sacraments

What in the World Should We Do?

One of the greatest Lutheran theologians of the 20th century was a German Lutheran named Hermann Sasse. He was one of the first German clergy to rise up in protest to Hitler. He was, ultimately, a pastor’s pastor. He spent years writing letters around the world to different pastors. These letters encouraged men in their ministries. These letters spurred discussion about the actions that the church-at-large should take in regards the continued proclamation of the Gospel. As I was reading one of these letters today, the following passage hit me. In regards to the question of what the church should do to stem its decline and seemingly certain death, Sasse gives this counsel:

The third thing, however, that we must learn anew is Luther’s invincible faith in the power of the means of grace. Whatever the Church still has and still does should not be minimized. But she does not live from mercy, or from political and social activity. She does not subsist on large numbers. When will the terrible superstition of the Christendom of our day cease that Jesus Christ is powerful only there where two or three million are gathered together in His name? When will we again comprehend that the Church lives by the means of grace of the pure preaching of the Gospel and by the divinely instituted administration of the Sacraments and by nothing else? And for no other reason than because Jesus Christ the Lord is present in His means of grace and builds His Church on earth, being even as powerful as ever before in the history of the Church – even if His power and glory, to speak as our Confessions do, are cruce tectum, hidden under the cross (Ap VII – VIII 18). Oh, what secret unbelief and what little faith we find in the Church that calls herself the Church of the sola fide! May God in His grace eradicate this unbelief and strengthen this weak faith in our souls and renew us through the great faith of the New Testament and the Reformation. That, and that alone, is the manner of overcoming the urgent need of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the greatest and weightiest crisis of her history.

~Hermann Sasse, 1948~

In a world where innovation is often valued over substance… in a world where fads seem to rule the day, may we always strive to keep the simplicity of the the Gospel in front of our eyes and the eyes of our people. May the certainty of the forgiveness of sins and the hope of faith drive all that we say, do, and know. May this not be an encouragement to laziness, but a reevaluation of where the church should always begin. Everything we do is to proclaim and lift up those certain places where God distributes His good gifts to us. It is the place where “for you” renews a sinner in sainthood. It is a place where a simple word can uplift the soul and conquer the prince of this world. Amen and Amen.

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The Body of Christ

*Caveat: This sermon was preached as part of a series of sermons addressing a Capital Stewardship Campaign in the congregation. So there is part that, while having broad application, refers directly to the context in which I am a pastor. Hope you still enjoy!

Christ is risen!
He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

Do you ever remember seeing something that was really neat the first time you saw it? But then afterwards, you may have seen it a hundred times, maybe a thousand times. Now, it just doesn’t hold any luster. Now it might even annoy you a little? A movie? A commercial? That song you heard a year before they started playing it on the radio? The disappearing coin trick? Magic tricks are notorious for this. Once one knows how a magic trick is performed, it is really easy to lose interest. The mystique is gone. From magic tricks to movie trailers… from pop songs to commercial jingles… once we over-familiarize ourselves with something, it is very easy for that something to become second-rate… boring… disposable. We tune-out. We ignore. We change the station. We go get a snack or something to drink so we are ready for when the good stuff arrives… the new stuff.

We’ve seen a lot of the body of Christ lately, haven’t we? For the most pious among us We had Maundy Thursday service, Good Friday Service, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunrise, and Easter Sunday service. Now, we are back here again. We have seen the supper of the body of Christ instituted on Thursday. We saw the body of Christ on the cross on Friday. We saw the body of Christ risen from the dead in all of the services from Holy Saturday through Easter Sunday. I don’t care who you are. That is a lot of the body of Christ.

Here this morning…. Just 7 days later, we have it again… the body of Christ. He actually shows up twice in our account for today. The disciples are scared to death that what happened to Jesus might happen to them also. They are cowering in together behind locked doors. Then, all of a sudden, Jesus was standing among them. Gasps of ghostly shock. Shrieks of terror sounded from the disciples until Jesus speaks, “Peace be with you!” They see His hands and side. They see He is not a ghost. Then, they calm down and are glad. But one was not with them. Thomas. The Bible doesn’t give an account of where Thomas was, but He was not there. So the disciples tell Thomas. As can be expected, Thomas meets this news with skepticism. Who wouldn’t? A dead person raised to life? That doesn’t happen. Bodies put in tombs do not come out. But He did. It happened to Jesus, and Thomas got to see it the next week. They were all together again. Afraid of the Jews again. Doors locked again. And Jesus stands among them again. His hands and His side again, but this time especially for Thomas. Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and My God”. Jesus responds, “Do you believe just because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Most of you are probably familiar with this account. It is the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter every year. The same room. The same scared disciples. The same doubting Thomas. The same Body of Christ. You might feel like a you’ve just heard the latest pop song on the radio for the 3000th time? It might have been great the first 50 times but it is getting a little ridiculous? It just loses its impact when we know the trick. It loses its hit when we know the punch line. We know that Jesus is going to appear. We know He’s not going to leave Thomas hanging. We know that Thomas is going to believe. Some of you have changed the station in your brains already.

