Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Mark's thoughts: No, you can't do all things through Christ

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (ESV).  Philippians 4:13 is one of the most frequently quoted verses in the Bible.  It is also one of the most commonly misunderstood.  People love this verse becomes it seems to say that we can do anything we set as a goal through the strength Jesus Christ provides.  Through God we have unlimited potential!

However, this is certainly not what the apostle Paul is saying.  The misunderstanding arises for two reasons.  The first is a translation issue.  In trying to give a smooth English translation for the somewhat awkward phrase πάντα ἰσχύω we have, “I can do all things.” It sounds like Paul says he can do anything. However, the verb ἰσχύω means “have power, be competent, be able” (BDAG 484.2a), and when it is used to indicate the ability to do something this is expressed by adding another verb in the infinitive to express the action (see Mt 26:40; Lk 16:3; BDAG 484.2b).  Literally Phil 4:13 means, “I am able with respect to all things.”  It doesn’t really mean “I can do.” The apostle is not saying he can do anything he chooses – anything he sets as a goal.  He is saying that has the sufficiency to handle things. 

The second reason is the context of Phil 4:13.  The “things” to which Paul refers are not anything that a person may have in mind.  Instead it refers specifically those things that he has just mentioned in 4:11-12:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.

These are not self chosen goals. They are the circumstances that God allows in life. Paul is saying that he has the sufficiency to handle these various experiences.

Why does Paul have this ability?  It is because of the One who strengthens him (ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντί με).  It is because of God in Christ.  As Paul says a few verses earlier, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7).  The source of this ability is the love God has revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The source is our baptism into Christ by which the Spirit has given us regeneration and renewal – a reality that Paul describes as being “in Christ.” The source is the Spirit’s work who gives us confidence in God’s continuing love and care.  The source is the hope for the future we have because of the resurrection of our Lord.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Trinity - 1 Thess 4:13-18

                                                                                    Trinity 25
                                                                                    1 Thess 4:13-18

            On many occasions I have heard Christians say that they can’t understand how other people face life apart from faith in Jesus Christ.  This is especially true when facing the death of a loved one or our own death.  I too have wondered about this, and said it to others.  How could you possibly face this without the hope of the risen Lord? Where do you find comfort and strength when you have no hope?
            However, the truth of the matter is that most of the people around us do have a hope.  And it is very interesting to observe the forms that hope takes.  You hear people affirm that the person who has died “is looking down on them” or that at some point the dead person “must have been helping them.”  It is not uncommon to hear talk that the dead person “has become an angel.”  The affirmation is made that the person is still “alive in our hearts.”  There is the belief that somehow the person “is still alive” if we are cherishing their memory.  Related to this is the rather odd idea that a funeral is “a celebration of life” – when in fact it is only held because a person is most certainly dead.
            In our text this morning, the apostle Paul is addressing the subject of Christians who have died before the return of Jesus Christ.   He says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  No doubt Paul knows that he is overstating his case some.  Like our modern contemporaries, people in the Greco-Roman world did have hopes for those who died.  And like those of today, they tended to be rather wishy washy.
            There was the idea from Greek mythology that they went to the Elysian Fields or that they went to be with the heroes.  Some believed that death meant the escape of the soul from the prison of the body as it returned to the realm where it belonged.  Some of the mystery cults, and deities such as Isis Serapis promised help for the individual after death.
            There were hopes.  But from the inscriptions found on burial sites you don’t get the impression that these were particularly solid.  And of course, pagans took part in the cult of several different gods and goddesses as they tried to hedge their bets and cover as many bases as possible.
            In the face of this, Christianity offers something very different.  Paul had shared this when he proclaimed the Gospel at Thessalonica on his second missionary journey.  The Thessalonians had believed in Jesus Christ despite the hardships they faced.  In this letter Paul talks about how, “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” 
            Paul had proclaimed that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God had provided rescue from his wrath against sin on the Last Day.  The Thessalonians had received this word and believed it.  And so Paul says in this letter that, “we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”
            However, Paul had learned that they were troubled by a question about Jesus’ return. Christians had now died before Jesus’ return.  What did this mean for them?  Would they share in the resurrection?  Would the outcome be different for them than for those who were still alive?  Would they too be with the Lord?             
             Paul’s answer is very clear.  He says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”  The apostle begins with the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Because Jesus rose from the dead, we know that all who die will be raised.
            In fact, Paul wants us to know that those who have died are in no way at any disadvantage.  He says, “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”  Nobody gets a “head start” when it comes to the Last Day!
            Paul tells us that the Last Day will be a dramatic event. There will be no doubt that this is it.  He says in our text, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.”  The awesome arrival of the crucified and risen Son of God will bring about the resurrection of Christians who have died. They will be raised just as their Lord was raised.
            Next Paul adds, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”  Now for 1800 years, nobody in Christianity believed that these words described anything except the second coming of Christ on the Last Day.  It was only the Englishman John Darby who, in the nineteenth century, made up the idea that this was a description of “the rapture” – a sudden removal of Christians before the arrival of the Last Day.  Spread by the Scofield Reference Bible at the beginning of the twentieth century, this idea has become a key belief for some Christians around us.
            It is also total nonsense, as is the dispensational millennial scheme of which it is a part.  Instead, the text uses a word for “meet” that indicated how residents of a city went out to meet a visiting dignitary, like the governor, in order to escort him back into the city.  And Paul’s emphasis here is the fact that on the Last Day both those raised from the dead and those still alive will “always be with the Lord.” That is why Paul can write, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
            But do we?  The encouragement Paul offers here cannot be separated from the return of Jesus and the Last Day. This is something Christians often overlook.  Instead, they short circuit Paul’s argument when they think and talk about those who have died in Christ as if they have already arrived – as if they already have it all.  And while Paul affirms elsewhere that death can in no way separate us from Christ, his logic never changes.  As he says in the next chapter, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”  That wrath of God is poured out on the Last Day, and salvation is deliverance from that wrath on the day of judgment.
            Perhaps we make the move of jumping to full blown salvation at death because we don’t want to think about God’s wrath.  You see, God’s wrath has a very specific cause. It is a cause that we would rather not focus upon.  It is caused by sin – your sin.  Make no mistake, your sin does evoke God’s wrath.  Each and every way you think, speak and act in a selfish fashion brings God’s wrath.  Every way you don’t defend and promote your neighbor’s reputation; the ways you covet what you don’t have; the ways you fail to help your family members – they are all sins that bring God’s wrath.
            As the holy God, God’s wrath must be poured out against sinners who commit sin.  The question is whether you confess this sin and believe in Jesus Christ.  If you do, then that wrath has already been poured out against your sin.  It happened on Good Friday when Jesus died on the cross in your place. Because of baptism and faith you know that you are justified now and you have been rescued from it. God’s wrath against sin on the Last Day no longer threatens you.
            Instead, the Last Day with the return of Jesus Christ is not an event of wrath, but instead one of resurrection and life.  Jesus delivered us from the wrath to come through his death and resurrection. And now his resurrection means that we also will be raised.  As Paul says in our text, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” 
            The Last Day is the day when the Lord’s cry of command; when the voice of an archangel; when the sound of the trumpet of God will ring forth.  It is the day when the dead in Christ will rise first. And it is the a day when those who are alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.  Forgiveness; resurrection and life with the Lord – there are indeed great reasons to encourage one another with these words as we look for our Lord’s return.



