Monday, January 29, 2018

Sermon - Epiphany 2 - John 1:43-51

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
“Calling and Confession”
John 1:43-51

There are two threads that run through this reading from John 1. The first is the prominence of “calling”. Both the calling to faith – and the calling to service, or what we often speak of as “vocation”. We'll explore that a bit first.

Then there is the Epiphany emphasis, the unfolding of Christ's identity – as the one who calls, the one who knows all, the one about whom the prophets wrote, the man from Nazareth, the Son of God, the King of Israel, and the ladder to heaven. That's a lot to cover, so let's get started.

When Jesus calls us to faith, much like when he calls the disciples, he also calls us to service. The call is “follow me”. First, this invites a trust in him as one worthy of following. They would follow him, first of all from Bethany, across the Jordan, to Galilee. But more than physically following him, they would follow him by faith. They would become Christians. They would follow him, thus, even to death.

We, too, have been called to faith. We confess as much in the Small Catechism, concerning the Holy Spirit – who has called me by the gospel. I can't believe in Christ of my own reason or strength. I can't decide for myself to follow him, as my will is bound in sin. The Old Adam in us is at war with God and in rebellion against him. There's no reason to think we'd follow him, believe in him, or trust him. But God breaks into that with his calling – the Spirit calls us to faith, just as Jesus called those disciples to follow. And by this Gospel call, grace is extended to us, each of us, and we are saved.

But the call to faith is never alone, just as faith is never without works that follow, so the call to faith is always coupled with a call to serve. In the case of the apostles, Christ called them to serve in a very particular way – first as disciples and witnesses, learning and observing everything for 3 years - then as preachers and even fathers of the church, through whom he would build and establish his body on earth.

But the call to you and me also comes with work to do. For all Christians are servants, first of God, but also of one another. All of us have a place in the body, a calling to fulfill, a role to play. These vocations – husbands and wives, parents and children, teachers and students, preachers and hearers... all Christian vocations are callings from God to be done in faith and for the benefit of our neighbor. Faith doesn't sit in the vacuum. Faith is active and living. It seeks to fulfill its calling.

Notice how, when Jesus calls Nathanael, he doesn't do so personally and immediately. He uses a go-between. Phillip, who himself had just been called to follow, now calls yet another. So also, we are called by the Spirit through the agency of another Christian. Perhaps it was your parents who taught you the faith. Maybe a pastor or teacher. Maybe a faithful friend or neighbor. Sometimes we are the Phillip. Sometimes we are the Nathanael. Sometimes we are the one who invites others to hear Christ – to come and see. Sometimes we are the one being called.

The calling of Nathanael also teaches us that Christ's call to faith is by grace. What was Nathanael doing when Jesus called him? Sitting around, under a tree. What qualifications or bragging rights did he have? What mighty works or holy credentials? Nothing we are told. Although, Jesus did pay him a high compliment – he called him a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit. High praise compared to the many in Israel who were full of deceit.

When it comes to deceit, self-deception is among the worst of it. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But here was Nathanael, who appeared to be a true believer – waiting, like all true believers of old, for God's promise of the Messiah to be fulfilled. A true Israelite would have humbly acknowledged his sin, and sought the mercy of God for his salvation. And this true Israelite would find it in the one who now called him.

That calling leads to confession. At first, Nathanael was skeptical. What good can come from Nazareth? Perhaps he knew that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. What good can come from the son of a carpenter? But little did he know, this was truly the Son of God. Until he did. When Jesus demonstrates his divine knowledge to Nathanael, the new disciple confesses just that – that this Rabbi is the Son of God!

Notice all the titles Jesus receives in this brief reading: Messiah. Rabbi. Son of God. Son of Man. It's the Epiphany season, after all, so why not mention some of the many aspects of who Jesus is?
He's the Rabbi, the great teacher. He has something to teach us – namely, the Word of God. He knows it like no one else does. He fulfills it like no one else can. Indeed, these scriptures are they that testify to him. He would spend years teaching these hard headed disciples he had just called, and only after his resurrection, by the power of the Spirit, would they come to understand so much of what he had been teaching them.

He's “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote”, that is to say, the Messiah. He is the one, the anointed one, set aside to save his people Israel. He's the one and only savior, who does what no one else can do. And he was appointed to this from the very foundation of the world. He's the fulfillment of their hopes and expectations. He's the one the prophets saw from afar, now arrived, in the flesh. Jesus himself would teach us of the scriptures, “these are they that testify to me”.

