Easter Fool’s Day

That Easter Sunday this year falls on April Fool’s day will probably create considerable amusement to non-believers, but that is nothing new. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians:

“18 For the word of the cross is foolishness (moria in Greek) to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish (moraino) the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness (moria) of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness (moria) to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness (moros) of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Corinthians 1:18-25).

The cross and resurrection have proven to be a great source of confusion to Christians and unbelievers alike. Despite Jesus having foretold his impending death and resurrection, his disciples did not grasp what he was saying. How could one who proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God and who worked so many miracles as signs thereof die like that? It seemed impossible, but as Scripture says, his own disciples helped make it happen through betrayal, denial, and abandonment of Jesus. Judas thought that Jesus needed to be saved from himself, and when Judas started to make that happen, Jesus’ disciples only wanted to save themselves instead. From their fearful perspective, even Jesus’s arrest seemed unlikely to end in crucifixion.

Christians spend considerable amounts of time and effort trying to explain Jesus. How was he incarnated? Why was he crucified? What is the resurrection? How could he be truly God and truly human? What is the Trinity, and how does Jesus fit into that idea?

Scripture gives us some answers, and sometimes it does not. Theologians, mistakenly, often look for answers through philosophical methods and concepts, hoping that somehow the pagan wisdom of sinful unbelievers will come to their aid. For Jesus’ fellow Jews, the cross could have been no more a sign from God and of God’s kingdom than the desecration of their temple by pagan rulers to be used for their gods. That Paul could describe the cross as communicating something other than total failure is, from a worldly perspective, pure nonsense, if not plain old crazy talk.

So, why would Paul talk such crazy, foolish nonsense? To add indignation to insanity, Paul was encountered by the risen Christ himself to become one of Jesus’ proponents. While hunting down Christians for violating Paul’s faith and spreading heresy, Jesus presented himself to Paul, and from that point onwards, Paul’s life was irrevocably changed. The word of God incarnated, crucified, and resurrected does that to people. Why that happens, however, is as much a mystery as that it happens. Despite that, we do know that God makes it happen as the Holy Spirit uses that word in Christ to invoke and to evoke faith in those who hear it.

We have been given that word in Scripture and also wherever that word is purely proclaimed in law and gospel. It is the source of our faith, our life, and our eternal life. It raises us up daily to live in that word and to share it with others no matter how foolish or weak non-believers think that word is. Like Paul, Jesus has encountered us with that word in preaching, teaching, baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper. Thereby and therein Jesus is really present giving himself to us in both his cross and his resurrection so that we may be part of his eternal life already in this life, called to use our time and resources to present Jesus’ word as a pure gift for the salvation of the world. So, let’s have some fun on Easter Sunday confounding the unbelieving world with the power of God’s word in the hope that some will believe.

What Now?

What to do when things seem like they are falling apart? In our human world of human sin, we encounter no shortage of difficulties. In times of overwhelming adversity, we often recall the verse, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (I Corinthians 10:13 – ESV).

This is a complicated verse when applied to the complications of life. We often do not think of adversity as temptation. The Greek verb peirazo means “to test,” “to be put to the test,” or “to tempt.” So, this is not so much being tempted to do something contrary to God’s will but to be confronted with situations which test our faith. Sometimes those tests are mundane, and other times they seem to call our whole understanding of life into question. We Christians know, however, that as the verse says, we are not subject to anything that other human beings are not. We face illness, family difficulties, financial trials, and eventually death, for our loved ones and for ourselves.

Congregations also find themselves put to the test. Many face dwindling membership, financial difficulties, a loss of purpose and mission, internal strife, and at times death. Like individuals, these are trials to which other organizations are also subject. Nowadays in society, there is no shortage of organizations, particularly volunteer, which are confronted and confounded by these dynamics.

The disjointed nature of so many families provides barren ground compared to a life raised in a supportive, caring environment. These experiences leave many disillusioned about being able to find such in larger groupings of people, under the adage “once bitten, twice shy.” On the other hand, if one plucks up the courage to join, say, a church, the sense of loss of control in smaller groupings can then be played out in larger groupings which can lead to tensions and discord which only seem to reinforce negative experiences already gathered earlier, elsewhere in life.

In these situations, for Christians though, this verse offers great promise. In the faith and in congregations of faith, there is the promise that “God is faithful.” This is not just an illusionary statement but the reality of a God who has come to us in human form, who experienced our trials, and who died on a cross. God proved his faithfulness to Jesus and to sinful humanity in Christ’s resurrection. Even though Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” God raised him from the dead. That faithfulness and that resurrection were the way not of escape but of deep identification and love for each and every human being lost in the battles of sin and death.

