Monthly Archives: April 2014

When All Things Ecclesiastical Disappoint Us

“What sanctifies the apostles, what makes the ministry holy, is not the men who do it, but the Word of truth they speak. Remember that when you are disappointed by the church, by your fellow Christians, by your pastors, by me. Sooner or later I will do or say something that disappoints you. And you will do the same to each other. But what makes anything holy, whether it is Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, Holy Absolution, Holy Church, or Holy Ministry, is the Word of Jesus, the Holy One who shed His blood for the cleansing and forgiveness of all.”

The entire sermon is here.


Second Sunday of Easter – John 20:19-31

How do you get the peace that Jesus proclaims to the Ten, and later to Thomas? Christ’s peace comes through the Gospel as through means. When Jesus is preached, when His Word is read, the one who hears or reads receives peace. Faith apprehends this peace and accordingly appropriates it. Where there is no faith, where Jesus’ Word of forgiveness is rejected by the hearer or reader, then there is no peace.

Jesus sends the apostles into the world to forgive sins. His forgiveness comes through preaching, teaching, and baptizing. His forgiveness also comes through eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. His forgiveness also comes through holy absolution. His absolution is given corporately in the Divine Service. His absolution is also given individually to troubled souls in individual confession and absolution. His absolution, His Gospel, is even given when one forgives another their sin. This forgiveness, this absolution, is the living voice of the Gospel.

Yet this living voice of the Gospel is challenged not merely by unbelievers, but also by other Christians. Some Christians might say that we Lutherans still have a bit too much Roman Catholic leaven among us when pastors corporately or individually proclaim absolution. Some might even say the formula of absolution, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ…” is blasphemy. Only Jesus can forgive sins! So why do we still today hold steadfastly to the comforting doctrine of absolution?

We still hold to absolution because it is clearly taught in Holy Scripture. If you’ve attended an ordination or installation of a pastor, you’ve heard a portion of today’s Holy Gospel read at the ordination or installation. And when [Jesus] had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Even before today’s Gospel Jesus gives the authority to forgive or retain sin to His Church: whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. When a pastor forgives sins in the stead and by the command of Christ, it is as if Jesus Himself stands in your midst and says it Himself.

Granted no one denies preachers the authority to preach, baptize, and administer the Lord’s Supper. But why not also the authority to forgive or retain sin? Saint Paul witnesses to this authority in 2 Corinthians chapter two: anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. Scripture clearly teaches that forgiveness is applied through means. Absolution is one of those means of applying the Gospel. That is why we still hold to the doctrine of absolution.

We also hold steadfastly to absolution because it is the necessary and blessed fruit of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His suffering and death was a vicarious atonement for sin. Jesus suffered and died for and in your place. He earned for you the righteousness that avails before God. The resurrection confirms His atoning sacrifice. If Christ would have remained in death and the grave, then no one could know if He had really accomplished salvation. His words on the cross, It is finished, would have been called into question. Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter 15: If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.

Christ’s release from the debtor’s prison of death means that God has actually testified that the work of redemption is accomplished. Your debt of sin is paid in full. Your sins are forgiven. Christ was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Holy absolution is the blessed fruit of Christ’s rising from the dead. For since God Himself if Christ has actually absolved the sinful world from sins, guilt, and punishment through Christ’s innocent suffering, death, and resurrection, then not merely every Christian has the right to absolve, but the sacred duty to say to everyone who sorrows over their sins: Do not be afraid. You are redeemed. Your sins are forgiven you. This is absolution.

Why would any Christian want to rob another Christian of such precious comfort? They don’t know or don’t believe the importance of the resurrection of Christ. Perhaps they believe that Christ acquired forgiveness of sins and salvation through His suffering and death, but mean that the benefits of His salvation have not yet been administered. What this means is that God has done His part in His Son. Now you must do your part and move God by your living, your wrestling for the treasure. It is a reality, but it needs to be your reality. Again, the forgiveness of sins is treated by some Christians as a potentiality made real by your work. This is to say that the resurrection of Christ does not happen for the good of the sinful world. How backward is that?

Absolution is really nothing other than the Gospel preached to individuals. It’s that simple. Gospel and absolution are essentially indistinct from each other, except only in application. Both declare forgiveness of sins. While the Gospel proclaims and proffers forgiveness of sins to all in general, forgiveness is awarded to the individual sinner in and through absolution.

