Flee!

Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’s life shortly after his birth describes how precarious life can be, not only for Jesus, but for all humanity:

“13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ … 19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.’ 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene’” (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23).

At any given time, people in seemingly every corner of the world are fleeing for their lives. Some flee war, some persecution, some famine, some abusive family situations, some economic uncertainty, some natural disasters, some boredom, some adult responsibility, some marriage, some their surrounding reality, some church, and so forth. People flee by relocating physically, psychologically, emotionally, religiously, and … One often hears in the news about refugees seeking shelter in other countries or shelter in a safe home or …

Another type of flight makes the news but less often. For decades now, people have been fleeing the church. Many congregations, once thriving, are now struggling. People are gone. Programmes are gone. Pastors are gone. At one point, the decline of smaller congregations was attributed to poaching by larger, mega-church congregations. That phenomenon has, however, shown itself to be of limited duration. In North America, people are now fleeing the church in all its manifestations, a situation rampant even longer in Europe.

The Holy Family in Matthew’s account was fleeing a real and present danger, namely King Herod who wanted to kill the baby Jesus. Countless others throughout history were and are fleeing real and present dangers. So, why are people fleeing the church? Where is the real and present danger? The answer lies in Herod’s desire to kill Christ. Herod viewed the baby Jesus as a real and present danger and sought to take Jesus’s life to save his own.

While some consider Jesus to be a saviour, for others he is a danger. In actuality, Jesus is both a saviour and a danger to one and the same type of person, namely sinners. King Herod wanted Jesus dead because Jesus posed a threat to Herod’s sense of power and thus to his very life. Likewise, sinners of any day and age want Jesus (and his followers) dead, not just when he, but because he represents a power and reality which calls their lives into question.

Sinners who consider themselves (by sinful nature) to be their center of their worlds, reject (by sinful nature) any and every challenge to their self-declared rule over their lives and environs. Paradoxically, churches which seek their own fortunes at the expense of the gospel, while initially attracting onlookers, eventually begin to push Jesus and his cross out the door. Churches without a saviour are, however, already dead, but the retention of some membership, large or small, disguises this fact.


Another Beginning?

In 2007, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church embarked on what was entitled “A New Beginning.” Apart from the terminological or tautological difficulties of whether one can have a “new” “beginning,” the idea to be conveyed was that something refreshingly different was to take place. Unwanted elements of the past were to be left behind, good things were to be kept, and new ideas and plans were to be conceived and made, respectively.

Viewed in and of itself, some of that has happened, and some of that has not. Juxtaposed to the verse from Hebrews 13:8 that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” the questions arises what a “new beginning” might mean at all. If Christ truly is the same for all time, does not a “new beginning” seem to be the wholly wrong idea, and if the wrong idea, a complete waste of time? More broadly, if Jesus Christ is truly eternally the same, are not the unnumerable attempts by churches and denominations to do “something new” not only a waste of time but contrary to the Christian faith?

On the other hand, there is no shortage of verses which in various ways talk of God making “all things new” (Revelation 21:5). So, how can Christ remain the same and yet have all things made new? How do we know what is to remain the same and what it to be renewed? How do we know when to forego current practices, when to renew old ones, and when to create something as yet wholly new? With this notion in mind, what is the impetus to do so anyway?

These and related questions arise particularly when it seems that any given congregation is “struggling,” whether that is numerically, financially, organizationally, or otherwise. There seems to be a tendency for congregations to want to copy other “successful” congregations in the hopes that imitation will result in proliferation. To accommodate the notion of church as commodity, the market for programmes resembling “church by numbers” or “ministry by numbers” abounds. Whereas some of these may prove “successful” for “church growth,” what theological criteria lie behind the “numbers,” particularly the “cult by numbers” designed to attain numerical growth?

Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, the chief Lutheran statement of faith (Confession), states, “It is also taught that all time there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.”

Where is the option for “ministry by numbers” in that definition? How does that offer a recipe to mix the right quantities of social programmes and baptismal water to sprout new members and increase cash flow?

If one looks at this definition of the church in Article VII carefully, there is nothing for a congregation to do but to be assembled, grammatically a passive construction, where one chief activity takes place, namely the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ administered in verbal and sacramental forms. Please note, however, that this proclamation by definition is to be administered “purely.” In the “church by numbers” scheme of things, how does one qualify and quantify such proclamation? How does one know that one has received adulterated or unadulterated gospel, and if adulterated, how pure it is, 95% pure or 73.4% pure or on a bad day just 21.62% pure?

Lots of so-called Lutherans like to talk about the church and church unity based on Article VII of the Augsburg Confession. Conveniently, many if not most of those so-called Lutherans omit, either by accident or by design, the reference to the “pure” proclamation of the gospel. At the time of the Reformation, the Lutheran theologians stressed the “pure” proclamation as the criterion for the mission of the church. Anything less could and would lead people astray, as was so evident in Luther’s day and is still evident today, especially in many so-called Lutheran churches.

