Sunday, September 25, 2005

Proper 21, Year A, September 25

Liturgical color: greenLectionary and Tradition is a resource for sermon preparation, Bible study and lectio divina. This Sunday, John Calvin on "being of one mind" in Christ (Phil. 2:1). Also, Dietrich Bonhoeffer on community through Christ and the Evangelical Catechism on the communion of saints.

Reading from Hebrew Scripture with Responsorial Psalm
Exodus 17:1-7 with Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 or
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 with Psalm 25:1-9 and

Philippians 2:1-13 and

Matthew 21:23-32

Weekly Theme*
Faith Under Construction

Focus Statement*
“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

[The communion of the church] is held together by two bonds: agreement in sound doctrine and brotherly love.... But it must also be noted that this conjunction of love so depends upon unity of faith that it ought to be its beginning, end, and, in fine, its sole rule. Let us therefore remember that whenever church unity is commended to us, this is required: that while our minds agree in Christ, our wills should also be joined with mutual benevolence in Christ. Paul, therefore, while urging us to it, takes it as his foundation that "there is ... one God, one faith, and one baptism" [Eph. 4:5]. Indeed, wherever Paul teaches us to feel the same and will the same, he immediately adds, "in Christ" [Phil. 2:1,5] or "according to Christ" [Rom. 15:5]. He means that apart from the Lord's Word there is not an agreement of believers but a faction of wicked men.

Cyprian, also following Paul, derives the source of concord of the entire church from Christ's headship alone. Afterward he adds: "The church is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun but one light, and many branches of a tree but one strong trunk grounded in its tenacious root, and since from one spring flow many streams, although a goodly number seem outpoured from their bounty and superabundance, still, at the source unity abides. Take a ray from the body of the sun; its unity undergoes no division. Break a branch from a tree; the severed branch cannot sprout. Cut off a stream from its source; cut off, it dries up. So also the church, bathed in the light of the Lord, extends over the whole earth: yet there is one light diffused everywhere." Nothing more fitting could be said to express this indivisible connection which all members of Christ have with one another. We see how he continually calls us back to the Head himself. Accordingly, Cyprian declares that heresies and schisms arise because men return not to the Source of truth, seek not the Head, keep not the teaching of the Heavenly Master.

Source: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. II, "Means of Grace: Holy Catholic Church," p. 1047. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960.

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Jesus Christ stands between the lover and the others he loves. I do not know in advance what love of others means on the basis of the general idea of love that grows out of my human desires—all this may rather be hatred and an insidious kind of selfishness in the eyes of Christ. What love is, only Christ tells in his Word. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love toward the brethren really is. Therefore, spiritual love is bound solely to the Word of Jesus Christ. Where Christ bids me to maintain fellowship for the sake of love, I will maintain it. Where his truth enjoins me to dissolve a fellowship for love's sake, there I will dissolve it, despite all the protests of my human love. Because spiritual love does not desire but rather serves, it loves an enemy as a brother. It originates neither in the brother nor in the enemy but in Christ and his Word. Human love can never understand spiritual love, for spiritual love is from above; it is something completely strange, new, and incomprehensible to all earthly love.

Because Christ stands between me and others, I dare not desire direct fellowship with them. As only Christ can speak to me in such a way that I may be saved, so others, too, can be saved only by Christ himself. This means that I must release the other person from every attempt of mine to regulate, coerce, and dominate him with my love. The other person needs to retain his independence of me; to be loved for what he is, as one for whom Christ became human, died, and rose again, for whom Christ bought forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Because Christ has long since acted decisively for my brother, before I could begin to act, I must leave him his freedom to be Christ's; I must meet him only as the person that he already is in Christ's eyes. This is the meaning of the proposition that we can meet others only through the mediation of Christ. Human love constructs its own image of the other person, of what he is and what he should become. It takes the life of the other person into its own hands. Spiritual love recognizes the true image of the other person which he has received from Jesus Christ; the image that Jesus Christ himself embodied and would stamp upon all men.

Therefore, spiritual love proves itself in that everything it says and does commends Christ. It will not seek to move others by all too personal, direct influence, by impure interference in the life of another. It will not take pleasure in pious, human fervor and excitement. It will rather meet the other person with the clear Word of God and be ready to leave him alone with this Word for a long time, willing to release him again in order that Christ may deal with him. It will respect the line that has been drawn between him and us by Christ, and it will find full fellowship with him in the Christ who alone binds us together. Thus this spiritual love will speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ. It knows that the most direct way to others is always through prayer to Christ and that love of others is wholly dependent upon the truth in Christ. It is out of love that John the disciple speaks: "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth" (III Jn. 4).

Source: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, pp. 37-38. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1954.

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96. What do we understand by the communion of saints?

By the communion of saints we understand that all Christians, as members of one body, should love and help one another in all things. (1 Cor. 12:12-13, Phil. 2:2-4, 1 Cor. 12:26)

Source: "Evangelical Catechism," The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ, vol. 4, "Consolidation and Expansion," p. 330. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1999.

