CHURCH & church

Week 10 – 8.13.17

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John 8

31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

 

 

In East Perth, Australia, there is a sculpture known as the Impossible Triangle. If you approach the sculpture from the north, east, or west, it looks like a field goal post that some giant tried tearing apart. But approach it from the south and you find something impossibly beautiful: a perfect equilateral triangle made from 90 degree corners. Ask any mathematician and they’ll tell you the math doesn’t add up; all the angles in an equilateral triangle add up to 180 not 270.  You just can’t make a triangle out of three perfectly square corners.  But this sculpture does. It is impossibly beautiful. And it works because of perspective.

This is a good way to understand the two perspectives of God’s Church. We have the human perspective, which is like the north, east, or west view.  The human perspective does not always look pretty to us. Lazy pastors, preoccupied members, and hypocrites mixed into the batch. But God has the south view.  What he sees in the church is impossibly beautiful, a group of people, perfect in holiness and destined for heaven.

We describe the difference in perspective as looking at the Church with a capital “C”, and our churches with a lowercase “c.” Knowing the difference helps us appreciate God’s grace and keeps our attention on him.

  1. The Church

We start with the Church as God sees it, that is all true believers who will spend eternity in heaven. And just who is in that group? That’s as basic as John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Who shall have eternal life? Whoever believes in Jesus as the Son of God sent by God the Father and given over to death for the sins of the world. This is the church with a capital “C,” a church without an earthly membership list or any specific building. In fact, only God knows who the members of this church are because only God can look into hearts and see where faith is genuine and true.

For that reason we often call this Church of true believers the “invisible” church. We can’t identify it with any visible denomination or church body. The true saving church of God is not Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, or the Roman Catholic Church or any other denomination. It is a group defined by saving faith in Christ alone for salvation. There is no defining language or roster or location. In fact, this invisible Church is what we confess in the Apostles’ Creed when we say that we believe in the “Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.” We can call the members of this church holy and saints because of the south view that God has.  Washed clean in the blood of Jesus and with his robes of righteousness covering us, God sees every member of this church as spotless, holy, blameless, radiant, saintly.

So by God’s definition there is only one saving Church, the invisible, holy Christian Church. The natural follow-up question is: why are there so many different Christian church bodies? And shouldn’t we be working to bring the churches back together into one church on earth?

  1. church

Let’s answer the first question first. Why so many different Christian churches? Well, in our 2nd Lesson we heard the Apostle Peter warn Christians that there would be false prophets who would sneak in among Christians distorting the truth and that “they will secretly introduce destructive heresies.” We know that Peter wasn’t the only one who gave these warnings. Jesus called these false teachers “ferocious wolves” who come to us “in sheep’s clothing.” In other words, Jesus knew that false teachers would come in his name, try to gain a following, and infiltrate the church. They would hide their destructive teachings and gather people for themselves instead of for him. Jesus even said some of these false prophets would come with counterfeit signs and miracles so convincing they could almost deceive anyone!

Now, I don’t think the pastors at any non-denominational or at a Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, 7th Day Adventists (and on and on down the line) actually think they are being deceptive or destructive. But that doesn’t change the facts that tweaking God’s Word is harmful eternally.  Yes, even a little change to make it more palpable, more socially acceptable, or helpful for numerical growth is destructive for people.  Sure, these false teachers want to help people.  But mostly they want to help people cope with life, help people see the good in others, and help people better themselves. They make God’s Word point out how doing those things will make God happy and you will gain heaven.  But that’s a me first religion.  It’s a false teaching.  It’s using God’s Word in an incorrect, deceptive way.

Our ferocious enemy Satan knows that the surest way to drag someone into hell is with lies, big or small doesn’t matter to him. It’s what he did to Eve by whispering to her, “Did God really say…?” It’s what he continues to do today in churches and pulpits whispering, “Is it really so bad to go against what God says in this one little way?” Or “Does God really mean you can’t have any fun, can’t make a good living, can’t be popular, can’t associate with any unbelievers?” and so on… Satan knows that if he can deceive people into just one or two errors, that he’s got the foothold he needs. When the Apostle Paul talks about false doctrine, he compares it to gangrene. It starts small and grows to infect the whole body.  And if false doctrine is left to grow, it can even destroy saving faith.

