I had an experience this week which really bothers me. One of our members went home to the Lord. This was not unexpected given her advanced age and health issues, but it was still painful for those of us who loved that person.
I was contacted by one of the person’s children and asked to refrain from speaking about sin or the fact that their parent had been a sinner during the service. They wanted to keep everything “upbeat” and happy. I said that the Gospel is only good news if you know what the alternative is–eternity in hell. Sinners who know Christ as Lord and Savior are not bound for punishment but for an eternity in the presence of the Lord. That’s what makes the news good for believers. That, however, wasn’t good enough. There could be no discussion of such things because they were a “downer”, I guess. I also pointed out that funerals always have people in attendance who have not heard the Gospel and it is an important part of a funeral service to witness to those folks, especially when the deceased had a saving faith.
Well, none of this was good enough and so we’re not having a funeral. The family is sponsoring its own celebration of life at a civic building. That’s okay, I know where the deceased is and I rejoice in their salvation.
Despite being disturbed by this one incident, I have to say that I have been put off for some time about these so-called celebrations of life that have become popular. I’m especially put off when they take place in churches. Oh, I know that the family and friends want to hear good things about the one they mourn, and I have no objection to that at all. There is a place in our service for a Life Sketch where that is done. But there is also the proclamation of the Gospel in readings, prayers, hymns and a sermon. What is taking place here is not about the person’s life in this world, however long that may be. It is about the person’s life on the other side of the door–the really long part of life, not the short one.
St. Paul writes that we are not to grieve as do those who have no hope. Grieving is normal, but it becomes abnormal when it is either stuffed down in our gut, kept and massaged in our minds, or when people try to assuage their grief with a big party. Only faith in Jesus and in the eternal blessings bestowed on His elect people can truly give us hope filled grief, a bearable grief which has with it a true sense of victory over sin, death and the devil.
As a pastor I have responsibility for the care of the souls whom I serve. I won’t allow that to be diluted by worldly views. If that makes me a bad guy, I guess I’m a bad guy. But I will always care much more about the long future of my parishioners than about their short past.
My wife and I returned yesterday from a two week vacation. I’ve found as I’ve aged that it pretty much takes two weeks for me to really feel rested, one just won’t do the trick.
While we were gone we worshiped twice at a church in South Carolina. We’ve been there before and we have always heard the Gospel proclaimed in that place. It’s good, especially for pastors, to spend time under someone else’s teaching. For those of us who preach regularly it gives us an opportunity to hear maybe another perspective on a text or another take on a topic. For those who spend Sunday morning in the pews it’s also gives them a view of something a little different from their regular Sunday morning fare. (Let’s face it, pastors, we all have our hobby horses and our styles and, since none of us are Jesus, none of us are perfect preachers).
I confess I don’t understand those who think that a family vacation also means a vacation away from Sunday worship. Every time we enter a sacred place, we enter into an immediate interaction with the God of the universe. And every place where the Gospel is proclaimed in its purity is indeed a sacred place–whether in a store front or pole barn or a 200 year old church like the one I serve. As Christians we should long for that weekly fellowship before the living God with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And yet so many of us use excuses for why we aren’t in church on Sundays–vacation being one of those excuses.
Sometimes picking a church to attend on vacation can be a little dicey. We generally don’t know the congregations or the pastors in the places we visit. We’re not always sure what is being taught there. So I have some suggestions. First, pay attention to the denomination. That won’t be a sure fire answer to the question about what we can expect, but it will help. Of course there are orthodox congregations and pastors in even the most unorthodox denominations as there are unorthodox congregations and pastors in the most orthodox denominations. Still, the denomination is a generally good guide. Second, don’t pick a church solely on the time of service, whether early or late. Going to the local “community church” because it’s time fits your schedule best is a roll of the dice at best. Third, be open and friendly to the people who are members there. I know the people are supposed to be friendly to visitors, and I hope they are everywhere, but visitors shouldn’t just be passive receivers of greetings–after all, these are people of our family in Christ. Finally, make a joyful noise unto the Lord and learn something about Jesus.
Happy vacation worship.
