The Heidelberg Catechism, released in 1563, is one of the primary Reformed summaries of the faith that emerged from the Protestant Reformation. Today the Catechism remains a guide for preaching in many Reformed churches as the Catechism includes summary observations on key topics like the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. The Catechism sermon starters featured here suggest fresh angles for talking about important doctrines in sermons as well as Scripture text suggestions to accompany different parts of the Catechism and illustration ideas to bring these confessional and doctrinal themes into contact with our contemporary world.
Q & A 1
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Q & A 2
Q. What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
A. Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Our familiarity with these words ought not blunt for us how startling many contemporary people would find the idea that there is actually comfort to be found in the idea that we are “not our own.” To many people these days, not being in charge of your own destiny, not being able to make up your own rules as you go along, would sound like profoundly ugly, bad news!
When Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled,” I picture him doing so with a quivering chin and with his cheeks wet with tears. Honest preachers of comfort and hope even today should not do less. We see the brightness of gospel comfort not when we block from view the sadness of our terrorism-filled world but precisely when we weep with those who weep but even so find a word of lasting comfort for life and for death!
Another Angle: What does the all-inclusive “body and soul” language here say about the nature of Christian hope, including for the “eternal life” promised and assured to us at the conclusion of Q&A 1?
How desperately people need the kind of certainty of comfort and hope that comes through Lord’s Day 1. Far too many people today, especially younger people, are summed up by the twin phrases “Duh” and “Yeah, right.” An article in the New York Times once claimed that there is something oddly appropriate that these two phrases have become so common among teenagers. Simply to say “Yes” or “No” doesn’t fit our uncertain and cynical world. Back in the days of Ozzie and Harriet it was a yes-or-no world. It was Us vs. Communists and we pretty much knew who was who.
But now we live in a world of hype and media manipulation, a world where terrorists lurk in the bushes and hate us for reasons we can’t grasp. Now few things are certain. And so we place everything on a sliding gray scale of doubt. It seems that no matter what anyone says these days, someone will answer with either, “Duh!” or “Yeah, right.”
There is a certain winking sarcasm and skepticism rampant in the land. Tell most people that you really ought to trust our elected officials, and they’ll respond, “Yeah, right.” On the other hand, tell most people that a certain political or religious leader has fallen into trouble, and they’ll respond, “Duh.” We’re only sure about one thing these days and that is that we should never be sure about much. And so statements of confidence are met with “Yeah, right” and stories of trouble are met with “Duh.” We don’t expect much good anymore.
Yet Lord’s Day 1 stands firm in declaring there is yet hope, there is yet reason to cut through the shallow cynicism of our world to get at the core of everything. As Christians we need to be honest about what we proclaim to be our only comfort. We need to be honest that this is our only comfort precisely because a lot of what goes on in this world is rotten, unfair, not the way it’s supposed to be. We need this only comfort because all of the other potential comforts of life turn out to be fragile.
Every day people discover that a trusted friend has betrayed them, that a beloved spouse has had an affair, that a precious child has died or left home for good, that a once-secure job has been downsized into oblivion, that a solid investment of life savings has evaporated like the morning mist, that medical science can’t solve your particular disease, that someone you once respected has let you down. These things happen and they happen with sickening regularity. We Christians do not profess Jesus as our only comfort lightly–we do so because honesty tells us that there is nothing else in life that is certain. If a lot of people can never get past “Duh” and “Yeah, right,” it’s probably because they’ve been paying attention to real life.
So what is your only comfort in a world of terror, decay, and death?
Possible Biblical Texts
Isaiah 40 is a lovely text to pair with Q&A 1. Remember that when God told Isaiah to speak “Comfort, comfort” to the people of Israel, the people were at that time in a ‘is always bold in a world as dangerous and hurting as this one.’
Another good text is John 14 and Jesus’ words “Let not your hearts be troubled.” But this text also highlights the audacious nature of our Christian comfort and hope because, after all, where and when did Jesus speak those words? In the Upper Room the night he was betrayed and hard on the heels of Judas’ having fled into the night, which was then swiftly followed by Jesus’ sad prediction of Peter’s upcoming denials.
Lord’s Day 2
Q & A 3
Q. How do you come to know your misery?
A. The law of God tells me.
Q & A 4
Q. What does God’s law require of us?
A. Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22:37-40: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Q & A 5
Q. Can you live up to all this perfectly?
A. No. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
How is the law of God being used here? Is this the way the law often gets treated today? (Think, for instance, of what motivates efforts to get the Ten Commandments displayed in public places. Is that view of the law very different from or quite similar to the law’s use in Lord’s Day 2?) Why didn’t the Catechism authors put the Ten Commandments into the Catechism at this juncture? Was there a strategic purpose behind using Jesus’ summary of the law here?
For many years we lived in neighborhood filled with good people. My wife and I regularly commented to each other, “You couldn’t ask for better neighbors than the ones we have.” Yet almost none of them ever went to church. Our car alone trundled down the road every Sunday morning and evening on our way to a house of worship. Yet these were good people. We entrusted a couple of them with the key to our house to tend to things when we were away. Probably we all know folks like this—folks who are shining examples of what some of us might call “common grace.”
How do you suppose such people would feel if we told them that apart from the grace of God, they have “a natural tendency to hate God and [their] neighbor”? Indeed, would we be able to say that directly into the face of one of our neighbors? Do even we believe this about other people around us every day? If we do, how would we explain it? That is to suggest the question: How does the kind of “hate” (in Q&A 5) manifest itself? In other words, is there more than one way to understand and/or display hatred?
Modern translations of this first part of the Catechism translate the section’s title as “Misery.” The original German word is Elend, which has some etymological ties to the phrase “ex-land,” referring to someone who is an alien, an exile from his or her homeland. This first part of the Catechism is saying that we are not living at home anymore. We are not living in the place God desired (and still desires) for us.
Many postmodern people use the image of pilgrimage, of being on a journey to an unspecified home, as a kind of metaphor for life. Is there a way to take Lord’s Day 2 and Part One’s talk of “misery” and connect it to this chronic feeling of homelessness?
Possible Biblical Texts
Two passages seem fairly logical to exegete when preaching on Lord’s Day 2: one is the Matthew 22:34-40 passage where Jesus gives this summary of the law in answer to the Pharisees who had asked him for the “greatest commandment.” Another passage would be Deuteronomy 6:1-9 where the famous Shema is first given to Israel (and which Jesus quotes in Matthew 22).
If we bring Deuteronomy 6 and Matthew 22 together, we do notice the one slight (but perhaps significant) alteration Jesus made to the Shema when he substituted “mind” for the traditional “strength.” As Neal Plantinga once suggested, surely the Pharisees and others noted the switch for the same reason we’d be struck if a child at bedtime prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my brain to keep”!
In connection to Lord’s Day 2, it may be difficult to know precisely how that angle on Deuteronomy 6 / Matthew 22 may fit but it could be used to highlight the scope of sin. The “total” part of the traditional phrase “Total Depravity” refers not to the intensity of sinfulness in humanity but to its scope. That is to say, Christians don’t claim that every part of a person’s life is just as depraved and bad as it could possibly be but rather that every part of life is at least a little affected by our sinful tendency to put ourselves first, and that includes our minds, how we think. Note: This could tie in with the earlier comment about the meaning of “hate” in Q&A 5: a person need not be a foaming-at-the-mouth firebrand to be hateful toward God and other people. Our mere proclivity toward self-centeredness and a desire for the limelight may itself be enough to demonstrate our need for saving help.
Question: Who among us could plausibly deny that we have thoughts in the course of the average day that would cause us to blush right down to our toenails were others able to see those thoughts!? This may be one way to hook Lord’s Day 2 to modern people. If we are honest about what goes on within the confines of our own minds, maybe we can swallow a little easier Q&A 5’s claim about our “natural tendencies.”
This portion of the Catechism constitutes what could be called “The Diagnosis” of the human condition. What’s wrong and where did it come from? Lord’s Day 3, in very brief strokes, attempts to tell us.
Q & A 6
Q. Did God create people so wicked and perverse?
A. No. God created them good and in his own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that they might truly know God their creator, love him with all their heart, and live with God in eternal happiness, to praise and glorify him.
Q & A 7
Q. Then where does this corrupt human nature come from?
A. The fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise. This fall has so poisoned our nature that we are all conceived and born in a sinful condition.
Q & A 8
Q. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil?
A. Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Although you can find someone to disagree with almost anything, Q&A 6 is probably the least controversial or difficult part of L.D. 3. The idea that humanity had a “Once upon a time . . .” stage to its history is certainly doubted by some people. But whether humanity did or did not ever live in a time of moral innocence is, in any event, about how things used to be, not how they are now. If you tell me that my great-grandparents were wealthy people who once lived in a huge mansion on Long Island, I might wish that I had that kind of money but the prior state of my long-dead relatives doesn’t change much for me in this present moment. In other words, some people assume that whatever once was has no bearing on today.
However, the same cannot be said for what is claimed in Q&A 7 and 8. These answers bring us right up to date in the present moment and claim that what explains our lives right now is a mistake, a sin, a terrible choice made long ago by people over whom we had no influence whatsoever (but who, apparently, exercise a huge influence over us!). How does a claim like this sit with people today?
Traditionally the doctrine of “Original Sin” had two prongs: guilt and corruption. The latter may be the easier to explain. Indeed, we now know how the choices made by parents and grandparents can alter a person’s DNA, physically changing the internal wiring of people not yet born. Studies suggest that the children and even the grandchildren of alcoholics end up with a much higher predisposition to become problem drinkers themselves than those whose genetic code had not been so sullied.
But what about the guilt prong of original sin? It’s one thing to say that your nature or DNA may be corrupted because of what old Grandpa Pete once did. It’s quite another matter, however, to say that you should serve some jail time as punishment for a bar room brawl in which Grandpa Pete, in the throes of a liquor-induced rage, once broke the jaw of another man.
Why would anyone ever get punished for the actions of anyone else, especially of people separated from us by a vast chasm of history?
The Catechism begins with the diagnosis of the human condition as the natural prelude to making people yearn for the cure for what ails us. Indeed, a definitive diagnosis is often a good thing (assuming it’s not a disease for which there is no treatment or cure whatsoever). As a doctor friend of mine often says, there’s nothing worse than being what docs refer to as “an interesting case”! No one wants to be a medical mystery because so long as your condition remains unknown, nothing can be done. But if a course of treatment is available, even a hard-to-hear diagnosis is better than having no idea what’s wrong to begin with.
Possible Biblical Texts
Two passages that seem to go well with Lord’s Day 3 are Genesis 3 and Romans 5. Whereas Genesis 3 tells a story, Romans 5 generates a theological argument based on that story. However, different though these two passages are, one thing we need to remember and be honest about when preaching is that although the Bible seems everywhere to assume that our current fallen nature and sinful state can be traced back to an originating set of actions by our first parents, nowhere in Scripture is the precise mechanism of transmission spelled out or identified.
Lots of images have been used in the history of theology. Some refer to the idea of a poisoned river: pour mercury into the head of a river, and all the fish, even very far downstream, will be tainted. Some use an arboreal image: bad roots lead to bad branches leading to bad fruit. As suggested above, more recent images have involved crimped DNA strands and the idea of some kind of genetic transmission of sin from generation to generation.
But these are all, at best, metaphors by which to explain a phenomenon that defies easy explanation. Maybe one way to deal with this is to recognize what is common between Genesis 3 and our current situation; namely, evil and temptation are simply present to us in this life. We all wake up to the possibilities of making bad choices and we frequently make precisely such a choice. (Indeed, even the most adoring parents of newborn infants do not for a moment believe that this child will be perfect. We all know temptation is ever present to us and that every person in the world falls prey to various temptations at some point. I’ve never heard of parents who hold off on having their baby baptized on the outside chance that maybe this one won’t ever need the cleansing forgiveness Jesus offers!)
In his book Sighing for Eden (Abingdon, 1985), William Willimon framed it this way (I am paraphrasing here but see page 24 of Willimon’s book). Someone once asked a respected theologian where the Garden of Eden was. He replied, “215 Elm Street, Knoxville, Tennessee.” “You’re lying!” the questioner exclaimed. “I thought it was in Mesopotamia.” “Well,” the theologian drawled, “you couldn’t prove it by me. For it was there on Elm Street when I was but a boy that I one day took some money from my mother’s purse, went to the store, bought some candy, and ate it. Then I came home and was so ashamed, I hid in a closet. That’s where I was when my mother came looking for me, calling out, ‘Where are you? What have you done?'”
Like almost all of us, this man awoke to the reality of sin as something that was just there in his life like a kind of cosmic given. Curiously, it’s the same in the Bible, though maybe we don’t often reflect on that facet to Genesis 3. But consider the story afresh: Adam and Eve wake up to the reality of sinful temptations pretty much the way we all do. Eve is minding her own business one day when suddenly she stumbles across a grievous temptation. It’s just inexplicably yet undeniably there in God’s world, active in one of God’s creatures, using some features of God’s good creation to lure her away from that same God.
Who knows just why it goes this way, but if the Adam and Eve story seems remote and/or unlikely to people today, maybe it will seem less remote and unreal if we can recognize how this same story plays out in our lives every day even now.
Of course, whether preaching on Genesis 3 or Romans 5, it’s important to pick up on the point made most especially by Paul; namely, good news can be found even in the midst of the bad news. The same dynamic that, unhappily, ricochets the sin of our first parents down along the ages can be applied in the other direction, too! The goodness of Jesus Christ, the second Adam, also catches up lots of people in both directions on history’s time line. Jesus’ saving work can redeem those who were born, lived, and died long before Jesus came into the world and he will continue to save people yet to come. There’s bad momentum, and we all know altogether too much about that. But there’s also good momentum, and in that there is more than a little hope!
Q & A 9
Q. But doesn’t God do us an injustice by requiring in his law what we are unable to do?
A. No, God created human beings with the ability to keep the law. They, however, provoked by the devil, in willful disobedience, robbed themselves and all their descendants of these gifts.
Q & A 10
Q. Does God permit such disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished?
A. Certainly not. God is terribly angry with the sin we are born with as well as the sins we personally commit. As a just judge, God will punish them both now and in eternity, having declared: “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.”
Q & A 11
Q. But isn’t God also merciful?
A. God is certainly merciful, but also just. God’s justice demands that sin, committed against his supreme majesty, be punished with the supreme penalty—eternal punishment of body and soul.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
This portion of the Catechism forces preachers and congregations to wrestle with one of the knottiest of combinations: mercy and justice. It is no surprise that among the earliest of all heresies that ever beset the Christian faith was the teaching of Marcion and his attempt to cleave apart the God of the Old Testament (the God of wrath) from the God of the New Testament (the God of grace). Surely, Marcion concluded, we must be dealing with two different gods here.
Marcion’s solution to the justice/mercy, wrath/grace conundrum is not acceptable but we can appreciate what led him to come up with that idea. These apparently opposing traits are difficult to hold in tension. What’s more, an over-emphasis in either direction leads to its own kind of difficulty. Too much emphasis on God’s justice and on God’s ability to become angry at sin obscures the good news of the gospel and makes God out to be a fearsome figure who needs to be appeased. Then again, too much emphasis on grace can lead to mere sentimentality, to a too-easy forgiveness that does a disservice to the enormous suffering that Christ had to undergo finally to forgive our sins.
How can we present God’s ability to get (properly) angry over sin yet without making anger/wrath appear to be God’s driving, core characteristic? Another issue has to do with the nature of sin’s punishment. For the average person, does it make sense to say that his/her sin warrants eternal punishment? C.S. Lewis once observed that we don’t reckon a rapist’s sentence according to how long it took him to assault the woman he raped. The whole crime may have lasted fewer than five minutes but we don’t make his prison term briefer seeing as the crime didn’t take long to commit. It’s the nature of the crime—its intensity and seriousness—that leads to an appropriate sentence. So also with our sinning against God: just because we didn’t spend an eternity offending God doesn’t mean our punishment gets determined accordingly.
Does the above analogy work? Whether you think it does or doesn’t, how can we make this clear to postmodern people whose worldview is more episodic, more moment-to-moment and scattered?
Possible Biblical Texts
Exodus 34: In the wake of the Golden Calf debacle/disaster, God was sufficiently offended as to be ready to write the Israelites off. Moses interceded to prevent that. What is curious in terms of parsing wrath/mercy is that in Exodus 32:9, God says he will destroy this people because they are “stiff-necked,” sinful, stubborn. But by the time you get to Exodus 34:9, although the people are no less “stiff-necked” than before (and Moses bluntly admits this), nevertheless God is asked to go with the people and take them as his inheritance. But perhaps Moses dares to do this because in verse 6 he already established that God’s core nature is one of compassionate grace and mercy. In a striking turn of phrase, Moses twice repeats the sacred name of “Yahweh,” doubly re-enforcing the idea that at heart, this God is the compassionate and gracious one, abounding in love and faithfulness.
Genesis 6-8: The Flood story can be a bit difficult to preach on all in one sermon. Yet it may be among the most classic biblical illustrations on justice/mercy, particularly when you bring together Genesis 6:5 and Genesis 8:21. If you look closely, you will notice that in chapter 6, humanity’s inclination toward all things evil is the reason for sending the flood in the first place. However, after the flood is over, God remarkably enough uses that exact same reason (stated in nearly identical terms as in chapter 6) as the reason he will never again send a flood! In the end, God decides that the fact of humanity’s penchant to go on sinning will become the reason for his ongoing mercy. So the flood story shows that, as Lord’s Day 4 also claims, yes, God can be offended by sin and is offended by it. But he is determined not to let this offense be the final word.
Romans 5:1-11: This is another powerful text that demonstrates that although sin has consequences, those were all borne on the cross by Christ Jesus. Blood was shed but not in an appeasement of some deity who was crazy with wrath and had to have his fur smoothed back down. Paul in Romans 5 makes abundantly clear that love toward us was the prime motivator from the beginning and at every step along the road. This passage provides a good opportunity to tilt against the idea of the “Umstimmung Gottes,” the idea that God’s attitude changed from fundamentally wrathful to loving on account of what Jesus did. Instead Paul says that God’s attitude toward humanity was loving all along but that sin had to be dealt with nevertheless. “While we were yet sinners . . .” has to count as among the New Testament’s most ringing, most lyric of truths.
The title of a 1997 article in Christianity Today asked this question: “Can We Be Good without Hell?” The author traced out what he sees as a decline in hell-talk over the last number of years. Ministers just don’t preach on hell much anymore and the result, according to some, is that people no longer have a fear of damnation–a fear that is necessary to make folks behave. Take away the possibility of hell and you take away God’s wrath. Take away God’s wrath and you basically take away the true God. Can we be good without hell? The author of the Christianity Today article answered, “No.” Hell, he wrote, must make a comeback so that we can recover the proper picture of God. What is that proper picture? It is the image of God as the one who doles out rewards and punishments–this is the God whose very nature woos people to be good so they can avoid burning in hell forever after. But is this so? Is this the best way to present, or gain access to, the God of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ?
Q & A 12
Q. According to God’s righteous judgment we deserve punishment both now and in eternity: how then can we escape this punishment and return to God’s favor?
A. God requires that his justice be satisfied. Therefore the claims of this justice must be paid in full, either by ourselves or by another.
Q & A 13
Q. Can we make this payment ourselves?
A. Certainly not. Actually, we increase our debt every day.
Q & A 14
Q. Can another creature—any at all—pay this debt for us?
A. No. To begin with, God will not punish any other creature for what a human is guilty of. Furthermore, no mere creature can bear the weight of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.
Q & A 15
Q. What kind of mediator and deliverer should we look for then?
A. One who is a true and righteous human, yet more powerful than all creatures that is, one who is also true God.
Q & A 16
Q. Why must the mediator be a true and righteous human?
A. God’s justice demands that human nature, which has sinned, must pay for sin; but a sinful human could never pay for others.
Q & A 17
Q. Why must the mediator also be true God?
A. So that the mediator, by the power of his divinity, might bear the weight of God’s wrath in his humanity and earn for us and restore to us righteousness and life.
Q & A 18
Q. Then who is this mediator—true God and at the same time a true and righteous human?
A. Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was given to us to completely deliver us and make us right with God.
Q & A 19
Q. How do you come to know this?
A. The holy gospel tells me. God began to reveal the gospel already in Paradise; later God proclaimed it by the holy patriarchs and prophets and foreshadowed it by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and finally God fulfilled it through his own beloved Son.
The eight Questions and Answers that make up Lord’s Days 5 and 6 are a kind of theological Kindergarten. Very simple questions are posed in order to move us toward the inevitable, ultimate answer that only Jesus can save us from the sin that the Catechism’s first section talked about.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
We are considering these two Lord’s Days together because it is difficult to separate them out since Lord’s Day 6 unpacks the “truly human and truly righteous” nature of the Savior/Mediator that was mentioned in Q&A 15 at the end of Lord’s Day 5.
A question that gets raised about this part of the Catechism has to do with the forensic view of the atonement presented here. We approach salvation solely through the avenue of justice. A crime has been committed. Justice demands a punishment in full. But who can pay this legal debt?
The history of atonement theology shows that the Church has never adopted any one model of the atonement once and for all. There appears to be some biblical backing for the justice/penal substitution model, the moral example model, the “Christus Victor” model, the recapitulation model, etc. Can we still use Lord’s Days 5 & 6 as a teaching model if we weave in, or at least briefly acknowledge, some of these other views of what Jesus’ life and death accomplished? Would this help those who are uncomfortable with this more forensic model that the Catechism emphasizes?
Lord’s Day 6 packs a theological/Christological wallop. Along with the Doctrine of the Trinity, this matter about the two natures of Christ consumed hundreds of years in church history before there was consensus (at Chalcedon in 451 A.D.) on the fundamental nature of Jesus. Without getting too technical or letting it consume the sermon, perhaps a summary could be given of what happened when Jesus was viewed as EITHER human OR divine but not both. What do we lose if he’s only a human being? What do we lose if he is only divine?
Possible Biblical Texts
Isaiah 53: Here is the classic passage about God’s Chosen One as the Suffering Servant. As the footnotes under the Q&A’s of Lord’s Days 5 & 6 make clear, this passage undergirds the theology here in significant ways. Because indeed, the idea of suffering, of being a real human being, of being loaded down with the sins of other people, of salvation coming through the punishment he bore: it’s all here. Also contained in this lyric prophecy are some hints about the way in which we distance ourselves from God’s Servant. Verse 4 is key: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrow, yet we considered him stricken by God.” The ugliness we see in the twisted face of Christ on the cross is finally our ugliness, our sins, our sorrows. Yet we look at Jesus and say, “He must have been a bad person for God to punish him like that. Look what God did to him!” In reality, we have to witness and acknowledge what we did to him.
Galatians 2:17-21: There is a lot going on in this passage in terms of the law versus grace. But the main message here is that salvation can come only by being crucified with Christ. “The Son of God, who loved me, gave himself for me” (verse 20). It was this self-giving sacrifice that secured salvation for all who are willing to be crucified with Jesus. And it was the only way (which is the main thrust of Lord’s Days 5 & 6). If salvation could come through any other avenue, then the Son of God would never have had to go to the hellish lengths to which he did in fact go. The Catechism can come across as kind of simplistic in maneuvering us into seeing that only one Savior—both human and divine—can save us but precisely this is the core contention of the gospel. Paul fairly screamed at the Galatian Christians in Galatians 1 because they had begun to buy into the “work your own way to heaven” mentality. Nothing upset Paul more than the idea that alternate routes to glory are readily available. But isn’t the “all roads lead to heaven” mentality a key one that we need to challenge today?
The New York Times once published a story that could break the heart of almost any sensitive reader. The article centered on a thirteen-year-old girl from Dixon, Illinois, named Wendy Williams. Based on the story it appears that Wendy is a bright, sweet girl from a stable, two-parent family. She loves her pet cat, Katie, and has an aptitude for art and math. Wendy has a lot going for her, yet she spends most of her days struggling to hold onto her self-esteem. Because, you see, in the affluent, heady days of the 1990s, Wendy lived on the wrong side of the tracks, and the other kids didn’t let her forget it.
Back then Wendy lived in a mobile home in a tin-plain trailer park with the unlikely name of “Chateau Estates.” Her father worked hard as a welder but earned only $9 an hour. Her mother spent a few hours a week as a cook for a Head Start program, but also earned very little. So in a school full of kids who looked like walking billboards for names like Nike and Tommy Hilfiger, Wendy had to walk around in rummage sale slacks and belts bought at the Farm & Fleet, attire which her classmates did not hesitate to call “tacky.” While her fellow students talked about their new $1,000 computer toys and look forward to their family’s next trip to the Caribbean, Wendy had to face a reality in which her family could not afford the $45 fee now charged to play school sports. Even on those occasions when Wendy found cause to smile, she hid her smile behind her hands so that no one would notice the overbite which her parents could not afford to get fixed and which once earned her the nickname “Rabbit.”
A girl like Wendy just doesn’t fit in a school full of children who have grown up as the targets of savvy marketing campaigns by J. Crew and Walt Disney. The expectation of prestige and wealth is so common now the teachers at Wendy’s school report that all of the kids they meet these days say when they grow up, they want to be doctors, lawyers, or professional athletes–anything that will earn them gobs of money and prestige. “I don’t remember the last time I heard anyone say they wanted to be a police officer or a firefighter,” one teacher remarked. A vocational teacher in the local high school complains that he can’t get anyone to sign up for courses that teach skills like the tool-and-die trade. Even though such jobs can earn $70,000 a year, many kids believe that salary would be too low.
So Wendy Williams had to spend her time trying to hold onto enough self-esteem to stick with her studies so she could avoid the fate of her three older sisters, all of whom finally gave up on high school, dropping out to have babies. It’s not easy, though: at the end of each school day Wendy’s bus stop used to be first, and so all of her more wealthy classmates got to watch Wendy as she shuffled toward her trailer, face down, eyes fixed on her generic tennis shoes.
In a world where money counts, where image is everything, and where the incessant hype of the celebrity-driven media invades every segment of life, folks like Wendy don’t fit. Such common, low-income, non-glitzy people don’t register on the media’s radar scope. Even an article as poignant as the New York Times piece probably didn’t make any impact on the words and attitudes of those who routinely made Wendy so uncomfortable. Feel sorry for her if you wish, but Wendy and her family won’t serve as anyone’s role model.
Of course, what we routinely forget, even as Christians, is that according to the Bible, the salvation of the cosmos also emerged from the wrong side of the tracks. As Isaiah predicted and as the gospels confirm, when the Son of God came down to this world, he lacked everything that would catch people’s eyes. Born in a barn to low-income parents, Jesus was raised in the ancient world’s equivalent of a run-down trailer park in the little Podunk backwater of Nazareth. He wasn’t particularly handsome and seemed so meek as to qualify as shy. No one thought he was a bad person, just an unremarkable one, that’s all.
Q & A 20
Q. Are all people then saved through Christ just as they were lost through Adam?
A. No. Only those are saved who through true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.
Q & A 21
Q. What is true faith?
A. True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in Scripture; it is also a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit creates in me by the gospel, that God has freely granted, not only to others but to me also, forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation. These are gifts of sheer grace, granted solely by Christ’s merit.
Q & A 22
Q. What then must a Christian believe?
A. All that is promised us in the gospel, a summary of which is taught us in the articles of our universal and undisputed Christian faith.
Q & A 23
Q. What are these articles?
A. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Q&A 20 tells us, ever-so-briefly, that although the nature of our salvation through Christ is similar to our fall through Adam, the salvation part does not automatically come to all in the exact same way that the fall does. “In Adam’s fall we sinned all,” the old theological adage has it. However, to benefit from the Second Adam, faith is required (and this faith does not come to all but only to those who receive this gift that enables belief). Q&A 20 states this case rather baldly but perhaps we need to be ready for those who will see some unfairness in this. If we receive a delivery from Adam of something we never ordered and never signed for, why can’t this gift of faith come in the same way? Why is grace/faith more selective in reaching people than sin apparently is?
Q&A 21 is a classic summary statement about faith. Unpacking this answer could easily take up at least one sermon! In short strokes, the Catechism authors managed to remind us that faith is both head and heart, both knowledge and convicted assurance. What’s more, faith grasps grace. Faith is the container we get from God into which the content of God’s grace then gets poured. Once we receive this grace through the grip of faith (or in the vessel of faith), we know that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. It involves the forgiveness of other people’s sins, it involves a grand reconciliation with God, and it involves a huge program of salvation. By faith we become part of a much bigger program.
Are we sometimes tempted to make this Lord’s Day’s presentation of faith too narrowly focused on the individual person? The little line “not only others” is a subtle, but definite, reminder that the salvation into which faith grafts us is finally a huge deal—it is cosmic in scope. Perhaps this is where the line from John 3:16 comes in: “For God so loved the COSMOS that he sent his only beloved Son.”
Q&A 22 sets us up to start pondering the Apostles’ Creed. The claim that this creed is “beyond doubt” may strike some postmodern folks as a bit over the top. Does this mean one cannot wrestle with the claims made in this most famous of all creeds? If the Catechism places it beyond all doubt, does this cut off the possibility for meaningful engagement with these doctrinal claims? Given people’s sensibilities in the 21st century, preachers should maybe be prepared to talk about that little line in Q&A 22. As Paul Tillich famously said, faith includes doubt, it does not exclude it. Or as Frederick Buechner said, “Doubt is the ants-in-the-pants of faith.” Doubt can shore up faith in the end, keeping it lively and active and moving in a never-ending seeking for greater understanding.
Possible Biblical Texts
John 3:1-21: The story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus is a lovely vignette on the mystery of faith, the Spirit’s role in bringing faith, and what it means to believe that Jesus alone saves through the very sacrifice for which he was sent to this world in the first place. True, the actual word “faith” never crops up specifically in this story but when you look at John 3, you realize it’s all about faith and about casting our eyes on the lifted-up Son of God. There is also in this passage a nice interplay between light and darkness (one of John’s favorite themes) and about Nicodemus’ need to stop scurrying around under cover of darkness to instead come out into God’s wonderful light. One thing we often fail to realize about this well-known story is that John never does tell us how Nicodemus responded to Jesus’ words. How striking! The first person ever to hear John 3:16 may or may not have responded to it in faith—we don’t know! But maybe that is the evangelist’s clever way of putting the ball into our courts this very day: irrespective of how Nicodemus responded, how will you respond?
John 15:1-17: Because Q&A 20 uses the image of being “grafted into Christ,” it is natural that we could turn to the well-known image of Jesus as the vine. A key image associated with faith all through the New Testament (though especially in John’s gospel) is the idea that to have faith is to abide, to remain, to be (in Paul’s favorite turn-of-phrase) “in Christ.” When we are in the vine and live as branches off the vine, we have no doubt as to the source of the life, vitality, and renewal that flows into and through us. The joy we feel stems from the love the Father has for the Son that now flows to us in the Son.
Illustration #1: In Lord’s Day 7 the Catechism makes the bold claim that the only way to be saved is to have faith–and not just any old faith but faith specifically attached to Jesus as the Son of God who died for our sins. Such an assertion has never been terribly popular with our world, and these early years of the 21st century are no exception. Increasingly today we are told that the main thing is not what you believe so much as that you believe in something. What’s important is that you have somewhere to hang your spiritual hat.
The author Stanley Grenz once introduced us to a fifty-year-old California woman named Rita McClain. Ms. McClain has tried a number of different religions in her lifetime, ranging from Pentecostal Christianity to Native American spirituality to Buddhism. Recently she has settled for a faith of her own making centered on a shrine in her home. Rita’s homemade worship center now includes an angel statue, a small bottle of sacred water that was blessed at a women’s vigil, a crystal ball, a pyramid, a small brass image of Buddha, a votive candle, a Jewish Hebrew prayer, a tiny Native American basket, and a picture of her favorite tree. This is where Rita now bows down to commune with her “inner landscape.”
And not a few folks today applaud this homespun faith as being plenty to provide a person with meaning and salvation in the midst of a tough world. The important thing, we’re told, is not to be critical or narrow-minded. Thus, in our current religious climate we are now challenged far more often than was true even a generation or two ago. Today people want to know what makes us think that our faith is true, what makes us believe that this Jesus-on-the-cross spells genuine salvation? In a society where so many good, moral people believe so many different things, how can we maintain the claim that only the faith that hooks up to Jesus will bring us to God?
Illustration #2 (for a sermon based on John 15): What does the person of faith look like, I wonder? Is the faith-filled person someone who exudes a serene confidence, a calmed and hushed and unperturbed spirit? Or is the faith-filled one the active and always-in-motion kingdom worker who is mostly a kind of holy blur of volunteerism? Is faith a set of convictions that could be counted-cross-stitched and hung on a wall or is faith seen best only when it is put into practice out on the nitty-gritty streets of the real world?
In the Bible Abraham is the father of all faith, and his life was mostly a series of journeys that involved trust. By faith Abraham packed up everything he owned one day and set off on a long trip toward an as-yet unspecified far country. God said “Go” and Abraham went. God said “Go to a place I will show you later” but Abraham did not reply, “Well, if I’m going to go, could you at least give me a hint, a general direction, a region on the map?” No, Abraham just went–no map, no end destination. Just a wing and a prayer, a dream of starry skies and sandy seashores and a home country out there . . . somewhere.
And that’s faith, we say. It was a leap of faith, and most of us believe at some level that sooner or later faith will involve a leap, a jump into the unknown. Abraham’s own journey of faith had its ups and downs and setbacks, but his story climaxes with one final excursion into the unknown when God told him one terrible day to take his son, his only son, Isaac whom he loved, and kill him on yet another unspecified mountain locale that God would show Abraham later on, only after he had set out. And it was only when the dagger, glinting in the morning sunshine on Mount Moriah, was raised up over Isaac’s rapidly heaving chest that God said, “Now I know!” The journey of faith was complete. Abraham had once more leapt into the unknown, proving his faith.
Frederick Buechner has written that faith should be seen as a verb and not a noun because faith is always about the sacred journey along life’s varied pathways. Others point out that in the Greek of the New Testament people are not said to believe in something but rather they believe into something, again hinting at movement, the risky stepping out onto thin air. To people like this, faith is never a creed because that is too static, too settled. Creeds make faith look like a big overstuffed easy chair that you settle into in your living room in a kind of cozy spiritual serenity. But real faith, some say, is about hitting the road, trusting God to lead you along. Faith is active and moving, not static and dry.
It’s an old debate, of course. Martin Luther’s world changed (and he then changed the rest of the world) after he read Paul’s hope-laden rhetoric that we are justified by faith alone! Faith is a gift given to us by grace. We don’t have to do anything to get faith. But then Luther discovered the letter of James. James was one of those who didn’t want faith to be the overstuffed easy chair and so said over and over that faith without works is dead. If you’ve got faith, you’d better be out there living and working and journeying along in very active ways, James said. Well, Luther didn’t like that at all. “James makes me so angry,” Luther said one day, “that I feel like throwing Jimmy into the kitchen stove!”
Luther wanted faith to be like a precious jewel hidden in our hearts. Others claim that the best image for faith is walking. Some say faith is a matter of the head and the heart–what you know and how you feel. Others say it’s a matter of the hands and feet–what you do and where you go.
What does the person of faith look like, I wonder? The Catechism tells us that faith is knowledge and conviction. It is both a calm remaining in Christ and it is an active bearing of fruit. Faith is both the home you inhabit in Christ and it’s the journey you take with Christ your whole life.
Q & A 24
Q. How are these articles divided?
A. Into three parts: God the Father and our creation; God the Son and our deliverance; and God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.
Q & A 25
Q. Since there is only one divine being, why do you speak of three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
A. Because that is how God has revealed himself in his Word: these three distinct persons are one, true, eternal God.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
If ever there were a Q&A in the Catechism that slides past reams of material in just a few brief words, Q&A 25 would be it! The simple and quick way by which the Catechism addresses the doctrine of the Trinity is a little like having someone ask, “Tell me all about World War II” only to have the other person reply, “The Allies won.” Well, true enough but there’s a little bit more to the story, isn’t there!? So here: a huge (and hugely important) question gets asked about why the one God gets spoken of in triplicate as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet the answer comes back so very simply, “Because that is how God has revealed himself in his Word.” In short, the Bible tells me so!
Again, we believe the truth of that claim but as a matter of historical fact, what has become the orthodox teaching about the Trinity took well over 400 years to develop. What’s more, this teaching remains, even all these centuries later, famously difficult to grasp.
Anyone who has ever had contact with a Jehovah’s Witness knows something else: namely, the word “Trinity” occurs nowhere in the Bible nor is there a single passage that clearly or systematically teaches that God contains within Godself three distinct persons. If there were such passages, it would not have taken so many centuries to get this teaching nailed down.
Instead, the biblical presentation of the Trinity is more like a scattering of puzzle pieces that need to be collected from many and various parts of Scripture, laid out on a table, and then assembled by fitting piece to piece until the picture of God begins to emerge. Unlike a real jigsaw puzzle, however, there never was a picture on the puzzle box to guide the process. Few could have predicted just what picture would be visible once the pieces were put together.
So even though Q&A 25 sounds utterly confident (as though this is an easy thing for anyone to see in the Bible), we know there is a more tortured history behind this and that it is finally only by reliance on the Holy Spirit that we may discern this teaching at all.
Preaching on the Trinity has its difficulties. Because there is no single passage that lays this doctrine out in clear fashion, preaching on Lord’s Day 8 tempts one to become heavily doctrinal, theological, and even philosophical. Since sermons of that ilk are not typically among people’s favorites, perhaps we need to set out certain goals for a sermon on the Trinity.
Goal #1: Work to show the practical relevance of God’s existing in three Persons. Remind people that we have been created in the image of this God. And so if we are in some way to resemble a God who is within his own being a community of inter-related persons bound together by eternal love, what does this imply for what our lives should look like? No one of us contains a plurality of persons within him- or herself, but each of us has the opportunity to forge relationships within the community of the church, within our marriages, within our families, in our places of work. If we are to look like a God who is one while also being three, how well do we do in forming bonds of deep love and unity with the people around us? In our marriages, do we show that the two have become one flesh? In our church communities, do we show that the many parts of the body are still just one body? Just generally, do we exude a love that draws people in or do we exude other, less lovely characteristics that push people away?
Goal #2: Try to craft a sermon that tells a story. This is a deep doctrine, but try to find a way to wrap it up in a narrative form that will keep people’s attention. Some of this narrative form could tie in with Goal #1 above in terms of telling a story about a church community, a marriage, or some other fellowship of people that serves as an example of the many being one. The sermon could also narrate how the Trinity was involved in the creation of the world (the passage from John 1 could be used) and in also the story of the world’s redemption.
Goal #3: Use analogies that are visual, active, moving (and that avoid the common error of a Modalistic idea of God). Too often the Trinity is presented in ways that tend toward the (heretical) idea that God is just one Person who plays three different roles or who wears three different hats. It’s too easy to say, “What is God like? Well, think of it this way: I am the pastor of this church, the husband of my wife, and the father of my children. So there you have it: pastor, husband, father: three in one.” This is an easy analogy but wrong in that it is not radical enough to grasp the orthodox idea that within God there are three distinct persons. It may be that no analogy is perfect but we need to avoid analogies that get significant parts of this teaching quite simply wrong.
Some prefer the Social Analogy that can try to get at God’s essence by talking about identical triplets: three distinct persons and yet just one DNA code that they share. (This isn’t radical enough, either, since even triplets do not form one, single entity the way we believe Father, Son, and Holy Spirit form just one divine essence. But it does maintain the distinction of the persons in God).
The Eastern tradition of portraying what could be called “the divine choreography” of perichoresis is a moving, active image. Picturing the three persons in God as engaged in a never ending divine dance, constantly moving in and through one another around a circle of love can help enliven this in ways more static images (like the traditional Trinitarian triangle) may not do.
Extra Feature: “The Dawning of the Doctrine of the Trinity.” An essay by Calvin Theological Seminary President Neal Plantinga
New cars these days come equipped with on-board computers that make conventional electrical systems obsolete. A tune-up used to include the replacement of things like points, condensers, and distributor caps. At the end of the day you would get a little bag of all the dirty old parts and drive away secure in the thought of a number of shiny new parts happily pointing, condensing, distributing, and generally raising quite a shine under your hood.
All that is over now. Today you don’t get many parts back. You might get a computer printout instead. Somebody explains to you that your main on-board computer has gotten out of whack in some mystifying way. In controlling the engine’s electrical system, this device makes constant adjustments depending on the engine speed you want, the engine temperature, the outside temperature, and numerous other things. You don’t understand very much of this, but it doesn’t matter. What’s important to you is how your car runs.
That’s the way it is with life’s mysteries. Most of us live in blissful ignorance about on-board computers, laser scanners, the inner workings of the Tokyo stock exchange, and the real motives of major players in the Middle East peace process. Occasionally we wonder a little about them, but only on special occasions when trouble or vacation comes.
So it is with some of the main doctrines of the Christian faith. People do not understand the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance, but they are not worried about it. They can still pray. They can still recite the Apostles’ Creed, sing Trinitarian hymns, get baptized or blessed in the threefold name. They do not understand an absolutely central doctrine of the faith and they get along just fine.
But then trouble or vacation comes. A Jehovah’s Witness appears at your door and says some things about Jesus that do not sound right. A loved one gets hooked by a cult you have scarcely heard of, and forcefully rejects the whole idea of the triune God. Your seven-year-old looks up at you one night and asks, “Is Jesus the same as God?” You begin an answer and then pause: you want to say both yes and no. You feel as hamstrung as if your child had just asked you to explain the legal implications of a corporate merger.
Or you lie on your back some night in Canada’s Banff National Park. A chorus of wolves lifts up a mournful song, the Bow River gurgles, a wind comes mysteriously through the trees. You feel a little haunted. And your thoughts turn to God. You picture the One whose hospitality has made room in the universe for all these natural wonders. You picture the One whose imagination dreamed them up and whose cunning invented them. And it occurs to you that even creating the world may have been easier for God than redeeming it when it went wrong. In the beginning of time God got to start fresh. But redemption takes pains. In the middle of time the Son of God staggers along the Way of Sorrows, heart pounding and knees buckling under the weight of human evil. Meanwhile, at all times, the Spirit of God blows where it wills—blowing across the face of the deep, blowing at night through the conversations of Nicodemus, blowing new life into a teenager who had become a stranger, blowing through the trees of Banff.
Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Three persons and one God. Suddenly it occurs to you that you do not know how to picture this three-and-one. Who is this mysterious being? How many of him are there? Do you imagine a single transcendent person so versatile that he can create, redeem, and cleanse like a fresh wind? Can he do these things simultaneously? Just one person who, so to say, wears three hats or plays three roles? Or, alternatively, do you imagine a small transcendent committee, just three members, of perfect equality but voluntary division of labor? Or should you picture one of them as largely in charge, sending the others on various errands into the human wilderness, debriefing them on return and rewarding their success? Or is the whole project of trying to picture God in these ways just futile and maybe impious? Or what? You have begun to reflect on the doctrine of the Trinity. And you are not alone. For centuries Christians have reflected on the central mystery of the nature of God, searched the Scriptures, and brought forward the fruit of their search. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, says simply, “three distinct persons are one, true, eternal God” (A. 25).
There you are. Three distinct persons; one true God. That is the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It can be stated in six words, but these words hide both difficulties and riches.
TRINITY AND SCRIPTURE
God’s existence and power can be read from creation, Paul says in Romans 1. Not so for the doctrine of the Trinity. Here Scripture is our only source. But at once a little difficulty arises. The doctrine of the Trinity is not found in finished form anywhere in the Bible. As B. B. Warfield once said, it lies in Scripture only “in solution.” You need to do some distilling to get it out. True, one summary text is pretty explicit: “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (I Jn. 5:7, KJV). Unhappily, this verse comes not from John but from some later person who was probably frustrated by the lack of an explicit proof text for the Trinity and therefore generously undertook to write one himself. (More recent versions omit it.)
The actual root of the doctrine of the Trinity is the incarnation. Gradually on, the followers of Jesus come to see that he is not just another Moses or Elijah, impressive as those figures were. Astonished by his miracles, by the natural authority of his teaching, by his forgiveness of sins committed against others, by the massive impact of his life and death and especially of his resurrection, Jesus’ followers find themselves beginning to believe almost impossible things about him. Incredibly they finally feel driven to worship him (Heb. 1:6). And whom do you worship? Only one who is Lord, God, God-with-us.
Jesus himself speaks not only of God his Father and ours, but also of the mysterious Spirit, “another Counselor” whom Jesus will send from the Father (Jn. 14:16; 15:26). Then on the day of Pentecost, when the house is shaken and a power surge electrifies the apostles, Peter preaches a sermon that pulls together the names of God, Christ, and Holy Spirit in the middle of a call to baptism (Acts 2:38-39). This and such other texts as Matthew 28:19 (“baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”) suggest that baptism in the threefold name may have been among the earliest signs that believers were shifting to a new way of thinking about God.
Of course all good Jews believed in one God and regularly said so: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). This raised a problem for New Testament believers. On the one hand they found themselves accepting the Incarnation and Pentecost. On the other, they wished to remain monotheists. They believed that Jesus was truly divine and truly distinct from his Father. They also wanted to confess their belief in only one God.
How was this possible?
NEW TESTAMENT MONOTHEISM
The answer lies in two new understandings of the phrase “one God.” The first is found in I Corinthians 8:4-7:
We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, [even if there are] many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords,’ yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and through whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone knows this.
Here Paul rejects Greek polytheism: There are not many gods, but one God, the Father. There are not many lords, but one Lord, Jesus Christ.
But he also expands Jewish monotheism. For he echoes the “one God” confession of Deuteronomy, but then explicitly identifies this one God with the person called “Father” while adding a second focus of interest. There is but one God, the Father, and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ.
As Ernest Campbell once observed, the scandal in this claim has been lost to us. It has become familiar. But innocent Jews who heard it would have gasped. They had used “Lord” for the same person they called “God.” And they had not thought you could apply either title to a local carpenter. The first new understanding of “one God,” then, is that it describes the Father, especially when he is being distinguished from the “one Lord” who is Jesus Christ. Deuteronomy’s reference to the Lord our God has been split.
The second new understanding of the phrase “one God” is found in the endlessly rich chapters of the fourth gospel. “I and the Father are one,” says Jesus in 10:30. One what? One father? One person?
Neither one. Throughout John’s gospel, Father and Son (and, sometimes, Spirit) have one word (3:34; 14:26). They also have one will (10:18) and one work (5:19; 16:14). They further know, love, and glory in each other (10:15, 17; 16:14; 17:24). All this is summed up in the climactic seventeenth chapter where Jesus prays to the Father for those who will believe because of the witness of the disciples:
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you . . . that they may be one as we are one. (17:20-22)
How are Father and Son (and Paraclete) one? In word, and work, and will. In knowledge, love, and glory. Father and Son are one, but not one person. Our Lord’s analogy makes this clear. He prays for the church, that we may be one as he and the Father are one. And, of course, we are not one person. Our oneness is communal. What binds us together as one community is a pale reflection of the word, work, and will, the knowledge, love, and glory that fill the precincts of heaven.
The second new understanding of the phrase “one God” is thus social or communal. “One God” may mean “one holy Trinity.” Jesus prays that we the church may be one as God is one.
People sometimes imagine analogies of the Trinity. They say God is like ice, liquid, and steam–three forms of water. Or God is like one man who is a father, son, and free spirit. But in fact only one analogy is authorized by Scripture: the Trinity is like the church. As the church, though many members, is still only one church, so Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, though three persons, are only one God. ***
Possible Biblical Texts
I John 3:11-24: This may not seem like a very obvious text for a sermon on the Trinity since it is all about love. However, pay close attention to verses 21-24 in that they do narrate a Trinitarian story of the Father’s love for the Son and our love for one another in the Spirit God gives. The first illustration given below ties in with what could become a sermon from this particular passage.
John 1:1-14: This is a more common passage to reach for when talking about the Trinity in that it retrospectively reveals the (hidden) Trinitarian nature of the creation story as narrated in Genesis 1.
The Baptism Stories: Luke 3, Matthew 3, Mark 1: The story of Jesus’ baptism is often seen as a classic vignette of the Trinity. Again, nowhere in the Bible is this doctrine systematically laid out and yet there are passages like this one that imply a Trinitarian nature for God as the Son, Father, and Spirit are all somehow active in this single event.
In I John 3, the Apostle John says that love is “from the beginning.” Love was from the beginning because God was in the beginning. Love, in other words, has something to do with the very creation in which we live and of which we are a part. Creation itself sprang from the bubbling overflow of God’s love. Like a shaken-up bottle of champagne, so also God’s love within the Trinity was so effervescent, so richly pressured and full that sooner or later the cork had to explode out and when it did, a river of sparkling love gushed forth and sprayed everywhere.