This is why pastors make such a big deal out of absolution, both at the beginning of the Divine Service as well as privately, or individually, when your sins burden your conscience to the breaking point. Sometimes you need that Gospel given in concentrated form, one-on-one, from your pastor as from Jesus Himself. The Gospel does not know office hours. Forgiveness is yours when you need it to soothe your troubled conscience. Rejoice in the peace that Jesus earned for you.

Why Has Individual Confession and Absolution Not Been Readily Accepted in Our Congregations?

The fact that congregations are still filled with so much distaste for private confession is because we preachers still do not understand how to preach the Gospel as we should. Certainly, the sweeter and lovelier we would understand the Gospel as the power of God to hold up before people, the more faith would be awakened; the more faith would be awakened, the more temptation there would be; and the more temptation, the more desire for consolation would arise and the more people would come to private absolution to get consolation. However, our congregations should not think that now the time has come that we want to throw the net over it, because we extol private absolution so blithely to them; no, but that we want to talk about and preach it so blithely should happen, on the one hand, because it belongs to the proclaiming of the whole counsel of God, on the other hand, because of that, once we are dead, and our congregations finally come to the realization of the great treasure of private absolution, they cannot say: Our pastors, in this free Republic, are still afraid to offer us this treasure.

1860 Theses on Absolution. Rough translation by DMJ, bold emphasis mine.

The Surety of Absolution, aka, Bringing It All Back Home

Our preaching and absolution is the moral working according to nothing other than what God has done in Christ, the only difference is that God absolves the entire world through the resurrection of his Son, but we are only individuals, for example, preachers only absolve their congregations. Christ was our representative; He was punished for us, condemned and cursed, we in Him. He was cast in our place finally in the debtors’ prison of death, however on the third day God let Him out again and made Him glorious. So little was Christ punished on the cross for His own person, so little He was a sinner Himself, however, we were punished in Him, in Him we are also justified. God spoke the entire world righteous through Christ’s resurrection. If only we knew all this, then it would be enough; because we do not know it, however, the treasury would remain unused, if we do not come to know it. There God now speaks: “What I have done is to be proclaimed.” As certain as the resurrection of Christ is a true absolution, so surely my absolution is not a mere story, but a genuine message of forgiveness. Absolution is an act of God that is valid until the end of the world. Our absolution is nothing else than a repetition of the act of God in the resurrection of Christ. The Reformed, on the other hand, view the Gospel as nothing more than a story of redemption, which has the moral force to enable a person in a different disposition and through the other disposition in such a state in which he pleases God. Two things had to happen for our salvation: 1. forgiveness of sins must be purchased, Christ has done that; 2. in consequence of the perfection and full force and effect of the merit of Christ, the Triune God must forgive, God has done that and continually still does it until the Last Day, but no more so, as in the unique resurrection of His Son, but through the proclaiming of the Gospel.

1860 Theses on Absolution, roughly translated by DMJ

Dr. Ken Korby: Wood, Hay, and Stubble

Death is not a real foundation for living. Nevertheless, most individuals and civilizations build their lives on avoiding, evading, or postponing death. By a strange and reverse worship, they assert and confess the lordship of death. To them it seems to be the only sure foundation of power. The power to kill is fundamental, and apparently sure. The threat of death is the ultimate fear, and apparently viable.

When hosting the Lord of Life, full God manifest in the vulnerable and weak flesh, the builders of civilizations and religions did what they had to do to insure the edifice they had built. They exercised sure and necessary power to kill Jesus, using the power of God against God!

Death may be painful, but, culturally seen, it is at least sure. Almost. Although the nature of death is such that it dulls its victims, there are still uncertainties. Notes from the underground, as it were, disquiet the illusion that death might be an easy slipping into nothingness. The preludes of the absolute terror and loneliness may be quieted by devices of culture and religion, but some uncertainties remain.

Hence, a rock was put in front of Jesus’ grave. It seemed a fundamental guarantee of the finality of the power of civilization and religion to make death sure. But the death of Jesus was not merely the revelation of the mystery of iniquity. He was also the revelation of the mystery of the will of God to destroy death by dying it. Death did not shatter Jesus. Jesus shattered death. Death is not lord. Jesus is Lord. By His death and resurrection from the dead, in a body of glory that cannot die again, Jesus is the foundation for living a life that does not evade death or end up in death, but one that ends in life.

