A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (29 August) 2010.
The daily ritual must have been incredibly wearying for the poor driver. Every morning at 8.20, he would approach the bus stop where I was waiting, together with a couple of dozen other young teenagers. In the three years that I was part of the experience, not once did he actually manage to get the bus all the way to the stop, as the herd pushed forward like so many wild animals in a fierce race to be the first at the door. It’s amazing that no one got seriously hurt, or that the driver never actually hit a child in frustration at such idiotic behaviour.
And the price for the winner, the goal of the death-defying race? A place on the back row of seats and the right to allocate the remaining seats as he or she wished. 15 minutes on top of the world, 15 minutes as the king or queen of all that one could survey from the back of that dingy, clapped-out school bus. And the same scenario repeated in a mad gallop across the school playground when the bell went at 3pm. With the hindsight of maturity, it’s amazing that we thought it worth it, that we didn’t see both the stupidity and the comedy of the whole enterprise.
But there was more to this crude ritual. Once or twice, some scrawny first-former would manage to wriggle to the front of the heaving mass and dart to the back of the bus. The moment of triumph would rarely last longer than a few seconds, before the natural order of things was restored and the back occupied by whichever rightful contestant—someone bigger and stronger than the impudent runt—got there to eject the miserable upstart. No one made that humiliating mistake twice.
In today’s Gospel reading, we have a scenario, which looks very different from the school bus crush of my youth: the learned and honoured ranks of a town gathered for a dinner party at the home of one of their number, with Jesus among the quests. However, underneath the respectable veneer, these respectable folk are playing exactly same game. Luke tells us that Jesus “noticed how they chose the places of honour”. This is the polite way of putting it. To be more precise, Luke tells us that Jesus noticed how they kept trying to choose the best seats. There was an outwardly respectable dance as the Pharisees and biblical scholars tried to do subtly what we used to do in the death-defying push for the bus door: to get to the best place, the seat recognised by all as the summit, whose occupier was the king of the castle—by virtue of sitting where he sat.
This is not something that is particularly familiar to us modern Westerners, for whom the social etiquette of the meal table has lost much of its significance. It is mostly at weddings that we still find our ranking published to the present company in the form of the seating orders. However, in the world where Jesus lived, for people who cared about their social standing (which was most people), these things were of utmost importance. A social faux-pas, or a public humiliation, could do huge damage to a person’s reputation and standing in the small and intimate communities where most people lived.
In this light, Jesus’ advice is healthy common sense: instead of risking humiliation by over-exalting yourself, you are better off aiming low. That way, you will avoid the risk of the terrible climb-down, of being put down in your place in front of everyone; and perhaps you will get to experience the opposite, of being elevated to a place of greater honour in front of everyone. It’s sound advice for anyone, and not only in the context of first-century social conventions. Aim too high and you’re set up for a nasty fall; keep your ambitions modest, and you may well be in for a pleasant surprise.
However, to hear Jesus’ words as mere sound advice about how to behave in polite society is to miss the point, and to let ourselves off the hook. What the Pharisees and the lawyers were guilty of wasn’t just unwise or risky behaviour. Their real mistake wasn’t that they were taking social risks, or behaving in a manner unsuited to men of their standing. Far more serious was the way they sought to assert their own honour and prestige at the expense of others by fighting for the outward signs of honour and prestige. They agreed with the society around them that what mattered most to a person in society was their position in that society—that the most treasured thing one could possess was to be held in honour among one’s peers.
And when we see them in this light, it’s not such a great leap to recognise ourselves in the jostling, self-promoting Pharisees and lawyers. The way we judge ourselves, the way we judge others, is by the yardstick of various social and other conventions about what makes a person honoured or worthy. Wealth, education, job, family background, the kind of house or car one has, the kind of company one keeps, fashion sense, accent, nationality, manner, manners, the behaviour of one’s children or grandchildren—the list is endless: little, or not-so-little, markers we use to evaluate ourselves and others; to determine the kind and extent of honour we show to others or expect others to show to us. And so we use them to seek and to allocate the right places in the different circles we occupy in life.
In the same way we, like Jesus’ host on the Sabbath evening and almost any respectable person in that society, we too surround ourselves with people who are either like us, or who can benefit us, or whom we can benefit in some sort of mutual arrangement. Most of the dinner parties we attend or host are likely to look more like the one hosted by the ruler of the Pharisees—a gathering of like-minded people of a similar social standing—than the one hosted by Levi on the day he became a disciple of Jesus—a ragbag of tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners—and Jesus.