Creation is that overflow of love. God wanted to share the life and the love he already had so exquisitely among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Greek theologians of the Trinity in the early church liked to talk about what they termed “perichoresis,” which is a Greek word meaning in essence the interpenetrating dance of love shared by the three persons in the Godhead. Whereas in the Western tradition of the church we have tended to depict the Trinity as a triangle, the Eastern church has always preferred a circle. The Trinity is like an ever-moving circle of dance in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit constantly and forever move in and through one another in perfect bliss, harmony, and self-forgetful joy. The three persons of God are so invested in one another, so interested in one another, so caring of one another that although three persons they form just one God. They’ve been serving each other from all eternity and finding holy joy in that loving co-service.
So it is no surprise that at some point those three persons decided that so great was this love, so focused was this love on the other, that they wanted an entire universe of others with whom to further share the love. God was under no compulsion to create anything. Yet it is just so like God to want to create, to want to share the love. God’s motivation to create the world is similar to what motivates us to invite as many friends as we can to the wedding of one of our children or to an anniversary celebration: we want to widen the circle of our own love and joy; we want to share the grand event with those who are close to us. Something very like that was what brought about creation in the first place: the love of God within the Trinity bubbled over in a desire to spread the joy around. “Let us create some more creatures so that we can then invite them to our holy party!”
In one of his many canny passages in The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis imagines the demon Screwtape writing the following to his nephew Wormwood, “God really does want to fill the universe with little replicas of himself. We want cattle who can finally become food; he wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, he wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; he is full and flows over. Our Father below [the Devil] has drawn all other beings into himself, [God] wants a world full of beings united to him but still distinct.” Here Lewis captures not just the essence of God and creation but of love versus hate: love always overflows and expands outward to include others. Love reaches out to others not to snuff their distinctiveness but to embrace them for who they are.
But hatred seeks to conquer, to eliminate differences until only a single master race of like individuals is all that remains. Hate seeks to eliminate the other so that the self can be all in all. Hate, John writes, makes you like Cain the murderer. Hate seeks to isolate itself for the sake of nursing of your own ego and, if necessary, hate will kill off others if that is what will create a private world in which you not only keep looking out for good old Number One but in which looking out for Number One is the main event.
In a sad irony, however, that hateful way of trying to “realize yourself” is self-defeating. The secret to life, John would say, is the love which gave birth to the universe in the first place. You see, in the Trinity of God each of the three persons does not think about himself but only and always about the other two. But because the other two are likewise invested in the other, that one’s needs are always taken care of. In the love of God within the Trinity, each of the three persons is all in all! By not looking out for Number One each of three ends up being Number One!
Q & A 26
Q. What do you believe when you say, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth”?
A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ the Son. I trust God so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he ends upon me in this sad world. God is able to do this because he is almighty God and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
The Heidelberg Catechism is an historical document that emerged from a very definite time and place. The themes and emphases of the Catechism reflect that time, as can be seen in Q&A 26. If we were writing a Catechism today, we would devote far more space to the theme of the physical creation. Some would highlight the doctrine of creation as a way to combat evolutionary theory. Others would highlight creation to demonstrate that it is consonant with whatever science unveils as to the nature and history of the cosmos. Still others would want to focus on the physical creation so as to promote stewardship of the environment—a kind of Christian ecology.
The sixteenth-century authors of the Catechism had no such interest in the physical creation and so pass over God’s having created all that exists very swiftly—the issues in their day were of a different nature. So the focus shifts very quickly from the fact of God’s having created everything to God’s providence (to which all of Lord’s Day 10 is devoted). But perhaps this is one of those times when contemporary concerns and issues should cause us preachers to linger a bit more over the nature of the physical creation than the Catechism itself does. Especially if a sermon is limited to Lord’s Day 9 (with yet another sermon still to come on Lord’s Day 10), then the L.D. 9 sermon can be the one that is more about creation itself, reserving themes related to providence for L.D. 10, where this doctrine will in any event be much more thoroughly explored.
However, pastorally there is an issue to be faced in both Lord’s Days 9 and 10. The Catechism is a pretty accurate reflection of the larger Calvinist tendency to so emphasize the sovereignty of God that even sad, tragic, and horrid events in life get chalked up as that which was directly delivered to us by the hand of God. “. . . whatever adversity he sends me . . .” is how Q&A 26 puts it. “. . . all things come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand” is how Q&A 27 puts it.
It should be noted that some people find this view comforting. Better to puzzle out how or why God might have sent some suffering your way than to live in a world where, as a matter of fact, bad things happen that God did not somehow control. But many others find such a view of God troubling at best. Sermons on Lord’s Days 9-10 need to be written with an awareness that these competing viewpoints are present in the congregation and should strive, therefore, to strike some kind of a pastoral balance in confronting the role of God in our suffering. As noted above, some of this could be reserved for a sermon on L.D. 10, but in whatever form the Catechism gets engaged on the question of God’s relationship to this world’s sorrows, due attention must be paid to the raw emotions that can swirl around this.
Finally, a pastoral note can and must be sounded for those in a given congregation who find the image of “Father” difficult to relate to due to an abusive relationship with an earthly father. This presents a peculiar challenge to preachers. On the one hand, strong and compelling defenses have been written about the idea that it’s not up to us to re-name God or do an end-run around how God has chosen to reveal Godself to us in the Word. We can no more choose to call God something else than we can decide to change the name of a coworker or friend. On the other hand, how can we reach out to the person who recoils from all things having to do with the fatherhood he/she experienced in life?
At minimum it can and must be pointed out that God as Father is the precise opposite of what some have experienced and that if earthly fathers (and for that matter also earthly mothers) everywhere took their cues from God in terms of the nature of true parenthood, there would be no abusive relationships in families. Whatever it means to call God “Father,” it is redolent of good things, loving things, wonderful things. No preacher can solve this conundrum in a single sermon. However, even a brief acknowledgment that the pastor is aware of some people’s struggle in this regard may promote a measure of healing or at least lead some people to lower their defenses by becoming aware that the pastor is not blithely employing the Father image for God without being aware of the pain it can cause some in the congregation.
Possible Biblical Texts
Ephesians 1:1-18: This passage is lyric in its presentation of “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It can be used to highlight the nature of God our Father while also bringing in the theme of the physical creation that this strong Father fashioned by his almighty power. Also present in this text are themes related to the election of God and of God’s ongoing providential care for us, thus also making this a good text to accompany Lord’s Day 9.
Romans 8:12-17 and/or I John 2:24-3:3: These two passages speak lovingly of our status as children of the heavenly Father. If the Holy Spirit is in us, we know that we are God’s children and so can cry out to him “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15) and also know that as the Father is, so shall we be (I John 3:2). If it is indeed true that Jesus is the Son who is his Father all over again—indeed, the express image of God par excellence—then we know that as we gain conformity to Christ Jesus, we also will look more and more like our dear Father in heaven!
Matthew 7:7-12: This brief passage gets at the assurance and comfort in Lord’s Day 9. Of course, as noted above, some may object to the idea that no earthly father would ever give a stone when bread was asked for—as a matter of fact, some people in the congregation did have fathers who gave them stones and scorpions in life. So if this passage is preached on, it could be an opportunity to say, “Even if your earthly father or mother neglected you, your heavenly Father, your divine Parent, never will!”
Illustration #1: Some years ago there was a hit show on TV called The Apprentice The premise of the series was simple: out of an original sixteen applicants, only one would emerge on top and be given a one-year apprenticeship as the head of one of billionaire Donald Trump’s many companies. The one-year stint will come with a quarter-of-a-million dollar salary and the possibility that the job could become permanent. Unsurprisingly, 200,000 people applied to become one of those sixteen finalists and as many as 18 million viewers watched each week transfixed as the applicants were given a variety of business tasks designed to test their acumen. But each week someone failed to meet Trump’s standards and so would be ushered out of the mahogany-paneled boardroom with Trump’s ringing words “You’re fired!” echoing in their minds.
Newsweek once ran a cover story on Donald Trump. A sidebar article lists Trump’s seven rules for success in business, the fifth one of which is on display in The Apprentice. Rule #5 is stated this way: “I love pitting people against each other. My whole life is based on that. It brings out the best and the worst in people. If the worst comes out, you don’t want them working for you.” Now there is a concept worthy of some sober reflection: what does it mean to base one’s entire life on fostering conflict in the lives of others? Whatever else it means, it points to the real engine that drives a show like The Apprentice: namely, Donald Trump is the powerful, wealthy owner of what people want but to tap that resource, to get a piece of that kind of power, you have to assert yourself, put your best foot forward, and mix it up in whatever arena of conflict The Donald tosses you into. The best things in life are not only not free, you have to claw to get at them at all.
It may be possible, I suppose, to construct a scenario that would be more at odds with the gospel than that one, but I doubt it! Indeed, that way of looking at life provides a foil to what we read about in Lord’s Day 9 of the Catechism. Most of what people want in life, and a good deal of how they try to get it, is the opposite of what makes the gospel good news.
The Catechism gives us a kind of inverted pyramid that moves from the very big down to the very small. Q&A 26 begins by getting quite literally cosmic, sketching for us the all-powerful Creator God who fashioned absolutely everything that exists and who right this very moment is also sustaining everything. In other words, this is one big God! It has been only in recent times that we have begun to grasp how unfathomably gigantic the known physical universe is. The Milky Way galaxy that we call home contains a billion stars, many of which are far grander than our own sun. But now we think that in addition to the Milky Way, there may be another billion galaxies out there, each of which likely is home to a billion or so stars. In Genesis 1 we are told, in a casual example of dramatic understatement, “He made the stars also.” No sweat, Genesis 1 is saying. By the way, God made the stars, too. But if there is something like 1 quintillion (or 1018) stars out there among all those galaxies, then God’s ability to whip up all those nuclear furnaces with a mere snap of his fingers starts to look beyond impressive. In fact, we can hardly take it in.
That’s where Lord’s Day 9 starts: with the broadest possible view of the cosmos. But before this question and answer is finished, we narrow down from the galaxies to just you, to just me. Compared to the intricate vastness of time and space, any one of us looks insignificant. We are dwarfed by the immensity of the universe. And, of course, not a few people have said that nothing so swiftly disproves the idea that humanity matters as a simple glance through the lens of a telescope. Take a good long look outward, and when you then return your gaze inward to yourself, you will know for sure how small you are. You don’t count. How could you? In the midst of all that, human beings are a universal footnote.
The Catechism will have none of that, however. Instead we move here from the biggest possible vantage point to the smallest in order to conclude that the God who made and maintains that galactic array of life is my Father. And if he is my Father, then that means he not only knows that I exist, he knows my name, he knows my life, he knows my heart, and he cares. He loves me. That’s my Dad!
Illustration #2: William Sloane Coffin once noted that when we think about Jesus’ call to receive the kingdom like children, we often think only about the natural humility of kids. But, Coffin said, we should not underestimate the sweet idealism of children. It’s children, after all, who want to save the seals, save the whales, and save everybody else while they’re at it. It’s kids who set up lemonade stands and sell cookies so they can then turn their nickels and dimes over to this or that relief agency. It’s children who take home the little church-shaped piggy banks, fill them with copper coins, and then bring them back to the minister, really believing that those pennies will help make a new addition to the church a reality. It’s children who have a neighborhood walk around their school, holding up homemade signs calling for racial reconciliation and really believing that they are making a difference by taking to the sidewalk that way. And, of course, we encourage this in children. We buy the lemonade, compliment the delicious cookies, and stick our loose change into empty coffee cans. But then the day comes when we start to discourage in older children the very idealism we encourage in children below a certain age. Why do we do that? Would Jesus think that’s a good way to make a Christian child grow up?
Christian people who live in Christ know that everything we ever needed has been lavished on us freely and completely by our Father in heaven. We know and believe that since we live in that sphere of influence that is Christ Jesus, it is precisely simple acts of trust, quiet acts of kindness, a gentleness of spirit, and a willingness to witness to the gospel that can make all the difference in the world. The powerful of this world might regard all that Christian stuff as the equivalent of pennies donated at a child’s lemonade stand–but what good are pennies in a world where it takes millions to get much done? As a Christian I can but reply, “If only you knew my Father! He is so very strong, and does he ever know how to get things done! I trust him for everything and so I know I can’t go wrong when I follow my Father’s way of grace. One day, that grace will change the world. Actually, it already has.”
Q & A 27
Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?
A. The almighty and ever present power of God by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
Q & A 28
Q. How does the knowledge of God’s creation and providence help us?
A. We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing in creation will separate us from his love. For all creatures are so completely in God’s hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
As noted in our remarks on also Lord’s Day 9, pastorally there is an issue to be faced in Lord’s Day 10. The Catechism is a pretty accurate reflection of the larger Calvinist tendency to so emphasize the sovereignty of God that even sad, tragic, and horrid events in life get chalked up as that which was directly delivered to us by the hand of God. “. . . whatever adversity he sends me . . .” is how Q&A 26 puts it. “. . . all things come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand” is how Q&A 27 puts it.
It should be noted that some people find this view comforting. Better to puzzle out how or why God might have sent some suffering your way than to live in a world where, as a matter of fact, bad things happen that God did not somehow control. But many others find such a view of God troubling at best. Sermons on Lord’s Days 9-10 need to be written with an awareness that these competing viewpoints are present in the congregation and should strive, therefore, to strike some kind of a pastoral balance in confronting the role of God in our suffering. In whatever form we engage on the question of God’s relationship to this world’s sorrows, due attention must be paid to the raw emotions that can swirl around this.
Dealing with providence can tempt the preacher to traffic in certain areas of philosophical theology, especially that part of philosophical theology known as “theodicy,” justifying the ways of God in a fallen world where pretty terrible things happen on a regular basis. In one sense, certain areas of theodicy theology can be fruitfully mined and utilized in a sermon. Some of the work of a philosopher like Alvin Plantinga can be very helpful in trying to search out the possible explanations for why bad things happen to good people (indeed, to God’s people). (See Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil for a good summary of what has become his classic defense of God’s existence in the face of the evils that befall us in this world.)
However, because we are dealing with sermons to people already acquainted with sorrow and burdened with grief, philosophy alone can’t have the last word. Yes, we can summarize scenarios by which to try to explain God’s role in our suffering. But in the end we still face the pastoral question to which there is usually no good, final, tidy answer, “Pastor, I can understand why in general bad things can happen in a world still superintended by God, but why did this particular and specific bad thing happen to me?”
In other words, we cannot let any particular framework for understanding God’s providence to run roughshod over the particulars of people’s suffering in life. The bottom line of the lyric words in Q&A 28 is that even when the worst happens in life—even on a dark day long ago when no less than God’s own Son was murdered as a criminal—we can know that somehow God remains in control. We can (and we must) find our way through the Catechism’s blanket statements that make God the active cause of all that happens—including bad things, therefore—but in the end we must retain the confidence that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
Possible Biblical Texts
Romans 8:28-39: Since a portion of these verses is directly quoted in Q&A 28, it makes sense to turn here. Unlike the Catechism, which attributes “drought, sickness, lean years, poverty” to the direct deliverances of God’s fatherly hand, Romans 8 claims that in all things God works for our good without commenting on the origin or source of a given life circumstance. What cannot be missed, however, is Romans 8’s clear message that although believers in Christ Jesus the Lord may not be spared “trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, or sword,” those things cannot detach us from God’s loving care.
Psalm 42: Another option for a sermon on providence would be the psalms of lament that talk about God’s perceived absence during times of crisis. As many commentators have pointed out, the marvelous feature to note in most all psalms of lament is the fact that complaints about God’s distance and absence are addressed nevertheless to God! There is something about that combination of talking to the very God whom you feel has abandoned you that captures the essence of our belief in providence come what may. Pastorally, there may be something comforting about addressing providence from within the context of suffering—many people in the congregation could probably relate to this in the throes of their own suffering.
Genesis 50:15-21: A sermon on this concluding vignette of the Joseph Cycle of stories in Genesis could be the occasion for a retrospective summary of the larger story of Joseph. If ever there were a biblical character with his share of ups and downs in life, Joseph is it. Joseph’s final remarks can be construed to bolster the idea that God is personally and actively behind even the woeful things that happen to us in life. But it can also be viewed as an example of God’s almighty and never-ending cleverness at being able to stick with us even when ill-intentioned people do their level best to harm us and work us woe.
Frederick Buechner once whimsically defined theology by way of an analogy. Theology is the study of God and his ways. But for all we know perhaps beetles study humanity and its ways and call their observations “humanology.” If so, we would probably be more touched than irritated by this beetle-size attempt to grasp us. One hopes, Buechner concludes, that God feels the same way about our attempts to grasp him!
Indeed, in the grand scheme of things, our attempts to understand the greatness and grandeur of God are puny compared to the subject matter at hand. We would never even be able to make a start in knowing God were it not for the fact that God himself took the initiative to reveal himself to us. Still, taking what we know, we do our best to say meaningful (and we hope mostly true) things about the One who is properly our Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end, and our everything in between, too.
Within the larger scope of this theological enterprise, perhaps no area of study is quite as difficult as matters related to providence. And indeed, the providence of God has been generating a lot of heat in evangelical circles the past ten years or so. For the most part evangelicals have tended to hew quite closely to some version of John Calvin’s thinking on the sovereignty of God and the exercise of divine providence. Calvin had a huge doctrine of God’s sovereignty, very nearly insisting that everything that happens in the universe (including just possibly even bad things) must ultimately be traced back to the divine will. Elements of Calvin’s thought persist even among those who would otherwise claim their theology has nothing to do with John Calvin. But echoes of Calvin can be heard every time someone says, “God has a plan for your life.” These big thoughts on providence can be detected whenever someone responds to a tragic death by saying something like, “I’m sure God had a reason for taking her life” or “God must have needed that little one in heaven more than we did here on earth.”
But not everyone is comfortable with the notion that everything, even the ugly, stems directly from God’s plan. So some evangelical thinkers have recently begun developing a theology called “free-will theism” or “the openness of God.” I won’t go into all the details of this except to say that this new theology tries to steer a middle course between staunch Calvinist-types who say that God controls just about everything and the other extreme of process theology that sometimes comes close to saying that God controls very little.
Process theology claims that God travels with us through time. God does not really know the future because although God knows everything that is real, the future does not yet exist, and so even God can’t know it. Instead God is a fellow traveler, knowing everything that happens as it happens but not really controlling all events. God weeps when we weep, rejoices when we rejoice, and is ever and always available to us no matter what. God’s love is constant, his compassion is forever, but God is not simply executing some pre-determined plan, as though the entire cosmic story–including every last jot and tittle of your life and my life–were some pre-written script that both God and we can do no more than follow.
Whether or not you agree with that, it’s not difficult to see where such retro-fitted notions of providence come from: these thoughts emerge from the tragedies of life. It is in many ways the classic “problem of evil” wherein we must reconcile a God who is utterly in charge of the universe with a universe that contains any number of sad, bad, and evil things–things we do not want to associate too snugly with God.
Q & A 29
Q. Why is the Son of God called “Jesus,” meaning “savior”?
A. Because he saves us from our sins, and because salvation should not be sought and cannot be found in anyone else.
Q & A 30
Q. Do those who look for their salvation in saints, in themselves, or elsewhere really believe in the only savior Jesus?
A. No. Although they boast of being his, by their actions they deny the only savior, Jesus.
Either Jesus is not a perfect savior, or those who in true faith accept this savior have in him all they need for their salvation.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Obviously the Catechism authors were grinding a certain sixteenth-century axe in Lord’s Day 11 when they talked about those who look for salvation “in saints.” Salvation alone through Christ alone—justification by grace—was what has often been called “the hinge of the Reformation.” Ever since, there have been long (and often fruitful) discussions between Protestants and Catholics on the role played by saints, about prayer, and about how a person is finally justified before God.
A sermon on Lord’s Day 11 could talk about such issues related to the Roman Catholic Church but perhaps it would be far more relevant to bring this up to date in a 21st century context. Because today—perhaps more than has been true for a long time in history—there are many questions about Jesus and about whether or not he is the only way to salvation. Are there perhaps many roads, many paths that all lead to God? This is a common question today, particularly among postmodern people who resist dogmatic statements and positions.
Along these lines, there are many variations. Lots of people take the cafeteria approach to religion: they freely pick and choose, borrowing from various traditions. Some take a dab of Judaism, a smattering of Hinduism, and a decent dose of Jesus and they put it into their blenders to whip up a frappe of spiritual froth. In this environment, few things are as offensive as the idea that there is just one way, one Savior.
This makes Lord’s Day 11 something of a counter-cultural statement, of course. But in Q&A 30 we touch on a central reason, biblically and theologically, why the Christian tradition has long insisted that Jesus is the only way: it has to do principally with his death on the cross. When Q&A 30 refers to Jesus as “a perfect Savior,” it is alluding to the fact that Jesus went all the way to death (to hell) to save us. In the tradition of the Church, we’ve always said that the only possible reason why the divine Son of God would have to go to these hellish lengths is because there was no other way to bridge the chasm that sin yawned open between God and humanity.
In other words, one cannot look at what the gospels claim Jesus did “for us and for our salvation” and yet conclude, “But there may be other legitimate ways to extricate ourselves from this sinful mess that have nothing to do with Jesus. Maybe the cross ’works’ for some people but other people can find alternative solutions.”
But perhaps a sermon on Lord’s Day 11 can bring this closer to home by focusing not only on obvious examples of syncretism and religious muddle “out there” in the wider world but also by reminding the congregation that all of us at times are tempted to add something to the work of Jesus. Sometimes we regard even our own spirituality, our own moral strivings, as having something to do with how and why we are saved.
This crops up whenever we make the point of comparison between ourselves and others not the fact that we have been engulfed by a grace that makes us “crucified with Christ” but instead the fact that we live better lives in the first place. But claiming Jesus as our only Savior has to mean that we regard everything else that we do as Christians as gravy, as on outflowing of the grace given to us in Jesus alone. Living a moral life is the right thing to do, but it’s the fruit of Jesus’ work on our behalf, not the root of that work or of the salvation we now have. Intellectually most Christian people know this. But still we look to ourselves without meaning to, quietly assuming that at least part of why God loves us is because we are so loveable in the first place!
Possible Biblical Texts
Colossians 1:15-23: Colossians 1 shows us the gospel’s huge claims for Jesus in the boldest, most fantastic terms. Paul could not be more exuberant. In the original Greek, this passage contains exactly two sentences, the first of which contains a whopping 112 words and runs all the way from verse 15 to verse 20. Some actually think that sentence began back in verse 9, and if that is so, then the whole thing has 218 words spanning eleven verses. Then verses 21-23 constitute just one more Greek sentence of about an additional 70 words. This is breathless prose! Paul in Colossians 1 is riding the crest of a most amazing wave of enthusiasm. But just what is it that excites Paul’s passion here? It is Jesus. It is Jesus as the Christ of God. And the things Paul says about this person are nothing short of startling, scandalous even. Paul’s claims here are so sweeping that there is absolutely no choice: you have to conclude that either this is the most sublime truth in the world or it is the most insane blather any person ever put down on paper anytime, anywhere. There really is no middle ground.
Acts 2:14-41: Peter’s amazing Pentecost Day sermon is arresting for lots of reasons, not the least of which is how Peter connects the cosmic dots so as to proclaim Jesus as the Savior of the world. The very carpenter-turned-rabbi from Nazareth whom the authorities had recently killed turns out to be the Chosen Christ of God. He is both “Lord and Christ” according to Peter, and the claim is so startling, many in the crowd concluded it just had to be true. “What shall we do?” they cried. Peter tells them there’s just one thing to do: fall in line behind this Jesus and get baptized in his Holy Name!
At times Jesus seems everywhere these days—artist’s renderings of his face routinely appear on the covers of national magazines, cable news shows frequently have discussions about religious faith and about the identity of Jesus in particular, etc . But if you had been living in the first century A.D., just think of how you might have been affected by the claims of the early church. After all, imagine yourself being alive long about 55 A.D. in the region of Colosse at the time when the Apostle Paul was writing his now-famous New Testament epistles. If at that time you had been about thirty or forty years old, then Paul was talking about someone who had been alive at the same time you had been–in other words, this would have been recent history. At the time Paul did most of his writing, Jesus’ birth was still as relatively recent then as someone today who had been born in 1950.
So just imagine, tough though it is to do, that in the year 2005 I talk to you about someone named Floyd who had been born in 1950, who had grown up in Fargo, North Dakota, during the Eisenhower years. Floyd had come of age in the Vietnam War era and had started a family right about the same time the Watergate scandal broke. Let’s say Floyd had been a construction worker but he had a midlife change-of-career long about the same time Reagan was elected, leaving construction behind to open up an innercity soup kitchen and Christian homeless shelter. In other words, imagine I am talking to you about Floyd: a seemingly ordinary Midwesterner who was your twentieth century contemporary.
And then imagine that I tell you that that man, Floyd from Fargo, is the cosmic center-point. Everything that exists in every far-flung corner of the universe can trace its origin back to Floyd. Every truth that exists comes together in the heart of this construction worker turned urban evangelist. Suppose I tell you that the past, the present, and most certainly the future of the world is in that man’s hands, and that when the cosmic day is done and history’s curtain rings down, it will be this man from Fargo before whom every person and every creature will bow the knee in eternal devotion and worship.
Do you get it? A blue collar fellow from Fargo who quixotically ended his career ministering to society’s disenfranchised is held up as The One in whom, through whom, by whom everything exists, everything has been salvaged, and everything will endure. Surely you would deem such claims astounding.
Q & A 31
Q. Why is he called “Christ,” meaning “anointed”?
A. Because he has been ordained by God the Father and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief prophet and teacher who fully reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our deliverance; our only high priest who has delivered us by the one sacrifice of his body, and who continually pleads our cause with the Father; and our eternal king who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who guards us and keeps us in the freedom he has won for us.
Q & A 32
Q. But why are you called a Christian?
A. Because by faith I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing. I am anointed to confess his name, to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks, to strive with a free conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for eternity.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
The term “Christ” seems to be the most misunderstood part of the larger way by which we refer to Jesus. Lots of people seem to think that “Jesus Christ” is similar to “John Smith” wherein “Christ” is Jesus’ last name or something. We forget sometimes that “Christ” is first of all a title. Saying “Christ Jesus” is like saying “President Bush” or “Justice Souter.” “Christ” is a title meaning “anointed” and is the Greek version of the Hebrew “messiah.” In the ancient world, to be anointed was what today we might describe as ordained, set aside for a specific task. An anointing was like an inauguration, a swearing in, or a commissioning in which someone is vested with a certain amount of authority to carry out some very specific assignments.
In the case of Jesus as God’s anointed Christ, the traditional triple designation that goes along with this are the duties associated with the offices of prophet, priest, and king. All three of those offices were the ones that required an anointing in ancient Israel. But back then a given person was either a prophet or a priest or a king, but no one was ever all three. Similarly in our own governmental structure, no one person may be the president, a Supreme Court justice, and a senator all at the same time. But because Jesus is God’s own Son, the Christian tradition claims that in Christ all three anointed offices combine perfectly.
And so Jesus is anointed as prophet. A prophet is a teacher and so Jesus is the perfect instructor to teach us about God’s nature, purpose, and truth. Jesus is anointed as priest. A priest is like a go-between who brings God and people back together. In Israel the priest did that by sacrificing animals to symbolize that forgiveness is always costly. But as priest, Jesus does something more marvelous than offer sacrifices outside of himself: Jesus is the sacrifice. And because he laid down himself, we know that our sins will always be forgiven. And finally Jesus is anointed as king. A king is the one who guides his people, sets policy for how life should go, protects the people, and secures true freedom, a space where joy can happen. In short, with Jesus as prophet, priest, and king, we have all that we need to be saved and to live joyfully.
But before Lord’s Day 12 is finished, we are told a stunning thing: we now have been anointed, too. By way of extension, all the features of Jesus as Christ apply to our lives. We become mini-Christs, which is what the word Christian means in the first place. So we are mini-prophets who likewise teach the truth of the gospel. We are mini-priests who live sacrificially for the benefit of our neighbors. We are mini-kings who try to expand the borders of the kingdom already in this world.
Another thing we may not associate very readily with the term “Christ” is the tremendous pastoral comfort we can derive from this. As titles go, being God’s Messiah/Christ sounds pretty lofty. But notice how the Catechism brings this all home in very personal and warm ways. Jesus has “set us free” and what’s more, he “continually pleads our case with the Father.” In short, we’ve got the right man on our side (to borrow some language from the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”). We’re also told that in the kingly dimension of his Christhood, Jesus “guards and keeps us in the freedom he won for us.”
Similarly, our now being mini-Christs assures us, among other things, that when all our work and striving and persevering is finished, we will reign with Christ for all eternity. Again, this is a significant pastoral comfort that should not be missed.
Tragically, doesn’t this aspect of the title of “Christ” make it all the more profane, blasphemous, and finally downright sad to hear the word “Christ” being used as a kind of swear word—an expletive of anger and frustration?
Possible Biblical Texts
I Corinthians 12: This passage highlights nicely the idea that we now share Jesus’ anointing (Q&A 32) by discussing the evidences of our anointing in the form of various gifts of the Holy Spirit. Even as Jesus being the Christ of God meant not just one thing but as a matter of fact an array of things (prophet, priest, and king), so also when we share Christ’s anointing it will lead to a variety of tasks and gifts in the Body of Christ. Jesus may be a kind of all-in-one combination of traits, but for the rest of us, the tasks get parceled out among the wider membership of the Church
Mark 1:1-13: Clearly the baptism story of Jesus (which could be drawn out of the other gospels as well) shows Jesus’ earthly moment of anointing. We need not go in the direction of adoptionistic Christologies that claim this was the moment when Jesus became God’s Son in ways he had not been before but still we can spy here a definite anointing of the Spirit that formally launches the public phase of Jesus’ ministry. Another intriguing aspect of this story (see illustration ideas below) is the swift pivot in Mark between Jesus’ being declared the divine Son and his being hurled out into the wilderness where Jesus faced wild animals and all else that is chaotic about a fallen creation. This says a lot about what it means to be God’s Christ (your very purpose is to dive into difficult situations) as well as, by extension, what it means for us to share this anointing today.
Illustration Idea #1: For those of us who grew up in the church, hearing about Jesus as Prophet, Priest, and King has become so commonplace we scarcely bat an eye when the Catechism describes Jesus in these terms. But if you had not been marinated in such language your whole life, then surely these words would strike you as odd and arcane.
After all these days prophets are loopy folks wearing sandwich boards proclaiming “The End is Near” or they are cult leaders with bad hair and wild eyes out on the Texas prairie, leading a group of naive disciples to their doom. These days priests are not associated with sacrifices that can bring us to God. Instead many priests are unmarried men in funny shirts who work for a pope who still excludes women from the club. And kings are blue-bloods in England the likes of whom we don’t want in our country. Indeed, we fought an entire war to get rid of a monarchy and then designed a system of checks and balances because we do not want an imperial presidency, we do not want a king!
So calling Jesus Prophet, Priest, and King today either fails to connect or it connects in wrong ways. So this morning we need to recover the true meaning of these important titles–recover them not only for our own sakes but also for the sake of being better able to explain who Jesus is and why we love him so much as to gather in worship before him every Sunday.
Illustration Idea #2 (for a sermon based on Mark 1): In Mark 1, no sooner does God express his love for Jesus and suddenly the Spirit pitches Jesus headfirst into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. That hardly seems like a very loving thing for God to do! God no sooner declares ardent love for Jesus and he slaps Jesus into the wilderness, into the realm of death and evil. Why? Very simply: because such an engagement with evil is precisely what Jesus’ baptism was all about. God did not send his beloved Son into our world just to be nice. Despite all the Jesus Seminar blather that is so much in vogue today, God did not go through the trouble of becoming a true human being just to spout memorable little platitudes destined to be cross-stitched onto wall hangings.
No, God was in Christ to reconcile the world to himself and for that very reason task number one was to engage the evil that holds our world captive. That’s why there are those hints of violent activity in these few verses. We already mentioned how Jesus saw the heavens being violently ripped open. But then in verse 12, although the NIV translates it merely as the Spirit “sent” Jesus out into the desert, the Greek verb there actually carries with it the notion of being “thrown out.” The Spirit descends like a gentle dove but suddenly transmogrifies into a kind of hawk who picks Jesus up in his talons and brutally hurls him out into the realm of the devil himself!
Clearly something cosmic is afoot. However, having said that, it needs to be admitted that Mark’s text then seems to sputter a bit. Unlike Matthew and Luke who give us a lot of details on what went on between Jesus and Satan, Mark sums the whole thing up in just one verse, telling us Jesus was tempted for forty days, he was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. We’re not even told how Jesus fared in his temptations! Did he resist or give in? Mark doesn’t say.
Or at least he doesn’t say in so many words. But if you pay attention, there are a couple of hints how things turned out. One hint is obvious: the angels were with Jesus. That probably indicates things turned out well. But the other hint is Mark’s reference to the “wild animals.” It’s an odd detail to throw in. But think about it: when was the last time in the Bible you had one man alone among the animals? It was Adam. The first man lived in harmony with the animals of the Garden of Eden, calling them to his side, naming them. Of course, that was before sin arrived on the scene. Ever since then the lamb and lion and the lion and the human have not been known to curl up together for afternoon siestas. We don’t go out for a stroll among the wild animals on the savannahs of Africa because we’ve all seen those National Geographic specials that feature gazelles being ripped to bloody shreds and we’d just as soon not end up being lunch for a lion or a hyena.
But Mark doesn’t show Jesus fleeing the wild animals. Instead there is a hint here of Jesus’ living harmoniously with the fierce critters of the desert. If it reminds you of Adam in Eden, that is precisely Mark’s intention. By taking on the powers of evil, Jesus has begun life again for us all. Jesus is the Second Adam, doing it all over again but this time doing it right in order to set this cosmos back on the course God set for it in the beginning. Jesus goes out into as wild and chaotic a place as exists but instead of being consumed by it, he changes it into an oasis of shalom!
William Willimon recently noted that people in history, and certainly today, have been unceasing in their attempts to cut Jesus down to a more manageable size. We want to domesticate Jesus, tearing the claws off the Lion of Judah to make him a more cozy household tabby; wiping the blood off the Lamb of God to make him a more adorable little sheep like the nursery rhyme one whose fleece was white as snow and who followed Mary to school one day–a cute lamb instead of a bloody one that reminds us of our sins. But the more we try to tame Jesus, the less he is able to tame the wild animals or anything else in this wild and wooly world. No, what we need is God’s own Anointed Prophet, Priest, and King. What we need is the Prophet who knows God so well he’ll always teach us right, the Priest who can sacrifice himself for us yet still emerge the resurrected Victor, and the King who has our best interests at heart in the freedom of God’s eternal kingdom. That’s the One we need. That’s the One God sent.
Q & A 33
Q. Why is he called God’s “only begotten Son” when we also are God’s children?
A. Because Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God. We, however, are adopted children of God— adopted by grace through Christ.
Q & A 34
Q. Why do you call him “our Lord”?
A. Because— not with gold or silver, but with his precious blood—he has set us free from sin and from the tyranny of the devil, and has bought us, body and soul, to be his very own.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
For the postmodern age, but in a sense perhaps for most any age, Lord’s Day 13 presents a concept that can be quite unpopular: namely, the idea that we are owned by a Lord, a Master, a Boss who can call the shots because we are his, body and soul. In a day when people fancy themselves as self-made and rugged individualists, few concepts run as against the grain as this one. In free and democratic societies, few ideas run against the grain more than do hierarchical notions that there are some to whom we owe fealty and allegiance in that they own us.
The Catechism authors, however, don’t stop to engage in any counter-questions a person may raise regarding the idea of Jesus as Lord. Instead they recognize that it’s good to belong to Jesus because the alternative was belonging to the devil. The idea that anyone is free and autonomous is not one the Bible seems to take seriously. Instead across Scripture—and hence across the sweep of Christian theology—is the tacit assumption that we are all in one form of thrall or another. We live either under “they tyranny of the devil” or we live under the gracious rule of the one who loved us enough to die for us. Everybody serves some master or another.
A key line in Q&A 34 is “with his precious blood.” The way Jesus becomes a person’s Lord is not through some violent takeover nor from some cold legal or fiscal transaction. We are not bought and sold coldly like slaves on an auction block. We came under the sway of our Lord Jesus because of history’s supreme act of loving sacrifice: the death of Jesus on the cross. Emphasizing the loving nature of Jesus as Lord may be a way to present the concept of Lordship to people unaccustomed to thinking in such terms.
Possible Biblical Texts
Revelation 1:1-8: This passage highlights the boldness of the early church’s proclamation of Jesus as Lord. For the Apostle John to be able to see and report on the glorious reality of Jesus as Lord—and to do all that even while suffering under the indictment of the Caesar—presents a remarkable witness. John’s every word in Revelation gave the lie to the notion that the Caesar mattered in the broad scheme of things.
Colossians 1:15-23: Paul is here at his breathtaking grandest! Most of this passage is (in the original Greek) one giant run-on sentence as Paul heaps up subordinating clause after subordinating clause in an exuberant rush to convey the cosmic scope of Jesus’ work and what it means. Seldom in the New Testament are the claims and implications for Jesus’ Lordship quite this large and plain and unmistakable to see.
Illustration Idea #1: The New Testament boldly declares that “Jesus is Lord” and by virtue of that, he is also “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” But if Jesus was the Caesar’s Caesar, then that changed everything. The Caesar was, by his own decree, Deus et Dominus, God and Lord, of the world. When the Caesar spoke, the world listened. When the Caesar said, “Jump,” the world asked “How high?” And so if the Caesar got annoyed by gospel-preaching apostles, then with a stroke of the Caesar’s quill that man was gone, out of there, disappeared. Yet those same apostles continued to find the pluck to say, “Jesus is Lord!”
It was the early church’s simplest, yet most profound of creeds. Jesus Is Lord! Impossibly, that small band of former fishermen, erstwhile tax collectors, woebegone Jewish peasants, and former prostitutes ran around the Mediterranean Basin declaring this scandalous message. Pious Jews heard the message “Jesus Is Lord” and they gasped at the heresy of it. Loyal Romans heard it and they were angered by the treason of it. If Jesus is Lord, then Jesus was the same as Yahweh, but how could that be? That’s heresy! If Jesus is Lord, then the Caesar was demoted a notch in the grander scheme of things, but how could that be? That’s treason! All over the then-known world, jaws dropped clear to the ground at the idea that some simple Jewish carpenter’s son from some hick, redneck town in the backwaters of Galilee had become so cosmically significant as to trump all claims or titles to the contrary. (Note: Some of this illustration was derived from a sermon by Neal Plantinga).
Illustration Idea #2: Why did Paul and other New Testament writers seem to find happiness in the idea of being owned by Somebody? Because Paul knew what people today too often forget: every human being is a slave. We all serve someone or something and there is no getting around it. So for Paul the question was not, “Do you have a master?” but rather, “Who is your master?” We have within us what John Calvin called the seed of religion, or maybe better said, the seed of religiousness. We have a hankering to worship, to serve, to be devoted to something with a fervor that is properly described as religious. So the question becomes, “Who is your lord?”
Of course, if you asked that question, lots of people would say they have no lord, no master to whom they are answerable. But it’s not true. Look how furiously some people pursue pleasure. Whether it’s the pleasure found in sexuality, the pleasure found in having a top-notch home theater system, the pleasure found in eating delicious food, or the pleasure of having a heavy-duty off-road experience as you take your Land Rover out for a spin, many people orient their lives around securing the tools needed to have fun. As a song that was popular when I was in college put it, “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” Pleasure can be a lord, and for many it is the lord around whom their lives are oriented.
Everybody serves somebody. The only difference is in the nature of the lord who holds you in slavery. Outside of Jesus, you will all-but inevitably be a slave of sinful desires–goals and dreams that Paul claims lead only to death. There is nothing you can desire in this world that can prevent you from dying. Whether your life’s ambition is money, fame, success, a certain kind of house or car, travel, or whatever, even if you get what you aim for, it cannot do you any lasting good. It’s a dead end because life is a dead end.
Q & A 35
Q. What does it mean that he “was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary”?
A. That the eternal Son of God, who is and remains true and eternal God, took to himself, through the working of the Holy Spirit, from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary, a truly human nature so that he might also become David’s true descendant, like his brothers and sisters in every way except for sin.
Q & A 36
Q. How does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you?
A. He is our mediator and, in God’s sight, he covers with his innocence and perfect holiness my sinfulness in which I was conceived.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
In just a few short words in Q&A 35 the Catechism manages to capture and briefly summarize what had been, for the Early Church, one of the most tortured and longstanding debates in all of church history: the nature and identity of the Christ. In truth, it took the church close to four centuries to figure out what the creeds and confessions can now state with such apparent ease and precision: namely, the belief that Jesus is both human and divine.
A sermon on Lord’s Day 14 surely presents an opportunity to summarize the key Christological debates that animated the early councils in places like Nicea and Chalcedon. Unlike the Doctrine of the Trinity, the topic of the two natures of Christ lends itself more readily to analogies that people can understand fairly readily. The equal but opposite errors of Docetism and Ebionism can be understood through relatively simple examples like Superman (he only LOOKED like a mild-mannered reporter but really was the man of steel who was completely unlike the real human beings around him) or on the other side there is the Jesus Seminar prattle about the Galilean cynic-sage who was thoroughly human but who did manage to say some really clever things about God. The equal but opposite errors to avoid are God-in-Disguise on the one side (divine only) and the wiser-than-most human teacher on the other side (human only).
But as many pastors know, many people in the church unwittingly err in the direction of Docetism, of a Savior who was more divine than human (and who saved us on account of his divine power, not on account of his being truly human). Indeed, sometimes pastors can get into trouble by talking about Jesus in terms that some people judge to be altogether too earthy. People seem uncomfortable picturing their Lord with a chive stuck between his incisors or suppressing a burp. Neal Plantinga once talked about how Jesus was just like us, mentioning at one point that perhaps in his father’s carpentry shop, even Jesus occasionally “stubbed his toe or carefully sawed a board two inches too short.” But not everyone is comfortable picturing Jesus with common human foibles and characteristics.
So a Lord’s Day 14 sermon can be an opportunity to correct the nascent Docetism that lurks in many’a pious heart. As the Catechism reflects, the Christian tradition has long insisted that Jesus needs both the divine and the human to do us any saving good.
Possible Biblical Texts
Hebrews 2:14-3:6: This passage highlights the true flesh-and-blood humanity of Jesus. More that, however, it also reveals the theological reason why it is so vital not to compromise on the true humanity of Jesus. Jesus’ solidarity with all of us who struggle and are tempted (and who, unlike Jesus, also fall prey to temptation) reminds us that Jesus is a compassionate Savior as well as a powerful one. The salvation Jesus offers to us is a knowing salvation—it comes to us at eye-level from one who knows how we are made, who sympathizes with our weaknesses, and who is in a grand position, therefore, not only to save and to forgive us but to do so in a loving manner.
Matthew 1:1-17: This may seem like a really strange passage to preach on at ANY time and yet it can make for a fitting Advent/Christmas text. Because tucked into Matthew’s apparently dry family tree/genealogy of Jesus are some delightful surprises that speak of both Jesus’ utterly human nature and of his strikingly divine nature. As New Testament scholar David Holwerda has said, Matthew took what could have been a standard, run-of-the-mill genealogy and he spiced it up with some “holy irregularities.” First, Matthew was careful to include (or directly allude to) the names of four women. This was a highly unusual practice in Jewish family trees. More than that, the women referred to (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba) were all foreign women (non-Israelite by birth) three of whom had some measure of sexual scandal associated with them. These are the skeletons in Jesus’ family closet and yet Matthew takes pains to display them precisely to show the true humanity of Jesus’ lineage. What’s more, the non-Israelite status of all those women was Matthew’s first hint that the gospel was never going to be a Members Only, Israel-only phenomenon. But having established Jesus’ lineage in such utterly human (even tawdry) terms, then comes the big holy irregularity when that long string of “the father of, the father of, the father of . . .” is suddenly snapped when in verse 16 Joseph is identified only as “the husband of Mary.” He’s Mary’s husband but not Jesus’ father. There is a whole lot of theology tucked into that little detail!
Philippians 2:1-11: Here is the classic text of Jesus, the pre-existing Son of God, being born in humble form, emptying himself of many divine perquisites to do so. These verses reveal what is sometimes called the parabola-shaped curve of Jesus’ work. In geometry a parabola is a U-shaped curve that begins from a definite point high on the graph but then plunges down to a low point before swooping back upwards to an infinitely high point (higher than where the curve began). This shows the trajectory of Jesus: he was the divine Son of God who had all the power in the universe and yet he came down here to earth and died a hellish death. Yet after that death God raised him up to an even higher point. How can one ever get higher than where Jesus as God’s Son had been to begin with? It can happen because now Jesus is also ACCLAIMED as the cosmic Lord of lords. So this passage likewise captures the two natures of Christ as presented in Lord’s Day 14.
Illustration Idea #1: Years ago theologian Stanley Grenz claimed that you could detect the shift from the modern era to the postmodern era through observing, of all things, the television show Star Trek. After all, Grenz noted, who was the most intriguing character of the original show from the early 1960s? It was Mr. Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human science officer whose core struggle was to beat back and try to get rid of his mushy, emotional, irrational human side so as to let his vastly superior Vulcan nature allow him always to be cool, serene, methodical, and logical. This, Grenz said, is a good reflection of the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. Led by Immanuel Kant this movement tried to rid humanity of its childish, irrational, emotional side. If only we can dare to think, dare to let our intellects rule us, we will then enter the full maturity of the human race.
In the late-1980s, however, a new version of the Star Trek series came to TV, but this time the most intriguing character was quite different. This time the science officer was an android, a machine, known as Mr. Data. Data, as his very name suggests, was no more than a walking, talking, computer bank of information and data: a robot. But unlike Mr. Spock who so wanted to shed the messiness of humanity, Mr. Data’s dearest dream was to go beyond being a mere computer so as to become also human, replete with the ability to feel joy and sadness, laughter and tears, happiness and fear. And this, according to Grenz, reveals the shift to the postmodern era in which we no longer seek to be rid of our emotional humanity but to embrace it in all its raw sensuality.
What does it mean to be human? Are emotions good things or irrational things that get in the way of solid thinking? Is it good to have a body of flesh and blood or were ancient Greeks like Socrates closer to the truth when they called the physical body the prison of the soul–a jail cell from which our hearts are eager to escape once we die? The church, too, long wrestled with the nature of humanity and how a true humanity could square with Jesus’ also being truly God.
Illustration Idea #2: As God’s eternal Son, Jesus had had divine power from before all time. But that power alone was not going to save anybody. Incredibly, Jesus had to become a real human being! We must pay attention to the utter humanity of Jesus because the Bible says it was only after Jesus became every bit as human as the rest of us that salvation finally burst onto the scene. We’re not saved only through divine power, we are saved also through divine vulnerability!
And yet we have a hard time with this. Of course we are correct to reject those Jesus Seminar folks who want to get rid of the divine part of Jesus. But we become guilty of an equal but opposite error if we all-but get rid of the human part of Jesus. And so also we quietly imagine that Jesus only looked surprised sometimes, only faked being hungry or tired. After all, he was God! And being God rules out, we theorize, the messy, physical side of human life. But that is a concept of God more akin to what the ancient Greeks thought about gods than what the Bible says. In fact, in Aristophanes’ ancient Greek play The Frogs there is a scene in which a real god and a human impostor both claim to be gods. So someone devises a test to smoke out the fake: both of the men would be whipped and the one who cried out in pain would clearly be the impostor. The truly divine, the Greeks thought, are immune to pain and emotion.
But the Jesus we meet in the gospels, though truly God, did feel pain. He could cry and it was no act. He could claim to be hungry and it was not fake. And when one day he was whipped mercilessly until his back looked like a bloody set of Venetian blinds, the screams of pain were real. But the miracle of the incarnation is that though he cried out as any one of us would, that did not reveal him to be a divine impostor. It just meant that somehow God had pulled off as stunning a miracle as has ever been: the utterly true combination of God and humanity.
Q & A 37
Q. What do you understand by the word “suffered”?
A. That during his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. This he did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might deliver us, body and soul, from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God’s grace, righteousness, and eternal life.
Q & A 38
Q. Why did he suffer “under Pontius Pilate” as judge?
A. So that he, though innocent, might be condemned by an earthly judge, and so free us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us.
Q & A 39
Q. Is it significant that he was “crucified” instead of dying some other way?
A. Yes. By this I am convinced that he shouldered the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was cursed by God.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
In this section of the Catechism we are examining the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. Hence, the Catechism, like the Creed, jumps immediately from Christmas to Good Friday. It has long been observed that for all its strengths and historical durability, the Creed contains the oddity of skipping over the entire life and ministry of Jesus. All of it is somehow tamped down into that comma that separates the clauses, “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Whether or not a sermon on Lord’s Day 15 needs to talk about the saving significance of also Jesus’ life, we should not forget that most of what we know about Jesus—and just about every single story about our Lord that we hold dear—comes between Christmas and Good Friday despite the Creed’s skipping of that material.
