This Sunday is a very special one. This is a Sunday when the events of RELATIVELY recent event have made a significant, eternal difference for many Christians. (It happened about 500 years ago—but compare that to 2000!) On Reformation Sunday, some churches celebrate that, on October 31st, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the church door in Wittenberg. He did that to start a debate which focused on some of the teachings of the Church at that time.
This event marks the start of the gospel once again becoming central in the teaching of the Christian Church. Even if a Christian does not want to celebrate this day, one should be thankful for that gospel, which, unfortunately, can easily be covered up by people.
One of the options for the Gospel text for this Sunday is John 8:31-36. Within that text, Jesus and the Jews (who recently believed in him—a significant event) talk about being enslaved and being free. Those are some significant words, not only since the Civil War, but for all time. Those two words have a significant impact on people’s lives. How those words are defined and located is a critical step to Christianity. The best starting point for discussing Christian doctrine is by asking the question, ‘How bad are we?’
In Dr. Luther’s most significant document of 1518, The Heidelberg Disputation, he tackles the issue of whether one can become truly free by his or her own effort. This is a critical issue. And it is especially relevant in our day when the thoughts, feelings or emotions a person has within him or her have a great value.
I am quoting his sixteenth thesis and the entire explanation which follows. Hopefully it is helpful in knowing where Luther and Lutheran congregations are ‘coming from’.
‘The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin, so that he becomes doubly guilty.’
From what has been said earlier, the following is clear: When a person is doing what is in him, he sins and seeks what is his in everything. But if he should think that through sin he would become worthy of or prepared for grace, he would add haughty arrogance to his sin and not believe that sin is sin and evil is evil, which is an exceedingly great sin. Therefore, Jeremiah 2:13 describes it: ‘My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that give no water,’ that is, through sin they are far from me, and yet they presume to do good by themselves.
Now you ask, ‘What then should we do? Should we go our way with indifference because we can do nothing but sin?’ I answer: By no means. But, when you have heard this, fall to your knees and pray for grace and place your hope in Christ—in whom is our salvation, life, and resurrection. For this reason, we are taught—for this reason, the law makes us confess the sin so that, having recognized our sin, we seek and receive grace. Therefore, God gives grace to the humble [I Peter 5:5], and whoever humbles himself will be exalted [Matthew 23:12]. The law humbles; grace exalts. The law works fear and wrath; the grace, hope and mercy. For through the law comes knowledge of sin [Romans 3:20], through knowledge of sin, however, comes humility, and through humility, grace is obtained. Therefore, an action which is a strange work of God finally results in his own work: that he makes a person a sinner, so that he may make him righteous [rendered from the St. Louis edition, vol. 18, pages 48f.].
For a person to ‘do what is within’ seems like a very natural thing. And it is a very popular focus these days. But it ultimately leads to a very depressing ending. Thankfully, there is some good news. And next Sunday we will be celebrating All Saints Day!
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 10:23-31] is a continuation of the story of Jesus with the rich young man, although that young man is no longer in the text. The idea of being rich most certainly is. And that word, ‘rich’, has significant connotations and implications.
That is why the disciples are amazed when Jesus said, ‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God (verse 23b)!’ The disciples were connecting wealth with the blessing of God. Unfortunately, some present-day disciples are doing that very same thing.
The following words are being connected by some: riches, blessing, power, greatness, and glory. And it may be that the last word of that list is a ‘red flag’ to those who are familiar with the writings of Martin Luther.
This week’s blog is being written in the year 2018, and it is exactly 500 years after the writing of the Heidelberg Disputation of Dr. Martin Luther. (I include the title ‘Dr.’ with his name because that designation gave him the task of teaching the Church.) In that work he makes the point that glory is not always a good thing.
Perhaps one of Luther’s most famous theses is number 21, and it has to do with glory: ‘A theology of glory calls the evil good and the good evil, but a theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.’ It may take a while to get your mind around what Luther is saying. (That is especially true if you consider the word ‘glory’ to be a good thing!) But Luther wants, ultimately, to put the central focus of Christian doctrine and life on Jesus and the cross.
Luther could have written a lot about this thesis (he often DOES write a lot). But he has covered the same point in other places. Since he has not written too much in this case, I am including the whole of his explanation of this thesis. Hopefully a combination of this and the gospel text may become your food for thought, whatever your income level.