Worse still, too many churches are no exception to this rule: gatherings of like-minded people of similar backgrounds—and all too often with the same unwritten rules and pecking orders. Because we are just as beholden to the same worldly standards of what constitutes wisdom, worth, honour and power.
How different things look from Jesus’ perspective! When He watched the dance of the status symbols that Sabbath evening, what he saw was not the aspiration for honour and prestige, the struggle for treasures of precious worth. Rather, what he saw a sad ritual, like a beauty contest in a pigsty or a freedom march in a high-security prison: it made perfect sense within that little world, but was totally ludicrous from an objective, outside perspective. Instead of men of varying degrees of honour, what Jesus saw was a group of modest little men, with much to be honest about, to borrow Churchill’s phrase.
For Jesus sees us as God sees us, since He is God incarnate. The standards of honour and respect that are so cherished to us are of little worth in His eyes, since God sees into our hearts. Hearts, where even righteousness is just so many filthy rags. Try to exalt yourself in God’s company, to present your honour and your worth to Him, and you will find that you will not just be shown a lower seat at the table, but will find yourself thrown outside into the great darkness where there will be gnashing of teeth. All the things that we cherish in ourselves and admire in others, are ultimately like us: perishing. And while they may have their value and uses in this life, they are of no consequence at the banquet hall of the kingdom of God. For, as Scripture tells us repeatedly, God shows no partiality, but looks into our hearts. Which is why everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. Because we all are humble little people, with much to sin to be humble about.
If we saw ourselves and others from this perspective, perhaps we would be less keen to create and maintain are various pecking orders, less keen to seek the best seats or to make sure that no one steps out of line. After all, none of has much to write home about when it comes to true worth and honour.
* * * * *
But when God looks at us, He sees us in another way as well. He doesn’t only see the shame that our sins bring on us, the filthy rags of our best moments and all the other moments worse still than the filthy rags.
When God looks at humanity, He doesn’t only see an ocean of sinners: He also sees an ocean of people for whom Christ died. Every person born of a woman: Christ died for every man, woman and child, from the humblest embryo to the President of the United States of America and beyond. He had pity on His creation and sent His Son into the world, into all the humility that is ours as a birthright since the Fall. And Christ humbled Himself, taking on the form of a servant and dying our death on the cross. Not because you’re worth it: you’re not. But because His love for you is so great. And as He is now exalted and has been given a name that is above every name, so that every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father—so too all who are found in Him, united with Him in baptism and through faith, will be exalted and given a place of honour at His victory banquet, when sin, death and the Devil are finally destroyed.
This is how Jesus sees you: a humble little person with much to be humble about—and a precious, rebellious child for whom He died. Jesus did not seek the company of those who were like-minded and of a similar standing to Him. That He had from eternity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The love of God, like an overflowing spring, cannot contain itself but seeks out creatures to love. He loves us because of His love, even though in ourselves we are as far from lovely as heaven is from earth.
And now we have a seat at the High Table, where every seat is a seat of honour. We already have the honour here and now. Every time we come to Confession and Absolution, the scenario painted by Jesus takes place: we take the lowest place, the place of the wretched sinner, which by right is ours. God looks at us, sees the name of Jesus written on our hearts, and says, “Friend, move up higher.” And so we are honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with us: angels, archangels and all the company of heaven, together with our fellow-saints here and in glory. Thus elevated to the High Table, we feed on the finest food and drink: the very body and blood of Christ, food that strengthens and nourishes, drink that refreshes and gladdens in equal measure.
This is how Christ treats us. Not in order to receive something in return from us, in order to be reciprocated—not even primarily for His own glory (though He is indeed glorious in His display of mercy). Rather He does it for the sake of His love, in order to elevate the humble, in spite of themselves.
In the end, there really are only two kinds of people in the world: those who humble themselves, because they have much to be humble about, but are exalted to the highest heavens because of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ; and those who also have much to be humble about yet insist on being rewarded on the basis of their merits, in this life and the next. But as far as we are concerned, these two types really belong to one and the same group: those for whom Christ died.
