Psalm 61:3

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; for You have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.

Friday, January 30, 2015

What Do We Really Want When We Ask for Contemporary Worship?

In his most recent Issues Etc Journal Todd Wilken has this to say about our Sunday morning worship services:
What if, when that Sunday morning visitor wandered into church, we made it clear to him that this is the Lord's Day and the Lord's house because the Lord Himself-Jesus-is there?  What if everything we said and did while he was visiting our church-every word, gesture, action, song and prayer-clearly confessed this?  What if, instead of reengineering the day to fit his expectations, we taught him to expect nothing less than Jesus, in person, forgiving sins?
Wilken's line of questioning is right on the money.  What is missing from Christian worship is not the right style of music or the right kind of decorations.  What is often missing is Jesus.  Many churches fail to preach anything resembling the Gospel, and settle for self-help instructions for better living.

Yet even among those churches where Christ is proclaimed regularly and the Lord's Supper is celebrated frequently, there still seems to be something else missing.  I will call it JOY.

Lutherans in particular seem to get the reverence thing right.  We are very respectful of the fact that we are in the presence of Jesus.  We take it seriously.  And that is a very good thing.

But what about the awe?  What about the joy?  Should these also not be part of our reaction when we come into the presence of Jesus Christ?  I think so.

The Roman church thinks of Jesus as our great Judge, so they believe we must approach Him with fear and trembling, that we must come to Him only through other intermediaries like Mary and the Apostles.

This is not, however, the Lutheran way.  Lutherans confess that Jesus comes to us Himself.  He is not only our Judge, but also our Advocate.  He is not trying to hide behind intermediaries, but giving us all of Himself all the time.  We should come to Him reverently, but also joyfully.  We should approach, not trembling with fear, but struck with awe that God would come to us.

The reason I say this is because people often think that contemporary worship styles will create this sense of joy and awe.  If we change the music, make it more exciting, then people will want to come to church.  If we get a more exhilarating preacher, then people will not only stay awake for the message, but be excited to come and hear it.

To be fair, their concerns are for outreach and evangelism.  It is often older members who suggest these things because they want their children and grandchildren to be in worship, to be excited about coming to church.  And who can blame them?

What if, as Wilken suggests, we acted like Jesus was really there on Sunday mornings, because He is?  What if, when people asked why you went to church you responded with, "So that I could hear and receive Jesus"?  What if you rolled out of bed each Sunday morning exhilarated at the thought of bringing your family into the presence of God, who suffered and died for them?  What if Lutherans sang their hymns with joy and spoke their responses with all the happiness that the Gospel can bring?

"This is the Word of the Lord."


If this were the case I think we would put to death any discussion about contemporary worship forms in our midst.  No one would care about changing the form, because hearts would be changed already.  Nobody would be asking for a rock band when they so clearly see Jesus, not only in the words that are preached, but in the pious and joyful responses of the congregation.

Jesus is present on Sunday morning. Amen!


Thursday, January 15, 2015

No, JK Rowling, You Were Not Born Christian, and You Are Responsible for Other Christians

On January 9 Rupert Murdoch tweeted this: “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible” 

To this author JK Rowling responded: “I was born Christian.  If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.”

Whatever you think of Rupert Murdoch, and whatever you think of JK Rowling, this does make an interesting exchange.  My concern, however, is not with Murdoch’s view of Muslims, nor Rowling’s.  I am far more interested in her statement about Christianity.

Now, I am not an expert on Rupert Murdoch and I will not comment on his faith, but I will take JK Rowling at her word and assume that she is indeed a Christian.  And that makes her tweet problematic.

First, Christians are not born, they are made.  Most Christians hold to the doctrine of Original Sin which confesses that human beings are conceived in a state of unrighteousness.  You must enter the Christian Church through the sacrament of Baptism where you are reborn as righteous in the sight of God.  You are made a Christian.

Even the Christian denominations that do not hold to Original Sin still generally believe that one must confess faith in Jesus Christ before becoming a Christian.  So Rowling’s statement simply does not make any sense.

Perhaps she was referring to her natural birth placing her as a citizen of the United Kingdom, which automatically makes her a member of the Church of England.  This is also wrong.  The Anglican Church, although it “services” anyone within the boarders of its jurisdiction, only counts as members those who are baptized.  So JK Rowling was not born a Christian. 

Second, Christians are responsible for one another.  This hearkens all the way back to Cain being called out by God for murdering his brother able.  Cain’s infamous response to God asking where his brother was has become idiomatic: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The implied response is, “YES!”

The Apostles’ Creed calls it “the communion of saints”.  One needs only to think of the numerous times Jesus refers his disciples as “brothers”.  Their brother is not a fellow human, although that may be true in a certain sense, but is a brother in Christ, a brother by faith in Jesus. 

No Christian is an island.  We are all connected to Jesus Christ and that means we are all connected to one another through Him.  To call yourself a Christian is to necessitate that you are indeed responsible for other Christians.  So if Murdoch is a Christian then Rowling is responsible for him, a fact that she implicitly acknowledges by responding to his tweets in the first place.

