Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Why do we focus so much on doctrine?


And they were astonished beyond measure saying, "He has done all things well.  He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."  Mark 7:37

THE problem with Protestantism is that it is largely a religion of the mind.  Faith is understood to be agreement to a set of doctrinal formulations, and eternal life is determined by a doctrinal examination.  They would never say it like that, but that is what it amounts to.  Maybe you have seen the billboards around town with the message, "Who do you say the Son of Man is?  Your eternity depends on your answer."

Unfortunately much Protestant thought has rubbed off on Lutherans and we need to scrub it from our brains as best we can.  Doctrinal formulations are a vital part of our religion.  They are the framework of our faith and we must always believe, teach and confess the Word of God in its truth and purity with all of our might, but doctrine is not all there is.  Our invisible faith also has a visible side to it, one that must not be ignored.  We need to understand that the grace of God is always attended by signs and wonders that are perceived by the five senses, and today's gospel is a prime example.

What were the Lord's miracles all about after all?  Were they simply attention grabbers?  If so they did their job.  They inspired astonishment, faith and praise as we learn in today's gospel, but they were more than attention grabbers.  St. John consistently refers to the Lord's miracles as "signs," and that is what they are:  visible manifestations that attend the INVISIBLE grace of God.  They are the tiny tip of the  massive iceberg of mercy that lies beyond our vision.  By them Jesus, already during His earthly ministry, began to repair what sin had destroyed, because at the end of the day all the problems we suffer in life, from the greatest to the least, from illness to earthquakes to a guilty conscience can be traced back to the destructive negativity of sin.

What God created as "very good," the devil is dedicated to destroying, but Jesus puts Humpty Dumpty back together again.  That is what St. Mark teaches us with the words, "He does all things well."  The word in Greek is not "well" but "good," as in Genesis chapter one, where we read that all the things God created were very "good," which is to say that they were in accordance with the Creator's unfathomable wisdom, in line with His good and gracious will.  By the Lord's miracles and by His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus restores all things to their good estate, especially sinners, especially you.

This same theme, the VISIBLE grace of God, runs through all of our lessons today.

In Psalm 146 we learn that God executes justice for the oppressed, that He watches over the fatherless children, gives food to the hungry and opens the eyes of the blind.  He did that through the Lord's earthly ministry and still does it today through the good works of those who are imitators of Christ.

In today's lesson from Isaiah the Lord promises that, "the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see."  These are the things that Jesus did in fulfillment of the prophecies, and that He still does today in answer to the church's prayers, and according to His good and gracious will.  Yes!  You can and should still pray for miracles today, and expect them however hopeless the situation might seem by human standards, not because you have twisted His arm by your great display of emotion that you mistake for faith, like so many raving prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:29), but because He is the "almighty and merciful God" just as our collect* says today.

Though the kind of miracles that Jesus did are not as evident today as they were then, the Sacraments are richly  manifest among us.  By the water, the word and rituals of holy baptism Jesus opens the ears of our hearts to hear His gospel, to trust it, and to cling to it though devils all the world should fill, and like the deaf mute, He opens our lips to receive His body and blood, and that by doing so, to confess with His people every Sunday that Jesus is Lord!

This is what St. Paul has in mind in today's epistle lesson where he declares himself to be a minister of the New Testament.  He is not referring here to the last twenty-seven books of the bible, but instead to the words of Jesus:  This cup IS the New Testament in my blood.  This is the greatest miracle of all:  that in the blessed sacrament our Lord feeds us with His own life-giving, death-defying flesh and blood, in order to eradicate every last "sin cell" from us, rendering us sin-free, and giving human beings, infected with eternal death, a clean bill of health.

Yet the church does not stop there!  Instead, since the beginning, she has consecrated her time, talents and treasures to making the invisible faith visible.  She has constructed beautiful sanctuaries to reflect the Beautiful Savior she worships.  She has turned her best efforts to producing sacred liturgies, books, vestments, vessels, music, art, rites and rituals to be visible manifestations of the love that the Immortal, Invisible and only Wise God holds for us, and lest anyone think that she is turned only inward, she has consecrated her very existence on earth to performing works of mercy for all in need, to teach the ignorant, counsel the erring, heal the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry and bring about justice for the oppressed.  Her works of charity have been performed in every corner of the the globe to make the love of the invisible God visible to every eye.

So on this 12th Sunday after Trinity let us continue to dedicate ourselves to the same:  to our life-giving and soul-satisfying doctrine, to Divine Worship in all of its goodness, beauty and truth, to the love of the sacred, and to the works of mercy without which the Christian religion is incomplete.  God grant it.  Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

*Almighty and merciful God, by Your gift alone Your faithful people render true and laudable service.  Help us steadfastly to live in this life according to Your promises and finally attain Your heavenly glory, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

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