Thursday Theology: The Other Focus and Unfinished Business: A Project for Seminex-style Theology in 2024 and Beyond (Part One)

Co-missioners,

Most of you met Ron Roschke for the first time last November via a book review he wrote for Thursday Theology. You encountered him again last month through a thoughtful reflection on his experience of Seminex. Themes from both those contributions will come together this week and next as Ron uses his deep familiarity with current biblical scholarship to propose a project for the confessional theology that Seminex championed and that continues to shape us at Crossings today.

Please keep Ron in your prayers, by the way, as he deals with some health issues over the next couple of months. They are grievous enough to have prompted him to take a break from Wordloom, the remarkable series of weekly text studies we told you about when we introduced him in November. Even so, the prognosis is encouraging, enough so that Ron has invited his Wordloom readers to watch for his return. God grant it. He does such good stuff in his work with Scripture!

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community

 

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The Other Focus and Unfinished Business:
A Project for Seminex-style Theology in 2024 and Beyond
(Part One of Two)

by Ron Roschke

 

I think it was Ed Schroeder who first described the theology of Seminex as an ellipse having two foci. One was the historical critical method of biblical interpretation (HCM). The other was the law/gospel hermeneutic of the Augsburg Confession (LGH).[1]

I believe that image is accurate—in the end. However, it does not describe the initial battle lines of the conflict that created Seminex. These were drawn by J.A.O. Preus, president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), in what may well have been a ghost-written document entitled “A Statement of Biblical and Confessional Principles.” [2] Preus was able to get this document endorsed by the LCMS’s 1973 Convention in New Orleans. “A Statement” was designed to serve as the theological standard by which the faculty majority of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, would be judged and eventually declared to be heretics. Of the document’s 4,296 words, 3,032 of them (71%) were expended on only one of the six articles in the document: “Holy Scripture.” The remaining 29%—1,264 words, shorter than one of my sermons—covered everything else: “Christ as Savior and Lord,” “Law and Gospel,” “Mission of the Church,” “Original Sin,” and “Confessional Subscription.” In other words, the Missouri Synod was preparing for a “battle over the Bible.”

In public opinion and the public press at the time, this was how the conflict was characterized. The intense grilling of the exegetical faculty in subsequent interviews, designed to expose their “errors,” proved that this was indeed the focus. The heresy-hunters’ overall target may have comprised six concentric circles, each drawn from Preus’s Statement, but the circle in the center took up over two-thirds of the real estate—an easy bullseye to hit.

From Bullseye to Ellipse

section of a grey and white dart board with a metal dart with red flights at the end.

Bullseye image from Canva

It was the theological genius of the faculty majority to challenge this pogrom by turning the target from a circle into an ellipse and then insisting that the second of the ellipse’s two foci had primary importance in this debate. Led by colleagues such as Bob Bertram and Ed Schroeder, the faculty majority declared that the most significant issues the LCMS needed to discuss in order to resolve the conflict had to do not so much with Scripture (Focus One) as with the Lutheran Confessions (Focus Two)—specifically, with how the Confessions shape our understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ and how this understanding gets worked out in the church’s proclamation and a theology that distinguishes between law and promise.

This was the confessional standard to which the faculty—and every Lutheran pastor—had pledged themselves. It was for Lutherans the norm by which all theology was to be judged. Rather than arguing about six 24-hour days of creation or the biological nature of Jonah’s big fish, this primary focal point demanded that the church give an accounting of what its true hope is, and of the foundation on which this hope rests. This was and is, quite literally, the life-and-death issue upon which the church stands or falls. This—law and promise, sin and grace—was the primary, essential focal point in this circular-target-turned-ellipse.

While we must acknowledge this was a brilliant theological move, it did not succeed in changing the course of the political juggernaut that would lead to Tietjen’s dismissal and the faculty majority’s firing. The final outcome had less to do with Seminex’ s political strategies and more to do with the theology of the LCMS, then and now. However, in framing the issue as an ellipse with one major Confessional focus, Seminex offered the LCMS its greatest (and perhaps last) opportunity to affirm or reject what was and is the heart of Christian faith. Unfortunately, at the time of the conflict and in the half-century that has followed, the Missouri Synod has never realized who really was “on trial” here.

The “Confessional move” from circle-to-ellipse was the absolutely right thing to do in the 1970s. Fifty years later it continues to strike me as the “right move” needed at that point in time. Still, there remained that other focus, the one about biblical hermeneutic. And in 2024 I am equally convinced of two more things. First, there is a lot for the Seminex community and its heirs—even a half century after the conflict—to glean by taking the biblical hermeneutic focus seriously. Second—even more importantly—to ignore those issues diminishes the capacity of Confessional Lutheranism to live up to its deepest values and potentials.

What Exactly Is the Historical Critical Method?

First, we ought to understand what is meant by “historical critical method” (HCM). The anti-Seminex forces said over and over that HCM was “bad” because its proponents were being critical of the Bible, high-handed in their way of dealing with the Scriptures—behaving with an arrogant attitude that placed LCMS moderates as judges of the Word of God. But that is exactly the opposite of what HCM was and is all about. [3] The “critical”—the “C”—in HCM is directed not toward the text but rather toward the interpreter, the one who reads the text. From the eighteenth century on, Western culture began to see the need for something like HCM as readers of ancient texts became more and more aware that significant gaps of understanding existed between themselves and the authors of those texts.

Many factors deepened awareness of this dilemma. Philosophical, historical, and linguistic studies uncovered interpretive “disjunctions” that led to an awareness of the profound difference in the ways in which people in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries understood the world in comparison with previous generations. At the same time, archeology continued to create a more profound understanding of what ancient cultures were like, based upon the material artifacts and texts they had produced.

As this awareness of “difference” came into being and deepened, many textual scholars began to realize that a reader of ancient texts needed to be self-critical. Each of us needs to bear responsibility for the assumptions we all too easily drag into the interpretive process. If we impose our own contemporary assumptions upon ancient texts, we short-circuit our ability to really hear and understand what our forebears were trying to say.

This way of understanding HCM as a self-critical method never gained wide currency in the theological battles that gave birth to Seminex in the 1970s. It seemed, often, that moderates in the debate feared that claiming too much about HCM would drag the debate right back into the circular target that allowed conservatives to ignore the deep Confessional issues. At times, the moderate “defense” of HCM boiled down to something like this: “It’s really OK—permissible—to read biblical texts using HCM. It does not jeopardize the law/promise principle, which is central to understanding the Scriptures.”

However, I think the issues raised by HCM can be stated much more powerfully and unequivocally than that. A half-century after the events of the Seminex conflict, we can state the issue as clearly as it needs to be put: Unless readers of the Bible are willing to be self-critical about the presuppositions they bring to the interpretation and understanding of the text, the text itself will not be heard. Instead, “the Scriptures” will be little more than a mirror reflecting back the untested presuppositions the reader brings to the text.

When we are unwilling to be self-critical in reading the Bible, we dampen the power of the Scriptures as Word of God in their ability to speak to us; the Bible becomes an idolatrous echo of our own un-reflected assumptions. And when this happens, we do not “hear” or “believe” what God wants to say to us; we simply “believe what we believe about the Bible.” In this diminished capacity of “listening” to the Scriptures, “biblical faith” becomes “eternal and unchanging” (which HCM’s critics so highly and consistently value). We end up listening only to ourselves, protected from having the text truly address us and change us.

Second-Generation Historical Critical Methods

From Canva

A funny thing happened to HCM while so many of us were on our way to Seminex: HCM evolved. In the years surrounding Missouri’s purge of its “heretics,” mainstream interpreters of the Bible were coming to appreciate new dimensions of the challenges faced by readers of ancient texts. We can chart this most clearly, perhaps, by considering the evolution of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).

For many decades up to the middle of the twentieth century, the SBL organized itself into two working groups: Old Testament and New Testament. The “fathers” of HCM would expound upon the “assured results” of their scholarly work and everyone else listened attentively. In 1968, Robert W. Funk was named Executive Secretary of the Society. Under his leadership, immense changes began to reshape the organization. The Society founded its own publishing company, Scholars Press. Funk launched the Jesus Seminar in 1985. And throughout these years, there was an ever-expanding explosion of interpretative options for reading the Bible.

It’s easiest to understand this explosion as a logical outgrowth of HCM itself, especially in its dedication to the important work of self-criticism. Practitioners of HCM became increasingly aware—and sometimes astounded!—about how unaware each of us may be regarding the cultural assumptions we bring to reading any text. Pre-critical readers of texts assumed that all of us read a text from the same vantage point—we were all seeing “the same thing.”

But the more that critical readers reflected on textual hermeneutic, the more self-aware they became of how there are immense—and often unconscious—forces that shape all our thought patterns: gender, race, social and economic status, sexual identity and orientation, and the list goes on. We human individuals simply do not look at reality in the same ways, and these differences also affect the way we read the Bible. Giving an account of these differences—bearing responsibility for them—required an ever-expanding set of tools for understanding the Scriptures. Thus, interpretive options for reading the Bible continued—and continue—to multiply. I am referring to these “appendices and additions” as “second-generation HCM.”

All of this poses a deep challenge to many who want to read the Bible through the lens of the Lutheran Confessions. At times the cacophony of interpretive options generated by HCM seems to drown out the clarity of God’s good news. The Confessions make reading the Scriptures “easy” in comparison to the complex and sometimes contentious tugs-of-war taking place within the community-web that practices HCM.

This “Confessional anxiety” is only deepened as these other interpretive options begin to “squeeze out” Confessional norms and practices in the church’s preaching and its preparing of women and men for rostered leadership in the church. In ecclesial life and professional formation, the Confessions are increasingly ignored altogether. It becomes easy to think about these HCM interpretive options as being opponents to the gospel itself.

