Fire Upon The Earth

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Sermon for Hope Lutheran Church in College Park, MD 8/18/2013

Texts:  Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews: 11:29 – 12:2
Gospel: Luke 12:49-56

Our age is obsessed with the natural world.  We have learned how to manipulate it, control it, and we have delved many of its secrets.

Of course there are many secrets which we have only just scratched the surface of.  But the fruits of the pursuit of scientific knowledge are obvious and abundant.

But we have become so transfixed with our knowledge of the world that we have mistaken this kind of knowledge for all kinds of knowledge.  This kind of reality for all kinds of reality.

Jesus’ words in the Gospel today do not make sense in a purely naturalistic world, where there is only nature, but no supernature.  Where only the natural exists, the Gospel fails.  For Christ did not come to organize communities, or to set up societies.

No, instead, Christ tells us exactly what he came to do in this week’s reading.  He came, it says “to bring fire to the earth.”  But no, that’s not right.  The Greek reads “I came to throw, or cast fire upon the earth.”  Christ comes with a violent intention, to burn with fire, and to break like a hammer.  He has come to cast fire on the earth.

Now, fire consumes, fire destroys.  Where there is only the weak, fire fully destroys.  But where there are things that are made, not to resist, but to be refined by fire, it purifies.  The fire that Christ comes to cast upon the earth is like this.  It burns to purify that which is eternal by destroying all that is too weak and temporary to belong to the kingdom of God.

As George MacDonald, the great Scottish Preacher and Writer announces, God “will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakable may remain: he is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal.”

It is a supernatural fire that comes with Christ.  For He is the supernatural man.  He is supernatural in two ways.  First, in that he is God come into humanity to stand among us while remaining the living and Eternal God.  Secondly, He is man, come into the Godhead to make a place for us women and men.  He is the bridge that lays itself down that all might come to the Father.  And like all bridges he connects the two lands, and has some share in both.

The supernatural man, then, does supernatural things.  He heals, he raises the dead, he says to the storm “be still!”  He commands the earth as its rightful Lord, for he is above it, and greater than it.

And here, he comes to cast a burning upon the earth, and how He wished in that moment that it was already kindled!  Why?  What is this burning that he wants to send into the world?  Is it the Holy Spirit?  Well, to some degree that is right, but we know that the Holy Spirit was already active in the world from the very first day.  Is it the kingdom?  He was at that time preaching the kingdom that was to be an image of the very country from which He came where love rules and peace is permanent.

If not these, then what?  What is the fire upon the earth?

Look to your left and your right.  There, in the pew ahead of you, and the one behind you.  There is the fire that Christ has hurled to the earth to burn it.  The Church, set ablaze by the Spirit who was given at Pentecost, living the kingdom that He has established, stands as fire upon the earth.

We are God’s fire, for we are in the Son, the Word that is like Fire, as Jeremiah tells us.  The fire given to us in the Holy Spirit is the same fire that was in Christ, the heart and mind of Christ that sets the world ablaze.  The Church, for whatever we think of her, her failings, her stumbles, her empty pews and petty infighting, is under all of that, the very heavenly life that God has become human to establish here.

The fire that comes is the fire of the Trinity, lived supernaturally in the lives of natural people.  The computer programmer, the bank teller, the construction worker, the lawyer, the bartender, and the retail worker all are elevated to the life of the burning fire of God.

But lest we be deceived, we must understand the nature of this fire.  It is a relentless destroying fire, for it burns away all that is natural to replace it with that which is supernatural.  It conforms that which is passing away into that which is eternal.  And what does the eternal look like?  Is it a conquering majesty of armies, of haughtiness, of those who lord it over one another?

No . . . it is a kingdom of forgiveness.  It is the reign of love and mercy.  The supernatural confounds our natural desires.  The Lord Jesus does not come like the captain at the head of his legions of angels.  He could have, but that is not His character, for it is not His Father’s Character.  Instead, he comes meekly, calling us to the same humble life of service to one another.  Come and take up his yoke, come and obey him, come and follow, taking up your cross.  God is meek and lowly of heart, He forgives all offenses, he does not repay evil for evil, he has mercy  at every turn.

Come good people and live in the life of the trinity given now to you as fire upon the earth, and burn away all enmity, all hatred, all grudges, all judgment, all jealousy.  Be fire that burns with generosity and love, and convert the world with your peace.  We are to be a blazing light of obedience.

This is the good news, that God is beyond our petty quarrels, and has called us to his life.  Do you worry if you will be justified before him?  Cast that worry aside and cling to Christ in obedience.  For the Good Master is indeed Good, and no news is better than that He is Himself, this very man, Jesus the Christ.

Rejoice, forgive your enemies, and which may be harder, forgive those you love,  and be fire upon the earth until all else is burned, and only the eternal remains!

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The Sweet Law

This post is specifically about an element of Lutheran theology that I find problematic.  For some, I believe, this will appear to be an attack on a central tenet of their faith.  It is not meant as an attack, but perhaps the beginning of a dialog.  For those who are not familiar with the Law/Gospel distinction, we may summarize it briefly to begin with.

