On the Ascension of our Lord

“And so while at Easter it was the Lord’s resurrection which was the cause of our joy, our present rejoicing is due to His ascension into heaven. With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up in Christ above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond those heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father. It is upon this ordered structure of divine acts that we have been firmly established, so that the grace of God may show itself still more marvelous when, in spite the withdrawal from our sight of everything that is rightly felt to command our reverence, faith does not fail, hope is not shaken, charity does not grow cold. …

“It was in order that we might be capable of such blessedness that on the fortieth day after His resurrection, after He had made careful provision for everything concerning the preaching of the gospel and the mysteries of he new covenant, our Lord Jesus Christ was taken up to heaven before the eyes of His disciples, and so His bodily presence among them came to an end. From that time onward He was to remain at the Father’s right hand until the completion of the period ordained by God for the church’s children to increase and multiply, after which , in the same body with which He ascended, He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

“And so our redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because empirical sight has been replaced by a reliable teaching whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high.”

-Leo the Great, taken from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, vol II, Mark, p. 254.

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The Necessity of Hearing

There isn’t a pastor alive who hasn’t been asked the question or who hasn’t asked the question himself about what is necessary for salvation. It is the question of the young man who asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We want the bottom line. What must we do to be saved? And there isn’t a Lutheran alive who hasn’t answered this question with a resounding “Nothing!” Yet we all know that this isn’t the full answer.

We all know that Jesus is the true Israel: the man who wrestled with God in death and with man in life, and overcame. He is risen and is ascended, and by His stripes we are healed and by His faith we are justified. By His obedience we are made righteous. This is true for all mankind, even the unbeliever.

The unbeliever is no less reconciled to the Father by the blood of Jesus than the faithful disciple. The only difference is faith. The unbeliever does not believe and hold fast to the promises of the Father that for the sake of the Son he is justified and innocent. The disciple, the believer, believes the word of the Lord. Faith makes the difference.

Yet even as we are all reconciled to God by the blood of Jesus, we are also being reconciled to the Father by the  ministry of reconciliation. These are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin which faith cashes in. The ministry of reconciliation is the ministry of the apostles, or the apostolic ministry. It is the preaching of the good news (the gospel) that we are righteous before God on account of Christ’s suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. The preaching of the gospel and the administration of the mysteries of God for the benefit, strengthening, and fortification of his saints is reconciling us to God. Not because it is meritorious in itself, but because faith that justifies comes by hearing.

Preaching the gospel is no good work that justifies. But it is God’s work by which He reconciles sinners to Himself (2 Cor. 5:18), giving those who hear faith to apprehend, to cling to the reconcilatory work of Jesus. So we can rightly say that preaching of the gospel or the ministry of reconciliation is the work of God on behalf of sinners reconciling them to Himself according to the merits (obedience) of Christ.

This means that while we walk this mortal coil we are being reconciled even as the apostle pleads with the Corinthians that the be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20). If we reject the word of the Lord we are not reconciled even though Jesus’ blood atones not for the sin of the believer only, but for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn. 2:2). We walk by faith, that is, we live in the trust that by the meirits of Jesus we are reconciled to God. Should we cease to walk in this trust, we cease to be reconciled. Therefore, we are warned everywhere in Holy Writ to stay awake and be alert and stay focused on Jesus.

Thus the necessity of hearing.

We remain focused on Christ by hearing the preaching of His ministers who have been given the ministry of reconciliation, in whom God is making His appeal to sinners to be reconciled to God. Not by the merits of the minister but by the preaching of Jesus who is our righteousness. If ever we cease to listen to the ministry of reconciliation, if ever we decide that we have arrived at full reconciliation and no longer need the ministry of reconciliation – ie, by not hearing preaching and God’s word, but despising it – but by our own faith we will remain true to God, then the curse of Deuteronomy 26 (vv.14-33) shall be upon us.

Therefore we should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching or His word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it. So the apostle tells Timothy (and all preachers) to take heed to yourself and your teaching; hold to the truth, in so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tim. 4:16)

A Rose by Any Other Name…

[This post is a response to Father Hoppe’s post concerning the title “Lutheran” which can be read here.]

