Category Archives: Preaching

How Moravians have Read the Bible in the Past

Eastern District Conference July 2011

I.  Ground of the Unity        The primary doctrinal statement for the worldwide Moravian Church is the Ground of the Unity. It was written in 1957 and revised about 30 years later. It includes a lengthy discussion of the Moravian view of the Bible, which is consistent with over 500 years of Moravian history. Raise your hand if you’ve read the Ground of the Unity prior to today. In this workshop we are going to focus on how Moravians have read Scripture in the past, but I think it is good to have the Ground of the Unity in mind as we do so.

“God’s Word and Doctrine               The Triune God as revealed in the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments is the only source of our life and salvation; and this Scripture is the sole standard of the doctrine and faith of the Unitas Fratrum and therefore shapes our life. The Unitas Fratrum recognizes the Word of the Cross as the center of Holy Scripture and of all preaching of the Gospel, and it sees its primary mission, and its reason for being, to consist in bearing witness to this joyful message. We ask our Lord for power never to stray from this.”

II. The Unity of the Brethren         Today we’re going to look at the past for guidance in how to read the Bible in our time. This statement from the Ground of the Unity is consistent with what Moravians have always understood about the Bible. To begin with, I think we need to remember just how seriously our spiritual ancestors took the Bible. They separated themselves from the ministry of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1400s because they believed that the church was violating the teachings of the New Testament. At the time people who rejected the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church could be arrested, tortured, and killed. Keep in mind that the inquisitors justified their actions on Scripture. I often remind Moravians that every year we remember the death of John Hus who was condemned for heresy by the Council of Constance. Every year we are reminded that disputes over Scripture can lead to violence.

At his trial, Hus insisted that the Scriptures should be the final authority in the church, not the opinions of popes, theologians, and lawyers. The Catholic Church was afraid of what would happen if people were allowed to interpret the Bible on their own. Hus could have saved his life at any point simply by agreeing with the church’s teachings, but he chose not to. His life was shaped by the story of Jesus. For Hus, it was better to die as a witness to the truth than to conform to lies and corruption. Hus died singing because he believed that he would live with Christ in heaven. When Moravians talk about our lives being shaped by the Scriptures, keep in mind that this has included the idea of dying with Christ.

Hus’s followers continued his reformation after his death. They proclaimed that the Law of Christ was superior to the law of popes and cardinals, and the symbol of their rebellion was the chalice used in Holy Communion. For years the Catholic Church forbade lay persons to drink from the chalice even though Jesus said “drink of this all of you.” The Hussites believed that this was an egregious example of the institutional church defying the clear teachings of Jesus. Don’t think this was a minor disagreement. The government killed hundreds of people simply because they drank from the chalice. The pope and emperor launched five crusades against the Hussites who insisted that the Bible must be the final authority in the church. The Hussites argued that the Catholic Church of their day acted more like the Church of the Antichrist than the Church of Christ, no matter how much they quoted Scripture.

Fifty years after the death of Hus a small group of men and women led by Gregory the Patriarch formed a covenant community in the village of Kunwald in Bohemia. They did not call their community a church, since that word referred to the large institutional church. They were a voluntary community of brothers and sisters who wanted to shape their lives according to the teachings of the New Testament. They were a Unity of Brethren, and they believed that obedience to the Law of Christ meant much more than drinking wine in communion. They insisted that the Sermon on the Mount is the clearest expression of the Word of God for the church. They believed that Jesus’ instructions in the gospel are binding on his followers.

The Brethren were strongly influenced by the writings of lay theologian named Peter Chelcicky. Peter went much further than Hus in advocating for a complete reform of the church. He argued that the church of the apostles was the purest expression of Christianity, and all churches should try to live up to that ideal. It is the New Testament that provides a description of the church living under the Law of Christ. Peter regarded the Old Testament as an inferior and incomplete revelation that must be read only in light of the New Testament. The kingship of Christ had replaced the flawed kingship of David, and Old Testament laws regarding secular authority and war had been abolished abolished by the Law of Christ.[1] Peter completely rejected the idea that secular authority should enforce the laws of the church.

Christians should live according to the new covenant, which is based on radical love rather than fear. He wrote: “if the Law has been commuted, and if we are liberated from the Law of death through the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and subjected to the Law of love, then let us see on what foundation power can be placed in Christ’s faith…. If he had wanted people to cut each other up, to hang, drown, and burn each other, and otherwise pour out human blood for his Law, then that Old Law could also have stood unchanged, with the same bloody deeds as before.”[2] In other words, Christians must look first and foremost to the teachings of Jesus, not the old law of Moses. Peter did not get rid of the Old Testament, but he did recognize that the Old Testament can be a very dangerous book if taken literally.  Peter subordinated the old revelation of Moses and the prophets to the new revelation in Jesus Christ.

A young noble by the name of Gregory read Peter Chelcicky’s writings and decided to live according to the Law of Christ. Gregory and his followers broke completely with the state church and ordained their own priests in 1467. They also wrote their own hymns and confessions of faith, established a strict church discipline, and established schools. They tried to recreate the church of the apostles as seen in the New Testament. This was the origin of the Moravian Church. Christ was the “one thing necessary” because through Christ humans could know God, be saved from sin and death, and learn the law of love. The New Testament was to be preferred in matters of faith and practice because it “neither condemns to death … nor coerces anyone to fulfill its commandments, but rather with loving patience calls for repentance, leaving the impenitent to the last judgement.”[3] In the Old Testament, they valued the wisdom literature that deals with ordinary living much more than the books of law and history.