However, like most of what we talk about here, our reaction to the same old Word of God is not new or avante-garde either. So typical of us in our American culture, isn’t it? As much as things are often way overdone, we also have a propensity to think that things should always be new. We think that they should always be exciting. If something doesn’t have to do with me, then I tune out… become disconnected… complain about not having my needs met… search for the next new thing. Our application-addicted culture is always looking for the next thing that will be catered to my life to make it easier, more productive, new, exciting. So when we sit in the same pew, Sunday after Sunday, hearing the same accounts, receiving the same Body of Christ, in the midst of the same Body of Christ, our commitment can often be lackluster. While we might continue to utter the same words of support for proclamation of the Gospel in our midst, our commitment often gets stagnant and stale. Other problems… other grudges… other axes to grind often pop up to steal away what really happens here.

Then, when Jesus seems to get a little old, it is easy for us to want to give Him a bit of face-lift. We are tired of the same-old-Savior who dies for the same old sins, so we try to dress Him up in a clever congregational program, a pithy sermon series, and maybe even some new music. This is where it is easy for us to run. When we feel that Jesus is tired, we run to make Him better. The unfortunate part being that is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. The fact that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow is a good thing… indeed, it is the very best thing. The fact that Jesus appears to us in His very body and blood every week is a good thing… indeed, it is the very best thing. Time and time and time and time and time again, your same old sins (and your new ones) are forgiven right here in the stead and by the command of your same old Jesus. And that is a good thing… indeed, it is the very best thing. It is the reason that Jesus appeared to the disciples and to Thomas. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed! That is you! You are blessed by the Body of Christ as you are in the Body of Christ. Your sins of idolatry, profanity, neglect of God’s Word, parental disrespect, murder, theft, adultery, false-witness, coveting, and EVERYTHING in between have been forgiven in the exact same way they have always been forgiven. You are made new, in the exact same way that all of the Body of Christ has been made new since the beginning of time.

And that is why we do what we do here. It is why we endeavor to do everything to the best of our ability and resources. It is what we have school that is constantly trying to adapt and improve the education that it gives to the students. So that the sins of God’s people may continue to be forgiven in this place for years to come. It is the reason that we seek to maintain and improve the sanctuary. So that the body of Christ may continue to gather here around the Body of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith. It is the reason we update our sound system and add new fangled contraptions to record video and what-not. So that the same Word of God might be proclaimed to the best of our abilities. We are stewards of God’s abundant grace by which we grow in Him.

There is something else that you might be getting tired of hearing about. In a couple of weeks, we will be having a commitment Sunday for our Stewardship Campaign. It might sound like the same old plea for money. It might make your stomach wretch the same old way it always does when the church starts talking about money. You’re going to tune out. You may or may not fill out a commitment card. Frankly, on most days… on those days when I am not in an Administrative Council meeting, I give very little thought to how much you give. That is not for me to know. As a pastor, though, I implore you to remember what matters and stewardship is one of those things that matter. It is who we are as the Body of Christ. We take care of all the blessings that God gives to us. We seek to proclaim the Word of God so that those who have not seen might believe and by believing might have life in His name. Jesus appeared to the disciples. He appeared to Thomas. He comes and dwells with us in the same, wonderful, and comforting way. Your sacrifice and commitment is an integral way that God works in this place.

