Reflections on the Proclamation of the Gospel and the Reformation

The Reformation of the Church, ignited in 1517 by Martin Luther’s posting of the Theses on Indulgences, is and always has been about the proclamation of the pure Gospel as set forth in sacred Scripture.  The “Treasury of Daily Prayer,” from Concordia Publishing House had as part of the readings for today a paragraph from Martin Luther’s sermon on John 1:29 – Behold the Lamb of God.  The pure Gospel, as Lutherans and orthodox Christendom proclaims it – we have strayed from time to time from this proclamation – is and always has been Christ and Him crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.  It is not an intellectual concept that can be grasped by man with his own faculties.  Instead it is something that can only be received by faith, for faith, through faith.  For Christ draws us into His story of the cross.  His story becomes our story.  His life, our life.  His death, our death.  His resurrection, ours too.  His freedom, our freedom.  For if the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.  It is our eternal hope, and a promise to which must cling.  It is Christ Himself.

I give thanks to God for the faithful who have gone before us to pave the way for the freedom we have in Christ.  He gives His saints the courage to stand before kings and princes, in the face of great persecution to bear witness to the hope we have in Christ.  I give thanks to God that He used Martin Luther “to hatch the egg that Erasmus laid,” and I pray that you do too.  If you have not read any of Luther’s sermons, you should.  Do not form your opinions of Lutherans on any crass opinions you have heard about Luther’s physical infirmities, or other fantastic insights into his psyche.  Instead, read what he has to say for he points to Christ.

In the Sermon on John 1:29, Luther reflects on John’s proclamation of the Christ who approached the river Jordan to be baptized:  “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Here Luther gives the Gospel, the pure Gospel proclamation of Christ:

May you ever cherish and treasure this thought. Christ is made a servant of sin, yea, a bearer of sin, and the lowliest and most despised person. He destroys all sin by Himself and says: “I came not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). There is no greater bondage than that of sin; and there is no greater service than that displayed by the Son of God, who becomes the servant of all, no matter how poor, wretched, or despised they may be, and bears their sins. It would be spectacular and amazing, prompting all the world to open ears and eyes, mouth and nose in uncomprehending wonderment, if some king’s son were to appear in a beggar’s home to nurse him in his illness, wash off his filth, and do everything else the beggar would have to do. Would this not be profound humility? Any spectator or any beneficiary of this honor would feel impelled to admit that he had seen or experienced something unusual and extraordinary, something magnificent. But what is a king or an emperor compared with the Son of God? Furthermore, what is a beggar’s filth or stench compared with the filth of sin which is ours by nature, stinking a hundred thousand times worse and looking infinitely more repulsive to God than any foul matter found in a hospital? And yet the love of the Son of God for us is of such magnitude that the greater the filth and stench of our sins, the more He befriends us, the more He cleanses us, relieving us of all our misery and of the burden of all our sins and placing them upon His own back. All the holiness of the monks stinks in comparison with this service of Christ, the fact that the beloved Lamb, the great Man, yes, the Son of the Exalted Majesty, descends from heaven to serve me.

Such benefactions of God might well provoke us to love and to laud God and to celebrate this service in song and sermon and speech. It should also induce us to die willingly and to remain cheerful in all suffering. For how amazing it is that the Son of God becomes my servant, that He humbles Himself so, that He cumbers Himself with my misery and sin, yes, with the sin and the death of the entire world! He says to me: “You are no longer a sinner, but I am. I am your substitute. You have not sinned, but I have. The entire world is in sin. However, you are not in sin; but I am. All your sins are to rest on Me and not on you.” No one can comprehend this. In yonder life our eyes will feast forever on this love of God. And who would not gladly die for Christ’s sake? The Son of Man performs the basest and filthiest work. He does not don some beggar’s torn garment or old trousers, nor does He wash us as a mother washes a child; but He bears our sin, death, and hell, our misery of body and soul. Whenever the devil declares: “You are a sinner!” Christ interposes: “I will reverse the order; I will be a sinner, and you are to go scotfree.” Who can thank our God enough for this mercy?

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Jn 1:29). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House (1999).