The Brethren viewed Christ as the true Word of God in human flesh; therefore Christ was the revelation of the invisible God in human form. Scripture should point beyond itself to God and should lead people into a faithful relationship with Christ.[4] Since Scripture is the touchstone for authentic teaching, it must be provided in the language of the people and made available to everyone who professed faith in Christ. This was a radical concept in the 15th and 16th century. For centuries the church had believed that the sacred Scripture should be read only in the sacred languages of Latin or Greek, but the Hussites believed that God’s word must be understood by the people. The fact that they were willing to translate the Bible meant that they did not view the words of the Bible themselves as sacred. It was the revelation within the Scripture that was sacred. Every man, woman, and child should be taught to read and understand the Gospels.

The Brethren made an important distinction between things that are essential to salvation; those that minister to salvation; and those that are incidental. The essentials are just that. They decided there were six essential things. God creates. God redeems. God sanctifies. Humans respond to God’s work with Faith, Love, and Hope. Those are the essentials. God is the one who creates, redeems, and sanctifies, not the church. The work of the believer is in the realm of faith, love, and hope. It does not matter how brilliant your theology is or how accurate your translation of the Bible is or how successful your church is if you do not have faith, love, and hope.

Many of things that churches think are essential were considered ministerial by the Moravians: Baptism, Holy Communion, confession, the priesthood, worship, church discipline. Ministerials are very important because they communicate what is essential. The ministerials are sacred because they point to what is truly sacred, but they are not sacred in themselves. One way to think about this is to ask: what happens if the Inquisition burns down your church, kills your priest, and throws you in prison? Have you lost your salvation or do you still have what is essential: faith, love, and hope? Or, on the other hand, if you have a beautiful church with great music and inspiring preaching but do not have faith, love, and hope, what do you have?

Luke of Prague                     It often comes as a surprise to Moravians to learn that the founders of our church viewed Scripture as ministerial rather than essential. The great Moravian theologian Luke of Prague said that “the Word of God is the first, greatest, and most necessary ministerial thing.”[5] It was the basis of all other ministerial things, which get their holiness from the Word, but the Word of God was not simply the words of the Bible. The true Word of God is the gospel of Christ and his commandments, not the words of Scripture alone. Luke, like earlier Moravians, believed that the Word of God is more clearly seen in the New Testament than the Old. This is the foundation of true faith without which no one can come to God. This did not diminish the status of Scripture because Scripture points to Christ. But it is Christ, not the written Bible that is essential. The Bible is the guiding rule of faith, and he taught Moravian ministers to distinguish “between the external writing of the law, with ink on paper or parchment, and the external reading of it, and the internal truths contained in it.”[6] Luke instructed preachers to pay close attention to four things when interpreting a passage: when was it written, where was it written, to whom was it written, and why was it written.[7] Was a particular passage written in ancient Israel in the time of the Mosaic Law or was it written in the time of the early church and the Law of Love? The essential teachings of the Bible were illuminated through the Holy Spirit within the community of faith rather than in classrooms and libraries, according to Luke.[8]

One of the most important Moravian Confessions of Faith (1535) begins with a statement on the authority of Scripture.[9]  This was actually the first Christian confession of faith to begin with a discussion of the authority of Scripture. It says that the apostolic writings “should be preferred to the writings of anyone else as sacred to profane writings and divine to human ones.” It is interesting that this article defines Scripture as those writings “received by the fathers and endowed with canonical authority,” thus acknowledging that the canon of Scripture was determined by the early church rather than given directly by the apostles. The Confession of 1535 insists that Scripture be translated into modern languages rather than being treated like an arcane text for the intellectual elite. It should be “understood by all” and believed “implicitly and simply.” Scripture was inspired, not dictated, by God “through the instrumentality chiefly of Peter and Paul.”

Comenius                  One of the most important Moravian thinkers was John Amos Comenius who lived during a time of intense religious violence. Protestants fought Catholics; Lutherans fought Calvinists; Puritans fought Anglicans. He urged Christians to recognize that moderation is itself a part of Christian faith. Satan works by inflaming unholy passions and pushing people to extremes of rationalism empty of faith or fanatical devotion devoid of reason.  “We must therefore oppose Satan by keeping to a middle course 1. between neglect and abuse of the Scriptures, 2. between a life of profanity and one of superstition, 3. between neglect of discipline and harmful rigidity.”[10] He also argued that if the path ahead is uncertain, he advised, it is safer to keep to the middle so that you can move to the right or left as needed without becoming lost.

Comenius examined many of the doctrinal issues that were dividing Christians and he concluded that some of them could not be decided on the basis of Scripture alone. He blamed theologians, who seemed to think that “to know simply Christ seems too simple a theology,” for the disputes and divisions among Christians.[11] He reminded his readers that Satan was “a sophist” who was always offering arguments, just like a theologian. On the question of justification by faith or works, for example, Paul and James clearly disagree. Comenius concluded that both faith and works are necessary.[12] Rather than fighting over this, Christians should follow both Paul and James: “As Paul praises faith, you must put your trust in our beloved Saviour with all your heart. As James recommends works, you must do everything with a pure heart.”[13]

Comenius believed that true Christianity is simple, profound and powerful.[14] Politicians, priests, and lawyers create needless perplexity and complication. Comenius pointed out that the first religion was that of Abraham: “to believe in one God, to obey one God, to hope for life from God the fount of life.” He also quoted Micah 6:8 (“to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God”) as a summary of true religion. “See, this was the whole of religion before the law and under the law, to grasp God by faith, to embrace God with love, and to hold God by hope.”[15] Comenius insisted that the Bible is the great fountain of divine truth and guidance, but it has to be studied carefully. Comenius urged people to apply reason to the study of Scripture. A Bible student starts “by learning all the biblical history,” but must go beyond this to perceive “the true meaning of these three articles: faith, love, hope.”[16] The ultimate goal of reading the Bible and being part of the community of faith is to become a renewed creation: a man or woman “created according to God, in justice and holiness of truth.”[17]

Simplicity in doctrine does not mean stupidity; nor does trust in God mean turning away from human responsibility. Faith and reason, service and devotion, love and reconciliation, realism and hope were united in Comenius’ thought, just as they were in the teaching of the Brethren from the beginning. Comenius continued and refined the Unity’s theological heritage that Christianity is not a matter of wrangling over the mysteries of salvation; it is a discipleship that allows a clear-minded commitment to social justice, personal integrity, interpersonal forgiveness, and sacrificial love. The one thing needful, for Comenius, was the Christ who provides a “paradise of the heart” in the midst of confusion and frustration by leading believers out of self-centeredness and greed into universal love and justice.