When we are baptized, God seals our lives in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God assures us by his life-giving promise that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. We are thereby not shielded from life’s adversity. We are not thereby not afflicted by sinful, human reality. We are promised that everything transient in life has nothing to offer in comparison to God’s gracious will for our salvation.

That assurance comes to us only in God’s word, the word made flesh and the word of God in scripture. This word as God’s gift is the very presence of God’s healing, forgiving, life-giving love in our broken humanity. As part of the body of Christ, we are called in baptism with the help of Christian education to speak that word to each other, especially when presented with all those experiences which seem completely devoid of God. In creation, God said, “Let there be light,” and in the resurrection, God said, “Let there be love.” The light of that love is the word of God, and the darkness of our world of human sin shall never overcome it (John 1:5).

New Year! New Life?

St Paul writes to the Romans:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:1-4).

In Christianity, there has always been a tension between the spirit and the flesh, the new man and the old man, the life in Christ and the life in the world. Things would be simpler if that tension did not exist in each of us and if we could somehow gain the upper hand. When western society generally followed basic biblical morals, things seemed easier in that corresponding societal and legal restraints and consequences helped sinners from straying too much. That is the right and proper function of the first use of the law.

That outward guidance and at times coercion, however, masked the sinner lurking in all human beings who was sinning in thought, even if not so much in word and deed, as we regularly confess. If one was fortunate, one also had enough familiarity with the Bible to have been given a healthy conscience instilled by its teachings. This biblical foundation could help with knowing which thoughts were leading one astray.

St. Paul was not, however, talking to people in a Christianized society. May of Jewish background had familiarity with the scriptures, but Bibles were not readily available for everyone to read. Those converted from paganism had little or no understanding of biblically based morality. Additionally, neither group had any knowledge of the new life in Christ because it was new!

Two thousand years later, biblical ethics and morality are very much on the wane in western societies, and the hostility to such seems to increase daily. What was once good, is now bad, and vice verse to the point that being versed in vice is apparently virtuous. Fascinating and tragic at the same time, many Christians who view Jesus as being counter-cultural have turned against basic biblical values in order to be part of paganism’s attempts to counter Christianized cultural values.

These dynamics often interact in a legalistic way, and the courts are increasingly occupied by those who wish to take legal action against biblically minded Christians. As important as legal rights and battles may be, none of that has much to do with the new life which only Christ and his gospel can bring. If the law could do the trick, then just about any society or religion or mixture of the two would have a good chance of making sinful human beings good. History, however, shows no examples of that having happened, and even the people of the Old Testament failed miserably time and again. The law cannot cure, but it can and does kill.

So, the only possibility of true life comes from the new life in Christ because only he has been raised from the dead and thus only he has conquered sin, the law, and death. This new life only comes from the pure proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that gospel says that there is nothing that we can do either to effect our salvation or to improve ourselves. Instead, preventing ourselves from sinning is about the best that we can do, but even that does nothing for our salvation.

This leaves human beings often feeling very dissatisfied. Restraining sinfulness does nothing for salvation, but not restraining sin, i.e. acting upon it, can undermine one’s salvation. That hardly seems an equal playing field. In a sense, one “is damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” If it were any other way, then humanity would not need a saviour but merely a helper.

So, which kind of death would we prefer, death according to sin, the law, and the flesh, or death to sin, the law, and the flesh as granted through the new life in accordance with the gospel and baptism of Christ? The choice is not ours to make. Instead, it is God’s alone who has already made it in Christ. If that notion grates, then the sinner in you is alive but sadly very unwell. Who will save us from these bodies of death? None other than the one who died and was raised to save us from our inability to save us from ourselves. That does not happen with a new year, but instead it happens daily by virtue of baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.

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All Saints, All Souls, Alright Already

“For whom the bell tolls” is not just the title of one of Ernest Hemingway’s books, which he borrowed from a line in one of John Donne’s meditations, but it is a practice at St. Luke’s on All Saints Sunday as the nearest Sunday to 01 November, which is All Saints Day. On that Sunday, the names of persons deceased in the previous year related to the congregation are read, and at each name a bell is sounded. This type of ceremony has crept into Protestant churches because All Saints Day is observed in many liturgical calendars, even though Protestants no longer observe All Saints Day in the Roman Church’s way.

In the early church, it became common place to pray for the dead, to give alms to the church on behalf of the poor to assist the dead, and to say masses for the dead for their salvation. In other words, the church quickly became interested in helping God look favorably on Christians after death, despite God having raised Jesus from the dead once for all for all humanity. Sadly, this practice meant that early on the church had already deviated from the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This practice, and so many others, like a cancer eventually took its toll on the life and vitality of the church to the point of near spiritual death.