There are paths forward, however, than can lead us toward a reinvigorated future for both ‘”the Seminex project” and the role of the Lutheran Confessions as the twenty-first century continues to unfold. We will explore these paths in next week’s installment.

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Endnotes

[1] Edward H. Schroeder, Seminex Remembered, ed. Michael Hoy (St. Louis MO: Crossings Community, 2024), p. 28. In describing “the other focus” of the ellipse, I most often will be referring to it as “the Lutheran Confessions.” I think the term “law/gospel hermeneutic” (LGH) works well in creating a parallel with “historical critical method” (HCM). I understand LGH to be a hermeneutical method derived from the Lutheran Confessions. However, I will continue to refer to the focal point more broadly as “Lutheran Confessions” because I think the point of comparison is actually larger than a hermeneutical method; it has to do with our very identity as “Lutheran” and how we go about defining that through our engagement with the Confessions. The issue here is whether the Confessions are pitted against HCM or work in tandem with it.

[2] “A Statement of Biblical and Confessional Principles” (St. Louis MO: The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1973).

[3] In this description of HCM, I am thinking about the method as it has evolved through what I call “second-generation methods,” which I will describe in more detail a little later. In general, HCM in its earlier forms (as “higher criticism”) worked with texts to create a model of the world in which the text was produced. As the method evolved—during the decade before the time of Seminex and into the present—there is a significant shift and a “turn of gaze” that is meant to include the reader/interpreter as part of the process that creates meaning.


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community


Thursday Theology: How Expansive is the Easter Promise?

Co-missioners,

Christ may be risen indeed, yet countless people for whom he died don’t believe this, nor will they in their lifetimes. All too many don’t know of Christ at all. What becomes of them when all is done? Dare we assume that God gives up on them?

Christian thinkers have tussled with this question since the days of St. Paul. Today’s first-time contributor, Dr. Norman Metzler, will reflect on it again using a distinction familiar to students of classic Lutheran-style dogmatic theology. For those who don’t know the terminology, he’ll explain what it means as he goes along. By all means stick with him. You’ll be intrigued by the alternatives he’ll have you weighing when you reach the end.

Dr. Metzler taught theology for many years at Concordia University, Portland, Oregon, an institution of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod that closed its doors in 2020. He continues in retirement to be listed on LCMS clergy rolls and has contributed several articles to the Daystar Journal, an outlet for LCMS moderates with a passion for the Gospel. On stumbling across Crossings earlier this year, he wrote to ask how he could be involved in the conversations that happen among us. We suggested Thursday Theology as a possible venue. He responded promptly with what you’ll read here, for which we thank him heartily.

Norm will welcome your feedback, by the way. You can route it through our editor, Jerry Burce.

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community

 

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Objective and Subjective Justification Revisited

Rev. Dr. Norman Metzler

 

There has been renewed interest in the doctrine of “objective justification” in recent decades among Lutherans. While this discussion is occurring within the specific Lutheran theological parameters of “objective justification” and “subjective justification,” it has arisen within the broader theological discussion of “universal salvation” within Christianity. The doctrine of Objective Justification teaches that objectively or generically speaking, all people are justified or reconciled to God through the work of Christ. (See e.g. Franz Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. II, pp. 347 ff.) Some theologians have challenged this teaching on the grounds that it might be seen to support “universal salvation,” a notion broadly rejected within Christianity. Others continue to affirm Objective Justification in order to make clear that we are saved purely by the grace of God, and not by our good works.

Christ Pantocrator (Church of St. Alexander Nevsky, Belgrade)
From Wikimedia Commons

The doctrinal counterpart to Objective Justification, according to Pieper, is the doctrine of Subjective Justification, according to which only those with the gift of faith will actually experience justification or salvation through Christ. This raises the unavoidable question of the fate of all those – the vast majority of humanity – who have never heard the gospel and therefore have never been blessed to receive the gift of faith because they were never exposed to the “first gift.” Those who affirm Objective Justification acknowledge that most people are living in spiritual darkness; the Christian mission is to bring the light of the gospel to their darkness. Christians are called to share that Good News humbly and lovingly, certainly also applying the Law of God to those who reject the gospel. Orthodox Christianity uniformly holds that there is no other way for people to be saved than through the grace of God revealed in Christ.

What then, it may fairly be asked, is the fate of all those who are not reached with the gospel? While this approach to justification affirms salvation as a gift, not dependent on our works, it does make salvation conditional upon our personal experience of saving faith. A plausible line of reasoning might be that a gift is only meaningful if the gift is opened. For those without the gift of faith, the gospel is irrelevant; they are still living in their sins, apart from Christ, and are therefore justly condemned to eternal torment in hell. The quandary is that salvation cannot be both completely unconditional, a gift of grace alone, and at the same time be somehow conditional, dependent upon one’s personal faith.

While Martin Luther and most Christians did not endorse John Calvin’s doctrine of “double predestination,” according to which God intentionally chose some for salvation and others for eternal damnation, there is no circumventing the various biblical passages suggesting that some people are saved while others are perishing. For example, St. Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18) In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus asserts that the gate to destruction is wide and entered by many, while the gate to life is narrow and only a few find it (Mt. 7:13-14; cf. Mt. 22:14).

However, there are also many passages in scripture, for example as listed by David Bentley Hart in his book That All Shall Be Saved (pp. 94 ff.), that clearly extend Christ’s saving work to all of humanity, not just to those with personal faith. This is perhaps most clearly expressed by St. Paul in his contrast of Adam and Christ; as Adam in the Fall into sin condemned all humanity to disobedience, so Christ through his death on the cross included all humanity in his work of salvation (e.g. Rom. 11:32; 1 Cor. 15:22). Christ objectively died and rose for the salvation of “the world” (John 3:16,17), the justification of all people. If God truly desires to have all people saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4,6), then these passages provide compelling reasons to believe that all people ultimately will in fact be saved, including the majority of humanity that never got to hear and accept the Good News of their salvation during their lifetime—or who for whatever reason in ignorance  may have even rejected the gospel.

St. Paul in his letter to the Romans addresses this very situation. He explains that God in his sovereign power hypothetically could have predestined some people for salvation and others for destruction, such as those Jews who were rejecting his gospel proclamation. But in fact, their rejection of the gospel was actually part of God’s plan to have his Good News spread to the Gentiles. These recalcitrant Jews will ultimately be saved as part of God’s chosen people and heirs of the promise given to the patriarchs (Rom. 11:25-26, 11:32). Now if those Jews who were explicitly rejecting Christ can ultimately be saved by grace as part of his greater plan, then it would seem fitting that all nations can be blessed (as was promised by God to Abraham) by being predestined and chosen for salvation through Christ, even if in this lifetime they reject Christ, or never get the opportunity to hear the gospel in the first place. All people are part of God’s saving plan.

From Canva

We propose an alternative understanding of Subjective Justification that avoids its inherent conflict with Objective Justification, at least as Subjective Justification has traditionally been defined. Subjective Justification could be interpreted as demarcating all those with the gift of faith, namely the Church, the Body of Christ—without at the same time asserting that all those outside the Church of Christ and therefore without personal faith are condemned to eternal torment in hell. Such an understanding of Subjective Justification would acknowledge that there is only a limited number of people who are blessed to hear and receive the gospel by faith. However, those who are “chosen” are privileged to know that they and all people are saved by the grace of God alone revealed through Christ—not by their works, and not even by their faith. Whenever the scriptures speak about the requirement of repentance and faith for salvation, they do so in the context of those who are able to hear and respond to the gospel. The scriptures appropriately affirm that salvation is possible only because of the saving work of Christ, and therefore call unbelievers to repentance and faith in the gospel. Those who resist the gospel are warned with hyperbolic apocalyptic imagery about the tragic hopelessness of life apart from God’s heavenly kingdom, as portrayed for example in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

However, it is critically important to consider the audience to whom such apocalyptic warnings and threats are directed. Jesus uses such hyperbolic apocalyptic rhetoric when calling to repentance and faith those who were resisting his gospel, not when addressing those who were “poor in spirit” and yearned for Jesus’ message of the gift of salvation in God’s coming kingdom. As harshly as Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their opposition to his message, he did not exclude them from salvation. He confronts them with the seriousness of their rejection by asserting that they will enter the kingdom only after those prostitutes and tax collectors who were condemned by the Pharisees as unworthy of the kingdom (e.g. Mt. 21:32). But Jesus does allow that even they may enter through that “narrow gate.” We know in the larger biblical context that the gate to heaven is wide open for those seeking the grace of God (Mt. 8:11; Lk. 15:11-32; Jn. 14:2; Rev. 22:2).

We therefore propose that the biblical apocalyptic threats are hyperbolic rhetoric used to call the opponents of the gospel to repentance and faith, and that those passages supporting Objective Justification are literally true. The alternative is to interpret those passages that severely limit salvation as literally true, and the universal-sounding passages as exaggerations. This latter view in effect is how traditional Christianity has typically interpreted Scripture.  We offer the following perspectives on the traditional view:

    • On the one hand, it seems quite reasonable that Jesus would use dramatic, hyperbolic imagery threatening weeping and gnashing of teeth—images that were current in the Jewish religious culture of that time—to confront those rejecting his gospel, with the intent of moving them toward repentance and faith (see e.g. Mt. 8:10-12). We know from scripture that Jesus often used hyperbolic rhetoric; at one point he proposed that if your hand offends you, cut it off so that it doesn’t keep you from entering God’s kingdom. St. Paul likewise exaggerated dramatically when he wrote that those advocating circumcision should emasculate themselves. These are clearly instances of hyperbolic rhetoric intended to get people’s attention and call them to repentance and faith rather than statements to be taken literally.
    • On the other hand, it is difficult to see what purpose it would have served for Jesus and Paul to speak hyperbolically when they asserted repeatedly and unmistakably that God covered the sins of all people through the sacrificial death of Christ, if in fact they knew that only a relatively few would actually inherit eternal life. It seems inconsistent with the biblical picture of Jesus and Paul for them to have misled their audiences with the false hope that all will be saved, if in fact they knew it was not true.

