A Fool and His Sandwich at Panera

As so often happens when I’m out and around, I managed to find myself in a conversation with someone who saw me in my clerical collar and wanted to chat. And as is also becoming more common, his questions weren’t for the sake of investigation, but rather for taking the opportunity to ridicule Christianity.

I was doing my best to stay out of sight in the corner of Panera in Brighton eating my favorite chicken salad sandwich. The young man—Todd—claimed atheism as his point of origin, and for some reason, his particular approach to our discussion involved testing my abilities to reasonably explain the afterlife. To be completely honest, I was quite annoyed. I was taking advantage of some limited time in between tasks, and all I really wanted to do was eat my Napa Almond Chicken Salad sandwich in peace. Not to mention I was in the furthest corner of the restaurant for a reason. I actually wanted to avoid such interactions—which again, happen far too often these days. And lastly, as I already mentioned, it was obvious that his intentions weren’t to learn, but rather to try to prove Christianity to be the backwater foolishness he already believed it to be.

A side note: For the record, looking foolish in such conversations doesn’t concern me all that much anymore. The Word of God has already declared that the Gospel will be received as foolishness, and so what does a guy like me truly have to lose in these circumstances?

Anyway, I took the time to talk with him. Well, actually, I didn’t have much of a choice. He actually pulled out the chair across from me and sat down at my table.

Essentially, we went around and around on a few points, his mouth filled with philosophical ramblings and my mouth filled with chicken salad. As I was taking the last bite and doing my best to politely communicate that I needed to leave soon, he somehow landed at the trite phrase, “Know thyself.” Truthfully, I don’t recall exactly how he arrived there. I just remember him saying it and then trying to explain what it actually means.

Now, I’m not entirely stupid. I know Socrates repeated it. Plato, his student, taught from the phrase, too. Todd was now using it, and doing so more along the lines of the way Plato tried to spin it—saying that the mythology of religion is irrelevant and that we shouldn’t waste our time investigating such foolishness, but rather we should spend our limited days employing reason to better ourselves in the here and now with the hope of something better.

Here’s something funny… I asked Todd if he knew the origin of the phrase. He didn’t.

Another quick side note: Don’t get into a discussion and use a phrase you can’t trace to its origin.

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν is the phrase that Pausanias (2nd century B.C.) says was etched in the granite of the forecourt to the temple of Apollo in Delphi. “Know thyself” the passerby would read. I’ve heard it said that this same phrase was sometimes carved into the stone caps of early Greek ossuaries. In other words, for early Greeks, to know the self was to know something essential to the nature of man. It was to be reminded that the bones inside the burial box had arrived at the destination to which every human being who ever lived would be traveling.

“Know thyself” was not necessarily a self-empowering phrase. It was a reminder that in the end, everyone will face off with Death. Every person—good or bad, smart or not-so-smart, reasonable or unreasonable—was going to die. The phrase betrayed the futility of human betterment against Death.

I told Todd this. I also told him that Saint Paul called Death “the last enemy destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). I told him Paul could say this because Jesus (who was crucified and buried and yet whom Paul had seen personally afterward) had defeated Death on the cross. I told Todd that Paul, a man who had everything to lose by believing this foolishness, was killed for it. I told Todd that Paul wrote about a new “self” that was put on through faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross (Ephesians 4:24). In other words, now in faith, to know the self is to know Christ and His promises that surpass the limitations of ossuaries with stone caps and dreadfully depressing phrases. For the Christian, Death is now nothing more than a portal—a trail blazed by Christ—through to eternal life.

Todd said I was, in essence, simpleminded, and that everything I’d just said was unprovable. Of course there were a thousand different directions I could’ve gone in response, but I was already very late, so I told him that far too much in this life points to Todd’s position being a very dangerous gamble. I encouraged him to do a little more digging, and if he didn’t want to read the Bible, then to consider studying the Early Church Fathers. They’re rich in ways I thought might resonate with his philosophical mind. I suggested Chrysostom and Athanasius in particular. I gave him one of the new business cards that Pastor Zwonitzer had printed up for me, and then I left.

This is the most recent of my episodes at Panera.

But still, there’s a little more I learned in the jaunt—and maybe it’ll be of use to you and maybe it won’t.