A rose by any other name may well smell as sweet, but it wouldn’t be a rose. A god by any other name is no god at all. Names matter. To illustrate this I used the title “father” in the above expository. The title “father” elicits a response because it means something. Names don’t make a thing what it is but all things are known by their name. A thing’s name defines it. I can describe a cup – holds liquid, is usually round, has a bottom and an opening on the top, has some depth to it, etc. – or I can say “cup” and everyone knows (with context) exactly what I mean.  My name doesn’t make me who I am, but without a name I am nobody.  Certainly a thing is well more than a name, but without a name it is nothing. Even the Knights-Who-Say-“Ni” are in fact the Knights-Who-Say-Ni!

Names matter.

However, not all names matter in every context. In the context of my daily life, it doesn’t matter if a pulsar is a pulsar or a really-bright-star. The name has no bearing on my life. I don’t care what the internal parts of my car’s engine are called because I don’t deal with them. But I do care that my mechanic knows. And if I were forced to repair my own car, I would greatly lament not knowing!  Try explaining in a manly way to the Auto Zone guy that you need a thing-a-ma-jiggy for your car’s hose; you know, the big hose that goes from the front thingy to the back thingy. You know, the dirty one.

So it is with the name “Lutheran”. It matters, but maybe not in every situation. This, I believe, is Pr. Hoppe’s point. And I agree.  But there’s more to it than simply calling ourselves “Christian” or taking “Lutheran” off our church signs.

Pr. Hoppe (and others) wants to rightly promote that we Lutherans are first and foremost Christian. Certainly I sympathize with this. But the reality is that not all named “Christian” are alike. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a Christian by the same name may stink to high heaven. The reality is that there are catholic, orthodox Christians, and there are heterdox, heretical Christians (who may call themselves “Catholic” and “Orthodox”!).  The name “Christian” means – simply – a follower of Christ, or at least one who believes in God. But it doesn’t mean “one who meets with God at the Divine Liturgy” or “one who denounces his works and clings to Christ alone”. It doesn’t mean “Lutheran”, though “Lutheran” does mean Christian.  All boys are male, but not all males are boys (some are men and others are animals).

The trouble is not in the desire to be known simply as “Christian” or even the desire to lessen the use of “Lutheran”. The trouble lies deeper.  We will never promote a lasting unity just by changing our name or swapping one name for another.  The names “Christian” and “Lutheran” aren’t the problem and they aren’t always synonymous.  I propose that the real trouble is grander. The real problem maker is shiftier and more common.

The real problem is the word “church”.

I suggest that instead of removing “Lutheran” or inserting “Christian” on our signs or in our language, we stop using the word “church”.  It certainly wouldn’t take any more effort than swapping Christian for Lutheran, and getting rid of it won’t cause near the stir and controversy that getting rid of “Lutheran” causes.  This word, I submit, is the real thorn in our side. Proper use of this word is no use of this word. Moreover, the cessation of this word would put both “Christian” and “Lutheran” in their proper contexts. If we stop using “church” we can more easily reclaim “catholic”. If we stop using “church” we can reclaim “orthodox”.

Because not every person called Christian can be compared as apples to apples but often like apples to oranges, we simply can’t forgo the use of the name “Lutheran”.  The band-aid solution of dropping “Lutheran” to a bare minimum would only serve to cause greater problems because our problem is not that people don’t know what a Lutheran is but that they actually think that there are churches (plural) and that they go to church and that they belong to a church and that there is some invisible church!  What chaos!

Instead of calling our parishes “churches” we should call them parishes or congregations, as they have been until modern times.  Instead of calling our synod a church, we should call it a synod (and, yes, take the time to explain what a synod is: a bunch of congregations working in agreement for the good of all), which immediately answers the question of whether Synod is church.  Instead of saying we’re going to church or encourage others to go to church, we should say we are attending the Lord’s gathering and we should encourage others that they need to attend the Lord’s gathering, and that in no place does the gathering of the Lord have any other practice (1 Corinthians).

