"Finitum Capax Infiniti!"

Date Sunday September 10, 2017
Service 14th Sunday after Pentecost/Reformation Celebration
Text Text: Exodus 12:1-14
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "God’s Purpose and Presence are Obvious"
Next Sermon "Look for the Point!"

     Finitum capax infiniti! That’s one of the things I learned while I was at the Chautauqua Institution for Continuing Education time at the end of August. Finitum capax infiniti; it’s Latin, of course, and is a quote of Martin Luther that caught my attention in a book I read while there. Finitum capax infiniti means the finite holds the infinite, and 500 years ago Martin Luther used this phrase to answer questions about Holy Communion.

     Evidently people were concerned about some of the same issues that come up today, according to writer and pastor Elizabeth Palmer. “How could bread and wine be Christ’s body and blood? How is it possible that something as expansive as God’s grace comes to us through a tiny piece of bread and a small sip of wine? What kind of God would be willing to be present in a form that could be chewed up and digested by human beings.”

     Luther answered each of these questions with: Finitum capax infiniti. His conviction was that finite things are capable of carrying infinity within themselves. (1) The bread and wine of Holy Communion have Jesus in, with and under them; they do not represent body and blood; they do not turn into body and blood; they are both bread and body, wine and blood. This is the theology of Real Presence.

     The reason I bring this up, besides the fact that today is one of our observances of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, is that we are resuming our focus on the Old Testament lessons, begun before I was gone two Sundays. This week’s passage reminds us that the people of Israel, once guests in Egypt, became slaves there and God sent Moses and his brother Aaron to gain their freedom. It’s yet another example of Finitum capax infiniti.

     The Pharaoh, who lost track of Egypt’s own history of owing its existence to an Israelite named Joseph, was determined not to free the Hebrew slaves in spite of nine plagues that God sent as a warning and nine opportunities to do so.

     The 10th plague was a doozy – the first born in Egyptian households will die, from the royal family to the slaves, to even the livestock. But, God will recognize his own, the Israelites, because they are to put the blood of the lamb on the two doorposts and the lintel of the doorway as a sign. God will pass over the homes bearing this sign.

     Finitum capaz infiniti; what could be more finite than blood? Yet, it is blood that makes all the difference. The plague is no threat to the Hebrews; the blood of the lamb brings them life and freedom. As the loud cry of mourning is heard in Egypt, the Pharaoh tells Moses and Aaron to leave, along with the people of Israel, numbering in the thousands.

     You may have noticed that much of today’s Old Testament reading is instruction for that first Passover, ending with the command to remember and celebrate these events throughout future generations, which our Jewish friends still do.

     Remember, too, that each Holy Week Christians remember that it was during a Passover celebration that Jesus instituted what we call Holy Communion. Just as the blood of a lamb brought life and freedom to the Israelites, so it is that the blood of Jesus, our Lamb of God – brings us life and freedom. We too remember and celebrate; Holy Communion – our meal – brings us freedom from sin and strengthens us for the life of faith. The infinite meets us in the finite bread and wine: Finitum capaz infiniti.

     Dr. Palmer writes that God isn’t too big or too glorious to inhabit tiny, earthly things. And, it’s not just about bread and wine; despite our finitude we carry within us the infinite love of God. (2)

     WOW; isn’t that amazing? Since we carry within us the infinite love of God, we share that love not because we have to but because we are grateful.

     Remember…Martin Luther turned the 16th century Christian world upside down when he insisted on what he learned while studying the New Testament; we are forgiven/saved through Jesus; this is a gift of God’s grace, as is faith.

     In the 16th century, good works were promoted as the way to earn one’s way into heaven. Therefore, the focus was on the self, and what one could do to attain “points” toward receiving forgiveness and eternal peace. But Martin Luther made it clear that people could not, and did not need to, earn God’s love and mercy. So, the focus switched from self to others and the common good. That’s why any celebration of our heritage includes serving.

     Today is the ELCA Day of Service; we did hands on serving yesterday at the Haven of Rest shelter in Akron, and today we will have fun while raising funds for Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Disaster Services. Of course, this isn’t our focus just today, but an on-going question for our congregation is on how we can best serve in our community? Doing so is who we are as Lutherans, and Martin Luther himself give us guidance in addressing that question.

     In 1520-21, Martin Luther championed legislation in the town of Wittenberg, passed by the Town Council, that created a Common Chest for funds to assist the poor. (This was a radical concept at the time). It provided low-interest loans for workers and artisans, subsidized education and training for children, provided dowries for poor women so they could marry, job training support for the unemployed and underemployed, supplies of food and firewood for the needy and support for the town doctor to care for the poor. The only criterion for support was the need of the recipient. (3) This act by Luther 500 years ago could still be a model for Lutheran serving, it seems to me.

     Over the years Lutherans have organized to serve; in the United States, 300 Lutheran affiliated health and human services organizations serve 6 million people annually. These efforts are so well known that movie goers heard about it the 2008 movie Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood.

     Eastwood plays a man named Walt, a bitter Korean War Veteran, who develops a relationship with a refugee family living next door. In one scene, he asks why they came to live in the Midwest. His neighbor answers, “Blame the Lutherans. They brought us over.” Walt responds, “Everybody blames the Lutherans.” (4)

     I don’t know about you, but I’ll take that blame. It’s proof of Finitum capax infiniti: the finite holds the infinite. Our actions and attitudes reflect God’s love and our gratitude for that love, and Jesus’ real presence in the bread and the wine empowers us to be who God created us to be – Finitum capax infiniti. AMEN


(1)   Together by Grace: Introducing the Lutherans, edited by Kathryn A. Kleinhans, Augsburg Fortress, 2016, pg. 95

(2)   Same as #1, pg. 97

(3)   Same as #1, pg. 116

(4)   Same as #1, pg. 127