Zinzendorf                 As you probably know, the Moravian Church was reborn in the 1720s on the estate of Count Zinzendorf. He was one of the most creative theologians of modern times, and his ideas continue to shape the Moravian Church. Zinzendorf loved the Bible and even tried to translate the New Testament from Greek into modern German. One of his great innovations was taking individual verses of Scripture out of context and using them as “watchwords” for the day. Today these verses are chosen by lot, but originally Zinzendorf selected them personally. He wanted people to take the words of Scripture into their hearts and minds and let the words guide their actions and attitudes. Moravian liturgies, especially in Zinzendorf’s day, were composed primarily of Bible verses or paraphrases. Moravians were expected to know their Bibles so intimately that they would understand references to Elisha or the daughters of Philip.

It is important for readers of the Bible to recognize that Paul and Peter were both Christians and yet had different things to say about Jesus. The Bible does not speak objectively as a uniform and authoritative expression of a single viewpoint, and it is wrong for theologians to try to force it to do so. The diversity in the Bible increases its usefulness for the church. Zinzendorf agreed with modern biblical scholars that the Gospel of John was written last, but this makes it superior to the others according to Zinzendorf. He claimed that the Holy Spirit had more time to reveal the truth about Jesus to John than the other apostles.[18] But John should not simply replace Mark. Each of the gospels is necessary even if John is the key to understanding the whole Bible.  

The key to understanding Zinzendorf’s approach to the Bible, though, is his idea of religion of the heart. He believed that true religion is a matter of the heart or soul, not the mind alone. He did not have much sympathy for those who get wrapped up in the most obscure parts of the Bible and ignore what is clear. He claimed that the prophets sometimes received dark and confusing revelations; “even they had no clear concept of it in the understanding.[19] The Bible includes a number of voices speaking out of their own experience; therefore the personal histories and personalities of the biblical authors shape their expression of revelation.[20] Even more provocatively, Zinzendorf openly acknowledged that the Bible is flawed in its historical details and lacks the artificial beauty of the classics. The Bible is not a perfect book, but this only proves that it is true to God’s purpose and to human life.[21] God let the authors speak out of their own experience. Zinzendorf argues that it is a terrible error, perhaps even a sin, to try to force the Bible to speak with a single voice, or to “improve” it. “The fact that the Bible has so many errors (scarcely a book today would be published with as many), is, for me at least, an unassailable proof for its divinity. Why?  It was so much the desire of the Lord that not a syllable in the divine teaching of the Holy Scriptures be altered.”[22]

Zinzendorf valued the Old Testament more than the original Moravians did, but he agreed with them that the Old Testament must be interpreted through the New Testament. He claimed that the Old Testament is actually about God the Son not the Father. Here in Pennsylvania Zinzendorf preached: “In the Old Testament people knew about no other God at all except our Lord Jesus, who at that time was called Jehovah.”[23] Zinzendorf believed that the Bible teaches that Christ is the Creator.[24] The first chapter of the Gospel of John clearly paints Jesus as the pre-existent logos who is the creative force in the universe. Zinzendorf accepted the tradition that Isaiah 9:6 is a messianic prophecy, but he focused on the idea that the messiah would be called “almighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Zinzendorf points to other passages of the New Testament that explicitly or implicitly identify Christ as the Creator (e.g. Heb. 1:8 f., and especially Col. 1:16) in order to show that those who deny that Christ is the Creator are denying the plain truth of scripture.[25] The Creator was incarnate in Jesus.

“Indeed, when they [the theologians] ask us for a single axiom from which we derive with our doctrine all other principles; when they ask us for the two chief lines of the Bible without which the Bible is and remains a chaos of nonsense; when they ask I say, the two chief propositions upon which scriptural doctrine stands and falls: the first is that there is a Savior, and the second is that the Savior is the Creator.”[26]

The doctrine of Christ as Creator was so important to Zinzendorf that he dared publicly to disagree with the Apostle Paul who in I Cor. 15:24 subordinates the Son to the Father.[27]  Since the Savior is the Creator, there is no separation between creation and redemption. The same God who made human creatures also came to redeem them. We can debate the merits of Zinzendorf’s theology another time, but the idea that Christ is the creator was part of Moravian doctrine well into the 19th century. The important thing for our discussion this morning is that Zinzendorf and his followers had a clear method for making sense of the Bible. Christ is the Word of God who was incarnate. We read the Bible through the mind of the redeemer. The Bible is a living book of revelation because Christ is a living presence in the community of faith.

New Testament Practice                  The Moravians in Herrnhut tried to create a new Christian community based on the teachings of the NT rather than simply following tradition. This meant that they ordained women to offices in the church since women were among the disciples, apostles, and elders of the early church. They called each other brother and sister, and insisted that clergy are servants rather than lords. They exchanged the Kiss of Peace and shared in lovefeasts and footwashings. They believed that Christ had made all people, not just white people, and that Christ had purchased all people through his blood. This meant that slaves and Indians were brothers and sisters who were to be loved not exploited. The first worship service in the new sanctuary of the Salem church in North Carolina in 1771 gives you some idea of just how radical the Moravian’s interpretation of the NT was. An African named Sam was baptized and received into the congregation with a kiss given by the white pastor. Can you imagine anywhere else in America where a white man would kiss a black man publicly and call him brother? The limits of the Moravian view of Scripture, though, were also evident in that service. Sam remained a slave after his baptism.

