Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
October 23, 2016
“Letting Jesus In; Letting Jesus Out—Witnessing”
Lutherans are not known for being fanatical. No one faints from emotion in our Divine Services like they sometimes do in worship in other churches. We aren’t known for looking for every opportunity to turn conversations toward spiritual matters or for peppering our speech with “God-talk.”
As a result, we may get the impression that as Lutherans we believe in moderation in spiritual matters or religion. Yes, we believe that Jesus is our Savior. But everything has its place. We shouldn’t get too carried away with religion and end up making a spectacle of ourselves.
But that conclusion would be a mistake. Emotional excesses in worship can be bad; it can also be bad to be preachy and act hyper-spiritual in your daily life. Martin Luther criticized the “fanatics” or “enthusiasts” of his day for these things. But Divine Service in his church in Wittenberg was not an emotionless formality, even though the congregation was made up entirely of normally stoic Germans.
An example of this: toward the end of his life, Luther was distributing the blood of Christ at Holy Communion. He was old, and his hands shook. As a result of his trembling, he spilled some of the precious blood on the stone floor near the altar. The person who wrote down the story said that Luther’s eyes filled with tears at the dishonor he had inadvertently done to the Lord’s blood, and he said, “O Lord Jesus, help!” Then he got down on his old hands and knees and sucked the consecrated blood of Christ from the stone floor, lest someone step on it. And the congregation, instead of laughing or being disgusted at Luther’s piety toward the consecrated wine of the Lord’s Supper, toward the blood of Jesus, broke into sobs, seeing the old reformer do this.
Quite a bit of emotion, quite a visible display of zeal in practice for something Luther had taught people so zealously—that the Sacrament of the Altar is “the true body and blood of Christ, under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.”
Lutherans are, or should be, against making laws about the proper amount of emotion or the proper amount a Christian should display his faith in Christ in public. A person may have true, living faith in Jesus and yet not talk about it a lot in public or display a lot of emotion at church. Some of that has to do with a person’s temperament, some of it with the strength of his or her faith. Some of it has to do with the fact that genuine faith is not a matter of outward display.
We make those allowances, yet we should never make the mistake of thinking that moderation in Christianity is good or even possible for a genuine Christian. A Christian cannot be “lukewarm”, as the Lord tells the church in Laodicea that they are. A Christian cannot be “neither cold nor hot.” And a church that has become “neither cold nor hot” is one in which the cold and dead members have mixed to such a degree with the living, believing members that the entire church has become nauseating to the risen Lord Jesus. “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit (or vomit) you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:16)
Why does lack of zeal, “moderate Christianity”, “reasonable Christianity”, lukewarmness make Jesus sick? We forget that Jesus Himself was not “moderate.” He was (and is), we might say, a zealot, a radical. Yes, He is amazingly gentle and patient with the weak, the sinful, and the fallen, so that He didn’t speak a harsh word to those crushed and overwhelmed by their sins, cast off by their society as “deplorable” and “irredeemable.” Yet His graciousness toward sinners was never grace toward sin itself. He “gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). He was so committed, so passionate in His hatred of sin that He gave His life not only to forgive and cover sin but also to remove and destroy it. He was so passionate in His opposition to false and hypocritical worship that He went into the temple and threw down the tables of the money changers. He was so zealous in opposing the false teaching of the Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests that He continued to preach and teach the Gospel of grace in opposition to them, and to denounce them, until they connived to have Him crucified. Jesus was and is not cool and moderate. He is fiery. His feet gleam like gold coming out of a fire. His face shines like the sun. His eyes are like flames. He is hot and burning with love for His Father and for you.
Because He burns with charity He is infinitely gentle with the weak, but He is nauseated by lukewarmness. When people and churches claim to be Christian but are moderate and reasonable in their love for God, His good news of grace, and for other sinners, when they are lukewarm, self-satisfied, content, and unwilling to do anything that might risk their comfort, it makes our Lord ill. He can’t stand it. He will spit such Christianity, such so-called “Christians”, such churches out of His mouth. That, says the Lord of the Church to the congregation is Laodicea, is the kind of church you are.
How did the church in Laodicea become this way—lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, disgusting to its Lord? He tells them: You say, I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing…(Rev. 3:17) The church in Laodicea had become wealthy and prosperous in earthly goods. But this wasn’t the cause of their lukewarmness. They were lukewarm because they were not “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). They foolishly believed that since they had earthly wealth they “lacked nothing.” We can draw this conclusion as well—their wealth indicated that the church in Laodicea had not had to endure the persecution we saw in the other churches. Persecuted Christians are typically denied the opportunities available to the rest of society. High positions are often denied them.
It may also be that the church in Laodicea had made a practice of compromising with the pagan world around them. Back a few generations ago lots of people belonged to secret societies like the Freemasons or the other lodges, but it was forbidden in the Missouri Synod, because the members of those societies took part in religious rites and confessions of faith that were contrary to the confession of faith they made as members of the Lutheran Church. Today people are often offended by the practice of “closed communion” which is the practice and teaching of the Missouri Synod. By practicing “closed communion” we are saying that communing at a church is tied to confessing faith in that church’s teaching. As a result those who believe another doctrine, or who are in fellowship with those who teach another doctrine, should not commune at LCMS altars, nor should those who confess our doctrine commune at a church with another doctrine. That teaching offends people today; but for a century and a few decades, the LCMS’ teaching about lodge membership was an offensive teaching to many (even inside the LCMS).
People typically belonged to lodges or to the Masons—at least, this is what most people said—for the sake of business. Lodge members helped each other out and sent business one another’s way. Not being a member of a lodge could hurt people financially. It was this way for people in the early church too. If you wouldn’t step foot in the temple of an idol or burn incense to Caesar, it could hurt your business opportunities. Yet the church in Laodicea was prosperous. It’s quite possible they had become this way by compromising their witness to Christ by engaging in the worship of idols, or giving the appearance of this being possible for a faithful Christian.
The church in Laodicea put its trust in its earthly wealth and in the freedom from persecution it had experienced. Since it had those things, it didn’t think it needed anything else. It became a church where Jesus was left outside in the cold, knocking on the door to be let in. But the Laodiceans wouldn’t let Jesus in. Jesus was sure to take away their prosperity and their seeming peace and security. He would bring with Him white robes to put on—His innocence and righteousness before God. But He would also rub eye salve on their eyes and make them see that they were really wretched, pitiful, impoverished, and naked before God. And He would bring gold refined in the fire—that is, faith in Him instead of in earthly prosperity and security, and the fire of persecution, of suffering and trial that purifies our faith in Christ. That true gold from Jesus very probably would mean the loss of the perishable gold that they had come to trust in and see as a sign that God was pleased with them.
The churches in the nations that have had Christianity for centuries have a lot in common with the church in Laodicea. Christianity was the dominant religion in Europe for almost 2000 years in the south, and by about 1000 A.D. it had travelled to the northernmost reaches of Europe. From there it spread to every continent that Europeans colonized or settled. And for most of that time the churches did not experience persecution in an overt way. There was persecution of faithful Christians, but it was always by others who also claimed to be Christians; in Europe and America no one persecuted the church with the open admission that it was Christianity they were attacking. Only in the French Revolution in 1789 did we see the first explicit persecution of Christians by non-Christians. It happened again in Russia and other places where communism took hold. But in America the church has never experienced that. On the contrary, up until recently the churches experienced peace. They were large and prosperous, and its members became wealthy.
