The True Prince of Peace

Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2016

Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Two thousand years ago, there was a man who was called the Savior.  He rescued his people from the doubts, fears, and wars that consumed them, and so they called him the Prince of Peace.  He was worshiped as a god.  His face was put on the money.  He brought a new peace and prosperity that was supposed to last forever.  And his name was Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome.  He did some great things, but within a century the peace he created had crumbled, replaced by civil war and corruption.  No empire lasts forever; no merely human peace can prevent hostilities.  And the only salvation a human can bring is temporary, limited, and finite.  The good news that Emperor Augustus brought did not long outlast him.

But during his reign, something else happened.  A baby was born.  Not in a palace, not in the center of power, but in a stable in a backwater town in a backwater region of a remote region of his empire.  A baby born to a poor, ordinary couple, completely unremarkable in every way except one: God had chosen them to raise his son, Jesus, born on a cold winter’s night, in poverty and obscurity.

While the man the world called the prince of peace was feasting in his palace, attended to by slaves and courtiers, the true prince of peace was being laid in a manger.  While Emperor Augustus was sending out messengers with his laws and decrees, God was sending angels to shepherds and wise men with an invitation.  God’s instructions were simple: don’t be afraid, for something wonderful has just happened.  Go see the baby in the manger, and rejoice, for there is good news for all people!

And they went, and they saw, and they told everyone, and everyone who heard it was amazed.  But you know, the Bible didn’t say what they were amazed at.  Did they believe? Was it that kind of amazement?  Or was it the kind of amazement where they were surprised and perplexed at the things the shepherds and wise men told them?  Because then, as now, they were used to saviors and princes of peace like Emperor Augustus.  So what did they think when they were told that their savior, the one to bring peace, was an ordinary-looking baby born in the middle of nowhere in a stable?  Could they imagine the kind of peace and joy and hope that the baby was born to bring, or were they imagining the kind of peace and joy and hope that they were used to?  Could they really believe that it was for all people?  Can we?

Emperor Augustus brought peace through the sword.  He was a great military leader who crushed his enemies, and then used politics to benefit his supporters.  He made sure that his supporters prospered and his enemies suffered.  It was great news if you were one of his people, but bad news if you were one of his enemies.  And so the enemies became bitter, and just waited for the chance to strike back, and others just coveted Augustus’ power and sought to take it from his successors, and the peace that Augustus brought could not last.  That’s the way the world works, so often.  We make peace by suppressing violence, rather than by building relationships.  We treat life like a zero-sum game where no-one can benefit unless someone else suffers.  And so what’s good news for one group is bad news for another.  And so conflict flourishes, jealousy and hate prevail, and peace is more of a temporary ceasefire than a lasting reality.

That is not the kind of peace that Jesus came to bring.  That is not the Good News that Jesus is for all people.  Jesus didn’t make those kinds of distinctions.  Jesus came for everyone: rich and poor alike, men and women, old and young, sinners and saints, of all races and tribes and nations.  For those who were sick or hurting, Jesus brought healing.  For those who were lonely or outcast, Jesus brought community.  For those who were hungry, Jesus brought food.  For those who were oppressed, Jesus brought the promise of justice.  For those who were rich, Jesus brought the promise of a deeper love and joy and purpose than is found in mere possessions.  For the sinners, Jesus brought forgiveness.  For those who were imprisoned, Jesus brought the promise of freedom.  For all people, Jesus brought new life.  For everyone, good news and hope.  The kind of good news and hope that endure in good times and bad.

That is the kind of Good News Jesus came to bring 2,000 years ago, and that is the Good News that Jesus continues to bring to all who open their hearts and minds to him.  Not the good news brought by politicians or military leaders.  Not the good news that benefits only some and hurts others.  But good news for all people, good news that endures no matter what, that brings a peace the world cannot understand.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Christ the King: the Feast to Come

Christ the King Sunday, Year B, Sunday, November 25th, 2012

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Psalm 93, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-38a

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Salem, OR

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Having just been through an election year, I had a hard time getting enthusiastic about celebrating Christ the King Sunday today.  It seems every time we turn around these days, we see examples of leaders doing terrible things.  Lying, cheating, betraying their principles, doing stupid things, more concerned with getting or maintaining power than they are with using that power wisely for the benefit of their people.  Mouthing pious platitudes while backstabbing others, and then throwing mud at their competitors to make themselves look better.  Pontius Pilate would fit in perfectly.  Indeed, his question to Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson—What is truth?—would fit perfectly in the mouth of a modern-day politician.

As if the examples of our leaders weren’t bad enough, there’s the term “king” itself.  Kings are people out of story books, at best, and at worst—well, any student of history can point out that most kings have been at least as bad as our modern politicians, if not worse.  So why devote a whole Sunday to proclaiming Christ’s kingship?  It sounds so old-fashioned, so irrelevant, so naïve.  Yet the metaphor of Christ as king—the metaphor of God’s “kingdom”—is woven throughout Christian understanding.

