Reflections on Faith

Coronavirus and Confirmation

In March, the Catechism II class and I were planning to spend a Saturday afternoon together for a special catechism session. The nascent coronavirus was starting to gain ever increasing attention of the media and the medics. Like the virus itself, fear of the unknown was infecting society. The governor of California prophesied that 25.5 million Californians would have the coronavirus by mid-May. So, our catechetical afternoon together got postponed and then shutdown. It was a great disappointment because it is not everyday that one gets to eat exceptionally good pizza and talk theology with hungry, young theologians.

At that same time, other church activities were grinding to a halt under state and county directives contrary to the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Arguably at a time when people needed to be in church the most, many politicians and heath officials in California had decided that church was too great a threat to public health and well-being. In contrast, crowding into supermarkets in search of quickly dwindling stocks of toilet paper was, strangely, not a problem, although the lack of toilet paper was a problem for those without. The politicians and health officials were plainly on a roll, flushed with excitement, or something like that.

In the course of time, legal challenges put pressure on the governor of California to loosen restrictions on constitutionally protected but apparently easily suspended religious rights. By the end of May, churches could again hold in-person services indoors, but quickly that became only outdoors, which after about six weeks became indoors again. To facilitate all these changes, the church council considered installing revolving doors on all entrances to assist church attendance and to symbolize the various officials’ predilection for having the citizenry go round and round and round in socially distanced circles separated by plexiglass.

With autumn approaching, worship services moving back indoors, the school on campus holding in-person classes aided by a waiver, and some other schools returning to in-person instruction either partially or fully, the resumption of in-person catechism was proposed and agreed. There had been helpful and hopeful suggestions of holding catechism via other methods. For example, using Zoom was one idea, but unfortunately that would have mistakenly given the impression that catechism moves quickly with excitement! Of course it doesn’t.

More importantly, resuming catechism in-person (not rezooming in cyberspace) has been very important because it reflects the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the word made flesh who came to dwell among us. When Christ took on human flesh and entered into a world racked with human sin and death, the second person of the Trinity entered into our time and into our space in-person to be with us as one of us in the midst of our sinfully sick, fallen lives. With each passing day, Jesus seemed to become ever more enmeshed and mired in our human failings, but rather than recoiling therefrom, he reached out to others. He healed the sick and broken, welcomed the outcasts and unwanted, he challenged the authorities, he raised the dead, he forgave their sins, and with his word and example he gave those whom he met and touched new faith, hope, and love; things which the government of his day wanted to deny its citizens. Eventually, Jesus went way out on a limb (of a cross) and risked his life to bring God’s love and the gift of eternal life to people like us, locked down in the woeful uncertainty of our world.

In comparison, holding in-person catechism classes, socially distanced with other hygienic precautions, carries virtually no risk to life or limb. It seems almost trivial, but it is not. The word of God and its resultant Christian faith have very real, life-giving power. Since their earliest days, Christians have risked everything to gather, to teach, to learn, to sing, to pray, and to care in the same way that Jesus the Christ had embraced death so that others could embrace the promise of life which only he can give. Taking risks to share the gospel of Christ with others is thus essential and integral to being part of the body of Christ, i.e. the church. For us Lutherans, learning how Martin Luther defiantly risked his life to give us a pure proclamation of that same gospel has been figuratively and literally exemplary for the past five centuries.

All going according to plan, on Sunday, 29 November, St. Luke’s four catechism pupils will be confirmed. In so doing, they will have the opportunity to confess the faith publicly which was given to them in baptism. In so doing, they will confirm that they wish to continue to live as part of the body of Christ whose members they became in their baptism. In so doing, they will take on new responsibilities and new risks by living the miracle of faith which confesses Luther’s interpretation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed:

“I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and to all who believe in Christ. This is most certainly true.”

Lutheran Freedom

The 31st of October is Reformation Day. As I have explained more times than people may want to hear, Martin Luder changed the spelling of his surname to Luther to reflect the Greek letter theta (θ = th) in Greek words referring to being free (eleutheros). As a prelude to Reformation Sunday, I thought it appropriate to hear something from Luther himself. The following excerpt is from Luther’s commentary on Galatians 5:1. Luther writes:

“1. For freedom (eleutheria) Christ has set us free (eleutheroo); stand fast therefore.

That is: “Be firm!” Thus Peter says (1 Peter 5:8–9): “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” “Do not be smug,” he says, “but be firm. Do not lie down or sleep, but stand.” It is as though he were saying: “Vigilance and steadiness are necessary if you are to keep the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Those who are smug and sleepy are not able to keep it.” For Satan violently hates the light of the Gospel, that is, the teaching about grace, freedom, comfort, and life. Therefore as soon as he sees it arise, he immediately strives to obliterate it with all his winds and storms. For this reason Paul urges godly persons not to be drowsy and smug in their behavior but to stand bravely in the battle against Satan, lest he take away the freedom achieved for them by Christ.

