Archive for February, 2023

Create in Me

The Lenten liturgical season is quickly upon us. Ash Wednesday takes place on 22 February. Lent is considered a penitential part of the church calendar year and is thus signified with purple paraments (which are not to be confused with a pair of mints).

Psalm 51 is one of the seven penitential psalms (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). Penitential psalms, or portions thereof, express and confess our sinful condition and ask God for saving grace. Lutherans regularly use a portion of Psalm 51 in their liturgy, namely

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Ps. 51:10-12).

Little known is that those failing to recite these psalms on a regular basis run the risk of ending up in a penitentiary. So, start reciting. Most people do not want to be behind bars, except, of course, bartenders.

Whereas that might be a bit of an exaggeration, in the history of the Roman Church if one committed a sin, one faced two problems. First, one has sinned and now requires forgiveness which is obtained through the Sacrament of Confession and Absolution. Second, one needs to compensate for the damage caused by such sin, which takes place through penance. For example, if you steal Billy’s football, in addition to confession and absolution, you would need to make up for the misdeed, either by returning Billy’s football or buying him a new football or, instead of those, perhaps saying ten “Hail Marys.” The last penalty does little to help Billy, but it is particularly fitting in football.

In the Roman Church, if one should die after confession/absolution but before having fulfilled one’s penitential obligations, one gets a free trip to purgatory. The word “purgatory” comes from “purge.” So, in purgatory one is purged through torment, usually by fire of some sort, and when one if purified, one finally pops into heaven. This process is, unfortunately, painfully slow because those in purgatory cannot quicken the process. Fortunately, the pope, being the gracious chap that he is, can grant indulgences to shorten or remove time in purgatory, particularly when the living do something to benefit the powerless dead populating purgatory.

These indulgences are issued by the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary. The pope’s second most recent indulgence, “Decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary on Plenary Indulgences for the Deceased Faithful,” was promulgated on 27 October 2021. That decree renewed the indulgence issued on 22 October 2020 which was issued in light of COVID 19. Here are the opening paragraphs of 2020 indulgence:

“This Apostolic Penitentiary has received many petitions from holy Pastors who have asked that this year, due to the “Covid-19” epidemic, pious works to obtain the Plenary Indulgences applicable to souls in Purgatory, be commuted in accordance with the Manual of Indulgences (conc. 29, § 1). For this reason, the Apostolic Penitentiary, on special mandate of His Holiness Pope Francis, willingly establishes and decides that this year, in order to avoid gatherings where they may be forbidden:

a. — the Plenary [full] Indulgence for those who visit a cemetery and pray for the deceased, even if only mentally, normally established only for the individual days from 1 to 8 November, may be transferred to other days of the same month, until its end. These days, freely chosen by the individual faithful, may also be separate from each other; …” *

Isn’t that good news! Have you ever lain in bed on Sunday morning thinking that you should go to church but might skip it anyway? Well, in the Roman Church you can lie in bed and pray for the dead in a virtual cemetery, and presto, you have sprung someone from purgatory! What could be better, sleep in on Sunday and save a soul? If, however, you are not one of the faithful, i.e. not a Roman Catholic, or if do not believe in purgatory or both, you are condemned and do not have a prayer.

Lutherans did not originally include a portion of Psalm 51 in the liturgy merely for penitential purposes. Rather, the Reformers believed that the Roman doctrines of penance, purgatory, and indulgences negated the work and person of Jesus Christ. If one can lie in bed and pray for the dead to help them pop out of purgatory, then Christ and his cross were null and void. In the Reformers’ eyes, the Roman Church could conjure up this and other false doctrines because God had withdrawn his Holy Spirit from the papcy. For the Reformers, the verse, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me,” was an earnest plea from the whole church to God to protect the truly faithful from the fate of becoming faithless.

Sadly, if one views the Lutheran world today, it would appear that whole swaths of Lutherans have succumbed to the same fate as the papcy. Some so-called Lutherans are even willing to overlook things like purgatory and indulgences to find ecumenical favor with the pope. Such thinking is equally a denial of the person and work of Jesus Christ in whom the church already has its true unity. When one adds thereto countless “Lutherans” placing trendy, political ideologies over and above the principles of scripture, it would appear that what was once a reformation of the church has become yet another deformation of it.