What is truth?  What is kingship?  What is God’s kingdom, and what are we saying when we pray “your kingdom come”?  So often when we think of these questions and things like them, we start with what we know—the leaders and kingdoms around us—and project those onto God.  Instead, I think we should look at God and use that as our measuring stick.

In the Gospel lesson, we have two examples of leadership before us: Pilate, and Jesus.  Pilate is a typical ruler of his day.  Jesus … is not.  Pilate is concerned for his reputation.  Pilate is concerned with maintaining his power, not an easy thing in a place as turbulent as Judea was.  Pilate wanted to be in control, and he wanted everything to fit into his own ideas of how things ought to be.  Pilate evidently liked using dramatics to appease the crowds and portray himself as a good leader.  We know from history that Pilate and the priests and elders of Judea often clashed, and that not long after Jesus’ death Pilate would be removed from his post.  History also tells us that Pilate could be both cruel and capricious.  There he is, his hold on power crumbling, and his enemies bring him someone they want him to execute.  He dithers about what to do, going back and forth to try to figure out what the heck is going on.  In the end, he concludes that Jesus is probably innocent of the charges against him, but that it would be politically inconvenient to drop the charges and let him go.  So, instead, Pilate executes a man he knows is innocent in order to keep himself in good standing with the crowds.

It seems like the triumph of this broken, earthly kingdom over God’s kingdom.  It seems like Jesus’ kingship—whatever that may be—is at an end.  It seems like the raw power and corruption of this world wins out over justice and righteousness.  And yet, in that very act, God’s kingdom begins to break in.

It’s no accident that in the hours before Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus and Pilate trade barbs about kingship and the nature of power.  It’s no accident John tells us this story of what passed between the two as Pilate was deciding whether or not to have Jesus killed.  Because Pilate may be the one on the judge’s bench, here, but he’s the one on trial.  Him, and every other ruler of this world.  And in this wrongful death, Jesus shows us what it truly means to be a king.

Jesus, you see, is not in this for power, or riches, or to have crowds screaming his name.  If he were, as Jesus points out, he wouldn’t have let himself be captured without a fight.  He would have taken the crowds that have followed him throughout his years of teaching and tried to turn them into an army to defend himself, to overthrow the Roman ruler and his corrupt government and install Jesus in his place.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  Jesus handed himself over, knowing that he was going to his death.  Why did he do that?  Because Jesus knew that it was only through his selfless act of love that he could break the power of sin and death.  Jesus loved the world—that power-mad, sinful, broken, messed-up world—so much that he was willing to die for it.  Jesus loves each and every person who has ever lived and ever will live—as sinful and broken as we all are—so much that he was willing to die in pain, and agony, alone on the cross.  For Jesus, kingship doesn’t mean arrogance or self-aggrandizement or selfishness.  For Jesus, kingship means putting the needs of his people—all his people—before his own well-being.

So if that’s what kingship means, where is Jesus’ kingdom?  In Greek, the word “kingdom” can also be translated “rule” or “reign.”  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where Jesus reigns, where God’s will is done.  Jesus’ kingdom is a place where no one goes hungry.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where no one is sick, or hurt, or grieving, and every tear has been wiped away.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where all people are filled with joy.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where no one is abused or bullied, where swords have been beaten into plowshares.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where love wins.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where truth and integrity are the norm, where justice and mercy go hand in hand.  Jesus’ kingdom is like a party, a banquet, where all are invited and there is enough for everyone.  Jesus’ kingdom is what God intended the world to be from the very beginning, and Jesus’ kingdom is what the world will be at the end, when Jesus Christ comes again.

Jesus’ kingdom, obviously, is not the world we live in.  And Jesus’ kingdom is obviously a better place than anywhere we could build ourselves.  For the fullness of God’s kingdom, we will have to wait until Christ comes again.

And yet.  And yet, we are not just citizens of this world, we are also citizens of Jesus’ kingdom.  We live caught between the two, acknowledging the reality of the world around us and yet yearning for the coming of the kingdom.  We live knowing the spiritual hunger of this world and yet anticipating the feast to come.  We can’t create Jesus’ kingdom and we can’t hurry it’s coming, but we can live in the reality we know is coming.  In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we get a glimpse of what it will be like.  But we also see other glimpses of it.  Remember, Jesus constantly said that God’s kingdom was close at hand, if we only had eyes to see it and ears to hear it.  Every time someone chooses love over hate, we have a foretaste of the feast to come.  Every time someone chooses to do the right thing instead of the easy thing, we have a foretaste of the feast to come.

As followers of Christ, we are called and invited to join in the work of the kingdom.  We are called to spread love and mercy and forgiveness, to act with integrity and justice.  We live in this broken, sinful world, and we are sinners ourselves, yet we have tasted a little bit of the feast to come.  We have seen glimpses of Christ’s kingdom.  May we learn to live in the light of the coming kingdom.

Amen.