It is therefore much more plausible and consistent with God’s gracious love for all humanity as revealed through Christ, as well as Jesus’ and Paul’s rhetorical use of hyperbole—if indeed in contrast to traditional Christian theology—to view the apocalyptic warnings and the references to very few being saved as hyperbolic and metaphorical rhetoric, than it is to dismiss the numerous straightforward biblical assertions of salvation for all as hyperbolic and figurative rather than God’s actual gracious plan.

If Objective Justification is to be understood literally and salvation is in fact universal, then there is no need for a literal eternal hell ruled by Satan. This actually corroborates the monotheistic worldview of Christianity, according to which there is simply no room for an eternal hell ruled by Satan to co-exist alongside the heavenly kingdom ruled by God. Satan is totally subservient to God and will be destroyed when Christ returns in glory to usher in his heavenly kingdom. There can be no real eternal hell, but there will be a Final Judgment where we will give an accounting to Christ, our Savior, who will finally welcome us home in our perfect, new, spiritual bodies.

 


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community


Thursday Theology: Robert Bertram’s “The Lively Use of the Risen Lord”

Co-missioners,

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Much of the Church will hear Christ saying this again three days from now, on the Second Sunday of Easter. The day’s appointed Gospel is John 20:19-31. That this text gets read on Easter 2 in every year of the three-year lectionary cycle that lots of us follow underscores the vital role it plays in defining what the Church is for—or is meant to be for, at any rate.

Fifty-two years ago, Robert W. Bertram preached a homily on this text that left a deeper impression than usual on those who either heard it at the time or encountered it later in published form. Mention has been made of it more than once in these past few months of Seminex remembrance. For some it was one of those things that made the Aha’s start to pop as they sifted through the bitter arguments of the day. These swirled around two key questions: “What is the Gospel?” “How can we trust it?”

Bertram addressed both those issues in that homily of April 13, 1972. His driving points: “Make use of Christ! Don’t let him go to waste!”

Perhaps it strikes you, as it does us, that Christ is still being badly under-used in the church of 2024. If so, you’ll want to read what Bertram said back then. You’ll find some joy in it, we think, to say nothing of encouragement. Hence our decision to re-post it today via Thursday Theology, another gem from our online library.

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community

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The Lively Use of the Risen Lord
by Robert Bertram

A homily preached at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis
on April 13, 1972

Published in Concordia Theological Monthly 43 (July-August, 1972): 438-441. Reprinted in The Promising Tradition, a collection of sources for the introductory course in systematic theology at Christ Seminary–Seminex

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Text: John 20:19-31

 

So Jesus rose from the dead and showed Himself to His disciples. So what? What is the use of that?

William Hole (1846–1917) – Jesus appears to the disciples
From Wikimedia Commons

By putting the question that way, I run the risk, I know, of sounding flippant, though that is the very opposite of what I intend. Really, this rhetoric of putting Christ to use rather than letting Him go to waste I have stolen outright from the rhetoric of the Lutheran confessors. They too could sound flippant, although what they intended was something far different from flippancy—far different and far more. What they intended was clearly to call a spade and spade. Nothing less than that would do when what was at stake was the very Gospel, the very “use” of Jesus Christ. If in order to make their point the confessors had to borrow from the rhetoric of Renaissance bankers and financiers, the usurers, so be it.

But of course the original idea of making use of Christ came, as the confessors’ ideas usually did, from the radical rhetoric of Scripture. For wasn’t it the apostle Paul who employed this notion against his opponents? Not that his opponents denied the history about Jesus, His death and resurrection. But rather, as Paul charges them, they were by their legalism so misusing that history of Christ as to cause Him to have “died in vain.” The situation was similar at the time of the Reformation. The Roman opponents, as the Augsburg Confession cheerfully concedes, had an official christology which was orthodox to the letter. These opponents very properly affirmed the whole Biblical historia concerning Christ. However, by the way in which they used His history in practice they undid it. They rendered the history superfluous, “worthless.” Thus Christ might just as well never have died and risen in the first place. Such a criticism does sound flippant. But really it is worse than flippant. It is deadly serious. So am I.

Why? Because the same problem—the problem of nullifying Christ’s history by our legalism—is with us still. That may not seem to be our problem. It never does seem to be the problem, so effective is the camouflage with which the Father of Lies conceals this problem. But for those who have the eyes and the freedom to peer beyond the appearances, that same problem still looms today, demonic and stark, also in our church body. It is the pseudo-Christian heresy of so misusing Christ and His Biblical history as to obviate any true need of Him.

In exposing this danger, I certainly do not intend to ridicule it. It is part of the piety of people who are near and dear to me. But it is a false prop, a weakness, which actually endangers rather than strengthens their faith in Christ.

Isn’t this the real issue before us, namely, that the history of Jesus our Lord, however correctly it is told and retold, is in jeopardy of being voided by our legalistic use of it?

Granted, there are those in our circles, including many people of good will, who deny that that is the issue, who insist instead that the real need is merely to affirm the Biblical history—that is, to affirm that it did in fact happen—and who imply that the use to which that history is put is a separate and a secondary consideration. But is it all that secondary? Isn’t it rather the case that, when that one really radical use of Biblical history is allowed to slip from view, the history is then put to other, lesser uses which for all practical purposes make the whole history to have happened “in vain?” Once that happens (and it is happening), then the only question left to debate is how much of the history do you believe actually occurred. That then degenerates into a futile debate between the maximalists and the minimalists, all the more futile since real, honest-to-goodness minimalists are not actually represented in the Missouri Synod at all but have to be conjured up to provide an imaginary enemy. But the worst thing about such a dreary debate is that it is beside the point. It is fiddling while Rome burns.

Is an example necessary? All right, then here is one. It is an example of how Christ and His history, when they are put to the wrong use, are made useless. Take the history of our Lord’s post-Easter appearance as that is recorded in our Gospel lesson for this week. How might that wondrous history be misused and so become superfluous? Given the question, why was it important for our Lord’s resurrection to happen, how might that question now be so badly mis-answered as to miss the whole reason for its happening at all? By answering like this: The reason it was important for His resurrection to happen is this, that if it did not happen, then nothing which the Biblical writers record could any longer be trusted. Then how could we, who have trusted them, be sure that we are right? What is wrong with that sort of reasoning is not that it is illogical but rather that it destroys Scripture’s own priorities. For then the whole purpose of Christ’s rising from the dead would seem to be nothing more than that by His rising He guarantees the reliability of the Biblical authors. As if He rose merely to give them something to write about, or to give us a reason for believing them.

Caravaggio (1571–1610) – Reproduction of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio
From Wikimedia Commons

That distortion of the Easter Gospel finds no support in the text at hand, not even in the disbelief of doubting Thomas. True, his fellow disciples—the “Biblical witnesses,” so to speak—had told Thomas that they had seen the Lord. And true, it was in a way their word which he refused to accept. But notice, when Thomas did finally come around to believing, what was it that he believed? The credibility of the disciples? Was it to them that he addressed his confession? Did he, upon seeing the risen Lord, exclaim to them: “I’ll never again question anything you say, my friends, seeing how reliable I’ve now discovered you to be?” Granted, for all we know, Thomas may have gained a new confidence in them too, but only as a byproduct of his faith. In any case it was not they who were the target of his faith. Nor was that the fault for which our Lord rebuked Thomas. He did not say, “The trouble with you, Thomas, is that you question the inerrancy of these witnesses.” And most certainly does the Lord not say, “See, Thomas, the whole purpose of My resurrection is to provide you an object lesson in the reliability of Scripture.” No, Thomas’ need was far deeper than that. He needed a far more drastic “use” of Jesus’ resurrection history than merely to use it for shoring up apostolic authority. Which is where the legalists in our midst tend to confine the problem, being too timid to exert the full diagnostic force of the Law.

What is more, Thomas’ doubt was not merely about “facticity.” What he doubted was not just that dead men ever come back to life. His problem was not that he was from Missouri, some scientific skeptic who demanded empirical proof for the possibility of resurrections [1]. In fact, is that ever the real problem for the Easter doubter, Thomas or anyone else? The legalists might have us think so, but that is only because they are too Law-shy to face up to the full terror of the sinner’s doubt. No, what Thomas doubted was not about resurrections in general but about this resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus. And what he doubted about Jesus was not just His resurrection but His lordship, and His lordship not just over death, over Jesus’ death, but over Thomas’ death as well. What Thomas doubted finally was something about himself, namely, who his Lord—his “Lord” and his “God”—really was.

If his Lord was not Jesus after all, then he, Thomas, had staked his life on the wrong lord. In that case, what was left was not no lord, but another, very different lord—a lord and god of death and of judgment. In that case the disciples would indeed be justified in hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. For if the law of Moses, if the crucifying of forgiving messiahs, is the last word after all, then “fear” is indeed the only appropriate attitude. For then “my Lord and my God,” whoever he is, is not on the side of the sinner but on the side of the righteous, not on the side of forgiveness but on the side of deservedness, not on the side of this messianic pretender but on the side of those conscientious churchmen who punish such pretenders for blasphemy. If it is that sort of God who is the Lord after all, then any sinner who had dared to hope for life in spite of everything, who had naively cast his lot with this disappointing Jesus, is bound to turn cynical, as Thomas did. Naturally. Wouldn’t you? Don’t I?

