Church: Convenience or Truth?

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Linus and Charlie Brown were building a sand castle. As they worked Linus was telling Charlie Brown about the girl in sunday school that had caught his eye. His comments were tinged with sadness, however, as he observed that the little girl’s family had switched churches. Upon hearing this, Charlie Brown replied, “That’ll change your theology in a hurry.”

Charles Schultz, the author of the famous cartoon series, was on to something. In America, church choice has little to do with the truth and a lot to do with what we like, with convenience and so forth. Over the years I have seen folks change their denominational association for no other reason than the pastor is nice, the programs are good, the church building is close to home or there is lots for the kids to do. Shultz was simply observing that choosing a church may have nothing to do with the intrinsic truth of what is being preached, taught and believed.

This fits well into the America mindset. We find argument over beliefs to be distasteful. The line from Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado’ says it well; “I am right and you are right and we’re both as right as right can be.” Or, there is the famous line from President Dwight Eisenhower;  “America is built on firmly held religious principles, and I don’t care what they are.”

Does making affectations, comforts and perceived needs the basis for church life have any basis in the reality of what the Church actually is? I think not. The Christian faith is, at its heart, a truth claim. And that claim is quite straightforward. Jesus Christ is the last word concerning God, humanity and the destiny of the world. Whatever church community we may be in, making this message known is the essential business, or ought to be. 

More on this tomorrow.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Church in Society, Part 2

Yesterday I suggested that the Christian Church  cannot offer an unqualified ‘yes’ to some of the essential characteristics of American society. Which raises the question, What is the role of the Christian Church in society? 

The American climate has been incredibly hospitable to the Church. In nearly all other western cultures the Church has declined, even if it has not been disestablished. The question in Europe is, ‘Which church DON”T you attend?’ In America, on the other hand, between 1945 and 1975 church affiliation in went from roughly forty two percent to sixty nine percent.  And although, forty years on we are seeing a decline in these numbers, there is no lack of interest in spirituality. So what is should our role be?

First, we can exclude several roles the Church does not play in our society.  We do not have an established Church, assigned by the government to attend to religious matters only. Secondly, we do not have a revolutionary Church in all-out opposition to the society and its values. Thirdly, we do hot have an excluded Church which plays no role in society.

Someone once suggested that we should think of ourselves as a ‘conspiritorial’ Church’. The word actually comes from the latin, ‘conspiro’, which means to breath together or act in harmony. Seen in this way, the Church is a community that can make alliances with others which both affirm aspects of society but also stand over against society. For we do not share all the values upon which this country was established. Here’s how it works.

What does the Church do with critical reason and human autonomy when it also has revelation? We believe both. How does the Church move between fundamentalism on the one hand, which has ONLY revelation, and liberal secularism which has NO revelation?

We are thankful for the scientific study of nature. Who among us would prefer a return to the medical practices of the sixteenth century, for example? At the same time, the Church is confronted with the fact that ‘scientism’ cannot have the last word. We are confronted with a host of value\meaning questions which science would just as soon ignore. How is God involved in nature without being absent from it?

Our culture promotes optimism and progress. But on what grounds? Christianity is not about optimism or progress, it is about hope. How does the Christian witness make the critical distinction between hope and optimism?

Finally, tolerance. Of course the Christian is for it. But does it mean that we are to abandon all absolute claims? Can we be the Church and at the same time simply join the parade of world religions?

Our culture asks religion to serve as a kind of benign chaplaincy which simply blesses everything. The Christian Church cannot do so. And this is something our culture does not understand about us. For our presence in society is meant to bear witness to the reality of God as uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ with all its implications for church and society.

In whatever society we find ourselves as Christians, our role is to point to Jesus Christ who stands over against all other absolute claims which exclude Him, and by whose Cross all things in heaven and earth are reconciled and find their true meaning.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Church in Society

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‘The Druids buried each other in long wheelbarrows and called it agriculture; they burned each other alive and called it religion.’

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1 Minute Daily Word is back and we are happy to report that Pastor Mark’s wife, Linda, is doing well. They thank you for your many prayers and other expressions of concern.

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I came across the quote above recently (I don’t know where it’s from) and it got me thinking about  the relationship between religion, reason and society.

Throughout all of its history, the Church has had to face the questions which arise from its place in society, no matter what expression that society has taken.

