The Church is Christ’s Mission to Society
By David H. Benke
January 12, 2004
1965 LCMS Resolution 1-01D:
WHEREAS, Jesus Christ is Lord of all the world and in every area of life; and
WHEREAS, The Christian recognizes no area of life that may be termed “secular” in the sense that it is removed from the lordship of Jesus Christ, though it may not be under the control of the institutional church; and
WHEREAS, The Christian does God’s work in the world through various vocations in the home, church, and state as distinguished by Dr. Martin Luther; therefore be it
Resolved, That we affirm that the church is Christ’s mission to the whole society; and be it further
Resolved, That we recognize the difficulty of understanding in every instance whether God desires Christians to act corporately or individually or both in His mission to the whole society; they will, however, seek His will through prayer and mutual study; and be it further
Resolved, That Christians be exhorted to serve God in every honest occupation, recognizing that all of life is the arena of a Christian’s ministry to God and man; and be it further
Resolved, That Christians be encouraged to seek the peace of the city, as God commands, working together with their fellow citizens of the nation and of the world, whatever their race, class, or belief; and be it finally
Resolved, That Christians be encouraged as they attempt, under the judgment and forgiveness of God, to discover and further His good purposes in every area of life, to extend justice, social acceptance, and a full share in God’s bounty to all people who are discriminated against and oppressed by reason of race, class, creed, or other unwarranted distinctions. Christians recognize that all their fellowmen come from the Father’s creating hand and that His Son’s nail-pierced hands reach out in love to all of them.
Action: This resolution was adopted.
Christ’s mission to the whole society usually comes down to you representing Christ and some other human being representing society. In my confirmation class this year, at least, that’s the way it feels. I have this new student, Tre, who really puts me through my paces. He’s my magnificent obsession. The first day of class Tre comes in from next door to the church there in Brooklyn, all attitude, and I ask the class to tell me what they think of God. Tre waits his turn, eyes and head all back and peering out, and says, “Why you think I believe in God at all? What God would let stuff happen like happens down here? I don’t believe in no God.” I’m thinking, “Hey, this is Confirmation class—shouldn’t they at least believe in God to get in? But then, he kind of reminds me of me in Prep School. So I said, “Well, Tre—you are going to have your mind full up with God by the end of this year, because that’s all we are going to be talking about in this class.
The kids are mostly from the neighborhood, so a few weeks ago, I begin by saying, “Today we are going to discuss the 7th commandment.” With that, Tre takes the catechism from the girl next to him, says, “I want yours,” runs to the other side of the room, whereupon she comes after him, calls him a name, invokes the name of the Almighty, says, “Give it back,” and whacks him. At that, I stop the class, say—”OK, here we have it—Commandment Lotto!! You’ve just watched as commandments 2, 5, 7, 8 and 10 have all been busted. This is a test and you have all FAILED.”
So I told them what I tell them all, “When you enter my class I have you in my mind and on my heart from morning to night. I know what you’re doing and I will be with you for the rest of my life. That’s the way I am with confirmation classes. And I’m telling you this—the only one who will watch you harder is up there—that’s right, Tre—I’m talking about God—God is the one who will be taking care of you and never letting you go. That’s what this is all about.” Know what? He’s beginning to get the point—he’s a work in progress, but he is beginning to get the point.
When I got to that same parish in Brooklyn about 30 years ago, I hooked up with Dick and Etta Lieberman who lived across the street on Norwood Avenue and got myself some substitute grandparents. They were two people who had got the point about God and Christ’s mission to the world for a long, long time. Dick was a congregational elder, possessor of the prototypical Brooklyn accent. Dick hoid Da boids choipin on toity-toid and toid. Etta was a unique human being, who always had a twinkle in her eye as she stuck the needle in the man she loved, which was Dick. Judy and I became part of their family, the needy interlopers from the Midwest taken in by two folks whose faith was always active in love. So one night Etta says to me, with her eye on Dick, “You know, Pastor, when I was in the Walther League I dated one of the Kretzmann boys.” I said, “Whoa—you mean like OP or AR or Mickey? One of those Kretzmanns?” “Oh, yes,” she replied. “They were up in the Bronx, quite nice looking, too. O.P. was the one I dated. What a catch that would have been, right, Dicky?” And there’s Dick, rolling his eyes just like their old Bushwick neighbor, Jackie Gleason, going “Bang, Zoom! To the moon, Alice!”
When young Pastor B decided it was time to move out in mission to the community with a Spanish language service, the permission-granting church assembly meeting was pretty heated. Then Etta got up. “My uncle Henry Kraemer,” she began, “built this church. He built this floor and that door. He built that door so anyone from Cypress Hills could come in a feel at home, and he built this floor so anyone could walk with us at St. Peter’s. I like our Pastor’s idea.” Bang, zoom! Case closed. Vote over. My hero, Etta—women’s suffrage, what I’m talking about! Mission the goal. O.P. is the one who would have had the catch—one man’s opinion.
The magnificent obsession—faith active in love not counting the cost, putting the Gospel on the streets and in the kitchen. It always has a human face, folks. It’s always the Word of God incarnate.
Martin Luther was possessed of the same obsession. Martin Marty, in his book “Martin Luther,” states, “Explain Luther’s life story as one will, it makes sense chiefly as one rooted in and focused by what has to be called an obsession with God: God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed.”
Martin Kretzmann was such a Lutheran. His life’s story, his missionary witness, the incredibly and wondrously, wholistically integrated affirmations of his composing, all read to the world the amazing love of God in Christ. At the end of his life, Mickey Kretzmann lived in Milwaukee. Two of his favorite companions were Erv and Lucille Platt, Judy’s folks, my in-laws. So one time we’re sitting together, it was the last time I saw him and spoke to him, and I decide to jump in with it. I’ve hesitated because I know the remembrance of these things can be painful, and Mickey is busy promoting global mission from his parish of membership, carrying on exactly as you would think. But I jump in – “You know, Mickey, I’ve got to tell you that the Mission Affirmations have been a focal point for the way I’ve done my ministry for the last 25 years. The way they’re put together, the way the mission is out there in the world, the way mission in word and deed is held in such balance, the way we’re encouraged to engage the world and go for it, I just want to thank you. And you know they are still on the books in the Missouri Synod, even now.” And he looks at me straight ahead, and says nothing for a long time. The surface of his gaze is all “Bang, Zoom—to the Moon!” But way in the back there’s a twinkle in his eyes. And then he says just one sentence: “I’m glad you’ve found them helpful.”
With those introductory thoughts, I’d like to make my preliminary observations about LCMS Resolution 1-01D, “The Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Society.”
