I grew up in Lutheran circles in Western Finland that can only be described as pietist orthodoxy. For many (most?) English-speaking Lutherans, that’s supposed to be a contradiction in terms, but take my word for it, it isn’t necessarily. My experience is of a rich, deep spirituality rooted in the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. (My cousin Juhana Pohjola explains this background briefly but clearly in his lecture at the excellent recent Symposium on Scandinavian Lutheranism at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, ON. You can listen to it here.)

As you would expect, though, the ‘pietism’ bit of that equation can cause occasional problems. One of them used to be infrequent Communion. I say, used to be, because things have changed much in my lifetime.

Strictly speaking, the problem isn’t a pietistic one anyway, since infrequent celebration of the Sacrament was pretty universal in those parts, not only in pietist circles. However, pietists added their own peculiar reasons for such infrequency, some of which are still around and which are far well beyond pietist circles. One of my pet irritations among them is the desire to commune infrequently so that it feels more special. I challenge anyone to take that approach to other forms of eating and drinking and see how it works out!

Another, more biblical argument, comes from the Sermon on the Mount:

[Jesus said,] “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23–24, ESV)

The way this has traditionally been read by many is that it’s a reference to the Lord’s Supper (“altar”), and that you shouldn’t come to receive the Lord’s Supper if you are in conflict with someone, or at any rate with someone in the church (“your brother”), but rather be reconciled first (“leave your gift there before the altar and go”). And so many people have stayed away from the Sacrament because they are angry with, or have had an unresolved argument, or worse, with someone. And they have also preferred infrequent Communion, in order to give them time to do the rounds and prepare for right reception by seeking reconciliation first. I have even witnessed near-hysterical scenes just before the start of the service as members of the congregation have tearfully done the rounds with one another, confessing whatever bad thoughts they have harboured towards one another and forgiving one another so that they can come to the altar and receive the Lord’s Supper.

I’m all for people being reconciled with their brothers and sisters—in fact, with the world and its dog, so far as it is possible. Confessing our sins to one another and receiving and giving forgiveness is a thoroughly good thing. Likewise, to come to receive the Sacrament of the world’s reconciliation to the Father while refusing to be reconciled with a fellow-believer is a fairly obvious sign of impenitence. Impenitence is never a good state to be in when coming to the altar!

However, I contend none of this has anything to do with Matthew 5:23–24. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is speaking of someone bringing their gift to the altar. What, I ask, has that to do with receiving the Lord’s Supper? Yes, it has the word ‘altar’ in Matt. 5, and Lutheran and many other churches have an ‘altar’ in their churches as the locus of the celebration of the Sacrament. But, as Norman Nagel would probably say, it’s not what word are being used but how they are being used that matters.

What Jesus is referring to is ‘bringing gifts to the altar’. And his audience is Jewish. So, what exactly is he referring to? My suggestion is that he is referring to the—ready for it—bringing of gifts (offerings) to the Temple. He is saying that if you are in a murderous state on account of your anger toward your brother, it’s not a good time to bring gifts to God. Better to acquire a broken and contrite heart first, to do justice and show mercy first, before bringing gifts and sacrifices to Him. Because the sin of the heart will stain the gift in the hands.

To translate into 21st-century church life, what Jesus is in effect saying is: don’t put money on the plate, don’t bring flowers on the altar, don’t sweep the car park, until you are reconciled. Repent first!

What he isn’t saying is: don’t come to the Sacrament. Because if that’s what he was saying, no one could come to the Sacrament, because there is plenty of sin of all kinds in all our hearts, and if we were to wait till it was all dealt with…

No, wait: that’s precisely why we come receive the Sacrament in the first place! Because we are sinners in need of forgiveness. To receive ‘forgiveness, life and salvation’: to be forgiven, to be strengthened in the new life (including the power to forgive), to eat and drink salvation from sin, death and the devil. So if you have sinned against your brother, withhold your offering if your conscience demands it. But by no means stay away from the Sacrament of forgiveness. Instead, seek absolution from the pastor, eat and drink the forgiveness wrought and brought by the body and blood of Christ. If you find it impossible to forgive, seek absolution for that, and eat and drink forgiveness, life and salvation for that. How better could you overcome the power of the sin in you? And what could you possibly need more when you are stuck in this, or any other sin, than forgiveness?

So, don’t stay away. Oh, and if you do withhold your gifts, it’s probably a good idea to set them aside to be given later when everything’s sorted out…

[There’s a really good discussion on forgiveness with Pr. Bill Cwirla on Issues Etc. Listen to it here.]

HT: My thinking on this subject got going some years ago when listening to a talk by Douglas Wilson.


Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Septuagesima Sunday, 20 February 2011.
Text: Matthew 20:1–16

www.jesusmafa.comIt’s not fair! It isn’t even nearly fair.

A group of men had been working in the same vineyard. Some had worked the full day, probably nearly 12 hours; some for 9 hours, some for six, some three, and some just about an hour. And at the end of their respective shifts, everyone got paid the same, a denarius. That means that the last workers to join the working party in the vineyard got paid twelve times the hourly rate of the ones who worked the whole day—even though they got to do their bit in the cool of the day, while the others had laboured in the heat of the Mediterranean sun. Even though the fact that they had not been employed by anyone all day suggested that they were the dregs of the local labour market, like the one-legged footballer who always gets picked last by the team captain.

The only justice that could possibly come out of this strange story is what Jesus doesn’t tell us: what happened the next day. I’m pretty sure that the vineyard owner had a great deal of trouble getting anyone to work for him, at least not without some firm guarantees about fair rates of pay. In short, this is no way to run a business.

Now, we might sympathise with the vineyard owner’s reply when the first men complain about the wages of the late-comers—“Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? … Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? ” After all, technically, he is quite within his rights and is allowed to pay people as he wishes. But he is being unfair, effectively penalising those who have worked hardest and rewarding those who have been idle all day. What would the union rep have to say about that?

More to the point, what would the church have to say about it? According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Vatican, a just wage is the legitimate fruit of work and therefore “They commit grave injustice who refuse to pay a just wage or who do not give it in due time and in proportion to the work done.”

In other words, the vineyard owner’s defence is no defence at all. It certainly wouldn’t wash in an employment tribunal. Yes, technically he may be within his rights to pay whatever he pleases to whomever he pleases, but that doesn’t excuse the injustice.

A fair employer pays a fair wage, in proportion to the work done.

Which begs the question: what precisely is Jesus trying to teach us in this parable? That God is arbitrary and, ultimately, unjust in His dealings with us, blessing some in greater proportion than others?

It may certainly seem so, and, let’s be honest, it often feels so. Like the disgruntled workers, we are quick to envy the fortune of others. Some people just sail through life upon calm waters and under constant sunshine, while others leap from struggle to struggle. If the blessings were given in proportion to godliness and piety, perhaps it would be more acceptable. But as the Psalmist points out so frequently, just as often it’s the wicked who prosper while the godly struggle. It seems so unfair. And, if we are being more honest still, we sometimes find it hard to accept that while we may have laboured for years, perhaps all our lives, in the heat of the sun, bearing Christ’s cross, others sneak in to God’s kingdom at the last minute with a deathbed conversion, perhaps after a life life of great wickedness or even as enemies of the very cross for which we have suffered. It’s not fair.

However, let’s think a bit more about what the nature of the injustice in this parable is. In what way has the vineyard owner wronged the disgruntled workers? After all, they received their contractual pay. Moreover, the pay that had been agreed was a fair one. One denarius was the common daily rate of pay for casual labourers such as the workers in the parable. It was indeed a just wage, given in due time and in proportion to the work done.

No, their problem wasn’t with their wages. Their problem was with the wages of the other workers. It wasn’t that they were being paid too little for the work done—it was what they could expect from any employer. They grumbled because the others were being paid more than the just wage. They hadn’t minded being paid a denarius for 12 hours’ work—until someone else got paid a denarius for an hour’s work. Their reward was just fine by itself, but it suddenly seemed pitiful when compared to the reward of others.

In just the same way, it’s much easier to bear our own burdens when others are having a hard time, too. It’s when we feel that our lot is harder than that of others that we begin to grumble. How often have you consoled yourself with the thought that at least you know that there’s someone even worse off than you? If that is your hope, then what will you cling to when you run out of people who are worse off than you? When you lose everything—when life itself is taken away? After all, if not before, the moment you die, no one will be worse off than you, because at that moment you will get to the point from which there is no way out and no way up.

You see, the real problem is the attitude that says that what I have isn’t good enough unless I can be convinced that things couldn’t be better. It’s the old heresy that infected Adam and Eve when the serpent hissed in their ear: “You will be like God”—He is holding you back, He could be giving you more, but you won’t get it unless you take it. It’s the same heresy that poisoned Cain’s mind, so that he murdered his brother because he felt that God hadn’t given Him the recognition he deserved. It’s the same heresy that infected the people of Israel when, dissatisfied with God’s promise of salvation and all the mighty works He had done to save them, they yearned for the flesh pots of Egypt. It’s the heresy that had infected many Jewish people of Jesus’ time who were jealously guarding God’s word as their exclusive possession, so that no Gentiles would sneak in on their promised reward. The same heresy that still infects us today—us, who are quite happy with our denarius, provided no one else gets more, or no one less deserving gets the same.