Lord’s Day 15 also countenances that other curious feature about the great Creed: the inclusion of Pontius Pilate. Just how a second-rate Roman sub-official got memorialized for the ages in this statement of faith remains something of a mystery. Aside from nailing the story of Jesus down historically (which is itself no small thing), it’s difficult to know what to do with Pilate’s inclusion. Also, Q&A 38 claims that what is significant about Pilate is that he condemned Jesus despite Jesus’ innocence. But the gospel stories show us that Pilate famously washed his hands of this matter, declared Jesus’ blood to be on the heads of the roaring crowds, and as a matter of fact merely acquiesced AGAINST his better judgment. So this may be an instance where the Catechism, although largely accurate on even this point, should not make us forget the exact angularities and complexities of the actual story as it comes to us in the gospels.
Another wrinkle: Q&A 37 says that throughout his life and certainly in the end on the cross, Jesus shouldered for us “the anger of God against the whole human race.” Certainly we cannot and must not dismiss what is in also the Bible a significant theme related to the wrath/anger of God. And certainly we do not want to trot down the Marcionite path of separating out the wrathful God of the Old Testament from the (supposedly different) God of grace found in the New Testament.
But neither do we want to make the anger of God constitutive. That is to say, God is first and foremost a God of love and grace—it was out of the wealth of God’s love that he sent his Son to this world in the first place. God managed to love us “while we were yet sinners.” So we want to steer clear of the idea that God’s anger had to be appeased or extinguished SO THAT grace and love could take its place. In fact, because the picture of God as fundamentally wrathful is so common, a sermon on Lord’s Day 15 may be the chance overtly to say that whatever Jesus accomplished through his atoning sacrifice on the cross, it did not transform God from principally angry to basically nice. (This is the old “Umstimmung Gottes” theory that has long been repudiated in orthodox theology).
However, that does not take away from the fact that sin is a real obstacle, a true barrier between God and us. Noting that grace is the keynote of the gospel before and after Jesus’ sacrificial death does not diminish the notion that sin offends God, angers God, and so must be put away by God in some way.
Possible Biblical Texts
I Peter 2:13-25: This passage has some historical difficulties inherent with it, not the least of which is the slavery issue and Peter’s advice that even the slaves of abusive masters should just “take it” because that’s the right thing to do. We may need to parse and apply that kind of material cautiously. However, what should not be missed is the notion that by submitting to an unjust death, Jesus has set a tone for all of our living. The Christian life assumes a humble, bowed-head posture. Jesus has shown us that the path that leads to life is a sacrificial path, a lowly and difficult path. Since “by his wounds” we have been healed, we are to take the hint and live for others in a way that will enhance also their lives even if that involves the diminishment of our own lives.
Isaiah 53:1-12: This soaring passage is so familiar that its connection to Lord’s Day 15 is maybe too obvious to mention! But if ever a passage set forth the nature of the Messiah as God’s Suffering Servant, this is it. The substitutionary nature of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf is here laid out in clear language. As Isaiah says, when you behold someone suffering as much as we know Jesus ultimately did, we want to distance ourselves, we want to find a different explanation for this. And so we say, “He was stricken BY GOD, smitten and afflicted BY GOD.” That is, we think God did this to Jesus. But Isaiah won’t let us put daylight between Jesus’ suffering and ourselves. As a matter of fact, he has been smitten and afflicted BY US. It’s our wounds, the ugliness of our own sins that we see reflected on his anguished visage.
Illustration Idea #1: Lewis Smedes reminds us of a very curious contradiction. If I were to ask, “How many of you want to go to heaven?” likely all of you would raise your hands. But then if I asked, “How many want to go right now?” we’d probably wince and hesitate. Most of us, as Smedes writes, are not standing tiptoe on the tarmac eager to fly away to heaven before the sun sets. Maybe it’s sheer lack of imagination. Maybe we’re less than crazy about the fact that for now the cemetery is the only way we know of to get to heaven.
But maybe, just maybe, this quirky combination of longing simultaneously for heaven and earth tells us something about the way God wired us. The simple fact is that we were created to enjoy this world, to love other people, to revel in the splendors God made. We are properly loathe to leave all that. At the same time the ugliness of life is enough to make anybody sometimes wonder if the whole thing is really worth it. But somewhere between the tug of earth and the pull of heaven we discover the truth: the Creator himself wants to maintain this creation. So the Creator made himself into a creature just like us, soaked up all that is bad, promised to stay with us through our own periods of hurt, but then also said that through all of this blood, sweat, and tears this very creation would be saved.
And for all of us who live in the real world, for all of us who read newspapers, who watch the often-bloody evening news, who sit tensely waiting for lab results, or who love someone so much it scares us, for all such as this the idea that Jesus both understands suffering and has found a way to eradicate it is something more than good news–it’s precious!
Whenever we talk about human suffering, we know that true suffering is never generic. All I have to do is scan the individual pews in this sanctuary and in my mind I can tick off a lot of very specific sufferings. And I don’t even know a fraction of what goes on in your hearts and lives! We can be thankful we are not actively persecuted but that does not immunize us against pain: the pain of death, the fright of disease, the fracture of a broken family, the cloud of mental illness, the grip of addiction, the disappointment of unrealized dreams.
“There are times,” C.S. Lewis once wrote, “when I think that I really do not desire heaven at all. But more often I find myself wondering if, in our heart of hearts, we have ever wanted anything else.” And so we say, “Even so, Come, Lord Jesus! Come!”
Illustration Idea #2: When we look at what we dislike, what we despise, what we fear, we recoil, we go the other way, we pray that nothing like this will ever befall us. We may even call that a “natural” reaction. And perhaps it is. But maybe that is also why it took a supernatural reaction to save us. God did the unnatural, yet supernatural, thing of surveying the sum total of all that was fractured in this cosmos but then said, “All that must happen to me, too, and I am going to rush headlong into it in order, in the deep mysteries of my being, to triumph over it.” God knew that were he to remain aloof from our sorrows, then his raw power would not be enough to deal with the brutal facts of our lives. We are not saved by power but weakness. That, my friends, is the heartbeat of the gospel.
And don’t we now and again sense the dynamic here? You’ve perhaps heard this story before, but it bears repeating. The scene is the last day of school before the Christmas holiday. The boys and girls of an elementary school had just finished their Christmas program for the parents and now it was time to go home for the two-week vacation. One set of parents was waiting for Bobby, their Kindergartner who, along with all the other five- and six-year-olds, was carrying home a special project–the Christmas gift for Mom and Dad that the kids had been working on for weeks.
With great exuberance Bobby raced toward his folks trying to put on his coat and keep his backpack on his shoulder all the while. But Bobby tripped, and the special gift flew out of his hands, landing with a sickening ceramic crash. For a moment there was silence, and then Bobby wailed. His father quickly strode over and strongly said, “It’s OK, Bob, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.” But his mother was wiser about such things and so she threw herself to the ground, embraced the tyke tightly and said, “Oh but it does matter, it matters a great deal indeed!” And she wept with her Bobby, she wept.
Who has understood our pain? Who knows to the depths our sorrows and the sufferings that sin has brought to every last person on this sad planet? God only knows that when it comes right down to it, you cannot erase this world’s pain by waving it off and claiming it doesn’t matter. It does matter. It matters a great deal indeed. And because our God in Christ knows that, he has mysteriously and profoundly made it possible one day to wipe away every tear from our eyes.
The bread and the wine of the holy table tell us that because Jesus let every ounce of joy get vacuumed out of his very soul, the day will come when he will say to each one of us, “My dear son, my dear daughter, enter now into the joy of my Father’s kingdom.” When that day comes, we won’t even be tempted to ask, “How did you do this?” When you enter into joy, you will know that God in Christ did do it, and it will be enough. Eternally enough.
Q & A 40
Q. Why did Christ have to suffer death?
A. Because God’s justice and truth require it: nothing else could pay for our sins except the death of the Son of God.
Q & A 41
Q. Why was he “buried”?
A. His burial testifies that he really died.
Q & A 42
Q. Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?
A. Our death does not pay the debt of our sins. Rather, it puts an end to our sinning and is our entrance into eternal life.
Q & A 43
Q. What further benefit do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?
A. By Christ’s power our old selves are crucified, put to death, and buried with him, so that the evil desires of the flesh may no longer rule us, but that instead we may offer ourselves as a sacrifice of gratitude to him.
Q. Why does the creed add, “He descended to hell”?
A. To assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
This Lord’s Day is really a continuation of L.D. 15, and so it may be that in the preaching life of the church, a pastor may choose to combine the two into one sermon rather than have two sermons back-to-back on the subject of suffering and death.
However, L.D. 16 does have some unique features that are not merely overlaps from L.D. 15, including the line about “he descended into hell.” The interpretation given to this article of the creed in Q&A 44 is classically Calvinist: this is not a literal descent into hell for Jesus but a metaphorical one representing the anguish he felt not only on the cross but earlier in his life, too, as a result of all the temptations and agonies of soul he endured. There are significant pastoral possibilities for a sermon that picks up on the thought of that particular Q&A.
On the larger question of “Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death?” the Catechism, not surprisingly, takes a rather forensic view of this matter. Jesus’ death was part of the larger balancing of ledgers, paying of sin’s dues. There is something to all of that, of course, but perhaps we should also note that other things can and must be said beyond what the Catechism points out.
Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? To pay for sin? Yes, but also because he had been made truly human. Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? Because we must do so, and had Jesus found a way to beam off this planet in a way that would have neatly side-stepped any kind of death, then he could not be considered just like us after all. Jesus had to leave this world via death for the same reason he couldn’t get into this world without exiting a woman’s uterus: because that’s how all people get here. Jesus had to die for the same reason he had to drink water every day to stay healthy, for the same reason he got hungry, for the same reason he had to close his eyes and sleep after a long day of parable-telling and teaching: because in Jesus the Son of God had entered the entirety of human existence and experience.
Sometimes people ask how Jesus could have died considering that he was not just human but also divine. By definition God cannot die, so isn’t there maybe a bit of play-acting going on here? Since Jesus was unlike the rest of us who are only human, did Jesus die just “sort of,” “kind of,” only partially? That’s a truly vexing question but let me suggest something that may constitute a portion of the larger answer. I’d like to suggest that what was human about Jesus died the same way we will all die. His body gave out, his heart went silent, his brain waves went flat and so Jesus experienced a wrenching separation from the only body he had ever known as a human. But just before that happened, the divine part of him experienced death when the Father and the Spirit withdrew from him. For the first time in all eternity, he was alone.
Sometimes in listening to people, you may hear someone describe what abandonment feels like. Listen to the person who talks about being ditched by both of his parents when he was a child. Listen to the choking agony of a woman who talks about how she felt in the aftermath of her husband’s just suddenly walking out on her, never to return. What you hear in such woeful tales of abandonment is a dereliction that defies ordinary speech. It is not at all surprising to hear people describe divorce as “like a death.” Although a vastly milder scenario, sometimes even those who were unexpectedly fired from a longtime job may report, “I feel like something inside me died.”
The Reformed tradition has generally said that it was that experience of abandonment by the other two Persons of the Trinity that constituted Jesus’ “descent into hell.” If so, then it is theologically accurate to say that Jesus did indeed experience death across the fullness of everything he was and is as both divine and human. We don’t need to declare that Jesus died but do so with our fingers crossed behind our backs as though to waffle or hedge a little. Jesus went all the way to death because we all must do so. Jesus died with the question “Why?” quivering on his very lips because it’s the question we all ask eventually. Why must we die? What’s more, why does death feel like it simply ought not to be?
Possible Biblical Texts
Matthew 27:45-56: For Lord’s Day 16, one could base the sermon on any one of the crucifixion accounts contained in the four gospels. In the case of Matthew’s account, commentator Dale Bruner poignantly notes how striking it is in Matthew’s account to see that Jesus dies in the interrogative mood. Jesus died not with some triumphant exclamation or declaration but he died with a question trembling on his lips. Jesus died the way a lot of people die, maybe the way all people die: he died asking “Why?” Bruner goes so far as to say that this final question from Jesus “is the Gospel at its deepest,” revealing better than any other sentence in the New Testament “who Jesus is and what he does.” That’s a powerful assertion but the way Bruner fleshes it out in his marvelous commentary may well be right. Jesus does not quietly slip away, nor does he treat death the way Socrates is reported to have done: namely, welcoming death as a much longed-for release from the prison house of the body. Jesus dies kicking and screaming. Jesus dies wondering why it had to happen.
Romans 6:1-14: This also is a fairly obvious passage to which to turn in connection to this Lord’s Day on Jesus’ death and our connection to it. A curious feature about this passage is that in many of these verses Paul seems to say that our having been crucified with Christ is a done deal, a fact, and hence we are now dead to sin. Yet in the latter verses he still has to urge the Romans to consider themselves dead to sin and then to TRY to live accordingly. We see here, then, that gospel combination of the already and the not yet. There is so much that is spiritually present and real to us already now and yet we know that we are not yet fully home, not yet fully all that in Christ we are called to be. But the graphic death and sacrifice of Jesus impels us to walk with the Spirit already now as the merest beginning of our faithful response to Jesus’ horrific sacrifice.
She didn’t know what else to say. As a mother, she had always steered well clear of religious clap-trap, even priding herself on not force-feeding her children to believe in anything when it came to spiritual matters. But then a beloved neighbor died. He had been a kindly old man whom this woman’s children had adopted as a kind of local grandpa. But now he was dead, and the woman’s young son was very upset. The little boy wanted to know why this had to happen. So his mother reached for some naturalistic rhetoric. “It’s just the way of the world, honey. It’s part of the natural cycle of all things, and so our friend has now returned to the earth. And next spring, when you see the daffodils and tulips coming up, you can know that your friend is helping to fertilize them.” The little boy did not hesitate. He shrieked, “But I don’t want him to be fertilizer!”
In relating that story, author Peter Kreeft notes that indeed, even the non-religious in this world have a deep-down sense that humanity is meant to be more than fertilizer. Death is a natural part of the world, yet internally we rebel. Some years back I heard what was reported to have been among the final gasping words of the famous singer Frank Sinatra. Sinatra’s signature song was “My Way” in which he crooned that when looking back on his life, although he had a few regrets, in the end “I did it my way.” But at the real end, our own strength is never enough. And so just before he breathed his last, Sinatra said to a family member, “I’m losing.” But to say you are losing implies that you have the sense that you should be able to win. To have a sense of defeat implies that, all things being equal, there should have been a chance for victory. We should be able to keep our life.
I suspect that Old Blue Eyes was in touch with something fundamental in the human soul: the aching sense that we were made for life. Hence, whatever death is, it gets in the way like a roadblock. “Is this all there is?” so many ask as death approaches. As Kreeft says, if a child gets a slug of presents at Christmas but still says at the end of the unwrapping, “Is this all there is?”, then there are two ways of viewing this. Either the child is dreadfully ungrateful or someone made him a promise that has not yet been kept. Perhaps he had been promised a new pet but so far has received just stuffed animals. But if he had been told a new puppy was coming, then the “Is this all there is?” question looks not like ingratitude so much as a proper expectation. So for us all: if we sense we’ve been promised life, then asking “Is this all there is” in the face of death makes sense.
Q & A 45
Q. How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?
A. First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, so that he might make us share in the righteousness he obtained for us by his death.Second, by his power we too are already raised to a new life.Third, Christ’s resurrection is a sure pledge to us of our blessed resurrection.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Lord’s Day 17 presents some challenges for the preacher. This brief Q&A 45 packs a wallop, summing up the single most glorious truth of the Gospel in three surprisingly brief and terse points. Beyond the brevity of this Q&A, however, there are other challenges. First, one could pre-preach an Easter sermon based on this Lord’s Day but most of us preachers prefer to reserve our best stuff for Easter. Second, we need to remember that despite the words here about our own resurrections, Lord’s Day 22 is coming up soon in the Catechism and that is the place where the reality of our own bodily resurrections will be addressed. Again, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves lest we have nothing fresh to say in a few weeks.
So, one approach would be to use L.D. 17 as the occasion to talk about the surprise of the gospels: namely, that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead long BEFORE the end of history, which is when people up until that time deemed to be the key/sole time when all resurrections would occur.
L.D. 17 picks up on this “already and not yet” dimension to Jesus’ resurrection when it tells us that “we too are already now resurrected to a new life” and yet it then goes on to say that “Christ’s resurrection is a guarantee of our glorious resurrection.” So we have BOTH a spiritual resurrection that is already true now AND we have a bodily resurrection that will await Christ’s second coming.
This places the resurrection squarely in the context of our ordinary, day-to-day living. We are situated between Christ’s first advent and his second advent; between the event of the first Easter and the ringing down of history’s curtain. As such, we are changed people already now.
So perhaps this is also the occasion to do a sermon on what it means to now dwell “in Christ.” This sense of in-ness is, of course, Paul’s favorite way of summing up our Christian existence.
Possible Biblical Texts
John 11: Here is as fine a passage as any that captures the idea that resurrection is not only for the end of all history but for now, for today. Martha famously states her belief in the resurrection at the end of all things only to have Jesus counter her by pointing out that already on that day, right there in Bethany, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The raising of Lazarus served as a token, a sign, that this was so. Lazarus, of course, died again. Indeed, John indicates that the religious leaders plotted to murder Lazarus as a way to cover up Jesus’ miracle. We don’t know whether or not they succeeded—they may well have done so. But for however much longer Lazarus lived, he did so as a sign that something of resurrection life can infuse us already now.
Romans 8 or Colossians 2: These passages are just two examples of any number of New Testament writings from the Apostle Paul that help us to access the idea that as resurrected believers, we now dwell “in Christ.” This statement reflects what Lewis Smedes once called a “situational Christology” in which we are shown what our cosmic situation is now as people who have been raised with Christ. We now live in a whole new situation in which the powers and principalities of this age have been disarmed and so we have a living hope that the Life now in us can never be finally taken away.
Illustration Idea #1: As Time magazine once pointed out, two famous twentieth century poets both weighed in on the subject of the universe’s end. Robert Frost wrote, “Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice. / I hold with those who favor fire.” On the other side T.S. Eliot wrote, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” What both poets reflect is a debate which occupied twentieth century science. Ever since the discovery of the “Big Bang” science has known that our cosmos is expanding. Galaxies are still hurtling ever deeper into space like missiles or projectiles racing away from the explosion which birthed the universe long ago. But the question has always been whether the universe will keep expanding or, like a stretched rubber band, whether it will reach a point when it will snap back on itself and re-collapse into a ball of fire in some kind of Big Crunch.
More recent discoveries have led scientists to believe that the universe will not collapse back in on itself. Instead it will keep expanding on and on and on until it finally evanesces into extinction. Picture in your mind a ball of Silly Putty. If you flatten it out and then start stretching it flatter and flatter, eventually it will get too thin and will start to break. Something like that, it is now theorized, is how our universe may one day end. T.S. Eliot wins out: it will all end with a whimper, not a bang.
Two different articles about this in that recent issue of Time concluded on about as bleak a note as you could imagine. One article concluded by saying that, sadly enough, the day will come when “the universe, once ablaze with the light of uncountable stars, [will] become an unimaginably vast, cold, dark, and profoundly lonely place.” Nothing, another article concluded, will “save our descendants. . . from [the universe’s] last, dying gasp.”
Not terribly cheery stuff! Granted, all of this is at least trillions of years away, but the stark bleakness of these portraits is nevertheless a bit difficult to swallow. But although these are ultimately just speculations on events which reside in inconceivably far reaches of the distant future, one thing which this bears in common with our present time is this: the reality of death is inescapable. It is in this context that we must ask if we can have hope for new life even in the midst of so much undeniable death.
Illustration Idea #2 (for a sermon on John 11): In commenting on John 11, Frederick Buechner once pointed out that sometimes people who go through so-called “near-death experiences” profess to not being completely happy that the doctors pulled them back. Many have said that they saw a bright figure standing in the light and that they wanted to approach that figure but were cut off when the heart defibrillator yanked them back to this world. For them it felt less like “near death” and more like “near life.” Well, as Buechner imagined it, maybe that bright afternoon in Bethany when Lazarus emerged, blinking into the Palestine sunshine, only to see Jesus standing there in the light, maybe Lazarus was at first not sure which side of death he was on! Was he walking toward eternity or back toward earth? Some of you have heard the old exchange, “Is this heaven?” “No, it’s Iowa.” “Funny, it looked like heaven to me.” So also maybe Lazarus at first asked Jesus, “Is this heaven?” “No, it’s Bethany.” But maybe it looked like heaven to Lazarus just because Jesus was there. Perhaps as much as anything just that is the point of John 11: whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s because he just is, right now, the resurrection and the life. That will have enormous meaning when the roll is called up yonder by and by. But faith understands that tasting Jesus’ life and hope doesn’t have to wait that long. It is here, now–Jesus is here, now and if by faith you can see him, you’ve begun to taste heaven already. “I am the resurrection and the life. If you believe on me, you will live even after you die. Do you believe this?” If you can say, “Yes,” then you know that the universe will end in neither a bang nor a whimper. Because if in this world bent on death you can say “Yes” to Jesus our true Life, then you know what science will never see: in the end it will not really end because in Christ new life has already started all over again.
Q & A 46
Q. What do you mean by saying, “He ascended to heaven”?
A. That Christ, while his disciples watched, was taken up from the earth into heaven and remains there on our behalf until he comes again to judge the living and the dead.
Q & A 47
Q. But isn’t Christ with us until the end of the world as he promised us?
A. Christ is true human and true God. In his human nature Christ is not now on earth, but in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit he is never absent from us.
Q & A 48
Q. If his humanity is not present wherever his divinity is, then aren’t the two natures of Christ separated from each other?
A. Certainly not. Since divinity is not limited and is present everywhere, it is evident that Christ’s divinity is surely beyond the bounds of the humanity that has been taken on, but at the same time his divinity is in and remains personally united to his humanity.
Q & A 49
Q. How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?
A. First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge. By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Lord’s Day 17 dispensed with the huge topic of Jesus’ resurrection in remarkably short order. Maybe that is why, following on that, Lord’s Day 18 is so striking. Because here the topic of the ascension is brought forward and yet this subject receives no less than four substantial questions and answers. Why might it be that the ascension got more attention in the Catechism than did Easter?
The reason reflects questions that were very much hot-button issues in the Reformation era when the Catechism was composed. Of particular interest to theologians back then were questions related to the dual nature of Jesus. Lord’s Day 18, and more particularly Q&A 48, reflect a view that has come to be known as the extra Calvinisticum in which it is asserted that Jesus’ divine nature was in no way bounded by or affected by his human nature. John Calvin believed that the only way to preserve the true divinity of Jesus was to insist that Jesus could be both limited physically to just one location at a time (the same as all human beings) AND he could simultaneously (in his divine nature) be everywhere at once.
In terms of the ascension, this view helped to keep a living connection with Jesus despite his physical absence from this earth. The human nature of Jesus’ resurrected body is, for now, at the right hand of the Father. But because his divine side had never been bounded by his human side, Jesus does remain present to us in this sense. But the Catechism is also clear in insisting that both Jesus’ divine side and his human side are never separated from each other but are properly always together within the unity of Jesus (even if, for now, we experience Jesus through only his divine side/nature).
The larger debate on all this may not make for great sermon material. Pastorally, however, the genesis of this particular discussion is vital. We need to be able to tell people that Jesus is truly present to us even despite our beliefs that he is no longer physically on this earth. If we allow the Holy Spirit to have a robust role in connecting us vitally and really to our ascended Lord, perhaps some of this more technical discussion on the two natures of Christ Jesus could be set aside.
In terms of preaching on Lord’s Day 18, it may be that Q&A 49 is the key. Because it is here that the theology of the ascension is unpacked and explained. There is rich pastoral comfort to be derived from the idea that Jesus is our advocate with the Father (that’s why we pray “For Jesus’ sake” or “In Jesus’ name”). There is also a fine example in Jesus that there is no inconsistency between having a body of flesh and being in heaven—heaven will be an “earthy” place, not some wispy dimension of pure spirit. Finally, the gift of Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit were made possible by Jesus’ having gone ahead of us into heaven.
In a sense, the ascension of Jesus ties in very tightly with all things having to do with prayer. Every prayer we utter as Christians is made possible by Jesus’ intercession for us and through the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling even now within us.
Possible Biblical Texts
Acts 1:1-11: The actual narrative of Jesus’ ascension provides a natural way to access the themes of Lord’s Day 18. It may be fruitful to pair this passage with Colossians 3:1-4 because together these passages help to bring out the dual focus of the Christian life. On the one hand, the angels in Acts 1 tell the disciples not to stare into the heavens but to get ready to receive the power they would need to do work right here on earth. On the other hand, however, you get Colossians 3 where the Apostle Paul counsels his readers to set their minds ON heavenly things, not earthly ones. Between these two perspectives we see that whereas we draw our inspiration and vision from “things above where Christ is seated,” we carry out those tasks right here on earth. It is our lives and our work here on earth that become the focus of the very prayers we offer up to our ascended Lord in the power of his Holy Spirit.
Matthew 28:11-20: Matthew does not give us an account of Jesus’ actual ascent into heaven but he does give us the famous parting words from our Lord. In a way, Jesus’ promise never to leave the disciples mirrors the pastoral comfort in Lord’s Day 18 that never are we apart from Jesus.
Colossians 1:15-23: This passage works for lots of theological themes but seldom does the New Testament picture Jesus’ Lordship more colorfully or forcefully than here. Colossians 1 shows us that in Christ Jesus, everything that has ever been (or that will ever be) comes together. At the same time, Paul makes clear that precisely because Jesus is so lordly and lofty, we have been drawn close to God in Christ. The former alienation that existed between God and us has been taken away by the work of Jesus. The very One who is more exalted than we can even imagine uses that exalted status to draw us close. We who are lowly are brought into the presence of God.
Illustration Idea #1: In his various books neurologist Oliver Sacks has provided a bevy of clinical vignettes that remind us of how utterly interconnected we are in terms of mind and body. In one such true story, Sacks tells us about a man who had what doctors refer to as a visual agnosia. This man’s brain had been damaged very slightly but just enough so that the vision center of his mind was unable to process what his eyes took in. His eyes functioned perfectly, 20/20, but his brain could not assemble this visual data into coherent images. So if he looked at you, he could see your hair, your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and moustache but not your entire face–in his mind it all looked like one of those strange Picasso paintings where everything is jumbled up in a mish-mash of images: here an eye, there an arm; here a nose, there an ear but nothing is connected the way it should be.
Alas, that’s how a lot of people see the world just generally. To some the world is just a booming, buzzing confusion with no rhyme or reason, no purpose and no destiny beyond the moment. But that can never be a Christian’s take on the world. Forty days after Easter we affirm that the resurrection of Jesus gives us a meaningful framework in which to make connections, in which to make sense of the welter of images, sights, sounds, and information that we soak up in this world. For us the world is not a helter-skelter of chaotic events that adds up to nothing. Jesus as the risen and reigning Lord of heaven and earth tells us that history has a meaning and also a destiny in God’s hands.
Our vocation is to live like we know this. Ascension Day more or less gives each one of us an assignment and that is to live like we believe that Christ’s ascension is not only true but is the organizing principle around which we orient our lives, it is the lens through which we see the world and by which we make sense out of that world.
Illustration Idea #2 (for a sermon based on Acts 1:1-11): There is a rich visual irony in Acts l. Consider again the scene: Jesus no sooner ascends into heaven and what is the very first thing that happens? The disciples see angels. Ah, but they have to take their eyes off of the skies to see them! Jesus ascended into heaven all right, but it wasn’t in the heavens that the disciples spied angels–the angels were right behind them on this earth! The angels’ presence at the disciples’ backs is clear evidence that what the ascension means is not less concern with earth but more.
It’s as though the angels are saying, “We’re working for Jesus on this earth–so what are you doing with your heads in the clouds!?” That is the Ascension Day question and it is a question which the church must face again and again as we strive to fulfill Jesus’ ardent wish that we be his continuing presence of love and grace right here on this earth.
It’s when we lose sight of one or the other that we may find ourselves in trouble. In an anecdote I read some while back, I learned the story of a missionary to China. This man had devoted his life to teaching the gospel and preaching the Word of God to the Chinese people. Upon his retirement from the mission field around the year 1915, he returned to America on board the same ship that was returning former President Theodore Roosevelt from a multi-week hunting safari in Africa. As the ship sailed into New York harbor, huge crowds had gathered to welcome back the popular ex-president, and T.R. loved every moment of it, flashing that broad and famous grin of his as he waved to the adoring crowds from the deck of the ship.
As he observed all this hoopla, the missionary thought to himself, “What a lot of fuss over a man who recently did no more than shoot tigers for the sport of it! Here I’m coming back from a lifetime of the Lord’s work in China and there is no one here for me. Who is there even to acknowledge what I did?” Just as he was finding himself becoming more frustrated at this sad homecoming, suddenly a voice whispered into the ear of his heart, “Yes, but just remember, my son, you are not home yet.” There. The heavenly and the earthly; the work we do and must do here but the ultimate heavenly context in which we view that work. Both. Together. That’s the Ascension Day connection.
Q & A 50
Q. Why the next words: “and is seated at the right hand of God”?
A. Because Christ ascended to heaven to show there that he is head of his church, the one through whom the Father rules all things.
Q & A 51
Q. How does this glory of Christ our head benefit us?
A. First, through his Holy Spirit he pours out gifts from heaven upon us his members. Second, by his power he defends us and keeps us safe from all enemies.
Q & A 52
Q. How does Christ’s return “to judge the living and the dead” comfort you?
A. In all distress and persecution, with uplifted head, I confidently await the very judge who has already offered himself to the judgment of God in my place and removed the whole curse from me.1 Christ will cast all his enemies and mine into everlasting condemnation, but will take me and all his chosen ones to himself into the joy and glory of heaven.2
Comments, Observations, and Questions
If we preach a separate sermon on Lord’s Day 19, then following on L.D. 18’s focus on the ascension, it may make sense to focus our L.D. 19-based sermon on just the last part in Q&A 52 as this introduces a different theme related to Christ’s coming again to judge the living and the dead. Although there is good content in Q&A 50 and 51, a good bit of it more-or-less continues and finishes up a consideration of the ascension.
So here we will focus on the Catechism’s words about the final judgment. As most of us know, the Catechism was radical in its sixteenth-century context for associating the final judgment with COMFORT. This carries through the larger theme of the Heidelberg Catechism established already in L.D. 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death? As Catechism scholar Dr. Fred Klooster always pointed out, the Heidelberger is a very warm and personal Catechism—far warmer and more personally oriented than many of the plethora of catechisms that were composed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries following the Reformation. Comfort pops up all over, including in what many would have regarded as unlikely contexts like that of final judgment.
Medieval churches were known to have vivid, terrifying depictions of the Last Judgment right overtop of the church’s front door. It was a way to cow people, to scare them into a desire for salvation. Whatever the prospect of final judgment meant for people prior to the Reformation era, comforting was most certainly not a word they would have reached for!
The modern context has, of course, swung significantly the other way. Now the very notion of any kind of judgment is linked closely with the idea of judgmentalism, and that is toxic to the pluralist and relativist mindset of the age. Today people are not so much frightened by the thought of judgment as they are offended by it.
Of course, this hardly means we stop speaking about a final sorting out and reckoning of the human race. The Bible speaks far too often of this to avoid the theme. But we will need to find a way to approach the topic in ways that will make sense to the world even as it confronts people’s bias against the very idea of judgment. As such, we as pastors want to tread lightly on the language in Q&A 52 that has a hint of lip-smacking in it when it talks about “All his enemies and MINE he will condemn to everlasting punishment.”
If we are to talk about judgment at all, then we cannot deny the negative side of that judgment—some will not come through the judging process very well. But this needs to be a source of holy sorrow for us. This needs to be something we hope will never happen to anyone and that, therefore, goads us to proclaim the truth about Jesus.
Possible Biblical Texts
Ephesians 1:15-23: This lyric and soaring passage does a fine job of depicting Jesus as the cosmic ruler of all: the Pantocrator (see the Illustration below). The passage is not about judgment per se but surely depicts the glorious power of Jesus in not just this age but also the age to come. But this passage also does a fine job in striking the needed balance between the unspeakable, incomprehensible majesty of Jesus with the miracle of the fact that we, the church, are still his body whom he indwells. This gets at the Catechism’s balance between the specter of judgment and yet the fact that we as believers can still draw comfort from that very prospect. Matthew 25:31-46: The synoptic gospels each conclude with an apocalyptic discourse from Jesus. In terms of Lord’s Day 19, any of the passages in Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, or Luke 21 would fit the larger theme of ultimate judgment. Specifically in Matthew 25, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats provides an opportunity to ponder what it means that Christ will come again and how our lives will be assessed at that time.
If you walk into most any Protestant or Roman Catholic church sanctuary, the likelihood is that the dominant symbol you will see is the cross. As in our own sanctuary, so in most churches the cross is typically front and center. But if you go into just about any Eastern or Greek Orthodox church sanctuary, you will be overwhelmed by a huge icon, or painting, of Christ Pantocrator. This Pantocrator image is often painted onto the inside of the church’s vast dome or, if the church doesn’t have a dome, this icon will dominate the front wall of the church.
“Pantocrator” is the Greek word for “Ruler of All” and it is an image of Jesus that emerges from Ephesians 1 and other similar passages. In just about all Pantocrator icons, Jesus stares directly out at you with wide and often rather stern eyes. His outer robe is deep blue, symbolizing the majesty and mystery of God and the tunic he wears under this robe is red, symbolizing Jesus’ shed blood. In his left hand Jesus holds a Bible, and his right hand is raised to give a blessing, with two fingers held up and the other three fingers held together, symbolizing the two natures of Christ (divine and human) and the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
If you’ve ever seen one of these massive Pantocrator icons, then you know what a powerful effect it can have on you. The majesty, power, and dominion of Jesus are depicted in ways that inspire awe. Also, the sheer scale of some of the larger such icons dwarfs us. Interestingly, in many Orthodox circles the sternness of the Jesus seen in larger Pantocrator icons is compensated for in smaller paintings by giving Jesus gentler facial expressions and kinder eyes. So a smaller Pantocrator icon that you might see in someone’s home will still convey all the majesty of Jesus as the Ruler of All but it will be more personal, a reminder that Jesus is still also the gentle and good shepherd.
Striking that kind of a balance between the cosmic Christ who rules all things and the more meek Jesus you meet in the gospel stories has been a perennial challenge for the church. Even the Catechism reflects this effort. If we say that Jesus is this all-powerful and universal King, may we still dare to approach him? Can Jesus be all-powerful and yet also still be a merciful dispenser of just the grace we need? After all, if you put too much emphasis on the almighty nature of Jesus, then the fierceness and raw holiness of that could put some people off. Indeed, it could be downright frightening.
So the Catechism softens this up a bit by reminding us that a key exercise of Jesus’ awesome power is his protection of us. What’s more, even though he will return one day as an uncompromising judge, we don’t need to worry about that: the verdict on us is already in and the verdict is that we are now innocent because of the Jesus who took the punishment we would otherwise have coming to us.
In fact, Q&A 52 of the Catechism was very radical when it was written. Throughout the Middle Ages the church had used the specter of judgment to scare people into doing what the church said. Many churches put horrifying paintings of the last judgment right overtop of the church’s front door. You couldn’t even get into a church building without being smacked up-side the head with a stern warning: behave or else!
Those of you who have seen paintings in museums of the last judgment may recall that the artists of that era were graphic to the point of a kind of grim pornography in depicting the hellish torments of those judged sinful by Jesus. So considering that all of that was common at the time the Catechism was composed, you can see why it might be radical to ask, “How does Christ’s return ‘to judge the living and the dead’ comfort you?” Since some in the church had long tried to inspire dread at the prospect of being judged, suggesting that this could become a source of comfort was indeed a very different approach.
Q & A 53
Q. What do you believe concerning “the Holy Spirit”?
A. First, that the Spirit, with the Father and the Son, is eternal God. Second, that the Spirit is given also to me, so that, through true faith, he makes me share in Christ and all his benefits, comforts me, and will remain with me forever.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
The Heidelberg Catechism and the Reformed tradition generally have often been accused of ignoring the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Given the brevity of the Catechism’s lone Q&A devoted to the question of the Spirit, you could conclude that this is the very kind of thing that adds fuel to the fire of those making such accusations. And indeed, you would think that any Lord’s Day and/or Q&A devoted to the Spirit could be conceivably huge and very long. But in point of fact, the Catechism devoted just a few brief lines to the Spirit. Oddly, this same confessional document devoted far more space to knotty (and vaguely arcane) questions about the union of Christ’s two natures (Q&A 48) than it did to a full member of God’s holy Trinity!
Indeed, if Q&A 53 were the full extent of the Catechism’s presentation of the Holy Spirit, it would be shamefully terse and altogether too brief. But as a matter of fact, the Spirit is present and active throughout the Catechism albeit in a kind of “behind the scenes” role. And maybe that’s apropos after all: the Spirit (as Dale Bruner once said in a seminar) does not exist to call attention to itself but ever and only to Christ.
In the Catechism, references to the Holy Spirit’s work across the spectrum of the Christian life can be found in no less than the following Questions and Answers: 1, 8, 21, 24, 25, 31, 35, 47, 49, 51, 54, 65, 67, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 76, 79, 80, 86, 103, 109, 115, 116, 123, 127. That is just shy of one-quarter or 25% of all the Catechism’s Q&A’s.
Clearly the Catechism does not ignore nor downplay the person and work of the Holy Spirit! The Spirit is everywhere active: generating faith, nourishing faith, granting assurance, giving gifts, nurturing gifts, and basically being the conduit through which Christ and ALL his benefits get to us. The Spirit is our living connection to everything we read about in Scripture concerning Christ and his salvation (and the Spirit is the one who enlivens that very Scripture as well!). When even Q&A 53 says that the Spirit “makes me share in Christ and all his blessings,” that is saying a lot!
Again, perhaps we can use the Catechism’s own rather modest treatment of the Spirit as a reflection for the Spirit’s “job” in the economy of salvation. The Spirit really is a little like the physical act of respiration, breathing: we mostly don’t notice that we’re doing it and neither can we see the air we breathe. But without these constant actions, we would soon be dead. The Church’s situation is actually very similar.
In this sense, the role of the Holy Spirit is yet another God-granted lesson in humility. What does it take for no less than a full person of the divine Godhead to spend so many centuries of church history doing nothing but hiding and working behind the scenes all so that another member of that divine community (Christ Jesus) can be highlighted again and again and again? Who among us in the Church today is ever willing to be so selfless, so unacknowledged, so totally hidden behind the work we enable and do? Put it this way: who knows how the Holy Spirit feels about how he gets treated in the Heidelberg Catechism. But what we do know is that in other contexts, if friends, colleagues, or coworkers of ours get more attention in alumni newsletters, company bulletins, and the like, we feel the sting pretty quickly and wonder why WE are not getting more attention than old so-and-so.
The Spirit doesn’t seem to mind this a bit. What does that tell us about God?
Possible Biblical Texts
Acts 1 and Acts 2: The stories surrounding Pentecost are natural places to turn when contemplating a sermon on Lord’s Day 20. In some ways the Acts 2 narrative provides a nice illustration of the Spirit’s role in salvation and in the life of the church. Yes, the Spirit comes with great visible power initially, replete with a rushing wind and tongues of fire. But no sooner does the Spirit show up and Peter begins talking about Jesus. That is precisely the Spirit’s assigned job in the economic Trinity: the Spirit comes to draw attention not to itself but to Jesus alone.
John 16: This chapter is the longest single section devoted to the person and work of the Holy Spirit in any of the four gospels. Curiously, as I once heard pointed out by Dale Bruner, this passage makes clear that the Christians who are the most filled with the Holy Spirit are often the least conscious of it. But what is also abundantly clear in these words of Jesus is that because of the Spirit’s enormous power, the church will be better off having the Spirit despite Jesus’ physical absence than it would have been had Jesus stayed but the Spirit never came.
I Corinthians 12:1-13: This is the classic text that highlights the Spirit’s role in the granting and nurturing of all spiritual gifts in the Church. The ability to acknowledge Jesus as Lord comes from the Spirit but so does the ability to do every manner of serving and working in the Body of Christ. This passage is a nice vignette of the Spirit’s omnipresence in the Church (even if as often as not the Spirit is “visible” in the plate of cookies one member lovingly brings to another member in pain or on the blackboard as the skilled Sunday school teacher instructs people about the atonement).
Illustration Idea #1: In the gospels, Jesus said he would send forth a powerful Holy Spirit. But the surprise came from the fact that before he would do this, Jesus himself would go away. Call it a kind of Trinitarian tag-team approach. The Father dispatched the Son to this world to teach, to suffer, to die, and to rise again. Then the Son returned to the Father so that he in turn could send the Holy Spirit to his followers on this earth.
Sometimes in my Catechism classes we will talk about the Trinity, and I try to explain what is known as the economy of the Triune God by having students envision a kind of divine committee meeting. Once this creation ran off the rails due to sin, a salvage operation had to be launched. So the three Persons of God got together to divide up the responsibilities. Each volunteered for a specific area of work. The really big assignment was taken by the Son of God. He’d be the One who would be made human. The Father would superintend the whole project and would, above all, be the One whose almighty power would raise the Son back from the dead. But the Holy Spirit’s primary job would come a bit later. And if in some ways it seemed less dramatic than the work of the Father and the Son, that fact would be more than compensated for by the fact that the Spirit’s work would continue on and on and on for a long while–indeed, the Spirit’s work in the Church has been going on without interruption for long about 1,970 years now!
In the New Testament Jesus makes clear that the Holy Spirit would become the conduit through which would flow all the energy and riches of God. The Spirit would become the jumper cables to re-infuse us with the Father’s energy whenever the Church’s batteries ran down. The Spirit would become the cosmic water main through which the cleansing tide of baptism would flow to wash away sin. The Spirit would become the ultimate radio beacon who would broadcast the truths of Jesus, letting all of us who have been fitted with the right antennae learn on a constant basis the implications of the gospel for our lives. Use whatever image you want, but it is clear that the Holy Spirit has been the Church’s living connection to God ever since the great day of Pentecost.
Illustration Idea #2: A few years ago a respiratory ailment called SARS hit parts of Asia such that suddenly you saw lots of people on the news walking around in public wearing surgical masks. Seeing that reminded me of Pentecost. How so? Because without realizing it, we all breathe in and out many times every minute. Respiration is that fundamental process of life by which our bodies refresh their supply of oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. It is a powerful phenomenon and yet the same thing that keeps us alive can kill us, too. The spectacle of all those people in Asia wearing surgical masks at airports and out on the streets provides a vivid reminder that spiration, necessary though it is for life, can also prove to be our undoing if we breathe in virus-laden microbes.
The Latin word for “spirit” (spiritus), the Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruach), and the Greek word (pneuma) all mean “breath” or “wind” at their most basic linguistic level. But, of course, that implies a number of things. For one, it implies that “spirit” is an invisible phenomenon–no one can see the wind, only its effects. It can also imply that “spirit” may at times be a rather fleeting thing. After all, the refrain of the book of Ecclesiastes is that much of life seems like no more than a “breath,” a transient, vapory blip that disappears in an instant. At the same time, however, we know that both wind and breath are not only invisible and sometimes fleeting but they can also be awesome realities. The “breath of life” provided by someone giving CPR literally is the difference between life and death. And certainly we are aware of the fact that the wind can be hugely destructive–you don’t need to be able to see the wind or know where it comes from to respect its reality and power.
Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that “spirit” can be elusive. As Frederick Buechner notes, the word “spirit” gets drained of meaning through over-use. We hear about “school spirit,” the “spirit of ’76,” “team spirit,” “the Christmas spirit.” The new electronic sign by the local high school regularly posts the hours of operation for something called “The Spirit Shop.” But it can be difficult to define just what “spirit” means for any of those things. The adjective “spiritual” has not fared much better. This word has been plastered all over the place in the last twenty years to the point where it can define everything from genuinely pious Christian faith all the way over to those who talk about the “zen of economics.” Ostensibly “spiritual people” may be those who attend church every week or those who never go to church but who use their Jeep Grand Cherokee to zip up to the edge of a cliff on weekends so they can meditate on the unity of sky, rock, and soul.
At the same time, again as Buechner observes, we cannot deny that for all its vapory, insubstantial features, the “spirit” of something can be strong and contagious. It is remarkably easy for even a very calm and quiet person to get whipped up into enthusiasm by the “spirit” of a political rally, a football game, or (more grimly) of a lynch mob. When that big statue of Saddam Hussein in April of 2003, you could see the “spirit” of enthusiasm wash over that crowd in Baghdad. You could no more see that spirit than you can see my breath right now, but you knew it was there. Of course, a similar spiritual contagion has also been whipping up into a frenzy crowds of looters in Baghdad. “Spirit” is real but it can function equally well to inspire good behavior and bad.
On Pentecost the Holy Spirit of God came upon the church in power for the very first time. And like the breath in your lungs right now, if we did not have the Holy Spirit, the church would be dead. Of course even so, it is part of the very nature of the Holy Spirit that it doesn’t call much attention to itself. The Spirit’s job seems to be a history-long highlighting of Jesus. So in order not to get in the way of anyone’s ability to see Jesus as the Living Lord, the Holy Spirit seems quite content to remain about as invisible as a puff of air. The Spirit does not mind one bit if you look clean through him so long as what you are looking at through the Spirit is the Christ of God.
Q & A 54
Q. What do you believe concerning “the holy catholic church”?
A. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.
Q & A 55
Q. What do you understand by “the communion of saints”?
A. First, that believers one and all, as members of this community, share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts. Second, that each member should consider it a duty to use these gifts readily and joyfully for the service and enrichment of the other members.
Q & A 56
Q. What do you believe concerning “the forgiveness of sins”?
A. I believe that God, because of Christ’s satisfaction, will no longer remember any of my sins or my sinful nature which I need to struggle against all my life. Rather, by grace God grants me the righteousness of Christ to free me forever from judgment.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
This is one of those Lord’s Days where you have to wonder what the Catechism’s authors were thinking. In three successive Q&As they deal very quickly with three sizeable pieces of confession from the Apostles’ Creed. Any one of these could be fleshed out significantly, most especially the last one on “the forgiveness of sins.” Surely that one at least could have warranted its own Lord’s Day! Yet it gets tacked on to the end of L.D. 21 and its words on also “the holy catholic church and the communion of saints.”
This may be an instance in which one would opt to preach a couple of different sermons on this same Lord’s Day. “The holy catholic church” article from the creed can be fruitfully combined with “the communion of saints,” but the article about forgiveness could be dealt with separately. (Of course, one could combine all three pretty handily in that it is the forgiveness of our sins by Jesus’ grace that makes us part of the one true Church and that secures our standing in that communion of the saints as well.)
For Q&A 54 and 55, passages about the Church or about the hidden reality of the communion of the saints could be brought forward. Mostly we cannot see this spiritual community of which we are part. We can see our local congregation, of course, but not the broader, fuller body of believers that extends history wide and wraps around the globe. We need special vision—and the eyes of faith—to see all that. Sometimes in the Bible the truth is revealed. Think of the passage where Elisha’s servant has his eyes opened to see the hosts in chariots of fire all around them (II Kings 6:17). Think of the mount of transfiguration when the living presence of Moses and Elijah was revealed to the disciples. Or think of John’s visions on the Isle of Patmos (see below under Possible Scripture Texts). Somehow we need to know that we are caught up in something far grander than our eyes can reveal.
To preach on Q&A 56 the possibilities are legion. The theme of forgiveness is vital to the gospel’s very core. There are any number of gospel stories that illustrate Jesus’ forgiving of people. And there is a ton of material in Paul about how we are forgiven by grace alone (Romans, Galatians).
One angle on forgiveness that we may not always think about is the question of what actually happens when we (or when God) forgives someone. What do we do in forgiveness? What is necessary for forgiveness to happen (and hence what can block our ability to forgive as we have been forgiven)? Being forgiven by God—or our forgiving other people in imitation of God—extends far beyond just what we verbally say. Something happens mentally and spiritually when forgiveness is truly exercised. What is that something?
Possible Biblical Texts
Revelation 5: This passage may not at first seem a logical choice to accompany Lord’s Day 21 but something about John’s vision of the heavenly realms—and the reality of the saints in glory, the “invisible church,” that he saw there—may go along well with Q&A 54 and 55.