Friday, November 16, 2018

Mark's thoughts: Do you want your church to be popular?

Do you want your church to be popular?  Of course you do!  Every pastor loves to see the church growing in numbers.  Congregation members are excited to be at a church that is clearly thriving and successful.  The good news is that this is possible for you.  It will take work, but if you live in the United States there is a clear roadmap to success.

First, don’t talk about doctrine.  We live at time when post-modernism has taught people that there is no such thing as truth, or right and wrong.  Doctrine is very much about truth – the claim that there is teaching that is right and teaching that is wrong.  This is guaranteed to turn off people.  Because of this yours will, of course, be a non-denominational church.  Denominations (or to use that old fashioned word, “confessions”) have historically been differentiated by doctrine.  Opt out of the denominational game and intentionally avoid doctrine altogether.

Second, emphasize that people can decide to believe in Jesus by their own powers and will – faith is entirely their choice.  This is called Arminianism, but that doesn’t matter for us.  This works for two reasons. First it is rational and matches their experience.  It makes sense that people have the power to decide to believe in Jesus, just like they have the power to decide what Netflix show they will watch.  Anyone who has been outside of Christianity at some point, recognizes that a change took place – first they didn’t believe in Jesus, and then they did and decided to commit to him.  So obviously, it was a decision they made.  Second, it puts the individual in charge and in individualistic America there is nothing people like more.

Third, teach that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are only symbols.  I know I said that you aren’t supposed to talk about doctrine, but it is impossible to avoid these.  When you say that they are only symbols you make things purely rational.  It doesn’t require faith to believe something that is God’s doing and goes beyond human understanding.   Plus, you make them into something that we do, and people like it when the focus is on them and their doing.

Fourth, de-Church your church as much as possible.  Remove everything that looks “churchy.”  Instead, make your church look as much like the culture as possible.  Get rid of that cross in your worship space. Obviously there will be no altar.  Instead, you will want an auditorium setting with a stage where people can feel like they are going to a concert because that is largely what you are going to provide.  The worship experience will use music and lights to induce emotions.  The experience of these emotions – this “experience” – will be what people consider to be the presence of God.