I, often, wonder what it would have been like for the disciples and Thomas during that week in between the two appearances in our readings for today. Did Thomas tease the disciples? Hey guys, did you see Jesus again? Did the disciples ridicule Thomas? Hey Thomas, remember that time when Jesus showed up in the room even though the doors were locked? Oh, that’s right! You weren’t there! These are things that we will never know. But we DO know that Jesus did show up. He did forgive their sins. He did show up for Thomas with precisely what Thomas needed to believe. We do know that He continually shows up for us in His Word and Sacrament. He continually calls us to be His people. We are called to live lives of faith and trust in God’s care. We are called to teach our children and strangers about Christ’s love… His same old love that is always here. We are called to be stewards of the mysteries of His grace. God continues to grant us the grace to endure the hardships of our lives. He continues bless us as the Body of Christ with physical and spiritual blessings beyond measure. It starts with forgiveness and flows out into every aspect of our vocation as God’s people. May God grant you joy in your place within the Body of Christ… the same old wonderful Body of Christ. Amen.

Fridays in the Faith [Delayed]: Be Fed or Starve…

Today’s excerpt is from The Spirituality of the Cross by Gene Veith.

When I first started going to a Lutheran church, I was mesmerized simply by watching the people go up for Communion and hearing what the pastor was saying to them. We couldn’t go, of course, until we had been thoroughly instructed. We also had to become actual members of this particular community of believers, this “communion,” so intimate is the fellowship established by this eating and drinking. So at first I just watched: Jesus giving His body and blood for that teenager, that mother of the baby, that doctor, that lady in the wheelchair, “for you,” the pastor kept saying, “for you, for you.”

Sometimes the parishioners shuffling up to the Communion rail and back may have been  simply caught up in a routine – though at other times I would be startled by a seraphic expression on one of the faces – but the routine doesn’t matter. God routinely feeds His people, with their daily bread and with Himself. It is His action, and even our blindness or dull insensibility does not take anything away from His gifts.

Though I too sometimes take for granted Holy Communion, there are other times when I am overwhelmed by Christ’s real presence. When I had my first Communion, it was sort of like my Baptism. The wafer was light, but it had to be chewed. “This is the true body of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” I heard the pastor say. And the wine surprised me by its sharpness, the sour but sweet taste according with the words I was hearing: “This is the true blood of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” It was all so tangible, so real.

Without food, we would starve to death. We have to fuel our physical life; otherwise, we grow weak and waste away. The only food that can sustain our bodies comes from the death of other living things. Whether we are nourishing ourselves from a bloody steak or ripped up plants in a vegetarian casserole, there can be no life, even on the physical level, apart from the sacrifice of other life. What is true for physical life is true for spiritual life – we can only live if there has been a sacrifice. And we can only live if we have continual nourishment.

The Gospel of Christ converts us, but it also nourishes us. We need to keep receiving Christ over and over again. In the sacramental spirituality of Lutheranism, the Word and Sacraments are means of grace. They are tangible, material means used by God to convey the Gospel of Christ, who converts us, feed us, and is actually present in His Church.

This excerpt is from:
Gene Edward Veith, Jr. The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 52-53. 

Fridays in the Faith: Worship as Life and Life as Worship

The triumphant echo

Like passengers on a train in a dark tunnel, Christians rejoice to be part of a vast company who have passed through the darkness of this world into the brilliant sunshine of God’s glory. This means that worship is always an echo of the distant triumph song of those who even now rest from their labors in God’s eternal presence. Such worship can be many things but never listless or lifeless.

Finally, a revitalization of incarnational and sacramental theology will lead to revitalization of our worship. Contemporary Christians live in a complex world. We face loneliness and anxiety in a world that becomes increasingly hostile as the years go by. We need a way to come into real contact with God. Can entertainment-centered worship provide that contact?

Reality in worship

The Lutheran church has a rich legacy to offer in its worship. Here is reality, not symbolism. Here we have real contact with God; not as we come to him, but as h comes to us. He meets us in the proclamation of the Word. Here the Son of God distributes his actual body and blood for the assurance of the forgiveness of sins. Here the people of God gather to offer him their thanks, their praise and their prayer. This is the real thing!

It’s time for a new initiative in worship. People are longing for God. Where are they going to find him? In the shifting sands of their inner life or on the solid rock of the word of his gospel? How are they to offer him their thanks and praise? With trivial methods borrowed from the entertainment industry or in worship forms which focus on the praise of God’s gracious glory? This is the kind of worship which lifts the heart while it exalts Christ! And this is what Lutheran Worship does.

Life as Worship

The Christian faith, however, is not only a matter of cultus, or formal worship. It is also a matter of culture. There are direct lines leading from the sanctuary to the work place. Too frequently Lutheran Christians have failed to make that connection.