What rings true to me through the decades is that the resolution is a clarion call to engagement with the world for the sake of the Gospel in word and deed. It is also a clarion call to dialog and discernment in the process and service of that critical engagement. This is not a resolution crafted from a pinched and narrow perspective, but one that takes absolutely seriously both the Lord’s mission directive to go INTO the world with the Gospel to teach and baptize as well as the claim of Almighty God UPON God’s world for the sake of justice and righteousness, for as the Psalmist exclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the heavens and all that dwell therein. (Ps. 24) And as the prophet proclaims, “He will not falter or be discouraged ‘til He establishes justice upon the earth. In Him the islands will place their hope.” (Isaiah 42) I find this wonderful because not only because I live on an island, but because it’s the legacy received through the prophets, through the teachings of our Lord Jesus, through the apostles, through the formulators of the Creeds, and it’s Large Catechism Lutheran—all of the above. This, of course, is why the mission affirmations been viewed with alarm by so many for so long. They are comprehensive. They give no quarter in dictating Christian responsibility for mission to be intentional and thorough, even as God’s reign and mission to the human race pervades God’s realms both of grace and of power.
The seminal and radical nature of this particular affirmation can be itemized in the final resolve: “Christians recognize that all their fellowmen come from the Father’s creating hand and that His Son’s nail-pierced hands reach out in love to all of them.” Hello, First and Second Articles of the Creed. Glad you could get together. The Christian “recognition” comes, of course, directly from the Holy Spirit, Caller, Gatherer and Enlightener. It is Martin Kretzmann’s Biblical and Confessional connection of the creedal and Trinitarian truths, of course, that got him in trouble with the agitative forces in and around the Missouri Synod. ‘Twill ever be thus!
The seminal and radical nature of this affirmation is also demonstrated in what has transpired since. I am extremely proud of the record of the Missouri Synod, when given opportunity to produce serious theological documents in the area of mission and church/and/society. That record can be traced directly from the Mission Affirmations.
I believe the 1991 CTCR document “A Theological Statement of Mission”; as well as the 1995 “Render Unto Caesar…..And Unto God: A Lutheran View of Church and State;” and “Faith Active in Love: Human Care in the Church’s Life” are wonderful examples of the results of the thoughtful process of theological reflection by Lutheran Christians. They are evangelical and catholic documents, for the Church on earth, not simply denominational tools; they are useful for Christians everywhere and at all times. The 1991 document aided and abetted a Blue Ribbon Committee I sat on that produced the Mission Blueprint for the 90s, arguably the finest mission decade the Synod has enjoyed. One of the authors told me that the intent was to take the mission statements of the Affirmations that begin with the Church and position the starting point of mission back one step—in the heart of God, not for the sake of truncating the Mission Affirmations, but precisely to widen the expansive view of missions to the maximum. This is a legacy that can be granted both to Mickey Kretzmann, and to the President of the LCMS in the 80s through the very early 90s, Ralph Bohlmann. The intentional movement of the church in mission was always the design and desire.
The 1995 document has been called by none other than the most knowledgeable human being on the planet on issues of Church and Society, Dr. William Lazareth, the finest denominational work on civil righteousness produced. The “civic event” portion of Missouri Synod Convention Resolution 3-07A “Cases of Discretion” is anchored in the theology contained under the heading of civil righteousness, God’s realm of power. In other words, this is good stuff. Lutheran stuff IS good ecclesial stuff, because it will always be seminal and radical, right there on and in the ground where people need and seek justice and mercy from God and find it in the Word made flesh.
It is instructive to examine in this forum the inevitable corrective to the Affirmations produced in the early 70s by the CTCR entitled “The Mission of the Christian Church in the World.” I believe it is helpful in several ways and possibly harmful in one important way. Thinking back, we are talking serious Sturm und Drang when we deal with the period from the late 60s through the mid-70s. The production of theological documents in the middle of national, cultural and denominational explosions triggers more than simple historical interest to me, to say the least!
Think of it: the CTCR document was published in September, 1974. Good grief. Roe v. Wade, early ’73; end of Vietnam, late ’73; Watershed at the Rivergate, summer, ’73; Dave and Judy Benke move to New York, summer, ’73; Seminary walkout, ’74. Are we having fun yet?
The introductory portions of the CTCR document highlight the profound social unrest, the then brand-new secularist alternatives (remember Harvey Cox and Secular City?), the then brand-new neo-pentecostal global surge, the then brand-new hyper-ecumenical visions and dreams, and the really brand-spanking-new liberation theology, all in a page and a half—all this while Rome was burning and Nixon was resigning! Wasn’t it great?
So the body of the document seeks to correct misinterpretations and potential misdirections for the Church in mission that might have been jumping off points from the Mission Affirmations. And that’s OK.
First of all, it’s OK on substance. Ultimates must remain ultimates or the Church becomes the Rotary Club. And I like the Rotary Club, but it can’t get you to heaven, because it doesn’t possess the Means of Grace. This is the point of the critiques of The Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Society.
Also on substance, if you will read the specific statements of the CTCR document on Church and Society, you will find them to be non-reactive, quality points on the Lutheran distinctives, including the Church’s responsibility to
Operate out of Gospel motivation in individual and institutional interaction with society
Understand and live in both the left and right realms of power and grace and to participate in both responsibly
Care for the poor
Be heard on controversial issues, out of deep concern that a proper level of civil righteousness be maintained within a society
Protest in a non-violent way against injustice.
The document also rejects that which moves penultimates to the ultimate position, and argues convincingly against participation in partisan politics. These are all valuable statements. It is easy to see in hindsight how the tenor of the times would motivate some to jump off the Gospel wagon and into social upheaval, and others to react by pulling all wagons into a circle and protecting the Gospel from the society. Of course it’s not only a false dichotomy, but flies directly in the face of biblical directives to engage and seek justice at all times and especially when times are tough, to be “in the world.” But then there’s that hymn—”the world is very evil, the times are waxing late.” That’s the way it may have felt in the early 70s, at least to some. I was 26 and full of beans.
Secondly, it’s OK on style. In just the same way as our national political “go for the jugular at all times” culture, the style of ecclesiastical discourse and interfaith interaction has become for some the opening to vent anger and hostile arrogance, to engage from a polemic rather than from an apologetic framework, to say nothing of the irenic tone that marks the gentle and respectful Christian in the world. This is often the preferred option of those who hone in on the “post-modern, post-Christian world we live in today” thematic, for some reason. Of course, post-modern relativism that denies exclusive and absolute truth claims must be opposed. “Whatever,” as that crew would say, is an insufficient theology. And of course unionism and syncretism are wrong, false, and to be rejected in the church.
