Sermons and Papers


Spiritual Wellness

+In Nomine Iesu+

A Bible Study presented to the Lakeland/Park Region Pastor's Conference at Lutheran Island Camp in September 1998 by Pastor Dean Bell.

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Lord be with you.

C) And with your Spirit.

We pray: O God, Who kills and Who makes alive, enliven us thru your Son, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, Who having once been dead no lives eternally, and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.


+In Nomine Iesu+

Spiritual Wellness

Prologue: The Reformation historian Heiko Oberman insists that a speaker must always preface his presentation with a story; a joke. This is important, Oberman says, for two related reasons. A story serves to "relativize" the speaker in the eyes of his audience by making him more approachable--the distance between speaker and hearer is reduced. Consequently, the audience is put at ease by being made comfortable and thus more receptive to whatever the speaker wishes to present. Certainly I am no Oberman, but if this works for him who am I to argue?


Introduction:

By the beginning of the 17th century the 1000-year-old Benedictine abby of St.-Germain-des-Pres in Paris had gained an impressive reputation. Among it Maurist brothers were a number of scholars--historians of considerable renown. Perhaps most prominent among these was Jean Mabillon who is best remembered for his definition of the work of an historian. The function of the writer of history, Mabillon says, is "to proclaim certainties as certain, falsehoods, as false, and uncertainties as dubious."(1)

To us these words may seem obvious, but in the hagiographic atmosphere of the medieval world such sentiments were quite unique.

All of this is said to make but one point: what Mabillon declared to be true for the historian is also true for the theologian. And if a clear delineation of truth from falsehood and from uncertainty was somewhat novel to the ways of medieval historical writing, similar clear distinctions are also somewhat novel to late-twentieth-century theology. Much of what is advertised as producing spiritual certainty does anything but because it is itself rooted in the dubious.

To give but one example; to the degree that feelings and emotions become the basis for determining what is theologically good and sound moves one into the realm of uncertainty because feelings and emotions, like everything else about us, have been distorted by sin and thus have become, by definition, uncertain.

Gerhard Forde addresses this point in a recently published book. He writes: "(the language of affirmation, comfort, support, building self-esteem, and so forth) does...have its place. On the level of human relations it can be quite necessary and beneficial. It has its place, however, among that which is penultimate, in caring for the well-being of persons in this age. (emphasis added). The danger and misuse comes when such language displaces or obscures the ultimate. ..When that happens the church becomes predominantly a support group rather than the gathering of the body of Christ where the Word of the cross and resurrection is proclaimed and heard."(2) Interesting words from a member of the ELCA, a recently retired professor from Luther Seminary in St. Paul.

This evening I would like to direct our attention into two areas where theological truth and certainty may confidently be found; truth and certainty which will flower into spiritual wellness. Those two areas are:

1. The Divine Service, and

2. The Divine Word


Part One:

First of all we will consider our position the Divine Service and how that position defines us and relates to our own spiritual well being.

I wish there were some way we could dispense with the term "worship leader." To me that phrase creates the image of and 'ecclesiastical cheer-leader' as if we are somehow to rally the faithful to greater exertions. Ultimately, it is God who 'leads' our worship by drawing us ever deeper into His Truth, and this drawing He accomplishes by serving us through liturgy, preaching and sacraments. For our part, we are nothing more than mouthpieces. We provide the human vocal chords through which the voice of God is heard. Most important for our own spiritual well-being is the reminder that this voice of God is also meant for our ears.

On Sunday morning the words of the Invocation do not flow out only to your members--your hearers--they flow out also to you. "In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit" also places you squarely in your baptism. Your birth as a Christian took place at the font. You, too, were washed clean from sin in that water which flows from the side of the crucified Jesus. You, too, were placed into the church of God by His gracious adoption through Holy 'Baptism. In truth; you, too, now stand in the presence of God by His design. Like the redeemed of every generation you have been made clean by choice; by God's choice. And on Sunday morning you stand before God and your congregation as both priest and penitent.

And, like all who have been called by God, you also need to make confession of you sins. When you do, you are not so much 'leading' the congregations as you are engaged in speaking the truth -- for yourself -- to God. And as you make your confession, why not kneel at the chancel steps? To kneel is the proper posture for the penitent. It would do you good to do it; and it would do your members good to see it.

And the words of absolution? It isn't simply that you are announcing God's mercy to those standing before you. That is strictly an external act. You are, first of all, announcing the grace of God to yourself. You are giving voice to God's response to your confession. In the face of repentance God is compelled to forgive. God sees you through the sacrifice of Jesus, and having heard your confession, God has no choice but to forgive you. To do otherwise would be to deny Himself by denying the atoning sacrifice of His Son.