Today, in America, the Christian Church finds itself functioning within a system variously described as a democracy and constitutional republic. Our society permits a wide-ranging expression of religious points of view. In historical terms this societal tolerance of religion is an exception. At the same time, this tolerance reflects a set of societal assumptions that the Church can only live with uneasily. Our society was the product of the Enlightenment and many of its assumptions were instrumental in the formation of our society. Here are a few:

Critical, human reason and autonomy is the source of all truth and knowledge. Critical, experimental, dialogical reason is the way you find things out. No divine revelation is necessary. Religion is not a source of truth or knowledge to any degree that matters. The fact of religious pluralism means that no ultimate claim is possible. Disgust with the devastating religious wars of Europe led to the demise of the established Church. Toleration of many denominations, sects and religions means that none of them can run the show.

If there is a God who created an orderly world we can discover its laws. God is irrelevant to the day to day conduct of life. He is an absentee deity at best.

Optimism is possible because history is essentially progressive. This progress is not automatic but it is inevitable. There is no sin and no need for salvation. Humanity will achieve its own goals as it pursues the change, the new, the novel. The old is bad, the new is good.

One does not go to church for knowledge. The church exists for emotional comfort and socially correct moral instruction.

It is obvious, at least to me, that the Church cannot give an unqualified ‘yes’ to these societal assumptions. It is also apparent that they are very much a part of the current landscape of American society and other parts of the world as well. What is the role of the Church within this kind of social context? Tomorrow we will look at that question.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Corinthians 12

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“You are the body of Christ and individually members of one another.”

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One of my college courses was a class on church history. The professor was a well-known theologian who participated in the Lutheran\Orthodox dialogs. As a result much of the course focused on Eastern Orthodox Christianity. A fellow classmate and I became curious. So, early one Sunday, I mean REALLY early, about 3AM on a frigid morning in February, we headed north from Moorhead, Minnesota to make the 10AM service at the Serbian Orthodox Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We arrived in plenty of time. I will never forget walking into the sanctuary and for the next two hours being caught up in the great liturgy of the Orthodox Church. It was the first and most powerful vision I had ever experienced of the Church universal. 

“You are the body of Christ and individually members of one another.” These words are so simple, direct and unequivocal it almost takes your breath away. There is no talk of here of a private Jesus in your heart, though that language may have it’s place. There is no language here of the church as a patch of real estate and a few buildings on a street corner, for these are utterly unecessary where the body of Christ is concerned. There is only “You” in the plural. The Church consists of “living stones’, the people, the community gathered around word and sacrament. The Church is the Living Christ in and among His people. 

The nasty atmosphere in which we find ourselves these days is characterized by a prickly defensiveness that uses the slightest differences between Christians as an excuse to repudiate Paul’s words. The last thing many in the churches want is to be “members of one another”. Furthermore, there are plenty of Christians who are more than willing to let you know, in no uncertain terms, that because you disagree with them you are going to hell.

For my part, the question that the presence of other Christian communities raises is not ‘Who is a Christian?’ Rather, as I sat among those Serbian brothers and sisters years ago, the question that came to me and that has been with me ever since was this; ‘What is a Christian?’ Following this question into Scripture, the Confessions, tradition, the Church and the world has been a fruitful, challenging and humbling journey. It has taught me to be content with letting Jesus be the Lord of His people, the Church, even as I struggle to understand what it means to belong to Him – and to all those who confess His name.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Colossians 1

Note from Pastor Mark;

Dear Friends, My daily blog has been anything but lately. I may rename it ‘Pastor Mark’s Occasional Devotional Blog’! In any event, my wife Linda has been coping with pneumonia for the last month or so and that has been my priority. We took some time away so she could rest and she is slowly getting better. Thanks to all of you who have offered your prayers and concern.

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Colossians 1

 “…we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.”

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 Someone asked me a while back why a layperson always prays the Prayer of the Church during our worship. It’s a good question. Is it because we are trying to include laity in the leading of worship? Well, that’s a part of it but it is not the main reason. In order to answer the question we need to ask about the nature of the Prayer of the Church itself. What is going on in this prayer that would make it more than appropriate for a layperson to take the lead?

The prayer begins by expressing those concerns that are central for us in these words,; “Let us pray for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus and for all people according to their needs.” Our prayer, like our Christian life, is concerned for both Church and world. Each of the petitions of the prayer go on to highlight the specifics of those concerns.