But can you see what’s behind this attitude? What is the assumption made by everyone in this sorry saga: Adam, Eve, Cain, the Israelites, first-century Jews, you and me? We all assume that we are the 12-hour shift, the ones who actually deserve the denarius, and that no one deserves more, and that a great many people deserve less.

Even those of us who have begun to learn the meaning of the last words Luther wrote before he died—“We are beggars, this is true”—are still hard-wired to assume that there is a direct correlation between effort and reward; that there should be a just wage in proportion to the work done.

The truth couldn’t be more different. None of us is a 12-hour labourer. The work of the vineyard has been going on for a long time. Since creation was perverted by the sin of our forebears, God has been calling labourers into His vineyard, through whom He has been setting it right. When the Son of God became incarnate, died and rose again, the world entered that final hour that is traditionally called the end times. When the curtain of the temple was torn in two, and the full, final sacrifice was complete, the eleventh hour began, at the end of which the workers will be gathered and given their wages. It is 2000 years into this final hour that we have been called into the work of the vineyard. Those who began the work perished long ago; we labour but a few moments in God’s great project of restoring the garden out of which man was ejected for his own disobedience.

What should your reward be for your few moments? What have you deserved? Not even the meagre wage of the casual day labourer, the minimum wage of the denarius that will scarcely suffice to keep body and soul together.

And what is the reward that God has prepared for you? It is something that that no eye has seen and no ear has heard—a reward beyond your wildest dreams, far beyond your imagination. Not the fraction of a denarius that you may have earned, but the infinite riches that Christ has earned and now gifts to you. Already, we are enjoying the advance payment: the gifts of grace in the word of forgiveness, in the washing of new birth, in the medicine of immortality being offered at this altar.

What, then, are the troubles and trials of this life, compared to what God has pledged to give to us? What are the hardships in comparison with the joys that await us? Certainly they are far less than we deserve. Even when our lives turn into a living hell, we can be assured that, having been washed in the blood of the Son of God, this life is the only hell we will ever have to endure.

For Christ on His cross has endured all the torments of hell in your place so that you may enjoy His reward—and so your wages are being paid in proportion to the work He has done.

And so it is true: It really isn’t fair, thank God!

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the feast of the Holy Innocents, 2 January 2011, by Pastor Charles Varsogea.

Text: Matthew 2: 13-23

I’m not from here. Which means that I need you to answer the following question for yourselves. Do you think of yourself as a country at war? You’re shrinking the Ministry of Defense and your Navy has given up fixed wing aviation for now, which aren’t the kinds of things warring nations do, yet Herrick 14 is about to begin. In a few months Royal Marines, young Englishmen, people, are going to begin dying. At home the death toll is a constant presence. The names of the dead are solemnly read on the news at the end of each week and yet we Americans still need to be reminded that ours is a nation at war.

This has been such a long war and so unusually fought that we’ve begun to get used to it. My youngest children have never known even a day during which their country was not at war. They have no idea whether peace is any different. They have to take it on faith that there is something other than war, some other way to exist. The same is true for many children in the world and for most of those children it is a much more personal and terrible experience. The war is waged in and around their homes and they are far too often casualties themselves. Once you get used to waging war though it is easy to forget what your goals are. It can be difficult to remember what victory is. All you want to do is get through the current misery and find some comfort before the next wave of fighting starts.

We’ve gathered here this morning, a bunch of nice people with kind hearts, to encourage one another and to worship God. This hall belongs to the Boy Scout, the very epitome of neighborliness and helpfulness. We’re all busy trying to stay well and pay our bills and keep our families together. It doesn’t feel like were at war. But even if the Taliban were to suddenly blink out of existence and all of our soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines could home we’d still be at war. Today’s Scripture lessons all serve to remind us of the endless war that the devil, the world and our flesh wages against God , His Word and, alas, His people.


Homily preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on Sunday 9 January 2011.

Text: Matthew 3:13–17

Baptism of JesusIt really made no sense. John the Baptist had been preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in anticipation of the coming of the kingdom of God. The Lord’s Messiah was coming and he would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire, with his winnowing fork in his hand to separate the wheat from the chaff.

And so they came. Matthew tells us that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”. It was one mighty washing: the waters of the Jordan being stained with the crimson sins of the repentant sinners of Jerusalem and Judea, all of them eager to be found to be gathered as wheat into the Lord’s barn at the coming of His kingdom, not be burned up as chaff.

So what was Jesus doing, asking to be immersed in these same waters of the Jordan, to receive the sinners’ baptism? The pure lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, asking to be baptised by John, who has come to prepare the sinners of Israel for His coming? John’s reaction is not only understandable; it’s the only reaction that makes sense: “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me? ”