Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sermon 1: You better start swimmin'

Come gather ’round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

- "The Times They Are A'Changin'" by Bob Dylan

Here let us beware lest Wittenberg become Capernaum. I notice that you have a great deal to say of the doctrine of faith and love which is preached to you, and this is no wonder; an ass can almost intone the lessons, and why should you not be able to repeat the doctrines and formulas? Dear friends, the kingdom of God -- and we are that kingdom -- does not consist in talk or words, but in activity, in deeds, in works and exercises. God does not want hearers and repeaters of words, but followers and doers, and this occurs in faith through love. 
- First Invocavit Sermon

Martin Luther had come home to Wittenberg. Some had thought him surely dead, his work ended and now in the hands of others like Karlstadt and Zwilling. Many had participated in the enthusiasms of the past year: experiencing changes in the mass, destroying altars and religious images, welcoming as married neighbors monks and priests and nuns who had left the cloisters for a life in the world. A new found sense of freedom and self-determination had swept over the town. "We'll show them we're real Christians!" many proclaimed, as they flaunted their liberty in Christ by openly defying the traditions of the past. Still, there were many who were not so sure. It was unclear who was in charge and what the future would hold. The town was a mess of unresolved matters. Then word began spreading: the reformer was alive, and back home in Wittenberg! He would address the congregation on Invocavit Sunday (the first Sunday in Lent), March 9.

Luther's return did not happen in a vacuum. In previous posts, we discussed the general background of Luther's career and the events of 1521-22 while Luther was confined at Wartburg Castle after the Diet of Worms. But there is another context to think about, as we prepare to learn from Luther's first Invocavit sermon. For many in Wittenberg, Luther was not primarily an academic, theologian, polemicist writer, or renowned leader of a movement. He was their priest, their pastor, the one who preached to them, gave them communion, heard their confessions, and provided them with helpful spiritual counsel and practical advice. When he railed against Rome, it was often because he saw the spiritual bondage and distress corrupt Church practices were imposing upon the ordinary men and women of his community. For his part, Luther saw the pastoral role as a fundamental part of what God had called him to do. Martin Luther was a pastor: with a pastor's heart, a pastor's aims, and a pastor's concerns.

Not only did he preach regularly and often in the church at Wittenberg, he also provided a wealth of materials for his parishioners to help them deal with the genuine spiritual struggles in their lives, which he had learned about through personal interaction with people. Before 1522 and the Invocavit Sermons we will consider here, Luther had already written such booklets and tracts for lay people as: A Meditation on Christ's Passion (1519), An Exposition of the Lord's Prayer for Simple Laymen (1519), On Rogationtide Prayer and Procession (1519), A Sermon on Preparing to Die (1519), Fourteen Consolations for Those Who Labor and Are Burdened, (1520), Sermon on the Worthy Reception of the Sacrament (1521), and Comfort When Facing Grave Temptations, (1521). By 1520 he had already produced a precursor to his later catechisms in A Short Form of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer so that the ordinary church people of Wittenberg might receive basic instruction in the faith. His sermons were published and distributed as well.

Timothy J. Wengert has considered the import of viewing Luther in this pastoral context:
What does it mean for us to call Luther a pastor? First and foremost, of course, we are talking about pastoral acts: baptizing, celebrating the Lord's Supper, absolving sin (publicly or privately), visiting and comforting the sick and dying, instructing the young and ignorant, and -- above all else -- preaching. However in Luther's view pastoral actions are not effective ex opere operato (by mere performance of the rite) but involve delivering real promises to desperate people in need of consolation and faith. Thus, for Luther, the pastorate is by definition always a matter of distinguishing law and gospel (that is, terrifying the comfortable and comforting the terrified). Moreover, this distinguishing takes place under the shadow of the cross: the Word itself, the pastor who delivers it, and the ones who receive it are weak and live by grace alone. At the same time, pastoral acts arise for Luther out of God's gracious declaration justifying the ungodly, a Word received by faith alone. Furthermore, this declared righteousness must always stand over against the external righteousness of this world (justice) to which pastors also call their flocks, members who also live on earth as forgiven sinners. Thus, Luther conceived pastoral admonition and care (Seelsorge; literally, care of souls) as defining all aspects of pastoral ministry, rather than as a separate specialty of the pastor tied to therapy and personal well-being and separated from Word and sacrament.
- Wengert, The Pastoral Luther, p. 3f (emphasis mine)

Martin Luther had little concern for the theoretical. Starting with his own life in relation to God and the neighbor, he reached out with pastoral concern to others living in relation to God and the neighbor. This fundamental perspective guided all he did and wrote. Martin Luther was a pastor.

