Monday, May 30, 2011

Always Being Prepared to Make a Defense

            The text for today is our Epistle, 1 Peter 3:15: “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”  Here ends the text. 
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
            Pastor Terry Jones drew worldwide attention when his small congregation (about thirty members) staged a “trial” of the Koran on March 20th in Gainesville, Florida.  News of that event incited riots in Afghanistan and provoked an attack on a United Nations facility that killed seven people. 
Jones then planned a Good Friday rally outside the largest American mosque in Dearborn, Michigan.  Jones stated, “We have made it very clear that we are coming there with very, very peaceful intentions,” but added, “We will be armed.  We do have concealed weapons permits.”
Though banned in court from holding the protest outside the mosque, Jones finally staged a rally near the site a week later with a half dozen supporters in attendance.  He had to cut short the planned three-hour rally when he was drowned out by about 700 protesters who shouted and tossed their shoes and water bottles at him.  Undaunted by the protests, Jones plans to return.  He claims his fight is not about hate, but about standing up for America and combating the radical Muslims.
Other churches have taken an opposite approach: They are opening their facilities to Muslim groups.  Heartsong Church near Memphis, Tennessee, reportedly allowed members of the Memphis Islamic Center to hold Ramadan prayers in its building last September. 
Steve Stone, Heartsong’s senior pastor, said, “No thought at all was given to the political ramifications … The decision was firmly based only on our understanding of the mission and nature of the church.”  He also pointed out that “there was no trading of theologies.  They are Muslims; we are Jesus followers; both of us are clear about that.”
            How about another example of polar opposites in outreach efforts?    
Take Westboro Baptist Church, a congregation, started by Fred Phelps, which first gained notoriety in 1998, when members picketed at the funeral of Matthew Shepherd, who was murdered in Wyoming because he was gay.  Since then, the members have protested at the funerals of public figures such as Elizabeth Edwards, children killed in bus accidents, and soldiers killed in war. 
Shirley Phelps-Roper, the church spokeswoman, says they want God to punish Americans for tolerating homosexuality.  They picket funerals to make people angry, she says.  They want people to reject God and be condemned to hell.  “Our job is laid out,” she says, in comments sprinkled with biblical references.  “We are supposed to blind their eyes, stop up their ears and harden their hearts so that they cannot see, hear or understand, and be converted and receive salvation.”
            Compare that to the comments of Rev. Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  When asked about the hundreds of congregations that have left the ELCA since it voted in 2009 to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy, Hanson said those defections represent a small percentage of the church body’s 10,000 congregations. 
            Hanson declined to state his personal view (or more importantly the biblical view) on whether God can bless gay and lesbian relationships, stressing that his job is to help all sides feel safe and free to discuss their differences.  Hanson declared, “Our unity is in our diversity.”  He added that congregations holding the traditional view that the Bible condemns same-sex relationships are still welcome.
Two pairs of extremes.  Two pairs of diametrically opposing approaches in outreach efforts.  The one “in your face” confrontational, the other bending over backwards to appease.  Each trying to figure out how to deal with difficult issues: the rapid spread of Islam and a campaign for the acceptance of homosexuality.  None coming to the correct Biblical conclusion.  All sadly missing out on their opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in the process.
            But as difficult as these issues are for us today, are they anything compared to Peter’s day?  The apostle writes to encourage people who have already begun to experience persecution for their faith under Nero; but he predicts that worse ordeals are still to come.  Not having the right of citizenship, they could be arrested and imprisoned, held without bail or habeas corpus rights for any length of time, physically abused, subjected to seizure of property, exiled, sent to work as slaves in government mines, and even killed for no other reason than being Christians. 