The Widow’s Mite: Reflections on Faith and the Christian Life

Mark 12:41-44

When we hear this story, we think about giving. We look and focus on the gift that the woman gave, for Jesus holds her up praises the gift that she gives. He tells His disciples that the gifts given by many of the rich people He has observed does not compare with the widow’s gift despite how much they gave.  For the rich gave out of their abundance, or from the excess of what they had – they did not need what they gave and could spare some of their wealth – while the widow gave out of her poverty and really could not afford to give what she did put into the offering box. So Jesus is telling us to give until it hurts…. Right?  At least that’s the way we like to see it. We like to see the story as being about us. But is the focus of the story our giving and our stewardship? Is this story about me and what I do? What is it the Jesus sees in this woman that causes him to turn to his disciples and make her an example for them?

If we go back and look at the center of this chapter in this series of teachings by Jesus in the temple, we see that at the very center in Mark 12:28-34, Jesus tells us of the greatest commandment of all: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. To it he adds a second commandment:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  I know that I cannot begin to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind.  I fail at it a thousand times a day.  To love God does not mean that I have to do things for Him.  It does not mean I have to give money to this cause, to the church, and feel guilty when I do not.  It does not mean I have to be involved in this or that program in the church, or worship Him by singing praises or watching worship leaders and praise bands do that for me.  Jesus said that there is no greater love than that a man lay down his life for a friend.  This is what Jesus did for us, obeying the Will of the Father who sent Him into the world to die.  And eternal life is this:  that we know the Father, the only true God, and Jesus the Christ, whom the Father sent into this world.  John 17:3. To love God is, through the Spirit, to hear His Christ, take up the cross prepared for us, and take Jesus to our neighbor.  To love God is to serve our neighbor.  What enables me to do this?  To have the kind of love that lays down one’s own life for another, that sets one’s own desires, interests, and selfishness aside for the good of another person is a rare quality.  Yet we are not left without guidance. And Jesus’ story of the widow and her gift provides the answer.

You see, what Jesus holds up in this widow and sets before us is her faith not the gift she gave to the church. Rather it is the gift that she has been given. This woman had faith, faith that trusted solely and god to provide for her all good things. Jesus describes her as poor. The Greek word in the text, ptoches, is a descriptive word, that means crouches, cowers, bent over low, poor and beggarly. So this woman was not simply poor in wealth as her gift suggests, but she also was stooped over with age, and weighed down by a lifetime of worry and work. Moreover, as a widow, she was an outcast in society, much like a leper. The fact that she is a widow of some age and also destitute tells us that her husband did not have any brothers or extended family members who would redeem her and carry on his name. And so the name of the widow’s husband would likely perish from the earth. This woman was insignificant in Jewish society. And so too, comparatively speaking, was the gift that she deposited in the offering box.

Two small coins made of copper were deposited by this widow.  Together they made a penny.  And yet the total monetary value was 1/64th of one whole denarius.  One denarius was the wage earned for a day’s labor. The leaders of the day, the rich people, deposited great sums of money in comparison. They made public shows of it.  Jesus tells how the scribes walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces, and the Temple was just such a marketplace until a day or two before when Jesus cleared the moneychangers from the Temple.  It was a place to be seen, to be known.  Giving to the Temple treasury, fulfilling the Mosaic obligations   The wealth of the leaders and rich people says something about them and their station in life. They feel important, and want to be known and loved by others. Their wealth enables them to do this, and preserve their status.  Their lips and mouths gave honor to God, but their hearts were far from them.  Yet this honor was only based on a commandment of men.

In contrast to the pomp and circumstances of the somebody’s in Jerusalem of that day, Jesus holds up this poor, beggarly woman who, in spite of her earthly poverty, comes to the Temple of the Lord’s house bearing a gift, money to be put into the treasury and into this service of the Kingdom. From her station in life, the widow gave of herself. It is a sacrificial giving made possible only by faith. Faith that trusts completely and solely in the work of her Creator to provide everything that needed to sustain her body and life. Jesus holds this faith over and against that of the Pharisees and the wealthy leaders of Israel at that time. Jesus, when He entered Jerusalem a couple of days before, noticed a fig tree that had no fruit.  When He entered the heart of Jerusalem, the dwelling place of the Most High God, He found no fruit among the leaders of Israel, the stewards of God’s vineyard.  Jesus excoriates the Pharisees the Sadducees, and the scribes in the parable of the tenant. These leaders of his people are put in charge of caring for his flock, nurturing this vineyard. And yet instead of doing so, they sought to take possession of it for themselves and take ownership of the Kingdom from God. They did so by setting themselves, their traditions, their understanding of God’s Word over and against the Owner Himself. When they run up against the Son of the living God, when they are confronted by the Christ they meet their end. For they are given over to blindness, a lack of understanding, and God hardens their hearts. When they run headlong into the Christ who is the cornerstone they meet their death. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament Prophets. When Herod killed him his head was cut off and given to his stepdaughter. This marked the end of the Law.  The Law was cut off and brought to its end. So too are all those who follow the Law, who hold it up in honor and esteem over and above the gracious gift of God of life and salvation in His Son. Those who seek to do the Law in order to justify themselves meet their end.

