Beware of Life Celebrations

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.

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What We Preach Matters

I am a big advocate of expository preaching.  This style of preaching involves going through the Biblical text verse by verse (or something close to that).  I most often preach straight through a book of the Bible.  Right now I’m preaching through Deuteronomy and I must admit it is occasionally taxing my ingenuity because it is not always easy to make sermon material out of some of the laws.  I started this method some years ago because I believe many people miss too much of God’s Word when we stick solely to the assigned texts for the church year.

I read an article recently which reminded me of the danger of expository preaching–I could miss the proclamation of the Gospel.  For example, if I proclaim God’s Word from Deuteronomy this Sunday but fail to connect what is taught there to Jesus Christ who was crucified and risen for me, then I have debased the pulpit,, for Jesus and Jesus alone is our Savior.  The Old Testament speaks in progressive revelation of the One who would rid us of the stain of our sin, and it is our duty to bring that out in its fullness.  What the Law meant to people in 1800 BC is irrelevant in the light of Christ and I must make sure the people in the pews before me understand what the text means now that the fullness of the revelation of God has been made known to us.

Preaching is a great privilege but it also carries with it great responsibility.  As James points out, those who teach in the Church will be judged by a higher standard.  We who have been given this privilege must remember we have been called to speak of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  Our opinions on most things don’t matter.  Historical information may be interesting, but it is of little purpose if it does not contribute to the proclamation of Christ for us.

Like many other things, preaching styles are subject to fads.  Recently there was this experiment with telling stories rather than preaching sermons.  From reports on sermons I’ve received, it seems to be pretty much a failure because it strays from the Word too easily.  But even the best preaching style can fail miserably if the preacher forgets why we’re really here and Who we really serve.

School Shootings Aren’t The Problem

Terrible things have been happening in our country.  Multiple attacks made on schools by young people have made everyone nervous and every politician is fighting to get in front of a microphone so they can “deplore” and “promise change” and fix what so far seems unfixable.  Everyone has a program or a policy that they claim will solve the problem and absolutely every single one of those programs or policies will fail.

Of course guns are said to be the culprits.  But guns are inanimate objects.  They are incapable of doing anything on their own.  If you lay a gun on a table and never touch it nothing will happen except a layer of dust will decorate it.  Guns are not responsible for shootings, people are responsible for shootings and if we outlawed all guns of all types people who wanted to kill would find another way to do it.  My understanding is that a bomb can be made from things any of us could buy at a hardware store.  What are we going to do–outlaw fertilizer?

The problem we are facing is one caused not by the availability of weapons but by the desire of people to use those weapons.  There is the problem.

We are all born sinners.  I believe that any one of us is quite capable of committing an evil act, given the right circumstances.  A well ordered society which promotes behavior that encourages community and interpersonal relationships that are both deep and continuing will have fewer outbreaks of violence and evil than an atomistic society that speaks only of “rights” and hardly ever of “responsibilities”.

Friends we live in that very atomistic society in which everyone proclaims their “rights” (real and imagined) frequently and loudly.  American culture is today sick unto death.

I have no hope for the future of this nation if God does not send another Great Awakening among us–an Awakening that will last through multiple generations so that the rot that invests our public and private lives will be beaten back and replaced by (dare I say it) personal virtue and public responsibility.

The politicians can’t fix what is wrong with this country.  The courts can’t fix what’s wrong with this country.  The schools can’t fix whats wrong with this country.  Don’t waste your time looking to them.  If this nation will survive at all it can only do so when Christians begin to take God’s Word seriously–when the Sermon on the Mount becomes our standard–when a biblical worldview guides our lives–when we who claim to follow Christ begin to live His way, showing the world around us the superiority of God’s way of life in this world.  All too often it’s hard to tell the difference between Christians and non-Christians in how we live, how we speak, how go about our work, how we behave.

So let those who claim to follow Christ be the difference.  Even if we can’t save America, we can witness to the One who can.

Lutheran Pietism

It’s said that when the early German settlers came to this country they often brought two books with them–Luther’s translation of the Bible and Johann Arendt’s book True Christianity.  True Christianity was the opening statement, if you will, in the movement that became known as Pietism.  Since that time this movement has been hailed as a saving force for Reformation theology and demonized as a substitution of personal feelings for Biblical truth.

I’ve been asked to write a little about Pietism and I’ll admit that I think it has overall been a good thing, but like any system established by people, it has its flaws and dangers.

The early Reformers did not spend much time on systematizing their theology–they were too busy dealing with the immediate problems and dangers they were facing.  In the generations after Luther’s death, Lutheran scholars began to work on theology in way Luther had not.  Indeed, some of the most famous ones began to again use the methodologies of the Scholastic scholars Luther so disliked.  That, combined with the increasing Rationalism of the age, led many Lutheran clergy to treat faith as a series of doctrines which, once learned and professed, would lead to salvation for the believer.  There was little discussion of what that should mean for the life of someone who professed Christ as Savior.

Arendt’s work was meant to encourage Christians to do more than simply recite statements, but to allow Christ to change their lives, to alter the way they saw the world and behaved in it.  It was, in effect, a call to sanctification in the life of a believer.

A generation later Philip Spener wrote a new introduction to True Christianity which came to be called the Pia Desideria.  This is often cited as the beginning of the Pietism movement.  It was a powerful movement in Germany and Scandinavia for several centuries.  Many of the Lutherans who came to American brought this as part of their religious understanding.  The great organizer of early American Lutheranism was Henry Melchior Muhlenberg who was trained at the University of Halle, the center of German Pietism at the time.  Later on Scandinavian immigrants brought their version of the movement to the Us.

At its best Pietism was a holistic movement which taught both good doctrine and a life of piety, a faith life that showed itself in good works.  At its worst Pietism could become overly fixated on the importance of a a personal response to  Christ leading them to a semi-Pelagianism that substituted a person’s willful acceptance for Christ’s saving election.  It would therefore be wrong to completely identify piety with Pietism.  One can without a doubt live a pious life without being a Pietist.  Works of piety are not part of a movement, but of a lifestyle.

On the whole Pietism had a lasting impact on Lutheran thought and life, especially in the United States where Lutheranism has remained a dynamic religious movement even as it has shed part of it’s ethnic identity

 

What Is The Church

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.

 

By Our Fruits

I’m teaching through 1 Thessalonians right now and I’m using multiple commentaries as part of my preparation.  One is the popular Daily Study Bible Series by William Barclay. (Look, I know there are some problems with his theology, but that doesn’t mean there is no good fruit there.  F. F. Bruce considered him a Christian brother so who am I to deny that assessment?)

Anyway, Barclay has this sentence in the commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12; “A tree is known by its fruits; and a religion is known by the kind of men it produces.  The only way to demonstrate that Christianity is the best of all faiths is to show that it produces the best of all men.”

That raised the question for me–have I been one of the best of all men this week?  Could people see Christ in me when they looked at my ways.  Frankly, the answer is kind of mixed for me.  Some see the caring pastor,  but others see the guy who can be angry and dismissive.  Some see a model of the faith, others see a man who is less than perfect in his family relationships.  Some see a busy man who works hard, and others see someone who has a tendency to put things off until the last minute or find excuses for not doing what needs doing (apologies to Garrison Keillor).

Sometimes I think we are often too ready to use the idea that we are simultaneously saint and sinner as an excuse for failure to grow in sanctification.  In chapter 4 Paul writes to the Thessalonians and to us that, “this is the will of God, your sanctification …”

So I ask you, friends, when someone looks at your life, do they see that faith in Christ produces the best of all men (and women)?

Waking Up The Church

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.