“Every word is emphatic. “Stand fast,” he says, “in freedom.” In what freedom? Not in the freedom for which the Roman emperor has set us free but in the freedom for which Christ has set us free. The Roman emperor gave—indeed, was forced to give—the Roman pontiff a free city and other lands, as well as certain immunities, privileges, and concessions.1 This, too, is freedom; but it is a political freedom, according to which the Roman pontiff with all his clergy is free of all public burdens. In addition, there is the freedom of the flesh, which is chiefly prevalent in the world. Those who have this obey neither God nor the laws but do what they please. This is the freedom which the rabble pursues today; so do the fanatical spirits, who want to be free in their opinions and actions, in order that they may teach and do with impunity what they imagine to be right. This is a demonic freedom, by which the devil sets the wicked free to sin against God and men. We are not dealing with this here although it is the most widespread and is the only goal and objective of the entire world. Nor are we dealing with political freedom. No, we are dealing with another kind, which the devil hates and attacks most bitterly.

“This is the freedom with which Christ has set us free, not from some human slavery or tyrannical authority but from the eternal wrath of God. Where? In the conscience. This is where our freedom comes to a halt; it goes no further. For Christ has set us free, not for a political freedom or a freedom of the flesh but for a theological or spiritual freedom, that is, to make our conscience free and joyful, unafraid of the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7). This is the most genuine freedom; it is immeasurable. When the other kinds of freedom—political freedom and the freedom of the flesh—are compared with the greatness and the glory of this kind of freedom, they hardly amount to one little drop. For who can express what a great gift it is for someone to be able to declare for certain that God neither is nor ever will be wrathful but will forever he a gracious and merciful Father for the sake of Christ? It is surely a great and incomprehensible freedom to have this Supreme Majesty kindly disposed toward us, protecting and helping us, and finally even setting us free physically in such a way that our body, which is sown in perishability, in dishonor, and in weakness, is raised in imperishability, in honor, and in power (1 Cor. 15:42–43). Therefore the freedom by which we are free of the wrath of God forever is greater than heaven and earth and all creation.

“From this there follows the other freedom, by which we are made safe and free through Christ from the Law, from sin, death, the power of the devil, hell, etc. For just as the wrath of God cannot terrify us—since Christ has set us free from it—so the Law, sin, etc., cannot accuse and condemn us. Even though the Law denounces us and sin terrifies us, they still cannot plunge us into despair. For faith, which is the victor over the world (1 John 5:4), quickly declares: “Those things have nothing to do with me, for Christ has set me free from them.” So it is that death, which is the most powerful and horrible thing in the world, lies conquered in our conscience through this freedom of the Spirit. Therefore the greatness of Christian freedom should be carefully measured and pondered. The words “freedom from the wrath of God, from the Law, sin, death, etc.,” are easy to say; but to feel the greatness of this freedom and to apply its results to oneself in a struggle, in the agony of conscience, and in practice—this is more difficult than anyone can say.

“Therefore one’s spirit must be trained, so that when it becomes conscious of the accusation of the Law, the terrors of sin, the horror of death, and the wrath of God, it will banish these sorrowful scenes from its sight and will replace them with the freedom of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, life, and the eternal mercy of God. Although the consciousness of these opponents may be powerful, one must be sure that it will not last long. As the prophet says (Is. 54:8), “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid My face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.” But this is extremely difficult to bring about. Therefore the freedom that Christ has achieved for us is easier to talk about than it is to believe. If it could be grasped in its certainty by a firm faith, no fury or terror of the world, the Law, sin, death, the devil, etc., could be too great for it to swallow them up as quickly as the ocean swallows a spark. Once and for all this freedom of Christ certainly swallows up and abolishes a whole heap of evils—the Law, sin, death, the wrath of God, finally the serpent himself with his head (Gen. 3:15); and in their place it establishes righteousness, peace, life, etc. But blessed is the man who understands and believes this.

“Therefore let us learn to place a high value on this freedom of ours; not the emperor, not an angel from heaven, but Christ, the Son of God, through whom all things were created in heaven and earth, obtained it for us by His death, to set us free, not from some physical and temporary slavery but from the spiritual and eternal slavery of those most cruel and invincible tyrants, the Law, sin, death, the devil, etc., and to reconcile us to God the Father. Now that these enemies have been defeated and now that we have been reconciled to God through the death of His Son, it is certain that we are righteous in the sight of God and that all our actions are pleasing to Him; and if there is any sin left in us, this is not imputed to us but is forgiven for the sake of Christ. Paul is speaking very precisely when he says that we should stand in the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Therefore this freedom is granted to us, not on account of the Law or our righteousness but freely, on account of Christ. Paul testifies to this and demonstrates it at length throughout this epistle; and Christ says in John 8:36: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” He alone is thrust into the middle between us and the evils that oppress us. He conquers and abolishes them, so that they cannot harm us any longer. In fact, in place of sin and death He grants us righteousness and eternal life, and He changes slavery and the terrors of the Law into the freedom of conscience and the comfort of the Gospel, which says (Matt. 9:2): “Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven.” Therefore he who believes in Christ has this freedom.

