Sunday, March 18, 2007

2 Corinthians 5:16-21 - “Not According to My Limited Way of Thinking”

4th Sunday in Lent (Year C - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Saturday, March 17, and Sunday, March 18, 2007

I was telling a story during my Youth & Adult Bible Study a couple of Sundays ago. It was supposed to be a story to help explain the balance between being shrewd and adventurous when it comes to sharing God’s Word. Jesus tells us to be shrewd—not every situation is the time for sharing the Gospel, but other times you’ve got to ride the adventure with God as He takes you into situations that you never imagined you’d be in—and there share the Gospel.

A balance between being shrewd and adventurous. That was what the story was supposed to be about—but one comment from a dear class member made me realize God was teaching me something else through that story that day, teaching me about what Paul says in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.”

The story I was telling in class was about a time in Milwaukee after a concert by Josh and Jeremy Werner’s band—a couple of our young adult members. I dropped them off at their apartments, and by then, it was around 1:00 in the morning. I stopped along Capitol Drive at a gas station to get a snack for the ride home to Manitowoc.

At the gas station, two guys asked me if I had a jack they could use, because they had a flat. My first instinct was to say no; this wasn’t really the time of night I wanted to be hanging around trying to help somebody change a tire. Something in me, though, went against being shrewd and decided to help them.

Well, the jack didn’t do any good, because the car was so rusted out that instead of pushing the car up, the jack just started pushing through the metal. The guy who had the car took off, driving off with the tire completely flat and the wheel rim sending out sparks.

That left the other guy—who turns out was just walking by and thought that if he helped the guy with his tire, he might get a ride home. Since the guy with the flat tire took off, he turned to me instead and said, “Can you give me a ride home? It’s just down a few blocks on Capitol.”

Again, I have no idea why—except the Holy Spirit—but I ignored my instinct to be shrewd and agreed to give him a ride.

Michael, that’s his name, turned out to live more like 20 blocks down Captiol, was down on his luck, looking for work as an electrician, on the outs with his ex-wife, and was a felon. Driving those 20 blocks could’ve have been the dumbest decision I had made, but somehow God worked through that adventure to give me a chance to share God’s love with Michael.

That’s how I told the story in the Youth & Adult Bible Study. I was trying to make a point that sometimes God sets aside our careful ways of handling things so that He can share His Gospel through us. Despite the fact that I don’t usually like feeding into stereotypes, I emphasized Michael seemed dangerous—“20 blocks down Capitol,” “1 in the morning,” “a felon.” The story showed that I wasn’t being shrewd.

But then that dear class member, a sister in Christ, said to me: “Do you think that if someone is a felon that they can’t change?”

She caught me in my limited way of thinking. I was regarding Michael according to the flesh, according to how my puny human mind works, according to how my sinful, narrow eyes see the world. This dear sister in Christ knows that I believe felons can change—but she also knows that I’m not always good at remembering that I believe that felons can change.

That’s what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians: When I looked at Michael, I should have looked at him through the eyes of the Spirit—not according to my own limited way of thinking. My limited way of thinking focused on him being a felon, fresh out of prison, the dangerous part. My own limited way of thinking assumed Michael was lying when he said that he was an electrician, that he was trying to turn things around, that he was clean and sober.

But Paul—and that dear class member—calls me back to God’s Word. Jesus Christ has the power to transform us—and transform the people around us. No longer do we just look at people according to the flesh, according to our limited way of thinking. Instead, we see them like we see Christ. We see that Christ died on the cross but was raised to new life. We see that Christ looked like a weak, hopeless, broken, criminal dying on the cross, but that through the Spirit, we see Him as the victorious, powerful, precious, righteous Son of God. Our limited way of thinking leads us astray when it comes to figuring out who Jesus Christ is, and our limited way of thinking leads us astray when it comes to seeing what Jesus can do in the people around us.

There’s a 4th century writer called Ambrosiaster who wrote a book about Paul’s letters in the New Testament. This is what Ambrosiaster said about today’s reading from 2 Corinthians:

Right up until the cross there was a suspicion that Christ was weak, but once he rose from the dead all that vanished and what was previously doubted came to be believed (Ancient Christian Commentary Series: 1-2 Corinthians, 248).