Farewell Sermon–Planting Seeds

Pentecost 6 (Year A), Sunday, July 24, 2011

1 Kings 3:5-2
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When you think of Jesus teaching, what’s the first thing to come to mind?  The parables.  Usually, they’re a bit longer than the parables of today’s lesson, which are only a verse or two apiece.  The word “parable” comes from a Greek word, “parabolh.,” which literally means “to throw alongside.”  And a parable is a story that makes a point indirectly, by going alongside it and using metaphors and analogies to paint a picture.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus throws a lot of ideas about the Kingdom of Heaven out to his listeners.  I think it shows at least one reason why Jesus used parables so often to teach people.

How do you talk about the kingdom of heaven—God’s kingdom, where righteousness, mercy, peace, and love flourish and sin is no more—to people who have only ever lived in this broken, sinful world?  How do you describe the joy of salvation?  I don’t know that any human can possibly understand—I mean really understand—what the kingdom of heaven is like until we experience it.  God is so much greater than we are; God is greater than we can ever know.  It stands to reason that God’s kingdom would be, as well.  In the Bible, the kingdom of God is almost never described directly.  Instead, we are told of the kingdom in parables, visions, dreams—things that inspire us to imagine greater, to expand our ideas what God’s reign means.  In today’s lesson Jesus throws several parables to us, and in these parables we get a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like.  I’m going to focus on just one of today’s parables.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  A mustard seed starts really, really small, and inconsequential, and unless you know what it is you’d never believe that such a huge bush—almost a tree—could come from it.  Likewise, the Kingdom of Heaven grows out of things that seem small and unimportant.  Now, remember the Gospel lessons for the last two weeks, the Parable of the Sower and the parable of the wheat and the tares?  Those come right before today’s Gospel reading, and the crowds that Jesus was preaching to here had just heard those two parables.  I don’t mean to imply that there’s a literal one-to-one correspondence between the various parables; after all, they are metaphors.  But these parables are related.  They work together, like different chords in a song or different colors in a painting.  So when you hear Jesus talk about seeds here, you should remember that in those two parables the seed that is sown is God’s Word, and in this lesson the seed grows in us to produce God’s Kingdom.

God sows the seed of God’s word in us, and it grows in us to produce God’s kingdom.  Isn’t that amazing?  The kingdom of heaven won’t be fully realized until Christ comes again, but at the same time, the seeds of that kingdom are in our midst, oftentimes so small we don’t even realize what they are.  Maybe that seed is a smile or an encouraging word when we’re feeling down.  Maybe that seed is what motivates you to get up and spend an afternoon helping someone that needs it.  Maybe that seed is something that makes you question your prejudices.  Maybe that seed is praying with your family.  Maybe that seed is reconciling with someone you’ve had a fight with.  Maybe that seed is a thought you’d never considered, before, that gives you a different perspective.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the cares of the world, in our own hopes and fears and desires, and let that blind us to the seeds of God’s kingdom in our midst.  We all have a lot of ideas about what life should be like, and how we want our life to go.  And conventional wisdom has a lot to say about what our goals should be and how we should live our lives.  But God’s wisdom is very unconventional. God’s wisdom places justice and mercy above social climbing.  It places generosity and hospitality above accumulating riches.  It places love above all.

God works in our world, in our communities and in our hearts, planting seeds.  Seeds of generosity, and mercy, and justice, and love.  Sometimes they bear fruit in our actions.  But even when they don’t, God keeps sowing seeds, knowing that some will grow until they become great trees.  Remember the parable of the sower, where the seed is spread around on all types of soil, the good and bad alike?  God gives the gift of the Word generously to all.  Whether or not we respond, God is there for us, giving us the precious gift of the seeds of his kingdom.

That’s why God was so pleased with Solomon in our first lesson today.  Solomon could have asked for anything.  Take a few minutes, and consider what you would ask for if God came to you and offered you anything you want.  Would you ask for a better job?  A nicer home?  Would you ask to be more popular?  There are a lot of things that tempt us.  I’m sure Solomon was just as tempted as you or I would be.  But Solomon realized that all the things the world values most are ultimately unimportant next to God’s word.  Solomon could have asked for anything, and what he asked for was the wisdom to do the task God had called him to do.  Solomon asked for the seed of God’s kingdom to be planted in him, so that God’s will could be done and God’s kingdom could grow.

It’s not always easy to keep our focus on God’s kingdom rather than our own desires.  Even Solomon, for all his God-given wisdom, faltered and went astray.  He let his desire for women and his hunger to become an international power lead him away from God’s will and into idolatry.  His desire for riches and huge building projects led to heavy taxes and forced labor, and to the splitting of his kingdom in half after his death.  It’s easy to look at Solomon’s life from a safe distance and disapprove, but not so easy to realize when we’re going astray ourselves.  I’m sure we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve let our desires and our fears rule; I know that’s true for me.   And yet, no matter how far we go astray, God is still with us, ready to forgive and bring us back.  Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation—not even our own sinfulness—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  No matter how far we go astray, God never stops planting seeds.

