Sunday, October 31, 2010

The True Treasure of the Church

On October 31, 1517, 493 years ago, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed a paper to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This in itself was not unusual. In those days the church door served as the town bulletin board. But this particular notice written by Luther was quite unusual compared to the conventional religious wisdom of that time. That paper began the Reformation, a worldwide revolution that has continued relevance today.
The subject of this paper was the sale of indulgences. Martin Luther had 95 things to say about indulgences and hoped someone would be willing to debate them in a scholarly setting. Why was this so revolutionary? Because Luther was starting to lead a charge back into the Word of God. The Church of Luther’s era had built something almost unrecognizable over the foundation of God’s Word—a religion governed by human tradition—a religion by which heaven could be purchased by the consumer. Luther would lead a charge back into the Word of God—a charge to dig back into the foundation—a charge to discover what God really has to say to His creation.
One of the Bible passages that would come to mean so much to Luther was today’s Epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The parallels between Paul’s situation and Luther’s are obvious, but no less striking. Paul was writing about his own people—the Jewish people at the time of Christ. The Jewish leaders had developed a distorted picture of themselves. By thinking they could fully obey the Law of God, they had developed a pride that was destroying them. The religious system of the Jewish leaders no longer required God. They felt they could fulfill the Law themselves.
But the Law, Paul asserts, cannot make us righteous. The Law shows us our sins. What we do to keep the Law will not make us right with God, because we could never do enough. And it was not only the Jewish people who had a problem with pride. Paul also cautions his Gentile audience. No one is righteous, he says. There is no difference. All have sinned. What then becomes of pride? It is excluded. A person who is truly walking with God has nothing to be prideful about. We are justified, literally, declared “not guilty,” by faith, apart from works of the Law.
The Church of Luther’s time declared just the opposite. Pope Leo X wanted to complete St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Much money needed to be gathered before the mammoth project could be completed. Pope Leo ruled that indulgences—certificates of God’s pardon—should be sold in Germany. Chief among the pardon peddlers was a monk named John Tetzel. When Tetzel rolled into town, bells tolled, organs sounded, a red cross was set up bearing the pope’s coat of arms. Once in the town church, Tetzel would preach about the miraculous power of indulgences. It was proclaimed and believed by most that whoever bought an indulgence not only received forgiveness of sins, but would also escape punishment in purgatory, a kind of holding tank for souls never once mentioned in Holy Scripture.
The pope, Tetzel claimed, had more power than all the apostles and saints, even more than the Virgin Mary, for all of these were under Christ, while the pope was equal to Christ. Tetzel claimed to have saved more souls with his indulgences than Peter with his sermons. He even had a little commercial jingle—way ahead of his time, that Tetzel—“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” As a result, many were led to believe that they did not need to repent of their sins, and that trust in Jesus Christ was unnecessary. Just buy some indulgences, and you’d be straight.
Luther was incensed when he heard about this. He knew that souls for whom Jesus died were at stake! The Gospel of Jesus was being denied by the very organization that was supposed to proclaim it! Luther protested the sale of indulgences because it threatened to destroy a Christian’s relationship with God. As Luther wrote in Thesis # 62: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
It is that same concern for souls; that same concern for getting the gospel of Jesus right that moved Paul to write to the Roman Christians. It was of utmost importance that they understood that Jewish tradition did not give Jewish people an advantage with God. Knowing the Law does not save people. Only those who always do exactly what the Law says can be saved by the Law. Since all—both Jew and Gentile—have sinned, all will die.
Luther used what Paul wrote here to demonstrate from Scripture that we are not saved by the things we do. We are saved by what Jesus has done for us. God offered His Son as “a sacrifice of atonement.” We have life “through faith in His blood.” The Church of Luther’s era had deteriorated into a self-serving, self-preserving organization. In almost every important way, God’s Word was only historically incidental to the organization. The immediate needs of the organization and its security took precedence over the Word of God. Luther used this passage and others like it to tear away the human organization where it needed to be torn. The Word itself was the demolishing and reforming force. The Law tore down. The Gospel built up. The Gospel built on the only real foundation—Jesus, the Messiah.

