016 Bishop's Retreat, Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo preached on the Lutheran solas. Read his reflections on Scripture AloneFaith Alone, and Grace Alone

 

Grace Alone

Nov 14, 2016

By Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo

 

bprt16.025In mid-September, as the centerpiece of our Deans’ Retreat Jonathan Linman helped us focus on Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. I confess it had been years since I looked at them. And I was captivated by what they are NOT: They are not a laundry list of gripes about all the things Luther didn’t like about the Roman Catholic Church. They provide an academic argument focused on indulgences and purgatory.

 

Reading the 95 with our deans I was reminded that Luther’s main objection was to Tetzel’s tactics. Luther was afraid that they would lead Christians either to despair or to place their confidence in indulgences rather than in Jesus Christ.

 

So he offered an alternative which we would do well to offer.

 

Rather than purgatory or penalties or merit–the complicated system of the medieval church–Luther cuts to the gospel heart of the matter. One of the questions Jonathan Linman asked the deans was which is the most important of the 95? Mine was number 62: "The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God." I’m happy to say it was a favorite in our group. 

 

This Gospel is that proclamation of the incarnate Son of God, a gift given to us without any strings attached and no shipping and handling charges. It’s like Amazon Prime but you don’t even pay for the item. The Law is fulfilled not by our works, but by the grace of God, not by anything we offer God but by all we received from Christ.

 

Grace alone. It’s all gift! Grace isn’t something you save up in a treasure chest and later distribute piece by piece. Christ has already paid the full price. There’s nothing left for us to pay or for the church to charge. And this understanding of grace as a free gift has life-changing consequences. From the first thesis, Luther challenges us to think and to live differently: "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." 

 

True repentance is not about the priestly sacrament of penance nor is it simply a matter of feeling bad about our sins. It’s a matter of conversion and fundamental reorientation of one’s heart and mind and soul. It’s about how we live our lives in the real world in response to the true treasure of the gospel. We live lives of repentance, then, by serving others in Christ’s name. As Luther writes a few years later in The Freedom of the Christian: "A Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. A Christian lives in Christ through faith, and in his neighbor through love."

 

The gospel of God’s free grace for sinners is central. We live our lives in response to this great good news, and those lives take shape in the service of neighbor.

 

I think we can also learn something from Luther’s moderation. Believe it or not, Luther gives the pope the benefit of the doubt, which is a lot easier today than it was then. Luther says that if the pope knew what guys like Tetzel were doing–"he would rather see St. Peter’s burned to the ground than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep."

 

Is Luther sincere in these statements? Or is he being politically savvy? Perhaps he wants to offer the pope an opportunity to see himself as others do or to save face by deflecting the blame to those who claim to represent him like some clerical campaign manager.

 

Even if Luther’s motives are mixed, I think we can learn something about how to behave toward those we disagree with. That seems a good practice in this particular season. Giving people the opportunity to maintain their dignity and to respond constructively is a better strategy than exposing their failings publicly.

 

This grace is apparent in the catechisms written a decade later. In explaining the 8th commandment Luther develops a constructive behavior from the divine prohibition. The positive dimension of the commandment to not bear false witness is that the Christian lives by grace and puts the best construction on what our neighbor says or does.

 

I confess that I am still working on that, every day, in response to many and email. And certainly Luther was not always able to live up to that standard.

 

But we still learn from his teaching that those who are saved by grace live that grace in an attitude of generosity rather than of suspicion and blame.

 

____________________

At the 2016 Bishop's Retreat, Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo preached on the Lutheran solas. Read his reflections on Scripture AloneFaith Alone, and Grace Alone

 

Scripture Alone

Nov 08, 2016

By Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo

 

bprt16.010From early years, I was a church nerd. I knew I wanted to be a pastor in third grade, around age eight. But even before that, I played church every Sunday, as I’m sure many of you did. I would come home from worship, put on an old black "duster" of my mother’s and place toilet paper as a stole on my neck. I was a geek. And I still am. It was white toilet paper indicating that every Sunday is Easter.

