Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Great Physician

I have been called to a small congregation in Portland, Oregon. Prior to my ordination, the pastors in my circuit would like for me to present to them what it means to be a pastoral theologian. What succeeds is my presentation to them.

Jesus Christ said: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). Jesus is the Great Physician who brings healing from physical as well as spiritual sickness. People who thought they were righteous like the Pharisees rejected and crucified Jesus. Conversely, people who realized their sickness fled to the Great Physician as the one who had a cure. After triumphing over the sicknesses of sin and death by His death and resurrection He appeared to the Apostles and told them to preach repentance and continue His mission: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).

The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church locate the institution of the pastoral office in the Great Commission (AC, XXVIII, 5-6; Tr, 31) where Jesus says: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20), and again: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you….If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:21-23). It is not that lay people do not participate in the Great Commission with us. Rather, the Confessions want to state that they see the ministry of the Apostles as one under the stead and by the command of Christ. Jesus said to the Apostles: “The one who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). Christ’s words testify here that we are to speak on his behalf. The Apostle Paul considers pastors ambassadors of Christ and his words spoken in Christ’s stead (2 Cor. 5:20). The Apostle Peter considers pastors shepherds under the Chief Shepherd Jesus Christ (1 Peter 5:4). On the basis of the Great Commission texts, our command as pastors is to preach and teach the Word and administer the Sacraments of Baptism (Matt. 28:19) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:25). Consequently, our Confessions state concerning pastors: “When they offer the Word of God, when they offer the Sacraments, they offer them in the stead and place of Christ” (Ap, VII & VIII, 28). Humbly, I see myself as a physician operating under the authority and in the place of the Great Physician, Jesus Christ. Now, I do not have the gift to heal people from physical sicknesses like Jesus, but I do have the cure to heal people from spiritual sickness. The sickness to be healed is sin, and the cure from this sickness is the Great Physician, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is given in the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. Jesus Christ is the only medicine I have, and the only cure from sin and death given by God for people to be healed.

Martin Luther taught rightly in the 16th century that even after a person is washed with the waters of baptism, their sinful nature still clings to them. There will be people in my congregation that are still dealing with the disease of sin in their lives even though they have been baptized. Theologically, I see two kinds of people who deal with sin. There are those who hate it and want to fight against it according to the Apostle Paul’s admonitions in Romans 6 and 7. And there are those who think it is insignificant, do not deal with it, and unrepentantly allow it to reign within them. Jesus said: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32). Those who believe they are not sick and think they do not need a cure will not hear the medicine of the Gospel but the Law. The Confessions teach:

“But the knowledge of original sin is necessary. For the magnitude of the grace of Christ cannot be understood [no one can heartily long and have a desire for Christ, for the inexpressibly great treasure of divine favor and grace which the Gospel offers], unless our diseases be recognized. [As Christ says Matt. 9, 12; Mark 2, 17: They that are whole need not a physician]” (Ap, II, 33).

The Law must convince them that even their best moral accomplishments are deadly sins. The Law must kill them before the Gospel makes them alive. The Law must show them hell before the Gospel shows them heaven. This was the Apostle Paul’s strategy in the book of Romans. From Romans 1:18-3:20, he shows: “By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). And again: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The Apostle Paul shows the Romans and us how hopeless we are without Christ before he speaks of the redemption and propitiation we have through the atonement of Christ (Rom. 3:24-28). Martin Luther wrote in the Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 17:

They cannot be humble who do not recognize that they are damnable whose sin smells to high heaven. Sin is recognized only through the law….Such preaching concerning sin is a preparation for grace….A sick person seeks the physician when he recognizes the seriousness of his illness. Therefore one does not give cause for despair or death by telling a sick person about the danger of his illness, but, in effect, one urges him to seek a medical cure.