In other words, when Thomas demanded empirical proof he was not doing so in a vacuum. He disbelieved our Lord’s resurrection not just because there was an absence of evidence in favor of it, but because there was overwhelming evidence against it—not just empirical evidence but theological evidence. Moreover, what Thomas was out to establish was not merely whether the risen one really was Jesus, the same friend and Rabbi Jesus he had known before. Thomas was not just interested in determining the identity of this resurrected person. For that, he could simply have insisted on Jesus’ fingerprints or some birthmark on His neck or the familiar sound of His voice. But no, what Thomas demands to see are the death-marks, the scars of Jesus’ execution. That is what offended Thomas, and offended him about Jesus, and offended him about Jesus’ having let him down.

Understandably so. For anyone to qualify as “my Lord and my God,” the least thing He has to be able to offer is “life.” But how can any lord promise life who himself winds up in death? What could be more unlordly, more defeated, than a dead lord? What needs overcoming in Thomas’ doubt is not just his loss of a friend, an acquaintance, but his loss of his own whole hope for life. That, as we all know from experience, is a doubt of heroic proportions, and it is a travesty to blame such doubt on questions of mere “facticity.”

But sure enough, when our Lord does appear to Thomas He presents him with—of all things!—the death-marks. You would think Christ might have said instead, “Why are you so hung up on My death? That’s past now, over and gone; forget it.” But no, He makes a deliberate point of these signs of defeat, as though He is anything but embarrassed by them, as though they are essential to His very lordship. As though that is the only way to be “Lord and God” for sinners like Thomas, namely, by dying and then first rising. As though that was what He had been sent for, “as the Father has sent Me.” As though that kind of sending of His Son, namely sending Him to die and then first raising Him, is what makes God a “Father” at all, rather than only a sender of law and judgement and death. As though it was only through death that the now risen Jesus could meaningfully greet the disciples with “Peace,” Shalom a’lechem. As though only this kind of Jesus could be “the Christ, the Son of God.” And as though the only proper “use” of Him and His history is to believe Him for one purpose and one purpose alone, namely, that, “believing, you may have life in His name.” And that, come to think of it, is the one reason this history was ever (as John says) “written” into Scripture in the first place. Hallelujah, indeed!

 

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Endnote

[1] “His problem was not that he was from Missouri….” A clarification for non-American readers: the reference is not to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, but rather to a common slogan for the State of Missouri as “the Show-Me State.”


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community


Thursday Theology: The Awful Tree and the Composting God: Holy Week Reflections

Co-missioners,

Assorted musings led me this week to an old Good Friday hymn that I recall from my childhood. Written by John Ellerton, a nineteenth-century Church of England cleric, it featured one of those first-line titles that tends to stick in a boy’s memory. “Throned Upon the Awful Tree”—thus Ellerton. The later editors of the Missouri Synod hymnal I grew up with, perhaps anticipating the reactions of parochial school children, changed his “awful” to “awe-full,” but still, the effect remained. It was enough, apparently, to keep the hymn from making the cut in subsequent U.S. Lutheran hymnbooks. This week I think that’s too bad. On reading through the hymn a couple of days ago I discovered what the boy completely missed. Ellerton delivers a taut and gripping meditation on St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ cry of dereliction (15:34). He also draws a benefit-for-us from this searing detail of our Lord’s Passion and invites us all to put it to use.

It’s with the latter particularly in mind that we feature Ellerton’s hymn as Part One of today’s post. You won’t encounter it at church tomorrow—again, more’s the pity. You’ll be glad, we think, for having stumbled across it here.

Part Two of this post is intriguingly tied to the first, at least for me. I once preached a sermon in which I applied a twist to my boyhood recollection of Ellerton’s title. Think, said I, of Jesus as “throned upon the Offal Tree.” Two months ago while we were still in the Epiphany season, I heard Pr. Shaun O’Reilly of Faith Lutheran in Reno, Nevada invite participants at a Crossings seminar to think of God as a composting gardener and of the Christ-trusting likes of us as the fertilizer he uses to refresh the world. Here was an earthiness I couldn’t help but resonate to. So will you, perhaps. I thank Shaun for him permission to share this reflection with you. It’s relevance to the matters before us in Holy Week will be unmistakeable.

May God use these days to enrich us all in faith and hope and love, to say nothing of our holy imagination.

Peace and Joy,

Jerry Burce, Editor,
for the Crossings Community

__________________________________________________________________

I. 

A Good Friday Hymn
by John Ellerton (1826-1893)

From Canva

Throned upon the awful tree,
King of grief, I watch with Thee;
darkness veils Thine anguished face,
none its lines of woe can trace,
none can tell what pangs unknown
hold Thee silent and alone.

Silent through those three dread hours,
wrestling with the evil pow’rs,
left alone with human sin,
gloom around Thee and within,
till th’appointed time is nigh,
till the Lamb of God may die.

Hark that cry that peals aloud
upward through the whelming cloud!
Thou, the Father’s only Son,
Thou, His own Anointed One.
Thou dost ask Him- can it be?
“Why hast Thou forsaken Me?”

Lord, should fear and anguish roll
darkly o’er my sinful soul,
Thou, who once wast thus bereft
that Thine own might ne’er be left-
teach me by that bitter cry
in the gloom to know Thee nigh.

+ + +

II.

A Homily on Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
by the Rev. Shaun O’Reilly

The text—

1 Praise the LORD! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. 2 The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. 3 He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. 4 He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. 5 Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. 6 The LORD lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground. 7 Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre. 8 He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills. 9 He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry. 10 His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner; 11 but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love. 20c Praise the LORD!

 

Rev. Shaun O’Reilly

Blessed Epiphany season to you! And blessings on our fast-approaching season of Lent.

Both of these seasons of the church fit with our psalm today, Psalm 147. Because in this Psalm there is the activity of God that to me sounds like God as Gardener. Gardener of Epiphany. Gardener of Lent.

And the reason is that all the actions here, all the verbs of the “Doer”—God—are like this:
God is Building up, Gathering, Healing, Binding Up, Lifting, Covering, Preparing, Making to Grow, Delighting.

The way I see it, God in this psalm is praised as a delightful master gardener, or even a composter. That makes sense. It’s likely this is a song remembering exile and responding gratefully to God for calling people back, gathering them, and renewing their life and spirit.

We can preach that these are always the activities of God, but notice this particular song from the hearts of a people broken and oppressed—You bind us up!

For the outcasts and the downtrodden, the broken and oppressed, God slaps on overalls and gloves. God gets to building, and healing, and making to grow. I am picturing a pitchfork, and someone turning over the compost.

The downtrodden ones of exile needed to hear and to sing of a God like this, that restores the broken, and can imagine life out of the rubble, a God that can turn death over into life. But how about us? We’re delivering God’s goods. Surely, we don’t need to be stamped down as compost! Do we have rotten bits that need to decompose and be amended into something new?

My friend, Fred Niedner, keeps telling me: “Oh yes.” This is essential for all Christ followers. Jesus becomes food for the hungry. And what else would we, his followers, become other than food for the hungry?

From Canva

In compost terms that’s what you want. You want your pile of rubbish tended into a diverse buffet for micro-organisms. So much new-life potential!

Oh Yes, you and I, all of us, need God, our composter. We need God near us in Epiphany because of the light, and the way this One turns over what is hidden to be exposed—for its own good and the good of the soil—exposes it to the air and the light of day. And we all need God, our composter, near us as Lent approaches. We might even wear dust on our foreheads and try to remember this truth of what we are.

If we need companions on the road of singing from the dirt, we have this Psalm. Even the deliverers of God’s good news can acknowledge: we, too, know what it means to weep, to lament, to grieve our losses and the sin within us and around us. Yes, even preachers and pastors and leaders can say with the rest of the lowdown, I too am dust. And I will be dust.

That is me, at least. In honesty, I am not some delightful running stallion of a pastor. I am not the fastest finisher in the marathon of faith. In this psalm I am more like the downtrodden, crying, my God—I need Your Goods. I need binding up. Without you, there is just this dusty death.

And, my friends of fertilizer, hear the good news of the psalm again:

God does not delight in the strength of the horse, or in the speed of the runner.
God takes pleasure in those who fear God, those who hope in God’s steadfast love.

This is a love so wide God sends us Jesus, food for the hungry.

And there it is! We are hopeful humus! We are dung delivered! By the grace of God in Christ, we are saved in our deaths. God turns over compost for the garden!

My last point: I’m not saying this is easy.

It is not easy to be laid this low and wait for our transformation, singing the canticle of the turning and waiting for this world to be turned over. Crying out: God, turn this world around! But if even the rocks will cry, then so can you and I. This One is gathering, healing, lifting up, making to grow. Delighting in us.

It is that, once again, God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant! And so you can sing with Mary. You can sing with the faithful of Psalm 147, again on this new day:

Here we lie. Redeemed materials for the redemption of the world. Praise ye the composter!


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community


Thursday Theology: More Reflections on Seminex

Co-missioners,

Photo of the Grand Avenue building where Seminex was located. Taken by J. Burce this past January.

This past February 20 featured one of the biggest gatherings yet for an online Crossings event. It was the second of two episodes in our Table Talk series devoted to the fiftieth anniversary of Seminex. Over twenty participants were asked to offer brief reflections on the following questions:

  • What was Seminex really about, and why?
  • How has Seminex affected your understanding of the church and its mission?