So why so many churches? Because false doctrine divides. Either the false teachers separate themselves from the true church in order to grow or the members of the true church identify the false doctrine and force the false teachers out. Paul was so convinced of the need to protect God’s truth that he told the Christians in Rome to keep away from those teaching false doctrine. Romans 16: “Watch out for those who continue to cause divisions and put obstacles in your faith that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.”

This is where we (finally) get to the words of Jesus in John 8. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  The truth of God is freeing from the false teachings and their eternal destruction.  The truth of God is freeing from a bunch of visible churches that clamor for you have a real relationship with God.

Brothers and sisters, the one thing – the only thing – that can save souls is the truth that Jesus brings.  It’s what we have been studying all summer: God’s total grace for mankind’s total sin; Jesus’ innocent sacrifice to pay for our debt of guilt; the Holy Spirit’s work to call us by the gospel and set us apart as people who serve the Lord. These truths are everything our Lutheran heritage embraces about God’s love for us sinners.

This is also the only truth that can bring believers into unity with each other. Not just some of the things Jesus said or taught. Not just the outlines or basic concepts. No, every truth that God reveals to us in Scripture. If God says it, then it’s important. His truth, and our holding to it all in faith, show us to be true disciples of Jesus and members of the one, true invisible Church with a capital C.

If what Jesus says is true, then we need it all the time. We must read, hear, study, learn, memorize, sing, and pray about those teachings, in home and here in worship. We must dedicate ourselves to holding to those teachings, even if a cool preacher in Bismarck or on TV says differently.  We must continue to hold on to Jesus and his Word even when tons of other “Christians” say things like, “we all have the same God and we all love people.  That’s all that matters.”

It’s not just the pastors that need to hold the truth.  You know that in almost every case in church history, it was the pastors who led faithful laypeople into false doctrine, don’t you? False doctrine sneaks into the church more often through the seminaries than through the farmer’s fields or the office breakroom. You are the ones who must know the truths of Jesus that set and keep us free. Because it will be men that look and sound like me who will come to carry you away from Christ.

And that brings us to the second question I asked a few minutes ago. If there is indeed one Holy Christian Church in God’s eyes, then shouldn’t we be working to bring the churches back together into one church on earth? The answer is absolutely, yes! But we have to remember that unity must be based on the truth of Jesus that sets us free from sin. We have to remember that unity cannot be established between visible churches if it is not based on the Word of God.  We have to remember that unity cannot exist outwardly if it doesn’t first exist inwardly in what we believe. We call this teaching fellowship.

This part of our Lutheran, our Christian, heritage has never been more important for us to remember. Around the world there are people calling themselves Christians holding to some of what Christ taught. They are the ones who look for outward unity between churches without being too concerned about unity in what God says. Jesus said that those who don’t hold to his teachings are not really his disciples. How can we be united with those who Jesus wouldn’t even acknowledge as disciples?

Here is why all of Jesus’ teachings, why the Bible is so important. In a world dominated by evil darkness and death, Jesus’ words are light and life. Jesus’ words are the only thing that breathe unconditional love in a world filled with hatred. Jesus’ words are the only thing that confer holiness in a world ruled by sin. Jesus’ words are the only hope in a world of doubt and despair. Jesus’ words alone tell us the truth in a world of deceit and lies. Jesus’ words are the only free gift of salvation in a world where everything comes at a cost.

So how do we hold to his words? Well, we do it by faithfully learning, studying, and sharing God’s Word. By teaching the Word to our children. By seeking out churches that preach this truth. By warning each other when we see or hear some straying. By holding your pastors accountable. And by rejoicing when we find others who do indeed teach the truth. Because when unity is based in truth it’s an eternal joy. That unity crosses borders, transcends languages, and overcomes every human difference.

It’s the joy of knowing I share the same Savior with someone who is not the same as me. It’s the joy we have when we kneel at the altar together for communion, confessing to the same need for Christ’s forgiveness and receiving it from him as members of his body. The world, and other churches, may not understand the joy of fellowship but we do. It’s a part of our heritage of faith as Lutherans, part of our joy in the truth that Jesus teaches, a truth that sets us free from division and protects us in the unity and peace of God’s Holy Christian Church.