Matthew 9:1-17: This story shows the power of forgiveness and displays that power as the gospel’s main event. It’s a wonderful set of stories for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it reveals the true power of forgiveness. We tend to be distracted by and impressed with the more eye-popping stories of miracles and healings. But here Jesus makes clear that the far greater, more impressive power comes from the ability to release a person from his or her sins.
II Corinthians 5:16-6:2: This text can also fit a message on Q&A 56 and the matter of forgiveness. The text centers on the matter of reconciliation but is fundamentally about the forgiveness of our sins that makes this reconciliation possible. Our forgiveness in Christ makes us participate already now in the new creation. We no longer regard anyone from a purely human point of view but adopt the eyes of faith—eyes that reveal the new reality into which our Lord’s forgiveness introduces us all.
Illustration Idea #1 (for a sermon on the church and the communion of the saints based on Revelation 5): Lucy pushes past the woolen and fur coats only to discover that the wardrobe’s back has disappeared and suddenly snow is crunching beneath her feet. Alice falls through the looking glass and lands in an enchanted realm where rabbits talk and mad hatters hold funny tea parties. The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his entire bedroom transformed into a jungle world that brought him to that place where the wild things are and where Max was king.
Over and again in literature, on television, and at the movies, the notion of parallel worlds has long intrigued us. What if, just beyond the veil of what our ordinary sight can perceive, what if there is another whole world waiting to be discovered? The possibility of parallel universes has long been a staple in science fiction. Something funny happens to the USS Enterprise and suddenly Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock find themselves on a different Starship Enterprise in a parallel world where everything looks familiar and yet where everything is the opposite from their usual world.
That’s the stuff of science fiction, but in the real world of science you can likewise hear a lot of talk about the specter of alternative realities, parallel universes, other dimensions in the space-time continuum to which we don’t have access. Maybe black holes are the portals to these different dimensions. Maybe cosmic string theory holds the clues to such things. Some atheistic scientists who find it difficult to explain the emergence of life in this universe (but who most assuredly do not want to give any room to the possibility of a Creator God being behind it all) claim that maybe right this very moment there are millions of alternative, parallel universes in existence. After all, if there are enough universes out there, even random statistics could suggest that somewhere in the midst of all these realities one would hit it lucky and lead to human life, and we are in the one universe that hit it right.
Of course, writer Greg Easterbrook once pointed out the irony in such theories. Because it is odd that the same scientists who belittle the “blind faith” of Christians somehow manage to spin out theories of whole universes for which there is not one shred of evidence. Tell the average scientist you believe in angels, and he will roll his eyes. If you can’t see it, you shouldn’t believe in it, he may claim. But then this same person may turn right around and deliver a one-hour scholarly lecture that suggests the existence of whole universes that eyes have not seen and ears have not heard. Talk about blind faith!
But the fact remains: whether it is Lucy tumbling into Narnia, Captain Kirk slipping into a mirror-opposite starship, or Max sailing off to where the wild things are, we remain curious about the idea of parallel dimensions and worlds. As Shakespeare had Hamlet say, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Indeed, and so now enter the apostle John. On a lonely island called Patmos one day, banished from the civilized world because of all his Jesus-talk, John suddenly slipped through a cosmic crack and fell into a whole new world every bit as strange and foreign as anything Alice saw in Wonderland and yet undeniably real as well. Among other things, John saw the reality of the Church universal, of the communion of the saints who dwell with God and who exist in light inaccessible just beyond the reach of our ordinary sight.
Illustration Idea #2 (for a sermon on forgiveness): In Frederick Buechner’s novel The Final Beast there is a scene in which a member of a congregation is begging the pastor to declare forgiveness to a deeply disturbed woman in their church. The pastor replies that the woman already knows that he, the pastor, has forgiven her, to which this other member replies, “But she doesn’t know God forgives her. That’s the only power you have, pastor: to tell her that. Not just that God forgives her for her poor adultery. Tell her that God forgives her for the faces she cannot bear to look at now. Tell her that God forgives her for being lonely and bored, for not being full of joy every day in a household full of children. Tell her that her sin is forgiven whether she knows it or not, that what she wants more than anything else–what we all want–is true. Pastor, what on earth do you think you were ordained for?”
Illustration Idea #3 (for a sermon on forgiveness): In II Corinthians 5 Paul tells us that we already now participate in the New Creation. This is perhaps the single most powerfully mysterious teaching of the New Testament. The future is now. In my heart and in your heart the future of the universe is revealed. And what is that future? It is a future in which there are no obstacles between God and us. The Creator and his creatures will live in harmony. We already exist in a realm where nothing stands between God and us. God has forgiven us, let his anger drop, and there is now no residual fallout of our sin . None!
Some of you may remember the movie Back to the Future in which actor Michael J. Fox plays teenager Marty McFly who accidentally gets sent back in time from the year 1985 to the year 1955. As Marty walks around his hometown of thirty years earlier, people look at him strangely. He wears an orange down vest, but nobody in 1955 had ever seen such a thing so they conclude he’s wearing a life jacket and so must be a member of the Coast Guard. When Marty goes to a diner for lunch, he orders a Diet Pepsi, and the waitress has no idea what he is talking about, having never before heard of a “diet” anything. When he asks for directions, someone points him toward something called Stanton Street. Marty then says, “Stanton Street? Oh, you mean John F. Kennedy Boulevard.” The direction-giver then replies, “Who’s John F. Kennedy?”
Marty was from a yet unrealized future. But he brought a few pieces of that future into the past. Paul says that something similar happens with every believer. We are the future today. We are each one of us examples of what the whole universe is going to be like one day when God and humanity and all other creatures live the shalom God intended in the beginning. We’ve been reconciled, Paul says. This is already a fact.
As one commentator put it, that’s why the gospels do not wag a bony finger in our faces to say, “You must make peace with your Maker.” No, the gospels declare, “Your Maker has already made peace with you–accept it and get in on God’s action!” Telling a dying man to make peace with his Maker is to offer some good advice. But the gospel is not about good advice, it’s about good news! God has already made peace with the world. Accept it and you are all set. Look at the lives of believers and see in them the future manifested now! That future can be yours today because God has already taken care of it.
Again, we cannot really imagine this. Suppose a man raped your daughter. In the long run, by God’s grace and strength alone, you might be able to find a way to forgive this lout. Maybe. Even if somehow you did drop your anger against this person, it’s unlikely you’d ever become friends. You certainly would never trust him again, no matter how reformed he claimed to be following his prison term. But suppose, if you even can, that not only did you forgive this rapist, suppose that as part of your forgiveness you served out the prison term in his place. Suppose that he walked around a free man while you served 7-10 years in Jackson Prison. And then suppose that upon getting out of prison, as an additional application of your forgiveness, you and this person did become friends–close friends, even.
This really is unimaginable. I made this analogy up last week but I can no more conceive of it happening than probably most of you. Surely such a scenario does not belong to this world. It’s a fantasy world. A different world. But precisely such a different world is what every last one of us is a walking, talking example of. Because our hearts have been placed “in Christ,” you and I are living vignettes that testify to the reality of another world. We are bits and pieces of the New Creation. Like Marty McFly, we reveal the future. Marty knew about a world where streets would be named after people nobody had as yet even heard of. We know of a world where God forgives not only with wondrous perfection but by actually taking our punishment for us and then, when the hell of that had passed, becoming our best friend. All the hope and faith that is within us testifies to another world. My friends, if anyone is in Christ, behold! New Creation. It’s another world. It’s our world. Now and in the future. Give thanks to God for a grace so great!
Q & A 57
Q. How does “the resurrection of the body” comfort you?
A. Not only will my soul be taken immediately after this life to Christ its head, but also my very flesh will be raised by the power of Christ, reunited with my soul, and made like Christ’s glorious body.
Q & A 58
Q. How does the article concerning “life everlasting” comfort you?
A. Even as I already now experience in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, so after this life I will have perfect blessedness such as no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart has ever imagined: a blessedness in which to praise God forever.
Comments, Observations, and Questions
The Apostles’ Creed concludes with our future as redeemed people squarely in view. The Creed that began with God the Father and the creation of the universe ends with our future hope in Christ. In that the Creed is often spoken graveside at committal services, these concluding articles—particularly the one about the resurrection of the body—constitute bold and audacious claims of faith. To be able to claim that THIS body soon to be deposited into the ground and covered with dirt will in some sense rise again and be reunited to this person’s soul is a grand claim.
Q&A 57 provides needed instruction for people—including many longtime members of the church—who tend to forget that Jesus has a renewed resurrection body of flesh now and that he always will have this body. If you ask someone, “Does Jesus still have a body?” you may well find that not a few folks will claim he does not. Somehow we think Jesus shucked the new body he got on Easter morning. But the orthodox faith has claimed that once Jesus became an embodied human being in the womb of his mother Mary, he remains so forever after, including following his resurrection and ascension. As the earlier Q&A about the ascension made clear, the fact that Jesus is present at the right hand of the Father in embodied form is our hope that one day we, too, can have renewed bodies of flesh and also be in the kingdom in just that form.
A sermon on this Lord’s Day may be an occasion to ponder the profound mystery of this belief. As John Updike once said, just think of it: in the history of the human race billions of people have come and gone. The vast majority of bodies that ever existed long ago turned to dust, ash, and the like. Yet we claim God can retrieve every one. Bodies lost at sea, bodies buried, bodies burned, bodies torn to pieces: each and every can be restored and reunited to the spirit or soul of that person.
Scientists today sometimes wonder what will give us continuity from one life to the next. What will make us recognizable one to another (or even to our own selves)? Will our faces have the same shape? Will we have more-or-less the same nose and lips? Will old scars and distinguishing marks be visible? Or will it be this but also so much more that helps us to recognize ourselves and each other?
Also, this area of theology inevitably raises questions in people’s minds about the nature of humanity and what “happens” to us after we die. Can (and do) we exist in a conscious disembodied state between our physical deaths here on earth and our full restoration at the Last Day? Monists say that God created us as a fundamental unity of body and soul such that when the body dies, we die. Totally. We go extinct and would have no hope of ever having another conscious moment were it not for the grace and power of God by which he will raise us back up again at the Last Day as a body-soul unity. Others are dualists who claim that we are both body and soul such that we can possibly exist without our bodies, even though this may be undesirable. This option is often derided as too Greek with no biblical backing. So some others are Holistic Dualists who claim that although we are created to be always together as body and soul, the tragedy of sin has made it possible for our souls to be temporarily separated from our bodies. This is not a good state to be in and by God’s grace neither will it be a permanent state but during “the intermediate state” between death and resurrection, we can exist consciously and in the blessedness of the Lord’s bosom.
The Bible nowhere spells things out clearly enough for us to know for certain. Hence some opt for the option of “soul sleep,” which is in a way a version of the monistic claim that when we die bodily, we die altogether. There is, however, just enough New Testament evidence that we remain conscious and in felicity after we die (but before the resurrection) as to incline us perhaps in the direction of the Holistic Dualists.
Possible Biblical Texts
I Corinthians 15: Here is the obvious place to turn for illustrating particularly Q&A 57. Although some scholars have tried to claim that even this chapter actually claims that we will not necessarily have real bodies in the kingdom of God, it’s pretty obvious that Paul ties our hope for a bodily existence in the kingdom to the fact of Jesus’ having his own post-Easter body of real flesh. Yes, Paul makes it clear that this is a different kind of body, even coining some new Greek terms to try to explain this mysterious concept. But that our hope is an embodied hope is everywhere evident in this lyric chapter.
Daniel 12: Here is the one Old Testament passage that comes as close as any to professing the kind of belief in the resurrection of the body that later gets developed in the New Testament. In addition to some intriguing language about being raised from the dust of the earth, this passage has some nice imagery in it as well.
Philippians 1:18-26 and 3:12-4:1: Twice in his letter to the Philippian Christians Paul invokes themes that can go along with Lord’s Day 22. His words in chapter 1 have long given heft to the idea that we can die on this earth and yet go to be with Christ in some pre-resurrection, yet conscious, state. Then in chapter 3 Paul talks about the transformation of our bodies. Either text or both could be useful.
Illustration Idea #1: The x-ray was discovered only just over a century ago. Prior to that the only way to figure out what was going on inside a human body was to slice it open. But doctors now utilize the MRI which provides not only vivid images of something like a person’s kidney, but the MRI can show what the kidney looks like viewed from any angle: front, back, top, bottom, and even a layer by layer look inside.
This kind of technology is leading to the development of a whole new scientific frontier. Researchers are now scrambling to map the entirety of the human body, especially the brain. Some believe that if we can figure out the brain’s interactions, we may discover the secret of human consciousness and through that, perhaps, find the essence of the soul.
But as Oliver Sacks says, although a great deal of the brain’s functions have now been mapped, the integration of how they all cooperate–much less how they all come together in the creation of a human self–is the ultimate question in neuroscience. It is also a question that may never be answered. The mystery of the soul will likely remain beyond the ken of neurologists no matter how much knowledge they amass about the internal workings of those 100 trillion neural connections inside each of our brains.
What could possibly be the connection between that purplish-gray lump of soft physical matter behind our eyeballs and the spiritual soul which is the true essence of each one of us? What is the link between body and soul? What makes you you? And what does the complexity of all this tell us about the miracle of God’s being able to reassemble every single one of us in the resurrection at the last day?
Illustration Idea #2: Recently there has been a new development in science called “complexity theory.” In part this theory recognizes the incredible high-order complexity that attends various systems in the universe, including human beings. What goes into making you the person you are is not just this or that physical or mental feature but also the complex way by which all the components within you interact. Every person has a few trillion neurons in his or her brain. But what makes you unique is the way those neurons are connected, inter-connected, cross-wired, and cross-referenced to each other. It all forms a pattern, and no two patterns are ever alike. For those of you who like numbers, the number of possible interconnections within a single brain is around
10 15, which is a 10 followed by 15 zeroes: 10,000,000,000,000,000!
On the old TV series Star Trek the “transporter” is how Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock got around. They would get “beamed” down from the starship Enterprise to the planet below. The premise of this fictional machine is that a computer was able to scan Captain Kirk’s body, memorize every single speck of energy in that body (as well as every single connection and pattern), translate all that physical stuff into a beam of pure energy, shoot that beam out like a radio transmission, and then re-assemble the whole kit-n-kaboodle in another place. Of course, scientists admit that it would be impossible ever to develop such a device. The amount of data in just one person could never be analyzed by, much less stored in, any computer. We are, each one of us, simply too complex. The Christian faith claims that God, however, is able to maintain, store, and re-assemble your unique pattern and my unique pattern and everyone’s unique patterns. Is it a miracle of staggering, mind-boggling complexity? Of course, that’s why we call Easter “the grand miracle.” Christians of all people are not casual about what happened to Jesus. It was not inevitable that he be raised again and it was not automatic. This was no sleight-of-hand trick, no deception, it really happened in a way quite unexpected and exceedingly marvelous. And now it is our hope.
Faith gives us that hope but also counsels us to humility. Let’s not pretend this is easy to believe or that we have all the details of this sewn up in our minds. The resurrection of the body is a source of unending mystery and puzzlement. There is, in fact, far too much mystery and might in all this for us ever to be casual or bland about it. We need to find ways by the Holy Spirit to keep these matters of faith fresh and alive, vigorous and vital. And we can. Because it is by that same Holy Spirit of God that we have even now seen the cosmic sneak preview of coming attractions: we have seen and encountered the living Christ of God. We know it’s real and so we know that when one day God awakens from the dust of the earth those multitudes of people, we will be among them, raised back up to an eternal life in which all will be like the brightness of a noonday sky in springtime even as we ourselves pierce the cosmos with the stellar light of our holy shining in Christ!
Q & A 59
Q. What good does it do you, however, to believe all this?
A. In Christ I am righteous before God and heir to life everlasting.
Q & A 60
Q. How are you righteous before God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me.
All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.
Q & A 61
Q. Why do you say that through faith alone you are righteous?
A. Not because I please God by the worthiness of my faith. It is because only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me righteous before God, and because I can accept this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than through faith.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Here is the core of the gospel on vivid display, particularly as that gospel goodness was recovered in the Reformation era when the Heidelberg Catechism was written. The Catechism has now concluded its tour of the Apostles’ Creed and so before moving on to specific Christian and church practices like the sacraments, the authors pause to ask what good it is to embrace a creed like the one just examined. The answer is that in and through all of the specifics of the Apostles’ Creed is one shining truth: God in Christ has done it all for us. When it comes to salvation, the heavy lifting is accomplished by Another.
Q&A 60 in particular is pastorally sensitive. Yes, at any given moment we know full well we’re not perfect. We think thoughts we’d blush to have anyone near us be able to detect. We know we’re not the worst people on earth at the moment but we also know we’re far from the best. We know that we can get up off our knees after a time of prayer only to turn right around and lash out at someone in anger. As someone once said, we all know that even while sitting in the pew during a worship service, the wolves of sin are often howling within our souls. We come to church to worship God and to confess our sins but in the middle of that worship service, we spy that man, that woman, whom we find so attractive and before we know it, at least a smidgen of lust wafts through our imaginations.
Our conscience accuses us, Q&A 60 says. Honesty admits our inclination toward evil. AND YET, the gospel says that these facts about us are precisely why salvation has to be so free. We do not deserve this. We have not earned it and never could. AND YET, God is now able to look at us and see only Christ and his righteousness. The things that we see in our own lives (and that make us wonder if we could ever really be redeemed) God manages to look right past. WE see those things, God does not. We accuse ourselves, God does not. We keep turning toward evil paths, God keeps redirecting us and then never mentions the fact that he has redirected us a thousand times before, too.
Q&A 60 and 61 says that “all” we need to do is accept all of this with a grateful heart. I wonder, though, if we always know just how tough that is. Two things can trip us up. One, accepting this means the end of our striving. But that requires we swallow our pride. We give ourselves up TO God because we are forced to give up ON ourselves. Some find that hard to take. Two, accepting this means letting God’s gospel voice speak louder within the precincts of our hearts that the condemning voice that keeps telling us we are worthless. Sometimes we all allow ourselves to wallow in our own failures. Taking guilt trips of one kind or another becomes a kind of hobby that some people are loathe to relinquish. Some even take to wearing their guilt like a badge of honor, as though being able to list your own sins is a mark of spiritual merit in a kind of weird religious competition to out-confess our brothers and sisters.
But if we are to take to heart the truths in Lord’s Day 23, we need to let God’s gospel voice shout down our inner voices of condemnation and self-loathing.
John Calvin once called justification “the hinge of the Reformation.” Indeed, being able to see, embrace, and celebrate the idea of “faith alone by grace alone” opens up the floodgates of gospel joy. “All” we have to do is accept it. But for many, this “all” is trickier than it might sound. Remembering this when we preach on Lord’s Day 23 may be vital in terms of helping the message to take root in people’s hearts.
Possible Biblical Texts
Acts 16:16-40: The story of the conversion of the jailer is a wonderful one on which to preach and also serves as a nice illustration of the bottom line of Lord’s Day 23: namely, you don’t have to DO anything to be saved except to recognize that it has all been done for you already by Jesus. What remains is to accept this salvation with a welcoming and grateful heart.
Galatians 3:1-14: There are several places in Galatians (and in Romans for that matter) that illustrate the “faith alone, grace alone” idea of salvation. Chapter 3 has Paul sternly rebuking the Galatian Christians for going back on the gospel. Paul knew that the good news that is the gospel can quickly turn into bad news the moment someone appends the conjunction “and” to the gospel’s presentation of grace. We are saved by grace. Period. But in Galatia some had begun to believe that salvation is a matter of “grace and . . .” We are saved by grace AND by observing certain rituals; by grace AND by keeping kosher; by grace AND . . . , well, fill in the blank but the moment there is a blank to fill in after grace, the gospel becomes shaky and uncertain news, not good news.
People sometimes come to ministers and ask, “What do I have to do to go to heaven? How can I get right with my Maker?” And some ministers are only too happy to take on the role of a spiritual physician. So they dole out advice like, “Follow the Ten Commandments, pray every day, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t swear. Go to church twice every Sunday, give your tithe cheerfully to the General Fund” and so forth. And so eventually many people think that getting to heaven is a matter of toting up moral merit points. People ask, “What must I do?” and the church all-too-often answers by handing out a long list of Do’s and an equally long list of Don’ts. If you fit this bill like the rest of us, then you might just get in. And most people are not surprised to hear it. They assume salvation will not just happen. You have to do something.
That’s wrong, of course. The whole purpose of the Reformation was to point that out. There is a very strategic reason why the Heidelberg Catechism delays its treatment of the Ten Commandments until the very end. There are 129 questions and answers in the Catechism, but you don’t find any talk of Do’s and Don’ts until long about question 90. Until then the Catechism isn’t interested in what we do or don’t do, it’s only interested in what God did and what Jesus did in creation and redemption. Lord’s Day 23 comes at the conclusion of the Catechism’s treatment of the Apostles’ Creed. That great Creed contains a summary of everything a person needs to know to be a child of God.
But have you ever noticed that you can recite the entire Apostles’ Creed without ever once breathing a syllable about what we must do? About the only time human conduct gets even remotely referred to in the Creed is when we say we believe in “the forgiveness of sins.” But all that line tells us is that most of the time what we do in life is wrong but God loves us anyway.
What must you do to be saved? Nothing. The “doing” part was Jesus’ contribution to salvation. All that’s left for us is to believe that he really pulled it off on our behalf.
Q & A 62
Q. Why can’t our good works be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of our righteousness?
A. Because the righteousness which can pass God’s judgment must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law. But even our best works in this life are imperfect and stained with sin.
Q & A 63
Q. How can our good works be said to merit nothing when God promises to reward them in this life and the next?
A. This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.
Q & A 64
Q. But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?
A. No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ through true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
“I like to sin, God likes to forgive. Really, the world is admirably arranged.” Some version of this cynical line (often attributed to the German thinker Heinrich Heine) is well-known to most pastors. And the thinking behind it was well-known to the writers of the New Testament—Paul famously wrestles with this devil-may-care attitude in places like Romans 6. The conundrum is basically this: if nothing we can do can EARN God’s grace and, having received grace for free, if nothing we ever do can DISQUALIFY us from that grace, then why live a moral life? Grace apparently means that human action matters not a whit. It can’t get you in. But if you are already in, your actions can’t get you kicked out. So what prevents the “Eat, drink, and be merry” attitude?
Lord’s Day 24 wrestles with this. On the one hand, Q&A 62 downgrades the relative importance or merit of our actions. It’s the old Calvinist “filthy rags” approach by which even the best we can muster is still so far off the mark as to be hardly worth talking about. On the other hand, Q&A 63 says that God is pleased by our works and will not ignore them when assessing our lives. But even this happens post-grace such that we peg no saving value or power to our actions. Finally Q&A 64 asks the inevitable question: why doesn’t this make us indifferent? The answer: grace. Again!
Grace has a two-fold effect in the Reformed tradition. First, the sheer power of grace—and the fact that God’s own Son had to go all the way to death to make this grace possible for us—tells us for certain that if we’re trying to work our own way to heaven, we should give it up. Forget about your own works. They are not worth thinking about compared to beauty and power of God’s grace and of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross that unleashed that grace.
At the same time . . . getting graced by God makes you GRACIOUS in return. Grace not only forgives, it renews (and inevitably so at that). If a person really did say, “Let’s sin more so that God can forgive us more,” that would indicate that such a person has not really received (much less really understood) God’s grace to begin with.
To use an analogy from Philip Yancey: what would we think of a man who, on his wedding night, immediately began to negotiate with his new bride as to how much adultery she’d tolerate from him. A man like that clearly did not understand the vows he had made earlier that day. What sense would it make to pledge lifelong fidelity only to turn right around and begin to plot infidelity!?
So far so good. But matters can become complicated in this area, too. We all know how easy it is for all of us to pivot from viewing the spiritual fruit we produce as a proper sign of our gratitude to God for the gift of his grace to viewing that fruit as actually being the main thing that distinguishes us from all the other people around us in life. Suddenly the grace of God fades into the background. It’s not God’s unmerited grace that makes me different from old so-and-so down the block but rather it’s the fact that I am a better person and lead a better life. Period.
But to approach life this way is like thinking that the peaches on the tree are what created the roots below the soil. Such a thought is foolish, counterintuitive, and will (in the end) lead to a whole lot of other theological silliness that will hurt the people around us even as it will have the tendency to make us, well, downright UNgracious.
Possible Biblical Texts
Luke 18:9-14: This well-known parable presents the dynamics of Lord’s Day 24 as well as any passage. The pious Pharisee at the story’s center is not wrong to be thankful for the good works he does. He is, however, incorrect to view those as the root of his salvation. The moment we confuse the fruits of a grace-filled life with the root of grace itself, then those good things become a point of comparison with other people—and this kind of comparison always leads us to puff up ourselves at the expense of other people. “I thank God I am not like other people.” Well, being a believer is a proper cause for gratitude to God. But just what is it that makes us unlike others? Is it how we live or the grace that brought us into the kingdom in the first place?
John 15:1-17: Few passages touch on the idea behind Q&A 64 better than this one—indeed, the imagery of Q&A 64 derives from John 15. Here Jesus makes eminently clear that whatever goodness flows into and out of our lives stems (literally!) from Jesus himself who is the trunk onto which we are but grafted branches. A key Johannine theme is sounded in this passage: the idea of abiding or “remaining” in Christ. This taps (pun intended again!) the rich vein of spiritual thought elsewhere in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s writings, and the enormous importance of the whole idea of our now dwelling “in Christ.”
Galatians 5:16-26: Paul’s presentation of the “fruit of the Spirit” also ties in with the theology behind Lord’s Day 24. The traits listed in Galatians 5:22 are indeed characteristics we exhibit and works that we do and yet these are all clearly of the Spirit, as verse 25 makes plain. We live BY the Spirit and we keep in step WITH the Spirit. It’s also good to note here that unlike the gifts of the Spirit (which are different for different people such that no one person possesses ALL of the gifts given by the Holy Spirit), the fruit of the Spirit are meant to come in all their fullness to each and every believer. A given Christian may or may not feel “called” to be a teacher but may feel led in the direction of being gifted in the area of hospitality. That’s a legitimate thing to claim when it comes to spiritual gifts. But when it comes to spiritual fruit, one may not say, “I don’t think I am called to kindness and so will focus on faithfulness instead.” No, the gifts come to each and every person.
It is only right, fitting, and proper to give thanks to God for the good fruit we produce in our lives. We are properly grateful for what God helps us to do in ministry and in the life of the church. But even this proper gratitude can go off the rails. Because the moment we begin to stack up our lives against the lives of those around us, it doesn’t take long before the focus becomes what we do, how we act, what we perform. The shape of our lives, and the myriad of activities in which we engage that gives our lives that shape, becomes the taking-off point in our assessment of life.
What we forget when that happens is, of course, nothing less than the grace of God in Christ Jesus. It’s always a balancing act. Should you be grateful that you find prayer not only possible but deeply meaningful? Should you be glad that you have opportunity to engage in ministry projects that benefit the needy in our community? If you are able in your life to avoid committing crimes or cheating on your spouse, should you be thankful for the strength of character that prevents you from walking down certain sordid paths? Of course (on all counts)! But we must never forget that each of those things is a fruit of God’s prior grace at work in us. Our virtues, our piety, our coming to church on Sunday mornings are not the roots of God’s love of us but the fruits that grow out of the root of grace that made us Christians to begin with.
We routinely mix up roots and fruits. We turn the tree upside-down. The production of spiritual fruit in your life–the very kinds of things for which you may be thankful to God in comparison to other people who lack such fruitful lives–grow out of God’s gracious love. They don’t attract God’s love, they flow from God’s love. As C.S. Lewis says, the roof of a greenhouse shines brightly because the sun shines on it. The roof doesn’t attract the sun by virtue of being bright to begin with, however! Or, in another Lewis analogy, suppose a six-year-old little girl says, “Daddy, may I have $5 to buy you a Christmas present?” Well, any decent father will give the child the money and, come Christmas morning, will exclaim loudly and gleefully over whatever bauble the child bought. But only a fool would say that by virtue of the gift, the father came out $5 ahead on the deal!
We do the things we do for God because he has slipped us the money in the first place. We shine with the light of spiritual virtues and grow juicy spiritual fruit on the boughs of our lives because the sunshine of God’s grace shined on us to begin with, starting at that time when we were ourselves so sinful and tawdry that at first the light of God revealed only our slovenly lives and the muck of our sinfulness. While we were yet sinners God shined a light on us. If, as that light still shines on us today, if we now look a lot prettier than we did at first when grace found us prodigal children eating out of a pig’s trough in a far country, then that, too, is singularly and solely the action of God’s grace in our lives, not anything for which we can take much credit.
When we compare ourselves to others, that is exactly what we are doing: comparing ourselves instead of focusing on God’s grace. In truth, the only one to whom we should compare ourselves in life is no one less than Jesus himself. He is the model, the pioneer of the faith, the express image of God par excellence to whom we seek to gain conformity. And so when we compare ourselves to him, we will see things for which to be thankful. We will, hopefully anyway, see areas in our lives where we have improved, where we have become at least a little more Christ-like. We will be able, properly so, to be thankful for church, for our participation in ministry, for the things that make us different from other people. But so long as Jesus is the place where we began all such permutations and thoughts, maybe we will have a better chance not only to remember the grace that got us to where we are now but also how very far we have to go in displaying Jesus to the world.
Q & A 65
Q. It is through faith alone that we share in Christ and all his benefits: where then does that faith come from?
A. The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.
Q & A 66
Q. What are sacraments?
A. Sacraments are visible, holy signs and seals. They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and seal that promise. And this is God’s gospel promise: to grant us forgiveness of sins and eternal life by grace because of Christ’s one sacrifice accomplished on the cross.
Q & A 67
Q. Are both the word and the sacraments then intended to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation?
A. Yes! In the gospel the Holy Spirit teaches us and by the holy sacraments confirms that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross.
Q & A 68
Q. How many sacraments did Christ institute in the New Testament?
A. Two: holy baptism and the holy supper.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
“What are sacraments?” Q&A 66 asks. It’s a good and logical question, but how many of us in the church can really ask and answer it in any way that will be fresh and vibrant? Most of us are too steeped in the sacraments to be able to see them from a foreign perspective. So we need to take this question seriously and try to answer it by stepping outside ourselves to see things from a new angle.
Sometimes a good question can turn things around. Some while back I read an article written by someone who had visited an Asian country and there had witnessed that culture’s custom of bringing small, decorative plates of food to cemeteries to be placed on graves. This custom was a way to honor the memory of the departed loved ones and to “feed” them, as it were, on their journey through the afterlife. The Western person who observed this practice found it to be highly strange.
“What sense,” he wondered aloud, “does it make to bring food to the dead? That won’t do them any good!” “Well, perhaps not,” the Asian person replied, “but then, have you ever wondered what sense it makes when you bring flowers to the graves of your loved ones? What good does that do the dead person? Why do you do that?” That question from a fresh, outside perspective turned things around for this person and forced him to wonder about something he had taken for granted and merely accepted his whole life. Maybe we all have various cultural customs and practices which we do without thinking but which we actually would have a hard time explaining if pressed to the wall with a good question.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper may be similar: some of us at least cannot remember a time in our lives when we did not occasionally see babies baptized and trays of bread passed around. We don’t often ask why we do it–we just do. We end up being like the man who, when asked, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” replied, “Believe in it! Shucks, I’ve seen it done!” But that was not a very useful answer! The replies we give to questions about the sacraments need to be better thought-out, more reflective, more deeply rooted in the Christian tradition.
If someone were on the outside looking in at Christian worship services, there would be a number of features that would look similar to practices in other parts of life. It is not unusual to see people gather in large groups. The same thing happens at every sports event, musical concert, fireworks display, and parade. It is a little bit more unusual these days to see people singing in a large group, but even this can be seen elsewhere as when the national anthem is sung before a game or when concert-goers sing along on their old favorites. And although preaching is its own particular form of discourse, it looks a bit similar to someone’s giving a speech, and speeches happen everywhere politicians travel and at any number of corporate seminars and conventions.
But Christian gatherings often include also baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But that kind of ritual is not at all similar to what happens at your average convention or other public gathering. The sacraments stand out as uniquely Christian. And so an outsider could very well ask, “Why do you do that? Why are those necessary?” A typical answer might be, “Because Jesus told us to do these things in remembrance of him.” Well, OK, but then why did Jesus suggest this? After all, we can and do read about the things represented in the sacraments. We can and do sing about those things. We can and do recite these matters in the creeds. And certainly we also hear the meaning of it all expanded on in sermons. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper do not add any content to the Christian faith. There is nothing conveyed in the sacraments that you do not already know from other sources. So why not just stick with the teachings we receive verbally?
The Catechism in Lord’s Day 25 tells us that the sacraments were given to reinforce the gospel to our dull minds. True, we don’t gain anything from the sacraments that we do not already learn in also God’s Word—the sacraments do not add any CONTENT to the message of the gospel—but they “seal” those truths to us in a more vivid way.
Just how that works is a source of ongoing mystery and no small amount of consternation. Does anything “happen” in the sacraments? Or is there just a visual aid? Just another way to drive home a purely intellectual point? Are the sacraments magic? Or are they just symbols to remind us of stuff that is already true? If I shake your hand, the handshake does not make us friends but instead shows that we already are friends. The handshake doesn’t create a friendship but is simply part of the relationship already in place. I can be your friend whether I shake your hand or not. So is that what the sacraments are like–symbols of something that would be true whether we performed the act or not?
These are vital questions. Does anything happen to you because of the sacraments–something which would not happen if you skipped them? The answer that our Reformed tradition has given lies somewhere between those who make the sacraments magic and those who make them only symbolic. Because listen: if you think that nothing happens in the sacraments, then there is little reason to celebrate them.
You really do not need the sacraments to remember what is in the Bible. Some skilled novelist or film maker could convey the truths of our theology in very dramatic and stunning ways–depictions that would stick with you for a very long time. You are not going to learn anything new by watching a baptism or by participating in communion. So if it is just a reminder of what you already know, there are lots of ways to get such reminders–ways which do not require water, bread, and wine.
Yet for a couple of thousand years now the church has insisted on these particular rituals. The church has done so because Jesus commanded us to observe these sacraments. But more than that we believe that the reason Jesus commanded them is because he knew that his Holy Spirit would be at work in baptism and communion to do something for and to us. Perhaps for too long in the Reformed tradition we have neglected the Spirit’s operation in the sacraments. If so, perhaps a sermon on Lord’s Day 25 is a chance to explore a bit more what that concept of “seal” means when it comes to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. What is sealed to us? How does that happen? How does it change us?
Possible Biblical Texts
Hebrews 10:1-18: This is a striking passage for lots of reasons, not the least of which (as C.S. Lewis pointed out) is that it claims that what we now symbolize through the Lord’s Supper is MORE real than what once happened in the Temple in and through all of that literal sacrificing of animals. As it turns out, those undeniably real sacrifices of animals were the shadow, the sneak preview, of the real thing that was yet to come and that we now re-experience each time we take the bread and cup to ourselves.
Genesis 17: In the tradition of Christian theology, it is generally acknowledged that circumcision is in its own way an Old Testament sacrament. Even as the Lord’s Supper now replaces for Christians the Seder of the Passover meal, so baptism is now the covenant symbol that replaces the old sign of circumcision. What may be interesting to explore theologically from Genesis 17 borders on what could be an uncomfortable subject for some people; namely, the fact that as covenantal signs and seals go, circumcision was very personal, deeply touching and affecting the flesh of the one who received the sacrament. But when you think about it, baptism and the Lord’s Supper are no less intimate. Both directly touch the flesh of the person receiving the sacrament—indeed, in the Lord’s Supper, we ingest and make part of the very fiber of our being the elements involved. The sacraments are vivid and all-encompassing. Maybe recalling the first biblical sacrament will make people aware of this once again.
These days young people can now download and store virtually an unlimited number songs on devices like iPods and iPads, with “cloud” storage providing even more memory space. A lot of kids today say they love this because they can store hundreds of their “favorite songs.” Typically we reserve the word “favorite” for just one or two things. If I ask you what your favorite pizza topping is, I wouldn’t expect you to give me a catalog of dozens of meats, vegetables, and cheeses. I’d expect you to say just “pepperoni” or “pineapple.” Yet with music we don’t deem it odd to have multiple favorites. Music has that kind of appeal.
The technology of digital recordings and digital remasterings of older recordings is striking for also the marvelous quality of the sound. Not so long ago if you were going to wear stereo headphones, you’d have to don one of those really big, earmuff-like devices–the kind of headgear that made you look like Michael Dukakis atop a tank! But today you need do no more than place into your ear tiny plugs hardly larger than a Q-Tip. Yet the sound you get out of that Q-Tip is hugely sharper than what came out of even those outsized headphones years ago.
When he was a boy, C.S. Lewis loved to listen to records played on his family’s gramophone. By today’s digital standards, the sound that came from old gramophones was very bad. Indeed, Lewis says that the recording of a symphony orchestra was reduced to little more than a single sound pulse. You could not pick out the sounds of any individual instruments but heard only the basic melody coming through. Years later Lewis had the chance to attend a live orchestra concert and he was actually disappointed that he could no longer hear that single pulse of sound! He could now pick out cellos and violins, flutes and oboes, each clearly contributing to the music. It was ridiculous of course. Lewis had become so accustomed to a bad copy that he could not at first appreciate the real thing.
Something of that same dynamic is going on in Hebrews 10, and when we combine this passage with the Catechism’s overview of sacraments, we may come to see a wonderful aspect of the mystery of faith. Hebrews 10 reminds us that once upon a time, God’s people addressed their problem with sin through a very concrete, very graphic, very bloody act.
As required by God’s Law, they’d come to worship with a critter in tow. Maybe it was a dove nestled in the crook of your arm, maybe it was a goat you were tugging along at the end of a rope. You took this living thing to “church,” but you would not bring it back home once the worship service was over. Because to show the seriousness of sin and the cost of having that sin forgiven, the bird’s neck would have to be wrung, the animal’s jugular would have to be slit. And so the Temple was always filled with the aroma of burning flesh even as the floors ran red with blood. This was worship in a slaughterhouse.
But the New Testament, especially in places like the Book of Hebrews, claims something quite surprising. Because we are reminded often that in the days of the Old Testament, people went to the Temple and engaged in a lot of literal slashing, bleeding, and burning of animals. But now the New Testament tells us that all along those sacrifices had been a metaphor, a copy of an original but not the original thing itself. Those undeniably physical rituals had, as it turns out, been just the shadow of the real thing yet to come. Jesus ended up being the final sacrifice and now, as people who believe in this Jesus as Lord, we get connected to his sacrifice through pieces of bread and sips of wine as well as through the baptismal washing we get not in a bath of blood but through just the sprinkling of water.
So now we say that the sacraments, involving no more than nice clean water, fresh hunks of bread, and tidy cups of wine, these are more real, more substantial, more in touch with the true sacrifice that saves us than all those animal and avian sacrifices that went before. But that is most striking indeed. As C.S. Lewis said, from all outward appearances, you’d guess it would be the other way around.
Think of it this way: suppose that you were sitting just outside a ballpark playing an X-Box video game version of baseball. Then suppose a real baseball player walks by. He’s still in his uniform with grass stains on his pants, dirt still stuck to his cleats, sweat running down his back from all the running around he had done during a just-completed baseball game. Wouldn’t it be rather startling if you held up your GameBoy and said to this ball player, “This is real baseball, man. What you do is just the metaphor that sets up my very real game right here in the palm of my hand.”
Well, surely this would be a startling thing to say. And surely it would represent a pretty big mistake. It’s the video game that is the metaphor, the imitation and simulation, of the genuine article. The real thing is the game actually played on a grassy field with wooden Louisville Slugger bats. How could something less substantial be the real thing?
So here: Imagine walking into a temple holding in your hand a cube of bread and a little shot glass of wine. Imagine coming up to the altar area and smelling the blood, seeing the smoke rise from some burning carcass. Then imagine claiming that you were holding in your hand the reality of which that actual sacrifice on the altar was but the shadow and metaphor. It is all-but certain such a claim would provoke disbelief if not outright ridicule. Of course, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was itself every bit as real, graphic, and bloody an event as anything that ever took place in the temples of ancient Israel. Yet we now claim that our participation in that event, our getting caught up in the saving power of that reality on Golgotha, comes in something as simple as water in a baptism font, bread and wine on a communion table. But that seems less real than what they once did in worship.
Yet here is the mystery of faith: Jesus did for us what we could never have done for ourselves no matter how many sacrifices we made. By the grace of God, the vivid (but finally terrible) sacrifices of animals came to an end. In fact, all of our human strivings and efforts have now come to an end. When we come to the Lord’s table, the grace comes not because of what we brought along with us to church that day. The grace comes because of what we receive from the hand of our Savior, who doles out bread and wine to connect us to his flesh and his blood.
Q & A 69
Q. How does holy baptism remind and assure you that Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross benefits you personally?
A. In this way: Christ instituted this outward washing and with it promised that, as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul’s impurity, that is, all my sins.
Q & A 70
Q. What does it mean to be washed with Christ’s blood and Spirit?
A. To be washed with Christ’s blood means that God, by grace, has forgiven our sins because of Christ’s blood poured out for us in his sacrifice on the cross.
To be washed with Christ’s Spirit means that the Holy Spirit has renewed and sanctified us to be members of Christ, so that more and more we become dead to sin and live holy and blameless lives.
Q & A 71
Q. Where does Christ promise that we are washed with his blood and Spirit as surely as we are washed with the water of baptism?
A. In the institution of baptism, where he says: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
“The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.” This promise is repeated when Scripture calls baptism “the water of rebirth” and the washing away of sins.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Lord’s Day 26 is the first of two fairly lengthy Catechism Lord’s Days that deal with baptism. The Catechism highlights all the necessary material about the promise of baptism, the dual washing of baptism, the seal on us that baptism gives. In short, this covers a lot of theological territory. It may be difficult to encapsulate all of this in one sermon. Still, a main line of Lord’s Day 26 reminds us that baptism is more radical than we sometimes think. It’s too easy to make it merely a rite of passage—something on a par with getting the tot’s sixth-month portrait snapped at Wal-Mart or something. But Q&A 70 in particular reminds us that far more is going on that just that. In the past, and probably today yet as well, there were parents who believed baptism was some sort of magic–a little divine hocus-pocus which would automatically usher a baby into God’s grace. The fear of many parents was that if their child died before baptism, he or she would be lost. Some people can recall times when a father rushed his child to the baptismal font at the first possible moment. Sometimes the mother was not even able to attend the baptism because she was still in bed recovering from her labors.
However, seeing baptism as magic is wrong. Few would chalk up as “lost” a child who died prior to baptism. Instead Reformed thinkers have generally said that baptism symbolizes a truth that was present from the moment the child was conceived: the truth that the children of believing parents are holy to God.
But if it’s wrong to ascribe so much power to baptism as to make it into a kind of magic trick, it’s also wrong to so empty baptism of its power as to make it merely a symbol. Think of it this way: most of the time when a couple gets married in church, it is the ceremony which creates the marriage. Prior to the ceremony the bride and groom were not married and so, one hopes, had not been living together, either. But the marriage ceremony changes that–the bride and groom leave as husband and wife. A new thing gets created. Every once in a while, however, a wedding ceremony is held in church for a couple who, as a matter of fact, are already legally married.
This happens sometimes when the bride and groom are from two different countries–if a French woman wants to marry an American man and if the couple wants to live in America after their marriage, then even if the formal ceremony will take place in France, immigration laws demand a legal marriage in this country first. So legally such a couple would be husband and wife and could live together as such even before the formal church ceremony in France. In that case the church ceremony would not really create the marriage but would instead affirm it in a public, formal way. Such a wedding would not be an empty ritual but technically it would not be the moment when the marriage gets created.
Applying this to baptism we can wonder which analogy fits: is baptism like a typical wedding ceremony which actually creates a new reality? Or is baptism like my wedding in France example–a ritual which merely confirms something which already exists?
The truth may well lie somewhere in between. On the one hand the covenant promises of God that extend to the children of believers are already there prior to the baptism. In that sense baptism is a little like the church wedding in France: it does not magically create a new status so much as it openly confirms what was already true. On the other hand, however, something significant really does happen in baptism. By the power of the Holy Spirit, something changes, something happens, something gets sealed that had not been so sealed before. When I was in seminary a missionary who worked her whole life in Africa spoke to our class one day. She told stories similar to the ones other missionaries tell about black magic, the tangible presence of demons, and encounters with those who clearly were possessed. After her lecture one of my classmates asked this missionary why that kind of demonic activity is so common in Africa when it is nearly rare in Europe or North America. She thought for a moment and then said, “Maybe it’s because there are so many baptized people here as opposed to Africa. Maybe baptism makes a difference.”
I don’t know if she’s right about that, and she didn’t know for sure either. But it’s possible she was onto something. It’s also possible that entertaining such a thought puts a person in closer touch with the true power of God’s Spirit than the way we typically think.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote a short story in which she wanted to convey the punch of baptism. So in her story “The River” she has a young boy actually drown when he attempts to baptize himself in a river. When someone asked O’Connor why she decided to convey baptism in so traumatic and violent a way, she replied that when dealing with the nearly blind, you have to draw very large, simple caricatures.
O’Connor wanted to shake people out of their bland, suburban acceptance of baptism as a small rite of passage on a par with getting the child’s six-month portrait taken at Wal-Mart. Baptism is not something that parents have done for their children–it is something that God does in a traumatic way. The essence of that child is drowned, slain, pulled under the surface of the river of Christ’s blood and carried downstream by the current. We all of us die in baptism so that God can then also raise us up to eternal life.
In the sacraments the Spirit works God’s wonders, and the Spirit does that in an intimate way. Beyond shaking hands at the door after the service, we don’t get much physical contact in worship. We may be physically involved through our singing, clapping, standing, and sitting, but that is still different from being touched intimately. The sacraments do that, though. The water touches us. You saw it this morning. You saw the drips, the babies squirmed to feel it, I even got the parents’ shoes a bit wet. The sacraments touch us. In them the Spirit of God caresses us as intimately and as surely as when your spouse wraps his or her arms around you in an ardent hug and kiss.
Possible Biblical Texts
Romans 6:1-14: Lots of baptism-related material gets caught up in Paul’s rhetoric in Romans 6. But as striking as anything here is Paul’s firm claim that baptism is finally a kind of death. In baptism we die with Christ. But Romans 6 sounds the needed note of realism as well in that we are told that despite our having died to sin, we now need to live into that reality through a series of spiritual practices. We need to count ourselves dead to sin and then live like we believe it. We need to resist the sin that, despite our having been baptized into Christ’s death, still nags at us during this life. All in all, Paul nicely captures a number of the dynamics brought out in Lord’s Day 26.
Exodus 2: This passage may not come readily to mind when thinking about baptism but the story of Moses and his little reed basket actually provides a near-perfect vignette of what baptism is all about. Like Noah’s Ark, so Moses’ reed basket is a biblical foreshadowing of our surviving on the waters of death and being drawn out from death by the grace of God.
Colossians 2:6-15: This is another Pauline passage where the connection between baptism and our dying with Christ is made crystal clear. It is also one of the few passages that makes explicit the baptism-circumcision connection.
Illustration Idea #1: Most people who drown or who come close to drowning sink under the water with a lung-full of air–enough oxygen to last maybe a minute or so. Scientists tell us that the instinct not to breathe under water is so strong that it overcomes the otherwise natural desire to inhale whenever we sense we’re running out of air. So drowning victims undergo a time of voluntary apnea as the body refuses to do what it knows it must do; namely, breathe. But after about 85 seconds the break point is reached and the body decides to draw in a breath after all. The result, of course, is an in-rush of water and the end comes quite soon.
Not a very pleasant way to open a sermon! And these dark facts surely seem far removed from our normal conceptions of baptism. Mostly baptisms are bright, happy affairs. We gather our children around the font to witness this sacrament and most of us end up wearing a smile before it’s through.
That’s fine and proper, of course. Baptism is a celebration of grace and goodness, of hope and peace. But according to Paul baptism is also about drowning and death. Baptism is about God’s taking hold of what Paul calls the body of sin and holding it under the water until it stops kicking. But you cannot imagine gathering little ones around a pool to watch a drowning!
Indeed, some time ago I read an account of how baptisms used to be practiced in Latin America. As part of the baptism ceremony, the village priest would lower the baby into a small coffin even as the mother poured a bucket of water into the little casket. The priest would then solemnly declare the child’s sinful nature drowned. But then the priest would quickly lift the baby out of the coffin and declare the child resurrected to a new life.
That’s what baptism is about, Paul says. Baptism points to our very real involvement in the death and resurrection of Jesus. All of which means we probably underestimate the power of this sacrament most of the time. Perhaps if we really appreciated the meaning of our baptisms we would, as Marjorie Thompson once suggested, celebrate the dates of our baptisms with as much seriousness as when we celebrate our birthdays.