However, what about your approach? A few LCMS clergy have compared Yankee Stadium, for instance, to the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Had they been there, they would have thundered down polemic against the unbelievers assembled on the podium. They wanted me to do the same. The Apostle Paul and the great majority of the early church witness in the pre-modern, pre-Christian world they lived in then chose instead to engage the world with the Gospel of hope. They did so through witness and attachment to the issue of the belief in God from nature and conscience that exists in every human heart (Acts 14 and Acts 17, among others, and Justin Martyr, among others). Tossing verbal grenades at the families of those buried under rubble would be from my personal perspective both inhumane and unbiblical.
You won’t get that sense of polemic and diatribe from the 1974 CTCR response, nor from the Mission Affirmations. The language is evenhanded, even-tempered, thoughtful, considerate, fraternal, sororal. This in the midst of social and church-political upheaval. May that verbal trend continue.
Having said all those nice things, I want to add a major concern. I believe the beauty of the Mission Affirmations was that the false but difficult dichotomies are overcome in its subsets by adhering to Lutheran dialectic. You cannot and should not protect or keep the church FROM the world for two reasons – the world is where the mission is directed, and it is God’s world, not an alien outpost. The knowledge of God in and by the world is knowledge of the true God from the Law. That knowledge, although valuable for civil righteousness, cannot save but only condemns. So the word and deed activities of Christians in the world are absolutely mandatory so that people might be able to receive by God’s grace confidence in “the love and blessings of God,” as Luther states it in the Large Catechism.
The dichotomization that has once more transpired is evident in the duality of the documents produced in the 90s—we have missions on the one hand and we have social ministry and civil righteousness on the other. The encouragement is to view them in a separate and, I believe, hierarchically ordered way, to the detriment of both areas of endeavor. There is one small reference in the 1991 CTCR Mission document to faith active in love—”The church endeavors to ensure that its proclamation of the Gospel is accompanied by deeds of love, mercy and justice which flow from the message it proclaims (I John 3:16-18)” But that’s it. I believe although the hyper-distinction is not traceable directly to the 1974 CTCR response, which is better than that, the natural reactivity to culture that has gone on for so long in our aging 98% white denomination has pushed word and deed, church and society apart with the huge theological emphasis going to word and church over and against society and deed.
That’s right—98% white. Lutherans, according to stats provided to me by current CTCR member John Nunes, are the palest denomination in the United States, whiter than the Mormons, for crying out loud, who didn’t even ALLOW non-white people until recently. Know what the most diverse faith group in this country is? Muslims. They don’t care. They don’t have an ethnic heritage to protect.
And the shoving apart in our group of mission from action is nowhere more evident than in the marginalization of our organized Lutheran social ministry efforts. The largest health and human care provider network in the country is Lutheran Services in America—OURS! Billions and billions of dollars of budgets reaching five and a half million people a year, and to most Lutherans in a congregational setting it is absolutely invisible. Take it from one who served as a Social Ministry Organization CEO for a time during my “hiatus”—social ministry is NOT viewed as integral to mission, it is NOT viewed as church. So much more the tragedy.
We are participating denominationally in what can be termed Planned Shrinkage in part because of an unbalanced theological perspective by some. To avoid contact with the world is not only denominational suicide, it is sin.
I prefer the more comprehensive view:
To have and maintain integrity, Christian mission must be witnessed in word and deed IN society as response to the grace of God. That’s my first point.
I’ve been on three killing fields since moving to New York thirty years ago. Here’s a little story about the first one. I arrived in New York City in July, 1973. Six months earlier, on January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States made the ruling in the decision of Roe v. Wade that has altered the course of US history and has eventuated in the termination of the lives of millions of the unborn over the past 30 years. New York City is the capital city of abortion in the US. I have been on the ground in action against abortion basically since arriving in New York. I believe strongly in matching care for those who ARE born in difficult circumstances with efforts at ending the death of the most vulnerable lives, those yet in the mother’s womb, or justice does not, in the words of the prophet, flow like a river, but only trickles up to the moment of delivery.
During the late 70s when New York City went bankrupt, poor neighborhoods and poor institutions took the biggest hit. As criminals went on a murderous rampage, the most vulnerable were left unprotected. Lutheran Hospital in East New York was a Christian institution in the worst possible place. And under great financial pressure, the hospital caved in and began performing abortions in order to balance its books. I was the lead chaplain, working with Pr. John Heinemeier. We protested mightily to the Hospital board, most of whom were LCMS Lutherans; but the deal with the devil had been made. I would stand with the charge nurse outside what was called the maternity ward but was just the opposite, right across from the pediatrics unit where abused children lay with burns and welts all over their tiny bodies while staffers sold drugs meant for patients, and we would cry and pray at the death and devastation all around us.
You cannot, you may not work in the violence of that setting without understanding that the church is Christ’s mission to the whole society. People enmeshed in these grotesque problems were flying the primary colors of a culture of death. This was not simply personal and individual evil. This was pervasive, systemic societal evil. And deeds on the blood-stained streets had to match the wonderful theological words we embroider inside our proper and protected parish walls.
In the 80s a courageous and convicted young Lutheran Christian mom who originally hailed from Spanish Harlem named Lillian came to me with the desire to begin a ministry to teen moms in a Brooklyn neighborhood where 91% of the pregnancies at the time were to unmarried teenagers. I can show you the children who are here on earth because of her counsel, and I can show you the families strengthened by her work for daily Christian living unto the second generation. Lillian and I walked into many tough places and hung out on many tough corners, unprotected, to talk to young moms about their babies, and to talk to pregnant women about keeping their babies. Our guardian angel, Jean Garton, came and visited us one time and connected us with the global and societal mission to the unborn.
In the early 90s, I met a Roman Catholic laywoman named Anne who hailed from France and lived in uptown Manhattan. Her vocation, she stated, was to the unborn, and her desire was to open a crisis pregnancy center in the heart of abortion darkness on the streets of the City. With the assistance of John Cardinal O’Connor, myself, and a coterie of great friends, Pregnancy Help was born ten years ago. 1000 children whose mothers were headed toward aborting are alive today because of Anne’s vision. Probably twice that number who were undecided made the decision for life as well. Her first full-time staff counselor, introduced to Anne by me, was Lillian. At the Pregnancy Help anniversary, I always speak to the group following the Mass at a Roman Catholic Church; at one of these events, as I was speaking a young woman entered the sanctuary with not one, not two but three babies in a stroller and went right up to Lillian to embrace and thank her for the triple gift she had so amazingly counseled. There’s an article from the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Christmas Newsletter for you to read, learn and inwardly digest that tells the story of a child named Luka who’s here because of Pregnancy Help.
