Coming Clean

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Last week I wrote about the sins one might want to confess in Private Confession. Mention was made of those sins that especially trouble us. Those sins in particular weigh us down. The weight is lifted when as penitent sinners we believe Christ’s promise to forgive. And audibly hearing that promise, repeatedly made, can help instill confidence in our Lord’s promises.

When you make confession to God in the presence of a Pastor, this is a time, not for making excuses, but for coming clean and clearly acknowledging that we have sinned. Details are not as important as honesty. For example, confessing that I have been unfaithful, untruthful, or unforgiving is to the point. Divulging a lot of information is not the point!

As your Pastor I like to use our Lutheran Book of Worship to frame the time for Private Confession. You can take a look at the rite on pages 196-7. It is called “Individual Confession And Forgiveness.”

In this rite I ask the one making confession (the penitent), “Are you prepared to make your confession.” The Pastor and the penitent are then able to recite parts of Psalm 51 and 103 together. Then the penitent begins his confession, “I confess before God that I am guilty of many sins. Especially I confess before you that …” And he ends, “For this I am sorry and I pray for forgiveness. I want to do better.”

The Pastor may engage in conversation and offer comfort from the Scripture, but the important part is when he says, “Do you believe that the word of forgiveness I speak to you comes from God himself?” “Yes, I believe,” is the hoped for reply. Then laying hands on the penitent the Pastor says, “God is merciful and blesses you. By the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I, a called and ordained servant of the Word, forgive you your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Since You Asked…

What is the significance of the Day of Pentecost?

A principal Festival, The Day of Pentecost (Jewish harvest festival) was the occasion when the promised gift of the Holy Spirit was sent and poured out on the expectant church. It accordingly marks the culmination of the Easter Season. It occurs 50 days after Easter Sunday. Jesus had promised his followers that when he departed from them (the ascension, not the crucifixion) that he would not leave them as orphans. In fact, until his return at the end of the age, it would be to their advantage that he was departing, for then he would send the Holy Spirit as one called alongside them to comfort them, teach them, guide them, and empower them, even as the Holy Spirit continued to sanctify them (to make holy).

Absolution - The Audible Words of Forgiveness

Picking up with our conversation from last week, I want to discuss with you the kind of sins one might want to confess in Private Confession.

As the Small Catechism states it: “Before God we should confess that we are guilty of all sins, even those which are not known to us, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer. But in private confession, as before the pastor, we should confess only those sins which trouble us in heart and mind.”

Already with this answer we catch a glimpse of the purpose of Private Confession. It is an instrument to bring comfort to a troubled conscience! One of the works of the Holy Spirit is to convict us of our sin (cf. John 16:8). And as our Lord Jesus did not come to condemn us (cf. John 3:17), the work of the Holy Spirit is to trouble us, so that brought to repentance, we might receive the salvation Christ intends for us. But alas, a troubled conscience, without the assurance of forgiveness, can leave a person with excessive sorrow and a sense of despair and condemnation.

The Pastor, as an ambassador, can speak audibly the words of forgiveness. This is called absolution. And the Pastor can continue to share promises from God’s Word that indeed Christ forgives the sins of repentant sinners.

It is important that we allow the Holy Spirit to work through God’s Word. When we listen attentively, our Lord will bring an awareness and conviction of our sin. This is why the Small Catechism suggests: “We can examine our everyday life according to the Ten Commandments – for example, how we act toward father or mother, son or daughter, husband or wife, or toward the people with whom we work, and so on. We may ask ourselves whether we have been disobedient or unfaithful, bad-tempered or dishonest, or whether we have hurt anyone by word or deed.”

When we listen attentively we will also hear his promise to forgive and free us!

Since You Asked…

What is the significance of The Ascension Day Commemoration?