Illustration Idea #2: Bruce Beresford’s film from the 1980s, Tender Mercies, is one of the finer films you are ever likely to see. The film chronicles the story of Mac Sledge, a one-time country-western singing star whose life later dissolved into a fog of alcohol and shiftlessness. Divorced from his wife and estranged from his only daughter, Mac staggers through life until one night he collapses onto the porch of a small, lonely little motel and gas station out in the middle of nowhere on the Texas prairie. The motel is run by Rosa Lee, a young widow who is raising her boy, Sonny, and trying to make ends meet. Even though Mac is a shipwreck of a human being, grizzled, drunk, and despairing, Rosa Lee takes him in, sets him to work for her, and through this, transformation comes to Mac’s life. Over time he kicks his drinking habit, becomes a kind of father figure to young Sonny, ends up marrying Rosa Lee, and begins to attend the Baptist church in which Rosa Lee is a member of the choir.
In one lovely scene, both Mac and Sonny are baptized one Sunday morning After the pastor dunks him into the waters of baptism, Mac stands back up, blinking and drenched, water dripping down off his balding head and glistening on his grizzled beard. It’s a portrait of grace. But after the service, Sonny and Mac are sitting outside the motel and Sonny says, “Well, we done it. We got baptized.” “Yup, we sure did,” Mac replies. “You feel any different” the lad asks. Chuckling, Mac says, “I can’t say I do, not really.”
But we as viewers know the truth: Mac is different. Deep down on the inside of his heart and soul, Mac is a changed man. But outwardly it’s true: the baptism doesn’t seem to change much, and it surely doesn’t make life necessarily any easier. In the course of the film Mac manages to have a kind of reconciliation with his estranged daughter, now in her mid-20s. But no sooner does this good thing happen and the daughter is killed in a terrible car wreck. Near the end of the film, still grieving, Mac stands in the middle of a vegetable garden and tells Rosa Lee that he doesn’t understand life. He can’t understand the tender mercies of God that led him to Rosa Lee and to the transformation his life so badly needed. But then, he can’t understand why his daughter had to die, either. We often hear people pondering why bad things happen in life, but Mac is honest enough to admit to being equally flummoxed by the good things. Grace can be as arresting as tragedy.
Mostly, though, grace and tragedy, the good and the bad, co-exist in this life. Yet as Christians journeying through this world, we say that the one thing that makes the difference for us is the one thing that, by all outward appearances at least, seems liked it could not possibly make any difference: baptism.
Q & A 72
Q. Does this outward washing with water itself wash away sins?
A. No, only Jesus Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sins.
Q & A 73
Q. Why then does the Holy Spirit call baptism the water of rebirth and the washing away of sins?
A. God has good reason for these words. To begin with, God wants to teach us that the blood and Spirit of Christ take away our sins just as water removes dirt from the body. But more important, God wants to assure us, by this divine pledge and sign, that we are as truly washed of our sins spiritually as our bodies are washed with water physically.
Q & A 74
Q. Should infants also be baptized?
A. Yes. Infants as well as adults are included in God’s covenant and people, and they, no less than adults, are promised deliverance from sin through Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit who produces faith. Therefore, by baptism, the sign of the covenant, they too should be incorporated into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers. This was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, which was replaced in the New Testament by baptism.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
If a preacher chooses to preach separate sermons on each of the four Lord’s Days dealing with the sacraments (Lord’s Days 26-27 on baptism and 28-29 on the Lord’s Supper), some choices have to be made lest there be too much overlap among those sermons. The basics of baptism’s meaning were dealt with in Lord’s Day 26. Lord’s Day 27’s contribution is two-fold: one, the vividness of the spiritual reality behind baptism is brought out in Q&A 73; two, the question of whether or not to baptize infants is brought up in Q&A 74. Because this question of infant baptism is the most unique feature to this Lord’s Day, the sermon starter ideas presented here will focus on this theme. For broader thoughts on baptism, refer to the sermon starter for Lord’s Day 26.
In general, a sermon on L.D. 27 can become a fine opportunity to talk about the whole concept—so central in Reformed theology—of the covenant. We all know that we are citizens of God’s kingdom. What we sometimes forget is that, as Old Testament scholar Dr. John Stek always taught, the covenant is how God has chosen to administer his kingdom. Covenant is what brings us into the kingdom in the first place and is then what rules, regulates, and guides us as citizens within that same kingdom.
In Scripture there are two primary kinds of covenants: a main type is the royal (land) grant covenant in which God (the superior party) approaches someone and, out of a clear blue sky, makes huge promises with no strings attached. So Abram is told in Genesis 12 that he will be given descendants and that they will be given a land. David is told in II Samuel 7 that forever there will be an heir of David’s on the throne of Israel. These are covenant promises of sheer grace—they are granted free and clear because our all-powerful God simply chooses to lavish such treats upon us.
Of course, there is that other kind of covenant, too: the suzerain-vassal treaty in which promises are made by the more powerful party in the agreement but in this case they come with some resulting provisions. So at Mount Sinai the Israelites were assured that Yahweh was their God and would be so forever BUT the result was that this same God had a whole lot of creational norms (called laws, statutes, ordinances, and decrees) that the people needed to follow both as a sign that they were following this God and as a way to keep the covenant relationship alive and secure.
In the New Testament, there is no question that in Christ Jesus—and through his “blood of the new covenant” shed for us on the cross—we are on the receiving end of a covenant of grace. Grace is what saves us. Grace is what brings us into Christ’s kingdom. Our receiving the sign of baptism signifies our joyful reception of all that the Lord provides.
Here is where the hook comes for the practice of baptizing also infants. In the Old Testament, circumcision was the sign given to depict a person’s participation in the grace of God extended to Abraham. Because God’s covenant is fundamentally a gracious act on God’s part alone, there was no reason even an infant could not receive this sign. There was no need to wait to see if the person in question was worthy of kingdom inclusion or that this person had acquired a sufficient level of understanding of it all to agree to it. To do so would cut against the grain of a covenant by grace alone.
Sometimes even today yet we approach baptism in the wrong way. Yes, we baptize our babies in the Reformed tradition, and yet still in the back of our minds we take a “wait and see” approach when it comes to whether this baptism really “took hold.” We too easily look at an adult who had been baptized as a child (but whose later life does not show forth much piety or spiritual seriousness) and just assume that whatever that person’s baptism had meant, it is now vitiated, done away with, set at naught. But if baptism seals to us the real washing away of sins by Jesus’ blood (as Q&A 73 claims)—and if the whole thing is first of all about God’s initiative, grace, and work and not about who we are or what we do—then are we correct in so swiftly setting aside a person’s baptism? Can we really ever make baptism meaningless?
These are not easy questions to raise in a sermon, and even harder questions (that may defy our ability to answer) arise quickly. But if the gospel is about comfort, hope, and assurance, is it all bad if we suggest to the parents/grandparents of “wayward” children that the baptism that child had as an infant may still have more meaning and efficacy than we sometimes think? No, we don’t want to suggest that how a person lives subsequent to his/her baptism is irrelevant. After all, the same Jesus who created a royal grant-style covenant through his shed blood was also known to say things like, “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” The covenant in the New Testament, though fundamentally all about grace, contains more than a little trace of some suzerain-vassal aspects, too. Still, the promises of God made at baptism in so unconditional a fashion are surely nothing to trifle with nor dismiss.
We may not often think in terms of “covenant” in the modern world. But perhaps if we did think about it more often, the good news of the gospel would shine as truly GOOD news indeed.
Possible Biblical Texts
Colossians 2:6-15: This is one of the few passages in the New Testament explicitly to make a connection between the ancient sacrament of circumcision and the new sign of baptism. As any Baptist could point out, there is no single text in the N.T. that depicts the baptism of an infant or child, hence the argument for “believer-only” baptism seems pretty easy to win by way of proof-texting. The argument for infant baptism requires more theological nuance, including an overarching extension of the whole concept of covenant. Colossians 2 is a key building-block text by which the case for infant baptism is built.
Acts 16:16-40: The fact that we are told in Acts 16:33 that the entire family of the jailer was baptized may be somewhat slender evidence on which to base the claim that the New Testament does depict child/infant baptism after all. Still, this marvelous story does display the idea that God’s love and grace can and does encompass not just individuals but whole families as well as more and more folks in ever-widening circles.
Baptism is a properly life-changing event, though we don’t always remember this when witnessing the baptisms of others or when recalling even our own baptisms. But baptism changes everything. Let me try an analogy. Perhaps one of the best World War II movies ever made was Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In the story, a squadron of soldiers is dispatched across France right after D-Day to locate Private James Francis Ryan. All four of his brothers had already been killed in the war, and so General Marshall decides that the last remaining son was going to go home to his bereft mother before she loses him, too.
In the course of saving this one man, most of the original squad is killed in various skirmishes along the way. At the end of the film, as the squad’s leader, Captain Miller, is also dying, he looks Private Ryan full in the face and says, “Earn this! Earn this!” But how can a person earn what has already been given to him? He can’t. It was a gift that he could not earn before he got it and certainly it makes little sense to talk about earning something after you already have it. That’s why we generally don’t give people paychecks until after the work is done and the hours are put in. You earn it first. You can’t earn it if you already have it in the bank.
But the idea in the film was that Private Ryan needed to lead a changed life because of what he had been given. The experience of others’ sacrificing themselves for the good of Ryan and his mother (whom they never even met) was to be so great as to alter his life’s course so that, in a sense, he could earn it, be worthy of it, in retrospect.
The sacrifice of Jesus that encounters us in water and the Word is like that: we don’t earn the grace we get in baptism. If we’re baptized as infants, we can’t even understand it. But it’s real. Everything we do from here on out should demonstrate that we, in some way, understand, we “get it” after all.
Q & A 75
Q. How does the holy supper remind and assure you that you share in Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross and in all his benefits?
A. In this way: Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat this broken bread and to drink this cup in remembrance of him. With this command come these promises: First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup shared with me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross. Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood.
Q. What does it mean to eat the crucified body of Christ and to drink his poured-out blood?
A. It means to accept with a believing heart the entire suffering and death of Christ and thereby to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But it means more. Through the Holy Spirit, who lives both in Christ and in us, we are united more and more to Christ’s blessed body. And so, although he is in heaven and we are on earth, we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. And we forever live on and are governed by one Spirit, as the members of our body are by one soul.
Q. Where does Christ promise to nourish and refresh believers with his body and blood as surely as they eat this broken bread and drink this cup?
A. In the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is [broken]* for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’
In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
This promise is repeated by Paul in these words: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
Q. Do the bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ?
A. No. Just as the water of baptism is not changed into Christ’s blood and does not itself wash away sins but is simply a divine sign and assurance of these things, so too the holy bread of the Lord’s Supper does not become the actual body of Christ, even though it is called the body of Christ in keeping with the nature and language of sacraments.
Q. Why then does Christ call the bread his body and the cup his blood, or the new covenant in his blood, and Paul use the words, a sharing in Christ’s body and blood?
A. Christ has good reason for these words. He wants to teach us that just as bread and wine nourish the temporal life, so too his crucified body and poured-out blood are the true food and drink of our souls for eternal life. But more important, he wants to assure us, by this visible sign and pledge, that we, through the Holy Spirit’s work, share in his true body and blood as surely as our mouths receive these holy signs in his remembrance, and that all of his suffering and obedience are as definitely ours as if we personally had suffered and made satisfaction for our sins.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
The theology is in the adverbs. As you read through the five Q&As on the Lord’s Supper that are contained in these two Lord’s Days, a couple of adverbs keep popping up: surely, truly. Indeed, in one translation of the Catechism, those two words occur a total of six times with each occurrence coming at a key theological hinge point. What all those words are doing are painting a picture of what is often called in Reformed theology the “real presence” of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
The Catechism is famously wary of espousing any sacramental ideas that will smack of the hocus-pocus mysticism of the Roman Catholic mass. Indeed, the mass is derided as downright idolatry at one point (a theological point being hotly debated and contended these days). In the Catechism’s presentation of the Lord’s Supper, then, there will be not so much as a whisper or a syllable of transubstantiation, of some mystical change in the elements themselves or of our physical participation in actual flesh and blood.
NEVERTHELESS . . . neither did the authors of this statement want to reduce the Lord’s Supper to sheer symbolism, to a pointing beyond itself but with no actual, spiritual meaning and content in its own right. SOMEthing happens in the sacred supper. We’re not just harking back to bygone memories or events that remain long ago and far away.
To help us avoid seeing the Supper as empty symbolism, the Catechism repeatedly moves us from the undeniable reality of the physical acts and elements of communion to the EQUALLY real spiritual happenings in our hearts and souls. This is where the adverbs come in. “As surely as I receive the bread from the hand of the one who serves . . . SO SURELY he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life” (Q&A 75). “. . . as bread and wine nourish our temporal life, so too his crucified body and poured-out blood TRULY nourish our souls for eternal life” (Q&A 79). “He wants to assure us that we, through the Holy Spirit’s work, share in his true body and blood as SURELY as our mouths receive these holy signs” (Q&A 79).
Today many people (particularly younger people and those attracted to the “emerging church” phenomenon) are expressing a desire for more mystery, for a greater sense of being engulfed by God and caught up in the majesty of God’s divine operations. Preaching a sermon on Lord’s Days 28 & 29 may be a chance to remind everyone in the congregation that through the blessed sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we ARE engulfed by divine mysteries. Jesus himself encounters us and enters into us at the table in ways we cannot define or explain. Yet our union with Christ is thickened, our participation in the divine life of God is made the more vivid for us, and we are more and more prepared to grow up into eternal life in the kingdom of God.
Possible Biblical Texts
John 13:1-17: John does not give us the “classic” telling of the institution of the Supper in the upper room. Instead, he cleverly helps us access the heart of the sacrament: service. Not only did Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet display what he was about to do on the cross, it set the tone for all of us who would subsequently participate in that saving sacrifice by way of the Lord’s Supper.
I Corinthians 11: Paul’s well-known words admonishing the Corinthians toward a purer practice of the Supper are a natural place to turn when preaching on Lord’s Days 28-29. The entire matter of “discerning the body” and recognizing what real participation in Christ’s Body means for us as we together comprise the Body of Christ on earth is a key element there.
Ephesians 1:1-14: A sermon on these Lord’s Days needs to bring out the mystery of being united with Christ. Hence, any passage (and Eph. 1 is just one possibility) that highlights the mystery of our being “in Christ” could be fittingly used to bring out the idea that what gets magnified for us in the Lord’s Supper is also true all the time; viz., our true lives are hidden away in Christ. Our communion with Christ is absolutely real, and the relationship is shored up and our bond with Jesus is tightened whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup.
Idea #1: There is no single feature to the Christian church that reveals our unity with Jesus and all Jesus’ people than the Lord’s Supper. In his memoir, Open Secrets, Richard Lischer employs a most lovely image at one point. In the church he first served following his graduation from seminary, the wine chalice used for the Lord’s Supper was a fairly large goblet made of a shiny silver. Each time when he presented the wine, he would lift the cup up high over his head. A few people in his staunchly Lutheran congregation didn’t like that move–they thought it looked too Roman Catholic. But Lischer says that the reason he did this was because when he lifted the cup up, he could see on the curved underside of the chalice the entire congregation reflected. It reminded him of the fundamental truth of the sacrament: when we eat the bread and drink the cup of our Lord, we thicken our union with him but we also become members one with another. We are all one in the cup we share.
Idea #2: The main event of the gospel is the miracle that we are accepted. We probably don’t celebrate that grand miracle enough. Maybe part of the reason is that we don’t even see our forgiveness as a miracle–we, too, think that miracles should be obvious eye-poppers like what you see on those cable TV religious shows where people at crusades throw their crutches away, leap out of wheelchairs, or claim that their eight-year-long migraine suddenly left them at last. But we don’t see the ordinary run of our lives before God as a kind of extended miracle. “I’m no walking, talking miracle,” we say to ourselves.
But miracle or no, maybe we’re also not always sure forgiveness has really come to us in the first place. If forgiveness is a miracle, shouldn’t our lives be a lot more spiffy than they are? ! We’re not paralyzed exactly but we have lots of other problems. Can God really love me enough to forgive me? Can God love somebody who makes so many mistakes, who has a life with so many loose ends, who lives with so many disappointments and regrets? “My life sure doesn’t look like a miracle,” most of us might conclude.
This morning as we celebrate the sacrament, we travel to the table along as many different paths as there are people in this sanctuary. Some years ago when I was at a theology institute at Princeton Seminary, we had a worship service in the seminary’s Miller Chapel. The service included the Lord’s Supper, and everyone who wished to partake was invited to come down the center aisle, receive the elements, and then return to their pews. I was sitting near the front and so was among the first to return to the pew. Since some lovely music was being played, I decided just to bow my head in meditation while the rest of the people shuffled forward. I wish I could tell you that the result of my meditation was highly spiritual ponderings. But instead do you know what I noticed and thought about as I sat there on the aisle with my head bowed? People’s feet! Since it was a summertime service in the middle of the week, none of us in Miller Chapel that night had shown up in our Sunday best. So there was a variety of attire, including footwear. Some people had big feet, some small; some wore sandals revealing calloused feet and toes; some women had well-manicured and painted toes; some wore grimy tennis shoes and others some pretty expensive-looking loafers. So many different kinds of feet, so many different roads those feet had walked to get to the Lord’s table that night.
We all walk our own paths to the table. Being Christians does not mean that we all march in some kind of regimented lockstep. Instead some of us stride up to the table confidently even as others slouch and shuffle a bit. Some of us walk up with feet encrusted with the dirt life has thrown into our paths. Others of us approach looking like we’ve walked a level and clear road for most of our lives. Some of us walk up figuring that we’ll get a warm welcome even as others wonder if we perhaps will be turned away after all.
But in the end it doesn’t matter which path you walked to get to the table. It doesn’t matter whether you arrive feeling fine or feeling low. It doesn’t matter even if you are in such a bad stretch of life right now that the community needs to all-but carry you here. If you are able to get to the table at all, what you see upon arrival is the main event and the grand miracle: the body and blood of Jesus chopped up and spilled out before your very eyes as a reminder that God so loves you, God so desires to forgive you, that the only begotten Son of God got reduced to this.
In Frederick Buechner’s novel The Final Beast there is a scene in which a member of a congregation is begging the pastor to declare forgiveness to a deeply disturbed woman in their church. The pastor replies that the woman already knows that he, the pastor, has forgiven her, to which this other member replies, “But she doesn’t know God forgives her. That’s the only power you have, pastor: to tell her that. Not just that God forgives her for her poor adultery. Tell her that God forgives her for the faces she cannot bear to look at now. Tell her that God forgives her for being lonely and bored, for not being full of joy every day in a household full of children. Tell her that her sin is forgiven whether she knows it or not, that what she wants more than anything else–what we all want–is true. Pastor, what on earth do you think you were ordained for?”
There is so much I as your pastor could say about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. But for now let this suffice: come to the table; come one, come all. Come to the table and then hear these words crying out to you from the bread and the wine: Take heart, precious son, dear daughter, take heart: your sins are forgiven. You are loved.” Behold the miracle!
Q & A 80*
Q. How does the Lord’s Supper differ from the Roman Catholic Mass?
A. The Lord’s Supper declares to us that all our sins are completely forgiven through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he himself accomplished on the cross once for all.
It also declares to us that the Holy Spirit grafts us into Christ, who with his true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father where he wants us to worship him. [But the Mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have their sins forgiven through the suffering of Christ unless Christ is still offered for them daily by the priests. It also teaches that Christ is bodily present under the form of bread and wine where Christ is therefore to be worshiped.
Thus the Mass is basically nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ and a condemnable idolatry.]**
*Q&A 80 was altogether absent from the first edition of the catechism but was present in a shorter form in the second edition. The translation here given is of the expanded text of the third edition.
**In response to a mandate from Synod 1998, the Christian Reformed Church’s Interchurch Relations Committee conducted a study of Q&A 80 and the Roman Catholic Mass. Based on this study, Synod 2004 declared that “Q&A 80 can no longer be held in its current form as part of our confession.” Synod 2006 directed that Q&A 80 remain in the CRC’s text of the Heidelberg Catechism but that the last three paragraphs be placed in brackets to indicate that they do not accurately reflect the official teaching and practice of today’s Roman Catholic Church and are no longer confessionally binding on members of the CRC.
The Reformed Church in America retains the original full text, choosing to recognize that the catechism was written within a historical context which may not accurately describe the Roman Catholic Church’s current stance.
Q & A 81
Q. Who should come to the Lord’s table?
A. Those who are displeased with themselves because of their sins, but who nevertheless trust that their sins are pardoned and that their remaining weakness is covered by the suffering and death of Christ, and who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to lead a better life. Hypocrites and those who are unrepentant, however, eat and drink judgment on themselves.
Q & A 82
Q. Should those be admitted to the Lord’s Supper who show by what they profess and how they live that they are unbelieving and ungodly?
A. No, that would dishonor God’s covenant and bring down God’s wrath upon the entire congregation. Therefore, according to the instruction of Christ and his apostles, the Christian church is duty-bound to exclude such people, by the official use of the keys of the kingdom, until they reform their lives.
Lord’s Day 30 begins with Q&A 80 and its condemnation of the Roman Catholic mass. This is hardly the most edifying part of the Catechism. It was itself a late addition to this confession that was recently downsized in importance by the Christian Reformed Church in North America on account of probably not quite reflecting contemporary Roman Catholic sacramental theology. So for these sermon-starter ideas, we will restrict ourselves to Q&A 81 and 82 as these pose questions that are relevant for every one of us.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Who may come to the Lord’s table? It’s a vital question and one that has been asked many times in history, often through great tears and travails. Pastors everywhere know the anguish that some people have over the question as to whether or not they are “worthy” to come to the table. Paul’s words about not eating and drinking judgment unto ourselves loom large in the minds of people who wonder if their current level of faith—and the doubts, struggles, and questions they may have about faith at any given moment—disqualify them from the Lord’s table.
Then again, the church has in the past sometimes fostered an atmosphere of fear where the Lord’s Supper is concerned. At one time in the history of some Reformed congregations, celebrating the Lord’s Supper was a very infrequent event, perhaps no more often than 4 times per year. When the sacrament was celebrated, the Elders of the church took seriously their need to “guard the table” and the practice of “close communion” was designed to keep the unworthy well away from the sacrament. Only members in good standing could take the meal, and even they were given an entire week’s worth of time to examine themselves to make sure they were not persisting in willful sins—sin that, if left unchecked and unrepented of, would turn the bread and wine of the Supper into pure spiritual poison. On the Sunday before the Supper was to be celebrated, a lengthy “Preparatory Form” would be read, telling people that the sacrament was coming up the following week and so sternly urging them to spend the week in serious prayer and self-examination lest they not be ready to come to the Table.
All of this was done with the highest and best of intentions. But it did sometimes put the focus more on our own efforts to get ourselves ready and less on the prior grace of Christ Jesus that calls all people to the table. At times a person’s repentance (as generated through self-examination in the week gone by) became almost like an entrance ticket to the table. But can we ever get ourselves ready? Is it up to us to lay the groundwork for admission to the sacrament?
In truth, and as Q&A 81-82 make clear, the table exists for sinners. The presence of sin, even sin with which a person struggles on a regular basis, does not DISqualify a person’s participation but is exactly the reason WHY such a person needs the grace, love, forgiveness, and renewing power of God as on display at the Table. The more displeased a person is with him- or herself, the more reason there is to come to the sacrament. Indeed, we come because we realize there is no other place anywhere to which to turn to have our sins put away and forgiven.
The only people who should not come are also those who, one presumes, WOULD not come; viz., those who believe they don’t have a problem with sin in any event. The only reason to come to the Lord’s Table is because you believe that ONLY the sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the cross can solve this world’s thrall to sin and evil. There is no other way to have sin forgiven or to roll back evil. So perhaps instead of warning the flagrant and flippant away from the Table (since they seem unlikely to be interested to come in the first place), perhaps the better warning is against any thought we may have that our own goodness contributes to our salvation. The presence of sin in our lives does not nullify our participation in the Supper. However, the presence of pride, of thinking that our salvation is partly up to us, may count as a disqualifying factor. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross either accomplishes it all for us or it does not. If we think we need to chip in a bit to get saved (or to keep ourselves saved), then we are subtly suggesting that the cross was not necessary (or that the cross didn’t seal the deal). There were alternatives. It is that kind of attitude that is likewise wrong. The Son of God would not be on display before our eyes chopped up and spilled out unless this horrific sacrifice were the only way for salvation to come.
In other words, a sermon on L.D. 30 may be an occasion for pastoral care for those who are so guilt-ridden that they wonder whether it’s even “safe” for them to take communion. At the same time, it’s an occasion for gentle challenging for any who pay more attention to (and give more weight to) their own merits than the surpassing grace of Christ Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross for us.
Possible Biblical Texts
I Corinthians 11: This is the most obvious passage to which to turn when pondering who may, or may not, come to the Lord’s table. However, it’s important not to lose sight of the original context. It’s too easy to take Paul’s words about discerning the body and eating and drinking judgment unto oneself out of context as though they are a one-size-fits-all admonition. There are timeless truths to draw out of this passage but the original setting of these words must be kept in mind.
The Last Supper: If you pick any one of the synoptic accounts of Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper—or if you look at John 13-14 and John’s own unique presentation of that final evening before Jesus’ crucifixion—it is instructive to note that at even the very first-ever celebration of what we now call Holy Communion, there were a lot of needy sinners gathered at Jesus’ table. Judas was plotting. Peter was teetering on the verge of denial. All of the disciples would soon flee and leave Jesus in the lurch. None truly understood what was going on. Perhaps a sermon on one of these stories could become an occasion to remind us that at any given moment, none of us gathers at Jesus’ table as perfect people. Sin and misunderstanding clings to also our minds. But that’s why we come. Jesus invites us as we are so that he can forgive us and infuse us with ever-greater amounts of his divine life.
Paul makes clear that it is not a person’s discovering sin that should prohibit taking communion, rather it is a person’s denial of sin that does so! The problem with some of the Corinthians is that they had gotten full of themselves, they lost sight of the fact that what the Lord’s Supper is all about is Jesus’ offering forgiveness to sinful folks. The point of self-examination is not that if you find some sin, you may not eat. Quite the opposite! If you find some sin, then that is precisely why you must come!
The only people warned to stay away are the ones who think that sin is only someone else’s problem. If you think sin is not really that big of a deal, if you think you’re just fine the way you are and that even if you do have a few little wrinkles in your character, you can take care of them on your own–if, in other words, you trivialize sin such that you think you don’t really need a Savior dying in your place, then you have no business eating this bread or drinking this cup.
Because the fractured body and spilled blood of Jesus that we see depicted in this bread and wine mean sin is so serious that God absolutely had to go to these lengths to root it out. But if you think you can wave away sin by your own efforts, then how dare you take Jesus’ body and blood into your mouth!?
So if you make too little of sin, you ought not partake. Then again, making too much of your sin can be just as bad. Indeed, here’s a jarring thought: if you think a certain sin must keep you away from the sacrament but that some day, once you’ve cleared it up, you’ll be back, then isn’t it possible that what you’re really saying is that you do not trust the grace of this meal to forgive you? Might that not be a subtle way of saying that what you bring to God at this table is more important than what God brings to you? But isn’t that exactly the kind of attitude Paul wants to get rid of?
Sin is what brings us to this table, not what keeps us away! Jesus knows this is so. After all, recall the very first time the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. It was in the Upper Room the night of Jesus’ betrayal. That evening Jesus handed the bread to one man who was on the verge of betraying him, to another man on the cusp of denying him, and to ten other people each of whom would, within hours, abandon Jesus. They were a sinful, doubting, betraying, denying, confused, messed-up group of disciples and yet that did not prevent Jesus from saying, “This is my body, this is my blood which is for you!” And it’s been no different ever since.
Q & A 83
Q. What are the keys of the kingdom?
A. The preaching of the holy gospel and Christian discipline toward repentance. Both of them open the kingdom of heaven to believers and close it to unbelievers.
Q & A 84
Q. How does preaching the holy gospel open and close the kingdom of heaven?
A. According to the command of Christ: The kingdom of heaven is opened by proclaiming and publicly declaring to all believers, each and every one, that, as often as they accept the gospel promise in true faith, God, because of Christ’s merit, truly forgives all their sins.
The kingdom of heaven is closed, however, by proclaiming and publicly declaring to unbelievers and hypocrites that, as long as they do not repent, the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them. God’s judgment, both in this life and in the life to come, is based on this gospel testimony.
Q & A 85
Q. How is the kingdom of heaven closed and opened by Christian discipline?
A. According to the command of Christ: Those who, though called Christians, profess unchristian teachings or live unchristian lives, and who after repeated personal and loving admonitions, refuse to abandon their errors and evil ways, and who after being reported to the church, that is, to those ordained by the church for that purpose, fail to respond also to the church’s admonitions— such persons the church excludes from the Christian community by withholding the sacraments from them, and God also excludes them from the kingdom of Christ. Such persons, when promising and demonstrating genuine reform, are received again as members of Christ and of his church.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
It may be an indication of the Reformation’s desire to recover the power of the Word that the Catechism devotes an entire Lord’s Day to “the keys of the kingdom,” a concept that is specifically mentioned only once in the entire New Testament. Yet despite its relatively obscure nature, Lord’s Day 31 elevates the importance of the Word preached and the faithful exercise of discipline—two of the three “marks of the true Church” as identified by also John Calvin. (The other mark is right celebration of the sacraments, but we just had multiple Lord’s Days devoted to baptism and the Lord’s Supper.)
Today the exercise of church discipline may strike many people in even very traditional congregations as rather quaint. The fact is, however often discipline may once have been exercised in history, it is a rather infrequent occurrence today. Either church councils do not initiate discipline in the first place or, the moment such a step is mentioned, the person in question quits the church, transfers elsewhere, or does something that short-circuits the process of discipline.
In a way, however, both preaching and discipline have the same core: namely, the presentation of the gospel. Preaching declares we must all repent in general even as discipline suggests that a given person has some very specific sins of which to repent. Either way or both ways, we get confronted with the claims of the gospel on our lives and then are in a position to respond to it. If we respond with joy and penitence, throwing ourselves once more onto the mercy and grace of Christ, then the door to the kingdom swings wide open. But if we respond with resistance and denial—if we as much as say that we don’t need Jesus to clean up our act—then the door swings shut.
Or maybe and by grace the door is open all the time anyway but whether we enter through that door or not depends on how we respond.
But just there is a potential problem: if we are not careful when considering this business about kingdom keys, we may end up with a kind of ungracious gospel. We can easily slide in the direction of Arminius in saying that the decision of whether or not to be saved is firstly up to US and God then responds to us after we’ve made the right penitential noises. But that undercuts grace, of course, and particularly salvation by grace alone.
That’s why it’s vital when preaching on these matters to present forgiveness the way Jesus presented it: humbly, gently, graciously. And we need to find ways to present and proffer the forgiveness of God in ways consistent with the fact that it’s all grace from first to last. OUR decision is not the decisive factor.
Even this business of discipline—in its actual exercise or even in the talking about it—needs to drip with grace and love. About the only time Jesus talked much about what we call church discipline came in Matthew 18 and its famous multi-step process. At the end of that passage Jesus says that if someone refuses to listen to you after repeated efforts, then you are “to treat this person like a pagan or a tax collector.” That sounds harsh at first . . . until you remember how JESUS HIMSELF treated all the pagans and tax collectors (and prostitutes and adulterers and Roman soldiers) whom he met in his ministry. Weren’t these the very people to whom Jesus most ardently offered his forgiving grace?
The keys of the kingdom are gracious keys. They are not power keys. They are not keys we arrogantly wield or wave in front of people’s noses as a sign that they’d best shape up or else! It’s all grace. When preaching on this, if we cannot find ways to make the luminous grace of Christ the centerpiece of the sermon, we run the risk of doing an end-run on the larger gospel.
Possible Biblical Texts
Matthew 16:13-20: This is the only passage in Scripture that explicitly mentions “the keys of the kingdom.” What is as remarkable as anything in this passage is that Jesus hands Peter’s the most powerful keys in the universe only to have Peter turn right around (in verses 21ff) and prove himself to be woefully out of touch with who Jesus really was! Peter would get it all straight eventually but among the things to learn from Matthew 16 is that if we are to wield Jesus’ kingdom keys in the right way, it will require that we always be in touch with the true nature of Jesus and with how HE HIMSELF brought about the forgiveness of all. If we think that the keys of the kingdom are only powerful realities that we can wield in arrogant ways, Jesus has news for us: the way to forgiveness is marked by suffering and sacrifice. When the church ceases to be Jesus’ servant and becomes yet another power institution in its own right – that is where trouble can begin.
John 20:19-23: In his first resurrection appearance to the disciples, Jesus sends them forth and promises that their forgiving of sins would have real traction now. But it’s that little conjunction “as” that should arrest our attention here. “AS the Father has sent me, so send I you.” The manner in which Jesus was sent, the manner in which Jesus wrought salvation and the forgiveness of sins needs to be characteristic of us now as we go forth in his name to offer forgiveness to the world. Again, if we cannot offer forgiveness humbly and sacrificially, then we are neither offering Jesus’ forgiveness nor are we showing the heart of Jesus to the world.
In the Charles Dickens novel Martin Chuzzelwitt we meet a character named Mr. Pecksniff. Pecksniff is a difficult man–churlish, manipulative, self-centered. He’s also a highly resentful man but he tries to hide this fact behind a mask of easy forgiveness. Whenever someone does something Pecksniff dislikes, he makes a big show of announcing, “I forgive you.” But everyone knows this isn’t true. When Pecksniff says, “I forgive you,” what he really means is, “I want you to feel ashamed. I want you to feel like you need to be forgiven by me because I’m superior to you!”
Like so many other good things, forgiveness can be corrupted. If we offer forgiveness in self-serving ways to manipulate people, then the real meaning of forgiveness gets obliterated. The Catechism directs us to ponder the “keys of the kingdom.” But if the forgiveness proffered through our wielding of these keys is truly to be Jesus’ forgiveness, then we need to ponder the face we present to the world.
Because as Pecksniff reminds us, there’s a right way and a wrong way to offer forgiveness. There’s a proper and positive way to point to Jesus as the source of forgiveness and there’s an improper, negative way to do so. Curiously, this is hinted at in the two passages most closely associated with the concept of kingdom keys: Matthew 16 and John 20. Consider John 20 where the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples for the first time. Jesus shows them his scars from the cross and then immediately gives them their assignment: they are to go out and offer his forgiveness to the world. In fact, Jesus makes a vital parallel here: “As the Father sent me, so send I you.” In other words, the disciples are supposed to follow a parallel path to the one they have watched Jesus travel.
There is a close connection between the disciples’ looking at Jesus’ scars and Jesus’ saying he was sending them the same way his Father had sent him. When Jesus says, “I want you to go this direction,” the hand he holds out to show the way has a hole in it. And that hole says it all! We are to offer forgiveness the same way Jesus did: sacrificially, with a willingness to suffer ourselves in order to get the message of the gospel across to people.
Like Jesus we perform a ministry of humility, of sacrifice, and of grace. Like Jesus we are to be generous dispensers of God’s forgiveness by being gentle, kind, humble, and servant-like. Jesus made forgiveness attractive by making clear again and again the utterly surprising fact that it’s free. You don’t need to be a certain type of person to get it. You don’t need to have followed the rules all your life to qualify for it. You don’t need to be particularly smart or sophisticated, you don’t need to be rich or powerful. That’s probably why Jesus spent most of his time with the despised folks of his day. Who needed to hear this good news of free forgiveness more than the people who populate the periphery of society?
In short, the Jesus who sent out the disciples in John 20 did so with pierced hands because forgiving the world is hard, sacrificial work. To be sent as Jesus was sent means assuming a Christ-like stance in freely offering the world a gospel of forgiveness. The keys of the kingdom are given to unlock life abundant for those who need that life desperately.
Q & A 86
Q. Since we have been delivered from our misery by grace through Christ without any merit of our own, why then should we do good works?
A. Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits, so that he may be praised through us, so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.
Q & A 87
Q. Can those be saved who do not turn to God from their ungrateful and unrepentant ways?
A. By no means. Scripture tells us that no unchaste person, no idolater, adulterer, thief, no covetous person, no drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like will inherit the kingdom of God.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
I can’t remember now who said or wrote it, but I remember hearing someone claim that if you as a preacher never get accused of being too libertine, if you never get accused of being too soft on sin, if you never get accused of encouraging people to be rather lax in how they live their lives, then it may well be that you’re not preaching the real gospel as clearly as you should. This person’s point is that the truly free and gracious nature of the gospel is so wide open, so “no strings attached” in nature, that hammering this gospel home will sooner or later look to at least some folks like an invitation to lead a carefree life.
We’ve all heard some version or another of the old adage (sometimes attributed to the writer Heinrich Heine), “I like to sin. God likes to forgive. Really, the world is admirably arranged.”
And indeed, as even the apostle Paul discovered eventually, the more you tell people that they are saved despite their sin and that the grace of God does it all for us (such that our subsequent sins and struggles with sin likewise cannot remove us from grace’s grip), the more some may conclude, “Then let’s live it up! If I can neither earn nor forfeit grace based on my behavior, then I will relax and indulge myself, letting God’s grace forgive whatever lapses may happen along the way!” Or, as Paul summarized this line of thinking in Romans 6: “Shall we sin more so that grace may abound?” If grace is such a great thing, should we give God lots of excuses to exercise this grace by sinning all-the-more?
This is a classic gospel conundrum and Lord’s Day 32 is the Catechism’s way of dealing with it. After all, up to this point the previous 31 Lord’s Days have made it clear that salvation is indeed all about grace. We have not saved ourselves because we cannot save ourselves. Period. It’s not up to us. But that does lead to the question: Then why still do good? Why even TALK about doing good?
Q&A 86 gives us three reasons why it is not inconsistent to celebrate the totally free nature of grace and yet still talk about leading subsequent lives of moral virtue and goodness: first, grace not only saves, it transforms. Second, moral living is like an extended, day-to-day, lifelong way of saying “Thank You” to God for the gift of his grace. Third and finally, goodness sprouting in our hearts like some happy garden is both reassuring to us that we really are filled with grace and becomes a kind of showcase display window for our neighbors to see (and this, in turn, may become a way into the kingdom for them).
Taken together, these points reflect the New Testament balance. On the one hand, there can be no denying how grace oozed out luxuriously from Jesus’ parables (not to mention from his actual interactions with people). On the other hand, however, this same Jesus apparently saw no contradiction between all of that and yet saying lines like, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The resurrected Lord Jesus whose nail- and sword-pierced body showed the truth that we cannot save ourselves nevertheless said (in the Great Commission) that after baptizing people into his name, the disciples were also “to teach them everything I have commanded you.”
What it all comes down to is the idea that any force as powerful as God’s grace in Christ is in fact SO powerful that it will never merely stop with wiping the slate clean for us—grace will change everything, renewing us, making us interested in things in which we were perhaps never before remotely interested. Grace leads to gracelets. God’s big Grace to save us issues forth in a myriad of smaller graces that fill our lives.
But there is another danger lurking nearby. And this secondary danger may actually be more beguiling (and for this reason more prevalent) among Christian people than the temptation of going off the deep end and leading a morally loose life on the theory God will forgive you in the morning anyway. The secondary danger is this: we lead a moral life in response to God’s saving grace but we end up thinking that at the end of the day, it is the sterling quality of our morality that is the key item that differentiates us from people who don’t live this way. Taken to an extreme (and I fear it often and too easily is taken to an extreme) this can even lead us to think that our virtuous character is what got us saved in the first place.
A sermon on Lord’s Day 32—as well as sermons on the balance of the Catechism as we explore the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer—needs to do two things simultaneously: one, we need to emphasize the vital important of producing fruits of righteousness in our lives because such fruit bears witness to the fact that we’ve been saved in the first place. But second, we need to keep those fruits in proper perspective, never forgetting for a moment that they are the FRUIT and not the ROOT of who we are. It’s too easy for us Christians to use our morality as a bludgeon, elevating ourselves above others in society based on our morality.
Put it this way: the Catechism says that “by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.” But that will happen only when this “godly living” is transparent to the joy of the divine grace that gave rise to our morality in the first place. All by itself, godly living can be off-putting and never more so than when we take on airs about our morality, acting as though God saved us because he liked us better to begin with!
Possible Biblical Texts
Luke 18:9-14: This well-known parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector may not seem like an obvious place to turn for Lord’s Day 32, but this parable can help us to access themes related to the nurturing of a proper sense of gratitude. The Pharisee is proud of some of the same things many of us feel pride over; namely, living to the glory of God in lives that reflect holy seriousness about virtue and morality. The problem for the Pharisee is that this became the ONLY things he could see, they became the key point of comparison over against others. It’s when we forget that it’s all grace from first to last that our proper desire to produce good deeds runs off the rails.
Galatians 5: 16-26: Where else in the New Testament does Paul rant and rave and fairly scream about salvation by grace alone more vibrantly than in the letter to the Galatians? Because he’d gotten wind of the fact that some in Galatia were vitiating the grace of God in Christ by heaping on some additional requirements, Paul went ballistic in this epistle. He was so apoplectic that he skipped the usual epistolary niceties in chapter 1 and called the Galatians “foolish” in his first paragraph. If you think that your salvation consists in part because of what you do—even if you think your morality contributes something like 0.0003% to your salvation—Paul would be furious with you. It’s ALL Christ. 100% 300% ALL! Jesus was CRUCIFIED for us, for heaven’s sake. If that doesn’t tell you how dependent you are on God, nothing will. NEVERTHELESS . . . before this same letter is finished, Paul waxes eloquent on the need to nurture the fruit of the Spirit. Grace never saves us into a vacuum. Grace never saves us merely FROM something but always FOR something as well. Galatians is a wonderful extended illustration of that truth.
Idea #1: Philip Yancey once wrote that it’s difficult to imagine the following scenario. Suppose that a man and woman had been married one bright Saturday. The wedding ceremony had been luminously lovely, filled with ardor, sincerity, and emotion. The bride and groom had exchanged meaningful vows, promising fidelity and mutual service from that time forth and for the rest of their lives.
Given all of that, how profoundly odd it would then be if, on their wedding night, the new husband said to his wife, “Tomorrow I’d like to discuss with you how much adultery you will tolerate from me.” A person who just got married and vowed faithfulness does not then turn right around and try to negotiate future infidelity! It wouldn’t make sense. The one could not possibly co-exist with the other.
Just so in Christ: when we have been caught up in a salvation as grand and glorious and above all as GRACIOUS as the one given to us by our Lord, we cannot swoon over that marvelous salvation only to then turn right around and start negotiating with our Lord as to how much sin he will tolerate from us. True, we do all sin and struggle with it all the time but this needs to be something we despise, something we wish were not so, something we recognize to be deeply at variance with who we are (or want to be) in our heart of hearts where the very Holy Spirit of God dwell as an ongoing reminder of God’s grace to us.
Idea #2: It’s always a balancing act. Should you be grateful that you find prayer not only possible but deeply meaningful? Should you be glad that you have opportunity to engage in ministry projects that benefit the needy in our community? If you are able in your life to avoid committing crimes or cheating on your spouse, should you be thankful for the strength of character that prevents you from walking down certain sordid paths? Of course on all counts! But we must never forget that each of those things is a fruit of God’s prior grace at work in us. Our virtues, our piety, our coming to church on Sunday mornings are not the roots of God’s love of us but the fruits that grow out of the root of grace that made us Christians to begin with.
We routinely mix up roots and fruits. We turn the tree upside-down. The production of spiritual fruit in your life–the very kinds of things for which you may be thankful to God in comparison to other people who lack such fruitful lives–grow out of God’s gracious love. They don’t attract God’s love, they flow from God’s love. As C.S. Lewis says, the roof of a greenhouse shines brightly because the sun shines on it. The roof doesn’t attract the sun by virtue of being bright to begin with, however! Or, in another Lewis analogy, suppose a six-year-old little girl says, “Daddy, may I have $5 to buy you a Christmas present?” Well, any decent father will give the child the money and, come Christmas morning, will exclaim loudly and gleefully over whatever bauble the child bought. But only a fool would say that by virtue of the gift, the father came out $5 ahead on the deal!
We do the things we do for God because he has slipped us the money in the first place. We shine with the light of spiritual virtues and grow juicy spiritual fruit on the boughs of our lives because the sunshine of God’s grace shined on us to begin with, starting at that time when we were ourselves so sinful and tawdry that at first the light of God revealed only our slovenly lives and the muck of our sinfulness. While we were yet sinners God shined a light on us. If, as that light still shines on us today, if we now look a lot prettier than we did at first when grace found us prodigal children eating out of a pig’s trough in a far country, then that, too, is singularly and solely the action of God’s grace in our lives, not anything for which we can take much credit.
Q & A 88
Q. What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A. Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the rising-to-life of the new.
Q & A 89
Q. What is the dying-away of the old self?
A. To be genuinely sorry for sin and more and more to hate and run away from it.
Q & A 90
Q. What is the rising-to-life of the new self?
A. Wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a love and delight to live according to the will of God by doing every kind of good work.
Q & A 91
Q. What are good works?
A. Only those which are done out of true faith, conform to God’s law, and are done for God’s glory; and not those based on our own opinion or human tradition.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
It is significant that the Catechism is careful to deal with conversion BEFORE it delves into the specifics of the Ten Commandments. Strategically, this is meant to prevent someone from taking the upcoming examination of the law as a road map to salvation. It is key that we realize that conversion is all God’s work. Curiously, however, Lord’s Day 33 could do a better job at highlighting the grace of salvation. Q&A 89 and 90 still put the focus a wee bit on ourselves, as though we can generate sorrow and hatred for sin—and wholehearted joy in God—more or less on our own. That’s not what this means, as the entire preceding section of the Catechism makes clear. We’d never feel bad about sin and would never take joy in God were it not for the fact that Christ did it all for us.
But what L.D. 33 does make clear is that the entire nature of the Christian life is dying and rising—this is the rhythm of the gospel. This is the way of Christ (see Mark 8 and its parallels about what it means to take up the cross). Even after being saved by grace, we constantly beat back our weird attraction to all that is fatal for us (our amor mortis, to use the old Latin term for our “love of death”) so that we can come to our selves like the prodigal son in some far country. We need constantly to shake the cobwebs out of our minds, open our eyes to beauty and goodness, and see the world through the eyes of our God in Christ.
John Calvin famously said that we cannot see the world aright without being fitted with the spectacles of Scripture. Lord’s Day 33 says something similar about that which counts as genuinely “good.” We come to recognize what is good in life when we are given the gift of true faith, when we view the world through the lens of God’s law (which is the operating / instruction manual for the cosmos), and ultimately aim for the greater glory of the God whom we now love through Christ. On our own, we may or may not hit on the right way to live. Yes, there is enough residue of the divine image in us that we know generally right from wrong—unbelievers are not necessarily or by definition vicious, ruthless people who consistently live as horribly as possible. Common grace and common sense restrain sinfulness and enlighten many people as to the overall better way to live. But those innate senses will not bring you all the way home in terms of knowing fully how best to live for God and according to the creation principles God put into place in the beginning.
One other note on Q&A 90: the Catechism uses the word “delight” to describe the kind of joy a believer can take in doing the will of God. “Delight” is not exactly the first thing most people think about when it comes to rules and laws and the like. “Drudgery” might come to mind, but not delight. We don’t often treat the concept of “delight” as a theological construct or category, but perhaps we should. Delight is what we experience when our deepest yearnings meet up with some feature to life in this world that can satisfy those yearnings. If you have a deep-down desire to see beauty, then the sun setting over the ocean and sparkling just so delights your heart. If you have a desire to love a child, then seeing a daughter or son before you who loves you and whom you also adore brings you delight. Delight is bigger and deeper than happiness or having a good laugh over something. Delight is when you sense your spirit elevating, lifted a bit higher and being ennobled somehow. Delight comes when who you are matches the way the world works—it’s having a sense that everything is fitting together very nicely, the way things were meant to be, in fact.
Again, many people don’t see how a rule like “Worship the Lord God and him only” or “Keep the Sabbath” could be a source of delight to anyone. Believers know otherwise. As they say, “That’ll preach!”
Possible Biblical Texts
John 12:20-36: This passage about the kernel of wheat falling into the ground and dying is classic in terms of the whole notion of mortification and vivification in Christ. Not only does John 12 deliver this theological freight, it also does so by way of rich imagery that a pastor can fruitfully work with in a sermon.
Romans 7:7-25: There is an ongoing debate as to the nature of this passage. Who is speaking here? Is this the pre-conversion Saul/Paul reflecting on the futility of self-help ways of salvation or is this Paul reflecting on our struggles with sin even after we’ve been saved by grace? Many tilt in the direction of the pre-conversion scenario. Either way, however, what Romans 7 shows is that sin does indeed put us in the throes of an ongoing struggle to die and rise, to put to death all that is selfish and sinful within us so as to encourage and nurture all that is alive to God’s goodness.
