The Fourth Sunday after Trinity
Summer Conference – St. James, Green Bay, June 19, 2016
by Floyd Brand. Printed by request.
Ephesians 4:13, 15, 16 ESV
Until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . . Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Ephesians 4:13, 15, 16
It was a massive undertaking for God himself, when the Son of God came into the world and became incarnate in order to redeem the world and to spring the sons of men from sin and sorrow, death and devil, wrath and hell. God invested the whole of himself in this endeavor. It is a massive undertaking for God himself, when the Spirit of God is poured out upon all flesh to sanctify those who have been redeemed. God invests the whole of himself in this endeavor, the Son sending from the Father the Spirit of truth. The atonement was completed once and for all on Calvary: It is finished! The whole Gospel is contained in this single word. The reconstructing of soul and life in the image of God goes on slowly. It will be complete when the sons of God are manifested at the coming of the Son of God. They will be transformed all at once in the flash of light shining from the Lord himself, and they will find themselves arrayed in white standing before the throne.
This undertaking is called sanctification in the language of theology. It engages both the mercy and wisdom and might of the Holy Ghost, and the will and wisdom and effort of the Christian. It engages the whole church, as each one exercises his gift for the building up of the church at large, and of his corner of Christendom, and of his fellow Christians one by one, those within his circle of acquaintance. He seeks to assist on the way to heaven the person with him at the moment, or his congregation, those saints living in the same time and place. At times he may be at the service of a wider group of Christians, large as a synod or denomination or small as a conference such as this. But those he serves represent the whole of the church, the people of God of every place and every age. The history of the church shows that the witness one gives may fly on the wings of the Holy Ghost farther than one would have dreamed. The prophet Joel, for instance, and the Apostle Paul, and the Evangelist St. Matthew were not thinking ahead to some Lutherans in Green Bay in 2016. But the Savior whom they proclaimed was thinking of them, and the Spirit who spoke through those men verily was aware of their gathering here.
Our Conference is nearly ninety years old. It was 89 years ago this coming December that Oswald Hensel mailed a circular letter “To the Brethren that are without Synodical Connections.” At that time neither its friends nor its foes expected this group to long endure. It is our doctrine that things on earth go through their stages, birth, infancy, youth, maturity, decline, and dissolution. So it is with the church, and with all the pieces of it. A wise and thoughtful Christian, recently departed, used to observe that when all is said and done, the Protes’tant Controversy and the Protes’tant Conference would be nothing more than a blip on the pages of church history. He spoke with honesty and compassion, without cynicism. The conclusion is not that we should now park our feet on the porch rail and watch the rest of the world go by, nor let our hands droop and simply wait for death to overtake us. It is certainly not that as long as we maintain the time-honored forms of our church life we shall thereby retain the spirit or the Holy Spirit. As the body of an aged person often has a number defects and several bodily systems are failing at the same time, while other organs and systems are still strong, so with a body of Christians. The body will retain some of its gifts and some of its strengths, and it will have also its besetting sins. We are using the expression “besetting sins” as people do in conversation, meaning the sins characteristic of a person or of a group. This is not exactly the same as the sense in Hebrews, but not far off either. If we wish to maintain our gifts, our strengths, and our strength, and to grow and increase, then we need to be honest and recognize that we do have our besetting sins, and each one has his part in those sins. If it is our doctrine there is no such thing as “the true visible church on earth,” then we are not it either.
Here the question arises, Does one ever recover entirely from the church he was brought up in? from Holy Mother Church, which brought us to Christ and gave us our start in walking with God, without which we cannot imagine ourselves being Christians at all, and if it were a different form of Holy Mother Church, we would not be here this morning? There comes a time when Holy Mother Church stands in the way, and something has to give. The question remains valid even when one’s spiritual lineage took its origin generations earlier. In the circles where our walk with God began, we are no longer welcome in their company and we are not charmed by their manners either. There is the question whether after all our besetting sins grow from the same strong deep root as theirs. And while each group of Christians has its unique strengths and its unique problems and oddities, it is also true that we all suffer from the same infections. Verily, “in the same condemnation” applies to all the sectors of Christendom.
In laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven and in seeking to work properly in doing our part one by one so that the body of Christ may grow and be built up in love, we do profit from those before us and those among us who love the Word of God. Sometimes this one or that one seems so far ahead of us in sanctification, we think, I should be like that person! You should be like that person! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had another Luther! Even better, If I could be another Luther! If not Luther, another character from church history, or perhaps a figure out of the Scriptures, Isaiah, or Paul, or John the Baptist, or Ruth, or Hannah, or Mary of Bethany, or Priscilla. It is natural for a Christian to feel close to a particular character from Scripture or church history. We do stand on the shoulders of giants, and if God will be so kind we may build on their labors and carry their endeavor forward. However, as one of our sainted members used to say, “No one understands the will of God perfectly.” No one understands the will of God perfectly: not one among the living and not one among the dead. It is not simply that there are still a few details to be adjusted. The faults run deep and the blind spots are large ones. And so we find ourselves in sympathy with certain saints partly because they too found themselves doing the evil that they did not want to do, and failing to do the good they intended.
But none of the great ones finally is our perfect pattern, and it is not into the image of any of them into which we are to grow. It is the image of our Lord Jesus Christ which is to be realized in ourselves: our Lord Jesus and no lesser person. At first this gives us a chill. It strikes us as too much to ask. He is so sinless! He is so different, from another world! Yet, whether it goes without saying or whether it would be useful to put it into words, the nerve center of our policy and purpose is to be formed in the likeness of our Lord. So when St. Paul exhorted his readers to follow his example, he was not setting himself up as the ideal. Rather, they should follow him in striving to attain to the stature of Christ. He had not already attained and was not already perfect; he was pursuing and straining and pressing forward to the prize; therein one does well to follow him.
But then, the person of Jesus is also wonderful, welcoming, and winsome. If we may once again rewrite the dictionary and put an ordinary word to holy use, we could say “downright charming.” Jesus was the embodiment and the perfect expression of the Beatitudes. Looking at the first of them, the poor in spirit, Jesus was the only one ever with reason to be “full of himself.” He was the only one ever not the least bit “full of himself.” He emptied himself. Considering the last of the Beatitudes, Jesus was persecuted to death because he did not go along with “group-think.“ Group-think is the unwritten dogma of the group. As expression of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, group-think is valid only for a moment. Then the ground shifts, and group-think becomes the launching pad for laziness and the fear of men. The message of Jesus, and of Paul, meant death to group-think, and it was group-think that brought death to them. Jesus was meek. He was meek and lowly in heart. At the age of twelve he could together with the theologians search the Scriptures and the deep things of God. Yet he did not disport himself as an intellectual among the intellectuals. He surrounded himself with the likes of fishermen. He possessed total dignity and total humility. Dignity requires humility, and humility requires dignity. The seamless robe from Nieman Marcus, woven from the top throughout, fit him perfectly, yet he could lay it aside, throw a towel around himself, and wash the disciples’ feet. He did not think, “This is beneath me.” Respectability, standing in the community, honor from his peers, was not his agenda. No one could convict him of sin, and not because he was clever but because he was pure. But the white collar criminals of the time and the low-lifes from off the street flocked to him for the forgiveness of their sins, and he rejoiced over them.
Jesus was merciful. He saw into men’s souls because he cared about their souls. He was all things to all men. He could meet the need of each and every soul with just the right word. Looking with mercy into men’s souls, he could always distinguish between a genuine opponent and someone who merely disagreed. He did not lose patience with the church as Moses did at the rock. He did not misjudge the worshiper as Eli did with Hannah. To the last moment his disciples did not get it. They did not get it because they would not get it, and right when they most needed to get it, the hours immediately before his crucifixion. But right then Jesus made it a point to tell them that they were his friends.
Jesus was at home in the Scriptures. He quoted Isaiah, the Psalms, and Deuteronomy. But he did not gather his disciples and read to them page after page. He preached the eternal truth in wording so original and fresh it was astounding, in wording never used before and hardly used again even by himself. His preachment was current. For him to rail against Jezebel and the prophets of Baal would have been beside the point. He was facing the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees and of the human heart in general. In our situation then, reprinting, running the copy machine, may be close to the center of our endeavor, overlapping it even. It is essential, yes. But not the center. For one, the immediate threat to the faith of the children and grandchildren of our Conference is neither the convoluted theology of the papists nor the dogmatism and politicking of Lutheran theologians and officials, though there is a connection somewhere. The direct threat is the American way of life.
Our Lord did always the things that pleased the Father and was meek and lowly in heart. In a phrase, excellence without attitude. This is the thing to strive for, excellence without the attitude. Each one struggles with both parts in varying proportions, attaining the excellence or eliminating the attitude. As Luther said at the end, We are beggars, this is true. We are beggars. Yet, through Sacrament and Word, we are standing at the door to the treasury, and the treasure contains the entire fruit of the Spirit. The one with the key in one hand and the other on the doorknob is the one who shuts and no one opens, and who opens and no man shuts. May he be merciful to us and hold the door open a while longer. Amen.