The consequence of this work of Jesus is the building of a new race, a new humanity, the Church. Mortified with Him in His cross, vivified with Him in His resurrection, this new people is a living, growing organism. Created by the Holy Spirit, she is the carrier and agent of that life-giving spirited word. Even while she lives I the wilderness, pursued by death, she is nurtured and built on the foundation. Living in the midst of cultures and civilizations that are built on the deceit of evading death, she is built in truth with wisdom. Such building activity is a delicate business.

The temptation of the craftsmen who are charged with building her is to use materials that are shoddy and cheap. The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3) calls them “wood, hay, and stubble.” The enticements of the temptation contain the threat and promises of the deceits of civilizations and religions: “You will not die; you will be as gods.” The promise is an invitation to mistrust the Lord. The threat is the pressure: if you want to be something, buy our wares. And so, many who build on the foundation advocate proposals with variety and enthusiasm, promising new keys to success, guaranteed formulae for church growth. Renewal is promised through ritual.

Effectiveness goes with certain evangelism programs and techniques. Church growth is worked out with scientific and business-like acumen and industry. These things have become as popular as the New Measures of the nineteenth century. Added benefits increase the allurements: there will effective and influential ministry, authentic and supportive communities. And who, in God’s name, can be against these? And then, the best of all worlds: these various building materials will be promoted from a “Lutheran point of view!”

Meanwhile, a hidden, alien catechesis works quietly to shape a different spirit and form, a different content and pattern of life. The Apostle warns against using wood, hay, and stubble, noting these materials are flammable. They are fuel in the fire of judgment and the day of the Lord. The smallest piece of wood will ignite, even if it has been tinkered with! Those who build on the foundation with such materials will indeed escape with their lives, but their work will be consumed and they will be left naked.

The apostolic master-builder suggests “gold, silver [and] precious stones”—very poor fuel for fire—as the building materials. There is a simplicity about these materials, as there is a simplicity in the way the church is built on the foundation. It is the simplicity of the new life by the Spirit in the water and word of Baptism, or nurturing the life of faith and love on the vitalities of the Lord’s Body and Blood, of reordering the relationship of the sinner to God by the word of forgiveness of sins spoken into the ear from the mouth of another.  The simplicity of the catechesis is the handing of this word from mouth to ear in the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Our Father. The shape and content of the word are the shape and content of the life: repentance, faith, holiness.

The celebration of Easter—with its participation in the eating our Passover Lamb—is the call to purge out the influence of malice and wickedness, the call to keep the least with the simple bread of sincerity and truth.

The church is God’s temple. Those who desecrate her will be desecrated

Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Korby
“The Cresset”
April, 1979

Palm Sunday – Matthew 27:11-54

Holy Week comes at the end of a season of self-denial, a season of repentance, and a season of renewal in prayer. At least it should be all these things. For you, perhaps, Lent has been a season of disappointment and frustration, six more weeks of bad news and new beginnings turned sour. Perhaps it’s been bad news because you’ve been exposed for who you really are: a fraud, or a traitor, or a pragmatist, going along with the crowd in order to keep your job, your position, your reputation, or what’s left of what’s in the bank. Lent is a time to prepare for the Feast of Feasts, the Resurrection of our Lord, but maybe what you’ve discovered along the way is your capacity for lying, hypocrisy, laziness, and self-pity.

Then comes the Passion of Saint Matthew and you find out you’re not alone. There’s Judas Iscariot, the traitor. There’s Pontius Pilate, the pragmatist. There’s Saint Peter, the coward. There’s the crowd, the happy ones singing Psalms to Christ one day, and a few days later demanding His death and the release of a murderer and insurrectionist.

In this rogue’s gallery of the infamous, you must learn to see yourselves.

I am Judas. I betray my Lord. I am a false disciple. I put money ahead of everything else. I let despair have its way with me. There are times I wish I were dead, and maybe I should just get it over with right now.

I am Pilate.I know what is right but I won’t do it. I shift the blame to someone else. I look the other way at injustice. I worry about what others might think. I worry about what might happen to me if I do the right thing. If I don’t go along with what these people want, I’ll get in trouble. I might lose my job.

I am Peter. I am a failure. I’ve spent all this time with Jesus. I’ve listened to His Word. I’ve learned the ways of God. I’ve even confessed Him the Christ, the very Son of God. However, when push comes to shove, I’m scared to death to say I know Him. I’m afraid of the consequences if I say I am one of His followers. I am scared of a servant. I am even scared of a little girl.