According to an old adage, the brave man tastes death but once whereas the coward tastes death many times before he finally dies. In the movie Saving Private Ryan we see this proverbial dynamic at work. Most of the soldiers in that story are stout of heart. They have passed through many harrowing battles but without regret because they know they conducted themselves well. Although some of these brave men die before the story is finished, nevertheless up until that final fatal moment, they had not experienced the kind of psychological death that is exhibited over and over by the character of Corporal Upham.
Upham was a translator in a safe clerical position before getting swept up into the real war. But this young, naive, and innocent corporal was unprepared for combat and so regularly froze up in terror. In one of the film’s most excruciating scenes, Upham is seen cowering on a staircase, paralyzed by fear, even as he listens to the death cries of one of his comrades who is being slowly killed by a German solider at the top of the stairs. His cowardice prevents Upham from saving his friend’s life. After the man is dead, the German who killed him casually walks past Upham on the steps. Upham is such a pathetic figure that the enemy just leaves him alone. In the gut-wrenching sobs that Upham then heaves forth, you sense that in a real way this man is dying on the inside. The brave man tastes death just once, the coward dies again and again.
Generally speaking, of course, we’d all just as soon avoid that kind of living death. No one wants to live with regret or with the nagging sense that life is passing you by. So we’d prefer to be brave than cowardly, a success rather than a failure, popular rather than unpopular, esteemed rather than despised. We’d rather be noticed than overlooked, we’d rather be envied than pitied, we’d prefer to be the object of admiration rather than the target of scorn. If you want to make the most out of life, society has plenty of advice. Popular parlance is peppered with the slogans of success: The early bird catches the worm; a rolling stone gathers no moss; when the going gets tough, the tough get going; nothing ventured, nothing gained; the race is to the swift; remember, there is no prize for second place.
When you travel, it is always curious to overhear the way business people talk while waiting in airports. It’s all about getting out ahead of the competition, maintaining the edge, getting a jump on a new opportunity, and then bragging about your success. Ironically, at church we are often shy to talk about money–most elders would do almost anything to avoid bringing up finances on a family visit. In many other circles, however, there is no such shyness. I once heard two young businessmen talking freely about money as one triumphantly told the other that in six months’ time he had cleared $9,000 on a house he bought and then re-sold. “Hey,” the other man replied, “way to go!”
We know all about rising to challenges, grabbing the gusto, and feathering our own nests. But now hear the word of the gospel: unless you die to all that, you have no life worth bragging about. Indeed, you have no real life in you at all.
Q & A 92
Q. What is God’s law?
A. God spoke all these words: THE FIRST COMMANDMENT
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
you shall have no other gods before me.”
THE SECOND COMMANDMENT
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
THE THIRD COMMANDMENT
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.”
THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work— you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
For in six days the Lord made the heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”
THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT
“Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving to you.”
THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT
“You shall not murder.”
THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT
“You shall not commit adultery.”
THE EIGHTH COMMANDMENT
“You shall not steal.”
THE NINTH COMMANDMENT
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
THE TENTH COMMANDMENT
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Q & A 93
Q. How are these commandments divided?
A. Into two tables. The first has four commandments, teaching us how we ought to live in relation to God. The second has six commandments, teaching us what we owe our neighbor.
Q & A 94
Q. What does the Lord require in the first commandment?
A. That I, not wanting to endanger my own salvation, avoid and shun all idolatry, sorcery, superstitious rites, and prayer to saints or to other creatures. That I rightly know the only true God, trust him alone, and look to God for every good thing humbly and patiently, and love, fear, and honor God with all my heart. In short, that I give up anything rather than go against God’s will in any way.
Q & A 95
Q. What is idolatry?
A. Idolatry is having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in the Word.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
In addition to giving us the entirety of the Ten Commandments, L.D. 34 launches us into the Decalogue with words about the First Commandment and its injunction to worship no other God than Yahweh, the God who led Israel out of Egypt. But in dealing with this first law, the Catechism is clever. The authors knew that it would not be enough to talk about blatant idolatry but that pastorally they had to deal with the far more common temptation to worship God AND other things as well.
It may well be true, as John Calvin said, that the human heart has always been a perpetual idol factory. We have always manufactured gods according to our own whims. Today, however, this tendency is magnified by the common assumption that any idea handed down to you by a tradition cannot trump what you can come up with on your own. So many people now refuse to believe that there is any one right way to conceive of God or of salvation. Spirituality revolves around whatever the individual wants, not around any creed or recipe for redemption. In many circles the question “Is there a God?” seems merely passé. The modern approach is to ask “Which god WORKS for you?”
And it’s not even a recognition that there is more than one religion in the world. People have known that much for millennia already. Today we go further, however, in not limiting ourselves to choosing between, say, Buddhism and Judaism but instead we blend together Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, and Christianity to arrive at our own homespun faith, unabashedly tailored for the individual by the individual.
Many folks today are “kind of into” a lot of different things. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to hear someone say, “Right now I’m into Native American spirituality.” (As one writer recently said, the proper way to respond to such a generic statement is to say, “Native American spirituality? Really? Which tribe?”) In a book on “Generation X” author Tom Beaudoin asserted that younger people today believe you don’t need any church or synagogue to be religious. Most also add, “Do you think that going to church really makes a difference to God?” Obviously it makes no difference to them, and in our world that becomes a short leap to saying that of course it likewise makes no difference to God. Why, after all, would God be much different from us?
Very few, if any, of the folks who these days cobble together their own faith systems (and then write best-selling books about them) end up saying something like, “Once I mixed together elements of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Navajo spirituality I suddenly heard my new god telling me that everything I had once thought was wrong, that I had to change my life, reform my ways, or face eternal consequences!” No, that’s not the drill. That’s not what rolls off the assembly line of the average idol factory.
Instead people gush all over the pages of their books about how the real god whom they discovered on their own actually loves them just the way they are. Neale Donald Walsch, the author of the best-selling series of books Conversations with God, is a lapsed Catholic with five divorces and a troubled career in his past. But then one day he decided to share a cup of cappuccino with God. And once he and God started to swap jokes and engage in folksy chit-chat, Walsch found that God likes him just the way he is.
But what’s the wonder of that? Those who, in Mr. Walsch’s phrase, are seeking “alternative answers” to religious questions do so because they do not care for the demands of typical religion. So they concoct a god who requires nothing of anybody. Mr. Walsch’s God doesn’t confront him with anything and so Mr. Walsch doesn’t do this, either. No matter how “in sync” Mr. Walsch thinks he is with God, he refuses to assert he’s onto anything. “I don’t care what you believe,” he says. “I’m not trying to convince people of anything. I’m just sharing.”
If horses could imagine a god, the god they’d imagine would be a big horse, a Greek philosopher once predicted. In other words, we all make God into our own image. None of us is immune to this temptation. American Christians tend to picture God as likewise an American, probably a Republican, and the invisible signer of the Declaration of Independence. Feminists tout “the God with breasts” and replace the idea of Jesus as the Word of God with Jesus as the Wisdom of God, since in the Old Testament wisdom is symbolized by Sophia, a woman. Those who are in the trenches of the culture wars repeatedly elevate Old Testament holy war imagery and so depict God as the divine warrior, the Lion of Judah, the ultimate military captain. Those who do not share that political agenda key on the pacifist Jesus, the slain Lamb who rides on a donkey, not a tank.
On and on it goes. The preacher who wants to tackle the First Commandment, then, needs to be aware of not just garden variety idolatry but of its nuanced forms, not a few of which pop up even in the church. Two of the more common nuanced forms of idolatry to which even fully committed Christians may feel prone are: First, the tendency to key on some parts of the Bible’s portrait of God/Jesus but not others, thus creating a God and Savior whose politics, social views, and the like match exceedingly close to the person worshiping this very God.
Second, the tendency to look to Jesus for salvation but then ALSO place a high premium on our own works and how they contribute to getting us into the kingdom. Sometimes this becomes visible whenever we make the point of comparison between ourselves and those outside the church NOT the grace of Jesus that saved also us “while we were yet sinners” but instead the better, more moral lives we just generally lead over against the “losers” out there who are getting abortions, engaging in gay sex, etc.
Possible Biblical Texts
Psalm 115: This psalm has rich preaching possibilities where the theme of idolatry is concerned. It begins and ends with a call to give the true God alone the glory. In between it shows Israel’s conundrum of worshipping an invisible God in the midst of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures who had gods they could show you and put into your hands. But this psalm also wonderfully lampoons those who create their own gods saying that people who worship blind, deaf, and mute gods end up exhibiting those very same characteristics!
Galatians 3:1-14: When preaching on the first commandment, it would probably be a mistake to focus only on full-blown idolatry. Most people who bother coming to church are not really worshipping a false god but they MAY well be susceptible to what both Q&A 94 and 95 talk about: namely, idolatry can also enter in when we worship the true God but ALSO supplement that with some other things. God gets us part of the way home, we take ourselves the rest of the way. Galatians is Paul’s classic attack on the idea that we need something in addition to the gospel to save us. In short, there is a form of idolatry that worships something or someone INSTEAD OF the true God, but an equally pernicious (but more subtle) form worships something ALONGSIDE OF God.
Idea #1: C.S. Lewis once wrote: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. God shatters it. God is the great iconoclast. Could we not say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence? Most are offended by iconoclasm. Blessed are they who are not.” I want to hold up Lewis’s idea but in doing so I want to steer well clear of even a hint of relativism. Lewis did not mean that God is the great “we know not what.” Lewis did not mean to convey that there is no fixed reality to God. Instead, Lewis wanted to say that God will always burst our abilities fully to conceive of him. The God of the Bible resists neat formulations or easy packaging.
Really to hold in creative tension the full display of God which the Bible gives us requires at least a balancing act sometimes a dumping of the one-sided picture of God we used to carry with us in our hearts. To pick up on something I just mentioned: the Bible does reveal to us a God who is at once the Lion of Judah and the slain Lamb. He’s both. He is at once the fierce judge whose holy word is like a two-edged sword and he is the God of all grace who inflicted that sword on himself as a means to our being saved.
He is at once the God who truly is “above it all” dwelling in light inaccessible and he’s the God who really is close enough to his beloved creation as to be seen in your flower garden. He is at once the God who tenderly answers our prayers and the one who sometimes simply does not come through the way we begged him to. He is both the God who enables the wonderful things we do in the ministries of this congregation and he is the one who ultimately provides the common grace which in some form or another lies behind the abilities of even the non-Christian folks who make it big on Wall Street.
The Bible itself constantly challenges our ideas about God. So perhaps one way of trying to make certain we are worshiping the true God and not one of our own manufacture is to again and again humble ourselves before the Bible. Instead of always trying to tidy up and make black-and-white the Scripture’s portrait of God, maybe we sometimes need to bow before the mystery of a God who, within the course of the Bible, says and does so many different things. You all know how much I have preached grace. But I, like the rest of you, regularly run into parts of the Bible which require that we see God as not only the decanter of grace but also as the source of judgment. That doesn’t get rid of the grace, of course, but it adds to the portrait of a richly complex God.
Idea #2: What finally motivates our desire to worship, serve, and honor our God in Christ is the same thing that finally lies behind our desire to obey all the commandments: love. We don’t obey God’s law out of fear that he will send us to hell if we don’t. Nor do we obey God’s law because we think this is how we work our way to heaven. That’s the last thing we want to think. What motivates us is love. What motivates us is a very moving gratitude for the fact that in Jesus, we are already saved, we already have a place in heaven prepared for us. What’s more, we have the glorious New Testament promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But when you love someone, don’t you always find a desire to get to know him or her better? Show me a marriage where both husband and wife have concluded that they know everything there is to know about each other and I’ll show you a dead and joyless marriage. Show me a parent who thinks he knows enough about a son or daughter and so is not interested to learn more about this child and I’ll show you a cold, distant, rather aloof mother or father. If you are here this morning as a Christian believer, that means you already know the Lord your God and you love him deeply.
But we must never think we have got God cased, we must never conclude that there is nothing more to learn. Instead, and in ardent love, we do already now the same thing that will occupy us in eternity: namely, getting to know the God whose glorious nature is inexhaustible. We will never be finished getting to know God. Once you begin to become acquainted with this sublimely gracious God and Savior, you’ll never want to worship anyone or anything else. Not ever.
Q & A 96
Q. What is God’s will for us in the second commandment?
A. That we in no way make any image of God nor worship him in any other way than has been commanded in God’s Word.
Q & A 97
Q. May we then not make any image at all?
A. God cannot and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. Although creatures may be portrayed, yet God forbids making or having such images if one’s intention is to worship them or to serve God through them.
Q & A 98
Q. But may not images be permitted in churches in place of books for the unlearned?
A. No, we should not try to be wiser than God. God wants the Christian community instructed by the living preaching of his Word—not by idols that cannot even talk.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Here is a hallmark of the Calvinist part of the Reformed tradition on shining display. The ban on images as promoted by John Calvin (and as taken to extremes by Reformers like Ulrich Zwingli) was partly a reaction against the gaudier parts of the Renaissance Roman Catholic Church and partly a sincere desire to follow the Old Testament injunctions to Israel not to depict Yahweh in any form (his own theophanic displays in pillars of cloud/fire notwithstanding). So also Lord’s Day 35 is uncompromising: God may not be depicted visually. Period. There are here no exceptions, caveats, or loopholes.
In history scholars have debated how to count the commandments. God’s Law begins by saying we shall have no other gods and we shall make no graven images. But are those two different laws or the same law stated two ways? If you were to visit a Roman Catholic or Lutheran congregation, you would discover that they have combined into one law what we regard as the first and second commandments. (Catholics and Lutherans still have ten commandments because they divide up into two the final commandment about coveting.) But we separate the first two commandments because we believe each covers slightly different territory. The first commandment tilts against worshiping gods other than Yahweh. The second commandment says that even when you worship Yahweh, you may not make any images of him. But why? It’s quite easy to understand why God would not want us to worship Marduk, Baal, the Pharaoh of Egypt, or Donald Trump. But if our hearts are aimed squarely at the true God of the Bible, why is it as wrong to make an image of God as it would be to worship a false god in the first place?
Biblically there appears to be three main reasons behind the second commandment. The first is what was noted above: since we don’t want to worship a false god, and since images of God inevitably lead us to think of God the wrong way, there is a sense in which using images leads us to worship a false god after all. If you want to know, love, serve, and worship the true Creator of the universe, then let him reveal himself to you in his Word. One of the things we know about the Bible is that when you step back to take in the full sweep of God that emerges from Genesis to Revelation, what you have is a richly complex, nuanced, textured epiphany that is so vast that there flat out is no way to make it neat or tidy. But as soon as we develop one primary way to paint the divine face or depict the divine presence, we run the risk of focusing on what that particular image shows and so conveniently leave out the multitude of things it fails to convey. That is why the incompleteness of every image of God makes that image also wrong.
A second reason for not making images of God is that it violates God’s transcendence. When we use the stuff of this earth to bring God down to our level, we may lose sight of the fact that God is everything, everywhere, spanning every level and dimension of reality.
But a third and final reason is more personal than such coldly galactic perspectives on God; namely, we resist static images of God because we believe God is so very alive, so very loving, and therefore is in a vital relationship with us. Let’s try an analogy: many of you who are married have a picture of your spouse in your office or on your desk at work. But if you have a good, loving, and solid relationship with your spouse such that you can kiss him or her hello and goodbye every day and look forward to sharing supper together every evening, then although you have that picture at work, do you spend a good deal of the average day staring at it? Probably not. But what happens if that spouse suddenly dies? Probably the value of that portrait would go up. Probably then there would be many days when you would find yourself staring at the picture with longing, yearning, and fond remembrance. Its value would increase precisely because the relationship it signifies would be no more.
And just maybe something similar lies behind the rule about images for God: God sees no need for us to spend our time mooning after a mere picture since he is with us every moment of every day! He’s as close as the nearest prayer, nearer to us than flesh is to fingernails. His relationship to us is lively, living, constant. Indeed, some of you maybe do not have a picture of your spouse at work in part because you don’t need the image–the real thing wakes up next to you every morning and gives you a toothpaste kiss each evening before the light goes out. God wants his presence in our lives to be just that real and meaningful. We don’t need the picture. We’ve got Him!
Of course, having said all that, there is the issue that God himself has already given us an authorized image of himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Historically, there has been an argument that making images of Jesus are acceptable since this is the image God himself already provided for us. That’s why, despite the starkness of Lord’s Day 35 and its prohibition on images, even the staunchest of Reformed churches (and many others) have had no difficulty portraying Jesus as the Good Shepherd on stained glass windows, Sunday school materials, on flannel graphs, and the like.
Possible Biblical Texts
Isaiah 40:18-31: The last verse of this passage is well-known but the preceding material is rich with preaching possibilities on the second commandment. The galactic grandeur of Yahweh—and the way he far outstrips us and our every ability to depict him with our own puny hands—comes through nicely. There is also here the nice refrain, “Have you not heard? Have you not been told?” that can be woven into a sermon on these words from Isaiah.
Psalm 115: This psalm works for either of the first commandments but is a good one to reach for on the matter of graven images in that the psalmist nicely lampoons those who make very convenient gods of wood and stone. At one point the psalmist says that the people who manufacture idols end up becoming just like them. But that’s not surprising in that the idols we fashion tend to be a lot like us to begin with!
Exodus 32: The Golden Calf is the premiere passage to which to turn for the second commandment. Among the things to note here is that no sooner do the Israelites fashion this blind, deaf, and dumb idol and they immediately feel authorized to engage in whatever kind of activity they wish. The Calf sure isn’t going to say anything about it! But isn’t this always the danger when creating our own gods (or making even the true God over into something more akin to our own image)? Isn’t this the APPEAL of idolatry—the neat and tidy authorization of all we wanted to do to begin with? When your false god can’t even say “Moo,” he sure won’t say anything else to upset you, either!
Idea #1: In his 1998 book The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word Mitchell Stephens asserts a bold thesis: the age of the printed word is passing away, a new era driven by video images is being born. What’s more, Stephens thinks this is a good thing. “Moving images use our senses more effectively than do black lines of type stacked on white pages.” Properly used by skilled technicians, video can instruct us better than books. Video will soon fashion better understandings of our world. The last line of the book even brazenly re-works the opening line to the Gospel of John by claiming that “All our enlightenments are not behind us. We are beginning again, and in this new beginning is the moving image.”
Although many of us may hope Stephens is wrong about the eclipse of reading, few of us could deny that we are now living in an image-driven culture. In the last half of the twentieth century television changed the very layout of our homes. Prior to the 1950s we arranged our living rooms differently. Now if you walk into most any home, you can find at least one room in which every chair, sofa, and beanbag is arranged in such a way that the person sitting there will be able to see the room’s center-of-attention: the TV set.
We are an image-driven culture. Churches have picked up on this. Go to almost any of the mega-churches that were started in the last twenty or thirty years and you will see a welter of features which tie in with our desire to see and not just hear. I preached in a large church not long ago that projected my image behind me on two giant screens stage-left and stage-right (and once in a while I could catch a glimpse of my giant visage out of the corner of my eye and it was powerfully distracting!). Other congregations have perhaps not gone quite that far but in many places dramas and skits and video clips have become a standard part of worship services as have slide projectors displaying not just song lyrics but often scenes of mountains which help to create a certain effect when singing a hymn like “How Great Thou Art.”
How very different this is from Old Testament Israel! And what accounts for this difference is not the obvious fact that we have photography and video technology whereas ancient Israel did not. No, the difference between then and now is Israel assumed that worshiping Yahweh was to be done in the absence of images. This was one of the hallmarks that distinguished Israel. Whereas other nations assumed they needed to have a visible image of their god in order to worship, Israel banned depictions of Yahweh.
Idea #2: We all know that every image, even a good one, is incomplete. The story is told about the great artist Pablo Picasso and a man who had commissioned Picasso to paint a portrait of his wife. Picasso did the portrait, but when the husband came to pick it up, he complained. “It doesn’t look like my wife!” “No?!” Picasso replied. “Well what does your wife look like?” The man then pulled out his wallet to produce a photo of his wife. “She looks like this,” he said. Picasso studied the picture for a moment and then handed it back saying, “Small, isn’t she?”
The point is that even a photo does not look exactly like the person in the picture. It’s two-dimensional, not three; it’s not life-size, and so forth. Every image, including those of God, is only a snippet of the real thing.
Idea #3: In her book The Substance of Things Seen, Robin Jensen tells the story of a devout Baptist young woman who visited a Greek Orthodox church one Sunday and was scandalized by the array of icons and images that filled the sanctuary. After the service, she registered her discomfort with the priest. “I was always taught,” she said, “that we may have no images of God.” The priest thought for just a moment before gently replying, “But, my dear, you are the image of God, re-made now in Christ.” The second commandment tells us we must not be wiser than God in trying to create images that restrict the nature of God and our understanding of God. But we must also not try to be wiser than God by ignoring the image he himself has given to us in Jesus nor how that very image must shine in all our living every day.
Q & A 99
Q. What is the aim of the third commandment?
A. That we neither blaspheme nor misuse the name of God by cursing, perjury, or unnecessary oaths, nor share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders. In summary, we should use the holy name of God only with reverence and awe, so that we may properly confess God, pray to God, and glorify God in all our words and works.
Q & A 100
Q. Is blasphemy of God’s name by swearing and cursing really such serious sin that God is angry also with those who do not do all they can to help prevent and forbid it?
A. Yes, indeed. No sin is greater or provokes God’s wrath more than blaspheming his name. That is why God commanded it to be punished with death.
Lord’s Day 37
Q & A 101
Q. But may we swear an oath in God’s name if we do it reverently?
A. Yes, when the government demands it, or when necessity requires it, in order to maintain and promote truth and trustworthiness for God’s glory and our neighbor’s good. Such oaths are grounded in God’s Word and were rightly used by the people of God in the Old and New Testaments.
Q & A 102
Q. May we also swear by saints or other creatures?
A. No. A legitimate oath means calling upon God as the only one who knows my heart to witness to my truthfulness and to punish me if I swear falsely. No creature is worthy of such honor.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
The Catechism devotes two full Lord’s Days to the third commandment and its injunction to use God’s holy name only with all due reverence. The main import of the commandment is covered in Lord’s Day 36. But Lord’s Day 37 got added to deal with a peculiar interest of the Reformation era. When the Catechism was written in the mid-1500s, many people were consumed with the worry that swearing an oath in court violated the third commandment. After all, then as now there were those who would casually invoke God’s name to make themselves look more credible, even though they were perhaps actually being dishonest. Christians back then were frightened of the consequences that might come if they mixed God in too freely in settings where the divine name did not properly belong. That’s probably why this is the only one of the Ten Commandments that receives two full Lord’s Days in the Catechism.
Perhaps it goes without saying that these days – people don’t have that fear anymore. If anything there are at least some in our society who think that the more we can parade God and Jesus into classrooms, courtrooms, political debates, and laboratories the better. But the third commandment remains firmly in place as a reminder and a warning: God is not our mascot. He did not lend us his name to do with what we please but to do with it what pleases God. And what pleases God is an honest proclamation of his covenant faithfulness which climaxes in the death and resurrection of Jesus his Son.
As these two Lord’s Day make clear—and as Scripture everywhere testifies as well—God alone is in charge of his own name. We use it only the way he wants it to be used; namely, in praise, in worship, in precise witness to his identity as the covenant God of all faithfulness. All other uses, the Bible says, constitute taking the Name in vain.
The English word “vain” derives from the Latin word vanus, which means “empty.” Apparently there are ways to use God’s sacred name which empty that name of its real meaning, its real power, and its real beauty. That is the essence of blasphemy. By misusing or misapplying God’s Name, God’s reputation gets damaged.
Blasphemy at its core is an attack on God–it is a form of theft that steals sacred words and symbols away from God, twists and perverts them, and so makes those words and symbols do the exact opposite of what they are supposed to do. The name that should bring life brings death and insult. A pedestrian form of this blasphemy is taking the name of Jesus Christ and using it as a swear word.
But what happens to a person’s ability to appreciate Jesus as the Lord of Life when that same name is used as a way to express anger, to belittle someone, or to be a trite way to express frustration? What happens is that Jesus becomes associated with the very kinds of activities he came to save us from. Blasphemy blocks the real meaning of Jesus and the real character of God. It steals God’s own language in such a way that God is left with nothing to say. Or think of what happens to the symbol of the cross when the KKK burns it in front a black man’s house: the cross becomes a symbol of hatred. The cross becomes a roadblock to shalom instead of a doorway to it.
When we survey the wondrous cross, when we contemplate that sacred head now wounded, we are supposed to be filled with such love and longing that we say with the hymn, “What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?” But when the cross, or the name of the Savior on that cross, becomes blasphemed, then things get turned on their head. What language can God himself now borrow to get through to us with the gospel’s good news when his chosen way to communicate with us is blasphemed to the point that it produces revulsion instead of love? Blasphemy robs God not of his holiness (which cannot be corrupted) but of his ability to display his holiness in the way he prefers to do.
But as the Catechism makes clear in Q&A 99, the third commandment is only partially about the way we speak of God as individual Christian believers. This commandment has just as much to do with how we present God to the people around us. Does our conduct as believers open up the beauty of God or throw up a roadblock? What associations do we create in people’s minds when it comes to the name of Jesus, the symbol of his cross, and the imagery of the Christian church just generally? By how we act and witness, will the people around us be led to feel positively about the Christian faith or will they come to associate it with hatred, intolerance, and a harshly judgmental spirit?
As much as we need to rebuke those outside the church who use the Lord’s Name in vain by making it a profane swear word, we within the church need to make very certain that whenever we ourselves invoke God’s holy name, whenever we display the key symbols of our faith, we do so in ways that are consistent with the gospel’s core of grace, love, mercy, and compassion. That is the POSITIVE side of the third commandment (and the Heidelberg Catechism was always highly adept at bringing out the positive, constructive side of God’s laws).
Possible Biblical Texts
Psalm 99: This may not seem like an obvious choice for Lord’s Days 36-37 or a consideration of the third commandment. After all, there is nothing here about blasphemy or taking the holy Name in vain. But this psalm could be used to illustrate the positive part of the third commandment as brought out by the Catechism. That is to say, we are called to help people praise God by how we present God to them. We call “all nations” and in fact the entire world to render praise to God. But for that to happen, we must ourselves both speak reverently of our God and make sure that the God we present to the world is the real God as revealed to us in Scripture. The proper use of God’s Name helps us to confess God, pray to God, and praise God in all our living. But that same proper use of God’s Name helps all other peoples enter these activities as well.
Exodus 3: God’s first-time revelation of the divine name of YHWH to Moses at the Burning Bush is, of course, a classic place to turn when considering God’s Name and our proper use of it. The name “Yahweh” means either “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In other words, “Yahweh” is a reference to the covenant God who is constant, faithful, abiding, and consistent. The very name of God tells us that he will always be with us. He just is life itself, the bright cosmic center of grace and mercy. Our use of this name that reveals so much about God—and now our use of the holy name of “Jesus” which delivers this same load of theological meaning to us—traffics in all that is holy and good about our God.
Idea #1: Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy had quite a bit in common. For one thing both men were as well known by their initials as their actual names. If I were to reel off the initials “RWR” or “WGH,” you would not necessarily tumble to the fact that I was referring to Ronald Wilson Reagan or Warren Gamaliel Harding. But if I said “FDR” or “JFK,” you would instantly know to whom I was referring.
Ironically, another characteristic which FDR and JFK shared in common also has to do with names. Because both men had the habit of casually re-naming people as soon as they met them. Although FDR was always referred to as “Mr. President,” he typically addressed others by their first names. Even the King of England, upon visiting the White House, was greeted by Roosevelt with “Hello, George.” JFK went one step further in his habit of assigning nicknames. Someone introduced to Kennedy as James Smith might hear the president say, “Nice to see you Jimbo, have a seat.” A woman named Inga with whom Kennedy was romantically involved for many years was instantly dubbed “Inga Binga.”
Now, of course, both FDR and JFK were also possessed of huge amounts of personal charm. Both men were so affable and congenial that this habit of using first names or even nicknames typically came off as friendly and charming. After all, who wouldn’t want to have such a close and casual relationship to the most powerful person in the world? But some observers of both men noted the power-play dynamic that was at work. When someone changes your name on you, he has taken charge of the relationship. He has assumed a high-ness over against you–a superior position. That is all the more obvious in that neither president would have accepted the same treatment from others.
Idea #2: In William Styron’s chillingly brilliant novel Sophie’s Choice Styron tells us that the Nazis frequently forced mothers to choose which of their children would live and which would die. Sophie had two children but was forced to decide which one to keep with her and which one to send to the gas chambers. The Nazis in a sense “blasphemed” her motherhood. They knew that as a mother Sophie loved her children more than anyone else possibly could. So they found a way to take this maternal love and make it serve their sinister goal of destroying Sophie’s spirit. They forced her to become her own child’s executioner, making her point the finger as to which one would die. That act corrupted Sophie’s spirit forever.
Similarly, blasphemy sneaks past the love of God, seizes God’s holy name and the sacred symbols of his salvation, and then corrupts them, turning them into instruments with which to further bludgeon people instead of heal them. Blasphemy swipes the good things of God leaving him with no way to get through to people. Even as Sophie’s motherhood was ruined by having it twisted in an unholy direction, so also with God: when the words that should convey God’s love become twisted, a good thing is ruined for those on the receiving end of the blasphemy. God gets jumbled together with all the wrong associations.
Q & A 103
Q. What is God’s will for you in the fourth commandment?
A. First, that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained, and that, especially on the festive day of rest, I diligently attend the assembly of God’s people to learn what God’s Word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor.
Second, that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
What is the Sabbath really? Lord’s Day 38 makes it clear that in the Christian tradition, the celebration of “Sabbath” has been moved to the first day of the week—to the day of the resurrection—and that the meaning of the day has shifted from a focus on resting from physical work to more of an emphasis on resting from “evil ways.” This latter kind of “rest” then becomes a kind of preview, a keynote, that points forward to the ultimate and eternal Sabbath that will be life in the kingdom of God.
Curiously, however, we all know that despite this more spiritual emphasis, the Christian tradition—like the Jewish one before it—has found it relatively easy to lard over the goodness of Sabbath with a slew of negative prohibitions that make Sundays feel more like oppressive days than joyful ones—the kind of day where worry about breaking a rule easily eclipses the “festive” nature of the day as detailed by Q&A 103 in the Catechism. Sabbath is about enjoying God, enjoying God’s creation, and enjoying other people as the images of God in our midst. That’s why the Catechism begins by talking about worship. We come to church to take the focus off of ourselves and put it properly onto God, God’s people, and the poor for whom we take offerings. It’s a time to find out how the sick and elderly of the congregation are doing and to pray for them. It’s a time to learn a little something more about all the many and wonderful things God teaches in the Bible.
But Q&A 103 deepens and broadens Sabbath when it says there should be a little Sabbath in our hearts every day in the sense that we aim ourselves toward God and toward others by repenting of sin. Most sin is essentially selfish blindness, putting your wants ahead of God’s designs and ahead of other people’s needs, too. Sabbath living on a Wednesday afternoon or a Friday morning means that you take care of others first, not worrying about yourself because if other people do the same, they will take care of you anyway.
Lord’s Day 38 ends by looking forward to what it calls “the eternal Sabbath.” How that phrase sounds to you says a lot about your experience with Sabbath. Not a few people would hear the prospect of an “eternal Sabbath” and groan. If eternity is sitting in church and then following a bunch of very strict rules the rest of the time, lots of people would say you can just keep your eternal Sabbath, thank you very much. Certainly many of the Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t want every day to be the Sabbath because the tension would have killed them.
Preaching on Lord’s Day 38 may well require a critique of past ways of celebrating Sabbath. However, some of us preachers know that this requires a delicate balancing act. If we take too much relish in pooh-poohing or lampooning some Sabbath restrictions of old (and it’s not difficult to find Sabbatarian rules that lean in the direction of the ridiculous), we run the risk of insulting members of the congregation who will feel their own parents or grandparents are being poked fun of. We need to recall that for all the wrong-headedness of certain past practices, they did stem from a sincere desire to set aside a special day for God. Whether they succeeded in capturing the true essence of Sabbath rest is another question, but we need to be pastorally sensitive to not backhanding away the sincere faith of our fathers and mothers.
But there can be an equal but opposite error where the concept of Sabbath is concerned: in recent years some have claimed that even Christians have allowed the concept of Sabbath to be conquered by the comparatively recent invention of the two-day weekend. No one used to talk about a weekend, but now it’s an institution. Sunday is just one-half of the larger weekend unit–it’s just a sequel to Saturday. But to use Sunday as a day to catch up and calm down just long enough to prepare for another week of work, work, work is wrong.
What Sabbath is really all about is not a “day off” to catch your breath, it’s about completely re-orienting your thinking. Sabbath means entering into God’s grace and God’s story and God’s rhythms in ways that will not prepare you to re-enter the rat race but that will make you exit the rat race for good. Truly to recognize Sabbath for what God intended is to change life every day. To use the Sabbath as a launching pad for the same old destructive routines of busyness is to profane the Sabbath–the secular “weekend” is for recharging your batteries. The Sabbath is for transforming the mind.
One way to bring this emphasis into our preaching about Sabbath is to note how the Old Testament grounds Sabbath in BOTH creation AND redemption. Sabbath has something to do with BOTH of those huge themes in Scripture. In Exodus 20 God commands Sabbath rest based on creation. “For in six days Yahweh made the heavens and the earth . . . but he rested on the seventh day.” Creation has something to do with Sabbath. But in Deuteronomy 5 the reason is different: “For remember that you were slaves in Egypt but that God led you out of there.” This time it is redemption that reminds us of Sabbath rest.
Creation and Redemption are the two big themes of the Bible. Strikingly, both have something to do with Sabbath. The way we were made by God and the way we’ve been saved by God aim us in the direction of Sabbath. But if Sabbath is far more than just a day off, then what is it? What lies at the core of this and how could it affect our lives if we really both understood and practiced Sabbath?
We can begin by tying back into Creation and Redemption. Creation tells us that in the end as in the beginning (and so at every point in between) God alone is the Creator. God has taken care to create a fitting world and home for us. Far from being some remote Deity who set the universe to spinning but then left it alone, we believe that God is still vitally close to his creation. He takes care of us. Because God alone is the sovereign maker and caretaker of everything, all that we can do is enter into a work God already has under control.
Of course it’s important that we have jobs and tasks and that we do them faithfully and diligently. But the creation perspective on Sabbath reminds us that we can never do it all and that we don’t need to, either. If we really are faithful workers who carry out our God-given vocations as best we can during the week, then with relative ease we ought to be able just to leave that work for a while, too. Since we are merely participating in God’s larger creative work, we can be assured that when we leave off for a bit, we are not abandoning our work to mere idleness but we’re leaving it in God’s hands, where all our work is all the time anyway!
Possible Biblical Texts
Matthew 12:1-14: Any of Jesus’ many Sabbath controversies with the religious authorities of his day provide a negative foil, a counter-example, for what the Sabbath was truly about all along for the Jewish tradition as well as for what it should still be about for us in the Christian tradition in terms of how we have adapted Sabbath to our larger theology of God’s work in Christ. Jesus points everyone to the true heart of the Sabbath day and the rest it ought to provide. How very revealing it is in this passage to note that the Pharisees respond to this by hatching a plot to murder Jesus! If ever there were a passage that shows where an undue attachment to rules can lead you, this is it!
Exodus 20:8-11, Deuteronomy 5:12-15: As noted above, these two passages give different grounds for the concept of Sabbath rest. Exodus 20 talks about creation, Deuteronomy 5 about redemption. Seeing this contrast provides a nice way to access the larger themes of Sabbath as also L.D. 38 presents them.
Idea #1: If anyone would like to write a book that will sell a lot of copies, I can suggest a topic. This would be a book that would work the same side of the street as Dr. Phil. The book would appeal to medicine, the natural sciences, psychology, and sociology to build a case that in order to maintain good health, human beings regularly need a day off, a Sabbath’s rest if you will. You could argue that humans seem hard-wired such that our brains and bodies need time to get away from it all so as to rejuvenate. In our harried, frantic culture where even young children seem worn to a frazzle due to hyper-busy schedules, a book like that would surely strike a nerve and catch on.
Of course, you’ll have plenty of competition. There are already dozens of books in print that deal with some aspect of Sabbath rest. For the most part, though, they tend to be almost “How-To” manuals. Some authors promote Jewish-like Sabbath rituals that include lighting candles at sunset on Saturday followed by other suggestions that bear striking resemblance to psycho-therapeutic relaxation techniques. Hence, advertisements for such books promise that this is the book that will help you “experience wholeness and joy again.” Indeed, a survey of books on Amazon.com revealed that when it comes to books on Sabbath, certain words pop up almost every time: rest, renewal, delight, wholeness, enrichment. The subtitles for these books include “the antidote for the overworked,” “release from your busy life,” “a touch of heaven.” Perhaps my favorite title was a Jewish book: Oh No! It’s Sabbath Again and I’m Not Ready: A Homemaker’s Guide to Making Friday the Easiest Day of the Week.
Probably, though, I myself would not write a book like any of those. I would probably write a book that dealt with this topic the way Lord’s Day 38 presents it. And I would predict that my book would tank quite resoundingly as a result! Because the books that catch on seem to make the Sabbath all about you. This will improve your life, your mental state, your energy level. Lord’s Day 38, however, seems to be more about God. Sabbath is a time to worship God, to listen to sermons, to give money away to the poor. What’s more, the Lord’s day is a once-a-week reminder that what Sabbath rest is mostly all about is repenting of sin and vowing to live a more holy life every day.
Idea #2: In late 1999 Time magazine named Albert Einstein its “Person of the Century.” Curiously the name of the magazine points you to the subject about which Einstein had his greatest insight: time. Before Einstein people assumed that whatever time is, it is constant. “Time marches on,” the old saying goes, and before Einstein we assumed that time marches ever and always at the same pace. It does not matter who you are or where you are or what you are doing, you cannot affect time. If your battery is running out, then your watch may run slow but the actual time that passes around you can never slow down or speed up.
But Einstein realized that time is a truly existing dimension. Time is as real as the wood of this pulpit. And it is not constant. Time is affected by motion and position. It is relative. Einstein’s classic illustration has to do with a train. Picture yourself riding on a train. Picture another person sitting on a bench alongside the train tracks watching the train go by. Now imagine that two bolts of lightning strike the train tracks, one just behind the moving train and one just ahead of the train. To the person sitting on the bench it is clear that these two bolts of lightning struck the tracks at the exact same instant. They were simultaneous. But the person riding 60 MPH on the train would not perceive it that way.
If you were riding on the train, you would see the bolt of lightning ahead of the train before the one behind the train. At one time it was thought that this could be explained the same way you can deal with sound waves. If you are in your car waiting for a train to pass, you hear the crossing bell go ding-ding-ding-ding, always the same tone. But people on the train don’t hear it that way. As you move toward the bell and then away from it, the pitch changes. So perhaps the same thing happens with the lightning–you just get to the light waves of the one bolt quicker since you’re moving toward it (and away from the other one).
But it doesn’t work that way. The phenomenal insight of Einstein was that you cannot explain this difference in perception by fiddling with the speed of the light because the speed of light is constant. Light always goes the same speed–you cannot get light to come at you faster. So Einstein realized that what accounts for the person on the train seeing the lightning bolts differently than the person on the bench is that time is different for the person on the train. Time is relative. It can be affected by motion. Scientists have even discovered that if you take two very sensitive nuclear clocks, synchronize the time on both, and then place one at the top of a skyscraper and one at the bottom and let then them tick away for a few days, it turns out the clock on the bottom runs slower because it is closer to the earth’s center of gravity than the one at the top (which travels faster, therefore)!
Well, it took an Einstein to figure that all out but there is a sense in which the importance and impact of time is something Jews and Christians have known all along. The Bible itself lets us know that time can affect us but also that we can affect the time around us. That’s why there is such a thing as Sabbath. God took care to weave Sabbath rest right into the richly embroidered tapestry of his creation. As such, Sabbath is not just a human technique for stress reduction, it is a way to take hold of time and make it serve the cosmic purpose of glorifying God by paying attention to the rhythms God himself instituted.
Q & A 104
Q. What is God’s will for you in the fifth commandment?
A. That I honor, love, and be loyal to my father and mother and all those in authority over me; that I submit myself with proper obedience to all their good teaching and discipline; and also that I be patient with their failings—for through them God chooses to rule us.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
These days it’s difficult to read Q&A 104, and its rather brisk treatment of respect for those in authority over us, without having pastoral red flags getting raise in one’s mind. After all, we are today far more sensitive to the horrors of child abuse than had been true in previous generations. We know as preachers in the early 21st century that it’s not enough to address parental (and other familial) failings through no more than a line like “be patient with their failings, for through them God chooses to rule us.” In what follows we will not spend any extended time pondering the need to nuance our sermons on the governing authorities (as the fifth commandment teaches us about this) by taking specific note of prudent responses to situations of abuse. But clearly this needs to be in the background for us preachers in all that we do.
The fifth commandment is narrowly about children and parents but has traditionally been broadened and expanded to take into account all types of authority. As such—and as the Catechism highlights—this commandment tells us that broad dismissals of authority structures is wrong. God has chosen to take care of us through intermediaries like parents and presidents. Within reasonable parameters we need to find ways to honor and respect them as the hands of God’s providence. But whenever we dismiss whole areas of this world’s authority structures (as some today try to do), we take ourselves out of the way by which God himself governs this world. One need not be an overt rebel to cut against the grain of the fifth commandment. Being a thoroughgoing cynic who sneers his way through life has the same effect.
But beyond that broad suggestion about a generic respect for governing authorities, what are some specific things to keep in mind when preaching on this? First, regarding the government: obeying this command means that within the ordinary function of any given nation, Christians are called to support elected officials, pray for them, and obey them. That does not, of course, rule out our lobbying for more just policies. It does not rule out trying to vote a certain person out of office if we think she or he has done a bad job of representing us. But it does mean that believers obey the laws that are there, that we pay our taxes with a sense of gratitude for all the services that money makes possible. Not everything any government does is lovely or good, and there is typically plenty of waste to decry, too. But it’s altogether too easy to make statements like, “Nothing ever works right in the government!” Yet when we preach on this, we do so before people who enjoy freedoms every day (and it’s well to remind them of this because sometimes the partisan politics that people from both sides of the political spectrum absorb all week long in the mass media can downplay those benefits). Every time an air traffic controller keeps a plane safe, every time the mail arrives in a timely way, every time the FBI solves a crime, every time Christians gather for worship without the fear of tyranny, every time a law prevents someone from doing something bad, we see that plenty does work in government. And through that God takes care of us. This is properly a source of great thanksgiving!
Similarly with regard to the church: in an age of suspicion and cynicism too many people assume they can do without any church. We need to find creative ways to witness to such people, helping them to recognize the work of God’s Holy Spirit in and through (and often despite) the human frailty of the church. We don’t want to tie the hands of the Holy Spirit–we cannot and must not deny that God gets through to people outside the walls of the institutional church. But we believe that what Jesus naturally does with his followers is draw them into community. The church is not some grand historical mistake never intended by Jesus. It is not ultimately the place that hinders faith but that should nourish it. If there are practices the church engages in that does hinder faith, then those need to be addressed–we are, after all, a denomination that claims it is always open to reform in the light of God’s Word alone. But there is a vast difference between reforming the church and dumping it as though what God really wants is to take charge of isolated individuals who make up their own faith beliefs and practices on the fly.
Finally, a word on the most obvious application of this commandment: families. Preachers need to acknowledge that parents are as flawed as anyone else on the planet. Some parents are rather desperately flawed. That’s why in many family situations keeping the fifth commandment requires more than a touch of creativity and even flexibility. It’s altogether too easy to say that unless a given family looks like the Waltons, Ozzie and Harriet, or some Norman Rockwell painting, then we are in a situation which we need not put up with any longer. How easy to avoid parents who don’t see things our way, to spend as little time with dad in the nursing home as dad spent with us when we were growing up, bound up as he was with that dumb company that ended up firing him prior to his retirement anyway. How tempting to take the modern “me first” attitude one short step further to separate oneself from any family that “just doesn’t understand me.”
Perhaps the bottom line regarding a family can be the bottom line of the fifth commandment generally; namely, we are called to stick with people over the long haul. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about parents, a church, or a government, the one sure thing we can expect is that somewhere along the line we will encounter people, policies, or practices which we don’t like or agree with. We will likely encounter things that need to be changed or reformed. We will almost certainly encounter situations that will hurt us, tax our patience, and maybe even drive us a little nuts.
In all such times the temptation is to chuck it in the naive belief that if Jesus were in charge of this or that, then it would run better; if God completely took over the government or if the pastor and Council would just really let the Spirit completely guide the church, then we’d have a harmony, a unity, a set of laws that would instantly make all people happy and secure. But short of God’s eliminating all of us from the scene, that’s not going to happen in this life. For now we accept God’s chosen method of taking care of us through sometimes flawed authorities, parents, pastors, and others.
This is not an easy teaching, and we preachers need to be careful to make it too-easy sounding. Even to make a beginning at honoring the governing authorities in a world as messed up as this one requires great effort. It often also requires that we overcome long odds or take the time to heal from great hurts. It requires an almost constant wiping away of tears from our eyes or a removing of obstacles in front of our eyes so that we can keep our line of vision clear in order to see our God behind it all. We need to overcome the corrosive effects of suspicion and cynicism that make a knee-jerk dismissal of authority so common today.
Possible Biblical Texts
Romans 13:1-7: This is a highly striking passage when one remembers the original setting for Paul’s words. As someone recently pointed out, Paul gets through the entire letter to the Romans without ever once mentioning the Caesar (or any other governing authority) by name. And yet the entire letter highjacks the rhetoric surrounding Caesar (“the Lord and God” of the Roman Empire) and applies it to Jesus. Needless to say, the Roman Empire did not take kindly to this and hence was openly hostile to the Christian faith. So given THAT context, how could Paul recommend such quiet obedience? A sermon on this text and under the rubric of the Fifth Commandment opens up huge areas of thought about our present-day relationship to the government, to our families, etc.
Suspicion. We live in an age of suspicion and cynicism, particularly toward authority. Perhaps it began in the 1960s when the bumper sticker slogans “Question Authority” and “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30” neatly summed up an entire generation. Whether it was a university administration or the federal government, the assumption was that “the establishment” was the enemy. The “generation gap” became yet another phrase through which our society became stratified. Parents, teachers, professors, senators, and presidents just didn’t understand the young.
By the early 1970s the older generation was caricatured (or, depending on your perspective, was epitomized) by the person of Archie Bunker. Archie was an “America-first,” support the government, pro-Nixon patriot who also happened to be a narrow-minded racial and sexual bigot with an entire dictionary of racial slurs, epithets, and put-downs at his disposal. The enlightened of the world were like Archie’s son-in-law, Michael Stevic. But to Archie Bunker and those of his ilk, Mike was just a rebellious meat-head.
All of that was in the wind long before Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky-gate, and any number of lesser scandals that rocked the federal government. Small wonder that one of the most popular TV shows in the 1990s was The X-Files–a show that hinged on suspicion of the government and the motif of conspiracy. “The truth is out there” was the show’s slogan—yes, the truth is “out there” somewhere but we’ll have to find it on our own by getting around the authorities who have a stake in keeping us from the truth. Even the phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code some years back fed the suspicion that also the church is more a hindrance to finding the truth than a guide to the truth. If the church has been covering up the truth about Jesus and Mary Magdalene from the get-go of the Christian tradition, well then, there is no authority left that you can truly trust.
In an atmosphere like this, how can we recover a trust in the governing authorities akin to what we find in Q&A 104 of the Catechism?
Q & A 105
Q. What is God’s will for you in the sixth commandment?
A. I am not to belittle, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor— not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds— and I am not to be party to this in others; rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge. I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either. Prevention of murder is also why government is armed with the sword.
Q & A 106
Q. Does this commandment refer only to murder?
A. By forbidding murder God teaches us that he hates the root of murder:envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness. In God’s sight all such are disguised forms of murder.
Q & A 107
Q. Is it enough then that we do not murder our neighbor in any such way?
A. No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
The Catechism is in some ways at its best in Lord’s Day 40. Overt acts of murder are, blessedly enough, rare among God’s people. Thus, there is always the temptation to slide past this particular commandment quickly (or, these days, to make it mostly the occasion to address the perennially hot topic of abortion, which is surely a legitimate application of the sixth commandment but not the whole of it). Instead of allowing us to let ourselves off the hook or target other more obvious acts of murder as committed by OTHER people, the Catechism does two things: first, it redefines murderous-like acts in such a thorough way that we can all feel the sting of it; second, Q&A 107 fleshes out the positive aspects of life that constitute murder’s opposite in ways that remind all of us that it’s not enough to avoid killing someone—we have a ton of work to do actively to build others up.