Spangenberg was less provocative than Zinzendorf, but he also acknowledged that the canon of Scripture was determined by the bishops of the early church. He believed that both testaments provide reliable information about the nature of God and God’s will for human beings, but he rejected the notion that the Holy Spirit dictated the Bible verbatim. Like Zinzendorf, he asserts that the Holy Spirit let each author write according to his own natural ability and knowledge. “If they gave him only their heart, and were willing to be led and governed by his Holy Spirit, for all the purposes he had with them, he then left all the rest to take its own natural course, as far as there was nothing sinful in it.”[28] This is a far cry from fundamentalist theories of “plenary inspiration” in which the biblical authors were stenographers of the Spirit.[29] Spangenberg viewed the Bible as the source of doctrine and moral instruction, and he is not all concerned over the historical issues raised by critical study of the Bible.[30] He wants people to focus on the central teaching of the Bible: redemption through Christ.

Spangenberg asserts that those who have accepted their redemption in Christ are empowered to live by an ethic of love. With the help of the Holy Spirit, they will be able to love their neighbors and so fulfill the demands of the Decalogue. His love ethic has radical potential since all humans are our neighbors. Followers of Christ must love all people “whether friends or foes, whether of the same religious persuasion” or not. “We must be obliged to say, Thou shalt love all men as thyself, whether converted or unconverted, whether Christians, Jews, Turks, Pagans, or by whatever name they may be called.”[31] The opposite of love is hatred, which is the desire to harm others or to rejoice in the harm that they suffer. Spangenberg insists that “hatred against any man is therefore not compatible with a heart, that has experienced Jesus to be its Saviour.”[32] He is intolerant of hatred, calling it a “notorious work of the flesh” that will prevent a person from entering the Kingdom of God. It is part of the fallen condition of humankind that must be overcome by grace. Sanctification is characterized by love for all people. This love must include the love of one’s enemies. “Now, if any one loves his enemy, then he not only seeks to avoid whatever might hurt him; but he is also inclined, and earnestly intent upon doing every thing to the utmost of his power, to the furtherance of that which can be of service to him.”[33]

19th and 20th centuries      After the death of Zinzendorf, the Moravian Church grew more conservative theologically and socially. The church’s leaders were profoundly frightened by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in Europe. In America, they were afraid of the emotionalism of the Second Great Awakening and the rationalism of the liberals. A Moravian synod approved a statement of the Chief Doctrines of the church in the late 18th century. Originally there were four chief doctrines, but by the end of the 19th century the number had been expanded to eight. Americans sometimes called these 8 doctrines the Essentials. Interestingly, the Bible itself was not one of the eight chief doctrines, but it was the basis for them all. “The Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments are and shall remain the only rule of our faith and practice.  We venerate them as God’s Word, which he spake to mankind of old time in the Prophets and, at last, in His Son and by his Apostles to instruct us unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  We are convinced that all truths that declare the will of God for our salvation are fully contained therein.”

In 1914 the following paragraph was added:  “We hold fast to our genuine Moravian view, that it is not our business to determine what the Holy Scriptures have left undetermined or to contend about mysteries impenetrable to human reason.  We would keep steadily in sight the aim set before us by the apostle Paul, Eph. 4:13, 14, that we may “all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we may be no longer children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.”  At the same time, we would never forget that every human system of doctrine remains imperfect, for, as the same apostle says, I Cor. 13:9: “We know in part.””

This was the basis for the statement we now have in the Ground of the Unity. Although the Moravians grew more conservative over time, they did not jump on the fundamentalist bandwagon. Over the centuries the church has been remarkably consistent in its teaching on the Bible even if specific doctrines and practices have changed.

1) The Bible is authoritative for the teaching and practice of the church. Congregational worship and Christian ethics should be grounded in the New Testament.

2) Both the Old and New Testament are divine revelation, but the NT should be used to interpret the Old. We are first and foremost followers of Christ. We cannot understand the revelation of God without experiencing Christ. Jesus is our guide for interpreting the whole Bible.

3) The Bible is a complicated and confusing book that does not provide a clear system of doctrine. It was written over many centuries by many different people who were inspired in different ways by God. It is important to focus on the central message of the Bible rather than getting lost in obscurities.

4) The central story of the Bible is that we were made by a loving God who wants us to be happy and healthy. But we are corrupted by sin, hatred, greed, and the fear of death. We cannot save ourselves, but God took on human form in order to redeem us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. Jesus Christ was the living Word of God who is the full revelation of God for humankind, and we can be united with Christ in love. Through Christ and the Holy Spirit we are able to live as God would have us live. We will never be perfect, but we can learn to love and serve.

5) The Bible is a book about liberation from sin, hatred, and death. It teaches us that all people are our neighbors and our brothers and our sisters.

6) We should expect different people and different churches to interpret the Bible in different ways. Are differences are less important than what unites us as followers of Jesus.


[1] Wagner, Chelčický, 86-89.

[2] Chelčický, Triple Division, 139-140.

[3] Brock, Unity of Czech Brethren, 86.

[4] Paul Ricouer, “The ‘Sacred Text’ and the Community,” in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, ed. Mark I. Wallace, tr. by David Pellauer (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 68-74 discusses the crucial difference between the Bible as an authoritative text and as a sacred object. “Maybe in the case of Christianity there is no sacred text, because it is not the text that is sacred but the one about which it is spoken.” The Bible has authority because it is the defining text for the community and its life. “Preaching is the permanent reinterpretation of the text that is regarded as grounding the community; therefore, for the community to address itself to another text would be to make a decision concerning its social identity.”

[5] Müller, I:462.

[6] Molnár, Bratr Lukás, 82, quoted by Crews, “Luke of Prague,” 38.

[7] Quoted by Müller, Geschichte der böhmische Brüder, I:462.