We at St. Luke’s are not immune from the society in which we live. Instead of giving up something this Lenten season, perhaps we might like to add something by daily praying Psalm 51:10-12 as our earnest plea to God to protect us from being imprisoned by false gospels and their resultant faithlessness to which even we penitential sinners so easily succumb.


I Had an Epiphany!

It was on the Sixth of January. If it was not apparent, you had one too, which is not to be confused with one two, but who’s counting?!

The term “epiphany” comes from the Greek word epiphaino, which is not to be confused with “heck if I know,” although they sound similar. Epiphaino means “to show” or “to appear” or “to make an appearance.” For western Christians, Epiphany is the festival day observing the arrival of the three Magi (wisemen or kings) to see the child Jesus after they had followed the star in the night sky. In this tradition, Epiphany means that Jesus is revealed to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.

In the liturgical year, Epiphany also marks the end of the Christmas season, i.e. Epiphany comes on the 13th day after Christmas, after your true love has showered you with numerous gifts for the preceding twelve days. If your true love did not shower you with gifts on the twelve days of Christmas, that is a topic for another newsletter.

In German tradition, it was and is common to put one’s Christmas tree up only for the twelve days of Christmas. So, the tree went or goes up on Christmas Eve. Singing Christmas carols around the tree or playing instruments might also be done. Germans did and some still do use real candles instead of electric lights to illuminate the tree. So, when the candles were lit, it was common for a bucket of water to be close at hand. Things could get very precarious if the tree not only went up but went up in flames on Christmas Eve, and someone simultaneously kicked the bucket. To avoid such mishaps, in our house we use electric candles on the tree, which is erected on Christmas Eve and taken down on Epiphany.

From Scripture, we do not know why the Magi believed that the star which they were following would lead them to the one “born king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:2). As Matthew states in that chapter, the Jews already had a king, namely Herod. Maybe like Joseph, the Magi were informed about the star’s significance by an angel in a dream. Apart from the star, however, Scripture leaves us in the dark on this matter.

Nonetheless, the Magi arrive. They know whom they are seeking. They ask directions to find him. They have their baby gifts in hand, and off they go to Bethlehem. “And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Mt. 2:11). Scripture does tell us that the Magi were indeed warned in a dream to depart without making Herod any the wiser. So, some of their journey was a dream vacation.

Matthew’s gospel begins with this story, Gentiles coming to worship the newly born king of the Jews. Matthew’s gospel closes with Jesus, the newly resurrected king, sending his disciples to teach all Gentiles and to baptize all those who come to faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19). In the intervening chapters, Matthew gradually moves his audience into a position to leave their Jewish-centric world view behind in order to reveal the gospel of Jesus Christ to the predominately Gentile world filled with pagan gods and beliefs.

It seems a daunting task for the early church to receive, and it was. It took centuries for Christianity to become a world phenomenon. From our perspective as western Christians, it seems as if we are again immersed in a world full of pagan gods and beliefs, even if those who hold to such do not consider themselves to be “religious.” Today, western society finds itself in this position, sadly, because it has foregone its teaching responsibility both in the home and in church.

For a generation or two or three, the church has failed to catechize its future generations with a goal to teach and preach the word of God as a matter of life and death, a reality reflected in Jesus’ own crucifixion and resurrection. It its humble way, St. Luke’s seeks to address this problem. This winter St. Luke’s Theological Academy (SLTA) is offering three courses, ten weeks each. The modules are: 1) Worship: What, How, and Why (17 January 7:00-8:30 pm), 2) Introduction to the New Testament (19 January 7:00-8:30 pm), and 3) Foundations of the Christian Faith (22 January 4:00-5:30 pm). The course fee for the first two modules is $25.00, and the third is free. You can register online on St. Luke’s website or with the church office.

It’s Christmas!

The Advent season is upon us. The tree is up in the church. The lights will shine in the darkness, reminding us that,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).

Throughout history, God has acted through his word. God’s word is by nature act and action. The First Book of Moses recounts, “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:3-4).

The darkness of the void before creation was a darkness which none of us can imagine because the darkness was not just a matter of lack of light. It was a matter of no matter at all, nothing, i.e. no-thing yet existed, not even the “matterlessness” of light itself. God, however, was there, and God made “there” come into being and did so through his word.