“Reason does not see how great a matter this is; but when it is seen in the Spirit, it is enormous and infinite. No one can realize with language or thought what a great gift it is to have—instead of the Law, sin, death, and a wrathful God—the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, eternal life, and a God who is permanently gracious and kind. The papists and all self-righteous people boast that they also have the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, etc.; they also lay claim to freedom. But all these things are worthless and uncertain. In temptation they vanish instantly, because they depend on human works and satisfactions, not on the Word of God and on Christ. Therefore it is impossible for any self-righteous people to know what freedom from sin, etc., really is. By contrast, our freedom has as its foundation Christ, who is the eternal High Priest, who is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Therefore the freedom, forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and life that we have through Him are sure, firm, and eternal, provided that we believe this. If we cling firmly to Christ by faith and stand firm in the freedom with which He has made us free, we shall have those inestimable gifts. But if we become smug and drowsy, we shall lose them. It is not in vain that Paul commands us to be vigilant and to stand, because he knows that the devil is busily engaged in trying to rob us of this freedom that cost Christ so much, and to tie us up again in the yoke of slavery through his agents” (LW 27: 3-6).

What Now?

It is not uncommon as of late to hear people say, “We are living in unprecedented times,” or “These are very uncertain times.” To say the least, the times are certainly unusual. To borrow a phrase from the internet, the world has really “gone viral.” Except, instead of people referring to online cat videos or come other cute internet clip or quip, one is actually referring to humanity in living in the shadow of the so-called novel coronavirus. Nonetheless, are these really “unprecedented times” or are they perhaps just inconvenient times?

If one views the reactions to the coronavirus locally, nationally, and globally, these reactions and overreactions provide an interesting reflection of humanity. When one compares these reactions with previous epidemics and pandemics, it seems striking that humanity seems to have lost a considerable capacity to confront illness and death. On the brighter side, modern medicine has become very good at curing or at least at treating an unprecedented number of ailments. To “get better” is the expectation, not the exception.

In comparison to the miracles of modern medicine, society as a whole seems to be heading in the opposite direction. The disintegration of the family, of neighbourhoods, of common values and morals, and even of the common sense of being a nation is evident everywhere. Many call this disintegration “progress,” but it needs to be asked to what is this progressive disintegration leading? To what are we supposed to be progressing? How will we know when we have arrived?

The church throughout history has fallen into the same trap. For most of the church’s history, even into our times, the church has been dogged by the idea that we sinful human beings should and can make “progress” in or towards our salvation, in or towards our relationship with God. According to this thinking, if one just attends church enough, follows the rules enough, prays enough, reads the Bible enough, and gives enough money, one will get closer and closer to the kingdom of God, the pearly gates, etc., but how much is enough?

These hopes are all based on the notion that one can somehow get one’s sinful human “flesh” to improve. If the church can just motivate sinners to be more church-going, more rule-following, more God-fearing, more Bible-reading, and more holy all around, then in time the whole world will become a better place to be. Sadly, like the rest of society “church people” seem to be getting worse rather than better at these things. In contrast, non-churched people seem to think that the world is actually getting better by not doing these things. Maybe “church people” are getting worse at these things because they believe that non-churched people are actually right.

In light of the coronavirus, how do non-believers gauge what is saving for them? Do they even care? Some do, and some do not. For those who “care,” protecting themselves and others from the coronavirus is a moral duty. It is represented in all manner of ways, like lockdowns, face masks, hand washing, hand wringing, closing gyms, restaurants, schools, churches, etc. Not that those are bad things if necessary, but are they and when are debated? Where are the studies to support some of these measures? Scientific or not, the prevailing rationale in all this seems to predicated on the notion that it is “good” for humanity to put life on hold in order to save lives. That seems to be a contradiction in terms, one designed more to avoid litigation than actually saving lives. By the way, what does saving a mortal life actually mean?

Across the board regardless of the category or crisis, human efforts of the religious and non-religious, of believers and non-believes, of the churched and the non-churched seem hell bent on making things better, on progressing to some better point, all in the hope at some point eventually to defy death through human determination. All these efforts and all this energy and all the associated exertion and expenditure, however, seem to have overlooked the fact that at best we may or may not be delaying death in a significant way.