            Peter could well understand these Christian’s bewilderment that God’s sons and daughters should undergo this kind of treatment—he himself had once expressed shock and horror at the idea of Jesus’ suffering and death and had to be rebuked as though he were Satan himself.  In the upper room on Maundy Thursday, Jesus had told him: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.  And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31, 32). 
Peter’s experience of failure, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration uniquely qualified him to write to other struggling Christians.  He’d been there.  He wrote his letter to help his brothers and sisters see that their painful trials were temporary, that hardship would purify their faith, and that God’s real goal for His children lies beyond this dying world.  Peter wanted them to lay hold of this living hope and to share the reason for that hope whatever their circumstances.
Peter undoubtedly had to smile to himself as he wrote these words about nonviolent passivity.  After all, was he not the one who was armed in Gethsemane?  Was he not the one who gave Malchus the earectomy?  He was ready to go down in a bloodbath, thinking that he would thus be honoring God.   
Peter could also understand the urge to run and hide.  When Jesus was led away to the high priest’s house, Peter followed at a distance.  A servant girl’s innocent question was all it had taken for him to deny even knowing the Lord. 
            But his Master had taught him well.  Peter repented and was reinstated.  Here, he issues an inspiring call to personal evangelisms even under the threat of persecution.   Christians are not to bash their enemies over the head, nor are they to cowardly run away when confronted.  You are to always be prepared to make a defense of the faith to anyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that is in you.  This is the ultimate in loving one’s enemies—what better way could there be than to seek to share the message of eternal life with them? 
            St. Peter begins: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy…”  Does this sound obvious?  Does a Christian need to be told this?  Of course you do.  People hate hypocrisy, and they can smell religious hypocrisy at 200 yards.  And unfortunately, you are hypocritical.  You like other people to think you are better than you really are.  And much of the time, you try to fool yourself, too.  You want to believe you’re doing better than you really are.  I know, because I do, too!
The selfish poisons inside of you seep from your sinful nature, and that Old Adam needs to be rebuked and contained each day.  The Christian self in you needs to reaffirm its faith every day—every day repenting, every day praying for strength to stand up for the truth, every day listening to the Savior’s voice through His wonderful Word.  And when your own heart is full of gratitude for being rescued from death and hell, you will be ready to speak, and your speech will have depth and conviction.  You will not taste or smell or sound phony.
            The next step is “always being prepared…”  This is not just a Boy Scout motto.  You prepare for other less important things.  So, why not prepare to share that which is most important to you: “the reason for the hope that is within you”?
God opens up the door for each of us to share the Gospel.  So be prepared.  Think about what you might say beforehand.  Do it now, when the pressure does not seem so noticeable.  Can you summarize the Christian faith in a few sentences? 
Here is a simple four-keyword summary of the Bible’s Law-Gospel message that you can keep in mind to help organize all the Bible facts you know. 
The first word is sin.  Tell people how we are separated from our Creator at birth, that no human being can lift himself up to God’s standards of holiness, that all people by nature are God’s enemies and under His curse. 
The second word is grace.  Tell people that for Christ’s sake, God loves us anyway.  He sent His Son to live and die in our place and pronounced the world not guilty because of Jesus.
The third word is faith.  Tell people that all of these good things—forgiveness, peace, spiritual life now, life forever—flow into our lives personally as the Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to lead us to believe these wonderful promises.