God is planting seeds today.  One of the seeds God is planting is the baptism of Josey Louise.  In baptism God claims us as his own, and connects us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Josey Louise may be small, but like the mustard seed she will grow in God’s grace beyond anything we can imagine for her now.  God is coming to her today in the midst of this congregation, through water and the Word, to plant the seed of God’s kingdom within her.  God is planting today, and God will keep planting, and nurturing, and watering, and fertilizing, until the harvest comes.  We don’t know when the harvest will be, but we know that we are safe in God’s hands.

God tends the seeds he plants in many ways.  Sometimes, we are the tools God uses to nurture and guide the seeds that God has planted in our community.  That’s one of the reasons the whole community participates in baptism: it’s not just between Josey and God, or even between Josey and her parents and God.  We are all called, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to nurture and support Josey, her parents, and her godparents, in their life of faith.  We are called as Christians to be brothers and sisters to one another, in love and grace.  We are called to help one another grow in Christ, to help one another be good soil, to help one another seek the pearl of God’s wisdom and not the empty promises of the world’s riches.

Saint Luke is a very nurturing family in Christ.  I know, because you have helped me grow this year that I have spent as your Vicar.  I have been so blessed by your love, your support, and your example.  I have learned and grown so much in my time here, and I could not have done it without you.  Thank you so much for all that you have done for me.  I hope and pray that you will continue to be a nurturing environment for the seeds God plants in this congregation, in this community, and in the whole world.

Thanks be to God, the sower of the seed, the maker of the pearl, the giver of true wisdom, the guide and companion along life’s journey.

Amen.

Remember your Baptism

Two sermons in one day–what a treat! 😉  Here is the sermon I preached yesterday, on the Baptism of Our Lord.

Baptism of Christ (Year A), Sunday, January 9, 2011

Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3-13:17

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is a very appropriate Sunday for baptism, as this is the Sunday we celebrate our Lord’s baptism at the Jordan river, two thousand years ago.  As we welcome little Cheyenne Marie into the body of Christ, and into this community of faith, we remember who we are and whose we are.

It is interesting to note that while only two of the Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, chose to include a story of Jesus’ birth, all four of them begin the story of Jesus’ ministry with his baptism by John in the Jordan river.  And if you noticed, in our first lesson Peter also begins his short summary of Jesus’ life and death with Jesus’ baptism.  It may be that early Christians considered this event more significant even than Christ’s birth.

It was a momentous event, to be sure.  John the Baptist was a major figure, one feared and hated even by King Herod Antipas, son of the King Herod who tried to kill Jesus as a baby.  Although most Christians would count Isaiah as the greatest prophet, for Jews that honor falls to Elijah, and many people in those days thought John the Baptist was Elijah reborn, particularly given his style of clothing and his message.  All of Judea had heard of John and his teachings: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  John’s message is rich in meaning, but it has been repeated so often I wonder if we really hear it or if it’s become just another catchphrase.  Perhaps it will help us hear it if we phrase it differently.  Now, the word usually translated as “kingdom” is “basilei,a”, which means kingdom, but can also mean reign or rule.  And to repent literally means “to turn.”  Turn away from the rule of sin and death, turn away from the meaningless, mindless scrabble for power and advantage, for the reign of God is near.  John the Baptist stood in the Jordan river, where centuries earlier the people of Israel had crossed into the promised land, from slavery into freedom, from death into life, and called the people back to God.  Turn away from the emptiness that would swallow you, for God’s rule is right next to you.

People came from all over to hear John’s message.  They came, and John baptized them in the Jordan river, symbolically washing away their past sins and their allegiance to the things that drew them away from God and God’s reign.  Then Jesus, too, came to the Jordan river, to be baptized by John, and in that moment John’s words began to come true.  The kingdom of heaven was at hand, was all around them.  When Jesus went into the water and came out, we are told, he saw the Spirit descending like a dove.  And a voice from heaven said “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  We don’t know whether anyone besides Jesus could see the Spirit, or hear the Father’s voice.  Whether or not the people around him could see or hear it, the kingdom of the heavens was right there with them.  Father, Son, Holy Spirit, in water and word.  This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  This was his initiation into the work of Heaven’s reign among us.

This is our initiation, too.  Like Jesus, we are children of God, and workers in God’s kingdom.  And that kingdom is nearer than we can know.  Through our baptisms, through water and the word and God’s command, we are brought from death to life, from sin to salvation.  Through water and the word we are tied to Christ’s own baptism, to his life, death, and resurrection.  Through water and the word we are claimed by God as God’s beloved children.  Through water and the word the Holy Spirit comes to us.  Through water and the word our old, sinful self is drowned, that we may be reborn as God’s own.  Through water and the word, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever.  We baptize because this is what God commands, because it is this ritual that God uses to reach out and claim us as his own.

