Four Branches May – 2019

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Exegetical Theology: The Heap of Hope – Romans 5:1-5

Life’s pains are like squeaky wheels demanding attention and management. Unless we deal with suffering in our lives, we cannot function. Paul’s punchy, specially abbreviated words in Romans 5:3-4 do more than help us deal with suffering, they help us boast in it. (See CW’s Second Lesson for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year C.)

After declaring our justification by faith, Paul highlights the resultant blessings in a way that demonstrates both status (we have peace with God) and a new life of boasting (the jubilant pride of faith) in the hope of eternal life with God.

The question is not “do we have reason to boast?” but “just how much territory does our boasting in God have?” Paul makes this clear with a super-connective “οὐ μόνον δέ, ἀλλὰ καὶ”. Our joyful boasting can claim the shocking territory of all that pains us because we know what God uses suffering to produce.

Paul’s emphasis is demonstrated both through ellipsis (the omission of unnecessary words the reader could supply) and through climax (or gradatio, an extended case of anadiplosis, where a word at the end of one clause or sentence is repeated at the beginning of the next clause or sentence).

  1. Using ellipsis, Paul does not repeat the verb κατεργάζεται in order to focus us on the words left behind. These nouns are emphasized as a quick checklist of blessings, rattled off in joyful rush as if to say, “These afflictions are such productive blessings when you think about it!”
  2. The climax is seen first by noting the juxtaposition of θλῖψις and ὑπομονὴν in a pattern of subject-then-object we find here three times. The focal subject (θλῖψις) acts upon its object (ὑπομονὴν), which then becomes the new focal subject acting upon a new object (δοκιμήν), which serves as the final focal subject at work to produce ἐλπίδα. That clear sequential chain helps us shorten the distance in our minds between suffering and hope, and to appreciate all the blessings in between.

Suffering is a common thief. It aims to rob us of hope and leaves us in empty-handed despair. But an assumption hides behind the expression here that suffering produces something. The assumption is that we are speaking about a believer whose faith God exercises by suffering. This is the way God makes suffering go to work for us (not steal from us!). In suffering God gives endurance, blesses us with character, and causes us to hope and fix our eyes on things above.

Though suffering be the ugly duckling in the word chain of Romans 5:3-4, it still belongs in the family of ways believer’s boast throughout their life of faith. Boasting in suffering is a critical addition to faith’s inheritance. “Hope” just wouldn’t be the same without it.

“Lord, you put all our pain to work. Light the candle of endurance in us through this dark night. Test our character and make it demonstrate the resiliency that comes from trust in you. Use trouble to heap up hope in our hearts.”

Rev. Daniel Bondow serves as pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, WI. He also serves the Urban Conference as worship coordinator and on the Communication Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project.

Systematic Theology: Where Is Heaven?

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who…ascended into heaven.”  “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 2:9).  Jesus went up to heaven.  How far up?  And on a rotating oblate spheroid revolving around the sun (sorry, flat earthers), which direction is up, anyway?  Where in the world—or outside of the world—is heaven?

I suppose the question could drive us down any number of roads: theology, science, even philosophy.  Before we could answer the question, “Where is heaven?” we might have to stop and ask ourselves, “What is heaven?”  Is heaven a physical place?  Is it an entirely spiritual realm that hosts the physical body of the risen Christ?  Is it another dimension?  Could it be called an alternate reality? 

Maybe you’ve wondered.  Perhaps you’ve been asked and scrambled to come up with a concise answer, only to spin your mental wheels and wind your ideas into a tangled mess.  We confess with Scripture that Jesus ascended.  We know that Jacob saw a ladder/staircase, but we don’t know how high it reached—not to mention it happened to be in a dream (Genesis 28).  We know that the dying martyr Stephen “looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,” but we don’t know how far or into what realm he was gazing (Acts 7:55).  But once again, we can only go as far as Scripture allows us.

One thing’s for sure: heaven is not here.  As people of God in a groaning creation, we need the constant reminders that we have a higher purpose and a higher goal than carving out our own heaven here on earth.  The distractions are many, and the offers of the world can be so seductive, but we set ourselves up for disappointment if our hope is only for this life.  Our people need the reminder too: “Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him…The world and its desires pass away…” (1 John 2:15-17).  Let’s be content with our blessings, and even grateful and generous with the gifts God gives; at the same time, let’s “set [our]minds on things above,” remembering that even now our “life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:2-3).

Actually, another thing’s for sure, too.  Even though we don’t know exactly where heaven is, we do know the way.  “In my Father’s house are many rooms…I am going there to prepare a place for you…I will come back and take you to be with me…I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14).  No need to test the hypothesis.  No need to philosophize.  Because Jesus lives, we know where we are going.  May God work through us to bring others along!

Rev. Eric Schroeder serves as pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Wauwatosa, WI.

Historical Theology: The Hidden Reformation, part 3

“Lord, if Thou straightly mark our iniquity, who is able to abide Thy judgment? Wherefore I trust in no work that ever I did, but only in the death of Jesus Christ. I do not doubt, but through Him to inherit the kingdom of heaven.” Dr. Robert Barnes submitted to the flames in 1540 with these words.