This certainly does not mean that one Christian should be punished for the crimes of another.  I do not think Murdoch was suggesting such a thing about Muslims wither.  I think, however, that if a man blew up a building in the name of Jesus it would be necessary for all Christians to condemn the action.  In fact, I believe Christians would be tripping over themselves to speak out against violence. 
Rowling later tweeted that by Rupert’s logic she is responsible for the Spanish Inquisition and “all Christian fundamentalist violence.” 

This puzzles me a bit because I am at a loss for what type of fundamentalist violence she might be referring to.  I cannot remember the last time I saw a headline about Christian fundamentalists massacring innocents.  I am certain that Christians do commit atrocities from time to time, but the scale of Muslim violence has taken things to a new level. 

The Inquisition is an interesting case.  Am I, as a Christian, responsible for acts of violence that happened hundreds of years ago?  Again, if you are asking if I deserve to be punished for the actions of the king and queen of Spain, then no. 

I would, however, be remiss if I did not condemn their actions. Not only that, but I should live in such a way as to show that all human life is precious.  Pastors should teach their congregations that non-Christians should not, indeed cannot, be converted at the point of a sword.  To remain quiet on such matters is to condone the violent behavior. 

This is where Muslims seem to be lagging behind.  If Islam is really a religion of peace, then peaceful Muslims need to prove it, not just by living peacefully, but by openly and vigorously condemning violence.

Christians are responsible for the care of those around them.  One follower of Christ cannot see another in need and ignore them.  To do so would be to deny the Christian faith.  This includes those who are in need of correction in their doctrine.  If I encounter a Christian who seems to be confused and is making a false confession of their faith, then I have a responsibility to correct them, or at least point them to someone who can.   

I was not born a Christian, but I am responsible for and to those who also have been baptized into Christ Jesus.  That makes, in some small way, JK Rowling’s tweet my responsibility.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Epiphany Is for the Riffraff Like You


Epiphany is your reason to celebrate the life of Jesus.  Without it there is still good reason for any descendents of Abraham to rejoice, but for anyone else, no dice.

                Christmas is really for the Jews, not for Gentiles, as most of us are.  We see this repeatedly in the Gospel readings following Christmas.  There are the Jewish shepherds on Christmas night, the people of Bethlehem, Simeon and Anna in the Temple.  What do all these have in common?  They all have the same ancestors, the same pedigree.  They were on the inside track for salvation.  They were Jews.

                But tonight is different.  It is startlingly different.  Epiphany is not for the Jews.  It is for gentiles, and not just any gentiles, but the worst kind that you can think of.  Magi.

                “Wise Men” is an awful translation of what these guys really were.  They were not wise at all.  They do not seek Jesus because they were really smart, but God leads them to Jesus in spite of their stupidity.  They were psychics, palm readers.  And in the minds of the Jews they were about on the same moral level as drug dealers and prostitutes.  

                But this is precisely the type of person that Jesus came to save.  We have become really comfortable with the idea of outreach in the American church, as long as we are reaching out to the right kids of people.  We know that the Gospel is for everyone, but everyone really refers to people who are mostly like us.

                You know what I mean.  Good people.  Family people.  White people.  Clean, self-reliant, emotionally steady, preferably of German descent, but English-speaking people.

                But Jesus came for the Magi, the wannabe fortune tellers.  He came for outcasts and exiles.  He came for the ones with the green spiky hair, the tattoos, and all those things pierced into their face.  This night is for the homosexuals, child molesters, gang bangers, drug addicts, and anyone else who comes to mind when we think , “Boy, I’m glad they are not sitting next to me.”

                Jesus is revealed on Epiphany as the Savior of the Undesirables.  Anyone who has been rejected by God in the past for any reason, as well-deserved as it might have been, will now be welcomed with open arms into the kingdom of God.

                Wait a minute.  What kind of a place is this?  The Church is for Magi?  For rejects?  For sinners?  Well, then maybe I want to rethink my membership.  

                Perhaps the reason this is such a difficult realization is that it means something for who we must admit that we are.  If we could find ourselves sitting next to a drug addict in church, well then maybe that means I am just as bad as they are.  

                And it does.  You and I and the Magi and the prostitutes and the punk rockers all belong in the same exact category: sinner.  We are all equally guilty before the judgment seat of God.  

                And on this night Jesus Christ is revealed as the Savior of all those sinners.  So you have a decision to make.  Do you belong with them or not?  Do you need Jesus or not?  Yeah, I think you know what the right answer is.  We all need Jesus, so we are all part of the riffraff.   

                But when we come to that realization, dragged kicking and screaming by the power of the Holy Spirit, it is time to rejoice, for Jesus has come precisely for the riffraff.  

                Jesus eats and socializes with the rejects of society.  Look at His eating habits and you will see that Jesus shared table with both prostitutes and tax collectors.  He would share a meal with the likes of drug dealers and porn addicts.  He would share a table with you.

                Jesus dies for sinners.  He died for the thieves on His right and left, although one rejected Him.  He died for the liars who perjured themselves to get Him convicted.  He died for the Gentile soldiers who beat Him and nailed Him to the cross.  He died for the worst of the worst.  That includes us here tonight.