In other words, looking at Christ from our limited human perspective, we suspected that Christ was weak. Yet, through faith, through believing in the Resurrection, we no longer have such a small-minded point of view. Now we see Jesus as powerful and strong, having victory over death. That’s what Paul means when he says, “Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.”

Whether we’re talking about Jesus or the people of this world, when it comes to thinking “according to the flesh,” according to our human way of thinking, our limited, rational, logical, corrupted, sinful, selfish, short-sighted way of seeing the world. . .well, we’re just not that good at getting beyond appearances. People thought Jesus was weak, because He suffered, didn’t grab life by the horns during His earthly ministry, didn’t establish Himself as an earthly king, let Himself be crucified. By all appearances, Jesus was weaker than weak, and it would be better not to place your bets on Him.

It’s the same with people. We meet people who by all appearances are sinful, weak, criminals, hopeless, dysfunctional, bad influences, selfish, people who don’t have a clue. By all appearances these people are weaker than weak, and it would be better not to place your bets on them.

My story about Michael showed that I was using that kind of limited way of thinking; I was looking at Michael according to the flesh.

Yet, that’s not how God sees Michael. God sees Michael as a precious soul, a soul that has been saved through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a soul that is sinful and searching and needs the Gospel, a soul that has been touched by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.

You see, even while driving Michael those 20 blocks down Capitol Drive, even while my mind is racing with thoughts like: “Why did I allow this guy into my car?” “Should I just stop here and tell him to get out?” “What happens if he demands money from me?” “How quickly could I call 911 on my cell phone?” Even while my mind was racing with these questions coming out of my limited way of thinking, God was working through me, despite me, putting words in my mouth that I didn’t know were there. In my limited way of thinking I was worried about getting beat up or worse, but meanwhile in God’s spiritual way of seeing the world His Holy Spirit was using our drive as a time to point Michael to Jesus.

Michael didn’t really believe I was a pastor. I didn’t bring it up right away, but when he asked what I do, I told him. Before this, he had been asking if I had been out partying, or out with girls, and bragging about his ability to woo the ladies. As soon as he found out I was a pastor, he changed what he was talking about. He started with a standard confession of sorts, saying that he was trying to quit his partying life. That really did seem like an empty kind of repentance—even through spiritual eyes.

But then the more Michael talked—trying to say something that might impress the preacher, the more honest Michael got about his spiritual life. He loved going to church with his grandma, always loved how the pastor encouraged him to turn things around. He knew it made his grandma happy when he went to church with her, and he even thought it was good for him to go and learn about Jesus, but just in that short conversation, he also hinted at his own sense of guilt, his addictions, his problems that kept him from feeling like he belonged in church. He didn’t seem to think that he deserved to be there.

By now, I had gotten him to the corner of Capitol where he said I could drop him off. He asked me for work, but I told him that even if I needed an electrician he wouldn’t make very much money after driving to and from Manitowoc. He asked if I knew anyone who needed an electrician, so I got his phone number and told him I’d try calling a pastor in the area to help him.

I did pass on that number to a fellow Missouri Synod pastor near the area where I dropped off Michael, but I’m not sure if the pastor ever got much of a response from Michael. If I go back to my limited way of thinking, I would just assume that Michael was willing to say anything to make the preacher happy so that I might give him a ride and maybe even some money, and that Michael just went back to his old ways as he walked away from my car.

However, if it is true that Christ comes and transforms people, makes us His new creation through His Holy Spirit, if Christ has the power to overcome death and has promised to share that victory with us, then I can’t just look at Michael according to the flesh, according to my limited way of thinking. In my limited way of thinking, nothing was accomplished that night except that Michael got me to go 20 blocks out of my way and he got a ride home.

But if I look with the eyes of the Spirit, I see that Michael got to meet a Christian, was reminded of his grandma’s faith, thought again about going to church, had to remind himself about why a Christian might not approve of his lifestyle, experienced God’s grace and love, and got a phone call from another pastor trying to help him. Through the eyes of the Spirit, it was a night for God to speak again to Michael. Through the eyes of the Spirit, God definitely was accomplishing something.