So what does this mean for us today?  Does the story of the widow’s mite have application to our stewardship and giving? For if the point of the story is not GIVING but LIVING in faith, how can it inform our stewardship?

The widow’s gift was made possible by the gift of faith she had been given. From her station in life she live faithfully, trusting solely in the Lord to provide her with everything that she needed. Just as the lilies of the field do not worry about what they will wear, and the sparrows do not worry about what they will eat, so too should we not worry about what we will give, how we can give, or from where it will come. For God will provide us the means to give what is necessary to do the work required for his Kingdom. He will provide the means to enable us to serve where we are in this world and in this life. This does not mean that there is nothing for us to do, that we do not have to act responsibly with what we are given.  Just as the Pharisees and Scribes were the stewards of the children of Israel, so too are we stewards of one another in this world.  We are called to care for one another, encourage one another, hold one another accountable, and serve one another in love. Living our lives in faith, clinging to Christ and His precious Word we learn to lay aside our own lives and put others ahead of ourselves.  We see, with the eyes of faith, how what we have been given, what we possess in this earthly life can be of benefit to our neighbor.  And so we employ the resources we have been given in service to our neighbor.  Our specific roles in life too determine who are neighbor is.  If you are a mother or father, your neighbor is your spouse and your children.  Where you work, your neighbor is your co-worker, supervisor, boss.  When you are driving down the road, your neighbors are the other drivers on the road and pedestrians walking along the road.  When you provide food for your family, maintain the car for your wife, help your friend with her homework, take out the garbage – you are giving of yourself to your neighbor.  When you belong to a church, your neighbors are the other members of your congregation and those served by the ministries supported by the congregation.  They are your Pastor and other church workers called to serve in the ministry of that congregation.

So we live in faith trusting in God. Whether one is called to preach, or to teach, to do missionary work, to be a mother, a father, firefighter, factory worker, farmer, or whatever it may be – wherever God places us, He provides what you need to serve your neighbor. It is not about what I must do to give to God – He will take even the smallest most insignificant gift and make it prosper. That is His work. For us it is to live in faith, to serve our neighbor. Whether you participate by living a life of faith or not, God will make His Kingdom grow and prosper. His pure word will go forward in spite of our hesitation, resistance or indifference.  Like Jonah we often wait, resist, we run away, we do not live the life of faith because we have the answer. We know better. God’s Will will be done in spite of you and in spite of me. For the work that we do in Christ is not our own work. It is an accomplished work of Jesus Christ, it is God working through us. Yet we forget that it is not about you and me. It is not about what we do. It is not about how much we give. What matters is our faith in Christ trusting solely in Him who has brought us into His Kingdom. God provides the means to serve in his Kingdom and for us to live a life of faith.

 

Be “Authentically Christian”

The Pope’s Remarks at the Augustinian Cloister in Erfurt | CyberBrethren-A Lutheran Blog.

Paul McCain over at Cyberbrethren posted Pope Benedict’s remarks at The Augustinian Cloister where Martin Luther became and served as an Augustinian monk.  The Pope has a keen eye for Lutheran Theology, and, as some of the comments to McCain’s post suggests, BXVI knows our theology better than a lot of Lutherans out there.  Benedict observes that Christianity as we know it is changing dramatically.  Despite the fallenness of this world, the sin and depravity, even among Christians the primary question is no longer “How do I receive the grace of God?”  And yet, as it was for Luther, this question needs to be the question of our time:

The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God? – this burning question of Martin Luther must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.

Another important point: God, the one God, creator of heaven and earth, is no mere philosophical hypothesis regarding the origins of the universe. This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ – who is both true God and true man. Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.