And as a result many people came to expect earthly peace and prosperity. They saw full pews not with suspicion, as a sign perhaps that the church had compromised with the world, but as a sign of the church’s success, perhaps even of its godliness. They became content.
And now that the pews are emptying in many churches, and the heat is being turned on by forces that oppose Christianity’s formerly dominant position in our country, we see many churches and Christians scrambling to find ways to fill the pews up again, to regain our former position of cultural dominance.
Why? Because the churches have come to trust in earthly peace, freedom from persecution, and earthly prosperity. They think that when they have those things “they need nothing,” but if those things are gone, they have lost everything.
But a church that trusts in earthly peace and prosperity is a church that leaves Jesus outside in the cold, knocking to be let in. A church like this can’t witness to Jesus. Their witness will not be faithful and true (Rev. 3:14); they may preach and talk about Jesus, who was crucified. But if their trust is in the earthly peace and security that comes from large numbers and cultural dominance, when the fire and heat of persecution comes to purify them, they will cast Jesus aside. Witness to Jesus means faithfully teaching His Word, but it also includes the witness of suffering for that Word. That is the way the devil is conquered, just as Jesus conquered Satan not by gaining the whole world but giving His life on the cursed, shameful cross.
During this fall series we have heard with our ears “what the Spirit says to the churches.” I pray that God also gives us ears to hear with repentance and faith. What does the Spirit say to this church, St. Peter, in the letter to the church in Laodicea?
It is a hard question to face willingly. Are we also “lukewarm, neither hot nor cold”, about to be spit out of the mouth of our Lord? And if so, what should we do?
If I say “Yes,” how easy it will be simply to get angry at me, and reject my answer as my opinion, not Christ’s. How easy it will be also, if you accept the judgment, to simply put your head down like a beaten dog and say, “It’s impossible to please God.”
But that isn’t why Jesus speaks this way to the church in Laodicea. He didn’t write them off as hopeless. He came as a petitioner, knocking on the door, calling to them to let them in to His house. He does the same with all churches that have become lukewarm, just as He once called out to Adam when he was hiding in the garden, running away from his Lord because he had sinned and was afraid of the punishment.
Idolizing the earthly prominence we once enjoyed
That prominence was not evil, but we have something better than that—Jesus, who was crucified for us, Jesus, the risen Lord of the church and of the world
That idolizing has kept us from witnessing to Him in a community where we have great opportunity.
Jesus not only knocks on the door to come into the Church, but He wants to go out in us to extend His kingdom through the preaching of the Gospel which He has given to us.
+Let Jesus in
-recognize our sin in clinging to earthly security, peace, prosperity
-desire to bear “faithful and true witness” to Him in our families, to our friends and neighbors, as a church in our community.
–believe the Gospel: His zeal covers our natural lukewarmness; His love our lovelessness; His willingness to suffer for others our self-seeking
–your lukewarmness which you will struggle with till the day you die is covered, cleansed, forgiven
–this repentance and faith is the work of the Holy Spirit alone
–but it has begun where there is the desire to change and be forgiven.
+Let Jesus out
–witnessing to Jesus: two parts. Proclaiming His Word faithfully, and standing fast under the hardship and even persecution that comes because of His Word.
–proclaiming the Word—both law and gospel
Sin and righteousness
–as a church: planning, going into the community and inviting them in. Welcoming those who come.
–Suffering and persecution:
This comes by itself
Enduring it, and continuing to be faithful and true witnesses to Christ, is witnessing embodied, not simply in talk
There we give a picture in our lives of the Christ who suffered to save sinners.
+Jesus comes in to us
This is “dining with Jesus” having fellowship and communion with Him
By faith we cling to Him, are joined with Him. We share His grace and His suffering.
Sharing with Him in suffering is followed by sharing with Him in glory.
May we go out with Him, even if these are the final years of our congregation’s life, so that we may rejoice forever in our fellowship with Him.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Bartholomew, Apostle (transferred)/ Altar Guild Opening Service
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 1:43-51
August 25, 2016
“Come and See”
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” John 1:45
“Wait a minute. Cut! I’d like to interject…” Philip and Nathanael (his mother calls him Bartholomew) swivel their black-bearded faces in the direction of the voice, which belongs to a gray-haired man walking toward them, dressed in a jacked with leather elbows and a bow tie. He speaks with a slight east coast accent, and as he talks he gestures with a pipe.
“I understand what you’re trying to do with this scene,” he says to Philip. “You want to tell a compelling story. I get it. But if it’s going to speak to people two thousand years from now, you’re going to have to revise the script. You sacrifice accuracy for the sake of rhetorical power and you’re going to lose your audience.”
Philip stares at the man, who goes on: “The thing about Moses. ‘Moses wrote about Him in the Law.’ Reputable scholarship stopped believing Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy in the 19th century. Until relatively recently everyone agreed that these books were cut-and-pasted together from different sources by editors a thousand years after Moses was supposed to have lived. Everybody that’s educated knows this today, even the partially educated. So let’s try it again without Moses this time.” The bow tied man sits in a canvas chair and puts on sunglasses.
Philip keeps staring at him and finally utters, “Who are you?”
“I’m chair of New Testament at a top-tier divinity school in New England.” Then, in response to Philip’s blank stare, he says, “A scribe, of sorts. Okay, take two.”
Philip turns back to Nathanael. “So, like I was saying, ‘we have found the man who has been written about in the Law and the Prophets’—whoever wrote them—Jesus of Nazareth…”
“Cut!” the professor yells again. “Another thing: you really can’t say that Jesus is the one written about in the Law and the Prophets. The early New Testament community interpreted the Law and the Prophets as foretelling Jesus. Then they wrote the Gospels to show Jesus as the fulfillment of those passages. But to say the Law and the Prophets spoke about Jesus is a stretch, at best. Leaves us open to the charge of anti-semitism, too. Try it again. Take three.”
Philip stands there for a minute trying to figure out what to say. Then he looks at Nathanael and says, slowly, “We have found the man who isn’t really written about in the Law and the Prophets, probably. But there is a community of people who think that the Law and the Prophets wrote about Him. Or at least they want us to think that. It’s Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Cut!” the professor cries again. “You can’t say it like that! When you say it that way it sounds like a scam!”
What’s amazing is that so many people let themselves be scammed for so long. The professor in the story isn’t based on a real person, but he is doing what leading bible scholars have done for at least a hundred years. They have taught and written that the Bible is a literary construction made by men to advance certain beliefs, and then creatively interpreted by men to advance certain beliefs. But as far as being historically reliable and telling us about things that actually happened? The Bible doesn’t do that, they say. That’s not its point.
Did this conversation between Jesus, Nathanael, and Philip actually happen? We really can’t know, they say. The idea that the Bible is verbally inspirited by God, and therefore not only the final authority for truth about religious matters, but also true when it speaks about geography, history, or anything else—that has been regarded as “fundamentalism” by scholars for a long time—despite the fact that the authority and clarity of the Scriptures was foundational for the protestant reformation. And these scholars taught the ministers in mainline protestant churches—the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Methodists, some Baptists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—since before I was born. This skeptical approach to the Bible has become normal in the Catholic Church too.