Let’s stop for a moment to consider the question: when is the best time to repair your home? Let’s say you notice a problem with a board on your porch. When should that be fixed? What will happen if you wait too long to fix it?
The Reformation at the time of Luther was a major event because the necessary ongoing repairs had not been done. Forget a loose board; the whole house was about to collapse. The foundation of the Church had been undermined. Because smaller repairs had been ignored, pride in tradition grew as Christ was displaced.
If reformation can be compared to keeping our house in good repair, then it is worth asking today, of ourselves, what do we need the Word of God to fix? What does the Law need to tear out of us? What does the Gospel need to build in us?
If we think of Reformation Day primarily as a day where it’s okay to slam Roman Catholicism, then we’ve missed the point entirely. We are no different than the Jews and Gentiles Paul wrote to. We are not “better people” than the Catholics, ancient or modern. We are always in danger of slipping across the boundary from confidence in what God does for us to pride in what we think we can do ourselves. Perversely, there is even a type of pride we can take in being “heirs of the Reformation” that amounts to a schoolyard attitude of “We’re smart and they’re dumb.”
But pride, of course, is excluded, according to the apostle Paul. How—by the way of works? No, by the way of faith. We are convinced that a person is justified by faith without the works of the Law. Pride is excluded by the faith that the Holy Spirit gives to us. Faith builds. Faith reforms in line with God’s Word.
The Law tears down our efforts to build a proud tradition. The grace of God points us to people who need to hear the Gospel in a way that makes sense to them.
The Law tears down our efforts to “protect the church.” The Gospel sends us to be God’s ambassadors, to take risks in showing Jesus to those who are as of now estranged from Him.
The Law breaks down our self-righteous attempts to make the church an exclusive club. The Gospel opens our hearts to other sinners that Jesus wants to reform.
The Law finds what is broken, what is rotten, what is dead, and rips it out. The Gospel of full forgiveness of sins in Jesus repairs. It makes new things. It reforms us in the likeness of Jesus, as we live through faith in His blood.

adapted from sermons by Rev. Paul Muench and Rev. Andrew Simcak, Jr.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lord, Have Mercy

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” What a prayer! If you sense Jesus using some satire here, I think you’re right. He’s exposing the self-congratulatory religion of the Pharisees, that, when brought out into the light of day, is patently ridiculous. “God, I thank you that I’m better than those guys. God, look at the good I do.” Those prayers make us chuckle because they’re so blatantly self-righteous. But the funny thing about satire is that while it makes the Pharisee the obvious target, it allows us to pause and reflect. Maybe we’re laughing at the Pharisee because we recognize his attitude, alive in ourselves.
I’ve never heard a Christian publicly pray the way the Pharisee did in Jesus’ parable, but I’ve seen plenty of examples of the attitude in action. Anytime a Christian feels as if “God owes me something” because I go to church on a regular basis, the spirit of the Pharisee is alive and well. Anytime a Christian feels as if “the church leaders ought to do things my way because I give the biggest offering,” the spirit of the Pharisee is alive and well. Anytime a Christian takes smug satisfaction in their own so-called “Christian maturity” by pointing out the shortcomings of others, the spirit of the Pharisee is alive and well. If we’re still laughing about the Pharisee’s prayer, it’s probably to keep from crying. The urge to measure ourselves against other people is irresistible. It is also a sad attempt to justify ourselves before God, which misses the mark completely, because that’s not how God measures us.
The Lord does not measure our actions, words, and thoughts relative to other people; he measures us according to the exacting standards of His Law. If you are starting to squirm, that is most appropriate. The Law says, put God first in your life, as the only number one. The Law says, don’t misuse God’s name. Watch your speech. The Law says, honor God’s Word with your time and attention; and honor the authorities God has placed over you, beginning with your parents. The Law says, don’t murder. Don’t even hurt someone. The Law says, remain sexually pure, even in your thoughts. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Don’t destroy someone’s reputation with gossip or slander. Be content with what you have and help your neighbor to keep what he’s got. That’s the standard by which God measures you! Do you dare to say, “God, I thank you that I am not like those who do such bad things?” Are you really willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Pharisee in the temple? If so, then remember Jesus says that man went home “un-justified.” He went home with no blessing from God. It was a waste of time for this guy to go to the temple, because the person he really worshiped was himself.
If, however, you have heard the Lord’s exacting standards and are embarrassed of your track record; if you are crushed by your own failures in living by God’s Law, then let’s go stand over by that tax collector—the one the Pharisee pointed out—and hear what he has to say. Wow—he looks crushed, too. He won’t even look up. He’s so upset he’s taking it out on himself. But listen to what he’s saying: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Now there’s someone God can work with—someone who has given up trying to impress God. Someone who has been deflated by their own sins—someone who just can’t seem to get it right no matter how hard they try. Someone who has hit the bottom and realized there is only one way out; one way to live; and that is to appeal to God’s mercy; to plead with God to spare us from the punishment we deserve. The tax collector knows that the only way life with God is going to work is if God shows mercy. God is going to have to hold back the hand of punishment. He is going to have to do something about our sin, because we can’t.
What we call the Good News is this: God did do something about our sin. He did not ignore it. He did not overlook it. He forgave it. Now, our sin had to be dealt with somehow—someone had to pay for it. That’s where the man who told this story about a Pharisee and a tax collector comes in. Jesus stepped into our world; stepped into a human body; stepped into our sin; stepped into the punishment; stepped into the unfathomable consequence of sin…and He did it all for you. He did it so that His Father could justly hold back the hand of punishment from you. “Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy” has been the church’s song ever since. It is the song of the tax collector, and everyone else who understands, “I don’t deserve God’s blessing at all.”
What’s interesting is that a baby could not begin to claim that he deserves to be in God’s kingdom based on all the good he’s done. No infant I’ve ever seen (outside of the movies) is in any position to claim membership in the kingdom of God based on who they are and what they’ve done. Yet Jesus says, “…whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” So how does that work? It’s simple, really. Jesus says, “…for to such [babies and children] belong the kingdom of God.” Babies can’t do anything to “get into” the kingdom, but Jesus can bring them in. By His Word, by His touch, by His name with baptismal water, Jesus brings them in His kingdom and says they belong. “Receiving the kingdom of God like a child” is a matter of letting Jesus bring you into His kingdom. It’s a matter of letting him give to you. Just like with babies—adults can’t do anything to “get into” the kingdom, either. But Jesus can bring you in. He’s the only one who can.
When we speak or sing, “Lord have mercy,” what we’re saying is, “Lord, I don’t deserve your blessing at all. But if you want to, you can bring me in to your kingdom.” And you can be sure that He wants to, because He went to the cross for you. Receive the kingdom like child. Let Him give to you. Let Him bring you in. Let God’s Law kill the Pharisee inside you, and find rest in the fact that it’s not about you. Life that matters is about a God who is merciful, and His Son, who is love.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Wrestling with God