Which is why there is no place for worldly distinctions and systems of honour in the Church: because all have fallen short of the glory of God and are in themselves without honour, and are only made righteous by grace, as a gift, through faith rather than anything they have done. And there is no place for judging people outside the Church by these worldly standards either: because all are sinners, inside as well as out, and because Christ died for all.
When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
We—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, unable to repay—are the chief beneficiaries of this policy. Having been loved so, shall we not share the love?
Lord, have mercy! Amen.
A translation from the FAQ page of Luther Foundation Finland.
Why do you not leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland if it is so bad?
It is the duty of Christians to abide in the vine by remaining in God’s word:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:1–7)
Christ Himself creates and sustains the Church with His word and sacraments. People can neither found nor sustain the Church with their own decisions or mutual contracts. That is why abiding in the vine becomes the central issue in Jesus’ parable — but not the only one. According to Jesus, abiding in the vine is remaining in His word. By His word, God prunes and cleanses His Church.
On this basis, the Lutheran Reformers did not imagine they could leave the Church and to start a new one, as if the Church was for them to found. Instead, by their teaching and practical actions they exhorted Christian to remain in God’s word and to work for the renewal of the Church of their time in order to remove unbiblical human inventions and abuses. The Catholic church reacted to this Reformatory programme with force, by driving out the shepherds and congregations who had adopted the Reformation, complete with excommunication and anathemas.
For a long time now, revival movements and organisations have been operating within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, which have worked for the renewal and building up our church on the Lutheran basis described above. In the midst of this church, God has given us a new birth in Holy Baptism, and it is there that He has been calling us again and again to repentance and renewal, both as individuals and as a community. Luther Foundation Finland and the people involved in it have never wanted anything other than to remain in God’s word and in the Lutheran Confessions (the Book of Concord), which rightly interpret the Scriptures; and they have wanted to live out this their faith both as individuals and as a community. Luther Foundation wants to promote the creation of worshipping communities which aim to orient themselves and to strive according to the seven marks of the Church, which the Reformer, Martin Luther, sets out in his book, On the Councils and the Church (1539).
When we read the Reformer’s description of the seven marks of the Church, it is readily apparent that our church has not stepped off the road they mark only in the question of the Office of the Ministry. The question of the status of God’s word in its various dimensions has brought about a ??? conflict and wound into our church. The leadership of our church has cared for us, their sheep, by encouraging us to step aside if we have problems. We have done that. Now that the conflict has come to a head, it encourages us to leave the church. Is this the voice of a good shepherd or of a general manager?
In 1541, Luther justified the position of the evangelical congregations and their relationship with the Catholic church in these words:
“Nobody can deny that we have in fullness and purity the preaching office and the word of God, that we teach and preach diligently, without adding any new, sectarian, or human doctrine, and in this we do just as Christ commanded and as the apostles and all of Christendom have done. We invent nothing new, but hold and remain true to the ancient word of God, as the ancient church had it. Therefore we are, together with the ancient church, the one true church, which teaches and believes the one word of God. So the papists once more slander Christ himself, the apostles, and all of Christendom when they call us innovators and heretics. For they find nothing in us but what belongs to the ancient church—that we are like it, and are one church with it.”
For background, see here.
Here is the text of the legal response by bishop Matti Väisänen to the disciplinary charge against him by the Tampere Cathedral Chapter, dated 27 July 2010. As is now known, the Cathedral Chapter decided on 11 August 2010 to divest bishop Väisänen of clerical standing in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, despite the arguments he presented in this document. He continues to serve as bishop in the Mission Province of Sweden and Finland.
UPDATE: The Luther Foundation website now has an English-language statement, which can be read here.
For a PDF copy of the English text, click here. The document may be freely distributed.
TO TAMPERE CATHEDRAL CHAPTER
Response in a case concerning a disciplinary procedure
Matti Väisänen ThD
The disciplinary charge by the disciplinary commissioner of Tampere Cathedral Chapter, Kari Ikonen, concerning my deposing from the pastoral office 9 June 2010
RESPONSE TO THE CHARGE
I am opposed to the disciplinary charge. I do not consider myself to have acted contrary to the responsibilities of my pastoral office.
In my ordination oath I have primarily bound myself to remain faithfully and purely in God’s holy word and in our church’s confession founded on it. According to the confession, the church’s highest rule is that all doctrine must be examined and evaluated according to God’s holy word. This biblical principle — sola Scriptura – and commitment to the Lutheran confessions is even today the legally in force in our church and is recorded in the first article of the Church Law, the so called Confessional Article. For that reason, the church’s confession binds not only the pastor but also the church’s order to being primarily obedient to God’s holy word, which is the Bible.