That’s the way this works in the real world. Christians recognize, you see, with Mickey Kretzmann, that “all their fellowmen come from God’s creating hand.” Get it? That’s called the First Article. How about that, Paul? “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. …..For in him we live and move and have our being. As some poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.’” That’s Paul on Mars Hill 2000 years ago, making us ready on the streets of New York to counsel young pregnant women about the life that is within them, hooking word with deed in mission. Don’t miss the connective tissue, the integrated nature of the First and Second Article, and of the First and Second Person of the Trinity. They are the means to engage in life and death struggles armed with nothing more than love, which is sufficient.
I loved John Cardinal O’Connor. A great man and a great spiritual leader, a military chaplain who got the big picture and was always, always on the side of life. He remembered, too. When we met after Pregnancy Help was founded he always made sure to make that LCMS/Roman Catholic life connection; when the poor were under attack in New York City his ecumenical aide, Jim Loughran, knew that I would stand up for any attack on the poor and marginalized because I had stood with the Cardinal against attacks on the most vulnerable of all.
Do you see how this all connects, how God brings people together across all kinds of lines and barriers? It is impermissible for the sake of the Gospel, the Creeds and the Confessions for a Christian to ignore or pass up opportunity to promote justice and civil righteousness most especially in issues of life and death. The evil of abortion continues, and we must and cannot remain either silent or inactive on any and all fronts.
My second point:
It is appropriate to acknowledge both individual and institutional responsibility in responding to issues of justice for the sake of God’s mission.
Listen to the Resolved , as so eloquently and poignantly stated in the Mission Affirmations:
” That we recognize the difficulty of under-standing in every instance whether God desires Christians to act corporately or individually or both in His mission to the whole society; they will, however, seek His will through prayer and mutual study.”
I really like that. It reminds me of the Nehemiah Plan. 5,362 meetings individually and corporately followed by about a hundred thousand prayers followed by about 10 big decisions followed by about 85000 small decisions followed by 4000 homes and a new community. Presto, chango—the results of seeking and finding God’s will through prayer and mutual study become a new neighborhood built from the ground up and an affordable housing plan for a nation!
To revert to my first point for a moment, one of my great denominational thrills in the Nehemiah process as a parish pastor down in the dirt and ashes was to see how the LCMS worked it through. The decisions came through Ed Westcott in Missions, Ralph Bohlmann as President, John Schuelke as CAO, Norm Sell as Treasurer, and Gene Linse as Human Care—the money came through Keys for Christ and Forward in Remembrance under Will Hyatt. Both the money and the decision process filtered through the word and deed combo of Missions and Human Care, from start to finish. All realms of Synodical leadership spent some time on the soil of Brooklyn as the homes rose from the ashes. The unified field vision of the Mission Affirmations was honored.
However, the other lesson we learned the hard way was that systemic problems can only be solved with systemic solutions. Band-aids just won’t cut it. I watched one of my parishioners die in the burn ward after being roasted in her own home as it burned down on top of her. The answer was not simply to find the guy who did it, but to change from the bottom up the system that produced that act of terror.
Ergo, the following were involved in our prayerful discernment process—A Jewish builder, a Roman Catholic bishop, Alinsky-trained community organizers, 50,000 parishioners from every denomination’s poorest parishes, black and white and Hispanic clergy working together, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. Among others.
One of my favorite stories from that era concerns the builder, I. D. Robbins. A hardened life-time developer and urban dreamer, Robbie lived for the struggle in order to promote housing opportunity for regular people. I worked with him for a period of time, and came to know his irascible mannerisms pretty well. One day, after a screaming match with the Department of Buildings over the phone, I leaned in and said, “Well sir, it’s just like the Bible says, ‘We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against systems and structures and spiritual wickedness in high places.” He opened his mouth and nothing came out for awhile. Then he gasped, “What did you say? Repeat that.” And I did, after which he asked, “Where did you say that came from?” I said, “The Bible. New Testament. Book of Ephesians.” He said, “Write it down here.” And I did. He said, “This passage is my life. This is what I do every hour of every day.” And he rushed out, went home, had his grandson make a calligraphy version, and duplicated a thousand copies. And whenever anyone from the City bureaucracy came to visit, he would hand them a copy, looking them right in the eye and saying, to their normal astonishment, “Here. Take this and read it. One part is me, and one part is you. Go figure it out.” In terms of civil righteousness, this guy was cooking. He was all over the systemic issues.
Was I, was St. Peter’s, Brooklyn, or the LCMS Brooklyn-Staten Island Circuit, or the Atlantic District, or the LCMS on its own going to bring the Nehemiah Plan to pass? Not in a thousand years. But our common LCMS Lutheran discernment was that we would work alongside each and every one of those major participants in order to engage
The mayor of New York
New York’s Senators and Congressmen
The Council of the City of New York
The Building Department
The Housing Preservation and Development Department
The Sanitation Department
The Department of Demolition
And just about every civic bureaucrat east of the Hudson
System organized for positive change meets system organized to resist change. Change wins! Life begins anew. The ashes of the dead are honored and no longer disgraced. The Precincts of death and violent destruction have become gardens for peace and sanctuaries for the Prince of Peace.
That was the second killing field. The third one happened on September 11, 2001. As Steve Bouman and I have said from that day forward on behalf of all the Lutherans we represent, “we were baptized for this moment. We will be the Church at Ground Zero.” Because there the terrorist attackers of the world organized to engage us with the full force of life-ending, destruction. And we would and we will organize systemically to engage that same world with hope and healing, comfort and renewal. Let me tell you who I hang with in downtown Manhattan, my almost favorite place on the planet earth, even though I’m from the outer boroughs. I hang out with the following:
9-11 Widows and Victims’ Families Association Officers
Marian Fontana, Widow of Lt. Dave Fontana, FDNY Squad 1
Jack Lynch, Father of FF Michael Lynch, FDNY Engine 40
Lee Ielpi, Father of FF Jonathan Ielpi, FDNY Squad 288
Coalition of 9/11 Families
That’s who I hang out with. These are my heroes. They walk the walk, every day. They lease space from us at Lutheran Disaster Response of New York on the 20th floor of 22 Cortlandt. So they do what we do – they look directly across the street down into the site of the World Trade Center. And they see their husband and children. And they know where their bodies were found, and they can point to those spots. And they struggle against every bureaucracy known to humankind driven by the need to make money and points in order to preserve that space as a tribute to those who fell, a lasting memorial that can bring healing even from the deep scars of destruction.
They love Lutherans. They love Steve and me, and especially our executive director, John Scibilia. They love you. Because they know Lutherans are in it with them for the long haul. They know we’re stubborn and determined and interested in justice on the planet earth. And they know that we’re all about healing in the Precious Name of Jesus. I’ve watched them look out, and just stand there with nothing to say. And then I’ve watched them take someone else by the hand, like the Japanese woman they brought by at Christmas, the widow of the first firefighter killed in the line of duty in Tokyo in a dozen years, and realize what agents of healing THEY are. I’m proud to know them and to stand alongside them, and so should you be.