Using the words “Lutheran” and “Christian” in their proper context is good and salutary. Using the word “church” is just lazy. Besides, dropping the word “church” from our vocabulary is far easier than dropping the name Lutheran or trying to swap it with Christian.  In truth, we don’t need the name “church”, which is generic and unfruitful. Better are the words “gathering” or “assembly”.  Then when we are proselytizing and catechizing we can say to our catechumen that we are disciples of and follow Jesus who is the Way of life. And in so doing we confess the orthodox, catholic faith, which some men have called “Lutheran” to distinguish it from heterodox and heretical confessions such as the Methodists, Baptists, and papists.  And these differences are important because not all teaching will produce fruit (1 Cor. 3).

Names matter. Some more than others. We should call a thing what it is. A rose by any other name may well smell as sweet, but the gathering is not church, the assembly is not church, the collection of all the saints is not church.  They are the gathering, the assembly, and the collection of all saints, the elect.  We are not the Lutheran Church, we are Lutherans, those who confess and adhere to the confession made at Augsburg in 1530 before Emperor Charles V.  We are Christians, those who follow the Christ. And we gather to our Lord in the assembly of the righteous among the elect of God.

The Gift of the Father

It seems striking to me that God is referred to as “Father” only three times in the book of Acts. Two of the three are in the first chapter and are from the lips of Jesus.  The third time is in chapter two when Peter says that Jesus, “being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured out this that you are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33).

Of the two times “Father” is used, it is in connection with the Holy Spirit.  “While staying with them, [Jesus] ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father … the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4, 5); and the above quoted portion of Peter’s sermon. The second time we hear God addressed as Father in Acts is in relation to the establishment of the kingdom to Israel, something done by the Holy Spirit. It seems safe to say, then, that Luke wants us to think of the Father in relation to the giving of the Holy Spirit.

This makes sense considering that when Luke records Jesus’ words that the Father knows how to give good gifts to those who ask Him, he doesn’t use Matthew’s words of “good gifts” (Matt. 7:11), but specifically says that the Father gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.  The wording of Matthew and Luke are nearly identical, the “good gifts” and “Holy Spirit” being the biggest differences. (Also, Matthew says “your Father who is in heaven” and Luke writes, “the heavenly Father”.)

All the gospel writers record Jesus calling God “Father” in a great many places (John having the most).  So, too, do the letters of the apostles call God “Father”.  So calling God “Father” was not uncommon or strange. Why, then, don’t we find “Father” on the lips of the apostles or at the end of Luke’s pen in the book of Acts except these three times at the very beginning of the acts of the apostles?

I submit that the reason we don’t find “Father” in the acts of the apostles beyond the beginning and in direct relation to the Spirit, is so that when the Church thinks on the Father or considers Him, she must do so in light of the Spirit He gives, which is His good gift to those who ask Him in the name of Jesus. The Father’s direct involvement with Jesus’ apostles and Church is giving Jesus the Holy Spirit so that He can pour His Spirit out over all creation, and by His Spirit call the elect, the chosen of the Father, to Himself by His Spirit, who bears witness of Jesus through the ministry of the apostles.

So in John 16, when Jesus says to His apostles that the Father will give them whatever they ask in His name (v. 23), He is referring to the Spirit.  This is obvious in John’s gospel, which has the Spirit and the Father all over Jesus’ farewell discourse, but is not so obvious when we consider how asking the Fther has become some generic prayer with which we ask for everything and anything but assume that we have the Spirit and so don’t ask for it.  The Church asks the Father for the Spirit, which He gives to Jesus (Acts 2:33), who then pours the Spirit out, giving the good gift.

When the church gathers, she gathers not only to hear the words of Jesus or to hear about God, but to ask the Father for the Spirit.  Where the church does not gather, the Spirit is not given and the blessing of the Father is not received by men.  So Jesus’ words to the woman at the well (John 4) become sharper: “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth” (John 4:23, 24, ESV). The ESV doesn’t capitalize “spirit” but we may certainly do so, understanding that we worship the Father in the Holy Spirit and in the Truth, which is Jesus.