For church last Sunday, I attended the Missouri-Synod Lutheran church, its Sunday school class on patristic interpretations of John, and the “Pen” church.
Because the Lutheran service and the Pen church’s service overlapped in theme, I will consider them first and second, respectively, before discussing the Sunday school class.
A. The pastor at the Lutheran service talked about the hole in our hearts that only God can fill, according to Augustine, but that we futilely look to other people or things to fill. What can heal us of this? Can we simply stop sinning? The pastor said that we cannot. If we discipline ourselves in one area, we find three other areas in which we are looking to sin to fill our hearts. What is the solution? The pastor said that the solution rests in God’s love.
I was wondering if he was going in a Tim Keller-sort of direction. Tim Keller often gave sermons about how we seek to root our identity in things other than God, with disappointing results. For Keller, we cannot simply decide to stop doing that and to start doing the right thing. The solution rested in Jesus’ self-sacrificial love for us, and, the more that is real to us, the more we will rest in his love.
I am sure that both pastors believe that the Holy Spirit’s work within the heart has to be involved in this conversion process, in some manner. Sometimes, though, one can get the impression from sermons like these that Jesus’ act on the cross inspires people to respond with love towards God, like a moral-influence view of the atonement. Does it, though? I can believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again; believing I am a beneficiary of that, to be honest, can be more difficult, for do I have the proper faith, or do I repent correctly, or are the salvific benefits of Jesus’ death somehow contingent on my forgiveness of others? Those who have assurance that they are children of God—-and Romans 8:16 speaks of the Spirit testifying within believers that they are such—-would probably be able to rest better in and to build their identity on God’s love for them.
The pastor also said that he does not want us to leave the service asking ourselves what we can do for Jesus. Rather, he wants us to reflect on how Jesus invites us to be with him and to learn from him. That is an interesting thought: the disciples got to be around Jesus and to hear from his wisdom. Imagine people today being able to do so, either in reality or pretend: to walk with Jesus, either hearing from him, or asking oneself what Jesus might say in such-and-such a situation.
B. The pastor at the “Pen” church also spoke about God’s love. He said that many are like Simon Peter in Luke 5:8, after Jesus caused Peter’s boat to be filled with fish: Peter asked Jesus to depart from him, for Peter was a sinful man! They cannot believe that God has a purpose for them because they have been and are sinful. Whereas God wants them to have an identity in God, which entails abundant life, Satan tries to steal that identity (John 10:10). The pastor shared that this was true of his own grandfather, who died in that state.
According to Psalm 139, the pastor shared, God loves us deeply and has a purpose for us. God designed us in our intricacies, down to the smallest level.
C. What stood out to me in the Sunday school class was the questions that the congregants asked.
—-We were reading patristic interpretations of John 6, which concerns eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood. Many church fathers applied that to the Eucharist. Some seemed to go so far as to suggest that partaking of the Eucharist was necessary to receive eternal life. A lady in the audience had a problem with that: she said we are saved by faith alone; similarly, last week, a man said that communion was part of sanctification, not justification. Interestingly, in the sermon, the pastor was telling about a shut-in who did not want the pastor to bring communion because she did not feel that she was a sinner: she was shut-in, after all, so what opportunity did she have to sin? Is the implication that forgiveness of sins somehow relates to communion? In any case, the teacher talked about how faith is more than cognitive: it is trusting in God, even when things do not make sense, and faith is what leads one to understanding. We trust, he said, that we ingest Christ when we take communion, even if it looks like bread and wine; we trust that the Holy Spirit speaks through the pastor.
—-Another lady was saying that she disagreed with Christians who claim that all human beings have an eternal spirit inside of them, for she believes that people receive immortality only through Christ, and through belief in him. I did not know if she was espousing conditional immortality here: the doctrine that only the saved live forever, whereas the un-saved are destroyed. The teacher defined death as destruction and as eternal separation from God, and he probably believes that all have an immortal soul, including the un-saved. Back when I was a teenager, going through the Ambassador College (Worldwide Church of God) Correspondence Courses, I encountered the view that Martin Luther rejected the immortality of the soul and embraced soul sleep. That claim is still around, but I found this article to be a balanced assessment of it, and of Luther’s comments about the state of the dead.
—-The physical and the spiritual were salient topics in this session of the class. According to some of the fathers we read, Jesus in John 6 was contrasting ordinary bread, which brings physical and temporal nourishment and life, with Jesus (and, perhaps, the bread of the Eucharist) as bread, which brings eternal life. And yet, the teacher was saying that, according to the fathers, God meets us in the physical, which would include the elements of the Eucharist, and even the written words and verbal proclamation of Scripture. The teacher also said that Jesus has a physical body—-a glorified body, and yet a body of flesh. Someone in the class was curious about the definition of physical and non-physical. His question reminded me of my Armstrongite heritage, which held that Jesus rose with a spiritual body. Of course, people can ask: are not “spiritual” and “body” contradictory concepts? Does not spiritual mean non-corporeal? But, in ancient times, was that necessarily the case? Did not the gods have bodies of some sort, in ancient pagan belief? Then there is the issue of Jesus in the New Testament shining like the sun (Revelation 1:6; see also Matthew 17:2; Acts 26:13), which Gnostic literature liked to stress: is that consistent with Jesus’ resurrected body being spiritual, or physical, albeit a glorified physical?