In a way it’s like that impossible triangle in Australia. We see true unity in a way that others simply cannot. Our congregation (our church) may not be the one Church of God on its own, but here we know and confess the one true faith. Hold it. Treasure it. Spread it.

God grant it. Amen.

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FEELING LIKE FOREIGNERS NOW, BUT NOT FOREVER

Week 9 – 8.6.17

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1 Peter 2:11-25

11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

 

You are a foreigner and exile.  You look different.  Talk different. Think different.  Act different.  Sure, you celebrate the 4th of July and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before every kind of ballgame, but you are living as an alien in this land.  Do you know how I know that?  Here’s what God says: you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

See, brothers and sisters, when Jesus called us to faith, he gave us a new life that encompasses all of life, not just certain days or select portions of days.  You aren’t just a child of God on Sunday morning or at home, but he made you his child all of the time.  That’s what we want to review todays and we listen to what Peter has to say about Christian life in society.

In order to talk about our life in society, we first need to address the way we view humanity as a whole. To do that, we need only go to the well-known passage, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son…” Jesus lived a holy life for all. Jesus shed his lifeblood for all. He did not die for some more than for others. The umbrella of his redeeming work did not leave some out in the rain.

Jesus gave his life for all humans because God made mankind in his image, perfect and in holy harmony with God.  He intended that to continue for eternity. So when mankind ruined that harmony, God sent his Son to restore that harmony for all humans. If Jesus gave his life for all, that means that God has imposed the same value on all people, regardless of color, ethnicity, language, ability, age, or any other qualifier. That value, that price tag is this: worth the expenditure of the precious blood of his own Son.

You have never encountered anyone – I don’t care how much they rub you the wrong way or how curmudgeonly they conduct themselves – you have never encountered anyone worth less than you. You have never encountered anyone for whom Jesus did not shed his blood, anyone whom God does not love with an all-surpassing love.

So if God loves everyone, what should be our attitude toward everyone? We should love them too. The most basic command when considering God’s will for our life in society is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving them does not mean we have to feel good about them; it means that we regard them as people for whom Christ died and that we always seek to do what is best for them, regardless of how we feel about them. Help and befriend them in their bodily needs. Help them improve and protect their property and means of income. Defend them, speak well of them, and take their words and actions in the kindest possible way. Set a good example for them in the way you act and speak. Honor, serve, and obey them if they are in authority over you.

Also remember that your goal in doing all these things isn’t just to make the world a better place, or even just to make Christ happy. Peter told us what our goal is: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Your goal is to win souls for heaven. People can and do argue with doctrine and slander organized religion, but it is extremely difficult to argue with love. It is extremely difficult for someone to say to you, “Your religion is worthless,” when you consistently treat them in a fundamentally different way than most, treating them in a way that reflects the value and worth God has given them as souls for whom Christ shed his blood. Little else so attracts people, especially skeptics, to the Christian Church and the gospel of Christ like Christian love does. That’s why God made you a foreigner, living with this selflessness and loving servant heart

Secondly, in order to talk about our life in society, we need to realize what holds sway in society, what makes it go, so to speak. Here we need to talk about the doctrine of the two kingdoms of God. First, there is the  kingdom of the word.  That’s the kingdom that cares primarily for souls, the kingdom of the Church.  And there’s the kingdom of the sword.  That’s the kingdom that cares primarily for bodies, the kingdom of the State. In the Church, the gospel holds sway, but in the State or civil government, the law holds sway, because society is also made up of unbelievers and people who care nothing for God. Thus, if there is to be any good accomplished in society, society needs to be forced and compelled to do it by reward on the one hand and threat of punishment on the other.

The godless employee does his job well not because he cares about others, but because he gets money if he does it well, and fired if he doesn’t. The godless politician supports beneficial legislation because the voters are watching. Rape, robbery, and murder are restrained because people don’t want to get fined, imprisoned, or the death penalty. Some have been swayed from divorce because of the legal and financial ramifications.

