08-10-2020: Ninth Week after Trinity

What daily devotional materials do you use? I read from Luther every morning.

Of course, reading from Luther’s writings isn’t just an opportunity to sit at the feet of brilliance, but rather it is to be carried out into the deep water of the Bible. It’s like boarding a vessel commanded by an esteemed captain who wants to help you to truly meet with the open sea—to meet its serene breezes; to steer into its tempestuous waves.

What I read this morning was truly remarkable. I wasn’t looking for what I discovered. In fact, I get the feeling it came looking for and discovered me. It certainly is more than appropriate for sharing, considering the current climate.

“People speak of two kinds of humility: one which we are said to owe when doctrine and faith are concerned, the other when love toward our neighbor is concerned. But may God never grant me humility when the articles of faith are concerned. For then no action is called for which is a yielding for the sake of love, for the sake of peace and unity, for the sake of keeping the church from being ruined, or for the love of the imperial majesty. The fanatics and sectarians are complaining about us as though no humility and love were found among us. But we reply: First abolish the Word, doctrine, and faith? For in these matters we will not budge a handbreadth though heaven and earth were to fall because of our firmness. For the Word does not belong to me; neither do Baptism and the Lord’s Supper belong to me. God has reserved these for Himself and has said, ‘You are to teach in this way!’ I cannot pass this injunction by. Therefore your will must yield. But when we speak like this, they say that we are proud people. In reality, however, this is true humility. God has commanded us to take this attitude. We are to connive at no omissions from His Word… By the grace of God we would be glad to lie at the feet of everybody if only the Word of God remained pure and people did not interfere in God’s affairs.” (W 49, 81.)

Did you get all that? If not, take a moment to scan it again, because it’s important.

Essentially, Luther sets faithfulness to the Word of God right beside love for the neighbor, and he does so within the context of humility. Then he takes out a hammer and smashes the idea that loving the neighbor could ever be interpreted as humble service if it includes sacrificing faithfulness to what God has mandated.

“…though heaven and earth were to fall because of our firmness.”

That phrase is important. Luther isn’t speaking figuratively. He’s being literal. Even if being faithful to God’s mandates means that the earth and sky would become completely uninhabitable, still, we obey. We do it and we trust. And why? Because neither the mandate nor what the mandate delivers belong to us. They belong to God. He’ll handle the details of their efficacy. He simply calls for us to be faithful. With this, we simply do them. We maintain them among us and follow along with them as recipients of what God is actively working.

“The fanatics and sectarians are complaining about us as though no humility and love were found among us.”

That phrase is important, too. By it, Luther identifies the true villains. First, the phrase makes plain that the fanatics and sectarians believe a church that holds to sound doctrine does so at the expense of love for the neighbor. As it might meet us this very moment, a church desiring to maintain the mandates of Christ and preserve in-person Word and Sacrament ministry during a pandemic—real or imagined—would be villainous. But Luther implies that such a church is not the villain. The fanatics and the sectarians are.

I don’t have time to give a lengthy dissertation here, but in short, Luther uses the term “fanatic” to mean someone who has strayed from a right understanding of God’s Word regarding the verbal and visible Gospel—the Word and the Sacraments. A fanatic no longer grasps Christ’s real presence and work in and through them. A fanatic has confused their source, nature, significance, and substance. Naturally, having lost sight of these things, a fanatic can neither appreciate nor practice them rightly. More than likely, a fanatic would have missed the value in the following words we sang during the Lord’s Supper yesterday:

By Your love I am invited,
Be Your love with love requited;
By this Supper let me measure,
Lord, how vast and deep love’s treasure. (“Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness” LSB 636, st. 8.)

When Luther uses the term “sectarian,” he’s taking aim at the next step in fanatical evolution: Protestantism’s teachings that the holy things of God are little more than symbols, things that man initiates, and because of this, are negligible and can be easily jettisoned at any moment or because of any circumstance, all without the fear of a seared conscience.

Fanatics and sectarians would likely argue during a time such as ours that a church and her Christians who insist on gathering together to preach, teach, pray, sing, kneel in confession, administer Baptism, and serve the Lord’s Supper are being careless and not truly loving one’s neighbor. They would likely urge the Church away from in-person worship. They would urge that she not perform baptisms. They would urge that she refrain from administering the Lord’s Supper. They would do these things, all under the banner of genuine love for the neighbor.

Once again, Luther urged, “I cannot pass this injunction by. Therefore your will must yield.”

He’s right. The fanatics and sectarians must yield, and the Church must continue on in faithfulness to the Lord’s mandates no matter how the world around her might spin a description of her actions. The Church must continue to gather for Word and Sacrament ministry. We must continue to be together. We must continue to baptize and receive the Lord’s Supper, which is only possible by way of in-person worship.

Again, some might insist, “But you’re not loving your neighbor and you’re putting people at risk!”

No, we’re not. We’re being faithful to God. Loving one’s neighbor will always have its beginning and end in being faithful to God first. Faithfulness to God is, by default, the only real way that showing love to the neighbor is possible.