When you read the lessons for the day -- and I hope you are the one reading them -- do so as if your people -- and you -- will never have another opportunity to hear the Word of God. Over the course of time you will find this to be true more often than you might think. Someone who is hearing your voice on Sunday as you read the Old Testament, the Epistle and the Gospel may well be in the grave before the next Lord's Day comes. And if that can be true of someone within the congregation, it can also be true of you. The Word of God is meant to be proclaimed and heard, not merely cast into the air in some haphazard fashion. It is meant for your ears as well as others and its reading in the presence of the faithful has been given to you. In the reading of the lessons you take your place in the one congregation of the "holy, Christian and Apostolic church" along with your hearers.

The faith which we then confess by means of Creed flows out of the hearing of God's absolution. Why can we believe that the Words of Absolution are true? Why can we believe that even we are forgiven? The Creed gives us the answer. Here is God's summary of Himself. And that summary shows us the object of God's activity to be not Himself, but us! All of God's work, from creation onwards, finds it culmination in the Holy Sacrifice thru which we are forgiven; saved. "...born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead..." Here is the hinge upon which all of history turns. In the Creed the saints on earth are joined with the hosts of heaven in a continuous confession that will one day become a gloriously deafening chorus which will rattle even the depths of hell. What I have just said about reading applies also to preaching. In a multitude of ways we are no different than our people. We, too, need to clearly hear law and gospel. We preach first of all to ourselves. Knowing that, realizing that, will determine what you say. If what is said from the pulpit does not speak to your sinfulness, your need for salvation, why should you think it speaks to anyone else's? Having been bloodied by the assaults of Satan all week, the soul's well-being demands clarity and precision; hope and promise. It is the Gospel of God's love for the unlovable. God's compassion for the spiritually corrupt, God's saving action in the sacrifice of the cross -- it is this message which brings calm to troubled anxious hearts -- our own included.

I remember fifteen or so years ago thinking that I no longer wanted to preach on the gospels Sunday after Sunday because their meaning was so obvious. I looked upon the gospels as being readily and instantly understood. There really wasn't all that much that could be said about them. In this my thinking was stupid, idiotic, moronic, imbecilic, asinine, silly and dumb. I can say this because I am describing myself; my own attitude. I will come back to this later.

Having heard the preaching of the gospel -- the voice of the eternally living Jesus -- indeed having first of all preached to yourself in the clearest way you know how, you now stand before the most profound mystery of all. You stand in the presence of the incarnate God who comes to you in the physical, earthly elements of bread and wine.

The word "and" in the phrase "Word and Sacrament" is a bit misleading. I a sense we are not differentiating between equals here. It isn't that these can be interchanged like standardized auto parts. Really, "Word / (slash) Sacrament" might be a better choice because here we are seeing two sides of the same coin. In preaching, the Jesus of history is set before us in words -- word pictures, if you will. In the Eucharist this same Jesus now comes before us veiled in real, concrete earthly elements. In the Eucharist there is a specific, physical locatedness of God among us. Both the Word and the Sacrament issue forth from the same eternal reality. However, in preaching, Jesus is no closer to us than the spoken word which enters the ear while in the Sacrament He is physically among us. There is progression here. First we hear our Lord, and then He is given to us. Luther speaks very bluntly on this point. The bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Jesus from the word of institution onward. In other words, He who moments before could only be heard now appears, physically manifested to us.

For our part, we are not simply dispensers of the mysteries of God. We are, first and foremost, partakers of those mysteries of God. We are, first and foremost, partakers of those mysteries. In the Sacrament of our Lord deals with us -- our doubts, our fears, our weakness of faith -- in the most intimate ways. He becomes for us, as individuals, the medicine of immortality and the antidote to death. For our spiritual wellness -- for the health of our souls -- the Creator of heaven and earth deigns to be taken into us, to become part of us. Indeed, before the Father, Jesus always remains the sacrifice for our sins. God sees through the sacrifice of Jesus, and we see God in the sacrifice of Jesus. This is a tremendously powerful reason for the presence of a crucifix on your altar and on your study wall.

Following the celebration of the Sacrament, the prayers of the church which ascend to the Throne of Grace are not simply words which you speak on behalf of others. They are first of all your words, your prayers. Whatever is a concern to you, you can be certain, is also a concern to others in the congregation. And those cares which trouble your members are not so unique as not to be reflected in your own life. You see, you pray first and foremost you own heart and mind, and in that you will be praying with and for your people.

