Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Law and Gospel Reflections

Law and Gospel Reflections

Eric Lemonholm

A Reflection Paper

June 24, 2009

This is difficult. Reflecting on the course, Preaching Law and Gospel with Dr. Dirk Lange, is a little like reflecting on a journey one has just begun. The law and gospel dialectic is fundamental theology; it’s the language of faith, the threat to existence and the promise of salvation. It’s dying and rising. It’s being buried with Christ in baptism and rising with Christ. It’s the theology of the cross, looking at things as they really are, seeing God through suffering and the cross (Luther in the Heidelberg Disputation)[1]. It’s a cruciform existence, a life of suffering love for the other. It’s discipleship, following the One who is our Savior into the life of the world. It’s Bonhoeffer’s notions of “religionless Christianity” and the Christian life as two things: “prayer and righteous action.”[2] It’s divine wrath and divine mercy, God’s alien and God’s proper work, judgment and grace, sinner and saint.[3]

The dialectic of Law and Gospel appears in the “theological substructure of the sermon,” according to Herman Stuempfle, Jr.’s reading of Heinrich Ott, consisting of three elements which correspond to “the ‘structural phases’ of the life of faith”:

In the first phase we are brought to the realization that our situation before God is one of “lostness.” Then through the Word of Jesus’ redemptive work we experience, in the midst of our lost situation, an emancipating encounter with God. Finally, out of this encounter there issues a radical reorientation of our life towards new ends.[4]

It’s essential to remember, however, that this theological substructure is not the outline of every sermon, nor is this substructure a framework that one woodenly overlays on the biblical text – as if one were to read every text through the lens of a narrow understanding of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. In the context of preaching, there is no single definition of either Law or Gospel, and there is no single interpretation for any particular text discerning what is Law and what is Gospel in the text. In the word of Scripture, God encounters us, where we are, with both Law and Gospel: what I discern and preach as Law and Gospel for my congregational context will not be the same as another sermon for another time, place, and people; one cannot fully predict or control how God will speak Law and Gospel to someone through the sermon. Gospel can function as Law, Law can function as Gospel; both can be intermixed in any text or any sermon, and what one person hears as Law another will hear as Gospel.

Stuempfle discerns two different forms of the Law: Law as Hammer of Judgment, and Law as Mirror of Existence. The Hammer of Judgment targets the conscience with accusations of guilt, to hold the listeners accountable for our sin; the Mirror of Existence targets consciousness with descriptions of our “anxiety, finitude, alienation, doubt, despair,” etc., to bring our broken existence to awareness.[5] Thinking of the two uses of the Law – as Torah teaching to enable human flourishing and as Hammer or Mirror to reveal our need for a Savior – the Law has both positive and (from a human perspective) negative functions. This side of the Kingdom of God in its fullness, we will continue to need both uses of the Law.

One does not end with the Law, however. The Law alone is bad news. The specific Law or “No!” preached will be correlated with a specific form of Gospel or God’s “Yes!”[6] The Hammer of Judgment will be answered by “the Gift of Forgiveness;” the Mirror of Existence will be answered by the Gospel as “Antiphon to Existence,” for example, alienation answered by reconciliation, anxiety by certitude, despair by hope, transiency by homecoming.[7] While one can, in a general sense, describe the Good News of God’s promise of salvation through Christ in Scripture, how that Good News is specifically given voice in the sermon cannot be predicted before the process of sermon preparation, because the specific Gospel word will be given flesh by the text of Scripture, the congregational context, and the preacher’s own life with both the text and the context – swinging between the Bible and the community of faith, between the Gospel and the Law, between life and death.

A tension, which arose even in Paul’s day, is how the call to obedience fits into this Law/Gospel dialectic. Should we fall into the ditch of antinomianism? “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). If God freely forgives sin, why not sin more, so God can forgive more? On the other side, should we fall into the ditch of legalism, and place the burden of the Law on the backs of the people as a prerequisite for grace? The answer is that we struggle to walk the narrow path. In answer to antinomianism, we recognize the two legitimate uses of the Law: to guide our path and to reveal our fallenness, and thus our need for Christ. In answer to legalism, we recognize that salvation is God’s work, already accomplished for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The Gospel, is not earned, but is a gift from God; it’s all grace. Our life of faith is a life of gratitude, thanksgiving in response to what God has done for us. For example, as Christians we follow the Ten Commandments, neither in the fear that, when we fail to keep them, we will be damned; nor in a false pride that deceives ourselves into thinking that we are, in fact, following them fully and paying our own way to salvation. Rather, we follow the Ten Commandments freely, in a spirit of gratitude for God’s gift of grace, knowing that we will fall down along the way, go astray, and repent, and that God has promised to forgive us, as the loving parent forgave the prodigal child (Luke 15).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Quote for the Day

Quote for the day from French and Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ book Entre Nous, pp. 99-100. It’s dense reading; spend some time with it:

The portion of humanity that, from Sarajevo to Cambodia, witnessed a host of cruelties in the course of a century in which its Europe, with its “human sciences,” seemed to have fully explored its subject – the humanity that, during all these horrors, breathed – already or still – the smoke from the ovens of the “final solution” crematoria where theodicy abruptly appeared impossible – will it, in indifference, abandon the world to useless suffering, leaving it to the political fatality – or drifting – of blind forces that inflict misfortune on the weak and conquered, while sparing the conquerors, with whom the shrewd are not slow to align themselves?