They get it. They know that the mutual prayer and discernment is needed when you’re fighting the big battles in society, after you’ve already lost a husband or a son. They know you better analyze and prepare and engage every day, because every day brings its own new twist. And they know that they need allies who are unafraid to be in their world with them. Allies like you.
Mickey was right. Whether as personal as your own son laying under the pile of the world’s tallest structure or as institutional and corporate as the Port Authority of New York, it is the task of mutual conversation, prayer and discernment to find the will of God for today together.
My third point is this:
Mission demands engagement with the world because mission begins in the heart of God, as determined in God’s revealed Word.
Mickey Kretzmann, the Mission Affirmations and the Missouri Synod official theology all tell us that God engaged the world in love by sending His one and only to pitch his tent with us to fight and gain the once-for-all-time victory over the chaos of our self-imposed death and destruction. We are committed to the same magnificent obsession, aren’t we? To do what we do in this very whacked out world because we know it is God’s world and God loves it. It is God who calls us to be with him in God’s foolish activity of turning the upside down world rightside up even though it looks to all the world as though we’re the ones who are upside down—poor and humble and hanging out with all the wrong customers.
Do we need to construct a mission theology of engagement? Hey, it’s already there! It’s been written for 30-40 years. I’ve given you the referents, up to and including 3-07A, and especially those that articulate Mission and Whole Society. However, “from time to time,” as it is stated, circumstances, much as in the 70s, demand an update to current situations. This is good—we can’t wander from Lutheran doctrine; we’ve got to stay hooked there.
I’m convinced that the overwhelming majority of LCMS Lutherans are centrist, Gospel-oriented mission-directed on the ground incarnational word and sacraments troops. That’s us. We stand for the conservative tenets of Lutheranism, and we won’t budge.
The incursion of doctrinal novelty is not coming from the Left, folks, nor is it coming from the realm of the Left. Accusations of a “liberal left” agenda in the LCMS sound to people on the outside like the mutterings of a lunatic. When I was engaged in conversation with Dan Wakin from the New York Times, after I told him what my positions were on issues social and theological, he said, “Why, you’re way on the conservative side, aren’t you? Why are they out to get you?” I replied, “I know. And I don’t know.”
But I do, actually. The thunder is all on the right, where the holocaust-denying forces have united with the WELS/ELS devotees of avoidance and the over-the-top Matthias Flacians in what amounts to an ideological war between the Kretzmanns. I’m talking Mickey vs. PE. Mickey the Mission Affirmer vs. PE, the Splendid Splinter. Mickey was canned. PE chopped his way out of the Missouri Synod to get his own very, very little thing going.
Mickey was committed to that magnificent obsession with God’s universal reconciling activity and wanted us to affirm it as the Church’s mission in church and society. PE was captive to the scriptural fundamentality of his interpretation of Romans 16:17, in which the capital bold and underlined word is AVOID followed by AT ALL COSTS and THAT MEANS YOU. Flacius was his hero, the over-the-top steroidal gnesio who ended up as another splendid splinter. So when the church body began to enter the world and engage it, PE had to get out. Besides, he was afraid that Lutherans were beginning to engage in that ultimate act of fellowship—dancing.
I’d like Missouri to face that thumping thunder in its right ear. It does NOT represent the conservative tenets of Lutheranism. It represents folks who have either left us or parted company with us because we have held to the Lutheran dynamic and dialectic that is seminal, radical and to be conserved.
Yes, it’s OK to be a Boy Scout and to have a troop in your church. Cub Pack and Scout Troop 251 are hosted at my parish. You can’t get to heaven by being a Boy Scout, but you can tie a better knot more courteously than anyone around. And that’s good. It’s productive of civil righteousness.
And yes, we’re allowed to take an oath in court “so help you God” without invoking the Trinity, because the Almighty God, the true God as known through the Law, and not the Triune God revealed through the Gospel, is presiding over the law in those rooms. And yes, we can sing “God bless America” without fear of syncretising in harmony with the guy in the turban next to us.
And yes, we can use American money because the God in whom we trust is the Almighty God, the one true God as revealed scripturally in Romans 1 and 2 and as revealed in our nation’s founding philosophy and in nature And yes, we can support with fervor the pledge of allegiance to the flag INCLUDING “one nation, under God”, BECAUSE we are upholding the conservative tenets of Lutheranism, which speak of the beauty of civil righteousness as one of the highest gifts of God on earth.
And yes, we can engage in prayerful pastoral practice in the world without people being removed from our rosters. Evil in the world does not produce a hostile takeover. The earth remains the Lord’s, for in God’s own word through the prophet only one God exists to take credit: “I am the Lord. There is no other.” (Isaiah 43) He’s “by our side upon the plain with His good gifts and Spirit.” (TLH 262)
What I’m suggesting is that we face that group, and find that group within, and engage in dialog. Don’t avoid—approach! With straightforward, from the shoulder Biblical and Confession truth. It’s needed within the conservative Lutheran community. And it is the way to healing and strength. Because the inadequate doctrine, which is mostly Reformed and never going to be Lutheran or conservative, needs to be transformed, exchanged for the dynamic dialectic that is Lutheran at Luther’s finest because it is straight from the Word of God.
That’s the meaning of my life right now—to encourage dialog WHEREVER it can be found. I’ve sat in a yurt in a backyard in Louisville with a rabbi and an imam and listened as the rabbi grabbed me and said, “You know what I like about you? You stand up for your particularity! Somebody asks you to pray, you give your prayer in Jesus’ Name and you refuse to back down when they say you shouldn’t have been there and prayed that. We need more Jews like that!” Oddly enough, a Jewish woman out on Long Island called her Lutheran friend the day after Yankee Stadium and said, “Did you see that thing on TV yesterday—wow, was it long! But way at the end a guy got up and gave a prayer, nice and loud and ended in Jesus’ Name. Right from the heart. That’s what I needed to hear.” And her flabbergasted friend said, “That was OUR guy.” And brought the message of salvation to her Jewish friend.
True tolerance in a time of global terror means putting your faith on the line with gentleness and respect, exactly as St. Peter advises (I Peter 3:15) and expecting the same of folks from other religious traditions. In that dialog you grab the opportunities presented from the commonality of the belief in God who is the Creator of the Universe to articulate the source of mercy and grace in Christ. True tolerance in a time of global terror means exclusive claims made in an expansive, dialogical way. The alternative is blood and guns and the demolition derby called religious intolerance, where those who pray are compared to terrorists, or in other parts of the world just simply hacked to bits. There’s a better way, and there’s a better line of theological reasoning. As it turns out, we already have it, and have had it for a long time.