Whereas it is a preacher’s responsibility to proclaim the gospel purely, it is the congregation’s responsibility to know and to ensure that they are receiving the pure proclamation of the gospel. That is one aspect of the “Lutheran difference” in comparison to all other church denominations. Unfortunately, that difference is often ignored, and a significant reason why Lutheranism is in such dire straits generally is because the church has been so “dumbed down,” literally as to defy belief. Pastors and congregations both have been remiss in exercising their rights and responsibilities as members of the priesthood of all believers seeking earnestly to ensure that the church is fulfilling its mission as clearly and as purely as possible.

So, if Jesus Christ is eternally the same, how do we know what to retain and what to renew? Perhaps the question becomes more clear if viewed differently. It seems not only logical but also prudent to be conversant with the “old” before moving onto the “new.” In other words, Lutherans possess a priceless treasure in Scripture and in the Lutheran Confessions, as a true interpretation of Scripture. In that light, it would seem neither meet nor right nor salutary to pursue the new until one is steeped in the Word of God revealed eternally in Jesus Christ. How conversant are you in the Bible and in the Lutheran confessional writings?

A significant driving force for the initiation and development of St. Luke’s Theological Academy (SLTA) is to redress in a small way the sacrifice of theological competence and responsibility in favour of “church growth” fads. SLTA provides an opportunity for pastors to teach and train congregational members to know and to understand their theological responsibilities better. That education can then, in turn, be used and applied to help and ensure that congregational members are willing and able for quality control purposes to help ensure that the preacher is fulfilling his call by the congregation to preach and teach on its behalf.

This autumn, SLTA is offering five courses: Foundations of the Christian Faith (beginning Sunday, 11 September, 4:00-5:30 pm), Introduction to the Old Testament, Worship and Music, The Lutheran Difference, and Christian History and Doctrine (all beginning Tuesday, 13 September, 7:00-8:30 pm). If you would like a refresher or more in-depth learning, there is probably a course just about right for you. You can register online via St. Luke’s website or by telephoning the church office.


Community Idolatry

In the opening section of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul offers a scathing indictment of humanity. In Romans 1:18-25 he writes,

“18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,7 in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

St. Paul could be talking about humanity today. In fact, there are many who think that the church of the twenty-first century faces situations similar to the church of the first century. Then, the church was surrounded by paganism. Today, the church seems surrounded by neo-paganism, and in many ways it is. The church then was infiltrated by many strains and streams of paganism. Today, many congregations and denominations are infiltrated by many varieties of neo-paganism. The church then needed to decide time and again who represented orthodox Christian teaching and who did not. The church day, however, seems to have lost that ability. Why is that the case?

Ever since the garden of Eden, humanity has been caught in a battle of information and misinformation. God says, and then the serpent says. Whom humanity believes creates its problems. For most of human history the broad dissemination of even basic information was painstakingly slow. Oral communication and tradition played a central role. Written communication was important, but replication of written texts was arduous. The invention of the printing press changed that radically, and at the time of the Reformation Luther had more items in print than any other person. The proliferation of written materials has helped create huge bodies of information for record keeping, learning, music, history, maps, news, governmental and legal documents, and so forth. A strong relationship to the written word was developed at the time of the Reformation, championed by Luther, so that people could read their Bibles. Even for those who did not read their Bibles all too often, people were nonetheless “schooled” in scripture.

In the modern age, although humanity has heralded the invention of mass communication as a great step forward for humanity, and in many ways it is, in terms of exposure and influence, the pervasive bombardment of non-Christian and increasingly of anti-Christian information leaves the impression that humanity has been left alone in the garden with the serpent, who is not only beguiling humanity but now attacking Christian humanity ever more frequently.

Viewed socio-dynamically, humanity is enfleshed and enmeshed in communities of idolatries. Everywhere we turn, whenever we are informed or misinformed, wherever we are confronted or confounded, we cannot escape these communities of idolatries, and it is inevitable that we will drag elements of these communities into our churches, if we still attend one. Furthermore, these communities of idolatries have tremendous power to distract and detach us from the word of God found in scripture, in sound Christian teaching, and in the pure proclamation of the gospel. If in doubt about this, reflect for a moment on how many of us find ourselves viewing the Bible with some degree of scepticism or worse?

St. Paul’s words to the Romans make exceedingly clear, however, that our relationship with scripture is not so much how we interpret it but instead how it interprets us, and it interprets us unmistakenly as sinners! In so doing, scripture is often painfully searching and truthful. Like Adam and Eve in the garden after hiding from and clothing themselves in their sin, scripture brings the voice of God searching for us in our fallenness, shame, guilt, and desire to live our sinful-filled lives “in peace and comfort.” Scripture never lets us have such peace. Like never before in human history, however, the words and message of scripture are now being washed away and drowned out by the unbelieving, predominantly adolescent media and electronic communication found all around us.