Our congregation is at the beginning of a renewal program in which we are seeking to prepare ourselves for ministry in the years ahead. That and my reading material of late have caused me to spend a good amount of time thinking about the nature of the Church in our world. With this blog I’m going to begin a series of musings on what the Church is meant to be and where we are failing at that task–because I’ve come to believe that we are indeed failing.
The Reformers of the 16th century had to redefine what was meant by Church when they left the Roman communion. For centuries the Church meant the physical institution governed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Rome and its delegates around Europe. [There were, of course, other Christian churches, Eastern Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity in Egypt and Ethiopia, etc. But the Reformers knew little of them and much of what they thought they knew was wrong. So for today I’ll talk only about Rome and the Reformation]
Accused of splitting the one holy catholic Church, the Reformers redefined the nature of the Church as consisting of the people of God known only to God, wherever they might have been. Wherever God’s people were, whether in Roman Catholicism, Lutheran polity or Reformed polity, they were part of the Church. Frankly there is more than a little sense to that because not everyone on the roles of a Church body is a saved saint of God.
That said, though, what of the visible Church, for there must be a visible Church according to the clear teachings of Scripture. The apostles had no thought of an unaffiliated Christianity, no thought that people would stay in their homes, believing in Christ but not associating in any organized way with other believers. Indeed, the author of Hebrews admonishes believers telling them they are not to cease to meet together.
Certainly at the very center of the Church Militant is the local congregation where believers gather to hear the Gospel proclaimed and to participate in the Sacraments God has established for His Church. At no other place do these events regularly happen, so we know that the Church is present where these things occur. But what about relationships outside the congregation? What is the role of the Church there? What are the relationships among Christians that make them the Church together?
In our nation today there are who knows how many “community churches” and para-church organizations and preachers who function under no one’s authority but their own and their personal perception of the will of God. I have come to believe that the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, is being harmed in many ways by this sort of “independence”. That’s what I’m going to be musing about in this space in the weeks ahead.
In the 18th century Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were the principal leaders of something called the Great Awakening. The Holy Spirit moved with might and power in the American colonies with thousands coming to an assurance of their salvation and many more finding their faith strengthened and renewed. In the early 20th century there was another great revival in Wales. And there are many more we could name. These mighty works occur when the Church of Jesus Christ has fallen into a spiritual stagnation, a time when we go through the motions but we don’t live the faith. Friends, the Body of Christ in this country is now in just such a state.
Many people share my view of the situation, some are even trying to do something about it. But few are doing the things that have led to widespread revivals in the past. Too many believe that marketing techniques and entertainment oriented worship services will make the Church grow, and if it grows it will necessarily be revived. But revival is not about crowds. Revival is not about how we make people feel for an hour on Sunday morning. Revival is not about any of things the people who are focused on church growth are doing. Revival is about changing lives.
God used Jonathan Edwards, a thorough going 5 point Calvinist, to lead the Great Awakening in New England by preaching both Law and Gospel in their purity. It wasn’t through gimmicks and meeting the “felt needs” of the public that there was such a mighty movement of the Spirit there. No, friends, it was the proper preaching of the full counsel of God.
I told my confirmation class last week that if they ever hear someone get into a pulpit and preach, but omit the proclamation of the Gospel, they may have heard a good talk, but they did not hear a proper sermon. The job of a preacher in the pulpit is not to tell people how to make their marriages better or raise their kids better or any number of other good things that might be said. Such things belong in a Bible study, not a sermon. The sermon is the public proclamation of the Good News that sinners like us don’t have to go to hell because Christ Himself bore the punishment for their sins on the Cross at Calvary.
When people hear the pure Gospel and the Holy Spirit changes their hearts, that’s when lives are changed. That’s when renewal appears in a spiritually sluggish church. We don’t need gimmicks, we need the Gospel.
It’s time for a sleeping church to wake up. It’s time for pastors to return to preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us. It’s time, friends, time to rise and shine.
The great baseball player Satchel Paige once gave this advice to someone–don’t look back, they might be gaining on you. Now there is some wisdom in that statement. An unhealthy focus on the past could keep us from going forward with confidence into the future. And while we can find God in the events of the past as well as in the events of the present, He is also to be found in the future. God isn’t bound by time, which is just a human construct.