I wish I could tell you that baptism made the darkness go away.  I wish I could tell you that baptism made our spiritual journey, our work for God’s kingdom, clear and easy.  I wish I could tell you that it meant that little Cheyenne Marie will never face temptation.  I wish I could tell you that being a child of God meant that the Kingdom of Heaven was truly realized in full here on Earth.  But I can’t.  Even for Jesus, baptism was followed by his temptation in the wilderness.

What baptism does is give us the resources to deal with whatever this broken, sinful world can throw at us.  No matter what happens to us, no matter what we do or don’t do, God has claimed us as his children.  God has marked us with Christ’s cross and sealed us with the Holy Spirit.  God will be with us every step of our way no matter what, and all we need do is turn to him.  That’s a powerful truth that we find all too easy to forget.  It is when we forget God’s presence and God’s love that we are most vulnerable, most likely to let ourselves be drawn aside.  Martin Luther used to say that in any temptation, any crisis, the best and most useful thing we could do is remember our baptism, the moment in which God claimed us and sealed us as his own.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t actually remember my own baptism.  Like many Christians, I was a small baby when I was baptized, only a couple of months old.  On the other hand, I can tell you all about my First Communion: it took place on an Easter Sunday morning, and my church had three Easter services with a full breakfast in between each.  My family went to late service, and during the breakfast before it one of my classmates who had taken his First Communion during the middle service beckoned me over.  He looked around to make sure his mother wasn’t listening, leaned to me, and whispered, “The wine tastes terrible!”  You see, at my home congregation grape juice was not an option.  So later that morning I went up to the communion rail expecting the worst—and found that the wine did indeed taste bad to a child’s tongue.  I made a big face for which my mother scolded me when we were back in our pew.  That was my first Communion, but I can’t tell you about my baptism.  I don’t know how the water felt, if I cried from the shock of it, if I liked the smell of the oil.  So what does it mean, to remember my baptism?

Most obviously, I remember my baptism when I see another person being baptized.  I see it, I participate, promising with the rest of the community to support my new brother or sister in Christ, and know that even if I don’t remember it myself, this happened to me, once, too.  But I also remember my baptism when I do things with the congregation, because it is through our baptisms that we were made brothers and sisters in Christ.  I remember my baptism when I feel alone, when I feel powerless, because it helps me remember that Christ is with me, and that he was once a human like me, and that he understands what I’m going through.  I remember my baptism when I don’t know what to do, or when I know what I should do but don’t want to do it, when I need to remember that I am God’s and that God’s reign is better and more fulfilling than any transitory desire.  I remember my baptism when I know that I need to turn to God, for God’s reign is near.

I remember my baptism when I hear Isaiah’s prophecy: “Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.  See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”  God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah, to Jesus Christ his son, and through our baptism he speaks them to us.  We, too, are called in righteousness and taken by the hand and given to the world as light and healing and freedom from darkness.

No matter how dark things seem, God’s reign is near.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand, for God is with us and God has chosen us as God’s own people.  The Holy Spirit is in our midst, whether or not we can see it—all we need do is follow God’s call.  Through water and the Word, we are marked by the Holy Spirit and sealed with the cross of Christ, forever.

Amen.

A Lutheran’s Argument For Religious Freedom

There are a lot of debates going around now about religious freedom, morality, and related topics.  There is also a lot of violence throughout the world, that testify to the consequences these debates have.  So one of my classmates recently wrote theological defense/championing of religious freedom.  It’s concise, well-reasoned, theologically sound, and well worth reading.  So, with his permission, here it is:

A LUTHERAN’S THESES FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

by Robbie Ketcham

 

I.) CENTRAL THESIS

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, rightly understood as God’s will to save the world by God’s grace and love alone (Jn. 3:16), not only allows but demands that one not restrict another’s religious or moral freedom in God’s name.

 

II.) THE PURPOSE OF THIS WRITING

1.) Some of the most notable public displays of religion have often depicted God as legalistic, judgmental or condemnatory. Further, the promoters of this view of God have often taken it upon themselves, either individually or institutionally, to restrict the religious and moral freedom of others, under the supposed authority of God.

a.) This has been most apparent in the rise of militant Islam, including the declaration of religious war against the United States by al-Qaida; and barbaric interpretations and executions of Sharia law in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Taliban-controlled areas of the Afghan-Pakistan region.

b.) The Christian Church has historically also misused the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a basis for denying religious freedom to others, especially in the Medieval period of the Church.

c.) While the United States has not committed such institutional actions denying religious freedom, certain individuals and so-called Christian churches in the United States have also misused the Gospel so as to intimidate or restrict the freedom of belief of others,  such as in attacks or bigotry against those of other faiths or intentionally desecrating the sacred texts of other faiths.

d.)  Others, on both the “conservative” and “liberal” wings of American Christianity, have advocated for legal limitations on people’s moral freedoms, seeking to impose by law their own sense of personal morality (often regarding sexuality or speech, and using such euphemisms as “family values”) or their own sense of social morality (often regarding the distribution of wealth or taxation, and using such euphemisms as “social justice”).

e.) Still others, while not seeking to act through physical violence and intimidation or through legal action, have propagated corrupt interpretations of the Christian faith, such as claiming the God “hates” or condemns others based on their morality, especially in regards to sexuality.