Invocavit Sermon 1
Therefore, it was Pastor Luther who mounted the pulpit to preach to his Wittenberg flock on March 9, 1522. His sermon was not from the lectionary texts for the day. This was the first in a series of special exhortations that he would preach for eight straight days. The situation was so fragile in Wittenberg and the issues so great, that the preacher had asked the congregation to come daily to hear what he had to say upon his return.

As a wise friend, he began by stressing the things they had in common before moving toward some of his hard and critical points. We can outline the sermon like this:

  • Introduction: Since each must face death, each must be armed with the chief things that concern us as Christians.
  • The chief things which concern us as Christians:
    • We are all children of wrath.
    • God sent his Son to make us his children through faith.
    • We must also have love and love one another as God has loved us.
    • We also need patience, for those who have faith and love will be persecuted, and we must persevere in loving and serving one another.
  • We must therefore not insist upon our own rights, but do what is loving toward our brethren.
    • Illustration of the sun: we cannot bend its light but we can direct its heat; so we maintain firm faith, but practice love according to the needs of our neighbor
    • Application to the situation in Wittenberg: the abolition of the mass was a good thing but it was not done in a good way -- the way of love.
  • We must take note of two things: "must" and "free," and learn to distinguish them.
  • Conclusion: "Therefore, let us show love to our neighbors; if we do not do this, our work will not endure."

As Luther stepped into the pulpit, it was clear that life had changed and times were a-changin' for the Christians in Wittenberg. They had been baptized into the gospel and they must now learn to swim in its healing waters. They had heard the "faith" part correctly, Pastor Luther affirmed. However, they hadn't yet grasped the "love" part. If they overcame the devil by trusting Christ and experiencing the freedom he brings, they had since given the devil an opportunity by misusing that very freedom. "For it [abolishing the mass] was done in wantonness, with no regard for proper order and with offense to your neighbor," Luther charged.

In particular, they had failed to distinguish between matters that are "musts" and matters that are "free." The gospel itself is non-negotiable; faith in Christ must be kept and asserted and defended. However, their pastor reminded them, they had choices in how to handle some of the practices they were so intent on changing. They must think about how they should proceed for the sake of others who had not yet come to the same convictions a number of them had developed. Life in the gospel is not just about the freedom faith brings. It is about faith working through love. Freedom means being free to love and serve the neighbor.

Luther ended the sermon with a personal and pastoral word: "Therefore I could no longer remain away, but was compelled to come and say these things to you."

Pastor Martin was back.

  • The quality of a pastor's relationship with the congregation is an essential component of preaching. Luther had gained trust and credibility by working among these people for many years. Now, at a time of crisis, he was able to gain a hearing, even though he needed to say some hard words. The Word always comes to God's people as an embodied, personal word. I will earn the congregation's trust as I practice faith and love among the people.
  • The gospel is the heart and soul of every sermon and every pastoral interaction. God's grace in Christ, the response of faith, and the freedom we have to love form the central message of everything I as a pastor proclaim from the pulpit and everything I share with my people in other settings.
  • Pastors will be wise to fill pastoral communication with an emphasis on things held in common. Crafting my messages to include our oneness in the gospel, our common experiences as a congregation, our shared language, our participation in a common mission, etc. makes the point that "we are in this together" and that I as a pastor am "with" and "for" the members of the congregation in whatever circumstances the church is facing.
  • Pastors are to care for the whole church. The various people in a congregation are at different places along the road of faith. As a pastor, I am called to serve them all, and to encourage them all to serve one another. As we do, we must always keep in mind our different positions and different faith-challenges as well as our commonalities. No one runs too far ahead; no one gets left behind.

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