Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13
This Memorial Day as we wrap up the Easter season we remember not only THE spiritual, eternal, once and for all death of Jesus on behalf of those He calls His friends, but we also honor all those who in strictly temporal terms made the ultimate sacrifice for us in the armed services. The pandemic and the unprecedented measures to contain it have also brought up all kinds of constitutional issues concerning who has the authority to do what and how we can responsibly exercise the freedoms so many people died fighting for.
In 2012 the LCMS launched a Free to be Faithful initiative, for which I wrote an essay. I invite you to take time this Memorial Day to read it and reflect on the issues it raises. Even if we cannot observe this solemn day at some public gathering, we can consider our calling as Christians in civil society and as inheritors of a great nation. I hope you’ll take the time to read it today, and that your day is blessed.
…He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…
Today is Ascension Day, which used to be one of the big festivals of the church calendar. Ascension commemorates what amounts to a celestial coronation. Some scenes in Revelation depict this triumph from the perspective of heaven, while the picture of it from an earthly perspective is what ties together the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles (also by Luke).
It always falls on a Thursday, though, since the Ascension happened forty days after Easter, so as church participation has waned in recent years, fewer and fewer and people ever participate in Ascension services. Our tradition here at St. Paul’s has been to celebrate Ascension with our whole circuit of sister congregations. For those who don’t know, our national church body is divided into districts (mostly named after the states, so we’re in the Indiana District) and subdivided into circuits. We’re in Circuit 1, which is the Western half of Lake County. Anyway, we take turns each hosting the service, all the pastors are invited to participate, there is one big, joint choir, and everyone is invited. The service normally ends up outside, weather permitting, then there is some kind of social event afterwards involving desert.
Our Ascension tradition was always a good way for those who participated to get a sense of the wider church. Trinity and Concordia in Hammond, Redeemer in Highland, Grace in Dyer, and Peace in Schererville, have often participated. This year, Pastor Gumz of Trinity in Hammond (whose kids come to St. Paul’s school) volunteered to continue the circuit tradition by putting together an Ascension service and filming it in various circuit churches, then splicing it into one service.
Please be sure to watch (and by watch I don’t mean like a tv show, but in a participatory way) the Ascension service. And don’t let the technology of it be the focus. Yes, it is a neat service, but the point of it is not to be a gimmick. The point of it is to attend (such as we’re able) a heavenly celebration of the victory and eternal reign of Jesus Christ.
Blessed Ascension Day to all!
“For as that righteous man [Lot] lived among [the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah] day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard.” II Pet. 2:8
Yesterday in our regular Bible study we read some of Luther’s commentary on Genesis, in which Luther considers and approves (while admitting it only a theory) the ancient tradition that the Melchizedek whom Abraham paid tribute to was actually Noah’s son Shem, who was still alive all those years after the flood.
Luther makes the point that, whether or not he was King of Salem, it must have been difficult for Shem to live so long and see so much, given that nothing really changed about the wickedness of human nature. Here is an old man who remembers the world before the flood and how the people were so wicked that God determined to blot them out. He remembers the Tower of Babel, and how the people were so proud and defiant that God decided to confuse their language and scatter them. Now he lives among pagans and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, and will live to watch the fire and brimstone rain down upon them. That’s a lot of life among wickedness. It had to have been a tedious and depressing cycle to watch.
Today we consider someone who is 100 years old to have seen a lot—the Great Depression, WWII, the Civil Rights Movement, the Sexual Revolution, the nuclear arms race, and so forth and so on until we get to this, the COVID year of 2020. But if that really old person is righteous (and by that I don’t mean without sin, but having the righteousness of Christ by faith) it can be a torment to see so many things change while human sinfulness remains the same. Such a person probably does not envy the great old patriarchs from Genesis who lived many centuries.
When you watch a loved one destroy his or her own life with bad decision-making or the cycle of addiction, only your love for that person that makes it hurt you. You could protect yourself from hurt by refusing to love people bent on self-destruction. But that is not the Christian way. We know our own sinfulness too deeply, and we know the grace of God even for the likes of us, and we know the redemption of the cross for all people. What hurts us is when people we love hurt themselves through their sinfulness and do not know God’s transformative mercy in Christ.
This little section of the Easter season between Ascension and Pentecost should restore our confidence that no matter what we have seen or will see, the reign of Christ is more constant than time itself, deeper than human depravity, and more powerful than death and the devil. However long we live, and whatever “change and decay” we see in the world around us in the coming months and years, we have a promise of an eternal kingdom that helps us embrace the love that hurts in this life. In that way, God empowers us to be little Christs to an always dying world.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
…but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
Patience is a virtue. Waiting is the hardest part. We do not lack clichés to express the difficulty of experiencing delay. Waiting saps our physical, psychological, emotional, and sometimes even spiritual strength.
As the school year here at St. Paul’s winds down to a conclusion next week and as the weather starts to turn toward summer, the burden of the COVID regulations starts to take its toll. Anyone can hunker down for a while, especially in a crisis. There is even a bit of fun and novelty to it. But it wears on you. Even the best things in life, like Christmas decorations or lazy summer days eventually start to feel old. Less glorious things wear out even faster.
The burden of time depends on what exactly we’re waiting for. When we’re anticipating something good and certain, like Christmas or the last day of school, the waiting is hard because of the exuberance of anticipation. When we await something bad certain, like the alarm going off too early or a bad report card being sent home, the wait burdens us with dread. We just want to avoid thinking about it.
But what about when we aren’t even sure what we’re waiting for? Many of us are waiting for a return to normal without a clear idea of what that looks like anymore. Good or bad, it isn’t certain. And sometimes uncertainty weighs us down even more than something certainly bad.