2.) These images of religion have, especially in recent years, led to a backlash against organized religion – and, in Europe and the United States, against Christianity in particular.

a.) Several recent surveys have shown that non-Christians’ perception of Christians is as judgmental or intolerant. (There have been several articles that I cannot retain at the moment, but here is one: http://www.probe.org/site/c.fdKEIMNsEoG/b.5281867/k.C5A7/unChristian_Is_Christianitys_Image_Hurting_Christs_Image.htm)

b.) The recent movement of “evangelical atheism,” epitomized chiefly through writings such as Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God is not Great,” attempt to refute religion altogether, but are chiefly a condemnation of this legalistic idea of religion. (Again, I fear I’ve not the link at the moment, but in an article with the London Guardian, Dawkins seemed to acknowledge this – in response to a criticism that his work did not as fully grapple with theologians such as Barth, Tillich or Bonhoeffer, he said that he was confronting religion as most people saw it – which he described as being chiefly that of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, etc.)

3.) Given that such an image of a judgmental God seems to correlate with increasing disillusionment with Christianity, the issue of religious tolerance and freedom is therefore neither merely one of political correctness nor merely one of social niceness. It is, in fact, a theological issue that could well determine the future health of the Christian church in the West. Indeed, one can claim that the promoters of such a judgmental image of God are “turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing [the people] and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:7). As such, these false prophets and teachers must be condemned not just on the basis of political correctness or social propriety, but on the basis of true theology and the true Gospel of Christ, lest Satan work through them as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Mt. 7:15) and so tear down people’s faith in the true Gospel of God’s love and grace, manifest in Jesus the Christ.

 

III.) THE BASIS OF THIS WRITING’S AUTHORITY

1.) The ultimate basis of authority on Christian doctrine is the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus the Christ. For in the Christ, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). Hence, the Incarnate Word is also the Word of “grace and truth.” The Incarnate Word is the Word of grace, in that the crucified and resurrected Christ ensures all God’s chosen of salvation and everlasting life by God’s love and freely given grace alone, regardless of works. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17). The Incarnate Word is the Word of truth, as Christ is the one and only true Son of God, “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6).

2.) The Protestant canon of the Holy Bible is the Inspired Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16). In its original writing and rightly interpreted in light of the Incarnate Word of God, the Bible is an authoritative and infallible witness to God’s desire to be in right relationship with humanity, which includes God’s desire for right human living (the Law; Rom. 7:7), the human inability to so live rightly (the condemnation of the Law; Rom. 7:8-14), and which culminates in the salvific death and resurrection of the Christ, through which God’s relationship with humanity is forever restored (the Gospel; Rom. 3:23-27).

3.) The ancient and ecumenical Creeds of the Church are authoritative accounts of the Christian faith, insofar as they are in line with the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God.

4.) The unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530 and the Small Catechism of Martin Luther are authoritative accounts of the Christian faith, and in particular of the Gospel of God’s salvation of humanity by grace and love alone without regard to human works, insofar as they are in line with #1-3.

5.) The other writings of the Book of Concord of 1580 are enlightening and useful reflections on the Christian faith, insofar as they are in line with #1-4.

6.) The Holy Spirit’s continued action in the proclamation and witness of the Church is authoritative, insofar as it is in line with #1-4.

 

IV.) AGAINST LIMITING THE FREEDOM OF BELIEF

1.) As noted in Art. III Sect. 1 of this paper, Jesus Christ is the one and only Son of God. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). While this does not mean that a doctrinal belief in Jesus Christ in this world is a condition for salvation (for indeed, such would make doctrine itself a work, and would restrict God’s freedom of grace; see also Karl Rahner’s concept of “anonymous Christians”), it does mean that adhering to the Christian faith and being baptized in the name of the Triune God is the one assurance of salvation, for “the one who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16). Therefore, this argument in support of the freedom of belief should not be misconstrued as a relativistic view that minimizes the centrality of the Christian faith.