Despite the fact that I now can see that God was working through me that night as I drove down Capitol Drive, what I really take away from this experience—and what you can take away—is that our first instinct is to look at people according to the flesh, according to our own limited way of thinking. Before you start thinking I did something wonderful by giving Michael a ride home and telling him about Jesus, remember that mainly I was thinking according to the flesh, that it really was more like something came over me, that the Spirit really guided my actions that night, and if it had just been up to me, I would’ve never even stopped at that gas station on Capitol Drive.

Remember that—because the Lord truly can work in all of us despite our limited ways of thinking. You may approach situations—just like I did—and see people according to the flesh—as sinful, trouble, dangerous, hopeless, not worth your time, hostile to the Christian faith—but it is amazing how the Spirit works through us despite our sinful tunnel vision. God really can speak His Word of love and truth through you—even while you’re squirming in your seat, trying to find an exit, looking for a way out, or just trying to ignore a situation. The Holy Spirit really does use you to share God’s love, grace, mercy, truth, and forgiveness with the people that you meet.

Which means you have to stop thinking about yourself according to the flesh, according to your own limited way of thinking. Start seeing yourself according to the Spirit, according to the amazing ways that God has transformed you, made you into His new creation. Start seeing that God has removed your sin, given you a new heart, is working His holiness, righteousness, graciousness in you. God really can and will use you to share His love with others.

The power that transformed Christ from Good Friday to Easter, that power transforms anyone who believes in Jesus. That power transforms you, that power transforms the people around you, that power transforms our way of thinking, our way of seeing the world, so that despite my sin, despite your sin, we can look around at each other and see a gathering of God’s holy people—God’s new creations designed to be His servants here on Earth.

Wherever Michael is today, I pray God will continue to work that transformation in him, and I pray that God will continue to work that transformation by the Holy Spirit in each of us.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Augsburg Confession VII, 1 - “Are All of These Vehicles Delivering the Gospel?”

Lenten Midweek
Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Imagine worship as a bunch of little delivery trucks driving up to your heart and mind. The cover of tonight’s bulletin is supposed to help you to imagine all of those delivery trucks, pulling up to make their deliveries to you during worship. When the little delivery man runs up to you, he is bringing you the Gospel. When the hymn trucks arrive, they come with the Gospel. When the liturgy truck arrives, it comes with the Gospel. When the Scripture trucks arrive, they come with the Gospel in words you can understand. When the sermon truck arrives, the Gospel message is unpacked. On Sunday, when the Order of Holy Communion truck arrives, it comes with the Lord’s Supper for you, the body and blood of Christ.

Now you might talk about how many trucks are a part of our worship service, what kinds of trucks we have, how the trucks today are different than the trucks in the past, but the essential question is about what is in the back of those trucks. When the trucks arrive, when you roll up the back door, are those trucks carrying the Gospel message? Are all of these vehicles delivering the Gospel? Everything that happens in worship should be a vehicle for delivering the Gospel truth, and when the Gospel is being delivered, then that’s where we find the holy Christian church.

We love to debate about what makes “church” church, and usually when we debate about that, we’re really debating about what makes a “worship service” a worship service. If something is out of place or missing, we say, “That just wasn’t church without such-an-such.” If something new is added, we say, “I’m not sure that belongs in church.”

Despite all of our debating and hand wringing, the Lutheran Confessors who set out our doctrines, our teachings, our understandings of the Christian faith, they have already set out a basic definition of the Church, of how we can tell where there is Church. This definition was originally written in the Augsburg Confession in 1530, one of the documents that forms the Book of Concord which guides our teaching of Scripture, but this definition for years and years has also been repeated in the Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism in answer to the Explanation’s question number 174, which you have at the back of your bulletins: “Where is the holy Christian church to be found?”

The answer is: “The holy Christian church is to be found where ‘the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.’ The Gospel and the sacraments are known as the ‘marks of the church’” (Concordia Publishing House, © 2006, 160).