*The Weekly Theme and Focus Statement are from the ecumenical "Seasons of the Spirit" lectionary-based curriculum and preaching resource.

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Proper 20, Year A, September 18

Liturgical color: greenLectionary and Tradition is a resource for sermon preparation, Bible study and lectio divina. This Sunday, Karl Barth on standing on "solid ground" (Phil. 1:27). Also, the Heidelberg Catechism on "a community chosen for eternal life" and the Cambridge Platform on the unity of the church.

Reading from Hebrew Scripture with Responsorial Psalm
Ex. 16:2-15 with Ps. 105:1-6,37-45 or
Jon. 3:10-4:11 with Ps. 145:1-8 and

Phil. 1:21-30 and

Mt. 20:1-16

Weekly Theme
Side by Side

Focus Statement
"Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ...."

If God's claim on humanity is to be comprehended in a word, on the one side (predominantly in the Johannine writings) it is that we should abide, and on the other (predominantly in Paul) that we should stand.

The essential unity of the two conceptions is clear. Christians who are summoned to an "abiding" and a "standing" have a possibility in what is given them in Jesus Christ and through life with Him and in His Church; and the sum of all that is demanded of them is to make use of this possibility, or rather to let it realise itself.

The anxiety and fear forbidden to them are definitely excluded as this possible becomes actual. And the achievement of everything that is positively to be demanded of them is definitely guaranteed. At the place and on the ground on which they are set, it is already decided in advance what they will and will not do, and therefore what they will decide. In what they will do or not do, they will be obedient to the command of God, accepting His claim as right. The place of their abiding and the ground of their standing are identical. In both cases the reference is to the Lord, grace, faith, the apostolic proclamation. The concern, and the only concern, is that they should abide at this place and not leave it, that they stand on this ground and not stumble or stoop or fall or be brought down because they exchange it for another.

The seriousness and rigour, the absoluteness and radicalism of the demand are unmistakeable in both forms of the summons. Both pictorially and conceptually, the "standing" (as, for example, in the passages 1 Cor. 16:13f and Eph. 6:14f) undoubtedly demands an active determination, perseverance and restraint. And although at a first glance the "abiding" seems to be merely passive in contrast to a vagabond and vacillating caprice, it, too, impresses the hearer in such a way that there can be no mistaking the fact that it demands obedience and is therefore a command. The possibility presented with this place and ground is a law for those who are set in it. It is presented to them. It is to be realised in their existence. Its glory will necessarily be revealed in what they do and do not do. The fact that it is presented in this way makes them responsible that this should happen. But if it leaves them no choice but obedience, it is the choice of their obedience, in which they themselves are to realise it, they themselves are to be the active witnesses of its realisation.

Humility and love and selflessness and every other act of Christian virtue, the confession and the loyalty and perseverance of faith, the joyousness of hope—all these are for Christians a simple duty, a fulfilment of the injunction to let their light shine, not in any sense extraordinary, but the ordinary rule of life. Yet they are an obligation which they have to meet, a debt which they are required to pay. To allow to happen what at this place and on this ground has to happen with unavoidable necessity is something which can take place only through the Yes and No of their own will and determined act. There is repeated in this "abide" and "stand" the assault and disturbance of the wholly alien majesty of the new being which with their calling and baptism has burst in once and for all on their old man, and by which the latter has been once and for all vanquished and superseded.

But again it is the case that the disturbance and assault of this demand, its character as divine Law, is grounded in the fact that in content it speaks, no less than the warning against anxiety and fear, of a liberation which humans are to give themselves and in which they are to acquiesce. Those who are to "abide" are told openly that they are already in the native sphere to which they belong, in which they can breathe freely, in which everything they need comes flowing in to them from all sides, so that they can quietly renounce all seeking and hunting after other possibilities.

Experimenting with other possibilities is a necessity for those who have not yet found the reality of life. But those who are told to "abide" have found this reality.

To be "in Christ" is not one of the many stages on the way of life from which we may be ordered, and it may be good to look farther afield and to go on because they are only stages. It is not a standpoint which it is advisable to compare with other standpoints and then perhaps to exchange with them on account of the relativity of all standpoints.... If we want to press on and look farther, we shall only come back to this place if the search is successful. The only alternatives are the madness of a seeking for seeking's sake, or the misery of a seeking which can never lead to a finding. The obligation to abide at the place where we may abide—because that which is abiding is there—spares us not only all superfluous flights and detours, but also that madness and misery.

This is obviously an invitation and permission even as a command; a liberation as a commitment. It obviously engages us by freeing us in the depths of our being. It puts us under an obligation by giving us the freedom which we can only jeopardise and lose at once by trying to be disobedient; the freedom which can be won and kept only by obedience to this command.

And those who are to "stand" are evidently told that they are on ground on which they can stand—not on marsh or on a moving sidewalk, but on solid earth.