The fourth word is works.  Tell people that the Spirit of God comes to live in believers and enables them to live for God.  Believers see God’s ways as a delight rather than a burden, and find joy in conforming their will to His will.
Thus prepared, you are ready “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…”  The word translated here as “a defense” is apologia, a positive testimony and witness to the truth of the Gospel, particularly in the face of opposition.  The word translated as “a reason” is logon, literally, “a word,” preferably a word of Scripture.  Christianity is “reasonable.”  It stands up to scrutiny and investigation because it is true.  Christians are to be prepared to tell others about this truth whenever they have the opportunity. 
When you talk to people, you don’t have to argue with them, deliver the perfect sales pitch, try to make God’s ways logical or reasonable, be clever, or take the burden of converting them on yourself.  Just tell them what you hope for in God through the merits and work of Christ.  Let the Gospel do its work! 
As you do so, you must avoid the extremes of unnecessarily offending others in your Christian witness, or neutering the message to appease the modern gods of tolerance and political correctness.  You must not unnecessarily antagonize them, nor should you run away from them if they object.  Just speak the truth in love. 
St. Peter says, “Do it with gentleness and respect.”  But even such a gentle and respectful approach will not avoid all criticism or conflict.  That’s why he adds: “having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.  For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”
You should not be surprised when you suffer, not even when you suffer for doing right.  You live in a fallen world, where all of us are subjected to the consequences of sin in our daily existence.  God said to Adam: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread’—and to the woman—“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing.”  Since that time every human being has suffered—even Jesus.  He suffered more than you or I ever will—and He was perfectly righteous. 
That’s why Peter lifts up our eyes from our own circumstances to the objective reality of the victorious Savior.  In one sentence, the apostle sums up the full import of Christ’s atonement: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”
Your sin and guilt are more deserving of suffering than you care to admit.  Even one sin is deserving of God’s temporal and eternal punishment.  And you’ve committed thousands of sins—more than you even realize. 
But these words point you to what someone else has done for you, on your behalf, in your place.  It reminds you that your need is severe, but that the solution is even greater: the suffering and death of the God-man, Jesus Christ. 
Christ also suffered “once for sins.”  Although you sin repeatedly, Christ’s one act of atonement covers all your sins.  This is the Great Exchange: “The righteous for the unrighteous.”  The Father loaded the blame for the sins of the world upon a righteous substitute and then had Him executed on a cross in our place.  He is the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world. 
Christ did all of this “that He might bring us to God.”  You cannot lift yourself up to God.  Christ has lifted you up to God.  Christ has reconciled you to His heavenly Father.  Christ—His suffering, death, and resurrection—are the heart and center of the Bible.  This is really the only Good News that you have to share with a world that is lost and dead in its trespasses.  This is the Gospel that you need to hear again and again and again for it is the only Word that saves you… that brings you eternal life… that brings you a good conscience.
            This is the reason for the hope that is in you, no matter what your outward circumstances: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring [you] to God.”  Though He was put to death in the flesh, He was raised to life and has ascended into heaven at the right hand of God.  Even so, He is with you always, coming to you often in His Word and Sacraments, bringing you salvation and eternal life, bringing you this Good News: You are forgiven of all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
            The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, May 23, 2011