The possibilities for preaching on this are many and varied and rich. The fact that Q&A 105 singles out even things like dirty looks and rude hand gestures as murder’s forerunners and spiritual equivalents is enough right there to make everyone squirm. There is, for example, the matter of anger (and we recall Jesus’ equating of deep anger with de facto murder). Yet sometimes it seems like everyone is angry these days. In recent years there has been a new crop of comedy shows on TV–shows in which the emcees often come off as mean-spirited denunciators of the whole world. There’s an angry edge to such comedians as they basically tell us that everyone is an idiot worthy of being belittled, poked fun of, and renounced. There is also a lot of anger and rancor in politics of late.
In more common settings we’ve all sensed that sometimes the average person seems to be teetering constantly on the edge of exploding. Psychologists have even given a name to one incarnation of this: “road rage.” Somehow while behind the wheel, ordinary people transmogrify into monsters of fist-shaking, finger-flipping, red-faced fury and all because someone cut them off, forgot to use their turn signal, or is just driving too slowly. And if you travel much by airplane, then you know how quickly people become infuriated there.
In fact, the phenomenon of angry passengers has become such a common problem many airlines have now instituted policies for punishing people who become rude. The New York Times once published a copy of a recent warning letter that British Airways now hands to belligerent passengers. This letters says among other things that if the person doesn’t calm down, the pilot will land the jet at the next convenient airport and hand this person over to Scotland Yard or the FBI. Indeed, the FBI is now assigning agents to airports for the sole purpose of arresting angry airline passengers as soon as they get off the plane.
Anger, envy, rude gestures, dirty looks: so much of this is the stock-in-trade lifestyle of people all around us. We do some of these things without thinking twice. Someone cuts us off in traffic, we sneer, we label them “idiots” and “jerks.” We do this in front of our children.
So what is God’s will for you in the sixth commandment? That you stop it. That you become instead peace-loving, friendly, merciful. Few challenges are greater. That’s why preaching on Lord’s Day 40 presents, among other things, the opportunity to do significant pastoral care, challenge, and even rebuke from the pulpit so as to help God’s people grow in godliness.
Possible Biblical Texts
I Kings 21:1-16: The sad and sordid story of Naboth’s vineyard—and what Ahab and Jezebel did to him—provides a good vignette on murder and its various forerunners as detailed in also Lord’s Day 40. What so often happens in all that ramps us up to actual murder is that we lose sight of the true humanity of the other person. Among other things, the cleverly written text in I Kings 21 reminds us of Naboth’s true humanity by repeating his name not less than 20 times in a scant 16 verses! The author is telling us something here!
Genesis 4: The tragic story of Cain and Abel helps to access not just the topic of overt murder but also the sad fact that it is as often as not ENVY that leads to murder. Cain’s envy of Abel, and the hatred, anger, and vindictiveness it helped to cook up in Cain’s soul, shows the truth of Q&A 106 very vividly.
Idea #1: In the excellent French movie, Jean de Florette, the title character of Jean is an endearing man possessed of a generous, outgoing, and optimistic spirit. Jean is also a hunchback with all the attendant physical limitations that come with that difficulty. As the film opens, Jean learns that he has inherited a large plot of land in the French countryside. He has been a city slicker his whole life but decides that it’s time to get back to nature. So he moves his wife and daughter to the farmhouse on his new property and decides to take up vegetable farming. It may be difficult because, as Jean well knows, that particular region was known for long and at times devastating droughts.
What Jean does not know, however, is that there is a natural spring on his property. With the water this spring provides, Jean could irrigate his crops easily and year-round. But the spring is of no use to Jean because he doesn’t know it exists. And he doesn’t know it exists because no one tells him. Just prior to Jean’s moving to the country, the neighbors on a nearby farm find the spring and decide to plug it up. They purposely keep Jean in the dark in the hopes that his efforts at farming will fail dismally. Once Jean moves back to the city, the neighbors will generously offer to take that “useless” property off his hands, uncork the spring, and make themselves rich by growing carnations on the fertile property.
As it turns out, however, Jean was a determined man. Despite a withering drought his first summer there, Jean works himself nearly to death, hauling heavy buckets of water from a well some miles from his farm. Despite his yeoman’s efforts, however, Jean fails and we sadly watch as Jean’s hopes wither along with his crops. Still not to be outdone, though, Jean goes for broke. Believing that there had to be subterranean water available, he decides to use dynamite to blast out a well. So he lays TNT in a shallow hole not 50 feet from the hidden spring. But after the blast, debris flies everywhere, including a large stone that strikes Jean on the head and kills him. After Jean’s widow and daughter move back to the city, the neighbors take over the land and they makes themselves exceedingly wealthy.
The Catechism claims that Jean de Florette’s neighbors killed this man. No, they had not shot him, stabbed him, or poisoned him. They had not even lit the fuse on the dynamite whose blast did Jean in. But by their envy, greed, and deception, they had insulted and belittled their neighbor even as they set off the series of calamitous events that resulted in a good and innocent man’s death.
Idea #2: Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the twentieth century’s finest preachers and orators. Already while he was in seminary King’s sermons shined for their depth of insight and rhetorical power. But while it’s easy for us to admire Dr. King’s skill, matters were not so simple for his seminary classmates. To them King was not a rising homiletical star to admire but rather a peer who, annoyingly enough, garnered all the praise of the faculty even as he received far more requests to preach in area churches than did any of his classmates. All in all, Martin was a prime target for envy.
A most egregious example of such envy happened after one of King’s earliest seminary sermons: a stunning message titled “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” King preached this fine sermon one Sunday at a church in Montgomery, Alabama. The very next week one of King’s seminary classmates, Walter McCall, was scheduled to preach in this same church. So McCall swung into the pulpit the next week with his own sermon titled, “The FOUR Dimensions of a Complete Life”! Not surprisingly McCall’s clunky, envy-driven attempt to one-up and outdo King resulted in a poor sermon which only made King’s sermon look even better by comparison!
Envy always arises among near-rivals: friends, classmates, peers, co-workers, fellow members of a congregation. Envy leads us to despise, seethe over, diminish, and belittle not those who are different from us or far away from us but those who are similar to us and close to us. So, for instance, if you have tried, but failed, to get a book published, then it won’t be John Grisham’s multiple best-sellers that will set off the klaxons of envy in your heart. But if one day your college’s alumni newsletter arrives with news that your college classmate Kaye has published a book, you may well find yourself sputtering sentiments like, “Now how did that airhead ever get a book published! In college she could barely speak two sentences without silly mistakes in grammar! I’ll bet her book stinks!” And so it goes in envy.
If there is any of the Ten Commandments which we might be tempted to skip over lightly as something which we don’t need to worry about, it most surely is this sixth word against murder. The Catechism, however, catches us in mid-skip, sets us back down on the ground in front of this commandment, and quietly whispers into our ears, “By the way: envy and all its bitter fruits is a form of murder, too! Watch it!”
Q & A 108
Q. What does the seventh commandment teach us?
A. That God condemns all unchastity, and that therefore we should thoroughly detest it and live decent and chaste lives, within or outside of the holy state of marriage.
Q & A 109
Q. Does God, in this commandment, forbid only such scandalous sins as adultery?
A. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, body and soul, and God wants both to be kept clean and holy. That is why God forbids all unchaste actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires, and whatever may incite someone to them.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
One can only imagine how much more space the Catechism authors may have devoted to the seventh commandment had they been aware of the very possibility of pornography and sexually explicit materials such as we now know them in the modern world. The Catechism urges that we lead “decent” lives, but how great the very definition of decency gets challenged these days. The Catechism warns against all that “incites” unchastity and certainly the possibilities for lewd and suggestive talk as well as for engaging in private sexual fantasies have always been with us. But the number of “inciting” sources has magnified in the modern world as such incitements to lurid thinking now scream out at us from roadside billboards, supermarket magazine display racks, television and magazine advertisements, and so much more.
Philip Yancey once wrote about the phenomenon in the ancient world of “bleeding Pharisees.” These were highly devout religious leaders who took so seriously the charge not to lust after women that they went around with their eyes shut much of the time, bumping into walls and bloodying their foreheads as a result! In the twenty-first century one would very nearly have to go to such extremes in order to avoid seeing scantily clad men and women in suggestive poses—sexuality and sexually suggestive things are, it seems, very nearly ubiquitous in most Western countries.
So it’s not difficult as a preacher to point out the challenges in this area. What may be a bit more difficult is finding ways to address all of this that will be practically implementable in the lives of those who hear our sermons (most particularly in the lives of the young).
We preachers face another, related challenge here: how to speak frankly and specifically enough about sexuality in ways that will address the sexually saturated, sexually savvy young people in the congregation (and just so lend an air of reality to the sermon) yet without getting so frank as to shock (and likely upset/anger) older members who can well remember far more demure days than the present culture. This is a balancing act for which there can be little advice given in general and/or in the abstract. Pastoral wisdom is required to discern how far pulpit language/rhetoric can go in a given congregational setting. Suffice it to say, however, that pastors should convey neither complete cluelessness as to what young people face today NOR the pretension that the pastor knows EVERYTHING that’s out there and is just as in touch and “with it” as anyone. Again, this is the kind of balance that requires keen pastoral wisdom as well as pastoral awareness of where a given congregation is in terms of its maturity and its willingness to tolerate frank talk.
In general, however, a sermon on Lord’s Day 41 could go in one of two directions (and maybe in many more directions than even that!). The sermon can focus on marriage and how to avoid adultery by building strong nuptial unions to begin with. No, we do not wish to validate the idea that an unhappy marriage makes adultery inevitable (much less excusable) but neither can we deny that healthy marriages are generally speaking a hedge against adulterous temptations. Alternatively, the sermon can focus on the sexual temptations that are common to all, including singles/younger people.
But for either focus (and perhaps it would be best to choose one focus or the other for a sermon rather than trying to do too much in a single message) perhaps it would be wise to recover something that is too-easily lost in a cultural setting like ours: namely, the discipline of mental and spiritual restraint. Both Q&A 109 in the Catechism and Jesus’ famous words in the Sermon on the Mount remind us that much of the mayhem that takes place sexually in this world begins not with the body but in the mind.
Malcolm Muggeridge once said that these days people seem to have sex on the brain, which, he said, is a funny place to have it. But we all know there’s nothing funny, strange, or quirky about sex-saturated imaginations. Indeed, society ENCOURAGES such preoccupation with all things sexual. This has become so commonplace—including through the burgeoning availability of porn on the Internet—that most people have long since stopped thinking about staying mentally pure, coming to believe the lie that it’s enough if we keep ourselves from actual sexual ACTS.
But as Walter Wangerin pointed out in his fine book on marriage “As For Me and My House,” just about every case of adultery began with what Wangerin nicely calls “the moment of maybe.” Few adulteries suddenly happen out of a clear blue sky. At some point one or both parties thought about it, left the door open a crack for the possibility. Warning signs were ignored, little flashes of fantasy were indulged. At some point the thought crossed someone’s mind, “This could happen” and then little choices were made that made the affair more likely: the email exchanges got ever-more flirtatious, stops by the other person’s office or place of work became a little more frequent, being alone with this other person was accepted on the theory that PROBABLY nothing will happen . . . this time.
Wangerin says that when we knowingly encounter that moment of maybe, we need to actively resist it, no longer ponder the possibilities (especially in a fantasizing manner) and consciously recognize the danger in ways that will make us resist those little temptations to flirt, to drop by, to place ourselves in potentially compromising situations. What’s more, we need to remind ourselves that even those preliminary temptations are THEMSELVES wrong, whether or not they ever lead to an actual physical affair.
These days that message alone could sound radical! But perhaps that is just so all the more reason to present it.
Possible Biblical Texts
II Samuel 13:1-22: This sad and sordid story is, of course, biblical but it is just sordid enough that some could find it offensive. Still, it provides a nearly perfect (and just so tragic) picture of the nature of lust. The sheer irrationality of lust is on display here as is the base emptiness of sheer desire (evidenced by Amnon’s instant hatred for Tamar once his appetites were sated physically). Above all, however, is the way lust blinds us to the true humanity of the other person. At its best, sexuality opens our eyes to the beauty and wonder of another being created in the image of God. At its worst, wanton lust blinds us to this spiritual reality and so allows us to debase the other person in abusive ways. This story shows all of this in tawdry but very poignant terms.
Ephesians 5:3-21: This passage gives the opportunity to connect our sexual identity with our baptismal identity. It is finally baptism that should make the difference for us when it comes to how we view ourselves, our bodies, and one another. Throughout these verses Paul uses language and imagery which point to our baptisms. “You were once darkness, but now you are light” Paul writes in verse 8. This is a curiously stark image. Paul does not say that the Ephesians had once walked in the dark or been covered by darkness–instead he says they just were darkness. They had no clue about anything in life. But now in Christ they not only had light by which to see, they had become that light! In verse 14 Paul uses another baptism image when he talks about a sleeper awaking from the dead so that Christ may shine on this person. This is a baptism passage. When you are baptized, you are changed, turned in a new direction. You’ve got a light by which to see everything more distinctly, including, as Paul makes clear here, sexuality.
Suppose you visited a country in which you were assured that basketball was no big deal. Suppose you now and again heard some people sneer at all those zany religious types who suggested that basketball needed to be kept in its proper place. “Those religious fundamentalists are the ones who have basketball hang-ups! The rest of us know that it’s just part of life and so not really a big deal. It’s a private matter. It will take care of itself.”
But then suppose you saw basketballs everywhere you went. Suppose that while riding the bus you constantly heard people saying things like, “Say, did you hear the one about the referee and the coach?” Suppose that when passing by a newspaper stand you saw that almost three-quarters of the magazines had a basketball on their covers. Suppose you saw a billboard towering over a city square featuring only the image of a giant aqua-marine basketball, slightly shrouded in shadows, but then suppose you realized this billboard was really promoting a brand of soup. Suppose that almost every show you saw on TV featured a basketball game at some point even as many of the show’s characters went to school or work wearing some form of a basketball jersey.
If you saw all this, you would never believe anyone who told you, “Around here, basketball is really not a very big deal.” Baptized people know how foolish that line of thought is regarding sexuality. Baptized people recognize how powerful sexuality is but baptized folks also recognize what a profoundly good gift sexuality is. It deserves careful handling. It deserves celebration in its proper place. It is in fact so good a gift of God that it deserves better than the flippant way it is too often practiced in the wider society.
Q & A 110
Q. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment?
A. God forbids not only outright theft and robbery, punishable by law. But in God’s sight theft also includes all scheming and swindling in order to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves, whether by force or means that appear legitimate, such as inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God. In addition God forbids all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.
Q & A 111
Q. What does God require of you in this commandment?
A. That I do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good, that I treat others as I would like them to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
The Heidelberg Catechism is well-known for its wonderful way of deepening our understanding of God’s Law in its negative dimensions (that which is forbidden) but also for its ability to reveal the POSITIVE dimensions, the GOOD behavior that is encouraged by these laws. But seldom is that on better display than in Lord’s Day 42 and the two Q&As on the eighth commandment’s injunction against stealing. In Q&A 110 we are only briefly reminded that of course outright stealing is forbidden (the obvious form of theft) but then more poignantly are reminded that theft really includes so much more. But it’s right in that “so much more” part that contemporary society can feel the pinch in that a good deal of what passes these days as standard business practices, marketing ploys, and the like are targeted as contemptible in God’s sight.
It says a lot about God that so much of his revelation to the ancient Israelites had to do with what could be called fair business practices. Liberation theologians in the twentieth century talked often about what they termed the “preferential option for the poor.” It is not enough, theologians like Gustavo Guiterrez wrote, to set up a society where everyone has an equal chance to get ahead in life. Truly just societies must also go out of their way to make sure that those who are already poor and marginalized are not further exploited and are actively helped. It was not difficult for these thinkers to build their case biblically. Indeed, the Old Testament is downright chock-full of God’s overweening concern for that traditional triplet of the widows, the orphans, and the resident aliens within Israel.
Each group was vulnerable in the ancient Near East. By tradition, Israel was a male-dominated society. Family and inheritance were key factors in a person’s having a stable place in society. Thus, a woman without a husband or a child without parents or a foreigner without any prior claims to land and livelihood could very well have been left high and dry. Precisely because this was so, the Bible over and again emphasizes that the rest of Israelite society had a positive obligation to protect these three groups and all who were poor.
As David Holwerda once put it, the Old Testament makes one thing very clear: God hates poverty and he desires its elimination. But if there is one constant across the spectrum of human history and transcending nearly all cultural boundaries it is greed. The rich have a tendency to want to get more rich and so come up with an endless variety of clever ways by which to protect what they already have while also adding to it all the time. And as often as not in the history of ancient Israel as well as so many cultures since, the way the rich get richer is by squeezing the poor. Things haven’t changed much across the millennia.
As Lewis Smedes pointed out, if theft could be limited to only such obviously wrong deeds as purse snatchings, shoplifters, and window-breaking thugs who steal wallets and VCRs in the night, then this commandment would be a simple, straightforward law to ponder and also apply. But things are not so simple. In a market-driven economy we need to think long and hard about matters like corporate fraud. We ponder the way advertisers take people’s money by making claims for a product that are not true. We ponder whether people with a lot of money, who mostly spend that money on themselves, are guilty of a kind of passive theft simply by virtue of holding back what could be shared with others, including the needy. In other words, the 8th commandment hits not just corporate embezzlers, cat burglars, and armed robbers but EVERYONE. Because as the Catechism brilliantly states, God’s law against stealing is about all the ways we try to grab more than our fair share through devious or duplicitous means. This commandment more positively also encourages us to be generous people who share, who give, who donate a lot. This commandment touches all of us in the daily struggle to live between the poles of wrong taking on the one side and right possessing on the other.
Because what God assumes in giving this commandment is that we will have possessions. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, we all recognize that there is a right way and a wrong way to acquire things even as there is a right way and a wrong way to own the things you acquire. If the money you earn comes because of unjust practices in your business or because you cheat your employees out of a fair wage, then clearly you are guilty of stealing. Then again, even if everything you have has come through the legitimate avenue of your own hard work, even so it is possible to keep that proper gain in ways that constitute a passive form of stealing. If you never give anything away, never share with those who have less but instead use what you have only for your own pleasure, then this may well be an improper way of possessing even what is legitimately yours. This commandment reminds us that ill-gotten gain is wrong but so is selfish use of even well-earned gain. Again, this is where the 8th commandment can properly make us all uncomfortable.
Possible Biblical Texts
Amos 5:18-24, 8:1-7: Amos was the simple, rustic shepherd from Tekoa whose prophetic voice is one of the most eloquent in the Bible. And like most of his fellow prophets, Amos had a clarion call to issue to Israel: God was through with them in no small measure because of how they bought and sold the poor to line their own pockets. It’s not that people had stopped worshiping God. What bothered God the most is that their worship had become rank hypocrisy. They came to the Temple with their hands stained with the blood of the poor and if they couldn’t see that, God did and it sickened him. Amos makes clear that God would prefer people stay home and not try to worship him at all rather than come to worship from the context of such wickedly shady lives of greed and plunder. Also, as Amos 8 makes clear, they came to the Temple feeling no small amount of impatience. What did people talk about in the narthex after church while sipping their coffee? Commerce. “Can’t wait for the Sabbath to be over because I’ve got lots to sell tomorrow!” “I agree,” someone would reply, “these forced days off from work are a real pain, aren’t they?! Can’t wait to get back to the office tomorrow. I’ve got a new pricing scheme that I’m just itching to put into effect at the open of business tomorrow.” But it was all a complex set of schemes by which to soak those already impoverished in Israelite society. So at the opening of Amos 8, God gives Amos a dreamlike vision. “What do you see, Amos” the Lord asked. “Fruit,” Amos replied. In Hebrew the word for “fruit” is qayiz, which is spelled almost identically to the word meaning “the end,” which is the Hebrew word qez. In short, this is a wordplay, a pun. Amos sees qayiz and so God declares that indeed, the qez, the end, had come for Israel. This is a fine passage on which to preach about the Catechism’s take on the commandment against stealing.
Ephesians 4:17-28: In Ephesians 4 there is a startling reminder that even within the Christian community, we often need to challenge one another toward greater generosity. In Ephesians 4:28 Paul says, literally translated, “He who IS stealing must stop.” In other words, Paul is addressing these words to those in the Ephesian congregation who were, at the very time Paul wrote this letter, actively stealing! There are absolutely no hints as to the specifics of this, but you rather suspect that it was likely not the case that the Ephesian church was home to an active bank robber. So perhaps the person or persons Paul had in mind were guilty of more subtle forms of theft like laziness, through which people leeched off the community without ever giving back. Maybe it was selfishness, through which those who did have money to share failed to do so. Whatever the specific situation, however, the shocking fact of the matter is that there were active thieves in the Ephesian congregation. Also, whatever the specifics were, the solution is faithful work through which to earn something through which to have something to share with those in need. The antidote to a thieving spirit is a generous spirit. If you are invested enough in other people as to want to help them any way you can, you are vastly less likely to exploit anyone for your own gain. This passage fits Q&A 111 to a T!
The whole event lasted less than thirty minutes. Yet within the span of that grisly half-hour, New York City experienced the worst workplace disaster in the nation’s history up to that point. It was March 25, 1911, just before quitting time on the 8th and 9th floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village. The workers in this sweatshop were eagerly getting ready to punch out and change into their best clothes so they could have a little fun out on the town that Saturday evening. But just as people were beginning to gather their things, the cry was heard: “Fire!” Thirty minutes later 146 people would be dead, most of them young immigrant women who worked six days a week to earn a meager income making the then-popular shirtwaists worn by fashionable women all around the country.
Although such safety features were available already in 1911, the fact is that the Triangle factory had no sprinkler system. The building’s outside fire escapes were also hard to get to and were so flimsy that one of them collapsed as people fled down it, hurling them back into the burning building and roasting them alive. Those who fled toward one side of the building were mostly able to get out but those unlucky enough to have chosen the other direction found the door to the stairwell locked from the other side. They were trapped. Most of the people who died ended up huddled in front of 9th story windows and they chose to jump to their deaths on the concrete sidewalk below rather than burn.
The aftermath of the Triangle fire was the codifying of most of the workplace safety laws that remain on the books to this day. Indeed, there would never be another workplace disaster this bad until that day ninety years later that we now refer to as 9/11. But according to David Van Drehle in his book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America, this was not simply an unavoidable tragedy. Although the factory’s two owners managed to prevail in some lawsuits that were eventually brought against them, there is strong evidence that their greed and shady business practices directly contributed to the deaths of those 146 people.
Why was a stairwell door locked? Because the owners wanted to force their workers to leave through just one door each day so that their purses could be inspected to make sure no one was taking home any scraps of lace or fabric. When pressed at the trial, one of the owners admitted that what little the employees might try to take home probably wouldn’t amount to much more than $15 worth of stuff a year. But to save even that measly amount, the owners kept doors locked.
And why wasn’t there a sprinkler system? Well, sprinkler systems put out fires but what if an occasional fire is good for business? In the years leading up to the Triangle disaster, Van Drehle notes that the Triangle factory had a suspiciously high number of smaller fires. The fires happened after hours and no one was ever hurt. But the funny thing was that such fires tended to happen quite soon after the winds of fashion had changed. What is a factory owner to do if what had been all the rage in Paris last season is suddenly passe and yet you’ve got piles of just such dresses in your factory? Conveniently timed fires have a way of getting rid of such useless stuff even as the insurance company nicely compensates you for your “loss.” A sprinkler system might just have been bad for business.
What would Lord’s Day 42 make of such practices? Is not this also a form of theft?
Q & A 112
Q. What is the aim of the ninth commandment?
A. That I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone rashly or without a hearing. Rather, in court and everywhere else, I should avoid lying and deceit of every kind; these are the very devices the devil uses, and they would call down on me God’s intense wrath. I should love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it. And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
God took an awful risk when he gave human beings the ability to speak. So far as we know, we are the only creatures on the planet who can talk and who can deliberate ahead of time what we’re going to say. This is part of the image of God in humanity. God, the Bible tells us, created the entire universe through an act of speech. “And God said . . . and it was.” Now, as miniatures of God we, too, can create whole worlds through what we say.
Perhaps that is why Peter and other New Testament writers advised believers to regard their every act of speech as though it were the speech of God. When we speak, we should say the words we believe God would say, sizing up this person or that situation with the truthful clarity of God. We try to adopt God’s perspective, which is always accurate, and report matters the way God would report them. Because in the end only God is supposed to create reality–the rest of us are supposed to report on the reality God creates. Everything we say is said in God’s presence. The question is whether or not our words line up with what God knows. Is this what God would say? Is this accurate to what God knows? To ignore this tempts us to create a false world, which as the Catechism reminds us, is the oldest ploy in the Devil’s book. When the serpent approached Eve, his first order of business was to doubt God’s word: “Did God really say you must not eat that fruit?” Once that seed of doubt was sown in the soil of Eve’s mind, the serpent could then more brazenly create a false world: “You won’t die. You’ll improve, get better, become more like God, which is certainly something God would want for you, isn’t it?” Keeping the ninth commandment means casting our speech in the light of God’s speech.
We lie for lots of reasons. We lie because we are afraid. We lie because we are ashamed. We lie because we just don’t like somebody. We lie to make ourselves look better. We lie to make someone else look worse. We lie because we think it will spare someone else’s feelings. We lie because even we don’t much like the truth about our own selves sometimes and so we sure don’t feel the need to let anyone else in on the know of what we are capable of. We lie to keep things the way they are because we sense that if the truth about such-and-such got out, it would mess up everything.
But whatever the motivation behind the telling of a lie, what we are at bottom doing is playing God. We are shaping other people’s reality. When I lie, it means that I have decided that I possess a truth that I deign not to share with anyone else. Your world will be shaped according to how I decide. Being in the dark, you will proceed forward in life operating on a set of assumptions that are faulty, incomplete, or just plain wrong but you don’t know that because I have created a false world for you.
In other words, lying can make a person feel powerful. Were we preachers to stand in our pulpits and knowingly, willfully tell the congregation a lie about something, we would be reaching into the minds of several hundred people all at once, sending them back out into the world after the worship service with an idea we created for them. If the lie in question concerns a certain person, and if various members of the congregation were then to run into that person at some point in the following week, they would treat that person according to how we had determined things.
Each of us has a limited grasp on reality at any given moment. No one of us is wise enough to know all that there is to know. That is God’s place alone. The best that even the smartest of us can do is to know some truths, some facts about life but we can’t know everything. However, a good deal of what we do know comes from others. We depend on being given information that is accurate to the world in which we now live.
In its typically incisive style, the Catechism takes the ninth commandment’s rule against bearing false witness and expands on it brilliantly. If you are looking for some justification for things like white lies, half-truths, gossip, rumor-mongering, and the like, Q&A 112 won’t provide that cover. The Catechism is uncompromising in saying that every form of deceit and deception comes straight out of the devil’s toolbox. And if it seems harsh to say that such things call down “God’s intense anger,” remember: God sees such lies as part and parcel of a systematic attempt to dismantle the world he created in order to supplant it with a world that better suits the evil one’s tastes.
The Catechism warns against twisting the words of others. A key issue to flag when preaching on this is the sad fact that these days, there are many who make a living out of twisting other people’s words. They’re called pundits and spin-meisters. We dare not enter that market ourselves. The Catechism warns us against condemning anyone without permitting time for a thorough investigation and a hearing out of the person’s stance. We need to guard and advance our neighbor’s good name, and among other things that calls us to avoid black-and-white caricatures of other people’s ideas–the kind of thing that fits into a “sound bite” but that is just a snippet of the larger truth not the whole truth. In an article a couple of years ago, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote what could be called the eleventh commandment but that really serves as a corollary to the ninth commandment. Wolterstorff wrote, “Thou shalt not take cheap shots. Thou must not sit in judgment until thou has done thy best to understand. Thou must earn the right to disagree.”
In a cheap-shot society, Wolterstorff is correct in recommending this to the Christian community. Far too many people today speak first and think later (if then). But that way of speaking will never serve the gospel well as a loving witness.
Possible Biblical Texts
I Peter 3:8-22: Peter does a masterful job throughout this first epistle of making us ponder the whole matter of how we speak, how we interact with those around us. His urgings along the lines of answering people “with gentleness and respect” is bracing in our age of shout-fests and brutal rhetoric. Yes, we do “love the truth” as the Catechism urges in Q&A 112, but we speak that truth in ways that at the same time “guard and advance our neighbor’s good name.”
I Peter 4:7-11: Again from I Peter we get sage advice on how to speak in ways that make our words akin to the very words of God. When we lie, we play God by creating a (false) reality for our hearers via what we say. Peter urges believers to go another way by recognizing that all our talk is done in the presence of God. Our job is to ensure that our words line up with what God himself already knows to be the truth.
The Epistle of James: There are numerous places in James where verses having to do with truth-telling and the power of the tongue are luminously on display. Indeed, it’s not difficult to find good material here to serve as the biblical spring for a sermon tying in with the ninth commandment.
Author Richard Stengel once wrote a book that provides a history of flattery as well as a guide on how to be a good flatterer. For instance, if you met up with actor Tom Hanks and wanted to flatter your way into his good graces, it would not be enough merely to gush, “You’re a great actor!” Instead get specific to show you’re being thoughtful: “I was so moved by that moment in Saving Private Ryan when your chin twitched ever-so-subtly with emotion.” Additionally, it’s good to flatter people behind their backs–that way, if a report of your glowing words gets back to the person, she will be that much more kindly disposed toward you. But don’t go overboard. If you tell a local artist, “Your paintings make Rembrandt look like an amateur,” you’re not going to be believed. But if you say, “You should be included in the local Art Museum,” you will have succeeded at the kissing up game.
Flattery, Benjamin Franklin once noted, is a safe game. When you flatter someone, you never look ridiculous because the person you flatter will always take you seriously! After all, as Dale Carnegie famously said, the secret to flattery is sincerity. Once you can fake sincerity, you can get away with anything! The problem is that our entire society fakes sincerity and it does so regularly. The modern day cult of celebrities insists on an abiding, society-wide pandemic of flattery, of telling people over and again how great they are.
Once upon a time it was just the Academy Awards. But now we add to that the Emmy Awards (both daytime and prime time versions), the Tony awards (which is watched by millions of folks who never get anywhere near Broadway), the MTV Awards, the VH1 awards, the People’s Choice awards, the TV Guide awards, the Golden Globe awards, and any number of other such shows whose main purpose is to flatter needy celebrity egos.
Yet, as Stengel notes, it’s all so desperately shallow. The modern cult of flattering speech is based only on the surface of personality instead of the depth of character. But it’s not just celebrities who exist in such a world–increasingly we all do. As Rousseau noted long ago, people in the modern era increasingly exist in the opinions of other people. We form our sense of personal worthwhileness based on what everybody else thinks about us. “Image is everything,” the advertising world tells us. And we’ve come to believe it. It’s all about surveys and opinion polls and professional evaluations. Sooner or later we all get a crack at evaluating a professor, a pastor, a boss, an employee, a co-worker, a president; we all get asked our opinion, the idea being that when those poll results are presented to the person in question, this is to become the most reliable indicator of how the person is supposed to feel about him- or herself.
But when you feed off of the opinions of others, you become desperate to control those opinions. And in that lust to control, we always run the risk of twisting the truth to fit our own purposes.
Q & A 113
Q. What is the aim of the tenth commandment?
A. That not even the slightest desire or thought contrary to any one of God’s commandments should ever arise in our hearts. Rather, with all our hearts we should always hate sin and take pleasure in whatever is right.
Q & A 114
Q. But can those converted to God obey these commandments perfectly?
A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience.
Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments.
Q & A 115
Q. Since no one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly, why does God want them preached so pointedly?
A. First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness. Second, so that we may never stop striving, and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
The Heidelberg Catechism’s treatment of the tenth commandment ends up being a summary of the entire Ten Commandments. The tenth commandment is technically on the matter of coveting. To covet something means you see something that is not yours but you wish it were. You assume your life would be better if you had a car like that one that Jerry drives. You conclude that all your troubles would be over if you could have a job like that one that Marlene has. If only your kids got along as well as the Johnson kids seem to, if only your house were a little larger, your waistline a little thinner, your hairline a little thicker, then life would be grand. Coveting is the “If only . . .” state of mind.
Generally speaking, being covetous can be a silent, invisible phenomenon. You might well be the most covetous person around but it won’t necessarily lead to any obviously bad behaviors. What it will do, however, is make you very, very unhappy. The Catechism does with the tenth commandment what a lot of commentaries on the Ten Commandments have done over the centuries; namely, it makes coveting a catch-all category for our every tendency to skirt God’s laws. The problem with wanting something you don’t have is that there is virtually no end to the ways this restless wanting can lead you astray. Coveting can be a silent, invisible matter but it can also lead to stealing, it can lead you to an adulterous affair, it can lead you to lie, it can lead you to a furious pace of life that will ignore the Sabbath—it can lead you, in short, to break all the other laws God ever gave.
But even when you don’t break any other laws, the core problem with coveting is that it slays joy. The difficulty is that we live in a society that seems to depend on coveting. The advertising industry is highly skilled at keeping us in a perpetual state of wanting. Day after day Madison Avenue pours forth speech, and night after night in TV ad after TV ad we receive into our hearts whole boatloads of designer dissatisfaction. Indeed, some of us know that when a teenager says he or she is going to the mall to do some shopping, the one question you’re not supposed to ask is “For what?” It’s a logical question: you tell me you’re going shopping, I ask what you will be shopping for. But to many people these days, that logical question makes no sense. We shop for shopping’s sake because we’ve been taught to be ever wanting, wanting, wanting. But our perpetual state of wanting short-circuits our ability to be thankful for what we already have.
Maybe this is why Lord’s Day 44 includes also some words about how difficult it is for even the holiest of people to do little more than make the merest beginning in attaining to the kind of life God desires for us. In this Lord’s Day we are told very bluntly that even the holiest of earthly saints, even the Mother Teresas of the world, can only scratch the surface of decent living. If you take the sum total of your good deeds as well as the overall shape of your morality, the whole thing, Q&A 114 says, is the merest of beginnings. Compared to the ocean of God’s will, our attempts to follow that will add up to barely a teaspoon full of water. But then the next question asks what purpose is served when we preach on God’s law. The answer to this query is that this helps us, the older we get and the longer we live, to know with an ever-sharper awareness what lousy sinners we are.
So if you combine these two elements, what do you get? Our goal, we are told, is moral perfection. Every day we run toward that goal. But every day the goal remains remote. As a matter of fact, every day we gain a better understanding of just how sinful we are and so, in that sense, the door at the end of the hall remains not just distant but it seems to be getting more distant! The more you ponder God’s law the more you know how much you have to do but the more you ponder God’s law the more you simultaneously come to realize how badly you’re doing! The more you think about the law the worse you feel about yourself and when you feel worse about yourself the goal seems ever-more distant.
This is a rather bleak picture. In fact, Lord’s Day 44 is nearly as dismal as the caricature of Calvinism to which many people adhere. A Calvinist, it is said, is a person who worries that somewhere in the world someone is having fun. That’s not very nice, and strictly speaking it’s not true, either. Still, you have to admit that what we get here is not a very happy picture. We run after the goal of perfection and we have God’s law to sketch for us what that goal looks like. But even the best moral marathon runner can only move a few inches toward that goal even as our consideration of God’s law reminds us repeatedly of the grim fact that despite all our sweat, we’re barely moving.
Therefore, when preaching on this, we do well to couch it all in God’s prior grace. The gospel is NOT bad news but good. We dare never forget that.
Possible Biblical Texts
Genesis 3: This passage may not seem like a candidate for a sermon on coveting, yet a closer examination reveals that it is. A traditional line of interpretation of Genesis 3 claims that the first sin of the human race was not pride but coveting. In order to make Eve take the forbidden fruit, the serpent first had to make her want something. The serpent in Eden never said that the fruit in question would be juicier or tastier than any other food. He didn’t try to make Eve rebel against the very notion of having to live with some rules in life. Instead he pointed to some knowledge that could be gained, and once Eve found herself desiring that, once she became convinced she was lacking something, it was a cinch that she would soon reach for that forbidden fruit. Of course, the irony is that Eve lived in Paradise. She already “had it all.” The fact that the devil was able to make her restless even there is chilling. If even in Eden people were vulnerable to desiring more than they already had, the rest of us who now live east of Eden can be well-assured that this temptation remains a strong one against which we struggle constantly. Then again, if it seems ridiculous to us to think about someone in Paradise becoming restless for more, just think of how equally ridiculous it is for us to feel this way considering the vast blessings we have. Most of us, much of the time, are neck-deep in blessing. Yet still we covet, still we hanker for more. In this way, Genesis 3 becomes a great passage to illustrate the idea that covetousness really can lead us to breach shalom in a variety of ways.
Hebrews 4:12-16: This passage combines some of the same elements on display in Lord’s Day 44. On the one hand we have an unstinting acknowledgement that we continue to sin and to have difficulties with temptations for sin. On the other hand, this passage reminds us that we ALREADY have a great high priest in heaven, interceding for us and sympathizing with all due empathy with our weaknesses. Despite some of the doom and gloom that clings to the last part of L.D. 44, Hebrews 4 reminds us that we have every reason to approach God’s throne with CONFIDENCE. That’s a needed reminder!
In scary movies you sometimes see a scene in which someone is desperately running away from something frightening. Sometimes we have a similar sensation in nightmares. Perhaps we are running down some long hallway toward a door at the far end of the corridor. Maybe it’s a door that leads to safety. But then you realize that no matter of fast you run, the hall keeps stretching out farther and farther in front of you. The door that leads to safety keeps retreating instead of getting closer. If you have seen this in a movie, then you probably remember the special effect by which the camera pulls back in such a way as to make the corridor appear to be lengthening. So the victim runs and runs and runs but never gets closer.
This creates a desperate feeling which is as frightening as it is frustrating. Seen a certain way there is a sense in which Lord’s Day 44 of the Catechism presents a similarly frustrating scenario of never-ending striving toward an always-retreating goal. The authors of the Catechism do what many have done in history when they interpret the tenth commandment, “You must not covet,” as being a kind of catch-all rule. Coveting is any desire we have in our hearts to want something which goes against God’s law.
In this sense coveting lies behind every sin. When you desire something that is not properly yours or which would require breaking God’s law to get, then you set the stage for doing something wrong. If you covet a woman not your wife, you set yourself up for adultery. If you covet your neighbor’s good reputation, you set yourself up for envy. If you covet someone else’s property, you set yourself up for possible theft or for spending an undue amount of your time and money on getting something just like Harry next door has. Coveting is the basic pulse behind every sin. It’s the glowing ember of misdirected desire which can easily explode into flame if we’re not careful.
The Catechism actually spends very little time on what coveting itself means, opting instead to round out this section on the Ten Commandments by considering the larger function of God’s law in our lives. And it is just here where I make my analogy of the never-ending run down a hallway which keeps lengthening in front of us.
Q & A 116
Q. Why do Christians need to pray?
A. Because prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us. And also because God gives his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who pray continually and groan inwardly, asking God for these gifts and thanking God for them.
Q & A 117
Q. What is the kind of prayer that pleases God and that he listens to?
A. First, we must pray from the heart to no other than the one true God, revealed to us in his Word, asking for everything God has commanded us to ask for. Second, we must fully recognize our need and misery, so that we humble ourselves in God’s majestic presence. Third, we must rest on this unshakable foundation: even though we do not deserve it, God will surely listen to our prayer because of Christ our Lord. That is what God promised us in his Word.
Q & A 118
Q. What did God command us to pray for?
A. Everything we need, spiritually and physically, as embraced in the prayer Christ our Lord himself taught us.
Q & A 119
Q. What is this prayer?
A. Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
As the Catechism opens its final sub-section, we are still in that third part that details how we show God our “Gratitude” for all that he has given to us through Jesus Christ our Lord. We just finished looking at the Ten Commandments as sketching out God’s roadmap for all our living in the world he made. Now we turn to that other distinctive part of the Christian life: prayer. The Catechism uses the Lord’s Prayer as the template for all our praying but before it gets specifically to the various parts of that famous prayer, the Catechism briefly ponders prayer in general. As anyone familiar with the Catechism knows, Q&A 116 famously designates prayer as the chief part of all the gratitude we owe to God. Somehow the very act of prayer is in and of itself a kind of extended Thank-You to our heavenly Father.
But how can that claim can be true? After all, a good deal of even the Lord’s Prayer, not to mention our own prayers day in and day out, consist of petitions, of our asking for things. But how does a constant asking count as gratitude? If each and every one of our prayers were ever and only a series of thanksgiving to God for all his glories, then it would be easier to view prayer as the single most vital piece of gratitude we can display before God. But as a matter of fact this is not so: a good deal of our prayer life is all about begging for forgiveness for our thick-headed sinfulness. A good deal of our prayers are taken up by pleas for safety, requests for resources, petitions for direction when we are facing a decision. We ask for daily bread and a successful sales meeting, for help on an algebra test and a good flight to Phoenix.
But how is all THAT one big, extended act of thanksgiving? Yet perhaps there is a way to view even this perpetual act of requesting things as demonstrating thankfulness after all. Because by taking everything to God in prayer, aren’t we conveying to God that we trust him alone to help us in all areas of life? In a way, we’re paying God the supreme compliment by as much as saying that only God is loving, merciful, powerful, resourceful, and wise enough to receive our every petition.
Have you ever had the experience of someone’s seeking you out for advice, perhaps someone whom you already admire and look up to? You didn’t expect this particular person would ever want your input, and so when this happens after all, you respond along the lines of, “Wow, I’m just honored that you asked!” Sometimes it really is an honor to be asked for something. Why? Because you sense that this other person sees something good in you that makes you a potential source of help. It’s downright complimentary at times. Perhaps this is how it is for God all the time. The sheer fact that we bring our needs, wants, dreams, and desires to him demonstrates our faith in his glorious ability and willingness to provide for us. For God, it’s an honor to be asked.
As parents, few things are more precious to hear than the words “Mommy” or “Daddy” on the lips of our children. True, sometimes children ask for things that we can’t give, that we shouldn’t give, that they shouldn’t receive and so there are times when you have to say No to even the most earnest request your child makes. But there are many other times when as a parent you feel so honored to be asked for something. When children are small, you take delight in being able to provide the basics of food, drink, clothing, and shelter. When children are older, their needs change and eventually what they may ask for will be very serious matters involving major decisions about marriage, education, and career. But when your child loves and trusts you enough to ask you for help, you are not just flattered but deeply, deeply moved. You’re actually thankful that your relationship with the child is so solid.
But perhaps prayer as gratitude toward God includes also something else. The very fact that we ask God for help may in and of itself be a source of joy for God. But isn’t it also true that the more you bring to God in prayer, the more potential there is for God to provide exactly what you asked for? And if that is so, isn’t it also the case that recognizing this will give you ever-more opportunities directly to say “Thanks” to God for answering your many past prayers? In other words, a life of constant prayer introduces a kind of happy cycle and rhythm to our lives. The more you bring before God, the more God can answer you; the more God answers you, the more often you get to say “Thanks” back. In fact, when this way of looking at life becomes deeply ingrained into you, the odds are that you may begin to see everything in your life as the gift of God.
Whether or not you specifically prayed for the lasagna you had for dinner Tuesday evening, you see in that square of pasta, cheese, and sauce evidence that God is at work in your home, providing all that you need. And so you say “Thank you” to your heavenly Father. The more of your day-to-day living that you bring to God in prayer, the more you will see that very same day-to-day life, and all its details, as having something to do with God. And that way of looking at life becomes the seedbed for gratitude.
When we come before God with open, outstretched hands to ask for something, we sooner or later realize that those same open, outstretched hands can be turned over and raised upward in a posture of praise. Eventually, this becomes the dance of your life, daily moving from petition to praise, from request to joyous singing, from turned-up palms waiting to receive something to lifted-up hands eager to give praise and gratitude.
A second major piece of Lord’s Day 45 comes in Q&A 118 where the content, the what, of our prayers is spelled out through the simple word “everything.” What should we pray about? Everything. Here is a key place where the distinctive nature of Christian prayer is nicely on display. Unlike certain (Eastern) traditions, Christians do not come to God in prayer in an attempt to block out the things of this earth. This is no transcendental meditation by which we seek to achieve some higher level of consciousness—a level at which we will not be perturbed by upcoming sales meetings or the dismal state of our checking account. Christian prayer comes from the context of our Monday mornings and our Thursday afternoons and true Christian prayer is ABOUT the very concerns we encounter day-to-day as well.
Possible Biblical Texts
Luke 11:1-13: Not only is this the Lucan location where the Lord’s Prayer is first presented it is also a key place where we can see how the dynamic of asking for things in prayer is deeply embedded in the very act of prayer. This passage begins with the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. Jesus did that wonderfully but in and through all the specifics he laid out, these final words tell us that it was the Holy Spirit we have been seeking all along. When Jesus tells us to ask, to seek, to knock and then says that we will be answered, that what we seek will be found, that the door will open, he’s talking about the Spirit of God there. Anyone with much experience with prayer knows full well that despite the blank-check appearance of verses 9 and 10, God does have to say no sometimes, the door does remain shut sometimes, what we seek remains elusive sometimes. We know this. But if it’s the Holy Spirit we receive in and through all of our praying, then we can understand Jesus’ words here a little better without getting forever hung up on the counter-examples that just about every person here could mention. If God always gives the Holy Spirit to those who pray, then even when a prayer goes “unanswered,” God has provided a deeper answer after all. That is a key truth that can come out of a sermon on Luke 11.
Matthew 6:25-34: This passage goes well with especially Q&A 118 in the sense that in this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it clear that Christian prayer is finally about everything. We don’t worry about food, drink, and clothing not because they are unimportant but because, in prayer, we have already entrusted our every need to the care of our heavenly Father.
Let’s say that one day you accidentally rip the only decent pair of jeans you own. So you decide to head to the mall to pay a visit to the Gap to buy a new pair. Let’s say you enter the mall same as you always do but are immediately approached by a friend who asks if he can borrow $5 for some lunch over at the food court. No sooner do you slip your friend the money and you turn around to discover an old high school classmate staring at you, asking you if you can forgive her for that time she turned you down for a date years ago (and was kind of cruel about it at that). You say, “Sure, I guess so,” but no sooner are those words out of your mouth and another acquaintance of yours is in front of you, asking for your advice as to whether or not he should accept the promotion being offered to him at work. And then let’s say that this goes on for quite a while with one friend after the next standing in front of you requesting this or that. Finally, after this goes on for an hour or two, you look up to discover that there is now a line of people running the length of the mall, all waiting to ask you for something.
Recently I heard about a videotape that someone made to illustrate what it might be like to be God. The tape runs for just over an hour and it features nothing but one person after the next making a request, asking for advice, seeking direction, requesting money, and so on. Face after face after face appears on the screen, each in a plaintive mode of asking for something. It’s curious that Jesus more than once illustrates prayer with images of exasperation. In Luke 11 Jesus talked about a friend at midnight baying for bread from someone already tucked cozily into bed. A few chapters farther on in Luke we find the parable of the unjust judge who finally gives in to the persistent widow not for any noble reason but just to get her off his back.
It has always struck me as odd that Jesus would use these somewhat negative images to talk about prayer. Surely we don’t want to think of God as being exasperated but maybe just maybe Jesus, as the Son of God, knew what it was like to be barraged day and night by an endless line of people asking for advice, money, direction, or whatever! None of us would last very long if my scenario in the mall ever really happened. It is a credit to the almighty power of God that he is able to handle the simultaneous prayers of millions, if not billions, of people all the time.
Do you remember the opening scene to the holiday classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life? The camera careers in and around the streets of Bedford Falls and from every single house on just about every single block of the city we hear people praying for George Bailey. With voices tumbling on top of one another, you hear over and again, “Dear Lord, be with George, with George, bless George, O God, be with George, George Bailey, bless George.” Of course, those people were all praying for the same thing but in reality exactly such a chorus of prayer takes place at every moment except that most of the time the requests and petitions are all different from one another. At the same moment you are praying for your child to recover from the flu, your neighbor next door may be praying for her son in Iraq. Meanwhile, the folks in the house across the street are begging God to help them make ends meet even as the people in the house next to that one are praying for rain to fall over in Iowa so their brother-in-law’s corn crop won’t fail. In the wider cosmic scheme of things, prayer is a universal constant, the sheer volume of which staggers the imagination.