In relation to what can and cannot be achieved by our sinful, human efforts, God has already done what none of our efforts could ever do. When God the Father sent God the Son into our broken, sinful world to be broken by our sin and killed on a cross, God did not proclaim the merits of human progress. Instead, the cross reveals the reality of all human efforts to achieve or acquire eternal life. In other words, all such human efforts are a dead end.

Jesus’ cross and resurrection have revealed to sinful humanity that God is not interested in progress, in us getting better bit by bit. Instead, God has delved into death to conquer death itself. In the cross, God put an end to all human efforts to better their lives in pursuit of eternal life. In the resurrection, God takes dead sinners and creates them anew and thereby grants them the image of his Son. This begins now in baptism, being killed and raised already in this life. The promise of the resurrection means that regardless of what happens in this life, we do not need to put life on hold. Instead, we are called to live life here and now to the fullest, as a gift, believing that something better, something more fulfilling, something more living has already been given to us in the life, death, and resurrection of the word made flesh, of Jesus Christ.

Keep Your Clothes On!

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians:

“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (II Corinthians 5:1-5).

As is common in the Bible, Paul is speaking in metaphors. We human beings often use figurative language to communicate complicated ideas. When we do so, however, the images which we use sometimes bring along with them connotations which are not helpful.

For example, in the passage above Paul talks about having a “building from God” which then becomes a tent which then seems to become clothing. The building is “eternal in the heavens” but is a tent in which we dwell without which we would be naked! That said, neither the building nor the tent nor the tent become clothing, if worn on earth, would prevent us from being naked in an earthly sense. If you think that this is all too risque, keep your clothes and your hat on too!

In a passage like this, Paul is speaking metaphorically chiefly about baptism. As Paul says in Galatians 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Does that mean through baptism that Jesus could launch home, camping, and clothing produce lines and secure a tidy prophet?

The Bible is full of ways of trying to describe and define the seemingly improbably if not impossible with pictures. How can one adequately or even rationally talk about the idea of God becoming a human being? How does one convincingly describe the Trinity, one God in three persons? What does it really mean in baptism when we say with Scripture that we have died and are raised to newness of life when it only appears that we are just a little wetter? Furthermore, Lutherans say that no matter who appears to be performing the baptism, it is really Jesus who is doing it. How can that be?

Similarly, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Lutherans confess that the bread and the wine are actually the body and blood of Jesus. Even though the bread and wine remain bread and wine, Jesus promises to be present in the bread and wine forgiving our sins. Furthermore, regardless of who is speaking the word of institution, i.e. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when he was betrayed …,” Lutherans say that Jesus is saying those words. How can that be?

In Matthew 10:40, Jesus says, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” In other words, or perhaps better, with the words from the Word incarnate, Jesus’s words create their own reality, just like the words of God at creation. When God speaks, it is true. It happens. God’s word by nature is promise, is reality.

This concept is very difficult for us to grasp because we know that human words are so often frail, fallible, and false. To confuse matters even worse, the same mouth which can speaking fallacies one moment, might be speaking God’s truthful promises the next. So, how do we know which words to believe and which words to reject? Sadly, we don’t, but God does.

In the his explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther writes,

“I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and to all who believe in Christ. This is most certainly true.”

Look at that opening line, “I believe that … I cannot believe…” All by ourselves, our own faith is at best a faith in our faithlessness – such a contradiction in terms! Luther continues, “But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel … just as he calls … the whole Christian church on earth…”

This is part of the good news, God calling us through the gospel. It is all God’s doing, done for us by God as a gift. In spite of ourselves and our sin, God brings Jesus’ words to us sinners through us sinners to proclaim his forgiveness of sins to us sinners. The Holy Spirit takes what appear to be human words and through them creates a divine, living faith in our dead hearts through our deaf ears. How does God make this happen? As Luther explains,

“It is God’s nature to make something out of nothing; hence one who is not yet nothing, out of him God cannot make anything. Man, however, makes something else out of that which exists; but this has no value whatever. Therefore God accepts only the forsaken, cures only the sick, gives sight only to the blind, restores life only to the dead, sanctifies only the sinners, gives wisdom only to the unwise. In short, He has mercy only on those who are wretched, and gives grace only to those who are not in grace” (WA 1:183-184). To which we can only, say, “Amen!” or maybe even, “Hallelujah!” That, however, might be just a little too exuberant for us Lutherans!