Forty days following Easter the Resurrected Christ ascended to heaven, where as we confess in the Creed, he is seated at the right hand of the Father. The account of the ascension of our Lord occurs in both Luke 24:50-51 and Acts 1:9-11. As described in these passages Jesus led his disciples up Mount Olivet near Jerusalem where suddenly they witnessed his being elevated up into the sky until a cloud took him away from their sight. This signified his return to heaven where, as we confess in the Creed, he is seated at the right hand of the Father. This enthronement is a description of the all-inclusive authority he is given by the Father. Christ’s going away necessarily preceded his promised sending of the Holy Spirit. Other hints at the significance of his ascension have to do with his promise to go and prepare a place for his followers to be with him, and to serve as a High Priest interceding for his Church.

Private Confession - What is it?

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Last week I began to talk about Private Confession. I made a defense for it. But one thing I did not do was to explain what it is. In plain words Martin Luther writes, “Private confession has two parts. First, we make a personal confession of sins to the pastor, and then we receive absolution, which means forgiveness as from God himself. This absolution we should not doubt, but firmly believe that thereby our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.”

So you might be asking, does our Pastor hear Private Confessions? When and how do I go about taking advantage of it? And do Lutherans use Confessional booths?

These are all good questions. Let me answer them one at a time. Yes, most emphatically, I am committed to hearing Confessions! I have in the past, and will continue to hear them in the future. And I take advantage of Private Confession myself, at least four times a year.

The way you go about it is to meet with me. If possible I prefer to hear confessions at the church. It never hurts to call ahead to see if I am at church, and if not when I can meet you there. When you call to make an appointment you can just say you would like to meet with me, whether or not you tell me ahead of time it is for Confession.

And lastly, as you have noticed we do not have booths. I like to sit before the altar, or if more privacy is needed, before a cross in a room. Your privacy is important. I am bound by confidentiality. It is nobody’s business, not only what you confess, but even that you made confession at all!

In the coming weeks I will write further concerning the kind of sins that should be confessed, along with the way that confession can be made and how we can be assured of forgiveness. So please stay tuned.

Since You Asked…

What is meant by the term “liturgy”? (from the Greek, “work of the people”): more than a set form of service or one particular service, the liturgy is the whole body of texts and music used for the worship of God. The Lutheran Book of Worship is the liturgy of many Lutheran churches in North America.  (from “Manual on the Liturgy” companion to the LBW, from Augsburg Pub.)

Our Lutheran liturgy involves the participation of all who are gathered: clergy, laity, and worship leaders along with the rest of the congregation. Worship is not a spectator sport. It is an act of reverence, and of offering praise and thanksgiving to our Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Liturgical worship helps us to share in this act.

Private Confession

 Photo by  Dayne Topkin  on  Unsplash

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

For some strange reason many Lutherans have never heard that Private Confession is encouraged in our Lutheran Tradition! Why is this? Well there are likely many reasons. Certainly we Pastors have not always done a good job of teaching important resources available to believers. And Pastors themselves may have never availed themselves of the benefits of Private Confession. Then there is the feeling that Private Confession is “too Catholic!” And finally, there is the matter in current culture of minimizing sin. And there are probably many other reasons.

But please know, Private Confession is believed, taught, and confessed in our Lutheran Confessions, and notably so in Luther’s Small Catechism. On occasion it is even called a Sacrament, even though it is more often considered an extension of the implications of Holy Baptism.

It is not a case that we cannot go directly to our Heavenly Father in prayer and confess our sins to him and ask for his promised forgiveness. In every circumstance, we are privileged to go directly to the Father in Jesus’ name, for Christ our Lord is the one mediator between God and man (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5).

But as we discussed last week, our Father chooses to speak through the voice of his ambassadors. We can actually hear the words of forgiveness spoken by our Lord through his Church and especially through the Church’s appointed leaders carrying on in the Apostolic tradition and witness. We can hear the words, “Your sins are forgiven.”

It can be a great relief to a troubled conscious to hear this voice individually! It also can provide a heightened sense of contrition and deepened sense of humility when we allow a trusted believer, bound by confidentiality, to listen in to our confession to God. That same believer not only can speak the absolution (word of forgiveness) authorized by God, but he can share further Scriptural promises to build confidence in God’s mercy. So what a treasure this is! And I will continue to speak more of this in the weeks to follow.

Since You Asked…

Why do we celebrate Holy Communion nearly every Sunday?