He's the Son of Man. He is a true man, like us in every way yet without sin. He is the one man, in whom all men are represented. He is the one man, to become the scapegoat for all men's sin. The one man to bear the iniquity of us all. That as in Adam all men fell into sin, now in the one man, the Son of Man, Jesus, all men would be saved.

He's the Son of God. Not just a favorite or high ranking son. The only Son of the Father. Not a created offspring but the eternally begotten Son.
And it is important that the Messiah be both Son of Man and Son of God. Man, to live and die for us. God, to conquer death for us and have it count for all of us.

But there's one more moniker or description of Jesus in this reading – and it is from Jesus himself. He identifies himself as the ladder or stairway to heaven.

Remember Jacob's dream as he left the promised land to flee from his angry brother Esau and to find his wife and fortune in the land of Padan-Aram, in the house of his uncle Laban. On his way, he stopped to sleep and with his head on a rock – had a dream of a stairway to heaven, angels ascending and descending on it. God reiterated to Jacob his promises to Abraham, and that this land would be his and his offspring's. Though Jacob was about to go away for some time, God would be with him always.

Jesus uses this story, of which a true Israelite like Nathanael would have been very familiar, and he applies it to himself. He says, “Hey Nathanael. You think it's so great that I showed you a little divine knowledge. You'll see greater things that that. You'll eventually come to see that I, the one standing before you, that I am the very stairway to heaven. That it is through me and only through me is heaven is opened to sinners.”

Heaven is opened at Jesus' Baptism and Transfiguration, as the voice of the Father confirms his Son. Heaven is opened to receive Christ's Spirit, when he commits it to the Father in death. Heaven is opened to receive the resurrected and glorified Christ, as he ascends there to regain his rightful place. And in Christ, heaven is opened to us his people, for he has promised to prepare us a place and to come to bring us there.

And so, we are called to faith, called to service, and finally called to heaven – all through Jesus Christ – who we, like Nathanael, confess as Rabbi, Messiah, and Lord. He is the one worthy of following, both in this life and even unto death, and through the grave to a resurrection and eternity with the Father. Be faithful to your calling, Christians, for he is always faithful to you.

Sermon - Epiphany 4 - Mark 1:21-28

Mark 1:21-28
“The Faith that Believes, and the Faith that Is Believed”

There are some handy Latin phrases that every good Lutheran pastor and theologian needs to know, and which can also be helpful to laypeople. One of those phrases is “Fides Qua” (Q-U-A) and “Fides Quae” (Q-U-A-E)

The expression fides qua means “the faith which believes.” This is, simply, your trust in Christ. The saving faith which receives and holds the riches of Christ’s atonement. It is your belief, as a Christian, that Christ has won for us the favor of God through his death and resurrection. He gives this salvation to us through the word and sacrament and we grab it and hold it by faith. This faith – this saving faith - is what the theologians call fides qua – the faith which believes. It’s the fides qua which makes you a Christian.*

The fides quae is a short-hand way which theologians use to talk about, “the faith which is believed.” It is, simply, the content of our belief. Or you could say, “our beliefs”. Here the word faith is like when the pastor says, “let us confess the faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.” Fides quae is THE faith. *

So we could say that Christians have faith in the faith. Although it is usually a bit less confusing to say that we have faith in Christ, by the gospel.

Fides qua without fides quae is belief without content – an emotionalism with all sorts of heartfelt sentiments but no understanding of precisely what Jesus is all about. Fides quae without fides qua – content without actual trust - is heartless theological abstraction.

So what does Fides Qua and Fides Quae have to do with our Gospel reading from Mark, where Jesus casts out a demon? And just as important, what does all of this have to do with you and me? Bear with me and we'll get there...

Our Gospel reading takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum. This is actually one of the historical sites we are pretty sure we've uncovered. I was there in 2007, and they found the old synagogue that Jesus visited there. On the top level are the imported white stone foundations of the 4th century synagogue. But underneath, the black volcanic rock from the local area that built the synagogue of Jesus' day.

The contrast between Jesus and the teachers of his day could also be described as black and white. They spoke with appeals to the Rabbis who taught before them. Gamaliel quotes Simeon quoting Eleazer, etc... But Jesus spoke with authority. He taught something different, and taught it differently. “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” The teachers of men relied on the teachings of men. But he didn't need any other word to rely on, because he, Jesus, is the living Word of God, with God from the beginning but now made flesh and walking and talking among them.

And then something strange happened. An unclean spirit spoke out. Which is strange enough. But even stranger is that the demon both knew who Jesus was, and even said so! “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” This demon, who works for the Father of Lies, is telling the truth! He has confessed rightly who Jesus is, and why he has come – to destroy the forces of evil.