This is clear: When a man does not know Christ, he does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to foolishness, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls ‘enemies of the cross of Christ [Philippians 3:18]’, especially because they hate the cross and suffering, but they love works and the glory of works. Therefore, they call the good of the cross evil, and they call the evil of a work good. But man cannot find God apart from the cross and suffering, as has already been said. Therefore, the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross, works are destroyed and the old Adam, who is especially built up by works, is crucified. For it is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been humbled and brought to nothing by suffering and evil, until he knows that he is nothing and that his works and not his, but God’s (translated from the St. Louis Edition, vol. 18, p. 50).
Jesus, in the gospel text, is connecting the things that he is saying to his cross. His followers are trying to disconnect them—and sometimes this writer does that very same thing. Thankfully, Jesus is headed to the cross to pay for those sins as well.
The Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 10:17-22] mentions the number ‘one’, but in a somewhat hidden way.
A rich young man comes to Jesus and asks him what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ response to the rich young man is this: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’ Literally the last sentence can be read in this way: ‘No one is good, except one—God.’
The number one is obviously an important number. Last week the text had to do with marriage (and divorce), and Jesus brought up that extremely important, but also extremely old text, that marriage is a union of a man and a woman. They become one flesh. They look like two, they may often feel like two, but God says that they are one. That one is an important number to remember.
Having looked at that text a little more closely, I recently learned [from BDAG, page 292] that ‘numerous sepulchral inscriptions celebrate the virtue of a surviving spouse by noting that he or she was married only once, thereby suggesting the virtue of extraordinary fidelity.’ That one has been considered important as well.
It has been noted by some scholars that the first part of the Gospel according to Mark is for Jewish Christians, and they would be very familiar with the following bible passage: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is one (Deuteronomy 6:4).’ Yes, one is a very important number.
When Jesus tells the rich young man that no one is good except God alone, is Jesus saying that he is not God? Hardly! It just takes a while for a person’s mind to get used to the idea of the Trinity—that there are three Persons but one God.
Jesus also asks the young man a question, a why question [‘Why do you call me good?’], usually some of the most difficult questions to answer. And it is also probably one of the best questions for a discussion to continue, and those discussion can continue, even at much later times, after people have had a chance to think for a while.
The text for this Sunday is one of those texts where you do not have a complete ending. After Jesus asks the rich young man to sell everything that he has, the text says that he was ‘disheartened’ and went away ‘sorrowful’. While the translation may be a bit brief, it has been suggested that the first word describes a more external response, while the second, an internal.
This description of the internal response may indicate that this rich young man eventually did come and follow Jesus (and later described this event so that it could be written down). The early church did have a lot of followers, and it also did have a significant amount of income to support the needs of those first Christians.
The number one has always been an important number. Jesus focuses his attention on little ones. He focuses his attention on particular people.
In this gospel account, the enemies of Jesus are many, and the disciples of Jesus are lacking in many ways. Jesus is alone as he goes to the cross and takes care of every one.
Maybe it shows an OCD to say this, but I think that the Gospel text for this Sunday [Mark 10:2-16] should include the first verse of the chapter. There is a helpful perspective within that verse.
That first verse goes this way: ‘And he [Jesus] left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them.’
The location is so important here. Jesus is getting extremely close to Jerusalem. One of the last major geographical things he will do, before going ‘up’ to Jerusalem, will be to cross the Jordan river.
What would you talk about if you knew you were that close to your death? Jesus chooses to talk about some small things.
When the subject of divorce is brought up, Jesus brings up a small passage of scripture that basically goes back to the beginning of time. And, a little later, he also talks about little children. And he says that we should be like them.
The Jordan river was a big, important river. And Jerusalem is still a big city—in comparison to the other cities in the area of course. But Jesus wants us to focus on the little things.
In our lives today, it is the big things that usually get the most attention. We are going to see more and more people wanting to make a big ‘splash’ in society, so that they will be getting their several seconds of fame. And the media does a great job of making sure this happens.
The next time a crowd is mentioned, and this time it is a ‘considerable’ or ‘worthy’ crowd, Jesus is near Jericho. And he is heading to Jerusalem for his ‘grand entrance’.
Jesus heals a blind man who not only recognizes who Jesus is as the ‘Son of David’, but the man also ends up following him.
Again, it is the small things that are important to Jesus. And that helps, the next time you are feeling somewhat ‘small’.
Considerable crowds continue to gather at churches literally throughout the world. And, hopefully, they are content to focus on some of the small things that Jesus pointed out while he was walking around this earth … his little ones, his teachings, his words, his sacraments.