So what are the theological issues on the mission engagement table right now? The topic seems to turn around “civic events.” A document is being prepared for our denomination by the CTCR as we speak, and by the this July will be up for discussion. And that can be a good thing, although over time it seems to me our best denominational efforts have come through a more lengthy process. I’d like to make four theological points in this ongoing dialog.
But first I’d like to make several observations. The portion of the synodically approved document on fellowship called “cases of discretion” states, “Not every occasion were worship takes place is necessarily a manifestation of church fellowship.” When Christian witness is not prohibited, participation at civic events is to be encouraged after discernment. Where there are differences as there will be, charity must prevail. These are GOOD and SUFFICIENT words AS IS. The statements are Lutheran and pastoral in approach, and those are not contradictory but complementary terms.
However, if you followed several threads I’ve brought up, it seems to me that as the dichotomization of our theological enterprise has taken us away from the specifics of Mickey Kretzmann’s “the church is Christ’s mission to the whole society” and toward two separate theological endeavors, our Spendid Splinter PE Kretzmann has gradually crept back in. Therefore, virtually everything has to do with church fellowship and his falsely seminal and very radical one-passage entrance exit passage to approach or avoidance. Thus conversation regarding civic events comes to us through a document on church fellowship. We’re flowing from “render unto God the things that are God’s,” when we’re invited by the mayor of a city who “renders unto Caesar.” So instead of civic events being seen as an aspect of mission and witness, they are seen as an aspect of church fellowship, even though they’re in God’s realm of power. I believe that’s a less than helpful place from which to start. It creates the potential for, as Luther put it, a “stewing and brewing” of the two kingdoms, a hostile invasion from the realm of grace (the church) into the realm of power (society). Rather, Luther would have us understand from the perspective of the knowledge of God from the Law that when we head out there into the world we are doing exactly what our church signage tells us. We are entering the mission zone. There the task is Christian witness in word and deed at the overlapping intersection of left and right realm, power and grace. (Of course, Mickey would remind us appropriately that Christ’s mission for the church is also TO the church.)
If you think it through the other way, the PE Kretzmann way, every arena in the world is either heterodox, heretic or pagan and to be avoided at all costs. The only options are either to organize the conquering of the world through new crusades, or to stay indoors in the sanctuary waiting for folks like you to come to you.
I’d also like to credit the Mission Affirmations for dealing with mission through the Church. And the Church, to Mickey Kretzmann and A. C. Piepkorn as well as to the Reformers, was the whole Christian Church on earth. Here’s Piepkorn, describing what the Una Sancta of Augustana VII looks like: “I mean by it the one holy catholic and apostolic Church that exits empirically wherever the Gospel of the divine grace in Jesus Christ is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered and the Holy Spirit imparts the new birth and the life of God Himself to men and women. In the view of this reporter this one holy catholic and apostolic Church subsists in every church and ecclesial community to the extent that it meets these criteria, but in his view the Church does not subsist only or even pre-eminently in one Church or ecclesial community.” This is the evangelical and catholic driving force that focused and centered American Lutheranism at one point in time. Of course, it’s the narrow thread, but it is my contention that in order to practice the mission affirmation that states the Church is Christ’s mission to the whole society, the evangelical and catholic (universal) poles must be held high and honored.
Ergo, the sedes doctrinae or loci, the theological foundation or point of entry, for civic events, in order for mission to be evangelical and catholic, should not be church fellowship, but must be lodged somewhere else. There are three conservative Lutheran spots, three evangelical and catholic anchors, to lodge those sedes. All have to do with Christian mission activity in society, in God’s realm of power.
The first is Luther’s concept of the two realms. Martin Marty quotes Martin Luther crowing, “not since the time of the apostles have the temporal sword or the temporal government been so clearly described or so highly praised as by me.” It’s hard not to crow WITH him. From the time of Augustine as mitigated especially through Aquinas, the church had proposed a “continuum” between natural law and revelation. The extension of that crooked road is that, in the view of a contemporary like Karl Rahner, there are “anonymous Christians.” That’s raw universalism of the NON-catholic or universal order. Luther rejected that course, and thereby gave God God’s due both in the defined realm of power and in the defined realm of grace, which IS the catholic or universal order. As the Augsburg Confession states it clearly, “we are also members of the Kingdom of God’s Power whereby He rules this world by His Law through the agency of civil government. We agree with the Lutheran Confessors who said that church and government are “the two highest gifts of God on earth.” and that these two authorities should not be “mingled or confused.” (AC XXVIII: 4,12)
Activity in God’s realm of power, therefore, dare not be a confusion. There can be no compromise on Christian witness. That witness can be either in deed or word and prayerfully both-and. There dare be no revulsive avoidance of engagement, for the kingdom of power is God’s and the Christian belongs there. The document That We May Be One prepared through the Atlantic District and Rev. Don Matzat, is very helpful in this regard and available.
So then, what makes a civic event civic? I asked Bill Lazareth—he should know a thing or two. “Under whose auspices was it convened?” was his question. The answer of course in my case was then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In his own words, “Pastor Benke joined the service at my invitation as Mayor of New York City and his presence contributed to a truly inspiring event.” (October 18, 2002)The pre-meeting I went to was hosted by Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington and former Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins, along with the Commissioner of Parks, who was later traded for George Steinbrenner. It’s not about percentages of civil or religious conversation—that’s an over-the-top fellowship perspective, a PE Kretzmann perspective, and a stewing/brewing problem as the realm of grace inappropriately tries to determine what transpires in the realm of power. Under the auspicious big umbrella of civic authority, Lazareth stated clearly to me in agreement with the great Reformer and my ecclesiastical supervisor, Gerald Kieschnick, the vocational task of the Christian is to witness Christ. Bang, zoom, done. Engagement accomplished. Of course those events could be polydox. There are Muslims in Iowa. There are Hindus in St. Louis. There are Buddhists in Colorado. It’s a free country. We like religious freedom, in God’s realm of power. Of course those events will have representatives of various religions, or in normal settings like an inauguration, for instance, will exhibit in this country all the banners of the Almighty through “In God We Trust.” The task is Christian witness. In some cases when the cameras are rolling, the result may be Christian witness to the Whole Society, all at once. This is GOOD.
The second point, as discussed already, is the knowledge of God from the Law. What makes the knowledge of God the knowledge of the True God? I asked the Apostle Paul—he said, “Dave, if God put that knowledge there, in the world God made and in the human heart God created, isn’t it going to be knowledge of the True God? God doesn’t lie about God! People pervert that knowledge, pollute it, distort it, lay it on rocks, birds, reptiles and animals in their foolishness, down to annulment, but they cannot obliterate the knowledge of the True God from the Law. They can De-face it, Dave, just like that church sign that you get so hopped up about when the kids graffiti it. But they cannot Ef-face it. They can’t take the sign away. They can’t take the knowledge of God from their human hearts because God put it there in order that they might seek Him. And that knowledge produces an appreciation of nature and the Law as God’s, of sin, guilt and life after death. I thought I made that clear in Romans 1 and 2 and Acts 14 and 17. (appended) I thought I demonstrated quite clearly before baseball began, at my bigtime arenas in Athens and Ephesus that your job among the rock-worshipers and Packermaniacs, even and especially after the force of demonic energy released in the destruction of lives through terror, is to promote God’s evangelical will and works of grace. Get on it.”