The celebration of the meal we call Holy Communion has consistently been the chief act of Christian worship since the age of the Apostles. The Lutheran Reformation did not break with this tradition of 1,500 years. In fact the Augsburg Confession (our principal statement of faith) declares Holy Communion to be the chief act of worship for Lutherans on Sundays and festivals (Art. 26).  (from “Manual on the Liturgy” companion to the LBW, from Augsburg Pub.)

You might think of Holy Communion as spiritual bread and drink for our journey (pilgrimage), for our Lord’s Body and Blood is true nutrition indeed!

The Office of the Keys

 Photo by  CMDR Shane  on  Unsplash

Photo by CMDR Shane on Unsplash

Would you believe it? We are on the final leg of our journey through Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. And the final stretch is a consideration of “The Office of the Keys” which includes a consideration of Confession and Forgiveness.

“The Office of the Keys” you say, and what exactly is this? Well I’m glad you asked. And I will let the Good Doctor Luther answer that for you. “It is that authority which Christ gave to his church to forgive the sins of those who repent and to declare to those who do not repent that their sins are not forgiven.”

As usual Luther excels at memorable, pithy, summary statements. But you may be asking, where does he find Scriptural support for the idea that the church is authorized to forgive sins, or in certain other cases to withhold forgiveness? There are two passages especially that teach this.

The first is from John’s Gospel the 20th chapter, verse 23 where our Lord Jesus Christ said to his disciples: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” And the second is from Matthew’s Gospel the 18th chapter, verse 18 where our Lord said to Peter and the disciples: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Now to be sure, Jesus spoke these words to his appointed Apostles. They are in fact the ones who recorded Jesus’ words, his life, indeed his death and resurrection. They represent, as the foundation (see Eph. 2:20 ), the Church, indeed Christ’s Body, that carries on the mission of Jesus!

Note that it is while we speak the Apostolic Word faithfully that the entrusted work of the Apostles, indeed that of Christ himself, continues to be carried on. Just so the Church forgives and retains sins…

Since You Asked…

What is an Alb? And why does our Pastor wear one?

Alb (from the Latin “white”): a white ankle-length vestment with sleeves, often gathered at the waist with a cincture, worn by all ranks of ministers, ordained and unordained. The classical tunic became a specific church vestment about the fifth century. One of the functions of an ordained minister in our tradition is for that person to represent Christ to the people. Christ is pictured in the Book of Revelation with a white robe. The white robe is also a symbol of his righteousness. For this reason, the alb is a proper covering for the presiding minister with the function of representing Christ to the people.  (from “Manual on the Liturgy” companion to the LBW, from Augsburg Pub.)

In Remembrance of Me

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I could not pass up devoting one more week on the topic of Holy Communion. We have yet to discuss the repeated sentence in Christ’s words of Institution, “Do this for the remembrance of me.” These words are important!

Unintentionally, these words often receive little attention among Lutherans because we are typically defending the teaching that in the Sacrament we receive the supernatural body and blood of our Lord. The opposing view, prominent among most Protestants, is a Memorial rather than a Sacramental view.

We do not deny that among the benefits of Holy Communion is that of providing an occasion for us to remember Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross for our salvation. The meal serves to remind us of what our Lord did on our behalf!

Yes, we recall what He did on our behalf! And yet we also celebrate what He continues to do on our behalf. And we continue to be thankful for how His death continues to equip us in our present moment.

Interestingly, in the Bible something done in remembrance is often more than just recalling a past event. It is that. But it is also an occasion to participate in the event itself. This is due to the living, active, authoritative power of God’s Word! In the Old Testament we witness this in the annual celebration of the Passover Meal. In that meal people recite the words of the miraculous deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage saying, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” These words continue to be spoken in the present tense long after the event itself!

Also in the Old Testament, when animal sacrifices were made to atone for the people’s sins, a portion of the sacrifice was eaten by the people in a meal. The eating itself signified a connection to the benefits of the sacrifice! Think of the significance of this in connection with Holy Communion…

Since You Asked…

What is the significance of sharing the peace?

