Friday, July 17, 2015
'for freedom, Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery' (Galatians 5.1)
Remember the old question, 'Do you live to eat, or do you eat to live'? As a metaphor for other aspects of life, beyond food, this is a very profound question. Food is but one of a range of basic, primal needs humans beings have, none of which should be regarded as ends in themselves. Everyone agrees that a person who lives to eat would have a warped sense of what it means to live. Those who eat to live are free to focus on other things, beyond food.
Yet, today, as our society becomes more decadent, focusing on the most primal, lower brain appetites, more and more people cut themselves of from the enriched experience of life and service that they could have, were they to follow the higher impulses previous generations pursued. A symptom of this loss of awareness is the trend to define people by their sexual preference, or even sexuality preference.
Ironically, what is celebrated as 'liberation' brings a greater bondage with it, than before the 'sexual revolution', dragging many a Christian back into a 'yoke of slavery', often ending in a loss, not only of their faith, but even of their spiritual awareness, or ability to process anything requiring higher brain thinking. Consider the question, 'Do you “live to love” or ”love to live”?' This are not a false antithesis. People who 'live to love' may claim the romantic high ground, but they are thinking more like the most base animals, than human beings. Lovers who love, in order to live, have the correct perspective on both love and life.
Like those who 'live (in order to) eat', those who 'live (in order to) love' have lost both 'love' and 'life'. The need for intimacy is a basic primal need, but is should never be an end in itself. Intimacy between people should serve to fuel them for a higher purpose – living for Christ. 'For me to live is Christ', St. Paul famously wrote (Philippians 1.21).
'for freedom, Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore', writes St. Paul. (Galatians 5.1) According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2009), '...thousands of fatal drownings each year are deaths associated with natural hazards known as rip currents'. Rip currents carry people out to sea because they are unable to resist the pull of the surf. Decadence is like a riptide. This is why the Christian must find his/her feet on the solid foundation of faith in Christ and proactively maintain their spirituality, lest they be carried away by the currents of our decadent culture. Only with God, helping us to get our lives 'under control', can we say that we are truly free.
Jesus said, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed' (John 8.34-36). Our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, set us free from eternal condemnation when He bore the burden of our sin, guilt, and death in His own body, out of love for us; 'canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross' (Col 2.14). Trusting in Christ means being free, not only from the consequences of sin, but from 'belonging to sin and death'. Sin is the dead spouse – drowned in Baptism - from whom we are set free to 'marry' another – the source of eternal life, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Tuesday, April 07, 2015
Why not join a 'non-denominational' church! Besides, the 'mainline denominations' are in decline and aren't denominations kind of wrong, anyway? Are the 'non-denominational' groups like the first Christians – sort of 'pre-denominational' and therefore closer to what Jesus had in mind for His Church? And so it goes – some of the thoughts that move people to join the most impressive 'mega-church' they can find, leaving behind thousands of years of historic Christian doctrine and practice.
Yet, the question, 'What do we have to lose?' is more than a flippant rhetorical one in this case. For what Christians stand to lose in joining Non-denominational congregations is considerable.
YOU LOSE THOUSANDS OF YEARS OF YOUR HERITAGE as a follower of Jesus Christ. We all know we are not the first people to worship Jesus, but in non-denominational meetings, one feels cut-off from all the worship of Christ that has gone before today's 'hit parade'. The impression is given by them that today's church leaders, make it all up as they go along based on 'what works for you'. How different is that mentality from that of the apostles, men moved directly by the Holy Spirit, who taught, 'what I received, I handed on to you...' (1 Corinthians 11.23, 15.1-4).
YOU LOSE THE SENSATIONS associated with being a Christian at worship since ancient times. Gone is the 'sign of the cross', gone is the kneeling for prayer, gone is the sound of historic chanting and choral music, gone are the sights of liturgical colour, vestments, ceremonial reverence and solemnity, gone, gone, gone. And replaced by what? Sitting as though at a concert or cinema and being merely a spectator? Or, perhaps, jumping about, clapping and trying to sing like a pop-soloist? With hands in the air, only closing one's eyes provides escape from the banal atmosphere generated from the stage, cluttered with praise band paraphernalia, devoid of the sensations that Christians have cherished in past generations.