                Jesus rises for sinners.  His resurrection is not for the living, obviously, but for the dead.  Living men don’t need to be raised.  Only the dead do, the worst of the worst.  Dead in sin.  Dead in trespasses.  

Now, baptized into Christ we are raised with Him, from death to life, from sin to righteousness.  The worst of the worst are given the best of the best, guaranteed life in the world to come.  This is our hope.  This is our comfort.  

                Jesus is the only source of hope for people like the Magi, like us.  Other sources try to give hope in tragedy and disaster, but Jesus shows them all to be grasping at straws.   The news media has made a valiant attempt, but they fail.

                Have you ever noticed, especially recently, how the news, whenever there is a tragedy, tries to end their coverage on what they think is an uplifting note?  If there is a tornado, then the focus on what was not blown away.  If there are several fatalities, they focus on the lone survivor.

                Why?  Because they don’t know how to handle the reality of death and destruction.  They know that people want and need hope, but they just don’t know where to look for it, so they give a half-hope, a false hope.

But it rings hollow to us.  We know that it is not really all that good of news that one building out of ten survived the tornado.  While it may comfort us to know that one little girl survived a plane crash, what about her?  Is she comforted by that knowledge?  Do we not think that that 7-year-old would give anything, anything, to see those family members again?  Of course she would.    

                Only the Christ of Epiphany has that kind of hope for the entire world.  He has given everything, everything, to ensure that disaster can and will be transformed into triumph.  The dead can and will be raised to new life. 

                Today He gives that hope to Jews and Gentiles.  He promises forgiveness, life, and salvation to those who look like us and to those who do not.  Today we know that Jesus is the hope of sinners, the hope for us, and for all those who in that way are exactly like us. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Would You Like Some Blood With Your Wine?

The Lutheran Confessions at times speak of the Sacraments as "signs".  Philip Melanchthon writes in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, "The sacraments are not only signs among men, but signs of God's will toward us; so it is correct to define the New Testament sacraments as signs of grace.  There are two parts to a sacrament the sign and the Word." (Apol. XXIV)

I think Melanchthon is saying that in a sacrament we must distinguish between two things: the sign and the Word.  So what is the sign, and what is the Word?

In baptism water is the sign.  In the Lord's Supper the sign is the bread and wine.  What does it mean to say that the water in baptism is a "sign"?  In what way can we call the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper a sign?

This is difficult and fraught with danger since in the United States of America the most popular view of the sacraments comes out of the Reformed tradition of the Church.  Especially prevalent in American Evangelicalism is the idea that the sacraments themselves are merely signs or symbols of some other reality.

In contrast to this Lutherans, along with those in the vast majority of Christian traditions, view the sacraments as acts of God.  A sacrament is "God at work," as one pastor has put it.  In Baptism, in the Lord's Supper, God is doing something to you.

Yet there are still signs within the sacrament themselves.  So this is the distinction that must be made: water is a sign, but Baptism is not.  Bread and wine are a sign, but Communion is not a sign.  It is the thing itself.

A sign in the sacrament is the thing that is seen, the tangible object.  In baptism that is the water.  In Communion it is the bread and wine.  But to these signs God has added His Word.  He has put a promise in the water.  He has mixed the covenant of His blood in with that wine.

The water in baptism is a sign.  All we see in the font is normal H2O.  Yet to this everyday, ordinary, tap water God adds the promise that those who believe and are baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:16).  He attaches the guarantee that our sinful nature dies and a new man is resurrected to live before God in righteousness forever (Romans 6:1-11).  So God is active in this sacrament.  He is forgiving your sins, washing them away by the power of His Word, yet the water remains water.  

An analogy can be drawn from the words of the angel to the shepherds in Luke 2:11-12.  "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."

The sign, that which is seen, is the baby lying in a manger.  From all outward appearances He is nothing extraordinary; a baby like any other.  The promise is that this baby is Christ the Lord.  Because God is present in this child He is much more than He appears.  This thing that is so seemingly fragile and weak is actually the most potent and powerful being in the universe because God is at work in Him.

The thing seen is the water.  The promise is that in that water our sins are forgiven and we are reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit.  God is present in this water with His Word making us new.

The thing seen is the bread, the wine.  The promise is that in, with, and under this is the body and blood of Jesus granting the forgiveness of our sins and fellowship with God and His Church.  God is present in this bread and wine feeding us with the very sacrifice that accomplished our salvation 2000 years ago.

God gives signs so that His people can be certain they have actually received a gift.  God could simply tell us that His body and blood is located somewhere in a certain vicinity or that rebirth by the Holy Spirit will happen eventually.  But He likes to be more specific and concrete than that.  To that end He gives us signs in the sacraments that we may see and feel and taste when God is at work.

When the water washes over you it is certain that God is cleansing you of your sins, putting to death the sinner and raising to life a new saint.  When you taste the bread and wine it is unmistakable that the body and blood of Jesus is entering into you and giving the very redemption that it earned.