[8] Peschke, Kirche und Welt, 170.

[9] Pelikan and Hotchkiss, Creeds and Confessions, I:801-802.

[10] Panorthosia, II:204.

[11] Unum Necessarium, 97.

[12] Panorthosia, II:13-133,

[13] Panorthosia, II:142.

[14] Unum Necessarium, 64.

[15] Unum Necessarium, 88-89.

[16] Unum Necessarium, 73.

[17] Unum Necessarium, 74.

[18] Beyreuther, Studien, p. 38; Einundzwanzig Diskurse (ZH 6) 4, p. 101.

[19] Gemeinreden (ZH 4), Anhang 2, p. 18.

[20] Wundenlitanei Homilien (ZH 3) 15, p. 145. Even errors in astronomy were tolerated by the Holy Spirit; Spangenberg, Apologetische Schluß Schrift (ZE 3), p. 146.

[21] “Therefore it is a great thing that the Holy Scripture was brought together with a great heavenly wisdom out of a hundred pieces, and their proper purpose is not at all to run together a series of thoughts in a flowing connection, like a system. Instead it [concerns] faith matters which concern the ground point of our blessedness and way of life.”  Gemeinreden (ZH 4), part 2, Intro., p. 2-3 (unnumbered). In Bettermann’s judgment, p. 17, “The many historical mistakes of the scriptures are to him [Zinzendorf] a sign of their divine truth, because here human ambition which always must improve and correct until no one can find any more fault with the book fails.”

[22] Wünden Reden 15 (ZH 3), p. 144.

[23] Pennsylvania Sermons, First Sermon, p. 19.

[24] Kinder Reden (ZE 6) 84, pp. 411-412; Beyreuther, Studien, p. 11 f.

[25] Pennsylvania Sermons, Sermon 1.

[26] Gemeinreden (ZH 4) 37, pp. 153-154.

[27] Einundzwanzig Diskurse (ZH 6) 4, p. 96.

[28] Idea, 42.

[29] Idea, 42.

[30] Hans Frei, Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974), 38-40.

[31] Idea, 360-361.

[32] Idea, 361.

[33] Idea, 365.

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Mothers Day and the Christian Church

Mothers Day is one of the most commercially successful holidays of the year. Americans spend billions of dollars on flowers, greeting cards, meals out, and other ways to express affection for mothers. It set the standard for all of the so-called “Hallmark Holidays” designed to get people to buy gifts and greeting cards, but Mothers Day is something more than a marketing tool. I suspect that most churches and synagogues (and increasingly mosques as well) do something special on the second Sunday in May even though Mother’s Day is not part of any religion’s official liturgical calendar.

In fact, it is one of the great festivals of American Civil Religion. Civil Religion is a term coined by sociologists to describe the way a secular government creates a shared sense of identity without a state church to sanctify the political and social order. People of almost any faith or no faith can participate in the sacred festivals and rituals of Civil Religion. There are the rituals of patriotism like standing for the national anthem, flying the flag, and making pilgrimages to the Lincoln memorial. And we have holidays (rather than holy days) to reaffirm the key doctrines of civil religion, such as respect for government (President’s Day), expressing gratitude (Thanksgiving), and honoring our soldiers (Veteran’s Day). Over time, these things gain an aura of timeless sanctity and are part of our schools, in youth organizations, in the media, churches and synagogues, and even through sporting events.

One of the most popular of these observances is Mothers Day, which was officially proclaimed a national observance by Congress in 1914. It is ironic that Mothers Day was added to the national calendar in the same year that World War I broke out because Mothers Day actually began as part of the peace movement. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Ann Jarvis tried to establish a Mother’s Friendship Day that would reunite families that had been divided by the recent conflict. She hoped that women could begin to heal the wounds caused by men. Julia Ward Howe, who had rallied troops with her sanguine Battle Hymn of the Republic joined Jarvis in the anti-war movement in 1872. Grieving mothers and widows, they believed, understood that the pain of war continues long after victory is declared. Despite the efforts of Jarvis, Howe, and others it was decades before Mothers Day was a reality. Ann Jarvis’ daughter, Anna Marie, took up the cause after her mother’s death in May 1905. Her Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia had a special observance of Mothers Day in 1907, but it was the Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker who brought the observance to national attention in 1908 by holding ceremonies in his store. Before long West Virginia and other states adopted the observance, and Jarvis campaigned to make it a national holiday. Jarvis herself protested at the way Mothers Day was commercialized because she believed it was in danger of losing its deeper meaning.

I have found that Mothers Day is a very big affair in some churches, especially African American congregations, but liturgical churches often find Mothers Day awkward since it is not part of the Christian liturgical calendar. There is also the fact that God is the only proper focus of worship. There are dangers when we use worship to “honor” any human other than God. Some churches do honor the saints, of course, but not all mothers are saints by any means. For many people Mothers Day is a time of sadness and grief rather than joy and warmth.

Perhaps if we reclaimed some of the original intention of Mothers Day, we could find a way to observe the second Sunday in May as a liturgical feast rather than simply as a form of Civil Religion that has encroached on worship. What if we used the day not only to honor our own mothers (who may indeed be saints, like mine was), but to lift up all of those mothers around the world who are grieving because of war, violence, AIDS, and poverty? What if Mothers Day were a time to lift up in prayer those mothers who are campaigning to rid God’s good earth of land mines and other obscene weapons of terror and death? What if Mothers Day were a day to pray for women who seek to heal the wounds caused by men?