Here we should note, before going on, that this is precisely why your Christian love in society has such a huge impact. In a world where most are doing the right thing because they have to, it is a breath of fresh air to encounter Christians doing the right thing because they want to. In a world where mechanics are fixing your car because they want to feed their family and not get sued, it is a breath of fresh air to encounter a Christian who fixes cars because he is genuinely concerned about your possessions and your transportation ability. In a world where employers give their employees fair pay and benefits because it’s mandated by law, it is a breath of fresh air to encounter a Christian employer who gives his employees fair pay and benefits, perhaps even more than what is mandated, because he is generous and genuinely cares about their lives and their families outside of work.

Nevertheless, civil government with its law-based system is a valid institution of God. Here’s our God-given attitude toward civil government: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  It’s makes us look like foreigners to be willing subjects of the government no matter who is ruling, but it’s a good thing.

One application of this, that I need to remember just as much as anyone else, is the way we speak about our president and other elected officials. We often equate conservatism with Christianity. While there are certainly elements of conservatism that are Christian, the two need to be distinguished. Conservatism is a political ideology; Christianity is a religion. Fox News is conservative, but when they disrespectfully rail against our elected officials, that is not Christian. If we have a problem with our elected officials, there are better, godly ways to address those problems than simply railing against them over a cup of coffee. We can call them. We can write to them. And ultimately, we can go to the voting booth or run for office ourselves.

While we’re on the topic of voting, let me say a brief word about that.  We just heard that God has established every government. Ours happens to be a government by the people. To vote, then, is to uphold the government that God has established in our country. So voting is a good thing, but remember that every vote is always going to be a choice for sinful human beings.  Elected leaders can never change the real problem that plagues this world.  They will do their best to keep peace and prosperity, to help our nation on earth. So do your research and use your conscience.

When you are researching the candidates, it is good to look for those who will, as much as possible, uphold God’s moral standards. We heard last week that marriage should be honored by all. We heard in the First Lesson that righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people. Our first concern should not be, “How will this candidate’s ideology affect my wallet?” Our first concern should be, “How will this candidate’s ideology uphold the standards of God’s law and benefit the country at large?”

After doing all of this, pray that God would bless your vote and the outcome for his purposes. And then remember that Jesus still reigns on the throne of heaven, no matter who gets elected.  His kingdom operates with the power of his Word and that shall be our chief endeavor.   That makes us look like foreigners and that’s a good thing, a godly thing, a heavenly thing.

We should also say something about serving in the military here. Since we do uphold the civil government and its rule by law, that means that we also uphold its God-given right to have an army, to wage war, and to execute criminals. Peter said the authorities punish those who do wrong, and when the soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do, he did not say, “Leave the army.” Not all killing is hateful murder. If God has given authority to kill within a legitimate government and you are working for that government in the armed forces, then you may kill within your sphere of responsibility to the glory of God.  War is a part of a sinful world, not God’s design, so governments will have to make those tough decisions and God has given them the job of making those decisions.  As Christians, we honor those decisions. We need to give our Christian soldiers the benefit of the doubt. Even if we ourselves do not think a war is just, we have the benefit of looking in from the outside. Once a soldier is enrolled in the armed forces, he does not have that benefit to the same extent. Once he is enrolled, it is his job to trust his superiors and follow their orders, because if he does not, he is putting the lives of his fellow soldiers at risk.

The last thing we need to say about God’s other kingdom, the civil government, is what Peter says in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than men.” If the government explicitly mandates something that is contrary to God’s will as clearly expressed in his Word, then we not only may, but also should disobey it. That doesn’t mean we riot and rebel. It means we simply disobey. If we know it will mean consequences, we have two choices – humbly accept the consequences or move to a different country.

In closing, thank God that we not only live in the kingdom of the law, like all people do, but that we also live in the kingdom of the gospel. Thank God that he has given us the motivation through Christ to want to do what others must be forced to do. Thank God that we have the good news of life eternal beyond this earthly life of sweat, tears, and death. Thank God that he has placed us in a kingdom of the law that, up to the present, has protected our right to promote the kingdom of the gospel and preach the full and free forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. Thank God that he has equipped us not just with the ability to make our society better, but also to save the souls within that society by telling them of our ultimate king, Jesus, who gave his life for you and for me and for the whole world.

A Christian life in this society makes you look like a foreigner now, but not forever.

To God be the Glory.   Amen.