YOU LOSE THE SACRAMENTS. Period. NONE of the non-denominational groups offer the sacred mysteries, giving by Christ to be the comfort of His Church until the end of time. 'Baptism' among them is reduced to a human display of commitment, and the biblical teaching that 'baptism now saves...' or that through it God 'washes away sin' is explicitly denied. LOST is the teaching from God's word that, through baptism 'he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit' (Titus 3.5). LOST is the comfort of Holy Absolution, spoken into the ears of the penitent as Jesus directed His apostles to do when He said, 'If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld'. ( John 20.23). Nothing replaces such forgiveness, not an appeal to 'get right with God', nor a vague general platitude that God loves you, just as you are. Finally, LOST is the profound mystery of Holy Communion through the Body and Blood of Christ as real nourishment for the soul. The Real Presence of Christ, believed by the overwhelming consensus of Christians until recent years, is denied by the non-denominational groups. Mere bread and wine are consumed as a sterile 'memorial' of Christ, rather than the Holy Supper that Jesus Himself envisioned when He taught that 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you' (John 6.53).
YOU LOSE THE SCHOLARSHIP AND PROFOUND TEACHING. Suspicious of (or simply ignorant of) deeper Christian doctrine, often poorly educated non-denominational church leaders dumb-down the Christian message or deliver a superficial teaching based on trending books or blogs rather than the profounder mysteries of the Faith that Christians have studied over the centuries, with the Holy Scriptures as their source. As the apostles lamented '... by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food (!)' (Hebrews 5.12). Rather than moving people beyond their self-centeredness, non-denominational groups emphasize how it's all about you, just like today's advertisement industry.
YOU LOSE SIGHT OF THE GOSPEL. Many non-denominational groups tend to replace the preaching of the biblical 'Good News' (Gospel - that the reconciliation of Heaven and Earth has been achieved by Jesus Christ) - with the message of self-improvement. Reducing the atonement Jesus has made by His death on the cross and His resurrection to a mere 'back-story', the ongoing theme in non-denominational churches is our burden to please God by every day and in every way becoming better and better. It is not that they deny we are 'justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus' (Romans 3.24). They simply don't preach about that, choosing to preach human works to please God, almost as though by our works we earn God's favour.
PRAYER: We thank you God for leading us sinners and beggars to find the treasure and pearl of great price that is your Holy Church through which we have the Gospel that is able to save those who believe it by the power of your Holy Spirit. By that same spirit give us thankful hearts to gratefully acknowledge Your grace and mercy to the glory of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, our strength and Redeemer, Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.Why not join a 'non-denom' church? What do we have to lose?'
Thursday, March 12, 2015
When I preach about Moses lifting up the bronze serpent for the healing of God's rebellious and sinful people (Numbers 21.4-9), I recall how, when Cheryl and I first visited Redeemer Lutheran Church in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, we were both struck by the dramatic sight of a nearly life-sized crucifix hanging high over the altar. It was then that we joined the ranks of the many who have likewise found the crucifix at this church to be surely one of its most striking features.
Some, who visit the church, unfamiliar with such a sight, ask us why we don’t have a simple “empty” cross up there. “Why a crucifix?” they ask. And there is a very good answer to that question. What answer do you think was given to visitors to the Temple in Jerusalem, thousands of years ago, who witnessed the gory animal sacrifices that took place there, as in the Tabernacle before it? They would be told that God commanded such sacrificial spectacles so that people could see a sight that symbolized the penalty for sin and the cost in blood required to atone for sin and guilt. “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” as the Bible says (Hebrews 9:22).
Our Redeemer, Jesus Christ Himself teaches us, that, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15). Although, with those words, Jesus is not commanding the use of crucifixes in His Church, we do have the same God today who commanded those Old Testament spectacles to be seen in His temple long ago, even though such sacrifices, could not provide the ultimate atonement for sin. In the New Testament, the sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, DOES pay for our sins.
Should believers not now gaze upon the image of the crucified Christ? I would suggest that since, long ago, the eyes of the faithful were to look upon sacrifices that only symbolized the coming atonement of Christ, much more, now that the death of God's Son, on a cross, actually achieved the redemption of the human race once and for all, should we have before our eyes this image of Jesus! To his churches in Galatia who were in danger of losing the true Gospel, St. Paul wrote, 'O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified' (3.1). Publicly displaying a crucifix is a way of pointing to the true Gospel!
I like to draw people’s attention to the fact that many sports trophies include a statue, at the top of the trophy, of a player winning their victory. The gleaming figure on a softball trophy will be carrying a bat. A golfing trophy may feature a man swinging a driver. On a crucifix we see the figure of a man winning a victory over sin, death and the devil that He graciously shares with all of us. “Go spread your trophies at His feet and crown Him Lord of all”!
An empty cross makes a great logo, in so far as it goes. Yet, “We preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:22). In his liturgical notes, Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary Professor Tom Winger writes, “… the cross itself is a powerful symbol of the faith, but its real meaning lies in the One who was crucified upon it. It is Christ’s suffering and death upon that gruesome instrument of torture, which paid for the sins of the whole world. Even more, by showing the body of Christ, we confess that Christ continues to be present with us bodily to bring to us the forgiveness He has won, especially as He gives us His Body to eat in His Supper”.