“The peace which enables people to live in unity and in the spirit of mutual forgiveness comes only from Christ whose word has been proclaimed. … The peace is a sign that those who participate in it open themselves to the healing and reconciling power of God’s love and offer themselves to be agents of that love in the world. … The personal exchange of the peace should be as unpatterned as possible, but its meaning and significance should be kept clear. It is not the occasion merely for conviviality. The choice of gesture, whether a handshake, holding hands, or an embrace, should be left to the persons themselves.”  (from “Manual on the Liturgy” companion to the LBW, from Augsburg Pub.)

Receiving With Faith

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Concerning the Sacrament of Holy Communion, it can be a little daunting to approach the Lord’s Supper. After all, there is mention in 1 Corinthians 11 of partaking of the meal in an unworthy manner with the possible result of bringing judgment on yourself (vv. 27-30). That the Apostle Paul speaks in verse 27 of being guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord, is but another indicator from Scripture that Jesus’ body and blood are involved!

Lutherans teach that Holy Communion is the body and blood of our Lord. That is what is received by those who partake of the elements, whether or not they have faith! Christ’s promises do not depend on our faith, but upon his word. Where faith matters is in the effect Christ’s body and blood will have. If we receive the elements with faith in Christ’s words the reception of his body and blood will be beneficial. It will bring forgiveness.

If, on the other hand, there is no faith, we have been given a warning. Paul puts it this way, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

In the Small Catechism, Dr. Luther relates what it means to be prepared and to receive the sacrament worthily: “Fasting and other outward preparations serve a good purpose. However, that person is well prepared and worthy who believes these words, given and shed for you for the remission of sins. But anyone who does not believe these words, or doubts them, is neither prepared nor worthy, for the words for you require simply a believing heart.”

It is faith in God’s promises that make us worthy, for we receive Christ’s righteousness when as unworthy sinners we receive it as a gift, simply by taking him at his word! 

Since You Asked…

What is the meaning of the Incarnation?

The word incarnation is taken from Latin term incarnatio. It literally means “taking flesh” and in the Christian Faith it refers to God becoming human. In John 1:14 we learn of God the Son becoming flesh with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed the child born to Mary was a man, but it is the insistence of the Christian Faith that Jesus was also fully God. He is sometimes called the God-Man. Without ceasing to be fully divine, inseparable and equal to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit; God the Son also fully assumed our humanity in the womb of the Virgin Mary. In this way Jesus mediates God to man and then also represents man to God. The mystery of the Incarnation becomes a necessary means by which Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplishes our salvation.

Given and Shed for You for the Remission of Sins

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Lutherans can be a little lonely among Protestants in believing Holy Communion to be a Sacrament and that we are actually extended the forgiveness of sins in the meal. Somehow that seems to be stretching things and assigning too much to a rite many consider to only be a symbol.

So Luther anticipated the objection, namely that eating and drinking could do all this. And the good Doctor responds in the Small Catechism, “It is not eating and drinking that does this, but the words, given and shed for you for the remission of sins. These words, along with eating and drinking, are the main things in the sacrament. And whoever believes these words has exactly what they say, forgiveness of sins.”

And you might anticipate the objection to once again be, well if it is the words that matter than why bother with the eating and drinking? And the response would have to simply be because our Lord himself combined the words with the eating of bread and drinking of the cup. He must have felt it worthwhile for us to chew on the promises and then to swallow them.

Earlier in his public ministry, in fact on the heels of his miraculous feeding of the 5,000, Jesus had spoken words that many found offensive. They are recorded in the sixth chapter of John. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” What on earth did he mean?

For many Christians, Lutherans included, we believe that in the meal Christ himself instituted, our Lord gave the ability for us to eat Christ’s body and drink his blood. Of course we are speaking of our Lord’s supernatural body and blood, but this is no less his actual body and blood! And believers receive the benefits of his presence, namely, the forgiveness of sins.

Since You Asked…

How are we to understand the Easter Feast?