It was one of those nights where the minutes feel like hours. All Jacob could do was wait for his brother to show up. Sounds simple, but word was that his brother, Esau, was coming with an army of four hundred men. Yes, there was a score to settle. Jacob had done his brother wrong in two major ways. He engineered a trade—some bread and red soup in exchange for his brother’s birthright—and the more boldly deceitful action of stealing Esau’s blessing by pretending to be Esau! Needless to say, Esau was ticked. His plan was to wait for their father Isaac to die, then kill Jacob. Wisely, Jacob is sent away. Many things happen to Jacob during this time away.
God makes some amazing promises to this deceitful, crafty man—one key one being “I will protect you wherever you go”—even as Jacob finds out what it’s like to be on the other end of a deceitful scheme. That’s another story for another time.
Eventually; inevitably, Jacob and Esau are coming face to face again. Jacob gets the idea to send Esau a generous set of gifts to smooth things over. Then he finds out that Esau is coming with a four hundred man posse. Night falls. The “moment of truth” has almost arrived. Jacob wonders, “Will Esau try to kill me and my family?” He prays to God, calling to mind the underserved promises the Lord has made to him. And then, all there is to do is wait. The minutes seem like hours.
Suddenly, the sickening tedium is broken by an invader in the camp. A fight breaks out between Jacob and the assailant, and it is quite a match. The scuffle continues through the night, until the day’s first light. Who is it? Esau is the obvious suspect. Whoever it is, Jacob fights. And fights. And fights. Even after his opponent knocks his hip out of joint, Jacob keeps his grip on him. That’s a tough guy right there.
So why does Jacob put up this sort of struggle? He believes the promises God has made to him. He aggressively believes the promises God has made to him. Jacob puts up a fight because God said he was going to do great things through him, so much so that he’s lying there with a dislocated hip and still defending himself. In fact, Jacob’s faith is so aggressive that he says, “I will not let go unless you bless me.” Somewhere in the smackdown, it occurs to Jacob that he wasn’t wrestling with Esau or an assassin, but he was wrestling with God. With the day’s first light, it dawns on Jacob he’s going toe to toe with the Lord God of heavenly armies. The Lord God of armies changes Jacob’s name to Israel, meaning “one who struggles with God.” Incredibly, Jacob/Israel struggled with God and lived. And as Jacob/Israel limps away from this experience, he is reconciled with his brother, Esau.
Now, as wild as that story is, you might feel like it is pretty close to your experience. What I mean is, you might feel like you’re wrestling with God right now. That nighttime invader might come to you as an illness or an accident. Or you might feel God wrestling with you in an important decision. Maybe you’re wrestling through a difficult relationship or financial hardship. So often, as we’re struggling, we’re wondering, “Why? Why me? Why now?”
Maybe, just maybe, God is wrestling with you for the same reason he wrestled with Jacob. Maybe he wants to see if you will trust his promises so aggressively that you will stand up and fight. When things get rough, will you grab hold of God, saying, “I won’t let go unless you bless me?”
This aggressive faith would be impossible, if it were not for God’s habit of taking on human flesh in order to wrestle. God took on human form to put Jacob’s faith to the test. More crucially, God took on human form to wrestle again, and this time it was a death match. In our flesh, as one of us, Jesus would clash with Satan, get hammered by sin, and suffer hell on the cross. And it would kill Him. Looked like total defeat. Easter changed everything, turning the results of the loss inside out. Jesus’ bout with evil and his victory over it has huge repercussions for you.
It means you, like Jacob, are forgiven. Your sins do not negate God’s promises. His Word to you stands. You are blessed to be a blessing. Life in this world will often feel like a struggle, and life as a Christ-follower will often feel like a struggle with Him. Don’t shy away from that feeling. Hold God to His promises. Fight the good fight of faith. Don’t let go until He blesses you.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Walking in the Word: LWML Sunday

