Handing Over the Goods
The following is an excerpt from Handing Over the Goods: Determined to Proclaim Nothing But Christ Jesus & Him Crucified - (A Festschrift in Honor of Dr. James A. Nestingen), edited by Steven Paulson and Scott Keith (1517 Publishing, 2018). Edited and used with permission.
As evident as it may be, there is something deeply mysterious about the gift of faith. Though sometimes disputed, the facts of the case, if we can call them that, are fairly well known. So Article V of the Augsburg Confession, when it speaks of handing over the goods, the transmission of the faith from one person, from one generation, from one culture to another, says this: “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry; that is, provided the Word and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, . . . he works faith.” Thus biblically, and confessionally, we can say right from the start, “Faith is a product of God’s work.” The Word and faith belong together. It is out of God’s speaking that we are brought to fear, love, and trust Him above anything else. With that, we can speak of the community that gathers, sustains, and holds us. As Luther once said, “With His word, God gives us the new birth, and places us on the belly of our mother, the church.” So we can speak of the Word and the community, the calling and the gathering. Together they are the means, Word, and sacrament through which faith happens.
Yet Augustana Article V cannot finish without acknowledging the mystery that always hangs around the edges: “To obtain such faith, God has instituted the office of the ministry; that is, provided the Word and the sacrament. Through these, . . . he works faith when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” This when and where He pleases is, of course, the frustration of it all. When I first started teaching over at Luther [Seminary] thirty years ago and started traveling the church, I often ran into a question that was sometimes asked in an attempt to default the Word and sacrament but was oftentimes asked out of sheer anxiety. What about somebody who has heard the Word and received the sacraments and doesn’t believe it? I soon learned to recognize the agony that fielded the question. Because, of course, it’s my question too.
All of us have members of our families who have heard the Word as we have heard it, received the sacraments as we have received them, been laid on the belly of their mother, the church, and as soon as they could get legs enough to go, have gotten up and left. So we can speak of sisters, or brothers, or children whom we have brought up in the way they should go and have seen toddle off into some form of emptiness in which, finally, they have found themselves at rest. It’s enough to drive you crazy. The people that you love the very most, who are the fruits of the loins that bore you, who are the fruits of your own loins, and there they are, hankering after some stupidity, unable, unwilling, to hear the Word. Of course, the temptation in the face of such frustration is to run to the imperative. You better believe this! That’s what my dad told me when I was an atheist in college. You better believe this! And of course, it does about as much good as the amount of air it uses in the declaration. It makes the speaker feel good—“I really told him.” There’s a little bragging on the pillow at night. “I finally said it.” But of course, the emptiness returns. We know this about faith—the law’s not going to do the trick. So we need to address two things. First of all, we’re going to talk about how faith happens. We’ve already done that a little bit. We’re going to do a little bit more of it, and then we’re going to talk strategy for giving the gift of faith to those we love. Then we’re going to talk about fishing.
First of all, God has provided the Word and the sacrament. To obtain such faith—that is, to give the gift, to hand over the goods— God has provided the Word and the sacrament. Now the first and most important thing we have to say about the Word is this. Because Christ Jesus is the Word, it is never merely information. Of course, you can get all kinds of information from the Word. You can learn, for instance, about the miracles that Jesus did, and you can learn about what He expects of you, and you can learn about the gifts He has given to others, and you can learn the Sermon on the Mount, and you can learn about the forgiveness of sins; you can learn all kinds of things. But in the end, the information is always preparatory. It’s on the way to something else, just as your conversations in the family, while they convey information, are on the way to something more decisive: the expression or your love for one another, your joy in one another, your delight. So I suppose marriages and families are made of small talk. There are all kinds of routine information that gets shared.
You see, that’s how love works. Love takes possession of the details. Love takes those little clichés, the minutiae of the day, and turns them into gifts. All of a sudden, out of the routine, out of the small stuff, Christ Jesus is breaking loose in the words. So the information, while it is helpful and essential, is really preparatory to this: “Your sin is forgiven, I’m going to raise you from the dead, no power is going to ever hold you.” Here, Christ Jesus is making love to you. He’s speaking His Word to you. He’s breaking loose again, you see, He is saying it. And that is what the Word does. The fundamental characteristic of the Word in Christ Jesus is its power.
So I’ll bet dollars to donuts that when you start talking about your faith, you will talk about some particular person or some particular relationship, and then you will talk about what they said to you. You will tell of their talents. You will tell about how they encouraged you and how they comforted you, and how they sustained you from difficulty, and how the Word just seemed to be perfectly timed, and how it bore such gifts. That’s the Word. That’s not an accident. It’s always fun in the Gospel—so many people get converted by rumors.
Like that Syrophoenician woman, you know, who showed up. I just love her. But I love Luther’s sermon on that text even more. That’s one of the greatest sermons ever preached, the sermon on the Syrophoenician woman. You remember. She heard about Jesus. Her daughter was sick, so she showed up at the border. She figured, He’s a man of the borders, He’ll be there. And so she showed up on the border, and there He came, disciples and the whole business.
She wasn’t prepared, though, for the churlish way in which He treated her. Here Luther says that Christ Jesus is pursuing faith like the hunter, driving up a pheasant in the field. He’s playing with her but He’s playing hardball, and He goes right for her neck. That’s just like him. I mean, He is so nasty that way. He should be polite and reduce it to an appeal. He should drop back and honor the free will, right? You know how that would work! If He had relied on appeal, she would have gone home in her unbelief and died. That would have been the end of that.
But what happens? This magnificent woman has been brought to faith on the basis of a rumor. That’s all she’s got to go on. She has not taken any seminary classes. She has not read any commentaries. She hasn’t even gone to church, but she has heard the Word. And what happens? She comes along the border, and she tries to get through to Him, and He answers her not a word. As dear Uncle Roy Harrisville used to say, “He who is speaking fills up 66 books and didn’t have a word for her.” Not one word.
So she makes a pest of herself with the disciples. This woman knows how to get through. She has stood and waited for authorities before and she knows how this works. You get them through the underlings. And so she goes to work on them. And she pesters the disciples until finally they are good and irritated, and they go to Jesus and say, “Why don’t you take care of this woman? She’s a nuisance. Get rid of her.” Jesus says, “That’s not right to take what belongs to the children and give it to the dogs.” He could get turned in to the state of Minnesota for talking like that. The prophets of political correctness would have him up against the wall in two seconds. I mean, good night! It’s a slur. Racism. Right?
Oh, He’s on His way to something better. Yes, Lord Jesus. You hear her? She knows who He is. The rumor has brought her. Yes, Lord. Even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table or from the children’s table. Here she is. That’s faith. That’s faith, and Jesus says it now. You know, I love this story. You can imagine Jesus embracing her. You can imagine Jesus taking her in His arms. “Oh woman, great is your faith. Great is your faith.” I mean, she stood through His harsh treatment of her and wrestled the blessing out of His hands, and now He rejoices with her. The Word has this power. The Word has this power when it gets loose.