“Easter is to be understood as the crown of the whole year, the queen of feasts, and as such it lasts not for a day, not for a week, but for a week of weeks – a week not made up of seven days but of seven weeks. So the Sundays of this season are called the Sundays of Easter. It is one extended feast. …

The Gospels for the Sundays of Easter present the themes of resurrection, ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit as aspects or stages of the Easter Mystery…” (from the Manual on the Liturgy a companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, publ. by Augsburg)

Sustained in the Lord’s Gift of Forgiveness

This week we continue our discussion of the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Last week I mentioned that as a Sacrament Lutherans believe Holy Communion bears a spiritual gift. So this week we will take a look at the benefits of this gift.

In explaining the benefits of Holy Communion Luther writes, “The benefits of this sacrament are pointed out by the words, given and shed for you for the remission of sins. These words assure us that in the sacrament we receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”

So someone might ask, if we receive the forgiveness of sins in Holy Baptism why do we need the forgiveness mediated to us in a meal? The same question could be asked as to why we need to keep asking for forgiveness if our sins were washed away in Baptism. And the answer for both would be the same. It is because we continue to sin.

I like to think of the Baptismal font as the womb of the Church that bestows spiritual birth. In keeping with this maternal image, that would make Holy Communion the Church’s nursing breasts. The point being is that we are both bestowed and nurtured in our life in Christ.

Too often we think of our faith in Christ as some kind of commercial transaction, as though by faith we have purchased a gift that is now ours forever and that it will always be around if we need it. But rather than thinking of faith in static terms, we should view it as a journey. Belief has to start somewhere, but once started, trusting and repenting will be ongoing throughout our earthly pilgrimage. The good news is that God equips and gifts us for this. And Holy Communion is a tangible way we continue to be sustained in the Lord’s gift of forgiveness.

Since You Asked…

What are we observing on “The Sunday of the Passion?

The Sunday of the Passion mixes triumph and tragedy, the palms and the passion, observing Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem as well as looking ahead to his passion and death on the cross.

As the prelude to the Sunday of the Passion  the Procession with Palms provides an appropriate burst of joy which does not lose sight of the solemn goal of Jesus’ triumphal entry. Then as we transition to the events to transpire in the week ahead we will read in its entirety the Passion according to one of the Gospel Accounts. (taken from the Lutheran Planning Calendar, publ. by Augsburg Fortress)

Holy Communion - Taking Jesus at His Word

Just as Baptism is variously understood among Christians, the same can be said about Holy Communion. And again, a major difference is between those holding to an understanding of Holy Communion as a sacrament and those understanding the meal as an ordinance. As a sacrament Lutherans believe that God gives a gift as we commune. As an ordinance other Christians believe that Christ wanted us to share this meal, not that anything supernatural takes place, but so that we would thereby remember Jesus’ death on the cross as a sacrifice for sins.

Dr. Luther in his Small Catechism can be trusted to give us a simple definition of Holy Communion. He writes, “Holy Communion is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ given with bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us to eat and drink.”

And then the good Doctor cites Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul as the source of his definition. Together they provide our Lord’s words of institution. Hear them once more! “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks; broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take and eat; this is my body, given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me. Again, after supper he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for all to drink, saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

It is easy to assume that Jesus is using figurative language here, because we have been preconditioned in our age to think that material thing can not be the bearers of spiritual gifts, and because we do not visually see Christ’s mystical body and blood in the meal. But if we take Jesus at his word, then the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10 make sense, namely that the bread is a participation in Christ’s body, and the cup a participation in Christ’s blood.

Since You Asked…

What is the meaning of the Incarnation?

The word incarnation is taken from Latin term incarnatio. It literally means “taking flesh” and in the Christian Faith it refers to God becoming human. In John 1:14 we learn of God the Son becoming flesh with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed the child born to Mary was a man, but it is the insistence of the Christian Faith that Jesus was also fully God. He is sometimes called the God-Man. Without ceasing to be fully divine, inseparable and equal to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit; God the Son also fully assumed our humanity in the womb of the Virgin Mary. In this way Jesus mediates God to man and then also represents man to God. The mystery of the Incarnation becomes a necessary means by which Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplishes our salvation.