Gospel (A Seriously Theological Sermon)
October 30, 2018 Pastor: Rev. Peter Mills
Verse: Revelation 14:6–14:7
REFORMATION (2018) Rev. 14:6-7; Rom. 3:19-28; Mt. 11:12-19.
Then I saw another angel flying over-head, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth… (v. 6).
Johann Gerhard, the 17th century Lutheran theologian, points to M. Luther as one such heavenly messenger of the “eternal gospel”. In all of Christendom it is only the Lutheran Church that commemorates the German Reformation’s ongoing restoration of an “eternal gospel” to which the institutional Church is always being reformed in repentance.
Lutheranism in America began as a stalwart defender of the catholic faith and historic practice. From the beginning Lutherans came under attack in the midst of an anti-sacramental Protestant culture. C.F.W. Walther expressed our Lutheran militancy for the “eternal gospel”:
“It is truly distressing that many of our fellow Christians find the difference between Lutheranism and Papism in outward things. It is a pity and dreadful cowardice when one sacrifices the good ancient church customs to please the deluded American sects, lest they accuse us of being papistic! Indeed! Am I to be afraid of a Methodist, who perverts the saving Word, or be ashamed in the matter of my good cause, and not rather rejoice that the sects can tell by our ceremonies that I do not belong to them?... [I]t remains true that the Lutheran Liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches…”
The “eternal gospel” from the foundation of the world is this: Jesus crucified and lifted on the cross by which he continues to proclaim and deliver in his church God’s merciful forgiveness of sin in, with, and under his flesh and blood.
The church has her being in God’s word, rightly parsed law from grace in Christ, that draws her relationally deeper into Baptismal and Eucharistic union with God for reception of every blessing.
In time Lutheran militancy for the “eternal gospel” became less strident. Some may remember your “grandfather’s Lutheran Church” in the 20th century. You may have thought those days glorious, halcyon, and blessed; Lutherans competed step for step with the denominations in America for bigness.
Neo-evangelical Protestants took to the airwaves: Billy Sunday and Billy Graham, Rome had its Bp. Fulton Sheen, and Lutherans took their law-gospel preaching from the pulpit to a mass audience under the auspices of The Lutheran Hour. Outreach aside, thus began the process of separating the eternal gospel’s Word from the eternal gospel’s sacramental flesh and blood of Christ.
Lutheran congregations grew. Typically on Reformation Sunday many area Lutherans conducted joint Services with Sermons that decried the errors of Roman Catholicism in sync with an overall Protestant mentality. Rome had its CYO, Protestants their Sunday Schools, Lutherans enrolled teens in the Walther League and adopted a Sunday School model.
Protestants built “cry rooms” in their worship places, shielding adults from the clamber of as yet unbaptized children. Lutheran’s followed suit emphasizing the Sermon by reduced administration of the Sacrament, in some cases as little once a month or even four times a year. The effect was that Lutheran Sermons no longer directed the Baptized to the Altar as the focus of Christian worship; but by implication, away from it.
Some Lutherans began to appear as generic Protestants with their lecture-hall cum Bible Study cum Sunday-Go-To-Meeting “worship” style. Lutherans continued to claim being a “liturgical” church body but could no longer say why. Many Lutheran pastors were no longer being trained in the theology of the Church’s historic Liturgy, merely its rubric forms.
I don’t wish to paint with too broad a brush, certainly there were faithful congregations oriented in a liturgical word and sacrament identity; these were the remnant. As for the Confessions all at least taught adults Luther’s handbook for parents, the Small Catechism.
Normal pastoral care in the congregation occurred one on one either by private confession seeking individual Absolution or in discussion by Announcing for Communion. Taking a page from the self-absolution practiced by Protestant neighbors, Lutherans began to hold the Pastoral Office in less regard, either avoiding the Pastor’s Absolution altogether or only accepting an en masse absolution to a general confession. Trajectory of minimal rather than stalwart Lutheranism was becoming discernable.
During the 20th century Lutherans competed very well in size and grandeur with other church bodies… until we didn’t. Somewhere along the way a demographic and cultural sea change occurred regarding religion in America. That sea change has run its course in Europe where the vestiges of Christianity consists as medieval cathedral architecture.
In America Lutherans are beginning to observe loss of a Reformation identity; in many ways we have become just one more Protestant denomination making a claim that the “eternal gospel” is generically possessed among the sects.
Yet things are changing for the good. Seminaries have begun the long process of a new Reformation, reuniting the eternal gospel’s word and sacraments as the substance and content of her Liturgy. While the so called “Church Growth Movement” is still alive other Lutheran’s have stopped competing with the Protestant sects for bigness, which someone recently described in today’s environment as “big entertainment”, opting instead for fidelity to the angelically delivered “eternal gospel”.
What is our reward; or to paraphrase St. Peter from last Sunday, “[Jesus] see we have give up everything to follow you; what’s in it for us?” (Mk. 10:28). Instead of being an amorphous big tent Lutherans are again becoming identifiable; often a persecuted remnant for our confession and practice of the church’s Loaves and baptismal Passion in Christ, which is to say, fidelity to the “eternal gospel” is its own reward.
Jesus prophesied this historic reprise, “But from the days of JB until now, the reign of heaven is being violently attacked, and violent men are trying to snatch it away” (Mt. 11:12). Foundational to heaven’s “eternal gospel” is that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22b). Violent blood letting is part and parcel of man’s salvation in Christ. St. Paul frames the “eternal gospel” this way, “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith… apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 3:25b & 28b).
JB is God’s end-time Elijah going before the face of Jesus. His end of life prophesied to the violence to be visited upon Jesus at the hands of violent men. Herod Antipas severed JB’s head from his body; now all eyes were directed Christ-ward to behold Jesus’ lamb-like sacrifice on the cross at Israel’s rejection of their Messiah-King.
Jesus, if you will, is Elisha to JB’s Elijah. Jesus, at his Baptism in the Jordan, concluded on the cross, received “a double portion of his [herald’s] Spirit” in fullness (2 Kings 2:9). The “eternal gospel” from the Father for men on earth now rested solely with the crucified Jesus and testified to by the water the blood and the Spirit (1 Jn. 5:7-9), gifted from the cross for the life of the church (Jn. 19:30).
The “eternal gospel” is received by our stand-alone faith apart from the works of the law; a faith that, St. Thomas-like, grasps hold of Jesus’ wounds. This is the core message and the offense of the “eternal gospel” that always calls the Church to repentant reformation.
Like JB (Mt. 11:6) we continually require a blessing for faith so not to take offense at God’s bloody “eternal gospel”. In all cases, those “trying to snatch [the eternal gospel] away” are those denying the testimony of the water and the blood and the Spirit concerning God’s Son with his church.
To put a fine point on the nature of our Reformation celebration, the various “church bodies” are problematic. Reformation in the nature of the case is about the repentance of church bodies returning to true doctrine and practice of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
It is hardly worthwhile to catalogue the myriad denominational errors concerning the “eternal gospel”: Roman or the 1,001 sectarian expressions of Protestants. God does not save church bodies, rather individuals; and the Church is always called to repentant reformation of error and periodic backsliding led the example of the remnant. The eternal lives of men lie within the exclusive realm of the one true faith. Amen.