The answer to the question above, therefore, is simple. The Prayer of the Church is appropriately led by a layperson (it is also often called the Prayer of the People) because this prayer reflects the commitments of the congregation and it’s ministry. Just as when you bring before God those things that are important to you, the things that matter to you, in the same way the Prayer of the Church brings before God and the community those concerns which animate our ministry. 

In His earthly ministry, our Lord Jesus Christ perfectly integrated His prayers and His work. Words and deeds were one action. His words and deeds led to the Cross and our salvation. Our prayers and work are not like His. At the same time, we are the body of Christ, a people set apart to both pray for and serve the world. The Spirit of Christ is at work in and among the words and deeds of His people and in the power of that Spirit we are encouraged to make our concerns known and do to something about them.

In this respect, therefore, the person leading the Prayer of the Church during our worship always represents an unspoken question; “Who among us is attending to these things we pray for?’

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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1 Peter 1

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappado’cia, Asia, and Bithyn’ia, 
chosen and destined by God the Father…”.

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To be Christian is to be chosen. This is the language 1 Peter puts forward in the face of our belief that we are choosers. He uses other words equally as disturbing as they put us in the passive role; destined, called, sent, saved.

What about being free to choose, being responsible, having some role, having a say in something that so dramatically effects my life? I want a will that’s free to choose.

But there it is; “…chosen and destined by God the Father…”. And it is not only Peter who says it, Paul says it (in fact, using the term ‘elected’), John says it, Jeremiah says it, it’s all over the place in the Bible. What are we to make of it, we who believe we are free?

For the Christian freedom results precisely from our being chosen. The knowledge that we are chosen by God means that we are now free to serve the neighbor and the world and we are free from self-service and the religion projects of self-salvation.

When we can rejoice in our salvation by using words like destined, called, sent, saved, when we can pick up the vocabulary of faith in such a way that our freedom claims give way to the heart of the Gospel; then we may rejoice in that freedom that is truly defining of Christian faith and life; the freedom of God that chooses, by grace alone, to love sinners.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Colossians 2

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“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Jesus has lots of spinoffs –  words, expressions and titles which amplify the one name; grace, justification by faith, forgiveness, Mediator of a new covenant, the Vine, Lord, Lamb of God, Savior, Redeemer, and many more. They all say something important about Jesus, something to which the Bible bears witness. But what is truly non-negotiable when speaking of Jesus? Can we reduce what He means to any one or even a combination of some of these? I would say no. What is non-negotiable is the all-inclusive name of Jesus itself.

For example, you can squeeze an idea like ‘love’ out of Jesus until you don’t need Jesus any longer. You can find love mentioned in some other context, in some other religion, and conclude that the idea of love is what is central, that those who speak of love are speaking of the same thing. The same can be said of grace, faith, hope and so forth. To this way of thinking, religions are like a variety of fruits in a bowl, each can be squeezed for it’s essence and you end up with more or less the same thing.

But this is precisely what we must not do as Christians. The name of Jesus must never be discarded as secondary, go unheard or unsaid. Even to speak of God and the Holy Spirit are not adequate in giving expression to the heart of the Christian witness. Apart from the name of Jesus – and the entire Biblical witness to what he said and did –  these other two names become ciphers and may be filled with any available content. 

The name of Jesus is also non-negotiable because to speak of Jesus is bring into focus the center of everything. This is precisely what Paul is putting forward in the letter to the Colossians. The maturing of faith understands ‘everything’ in an expansive sense. First, everything in my life, then everything in the Church. From there everything means everything in the entire human community, then everything in the whole world until we see the name of Jesus reflecting that which underlies the cosmos and all reality.  It is in the light of this awareness that the New Testament falls all over itself as the words, titles and expressions describing Jesus like a great waterfall cascade over the precipice of meaning in the attempt to speak in the widest, grandest, most inclusive terms of the name that is above every name.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Romans 5:8

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 “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

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Years ago I sat with a couple who were preparing for marriage. The young woman ran through a lengthy list of all the reasons she could think of as to why she loved her fiance. He was generous, hard-working, handsome, thoughtful, funny, and so forth. When it was time for the young man to speak he said,” I don’t need a reason to love her. I just love her.” He was not far from the Kingdom!