But laypeople in these churches don’t look at the Bible this way, right? The pastors don’t preach this way, do they? I don’t think they do, generally. It doesn’t work very well for preaching to have the professor bursting in every few verses to correct the Bible. But if this is the way you have been taught to view the Scripture during your training for the pastoral office, it is going to affect how you carry out the work of that office. If the Bible isn’t to be taken literally when it says Moses wrote the Penteteuch, or when it says that Jesus had a conversation with Nathanael, why should it be taken literally when Jesus forbids divorce in it, or when it says it’s immoral to have sex when you’re not married? So is it a surprise that the mainline protestant churches have approved homosexual “marriage” as pleasing to God? If the Bible was put together by human beings to teach what they wanted to teach, why can’t we just put a new spin on it to teach what we think is right now?
And this affects more than simply Christian morality. It attacks the Gospel itself. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1); the healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick (Matthew 9). The result of treating the Scriptures as human productions is often revision of the Law of God; but the end result of revising God’s law is that pastors begin to preach to people that they, after all, are not sinners in need of saving. Perhaps we are in a general way—none of us love people as we should. But never in such a way that the specific forms our lovelessness takes are condemned; never in such a way that the sins that our time and place seeks to excuse are made to stand before the unchangeable judgment of the unchanging God. And so the churches, instead of proclaiming the Son of God incarnate and crucified to reconcile sinners to God, by degrees remove the offense of the cross (Galatians 5:11) and nullify the grace of God (Galatians 2:21). God’s grace in freely remitting sins for the sake of the bloody death of His Son on a cross is only necessary for those who are dead in their trespasses and sins and cannot raise themselves. It’s not necessary for those who have committed no grievous sins because there are no longer any grievous sins to commit.
And what have the laypeople done in response to this perversion of God’s Word in the mainline churches? Did they walk out when their pastors and teachers revised the ten commandments? Some did. Most didn’t care. They’d gotten used to re-interpreting the Bible when it said things they didn’t agree with a long time ago. When it forbade women from being ordained. When it forbade divorce. When it forbade intercommunion between those who were not united in the one faith and doctrine of Christ. When it forbade Christians to participate in the religious rites of secret societies. And so on, all the way back to the time of the Reformation, when people found the teaching that Christ’s true body and blood in the bread are present in and with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper an offense to reason.
But what does all this have to do with the altar guild? In the reading, Nathaniel (who is probably, but not certainly, Bartholomew the apostle, whose feast day was yesterday) expresses skepticism at what he hears from Philip—that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by Moses and the Prophets. He considers it unlikely that anything good could come from Nazareth. But Philip says, “Come and see.” Pretty confident, Philip is. He doesn’t try to argue with Nathanael about whether or not Nazareth is a dump. He invites him to come and see for himself whether Jesus is the one Moses and the Prophets talked about.
When we talk about Jesus to people who don’t believe in Him, say He is the Savior of the World, and our Savior, they will very likely be skeptical. What do we do then? Sure, you can debate with them if you’re equipped to do so. That has its place. But in the end, answering their objections won’t bring them to Jesus. The Holy Spirit must bring them. And that happens when they “come and see” Jesus.
But where do you go if you want to “come and see” Jesus? He is at the right hand of the Father, where we see Him no longer (John 16). Yet He promised that as His Church goes into the world to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them everything He commanded: and lo, I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28:20) If anyone wants to come and see Jesus, we direct them to follow us to the place where His Word is being taught and His sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Supper are being administered. We say, “Come to church with me and see.”
And what will they see there? We hope that, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, they will see Jesus, true God from eternity, who became human to live among us and fulfill the Law of God that we are unable to keep. Who became sin for us, bearing our offenses on the cross, and was raised from the dead for our justification. We hope that, being made to see Jesus by faith, they will also learn to see His presence with His Church in the Word and Sacraments, and learn to see the little congregation of sinners gathered around them as the community that has been declared righteous by God and adopted as His heirs.
But none of that is what they will see right away. What they will see is an altar with a cross above it. They will see a pulpit and a lectern and candles. They will see some stuff under a sheet in the middle of the altar. They will see pews, bulletins, hymnals, some men dressed in suits handing them pieces of paper and passing a plate. They will see a guy up front in a white robe with a piece of colored cloth around his neck. And the more years go by, the less familiar and comprehensible these sights will be.
And this is where you come in. Can you make people see Jesus by putting oil in the candles, arranging the fair linen just so, ironing the alb? No. Neither can I. A person sees Jesus, believes that He is the Son of God and our Savior, by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.
But by care and diligence in your work you can give a witness to what we confess. In fact you will give a witness one way or the other. By adorning the altar and chancel with care and beauty and precision you can testify to your faith and the faith of the church that “God Himself is present” in this place. By being careful, diligent, and scrupulous in your cleaning of the sacred vessels you can testify to our own members to the reality that Jesus has truly given us His sacred body and his redeeming blood in the wafers and wine. And as members of the altar guild you can be leaven in the congregation, instructing your brothers and sisters how in the Divine Service Christ Himself is present in flesh and blood, opening heaven to us each week, letting down Jacob’s ladder into this Nazareth called Joliet, where people wonder if there is anything good. You can say, Yes, Jesus visits Joliet; He visits us at 8 am and 10:45 each week. He speaks to us His good news that raises us up from sin and despair; He renews our souls with His crucified flesh and blood, and as He does so He brings with Him the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
And by that witness the church will be edified and perhaps visitors will come and say, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it. Or at least if He isn’t, I am convinced that the people who care for the altar believe that He is.”
May God bless you and strengthen you, then, in your holy work this year, as you continue to make the sanctuary a place where we are proud to invite people to “come and see” our Lord Jesus.
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
21st Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
October 18, 2015
“Who is Your God? Giving, Serving, Witnessing”
Who is your God? If someone asked you that question, would you be caught flat-footed? You would not be, because you know the Creed. In it we confess that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And if you were pressed to say more about God, you could begin with the First Article: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”
Those words teach that God, first of all, is the Maker of the whole universe. As the Maker, He is almighty, all-powerful. If someone asks who your God is, that would be a place to begin. “My God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is almighty. He has all power. There is no other God, because there is only One Almighty.”
But as Maker, God is more than just powerful. As Maker He is giver. He is the God who gives all things.
He is the God who gives because in six days He made the earth and the heavens and all that dwells in them. But He didn’t make the world solely for His own pleasure. He gave the world. He shared it with the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, the livestock and the beasts of the earth. He gave them life and breath and gave them the world in which to live and move and have their being. And above all other creatures, God gave the world to man, whom He created in His own image.
Moreover your God is a God who serves. When He had created the heavens and the earth, “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” What was the Holy Spirit doing? Descending on the dark, barren, lifeless earth. Descending to the depths, preparing to bring order and life out of nothingness. There was no life in the earth then, but the Spirit of life stretched out His wings over the abyss, preparing to serve creation and make it take form and make it live. And so throughout the first chapter of Genesis. God serves the creation with His Word, making the light appear, separating the dry land from the seas, making green plants on the earth, filling the sky with the two great lights and the stars, filling the sea with swarms of living creatures and the air with flocks of birds, filling the dry land with livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth, until at last He said to Himself, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” He served creation and made it take shape, and He continues to serve it. It is only by the constant goodness of God that the world continues to exist and that the laws of nature continue to hold. God’s goodness causes the crops to grow in their seasons and makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust. He serves and He gives. “From His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.” (John 1:16). “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
God is the giver and the One who serves. He gave to us when He created us and put us in the world. He serves us by providing for all our needs day in and day out. He also created us to give and to serve. Again and again the first chapter of Genesis says He created “according to their kinds”—”The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds.” (Gen. 1:12) “So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds” (Gen. 1:21). The different animals and plants were created according to their kinds, each to give and to receive from one another. Everything was created to receive and give out from the goodness God bestowed on each creature. And man was no exception. Being created in the image of God, he was to be the chief giver and servant. God blessed Adam to be fruitful and multiply on the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over the animals. This means that he was supposed to care for the creation by ruling it, watching over and tending it as God’s steward.