Finally, the benediction is not merely some sentimental wish with which you dismiss the people. It is a final proclamation of the Gospel. As you were placed into the reality of baptism through the invocation, so in the benediction that same baptismal reality is placed over you. God's mark, the sign of the cross, you trace upon yourself while you also "mark" the congregation. Always we are under the cross. It is the beginning and the end which defines our existence week in and week out. Trite phrases which speak of glory and "serving" have no place here -- only the pure Gospel of the cross.

I hope you have noticed that in this first part I have done nothing else than try to remind you that in spite of your office as pastors, the Divine Service on Sunday morning is meant for your, personal, spiritual well-being. This understanding will define your conduct. The fact that God is dealing first of all with you must determine your approach to the events of Sunday morning. The liturgy becomes, then, the vehicle within which our Lord comes to and deals with us, for our spiritual well being -- regardless of whoever else might be present.


Part Two:

In the second part tonight I would like to direct our attention to the Divine Word -- the Bible -- as it relates to our spiritual welfare. In this section we might well employ Luther's term, "mediatio" -- meditation -- a word which is literally translated as "a thinking over of something, contemplation."

In this regard there is a distinction which must be borne in mind. To use the Bible as a tool and to meditate upon its content are two entirely different things. To a degree we are all adept at using the Biblical texts as tools. We know where to find the appropriate verses to deal with various questions which arise within the congregation. But this has little to do with meditatio.

You will remember that it is thanks to the Zwinglians in Switzerland that we have verse numberings in our Bibles. It is only with the appearance of the Geneva Bible of 1577 that versifications became commonplace and standardized. That this would be done by the Reformed should come as no surprise. With verse numbers it is much easier to find the weapon of choice when dealing with controversy. Because verse numbers make life so easy; these short, little snippets of text can be yanked out like hand grenades and verbally thrown at various opponents.

In meditation, on the other hand, the function of Scripture is far different. Unlike apologetics or dogmatics, meditatio does not seek to pile up verse upon verse in order to prove or disprove some point. Rather, meditatio seeks to become so familiar with the text, the broad text, that one moves about as, in the words of one of the ancient fathers, 'a fish swimming in the sea.' The thought patterns of the holy writers govern the ebb and flow of mediation. Thus, the focus moves from individual verses to encompass pericopes, chapters and even entire books.

Perhaps I can give you a hint of this approach by referring briefly to the Gospel of Matthew. At the very outset, the genealogy of Matthew 1 instantly places this book into the context of the entire Old Testament history. Matthew does not see himself as writing the first book of a New Testament. Rather, he sets about writing what is to be the last book of the Old Testament. What was introduced in Genesis 3 -- the promise which counters the evil accomplishments of Satan -- finds its completion, its fulfillment in Matthew. It is as if Genesis and Matthew are to from the bookends of salvific history.

This is a hard concept for us to understand because even though we recognize Matthew as the first of the Gospels, it is very difficult for us to read it apart from the rest of the New Testament. However, Matthew's first hearers knew of no other "New Testament" writings. Thus, they would have approached this Gospel differently than we do. Understood in this way we can that while Genesis began the holy discourse from God to man, Matthew completes it.

In this vein, consider a simple detail: Matthew divides his writing into five discourses. Moses divided his discourse into five books. In some way Matthew mirrors Moses -- they go together. This simple fact would not have gone unnoticed by Matthew's hearers.

However, the primary question for us tonight is simply this: "how does a gospel, Matthew for instance, inform our meditation on the activity of God for us?" "How does a gospel such as Matthew lend itself to a mediation which results in spiritual wellness?"

Perhaps the best brief summary would go like this: throughout the discourses of Matthew we will find ourselves. Each reader, each hearer, is to find his place constantly, over and over again, in the gospel. And then, in the closing words of Jesus we have the implied invitation to go back and find ourselves again. "Lo, I am with you always," He says. Two concepts are included in these words. First we have the sacramental promise that Jesus is forever with His people in the Eucharist. And, secondly, we are told that as we re-read this Gospel Jesus will make Himself known to us again and again. We know this to be true because each time we read the text we do so in the light of our previous reading. Because we know "the rest of the story," as it were, we will see Jesus and ourselves in new ways.

This is what I was referring to earlier when I described my previous attitude toward the Gospels -- and Mark and Luke work in ways very similar to Matthew -- this is what I was referring to when I said that a view which finds the Gospels obvious and easy in a singularity of meaning is simply a sign of ignorance. Each time we come to these pericopes we will see something about ourselves and something about God which we hadn't seen before. Consequently, as a source of preaching, the Gospels are inexhaustible.

