Pastor’s Blog: We Will Talk Face to Face

This past Saturday’s 2nd reading from 3 John in the daily lectionary has an especially good word for our social media saturated time: “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink; I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face” (3 John 14).

You have doubtless seen several persons, a couple, or an entire family sitting at a table in a restaurant looking at their smart phones. I have bemusedly wondered, at times, if the couple are texting each other: She: “What are you going to order?” He: “I don’t know yet. What about you?”

In our time when our national unity is shattered by vicious talk, nasty lies, and mutually assured destruction by words (and that is on all sides!), I have to wonder how much of it is driven because people can no longer talk face to face. When we live in political or sociological enclaves, we don’t know how to disagree without being disagreeable. You would think it might be better in churches. But, no.

I just returned from a church convention which seemed more like a political convention (in the words of someone who attended) than a gathering of the Body of Christ. A Marxist hermeneutic (the lens through which Scripture was read) was in evidence, and a theology of glory in which the surety of one’s own righteous political views was celebrated, as if they were Jesus’ own, was the norm. There was, to my ears, a lack of basic competency in Lutheranism 101, i.e., rightly dividing Law and Gospel, which led me to believe that many didn’t know why they were Lutheran Christians, or didn’t want to be Lutheran Christians, or clearly didn’t know what it means to be Lutheran Christians other than to toss about indiscriminately the words “love” and “grace” as if they were self-explanatory and applicable only to one’s own political beliefs. There was no space for a conversation about that, because the tone was set from the outset that there would be no conversation. There would be scolding if one disagreed, because everything had already been settled (in the past by majority vote…not by the Word of God).

According to the early Church, John, the Beloved Disciple, son of Zebedee, lived to ripe old age. He cared for Jesus’ mother until her death in Ephesus. Now, there are those who don’t believe he authored his gospel, his three letters, or the Apocalypse (Revelation). And there are those who, from early on, did believe he is the author of all of these. Arguments against Johannine authorship usually are, as with many historical critical arguments, often a way of trying to strip away some of John’s apostolic authority and the applicability of his words to us today. “John didn’t really write that,” means I don’t have to listen to these words. The lens through which we read God’s Word can distort its meaning for us.

The Holy Spirit, as the Author of Scripture, the final editor of the metanarrative that runs from Genesis through Revelation, continues to fill John’s words with power for those who have ears to listen.

John tells us that some things should be said only face to face, which requires, of course, space to speak face to face in a respectful way. Words, even the words of Scripture, can be interpreted wrongly when the tune is not known. This, then, accounts for the differences in how Scripture is read. Martin Luther and the Lutheran reformers proposed that the death of God’s Son Jesus is wasted when Law and Gospel are not rightly divided (distinguished). So, Philip Melanchthon, author of the Apology (Defense) of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 wrote: “All of Scripture may be divided into the law and the promises.” The Lutheran reformers, beginning with Luther, emphasize the death of God’s Son always!

So, then, two people can read the same words of Scripture and come up with wildly different ways of understanding. If you don’t know that the central act of Scripture is God’s Son Jesus’ saving death on the cross for sinners, then you will easily miss how Scripture is to be understood…as a metanarrative (an overarching story that explains everything). According to the reformers, it is not the Gospel to talk about the cross as an object lesson in love. The cross of Christ is properly proclaimed when the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed. Luther says that without preaching the forgiveness of sins, you haven’t preached the Gospel. In other words, the Gospel is not affirmation of people or liberation from certain societal structures. So, then, if you switch lenses through which you read the Scriptures, you will get quite a different understanding…which accounts for the many other messages purporting to be “good news.”

Not long ago, I was worn out after having made a long trip to conduct the funeral of a beloved former seminary roommate (1300 miles in two days). It was my second funeral in seven days. After my return the previous day, instead of taking a nap having just conducted three services and a Sunday School class, I engaged in an email exchange with someone whom I like very much and admire. It would have been better to meet face to face and share with each other instead of having continued back and forth in an increasing series of (on my part) sharp exchanges. He felt wounded by my words. I think we have since gotten past that, but, the memory of that ill-begotten series of exchanges won’t fade easily.

St. John offers wise words for all of us. Speak some things face to face. Don’t hit “send” quickly, which is advice even the President of the United States might heed. Don’t go for cheap shots against those with whom you disagree, which both print and digital media might well heed, too. And, for God’s sake, and yours and your neighbor’s, listen to the Word of the Crucified Lord, His Father, and the Holy Spirit.

Let’s lead with: “Have mercy on me, a sinner, O Lord.” And let’s all remember: some words are best spoken face to face when and where a real conversation can be had.

When church conventions, like so many other human gatherings, are choreographed well in advance, there is, sadly, not even room to have a face to face conversation, because the script must be followed and preconceived ends achieved to our own glory…if not the Lord God’s. Even that is surely debatable.

Perhaps we should all take a fast more from social media and echo chambers in order to listen to the Word of the Lord, confess our own sins and not those of others with whom we disagree, and to consider who and Whose we are. Luther called it living: “Coram Deo” (self-consciously in the presence of God to whom all of us must give an account of our lives quite apart from our politics, careers, et cetera).

Kyrie, eleison. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

St Matthew's Pastor Sam Zumwalt

szumwalt

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Zumwalt has worked in churches for 42 years and in May 2018 celebrated the 37th anniversary of his ordination to the holy ministry. He is a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity (www.societyholytrinity.org). In 2004, Pr. Zumwalt moved with his family to Wilmington from Texas, where he served for 23 years as pastor of small, midsize, and large congregations.