Today we bring you three of these reflections. They come from Gerald Mansholt, Ron Neustadt, and Ron Roschke, all of whom graduated from Seminex and are now retired from pastoral careers spent mostly within the ELCA. Along the way, Pr. Mansholt served as bishop for two ELCA synods and Pr. Roschke as a bishop’s assistant for another. Pr. Neustadt has been a longtime anchor of the Crossings Community.

Every person caught up in an event has their angle on it. We hope that by sharing several of these over the course of this year we will enrich your understanding of what once happened in Seminex and what its import might be for the church’s life today.

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community

__________________________________________________________________

More Reflections on Seminex
by Gerald Mansholt, Ron Neustadt, and Ron Roschke

 

To the questions—

  • What was Seminex really about, and why?
  • How has Seminex affected your understanding of the church and its mission?

+  +  +

Gerald Mansholt—

Bishop Gerald Mansholt

I think it was Richard Caemmerer who said the Missouri Synod had always lived with a tension between two forces, those who were exclusivists, wanting to keep the synod pure and undefiled, and the inclusivists, who were open to others, at least other Lutherans if not also other Christians.

From its inception the Missouri Synod had presidential leadership that made sure both were represented on boards and committees. I remember Caemmerer specifically mentioning Oliver Harms (1962-1969) and John Behnken (1935-1962). Note that Behnken served for nearly 30 years. James Burkee has shown definitively in his book, Power, Politics and the Missouri Synod, what we as students as well as many pastors and lay leaders knew, namely, that Jack Preus had orchestrated a political take-over of the Church. Rather than working through the theological issues by engaging in dialogue and study, the leadership used tactics to instill fear and push a political agenda in the name of purity.

I had found a fresh wind blowing in the freedom of the Gospel as articulated by the seminary faculty majority, a freedom I have come to understand more clearly over the years in the Lutheran Confessions and writings of Martin Luther. The fresh wind opened the Holy Scriptures in new ways, took science seriously, embraced the possibility of women (and others) in ministry, was willing to engage the issues of the world around us, and kept the Good News of God in Jesus Christ central.

For me the whole experience clarified the sense of call to ministry and helped me understand the Church as formed and called to participate in God’s mission in the world. I remember a Seminex publicity flier that spoke of getting one’s theological education in a crucible of conflict. That was the case for me. There was a testing, a challenge during my first call in Oklahoma, because I was a Seminex graduate. While other first call pastors were learning how to do programming, the validity of my ordination was being challenged and my theology questioned. Those were days, Ralph Klein said, one would not wish on anyone; yet no one wanted to miss them for anything. In those hard and difficult days my identity as a pastor and my sense of call was forged and centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

+  +  +

Ron Neustadt—

Ron Neustadt

From the very beginning there have been many and various answers given to the question of what Seminex was really about. And, from the beginning, some of the answers to that question have been sincere and some have been cynical. It was all political, say the cynical – nothing but a power struggle.

Or they may say it was about long-standing resentments that had built up in the rather closed universe of the Missouri Synod’s prep schools. Or they may say Seminex was simply a religious / cultural expression of the turmoil that was going on in the whole American society in the 1970s. It was the age of long hair and Viet Nam war protests, the age of conflict between WWII veterans and their sons.

Or they may say it was about personality clashes within the faculty or competition among academics who lived with their heads in the clouds – as if Seminex were not about something practical, not about something that mattered in the “real world”.

Others may be less cynical but still believe that Seminex was the result of an historical progression of Lutheranism in the US away from being an immigrant, ethnic church toward being more ecumenical and more exposed to other than “in house” theologians. They will point to how the LC-MS had begun to call more seminary professors to Concordia – St. Louis who had received their doctoral education, not from Missouri Synod schools but from other educational institutions and seminaries.

But, as popular as some of these theories may be, I don’t think any one of them is sufficient to explain the phenomenon of Seminex. And I don’t think any one of them can explain the willingness of so many to risk everything – their professional careers, their income, their housing, their pensions, their relationships with their parents, or with their in-laws, or with their extended families.

There was something bigger at stake.

What was at stake, I believe, was the very essence of the Church’s proclamation. We who were students had heard our teachers teaching us honest to God Good News.

And it rang true. To me, what my teachers were teaching was consistent with the Spirit of what I had been taught since I had been a child – even though some of those who had taught me would not be able to admit that. It was teaching that did not simply give us information about the Bible but actually opened the Scriptures to us. It was teaching that did not simply give us data about the history of the church or about the Lutheran Confessions, but that opened that history and those Confessions so that we could get a glimpse of the Christ who was at the center of that history and of those confessions.

How has all of that affected my understanding of the church and her mission? Answer: The need for reformation never ends. It continues to this day.

+  +  +

Ron Roschke—

Pastor Ron Roschke

Seminex was never about one thing. There are several things we should have learned from our Seminex experience. First, we should now appreciate the incredible power of conservative movements—especially when they are joined to authoritarian leadership willing to bend or break, ignore or re-write the rules that protect the common good. Seminex wasn’t the first time that happened; it won’t be the last. But this is what happens when someone tries to make everything great again. And it becomes especially deadly when political ambition gets joined to serious distortion of the Christian faith.

The second thing we might learn from Seminex is that the gospel of Jesus Christ appears to have little or no power in stopping the steamroller of such conservative movements. The good news fails to hold off the damage that these juggernauts inflict upon individuals and institutions and the world. That was true in Germany in the 1930s, and in Missouri in the 1970s. And here, fifty years after Seminex, we may need to learn it all over again—very soon.

The third thing we might learn from Seminex is that this weakness of the gospel is exactly what the good news of Jesus is all about. Each painful iteration of the tragedy is a fresh demonstration of the way God chooses to manage our broken reality. It is, you see, the story of God in the person of Jesus; it’s about God’s unflagging solidarity with a suffering, broken creation—and a suffering, broken church. Those of us who see God through the cross and open tomb of Jesus keep finding this pattern repeating, over and over. Each time, the cross comes before the resurrection, and that always hurts. Dying and rising is not an easy way to move through life or through the world. But it is the only way to assure no one gets left behind.

This is the sign placed on all of us who walked through Seminex.

Experiencing this pain over and over puts us in the company of Jesus—the one who is the divine stamp, the minted coin of this curious God. Jesus is the one filled with grace and love, patience and hope. The church is his body—and therefore, the church is cruciform. If Seminex has taught us that, it is the greatest legacy for which we could hope.


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community


Thursday Theology: Resources for Holy Week Preaching and Listening

Co-missioners,

Today we set a new record for the shortest Thursday Theology post ever. It will also be one of the meatiest posts ever. That’s because we’re sending you some links to items on our website that we urge you to explore between now and next Thursday. It will involve more reading than we usually summon you to.

All these links pertain to this year’s forthcoming proclamation of the Passion of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Palm Sunday is ten days from now. We’d like to think that pastors are already wrestling with the texts they’ll be preaching on during Holy Week. For all we know some layfolk are reading ahead too so that when the days arrive for the texts to be read out in church their hearing will be sharper, deeper, and more expectant.

Here’s what thoughtful hearers should be able to expect when Holy Week arrives: that whoever presumes to speak publicly about the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus will do as Peter and Paul did in their pioneer Christian preaching. They will show how these things they speak of are good news for the people they’re talking to—good news from God for the sinners of 2024, to put this more sharply. In doing so they’ll also give Christ crucified the credit he deserves for the unthinkable antithesis to our fate as sinners that we’ll celebrate again come Easter Sunday.

Holy Week – From Canva

If these are the goals of the preachers who read this, we recommend the following for your attention these next few days. They may help to focus your thoughts. They’ll also offer substance to hearers who aren’t expecting much when Holy Week gets here. We add that these items are available only on our Crossings website—where, unfortunately, they’d likely lie unnoticed if we didn’t bring them to your attention.

+  +  +

Item 1.  Robert Bertram’s “How Our Sins Were Christ’s.” Here Bertram explores in meticulous detail how Luther handles the topic of Christ and sin in his Galatians commentary of 1531.This article was The Promising Tradition, a mimeographed theological primer for Seminex students in the mid-70s. It remains a “must read” for anyone who wonders how Christ’s death addresses the problem of sin.

Item 2. “Just How Much Jesus is Needed?” So asks Ed Schroeder in a 2006 review of a book by Stephen J. Patterson entitled Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Patterson’s ideas, emerging from the Jesus Seminar, seem to be popular in today’s mainline Protestant circles. They crop up now and then also in Lutheran discussions (think Jesus vs. Empire). Are they showing up in this year’s Lutheran preaching helps too? If so, read Ed. He’ll warn away from them with his typical vigor and clarity—and this for the sake of folks who in 2024 need a lot more Jesus than Patterson et al. are willing to give them.

Item 3. A reading of St. John’s Passion will be featured at lots of churches on Good Friday. Will it be followed by a homily? If so, let the preacher consider a lead tossed out by Stephan K. Turnbull at our Crossings conference of 2016. In a paper entitled “Nicodemus and the New Humanity,” Steve lifts up a core yet under-played issue that runs through John from start to finish and pours some fresh and bracing content into the climactic moment when Pilate presents Jesus to the baying crowds. It’s worth a sermon of your own if you haven’t touched on this before. See Part One of Steve’s paper, somewhat retitled when we posted it in Thursday Theology.

Item 4. Are this year’s preaching helps suggesting that “wrath of God” is yesterday’s concept, inadmissible for consideration on Good Friday, 2024 as an issue that swirls around the cross? If so take a glance at Jerry Burce’s ten-year old screed on this topic, “The Agony of the Empty Preacher.” As with Ed’s item above, the message here too is “Think again.” Or better still, “Don’t let Jesus go to waste.”