For the Sake of the Weaker Brother

Recently, I attended worshp at the congregation where I grew up.  It is a small rural congregation, so it wasn't surprising to me that even though it has been nearly thirty years since I regularly attended there, the vast majority present were the same people who were there while I was growing up.  There was the same hymnal and song book tucked under the pews.  It was all very familiar. 

One of the familiar faces is "Harold."  I'm not sure what the proper terminology is now, but "Harold" is developmentally disabled, though not severely, and he has been able to live on his own for the most part since his parents passed away.  I remember how "Harold" would come to worship every week with his parents.  They never missed a Sunday.  I also recall how "Harold" would sing along with the liturgy, recite the Creed, and pray the Lord's Prayer, often providing an ill-timed echo to the rest of the congregation, but always singing and responding with gusto.  In my teenage immaturity, it was quite annoying (even inappropriately humorous), but I was always impressed with "Harold's" enthusiasm, if not his technical skills.

I thought of this as "Harold" walked into the worship service and took his place in the pew (still the same spot if my memory serves me correctly.)  Now in his 60s, "Harold" comes to church alone.  His parents are long gone, but he still continues to worship each week.

But something was different this Sunday from all those Sundays of my memories.  I couldn't hear "Harold" sing.  His enthusiastic response was nowhere to be heard.  And I don't think it was "Harold's" fault.  You see, the hymnals stayed under the pews.  There was no formal liturgy.  There was no service written out, where everything except the propers was exactly the same week after week.  Consequently, "Harold" could no longer follow along as easily as he had once done.  He could no longer confess his sins with his fellow sinners and hear the words of absolution week after week.  He could no longer confess his faith in the words of the Apostles' or Nicene Creed.  As he prepared to come up to the Lord's Table for Christ's very body and blood, "Harold" wasn't reminded of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He didn't receive the "peace of the Lord" or pray for the Lord's mercy.  Nor was he able to sing along with Simeon afterward, confident that he was ready to depart in peace.

I don't know why these changes happened.  I couldn't even say that this is a continuous practice week after week.  It doesn't really matter.  I'm sure that there were good motives for doing: perhaps because of time restraints, or to "keep up with times" or to "reach out to others."  And it is well within a congregation's prerogative to make such changes for the sake of good order and according to local needs.  But it had the effect of shutting out one of God's children from full participation in the worship service.  Someone, who more than likely didn't have a voice in making that decision.  And that is a terrible shame. 

I know all the arguments.  The Bible doesn't give us a set form of worship; the form of worship is adiaphora; it's a matter of Christian freedom, and all others.  But aren't we also urged not to abuse this Christian freedom, lest we offend our weaker brother, lest we make it more difficult to them to hear God's Word and to receive His many blessings for Christ's sake through the Word and Sacraments?  Shouldn't we be willing to give up our Christian freedom for the sake of our weaker brother?
Consistency is a key for people like "Harold" who suffer from developmental disabilities.  Sure, they may not learn quickly, but they can learn (and memorize!) much through constant repetition.  What better things for them to learn and memorize than God's Word set to music and prayer?  That's what we have in the liturgy.  And this concern applies to other "weaker brothers" as well.  How about young children?  The elderly?  Those who have lost at least partial use of their sight, hearing, or even mind?  When they have the liturgy committed to their memory they are able to join in with the congregation, angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven in corporate worship.  Why would we want to take that away from them?

Friday, May 13, 2011

The 4th Commandment and the Famine of the Word

     Martin Luther's explanation of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism sums up well the theme and title of this blog: God sends men to preach His Word.  Those who listen to that Word are blessed.  Those who continuously despise that Word will ultimately get what they want: that Word will be taken away from them; false teachers will bring them words that tickle their itching ears and entertain them.  If this continues long enough the famine of the Word will lead to spiritual starvation. 

161 Yet there is need that this truth about spiritual fatherhood also be taught to the people. For those who want to be Christians are obliged in God’s sight to think them worthy of double honor who minister to their souls [1 Timothy 5:17–18]. They are obligated to deal well with them and provide for them. For that reason, God is willing to bless you enough and will not let you run out. 162 But in this matter everyone refuses to be generous and resists. All are afraid that they will perish from bodily needs and cannot now support one respectable preacher, where formerly they filled ten potbellies. 163 Because of this, we also deserve for God to deprive us of His Word and blessing and to allow preachers of lies to arise again and lead us to the devil. In addition, they will drain our sweat and blood.
164 But those who keep God’s will and commandment in sight have this promise: everything they give to temporal and spiritual fathers, and whatever they do to honor them, shall be richly repaid to them. They will not have bread, clothing, and money for a year or two, but will have long life, support, and peace. They shall be eternally rich and blessed. 165 So just do what is your duty. Let God manage how He will support you and provide enough for you. Since He has promised it and has never lied yet, He will not be found lying to you [Titus 1:2].

Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions. Edited by Paul Timothy McCain. St. Louis, MO : Concordia Publishing House, 2005, S. 377

By nature, we are all despisers of God's Word.  We would not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ or come to Him.  But God, in His grace, has sent us His Son Jesus Christ to pay for that sin, along with all of our other sins by His death on the cross.  Through the Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, gathers us into the Church, enlightens us with His gifts, and sanctifies us in the one true faith.  May that Word of God continue to lead us to repentance and faith in our Savior Jesus Christ daily.

Into the Wilderness

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