When we examine the Bible it does not provide us with God’s reasons for loving. Nowhere is there an assessment of humanity from God’s vantage point where He lists our numerous virtues as reason for loving us. If anything, the Bible is a collection of evidence that suggests there is not much lovable about us. Our generous self-assessments are not reflected in the mirror of heaven. This is hard for us to take, to be sure. There must be something in me that God values, something I can do or be, some potential, at least, that God sees in me.

If that is so, then God’s love is a conditional, qualified love which looks for something lovable, desirable in the object of love. But that is not the way of God’s love.

The key verse that says it all is this one, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” There is no expression of worth or value here that motivated God to spend Himself for us. Jesus gave Himself for the unlovely, unlovable and ungodly – for us. 

Human love examines the attractive attributes of the other to look for something WORTH loving. The agape’ love of God seeks no such validation. God loves. Period. Such love is a stunning reversal of our way. Doubtless God is deeply concerned with us and all our works and all our ways, but they do not serve as the basis for His love. In Christ, God loves us for no other reason than He chooses to do so. That is His glory, and our hope.

 

“May the peace of god that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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Luke 17

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“The kingdom of God is in your midst.”

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In the first century Rome ruled the world of the Jews and Christians. Their kingdom stretched as far as their influence was felt. And the primary way it was felt was through the collection of taxes. If the rule or reign of Rome could collect taxes it meant that they had successfully imposed military and political power. Their power could be felt. It actually did something.

The kingdom of God was never an abstraction for our Lord Jesus nor was it only a future hope. When Jesus spoke of God’s kingdom He was not teaching geography, He was speaking of kingdom in the same sense that He would have spoken of the rule and influence of Rome. He was speaking of the presence of God’s rule, God’s influence here and now. When Jesus began preaching He did not say, ‘Some day the kingdom of God will be among you.’ What he did say was, “The kingdom of God is in your midst”, or “The kingdom is within you.” God’s rule, God’s influence can be felt. But how?

One way we speak of God’s rule, the way God influences life, is through the terms “Law and Gospel”. In the legal structures of every human community, the rule of God, God’s influence is felt as these structures serve to expose sin and restrain evil. We are creatures created to live within boundaries. God uses the structures of law to remind us, often against our will, that we are creatures and not gods. When we defy law, and therefore our creaturely limits and obligations, we encounter God’s rule as judgment.

At the same time God’s rule, God’s influence is felt through the gracious word of the Cross where God deals with the problem of sin finally and completely on His terms for us. In the speaking of the absolution and the events of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God’s rule, God’s influence actually comes upon us as grace, forgiveness and freedom, turning us from lawbreakers into lovers, turning us back into the world to live under the influence of God’s love, mercy and grace in the here and now, even as we await the final fulfillment of his kingdom at the end of time. 

 

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Baptized Into Christ

The following is a gem from the late Gerhard Forde. You will find more of his writing on the CrossAlone website.
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 Something to Believe:  A Theological  Perspective on Infant Baptism 
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“Grace is not a hidden agenda. The grace of baptism calls us to turn from the endless preoccupation with self and the pessimism that has virtu­ally destroyed the sacrament to the glorious action of the triune God “out there” in his world. The grace is in the very externality of it. It is to be an­nounced and spread abroad, not withheld. None of the abuses attributed to a “too liberal” practice of infant baptism will be corrected by withdraw­ing it. That is like withholding food from the starving until they have a proper concept of nourishment. We do not need to protect the Lord from the Lord’s own generosity! In the current “post-Constantinian” age, with­holding baptism does not end but only fosters a more legalistic preoccupa­tion with the self. 
 
To  be sure, there is wholesale confusion and misunder­standing about the sacraments, just as there is about Christian theology in general. But we do not plan to stop preaching just because it is poorly done or misunderstood. The only real weapon left to the church is the  proper teaching and preaching of baptism as the gracious and saving action of the triune God. And that, certainly, is about as it should be.”
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Gerhard Forde, “Something to Believe: A Theological Perspective on Infant Baptism,” 
Interpretation 47 (1993) 229-41.  Reprinted  in  The Preached God.  Proclamation in  Word and 
Sacrament.  Ed.  Mark C.  Mattes and Steven D.  Paulson. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2007,  pp. 
131-45; 
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