Is it possible that we prefer to stumble and stoop and fall and lie, or at best crawl? If we cannot prefer this, and if we are given the presupposition that we may atand, how can we fail to rejoice when we are told that we are to realise this presupposition and therefore to stand ? Falling and lying have a fatal similarity to sickness and death. For this reason we must beware of that favourite word of philosophers and humanists—die Lage (the lie of things). Strictly speaking, it ought to be applied to human relationships and conditions only sensu malo, only when there is a desire expressly to characterise them as fatal, as a suspicious "lying around" of persons and social groups and whole nations who ought properly to be standing on their feet. To be healthy and to live is to stand.

And the honest human being who would rather stand than lie must surely hail as particularly good news the imperative: Stand! Stand because you are able and are permitted to do so!

There can be no doubt that the New Testament στηκετε or στητε (cf. Eph. 5:14) is directly connected with the sound of the trumpet (1 Cor. 15:52) in the αναστασις νεκρων ("resurrection of the dead"). It commands both the later standing which the Christian is allowed and commanded in and with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the preliminary standing which he is allowed and commanded in anticipation of his own resurrection. This is commanded because it is permitted. It is a liberation and loosing because it comes to him as an alien and imperious law. It is a genuine consolation because it is so diametrically opposed to the foolish wishes of the old man. These terms, then, do not give us any grounds for supposing that the Law can be dissevered from the Gospel, or that it can be explained and proclaimed with clarity and power unless it is interpreted on the basis of the Gospel.

What makes the demand so majestic and unconditional when we are told to "abide" and "stand" is not in the first instance that God wills or does not will something of us, but primarily that God is for us and not against us.

Source: Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. II.2, "The Doctrine of
God," pp. 600ff. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004.

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What do you believe concerning "the holy catholic church"?

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.

Source: Heidelberg Catechism, 1563, translation authorized by the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

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Of the Form of the Visible Church, and of Church Covenant

Saints by calling must have a visible political union among themselves, or else they are not yet a particular church, as those similitudes hold forth, which the Scripture makes use of to show the nature of particular churches; as a body, a building, house, hands, eyes, feet and other members, must be united, or else (remaining separate) are not a body. Stones, timber, though squared, hewn and polished, are not a house, until they are compacted and united; so saints or believers in judgment of charity, are not a church unless orderly knit together.

Source: Cambridge Platform of Ecclesiastical Discipline, 1648.

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The Text This Week
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Sunday, September 11, 2005

Proper 19, Year A, September 11

Liturgical color: greenLectionary and Tradition is a resource for sermon preparation, Bible study and lectio divina. This Sunday, Martin Luther on our duty to forgive our neighbor (Mt. 18:21-35). Also: the Heidelberg Catechism on forgiveness.

Reading from Hebrew Scripture with Responsorial Psalm
Ex. 14:19-31 with Ps. 114 or Ex. 15:1b-11, 20-21 or
Gen. 50:15-21 with Ps. 103:(1-7)8-13 and

Rom. 14:1-12 and

Mt. 18:21-35

Weekly Theme
Forgiving and Forgiven

Focus Statement
"How often should I forgive?"

It is therefore decreed when we deal with God that we must stand free, and let goods, honor, right, wrong, and everything go that we have; and we will not be excused when we say: I am right, therefore I will not suffer anyone to do me wrong, as God requires that we should renounce all our rights and forgive our neighbor.

Thus your goods are no longer your own, but your neighbor's. God could indeed have kept his own, for he owed you nothing. Yet he gives himself wholly to you, becomes your gracious Lord, is kind to you, and serves you with all his goods, and what he has is all yours. Why then will you not do likewise? Hence, if you wish to be in his kingdom you must do as he does, but if you want to remain in the kingdom of the world, you will not enter his kingdom.

Those who do not prove their faith by their works of love are servants who want others to forgive them, but do not forgive their neighbor, nor yield their rights: therefore it will be with them as with this servant. Then God will summon them to appear before him at the Last Judgment and accuse them of these things and say: When you were hungry, thirsty and afflicted, I helped you; when you lay in sins I had compassion on you and forgave the debt; therefore you must also now pay your debt.

Forgiveness of sin ... is the whole kingdom of Christ, which lasts forever without end. For as the sun shines and gives no less light though I close my eyes, so this mercy seat or forgiveness of sins stands forever, though I fall. And as I see the sun again as soon as I open my eyes, so I have the forgiveness of sins again when I look up and again come to Christ. Therefore we must not make forgiveness so narrow, as the fools dream.

Source: "Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity," from Sermons of Martin Luther, v. 5, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

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What do you believe concerning "the forgiveness of sins"?

I believe that God,
because of Christ's atonement,
will never hold against me
any of my sins
nor my sinful nature
which I need to struggle against all my life.

Rather, in his grace
God grants me the righteousness of Christ
to free me forever from judgment.

Source: "Heidelberg Catechism," 1563, translation authorized by the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

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The Text This Week
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