FIVE RESPONSES TO AN EMPTY TOMB
In Luke’s account of Easter Sunday morning the Gospel writer records four responses to the empty tomb. First, being perplexed. The women found the stone rolled away, and when they went in, they did not find the body. (Luke 24:1-4)
Second, being terrified. Suddenly two men in dazzling cloths stood beside them. (24: 4-5)
Third, disbelief. The women told the eleven disciples what they had seen, but the men did not believe them. It seemed to them like “an idle tale.” (24: 5-11)
Fourth, being amazed. Peter gets up and runs to the tomb. He looks inside and then goes home. He does not stick around long enough to see the risen Lord. At this point he is just “amazed at what had happened.” (24: 12)
Fortunately, the Gospel writer John tells of a fifth response – belief. Peter and John go running to the tomb. John gets there first, but does not go in. After Peter arrives and runs right in, John also enters, sees the grave clothes, and believes. (John 20: 8)
I am certain that there are people who attended Easter services this year who had each of these five different responses. Some are perplexed as to what it is all about. Many are terrified, and there is much in our world to be afraid of. Some do not believe. The whole story of a God who loves them so much as to die for their sins, and the whole account of someone’s returning from the dead, seem too good to be true. Some are amazed. They sense from the power of the music and the power of the proclamation that there might be something to all of this, but at this point they are not sure what to make of it all. And some will hear and believe.
My hope and prayer for you is that you were strengthened and encouraged in your faith during this Holy Week season, and that many people were strengthened in their faith and some also came to faith through your ministry and the ministry of your congregation.
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SPEAKING OF THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
Speaking of the Gospel of John, there is a movement afoot to “cancel” the passion narrative in John 18-19 and remove it from the readings for Holy Week. The claim is that these chapters foster anti-Semitism. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar, is a leader in this movement. Here is a link to a presentation she gave recently to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music of the U. S. Episcopal Church.
I am concerned as I read and hear of her growing influence within the ELCA.
Even worse is the movement not just to “cancel” the passion narrative in John, but to “cancel” the passion. There are many within the ELCA who reject the teaching that Christ died for our sins. Instead they make Good Friday into the supreme example of Jesus’ bold political protest against the Roman empire, even unto death. And now we need to join in the work of dismantling our empires. According to this approach there is no way that I am in need of a Savior who will forgive my sins and defeat the great enemy death. Rather I need to join in the effort to oppose all oppressive power structures.
But let’s take a look at Dr. Levine’s “more moderate” approach of not “cancelling” the passion, but instead merely “cancelling” the passion narrative in John. There are many problems with what she is saying.
First, John 18-19 are not “anti-Semitic” in the way in which Dr. Levine is accusing them of being. These chapters were written by a Jew, who had no intention of spawning the anti-Semitism which Dr. Levine is blaming on his writing. This anti-Semitism came after him and would have harmed and even killed him and his family had he lived in a different place and time. The responsibility for any anti-Semitism rests on those who have misused these texts, not on the texts – or on the author – themselves.
Second, the scripture texts which Dr. Levine wants to have cancelled are not insignificant texts. Rather they are part of the Holy Week narrative. Their stories and teachings are central to the Christian faith and the Gospel message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If there are any texts which should not be cancelled, it is these texts. And it is not acceptable to say that we can “cancel” John because we will still have the passion narrative in three other Gospels. Each of the Gospels makes its own unique contribution to our understanding of what took place and the meaning of what took place. We are missing something vitally important if we do not have all four.
Third, Dr. Levine freely acknowledges the existence of difficult texts in the Torah, but she does not make the same demand of the Jewish faith community that she makes of the Christians. Jewish people follow the custom of reading the entirety of the Torah, beginning to end, within the context of worship. It would be unthinkable for them to “cancel” any part of the Torah. So why is Dr. Levine asking Christians to do what she would never ask her own people to do? The reason that Dr. Levine gives in her testimony as to why no part of the Torah is to be cancelled is because the Torah came down “directly from Mount Sinai.” Her statement is nothing less than a direct devaluing and demeaning of the Gospels and their significance in the Christian faith. Christians believe that these texts, also, were given to us by God. The Gospels are no less sacred to Christians than the Torah is sacred to Jews. The Gospels hold in the Christian lectionary the same place that the Torah holds in the Jewish lectionary.
What Dr. Levine is asking of us is not merely the causal swapping of one insignificant text for another. Rather she is asking of us both the cancellation of sacred texts which are of prime importance to our faith – something she would never ask of her own people – as well as a major change in how Christians view the Scriptures.
As we said earlier, we are very concerned about the influence that Dr. Levine is having in the ELCA and will continue to monitor the situation.
