Yesterday, the pastor´s convention for the SELK diocese of Saxony and Thuringia met online for hours on end. It was a very fruitful meeting all in all – especially the well-prepared exegesis of this coming Sunday´s sermon text from St. John´s gospel by Pastor Megel (Steinbach-Hallenberg) leading us right up to three well considered options for sermon outlines, but also the in-depth discussion on how to go about the divine service and celebrate the Lord´s Supper responsibly and faithfully in these sheer endless weeks of legalized social distancing.
It was very helpful to listen to the serious considerations from brothers serving in very different situations. If you consider, that it saved me about four hours travelling time to and fro – and allowed me to sleep over in my own bed – it was quite effective. Still, I missed the personal banter with friends during the lengthy sittings. No interjections, passing comments or spontaneous joking – if there is only one microphone on air at any time. It´s the control freak´s paradise and very focussed, yes, yes, but far from the vibrant exchange of personal interaction, that we pastors enjoy just as all liberated individuals in the extended community of Christian believers.
I am sure, bureaucrats love this – never mind the financial gurus – it´s cheap, it works, but it remains sterile, virtual and very close to speaking through the microphone of some window of a secured prison´s visitor´s booth. Yes, I missed shaking hands, rubbing shoulders with the brothers, hugging this and that one and breaking bread with those, who otherwise just keep their distance and remain at arm’s length like those second cousins in the otherwise close-knit Lutheran brotherhood. Superintendent Junker (Weißenfels) stressed, that this “fellowship lite” would not become the “new normal”. Thank God, it´s not yet “alternativlos!”
Isn´t it funny, how these words start creeping even into our theological vocabulary? That hit me several times yesterday. Again, and again some brother would drop these recent additions to the public discourse and use them in our ecclesial context. Some brothers are careful users of words – nearly like laying out minuscule mosaics most meticulously – whereas others paint more or less in broad strokes like old Tom Sayer with that famous whitewasher of his. Alexander Kissler (Cicero) therefore, calls on everyone to use words carefully – and not just the readers of some user manual once they notice, that they can´t get the acquired tool to work properly.
Well, coming from reading John 15 yesterday to this morning’s lesson from Dobberstein´s “Anthology” is not as far off as You might think. It´s all got to do with reading God´s Word attentively and faithfully – hearing God talking to us through the holy apostles and prophets. He gives us so many wonderful tools and devices to make us get his message. So, this morning I tried the dictate function for the first time – and it actually works well. The machine gets even my English readings – despite the foreign accent from the colonies long gone and down under. I was seriously impressed. And furthermore, I found a link on the German Bible Society´s site: https://www.academic-bible.com/en/online-bibles/about-the-online-bibles/ That is seriously brilliant. Considering, how many books and even electronic programs I have bought in the past to read these words in the original biblical wording – and here and now – it is accessible at a mouse-click for free. Hallelujah + Nota bene et tolle lege. Verbum Dei manet in aeterna. Hallelujah +
Here is a passage written by the German exegete Julius Schniewind in Dobberstein´s translation. It´s right on the mark and worth some contemplation. I think, he would have probably said – Herzstück – and indicated that it is a part of our heart and not the whole thing even as the cross in Luther´s emblem is but a part of it. Even in penning down the signs of the church in his fundamental: “On the Councils and the Church” (1539) prayer and cross are but parts of the whole… Still, Dobberstein translated it as “The heart of our ministry“ and so here is what Schniewind writes in that translation:
The pastor´s private prayer is the heart of our ministry. Paul serves God in the gospel “ἐν τῷ πνεύματί μου” (Romans 1:9), that is, in Spirit-prompted prayer. This prayer is unceasing, like breathing, and yet it has its definite hours of prayer. We know that Luther spent two hours daily in prayer. This includes the reading of the Bible: prayer originates and consists only in listening to the word. I have heard bitter complaints that in an active parish there’s no time for such meditation. Perhaps this must be overcome in faith in God, who, if we will only really hear and proclaim his Word, will give us helpers, who will relieve us of other things.
How shall we read the Bible? I follow Asmussen´s lectionary that covers the whole Bible in a year; but I am aware that this it has value chiefly in providing only the necessary knowledge of the Bible. To what extent, in this quantitative reading, do we come to the point where we really hear, where we hear the word spoken to us personally? One may choose shorter portions, such as the Bible readings which are available, despite their shortcomings. This hearing comes with practicing Luther´s principle “scriptura sui ipsius interpres” (Scripture is its own interpreter). Being at home with the Greek text of the whole New Testament gave earlier generations of ministers their power. The looking up of parallel passages in the Bible and concordance has opened up the Bible for many laymen, and for us, too, there is no better way of learning to hear, both scientifically and practically.
This listening passes over inevitably into prayer. Any application of the Word too ourselves can only be prayer. But prayer is “alert” too intercession. Ephesians 6:18f: “καὶ εἰς αὐτὸ ἀγρυπνοῦντες ἐν πάσῃ προσκαρτερήσει καὶ δεήσει περὶ πάντων τῶν ἁγίων καὶ ὑπὲρ ἐμοῦ“ (Keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me… RSV). And this intercession will be “alert” to the guidance of the first three petitions of the Lord´s prayer. Such intercession takes time. The concerns of our ministry, the people immediately committed to our care, the church of God, and all who serve it as pastors and teachers in the work of administration and observing love, of the people of our own country and the whole wide world: intercession takes time, and we understand how the dying Polycarp prayed for two hours in intercession and could not stop.
For such intercession there can never be any set formula. And yet it is right that we have quite generally returned to formulated prayers, especially for corporate prayer … The formulated prayer, as Bezzel said, is “the privilege of our poverty”. There are needs so bitter, some deep, that there is nothing left but a Bible verse, a hymn stanza, a psalms. But in the use of formulated prayer we must again be warned of the danger of mere quantity.Julius Schniewind
Together with the church let us follow Stephen P. Starke´s encouragement and sing along with all the saints worldwide:
1 Saints, see the cloud of witnesses surround us;
Their lives of faith encourage and astound us.
Hear how the Master praised their faith so fervent:
“Well done, My servant!”
2 These saints of old received God’s commendation;
They lived as pilgrim-heirs of His salvation.
Through faith they conquered flame and sword and gallows,
God’s name to hallow.
3 They call to us, “Your timid footsteps lengthen;
Throw off sin’s weight, your halting weakness strengthen.
We kept the faith, we shed our blood, were martyred;
Our lives we bartered.”
4 Come, let us fix our sight on Christ who suffered,
He faced the cross, His sinless life He offered;
He scorned the shame, He died, our death enduring,
Our hope securing.
5 Lord, give us faith to walk where You are sending,
On paths unmarked, eyes blind as to their ending;
Not knowing where we go, but that You lead us—
With grace precede us.
6 You, Jesus, You alone deserve all glory!
Our lives unfold, embraced within Your story;
Past, present, future—You, the same forever—
You fail us never!