“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119: 105

Most health experts tell us that it would be beneficial to do more walking. Some have set a goal of 10,000 steps a day in order to increase cardiovascular health. While we may know the benefits that walking provides, that does not mean that we are going to do anything about it. Many people say to themselves, “I should get some exercise,” but then they proceed to just sit down again. Exercise is an individual decision, and it is not enough to have the desire to go for a walk. You have to actually do it. You are free to walk or to sit still, but the decision you make will affect your health, one way or the other.
God’s Word has something to say about walking in the way of spiritual fitness: In Psalm 119 it says: “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” God invites you today—and every day—to let His Word light your way through life. And just like walking itself, you are free to use God’s Word this way or to leave it alone. The decision you make here will also affect your health, one way or another.
As a pastor, I have visited many people in the hospital, and one thing that I have seen firsthand is that is does not take long for our muscles to weaken from lack of use. Without walking on a regular basis, legs that once worked well can now only hang there helplessly.
If I may be so blunt; I would say that far too many Christians have been sitting too long without being active in Word of God. As a result, their faith muscles have atrophied. In fact, many have wandered from the faith. They fail to apply the teaching of the Word in their lives and have become spiritually unhealthy. The church needs to return to the spiritual bodybuilding that happens when we let the Word of God speak to us. Only then will we be healthy enough to reach those who are even weaker than we.
One example of how the “church at large” is doing this is through the mite collections of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League. City of Hope, right here in Cleveland, is supported in part by the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League. They are providing spiritual and physical health to the community by opening “Urban Family Learning Centers” in Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown and Cincinnati. These programs reach out to children and families with Saturday Schools that provide a weekly round of music, crafts, and Scripture memorization along with a nourishing meal.
Walking daily in the Word of God can inspire us to serve others like the volunteers at City of Hope. That same Word also calls us to remember who we are. The Word shows us where we gone off track. The Word of God tells us the truth: All have sinned—and the paycheck for sin is death; death of the body and the death of the soul, cut off from God’s goodness forever. I need to hear this. I need to understand the danger of sin. I need the call to repentance—the call to change—the call to go in a new direction by the power of God. His Word also reminds me of a Friday on which Jesus died on a cross to handle the debt of my sin. Just as importantly, it reminds me of a Sunday on which the Lord of Life broke the chains of death for me. Instead of the paycheck of death, Jesus hands me an invoice that reads: ‘Paid in Full.” He paid off all that I owe. He shares the resurrected life with me. When I’m walking in the Word of truth, there is confidence, knowing I am walking in the right direction.
All people need to hear the truth of God’s Word. One of the mite missions of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League brings this truth by supporting a female missionary who works with Muslim women. In the Muslim world, women are not allowed to have conversations with men who are not their husbands or close relatives. But another woman can speak words of truth to them. And another woman does, at great personal risk, because the good news of what Jesus has done is too important to leave unspoken.

So how much do you walk? It depends on how healthy you want to be. Do you need to change the way you walk in God’s Word? We need the help of the Holy Spirit to exchange our poor habits for good ones. When a child is learning to walk, there is a lot of falling that happens. But there is a built-in determination to get it right! Maybe you have fallen down in the study of the Word. Now is the time to get up and get into it again. There really is no in-between—you’re either walking in the Word towards spiritual health, or letting your faith muscles weaken with each passing day.
But there is help! Groups like the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League exist to help people walk in the Word and to help people communicate Jesus to their world. This congregation provides a variety of Bible Studies that are designed to help you exercise your faith. There are more personal devotional resources available to Christians now than at any time in history—many right here in our own church library—just waiting for someone to take them off the shelves and open them up. The point is that walking in the Word of God cements and sustains your personal connection with Jesus. Do you need to change the way you walk? The get on your feet and let God’s Word light your way through life. The Holy Spirit, sent from Jesus Himself, will give you energy and determination you need to be in step with Him.

Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Kenton Wendorf for LWML Sunday 2010