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WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES
Last September the ELCA celebrated the election and installation of its first transgender bishop,
Meghan Rohrer of the Sierra Pacific Synod. ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton served as the lead consecrator and preacher at the service. Bishop Eaton had a very interesting and typically ELCA way of twisting the Bible and distorting theology in order to justify what her presence and actions were legitimizing. In her sermon message, Bishop Eaton noted that Jesus Christ’s identity as both fully human and fully divine were not an “either/or” but a “both/and”. It is absolutely astounding to me to think that a church leader would believe that the two natures of Christ – His being both fully divine and fully human – are somehow support for transgender and non-binary ideology.
It gets even worse. Bishop Eaton went on to challenge those attending – both in person and remotely – to continue watching in the months ahead. “You’re going to see a grace-filled, Gospel preaching, Jesus-loving servant of the Word serving everyone, all people. You’re going to see someone and a synod being transformed in order to invite people into the complete, the infinite, and the intimate love of God. We’ll continue to work for those on the margins. We do it surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses and we do it by a God who was not either/or but both divine and human.”
But all that changed, and it changed dramatically and rapidly within three months. On December 12, 2021 – the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a very special day within the Latino community – the synod council of the Sierra Pacific Synod took action to remove Pastor Nelson Rabell-Gonzalez from his position as mission developer of Mision Latina Luterana in Stockton, California.
Lutheran CORE very intentionally and deliberately takes no position on these actions. It is not our place, nor would we make any claim to know all the facts. Rather what we want to do is to point out the significance of this entire event. For those who would like to know more, here is a link to an article written by a friend of Pastor Rabell. At the end of the article you will find links to more articles. It is obviously written by a person who strongly favors one side in the struggle.
For the first several weeks it appeared that Bishop Eaton was hoping that the whole thing would just blow over and go away. As presiding bishop she claimed that she has no authority to interfere in the actions of a synod council. But as the turmoil continued to spread and as the crisis continued to escalate, she eventually took action to appoint a three-person listening team, which would help her in determining what to do. In the first link she tells about forming the team. In the second link she gives an update.
What was supposed to be so wonderful very quickly became not wonderful. What was supposed to be continuing to work for those on the margins became accusations of severe discrimination against those on the margins.
What is the significance of what is going on here? The ELCA is experiencing the consequences of what it has been enabling, encouraging, and empowering. Or, to put it another way – in terms of Galatians 6: 7 – the ELCA is reaping what it has been sowing.
What else would you expect to result from the ELCA’s full embrace of critical theory? What else would you anticipate when everything is viewed in terms of power/abuse of power, oppressor/oppressed, victim/victimizer, and privileged/marginalized. It is only a matter of time until something blows and/or a single spark sets the whole forest aflame. Please see below the review by Dr. Robert Benne of the book by Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. This seems like a most appropriate time to have a review of a book like that.
One of the things that is interesting here is that ELCA congregations in the Sierra Pacific Synod are taking action against the synodical bishop and synod council. I am aware of congregation councils that are passing resolutions to have no dealings with the synod until and unless the synodical bishop and synod council all resign or are terminated. And if they do not resign or are not terminated, these congregations will initiate the process to leave the ELCA. One such resolution can be found on the website of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Fresno.
There are a couple very interesting things going on here. First, it is not – as in the past – orthodox, confessing congregations that are leaving the ELCA. Instead it is among the most actively, aggressively, and outspokenly progressive congregations that are threatening to leave the ELCA.
Second, the recently approved version of the ELCA’s document, “Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline,” provides for the discipline of rostered ministers who “actively and affirmatively incite, initiate, or encourage a congregation to leave the ELCA” (page 11). Since the ELCA is saying that it could discipline an orthodox, confessing pastor for encouraging a congregation to leave the ELCA, should not the same standard apply to a progressive pastor? And if it does not, then is the ELCA not guilty of discrimination and “discipline inequity”? (Which is one of the things that the ELCA is being accused of because of the Sierra Pacific synod council’s removal of a Latino mission developer.)
If progressive congregations in the Sierra Pacific Synod are “able to get away with” no longer functioning as part of the synod, then should not the same standard apply to confessing congregations that no longer function as part of their synod? (Which is the approach that some confessing congregations are taking because they are not able to “get enough votes” to leave the ELCA.)
And if the Sierra Pacific synod council disciplines a pastor for inciting a congregation to leave the ELCA because the bishop and synod council have neither resigned nor been removed from their positions, how will all that play out?
I also am aware of confessing congregations that were forced to repay their synods large sums of money in order to receive permission to leave (which is required of ELCA mission starts and was demanded of some former LCA congregations before they received the required permission to leave). Will the Sierra Pacific Synod congregations that leave the ELCA if the bishop and synod council neither resign nor are terminated be treated in the same way? And if they are not, would that not be another example of discrimination and “ELCA inequity”? Oh, what a mess!