Luther on Law and Gospel

[The following paragraphs are taken from Luther’s 1535 Commentary on Galatians 2:14]

“Therefore whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian. I admit that in the time of temptation I myself do not know how to do this as I should. The way to distinguish the one from the other is to locate the Gospel in heaven and the Law on earth, to call the righteousness of the Gospel heavenly and divine and the righteousness of the Law earthly and human, and to distinguish as sharply between the righteousness of the Gospel and that of the Law as God distinguishes between heaven and earth or between light and darkness or between day and night. Let the one be like the light and the day, and the other like the darkness and the night. If we could only put an even greater distance between them! Therefore if the issue is faith, heavenly righteousness, or conscience, let us leave the Law out of consideration altogether and let it remain on the earth. But if the issue is works, then let us light the lamp of works and of the righteousness of the Law in the night. So let the sun and the immense light of the Gospel and of grace shine in the day, and let the lamp of the Law shine in the night….

“In society, on the other hand, obedience to the Law must be strictly required. There let nothing be known about the Gospel, conscience, grace, the forgiveness of sins, heavenly righteousness, or Christ Himself; but let there be knowledge only of Moses, of the Law and its works. When these two topics, the Law and the Gospel, are separated this way, both will remain within their limits. The Law will remain outside heaven, that is, outside the heart and the conscience; and, on the other hand, the freedom of the Gospel will remain outside the earth, that is, outside the body and its members. And just as soon as the Law and sin come into heaven, that is, into the conscience, they should be promptly ejected. For then the conscience should know nothing about the Law and sin but should know only about Christ. On the other hand, when grace and freedom come into the earth, that is, into the body, you must say: “You have no business here among the dirt and filth of this physical life. You belong in heaven!”

“Peter had confused this distinction between the Law and the Gospel, and thus he had persuaded the believers that they had to be justified by the Gospel and the Law together. This Paul refused to tolerate. Therefore he rebuked Peter. He did not want to put him to shame, but he wanted to separate these two very sharply again, namely, that the Law justifies on earth and the Gospel in heaven. But the pope has not only confused the Law with the Gospel; but he has changed the Gospel into mere laws, and ceremonial laws at that. He has also confused secular matters and church matters, which is really a satanic and infernal confusion.

“The knowledge of this topic, the distinction between the Law and the Gospel, is necessary to the highest degree; for it contains a summary of all Christian doctrine. Therefore let everyone learn diligently how to distinguish the Law from the Gospel, not only in words but in feeling and in experience; that is, let him distinguish well between these two in his heart and in his conscience. For so far as the words are concerned, the distinction is easy. But when it comes to experience, you will find the Gospel a rare guest but the Law a constant guest in your conscience, which is habituated to the Law and the sense of sin; reason, too, supports this sense” (LW 26:116-117).

Reopening Religious Services

The State of California has decreed that in-person religious service may resume with certain conditions and continued restrictions. In general, these guidelines and key prevention practices include:

✓ physical distancing to the maximum extent possible,

✓ use of face coverings by employees and volunteers (where respiratory protection is not required) and congregants/visitors,

✓ frequent handwashing and regular cleaning and disinfection,

✓ training employees and volunteers on these and other elements of the COVID-19 prevention plan.

Most members of St. Luke’s and of society are already familiar with these general principles. Nonetheless, St. Luke’s will be developing protocols to help ensure that the church resumes regular worship and other activities in a safe manner.

The church’s concern in this matter is primarily the health and well-being of its members, visitors, and the general public. Churches should be places of healing and care, the forgiveness of sin, and the promises of new life in Christ. So, working to keep everyone safe and sound is part of the church’s ethos and reason for being.

The church is also concerned to keep everyone safe and sound because society, and particularly the media, are becoming ever more hostile to Christians. Having the church become a “hotspot” for conronavirus infections would only confirm their antagonism towards the church. It is akin to the difference between a small airplane crash and a car accident. The media loves to report airplane accidents out of proportion. In comparison, they could generally care less about car accidents, unless someone drives into an airplane.

A third aspect to reopening general church activities is the disposition of each member or visitor. Some people due to health conditions, age, or other factors may be hesitant to return to church immediately. Others would have been here “yesterday” had they been able to avail themselves of the opportunity. The church supports its members and their decisions regarding their timing for returning.

In addition to the resumption of specifically faith-related activities, the church also has a number of business matters which need the congregation’s attention. Although it seems as if the world has closed down, and in many ways it has, the church’s business side has continued and is awaiting member input. The April congregational meeting was postponed and a special congregational meeting needs to take place. These will be scheduled most likely on Sunday, 07 June, after church services. Even if you may not want to attend church on that day, attending the meetings would be important. The congregational meetings can be held in the sanctuary if necessary to allow more space for people to congregate for the meeting.

Many other, important church activities will resume in a more gradual way. In March, WSL, academy classes, Sunday School, catechism classes, Bible studies, choir and other activities went dormant. Church leaders in each of these areas will be working to resume those services and activities in a measured way. Some of those may start earlier and others latter. The church council and activity leaders will be providing as much information as soon as possible. So, be on the look out for further information regarding resumption of services and activities in the coming days and weeks.