I asked Luther. And Luther said, “I’ve got the gout. Don’t bother me.” When I persisted, he said, “Read the Large Catechism, fella. Explanation to the Creed. Aren’t you already ordained? So I did. “These articles of the Creed, therefore, divide and distinguish us Christians from all other people on earth. All who are outside the Christian church, whether heathen, Turks, Jews, or false Christians and hypocrites, even though they believe in and worship only the one, true God, nevertheless do not know what his attitude is toward them. They cannot be confident of his love and blessing. Therefore they remain in eternal wrath and damnation, for they do not have the Lord Christ, and besides, they are not illuminated and blessed by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Now you see that the Creed is a very different teaching, from the Ten Commandments. The latter teach us what we ought to do; the Creed tells us what God does for us and gives to us. The Ten Commandments, moreover, are inscribed in the hearts of all men.”
When I finished reading, Luther said, “And don’t let anybody ‘fix’ it, either. All the English translations including Bente/Dau, Kolb and Tappert have it right. Take it from me. I’m German. Leave it alone. It’s fine. Yes, they worship the true God with their outward acts, as my pal Philip states, but their hearts are not fine because they lack what you and I know is the key to the universe—the Lord Christ.”
This theology is both evangelical and catholic. It is perduring and must persist in the world. It provides the “button-on” point to those who do not know the Lord Christ through the knowledge and yes, worship of the true God through the Law, but understands clearly that the universal revealed claim of God on fallen humanity is through Christ alone. Emil Brunner, going up against the Reformed Karl Barth, invented the “button-on,” anknupfungspunkt, word. I’ve appended his incredibly pertinent words to all us missionaries to this presentation. It’s Brunner we want, not Barth, to be Biblical and missional, and yes, to be Lutheran.
Therefore the presentation of the Gospel to and in the world is the aim in order that the confidence in God’s love and blessing, already accomplished (II Cor. 5:19,20) might be gained by all. It is dialectic in that the door is open to all through the knowledge of God from the Law to hear the Gospel, even though the knowledge of God from the Law can never save but only condemn. It is precisely that fine and honed dialectic, that “both-and”, that paradoxical in and outness, that MAKES and KEEPS Lutheran theology evangelical and catholic. This is what must be conserved.
In other words, even there in the civic arenas of the world, be they Areopogas or Temple of Diana or Yankee Stadium where the representatives of all religions gather, or even there in the bodega on the corner where the hang-out syncretist with a beer in a bag tells you, “Padre, we all believe in the same God,” we must engage the world with the Gospel of hope! And say, “I agree with you, compadre. There is only one God. What do you know about God, hermano?” And grab a beer and let the dialog and the dialectic begin.
My good friend Don Matzat has written persuasively and as always persistently on this topic. His logic is irrefutable, and his knowledge of Scripture, Luther, and the theologians since is solid as a rock.
The third theological sedes therefore is Christian witness or Christian apologetic. At the intersection of the two realms lies this incredible opportune space where the process of soul-healing, societal and personal redemption and transformation begin and transpire.
Paul in chains writes to the Philippians, in the San Diego of his day where old soldiers went to retire, and tells them they have a common citizenship. Then he gripes at them stating that their quarrels and stupidity out in the open are making their witness to the world worthless. And states, “Have this mind in you, which was in Christ Jesus.” Witness counts! Don’t mess it up! Here are some words from Don Matzat on the topic:
When it came to the relationship between Christians and pagans outside the Church in the civil realm, the position of the Apostle Paul was ….. that the Christians are the ambassadors of God’s reconciliation of the entire world of sinners in Christ Jesus. The issue is no longer perversion and pollution but witness and opportunity. …..
While within the church the issue of perverting the truth of the Gospel was very real and separating from paganism was necessary, when it came to the functioning of the Christian within the civic community, the Apostle’s perspective was totally different. Paul was most certainly not a separatist. He could not be accused of promoting Monasticism or being an Anabaptist.
Paul says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” There is, according to the Apostle, a major difference between mixing idol worship and idol feasts with the Lord’s Table and eating at the table of an idol worshipper. One action is a syncretism in the Church and pollutes the Lord’s Table; the other is in the civic community and provides an opportunity to witness. It is clearly contrary to Scripture to apply fellowship principles governing the life of the Church to the manner in which a Christian functions in the civic community.
The Apostle writes in 1 Corinthians 10:27:
If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake– the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
If the Christian chooses to accept an invitation to “break bread” in the homes of pagans they should have no fear but eat what is set before them, even though the food may have been offered to pagan idols, unless a weaker Christian is present who may stumble and lose their faith. The Apostle encourages the Christian to even thank God for that food—perhaps even as a prayer spoken in the presence of the pagans. The Apostle taught that the Word of God and prayer sanctified the food offered in the pagan temples. In 1 Timothy 4:4,5, he writes:
For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the Word of God and prayer.
For the Christian to be interacting with pagans and unbelievers within the civil realm was a matter of Christian freedom. …..Even then, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that there is only one God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He writes in 1 Corinthians 8:4-11:
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
The Apostle Paul does not condemn the man who is actually “reclining at a table” (katakeimenon) in a pagan temple. It is an issue of Christian freedom.
The Christian interacting in the midst of a pagan culture should use much wisdom and seek the “kairos” moment to share the Gospel and speak of the Lord Jesus. In Colossians 4:5-6 Paul writes:
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
The manner in which the Christian confronts the “outsider” is vital. There are specific “kairos moments” (opportunity) in which the Christian is given the chance to speak truth. In so doing, the Christian’s words should be winsome and filled with grace so that the unbeliever will ask questions.
This same approach to confronting the unbeliever is confirmed by the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 3:15″ Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.