Now if you are Lutheran pastor, you have some problems here.  First, you are part of an explicitly confessional church.  The Augsburg Confession is the foundational document of your church.  The Small Catechism is the most basic element of teaching and confession of what you believe.  Doctrine is part of your DNA.

Second, you confess in the explanation of the Third Article of the Creed that, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.”  You are not Arminian.

Third, you believe that Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar are not merely symbols, but instead means by which God actually does things.  They are miracles by which God God gives forgiveness and strengthens faith.  Baptism is foundational to who a Christian is and how they now live.  The Sacrament of the Altar is the summit towards which every Divine Service moves.

Fourth, your church confesses that “churchy” stuff is inherently good, important and to be retained.  Your manner of worship and the previous point are woven together because the liturgy your church uses has been built around the Sacrament of the Altar in order to emphasize and teach about the miracle of Jesus Christ being present in his true body and blood given and shed for you.

So what is one to do?  You need to recognize that as a Lutheran you have some limitations when it comes to having a popular American church.  But that doesn’t have to stop you.  Remember, this is God’s work we are doing here!

First, you need to de-emphasize doctrine.  Your new member class should take only a Saturday, or at most just a few sessions.  Provide a minimal doctrinal barrier to people joining your church.  It is best if you follow the example of others by removing “Lutheran” from your church’s name altogether.  Don’t talk about doctrine in the life of the congregation.  Instead everything will be about practical matters of how Christianity directs our lives and helps us to live.

Second, you don’t have to confess Arminianism in order to act like one.   Make the entire focus of your church about evangelism.  This will allow you to speak and act just like the non-denominational church down the street.  You don’t have to worry about theology when you are working to bring people to Jesus and it is producing results.

Third, baptism is a tough one.  You have no choice except to baptize babies. This is a barrier for people and a limitation you can’t avoid.  But that doesn’t mean you have to talk about baptism that much.  The Sacrament of the Altar is easier.  You can thank eighteenth century rationalism for help on this one since it largely killed off every Sunday communion in Lutheranism.  Non-communion Sundays are already part of Lutheran life. People are used to services with no Sacrament.  On the Sundays when you do have it, truncate the service to include only the Words of Institution and distribution.  Rearrange the service and place the sermon where the Sacrament of the Altar used to be, because the most important thing is your message.  That is what you want people to have on their mind as they go home.

Finally, de-Church your church.  Just do it.  Forget what the Book of Concord says.  You don’t live in the sixteenth century. The previous three actions will assist in this. In particular, the focus on evangelism will identify every churchy thing as a barrier to outsiders.  They have to go so that we can bring people to Jesus.  The entire second half of the liturgy of the Divine Service has been built around the Sacrament of the Altar in order to emphasize the unique nature of this gift.  Since you are not emphasizing the Lord’s Supper, it will be easy to get rid of all that stuff (and as an added bonus, this will further remove emphasis from the Lord’s Supper).

These steps will help make your church more popular at a time when Christianity is becoming increasingly unpopular.  You will be a successful pastor at a successful congregation.  True, by removing doctrine and making your church as much like the culture you are creating a church that that will over time become more and more the culture, and less and less the Church.  Certainly, you will be creating a church whose practice is no longer guided by Lutheran theology that is true to God’s word.  Yes, you will have a church that at the very least, minimizes the understanding of the sacramental ways God’s gives us forgiveness and so short changes people in these gifts.  But don’t forget, your church will be popular.


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Commemoration of Justinian, Christian Ruler and Confessor of Christ

Today we remember and give thanks to God for Justinian, Christian Ruler and Confessor of Christ.  Justinian was emperor of the East from A.D. 527 to 565 when the Roman Empire was in decline. With his beautiful and capable wife, Theodora, he restored splendor and majesty to the Byzantine court. During his reign the Empire experienced a renaissance, due in large part to his ambition, intelligence, and strong religious convictions. Justinian also attempted to bring unity to a divided church. He was a champion of orthodox Christianity and sought agreement among the parties in the Christological controversies of the day who were disputing the relation between the divine and human natures in the Person of Christ. The Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in A.D. 533 was held during his reign and addressed this dispute. Justinian died in his eighties, not accomplishing his desire for an empire that was firmly Christian and orthodox. 

Collect of the Day:
Lord God, heavenly Father, through the governance of Christian leaders such as Emperor Justinian, Your name is freely confessed in our nation and throughout the world.  Grant that we may continue to choose trustworthy leaders who serve You faithfully in our generation and make wise decisions that contribute to the general welfare of Your people; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.