For church last Sunday, I went to the Missouri Synod Lutheran church, its class on patristic interpretations of the Gospel of John, and the “Word of Faith” church. I cannot do justice to the services, since so much was said in them. But here are some items:
A. One of the biblical texts that was read at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church was Mark 1:14-20. Jesus is in Galilee proclaiming that the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand, and he encourages people to repent and believe the Gospel. Simon, Andrew, James, and John leave their fishing businesses to follow Jesus.
The youth pastor was talking about all the bad news in the world, especially on the news and in the newspapers. But Jesus was preaching good news. And what was that good news? I was wondering what the youth pastor would answer. The Gospel within Christianity is often defined as Christ’s death and resurrection, but I doubt that Christ was proclaiming that at that stage. The youth pastor cited Revelation 21:4, which predicts a time when God will wipe tears from people’s eyes and there will be no more pain. Jesus was bringing this, the youth pastor said, and people were so excited about this that they left their business to follow Jesus.
The pastor then spoke, and he noted that there still is a lot of pain in the world. People get sick. People die. While the sacraments are efficacious, we believe in them by faith, and the Eucharist is a mere shadow of the great eschatological feast. In what sense did Jesus bring the Kingdom? The pastor said that the Kingdom of God is Jesus himself. And Jesus transforms how we look at our trials. We can look at the mistakes that we have made and learn from them to forgive others and share with other people God’s grace. We can see our trials as opportunities to receive Jesus’ comfort.
I wondered as I listened to this: “But didn’t people have those things before Jesus came to earth? God forgave. God was people’s shepherd (Psalm 23).”
The part about forgiveness stands out to me. Not long ago, I had an experience in which I needed forgiveness, and I needed to give forgiveness. Actually, I needed forgiveness far more, since I was a bigger heel than the other person.
B. In the patristics class, one of the excerpts that we read was a sermon in which Augustine said that we love God by loving our neighbor, who is right in front of us. Another way that the teacher phrased this issue was that we prepare to love God by loving our neighbor. Someone in the class referred to Matthew 25: we love Christ when we give to those in need. The teacher said that we do not earn salvation by loving our neighbor, but, after we are saved, we need to live a certain way, and that way includes love for neighbor.
This is a hard teaching, at least for me. It is easy to love a God whom I cannot see. Expressing love to people can be a lot more difficult. I think of my bitter memories of certain people in my past. Love them? Seriously?
I do not entirely understand the part about loving neighbor preparing one to love God. One text that was cited was Matthew 5:8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Is the point that we can appreciate God more when we love, as God loved?
C. Doing justice to the “Word of Faith” sermon is especially difficult, since the pastor throws a lot at us.
The pastor said that we love others when we grasp God’s love for us. There may be Scriptural support there. He cited I John 4:19, which affirms that we love because God first loved us. He also referred to John 13:34, in which Jesus tells his disciples to love one another, as he has loved them.
The pastor said that God is not the sort of being who actually feels better when he is worshiped. It is not as if God gains anything by our worship. God is the sort of God who would give other people credit, yet would want to make sure that this does not kill them (by going to their heads). That last part may be how he reconciles in his mind what he said there with what he said in another sermon of his that I heard: that God seeks God’s glory, not our glory. Actually, in the New Testament, both are part of the equation. In any case, when the pastor talked about God giving others credit, I thought of a passage in Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew: Jesus healed people then commended their faith.
The pastor also said that disobedience to God disorients us from God’s plan for us. The pastor gave an analogy: we are driving a van. God wants us to go to lovely Portland. But we are tempted to get sidetracked. And there are demons sitting in the back of the van, talking to us. Jesus is still there, sitting in the middle, but he cannot get a word in edgewise.
Certain commands in the Bible are a stumblingblock to me, as I have shared here before. Rebuking my neighbor. Going to be reconciled with my offended neighbor. Concretely showing love to my neighbor (and how can I do this, since I have so many neighbors?).
The pastor made another point near the beginning. He said that there is no perfect church, but Jesus is perfect and will cause things to turn out well. Maybe that can be a good perspective: it can influence us to stop expecting churches to be perfect. But there are times when things do not turn out well and it may be time to leave.