Finally, the church council is not certain that the church will be able to hold Vacation Bible School (VBS) the week of 13-17 July as originally anticipated. First, the La Mesa Flag Day Parade has been cancelled. So, one of our main advertising events is not available to us. Also, due to the uncertainty regarding reopening, the church has not been able to plan or prepare in a timely fashion. Finally, given the present circumstances, given the high amount of interpersonal interaction involved in VBS, the church is not certain how things like “social distancing” would be managed or even feasible.

On the bright side, this “coronavirus recess” has provided opportunity to reflect, take stock, and find different ways of doing things. If you have suggestions for the future of services and activities at St. Luke’s based on your experiences in the past few months, please let church leadership know.

Meditation – Ascension Sunday 2020

In the church calendar year, today is actually the seventh Sunday of Easter. Ascension was formally (or informally) celebrated last Thursday. By the power vested in me, and as the church calendar year is a human invention, the lessons and prayers for Ascension day are being observed today at St. Luke’s.

Some liturgical purists would object to this deviation from the church calendar year. For them, it is important to do everything “by the book,” as it were. In that same mind set, one should observe the proper liturgical colours, have all the right liturgical gestures and movements, and so forth. Protestants have often labeled such adherence or “being a slave” to detail as being “too Roman Catholic” or in days gone by “too popish.” In reaction, other denominations have gone the other way by dispensing with everything liturgical for something more “free” and “spirit led,” whatever that might be. Even these churches, however, often fall into a particular order or format for their services, even if not expressly liturgical. After all, we need to put some limits on these things. Otherwise, we will miss Sunday afternoon sports or going to the beach or playing golf or having a nap or …

Doing things “by the book” is important for some people. It makes life orderly, predictable, and therefore controllable. Other folks like to be a little (or a lot) more “free flowing,” “taking it as it comes,” and so forth. People organize or disorganize their lifestyles around such matters, and that goes for church too. For some, having a set liturgy choreographed as much as possible is important, often declared necessary or even proper. Others find such worship to be too constricting or even lifeless. Today, it seems that “church camp” style worship “come home” is what people “want.” So, in an effort to get people “through the door,” Sunday worship becomes “summer camp” worship indoors. The tricky bit is deciding where to build the campfire in the sanctuary, and after it is lit, how to convince people despite all the smoke that one is not Roman Catholic burning lots of incense!

So, should we do things “by the book” or not, and if so, by which book? Luke 24:52-53 reads, “And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” At his ascension, the disciples worshiped Jesus then and there, outdoors, perhaps near the “Bethany Jewish Summer Bible Camp.” Who knows? It did not matter. What form of worship did they exercise? Scripture does not say. Did they sing, have readings, quickly build a campfire? Who knows. “They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy …” (So, who was Joy, and what made her so great?)

Then, they “were continually in the temple blessing God.” So, how might “worshiping” Jesus differ from “blessing God.” Is “worshiping” done outdoors and “blessing God” done indoors? Where is the liturgical manual when such questions arise? Without a liturgical manual, how could the disciples ever become good Lutherans? Even if one wants to do things “by the book,” by the Book, i.e. the Bible, what might that mean. So, what are we to do?

As we know from our experience and from history, worship styles are not all the same and never have been. Some people are inclined to envisage a “golden age” of worship and seek to restore it or safeguard it today. Others view anything “golden age” as being outdated and outmoded, something that will not resonate with “younger people.” These approaches are both the same in a way. They seem to worry about who is doing the worshiping rather than who is being worshiped. Luke says that the disciples “worshiped Jesus” and “blessed God.” God is always the focus of our worship, which is a response to his gifts given to us in word and sacrament.

The next time that we are able to gather as a congregation, and furthermore the next time that we can do so on “hymnal Sunday,” take some time to notice in the hymnal that the liturgy which we use is annotated with the verses of the Bible. Quite simply and yet profoundly, scripture is the source of our liturgy. Scripture creates the liturgy and gives it life. In other words, when we use the liturgy we are actually doing things “by the Book,” i.e. the Bible. Through the liturgy God teaches us with his word, and then with his own words we worship and bless him for the gift of eternal life given to us in Jesus Christ.

Meditation – Sixth Sunday of Easter

Meditation – Sixth Sunday of Easter

The author of Acts writes:

16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” … 22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ …

The Aeropagus often refers to an ancient council in Athens which met at a place called “Ares’ Hill” from the god Ares and Pagos meaning “a big piece of rock.” This council functioned as court dealing with homicide, religious matters, and other crimes. Its power was greatly diminished over time, but it still functioned to some extent under the Romans, who called it “Mars Hill.” According to the text in Acts, there was an altar to an “unknown god” or “agnosto theo” in Greek. Today, those who do not know if God exists are called “agnostics.”