What if all churches took a cue from Count Zinzendorf in the 18th century and set aside Mothers Day to offer our prayers to God the Holy Spirit who comforts us “as a mother comforts her children”? What if we took just one Sunday out of the fifty-two allotted and preached about God as a mother hen longing to gather her children? What if churches put John 3:16 in its proper context and preached about the Holy Spirit as the one who rebirths us as true children of God? What if Protestants took one Sunday to preach about Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Ruth in the Old Testament as living images of God? Why not include Mothers Day in our liturgical calendars as a festival  reconciliation and divine forgiveness? We all should have two mothers: the one who bore us in her body and God: “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” (Romans 8:11)

Lent

 First Sunday in Lent                   Luke 4:1-13

Introduction:               Today is the first Sunday in Lent. As you know, those of us who grew up in the South pronounce our ‘e’s and our ‘i’s the same, which can get a bit confusing. If you ask someone for a pen you have to specify whether you want something to write with or to stick something with. I bet I’m not the only one who wondered why we have a season of Lint in the Moravian church. It always sounded like a special time to clean out your lint baffle in your dryer. But even when you know the difference between the season of Lent and lint in your dryer, you can still be confused. To be honest, Lent baffles many of us.

Lent                The word “Lent” or Lenten comes from the old German word for springtime. It probably referred to the fact that days are growing longer this time of year, that the days are lengthening, but in England this old word for spring was used to describe the annual time of fasting in the church year. In other countries, this period is known as the 40 days. Just to make things as confusing as possible, the 40 days of Lent actually last 46 days because you don’t count the Sundays. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, which in America is known as the day after Mardi Gras. Lent ends on Easter morning.

            Different churches observe Lent with different degrees of intensity. For the most part, the Baptists I teach at Wake Forest have never heard of Lent, while the Episcopalians take it very seriously. We Moravians are somewhere in between. Some of you may have “given something up for Lent.” People often choose Lent as a time to go on a diet or give up smoking. I tried giving up sarcasm one Lent. That went well. Originally, Lent was a time when Catholics were required to give up meat and even milk and eggs. One reason Easter eggs became so popular was because people had not been able to eat eggs for nearly seven weeks before Easter. In the old days, giving up meat for Lent was a way that everyone in the church ate like poor people who rarely had the luxury of meat. Our Moravian ancestors rejected church fasts and rituals imposed by the pope, especially if they were not founded on the teachings of Christ. One of our founding theologians complained that priests were more concerned with someone eating a sausage during Lent than they were over Christians taking human life. Protestants sometimes made a point of cooking meat on the grill during Lent just to prove that they were free from oppressive church laws.

            Like so many things in churches, Lent was a good idea that got out of hand and became another reason for people to fight and criticize others. Our Moravian ancestors studied history and the Bible to come to a better understand of things like Lent. What they discovered is that it took centuries for the idea of Lent to develop. Originally, there was a simple time of fasting on from Good Friday to Easter during which Christians remembered the sufferings and death of Jesus. This added to the joy of Easter morning. It became customary to baptize new Christians on Easter, and those being baptized went through a period of instruction and training that was called catechesis. For forty days before their baptism they would study, pray, fast, and meditate. We do something similar in confirmation today. In ancient times, those being baptized did not bath or change their clothes during the forty days, which meant everyone was really glad when they were bathed in baptism and given a new white robe to wear on Easter. What our ancestors learned was that Lent was not simply a time to give up meat or eggs; it was a time to learn how to be a better Christian. Rather than giving things up at Lent, perhaps we should take new things on, such as reading the Daily Text or memorizing the creed, or volunteering at Sunnyside Ministries. Lent is not a time to make ourselves more miserable than we already are; it is a time to grow closely to our Savior.

Forty Days                 Why does Lent last 40 days, not counting Sundays? Our Gospel lesson for today should give you a hint. After his baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights. When he came back he began his public ministry of healing and preaching. The story of Jesus going into the wilderness is told in three of the four gospels, but only Matthew and Luke give us the details. All Mark tells us is that Jesus fasted during that time and was hungry.

            It is easy to get bogged down thinking about how anyone could go 40 days without food and water and miss the most important points about this story. Don’t picture Jesus sitting in the desert with a calendar marking 40 days off his calendar. It was not a test to see if he could go 40 days, beating the old record of 34 days set by a rival prophet. 40 is a symbolic number in the Bible. It means a really long time. More important, it means a really significant long time that leads to a change in history. Think back on the Old Testament. The flood lasted 40 days and nights, according to one account in Genesis. Moses fasted for 40 days and nights on Mt. Horeb or Sinai before receiving the 10 commandments. Elijah the prophet fasted for 40 days and nights before meeting God on Mt. Horeb. The Babylonian Exile lasted roughly 40 years. All of these stories point to a wilderness experience; a time of preparation before God’s chosen servants do something new and wonderful. The story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness fits this pattern. And the season of Lent is a yearly reminder of Jesus’ struggle and temptation in the wilderness as we prepare ourselves for the miracle of Easter.

Luke’s Version          This year we read the story from the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, but Luke does not tell us why. We have to make an educated guess. What is it that makes a wilderness a wilderness? In America we think of the wilderness being dense woodlands filled with wild animals, but the wilderness can be a desert wasteland. The key thing is that there are not many people in the wilderness. There are no cities, villages, or farms. There is no civilization; no restaurants or laundries or coffee shops. When I was a Boy Scout, Marty Haga took us on a 50 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail, and I was prepared for the wilderness. I had all of my trail foods and a canteen. I did not bring any money because I knew we were going to be in the wilderness. Imagine my surprise when the trail went through mountain villages and the whole troop stopped for hamburgers and milkshakes. So much for wilderness!

            Jesus went into the wilderness so that he could be alone with God. He fasted because there was no one to give him food. It was a dry land so there was little water. He went out into the wild so that he could think about what he was going to do with the next stage of his life. Alone with the wild thinks, Jesus hoped to hear the voice of God, which is what Lent is all about.