Still, let’s think a little deeper on this concern.

In many cases, what this love for the neighbor actually looks like must be weighed very carefully. Sometimes that’s not so easy. Right now it sure seems like a lot of Christians have settled for the premise that to love one’s neighbor means being licensed to impose one’s subjective opinion on another, ultimately using the “love your neighbor” doctrine as a club to bludgeon them until they give you what you want. I heard this described in our Elders meeting this past Saturday as “spiritual blackmail,” and it was framed according to the all-to-familiar practice in churches of threatening absence and the withholding of giving unless certain demands are met. Personally, I think the term “spiritual extortion” is more fitting. But whichever term you use, both communicate dangerous expressions of self-righteousness born from self-love. In the end, this is about as far from loving the neighbor as it gets. Luther gave a nod to this in a piece I read last Friday:

“No one wants to be regarded as hating and envying his neighbor; and everyone, by words and gestures, can appear friendly—yes, as long as you are good to him and do what he likes. But when your love for him lessens a bit, or he by chance is angered with a word, then he is entirely through with you. Then he complains and rages about the great injustice done to him, pretends that he needs not put up with it, and praises and exalts the loyalty and love he showed toward his fellow man, how he would gladly have given him his very heart and is now so badly repaid that the devil may hereafter serve such people. This is the love of the world.” (W 21, 415 ff.)

Personally, I think a lot of this can be applied to the current debate regarding masks. It seems it’s not so much about the benefits of wearing or not wearing a mask, but rather how ready people are to mistreat others who don’t agree with their preference, all the while using the “love thy neighbor” doctrine to legitimize their behavior. The snag in all this, however, is that while some believe they’re being a good neighbor by wearing a mask, plenty of others truly believe they’re being a good neighbor by not wearing one. Both have their reasons. Both believe their positions to be arguable from science, even as both might accuse the other of believing flawed science. Naturally, both also have plenty of doctors—people far smarter than any of us—waiting in the wings and ready to support their individual positions. But none of these details changes the fact that they both believe deeply they are showing the better form of love for the neighbor by the position they’ve taken.

So, then, now what?

Well, now it would seem that loving one’s neighbor means stopping right there and actually doing what the “love thy neighbor” doctrine insists—which is that we become flexible to the other person’s concerns and we give them room. It means respecting their apprehensions and allowing space for our neighbor’s liberty to wear or not wear a mask, whether or not we appreciate his reasons. Christian love certainly isn’t found in shaming your neighbor, or bemoaning him as being unloving while you, the obviously better Christian, are most certainly proving a truer form of concern for the neighbor by your better practice.

That’s pretty pompous, wouldn’t you say?

How about this: You do what you think is reasonably best. I’ll do what I think is reasonably best. And let’s both agree that neither of our positions is giving room to some sort of false doctrine that jeopardizes the other person’s eternity. Let’s just leave it at that. That’s loving the neighbor. Any militancy beyond that crosses the line and ceases to be genuine Christian love.

Barely tangential, if there’s concern about the hygiene practices employed by a church in their holy spaces, I should add that it’s likely they’re more capable of using their reason, sense, and resources to love their neighbors far better than the other communal locales into which so many are willing to enter; places like Walmart, where I’ve run into so many of you shopping, picking up this and that item that had been touched by numbers of people before you, not once having been wiped clean by an employee. And don’t forget about the cashier behind the Plexiglass shield who just handled every single item in your cart, all of which will end up in your car and eventually in your home.

“But the Governor has mandated that no more than ten people assemble in indoor gatherings! You’re disobeying the Government and breaking the Romans 13 mandate!”

No, we’re not. First of all, it’s not the Government’s job to interfere in God’s affairs. When it does, it defaults on its ordination and is not to be obeyed. Period. Second, obedience to the Fourth Commandment is never accomplished at the expense of the First and Third Commandments. In all things, the Church must obey God rather than men.

“Well, God knows the dangers of the pandemic, and He knows we mean well. We’re doing all of this to His glory and for the good of our neighbor.”

That’s interesting. Let me share another bit of Luther’s wisdom I happened upon last Thursday. Again, I think this stuff came looking for me.

“For here you think, ‘I am doing this for the glory of God; I intend it for the true God; I want to serve only God. All idolaters say and intend just that. Intentions or thoughts do not count. If they did, those who martyred the Apostles and the Christians would also have been God’s servants; for they, too, thought they were rendering God a service as Christ says in John 16:2…’” (E 63, 48 f.)

And so we go forward here at Our Savior in Hartland, aligning our thoughts and intentions in all things to the holy will of God, praying as we did yesterday in the Collect for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity:

“Let Your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of Your humble servants; and that they may obtain their petitions, make them to ask such things as shall please You; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”

We pray this way in order to show love to our neighbor as it would be pleasing to God, and we do it only as we have first let our fears be comforted and our faith be strengthened by the Gospel delivered through the Word and Sacrament ministry of Christ.