I am in the crowd. Remember when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of a donkey? Remember when I shouted Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord? I didn’t mean it. My fingers were crossed. When the mob changed course and started to shout Crucify Him! I went along with them. I can’t stand out from the crowd. They might mock me and send me to the cross with Him.

We see one Man today, though, who is different. One Man Who, when faced with despair, cried out to God. When threatened with violence, with laughter, with spitting; when bloodied, lacerated, and pierced did not flinch. He took it like a man. He took it like no man has ever taken punishment. This Man alone is not a fraud, not a coward, not a hypocrite, not a pragmatist, and not fickle. This Man looks over His fallen disciples, the corrupt temple priests, the heartless leaders of His government, and the crowd to which He had given everything He had – He looked out on these people and gave one more thing: His life.

When Jesus Christ gave His life for them, this sinless, perfect, and righteous Man said, in effect, I am Judas Iscariot. I am Pontius Pilate. I am Saint Peter. I am the crowd. I have become what I am not, that they might become what they are not. I have become sin, and they have become righteous. Your treason is Mine. Your faithlessness is Mine. Your heartlessness is Mine. Your lust is Mine. Your greed is Mine. Your cowardice is Mine. Your despair is Mine. Your punishment is Mine. Your death is Mine. Your hell is Mine. My righteousness is yours. My reward is yours. My inheritance is yours. My salvation is yours. My life is yours. All these things are yours in three words: It is finished.

When Jesus has finished it, it is finished. When Jesus has absolved it, it is absolved. When Jesus has atoned for it, it is atoned for. When Jesus has buried it, it is buried. What He has made new is new. It is as if He says to you today, Follow Me, and do not despair. Follow Me, and do not be afraid. Follow Me, and sin no more. Follow Me, for where I go is now opened to you, for what I open no one can close, and I have opened life and heaven and the Father to you.

(adapted from a sermon by Rev. C.S. Esget of Immanuel Church in Alexandria, VA)

Nagel: Not I, But Christ

This passing through death to life with Christ is not something that happens once in the Christian’s life at Baptism. Daily the Christian relives the Baptism experience of passing through death to life with Christ. St. Paul, our example, says, “I die daily.” Every day is soil in which to plant the seed that is yourself. So hate everything that separates you from God, whether it be some earthly thing or some part of yourself. That must die. Everything that imprisons you in this worldly life must perish. If you love what you call your life – “my life is my own” sort of thing – then you have no part in the life that is eternal within the love of God. You are unplanted seed. But if you surrender this earthbound life, if you plant the seed, if you die, make an end of self, confess, “Not I, but Christ,” then you shall have life. Then I as a seed must die, cease to be what I am, so I may become new and alive and bearing much fruit.

What is this new full, fruitful life? It is being bound to Christ, serving Him, following Him so where He is, you are and where you live, He lives. By faith what Jesus did becomes yours. His dying is counted for your dying, His rising, your rising. Life is not w hat I have done, what I am doing, what I shall do. Not I, but Christ. What Christ has done is the glory of Christians. They show forth what Christ has done for them and now does in them. The life Christians live is the life of Christ. The life they live in the flesh is not anymore their own life but Christ’s life in them. Their life and the life of Christ are so closely bound that their joy are Christ’s joy and their sufferings are Christ’s.

– Norman Nagel, Sermon for Palm Sunday (1951)

Why I Don’t Re-Write Collects

O God, You make the minds of Your faithful to be of one will. Grant that we may love what You have commanded and desire what You promise, that among the many changes of this world our hearts may be fixed where true joys are found; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Or as the Anglicans put it:

O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Paul Zahl on Burying Anger

Paul F.M. Zahl is an Episcopalian priest. He’s a published author. He has also said what I have been thinking for quite some time.

I find that anger, what’s traditionally called odium theologicum, it’s the Latin word “theological anger”, not only kills our witness, but it kills its protagonists. I’m only one person but it killed me. It killed my whole…everything that I ultimately held dear, was basically profoundly affected by a kind of theological anger that has the blessing of righteousness, but it is cancer to the individual human being. And so I have felt the only way forward is to bury that body and go back to the things that we know. And what do we know? Judgment kills. Just raise children. Grace always makes alive. And I, for one, would like to be able to end my little time as a minister, as a Christian, focused on that, rather than on ideological, massive, inner emotional, hurtful catharsis. So I just encourage all of you to break down, to die to anger, to be buried yourselves, and then to throw away the key, and you’ll be amazed, in my opinion, at the potential fertility that comes back.