In the Lutheran teaching of Law/Gospel, as I understand it, Law is defined as those teachings which convict, or command a person.  If a teaching places any weight whatsoever on a person, it is seen as Law.  Perhaps the epitome of the “law” teachings of the New Testament is “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect”  (Mt 5:48).  Over and against this is “Gospel” that good news that God has done all things for you, and you need not do anything.  God has you well in hand, and your salvation is assured through your Baptism and Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Law treats things as if they are on your shoulders, Gospel reveals that they are really on God’s.

The problem with all of this is that the line between the believer and Christ is blurred so heavily in the New Testament, that these kind of distinctions are no longer valid.  While there is a distinction between the freedom of Christ and the Torah in the New Testament, there is no demonstrable theme of this kind of distinction between those things which call us to righteousness, and those things which reveal that such calls are already met by Christ.

Instead, there is a demonstrable theme of Christ’s commands revealing the life of God in the world.  Christ’s moral directives of the Sermon on the Mount culminate with the “Be ye perfect” line.  The whole of the Sermon on the Mount appears as Law in the Law/Gospel dichotomy, yet it stands as one of the centers of the Matthean account of Jesus’ public Ministry and teaching.  St. John has Jesus tell us that if we love Him, we will obey what He commands us.

The key thing to these and other passages is that these words are given in the context that the commands bring life and joy, not sorrow and weight that will be overcome by the Cross.  Christ is preaching Good News, and not Law in the sense of the Law/Gospel contrast.  In fact, it is very clear by a simple and plain reading of the Gospels that the Law of Christ is not opposed to the Gospel.  Christ is commanding us to live in ways that are liberating, life giving, and ultimately transforming.  The transformation that comes in obeying Christ is salvific in nature, turning us from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of Heaven.

In other words, the Law of Christ is the Gospel.

And we can see why this must be.  For God to command us to forgive is not a burden, though it may be hard in our fallen state.  It is good, it is “True” in the same way that the Hebrew writers said that the Torah is “True.”  One gets a sense of this from a section from Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.

In the Law/Gospel distinction, the law is anything but sweet.  It is a burden to the soul from which we are freed.  Christ has done all, we need not.  But is that really good news?

The question revolves around the character of God.  For a God who does not demand that His children be righteous is hardly a righteous God.  A God who says, oddly enough “I am righteous, therefore you need not be” (which is the logic inherent in the statement that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us) is hardly a God we should rejoice at having.  We may be glad when we want to do something rather shady, or when we consider the shady things we have done.  But we can hardly be glad overall.

But a God who will not let us merely live as sinners, but demands righteousness from us, who will descend to our own fallen nature and lift it back up with Him into the Godhead, who will infuse us with His own life so that we might be made righteous as co-workers with God…this is a God worth rejoicing over.  For all who have not simply been sinners, but the victims of sinners, must rejoice at a God who demands that all victimization stop.  It is not “Law” that says that we must love without limit, it is Gospel that demands it.  The Good news to the poor, the freedom to the slaves, is not merely that Christ has won the victory, but that that victory conquers all sin in all hearts everywhere; and that that conquest continues today in the heart of the person writing, and in the heart of the persons reading.

Ultimately, the real Gospel is a Gospel that in fact does call us to be righteous, and will not leave us unchanged.  It calls us to be transformed into the living images of the living God.

Now, a word must be said here about historical context.  Lutheranism appears in history as a response to the tortured conscience of many late medieval Christians bound up in the piety of their age.  It offered relief to the beleaguered heart who thought that her salvation depended on her good works.  The doctrines of this tradition still offer such rest to people suffering from the same ills.

However, the very question of earning one’s salvation, or not earning it, is not a question that has arisen in our modern age.  It is a question kept alive by the mere fact that much of protestantism has carried forward its original arguments against Catholicism and other branches of Protestantism into the modern day ripped from their contexts.  People, it seems, mainly worry about earning their salvation or not because we have told them to worry about that.  (There are exceptions to this, I admit).

It is my desire that we set this question where it belongs, in the past.  The question of earning salvation or not earning it, is the wrong question.  We have been made, in Christ, fellow workers with God (1 Cor 3:9, 2 Cor 6:9).  Once we are in Christ, we begin the process of growing into the statue of Christ, and thus increasing in our salvation from sin day by day, and entering into the heavenly communion day by day.  This is not a state of waiting for our reward, or hoping for heaven, or even simply knowing that all has been done for me.  It is a state of having been given the power to be called the sons and daughters of God in Christ, and living as Christ on earth.

To live as Christ on earth, and to hope in the resurrection, is salvation.  To claim that there is some distinction between the commands of this new life, and the freedom of this new life, is to misunderstand Christ on a fundamental level.  To claim that here is some distinction between faith in Christ and living as Christ, is to make the same mistake.