2.) Despite the centrality of Christian faith, however, neither the Incarnate nor the Inspired Word of God suggests that one should force his belief on another through law, force or intimidation. Indeed, the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God instead argues forcefully in favor of upholding another’s freedom of belief.

a.) The Incarnate Word of God is Jesus Christ, in whom is “grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). This grace is God’s free gift given through the death and resurrection of the Christ, and is freely given to those whom God chooses. Grace and faith, therefore, cannot be obtained through human effort (see Luther’s Small Catechism, on Art. III of the Creed). While God does work through human means to spread the Gospel (see Augsburg Confession, Art. V), any human attempt to force one’s belief upon another runs contrary to God’s sole independence to give grace and faith to those whom He wishes.

b.) The Inspired Word of God – that is, the Protestant canon of the Holy Bible – repeatedly shows Jesus explicitly refusing to force his beliefs on others. For instance, Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert with all the kingdoms of the world would have given Jesus the power to force all people to follow a particular belief. However, Jesus explicitly refused such temptation – which, Scripture notes, would have actually been a worship of Satan (Mt. 4:8-10). Even if one considers another belief to be an enemy of his own faith, Jesus does not allow for one to act with force, but with love for enemies and without judgment or condemnation (Lk. 6:27-42). When a Samaritan village refused to welcome Jesus, the disciples asked if they should command fire to come down from heaven and consume the village. But Jesus rebuked the disciples for such thoughts (Lk. 9:51-55). In sending out 70 followers to proclaim the Kingdom of God, Jesus warned that some would reject the message, but he did not order the followers to force any belief, but rather to leave the town and leave any retribution to God alone (Lk. 10:10-12). Even at his arrest, when a disciple attacked a slave of the high priest with a sword, Jesus rebuked such force, saying, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 22:51-52). Therefore, Scripture clearly shows that it is against God’s will to force another into one’s own beliefs. While one can try to persuade others through proclamation, it is the Holy Spirit alone that can inspire faith and belief – not any human force of sword, law or intimidation.

c.) It is true that some components of the Old Testament Law, such as the rule of cherem or cities “devoted to destruction” (e.g., Deut. 20:16-18) could be read as allowing for religious warfare. However, such a reading for today is out of line with both the context of the Mosaic Law – which had its roots in an Israelite theocracy that had been overturned by Jesus’ claim that his Kingdom is “not of this world” (Jn. 18:36) — and is out of line with the overall theme of the Inspired Word as grounded in the Incarnate Word, as described in #2a. Further, even such texts were not efforts to force others into Israelite belief, but were attempts to defend the Israelites against others’ beliefs (Deut. 20:18) — therefore, they cannot be used as a basis for attempting to force or intimidate another into adopting one’s own faith. Indeed, the Old Testament also witnesses to God’s sole role in judging the righteousness of other nations and peoples (Isa. 2:3-4), saying that “vengeance is mine” alone (Deut. 32:35, cf. Rom. 12:19). Therefore, the Mosaic Law cannot be used as a basis for forcing or intimidating another into accepting one’s own beliefs.

 

V.) AGAINST LIMITING FREEDOM OF MORALITY

1.) It is undoubtedly true that a great deal of religious teaching is on morality. The Old Testament Law, the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the New Testament all include numerous exhortations for a moral life. Likewise, the whole basis of Christian faith – that Jesus Christ came to redeem sinners (1 Tim. 1:15) by God’s grace and love alone – would be meaningless if there were no such thing as sin, or that which separates humanity from God.

2.) Despite the wealth of teachings on morality, however, both the Incarnate and Inspired Word of God suggests that one should not attempt to force one’s moral code upon another by force, law, threat of divine condemnation or intimidation, but should instead seek to persuade others toward right action as a response to God’s grace and love.

a.) The Word became Incarnate not to condemn the world, but so that all the world might be saved (Jn. 3:16-17). This salvation cannot be obtained by human action alone (Gal. 2:15), not can it be lost by human action alone (Gal. 3:25-29, Rom. 8:31-39; see also, Augsburg Confession Art. IV). Therefore, if God has chosen to freely justify and save humanity, and in so doing free it of the condemnatory demands of the Law, no human can try to use force, human law or the threat of divine condemnation (the heresy of Pelagianism) to force obedience to a particular moral code.

b.) The Inspired Word of God also refutes any attempt to force moral obedience upon another. Although the Mosaic Law might have been initially used as a legal code for ancient Israel (that is, the “First Use of the Law”), even then God maintained His covenant with Israel despite its transgressions (see, e.g., Ex. 32:14) and remained a God “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (e.g., Ps. 145:8). This steadfast love came to its full manifestation in the death and resurrection of the Christ, which fully freed humanity from the consequences of the Law (Gal. 2:15; Rom. 3:21-22). Moral demands thus become means by which humanity is shown its sin, and is drawn to Christ for forgiveness (the “Second Use of the Law”). God still does desire humanity to follow God’s will, but not as a demand but as an invitation to live a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:1-4; the so-called “Third Use of the Law”). This is not truly “Law” anymore, but free invitation, for breaking such “law” will not carry any eternal or eschatological consequences, as Christ has overcome the full burden of sin (it is true, of course, that human actions can have consequences in this world). Again, Jesus’ refusal of Satan’s temptation of worldly kingdoms manifests this, as an earthly King Jesus could have forced all to follow his moral code. Rather, however, Jesus says that “my kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36), allowing others the moral freedom even to kill him. Likewise, Paul refused to force Philemon to free Oenesimus, but instead appeals to him on the basis of love (Phm. 8-9). Paul also encourages the Corinthians to give of themselves, but “not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Therefore, Scripture shows that God does have moral expectations for humanity, but that no human should take upon himself the power to force his own morality upon another.