Let me add my hearty AMEN to Fr. Zahl’s thoughts. Theological anger drove me crazy…literally. I take medication for it even today. I am getting back to basics and preaching the thing I know…the One Thing Needful: Jesus Christ and Him Crucified for you.


Fifth Sunday in Lent – John 8:46-59

Jesus wastes no time getting to the point in today’s Gospel: If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God. The Pharisees and scribes spend their entire lives studying the Law and the Prophets. They should easily accept what Jesus says as truth.

Consider the countless promises made by God of the Savior in the Old Testament. It’s almost too easy to believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Many would not believe it, even when they knew it to be the truth. They were ready to take responsibility for believing not to believe what was before their eyes in the Scriptures.

Rather than taking Jesus at His Word, rather than having a healthy fear of God’s Word and taking to heart what is written there, they clung to their bloodline and family heritage. The pious teachers of Israel boasted in self-made works of righteousness rather than the righteousness of God in His Son Jesus Christ, the only righteousness that avails before the Father in heaven. Boasting in self-made works of righteousness continues today even among Christians.

So many Christian communions are quick to proclaim Jesus as Lord, yet insist that you must do your part in making this your own. Everything Jesus does for you in Scripture is a potential rather than a reality. The potential becomes a reality only when you claim it for yourself. Never mind that Scripture says you are spiritually dead and cannot choose salvation on your own. What is more, there are Christian communions that actually teach that salvation may not be for you. You can believe in Jesus all you want, receive His gifts all you want, but you may be among those God chose for eternal condemnation. You’ll find out on Judgment Day whether you made the cut.

No wonder so many people who want to believe in Jesus Christ will not believe Holy Scripture as the pure, clear fountain of Israel from which is drawn living water. No wonder people despise what Jesus says today: if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death. What a promise! Yet this promise is mocked and scorned when you play salad bar with God’s Word. What is a clear invitation to believe the truth of God’s Word becomes an opportunity to mock God like the Jews do by saying who do you, Jesus, make yourself out to be?

Jesus makes Himself out to be the Savior Who guarantees those who believe in Him shall never see death. Just as Israel went through the Red Sea on dry ground, just as Isaac was spared from Abraham’s knife by a ram caught in a thicket, Jesus declares you, too, will be spared from death. What more do you need to believe Him? Jesus honors His Father by submitting Himself to the scorn of the Jews in order to make the perfect payment for your sins. Jesus wins by losing. He willingly loses His life in order to win your eternal life in His death and resurrection.

Only Jesus is able to do this because He is before Abraham was. Jesus’ simple statement was enough for the Jews to pick up stones to throw at Him. Jesus commits blasphemy in their eyes because He takes upon Himself the divine Name of God: I AM. It’s only natural that Jesus calls Himself I AM. He is I AM. Our Lord’s words today embitter the Jews. They have had enough of His bitter truths and invitations to believe His Word. It’s as if Jesus has taken them behind the curtain and showed all the backstage secrets, yet they refuse to believe it and consider the whole thing a lie.

It’s easy to be caught up with the Jews in refusing to believe what Jesus says is true. We are by nature sinful people. Sinful people do not keep promises. Sinful people make false promises. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Rejoice in your baptism, for you are a child of paradise. Rejoice in the Lord’s Supper, for you are fed with forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Rejoice in the preaching of God’s Word, for you are proclaimed righteous and innocent in the blood of Jesus Christ and in His resurrection from the dead.

Mom and Dad always said if something is too good to be true, it probably is. Our Lord’s promises are the exception. This is the rare time when reason is trumped by faith. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Reason says balderdash and poppycock. Faith says Amen. Jesus says later in John’s Gospel, have you believed because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Again, reason says rubbish. Faith says Amen.

The simple word Amen shows a healthy fear of God’s Word. You believe what it says against your reason and your strength. You are willing to stake your entire life on the Truth God reveals in Holy Scripture. When Scripture says, The LORD will provide as He did for Abraham and Isaac, you believe that the Lord will provide a Savior for you just as He provided a Savior for Isaac. The ram caught in a thicket in Genesis 22 foreshadows the Lamb of God Who wears a crown of thorns and is nailed to a cross as a common criminal. Yet in this common criminal’s death His blood is spilled on you and on the children of Israel in order that they, and you, are redeemed from death and hell.

Despised and scorned by men, Jesus Christ is mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. The promised eternal inheritance is yours in Jesus Christ, for He is the God in whom you take refuge.