We have received everything we have from God, from our very lives, to our gifts and talents, to the clothes on our backs and the food on our tables. Everything we have comes from God, including our very lives. So what do we owe God in return? As Luther taught us in the catechism, “For all this,” for all God’s gifts and service to us, “it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” We were created to serve God, to fulfill the task He assigns us, to occupy the place in which He has placed us. God does not need our giving and serving, since it’s by His gifts and serving that we possess everything we have. But God gives to us so that we may give to and serve our neighbor. God doesn’t need your wealth, time, and ability. He is the one who gave them to you. But HE gave them to you not so that you could hoard them for yourself but so that you could serve your neighbors. He has a purpose for you. It is to honor and love your father and mother, to love and care for your children and teach them God’s Word. It is to serve your neighbor in your work as an employee or employer. And it is to serve and love everyone you come into contact with in whatever ways are available for you to serve.
But what has happened? Look at the world around you. Who even thinks about serving God? Very few. And people who think about serving their neighbors are in short supply. Children fail to honor and serve their parents. Come visit the nursing homes with me and see how many parents have children who have forgotten or abandoned them. Children living with their parents fail to honor their parents as precious gifts of God. Look around and see how many parents neglect the one most important thing in raising their children—to teach them the fear of the Lord. Employees think not about how they can help their boss succeed, but only how they can get as much as possible for themselves with the least amount of effort. Businessmen think not about providing service to their customers, but how they can make a profit. And so it goes. People are not out to serve, but to get for themselves. This is the heritage left us by Adam, our first father, who received all God’s gifts in creation and then, in ingratitude, stretched out his hand to take the fruit that Satan said would make him equal to God.
And you prove yourself to be a child of Adam. Haven’t you lived trying, most of your life, to get for yourself? Did you trust that God would give you what you needed and focus your energy on loving Him and serving the people around you? No. The fear was always eating at you that if you didn’t make sure to get what was rightfully yours, no one would take care of you. You would get the short end of the stick. After all, what happens to those who trust and wait upon the Lord? Look around! Don’t they live under the cross? Other people get ahead, and they stay behind, don’ t they?
So instead of trusting God to give us what we need and focusing on giving to others and serving others, we have sought our own good and forgotten about thankfulness to God. And the wages of this sin is death, just as it was for Adam. We lost the image of God, His righteousness, and with it we lost Him and the life that comes from Him. And that is the reason why as we live, all that had been given to us is gradually taken away again. Our works fall apart; we gradually lose our health and our lives return to dust.
For those who do not believe the Gospel that is the end of the story, at least as far as they can see. They don’t see that death is only the beginning of their losing, that after death they will suffer the loss of every good thing forever. Their only gain will be the physical and spiritual torments of hell, the regret that will gnaw at them like a worm that never dies, because they despised God’s gifts and service and lived for themselves. And that is what we have deserved also.
But amazingly, God was not through with giving and serving us after we misused the gifts of creation and refused God’s purpose for ourselves. He planned from the very beginning to give us more, far more, and to serve us in the depths to which we had fallen. If someone asks you, “Who is your God?” you can say, “My God is the God who gives and serves. He not only gave us all creation, our lives, bodies, souls, clothes, shoes, food, drink, spouse, children, and all we have—He also gave us Himself to redeem us from sin and death.” Our God is not only the Father, the maker of heaven and earth, but Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord. He is the eternal Word of God through whom the world was made and formed. He is also the Word of the Father who recreates us and the world by coming into human flesh in the womb of Mary. The eternal God was not content to make us but to be made one of us. He gave Himself to us by becoming flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. He gave Himself to us and His innocent, obedient life in exchange for our sinful, polluted lives. He gave Himself to us to live as we ought to have lived, as thankful servants of God. And He served us by bearing our self-seeking, our lack of trust in God, to the cross.
Because of the obedience and shed blood of God in the flesh, you are forgiven. The Father has forgiven all your self-seeking and mistrust. Through the giving and serving of Jesus the disobedience of Adam and his descendants is made right. It is as though you had fulfilled God’s purpose for you and always served and freely given to your neighbor. That is what it means to be forgiven by God. And He forgave you by nothing less than giving His only-begotten Son into death for you.
That is why Christians begin to live a life of serving and giving. In our flesh we don’t want to do either. Our flesh hates God, doesn’t trust Him, and tries to shore up its own existence by giving nothing away and serving itself.
But as Christians we receive the giving and serving of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit serves us by preaching Christ to us, baptizing us, absolving us, feeding us His body and giving us His blood to drink. Through these gifts He works faith in us, and we begin to believe God’s witness that we are forgiven. And being forgiven by God, we have everything. Everything in this broken world has to serve us, even our cross and suffering and dying. All the good things of the new world to come, so good that one cannot speak of them on earth, are ours because we are forgiven, because Christ has been given to us.
Being forgiven means having everything. So we Christians begin to give. We give of our time and our talent to serve the Church. We give of the wealth with which God has blessed us so that the precious Word and Sacraments through which Christ gives forgiveness may remain among us. How much do we give? We give freely and generously. Mature Christians learn to set aside a percentage of their money to give to God’s Church. The Old Testament example is ten percent. But because God has already given us so much, indeed, more than we could have ever expected or asked, we seek to excel at the grace of giving, knowing not only that the Church needs it but that it pleases our heavenly Father, who has spared nothing in His giving to us.
As Christians we are served by God. He not only makes the sun shine on us and provides what we need for this life, but He daily serves us so that we live spiritually. He has stooped down to serve us like a slave by being born for us in the lowly manger and by bearing God’s wrath against our transgressions. As we remember the service of Jesus by eating His body and drinking His blood as He bids us do in His supper, we learn from Him not to be ashamed to serve our neighbor. That includes gladly serving in our callings, as parent, as husband and wife, as employers and employees. Hearers of the word serve their pastors by diligently hearing and learning the word and providing for his living. Pastors serve their hearers by being diligent in study, prayer, and preaching, and providing examples of godly living to the Church. And all alike serve one another in the Church by bearing with one another’s faults, forgiving one another, and proclaiming the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins to each other on all occasions.
Finally, we Christians bear witness to the love of God in Christ to those outside the Church. We do our best to live upright lives, selfless lives, that make a good impression on those who are outside. But whether our lives are blameless or we are still maturing in Christ, we remain always ready to tell people who our God is. He is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who has given us our lives and every good thing we have. He has also given us His Son, and in Him we are forgiven and have the certain hope of eternal life.
As you can see, the Christian life is not sleepwalking. It is busy and active, marked by giving, serving, and witnessing. Make no mistake, these things are difficult. They are fighting against our flesh and blood. This is why we need constantly to be refreshed and strengthened by the Word of God and the Sacraments in the Divine Service and the study of Scripture. So I pray and urge that our congregation would gather together around the blessed Word and Sacraments for forgiveness and strength, and lift up holy hands together that the Lord would strengthen us to give, serve, and bear witness in this place as He would have us do.