For instance, in the parable of the Good Samaritan we are not so much shown a pattern of how we are to act, as we are show the pattern of how God acts. This parable is not first-and-foremost a directive for us to go out and be Good Samaritans -- that is secondary. First of all this is the story of Jesus who becomes our Good Samaritan -- th One who plucks us, beaten and bloody, from the ditch in which we have been left by Satan. Jesus rescues us and brings us to His Father, the inn keeper. To the Father our Lord gives all that He has in order that we might be restored. And, if that should not have been enough, Jesus would have given even more.

Or consider for a moment the Wedding Feast at Cana. Only secondarily is this story about weddings. Yes, Jesus came to the aid of someone -- some would say the father of His new brother-in-law -- in an embarrassing situation. But there is something else here as well. This is a eucharistic picture. The sacrifices of the Old Covenant -- the old wine -- have run out, come to an end, and it is Jesus Who supplies the new and perfect sacrifice -- the new and more excellent wine. And this sacrifice, this 'new' wine, is provided in such abundance as to satisfy all needs forever.

Skipping to Luke for a moment, we might well ponder the thinking of St. Cyril of Alexandria. In the birth narrative of Luke 2, Cyril sees another eucharistic picture. When God takes on human flesh in the infant Jesus He is laid in a manger. What is a manger, Cyril asks? It is the feed trough of beasts. And because of sin, what have we become? Like beasts, he answers. Thus, the manger -- the feed trough -- becomes for us the table from which we are fed. There the Body and Blood of our Lord -- the sacrifice for our sins -- is first revealed to us. Like the shepherds -- the first penitents -- we behold God in the Holy Infant; the One who is the on-going and eternal Feast for the redeemed.(3)

Over and over again such great reversals of expectation are set before us. On Pentecost 12 we were reminded that when the mater returns from the wedding feast those slaves whom He finds alert will be blessed. Blessed because they are congratulated for their alertness? No. Rather, they will be blessed because "He will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them." "Recline" is the same word which is used for that final pre-crucifixion meal in the upper room. Here, too, is eucharistic language which is meant to direct our thinking into new paths. The Holy Spirit is not as careless in His choice of words as we often are. Particular words have been chosen to bring particular images to mind. Here we are given a picture of the heavenly banquet which exists concurrently both here in time -- Sunday after Sunday -- and in eternity.

On Pentecost 13 Jesus speaks of the baptism of blood which He must endure. It is a baptism which will allow the fire of the Gospel to be cast upon the earth -- that fire which will destroy all that is false. The reversal comes in this: that baptism is not rightfully His, it is ours. We deserve a bloody, agonizing baptism of death because of our sins. He does not. Yet Jesus takes upon Himself what rightfully belongs to us -- sin and death, along with the punishment and agony which attends them -- and bestows upon us what rightfully belongs to Him -- holiness and righteousness.

Over and over again this reversal is placed before us. Over and over again we find ourselves in the text -- we find ourselves condemned because of our sins, and we find ourselves, unexpectedly, as the beneficiaries of Christ's service. This is what makes the gospels so uniquely important. The Old Testament points to the coming Messiah. The Epistles point back to the Messiah who has come. It is only in the Gospels that we hear the actual words and witness the actual deeds of that Messiah. This is why the Gospels can never be seen as obvious and simple. In these texts God Himself speaks to and deals with man. He does so in unexpected ways, and He does this for one purpose -- for our salvation. The Gospel places squarely before us the cross; God's attach on human sin. Surprise bumps into astonishment as we begin to see ourselves all over the Holy Text. And that astonishment turns to awe as we begin to comprehend anew the unfathomable and merciful ways of God. Despair over sin is replaced with repentance, and that issues forth into thankfulness and faith.

This astonishment and awe; this thankfulness and faith grows out of the Divine Service as we witness week after week God's mercy directed toward us; indeed, draped over us, poured into us. So, also, in meditatio as God constantly surprises us through the unexpectedness of His ways. In these, spiritual well-being develops and grows because in these we recognize the purpose of God -- our eternal salvation. For you the Lord Jesus lived, and died, and rose again. Indeed, if you were the only person who had ever lived on the earth, God would have acted no differently. If the only sinner who had ever existed were you God would still have come in the person of Jesus, offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice for your sins. Unexpectedly it has happened. And the surety of this unexpected blessedness remains forever. This is the constant song of angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven; a song to which we can add nothing but our stammered thanksgiving.

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen

+Soli Deo Gloria+

Rev. Dean M. Bell
9/98

+ + +

Notes:

  1. Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275 to 1535, (Biblo and Tannen, 1922) pp v
  2. Gerhard O. Gorde, On Being A Theologian of the Cross, (Wm. Eerdmans, 1997) pp XI
  3. St. Cyril's treatment of the Incarnation, especially Luke 2:7, can be found in: Saint Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, (Studion, 1983) pp 50

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