It was Menander (a Greek dramatist who Saint Paul actually quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:33) who said something about the phrase “Know thyself” being a silly proverb. He said that to know the man next door is a much more useful rule. I kind of like that thought. Bringing it into the sphere of Christianity, it can mean anticipating and receiving someone—anyone—in order to find just the right way to share the Gospel that saves, even if the initial goal of that someone is to test his own intellectual skills in order to make you look like a fool. Menander’s view means knowing the needs of others and responding, even if being late to your next appointment is the result.

Know thyself. And know the man next door.

Know you’re passing away. Even better, as a Christian rescued from Death, know the new self which has been established and given by Christ. Accept that this self will be considered foolish to a world of neighbors, and yet be ready for the Holy Spirit at work in that self to be open and aware of these other selfs around you—to the dire spiritual conditions of the person next door. It’ll be in those moments that the foolishness of the Gospel is given through you. And knowing the new self also means trusting the Lord when He promises these opportunities will never be seized in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

I’m Halfway Through My Life

I’m supposing that most of you are just like me and you get somewhat existential sometimes, almost feeling as though you’re hovering outside of your own body and contemplating certain things at certain times in life.

Okay, so maybe that’s an over-the-top description.

What I mean is that I turned 46 this past Friday, and while I suppose that’s no big deal, Jen and I somehow found ourselves talking about how I’m most likely more than halfway through my life.

Halfway. Just saying that out loud made us both a little tense.

The uneasy feeling came because, even though statistically speaking what we’d said may be true, the truth is that we are both well aware that neither of us knows the day or the hour. I doubt anyone at Our Savior expected to hear the news back in August of 2007 that our then 46-year-old pastor, William Thompson, had suddenly and unexpectedly died. I remember when Pastor Pies called me to tell me the news. It was as if my phone wasn’t working, as though the words coming through the wires had suddenly become scrambled and the phone needed to be shaken before replying, “Say that again, because what you just said didn’t make sense.”

Jen and I both agreed that we’re not afraid to die. The nervousness comes when we consider each other’s sadness, and the sadness of the kids. For anyone who has ever lost a loved one, the sadness of Death is formidable. My brother Michael died back in July of 1995, but even so, the memories are still very vivid. I was there at his bedside when it arrived. I remember feeling as though the world had suddenly lost all of its oxygen. It was hard to breathe. And when I eventually found myself outside of that hospital room, it was as if the wind had stopped blowing and the days were already starting to fade from one to the next with hardly a memory of the sun rising or setting. For the longest time it felt like one long and never-ending day of aimless wandering.

None of us wants to experience such things. But we do. The wages for Sin is Death, plain and simple. One of the paychecks that comprises those wages is sadness.

But that verse doesn’t end so starkly. Paul adds, “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). I think it’s great that anytime the Paul touches on the subject of Death, he almost always reminds us that we have a conqueror of the ghastly specter in Jesus. In fact, in the very next chapter, Paul does what I did this past weekend with Jennifer. He betrays a bit of nervousness when he considers the reality of his own binding to Death in his flesh. But he’s quick to recall Christ as his deliverer.

“Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25).

Still, there’s the sadness. And Jesus knows it’s real. He reveals the blast radius of Death’s sadness-inducing power in His own self while standing at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. He wept there. He wept because Death was not in the schematics for His world, and yet it wormed its way in through the tempter, Satan, and found a resilient foothold in the lives of every last man, woman, and child. But again, we do not see the Lord weeping without having first heard the promise of the conquering of Death and the gift of eternal life through faith in Him. He gave this very promise to Martha in the middle of her petrifying sadness. “I am the resurrection and the life,” He said to her. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” But then before the Lord makes His way to the tomb to call Lazarus out, He asks Martha, “Do you believe this?”

In the midst of that conversation with Jennifer a few nights ago, by the power of the Holy Spirit streaming through His Gospel alive within us, He asked us both this question. Martha’s answer was, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world.” In not so many words, that was our answer, too.

I pray that in those moments where you may be contemplating these heavier things—whether in the midst of a family crisis, struggling with your own health, or anything else that might bring to mind the reality of Death—I want to be there (for as long as the Lord allows me) to remind you of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for you. Death is always a moment of sadness. Nobody’s fooling anyone by saying it isn’t. But it is as anything conquered—in complete submission to its master. Christ has conquered Death. He has it on a chain that does not reach into your eternity. It’s trapped in this life, not the next. Take comfort in this.