            But what happened? Instead of hearing the voice of God directing his way, Jesus encountered the devil in the wilderness. You know what that is like. You know what it is like to stay up in the wee hours of the morning all alone, struggling with decision you need to make; struggling with questions; straining to hear the voice of God and instead hearing the voice of the tempter. You hear your own body begging you to indulge in unhealthy, unwholesome appetites. You hear the voice of your own fear urging you to take the easy path instead of the right path. You hear the voice of your own doubt telling you that you are a failure and you should just give up. You hear the voice of your greed and ambition telling you to sacrifice those you love so you can make more money. I don’t need to tell you about the voices you hear when you are all and vulnerable surrounded by the emptiness of despair.

            What I do need to tell is that your Savior knows what this is like. He was in the wilderness. He was alone and hungry. He heard the cries of the wild animals and knew what it was like to have no safe place to sleep. He faced the tempter and heard the voice of the devil telling him to give into his selfish urges.

            We do not have time this morning to discuss in detail how the devil tempted Jesus. Luke and Matthew tell us there were three temptations. This does not mean that there were only three, just that three were so significant that Jesus later told his disciples about them. Yes, we would not know about these temptations if Jesus had not told his followers what the devil had said to him. When he came out of the desert Jesus knew that he had won a great battle and he wanted others to know how he had struggled.

            The first temptation is the one that is easiest to understand. Jesus was hungry and the devil suggested that he use his supernatural powers to turn the stones into bread. Notice that this is more than a temptation to break his fast or to feed himself when he shouldn’t. The devil was not tempting Jesus to break his diet, like the devil does in TV commercials. He began by saying, “If you are the Son of God.” The temptation is all in the word “If.” Jesus has just been baptized and has heard the voice of God declare him a beloved child, but then the devil says, “prove it.” If you are who you think you are, prove it. Prove it to whom? There’s no one there but Jesus and the devil, and the devil knows who Jesus is. He is tempting Jesus to prove it to himself by using his power in a selfish way. He is raising doubts in Jesus’ mind just before he goes forth to serve. He waits until he is weak and hungry and lonely to raise doubts about who he is what he has to do.

            The second temptation is one few of us face, but we sometimes think about it. The devil shows Jesus all of the splendor of the world’s kingdoms and promises them to Jesus. This time he does not say, “If you are the Son of God.” Instead he offers Jesus the chance to be the ruler of the world. That’s what the Messiah should be, the devil tells him. You should be a king like David or Solomon. You should go forth like Alexander the Great and conquer every kingdom and be proclaimed a living god by your awe-struck subjects. We do not know if the devil could give this to Jesus, but this is the kind of temptation we can understand. Sell your soul to the devil and be a success in the world. If your soul is little, you will get a small success, but sometimes great people sell their souls to achieve great things. You’ve seen some of them in your lifetime. Rich, famous, powerful men and women who have no heart, no compassion, no soul. Empty shells walking through fabulous homes and offices without even knowing they have lost their souls. They have their reward. Jesus was tempted to become the king of kings by following the easy path of conquest instead of the hard path of loving service and sacrifice. He is the Lord and Savior because he resisted this pernicious temptation.

            The third temptation Luke tells us about is one that is harder for us to understand. Again the devil says “If you are the Son of God.” Jesus has refused to become king of kings by doing evil, so the devil tries again to undermine his faith. He sows doubt. If you are who you think you are, prove it to everyone. Jump from the pinnacle of the temple and show the world that God’s angels will protect you. Show the world that you are the Son of God so that they will follow you out of fear. Remove all doubts so that people will not have to rely on their faith. Demonstrate the power of God so that people will not have to trust in God’s love. Make God prove to the world that you are his son. But Jesus recognized the voice of the devil and resisted temptation again. He chose to obey God and do God’s work in the world rather than putting God to the test.

            Luke ends his story by saying that the devil left him until an opportune time. That time was in a garden called Gethsemane when Jesus was again tempted to save his own life, and instead he chose the path of sorrow and death.

Conclusion                  This sacred season of Lent is not about finding ways to make yourself miserable instead of enjoying the springtime. It is not about becoming a temporary vegetarian or proving to yourself that you can go without ESPN for seven weeks. This season of Lent is a time to journey into the wilderness with Christ and boldly confront the tempter whose velvet voice undermines your faith, love, and hope day and night. It is a time to pay even closer attention to the many ways you are tempted to be less than a beloved child of God called to bring God’s mercy to a suffering world. It is a time to discover that you can do the right thing rather than the easy thing. With that in mind, let us prepare ourselves for Holy Communion. Amen.