As a result, society has become a community of idolatry. No longer is it just the case that certain individuals or groupings hold agnostic or atheistic positions. Rather, society through its leaders, its media, its morals, and so forth has become not merely multi-cultural but perniciously poly-idolatrous, whose only seemingly cohesive element is reaction against and rejection of God. As St. Paul states, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, … Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”

That sounds harsh, and it is. In contrast communities of idolatries, the church is called to be a community of fidelity, an assembly of believers, gathered around the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed purely in word and sacrament. God’s word of promise is the communication of the truth which calls sinners out of their communities of idolatry into his community of fidelity, God’s fidelity, demonstrated to us on the cross and at the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because God is faithful in his being, his word, and his actions, humanity can trust solely in God and his word. Faced with the flood of communal idolatry all around us, it is more important than ever for all of us to be immerse instead in God’s word to help stem the tide of unbelief not only in ourselves but especially in our world. With the power of God’s word, we are called to be a church, a community of fidelity in sin-crazed world of idolatry.


Papal Infallibility and Perfunctory Protestantism

The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Preparations are being made to celebrate this event in many parts of the world. Perhaps most surprisingly, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Vatican plan to celebrate this occasion together.

Many wonder how such common commemorations between Lutherans and Roman Catholics can take place when the Vatican still considers Luther to be a heretic and considers Protestants to be merely “churchlike communities” but certainly not “church in the proper sense.” If Luther were alive today, he might find such joint commemoration rather comical. Whether he would consider member churches of the LWF to be Lutheran is a matter beyond the scope of this piece.

Recently, a man named Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote an opinion entitled “The cowardice and hubris of Pope Francis”* in a publication online called “The Week.” Mr. Dougherty opens his piece by stating, “To universal fanfare from the mainstream and Catholic media, Pope Francis has issued a long-awaited document, Amoris Laetitia, ‘the Joy of Love,’ as his conclusion to the Catholic Church’s two-year Synod on the Family. But to this Catholic, the pope’s supposedly reformist document is a botch job.” For Mr. Dougherty, if sin is no longer sin but just an “irregular” situation, then God’s commandments become “ideals” which have no force and correspondingly cannot be enforced.

Mr. Dougherty concludes his opinion by saying, “This supposed paean to love is something much sadder. A Church so anxious to include and accept you that it must deny the faith that transforms and renews you. It admits that God’s commands are not just beyond our reach, but possibly destructive to follow… Pope Francis is trying to be more merciful than God himself. He ends up being more miserly and condescending instead.”

Mr. Dougherty laments that the Pope as supreme pontiff (pontifex maximus literally the greatest bridge builder) is actually embodying what his title implies. Historically, however, this title was not the pope’s but rather was once held by Julius Caesar over four decades before Christ’s birth. Likewise, this title was not Caesar’s because Julius commandeered it from the head priests in ancient, Roman, pagan religion. Thus, by employing this title, the papacy in one way or another ties pagan religion, Roman imperialism, and elements of Christianity into a single church-state (now multi-national corporation) with its capital (or headquarters) at the Vatican in Rome. By accommodating neo-paganism’s false gospel of inclusivity today, Pope Francis is courageously exercising his roll as supreme bridge builder, and where necessary, infallibly circumventing or excluding Catholic teaching to do so.

During the Reformation, Luther undertook a radically different endeavour. Instead of building bridges, renewing the old, or engaging in remedial actions, Luther sought to extricate the gospel and thus the church from the church-state, imperial paganism of the papacy. Luther’s valiant, pastoral concern, however, was already being undermined in his lifetime by some of his closest colleagues. Likewise, the protection of Protestantism by Lutheran princes would be transformed into the trappings of being a Lutheran state church. As secularism developed through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, such state churches would be infiltrated by a renewed form of paganism whose anti-Christian designs have eventually made Protestantism perfunctory (something carried out with a minimum of effort or reflection).

Under the influence of the neopagan gospel of inclusivity, from now until October 2017 many strains of modern Protestantism and the papacy will be “building bridges” with each other in order to “include and accept,” as Mr. Dougherty phrases it, rather than to “transform and renew.” As dismayed as Mr. Dougherty may be about Pope Francis, as a Roman Catholic he fails to see that the Roman Church’s programme to “transform and renew” fails to tread the biblically and theologically correct path which starts life in Christ with baptism as death and resurrection.

From a Lutheran standpoint, life in the risen Christ is life under the cross, crucifix rather than pontifex. For Luther, Christ was not crucified to bridge the gap between God and humanity and thus to transform and renew sinners. Instead, Christ was crucified in order to make sinners dead to sin, death, and the devil. This happened in Christ’s cross and resurrection and still happens to sinful believers when the word of God is purely proclaimed in law and gospel and received in Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Thereby Christ erects a “dead end” to humanity’s sinful, in-born and inbred paganistic ways in order to raise justified sinners into that new creation in Christ. From Luther’s perspective, death and resurrection in Christ far exceed being “transformed and renewed” by an ecclesial institution. Instead, it involves being re-created in the image of Christ.