Still, there is value in our past, especially insofar as it warns us of the failures and dangers our ancestors faced. As George Santayana wrote, if we fail to study the past we are doomed to repeat it.
That’s been true in my life also. I was raised in the church and taught its importance. But then I drifted away and, as a song puts, walked where demons dwell. But God had determined that I was to be one of His and so He led me back from the brambles onto the narrow pathway. Still, I did many things that I am now ashamed of, and I need to focus occasionally on those sins to remind myself of the glory of the Gospel–Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for me.
The congregation I now serve has a long past–191 years this coming Sunday. There have been times of success and times of failure. Times of growth and times of decline. There have been pastors who stayed for a quarter of a century and pastors who barely got unpacked before leaving. The Gospel has been purely proclaimed and sometimes not so purely. A lot of things can happen in 191 years.
I will be focusing on some of this history for the next month in my sermons. My goal will be to remind us of our first love as a congregation–the spread of the Evangelical Lutheran faith. We need to go forward with God’s message in the world of the 21st century. We need to proclaim His Gospel in a world full of sin and misery. Looking back will teach us something. It will teach us that while we were also sinners, even in our churches, Christ is always faithful and we are always being empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish that for which we have been called.
In my reading this past week I came across a rather long quotation from the 19th century English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I won’t give it to you in its entirety, but I think it’s worth pondering, especially for those of us who are called to preach the Word in God’s Church.
Spurgeon noted that even in the 1880’s people were writing books and articles defending the Gospel against those who would bring it into disrepute. He allowed as how that was probably a good and needed thing, but he also noted that when the Gospel needed defending it was because the Gospel was not being preached as it should.
Then he drew this analogy–it would be as if you had a lion in a cage and you were worried about the fate of the lion against its enemies so you were calling in soldiers to defend the lion. Spurgeon noted that it was likely that the best way to defend the lion was to allow it to defend itself. In other words, let the lion out of its cage. And so he said the best way to defend the Gospel is to let the lion out.
In far too many churches the lion is kept in a cage with a sign above it that says “Assumed”. Too many preachers believe that the people in front of them know and believe the Gospel so they spend their time in the pulpit talking about things like how to have a good marriage, or how to avoid sin, or how to raise faithful children. They preach about everything except Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you. They ignore the fact that St. Paul, after his relative failure in Athens where he proclaimed Christ in a rather philosophical way, came to Corinth determined, he says, to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
No one should ever assume that people know the Gospel and believe it, nor should we assume that they don’t long to hear it proclaimed every time someone is in the pulpit.
Just let the lion out–He’ll take care of Himself.
I have a granddaughter. Her name is Katelyn and she is my only grandchild, so I dote on her quite a bit. It’s my responsibility, don’t you know. Parents discipline and instruct, grandparent’s dote. It’s the way of things.
Now I’m going to brag just a bit about Katelyn–she got straight A’s at school during the first marking period of her freshman year in high school. So I’m really proud of her. On the other hand, if she had received a bunch of D’s I would have still been proud of her–not because of what she had done, but because of who she is. You see I don’t love my granddaughter because she is the best high school freshman–I love her because she is my granddaughter.
It’s similar to the way God loves His chosen people. He doesn’t love us because we’re good or smart or because we achieve great things. He loves us because we are, because we exist, and He has chosen to love us, even though we’re not very lovable when you weigh us on the scales of righteousness or obedience.
St. John says that God is love. And that is true, even if we often misunderstand what John meant when he wrote those words. God created us so that He might love us. We exist to be the object of His divine affection. We are created so He can love us the way the Trinity has experienced love within Himself. The Father has always loved the Son who has always loved the Father who has always loved the Spirit who has always loved the Son who has always loved the Spirit who has always loved the Father. [I came by this understanding by reading Tim Keller, a Presbyterian pastor]. So God has chosen to share this love outside the Trinity and we receive it as a gift–an undeserved gift.
The next time you look at someone you love, just because you love them, I hope you’re reminded that the God of the universe loves you too–just because you are you.