Piety need not be Pietism. It’s significant that Luther included a table of duties for Christians of various vocations in his catechism The life which we live in Christ as he lives through us is to be lived in the context of society, not only in the church. It’s significant, for example, that along with suggested prayers for morning and evening his catechism prescribes the signing of the cross. This was no mechanical formalism, nor some sort of superstitious magic. This action was a vivid reminder that each day is begun, continued, and ended in the death and resurrection of our baptism. Our whole life is a life under the cross of Christ.

The gospel is not only a message; it brings with it a whole new way of looking at life and living it. It is life style Christianity, but it’s a life style freed from the constraints of the legal demands and the plastic superficiality that characterize too much of American Christianity in our day. This life style is nothing less than Christ in action. It is Jesus Christ living out his life in his people!

Excerpt taken from
Harold L. Senkbeil. Sanctification: Christ in Action – Evangelical Challenge and Lutheran Response. (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1989), 181-183. 

Wednesdays with Luther: Death, Death, and Death

We come together again today to spend some time with Martin Luther. I have recently been giving a lot of thought to those doctrines that make us distinctively Lutheran. The ecumenical nature of many mainline Protestant churches can either be enticing to American Lutherans or it can be disturbing to American Lutherans. Lutherans, for centuries, have been a denomination that prides itself on the truth and purity of their doctrine as it is grounded in the Word of God. One of the first doctrines of Lutheran theology that separates of from American Protestantism is our belief in the power and efficacy of Baptism.

It is the teaching of Lutheran theology that Baptism is real, powerful, and (for lack of a better expression) does stuff. We believe that it puts to death the Old Adam (sinful nature) and causes a new man to rise forth to live for Christ in faith, love, and hope. The words of Peter are very true. “Baptism… now saves you.

Our time with Luther comes to us today from his commentary on Romans 6:3 which says, “Do you not know that all of uswho have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Luther details what is meant by death and how it applies to Baptism.

Hence we must note that death is of two kinds: natural, or better, temporal death and eternal death. Temporal death is the separation of the body and the soul. But this death is only a figure, a symbol, and like death painted on a wall when compared with eternal death, which is also spiritual. Hence in the Scripture it is  very often called a sleep, a rest, a slumber. Eternal death is also twofold. The one kind is good, very good. It is the death of sin and the death of death, by which the soul is released and and separated from sin and the body is separated from corruption and through grace and glory is joined to the living God. This is death in the most proper sensed of the word, for in all other forms of death something remains that is mixed with life, but not in this kind of death, where there is the purest life alone, because it is eternal life. For to this kind of death alone belong in an absolute and perfect way the conditions of death, and in this death alone whatever dies perishes totally and into eternal nothingness, and nothing will ever return from this death, because it truly dies an eternal death. This is the way sin dies; and likewise the sinner, when he is justified, because sin will not return again for all eternity, as the apostle says here, “Christ will never die again,” etc. (v.9). This is the principal theme in Scripture. For God arranged to remove through Christ whatever the devil brought in through Adam. And it was the devil who brought in sin and death. Therefore God brought about the death of death and the sin of sin, the poison of poison, the captivity of captivity. As He says through Hosea (Hos. 13:14): “O Death, I will be your death; O Hell, I will be your bite.” This is prefigured in all the wars of the children of Israel in the Old Testament, when they killed the Gentiles. The other kind of death is eternal and very terrible. It is the death of the damned, where sin and the sinner are not the ones to die, while man is saved, but man dies, while sin lives on and continues forever. This is “the very evil death of the wicked.” And when the apostle speaks of the death of Christ in a sacramental manner, he is speaking of the second spiritual death, and thus the meaning of his words is very plain.

…For a person can think of life without eternity. Thus it also says in the same psalm: “Our God is the God of salvation; and to God the Lord belongs escape from death” (Ps. 68:20), rather than  the entrance of life. For the entering into life can, and necessarily must, become a departure from life, but “the escape from death” means to enter into a life which is without death. These are “the delights of Christ” of which it says in Ps. 16:3: “As for the saints in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight,” and in Ps. 111:2, “Great are the works of the Lord, sought out according to all His desires.”

The great works of the Lord in the life of a Christian are those works in which He lays sin to death, and achieves victory over evil. These great works start at Baptism, are continued through his Word and His Supper. These are works of God are the core of what it means to be a Lutheran. How are we Lutheran, or even Christian, if we do not rally around God’s Word and the Sacraments for grace, life, and salvation?

 

Excerpt taken from:
Luther’s Works, 
ed. Hilton C. Oswald, vol. 25, Lectures on Romans (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 310-311.