As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, the LWF and the Vatican are finding each other again in neo-paganism where just about any religious, political, social, or personal persuasion is included, valued, and enforced, except the law found in Scripture and gospel inaugurated by Jesus Christ. In contrast, the life to which Jesus calls sinners is not remedial but cruciform: Ancient pagans wield a cross. Neo-pagans may even wear a cross. Only Christians, however, bear the cross because their Lord and Saviour has incorporated them into his body to witness to him, his cross, and his resurrection not only before the world of paganistic non-believers but for the sake of those same paganistic non-believers, as hostile as they may be or become.

At the Reformation, Luther was concerned that sinners would have a true faith in the one true God in order to be confident that they were justified by that faith alone for the forgiveness of their sin. If people today no longer have sin but just irregularities, then Jesus was crucified in vain and was resurrected for no reason at all (I Cor. 15:12-19). In contrast to Scripture and to Luther, the LWF and the Vatican today seem primarily concerned that sinners and their sinning can find a place in an ecclesial institution to belong. If the church, however, is merely a Welcome Wagon for self-righteous, self-justifying sinners, then it has divorced itself both from its head, Jesus Christ, and from the forgiveness of sin which only he can grant.

In other words, if the church is no longer the church but just a club of inclusively enforced irregularities, then why would such “irregularities” want to join such a church, proper or otherwise? Would it not be much easier to be self-righteous and self-justifying all by oneself without an offering plate?

*http://theweek.com/articles/617324/cowardice-hubris-pope-francis


Cross and Resurrection

A recent email advertisement promised to provide helpful responses to the four main reasons why people reject the resurrection. So, I deleted the email.

Was I not interested in what the four reasons might be? Would it not be good to know where doubters stand in order to convince them of God’s truth? Do I not care about the salvation of the lost? Those are all good questions which are basically irrelevant to the issue.

For centuries Christians have sought to explain God’s salvific actions in Jesus Christ in ways which they hoped would make sense to non-believers. To do so, one usually borrows on human philosophy, experience, religion, or other aspects of sinful human life to make Jesus somehow more understandable, relevant, intellectually credible, and so forth.

Why Christians do this is understandable and not understandable at the same time. On one hand, Christians want to communicate the gospel to other people so that they may believe, and if something “stands in the way,” then Christians try to work around such obstacles. On the other hand, the gospel and the faith are matters solely the prerogative of the Holy Spirit through the gospel. He creates faith where and when he wills.

Compounding the problem of the church’s mission in general is the particular nature of Christian mission. As St. Paul reminds, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles …” (I Cor 1:23). Despite all human efforts, the cross cannot be made into something which it is not, and God’s action on the cross cannot be made to make any sense to sinners. The cross signifies the reality of the death of God’s son, and likewise it signifies the reality of death to sinners.

God’s action on the cross makes no sense to sinners because we are so enmeshed in our sin that we cannot see the removal of our sin as anything but the removal of life itself. So, to save our skins, so to speak, we remove sin from the equation, gold plate the cross, and turn the gospel into self-help strategies of one form or another to make the faith attractive or relevant or meaningful or … Then we ask ourselves, “How in the world did God get it so wrong on the cross?”

Saving our skins, however, seems to be an ironic illusion. None of us gets out of life alive. At best, we can just forestall death as best as we can, which in the end is not terribly successful. Despite humanity’s monumental failure to overcome sin and death, it has never become quite convinced of the resurrection as God’s overwhelming solution to death. Perhaps this is the case because human beings must pass through death to be resurrected. So, from that perspective, it might not seem like much of a solution. Thus, in that regard the resurrection makes even less tangible sense than the cross. Why, then, should Christians attempt to explain either one at all to non-believers, much less attempt to counter the top four objections to the resurrection (top four by whose counting)?

There is one and only one reason why people object to the cross and the resurrection. It is the nature of sinners to reject God. Trying to make God’s actions in Christ’s cross and resurrection understandable to others is, in fact, just another expression of human sin. In so doing, sinners act as God’s intermediary, and like Adam and Eve in the garden seek to be like God, thinking that they know good from evil. Our personal, church, and world histories show how misguided that notion is.

St. Paul did not engage in explanations or apologetics. Instead, he preached Christ crucified. He unapologetically and unashamedly communicated to others what God has done in Christ because if there had been another way to express the depths of God’s love and forgiveness to sinners, God would have taken it. So, let us also prepare unashamedly to teach and preach Christ crucified and resurrected so that we and others may have a living faith in the one true living God.


Was St. Valentine a Saint?