For many in our day and age, the material world is all that there is, all that exists. Some very intelligent people spend a lot of time and effort seeking to debunk the notion of God and of creation as his action. They invent numerous theories about how the “big bang” could have happened without a god or the God. It is a lofty task to deny the existence of God, one to which seemingly more and more people are called. We see it everywhere in the world around us, and we also see it in ourselves.

In the midst of God’s pristine creation, he created Adam and Eve, and although there is no biblical evidence that God created Eve towards the end of the day, together our first parents brought the darkness of sin into God’s glorious creation. Consequently, despite the earth basking in the light of the sun, each one of us is born into a darkness which prevents us from truly seeing God in all that there is. Whereas Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, the rest of us have been born in sin. So, we seek to fill that darkness with the so-called light of human reason. When one considers the multitude of highly advanced, technical, and intricate ways in which we can kill other human beings, reason’s bright ideas paradoxically and tragically contribute to the darkness of our fallen world.

In the dark of night shepherds were watching their flocks. Then, an angel appeared, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’”

Wrapped in swaddling cloths, concealing his glory, the shepherds found the Christ child, the word of God made flesh, the light of the world in the shadows of a cow shed. For the next three decades, Christ’s glory would continue to be concealed. He would join his father in the family trade until the day when he would trade his carpentry skills for a path which would lead to his cross. There, he would give himself for you and for me.

The Advent season is upon us. The tree is up in the church. The lights will shine in the darkness for you and for me. Let us proclaim “the good news of great joy for all the people” and let them know, “It’s Christmas!”

Reformation Celebration 2022

Five years have elapsed since the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. Five years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the 13th International Luther (Research) Congress which was held that year in Wittenberg, Germany to mark the anniversary year. Luther scholars from around the world were in attendance. The last time that I had been in Wittenberg before that was in the summer of 1987 with Janet prior to marriage and prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. By 2017, Wittenberg had been considerably renovated since its days in communist East Germany. Time changes much, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

This year I was able to attend the 14th International Luther Congress, and I did so because it was in Thousand Oaks, CA, which is not quite as historic as Wittenberg. I harbored reservations about attending as most of the speakers were unknown to me, and of those who were, I held doubts about their scholarly intentions. In other words, like in the rest of the world, secularized ideologies with roots in Marxist/communist thought are on the march in new guises. As Wittenberg was once held in a quasi state of neglect in communist East Germany, Luther scholarship is being drawn into a quasi intentional state of communist ideologies in pseudo-theological garb. Whereas many good scholars were in attendance, a shift away from good scholarship was evident. Times change, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

Five years ago, St. Luke’s and other area Lutheran churches joined forces to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with serious scholarship, sacred song, and festive food. Pastors teaching at St. Luke’s Theological Academy offered short, theological presentations, each of which was followed by a hymn. Then, the pastor panel took questions from the audience in “stump the chump” fashion which was edifying and entertaining for all. Finally, the eating festivities began. Since that time, some of our teaching pastors have taken other calls or retired. Some of our congregations’ members are also no longer with us for various reasons. Combined with the attrition caused by COVID and its various restrictions and lock downs, would it be a good idea in these changed times to gather churches together to celebrate the Reformation? Yes, of course it would!

Every Reformation Sunday is a good time to celebrate the Reformation, but despite the changed circumstances, it is particularly important for us to celebrate the Reformation this year to give thanks to God for all the blessing which we have received from all of those who helped us to become Lutheran, to be Lutheran, and to remain Lutheran. As II Timothy 4:3-4 states, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” If that was the concern in the earliest days of the church, how much more so is that temptation alive and well today.

Because attention to faithful teaching seems to be so tenuous, faithful Lutherans can begin to feel a bit isolated and alone. So, the opportunity to gather with fellow Lutherans and to be edified by faithful Lutheran pastors is a cause for celebration, not just to remember the Reformation but to continue to be equipped to serve the truth of the gospel and gospel-congruent truths in our own day and age.

