St. Bartholomew, Apostle (transferred)/ Altar Guild Opening Service
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 1:43-51
August 25, 2016
“Come and See”
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” John 1:45
“Wait a minute. Cut! I’d like to interject…” Philip and Nathanael (his mother calls him Bartholomew) swivel their black-bearded faces in the direction of the voice, which belongs to a gray-haired man walking toward them, dressed in a jacked with leather elbows and a bow tie. He speaks with a slight east coast accent, and as he talks he gestures with a pipe.
“I understand what you’re trying to do with this scene,” he says to Philip. “You want to tell a compelling story. I get it. But if it’s going to speak to people two thousand years from now, you’re going to have to revise the script. You sacrifice accuracy for the sake of rhetorical power and you’re going to lose your audience.”
Philip stares at the man, who goes on: “The thing about Moses. ‘Moses wrote about Him in the Law.’ Reputable scholarship stopped believing Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy in the 19th century. Until relatively recently everyone agreed that these books were cut-and-pasted together from different sources by editors a thousand years after Moses was supposed to have lived. Everybody that’s educated knows this today, even the partially educated. So let’s try it again without Moses this time.” The bow tied man sits in a canvas chair and puts on sunglasses.
Philip keeps staring at him and finally utters, “Who are you?”
“I’m chair of New Testament at a top-tier divinity school in New England.” Then, in response to Philip’s blank stare, he says, “A scribe, of sorts. Okay, take two.”
Philip turns back to Nathanael. “So, like I was saying, ‘we have found the man who has been written about in the Law and the Prophets’—whoever wrote them—Jesus of Nazareth…”
“Cut!” the professor yells again. “Another thing: you really can’t say that Jesus is the one written about in the Law and the Prophets. The early New Testament community interpreted the Law and the Prophets as foretelling Jesus. Then they wrote the Gospels to show Jesus as the fulfillment of those passages. But to say the Law and the Prophets spoke about Jesus is a stretch, at best. Leaves us open to the charge of anti-semitism, too. Try it again. Take three.”
Philip stands there for a minute trying to figure out what to say. Then he looks at Nathanael and says, slowly, “We have found the man who isn’t really written about in the Law and the Prophets, probably. But there is a community of people who think that the Law and the Prophets wrote about Him. Or at least they want us to think that. It’s Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Cut!” the professor cries again. “You can’t say it like that! When you say it that way it sounds like a scam!”
What’s amazing is that so many people let themselves be scammed for so long. The professor in the story isn’t based on a real person, but he is doing what leading bible scholars have done for at least a hundred years. They have taught and written that the Bible is a literary construction made by men to advance certain beliefs, and then creatively interpreted by men to advance certain beliefs. But as far as being historically reliable and telling us about things that actually happened? The Bible doesn’t do that, they say. That’s not its point.
Did this conversation between Jesus, Nathanael, and Philip actually happen? We really can’t know, they say. The idea that the Bible is verbally inspirited by God, and therefore not only the final authority for truth about religious matters, but also true when it speaks about geography, history, or anything else—that has been regarded as “fundamentalism” by scholars for a long time—despite the fact that the authority and clarity of the Scriptures was foundational for the protestant reformation. And these scholars taught the ministers in mainline protestant churches—the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Methodists, some Baptists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—since before I was born. This skeptical approach to the Bible has become normal in the Catholic Church too.
But laypeople in these churches don’t look at the Bible this way, right? The pastors don’t preach this way, do they? I don’t think they do, generally. It doesn’t work very well for preaching to have the professor bursting in every few verses to correct the Bible. But if this is the way you have been taught to view the Scripture during your training for the pastoral office, it is going to affect how you carry out the work of that office. If the Bible isn’t to be taken literally when it says Moses wrote the Penteteuch, or when it says that Jesus had a conversation with Nathanael, why should it be taken literally when Jesus forbids divorce in it, or when it says it’s immoral to have sex when you’re not married? So is it a surprise that the mainline protestant churches have approved homosexual “marriage” as pleasing to God? If the Bible was put together by human beings to teach what they wanted to teach, why can’t we just put a new spin on it to teach what we think is right now?