People like to talk about saints in the church. People also like to name churches after saints, for example a catchy name for a Lutheran Church might be St. Luke’s. The same applies for Roman Catholic and churches of other denominations. The process of selecting and naming churches and feast days to commemorate saints arose in the early church as a way to mark individuals who where believed to have had particularly devout lives or had done miraculously things. Many of the stories about ancient saints, unfortunately, have rather uncertain histories and often seem steeped more in folklore than in fact. In the Roman Church today there are criteria for accessing whether one should be granted sainthood or not, i.e., to get it right, but is that system at all right?

At the time of the Reformation, the Roman Church’s understanding of saints was replaced for a variety of reasons.

First, the saints were often viewed as intermediaries between humans and a God who could not be approached directly just like a commoner could not pop into the palace to visit the king. In a way they are right. We sinners cannot come to God by our own efforts. So, God sent Jesus to be our mediator. Therefore, we Protestants do not need saints to approach God or to play heavenly pass the parcel or any other games on our behalf. Jesus came to us to be our direct connection as God.

Second, the saints were often viewed as having done particularly good or miraculous things. Therefore, being made a saint was a type of reward for extremely good behaviour which served as an example to motivate regular christians to lead pious and holy lives, thus improving their chances of salvation on judgement day. Without the saints, people would be getting out of hand and causing all manner of problems. For Protestants, however, even the most “saintly” member of the church is still a sinner. Such “holy” notions of saintliness actually detract from Jesus’ holiness who came to make us holy because our best efforts to do so would never mend our broken relationship with God. So, Jesus came to make us saints not by our works but by faith in his word, life, death and resurrection.

Third, it is still taught by the Roman Church today that the saints’ good works contribute to a heavenly bank account of righteousness deeds upon which sinners can draw in the form of indulgences to reduce their time in purgatory. Since Protestants believe in neither, this supposed purpose of saints is completely redundant. Furthermore, this idea also implies that Jesus did not do enough to address human sin by his death on the cross. Who knows, maybe Judas got his 30 pieces of silver from the same “heavenly bank.”

One of the problems with St. Valentine’s Day nowadays is that there is apparently more than one St. Valentine. Whereas one of them seems to have had something to do with marriage, that notion does not resemble how St. Valentine’s Day is marked today with cards, candy, and flowers for all and sundry. It is hard to see what is “saintly” about any of that either in a Roman or Reformation sense.

In another sense, St. Valentine’s Day does have important religious implications. The themes around love and relationships reflect a basic human need. The idea of having a “saint” involved indicates that we all know that the faultiness and fickleness of human love and relationships often leave us worse for wear rather than better for care. Finally, St. Valentine’s Day reminds us that we all too frequently look for love “in all the wrong places” rather than in the God who “so loved the world that he gave,” not cards and candy, but “his only begotten son” for the salvation of the world (John 3:16).

Maybe this St. Valentine’s Day we could give something relating to God that reflects what he has given us in his word. So, this year instead of a card or some candy, give someone you love (or hate) a new study Bible or send a donation to the Gideons International so that they can give new Bibles to many people of all manner of languages and cultures around the globe. Whether individually or collectively, such efforts and gifts really communicate how much God so loved and still so loves the world full of sinners waiting to hear of his salvation given to us in his son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.


New Year, New Beginning?

A new year is upon us. Whereas people often think of New Years as a time to make new beginnings in life, as Christians we know that each day we are called to remember our baptism, to die to our sinful selves, and to be raised to newness of life. Daily means daily, but generally, we wake up and go about our same old routines in our same old ways as our same old selves, even if we are not old.

The same is true in the church, and although Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), God does not want us to be the same because being the same means being lost in sin and death, alienated from God, each other, and ourselves. Sin manifests itself in all manner of overt and covert ways, but creating divisions in the body of Christ is a most recognizable way. Paradoxically, despite all the talk nowadays about ecumenism and church unity, the ways in which most “churches” attempt “unity” is contrary to the gospel because they seek unity through legalistic contracts rather than relying on the unity which already exists in Christ.

Luther writes:

It is enough now that we know that a Christian people is undivided, without any distinctions of sects or persons, a people among whom there is to be no layman, no cleric, no monk, no nun—no differences at all, all being married or celibate as each one pleases. There is also no essential difference between bishops, elders, and priests on the one hand and laymen on the other, nothing to distinguish them from other Christians except that the one has a different office which is entrusted to him, namely, to preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments; just as a mayor or judge is distinguished from other citizens by nothing except that the governing of the city is entrusted to him. The same persons who have introduced such sects among the Christian people and divided them into clergy and laity so that some are tonsured and some are not, and the tonsured are partly monks and partly priests, and the monks are even divided among themselves according to a variety of garbs and diets; the same persons who invented these things have severed and cut to pieces the unity of the Christian people (LW 36:159).