That’s the end of Don. A dramatically abridged version. But that is an outline of Christian apologetics for the 21st century from the 1st century. Here’s what happened in my case:
I presented a prayer as Christian witness in the Precious Name of Jesus. I gave the reason for the Hope I have. It was done with gentleness and respect for those mourning the loss of their loved ones. It produced many results:
Christians called, wrote, and jumped all over me by the thousands with thanks for the healing they received from God through the prayer. Janet Wechsler, a Lutheran who had lost her husband was there—”I can never thank you enough for representing ME,” she said. “Please God, don’t let anyone take pastors out of the stadiums at times like these.” Twila Petal Evanson, who’s like a daughter to me, was there—”Pastor B,” she said, “you don’t know how the people in the stands were reacting. They were going—yes, yes, yes, thank God for that prayer.” Linda Thompson who lost her husband Brian was home but watched on TV. At the dedication of, appropriately enough, a flagpole and garden in front of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Dix Hills, NY last September 11, she told me and her pastor, Chip Froehlich, “Never give up your right to pray in public. Never.”
Some Christians said the prayer was “too Christian.” I responded, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ,” and we talked.
Some Christians said I should never have been there and disgraced Christianity as a heretic. You know the rest of that story. It’s still being told. The response is to promote dialog, dialog, dialog.
Some non-believers and practitioners of other religions asked the question—who is that Jesus? Your prayer was powerful. What is Jesus all about? Dialog and in some cases conversion to Christianity ensued. Ask two guys named Mohan and Moussa. I poured the water on their heads.
Some non-believers and practitioners of other religions were offended by the reference to Jesus. See point 2, but remember the illustration from I Peter and Luther’s Large Catechism. The knowledge of God from the Law is knowledge of the true God but does not save; in fact, it condemns. Rejection of that condemnation and exclusivity is not unexpected, but can, as Peter states, result in feelings of shame in those who are under the Law. This could be good—the offense caused by the Name of Jesus was heard and understood.
Many non-believers and practitioners of other religions were unaffected by any of what went on, and remained lost in grief and sadness.
The “point of contact” is our point of engagement for the sake of the mission of Christ’s church to the whole society, whether in acts of love or justice or prayer at civic events or any of a thousand, thousand ways. So the three sedes or loci are honored—God’s two realms are honored, God’s knowledge of God is honored, witness to Christ is honored. By the Missouri Synod, in its “Cases of Discretion” paragraphs. By its president in his supervision of me. By me on the ball-field.
The fourth point, non-sedes division, is that the pastoral and dialogical impetus must be regained in our denomination or we will certainly perish, split or otherwise disintegrate as a communion of saints. What has jumped off the page to anyone who has read the “Cases of Discretion” document is the last sentence— “Charity must prevail.” Charity seems to be gasping for air in the LCMS. And yes, we can fix the rules and guidelines, at least for awhile, at least for a convention or two, pray God, so the filing of doctrinal complaints becomes far more difficult, and dialog is mandated by church dictate. But rules don’t fix the human heart—reconciliation does. We are being held captive both by a polarized culture as well as by a theological intransigency to uncharitable words and deeds, and it’s got to stop. That’s a cautionary, yet hopeful word. Because stopping and restarting through baptismal repentance and renewal is what daily Christian life is all about.
In the end, I say with Martin Kretzmann and the Mission Affirmations, pray and discern and wrestle over issues in our society with all the implications— and then go for it! Get out there! Bang, zoom, to the moon. Don’t box as one beating the air—lay a glove, lay a hand, lay a blessing on ‘em out there on planet earth.
Stand at the intersection of God’s realm of power and grace and bring your witness ON. At the intersection of love and death choose love. At the intersection of disaster and healing, choose healing. At the intersection of smoke and flame and fire take your baptismal grace and anoint the heads of Christian firefighters with Bill Wrede and guide the smoke-blinded and fearful down the stairs with Richie Ramirez through life and death and into eternity.
At the intersection of action for Christ and sideline inaction, choose action. Listen to the troublemakers, to those magnificently obsessed. Tell ‘em Jesus sent you. Or the Apostle Paul. Or Luther. Or Mickey. Or even me.
In Lystra and Derbe
8In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
11When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
14But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15“Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. 16In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” 18Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.
19Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” 21(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) 22Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:|sc TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. 24“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 29“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone–an image made by man’s design and skill. 30In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” 32When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”
From Emil Brunner
Per contra Karl Barth
Following the exchange between Brunner and Barth, Emil Brunner came out with a response. In that response, he asks the question as to why the Apostle Paul would begin his great treatise on salvation, the Book of Romans, by speaking of the revelation of God in nature. Here is his answer:
“Before the Apostle further unfolds and elaborates the message which he has clearly presented in the opening verses of the first chapter like the theme of a fugue, he settles accounts with himself and his readers concerning the situation of the men to whom the message is addressed. Here he lays the foundation stone of a Christian doctrine concerning ‘natural man,’ and of a Christian doctrine of heathen religions. For he knows that faith inevitably forms and develops itself in the heart of man in such a way as to constrain him to a critical self-understanding on the part of unbelieving ‘natural man.’ This is nothing but the twofold occurrence of ‘repentance’ and ‘trust;’ saying No to oneself is saying Yes to the saving grace of God. The quintessence of this settling of accounts thus lies in the one word ‘inexcusable.’ (Romans 2:1) Hence, these two chapters deal with the responsibility of the ungodly for their ungodliness. But the ground of this imputation of responsibility lies in the doctrine of general revelation or revelation in nature. The godlessness of natural man does not mean that God stands apart from him—for the Creator has truly not left himself without witness among his creatures—but consists in the fact that man has perverted what he has and knows of God (Romans 1:23), that he turns himself away from the God who so mightily declares himself, and uses the revelation in creation in order to reverence the creature rather than the Creator. Accordingly, ‘the heathen’ do not stand outside the revelation of God, or out of relation to him; they stand rather in that alienatio originis which from the human side must be called sin and from the divine side the wrath of God.
“The knowledge of this fact is of decisive importance for this missionary to the heathen who has set the standard for all ages; and it ought to be of decisive importance, now as then, for all who preach the Gospel. It concerns the responsibility, which has a double grounding in the revelation in creation, of the man who is to be reached by the Gospel. This knowledge becomes practically effective in the ‘contact,’ indispensable for every missionary, between his proclamation of Christ and the revelation of God (which leaves man inexcusable) in the works of creation and in the law written in the heart. The classical examples of this are to be found in the only two missionary discourses, which the New Testament has handed down to us in any detail—the fourteenth and seventeenth chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. No missionary has ever preached, or can preach, otherwise than thus: the God whom ye, perverted by your sinful blindness, unknowingly worship as the unknown, him do I proclaim to you as he who has ‘made known the secret of his will’ to us in Jesus Christ the Crucified and Risen.
“He who thinks as a missionary, understands without further ado the central significance of this contact, normative and productive of repentance, with the twofold revelation in creation; and he knows also that far from prejudicing the sola gratia, it alone makes possible the preaching of justification. Everything depends on the establishment of this responsibility, which makes men guilty; and the responsibility itself depends on the reality of a general revelation in creation, which precedes the revelation of reconciliation in Jesus Christ, and indeed precedes all historical life.”