And this affects more than simply Christian morality. It attacks the Gospel itself. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1); the healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick (Matthew 9). The result of treating the Scriptures as human productions is often revision of the Law of God; but the end result of revising God’s law is that pastors begin to preach to people that they, after all, are not sinners in need of saving. Perhaps we are in a general way—none of us love people as we should. But never in such a way that the specific forms our lovelessness takes are condemned; never in such a way that the sins that our time and place seeks to excuse are made to stand before the unchangeable judgment of the unchanging God. And so the churches, instead of proclaiming the Son of God incarnate and crucified to reconcile sinners to God, by degrees remove the offense of the cross (Galatians 5:11) and nullify the grace of God (Galatians 2:21). God’s grace in freely remitting sins for the sake of the bloody death of His Son on a cross is only necessary for those who are dead in their trespasses and sins and cannot raise themselves. It’s not necessary for those who have committed no grievous sins because there are no longer any grievous sins to commit.
And what have the laypeople done in response to this perversion of God’s Word in the mainline churches? Did they walk out when their pastors and teachers revised the ten commandments? Some did. Most didn’t care. They’d gotten used to re-interpreting the Bible when it said things they didn’t agree with a long time ago. When it forbade women from being ordained. When it forbade divorce. When it forbade intercommunion between those who were not united in the one faith and doctrine of Christ. When it forbade Christians to participate in the religious rites of secret societies. And so on, all the way back to the time of the Reformation, when people found the teaching that Christ’s true body and blood in the bread are present in and with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper an offense to reason.
But what does all this have to do with the altar guild? In the reading, Nathaniel (who is probably, but not certainly, Bartholomew the apostle, whose feast day was yesterday) expresses skepticism at what he hears from Philip—that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by Moses and the Prophets. He considers it unlikely that anything good could come from Nazareth. But Philip says, “Come and see.” Pretty confident, Philip is. He doesn’t try to argue with Nathanael about whether or not Nazareth is a dump. He invites him to come and see for himself whether Jesus is the one Moses and the Prophets talked about.
When we talk about Jesus to people who don’t believe in Him, say He is the Savior of the World, and our Savior, they will very likely be skeptical. What do we do then? Sure, you can debate with them if you’re equipped to do so. That has its place. But in the end, answering their objections won’t bring them to Jesus. The Holy Spirit must bring them. And that happens when they “come and see” Jesus.
But where do you go if you want to “come and see” Jesus? He is at the right hand of the Father, where we see Him no longer (John 16). Yet He promised that as His Church goes into the world to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them everything He commanded: and lo, I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28:20) If anyone wants to come and see Jesus, we direct them to follow us to the place where His Word is being taught and His sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Supper are being administered. We say, “Come to church with me and see.”
And what will they see there? We hope that, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, they will see Jesus, true God from eternity, who became human to live among us and fulfill the Law of God that we are unable to keep. Who became sin for us, bearing our offenses on the cross, and was raised from the dead for our justification. We hope that, being made to see Jesus by faith, they will also learn to see His presence with His Church in the Word and Sacraments, and learn to see the little congregation of sinners gathered around them as the community that has been declared righteous by God and adopted as His heirs.
But none of that is what they will see right away. What they will see is an altar with a cross above it. They will see a pulpit and a lectern and candles. They will see some stuff under a sheet in the middle of the altar. They will see pews, bulletins, hymnals, some men dressed in suits handing them pieces of paper and passing a plate. They will see a guy up front in a white robe with a piece of colored cloth around his neck. And the more years go by, the less familiar and comprehensible these sights will be.
And this is where you come in. Can you make people see Jesus by putting oil in the candles, arranging the fair linen just so, ironing the alb? No. Neither can I. A person sees Jesus, believes that He is the Son of God and our Savior, by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.
But by care and diligence in your work you can give a witness to what we confess. In fact you will give a witness one way or the other. By adorning the altar and chancel with care and beauty and precision you can testify to your faith and the faith of the church that “God Himself is present” in this place. By being careful, diligent, and scrupulous in your cleaning of the sacred vessels you can testify to our own members to the reality that Jesus has truly given us His sacred body and his redeeming blood in the wafers and wine. And as members of the altar guild you can be leaven in the congregation, instructing your brothers and sisters how in the Divine Service Christ Himself is present in flesh and blood, opening heaven to us each week, letting down Jacob’s ladder into this Nazareth called Joliet, where people wonder if there is anything good. You can say, Yes, Jesus visits Joliet; He visits us at 8 am and 10:45 each week. He speaks to us His good news that raises us up from sin and despair; He renews our souls with His crucified flesh and blood, and as He does so He brings with Him the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
And by that witness the church will be edified and perhaps visitors will come and say, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it. Or at least if He isn’t, I am convinced that the people who care for the altar believe that He is.”
May God bless you and strengthen you, then, in your holy work this year, as you continue to make the sanctuary a place where we are proud to invite people to “come and see” our Lord Jesus.
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Authored By De Profundis Clamavi ad Te, Domine