Because shepherds who bind themselves to the apostolic view on the office of the ministry are no longer being ordained in our church, I have received the office of bishop. The justification for this ecclesial emergency right is based on the Holy Bible and the Lutheran confessions. It is not an offence against the ordination oath but in the most profound sense precisely acting in accordance with the duties of that oath.
On the precise basis of the ecclesial emergency right, I refer to the attached article by pastor Anssi Simojoki, ThD.
Concerning the episcopal consecration
I have been ordained as bishop by an association called Missionsprovinsen i Sverige och Finland (hereafter Missionsprovinsen). The association is not outside the Church of Sweden but works within the Church of Sweden. However it — any more than any other association — cannot be an actual member of the Church of Sweden. Missionsprovinsen defines itself as a non-geographical diocese in the tradition of the churches of Sweden and Finland.
Also Luther Foundation Finland, in which I am a member and vice chairman of the Executive Council, works within the church. In Luther Foundation, we are concerned about our church’s current theological-spiritual orientation, which is detaching itself from God’s word. We are especially concerned that shepherds who bind themselves to the apostolic view on the office of the ministry are no longer being ordained.
It is my understanding that bishops have begun to impose this ordination block after bishop Olavi Rimpiläinen retired in 2000.
Concerned about the state of our church we have been forced—being guided and obliged by the Confessional Article of our Church Law and the Lutheran Confessions (Treatise, 60ff.), and with their justification—to take action in order to preserve apostolic worship and teaching in our church and our land.
Because Luther Foundation Finland is an associate member of Missionsprovinsen, this relationship has made it possible to begin the founding of an independent Mission Diocese / Mission Province in our church with its own worshipping communities / congregations, pastors and bishops.
Concerning the use of the external marks of a bishop
I have been elected bishop by the provinskonvent of Missionsprovinsen. The consecration was carried out by the Mission Bishop of Missionsprovinsen, Arne Olsson. He was assisted by the Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya, Walter Obare, and Missionsprovinsen bishops Lars Artman and Göran Beijer.
Arne Olsson was consecrated bishop by Archbishop Walter Obare in 2005. Walter Obare was consecrated bishop by the Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania, Samson Mushemba, in 2002. One of the assistants at the consecration of Walter Obare was bishop Olavi Rimpiläinen.
Because I have been called and properly consecrated into the office of bishop, I have not used the external marks of a bishop in any way without justification, for in terms of church law,† I am a Lutheran bishop.
Concerning the conducting of an episcopal mass
I have conducted an episcopal mass, including the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, as part of the carrying out of the duties of my office on 16 May 2010 in a place not authorised for that purpose.
Our church’s cathedral chapters, which are negatively disposed to those who have an apostolic view of the office of the ministry, do not permit us to celebrate the mass and the Lord’s Holy Supper in church and would not allow us to celebrate it outside the church either. Knowing this, why would we trouble ourselves any more than the cathedral chapters with our applications . In this matter, too, we have had to resort to the rights given to us by the Lutheran confessions and to seek for our congregations alternative premises, trusting that God’s word and prayer consecrate them as sacred spaces.
Concerning the alleged misleading of members of the church
When I accepted the call to become a bishop of Missionsprovinsen, and in serving the congregations that have been born in Finland as a result of the work of Luther Foundation, I am misleading no one, for we have made, and will continue to make, clear to everyone that I am a bishop of Missionsprovinsen, not a bishop according to the our church’s parochial diocesan order.
Nor have I taken a leading role in another denomination or another religious organisation, since Missionsprovinsen is registered as an ideological association. In terms of its organisation, it does not work within the administrative structures of the churches of Sweden or Finland. Rather, it continues the church’s spiritual heritage as a free diocesan structure, serving here in Finland those members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland who have been left homeless because of their traditional view on the office of the ministry.
Concerning the alleged breach of the ordination vows
Therefore, I absolutely deny having broken the ordination vow I swore in 1964. If Tampere Cathedral Chapter deposes me from the office of the ministry, it will take place precisely because I have remained faithful to my ordination vow.