Gospel preaching and sacraments. These are the marks of the church, the signs which are present where God’s Church is truly at worship. These marks are where any debate should center about worship and the Church. Questions about stained glass, carpet or tile, music styles, order of service, candles, standing up or sitting down, translations of the Bible, whether to clap or not, what the preacher should wear, whether to kneel or stand for communion, all of those questions are not the real question. As a congregation we have—and we will continue to have to make decisions about things like this, but if we’re not asking the important, essential question behind it all, then we’re missing the point.

For instance, the real question isn’t whether traditional hymns or contemporary songs are right. We could easily slip into a debate about what kind of music is more churchy, which kind can be called “church” and which cannot be called “church”.

But if we’re working with the definition of the Lutheran Confessions, if the marks of the church are Gospel preaching and sacraments, then what kind of music we use doesn’t make us a church or stop us from being a church. The real question is: does the music we use teach the Gospel? Does the music teach God’s Word—His Law that condemns sin and His Gospel which forgives us? Does the music point us to our Savior Jesus Christ? Is the music a tool for us to express our prayers to God? Does the music encourage us by teaching us the Gospel? When that delivery truck pulls up, when we open the doors of the hymn, do we find that it delivers the Gospel?

If we’re only debating about what kind of music we like, or what kind of music we think should be in church, or keeping the music we’ve always had, we’re missing the point, and we’re adding something to our definition of church. And once we start adding to our definition, we’re going to get farther and farther away from God’s definition of church. God established His Church on Earth, so that people may hear and learn the Gospel, so that the Holy Spirit may work through Word and Sacrament to create and strengthen faith in our hearts. The only kind of debate we should be having about any of these issues is whether something we’re doing is not delivering the Gospel and sacraments.

Why is that the essential question? Because what is at stake is the Gospel message which frees us from our sins, cancels out all of our errors, clears us from all guilt, and takes us to eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Go back to Martin Luther’s day, and that’s the concern we see in Luther’s actions concerning worship. For generations, the common people had not really ever gotten a Gospel package delivered to them during worship services. Latin was the only language used in worship services, and the common people didn’t understand Latin. People were not being taught what the Scriptures said. People came to worship out of a sense of obligation or fear, but very few of the things in worship actually helped the people to realize that God forgives sins as a free gift through Jesus Christ, that faith in Jesus Christ assures us of everlasting life.

So Luther went and found some new delivery trucks—and he made sure those trucks would deliver the Gospel. Luther wrote hymns and liturgy in German, so that the common people could understand the Gospel.

A biography of Luther by Richard Marius explains Luther’s Gospel focus when it came to telling preachers how to preach. It says, “Luther recognized how much depended on preachers, in preaching to the simple, the uneducated. One must sit on the pulpit as though on a milking stool, he said, and pull hard and drink milk with the people….Thereby should the minister diligently teach the catechism and pass out the milk” (Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, Cambridge, MA: Belknap, © 1999, 383).

In other words, Luther didn’t want the preachers to speak and communicate as if they were still in the university among fellow preachers; instead, the preachers were called to deliver the milk, the life-giving, easily understood words of the Gospel. It wasn’t about getting the milk and taking the time to turn it into fancy cheese. The people are hungry, so the preachers should just sit down at the cow, get the milk, and give it to the people. The people are hungry for the words of forgiveness, life, and salvation, so the preachers should just sit down at the Bible, find the truth, and speak it to the people.

For Luther, it was the same with hymns: he was focused on how to deliver the Gospel, the marks of the Church. Luther called on his friend, Georg Spalatin, for help in making a German hymnbook. Again quoting from Marius’ biography of Luther, Luther said “Spalatin should exercise himself to translate some psalms into German verse to be set to music. He should avoid highfalutin words used at court….These hymns were to convey the word of God in German verses that everyone could understand,” (ibid., 386).

