It is here!

The 31st of October 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On 31 October 1517, the Augustinian friar, Martin Luder, posted his 95 Theses against indulgences. What started out as an academic, theological proposal for debate became the spark of a movement that would change the course of Christianity, particularly western Christianity.

As many are aware, Brother Martin Luder changed the spelling of his name in the course of 1517-1518 to Luther, to reflect the Greek word eleutheros, meaning “free.” Luder was set free by the gospel of the justification of sinners by grace alone through faith alone, apart from works of the law. Consequently, this meant that all the works righteousness schemes of the church of Luther’s day had no use, especially those which involved paying money to effect or acquire one’s salvation. All theological issues aside, Luther endangered a significant source of the church’s income, and the pope quickly became very unhappy.

Paraphrasing a song from The Sound of Music, “How do you solve a problem like Martin?” Well, the church hierarchy tried to get Luther to recant his writings in Augsburg in 1518, but that did not work. The church tried again in Worms in 1521, but that did not work either. Luther was just too cantankerous to recant. He would rather die than give up the gift of justification by faith alone because that had become his life for eternal life, and that was the whole point of the church. For Luther, it was a contradiction in terms to recant the life and message of the church in the name of the church, but sinners fall prey to that time and again.

Since that time, the world has never been able to solve the problem of Martin. Succeeding generations of Lutherans, succeeding generations of rulers both ecclesial and secular, succeeding generations of theologians and scholars have tried to sanitize, nationalize, politicize, and monetize Luther into any shape, form, and use which people find expedient. None of these efforts have succeeded. Did Luther have rough edges? Did Luther use tough language? Did Luther offend friend and foe? The answer to these questions and others is a resounding “Yes!” Nonetheless, Luther could not be made to recant either by friend or foe because the gospel was and always is at stake, and that gospel has come to us sinners in the life, cross, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, Luther believed in Christ as his Lord and Saviour, and as St. Paul writes, if God is for us, who can be against.

So, after ten years of the so-called “Luther Decade” in Germany, after years of sanitizing and monetizing and correctly politicizing the Luther historical sites and the man himself, the crowds are reportedly much lower than anticipated in Germany and so is the income. Paradoxically, the man who objected to the church making money through indulgences is not generating enough revenue from tourists. Luther just remains a problem, especially for modern, capitalistic, “inclusive” society, and the problem of interest in Luther has been compounded by 500 years of others misappropriating Luther for their own purposes.

So, the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is here, and the excitement is muted. Sure, there are loads of books marking the occasion, and some of us have contributed thereto. Some of us have also been lucky enough to have received a genuine Luther Playmobil figurine. Some of us will indulge ourselves with an extra bratwurst or helping of potato salad on Reformation Sunday (29 October), to what end? Nowadays, scholars debate whether Luther really nailed his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, which seems to call the whole anniversary, or at least its famous symbolism, into question. More poignantly, Lutheran churches around the world in their ecumenical race to Home to Rome cannot seem to throw Luther out with the baptismal water fast enough.

The problem in all this is, however, not Luther. It is Jesus Christ. The real question is: how do you solve a problem like Jesus? Well, you malign him, betray him, arrest him, deny him, beat him, and nail him to a cross, something which scholars hardly debate. Then, when that does not work, you proclaim him raised from the dead for the forgiveness of sins, for the justification of sinners, granted to them alone through faith apart from works of the law because that is how God has solved and solves the problem of human sin in problem sinners like you and me.


A Little Excursion to Wittenberg

As many are aware, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 Theses against Indulgences. That set in motion a chain of events that led to the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, particularly human rules created by the institutional church. Luther and his colleagues changed the course of history in ways which have benefitted the world to this day.

Luther’s break with the theologically dubious traditions of the papal church were fueled by his reading of the Bible. Instead of bringing human reason to interpret scripture, Luther brought scripture to interpret fallen, sinful humanity. This approach always strikes the world both as other worldly and as unworldly. Sadly, later Lutherans quickly “corrected” the situation by turning and returning the Reformation into a revised form of ossified church where reason took precedence over scripture. Today, western societies have jettisoned scripture for what they believe are rational, human principles rising above the supposedly superstitions and fractious nature of the Christian religion.

A quick glance at the world around us, however, shows that those who consider themselves so very enlightened are still in the dark with respect to the human condition which theologians call sin. Secular humanists think that they can resolve humanity’s ills with the right (or the left) policies or politics or protections or … All those endeavours, however, still amount to works of the law, works righteousness, which may temporarily restrain human sin but which are unable to resist or resolve the inbred death dealing power of sin. Perhaps more ironically and confusedly, secular humanists believe that if they get rid of God they will simultaneously get rid of human sin. Why, then, is the world beset like never before with the telltale signs of human of human sin, such as despair, denigration, and destruction? Getting rid of God does not seem to be working, but the secular humanists keep working at it, unsuccessfully, but with a great sense of self-rigteousness nonetheless.

During the last week in July, I attended the 13th International Luther Congress for Luther Research in Wittenberg, Germany. Academics and scholars from around the world gathered to present papers and engage in lively exchange of ideas and insights brought to the fore through studying the works of the great reformer. Luther taught at the University of Wittenberg. His theology permeated the known world, and likewise, people from all over the known world came to Wittenberg to learn from Luther (at least by learning about Luther). The Luther Congress demonstrated that “learning from Luther” is definitely still alive today, but is it well?

An undercurrent at the Luther Congress was felt through the differences among the Luther academics and scholars present. These differences have existed since Luther’s death when the Lutherans sought either to improve on Luther through their own agenda or sought to repristinate Luther as he originally was. These differences always raise the question what it means to be a Lutheran, which in its own way is the question of what it means to be a Christian.

When Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V and was asked to recant this writings, he replied, “Since then your sere Majesty and your Lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen” (LW 332:112-113).

Are we Lutherans still bound by and to scripture and thus freed by the gospel to be justified by faith alone, or do we seek instead to bind scripture in the same way that we are bound to sin and seek our own righteousness through our own works?


What Do You Think?

Facing changes in life’s circumstances is often fraught with anxiety and stress. The uncertainty and apprehension of the unforeseen and unexpected often create much anxiety and stress. Often people try to mitigate that uncertainty and subsequent stress by seeking to be organized and plan ahead. If one has well laid plans, one can rest more assured that things will go “according to plan,” but when they do not, anxiety and stress can be overwhelming. Surprisingly, making and maintaining such plans can also be a source of stress.

One’s perception of the severity of things “going wrong” often colours one’s reaction to such circumstances. Some may find getting bitten by a rattle snake, if treated promptly and properly, not all that traumatic. Others consider the occasional spider in the bath tub a cause for great panic. From their tiny perspective, spiders are generally not thrilled being stuck in the bath, particularly when the water starts to run (or so spiders claim in chat rooms on the web).

Life is full of the unexpected. That any of us is here at all “as us” given the random nature of human fertilization is itself a testimony to the unexpected, and despite that randomness (or perhaps because of it) we human beings spend much of our lives seeking to control our own destiny, whatever that may or may not mean.

That, however, is an indication of the nature of the human condition. The general anxiety and stress regarding human existence is a symptom of our innate lack of faith, otherwise known as sin. Compare this state of affairs to what Luther in the Small Catechism says about the first article of the Apostles’ Creed:

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”

What does this mean?

“Answer: I believe that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given me and still sustains my body and soul, all my limbs and senses, my reason and all the faculties of my mind, together with food and clothing, house and home, family and property; that he provides me daily and abundantly with all the necessities of life, protects me from all danger, and preserves me from all evil. All this he does out of his pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on my part. For all of this I am bound to thank, praise, serve, and obey him. This is most certainly true.”

Is this “most certainly true”? We sinners have our doubts. How do we know that God will do those things? What happens if God does not do them or does not do them according to our standards and desires? If God does such things, why do “Bad Things Happen to Good People” as Rabbi Harold Kushner entitled his famous book decades ago?

Our doubts are our sin. That sin means that there are no good people. Consequently, those doubts create and foster fear in us which we try to overcome through so many human efforts and endeavours to safeguard our existence. Except, even our best efforts fall short. To complicate and compound matters, we spend so much time fretting about what God the Father has or has not given us in creation that we sinners overlook the fact that he has given us something which surpasses all our bodily needs. As scripture states, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

God has not only given us his son, but he gave us his son to take our sin away and to give us sinners his son’s righteousness as a free gift, through faith alone, for and as our salvation. Such faith is the gift of eternal life. If God will give the life of his son on the cross to give us the gift of eternal life, then just perhaps God can and will take care of the mundane needs in our daily life. What do you think? More importantly, what do you believe?


Jesus Said,

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:14).

A crisis in the Christian faith in western societies has long been developing. The slow nature of the crisis has obscured its breadth and depth, like the old adage of boiling a frog by slowly turning up the heat. What once seemed like the warm tides of advancement has become the denaturing of the Christian faith in our world. Even among those who attend church fairly regularly, basic knowledge of basic tenets of the Christian faith is incredibly low.

The causes for this are many and complex, perhaps too many and too complex to analyze with any degree of clarity. Even if one were able to do so, addressing the situation seems correspondingly overwhelming. Churches of all denominations and of no denomination seem to have tried every programme, trend, and fad to … to do what? No one seems quite sure.

Too frequently, churches engage in programmes to reform or to renew or to revive or to rescue the church. While some hope “to make America great again,” others seek “to make the church great again.” They hearken back to a time when … when what? Well, when the church was great, of course! When was that?

In this 500th year of the Reformation of the church, people are tempted to gaze back to the feats of the great Reformer, Martin Luther, as a time when the church was great. Luther aside, reformers and renewers of all description in so many periods of time have sought instead to idealize the early church, perhaps the church as found in the Acts of the Apostles or in the first five centuries when Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire. Following on from that, many look to the pope, his hierarchy, and his church’s numerical superiority as the arguably undisputed example of the greatness of the church.

Luther takes a different approach, “There is no greater detriment to Christendom than to neglect children. If one wants to help Christendom again, then truthfully one must start with the children, as happened in olden times” (WA 24:592, 14-16).

Broadly speaking, hindering children coming to Jesus entails much more than some of his disciples getting in the way long ago. It happens today, everyday, but particularly on Sunday. Those nowadays who primarily hinder children coming to Jesus are parents or guardians who intentionally refuse or neglectfully fail to bring their children to church and to provide for their children’s instruction in the Christian faith. Sadly, this is particularly acute when the parents of baptized children do not fulfil the promises made at their children’s baptisms. Likewise, pastors and congregational members are also fall short in helping parents fulfil their promises, especially in our “non-interference” world.

From Luther’s perspective, most of that with which churches concern themselves “to reform or to renew or to revive or to rescue the church” are not primarily oriented toward children. Consequently, even many of those things which may seem to make a congregation “great” may in the long term actually be detrimental. What might Luther mean when he states that “one must start with the children”? The quotation does not give an explicit answer, and it does not matter. More importantly, what might it look like if St. Luke’s started with the children? Perhaps, we should give it a go and see what happens.


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.



Mark Menacher PhD. Pastor

Copyright © 1996-2019 Pastor Mark's Blog. All rights reserved.
Jarrah theme by Templates Next | Powered by WordPress