The existence of God or the gods is a topic which has preoccupied humanity since prehistoric times. Simply wondering, “How did we get here?” indicates a desire to know about the origin of all things. Those who study ancient history, philosophy, anthropology, comparative religion, and the like seek answers to this same question. Even children do the same when wondering about their own birth and time before they existed. Just the idea of not having been raises the question of whence we have come, and of course, when might it all be over, and what happens then?

In the ancient world and into modern times, a god or gods were associated with peoples and cultures. These gods provided explanation for the origins of the natural and supernatural worlds, for good fortunes and misfortunes, success and failure, life and death. Since the earliest times, not much different from today actually, human beings would try to appease or pay someone or something to help insure their livelihood and well-being. In earlier days it was the gods; today it is the welfare state, insurance companies, and companies producing face masks and toilet paper.

With the rise of secularism and accompanying atheism, religions and religious scholars and leaders have tried in various ways to continue to find a place for “god” as a way to try to keep their organizations and themselves relevant. If religious leaders can just find a way to help people believe that they actually want or need a “god,” then maybe those people will come to “our church” and prevent it from dying. So, churches, particularly in western societies, do their best to make “god” relevant; that is, to make “god” attractive to non-believers. Then, “once we get them in the doors, we can give them the real Jesus!” So, which Jesus is that?

This very approach, however, is based on unbelief in the real Jesus or on belief in a pseudo-Jesus. Either way, it is the same. The question for each of us is the same as for “them.” Do we really have anything more than a “god” created in our own image? Do we have an “unknown god” or a “god only known to us,” or do we have the one true God who knows us, and if the latter, how do we know?

Martin Luther in his exceedingly insightful way, defined having a god this way in his Large Catechism, “If your faith and trust are right, then is your god also true; and, on the other hand, if your trust are false and wrong, then you do not have the true God; for these two belong together, faith and God. That now, I say, upon which you ‘hang’ your heart and entrust it is actually your god.”

With that definition, most of us have a god known only to us, and even then we probably are not quite sure how many gods we might actually have, and who or what these gods are since we put our trust in so many things, never taking the time, most of the time, to think about it at all.

In stark contrast to our predilection to creating many gods per day, most of which are a reflection of ourselves even if unknown to ourselves, the one true God revealed to us in Jesus Christ revealed himself to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Who among us would find it useful or advantageous to pick a wandering religious carpenter to be our god? Which one of us would happily align ourselves with the crucified carpenter? In our world filled with sin, evil, misfortune, disease, and death, how many people honestly believe in a resurrection from the dead, not to mention that Jesus was actually raised from the dead?

The God who knows sinners from the inside out sent his son in human form to bear our burdens and sins, to die our death, and to give us his promise of forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. To this, the world replies, “Yet, but what does he know?” He knows that “knowing” him or “knowing of” him is not enough.

God sent Jesus to us not to appeal to our intellects or to our knowledge or to our reason which neither know or believe in God. The incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection are God’s way of bypassing ourselves to reach into ourselves to save us from ourselves. Through the proclamation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God speaks to our hearts, and even our hearts cannot hear him without the work of the Holy Spirit.

So, what can we do to make Christians? The answer is, “Absolutely nothing!” except teach and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ purely and then trust God and God’s word to do it all.

Meditation – Fifth Sunday of Easter 2020

Meditation – Fifth Sunday of Easter 2020

John writes,

“1 Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3).

Jesus says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms,” and who do you think is cleaning those rooms? Just look at the universe. The fallout from creation is scattered about the universe. Everywhere one looks in space there is cosmic dust, dirt, and debris all over the place, light years in every direction as far as the eye and telescope can see.

So, if this is how God leaves the universe after a little creative activity, what would the rooms look like which Jesus is preparing for his disciples? Judging from most of the rooms of most males whom I know, of whatever age, they are not going to be the most tidy of places. In houses or apartments where males live, even places which the involve “getting clean,” like bathrooms, often become hot spots for biological experiments in bacteria, molds, and other critters. When my parents would go away on holiday, I would leave the remaining coffee from the day of their departure in the coffee pot just to see how much mold would grow before their return. Sometimes, I would forget to clean the coffee pot before they got home. Oops! They were not as enthusiastic or as amused as I was about such potential for growth.

So, who is instrumental in making sure that we are cajoled and coerced into keeping our rooms and parts of the house tidy? It is our mothers, usually.