Luther focused on communicating the Gospel to the people. The marks of the church are Gospel preaching and the sacraments, and everything that happens in worship should be vehicles for delivering the Gospel truth. When we’re in worship, these vehicles are arriving at our door—and each of them delivers the same thing: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

In Luther’s time, and our own day, what is at stake is allowing other factors to determine how we make decisions about worship. Luther kept the traditions that were vehicles for the Gospel, but he wasn’t afraid to change or get rid of traditions that didn’t deliver the Gospel. Yet, we could easily fall into the extreme that happened during Luther’s time in Geneva, Switzerland, under another reformer named Ulrich Zwingli.

Zwingli began using different factors in designing his worship services—holding his congregations to a very strict understanding of what was allowed in worship, stopping a lot of trucks from making deliveries because he didn’t think they belonged there—but he never checked to see if those trucks were carrying the Gospel. Zwingli didn’t seem concerned about whether the parts of worship that he was getting rid of were vehicles for the Word of forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

Again, quoting Marius, “Zwingli tried to follow the New Testament to the letter….He banned instrumental music because no New Testament evidence exists that [early] Christians used musical instruments in worship services….Zwingli’s motive for banning musical instruments went beyond scripture….In his view the physical was not worthy to bear the divine, and veneration of the physical or the [world of senses] was akin to idolatry. Instrumental music in the worship service was [an emotional] element unworthy of the true Christian….He had churches whitewashed, stained glass smashed out of windows, and religious [statues] pulled down and broken up” (ibid., 384,385).

This is not our understanding of how God works in the world; this is not our understanding of worship. As Marius says, “Luther at the heart of his religious being believed in incarnation, the goodness of creation, the capacity of physical and spiritual to be joined together….In the sublime harmonies of music, God could speak to the human soul” (ibid., 385,386).

What this means is that we can recognize God communicating through so many different vehicles, delivering the Gospel in so many different ways, using the elements of this world to bring us His Word of forgiveness—using water in baptism, using bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, using any of the thousands of human languages to share the divine Word of God with us. The physical world doesn’t stop God from sharing His spiritual truths with us; instead, God uses as much of this physical world as He can to constantly be pointing us to Himself.

What this means for us is that we can be freed from the micro-debates, the arguments over the small things, the fights about what looks right in worship, what sounds right, what feels right, what we think, what we like, what we have always had. Instead, we can simply focus on seeing how many ways God is delivering the Gospel to us. Instead of debating, we can rejoice as we see all of the different ways that God in this place communicates His forgiveness of sins.

There all of these different people here—different ages, different family situations, different levels of education, different preferences, different backgrounds, different professions, different places in the Christian faith, and if we just step back for a moment, we’ll see God working in a worship service to send out all of these little delivery trucks, driving up to the door of every heart and soul in this room, delivering the Gospel in a bunch of different trucks. Some of those trucks work really well for some people; other trucks work better for other people. Just like on the cover of the bulletin, not all of those delivery trucks can delivery the same kinds of things. In that same way, we all need the Gospel to be communicated to us in different ways. So God works through the Church, through the Gospel preaching and the sacraments, the marks of the Church, to make sure the Gospel is delivered to each and every one of you.

Judge everything else on its ability to carry the Gospel message, to help you hear God’s Word, or to help someone else hear God’s Word, to bring someone to understand Jesus Christ. Don’t judge the vehicles by what they look like on the outside—whether they look old or too shiny or too strange or have too many stickers on them. Instead, open those doors and see what those vehicles are carrying. Are all of these vehicles delivering the Gospel? Are tonight’s hymns, liturgy, sermon, prayers, music, this sanctuary, are all of these things helping to deliver God’s Word to you? If yes, then hear that Gospel, celebrate that Jesus Christ forgives your sins and gives you the promise of eternal life and delivers that hope to you in a way that reached the door of your heart. But if something in the service is just an empty vehicle, if something isn’t carrying truth from God’s Word, then that’s a vehicle we need to send to the junkyard.

I pray there’s no junk in tonight’s service—or any service that we have here at Redeemer Lutheran Church. However, I’m sure we make mistakes, and some junk slips in. Yet, when we talk about what is junk, we’re talking about whether it delivers the Gospel or not. That’s the essential question, because that is the mark of the Church.

“The holy Christian church is to be found where ‘the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.’” From what I can see, God is delivering the Gospel tonight.