Or, incapable of adhering to an order – or a disorder – that it continues to think diabolical, must not humanity now, in a faith more difficult than before, in a faith without theodicy, continue to live out Sacred History; a history that now demands even more from the resources of the I in each one of us, and from its suffering inspired by the suffering of the other, from its compassion which is a non-useless suffering (or love), which is not longer suffering “for nothing,” and immediately has meaning?

At the end of the twentieth century and after the useless and unjustifiable pain which is exposed and displayed therein without any shadow of a consoling theodicy, are we not all committed – like the Jewish people to their faithfulness—to the second term of this alternative? This is a new modality in the faith of today, and even in our moral certitudes; a modality most essential to the modernity that is dawning.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Five Minute Sermon on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

Here's a project I did here at Luther Seminary this week: a sermon for my preaching class on Isaiah 1.
Eric Lemonholm, June 12, 2009

Isaiah has a vision – or, rather, he sees a vision.
The vision is not his own.
It’s a vision from God.
He’s possessed by it.
His life is not his own.
It would have been so much easier if Isaiah had not seen his nation through God’s eyes.
But once he did,
once that vision possessed him,
once the live coal touched his lips,
once he responded to God, “Here am I; send me!”
how could he keep from speaking the word?
How could Isaiah not testify to the peril that Judah was blindly approaching?
They were about to do a liturgical dance off a cliff; how could he not warn them?

If you’ve ever been to a Lutheran Synod Assembly, you may have noticed that we Lutherans can’t seem to worship together without including every possible liturgical dialogue and prayer and hymn in the service.

We need a pipe organ, we need robes. We need our Lamb of God’s and our Holy Holy Holy’s.
The Lord knows it’s not real worship without a little Gregorian chant.

For those of us who are not big into the minutiae of practically perfect worship, this passage may tempt us to gloat.

Look – even God is getting bored of all our callings of convocation.
Our solemn assemblies are burdensome even to God.

I know a young pastor who said to me earlier this year, “I’m tired of planning events that I wouldn’t attend if I didn’t have to.”
How often is our worship like that?
Would you attend your church if you weren’t the pastor?

But of course, this is not what Isaiah is talking about.
Maybe we are boring God with our uncreative, spiritless, monotone worship
– but that’s a sermon for another text.

Isaiah’s talking about blood.
Blood on our hands.
We’re like Lady Macbeth, but we don’t even know it.

If God’s eyes are closed to our worship,
if God’s ears are closed to our prayers,
it’s because of the blood on our hands,
blood we don’t even see.

Wake up, people!
Open your eyes!
Is the message of the prophets dead?
Does it no longer apply?

If Isaiah did this in 8th century BC Judah, then how are we to do what he did in America in 2009?
And if we are not doing it, then what in the world are we doing?

Take a look sometime at how much of the Bible is devoted to the Hebrew prophets.
How much of our preaching is centered on their message?

Here the word of the Lord:

16Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, 17learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

This isn’t just one of seven verses in the Bible that deal with how we treat the poor. It’s one of over 3,000.
Are you following the Torah, God’s teaching?
The easiest way to find out is to ask how you treat the poor, the oppressed, the alien, the orphan, the widow, the imprisoned.
People on the edge.
People at risk.

Are they just collateral damage of our shock and awe existence?
During the good times, we cut taxes for the rich.
During the bad times, we cut help for the poor.
When we kill people, or let them die, corporately, as a society, it just doesn’t seem so bad as if we were doing it on our own.
But what’s the difference?

When Luke Skywalker confronted the dark side, he saw his own face.
We are the dark side of our society and world.
We are bin Laden.
We are terrorism.
We are extraordinary rendition.
We are torture, of which the majority of American Christians approve.
We are children working in sweatshops and dying in factories and mines.
We are global warming and the killing of our world.
We are the oppression in oil rich countries fueled by our demand.
We are whatever damage was done to people, animals, and the world for the sake of our consumption, convenience, and security.
As much as we try to separate ourselves from the truth of our corporate and individual actions, the blood is on our hands.
Can you see it? Will you help your people see it?


I tell you, a ‘salad’ or ‘French’ ending to this sermon is a temptation.
‘Let us’ do justice.
‘May we’ practice righteousness.
We’ve just heard the Law: Now let us and may we follow it! Amen!

But, we haven’t yet heard the Gospel, the good news.
We are the defendants.
God the Prosecutor has just made a damning case against us.
Suddenly God the Judge stands up, and says,

Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord:

At this point, I expect God to heap more evidence on us.
But instead, we hear this:

though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow;
though they are
red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

God has become our Advocate, our Defender.
We can’t wash the blood off our hands.
The stains run too deep.
There will always be more.

But we do have an Advocate, in whom, by whom, and through whom our sins are washed away, forgiven.
We are given a clean slate.
Our God wants us to “eat the good of the land.”
Our God wants us to flourish, and has given us instruction, Torah, to help us flourish.
Are you “willing and obedient”?
Will you
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Will you help your people see ourselves as God sees us, and live as God wants us to live?
Will you teach both Law and Gospel?
Will you help them see that the Law is indeed “sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb”? (Psalm 19)
Will you show them how, as a forgiven people of God, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God? (Micah 6:8)

It’s time to pray. God of Torah, God of Evangel, let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, go forth and spread your vision of justice and righteousness, for the flourishing of all your creatures. Amen.