+  +  +

For all who bear the burden of telling God’s Gospel of Christ and him crucified, let us pray: “Holy Spirit, guide well!”

 

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community


Thursday Theology: A Cancer Patient’s Sermon on John 12:20-33

Co-missioners,

The Rev. Lori Cornell surprised us late last week with a submission for Thursday Theology. We can’t help but share it with you today, our first chance for doing so. That the work is pegged to the Gospel text for the Sunday after next is the lesser reason for the rush. The greater is to spread the joy of having heard from her.

Lori has been a key leader at Crossings for almost twenty-five years, serving primarily as the editor of our weekly text studies. Last fall, a sudden eruption of cancer forced her to step aside from this for a while. She also took a leave of absence from her duties as lead pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Spokane, Washington. We’d guess that any number of you who are reading this have been praying for her these past few months.

Against this background comes today’s startling gift. A sermon, Lori calls it. We think it’s also a model of how to put the Crossings text study method to the use it’s designed for: to identify a problem at its deepest and then to irradiate it with Christ and his benefits. “Targeted therapy,” to borrow a term Lori will use. You’re sure to find yourself thanking God for the therapy delivered through Lori today.

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community

______________________________________________________________________

 

A Better Life

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2024
Text: John 12:20-33

by Lori A. Cornell

 

+  +  +

John 12:20-33—

20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

+  +  +

Rev. Lori Cornell

I have no congregation to preach to today. I am on medical leave from my beloved congregation, watching my hair come back slowly—six months after radiation on my brain. It’s kind of like watching grass grow. Slow.

I have loved my life. And I have lost it. All the plans I had mapped out have evaporated: serve one last congregation, enjoy a sabbatical, then retire and travel. My only vocation now? Watching my hair grow back, reading like I haven’t in years, taking my meds, working out, and finding a new show to binge on streaming.

That pales in comparison to what Jesus is called to: Dying. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” His description sounds so natural, unlike his crucifixion.

And then, much to my chagrin, Jesus suggests to his followers that this process of dying and rising becomes incarnate in us: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Well, that sounds pretty dire. We want to serve our own purposes, pursuing untroubled lives. Jesus seems to insist that this dying and rising is for us to undergo too.

Somehow, while we are hanging on the promise that Jesus died for our sins, we failed to account for the full gravity of that gift. Jesus connects his vocation and ours—to die that we might live.

But we human beings fight death. We do everything to stay alive. Seeking the fountain of youth at Sephora. Working harder at the gym. Defying the gravity of age by consulting doctors who can nip and tuck. Dying is just an end. So, we avoid dying however we can. Targeted therapy is my current weapon against death (it’s like a heat-seeking missile for cancer). One pill a day to keep me upright.

But, while we try to preserve our lives, another kind of pall hovers over us: a spiritual living death. This is not just living without meaning or purpose. But living as if “I am all that matters.” My actions may affect others adversely, but it’s more important that I be right or better-than or first in line. Injustice and inequity may riddle the world, but I’ve gotta be me. No self-reflection, no concern for scruples. We pursue untroubled lives—not giving a whit about our souls, let alone what Jesus has done for us.

And then death comes crashing down on us: we lose a child, our career tanks in a hostile business takeover, or the dreaded diagnosis is confirmed by a second doctor, and we are laid bare. This living-for-ourselves has left us without the resources we need. We appeal to an angry god who gave us no options—who conceived this calamity. Or we cry out to a god who might offer mercy, we think, but we’re met with silence. And given the gods we’ve been calling on, there is no answer.

From Canva

Meanwhile the Grain of Wheat that has fallen into the soil and dies, sees us—the undead—grappling instead for a piece of any god we can lay hold of.

Salvador Dali’s looming portrait, Christ of Saint John of the Cross, depicts a Christ who has been crucified. But his hands are unbound, he dons no crown of thorns, and he no longer bleeds. He is the crucified One, hovering over his disciples—disciples who have denied his death, or who think that his death is only good for one thing: their own resurrection.

Yet Dali’s Christ has hands and feet that have been loosed to intrude into the lives of doubters and deniers. His head, leaning into the world, creates a circle reaching down into our unknown griefs. We followers, who have laid a plan for how Jesus’ and our lives should go, are unsettled. We rebuff his intrusion; we want only his acquiescence. Let me be cancer free, we say. Allow my child to live. Give me back my work.

But Christ does not meet us in the past. He meets us in the here-and-now, coming to us in the crushing change. Jesus meets us in the crisis. Sometimes, like a grain of wheat falling into the soil, the change is like watching grass grow—painstakingly slow. But it happens.

I typeset and wrote for the Christian Century Magazine in the late 1980s, immersing myself in the personal testimonies that would sometimes appear there. An article from that era that changed my mind toward my diagnosis of lung cancer was entitled, “Why Not Me?” The author had lost his wife and daughter in a life-taking collision, leaving him alone with his son. Surprisingly, the author took on the “why me” theology that is our go-to in suffering. He asked, “Why not me?” and laid to rest the theology of an ever-angry god. Instead, believing in a gracious and merciful God in Christ, he resisted the suggestion that he should put God on trial, and asked, Why should I expect that I am immune to adversity any more than the next person? Christ came to give me new life, not to wave a wand and retrieve the past.

Jesus, who alone was called to die once for us all, fulfills that promise. He suffers death and rises, forsakes his self-interest, to free us from our own self-absorbed lives. The One who descends from the cross disentangled from death not only gives us eternal life, but another day on the planet where we can begin again.

For me that new day is not only about thanking God for the miracle of targeted therapy but trusting that—come what may—I will rest in my Savior’s arms. Saying “thy will be done” still stretches me—because I believe it and it hurts to acknowledge that truth.

So, for now, I serve Christ as a pill-swallowing cancer patient. I write letters to members of my church and larger community whom I suspect or know are hurting.  I read the Psalms and Paul’s letters. I pray blessings for others (often using Kate Bowler’s The Lives We Actually Have). And I watch my hair grow.


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community


Thursday Theology: Reflections on “Faith” and on “Following Jesus”

Co-missioners,

Consider this word, the one we’ve been greeting you with for the past six years: “co-missioners.” As in “fellow participants in the great, ongoing mission of the baptized.” As in people to whom the Instigator of that mission was also speaking on the first night of Easter when he said to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Today we pass along reflections on two essential ingredients of that mission. One is “faith”—faith in God, to be sure; more pointedly, faith in the God we have in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. The other is “following Jesus,” a phrase that fills the chatter of the American church these days to the point of becoming little more than a mantra, a thing we say without quite grasping why we say it or what exactly it signifies.

Neither of our writers will address their topics fully. Nor did either of them develop their thoughts specifically for Thursday Theology. As it happened, our editor stumbled across their work in other venues, spotted insights worth sharing, and secured their permission to share these here. Said editor, Jerry Burce, will introduce them in turn as you read further. Both will enrich your meditations this Lent.

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community

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I. Robin Lütjohann on “Faith.” (A Devotion)

Robin is the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He also teaches Confessions for the Lutheran contingent at Harvard Divinity School. Some weeks ago, he teamed up with a colleague, the Rev. Raphaela Mueller, to produce a series of daily devotions for the current season of Lent. Here is one, written by Robin, that appeared earlier this week. To call it meaty is an understatement. If, on reading it, you’re moved to subscribe to the rest of the series—daily email, delivered to your inbox—send Robin a note. —JB

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Hebrews 11:17-19—

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

There is no way to interpret the story of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac by his own father that doesn’t make us feel at least a little bit uncomfortable. I don’t want to try to clean that up. But I do want to lift up the point made by the author of the letter to the Hebrews: Faith in the promises of God can enable us to be fearless, no matter the trials we face.

The Sacrifice of Isaac – Juan de Valdés Leal (1622–1690)
From Wikimedia Commons

In chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews, we are told about a series of heroes in the Bible, who all have one thing in common: faith, which is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrew 11:1). Abraham, claims this author, trusted in two hoped-for / unseen things: (1) God’s promise that his son Isaac would be the beginning of a numerous lineage of descendants, and (2) God’s ability to raise the dead.

We often assume that Abraham was distressed and anxious as he grudgingly followed God’s command to sacrifice his son. Films and images usually depict the scene kind of like this: A grizzled old man silently ascends a mountain, followed by his clueless son, with a dark cloud hanging over him. He makes a pyre, puts his son on it, and as he raises his knife, his hand shaking, finally God intervenes. He sighs a big sigh of relief that he did not have to perform the impossibly evil and horrifying deed God asked of him after all.

This makes for a dramatic scene. But it is not the picture painted by the author of Hebrews. Instead, here we have an Abraham who is so certain of the promise God made to Isaac and of God’s life-giving power that nothing could possibly happen to his child. He knew, we are led to believe, that God would take care of him. God would come through.

The latter version may be less realistic or believable, or even appealing. But it opens an intriguing possibility: Could there be such a faith that is so certain of God’s promise and faithfulness, that nothing could finally shake it? Could there be a faith so fully entrusted to God that it could whistle while ascending the mountain of doom? If this was true of Abraham, we can see why he is claimed as the “father” or Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Such is an extraordinary faith!

My life is very different from Abraham’s. But I do experience trials and testing on the daily. Nothing quite as dramatic as this, but real nonetheless. If I’m honest, I often fail the tests I face. And if I’m brutally honest, I sometimes fail these trials because my faith is weak and buckles in the face of resistance. When something triggers my anger, for instance, I give in to it rather than trusting God to take care of me through this aggravating situation. Or when I have to send a tricky email, I sometimes worry endlessly about how it will be received and anxiously await the reply on pins and needles. Rather than leaving the unseen future in God’s hands, I give into the kind of worry Jesus warned about (Matthew 6), the kind that can rob your sleep and steal your peace. When money gets difficult, I don’t turn to prayer but instead become ungenerous and stingy. When my health is not good, I whine and complain, rather than asking God for healing and thanking God for the help of medical professionals. Time and time again, my faith is exposed for its weakness by the trials of my life.