Soli Deo Gloria
The Seventh Sunday of Easter—Exaudi
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 15:26-16:4
May 17, 2015 (Confirmation Sunday)
“Witness and Persecution”
Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness about me, because you have been with me from the beginning. I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.” John 15:26-16:4
In this text our Lord tells us about the Church’s mission and its necessary results. The mission is simple to understand. The Church, the believers in Christ, bear witness to Jesus along with the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus tells us about the necessary result of this witness. The world will not love the Church for bearing witness to Christ. Instead the world will persecute the Church with excommunication and death. This is the road our confirmands are pledging to walk today—the road of witness to Jesus and the road of persecution. It is the road they began on when they were baptized, the way of death with Jesus Christ that they might be raised with Jesus Christ. It is the same road that every member of the Christian Church has pledged to walk. It’s good that we remember this. We were not promised victory in this world by our Lord, but persecution and death, and then the victory of the resurrection from the dead.
But this is not said so that we can pity ourselves about our sorry lot in this world. If we Christians were living life only for this world, then, as Paul says, “We are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15) But it is not for this life only that we have hoped in Christ. It is for the life that is to come, the life that is truly life, when we will see God face to face, that we have hoped in Christ.
No, what is truly pitiable is to be without God in the world. This is how most of the people in the world live. They hope, vainly, that God is not displeased with them because they have tried to live a good life. They hope, vainly, that God is not displeased with them because they imagine that God is reasonable in a human sense and doesn’t expect more of us than we are able to do. They imagine that because they have tried to live a somewhat decent life in the eyes of other people that things will hopefully turn out all right with them in eternity after they die. God’s judgment on sin they do not know, or they reject it. They don’t believe that no one is righteous in the sight of God, that we have all earned His anger by our transgression of His commands. They flee from His righteous judgment and so they go through their lives with vague ideas about God but never knowing Him. They don’t realize that aside from all the other commandments they transgress the very first one—“You shall have no other gods.” They create a god in their own image—a reasonable God, so-called, who doesn’t want any more from us than that we be reasonably good people. They don’t realize that their fundamental sin is that they have avoided and run away from the true God, the God who commands that we be not merely “nice” but righteous. And because they run from this God who speaks to us in the Law and in our conscience, they are never certain of themselves before God. When trouble or death comes, their false religion falls apart. They are no longer sure that God is pleased with them. They have no helper in the day of their trouble. And what is worse is that when this wretched life is over they have nothing but God’s fearful judgment where He holds them to account for every idle word they’ve spoken, every evil thought and desire.
Truly, it is pitiable to be without God in the world. But that’s the way people are by nature. Whether they are religious in a human sense or not, people are by nature without God. They don’t know the true and living God, and they are lost.
But God does not want human beings to be without Him in the world. That’s why our Lord says in our text, “When the Helper comes…He will bear witness about Me. And you will also bear witness.” Jesus sends the Holy Spirit on His Church so that together they may bear witness to Jesus, which means that the Church and the Spirit bear witness together to the world that the true and living God is reconciled to sinners, is for them.
The Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus that in Him and Him alone God makes Himself known. He makes Himself known as the Holy and righteous God who demands that we be not merely reasonably good, as humans measure things, but that we be righteous in thought and feeling, in word and deed. He is the same God we see in the Old Testament who gave the Ten Commandments, who spoke to the patriarchs and said, “Walk before me and be blameless.” (Gen. 17) But this righteous God has drawn near to us in Jesus, the Son of Mary. He has not come near to condemn and destroy us for our sins, but to redeem us, to justify us. He has come to live a righteous, obedient, and perfect life as one of us under God’s law. And He came and offered that righteous and perfect life as a sacrifice to cover our sins so that we would be regarded as righteous before God through faith in Him alone. This is the witness the Holy Spirit bears about God. The true and righteous God is the Father who willingly gave His only Son to be the sacrifice that redeems us from sin, death, and hell. Though we are sinful and can’t make ourselves clean in the sight of God, the true God has made us clean in His sight by the suffering and death of His Son.
This is the witness the Holy Spirit bears about Jesus Christ and God the Father. He has been bearing this witness in the world since He was poured out on the apostles at Pentecost. And since then the Church has also been bearing witness to Jesus. She bears witness by preaching His death and resurrection in the whole world. Preachers have proclaimed Christ’s death for our sins and His resurrection from pulpits. Missionaries have gone with this message into pagan lands to turn people from the worship of false gods. Christian parents have brought their children to be baptized and then taught them the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. Christians have carried out their callings in the world, serving their neighbors in love and looking for opportunities to proclaim salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In all these ways and more the Holy Spirit bears witness and the Church bears witness to Jesus.
And because the Holy Spirit has faithfully borne witness to Jesus through the centuries, we are gathered here today in His holy congregation, the Church. We have in this church a little refuge, a little outpost of salvation, where the Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus and the forgiveness of our sins. It’s not through merely human power that a group of German immigrants got together and founded this church; it’s certainly not through human power that twenty or so years later this congregation embraced the true doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church [in the Book of Concord]. It’s not through human power that this congregation and school have been here through a century and a half, through economic depressions and world wars and cultural revolutions. This congregation is here by the power of the Holy Spirit, who bears witness to the death of Jesus in our midst.
It is the witness of the Holy Spirit that has brought these three sons of the congregation today to confess their faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and to receive the Holy Body and Blood of the Lord for the first time. It was the Holy Spirit who moved their parents to bring these children to Jesus in Holy Baptism while they were still infants, that He might bless them and give them the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who was at work in them when they were taught the word of God by their parents, in Sunday School, and in catechesis. Now by the same Holy Spirit they are going to bear witness that the doctrine they have been taught from the Small Catechism is the truth. They are going to bear witness that the one true God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who has redeemed them from sin and damnation by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They will bear this witness with their lips in our midst and carry this confession with them out into the world.
The witness of the Holy Spirit and the witness of believers in Christ is one witness, and this witness brings salvation. But Jesus speaks a solemn word to those who bear witness to Him, which all of us who are baptized and confirmed need to give serious attention. He says: “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” What can our confirmands expect to receive for their faithful witness to Christ? Persecution, says Jesus. Even the most extreme forms of persecution—excommunication and death. The world does not know the Father and the Son. Even many who are supposed to be the Church of Christ do not know the Father and the Son. They trust in their own righteousness and invent a god who is satisfied with human works. This is what Martin Luther experienced. He came bearing witness to Jesus Christ alone with the Holy Spirit, and the Pope and his followers excommunicated Luther and put him under a death sentence. Why? Because Luther bore witness that salvation was a free gift through Christ alone; that the Father is pleased with us not through our works but through faith in Jesus only. For this Luther was put out of the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed to be Christ’s true Church even while it denied Christ’s Gospel.
This is what those who bear witness to Christ today can also expect. Today the threat of persecution seems to come not so much from the false church as from the secular world. More and more in our society we hear voices calling for Christians to be banned from polite society because the Church refuses to acknowledge homosexuality, transgenderism, and other sins as acceptable before God. Already Christian charity organizations have been banned from receiving state funds to place foster children unless they are willing to place them with homosexual households. Attacks on the truth of Christianity are standard fare in college, and skepticism from teachers toward the Bible is becoming more common even in high school and middle school. We may not be faced with death for bearing witness to Christ, but increasingly in the years to come our confirmands are going to live in a society that is at best skeptical of Christianity when it is not hostile.