Today is Mother’s Day in the USA. In the UK, Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday was the fourth Sunday in Lent. Thus, in our house my wife has two Mother’s Days. Some mothers are tidy, some not. Some mothers are good cooks, others not. Mothers, like everyone else, have all manner of different abilities, attributes, attitudes, and aptitudes. Some mothers are excellent, and others have their children removed from them. Most fall into the psychoanalytic category of “good enough” mothers

Whatever our mothers are or are not, none of us would be here without them. Although God the Father created the whole universe in a rather explosive, untidy fashion, God the Son was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). Through the conception of Jesus in Mary, God set all women apart and made their bearing of children a divine activity. Each birth reflects not only the miracle of creation but also the death-defying gift embodied in Jesus’ resurrection. Although we all are born “little devils,” fallen from our birth into sin and death, God sustains us, all of us, in ways which we often find completely incomprehensible, despite the forces of sin and death in and around us.

In the church, women are involved in seemingly countless and often thankless activities and tasks which either directly or indirectly help to bring about the birth and nurture of faith in each new generation. A faith needs to be continually fed, like a child, to grow and to remain healthy. The “little devil” in all of us quickly and easily gets up to all manner of mischief, and the rooms of our lives become a mess, experimental laboratories for all manner of mayhem. The gift of faith given to each new generation in a “good enough” way, is the gift of eternal life from the “word made flesh,” from the one who is “the Way and the Truth and the Life” himself (John 14:6).

So, today we thank all those “mothers” among us who give the gift of faith at St. Luke’s in so many ways. Please remember to pop around, or to send someone around, today between 10:45 – 11:15 am to collect a little gift from St. Luke’s on this Mother’s Day 2020 as an expression of our appreciation.

Meditation – Fourth Sunday in Easter 2020

Meditation – Fourth Sunday in Easter 2020

John 10 says,

“‘Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

This snippet of our gospel lesson today reflects the heart of the Christian life and of human life in general. Human beings are linguistic beings. Whereas other animals have the ability to communicate with each other, often in intricate ways, we are not aware of any other creatures which have the ability to speak and communicate with each other as humans do. Think about all the languages on the face of the earth, the variations in culture and patterns of thought which arise from different ways of conceiving and communicating the world which we experience.

In comparison to many other parts of the world, most of us Americans are locked into one language. That English today is the world’s lingua franca is a rather ironic. This fact makes us less likely to need or want to learn a different language. The closest most of us might get to learning a foreign language, in addition to ordering at the local taco shop, is taking enough foreign language in high school as a requirement for college admission. If we got suddenly dropped into that language’s country, however, might we have enough language skill to order a meal at a restaurant, or even read the meu?

Our linguistic limitations limit our thinking ability even within our use of our own language. Most of us consider ourselves “fluent” in English, but if the topic of conversation should turn to the intricacies of nuclear physics or micro-economics or macrame or …, we might find that we are literally at a loss for words. We quickly become lost in the conversation itself and are at a loss what to do about it. Furthermore, the language which one uses creates all manner of associations which take place at a less than conscious level. Impressions are created without us, ironically, giving them much thought. These impressions then guide our conscious thoughts, decisions, and activities.

In our world, we are flooded with words from non-godly and ungodly sources. Most of what we hear, read, and say has very little to do with the word of God. Of all the words which you hear or read on any given day, what percentage of them come from the Bible or are related to it? We probably do not want to think about it. (Pardon me, I just need to check my Facebook feed and wall and marketplace). Right, then, now where were we?

That’s right, God, how could I forget? “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.’ This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

Do we understand? For the past six weeks or so, the State of California and the County of San Diego have effectively said, repeatedly with the threat of legal enforcement, that your church is a dangerous place to be, a potential death chamber, not a sanctuary. Of course, those are not the exact words which are being used, but the effect is the same. By dividing society into “essential” and “non-essential” areas of life, the politicians and health officials have sought to create categories of “safety.” Unfortunately, however, the “safe” category also creates the converse category by insinuation. “Essential” areas are perceived to be “safer” while “non-essential” areas are more dangerous. Is that really true? What scientific evidence supports this notion?

On the topic of scientific evidence, if the County health officials consider themselves to be so omniscient and omnipotent in relation to the coronavirus and if wearing face masks is so helpful, then why has the County of San Diego waited until 01 May 2020 to make wearing masks mandatory? Please recall, six to eight weeks ago, wearing masks was not advocated because they were ineffective or perhaps even counterproductive. So, what will the all-knowing health officials say next?

So, if at some point, the State and the County “ease restrictions” and tell us that our church is again a safer place to be, will we believe them, or will the fears which they have instilled in us, both health and legal, hold sway? Will we continue to believe those who said six weeks ago that in eight weeks time 25.5 million Californians would have the coronavirus (instead of only 50,000 infected with 2,000 deaths), or will we place our trust more in the words of the one who has died, who was killed with all manner of misinformation, and who was raised from the dead so “that [we] may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10)? Regardless of present circumstances, that is essentially and always our daily question. Do we listen more to the mortal voices of fear and death or to the divine promises of forgiveness, life, and eternal life?

Mark Menacher PhD. Pastor

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