In short, divisions often happen in the church, too frequently for seemingly good or religious reasons. Our human sin works in such insidious ways that we ourselves are unaware that our “good intentions” might not be as good as we think, and sometimes they are not good at all, except to us. Recall that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which St. Luke’s left, engages in all manner of chicanery in the name of God, except that God does not need underhanded ecumenical accords or other shenanigans to accomplish his will, to unite his people, or to advance his mission. In fact, such deeds are contrary to all three.

Whether national church or local church, however, sin works the same. To help ensure that we sinners at St. Luke’s work together as harmoniously as possible, we seek to create constitutionally sound system for decision making with checks and balances in order to make our decisions together and to move forward together. In other words, my mantra of “no unnecessary conflict” is not just a buzz phrase. Sometimes conflict is necessary, and times arise when doctrinal issues regarding salvation are at stake. Most other “human” concerns are in comparison completely irrelevant. Jesus did not die on a cross for church social activities, personal preferences, decor, flags, etc., etc., etc., He died to set us free from sin and death. Until we are dead in the flesh, however, our sin can make such mundane things very divisive and destructive to the church. As Luther reminds us, we all want God not to be God and want ourselves to be God.

To help avoid such divisions, we have both regular council and congregational meetings. We seek as many solutions to concerns as possible from the congregation to draw upon the expertise of our members. We collect and pass ideas around for questions, consultation, and critique. All of this is important not simply for interpersonal peace. St. Luke’s mission depends to a considerable degree on our ability to live the life of the gospel which we deliver in so many ways to the community. Conversely, a harmonious congregation is both a place and an environment where people can find “sanctuary” from the toil, trauma, and tribulations which so often divide our lives, families, and society.

Unity and harmony in a church is built upon the unity and harmony of our relationship with God in Christ. So, how do we seek to strengthen that? Quite simply, we are called to hear God’s word as often as possible. So, at the beginning of a new year, ask yourself a few questions? Do you read your Bible every day? Are you a member of a weekly or monthly Bible study? Did you know that you can learn biblical material by being in the choir? Are you aware that being a Sunday School teacher is also a great way to learn the Bible? Have you attended one of St. Luke’s Theological Academy’s courses? When was the last time that you attended adult Sunday School? As the new year begins, turn a new leaf in that same old Bible, each and everyday. It is part of remembering our baptism daily. Happy New Year!


Advent of the Christ

The Advent season begins on the last Sunday of the month, 29 November. The overlap between the Gregorian calendar and the liturgical calendar symbolically represents that an end time is also a beginning time. Whereas we human beings look forward to the end of some things, like the work day, an illness, the sermon, or some other arduous aspect of life, we Christians generally do not look forward to the end of temporal life, even when life is filled with adversity. In contrast thereto, our neo-pagan society places very little value on life apart from one’s own disposition and selfish desires. This disregard for life seems particularly acute toward people at either end of the age spectrum.

Placing ultimate value on the temporal pursuits of oneself until that pursuit becomes unavoidably unpleasant is perhaps best described as narcissistic nihilism: narcissism, after the mythological figure Narcissus who was enamored with himself, and nihilism, derived from the Latin word nihil meaning nothing. So, narcissistic nihilism would be valuing the self above all else until even the self is deemed (or doomed) to have lost its value. Theologically, narcissistic nihilism is both a manifestation and an avoidance mechanism of that human condition known as Sin.

When Adam and Eve listened to the voice which told them that they “will be like God, knowing good and evil,” if they ate of the fruit of a certain tree (Genesis 3:5), they believed that voice to be true, and sinful humanity today still does too. Human understanding of what is good and what is evil, however, is so self-contradictory and confused as to defy not only cogent reason but also credible belief. In other words, human conduct, ethics, and morality contradict not only basic, reasoned logic but also the word and thus the will of the God who entrusted humanity with life in his image. Rather than destroy all sinful human beings, as they had destroyed his image given them, God the Father sent his Son, Jesus the Christ, to rectify and to save sinful humanity.

The liturgical season of Advent marks both the first and the final coming of Christ, the celebration of his nativity and of his final consummation of all time. Scripture’s portrayal of that final advent entails spectacular events when the Son of Man appears in all his glory to judge the living and the dead. Until that time, Christians find themselves similarly in a spiritual and cosmic overlap of time – created through baptism – between their end on the cross and their resurrection to newness of life in Christ.

Throughout the overlapping times between Christ’s first and final advent, mirrored in the Christian life, no shortage of individuals and groups have tried to foretell when the end will actually arrive. The book of Revelation, like its forefather the book of Daniel, provides ample material for vivid, various, and varied opinions on the matter. In both books, God’s faithful, namely God’s saints, find themselves at odds with the unbelievers all around them.