But we are better off with the Holy Spirit’s witness and the opposition of the world than we would be if we had ease and comfort in this world but no Holy Spirit. Why? Because with the Holy Spirit’s witness we have God. We don’t just have vague ideas about God that collapse in the day of trouble or death. Through the Holy Spirit’s witness we have the true God. We know the Father and the Son. They Holy Spirit bears witness to us that we are righteous in God’s sight through faith in Jesus alone. He testifies to us in the Gospel that Jesus died for our sins and nailed the handwriting of the law that was against us to the cross, putting it out of the way so that it no longer condemns us (Colossians 2). He bears witness to us in our baptism that we have been buried with Christ and raised from the dead with Him and are a new creation. He testifies that we are redeemed from sin, death, and hell by giving us the body of Jesus that was crucified to eat and His blood shed for us to drink. They Holy Spirit testifies that we have God for certain, that the all-holy God is pleased with us. This is an assurance that the world doesn’t have, even if it heaps up all the pleasures of this world. Whoever doesn’t believe the Spirit’s witness to Jesus does not have God and can never be certain how it stands with them and God.
We, however, have the Holy Spirit’s testimony that God is pleased with us because of the innocent suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so when persecution and hardship comes to us with the Gospel, we can be glad, because we know that in the midst of our suffering still God is pleased with us. That consolation is greater than all the crosses the world can give us.
So this is the Holy Spirit’s witness to you today, and by this witness He wants to make your heart certain that God is pleased with you and that you have God, your rock and fortress. You are not without God in this world. It isn’t up in the air. You have God, because He has given His son to die for your sins. This testimony has the strength to make us faithful even in the face of death, because it is God’s own testimony. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. And to make you more sure that this salvation is for you, the Holy Spirit says, “Come. Receive the body and blood of the Savior which has made you pleasing to God.”
The Peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
1 Peter 2:18-25
April 22, 2012
“The World Needs the Royal Priesthood”
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
- 1. Andrew Sullivan…columnist, believer in Christ’s divinity, homosexual
Essay on the crisis of the American Church in Easter Newsweek.
There are many theological errors in his essay. The Church must proclaim God’s law clearly, including about people’s sex lives, whether about homosexuality or rampant heterosexual unchastity. And yet his central criticism of American Christianity and Christians perhaps gives us something to meditate on and with which to examine ourselves.
We frequently complain about the dechristianization of the United States and about the collapse of what used to be moral commonplaces.
But maybe our country is not wrong to criticize us for hypocrisy and lack of compassion. That in our zeal to testify clearly that God’s Law has not changed, we have not at the same time made clear that we are not angry at our neighbors, nor do we think that we are better than them.
So often, though we may continually preach the free forgiveness of sins on account of Jesus’ passion, received by faith alone, our actions say that the Gospel has very little bearing on real life. We are not gracious to one another in the Church…and our words and actions often betray that we have little confidence that God’s grace in Christ is the power that enables the Church to fulfill its calling to make disciples of Jesus.
Tells story of Thomas Jefferson cutting up the bible. Jefferson did this to boil down Christianity to what he thought was its essence—the moral teaching of Jesus. Sullivan says, whether you agree with Jefferson or not that Jesus is true God and that He rose from the dead, you should pay attention to what Jefferson was saying because—
“What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand? What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself?
All of which is to say something so obvious it is almost taboo: Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial—or that most Catholics, even regular churchgoers, have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert.
The Church in America’s decline is due to Church’s attempts to influence/control culture by means of politics rather than the Gospel—the mercy of God in Christ. And when that has been preached the Church’s witness in terms of merciful, gracious love toward the fallen has been weak. Too often the church has been a society for moral, middle class folks longing for a return to traditional morality. Too often the salvation Christ gives freely to those who do not meet our standards has not been heard or borne out by our actions. It has not been apparent that the church is not the place for people of exceptional morality or for traditionalists, but a place where the dead are raised—whether “moral” or “immoral.”
- 2. What is missing…
How Peter says to treat unfair masters. Serve them with all your heart–not because they treat you well, but in spite of the fact that they don’t.
What is missing is love of enemies–mercy toward the merciless–love toward those who have not earned love–including those who continue to cause you pain, abuse you.
That is unworldly. It is from another planet. It is the church living as disciples of Jesus–living the life of Christ that has been given in Baptism. (John 12: Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there my servant will be also.)
- 4. What we do instead and why.
We are like Peter…do not want the cross. Unbelief.
When we revile and threaten, injure in response to injury, we become evildoers ourselves.
Scatters the church. Hirelings instead of good shepherd—we do not care about the sinners for whom Christ died, but seek to preserve ourselves. The Church lives as though it is not Christ’s church, not the community of those who love their enemies, not servants and brothers of Jesus who bore the wrath of God for them.
Deceit found in our mouths, because we deny our sin and accuse others and justify ourselves.
- 5. The example of the good shepherd…no deceit, did not revile or threaten—entrusted Himself to the just judge—God.
- 6. Where the power to love enemies comes from—
Grace that is more powerful than sin and evil.
First of all, we receive this grace from Christ, who blots out the entirety of our sin with His blood.
The shame of Jesus death removes our shame before God.
His truthful mouth speaks the forgiveness of our sins.
This is who we are. This is what we were baptized for—to do good and bear suffering without reproach, like Jesus.
Not that we can accomplish this; but we have already died in Baptism into Christ. And thus we no longer are the self-seekers, revenge-getters that we were born in Adam. We are in Christ—new creatures who overcome the evil of our enemies by showing love and mercy to them, and enduring the suffering that is inflicted on us.
Be comforted if you have suffered—you were called to this. It was no accident. God has not abandoned you. This is the life we were given in Baptism. Its end is everlasting joy.
If you suffer unjustly—joy because you are like Christ.
If you don’t have the power to love and forgive your enemies or those who wrong you, fear not.
You have learned the truth about yourself—that you are unable to do this.
That is what Peter himself learned.
Loving enemies and forgiving them comes as we learn to believe that we are loved and forgiven by God in Christ despite our many sins. As we continually return to Jesus for forgiveness and He shows us His wounds and pronounces absolution and gives us His body and blood, then, healed by His grace which overcomes sin, we begin to bear the sins of others and love them.
Grieveing—death and shame not the end of everything but rather participation in Jesus.
Jesus does not speak against us. He does not curse or revile; He continually speaks well of us. He speaks to the Father on our behalf. And when we come to Him for forgiveness, He says, “You are righteous, innocent.” “Your sins are forgiven.”
Peter: “You have returned”—not in that we do not struggle with sin; not in that we do not fall into sin.
Believing in the forgiveness of your sins on account of Christ, you have returned.
Baptized into Christ and believing that you are no longer what you were born in the flesh, but a little Christ.
Thus you have returned to the shepherd and bishop of your souls.
“That you might die to sins and live for righteousness”: you have and you will.
- 7. Vital importance of priesthood
This is not a world where there is mercy—where those we fail or sin against are willing to die in our place.
But mercy enters the world in Jesus Christ, who dies for His enemies; for the whole world.
And His mercy flows through the royal priesthood—His body, the church.
He who died for His enemies has made us free from death and hell;
Free, redeemed, and saved, we are able to suffer the loss of the pleasures and treasures of this world because we have treasure that endures in heaven;
So Christ’s mercy is shown in a merciless world through us, His body.
