Here are some items from the church services and activities that I attended last Sunday.
A. Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. The pastor at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church was preaching about Ezekiel 37, which is about the valley of the dry bones. The pastor painted a compelling picture of the exiled Israelites’ situation. They were exiled and demoralized, feeling dead. They had lost to the Babylonians. They were like dry bones on a battlefield. But God animated them through Ezekiel’s word and God’s Spirit. Similarly, we may be feeling demoralized or like losers, but God wants to give us abundant life, zoe, which goes beyond mere survival (bios).
The pastor also opened his sermon with a personal anecdote about when one of his daughter’s was born. He and his wife could actually see her in the womb through technology, and they saw her face. He could tell by her nose that she was theirs! But they felt even more joyful when she actually was born. I do not entirely recall how this fit into the message of the sermon. I was expecting him to say that we may intellectually know about God, but there is a difference between that and having an experience of God through God’s Spirit. That may have been his implication.
B. As is often the case, the Missouri Synod church’s Sunday school class got into a lot of issues. This particular class is about the topic of forgiveness, and it focuses on II Corinthians 1-7. Some points that were made:
—-A lady pointed out II Corinthians 1:22, in which Paul affirms that God put God’s seal on the Corinthian Christians and gave them the Spirit in their hearts as a first installment of the redemption that is to come. Why did Paul mention this? The teacher speculated that Paul was saying this so that the Corinthians could feel truly forgiven. Both Paul and the Corinthians hurt one another deeply. The Corinthians may have wondered if they truly were forgiven, like Joseph’s brothers in Genesis 50 wondered if Joseph truly had forgiven them after the PTSD that they had put them through. Paul reassured the Corinthian Christians that they were indeed forgiven, sealed by God.
—-Paul in II Corinthians 1:8 refers to affliction that he and his co-workers experienced in Asia. The teacher said that this may refer to the riot in Ephesus in Acts 19, but he thinks it may also refer to Paul’s eagerness to hear from Titus, who was his go-between with the Corinthian church. Paul wanted to know that his relationship with the Corinthian Christians had improved: that they knew he was sorry, and that he had forgiven them. II Corinthians 2:12 and chapter 7 presents these feelings.
—-Paul in II Corinthians 1:12-13 talks about Paul and Corinthians boasting in their forgiveness of each other on the day of Christ Jesus. In those days, the teacher said, boasting was a good thing: people would show their resumes so that others would know where to place them in society. Paul said that his resume before God would be, not his preaching or his travels or his miracles, but the mutual forgiveness between him and the Corinthian church.
—-Paul talks in II Corinthians 1 about his sufferings. The teacher seemed to be suggesting that Paul’s sufferings helped him to forgive, perhaps because they humbled him. The teacher speculated that at least part of Paul’s sufferings was his feelings of guilt over his persecution of the church. When Paul in Romans 12:14 exhorts the Roman Christians to bless those who persecute them, he may have had in mind that he had been such a persecutor. Paul also could reach out to Sosthenes, who had been one of his accusers, because Paul, like Sosthenes, had been a persecutor of Christians (cp. Acts 18:17; I Corinthians 1:1). The teacher also referred to I Timothy 1:15, in which Paul (or, for liberal scholars, “Paul”) calls himself the chief of sinners. In our own little universe, we are the chief of sinners. We only know some of another person’s sins, the teacher said. But we know all of our own.
—-In II Corinthians 2:5-11, Paul presents forgiveness as somewhat of a communal exercise. The teacher said that, when the pastor pronounces forgiveness on us in the services, the pastor is speaking for the community. Our sins can impact the body, sowing offense and division (as Satan desires). We need healing and forgiveness as and from the Christian community. The teacher said that this also occurs when the pastor visits a shut-in and pronounces forgiveness: it may occur one-on-one, but it is still public.
—-The teacher reiterated his point from last week that forgiving an embezzler does not mean making him church treasurer. But it can entail kneeling with him at the communion altar, greeting him after church, and loving him.
—-The teacher referred to the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18. The teacher said that the servant was trying to shake down the person who owed him money because the servant wanted the money in order to help pay off the debt that he had owed to the king, the debt that the king had just cancelled. He was unwilling to accept the king’s forgiveness. The king’s response was (in the teacher’s telling), “So be it according to your attitude: if you think that you still owe the debt, then I will treat you as if you still owe the debt.”
C. At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor preached about the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Zacchaeus was a hated tax-collector. He shook people down for their money and kept some of it for himself. He had a non-Jewish name, indicating, according to the pastor, that he was considered to be outside of the community of Israel; that, according to the pastor, is why Jesus would later call him a son of Abraham. Zacchaeus climbed up to the tree to see Jesus because we was not interested in merely being “nice” but recognized that he needed change and wanted to know if Jesus could provide it. Jesus publicly reached out to him and identified himself with him, and, touched by Jesus’ love and generosity, Zacchaeus became generous. The pastor noticed that, in a sense, the Gospels associate salvation with giving: Jesus affirmed that salvation came to Zacchaeus’ house after Zacchaeus announced his intention to give generously to the poor. The rich young ruler in Luke 18, by contrast, walked away from the Kingdom of God because he was unwilling to sell all that he had and give to the poor. The preacher said that our generosity is an indication that we have been personally impacted and touched by the love, generosity, and grace of God. The pastor also said that God wants people to switch their game: they are playing the game of law and performance, but God wants them to switch to the game of grace.
D. I went to the “Word of Faith” church’s monthly praise and prayer service. It had some “Word of Faith” elements: wanting financial increase from God, claiming God’s “promises,” sowing a seed and reaping a harvest. The pastor talked about the deaths of many prominent church planters, and also Billy Graham. He said that he believes that God is raising up a new generation of spiritual fathers and mothers, as God raised up Joshua to replace Moses. Pastors from the church were going out and laying hands on people, praying for them. One of them prayed for me, asking God that I might have a new beginning, that the desires of my heart might be met in God, that God might give me a thirst for God, and that I might enjoy God’s people.
I’ll stop here. I hesitantly leave the comments open, in case someone wants to offer feedback. I can envision people reading (C.) and cynically saying, “That sounds like salvation by works,” or “That sounds like a fund-raising ploy.” Or reading (A.) and saying, “Is the Missouri-Synod becoming Joel Osteenish these days?” I relay these items, not out of total agreement, or even having ideas about how I can relate them to my own life and walk with God. Still, I think that they are getting at something, even if one can take them to unhelpful extremes if one is not careful.