Barnes could be regarded as a colossal failure. He hoped to bring Lutheranism to England, but this was never realized in any significant form. His life was cut short, a victim of shifting political winds and a king with a penchant for religious execution.[1] History considers him a political pawn and inferior reformer. So, what does he offer us?

Upon his return from exile to England, Barnes served as liaison between Henry VIII and the Lutherans of the Schmalkaldic League. Henry was looking for a political and military ally to avoid isolation from the continent; the Germans wanted a Lutheran England.

Barnes worked with the Lutherans to formulate the Wittenberg Articles of 1536 and the Thirteen Articles of 1538 to bring Lutheran theology to England. While neither were officially accepted in England or Germany, their influence was great. The doctrinal works adopted under Henry VIII were “clearly and distinctively” influenced by them. The eventual Forty-Two Articles of 1549, adopted two years after Henry’s death, “borrowed extensively” from the articles designed by Barnes in 1536 and 1538. These were revised into to the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571 (still the official doctrinal formulation of the Church of England[2]) under Elizabeth I.  This influence extended into the Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1549, which still shapes English-speaking Protestant (and Lutheran) worship.

Once the Lutherans refused to support Henry’s divorce and his political crisis waned, Barnes’ usefulness to Henry expired. Between 1536-1540, Barnes found himself alternately arrested and preaching freely, even being granted the pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1540. Once buoyed by Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, he was also condemned along with him when the Roman theological voice gained clout again; the two were executed two days apart in July 1540.

Dr. Barnes was not without effect! Chief among his legacies was his delight in the Word and his desire for all people to have it. He left a profound testimony of faithfulness to his king, such as he was! However, Barnes’ glory was also hidden under cross and shame.

But the story is not about him – or us. It is about Christ, who grants eternal significance to us. Barnes took every opportunity to preach the saving Gospel in his “hidden Reformation.”

[1] To better understand the extent of this, refer to the Acts and Monuments, also known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, written by John Foxe, an English historian and martyrologist, first published in 1563, detailing the history of Christian martyrdom to date, including the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I (Mary Tudor, Bloody Mary).

[2] The Reformation Essays of Dr. Robert Barnes, Neelak Tjernagel, Ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1963), 15-16.

Did you miss out on part 2? Check out The Hidden Reformation, part 2.

Rev. Matthew Kiecker serves as pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Lomira, Wisconsin.

Practical Theology: Genre-specific preaching – Apocalyptic Literature

From Thom Rainer’s book to everyday interaction, we see how Millennials are transforming our society into a post-Christian environment of the Nones where biblical knowledge is becoming rare.  We cannot assume that even children in our own churches will have a high proficiency in Scripture’s macro-narrative. 

That’s why the church needs narrative preaching.  In broad sociological terms, Millennials are resistant to objective, propositional truth claims because they’re sensitive to the complexities of various cultures living in a pluralistic world.  That makes twenty-first century preaching more complex than even mid-twenty-century preaching.  While this may pose challenges for preaching on epistles, it gives great potential to preaching OT narrative texts.  Millennials love a good story.

CW: Supplement has provided additional Old Testament narrative texts, giving more chances to highlight this type of literature:

  1. Narratives diffuse cultural objections about subjective epistemology.  Overly propositional preaching can assume truth claims that become stumbling blocks to hearers.  A WELS Millennial, let alone a university-educated visitor, may ask, “How can you assume your truth claims are normative for society, when various people think differently?” A narrative avoids the potential for a sermon to immediately derail by featuring an episode everyone can agree with.  The preacher will still preach biblical truth, but the narrative has built up enough ethos that the listener will give a hearing.
  2. Narratives root Christianity to its historical foundations.  OT narratives demonstrate Christianity is rooted in world history.
  3. Narrative exposition simultaneously becomes more difficult (from a macro-view) and easier (from a micro-view).  Narrative preachers must bring the broader storyline to light, and that often means more homework.  However, exposition is usually as simple as, “Just tell the story.”
  4. Narratives do not necessarily state truth so much as show truth.  Unlike some parables, the direct connection to a truth claim often isn’t there.  That doesn’t mean it’s unclear.  Throughout it displays the truth as a prime example of indirect communication.
  5. Narratives are strongly connected to everyday life.  These are actual people’s stories, and “their story” becomes “our story.”

Narrative preaching has the following characteristics:

  1. The specific sin and sanctification response are sometimes personified as contrasting foils in the story.
  2. The exposition and illustration in a homiletical outline can become merged.  Since the exposition is a narrative that illustrates a truth, a separate illustration is often unnecessary.
  3. Synthetic outlines or one-part outlines become more common. The narrative often works as a unified whole (a way to divide the text may be a synthetic outline based on characters).  It then needs a more extended introduction to prepare the hearers for the long section to follow.
  4. It requires preachers to locate their hearers in particular people in the narrative.  The preacher will seek to place his hearers in the characters, “Do I want you to become this person or that – or both?”

It requires preachers to becomes masterful, creative storytellers.  Narrative preachers envision themselves living in the narrative and tell it in a fresh way.


Rev. Jacob Haag serves at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor, MI and on the Michigan District Commission on Worship.  He is currently pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree with a concentration in homiletics.