Playing in the Mud

When I was a teaching assistant at Princeton Seminary, I played co-ed intermural football, something no one over thirty with bad knees should do, as my wife reminds me, but it was a good way to get to know my students. We played the big championship game one year after a week of rain. The field was so muddy we could hardly walk, much less run, but we played hard. When the game was over both teams were muddy and bloody, some were winners, others were losers, so we did the only appropriate thing. We started running and sliding head first through the mud, caking mud on one another, and generally getting covered in the stuff. When one of my students came home his wife nearly kicked him out of the house for being an idiot, but his twelve-year-old daughter came to his defense, “Daddy’s teacher was out there, too.” My wife was more understanding. She just shook her head and pointed to the washing machine and the shower. Julie wasn’t surprised I was a mess because she knows that I’m a firm believer in playing in the mud. Learning in the mud: As a kid, you learn a lot by playing in the mud. You learn that you have to walk differently in mud, and that if the mud is real deep it can suck your shoes and socks off. You also learn that there is a whole other world under the surface of the earth. You find that we share this planet with all types of creatures, some of them inhabit our nightmares, but we depend on all of them. You learn how deep roots go; how trees grow from acorns; and that bottles can stay buried forever without decaying. If you play in the mud, you learn that rubies and emeralds are hard to find, but that there are lots of other beautiful rocks hidden away. You learn how to help nature grow things. In short, you learn. Playing in the mud can lead you to become an agriculturalist, an archaelogist, a geologist, a paleontologist, an entymologist, or any number of other ‘ologists, and that’s not all. Potter’s clay is just a more refined form of mud, but it is the raw material of the artist. I don’t know for sure, but I bet that before Micheangelo created his Moses, Pieta, or David, he played with a lot of clay and mud. Playing in the mud can lead you to surprising discoveries. This mud player became a historian and a theologian. I think I would have had a harder time wading through all of the murky waters of history and theology if I hadn’t spent a childhood in the mud. Salem What’s all this got to do with us today here at Salem? Our students may look prim and proper, but believe it or not, we encourage our women to play in the mud. We affirm the motto of the Magic School Bus on PBS “Get dirty, make mistakes, learn something.” Few of our classes involve literal mud, but many of them do get you metaphorically muddy. The answers are not cut and dried; students have to work for themselves to clear up their confusion. They have to learn the important lesson that you have to live with confusion and ambiguity. Most important, they learn to explore and to make mistakes. Making Mistakes This can be a hard lesson. We very much want to get the right answer and make a perfect grade on the test. Many of us go through every day of life as if God is grammar teacher marking down every mistake. The fear of being wrong keeps us from striving for the right answer. Instead of taking the risk of being wrong, we say or do nothing. We play it safe and keep our skirts clean, but we don’t learn anything that way; we don’t do anything that way; we don’t make the world a better place. Studies have shown that this is particularly true of girls in school. Around seventh grade, the average girl in the average school stops raising her hand to answer or ask questions. In part this is a response to the fact that teachers tend to call on the boys, but it is also because in many and various ways our society teaches young women to stay neat and clean. Women risk a lot when they speak up in school. If they succeed they are branded as significantly undatable. If they fail they are ashamed. So it is safer not to try at all. It is the easy way; the safe way; the clean way, but it is not thebest way. Unfortunately much of our nation’s education is geared this way. In school we learn that wrong answers get us punished with a red X, the scarlet letter of the academy. We learn that there are schedules to keep; grades to master; a limited body of knowledge to memorize. The one question we learn to ask constantly is “is this going to be on the test?” We learn there is only one right answer. I remember that my shop teacher in seventh grade kept telling us that there is one tool for every job and a job for every tool. I still think that shows a lack of creativity. I think you can do almost anything with a Swiss Army knife and a rope. But most schools don’t teach us that. Grades By the time we get to high school we have been taught over and over that the point of school is to get a good grade. If you think about it that’s a ridiculous idea. The point of school is to learn, perhaps even to learn how to learn. Grades are only a way the teachers acknowledge that you have learned. Getting the grade without going through the process is worthless. Cheating is a way to avoid the mud; to keep from taking the risk; therefore it keeps you from learning. If you get the grade without the work, you have nothing. Character Playing in the mud is a way not only to develop people’s minds; it is a way to strengthen their characters. I’ve been talking about taking risks, experiencing things, making mistakes, and even getting dirty, but this does not mean self-destructing through drugs, sex, or thrill-seeking. It has been my experience that young people who walk on the wild side are ones that have not discovered how to learn and grow. They turn to drugs and sex to block out their minds and souls; to stop the endless yearning and avoid the pain of growth. Those who turn to sex and drugs are not taking risks, they are trying to avoid them. They are so afraid of mistakes and failure that they turn to something to give them a quick and easy thrill, a thrill anyone can have. The best way to help children avoid drugs and premature sexuality is not just to say no; it is to discover the joy and challenge of living and learning. Women who have learned to enjoy life and live with the ambiguity of life are less likely to take short cuts such as drugs, cheating, and lying provide. The Church I hate to admit it, but the Christian Church often teaches us the wrong message. Instead of opening us up to the joy of discovering the workings of God in all of creation, churches often try to lock us in to old answers. Instead of teaching us to learn from God, we are told to be content with the answers we’ve been given. Instead of helping us to probe our doctrines and scriptures for meaningful truths and deeper insights, we are told to live by another person’s interpretation. Too often the church has confused morality with ignorance of the world. We often equate morality with shutting ourselves off from the rythyms of life, but true morality is intended to help us go out into the world. Moral teaching gives us the rules and resources we need to go out into society, raise families, run businesses, and find new solutions to difficult problems. The true message of Christ is a call to live as fully living, imperfect human beings. When we read the Bible with open eyes we see that the Old Testament is full of people of genius and courage challenging the old assumptions. We see Deborah leading her people in war and prophesying in the name of God. We see Elijah challenging the powerful and being driven into exile, but in his despair discovering the reality of the one God. Jesus In the New Testament we see Jesus probing people’s souls, asking them questions without a single answer. Jesus frustrated many of his hearers. They came to him for the answers. They wanted to know what was going to be on God’s final exam, and instead Jesus asks them questions and gives them stories to think about. In our readings for today, Jesus sent his students out into the world without all the answers. He says, go and do what you can to help others. When they came back, they told him of their successes and their failures. Jesus sent them out into the mud of life and there they found their potential and their faith. Learning The greatest tools in learning are a probing curiosity, a flexible spirit, , and a willingness to be wrong in order to find what is right. The best thing that a school or a teacher or a pastor or a church can do is to develop these natural gifts in students. It is important to impart knowledge, but it is even more important to lead students to the fountain of knowledge; to help them discover the truth for themselves. In short, to help them play in the mud. I think this is what Salem is all about. We push our students; question them and offer different points of view so that they will question back and offer their ideas. We send them into the world of work, of learning, and of service where they will see for themselves that some questions have many answers and when you encounter a problem you have to roll up your sleeves and get a little dirty while you fix it. We give them ancient texts and help them to read with their own eyes; to challenge accepted answers; to try new approaches. We grade them and they learn that a bad grade is not the end of the world, it is the call to excel. We build young women’s esteem by sharpening their minds and letting them make mistakes. I hope that we can learn to do the same thing in our home, our own lives, and in our churches.