 

VI.) IMPLICATIONS OF THE FOREGOING

1.) Any attempt to use force, law, violence or intimidation as a means to make another adopt a particular belief, or to force not to change beliefs, should be most strongly condemned.

2.) Any attempt to use force, law, violence or intimidation as a means to make another adopt a particular moral code, or to force one into following certain actions on the basis of divine will alone, should be most strongly condemned.

a.) While the realities of civil society do demand some degree of law and restraint, these laws should be based as much as possible on the practical and utilitarian benefits to society, liberty and good order, and should not be based on one’s perception of “God’s will.”

3.) Even if disagreeing strongly with another belief or moral code, one should act with respect if trying to encourage or exhort another to adopt one’s own beliefs or morality.

4.) Those adopting such beliefs as outlined here should proclaim this Gospel of freedom in God’s love and grace, over against the false prophets and teachers who would distort God’s will into a means of coercion, intimidation, legalism, moralism or judgmentalism.

5.) Prayers should be frequently made to God for wisdom and guidance so that even those professing these beliefs might avoid corrupting the God’s will into a means of legalism, judgmentalism and condemnation, and for God to work God’s loving will, despite humanity’s resistance and inclination to cling to its own desire for control and power.

And with such prayers are the foregoing theses humbly submitted.

 

Some disclaimers:

I do recognize that parts of this might alienate friends both on the right and the left of me – which I’ve actually sort of come to expect. 🙂 I also recognize that not all of this is necessarily “Lutheran,” though it is strongly influenced by my understanding of the Confessions (see “Basis of Authority”). Hence, I title this “A Lutheran’s argument” rather than the more basic “a Lutheran argument” or the more vague “a Christian argument.”

On the burning of the Quran: a historical note

Did you know that in 1529, Germany lay under the shadow of a possible Muslim invasion?  It’s not covered in many history courses, I find.  But it’s true: a Turkish army had conquered most of Hungary and besieged Vienna, and Vienna was the gateway to Europe.  Hysteria and prejudice against Muslims in Europe reached heights that would not be seen again until modern times.  Religious and political leaders called for holy wars, to drive the infidels out and destroy them, to protect Christendom–the reign of Christian governments.

It was twelve years after the Ninety-Five Theses, and the Reformation was in full swing.  So, when the horrified city fathers of Basel found that a printer planned to print a copy of the Quran, the holy book of Islam (sometimes spelled Koran), they banned it … and called on Luther to produce one of his vitriolic denunciations.

Now, Martin Luther was a great theologian, but he could also be viciously sharp-tongued, and he certainly had his prejudices.  We may say that Luther was much more progressive in many ways than most of his contemporaries or successors, and it is certainly true, particularly in his understanding of the place of women and sexuality.  However, he was still a man of his day, and so some of his writings make us cringe to read them, particularly his attacks on the Jews which were used to support generations of cruelty and violence.  He also lived in a time before the modern ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of religion were conceived.

What did this brilliant but caustic man say when the good fathers of Basel asked him about the Quran?  Martin Luther wrote back, saying that if they would not allow it printed in Basel, he would have it printed in Wittenburg, and wrote a preface to be printed with it.  Martin Luther was certainly no apologist for Islam, he believed Christianity to be superior, and he wrote suggestions for how to witness the Gospel to Muslims (in his parlance, Turks).  And he believed that it was right and just for civil leaders to go to war against the Turks in defense of their peoples and lands.  But even as Germany was threatened with invasion, he refused to sanction a Holy War against Islam, and encouraged a faithful and honest study of the Quran and Islam by Christian scholars.  He even went so far as to advise Christians living in Islamic-controlled territory to be good and faithful citizens, under his two-kingdoms theory.  (In the theology of the two kingdoms, Christians live both in the secular “kingdom” and the spiritual “kingdom.”  Both are necessary for life.  The secular kingdom was ordained by God for the maintenance of good order among all people.)

We today in America do not live under the threat of invasion.  There are Muslims living among us, yes, but for the most part we coexist peacefully, with them, with those of other religions, with those of no religion at all, and with far more diversity in Christianity than Luther would have believed even living through the religious fragmentation of the Reformation.  The good order of our secular kingdom depends on freedom of religion and freedom of speech, in order that we may coexist peacefully.  The threat to burn copies of the Quran on September 11th, besides being bigoted and hateful, is a direct attack on the freedom of religion of others, and hence on the maintenance of the secular kingdom.  Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center (was ever a church more wrongly named?) do have the right to do it, under the First Amendment (although I’ve heard it argued that this falls under the exception of shouting fire in a crowded room).  That does not make it right, or Christian.  If Luther in 1529 with the Turks practically on his doorstep could open a door for dialogue, so can we.