Q & A 120
Q. Why did Christ command us to call God “our Father”?
A. To awaken in us at the very beginning of our prayer what should be basic to our prayer— a childlike reverence and trust that through Christ God has become our Father, and that just as our parents do not refuse us the things of this life, even less will God our Father refuse to give us what we ask in faith.
Q & A 121
Q. Why the words “in heaven”?
A. These words teach us not to think of God’s heavenly majesty as something earthly,and to expect everything needed for body and soul from God’s almighty power.
Q & A 122
Q. What does the first petition mean?
A. “Hallowed be your name” means: Help us to truly know you,to honor, glorify, and praise you for all your works and for all that shines forth from them: your almighty power, wisdom, kindness, justice, mercy, and truth. And it means, Help us to direct all our living— what we think, say, and do— so that your name will never be blasphemed because of us but always honored and praised.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Our Father in heaven. As N.T. Wright says, this is how we open our prayer and yet it is also the place we want to end up. Our Father in heaven is not just the place we start but is also our highest goal; it’s the starting line and the finish line all in one. We want this Father. We want to be closer to him than we feel sometimes. So we reach out to him in prayer. We hear snatches of his voice now and again and so in prayer we answer back to the voice we thought we heard. We see patches of his divine light shining around this or that corner of life, and so in prayer we run to the light. By the Spirit we feel now and again the embrace of a love that has already taken hold of us, and so in prayer we hug God back–we tighten our grip on the hand first extended to us in baptism and now leading us every day.
But we dare to call God our Father only because Jesus told us it was all right to do so. If he hadn’t told us that, then it would be merely audacious to presume we could address God in so familiar and cozy a way. For instance, unless you had very good reasons for thinking it was OK to do, you would not waltz into the Oval Office, see the President of the United States seated behind his stately desk, and then casually call out, “Hey there, Barack!” You’d want a solid reason to think such a level of familiarity was both warranted and welcome. (I actually did meet Obama while he ran for President in 2008 and upon doing so, I was determined I’d call him by his first name. But when faced with him, I couldn’t do it and could address him only as “Senator”!) But the president, for all his prestige, is finally just a fellow human being. Things get a wee bit magnified in this regard when you’re talking about God himself!
But we dare to call God “Father” because Jesus invited us to do so. He told us it would be OK. But he also reminded us to follow up this term of warmth and endearment with the words, “Hallowed be your Name.” He’s our Father and wants us to call him such, but he’s still the Holy One of the galaxies. Every time we open the Lord’s Prayer, we span the curious tension of addressing a God who loves us the way only a father can and yet One who alone holds all the cosmic power.
Somewhere within that dynamic tension is the essence of this prayer. It soars into the heavens and yet it as earthy as a father-son relationship. It’s little old us with all our quirks, foibles, and needs in the presence of a God whose grandeur makes angels shudder. Seen the right way, it should be clear that when we pray to this great God, everything else in our prayer should be shaped by the fact that it is this God’s presence in which we’re praying. The Catechism reminds us that the opening line of the prayer, “Our Father in heaven,” is a way to direct our attention to the heavenly majesty and almighty power of God and of our Lord Jesus who now sits at God’s right hand as the ascended King of kings and Lord of lords. The opening of the Lord’s Prayer, in other words, gives us a mighty big frame of reference. We live profoundly terrestrial, earthy lives. All our needs and wants arise from the context of life on planet Earth. But those needs are attended to not by some local official but by a God whose glory spans the cosmos and beyond.
You can’t approach a lofty God like that in some casual way. You don’t pretend for one moment that his thoughts are necessarily your thoughts. In fact, were it not for Jesus’ warm invitation to approach this God and then also freely to call him “Father,” you might never dare to try such a thing. But that is the wonderful paradox or juxtaposition of the gospel: we serve a galactic God of glory whose sheer bigness and grandeur we never deny for one moment. Yet despite all that is overwhelmingly majestic about God, we believe he sees us right here on this tiny piece of cosmic real estate we call the Earth. We believe he knows each one of us and calls us by name. And so we trust that when Jesus says our Father in heaven knows what we need here on earth, he means what he says and it inspires us to pray from the context of our ordinary, day-to-day life.
We pray from the context of our Monday mornings and our Thursday afternoons and we pray for the things we need on those same days, too. In the past we have noted that this is one of the things that distinguishes Christianity from some other faiths. Unlike certain Eastern traditions, we don’t view our prayer life as an attempt to meditate ourselves out of an awareness of our physical lives. Christian prayer is very nearly the opposite of a kind of “transcendental meditation” by which you try to “transcend” your own thoughts and desires in order to enter some “other” realm on a plane far above all things typical and mundane.
We’ve all seen pictures of people practicing that kind of meditation–sitting on the floor with eyes closed and legs crossed, the goal is to empty your mind of the day’s troubles so as to center your consciousness elsewhere for a little while. I have no doubt that such meditation may be beneficial in some ways and certainly even we Christians want to pray in ways that focus us on our loving God. But once we are so focused, the “what” of our prayers goes right back to what happened in the office earlier in the day and how we need to make sure we can pay our bills this month.
But that’s because the God to whom we pray, and the ascended Lord Jesus Christ who intercedes for us, knows what we need. This is a God with eyes that are open and whose vision is utterly sharp. After all, when you worship a God whose eye is on the sparrow, who feeds the birds of the air, and who is clothing the flowers of the fields in a riot of colors, then you realize that your own prayers to this God are not meant to disconnect you from the world but to help you connect at a deeper level.
As our ascended Lord, Jesus is not sitting on a cloud high above it all with his knees crossed and his eyes shut thinking only ethereal thoughts about wispy realms to which we don’t have access on the average Wednesday morning. No, he sees you and me in the context of our daily lives and that is exactly what he wants us to bring before his Father in prayer as well.
Possible Biblical Texts
Luke 11:1-13: The well-known, albeit quirky, stories that follow on Jesus’ first-ever presentation of the Lord’s Prayer provide a good reminder that the God to whom we go in prayer really is our Father—a Father who is eager to give good gifts to his children.
Matthew 6:25-34: These lyric words from the Sermon on the Mount are likewise rich with preaching possibilities on prayer to our Father. In this passage Jesus also displays a nice realism. Despite all his soaring words about the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, he concludes this otherwise sunnyside-up passage with the utterly arresting, but finally realistic, tag line that “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” How marvelous to think about the fact that we have a Father who wants to give us the world but who is likewise fully cognizant of the fact that we are frail beings living in a fallen world that presents us with our fair share of hardship and trouble.
I Peter 1:13-2:3: This passage may not strike you as an immediately obvious one to choose when preaching on prayer, but Peter’s words here about how we have been brought into the divine family through an imperishable seed—as well as his reminder in verse 17 of the Father on whose name we call—do provide a nice resource for Lord’s Days 46-47.
C.S. Lewis said somewhere that when you add it all up and consider it all together, in the end we would all find that our prayer life is also our autobiography. Who we are, where we’ve been, the situations we’ve faced, the fears that nag us, and not a few of the core characteristics of who we are as individuals: all of it can be, and really should be, detectable and on display in the way we pray. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to formal prayers we say in public. Maybe it doesn’t include fully even the prayers we say with our family at the dinner table. Of course, through the public prayers I offer here in church as well as in what I may pray for at the dinner table, you can learn a few things about me. If you listen closely to what I pray for and how I do it, week by week you will discern at least some of what I value, something of what I think about and deem important in God’s sight.
But prayer as autobiography in the sense Lewis meant emerges more from the sum total of our private prayers more than from anyplace else. Because it is in those intensely private moments that we spend with our God that we lay bare our souls, that we open up our hearts, that we maybe cry out to God in ways we’d be embarrassed to let anyone else see. It’s when no one else is listening except the God who loves us that we confess the more craven parts of our hearts. For better or worse, the temptations with which we struggle and which we confess do reveal something about who we are. It’s when we are in quiet moments of prayer that thoughts occur to us that maybe we don’t tumble to at other times (and that we would not utter were other people listening in).
But the point is that over time, our prayers are our autobiography, the story of our lives, the patterns of our thinking, the priorities that rise to the top.
Q & A 123
Q. What does the second petition mean?
A. “Your kingdom come” means: Rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way that more and more we submit to you. Preserve your church and make it grow. Destroy the devil’s work; destroy every force which revolts against you and every conspiracy against your holy Word. Do this until your kingdom fully comes, when you will be all in all.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
When we pray as our Lord taught us, we pray “Your kingdom come.” But too often people locate that kingdom at so distant a place on their mental horizons that although they pray for the kingdom, they feel none of the anticipatory joy that would have them on tippy-toes, craning their necks to see it. That’s how the phrase “kingdom come” gets used in popular parlance. When someone says he’s going to knock something clean from here to “kingdom come,” he means to a distant point very far away.
But that cannot and must not be our Christian conception of the kingdom for which we pray. Yes, we do ultimately mean the return of Christ. But we preachers should notice something about Lord’s Day 48: there is not one future-tense verb there. It’s all present imperatives. “Rule us, keep your church strong, destroy the Devil’s work, do this until your kingdom is complete and perfect.” It’s all present-tense, it’s all right here, right now, today. When we pray “Your kingdom come,” we are asking for it to come within our hearts now. When we pray “Your kingdom come,” we are asking for God’s Spirit to so radically mold the shape of our everyday living that the watching creation will see previews and examples of the coming kingdom in us already now.
“Your kingdom come” means letting the influence of that kingdom into the board room when we have meetings at work. “Your kingdom come” means letting the power of the kingdom work through us when we encounter even ugly and difficult situations with our neighbors and colleagues. “Your kingdom come” means letting the grace of the kingdom call the shots when we absorb the wounds inflicted on us by the sometimes thoughtless people we have to deal with week in and week out. “Your kingdom come” means exercising good stewardship over the riches and resources of this earth in lives that show respect for the wonderful variety of life on planet earth. “Your kingdom come” means we see the kingdoms of this earth and the politics of the day as of at best short-term importance compared to our ultimate allegiance to God’s rule of the cosmos.
Clearly, preaching on this petition of the Lord’s Prayer requires us to help people make all the connections between the kingdom of God and our everyday lives.
A kingdom, Dallas Willard once wrote in The Divine Conspiracy, is a place where one person’s influence determines what happens. In the case of the kingdom of God, the kingdom is not for now a geographic spot on a map but rather the kingdom of God is present any place and every place where the influence of Jesus’ living presence determines the shape of life. Wherever and whenever Jesus’ wisdom, Jesus’ wit, Jesus savvy, Jesus’ words, and Jesus’ love mold the words, actions, thoughts, and life patterns of some person or group of persons, then there is where God’s kingdom is manifest.
We’ve got to show the world how real the kingdom is by how we conduct ourselves. And the first, best way we can do that is to live as Jesus lived. Of course, Jesus did not reach everybody, and we surely won’t either, therefore. To some Jesus appeared misguided, so will we appear to at least some. To others Jesus seemed quintessentially ineffective (what with all those quirky and confusing parables and that rag-tag group of loser fishermen and women of questionable repute who followed him around). So also we may never come close to generating a fraction of the kind of the head-turning excitement that tingles people’s spines every time Tom Cruise or Kim Basinger walks into a Los Angeles restaurant for dinner.
But we live the quiet, faithful, humble, service-oriented life of Jesus because it’s all we have to go on! As N.T. Wright once wrote, the disciples finally asked Jesus how to pray because they’d already spent some time watching the peculiar shape of Jesus’ life. We’d dearly love to teach the whole world to pray Jesus’ prayer the same way Jesus taught his disciples to pray these words.
But maybe as with Jesus, so with us, our best chance to do that will come only after the world spends some time watching our cross-shaped lives of dedicated service. As it happened for Jesus’ disciples, so with us perhaps the day will come when those around us will come up to us and say, “We see something in you. Could you teach us how to pray so that we, too, can have some of the treasure that you’ve already got?” If that happens, then we not only pray “Your kingdom come,” we see it coming. We see that indeed, it’s already here.
Possible Biblical Texts
Matthew 13:31-35, 44-46: Jesus’ multiple parables about the kingdom provide an opportunity to unpack Lord’s Day 48’s claims as to the kingdom’s presence in our lives and in our world right now. The kingdom may be for now a hidden reality, seen only by those who have the eyes of faith, but the fact is that this kingdom really is a present day reality that has transforming power for our world today.
Idea #1: Years ago there was a series of books called Left Behind and the success of these novels displayed how popular dispensationalist theology is. Millions adhere to some version of the end time which includes a rapture of Christians from this world in advance of a global period of tribulation, suffering, and evil.. Indeed, the authors of that series, Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, made the front page of the New York Times when their final installment, The Indwelling, rose to the #1 bestseller spot. The Times article reported that these apocalyptic novels have sold so hotly that Mr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins have now made $10 million each.
But again this is but one sign of how popular such theology is. There are also many videos that are regularly shown in premillenialist churches–movies which dramatically depict the rapture. One such film, A Thief in the Night, has been seen by as many as 100 million people. But again and again what emerges in such portrayals is the notion that believers will be safely evacuated prior to anything really bad happening. Jerry Falwell once typified this viewpoint when someone asked if he thought a nuclear holocaust might be the way the world would end. Falwell agreed that he thought such a scenario was likely but that this grim possibility did not bother him. A reporter pressed Falwell as to why. Falwell replied, “You know why I’m not worried? I ain’t gonna be here.” The rapture will ensure that no suffering will come to the faithful.
But Fred Craddock once called this belief arrogant. It’s another way of saying that the disciple is greater than the Master. The Master suffered to bring God’s kingdom to this world but now some believers locate that kingdom in some spiritual realm and, what’s more, they’ll get beamed up into that realm without having to suffer! And if the rapture of a Christian airline pilot in mid-flight means that all the non-Christians on that plane will die horribly, so be it. At least the Christians will be off the jet before it slams into the earth.
But that kind of viewpoint will never do for people who pray “Your kingdom come your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Here is a petition in the Lord’s Prayer that should make it clear that Jesus did not want to escape the world, disengage from this earth, or see the whole thing abandoned and ruined.
But then, why should that be a surprise? After all, the words of the Lord’s Prayer did not appear mysteriously in the clouds like some heavenly sky-writing. This was not written in the stars or blazed across the inky darkness of the night by some divinely sent meteorites. No, the Lord’s Prayer emerged from the very human larynx of the very human Jesus from Nazareth. The words of this prayer passed through the slightly yellowed teeth and moist lips of an undeniably real person. Why is that important? Because obviously the Son of God would not have gone through all the trouble and pain to become a lump of clay like us if, as a matter of fact, the clay and sheer earthiness of life were unimportant!
Idea #2: Many people think that prayer is the complete opposite of action. Religion, Karl Marx once said, is a way to keep people complacent. Christianity drugs people’s minds with visions of heaven in ways calculated to keep them from ever trying to improve earth.
You can see this in a scene from Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children. Near the end of that play there is a scene in which a farmer, his wife, and a mute girl witness an army regiment marching toward a nearby village, obviously preparing for an early morning surprise attack. As they realize that a dreadful slaughter is imminent, the farmer and his wife exclaim, “Oh, what shall we do? What shall we do? If only we could warn them, but we can’t, so let us pray. Our Father in heaven, hear our prayer and protect those people.”
Meanwhile, however, the mute girl slips away from the praying couple, grabs a drum, climbs up to the roof of the farmhouse, and begins to bang away loudly on the drum so as to warn the unsuspecting villagers. Horrified, the couple begs the girl to stop, but she continues to beat the drum. Finally, two soldiers come and shoot the girl dead.
Brecht’s point is clear: all-too-often prayer becomes a safe refuge from action. If you cannot do anything, or if you dare not do anything, then pray. You pray when all else fails, you pray as a last-ditch sign of your despair, you pray because you’re a coward. But in any event prayer is safe. It doesn’t do anything. No soldier would have shot the farmer and his wife for merely praying for the villagers. Prayer is safe, it’s innocuous, and sometimes it is simply a way to abandon earthly responsibility in favor of heavenly thoughts.
But the Lord’s Prayer does not allow us to be idle. We are not allowed to separate the life of prayer from the life of action in this world. We are not allowed to keep all things heavenly in one compartment and all things earthly in a separate place. The kingdom of God has come to this world, for the sake of this world, and so the will of God which animates that kingdom needs to be seen in this world.
Q & A 124
Q. What does the third petition mean?
A. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” means: Help us and all people to reject our own wills and to obey your will without any back talk. Your will alone is good. Help us one and all to carry out the work we are called to, as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
When reading or praying the Lord’s Prayer in public and out loud, we often fail to get the grammar and sense of this line correct. Too often we pause in the wrong spot. We say, “Your will be . . . [PAUSE] on earth as it is in heaven.” But that’s almost certainly wrong. The sense of this petition in the Lord’s Prayer is more along the lines of “Your will be done on earth [PAUSE] as it is in heaven.” Keeping the “on earth” tightly linked with the will of God being done highlights the dauntingness of this request. It’s a given—or should be—that God’s will is done in heaven. “Heaven” in that line is a synecdoche phrase that refers to any and all places where God reigns supreme and where all under God’s sway obey him out of sheer love and a reveling in his glory. Sans sin, of course God’s will is done in the precincts of his own kingdom and heavenly dwelling.
So when we ask that THIS level of divine sway and creaturely obedience get mirrored down here on earth, we are requesting more than we mostly know! In fact, given the sorry state of this world—chock-full as it is of atheists, agnostics, wicked dictators, unholy terrorists, people from a variety of faith traditions (most of which do not hail Jesus as Lord)—given all that, it’s a little hard to know how realistic it is to hope that even a faint echo of heaven-like divine will-enforcement will happen here, much less a full-scale replication on earth of the way things are in heaven.
Surely Jesus knew that, too. Yet he made this petition a part of this famous prayer. He taught his disciples to make praying this a part of their regular prayer life. Jesus was history’s single most consistent realist. As the Holy One in our midst, Jesus faced every temptation that came his way but never gave in. As C.S. Lewis once noted, it’s not the man who gets blown over by the force of a hurricane’s wind that knows the gale’s true strength but rather the man who stands up to the wind all the day long without ever being toppled by it. So for Jesus: he knew what it was to be human in this wretched world and he knew better than any man or woman who ever lived how much strength it took to stand up to history’s gales.
Yet still he told us to pray “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” The only way to pray this petition meaningfully is for each Christian pray-er to want that will of God on earth to become evident first and foremost in his or her own life. If we pray “Your will be done” but think only about how we wish that will would be more evident in Margaret’s life, or in our boss’s life, or over there in Iraq, or among the leadership of China, then we are not praying this aright. Lord’s Day 49 has it exactly right when it says that the meaning of this petition is “rule US” in such a way that the reign of God is evident in OUR lives first of all.
Yes, in the longest possible run we want the will of God to be evident in all. We want all creatures and all peoples and all nations to be under the sway of shalom. We are right to pine for that, to work for justice among the nations, and to decry injustice when we see it, whether here at home or on the global stage. True enough. But, God’s will can never look attractive to others if it is not seen in us believers first off. Nothing short-circuits people’s ability to inquire about or long for the shalom and reign of God better or more quickly than when the church itself and/or its individual members are revealed as no better than anyone else.
So when pastors are revealed as sexual predators of children, when congregations or their leaders play hardball politics the same as even the most hardened government crony or politico, when the good news of the gospel gets mired in—if not eclipsed by—a narrow judgmentalism that loudly proclaims who is on the OUTS with God forever and ever: when the shalom and rule of God is not evident in the church, it takes only about five seconds before someone somewhere declares his or her utter disdain for God, for Christianity, for religion in general. When this happens, it becomes abundantly clear that not only has the church not helped God’s will to get done on earth as it is in heaven, we’ve actually hindered that goal.
When preaching on this portion of the Lord’s Prayer, we must not underestimate how challenging this is for every single believer in the congregation (starting with the preacher him- or herself!). Until the day comes when we are individually and collectively certain that the will of God is already happening in our lives on a consistent basis every day of every week of every month, we won’t have time trying to ponder how more of God’s will can get into the lives of OTHER people and nations. We will be too busy begging that God’s will be done on earth—on my little square of the earth—even as it most assuredly is in our Father’s bright kingdom.
Possible Biblical Texts
Luke 18:1-8: The way this familiar passage ends may tie in with Lord’s Day 49. Jesus wonders out loud whether at the end of the cosmic day the Son of Man will find faith on the earth. Considering this passage’s larger point about persistence in prayer, it seems that our being willing to stick with prayer and plead with God that his will be done on earth is a hallmark of true faith. As we seek God’s justice on the earth, we seek more and more ourselves to be agents of that justice as God rules our lives and so displays in us previews of what his coming kingdom will look like.
A while back the New York Times reported on the sorry state of most churches in Europe. As many of us know, although there are pockets of great religious fervor here and there in places like England, the Netherlands, France, and Germany, nevertheless the vast majority of Europeans long ago stopped going to church. The Times interviewed many people as to why they have stopped attending worship, and naturally there were lots of reasons. But interestingly enough, one reason that was brought up a lot was the simple fact that most Europeans see prayer as totally irrelevant and useless–a whistling in the dark that is a sorry substitute for actually doing something about life’s difficulties. It seems that once people stopped having the faith that fuels prayer, suddenly the whole of the Christian life withered and looked out-of-date. Once you’ve given up on prayer, then going to church looks about as futile as a vegetarian going out for dinner at a steakhouse. What’s the sense? There’s nothing for you there anyway.
In the end it’s not about whether, or to what extent or in what manner, God will rain down justice on the earth. It’s not about whether God wants to do that or even whether or not there are seasons when for some inscrutable reason God has to put us off for a while. There are countless unknown variables that go into God’s providential maintenance of the world. We cannot see all ends and so there are prayers that go unanswered–not unheeded perhaps but unanswered in the sense of our not receiving what we wanted or what we deemed the best outcome. That kind of disappointment usually leads us to begin wondering what God is up to, what is on God’s mind, what kind of a God he is.
We have to assume the best about our God’s goodness, love, justice, and mercy. By faith we hang on to our belief in all that whether we are awash in answered prayers at any given moment or not. But in the end we should worry less about the character of God and more about the strength and the persistence of our faith. God may well be, as Christians say he is, the most generous source of grace and light in the universe. But if people stop praying to him, how can they expect ever to help display God’s hidden kingdom to the world? How can those who will not pray access and tap into the power and love of God?
Q & A 125
Q. What does the fourth petition mean?
A. “Give us this day our daily bread” means: Do take care of all our physical needs so that we come to know that you are the only source of everything good, and that neither our work and worry nor your gifts can do us any good without your blessing.
And so help us to give up our trust in creatures and trust in you alone.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
“Give us this day our daily bread.” Here is a request that is beguilingly simple but, just so, worthy of careful parsing. After all, what could be more plain than a modest request for bread? Yet for folks like most of us, this request is not so simple. As the Catechism rightly notes, in addition to indicating real bread, this request opens up the entire category of everything we need physically. Now and again in the history of the Church there have been those who spiritualized this sentence in the Lord’s Prayer, making it stand for heavenly bread in the sense of God’s Word, the Bible. But as John Calvin pointed out, that’s wrong. The simple meaning of these words is just what Jesus intended: God wants us to bring before him concerns and needs that are very earthy.
The request for daily bread means we are to pray about everything we need physically. But notice that the Lord’s Prayer does not begin with this. As N.T. Wright says, the danger in praying for daily bread is that we get to this request too quickly. We need to be careful that we do not start with bread but instead do what our Lord himself did, which is begin prayer with God’s holy Name, the coming of his kingdom, and the exercise of his will. The word on bread follows those requests and so needs to be qualified by them, too. We are right to pray for all that we need physically. But because we pray first for God’s kingdom, the content of what we desire should be changed. We are not to pray for more than our fair share. We are not to pray for God to make us spectacularly rich. We are not to pray that we garner life’s goodies at the expense of others who lose whenever we win.
The reason we cannot pray in selfish ways is because we first pray for the advent of God’s kingdom in our hearts. If you mean what you pray when you ask for God to be inside you, then there are requests which you will not make because making them would be inconsistent with the kingdom for which you prayed first! If you arrange a meeting with your boss at which you earnestly talk about strategies by which you can become a more productive employee, you do not turn right around after that meeting and call together your co-workers so as to cook up schemes on how you can cheat the company! You cannot talk one moment about being a better worker and the next about being a worse one. So also you cannot pray for God’s kingdom and then, when you get to the “daily bread” part of your prayer, ask for things that cut against the grain of God’s kingdom of love and sharing! Our wants and desires need to be influenced by the God whose Name, kingdom, and will make up the first part of the Lord’s Prayer. But even once that happens, we will still have needs and desires. Being a kingdom-filled person will not eliminate all earthly needs! Among the needs that remain is the need for food, daily sustenance, and by extension the incomes that allow us to buy the things we both need and enjoy. And it is precisely such sanctified, natural needs that Jesus suggests we include when we pray to God.
But how do we preach on Lord’s Day 50 to a congregation where at any given moment, loads of people are dieting precisely because in North American settings at least, it is altogether too easy both to HAVE and also to EAT way too much bread? If we are well taken care of in the food department, ought we to use this request for only the things we do not have? Instead of asking for daily bread, should we instead pray, “Bread I’ve got, O God, so give me this day my daily success at the office. Give me this day the parking spot I need and the stock option for which I long.” If we’re covered on the culinary front, is it enough to use the Lord’s Prayer for other needs? Or does our abundance turn us in a different direction completely? Should we just forget all about ourselves in favor of praying for the millions who lack daily bread?
Let me suggest that if our congregations are “all set” where daily bread is concerned, we may use the basic idea behind this petition to ask for other things we need. But we ought not leave it at just that. We don’t want to say that since we mostly don’t need to worry about food all we should do with this part of the Lord’s Prayer is substitute other things. Instead, even in the midst of caloric abundance, there is a way to let Jesus’ words on bread transform us. Perhaps on our lips a prayer for daily bread should mean that we do what we can to move away from the kind of numb, insensate state that makes us ungrateful for the food we so mindlessly eat. Maybe this request should make us slow down, wake up, open our eyes so that we can see the blessings of our daily lives as blessings. A request for daily bread can perhaps serve to remind us that even if we are on a diet, we still need to eat every day. So if you do eat every day, then this a most concrete expression of God’s grace.
Where is God’s grace? It’s in that steaming bowl of mashed potatoes on your dinner table. Where is God’s work in your life today? It’s in what pops out of the toaster first thing in the morning. How do you know God cares for you? You know it when you open the refrigerator and see something that millions of people in this world cannot even conceive of: leftovers. Most of our world has no need of Tupperware or old Cool Whip containers because they never have any leftover food that could be stored in such containers!
In other words, this petition of the Lord’s Prayer can generate thoughtfulness and gratitude in people who may not worry about their daily bread but who still need to receive it with due joy!
Possible Biblical Texts
Deuteronomy 8: This classic passage, part of Moses’ huge swan-song sermon to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land, is a near-perfect choice for preaching on the Lord’s Prayer petition “Give us this day our daily bread.” Here Moses connects the manna the people once depended upon in the wilderness to the abundance of food they would one day have in the land flowing with milk and honey. It’s a reminder that well-stocked cupboards are every bit as much the blessing of God as the miracle bread of manna that once elicited such joy when it appeared out of nowhere in what would otherwise be the place of death: the wilderness. This is a timely reminder for all, particularly those of us in lands of abundance today.
Rev. Stephen Shoemaker reminds us of an insightful observation once made by Walker Percy. Percy noted that the English word for “boredom” derives from the French verb bourrer, which means “to stuff.” The more stuffed we are with the riches of life, the more bored we tend to get. We cram our mouths with food and stuff our lives with, well, stuff and still we feel restless, still we feel the need to “try something new” and “liven things up.” Yet what sometimes lies behind that is sheer boredom. We’re bored stiff, bored insensate, bored to the point that we can’t even see how good we’ve got it.
“Give us this day our daily bread,” therefore, should be a way to break the cycle of over-stuffed boredom. Our Lord’s words on our well-fed lips need to be a spiritual wake-up call to see anew what we have and to give thanks for it. And maybe, just maybe, it is a reminder, too, of our need to do with a little less. And here I don’t mean doing with less in the sense of going on a diet but doing with less in the sense of intentionally just denying yourself this or that new thing so as to focus on the typical things which surround you.
For instance, in the culinary world today there is a lot of experimentation going on with various ethnic cuisines. Actually that has been going on for a long time but people slowly got bored with just Thai food or Japanese cuisine or Indian spices and so in more recent years “fusion cooking” has become the rage in which chefs experiment with what classic French food could taste like with an infusion of also Mexican spices.
Of course, once in a while we all enjoy variety, and if God had not wanted us to enjoy what we eat, he could have made a flavorless world. Still it says something about us when we dismiss someone who refuses to try such flavor experiments as a bland “meat and potatoes” kind of guy. What’s wrong with meat and potatoes? What’s wrong with bread and water? Can we revel in simple food and give genuine thanks to the God who gives it even when we intentionally keep our dinner plates simple and uncluttered some evenings?
However we do it, we need to find ways of giving thanks for all we have. I have no simple solutions for myself or any of us as to how we can foster a sense of divine dependence, but our Lord’s prayer challenges us to do just that. We cannot look to God for our every need unless we can also be thankful to God for what we every day receive.
Q & A 126
Q. What does the fifth petition mean?
A. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” means: Because of Christ’s blood, do not hold against us, poor sinners that we are, any of the sins we do or the evil that constantly clings to us.Forgive us just as we are fully determined, as evidence of your grace in us, to forgive our neighbors.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
It’s about as short a word as you can find in any language, consisting as it does of just two little letters. Yet someone once noted that this word is the most daunting, potentially the most devastating, word in the entire Bible. It’s the little particle “AS” in this part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins AS we forgive those who sin against us.” It’s even just two letters in the original Greek. But it packs a wallop. This yoking together of God’s grand forgiveness of us and our need to get into that same rhythm with all those around us reminds us of the true challenge of the gospel. We may be forgiven freely and by grace but the completely free nature of that gift has implications for our subsequent lives from then on out. Surely just as this is a regular part of any recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, it is likewise a daily reality in which we must live.
I once visited on online greeting card website to send an electronic anniversary card to some friends. As I was glancing through this website’s menu of choices, I noticed they had a separate category of cards devoted to “forgiveness.” Mostly they were humorous and so clearly intended to be used for relatively minor hurts. “Forget about it,” “Don’t worry about it” were the sentiments of two cards. Another expressed forgiveness by saying, “Everybody is a work in progress.”
But on this website, as probably in most greeting card stores, forgiveness cards were categorized right along with birthday and get well cards. That is, they were what could be called “occasional cards.” You don’t send a “Get Well” card just any old time, but occasionally you need such a sentiment and that’s when you purchase and send just such a card. So also you may not need a forgiveness card very often, but once in a while such a thing may be handy.
Seen this way, forgiveness becomes a “now and then” matter. But it is precisely such an understanding of forgiveness that the Lord’s Prayer tilts against. Indeed, within the context of this prayer it is striking that this highly spiritual matter of forgiveness comes AFTER the mundane matter of food! You would expect just the reverse: first we tend to our souls, then we get around to ordinary matters like bread. But not so. For some reason the model prayer provided by our Lord deals with the earthy ahead of the spiritual. We need not conclude that eating lunch is more vital than forgiving Harold, but it is highly curious that the prayer is laid out this way. Clearly both matters are important. God really is interested in us body and soul, as the complete beings he created us to be.
But maybe there is something else to be said here. Because in the Lord’s Prayer the request for bread and the plea for forgiveness are yoked with the word “and.” “Give us this day our daily bread AND forgive us our sins.” You say these two petitions in the same breath. Why is that important? Because perhaps it is Jesus’ way of telling us that there is a connection between daily bread and forgiveness–we need both every day! Daily bread. Daily forgiveness. “Feed me, O Lord. Forgive me, O Lord.” If you sit down to three meals a day, you can pray these words on forgiveness at each meal right along with your words of gratitude for a bowl of chicken soup and a roll. Forgiveness is that constant of a need. That’s why we make a mistake if we treat forgiveness similar to how the Hallmark folks treat forgiveness cards. This is not an occasional, now-and-again matter. Instead, forgiveness is something we live, something we embody every moment. But that only stands to reason. After all, the very foundation on which our identity as Christians is built is nothing less than the death and resurrection of Jesus and the flood of gracious forgiveness which that grand sacrifice unleashed. Forgiven is who and what we just are.
Forgiveness is not a tool you need just once in a while. Forgiveness is not like that Phillips screwdriver which you keep out in the garage and which you fetch now and then when a kitchen cabinet is loose. Forgiveness is not a tool to be utilized occasionally but is more like the clothes on your back. You don’t generally walk around the house naked and you surely never leave the house without some kind of attire covering you. Forgiveness is more like that: it goes with you, accompanies you, and is needed by you everywhere you go. So what does this imply?
Several things. For one thing it implies that each and every one of us needs to BE forgiven by God, and by others, every day. We need to be forgiven about as often, if not more often, as we need to eat. True, most days we are not guilty of anything huge. Most days we are not carrying around with us the burden of having committed adultery, of having embezzled money from our company, or of having been convicted of drunk driving. But there are always a slew of smaller sins, lapses, and faults. There are always those dark thoughts which we’re glad no one else can see.
Just because we may lack any big sins does not get rid of all our other sins. To ignore ordinary peccadilloes on the grounds that they just don’t warrant attention is a little like saying that because your entire house is not on fire, it’s really not such a big deal that the furnace room is full of smoke from a faulty water heater. Big fires need attention, but so do small ones–and not just because they have a way of getting big but also because they’re a problem even when small!
Seeing forgiveness as every much a daily matter as eating and drinking puts each of us into perspective. We’re faulty folks. We need to be forgiven. Constantly. The more keenly aware you are of your getting that gift every day, the more inclined you will be to distribute it to those who are in need of a healing, restorative word from you. Do you feel good, relieved, joyful when, through the Holy Spirit, you hear God saying to you every single day, “Forgiven!”? Well then, when there is an equally flawed person in your debt because of a mistake, lapse, or sin, let him or her experience the same kind of joy by hearing you say, “Forgiven!”
God forgives us daily. We forgive others daily. Every day we carry around with us a mental list of people we could forgive. Some of the names on that list have been there awhile whereas others appear and disappear quickly. There may even be certain names–your spouse, a co-worker–which appear on that list pretty regularly but which also get erased regularly as you exercise the daily task of forgiving as you have been forgiven.
Forgiveness is our lifestyle. It’s our habit. We do it every day for the same reason we eat every day: we need it to stay healthy. And by doing it every day, we stay spiritually limber, too. This daily habit is a good way to be in shape should a day arrive when we have something major to forgive. The more practiced we are at forgiving the ordinary foibles and annoyances of life, the better poised we may be to forgive even an extraordinary hurt.
Possible Biblical Texts
Matthew 18:15-35: This is a fairly obvious place to which to turn in connection with forgiveness, and most particularly with the concept of forgiving AS we have already been forgiven by God. First of all, the sheer fact that Jesus needs to say what he does in verses 15-20 reminds us that whatever else Jesus envisioned for the future of his Church on earth, he did not think it would be so spiritually pristine and pious that the need for forgiveness of one another would disappear. Then, the subsequent parable of the Unmerciful Servant reminds us of how ugly—but above all how downright SILLY—we are whenever we fail to do as our Father has already done for us. Living off of God’s forgiveness but then acting like some vengeful galoot is its own caricature—a caricature we should never want to incarnate in our own lives!
Idea #1: Recently the Templeton Foundation, which has campaigned for an increase in what it calls “forgiveness research,” funded a major nationwide study on people’s attitudes toward forgiveness. Co-sponsored by the University of Michigan and the National Institute for Mental Health, the study found that 75% of Americans are “very confident” that they have been forgiven by God for their past offenses. The lead researcher, Dr. Loren Toussaint, expressed great surprise at such high confidence, especially since many of these same people are not regular church attenders. Still, three-quarters of the people surveyed had few doubts about God’s penchant to let bygones be bygones.
The picture was less bright, however, when it came to interpersonal relations. Only about half of the people surveyed claimed that they were certain that they had forgiven others. Most people admitted that whereas God may be a galaxy-class forgiver, ordinary folks struggle. It’s difficult to forgive other people with whom you are angry. It’s even difficult to forgive yourself sometimes. But where forgiveness does take place, the study found a link between forgiveness and better health. The more prone a person is to grant forgiveness, the less likely he or she will suffer from any stress-related illnesses.
Apparently, forgiveness is important, it’s necessary, it’s even healthy. What’s more, we need it because sooner or later, we will encounter hurts inflicted by others. That seems to be no less true inside the church than it is beyond the church’s fellowship. Indeed, as many commentators have pointed out, whatever else the Lord Jesus Christ may have envisioned for his church, one thing is certain: Jesus was not so naive as to think that the church would be such a bright, sunny, happy place that forgiveness of sins would never be needed. Quite the opposite: Jesus was no utopian visionary who imagined that if only a few simple ground rules were followed, his future disciples would experience unending bliss.
Idea #2: Neal Plantinga has adroitly highlighted a few dimensions of forgiveness, including some of the curious wrinkles that complicate the process of one person’s forgiving another for some hurt. Plantinga wonders what happens, what do we actually DO, when we forgive another person? His answer is that we drop some anger. We release an anger which we have a right to feel. If someone has betrayed you, if someone has abused you or broken a promise to you, if someone has stolen from you or swindled you, if someone has diminished the quality of your life, if someone has taken the life of a person who was dear to you–in these scenarios and a thousand others like them you are right to be angry. There would be something wrong with your moral sense were you not outraged by such harmful acts.
But anger is an unstable compound with a very low flashpoint. Anger is in fact so dangerous a commodity that even justifiable anger needs to be handled with care lest it get out of hand and cause still more harm. But there is such a thing as righteous anger. This is the kind of indignation we feel welling up in our guts any and every time someone wounds us or those dear to us. What forgiveness involves, Plantinga claims, is the letting go of this anger to which you have a rightful claim. It’s saying that you’re not going to let this anger fill up your heart and blacken your vision. You’re not going to let this anger turn your mouth into a perpetual frown or sneer. You’re not going to let this anger lead you to wish harm on the person who hurt you. You’re not going to let this anger block your worship of God. You’re not going to let this anger to set your every social agenda until it gets to the point that nobody ever wants to have dinner or drinks with you anymore because everybody knows that sooner or later you will get around to talking about old so-and-so, and this topic will then, as always, dominate the conversation for the rest of the evening.
Nope. You’re going to forgive. You’re going to let go of that anger as best you can and try to get on with life. You’re not going to try to get even with the one who maimed you. You’re not going to wish him or her ill. You’re not going to talk about the past hurt every chance you get. You will forgive and so move on. Wonderful. But it’s seldom that neat. Depending on the nature and the enormity of the hurt in question, it is fully possible and frankly perhaps likely that even with forgiveness, things may not go back to how they used to be between you and the one who hurt you. Perhaps you will no longer wish her harm, but perhaps it will also be true that you’ll never go out and grab a cup of coffee together, either. You may have dropped your anger and so be able to acknowledge this other person as a brother or sister in Christ yet without ever confiding in him or her again. You may with a clear conscience be able to receive the platter of bread from his or her hand in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, yet this may nevertheless be someone with whom you’ll never laugh again.
In our broken world and with the sin that entangles and trips up every last one of our lives, it is sometimes true that the best we can do is forgive but not forget; forgive and yet still live for years with a certain amount of radioactive fallout from the atomic blast that devastated some portion of your life.
But it is precisely for these reasons that we can scarcely conceive of forgiveness as God exercises it. Try though we may, we have to admit we cannot quite wrap our minds around the idea that despite everything we have done to harm God and his creation, God is going to let it all drop. He forgives us freely and fully, never, ever holding anything against us. God lets his anger drop through Jesus and there will never again be any fallout from our sins. It will not affect, it will not diminish, it will not alter in the least our relationship with God. And if we’re honest, we admit we can hardly believe it!
Q & A 127
Q. What does the sixth petition mean?
A. “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one” means: By ourselves we are too weak to hold our own even for a moment. And our sworn enemies— the devil, the world, and our own flesh— never stop attacking us. And so, Lord, uphold us and make us strong with the strength of your Holy Spirit, so that we may not go down to defeat n this spiritual struggle, but may firmly resist our enemies until we finally win the complete victory.
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Q & A 128
Q. What does your conclusion to this prayer mean?
A. For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever” means: We have made all these petitions of you because, as our all-powerful king, you are both willing and able to give us all that is good; and because your holy name, and not we ourselves, should receive all the praise, forever.
Q & A 129
Q. What does that little word “Amen” express?
A. “Amen” means: This shall truly and surely be! It is even more sure that God listens to my prayer than that I really desire what I pray for.
In a scene from the old TV show M*A*S*H, the Catholic priest, Father Mulcahey, offers a prayer amidst a group of soldiers and others, many of whom were not very religious and so were unaccustomed to prayer. But the good Father offered a fine prayer and concluded with “Amen.” There was a moment of awkward silence, finally broken when someone asked, “Is that it?” to which another person replied, “Of course! NOTHING comes after Amen!”
After Amen. Does anything come after the “Amen” of the Lord’s Prayer (or for that matter of any prayer)? The Catechism devoted a lot of space to the various petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, detailing many ins and outs of a fruitful prayer life as that life is modeled for us in this famous prayer. But there comes a point in even the most prayerful of lives when, for the moment at least, you are finished praying. There comes a point when you say “Amen,” open your eyes, unclasp your hands, get up off your knees and go back to work, get back to tending the kids or trimming the rose bushes. So what happens as a result of your having prayed? What comes after “Amen”? The most basic answer to the question is obvious: What comes after Amen is a kingdom life of service but also of spiritual warfare. What comes after Amen is becoming well-outfitted and well-equipped people who stand tall for God in a world of evil. If prayer is a quiet center to the Christian life, the life for which prayer prepares us is anything but quiet: it involves a pitched battle against spiritual forces.
But in some ways this is a natural thing to see emerging from the Lord’s Prayer. Prayer in the Christian tradition is not some exercise whereby we “center down” and narrow our focus to our own little immediate needs. Instead when we pray for God’s kingdom and will to come to this earth, what we are bringing into focus for ourselves is God’s grand program of restoration. What the Lord’s Prayer scrolls up for us on our mental screens is a vision that could not be larger or more all-encompassing. But when we step back and try to capture something of the “big picture” of the cosmos, one of the things we catch glimpses of are the dark forces, what Paul often calls “the powers and principalities” of evil which are active in this fallen creation.
You cannot pray the prayer Jesus taught without acknowledging that there is raw evil in the universe. You cannot embrace this prayer and still also think that the devil is mostly just a metaphor. You cannot take Jesus’ words onto your lips and still also believe that really people are basically good and that life in general is at its core pretty decent such that if we all just hunker down and do our level, human best, why a better day will arrive. You cannot pray “Deliver us from evil” and still believe that any political order, any government, or any politician will, by themselves, eliminate what is most fundamentally wrong with this world. The Lord’s Prayer is not about optimism but realism. The Lord’s Prayer is not about trying harder as humans but about believing that God alone can deliver us.
So in the Lord’s Prayer there is both a bold and unabashed acknowledgment of evil’s reality and yet a bold and unabashed confidence that Jesus has overcome it. So we have both candor and confidence. But we don’t want the confidence side to swallow up the candor. That is, just because Jesus has overcome the devil and the world does not mean that we now are unconcerned with our fight against the spiritual powers that oppose God’s kingdom. There are real powers and principalities, right now today, from which we need to be delivered. At times, though, I think we miss that. We keep “evil” a vague, amorphous word even as we generally do not connect it very concretely to actual things you can see and touch and read about in our present world.
In the Lord’s Prayer when Jesus moves from “forgive us our sins” to “deliver us from evil,” Jesus is not being repetitive. He’s not saying the same thing two different ways but is instead enlarging our picture of what sin is. Yes, it is a matter of guilt and shame. It does put us in a position in which we flat out need the grace of God’s forgiveness or else we would never be allowed to stand in God’s holy presence.
But guilt and forgiveness are not the whole of what sin involves, which is why Jesus includes also the request for deliverance. Sin and evil are also real powers of slavery which hold our world in thrall. Sin and evil are forces that trap us, that make us get stuck in destructive patterns and in bad habits of thought which, if left unchecked, lead us away from God. This is a major theme in the Bible: the theme of exodus. We need to be led out, delivered from a real place.
In a world of death and injustice, hatred and war, hunger and disease we cry, “Deliver us from evil!” Deliver us from all that makes these grim facts this world’s reality and from all the forces that would lull us into accepting that that’s just the way it goes. Deliver us from any power that would make us accept this as normal, as to be expected. Deliver us from anything we do or say or think that contributes to racism, hatred, suspicion, and fear. O Lord our God, deliver us from evil and from the Evil One!
And we pray this way and live this way because, as the traditional ending of the prayer reminds us, God’s is the kingdom and the power and the glory not just now but forever. God our Father in heaven is the holy and hallowed Name above all names and one day every tongue will confess it. God’s kingdom will come and God’s will shall be done in every corner of the universe, on earth as it is in heaven. Daily bread will be supplied and supplied to all. Our sins will have been forgiven even as we will have forgiven those who sinned against us. We will not be led into temptation because the only thing that will fill our hearts and minds will be the beauty of God and of his New Creation. And all of this will be so because of Jesus who delivers us from evil already now and who will continue to deliver us until he has brought us out of the far country and back home–back to a place where God alone is all in all.
At a moderate pace, it takes less than thirty seconds to pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer. But it takes at least a lifetime even to begin to fathom these words and it will take us into eternity to begin living them out. But you’ve got to start somewhere and so we begin, and finally we end, with our Father in heaven, through Jesus Christ the Lord of the prayer, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. What comes after “Amen”? Only the same God whose kingdom and power and glory are forever and ever!
Possible Biblical Texts
Ephesians 6:10-20: This famous passage about spiritual warfare and putting on the whole armor of God is a fitting one for a sermon that includes a pondering of the Lord’s Prayer petition, “Deliver us from evil.” It is clear here that for Paul, evil powers and all that from which we need to be delivered are not convenient ways of talking nor are they metaphors, symbols, or anything else other than the real forces arrayed against all that is good in God’s kingdom and in the lives of those of us in whose hearts the kingdom of God has already begun to dawn.
Perhaps the difference between sin as guilt in need of forgiveness and sin as slavery in need of deliverance is like an alcoholic’s quandary: yes, if a man gets drunk and in his stupor accidentally breaks your favorite vase, he needs to be forgiven for both that bout of drunkenness and for carelessly busting something precious. He needs to be forgiven for his deed but he also needs to be delivered from the larger thrall of alcohol which has him trapped (and that led to that deed). So also we need exodus–we need to be liberated from an unholy land which insidiously asks us to feel right at home in the far country of sin. There are real powers intent on making us adopt this world’s patterns as though these, and not God’s kingdom, are right and normal.
It’s sort of like what can happen to people when they live for a long time in a part of the country with a strong accent. I recall when my uncle and aunt moved to New Jersey at a time when their children were still fairly young. After about a year living there, my cousins had developed a definitive East Coast accent even though they were wholly unaware of this. But just talking to them on the phone revealed the accent to me clear as could be!
The far country of evil wants to do the same to us: it wants us to soak up the patterns of an anti-God world, dominated by the dark rulers and authorities, so that slowly but surely we start to speak with the accent of the world instead of the accent of God’s Word. We need to be delivered. When we pray “Deliver us from evil,” we are not saying “Forgive us our sins” all over again. We’re saying something related yet distinct–we’re saying that we know we need to be changed, that we need to do battle, that we need to stand up for God. So we pray “Deliver us from evil,” but we dare not let “evil” remain vague.
And so dear God, deliver us from evil.
Deliver us from what?
Deliver us from a world of war!
Deliver us from what?
Deliver us from a world of hunger!
Deliver us from what?
Deliver us from a world of inept and unjust governments, a world of terrorism and of bloated, self-important dictators!
Deliver us from what?
Deliver us from pride of race and nation, from racism and sexism, from genocide and civil wars!
Deliver us from the evil of the powers and principalities who day by day subtly work their destruction on this world even as they seek to keep us complacent about it. In his book Amazing Grace Jonathan Kozol focused our attention on the children who live in this country’s poorest congressional district in New York City. In the shadow of Wall Street and uptown Manhattan these children, mostly black, live in neighborhoods every bit as segregated in education and health care as anything that was once true in the old South. And because they lack a voice, because they lack political clout, they are not able to fight when it’s time to put up a new medical waste incinerator. Those of us with money and influence can keep such things out of our neighborhoods, the poor cannot. So those who cannot be cared for adequately medically as it is are put at still greater risk by having to live next to toxic materials. This is a pattern perpetuated throughout not only our own country but the whole world.
And so we cry, “Deliver us from evil!”
Deliver us from what?
Deliver us from a world that makes children sick and then turns the other way.