So, what is the history of this apparent problem. “All Saints’ Day was formally started by Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs on May 13 in 609 AD. Boniface IV also established All Souls’ Day, which follows All Saints. The choice of the day may have been intended to co-opt the pagan holiday ‘Feast of the Lamures,’ a day which pagans used to placate the restless spirits of the dead. The holy day was eventually established on November 1 by Pope Gregory III in the mid-eighth century as a day dedicated to the saints and their relics. The May 13 celebration was subsequently abandoned. In Ireland, the Church celebrated All Saints’ Day on April 20, to avoid associating the day with the traditional harvest festivals and pagan feasts associated with Samhain, celebrated at the same time. Following the establishment of the Frankish Empire, and following the reign of Charlemagne, the holy day, which was already celebrated on November 1, became a holy day of obligation by decree of Pope Gregory IV and Louis the Pious, who was king over a portion of Charlemagne’s former empire. [Roman Catholics must attend mass on a day of obligation.] Following the Protestant Reformation, many Protestants retained the holy day, although they dismissed the need to pray for the dead.”*

In the Roman church, if the First of November commemorates the dead saints, then the Second of November concentrates on the non-saintly dead. “According to tradition, a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land took refuse on a rocky island during a storm. There he met a hermit, who told him that among the cliffs was an opening to the infernal regions through which flames ascended, and where the groans of the tormented were distinctly audible. The pilgrim told Odilo, Abbot of Cluny, who appointed the following day (2 November 998) to be set apart for ‘all the dead who have existed from the beginning of the world to the end of time.’ The day purposely follows All Saints’ Day in order to shift the focus from those in heaven to those in purgatory.”**  [So, who really established All Souls Day, Boniface IV, Gregory III, or Odilo, the Abbot of Cluny?]

Both All Saints and All Souls days, however, have no biblical foundation. First, as the New Testament makes clear, all those who believe, i.e. those Christians who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are considered to be not only priests but are also declared by God to be “holy” or “saints.” The gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from works of the law done either by ourselves or by others on our behalf, makes sainthood happen when this faith-creating gospel is purely proclaimed in word and sacrament. The word creates the faith by which we sinners are made saints. Second, because “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:28-29), those who believe in Jesus Christ are already and remain forever part of Christ’s body by virtue of their baptism. This makes the notion of individual souls being shunted off to purgatory after death to face untold torments not only contrary to scripture but diabolically contrary to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In light thereof, what is the biblical and theological rationale of naming those for whom the bell tolls on All Saints Sunday? Even if it is not a complete resumption of old, unscriptural practices, is it alright or not? Or is it more of a slippery slope?  With that question in mind, consider this remarkable development in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA):

On All Saints Day, 2010, the results of the eleventh round of U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, entitled The Hope of Eternal Life,*** were published, and sixteen months later, “[d]uring their meetings at the Vatican [held 14-16 February 2012], … ELCA leaders presented ‘The Hope of Eternal Life’ … to Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.”**** On purgatory, among other matters, this dialogue document states,

“The complex network of beliefs and practices surrounding the relation of the living to the dead – purgatory, masses offered for the dead, indulgences applies to the dead, prayers for the dead – were seen by the Reformers as deeply antagonistic to that evangelical proclamation.”

Just a few pages later, however, in the document’s concluding commentary lurks one seemingly innocuous sentence which reads,

“Ecumenical rapprochement requires, however, that Lutherans not condemn Catholic teaching about the practice of indulgences as inherently contrary to the Gospel.”

Is this alright or not, or is it a slippery slope? John Donne’s meditation coining the phrase “for whom the bell tolls” means, according to some, that humanity is interconnected, like all members in the body of Christ. With that in mind, because the ELCA no longer rejects purgatory and thus no longer rejects the need for indulgences, the ELCA has apparently not only ecumenically removed itself from papal condemnation issued at the Council of Trent, but it has biblically and theologically removed itself from the Reformation’s understanding of salvation. The results are not just slippery but sinister.  Such ecclesial capitulation on the part of so-called Lutherans is taking its toll not only on the integrity of the gospel but thereby on all the souls of all the saints populating vast swathes of world Christianity.

So, should we ring the bell on All Saints Sunday to commemorate the dead within the church or should we do so to warn the living that the spiritual death of the church comes from within?

* http://www.catholic.org/saints/allsaints/
** http://projectbritain.com/year/november.htm#souls

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.


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.

Mark Menacher PhD. Pastor

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