Christocentric means Christ centered.  Martin Luther, and orthodox Lutherans that follow his example, preach the cross — Christ and Him crucified for our sins and raised for our justification and the redemption of the world.  It is clinging to the cross and, as Paul teaches, seeking to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified.  It is living your life in the shadow of death under the cross with the present reality of serving in the kingdom of God and His Christ as a son or daughter, bought with that life giving blood.  Being Christ centered means not abandoning the cross so as not to offend so-called seekers or visitors.  It means not hiding who you are so as not to turn people away.  For if we do, we abandon the very source of the Grace of God and the life giving power of the blood of our Savior.  And yet every ounce of our being as Christians should be dedicated to knowing Christ and Him crucified so that He can live and accomplish His saving work through us as His hands and feet in this fallen world.  Jesus will accomplish His work with or without me, and in spite of me and any obstacle I throw in the way.

Pope Benedict observes that Christ and His cause is the source of what we have in common as Christians.  He is the beginning and end of our faith and heritage.  This common witness to Christ is what has enabled Christians across denominational lines to make ecumenical progress toward unity.  Sadly, however, the impetus to water down Christianity, to remove the moorings of Christian denominations from the Body of Christ as grounded in time and space of this reality in which we live, the willingness to compromise doctrine in order to achieve so-called unity risks any ecumenical progress accomplished to date:

The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.

The second challenge to worldwide Christianity of which I wish to speak is more profound and in our country more controversial: the secularized context of the world in which we Christians today have to live and bear witness to our faith. God is increasingly being driven out of our society, and the history of revelation that Scripture recounts to us seems locked into an ever more remote past. Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization, and become modern by watering down the faith? Naturally faith today has to be thought out afresh, and above all lived afresh, so that it is suited to the present day. Yet it is not by watering the faith down, but by living it today in its fullness that we achieve this. This is a key ecumenical task. Moreover, we should help one another to develop a deeper and more lively faith. It is not strategy that saves us and saves Christianity, but faith – thought out and lived afresh; through such faith, Christ enters this world of ours, and with him, the living God. As the martyrs of the Nazi era brought us together and prompted the first great ecumenical opening, so today, faith that is lived from deep within amid a secularized world is the most powerful ecumenical force that brings us together, guiding us towards unity in the one Lord.

The task for Christians in any age of this world, as Benedict points out, is always to bring the person and work of Christ into our present reality.  Christ is a reality who is present and active in this world.  He is not merely an idea from a book.  Nor is He simply a historical fact or a mythical figure.  No person, idea, or thing has made such an enduring impression on this world and its inhabitants — ever!  God in the flesh made manifest for us to restore this fallen world and fallen humanity to a right relationship with Him — the Triune God.  Christ entered this world to bring truth and certainty to man, to bring light to the darkness brought on by our doubt and sin.   And yet we deny Christ when we say that to be a Christian is to know nothing, that all each of us has are questions, questions that lead us each, individually, to seek and find our own way.  Claiming to be wise, we become fools.  Even in the church.  Benedict’s point here seems to be that the roots of faith must be laid deep, nourished and fed so that we live it out to its fullest.  Put another way, we are so deeply rooted and steeped in the faith handed down through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles, that it makes us who we are called to be — carriers of Christ in this world.  Lights shining in the darkness, pointing to the cross.

So what is the Question of our time?  Are we concerned with what God’s position is toward us individually?  Or are we more concerned with standing before Him on our own two feet to experience something?  Is the question of our time here and now how can we make Christianity be “authentic” or “relevant” in the culture of today?  Or is the question, “What does Christ mean to take up your cross and follow me?”  What does it mean to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified?  Who is Jesus?  My buddy?  My friend?  My coach?    In our zeal for being relevant, do we sacrifice the reality of who Christ is and what He did in the past and accomplishes now in the present through His disciples?  I think it is a call to be “authentically Christian” or  really be a Christian — be who Christ called you and me to be.

“Who the unchurched really are” via Gene Veith

Gene Veith over at Cranach:  The Blog of Veith draws our attention to the recent blog on CNN – Belief Blog identifying the real demographic that makes up the unchurched.  It is not our middle to upper class youth, or the hip slickster attracted to the Mega-Church-Emerging Church, Evangelical, Relevant,Hipster, Pastor trying to be like everyman in his congregation and peddling best buddy Jesus and re-writing God’s story of salvation.  No, it is not the target audience for the church growth institutions.  Rather it is the less educated, lower income, blue collar folks who are not as hip, intellectual and sophisticated as those who we want to grace the doors of our auditoriums for the super, awesome, entertaining mega rock concert with an amazing light and video show with a bit of teaching thrown in.  But don’t take my word for it.  Read Veith’s blog post below, then click through and check out the comments on the post.  They are quite challenging and thought provoking and should challenge us in our outreach efforts.