It is characteristic of our church’s current theological-spiritual state of humiliation that the church has increasingly replaced its own ecclesiastical justice‡ with civil service law and secular laws, seeking again to become a state church. The governing organs of our church have brought our church to a situation where the church’s constitution (Bible + the Lutheran confessions) and the church’s order have come to a conflict. At the same time, the bishops and cathedral chapters demand obedience to church order against the church’s constitution. That which is human takes precedence over that which is divine. Man’s word and man is elevated in our church above God’s word and God. Thus the church, having broken its judicial foundation, changes increasingly into a travesty of a church with its rites and blessings of civil religion.
I am saddened that this distortion leads to oppression against those who consider the Bible the unchanging word of God. Today it looks like holding to Gods word is a crime in our church. By contrast, those who deny Christ’s divinity and atoning work, and even the existence of a personal God, and those who live immorally, are allowed to work in our church as pastors and bishops, destroying our church without any disciplinary consequences, while those who want to be faithful to God’s word are dismissed from their posts.
Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. So help me God! (Martin Luther, 1521)
DATE AND SIGNATURE
In Ryttylä, on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, AD 2010
Missionsprovinsen i Sverige och Finland
The Bishop’s Attorney
It’s odd …
A) How someone is still, 20 years …
B) How someone is still, 2000 years …
A) … after the General Synod’s democratic decision …
B) … after the common history of the Church arising from the Bible …
A) … knowing that the nation may abandon the church …
B) … knowing that the Lord Himself may abandon the church …
A) … and the church may lose the blessing of the governing authorities …
B) … and the church may lose the blessing of God …
A) … and what will then happen to the church’s finances and future …
B) … and what will then happen to the church’s finances and future …
A) … when all this opposing is based only on an interpretation of the Bible …
B) … when all this opposing is based only on an interpretation of the Bible …
A) … which is supported by a small minority in the church …
B) … which is supported by a small minority in Christendom and its history …
A) … can still think like that and then obstinately make life difficult for others …
B) … can still think like that and then obstinately make life difficult for others …
A) … when it would be easier and more honest to leave the church and start another …
B) … when it would be easier and more honest to leave the church and start another …
A) … so it’s really odd why they don’t draw the right conclusions.
B) … so it’s really odd why they don’t draw the right conclusions.
Translated from http://www.luthersaatio.fi/uutiset/kummallista-perspektiiveja-kirkolliseen-debattiin.html
Bishop Matti Väisänen, recently consecrated as assistant bishop in the Mission Province in Sweden and Finland, has been defrocked by the Tampere Cathedral Chapter. There’s an inaccurate English-language report on the matter on the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation’s web page.
Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5:41)
Here is a translation of an official statement from Luther Foundation Finland. The text is also available as a PDF download here.
The decision by the Tampere Cathedral Chapter to depose Matti Väisänen from the pastoral office is wrong and contrary to the church’s confession. Matti Väisänen has been a pastor for 46 years – he has come to be known as a profound teacher of the Bible, preacher and curer of souls [pastoral counsellor]. He has not broken his ordination vows by his teaching or his life.
Bishop Matti Väisänen enjoys profound confidence among the pastors and congregants of Luther Foundation [Finland] — and more widely among members and officials of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland — and the decision of the Chapter does not shake this confidence. On the contrary.
The decision of the Chapter demonstrates that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland does not — contrary to the claim in the decision of the Chapter — “live in normal circumstances”. The justification of the work of Luther Foundation [Finland] is based on the spiritual state of emergency in the church, where the heart of the church’s life — the church’s faith — is disintegrating.
The church’s leadership is making ever deeper the chasm between the administrative organs of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and Luther Foundation Finland, as well as other Christians concerned about the spiritual state of the church. Distrust in the spiritual oversight of the bishops of the national church among congregants is growing, whilst among the bishops of the church and in other offices — in spite of appeals — there are numerous people who deny the chief articles of the church’s faith in their proclamation. Väisänen alone is accused of “breaking his ordination vows”. This begs the question: is the only remaining thing demanded of office-holders in the church the unquestioned acceptance of the power of the bishops?
How do we proceed now? Matti Väisänen is still our bishop. We continue with assurance under his oversight in the work of building congregations in accordance with our church’s confession.
Raimo Savolainen, Chairman of the Executive Council, Luther Foundation Finland
Juhana Pohjola, Dean, Luther Foundation Finland