Here is my weekly Church Write-Up about last Sunday’s services that I attended.
A. The text on which the LCMS pastor preached was Lamentations 3:22-33. In the midst of the disaster that Jerusalem had experienced, Jeremiah finds hope in God’s faithfulness and the newness of God’s mercies each morning. The pastor asked how we in the United States could identify with the political situation of Jeremiah’s time. The center holding everything together had collapsed, as Jerusalem had fallen. We in the United States, by contrast, are about to celebrate the 242nd birthday of our nation; our nation has had its crises, but our center has held for over two centuries.
The pastor likened Jeremiah’s situation to World War I, as the pastor referred to a poem about the aftermath of that war, “The Second Coming,” by the poet William Butler Yeats. The agreements preserving a fragile peace had collapsed. So many people died in that war that people felt that a generation had been lost. The pastor said that many of us have had experiences where we feel as if it is the end of the world, or as if we ourselves have to hold everything together lest it collapse. Jesus, however, unites us to himself, such that we are in Christ, and Christ is in us. We ourselves do not have to hold everything together.
In saying “we” and “us” in this summary, keep in mind that the audience of the sermon was Christians in the United States. But Christians elsewhere can certainly identify with aspects of this message.
B. The pastor was continuing his series on I John at the Sunday school class. I would like to highlight three issues that came up in that. The first two issues contain more than one issue.
First, there is the topic of commandments and how to read the Bible productively. Some people were struggling with John’s emphasis on obeying the commandments, saying that John emphasizes works, whereas Christians are saved by grace through faith. Moreover, John writes so that people might not sin, yet John acknowledges that the Christians in his audience inevitably will sin, and Christ will forgive them. The pastor said that he sees John’s emphasis on obedience to the commandments, not in the sense of slavishly obeying rules, but rather in terms of the fruit that comes out of Christians’ love-relationship with God, namely, love for fellow believers and neighbors in general. The pastor agrees with the school of thought that says that John wrote I John after writing the Gospel of John, meaning that John in I John presupposes what is in his Gospel. That said, the pastor interprets John’s emphasis on keeping the commandments in light of what Jesus says in John 15 about bearing fruit by abiding in Christ. Christians will sin and can receive forgiveness, but John warns about the sin unto death in I John 5:16. That sin is rejecting the faith, and the reason that is not forgiven, according to the pastor, is that people are deliberately shutting themselves off from what the Holy Spirit would use to bring them forgiveness and spiritual restoration, namely, their faith in Christ. Someone in the class asked the pastor how Christians could arrive at these conclusions without the pastoral commentary. The pastor replied that it is good to have a Bible that has cross-references, and that Christians should also ask first in reading a biblical passage how it relates to Christ and Christ’s work of salvation, then they should ask how it relates to themselves.
Second, John frequently calls his audience “little children” in I John. That is because John had been their pastor for 40 years. The pastor likened that to Pastor B. (my abbreviation). Pastor B. had been the pastor of that Lutheran church for three decades, and he and his wife have continued to attend it during the decades after he retired. Pastor B. has known a lot of people in that congregation for a long time, and they have known him. He is like their spiritual father. Similarly, John is writing to the congregation at Ephesus from a standpoint of affection, fostered and strengthened by decades of relationship. John, as the spiritual father, is concerned about the heresies that are present in the Ephesian church, as teachers are denying Christ’s work of salvation and saying that people become saved through mental work, finding the God within. These were not just people with strange ideas, but they were actually teaching in the church, undermining people’s commitment to the Christian faith and splitting the body.
Third, the pastor talked about Matthew 18, where Jesus lays out a three-staged process of church discipline. If someone in the church does not repent after the first two stages, he or she is to be treated as a tax-collector. Does that mean that the church should have nothing to do with that person? The pastor asked how Jesus treated tax-collectors: Jesus ate with them. The church should still engage that person but should approach him or her as a non-believer. I asked the pastor how he reconciled this with what Paul said in I Corinthians 5, forbidding Christians to eat with those who profess to be Christians yet live in certain unrepentant sins. The pastor replied that Paul is warning Christians to be careful when they engage unrepentant Christians, lest they fall into the same sins. Christians are to remember who they are when they engage unrepentant Christians. In some cases, as when an unrepentant Christian is totally unwilling to abandon fornication, a Christian may do well not to eat with that person.
C. I went to the “Pen church” afterwards. I ordinarily attend the “Word of Faith” church, but it was meeting outside, and I was unclear as to whether it was actually having a service last Sunday. At the “Pen church,” the pastor preached about finding one’s purpose. His primary texts were Ezra and Nehemiah, and the pastor referred to anecdotes to illustrate his points. Nehemiah was distressed at the walls in Jerusalem still being unbuilt, leaving the city unprotected, so his purpose was to supervise the reconstruction of those walls. Similarly, our problems can lead us to our purpose. The pastor told the story of a pastor he knows and a former judge. Their daughters were both murdered, so these men have come together to start a Bible college at the prison to become part of the solution. Ezra was determined to go to Jerusalem and to teach God’s law. Similarly, our purpose can give us determination. The pastor referred to his grandfather, who got up early each morning and prayed for two hours for his family and for missionaries. This man saw his family collapsing and resolved at a specific point in time to pray each day. The pastor confessed that he himself does not get up early each morning to pray for two hours, and I doubt that he was suggesting that everyone has to do that. Rather, he was highlighting his grandfather as an example of one who found a purpose.
The pastor said that part of our purpose as Christians is to do our role in bringing about what Jesus said in Matthew 6:10: to make earth like it is in heaven. That is a helpful insight, in terms of framing Christian mission. It encompasses evangelism: we want people to know God on earth, for God is known, loved, and worshiped in heaven. It includes giving to the poor and showing compassion to the sick, as heaven is a place where love reigns and where needs are met. Yes, Jesus will ultimately make earth like heaven at his second coming, but the Kingdom of God also has a present reality.