This is why we, in the Lutheran Church are pleased to “lift high the cross, the Son of God proclaim…” as we do, with a crucifix.
Monday, March 09, 2015
‘…whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God’
Is the Church a hospital or a gymnasium? Do you support science or faith in God? Is he an intellectual or athletic? Is she a Packers fan or a Pittsburgher? Are you ‘Confessional’ or ‘Missional’? Is church music traditional or contemporary? Does your church teach discipleship or evangelism? Are you a ‘sinner’ or a ‘saint’? Is God just or loving? Is He the Lord of the living or of the dead? Can you ‘have your cake and eat it, too’?
Must we always choose between ‘opposites’, or can some things be ‘both/and’? Life is full of things that are truly opposites - true ‘antitheses’. But we hear a lot of false antitheses too. We hear one thing pitted against another, not always for good reasons, causing, in some cases, unnecessary conflict.
In rhetoric, a false antithesis is an example of a logical fallacy. Although that may sound rather academic, as it impacts everything from communication to cooperation between people, false antitheses are a serious matter, especially when they become the conventional view of a society.
Perhaps you feel that false antitheses are be more common in youth than in old age, but that, too, could be a false antithesis. Older people can be as polarized by a false antithesis as people of any other age. In my case, early in my career, I remember being challenged to choose sides in a debate about whether the Church was a hospital or a gymnasium.
Now, this many years later, I’m like ‘seriously’? Surely the church has aspects of both a hospital and a gymnasium as does any health facility that includes both clinical therapy and physiotherapy. What both a hospital and a gymnasium have in common is that they both provide a safe supportive place for healing and exercise. Both of them exist for the benefit of those who use them.
We come to church as people with souls ailing from sin and guilt. We go to Divine Services, not as the “righteous who need no repentance”(Luke 15.7), but as the sick, requiring divine healing through the forgiveness of sins delivered in the Church by means of God’s word and sacraments. As Jesus said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5.31-32) At the same time, we also come to church, as God’s forgiven people – sanctified as well as justified - to exercise those qualities as God’s holy people, that we will need to have if we are to engage others in the wider world effectively. Again, as Jesus said, “love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13.34-35).
So do we belong to the Lord while we are alive, or only when we die? Beware of a false antithesis. For, “…whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s”.
Friday, February 13, 2015
Every day of year many people will find themselves seated for considerable lengths of time on both sides of an aisle all facing forward. Crowded together like sheep, they will be served by smartly dressed persons who assist them as they all proceed on a journey, the outcome of which is not in their hands, but rests in the hands of a skilled Pilot. As they are gathered together they will be offered some nourishment that some will refuse. They will be expected to look at some printed material and listen carefully to what is being said - although many will ignore the speaker. They will be told that they are required to comply with the instructions of those who tell them how to be saved. Where are they?
If you can see a resemblance between going to church and traveling on a commercial airline - then you I and are on the same page. For there is a resemblance that is worth thinking about. especially from the perspective of a pastor.
It seems to me that a useful comparison may be made between pastors and flight crew/flight attendants, as the above riddle suggests.
- Flight attendants do not pilot the aircraft on the journey - neither do pastors determine the course of people's lives.
- Flight crew do not own the airline - neither do pastors own their churches.
- Flight attendants do represent the airline and its image and therefore wear a nice uniform and maintain their appearance. Pastors, too, should look smart and take care to represent the church well in all they do.
The instructions given by the flight crew are to be respected and heeded. Federal regulations require that all passengers comply with the instructions given by flight attendants. Likewise the Holy Scriptures require that all church members respect the instruction and guidance of pastors as they have the best interests of the whole church in mind and of individuals in particular who must all answer to a higher Authority - God.
The instructions given by flight attendants may actually save you from death. The instructions given by pastors often involve facts and the administration of the means of grace that can make all the difference between eternal life and eternal death.
Most of all, flight attendants never cease to care about and care for passengers. As long as you are on their flight, the flight crew will try to do all they can to make your journey a positive one.
British Airways used to have the slogan "To Fly - To Serve". That was a reference to the mission of the flight crew as they committed themselves to attending to their passengers' every need. At the same time, the flight crew shared the fate of their passengers should anything happen during the flight.
It is the mission of pastors to serve in a similar way - to attend to the needs of the people entrusted into their care. And during the journey of life to put the needs of their fellow-passengers at the forefront of their minds.
Like airlines, there are many choices of religions available to you. But instead of saying, "Thank you for choosing us," I am going to say, "Thank God that He chose you, called you by the Gospel, enlightens you with His gifts, sanctifies you, and keeps you in the true faith!" We hope that you have a pleasant journey!