God grant it among us. Amen.
- Newsweek’s hipster Jesus article all hype (alanrudnick.org)
- Another “Follow Jesus, Forget the Church” Epic Fail (sethsoasis.wordpress.com)
- The Problem With the Church: Too Many Preachers are Accomodating and too few Members are Christian (petrosbaptist.wordpress.com)
John Lennon’s imagination wasn’t all that impressive. Imagining “no religion” in his lifetime was kind of like Jesus predicting that Herod’s temple would be destroyed…It didn’t take a prophet. The Jews and the classical pagan world were bound to reach a tipping point sooner or later. In the same way, John Lennon imagining an irreligious Occident wasn’t such a stretch. Institutionally Christianity was still big. Inwardly, it was rotten to the extent that within a generation any fear of its authority or sense of obligation to the church for historical reasons would be gone.
That’s how it is with any great empire before it falls. It continues to look monumental and impregnable. But in reality its hold on the people, its power to inspire or motivate vigorous action has dissolved. In the US we had the family friendly fifties where churches boomed. My own congregation can hardly breathe under the weight of the memories of the 40s through the 70s, when the parish was bursting at the seams with children and when it was difficult to get a seat at the three packed services each Sunday.
When Rome fell, people were aware that it wasn’t what it used to be. But it was also still the most powerful and cultured political entity on earth. Its culture never really died but instead begat those that followed. But when the Empire dissolved, it shouldn’t have really been a surprise. The Barbarians had been squatting in Roman land lying fallow because the patricians were too busy partying to take care of fields; they weren’t driven to procreate and raise strong sons that would manage estates, sit in the Senate, or command legions; so they enjoyed their privileges and foreigners filled the army and greasy barbarians poured in to enjoy the pleasures of the superior Roman way of life.
Then–it was gone.
That’s how it is with the church in America. My grandparent’s generation were all Christian–at least formally–and would have identified themselves as members of one Christian denomination or another. My parents’ generation packed the churches as their parents tried to raise them as good, God-fearing citizens and give them the happy childhood which was denied them during the depression and the 2nd World War.
Then came the 60s and 70s. The avant garde made tatters of the cultural-Protestant expectation that young people would find a vocation, marry, raise a family, and contribute to society. Expectations declined, and Midwestern Lutheran parents were happy if their kids didn’t get on TV smoking a joint, attending an orgy, or marching against the war.
By the 90’s, an entire generation was entering adolescence or adulthood which had not been initiated into the customs, rituals and taboos of American Everyman and Everywoman. Most of us had a very tenuous relationship–or no familiarity at all–with American Judaeo-Christianity. Most of us had imbibed, in large measure, the skepticism about American life that characterized our parents’ generation. We were taught unequivocally that our history was riddled with injustice. The racial prejudice that was part of the fabric of American life for our grandparents was an unqualified evil that made American history suspect. Patriotism was inculcated, but as one grew older the skepticism about our history complicated any uncritical pride in our nation and flag. It was simply an unquestionable moral truth, constantly drilled, that women and men alike should find their identity within themselves rather than in their duties to mother, father, husband, wife, children, and that both should be equally to pursue self-fulfillment with (in principle) no interference from traditional notions of masculinity and femininity, or the work proper to either sex. Love, sex, children were components of the quest for self-discovery which was the ultimate end of all of our lives, male or female. The idea that our lives were not our own to mold as we thought best but rather given to us, along with our vocations, so that we might love and serve our neighbor, our nation, and glorify God–anathema!
So it didn’t take much imagination to foresee a religionless UK or USA. The pie chart above shows the breakdown of religion in the United Kingdom. Half of the country self-identifies as having “no religion.” 20 percent of the country identifies with the established Church over which her majesty is head.
In our country, 15 percent of the country identifies as “no religion.” This is not a shock, is it? If you consistently prune a tree in a certain direction, how is it a shock when the tree starts to grow that way “naturally”?
For 50 or 60 years my grandparents’ generation’s values haven been being undermined in public schools and in the media. It should no more be a surprise that a formerly protestant country is now becoming a country of no religion than it should be a surprise that more women go to college than men, or that marriage is falling into obsolescence, or that younger Americans lack the uncritical patriotism of our grandparents. Or that we dress like proletarians not when we go to work at the factory, but when we go to a restaurant, court, church, or the White House. Or that male and female clothing is becoming less and less distinguishable; or that families seldom eat meals together at the dinner table with the TV turned off.
For American Christians, maybe it seems like bad news. But it’s not. At least it’s not uniformly bad news.
First of all, though my generation was indoctrinated with feminsim and multiculturalism from childhood, and opposing ideas were suppressed–it is also true that my grandparents’ generation permitted or embraced many sins that we might not want to repeat.
Most Americans, I still think, need to do a little more interrogating of the few moral certainties we still share. Americans still believe that freedom and equality are good. And they are. But they are not the only goods. And they are not good in every circumstance, all the time, always. For instance, Americans almost universally believe that men and women should be treated equally, and get angry if anyone starts to question what appears to be an obvious moral truth. But this certainty has prevented us from raising questions that really should have been asked a long time ago. If our primary concern in discussing “women’s rights” (note the framing of the debate) is the autonomy or equality of women, haven’t we created a situation in which those people who most need to cooperate are made competitors? Might it be better to think of the relationship between the sexes another way? Is it in the interests of children or of society as a whole to have the people who bring life into the world (together) focused on protecting their “rights” over against one another instead of working together to conceive and rear children who are a benefit to the rest of the country instead of raising kids who sneer at the notion of being part of a community and having an obligation to it–whether that community is the family, the PTA, or the nation?
But I’ve said all this before. And there are plenty of Christians who have recognized the flaws in the moral education we received. The Christian right would be the sort of mass-market insurrection against the mainstreaming of 60s countercultural values that was taking place in the 80s and 90s.
The problem is that this reaction, which went on when I was a kid and an adolescent, was simply an attempt to turn back the clock to a time when Christianity was still ascendant in Western Culture, at least as institutional religion. But in 1950s America, the Christianity that continued to enjoy the benefits of being the religion of most people’s childhood and of being woven into the fabric of Western civilization–was tottering. It wasn’t weak enough to overthrow yet.
The article above, and others I’ve read like it, says that the present willingness to embrace “no religion” as one’s religion stems from disaffection with the religious right’s efforts to fight politically against the decline of traditional morality and the rise of the morality of activists in the 60s.
We shouldn’t view this as a rejection of Christianity. Christianity had already been rejected by many, if not the majority, in our grandparents’ day. If you look back at the last 300 years or so of European and American history, it is apparent that Christian orthodoxy had its power broken in Europe awhile ago. During the French Revolution the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was turned into a temple to Reason, and priests who continued to be loyal to the Pope were killed or imprisoned. In the 1700s and 1800s in Germany many protestant pastors and seminaries were teaching a Christianity that denied that Jesus’ death on the cross was an atonement for our sins; Christianity was presented as the best form of natural human religion which could be found in every creed, which had in common that there was one God who was loving and just and required us to live morally, but did not require any sacrifice to take away sins. In the United States, this rationalistic Christianity reared its head everywhere. Even though revival movements continually swept through the country which continued to proclaim the death of Jesus on the cross as the propitiation for our sins, even these tended to be conspicuous in drawing attention away from the death of Jesus to the inner experience of salvation within the penitent, and, consequently, the moral life that was supposed to result from such an experience. Alongside of the more orthodox revival movements in America, the bastard theological offspring of English dissenters continued to develop American revisions of the Christian faith, which blended American worship of freedom, prosperity, and self-creation with certain aspects of Christianity or church life. Thus we see the long and storied tradition of respectable, Christless self-improvement Christianity exemplified by men like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and Joel Osteen.