You want church growth?  You want to reach the unchurched?  Stop the preoccupation with middle class suburbanites and young urban professionals.  The fields that are in the greatest need of harvest are the less educated, the lower income, and the blue collar.  THAT’S the group that has stopped going to church:

If you don’t have a college degree, you’re less likely to be up early on Sunday morning, singing church hymns.That’s the upshot of a new study that finds the decline in church attendance since the 1970s among white Americans without college degrees is twice as high as for those with college degrees.“Our study suggests that the less-educated are dropping out of the American religious sector, similarly to the way in which they have dropped out of the American labor market,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, who was lead researcher on the project.The research, presented this week at American Sociological Association’s annual meeting, found that 37% of moderately educated whites – those with high school degrees but lacking degrees from four-year colleges – attend religious services at least monthly, down from 50% in the 1970s.Among college-educated whites, the dropoff was less steep, with 46% regularly attending religious services in the 2000s, compared with 51% in the ’70s.The study focuses on white Americans because church attendance among blacks and Latinos is less divided by education and income.Most religiously affiliated whites identify as Catholics, evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Mormons or Jews.Lower church attendance among the less-educated may stem from a disconnect between them and modern church values, the study theorizes.Religious institutions tend to promote traditional middle-class family values like education, marriage and parenthood, but less-educated whites are less likely to get or stay married and may feel ostracized by their religious peers, the researchers said.via Less-educated Americans are losing religion, study finds – CNN Belief Blog – CNN.com Blogs.

Why do you think these folks, who used to be avid church goers, have become alienated from churches?  What in churches today, including their church growth strategies, would turn them off?  How might they be brought back into the fold?

UPDATE:  Be sure to read the comments for some very insightful and challenging thoughts.

via Cranach: The Blog of Veith.

There are NO Seekers in the Church

A couple of months ago I posted an article entitled “Do We Miss the Point of Worship?  Is it for Seekers and Evangelism?” I have been thinking about that article quite a bit lately in the context of the worship life of the church. Seekers are generally thought to be unchurched persons who have a desire for things spiritual.  They know there is something more, they are just trying to find it.  They are said to be seeking God, looking for Him.  We are told that our services need to be user friendly, non-threatining, not offensive, and accessible so that unchurched visitors — seekers — will not be turned off to our message and will return.  Listening to an Internet radio program the other day — Chris Rosebrough on Pirate Christian Radio —  the commentator observed that there are no seekers in the church.  As the basis for this statement, he referred to Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 3:9-12:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one; 
 no one understands; 
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”

Paul quotes Psalms 14 and 53 here, for the proposition that no one seeks for God, that we have all turned aside, becoming worthless, pursuing what pleases us.  This recognition that there is no one who seeks after God, therefore, has ancient authority as the Psalmists attest.  Paul says elsewhere in Ephesians that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. Continue reading “There are NO Seekers in the Church”

Lutheran Satire and Creative Evangelism Strategies — Mixed Martial Arts?

Pr. Hans Fienes has a great satire on creative evangelism and outreach ideas.  The MMA outreach activity has been done before.  There is a with MMA apparel called Jesus Didn’t Tap.  This stuff is out there just be aware.  Check out the Lutheran Satire video:

Pastoral Meanderings: Children…. Not So Important…

Pastoral Meanderings: Children…. Not So Important….

Pastor Peters has a very thoughtful post on the value we place on children these days.  Like it or not, culture influences Christians who in turn bring it into the church with them.  These influences have affected attitudes of youth in the church toward marriage, family and children.  A couple of his observations are listed below.  Read the full post here:  Pastoral Meanderings: Children…. Not So Important…

Judging from the surveys and polls and musings of sociologists, the kids in catechism class may not be so different that the rest of the youth in our society.  If that is true, it is certainly because they have been shaped by the same factors so evident in the media, culture, and educational bias of our modern day America.  Abortion did not start it and neither did the entrance of women into the workplace during and after WWII but certainly these are markers of the shifting goals and priorities of our people.”

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I was reminded of something C. S. Lewis said, “Homemaker is the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only — to support the ultimate career!”  We have certainly forgotten that today.  Take a look at the birth rate for the average European, Scandinavian, Canadian, or American (excluding immigrant families) family.  We have determined that just as love is optional to sex and marriage is even less optional to sex, so children are even less linked with sex (sex being about the number one priority — or pleasure that comes from sex, among other things).