So, on Sunday, 30 October, St. Luke’s is planning to hold its first post-COVID Reformation celebration. The format for the festivities will be similar to that outlined above. We will start with short presentations by the pastors, have a Q&A time with the pastors, sign a some hymns and then close with Oktoberfest fare. So, please mark your calendars, plan to attend, and invite some friends.

The Gift of Faith

Lutherans assert that the chief doctrine of the church is justification by faith alone, the doctrine by which the church stands for falls. That is a very bold statement. Not only does that make this doctrine the determinative factor in theology, but it also defines the understanding of the church. This may seem a logical conclusion, but viewed from a different perspective, it also raises the question whether those churches, which do not hold this position, are truly churches. That is both an intriguing and unsettling thought.

Complicating this matter is the fact that the notion of “justification by faith alone” does not have a great deal of warmth or human touch or “warm fuzzies” or the like. If one says, “God loves you,” that seems much warmer, much more interpersonal. Importantly, however, these two expressions point to one and the same dynamic.

The doctrine of “justification by faith alone” is driven by “grace alone.” If one reads the Bible even in only a cursory fashion, one sees lots of law and legal arrangements. This commandment and that commandment or this rule and that rule pervade the Bible, especially the Old Testament. According to the Old Testament, those who follow God’s laws are blessed for many generations, and those who do not suffer the consequences usually only for “three or four” generations. This limited detriment is itself a form of grace in that God does not drive sinners into the ground for all time.

Within the legal framework of the Bible, the notions of being righteous, of righteousness, of justice and of justification are at home. Those who follow God’s laws are righteous, and those who do not ere not. Biblically, God is a righteous God, even if sinful human beings do not always perceive God as such, as if sinners could truly understand God’s true nature. So, when the righteous God judges, he can declare those judged to be innocent or guilty and thus righteous or unrighteous. When God forgives, that does not diminish the guilt. Instead, it means that despite being guilty, the sinner is forgiven because of God’s favor or grace.

Viewed this way, both God’s love and God’s grace are one and the same. Interpersonally, the relationship between God and human beings results from God’s love. Biblically-legally, the relationship between God and human beings is based on God’s grace. To clarify this, if one appears in a secular court for a parking ticket, the judge would not forgive the ticket out of love, but may do so out of grace or favor. The language that we use is contextual, even if is describes a similar or the same dynamic.

On the face of it, like other denominations, we Lutheran’s are tempted to think that stressing God’s love is more attractive than talking about justification by grace alone through faith alone, and it some ways it is. So, why do Lutherans stress the latter? Whether we do so in relation to God’s laws, society’s laws, or our own personal standards, we human beings tend to judge our lives and the lives of others by the deeds done, by the words said, and by the thoughts thought. Where those are “good,” one is often rewarded, and when they are “bad,” one is often punished, whatever that may mean in any given circumstance.

In relation to God, however, the situation is more complicated. Even though God does love us, God also expects us to be not simply sinless (as a negative) but righteous (as a positive) in all aspects of our lives all of the time. For us to be in relationship with the one, true, righteous God, we too need to be true and righteous. As we all know, this is an impossible order for fallen human beings. This impossibility is reflected in the idea that if we love God, we will obey his commandments. Sadly, we do not keep his commandments, and when we do, we think that we have gained, or worse, have accumulated some sort of righteousness. Such “righteousness” is in reality mere self-righteousness, which is just another expression of our sin. So, our doing “good” in our own eyes is all too often also our undoing.

The doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, however, is rooted in the communication of the good news from and about the crucified and risen Christ who in God’s love died for our sins on the cross and was raised for our righteousness (see Romans 4:25). As a negative, God in Christ takes our sin from us onto himself, and as a positive, he gives us in exchange his own righteousness so that we can be in relationship with the one, true, righteous God. This all happens when Christ’s word and Christ’s sacraments create the gift of faith in us alone by which we receive his righteousness or just judgement.

The doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is both a description and a doctrine of the reality of God’s love for us in the legal framework of the Bible. Where this doctrine is not preached and taught, neither is this Christ preached and taught. Where this Christ is not preached and taught, there cannot be a Christian church because this Christ is for all intents and purposes absent! Pray continually that this Christ will be preached and taught at St. Luke’s. If he is not, then as a church you should neither stand for it nor fall for something else.

Mark Menacher PhD. Pastor

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