But there is good news for those “of little faith” like myself. Even faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain (Matthew 17:20). Why is that? Because my little faith is anchored in the big faith of Abraham’s most famous descendant: Jesus.

Unlike Isaac, there was no animal to take the place of Jesus at the last second. And unlike Abraham, God the Father did have to watch his son die an agonizing death. But by faith, Jesus endured the trials of his life for my sake. And by his Spirit, he has put his own faith in my heart.

If I can remember this and trust this, then maybe the next time I face a trial, I will do it not with my own shaky faith but with the faith of Abraham and Jesus.

+  +  +

II. Chris Neumann on “Following Jesus” (A Sermon Fragment)

Chris, an occasional Thursday Theology contributor, is a gifted Law/Gospel thinker who was recently added as a lay preacher to his ELCA synod’s pulpit supply list. In the recent Epiphany season, he preached on Mark’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples. It includes the same phrase we heard in last week’s Gospel for Lent 2—“follow me,” as English translations insist on rendering it. I trust you’ll be struck as I was by Chris’s deft and forthright exposure of the problem inherent in the way the phrase is usually heard, and even more by how he points to Christ himself as the One who solves this problem for us. —JB

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How this sermon on a text about fisherman begins (cf. Mark 1:16-20—

One of my all-time favorite pictures of my dad is of him standing with his brother as young boys, holding up a stringer of at least a dozen fish. The naughtiest looking grin is plastered on his face, like he just pulled a fast one and got away with something he had no business doing. As if inspired to give Martin Luther’s ‘sin boldly’ encouragement a real shot….

Later, toward the end—

Calling of Peter and Andrew – Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255–1319)
From Wikimedia Commons

…. The fact remains that Jesus chose ordinary people like you and me for the most important project ever. He didn’t sift through resumes, check references, or conduct interviews. How can Jesus be so confident while taking such a cavalier approach? If we’ve been paying attention [at church these past several weeks], we already have the answer. You’ll recall John the Baptist in his “prepare the way” message: “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

As is always the case, Jesus delivers, at the same time providing an explanation to why he settles for run of the mill employees like those first disciple. Like you and me. The Holy Spirit, God’s spirit, is already actively at work behind the scenes. And as for what the Spirit is doing, we jump back to where we left off in our catechism—remember?—the part about me being unable to come to Jesus. It picks up then with this: but instead, “the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with gifts, made me holy, and kept me in true faith.”

The Holy Spirit is present and working in you today, the same way it was in that extraordinary capacity with those disciples way back when. All of us are equipped in our baptism with an otherwise impossible faith, blessed with different gifts, being used by God to gather more fish, whether we even realize this or not. Again, the Spirit is doing the heavy lifting. You are everything you’ll ever need to be right this moment to be Jesus’ disciple. Thanks be to God for that. For the gift of his Spirit and his putting it to use through you. To keep you following.

What exactly does that mean, huh, to follow? Personally, I often drift into using the word synonymously with “imitate” or “copy.” Do we want to imitate Jesus? Well, of course. But this is the fish that I am starting to chew on the wrong bait again. For one, if we think of Jesus simply as a blueprint for the way to live life, we’re missing the point of him being in the flesh among us in the first place. A model of the Godly life, for sure. But oh, so much more.

Moreover, my attempts at imitating Christ are hopeless. It is something akin to the matching game “Simon.” The one where the computer flashes a red light and I mimic by pushing the red button. The computer then responds, flashes first red, and then blue. I again copy the sequence. On and on we go, back and forth, me replicating what I just saw. If you’re familiar with this game at all, you know this: it’s only a matter of time before you slip up. Sure, maybe you can duplicate five, ten, maybe even fifteen successive light patterns. But in no way whatsoever is keeping up with the pattern sustainable. You are bound to make a mistake. Same goes for “following” Jesus when we think about it in that context. If we’re lucky, we get a little bit right. But in no conceivable way do we keep it up. Despair and frustration are inevitable with that approach.

I learned this week that the direct Greek behind “follow me” literally means “Come—get behind me.” It’s same thing you’d say to me if you knew how to get to a destination and I didn’t. Follow me, you’d say. I know where I’m going.

And there’s the same thing Jesus is saying to us today. Follow me. I know where I’m going. I’ll lead. You follow. Follow me on this journey. Learn what I’m really all about. Follow me all the way to the foot of a cross. Watch me get nailed to it, and with me all of your embarrassment, pride and self-righteousness, along with the rest of the reasons you really don’t deserve to be [called a disciple]. Follow me and watch me die out of unfailing love for you, the people I so desperately want on the team. Keep on following me and watch me live, so that when you have to die, you can be confident of being raised to new life too. Come along for that ride! Bring a friend. Get them hooked in this net of hope.

With that in mind, jump into this next week with a big, naughty grin like my dad’s plastered on your face. Fact is, you did get away with something. I Suppose you can say that you got caught. This courtesy of the Holy Spirit. Sins forgiven. A bright, shiny future, though you don’t deserve it. This on account of Jesus. Bite down hard on that bait and keep following along.

 


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community


Thursday Theology: A Baptismal Reflection on Psalm 90

Co-missioners,

Today’s quotable quote: “The Message makes the messenger.” You’ll find it in this timely reflection by one of last week’s authors, our interim text-study editor, Mike Hoy.

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community

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A Baptismal Reflection on Psalm 90
by Michael Hoy

 

My brother and his spouse ordered a special gift for my birthday in 2022. Knowing my liking of all things Star Trek, it was a lawn sign depicting Mr. Spock with his typical split-hand greeting and the words, “Happy 70th birthday, Michael. Live long and prosper.”

You can imagine the laughter as I conveyed to them that, as much as I appreciated their gift, it came a whole year early. Nonetheless, that was last year. The seventieth year is now upon me as I write this piece, and it is much less a laughing matter as I hear the psalmist declare,

The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong. (Psalm 90:10)

Nonetheless, I take comfort over all these years not in what I have accomplished in three score and ten, but solely in the promise of Christ’s forgiveness and mercy. I take comfort in my baptism, by which I am joined at the hip with this Jesus the Christ, with Whom I have died and risen in hope and promise. And I deeply affirm and confess that promise of Christ most especially in the larger context of the critical word of Psalm 90; for the verses just prior to the aforementioned reads as follows:

You put us back to dust….
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh. (90:3, 5-9)

Hymnwriter Isaac Watts picked up on all of this in his hymn, “O God, our Help in Ages Past.” Interestingly, that hymn was itself his own paraphrase of Psalm 90. “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our years away; they fly forgotten as a dream dies at the op’ning day.” More often than not, we hear it sung by the faithful at many a funeral.

Luther waxes less poetically than Watts, not letting us forget the point in his rendition of Psalm 90:12: “Lehre uns zu bedenken dass wir sterben müssen, auf dass wir klug werden.” “Teach us to think about [the fact] that we must die, so that we get wise.” But the deeper truth that Luther has in mind is Who it is that is putting us to death, and rightly so.

The Luther-like lessons of Ernst Becker in The Denial of Death are still classic, especially for our death-denying society that each day promotes the myth that death is nothing to be feared, though the marks of it are all around us.

For much of this past year, I have been telling people that I am pushing seventy. Now, I suppose for the next decade, deo volente, I will be telling them I am pushing eighty. I suppose that sounds much better than pushing up daisies, even though my spouse and I are discussing our final plans. In writing this, I have no reason to think that any such occasion for my life is immediately on the horizon, though I would be sheltering the truth that the thought has occasionally crossed my mind.

My bucket list, nonetheless, is less about cruises and going to distant lands (though I would not mind these). I have hopes of completing the three books for which I already have more than enough groundwork in my computer. Hope in the Midst of Crises and Chaos is the first of these. I completed a first draft of this tome during the pandemic in 2020, but it was much too academic. I decided to rewrite it, taking into consideration the historical developments since, and make it more accessible, even pastoral. The second is The Future of the Church, on which I have more than a few notes, but feel it is not quite the right time to write—but given the state of the church, I hope someday soon. And last but not least (though perhaps less significant), is a memoir—for which I have only an outline with a preliminary chapter or two, though I have adopted a working title: A Voice in the Wilderness.

Some will see this memoir title as coming right of Second Isaiah, the prophet with whom I have had the greatest love affair over the years. But the significance is actually rooted in the New Testament. It was the title (as I recall) of the one and only sermon I ever preached in the Seminex chapel on the text from John 1:6-8, 19-28 (the gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B). The sermon itself was a final requirement for my class in Advanced Preaching with Richard “Doc” Caemmerer—and it was advanced, all the way to the final solution/prognosis of the promise! In this Johannine text and in the verses immediately following, John the Baptist “confesses” the truth, pointing to the real Source of life in Jesus the Christ.

From Canva

That, I suggested, is what we, as preachers, are sent out to do—confessing in the wilderness of this world, gifting it with all of Christ’s promise that we have from our baptisms (I was not ordained at the time) and the promising Word of the gospel. For all my fear and trembling in delivering that message not only before my peers but before my instructors, it was Bob Bertram who came up to me right after the service, giving me a big bear-hug that I will never forget, and thanking me for conveying again that gospeling-Message that he also so labored to teach us all. The Message makes the messenger. His mentoring was most profound in my life. How could I refuse him when he himself was facing the final prospects of his own death, asking me to complete his writings and see them into print? Nonetheless, I pray, deo volente, that the Lord blesses me with enough years to complete my own books, seeking to share the faith that has so encompassed my life.