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OH, WHAT A MESS
Speaking of “oh, what a mess,” here is the latest from Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Awhile back the board of Luther voted to continue to not be RIC. RIC stands for Reconciled in Christ, which means that a synod, congregation, seminary, or other organization fully embraces the beliefs, values, agenda, and priorities of ReconcilingWorks.
According to its website, ReconcilingWorks advocates “for the full welcome, inclusion, and equity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual/aromantic (LGBTQIA+) Lutherans in all aspects of the life of their Church, congregations, and community.”
They define their mission in this way. “ReconcilingWorks advocates for the acceptance, full participation, and liberation of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions within the Lutheran Church.”
At this time Luther is the only ELCA seminary that is not RIC. The board feels that their current welcome statement is sufficient.
Immediately there was an uproar. Students threatened to boycott the school. There was conversation that the president should be removed from her position. Please remember that it was not that long ago that the students at another ELCA seminary, United Seminary in Philadelphia and Gettysburg, were able to force the firing of the president because someone discovered that twenty years before she had been director of an organization that held and advocated for traditional views on human sexuality. She was fired even though she is totally LGBTQ+ affirming now.
Members of the non-faculty staff wrote and signed a letter in support of the student movement to cause the seminary to become RIC. Now a letter has been written and signed by most of the faculty members, again supporting the movement. Here is a link to the letter.
Talk about groveling. Talk about one more example of the ELCA’s encouraging, enabling, and empowering extreme progressive elements. Do the seminary faculty really think that good will come from their talking, acting, and handling a situation in that way? Do they really think that it will stop there – with the seminary’s becoming RIC – and the students – thus emboldened – will not go on and demand something far more?
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VIDEO BOOK REVIEW
“THE RISE AND TRIUMPH OF THE MODERN SELF”
Lutheran CORE continues to provide monthly video reviews of books of interest and importance. Many thanks to Robert Benne for his review of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl Trueman. Dr. Benne has retired from his position as professor at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and currently teaches Christian ethics at the Institute of Lutheran Theology. One of the founders of Lutheran CORE, he has been a friend of Lutheran CORE from the beginning.
In this book Carl Trueman, whom Benne identifies as one of America’s most important rising Christian public intellectuals, starts with the assessment of the modern self by two major theorists, who see expressive individualism as the essence of the modern self. The modern self is no longer guided by the sacred order of great religions, obligations to others in the given stations of life, or virtues that solid traditions have formed in their adherents. Rather the modern self aims at authenticity. Highest value is placed upon the untrampled expression of whatever inner definitions or inclinations the modern self wants to express. Such expressive individualism is not only to be tolerated, it is to be affirmed and embraced. Any resistance or criticism amounts to hate speech.
Knowing that ideas have consequences, Trueman asks what are the ideas that have brought us to our current state. Benne feels that Trueman has made a compelling case for understanding our current situation in light of thinkers in the past. In this book the author reflects on what the future might be like for a society that has been so de-established by rampant individualism, and also what this means for the church.
The final section of the book, entitled “The Triumph of the Erotic,” deals with all the incongruities and contradictions of the powerful LGBTQ+ movement. Trueman shows how all the various sorts of expressive individualism do not necessarily fit together easily.
According to Dr. Benne this is a formidable work which will lead the reader to greater understanding of our current chaos and polarization. Dr. Benne has notes on every chapter and offers to share those notes with anyone who wants to teach this book in Sunday School.
This review, as well as eighteen others, have been posted on our YouTube channel. A link to the channel can be found here.
If you would like to watch Lutheran CORE’s playlist of all of our video book reviews, click here, then scroll down and start the video by selecting the play button or click on the three vertical lines near the top right of the first video to select a new video from the list that will pop up.
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WEEKLY BIBLE STUDIES ON THE LECTIONARY READINGS
One of the goals and purposes of Lutheran CORE is to provide resources for confessing Lutherans. On our website we have daily devotionals as well as suggestions for hymns, Scriptures, and prayers related to the themes for each Sunday. Here are links to these resources.
A new resource that is now available is a Bible study that I am doing each week based upon the lectionary readings for the following Sunday. The resource includes a twenty-five-to-thirty-minute video and a two-page study guide. A new one is available each Tuesday and is dated on Wednesday, because that is when the church where they are recorded posts them.
Many thanks to Living Water, an ELCA congregation in Scottsdale, Arizona, where my wife and I are members and where the studies are recorded. Many thanks also to Shepherd of the Hills, an LCMC congregation in Fountain Hills, Arizona, for permission to provide a link to their website where the videos and study guides are posted.
It is a great joy and privilege for me to be able to provide these studies, and I am very happy whenever anyone finds them helpful.
Wishing you the joy, power, love, and hope of Easter,
Dennis D. Nelson
Executive Director of Lutheran CORE