And yet, no one would accuse the demons, or the devil, of being a Christian. And here we come back to the Fides Quae understanding. The devil knows the Bible, friends, better than any of us do. Luther called the devil a master theologian. He is an expert in what God's word says. As Scripture says, “even the demons believe – and shudder” (James 2). You might even say the devil has a “Fides Quae” faith in God. He knows the truth, knows it to be true, and in a sense, even believes it. But he has no “Fides Qua”, no trust in Christ as his savior.

Sometimes we might even be the same. The danger for us, the temptation for some, is to make the faith an intellectual exercise. To be more concerned about getting it right, than that what is right is “for me”. We pastors are often susceptible to this problem, especially because we've been called to oversee the public teaching of the church. But just because you have all the right confessions and all the right doctrines and all the right theological proclamations, even in Greek or Hebrew or Latin, doesn't make you a Christian. If even a demon can rightly confess Christ, in a synagogue, (to his face!) - then simply getting the teachings right isn't enough, is it? The Fides Quae without the Fides Qua.

But there is also the opposite error. And here is where many laypeople are tempted. Christ does command us to observe or obey “everything I have commanded you”. We are encouraged to know and keep the word of God, as Moses taught:

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

When we think that believing in Jesus is all that is important, and it doesn't really matter what you believe, we try to have the Fides Qua without the Fides Quae. This can lead to all sorts of trouble too. These are the people who think they've already learned all there is to learn about the faith. “I went to confirmation class 50 years ago, pastor!” This is the temptation to put the catechism aside, rather than to continue using it like Luther intended. The temptation to believe in Jesus, but know little of what Jesus actually said or taught. Dusty Bible Syndrome.

This is the kind of emotionalism that is all too common in the church. The idea that it's all about the heart. That we don't need any of these objective truths or these doctrines which divide. “Let's just love Jesus and that's good enough.” But it's a shallow and ultimately a false faith that pays no attention to what Jesus teaches in his word. If you're looking to believe in a Jesus who doesn't teach anything of substance, then you're looking for a false Jesus. If your kind of Jesus is one who doesn't care about whether you baptize babies, or whether you receive his true body and blood in the sacrament, or whether you think your good works get you into heaven... well, then you have the wrong Jesus, my friends.

But the two really go hand in hand. If you neglect the content of the faith, you will ultimately turn away from the faith that saves – because the faith that saves will have nothing to hold onto, or it will be holding to the wrong thing. And if you are absorbed in the content and the doctrine but only as a mental exercise, if you hold that word at arm's length as if its condemnations and promises don't apply to you – then your knowledge is pointless and meaningless.

There's plenty of guilt to go around when it comes to the Fides Qua and the Fides Quae. We are sinners, after all, and we will – even the best theologians - get things wrong. Maybe we'll focus too much on the doctrine, or we'll focus too little. We'll think to much of our own personal faith, or we will think to much of our own right doctrine. We will break the 1st commandment by turning our teaching itself or “being right” into a god to be worshipped. Or we will break the 2nd by claiming to love God but despising preaching and his word in its very content.

There's only one way out of the Fides Qua/Fides Quae Quandry for sinners, and that way is Jesus himself.

Jesus who died on the cross, and by it destroyed the powers of darkness. Jesus the Holy One of God who makes us holy ones by his blood. Jesus the one with authority over the demons, and authority to forgive sins. Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith – and of our Fides Qua and our Fides Quae.

He gives his spirit, who works through his word, to create saving faith where there was none. Whenever we try to measure and examine our faith we will find it lacking. But whenever we look to Christ for forgiveness, life and salvation – it is always enough. Faith in Christ, trust in Christ, is a gift from him. Even the smallest faith, of a mustard seed, if that faith is in Christ, can move the mountain of sin from on top of us.

And Christ gives us his word, the content of our faith. We don't develop our doctrine, but like all things of God, we receive it as a gift. We are the recipients of the Bible, and the creeds which summarize it, the catechism which teaches it, and the confessions which – confess it.

That he calls you to believe in him is good news! That he tells you what to believe about him is good news! That despite your lack of faith, weak faith, failing faith – he still saves, is good news! For he died for all your sins. He covers all your unholiness with his holiness. He silences all your enemies with his authoritative word.
Thank God, for the Fides Quae, the “what” of our faith. And thank God for the Qua, the “in whom” of our faith, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*comments in these two paragraphs are largely adapted from Klemet Preus “The Fire and the Staff”