Once sinners see their need for a cure from their sickness, then Jesus Christ, the Great Physician, can be preached to them according to the Apostle Peter’s words: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24, italics mine). On the basis of the magnitude of human sin, and the magnitude of the grace of Christ shown on the cross, Martin Luther believed that we are saved by grace alone. This understanding is what formed the foundation for what is known as the theology of the cross. As a theologian of the cross, pointing people to the wounds of Christ for healing will be central to my ministry until He comes again. It is only through the preaching of the Gospel that my people will believe that their sins are in fact forgiven and not remembered anymore (Jer. 31:34). In the Absolution this is exactly what happens when I will say:

Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and by the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all of your sins in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This is the heart of my job as a physican under the Great Physician Jesus Christ. Now I do not mean to imply sanative justification in my understanding of salvation. Christians are not in a process of reconciliation. Rather through the preaching of forgiveness, the Gospel says they are in fact already reconciled and declared forgiven.

In confession of sin and Absolution people are brought to repentance (AC, XII). Repentance is fundamental to what it means to be a Christian. It is my job as pastor to foster a culture of repentance through my preaching and teaching. It is through the preaching of the Gospel that the living voice of God’s Word assures people that theirs sins are forgiven, and renews them, and leads them, so that they may delight in God’s will and walk in His ways.

When I get up to preach the Absolution, to preach sermons, to teach Bible studies, and give pastoral care, the words I speak, will hopefully not be my own, but God’s living voice. Some Christians believe that the Word of God is only written, but we believe on the basis of Scripture that it is also spoken. Luke writes concerning the Apostles that they “continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). The word of God is described here as spoken. And this theme is attested to throughout the book of Acts (6:2, 7; 8:14; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5, 7, 46; 17:13). In the writings of the Apostle Paul, the concept of the oral Word of God is prevalent as well. Paul writes, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13). The Epistles describe the word of God as spoken in Rom. 10:17; 2 Tim. 2:9; Heb. 13:7 as well. Now of course, if what I say is not in accordance with the written Word of God, then it is not the Word of God. The Holy Scriptures are the sole, rule, norm, and guide for preachers and teachers of the Gospel (Ep, Intro, 1). It will be my job as a physician to determine what the sicknesses are in my people’s lives. What experiences and common beliefs do they have that the Scriptures contradict? How has the media and their activities in the world formed their perceptions? What has been happening in their world, their community, their church, their families, and their individual lives? What will be on people’s minds as they gather for worship on Sundays? This sort of exegesis of my congregation and the city of Portland will be necessary as I seek to apply the Word of God into people’s lives for healing and renewal.

In addition to the medicine of the Word, I will also apply the Sacrament of Baptism, which is also described as medicine in our Confessions:

For consider, if there were somewhere a physician who understood the art of saving men from dying, or, even though they died, of restoring them speedily to life, so that they would thereafter live forever….here in Baptism there is brought free to every one's door such a treasure and medicine as utterly destroys death and preserves all men alive (LC, Baptism, 43, italics mine).

My job will not only be to administer baptism to those who want it, but also to remind people of the significance of this medicine they have already received. This was Paul’s method, as He recalled to people that in baptism their old self was buried with Christ, and now a new person has come alive to live unto righteousness (Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:11-13; Titus 3:5-6). Paul used baptism to exhort people to live renewed lives, but also to assure them they were saved! This will be my job as a physician who has been entrusted with the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1).

The other medicine, which Ignatius, the early church father called the “medicine of immortality” is none other than the Sacrament of the Altar. Concerning this Sacrament, Jesus said: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54). Again this must be administered to those who believe they are sick. As a good steward of the mysteries of God my hope will be to use the Law to convince people of their need for the Sacrament. For without recognizing our sinfulness, the Sacrament has no meaning and is emptied of it significance as the Confessions teach:

For He Himself says: They that be whole, need not a physician, but they that be sick; that is, those who are weary and heavy-laden with their sins, with the fear of death, temptations of the flesh and of the devil. If, therefore, you are heavy-laden and feel your weakness, then go joyfully to this Sacrament and obtain refreshment, consolation, and strength (LC, The Sacrament of the Altar, 71-72, italics mine).

By preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments, both reconciliation and renewal happen in the lives of the saints. However, complete healing will not occur until Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead where His kingdom will have no end. Until the Last Day, my job as a physician, under the Great Physician, will be to attempt to bring healing through Jesus in oral, written, and Sacramental forms to as many people as possible until the end when God will say:

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Rev. 21:3-4).

On the Last Day, we will be completely healed in body and soul and the leaves of the tree of life will be for the complete healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2).