We shouldn’t want to go back to that, either!
If Americans are rejecting their grandparents’ values, in which one was patriotic, generally protestant, moral but legalistic, hard-working but in denial about original sin, the bondage of the will, and the fact that the Kingdom of God does not look like a prosperous plantation or a new house in the suburbs, we should agree with them.
Not that we simply capitulate, in a dishonest way, to the hippie indoctrination that drives this rejection. But just as it is an error to think that Christianity can be made to fit the modern American revision of morals, it’s an error to simply react against this revision.
People under forty or fifty don’t reject the religious right purely out of hatred of everything good. They reject the religious right out of a sense of moral indignation.
It’s true that their moral compass is misguided. But for the most part–why do teenagers tend, generally, to get riled when Christians say that homosexuality is a sin? It’s because they believe that 1. the most important moral duty is that you embrace who you are, not who people say you’re supposed to be and 2. Christians are discriminating against homosexuals for being who they are.
Having incited the ire of many people about this particular topic, I have come to appreciate why this is viewed as hypocrisy. If you are saying that someone is a sinner and condemned to hell because they are, possibly, born a certain way and choose not to suppress it, you are saying that they should suppress what they feel or desire at the deepest level of their awareness. The question might be put this way–Who are you to tell me to turn away from the very thing that I desire and believe will make me happy?
Martin Luther would read that question this way–“Who are you to tell me that my god is an idol?” His answer would be, “I am nobody to tell you that. God says it in the first commandment, and requires me to love you enough to tell you the truth even if it means you hate me.”
And all that is well and good. But if we’re going to call our society out about homosexuality, we also have to preach against our own idols. Otherwise we are creating a righteousness of our own, drawing a line in the sand between “Church” and “World”–a line of our own making.
Surely a culture’s stance on sexual morality or its recognition of the importance of marriage, procreation, and the stability of the family unit–all these things that Christians have been crusading about politically and which this generation has found repugnant–surely these are not sufficient as markers of Christianity. Something like traditional Christian morality held in Europe and America for a long time after Christian orthodoxy started to go on the retreat in the culture. But these were by no means Christian societies. That was Kierkegaard’s cry in the wilderness of 19th c. “Christian” Denmark. Bourgeouis, world-loving businessman and clergymen filled the churches. It was part of being a respectable person. But Kierkegaard pointed out the joke of “Christian” Denmark in the 1800s. There were a whole lot of respectable Christians who would never think of selling what they had and giving it to the poor and following Jesus; the whole point of being a Christian Dane was to be a successful, prosperous, well-thought-of member of society, whereas Jesus’ call was to follow Him outside the camp, to take one’s place among the cast out and damned, carrying one’s own death, rejection, and utter humiliation upon one’s back.
That can hardly be done by making fortifications at this or that moral law and saying to the culture, “Here we stand! This law, at least, has to be upheld in our society!”
What, so we can get back to the golden days of Kierkegaard’s Denmark? Or the high water mark of morality in Christendom, which would have been–when? The middle ages, when popes and priests had concubines? The Reformation, when Luther tells us the peasants were drunken swine and the lords were murderous thieves?
Maybe the Christians were moral in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd centuries. But then they had no say in politics. They didn’t mobilize voting blocs and political fundraisers to get Caesar to put a stop to infanticide.
I’m not saying that Christians should not be politically involved. Probably, being politically engaged is part of being a faithful Christian.
But we have a better opportunity put in front of us by our society that would rather affiliate with “no religion” than with Christianity seen as militants seeking to uphold the moral norms of the America of the recent past.
Our opportunity is to stop drawing lines between the “Church” and the “World,” and stop fortifying ourselves for a war, and become guilty of the sins of the world. Allow ourselves to be killed rather than try to protect ourselves. That was the main political action of Christians before Constantine, wasn’t it? To live quietly until required to make sacrifice to Caesar or Roman gods. And then to lovingly bear witness to Jesus Christ and refuse to worship Caesar. And then to allow their blood to be spilled rather than seek vengeance.
If our society no longer thinks that homosexuality is wrong, what blame do we bear in that? Don’t we bear some blame because we didn’t diligently teach our own children the ten commandments? Because we didn’t love our neighbors enough to put aside self-seeking and seek their salvation? Because we retreated when it was time for judgment to begin in the house of God, and we tolerated divorce outside the situations in which Scripture permits it?
I have failed so often as a pastor and as a Christian because I wanted to maintain my claims to righteousness in the flesh–well, I’m not as chaste as I should be (that is, completely chaste), but at least I’m not shacking up with my girlfriend…I’m an imperfect pastor in many ways, but at least I don’t teach contrary to my ordination vows. etc.
How sad it is that we come to our brothers this way. Our society now openly admits what before it hid–that it isn’t Christian. Instead of pity and patience with ignorance and weakness, I usually react with anger and force. Which still means, I’m in the right here.
I imagine that when Peter or Paul came with the Gospel, it must have struck people that they came preaching the crucified Christ whom at one time they denied or persecuted. They were not irritated with the Gentiles for worshipping idols or practicing sexual immorality. “How could you be so stupid! You mean to honestly tell me that you didn’t think it was wrong to participate in fornication with prostitutes in order to honor a stone statue that looks like a bull?” But that’s what Christians sometimes are like; or they’re trying to get everyone to vote to make it so that people who don’t know God can’t do the things that they like doing.
And when Jesus came preaching the gospel? He had a reason to get angry with sinners, especially when they talked back or mocked him or threatened His life. But instead He made His innocence ours and our sin His.
That was why the Gentiles who worshipped idols suddenly changed–because Christ bore our sins, and because the message was not concerning a better law or simply a better religion. It was in some sense the end of religion and certainly the end of the law. “Christ is the end of the Law that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” “Through the Law I died to the Law that I might live to God.” “Therefore my brothers, you also have become dead to the Law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit to God.”
Somewhere Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “religionless Christianity.” In some ways the growth of “no religion” in the US is a positive development; perhaps the cross meets less resistance among religionless people than religious. After all, when the Church began, it probably was difficult to think of something less “religious” than the cross. Maybe that is the reason that the cross and its theology continues to find it hard to live in the Church–both in churches where “religion” is not a dirty word, and still more in churches that claim to have “no religion.”
This should be a no-brainer, but it isn’t. This guy was suing a town for having a nativity display. This kind of thing riles many conservative Christians I know. But then the man started to go blind so he dropped the lawsuit. And the Baptist church in town raised thousands of dollars to help him with his medical bills.
Then the guy became a Christian. To be sure, he became a liberal Christian who disagrees with God’s word about homosexuality. But now he’s buying the star to put on top of the nativity display he once tried to make illegal.
What changed his mind about Christianity? Arguments? Apologetics? Sermons? No. The Holy Spirit moved some Christians to show compassion.
19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The martyria/witness of Christians made him willing to hear the word of God he had been resisting. I pray that that kind of compassion would characterize me and my congregation.
Oh, how great is Your compassion,
Faithful Father, God of grace,
That with all our fallen race
In our depth of degradation
You had mercy so that we
Might be saved eternally. Johann Olearius