Fact is, there is not a lot of comfort in Psalm 90, save perhaps the first and last verses:

Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations….
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands! (90:1, 17)

These bookends reminds me of the dwelling-place we all have in Christ, who makes of us in all our days a new creation, the work of his blessing in his cross and resurrection—from our first crossing in the promise of our baptism to our final crossing.

Recently I once shared with a friendly acquaintance that my brother and I had to put Dad into a home—one of the most difficult crossroad-decisions a younger generation must make about their aging parent. Given Dad’s increasing dementia, however, it was the wiser choice to make at this time. When they asked how old my Dad was, I said, “95.” To which she responded, “Wow! You have great genes.”

Imagine my laugher in responding, “You have no idea!”
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December 11, 2023


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community


Thursday Theology: Seminex Recollections by Michael Hoy and Amandus Derr

Co-missioners,

Five Thursdays ago we announced an intention to devote some of our posts this year to the story of Seminex and its implications for the Church’s mission in 2024. The present work of Crossings is certainly rooted in that story, as we pointed out in our post of January 18.

A few days after that post the organizers of Crossings’ monthly Table Talk series hosted the first of two sessions devoted to Seminex. It unfolded as usual via Zoom. Upwards of sixty people joined the session. Of these a third had been invited to offer brief recollections of their Seminex experience and the way it affected them. Most were former students. One was a professor. Others were children of faculty members.

Pastor Amandus J. Derr

Today we share two sets of these recollections. One comes from Michael (Mike) Hoy, editor of Robert Bertram’s books and currently serving with Crossings as our interim text-study editor. The other is from Amandus (Mandy) Derr, now retired from a pastoral career spent at Grace Lutheran Church and School, Teaneck, New Jersey, and at Saint Peter’s Church [ELCA] in midtown Manhattan. Unlike Mike, Mandy was unable to attend the January Zoom session. He sent us his comments anyway, and for that we thank him. Neither Mike nor Mandy was on the Concordia Seminary campus on the day of the exile in 1974. This imparts a special angle to their reflections.

Some of you who read this were not at Seminex. We’ve done some judicious editing with this in mind, adding links to a thing or two mentioned along the way. Taking time to follow those links will enrich the story significantly.

As it happens, the 50th anniversary of Seminex falls exactly on February 19. That will be next Monday. A second Seminex-focused Table Talk will happen a day later, February 20. This session will focus on two questions. First, what was the Seminex experience really about? And second, how has it affected the church and our understanding of its mission? We can’t encourage you enough to join the conversation. That’s 1 p.m. Central Time next Tuesday. For the Zoom link, drop a note to our Table Talk coordinator, Cathy Lessmann.

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community

______________________________________________________________________

 

Seminex Recollections
by Michael Hoy and Amandus Derr

 

Question 1: What is your most significant memory of the Seminex experience and why?

Mike—

Seminex walkout procession, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. ELCA Archives photo.

On the day Seminex was born I was a junior at Concordia Senior College [Fort Wayne, Indiana, an LCMS school designed specifically to prepare students for the seminary.] Over the next several months, our campus would play host to many Concordia Seminary students on moratorium as well as faculty from the seminary campuses of both Seminex and the LCMS. For the record, the latter didn’t make a very good showing—at least not to me. I had pretty much made up my mind that I would be going to Seminex well before I completed my studies at Fort Wayne.

For me, the most significant memory—not only the first time, but all other times afterward —was stepping out of the elevator on the eleventh floor of the old University Club building [in St. Louis, where Seminex was located.] There to greet me was [Professor Robert] Werberig’s art on the wall, the stump of Jesse with its shoot which would become the Seminex logo, as well as something I presumed were a symbol of the crown of thorns—perhaps to symbolize how this seminary and the people in this place shared or would get to share in the cross and crucifixion of our Lord. You wouldn’t know it, from all the joy I experienced there on my first visit.

Still, even as I accepted that I would be studying here for the next four years of my life, I was also deeply aware that there were no guarantees in coming here. What would my future hold? Will I ever find a vocation in the ordained ministry? A lot of the language at that time among the seminarians was about the possibility of serving maybe as “worker priest”, not about full-time ministry. The only promise I could count on, the only promise any of us could count on really, was the promise of our Lord and the promise of our baptism. In that sense, stepping on to the eleventh floor was a “leap of faith” in the Kierkegaardian sense of the term.

Mandy—

Because I was a vicar at Grace Lutheran Church and School, Teaneck, New Jersey in 1973-1974, my significant memories predate the formation of Seminex but are, in my opinion, very much a part of the Seminex experience.

1. [President] John Tietjen’s sermon at the opening of Concordia Seminary’s 1972 academic year. Entitled “Who wants to be First?”, it really set the stage for what the upcoming experiences would be all about, namely, the Gospel of God’s unconditional love as the central essential proclamation of Christ’s Church, and the cost proclaimers of that message would incur.

2. The formation of “Seminarians Concerned for Reconciliation Under the Gospel” by a number of us. Seminarians Concerned was born in the Seminary Bookstore (I was the student manager) in late 1972 and early 1973, on several Thursday evenings when the bookstore was open. Those of us who formed this were interested in providing a way to fund students and others in responding to synodical [LCMS] critics. We not only organized it, but we chose its symbol (an ‘eaten fish’ pendant that had just arrived at the bookstore and which we thought at first was ugly and unsellable – we sold thousands!), and the plan we hatched to get the list of delegates from the so-called “Frey-Lueking” group. [Pastors Bertwin Frey and Dean Lueking were leaders of the Missouri Synod’s “moderate” wing, supportive of Concordia Seminary’s faculty majority.] This organization turned out to be critical for funding the first [seminary] outreach in April 1973, the presence of several seminarians at the [LCMS’s] New Orleans convention in July 1973, and subsequently much of the early cost of starting up Seminex. It also provided the recognized organization in the 1973-1974 planning of the moratorium [declared by students when President Tietjen was suspended in January, 1974] and of the subsequent exile.

3. Robert Bertram’s chapel sermon right after Easter 1973 entitled “The Lively Use of the Risen Lord,” which was a perfect example of Law/Gospel (better: Judgment/Promise) theology useful in addressing the questions of biblical inerrancy. After having Bertram, Schroeder, and Walter Bouman for systematic theology, this was the single most succinct and helpful “lively use” of the hermeneutics we treasured.

4. John Tietjen’s address to the 1973 Missouri Synod Convention in New Orleans after the vote to “deal with the matter of John Tietjen.” (I was Concordia Seminary’s elected student representative). Again, a perfect use of Law/Gospel hermeneutics. [Tietjen’s remarks both before and after the vote are available on You Tube. The video is grainy. Even so it conveys the crackling drama of the occasion.]

Question 2: How has the Seminex experience affected you personally?

Mike—

Book Cover

While many of the faculty played a role in shaping my life at Seminex, two in particular stood out above the rest— the same two that stand out for many of us in Crossings —Bob Bertram and Ed Schroeder. Both would become for me mentors, colleagues, and very dear friends.

It was at Seminex that Bob taught me the gospel, and how deeply it is connected to our very faith that trusts it so. Faith is that which grasps and cherishes the gospel of Christ in the very face of all criticism, including most especially divine criticism. Christ gives us the promise that all criticism, even the criticism of the law, will never be for us the last word. Christ’s promise of mercy and forgiveness and life will be the last Word. You won’t find a more deep and profound meaning of the gospel and faith in all of the watered-down versions that dominate so many establishment theologies, including what I find far too much even in the ELCA. Many years after Seminex, that same theme about the gospel would be on display at Bob’s and Thelda’s home. There was a crucifix on the wall; and on that crucifix Bob had affixed a post-it with words clearly borrowed from Harry Truman, but written in Bob’s own impeccable penmanship – “The buck stops here.” It brought back so much about what Bob had taught throughout his life on the meaning of the gospel.

Ed Schroeder, of course, echoed many of the same themes that Bob did, and even credited Bob as the one who mentored him in the gospel. Among the many things that Ed especially helped me to appreciate and treasure was the meaning of the word “exile.” Ed took that seriously, so seriously that when all the rest of the faculty departed to other seminary campuses, he stayed in exile in St. Louis, teaching Crossings. Exile, as Ed understood it, points us toward a future homeland that no church institution or church body can ever fulfil. I sought to lift that up also in my introduction to Ed’s Seminex Remembered, even seeing how the words of Hebrews 11 apply so much to Ed and Bob and their spouses and many, many dear faithful saints from Seminex remembrances who have gone before us: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.”

The gospel, faith, exile. Those themes are what I remember most about Seminex. These have been cherished by me over all these fifty years, together with all the thorny scars and criticisms that have come along with them. But I have never regretted stepping off the elevator on the eleventh-floor.

Mandy—

The above events and the formation of Seminex—all based on what I have come to believe, teach, and confess, namely the Gospel of Jesus Christ understood from Scripture, Confessions, and daily experience as Judgment and Promise—shaped my personal and pastoral life completely. It is the process I’ve used in virtually every pastoral and church-related task. It was critical to my personal life when my first wife died five years into our marriage; critical to my work in the formation of the ELCA’s New Jersey Synod and subsequent service at its Secretary; critical to my passion for church unity and in interfaith relations; critical to everything I still do in my writing, teaching, preaching, and pastoral care. I simply cannot imagine what my life and ministry would be had I not learned the Law/Gospel interpretive principle.


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community