By Paul Koch –
If you are like me you grew up in the Lutheran church making your progress from Sunday school, through confirmation, and on in to youth group and beyond, then you remember either with fondness or disgust those years of confirmation classes. Now for those who didn’t go through the usual form of things, confirmation classes are a special time set aside for the instruction of our children. Beyond the teachings and Bible stories of Sunday school they are given very specific instruction about the central elements of our faith. The hope is that the apostolic faith that we confess will become their heartfelt confession as well.
For over 480 years the Small Catechism written by Dr. Luther has been the central tool for handing on this confession to new and eager believers and even those not so eager. I learned the faith through its guidance and so I’ve instructed many aided by the same work. It is simple, accessible and downright brilliant in its presentation. It begins with the Ten Commandments asking the question, what is the first commandment? Answer: You shall have no other Gods before me. And what does this mean? Say it if you know it; you shall fear, love and trust in God above all things. To have no other gods is to fear, love and trust in the one true God above everything else. This rhythm then flows throughout the catechism; what does the second commandment mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive. What does the third commandment mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word. The answer to all the commandments flows through proper fearing and love of God – the first commandment links them all together.
In fact I think we could say that the rest of the catechism from the teachings of the Creed to the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Absolution and the Lord’s Supper all flow from or give shape and definition to fearing, loving and trusting in God above all things. Because of this intentional and focused teaching when one is confirmed we can dare to ask them, “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” What we are asking is if they fear, love, and trust in God above all things. And I am always shocked that we continue to hear an affirmative answer, “I do, by the grace of God.” Even with all the people we know who have left the faith, and even all the confirmation students who once confirmed then disappeared from regular Sunday worship – still we speak firmly and confidently about our discipleship.
In fact, it is where we place our confidence with regard to our discipleship that makes all the difference. And we see this play out for us in Mark 12. Jesus offers a startling and stern warning, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feast, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. The will receive the greater condemnation.” Immediately we have to ask, what happened to the discipleship of these scribes?
And if our catechism is correct then we might well ask, what other gods have they gone after? For their discipleship to be in such a wreck that we are warned about them; what is it that they fear, love, and trust more than the one true God? Our Lord describes them as ones who wear long robes and glad hand the people in the market place. Perhaps their gods are popularity and fame. They fear not being recognized more than anything, they trust primarily in their ability to appear of greater importance and value than anyone they come in contact with. They take the best places for themselves and consume the livelihood of well-intentioned widows by their extravagance. Perhaps their gods are their own sense of pride, their desire for glory, their sense of importance. This is where they place their trust; this is what they desire this is what they most desperately fear to lose.
Now labeling these scribes like this can quickly become a bit uncomfortable for us. After all we don’t have to work too hard to find many similarities between their desires and passions and our own. We may not want long robes and the best seats in the synagogues but we do make gods out of the things of this world. We trust in how much we have in the bank account for the ultimate sense of assurance. We love the latest technology and rush out to get new phones and gadgets, finding some sense of our identity in possessing them. We have habits that have developed over the years, certain ways of doing things; we have reputations among our friends, family and coworkers all which work as subtle gods that we fear, love and trust more than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Such things poke holes in our façade of discipleship.
Our Lord then sits down opposite the treasury box in the temple and watches as many rich people put in large sums of money. Then he sees a poor widow come and put in two small copper coins. They are the smallest denomination of coinage possible. And he says, “This poor widow has put in more than all those others. For they gave out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” This woman, this insignificant poor widow to the world around her is held up by our Lord as the example of discipleship, she didn’t give the stuff she could do without, she didn’t make sure she looked good and ate well or had the latest iPhone; no she gave though she had nothing really to give.
I few years back I was told a story by a recently retired pastor about an incredible teaching moment he experienced as a child. He and his brothers were raised on a small farm. His dad was a hardworking and dedicated man. Though they certainly ate well they didn’t exactly have much left over for extravagances. Every Saturday night his dad would fill out an offering check for church the following morning. He would put it in an envelope and leave it on the edge of the kitchen counter so they wouldn’t forget in the morning. One Saturday he happened to walk in behind his dad and glanced at the amount he was putting on the check. When he saw it he said, “Wow dad, church sure is expensive.”
Now his dad could have laughed it off. He could have used such a remark to speak about how he could give less if those in charge knew what they were doing. He could have used it as an opportunity to poke fun at the pastor and remark how he’s not getting his money’s worth. But he didn’t. According to what I was told, his dad used that moment to talk about how expensive church really is. He spoke about the cost of being a disciple of Christ; he spoke about fearing, loving and trusting in God above all things. God doesn’t call just part of us, but all of us. Then he got to the real cost, the cost to the Father who sent his only begotten to bear the brutality and torture of our sin. Church is expensive, he said, because it is paid for in the innocent blood of Christ.
Christ gifts to you, then, which define his church, are his embrace of your brokenness and healing. These words bring you alongside the widow in the story. Our works, our fame, our glory, our gadgets, and our accomplishment are emptied of any value when compared to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. His freeing Word of life and hope, his declaration that you are his own dear children, becomes the confidence of our discipleship. It is because of his love for you that you can fear, love, and trust in God above all things. It is because of Christ alone that we are called his disciples.
And so it is out of our poverty, out of our complete reliance upon our Lord, that we can joyfully give for the blessing and strength of our neighbor. For as we said on our confirmation day it is only by the grace of God that we will have no other gods before us.