Given this dynamic, believers have thus throughout history found themselves the target of non-believers’ displeasure and disdain. Perhaps even worse, many faithful Christians also find themselves the disdainful target of other Christians, particularly those “enlightened” by societal unbelief. Whereas end-time prophets typically place the times of persecution and great tribulation for the faithful far out into the future, the battle between belief and non-belief is always and actually at hand, hear and now, each and every day that a Christian is alive in this life.

Still in bondage to human sin, i.e. under the sway of narcissistic nihilism, many Christians mistakenly believe that they are the center of the target of such persecution. Some of these Christians, self-assuredly “knowing good and evil,” even relegate to themselves the power to speculate who will be saved and who will be “left behind” at the end of time. In other words, from the time of Adam and Eve until the end of time, sinful human beings have misused and will continue to misuse God’s word as a means for to try to save their own skins while defying God. That happened in the garden and happened on the cross. Contradicting God is the nature of sin.

The battle against sin, however, is not a human battle which humanity can wage while under  the power of sin. Similarly, the persecution which Christians have faced, do face, and will face due to their sin is not primarily about them or their future, no matter how much they may feel targeted. Instead, the battle against sin is God’s battle against all the enticing voices and charming manifestations of unbelief. That battle is not fought with traditional weapons of warfare but with the word of God in both law and gospel. As theologian, Andrew E. Steinmann, aptly puts it,

“This means that the kind of persecution that is most dangerous for the saints is not some future worldwide political ruler who could deprive them of earthly goods, limit commerce, require a numerical mark on their bodies, or even take their physical lives. Instead, the most dangerous persecution is the insidious corruption of the Gospel of justification through Christ alone and its replacement by a false gospel that mixes faith with works and false spirituality. It is this kind of spiritual warfare that can cause saints to shift their trust from the atonement of Christ to themselves and human or demonic teachings. If they compromise the exclusive claims of God in Christ in order to accommodate other religions, they will lose their relationship with the loving, merciful God who accomplished their full redemption in Jesus Christ” (Daniel, Concordia Commentaries [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2008], 382-383).

Fortunately, the time is always nigh. Jesus Christ comes to us (advent) wherever and whenever the gospel is purely proclaimed and the sacraments are administered according to the gospel. In so doing, God promises to be with his saints (his believers) amidst all the forces of unbelief which threaten them and their relationship with God, from without and from within. In that light, i.e. in the light of the gospel, Advent is not just a particular liturgical season to be signified with blue (or purple) paraments. Instead, Advent is the nature of the gospel itself coming here and now to save us from the most insidious corruption of the gospel, namely from ourselves wanting “to be like God” in defiance and contradiction of the one true God who revealed and reveals his love for sinful humanity in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


The Reformation and Papal Indulgences

As most Lutherans are aware, the Reformation began quietly and unofficially on 31 October 1517 when Luther published his “Ninety-five Theses,” also known as the “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” These brief statements initiated a cascade of publications which would rock the church into the present day. The main theological issue then, as now, is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In other words, one either receives salvation as a free gift from God won on the cross through Christ alone through faith, or one contributes in some way to one’s salvation through merit-earning good works. In other words, either Christ has done enough or he had not for our salvation.

In the Roman Church’s teaching, souls which are not “pure enough” for entry into heaven upon death are sent to Purgatory (from word “to purge”) to have their sins removed through fiery torment. To shorten one’s time in Purgatory, the Pope can issue special reprieves, called Indulgences. Neither Purgatory or Indulgences has any biblical foundation.

As many recall, in 1999 the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Vatican signed the so-called “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” Through this sham document, many claim that Lutherans and Catholics now have basic agreement on justification by faith. Since 1999, however, the Vatican has issued many Indulgences. Furthermore, in 2017, many LWF member churches plan to celebrate the Reformation with the Roman Church, which still condemns Luther as a heretic.

In the meantime, the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary officially continues to issue Indulgences. The latest Indulgence can be obtained from the First Sunday in Advent 2014 until 02 February 2016. The whole text of this Indulgence is as follows. Note that this Indulgence can be applied to souls in Purgatory.

URBIS ET ORBIS

Decree
by which are established the works to be performed in order to obtain the gift of Indulgences on the occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life

The Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, having requested that this Apostolic Penitentiary duly determine the conditions to obtain the gift of Indulgences with which the Holy Father Francis, on the occasion of the forthcoming Year of Consecrated Life, intends to extend for the spiritual renewal of religious Institutes, with the utmost fidelity to the charism of the founder, and in order to offer to the faithful of the whole world a joyful occasion to confirm Faith, Hope, and Charity in communion with Holy Roman Church, under the most special mandate of the Roman Pontiff, this Apostolic Penitentiary willingly grants Plenary Indulgence, under the usual conditions (Sacramental Confession, Eucharistic Communion, and prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father), to all the individual members of Institutes of Consecrated Life, and to the other faithful truly contrite and moved by the spirit of charity, to be obtained from the First Sunday in Advent of the current year until 2 February 2016, that can be also applied as suffrage for the souls in Purgatory:

a) In Rome, every time they take part in International Meetings and celebrations on the calendar established by the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and for an appropriate amount of time, dedicate themselves to pious thoughts, concluding with the Our Father, the Profession of Faith in any legitimately approved form, and pious invocations to the Blessed Virgin Mary;

b) In all Particular Churches, at each time in which, on the diocesan days dedicated to consecrated life and in the diocesan celebrations set for the Year of Consecrated Life, they piously visit the Cathedral or another holy place designated and approved by the local Ordinary, or a conventual church, or an oratory of a Cloistered Monastery, and there recite publicly the Liturgy of the Hours or, for an appropriate amount of time, dedicate themselves to pious thoughts, concluding with the Our Father, the Profession of Faith in any legitimately approved form, and pious invocations to the Blessed Virgin Mary;

Members of Institutes of Consecrated Life who, due to illness of other grave cause, are prevented from visiting these holy places can equally obtain the Plenary Indulgence if, with complete detachment from any sin and with the intention of accomplishing as soon as possible the three usual conditions, accomplish a spiritual visit with deep desire and offer the infirmities and pain of their own life to the Merciful God through Mary, with the addition of prayers as indicated above.

In order that access to the attainment of this divine grace through the keys of the Church, may more easily be obtained through pastoral charity, this Penitentiary diligently exhorts the Canon Penitentiaries, capitularies, the priests of the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies for Apostolic Life and all those duly authorized to hear confessions, offer themselves readily and with a generous spirit to celebrate in the Sacrament of Penance and administer Holy Communion to the sick often.

The present Decree is valid for the Year of Consecrated Life. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary.

Promulgated in Rome, at the Apostolic Penitentiary, 23 November 2014, the Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe.

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza
Major Penitentiary

Msgr Krzysztof Nykiel
Regent

[Maybe the Vatican will issue a special Reformation Indulgence for the Lutheran World Federation in 2017!]


In the Eye of the Beholder

The final verse in the book of Judges in the Old Testament states, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25 – ESV). Regardless of any given form of governance, the concluding sentence of this book written so long ago still describes much of human existence ever since, i.e. everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes. On one hand, this sentiment is often portrayed as the exercise of individual rights in a free society, and some judges today seem to support this. On the other, such sentiments simply express narcissism. Either way, what should happen if two or more individuals hold opposite positions regarding what is right in their own eyes? Who, then, is right? Does “might make right”? The potential for violent conflict is probably why humanity still has so many judges.

Within the multitude of varying perspectives, each human being is aware to some degree, despite “doing what is right in one’s own eyes,” that one has “blind spots.” Sometimes those blind spots are larger, and sometimes they are smaller. Blind spots can be particularly insidious because they may often be patently blatant to others, perhaps particularly so when we paradoxically try to conceal our blind spots. Theologically, such blinds spots both conceal and reveal the nature of human sin. Sin hides us from sinful ourselves and yet exposes us for our sinful nature. This dynamic is further complicated and exacerbated by the vast individuality of our communal sinfulness where millions are doing chiefly what they think is right in their own eyes.

The inclination of each sinful person continuing to do “what is right in his own eyes,” stems from our innate inability to do what is right in God’s sight, namely to trust him in every aspect of life. As the history of the Old Testament portrays, even the kings could not stop people from doing what was right from their own sinful perspective because the kings themselves were no better. So, if the nation’s leaders were blind to their own sinning, or worse, were willing to cover their sin up and punish or kill those who would expose it, who could truly be judged to be right?

Human beings spending their days doing only what they see to be right, aware or unaware of their personal blind spots, not to mention their blinding sinfulness, is what Jesus came to confront with his life, death, and resurrection. Fully aware of humanity’s sinfulness, Jesus came to enlighten the world regarding the blinding darkness of its sin and death. Humanity’s willingness to blot Jesus out of its sinful reality is the ultimate revelation of sin’s rebelliousness against God’s law and God’s love.

The false gospel that sinners are right in their own eyes and that God is wrong has ominously taken on new vigour and virulence in western societies because this disposition has become the mantra of the media. Rather than being censored by an oppressive regime of one sort or another, the modern media has declared for itself the right to censor through personal attack and vilification, i.e. crucifixion by media mob rule, anyone who does not adhere to its public proclamation of rebellion against God and God’s believers. The media’s false gospel is founded upon a modernized expression of a pantheon of paganistic powers which promises the exoneration of sinners and of all their sins by declaring there to be no sin, except for the “sin” of faith in the one true God revealed to humanity in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In contrast to the media’s false gospel, the church is nonetheless called to proclaim the one true gospel. As St. Paul wrote so long ago, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:22-26).

Whose eyes would we prefer to behold us, those of the paganistic, lynch mob media or those of the one Mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ?



Mark Menacher PhD. Pastor

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