 

So by the time I was in eighth grade confirmation class I was pretty much loaded for bear when it came to questions. I distinctly remember asking my pastor how there could possibly be more than one "Sola"–Sola gratia, Sola fide, Sola Scriptura. Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture alone. How could that be? That was a product of my Missouri Synod Literalism. I couldn’t live with the paradox rampant in Lutheranism, the ambiguity of many things being named "Alone."

 

I still wondered about those Solas when trying to prepare to preach at this Bishop’s Retreat. I thought–Three Eucharists, Three Solasso I did my research. I found nothing about the origins of these solas in the Lutheran Confessions or even the ancient copy of the Lutheran Cyclopedia given to me at my ordination forty years ago. So I went to the guru of things Lutheran: Tim Wengert.

 

Here’s part of his reply:

 

"I actually cannot help very much with this. Here’s what I know: 1. Luther used all of the "solas" we are used to: sola fide (1200 times), sola gratia (250); solus Christus (around 500) but Sola Scriptura only 18 times. But never as a set."

 

I’m hoping that Dr. Wengert has some kind of computer program that tells him this and it’s not all flying around in his brilliant mind. That would be scary. (He was replying to my email from Eisenach where he was to give a lecture on Melanchthon, who never used the set of solas either, by the way.)

 

But I decided to soldier on. At the risk of sounding like a lecturer, What does Luther say about Scripture? In his revised edition of the Bible in 1545, he said what people ought to feel when they read the Bible. They should sing, shout, and leap for joy in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

"It is good news, a great shout resounding through the world shared by all who seek within its pages the consolation, strength, and victory offered in it by God."

 

Luther was his own best example of this joy in Scripture. His passion to communicate its saving message enlivened all of his commentaries, preaching, and theological writing.

 

Luther’s stormy public career is directly connected to his deep study, analysis, proclamation, and translation of Scripture. And we, dear sisters and brothers, share this legacy. I hope. Our practice of Bible study–around the kitchen table and in the scholar’s library–has been powerfully shaped by Luther’s conviction that Scripture carried God’s saving message to humankind and needs to be faithfully, lovingly, enduringly communicated.

 

But it means more than treasuring the Bible–although that would be a good place to begin. We also have a particular way of reading it and listening to it, a way that is distinctive and powerful and, at the same time, helps us to steer away from arrogance and presumption and self-righteousness.

 

The Scriptures are a gift of God offered freely in Christ and read through the particular lens that saved people are judged righteous by God through grace manifested in faith. As a result, the whole of Scripture to Luther seemed to communicate a single message. No longer was it a book of laws and judgment, but a book of grace and redemption.

 

Is that true for us? Is that lens what we use when we study Scripture and help others open the printed Word of God? Do we see and share the kerygma, the central message that came, first in a person, Jesus Christ, and later in a text? Is our proclamation shaped as a story of the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and as a proclamation of salvation offered freely to humans redeemed by grace? The oft-quoted teaching that the Scriptures are the manger in which the baby Jesus was laidthe Scriptures are not God but the trusty bearer of God for usenclosing, protecting, and cradling the true Word, Jesus Christ. Once Luther began seeing the Bible message as both a message of judgment and a message of forgiveness at the same time he saw Jesus all over the book, constantly presence in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament.

 

Another insight that has particular value for me and I think for all of us who are professional proclaimers is Luther’s caution that we not read the Scriptures alone. The danger in that practice is the possibility people might become distracted by the drama, take the Bible too literally, and begin to speculate when the events it describes would come to pass. Implicit in this is my hope that we all engage in reading the Word with others, from pericope studies to kitchen tables to preaching the lectionary workshops. I think that will help guard against preaching becoming a weekly exercise in Chicken Soup for the Soul, or worse, reverting to the Bible being a book of Law alone.

 

Our human impulse is to seek comfort in obedience rather than in the Gospel’s promise of freedom. There is no surer and more trustworthy promise than the freedom from sin, death, and the devil that God offers us in the gospel to which the scriptures testify.

 

This is why Luther invites us to read the Bible–Scripture alone–and sing, leap, and shout for joy! 

 

____________________

At the 2016 Bishop's Retreat, Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo preached on the Lutheran solas. Read his reflections on Scripture AloneFaith Alone, and Grace Alone.

 

 
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