And I suppose in the meantime, share this Gospel message with the ones who will be there at your funeral. Be sure they know that you believe it. Be sure they know that you have peace in this truth. Be sure that they know that you want that same peace for them. It’s not up to you to convert or convince their hearts, but you’ll know that same powerful Gospel that moves you to faith will have been planted in the ones you want within arm’s reach in the glories of heaven. In the face of inevitable Death, that can and does bring peace in this life, too.

Conviction: The Yes and No of Faith

In one of my morning devotions last week, Luther said something rather interesting regarding the work of the Holy Spirit and the faith He instills by the Gospel in Christians. I found it almost as startling as I did comforting.

“The Holy Spirit is no skeptic,” Luther wrote. “He has not written an uncertain delusion in our hearts, but a strong, great certainty, which does not let us waver, and (may it please God) will not let us waver, but (praise be to God) makes us as sure as we are that we are now alive, and that two and three makes five” (On the Enslaved Will, 8 ff.).

Incredible. And when you consider the words of 1 Thessalonians 1:5, you know he’s right.

“Our Gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.”

That Greek word Saint Paul uses here, which typically translates as “conviction,” is πληροφορίᾳ (plerophoria), and it means “complete certainty and full assurance.” Paul uses the word in other places, too. Colossian 2:2 and Romans 15:29 are a couple of examples. It is a word that, unlike so many words in our English vocabulary, is unmistakable in its purpose. It can’t be bent in a way that lessens the impact of its drive. When a first century Christian heard this word while listening to Paul’s epistle being read, he or she knew that there was no mistaking Paul’s own confidence in the Gospel and the commanding skill of the Holy Spirit at work within those who trust in Jesus as the Savior of the world.

And if for some reason they didn’t quite get it, they needed only to look around to see Christians laying their lives and livelihoods at Death’s stoop rather than forsake the One who gave His life as their ransom. Luther affirmed this when he kept on in the paragraph I mentioned above.

“We Christians must be sure of our Gospel and must be able firmly and without any wavering to say yes and no and stand by it.”

Yes and no.

Yes, I believe in Christ. No, I will not deny Him. Yes, I confess His Word as inspired, immutable, and inerrant, and the only source for faith, life, and practice. No, I will not deny His Word and follow the whims of the culture. Yes, I trust in Jesus for all that I have. No, I will not put my faith in the transient and mammonous things of this world.

Yes and no.

By the way, Jesus said this way before Luther.

“Simply let your yes be yes and your no be no; anything beyond this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:36).

Part of the Lord’s point here as He preaches the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t overthink or confuse your confession in ways that can, and often do, only serve to allow loopholes of escape from what is right and wrong, true and untrue. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith, be found confident in your stance on Him as the truest foundation. He isn’t a wobbly Savior. He’s steady and sure. And He’s not out to make you a wobbly Christian. The Word He gives to you is powerful. Its force is nothing less than tidal by size. And when it comes to the information it brings—Law and Gospel—it is so much clearer than many in this day and age would ever confess it to be.

The Holy Spirit by the verbal and visible Gospel—Word and Sacrament—feeds to you the fortitude to say yes and no in a way that aligns with this. Without it, we become the wobbly ones. We become those who aren’t sure of what we believe or who we are as baptized children of the Heavenly Father.

Conviction—complete certainly and full assurance—is located in Jesus alone. He is the birthplace of salvation and the very reason we can have confidence in the forgiveness of sins He has won on Calvary’s cross. The Father sends the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name by the message of the Gospel to establish this within us. Be completely certain and fully assured by this promise. Trust that what’s being given at your church—Word and Sacrament—is of utmost importance and is good for you and your family. When you are sitting there in the pews, when you are handling the Word of God in Bible study, when you are engaged in these things, the promise is that, actually, these things are first engaging with you. You are being given things that Paul told the church of Ephesus are divine elements of “power” and “conviction.” The Holy Spirit who works through these, while at the same time being alive in you, is by no means skeptical of these heavenly gifts. He can’t be. Instead, He is devoted to them, and He’s fully committed to taking up residence and establishing the same confident devotion in you.

Thanks be to God for this!