When we think about patience and waiting in this terms—good or bad, certain or uncertain—we understand a little more clearly what Isaiah means by those wait for Lord renew their strength. When we remember what we’re ultimately waiting for—that it is not just good but the best thing, and not just certain but the only truly certain thing—then that reminder gives us the strength to endure the waiting, the difficulty, the bad things, and the uncertainties of life in this world.
The Holy Spirit brings the Gospel into your heart and mind, and the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of a mind fixed on Jesus, includes patience. Take what comes, fast or slow as it comes, as the knowledge of the ultimate truth renews your strength.
And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:10-11
“What did you expect?” That’s usually a semi-accusatory response you might get from someone when you express disappointment. The gist of the accusation is that things didn’t turn out wrong. Rather, your prior expectation that they would turn out differently was unrealistic. Disappointment is always a function of expectations. If you never expect much, you’re never disappointed. If you always expect a great deal, you’re very often disappointed.
For Christians, the better question is what do we expect? Our expectations define our whole lives. We expect everything to work out for the good of those who live in God. We expect the dead to be raised. We expect everlasting life. We expect to made perfect.
When we go by sight, we’re constantly disappointed. Things don’t always seem to be working out for the good of God’s people. In fact, in some times and places it seems like the exact opposite is true. Death seems to have the final word, and the grief of separation is what seems eternal. We look upon the paltriness of our own lives, our lack of true holiness, and inability to overcome sin, and if anything we just get more and more disappointed with ourselves. It would be a sign of dubious spiritual health if we started to more and more satisfied with ourselves rather than more and more discontent with our sinfulness. If we aren’t disappointed when going by sight, we have reason to double-check that our expectations align with God’s Word and our vision of what is happening is really clear.
The history of the Christian Church as we know it begins with Acts, Chapter 1. The promise given by the two mysterious white-robed men invites us to go by faith, not by sight. Faith is the only way to live by a promise. Jesus was taken from their sight precisely so that they must proceed by faith. So has the Church lived ever since. We expect perfection and have the only balm for everything that falls short of it, which is forgiveness. Christ Ascends to the throne of God, sends the Holy Spirit into this world, and the whole history begins of God’s people living by faith in His fulfilled death and resurrection.
This Thursday is Ascension. Pastor Gumz of Trinity, Hammond has spent a great deal of effort putting together a video service involving all the circuit churches and pastors. We will give you information on how to access that service this week, so that our tradition of having a circuit-wide celebration of Christ’s Ascension can continue uninterrupted.
The important thing is neither the tradition nor the technology that makes it possible to continue. The important thing is the Ascension itself, which teaches us that our expectations of God can never be too great, our disappointment with our own sin can never be too great, and our faith in Christ to bridge the gap can never be too great. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Alleluia!
“This is most certainly true.” Luther’s Small Catechism
What is most certainly true? Death and taxes? True love? That you can’t go home again? That you can do whatever you set your mind to? That you’re another day older and deeper in debt? What you think is most certainly true indicates pretty well who or what your real God is, because your real God is what you rely on when you don’t know what to rely on and everything seems unreliable.
A.D. 2020 has thrown a lot of things into turmoil. Things we took for granted as though it went without saying that they were most certainly true have proven unreliable. For many people, the bedrock of life, the most certain of certain truths, has suddenly started to wobble. For others, life has gone on pretty much as normal. But even those whose lives haven’t changed much have had to reassess what things can be taken for granted. Jobs, school, hobbies, plans, weekly routines—none of them are guarantees. None of them will be there no matter what.
“True” means faithful and constant. A true statement is faithful to reality. A true love is faithful to the lover. A true friend is constant-- a friend not just in good times but in bad times, too. Even fiction can “ring true” or not in terms of the deeper realities it tries to express. The catechism reserves the famous phrase “This is most certainly true” for the triune God. Each of the explanations of the three articles, which correspond to the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—concludes with “This is most certainly true.”
The confirmands have to memorize the longer paragraphs, and they always struggle to recite them together, but when it comes to that last line, they always say, loud and in unison, THIS IS MOST CERTAINLY TRUE!” As their instructor, I always find it a bit frustrating, were it not so humorous, that they express such confidence in the truth of the statement that they were so uncertain and hesitant about mumbling their way through. But even that function of memory illustrates something true. It isn’t just that the content of the memorized paragraph that is true. It is true, of course, and it matters, which why we want the confirmands to know it. But in another way, the God being talked about is true. The triune God is true to His promises, true to His people. We cannot say of ourselves that we are certainly true to Him all the time. We mumble our way through, rely on things that prove unreliable, taking for granted things that disappear suddenly, and just generally not being worthy of the God we have. But He remains certainly true. The confirmation class struggling to recite the memory work but then closing with a resounding “This is most certainly true,” illustrates something profound about the grace of a God who remains eternally true to a people who can never deserve it.
God is true to you. We had just over 100 people in church in the three services combined, and a few hundred more participated via live-stream. His Word went out to all kinds of settings—old and young, rich and poor, healthy and sick, content and desperate—yet none of them deserved the promise they received. But it was true for all them. Anyone who hears and believes the Gospel can join with our 8th graders as they prepare for confirmation at the end of the month by reviewing the catechism memory work, and if nothing else, proclaiming that our God is most certainly true.
For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven. Eccl. 3:1
When? People have been asking that question about so many things lately. When will school open? When will we be able to go back to church? When will the stores open? When will sports return?
Naturally, people disagree about the specifics of when this or that should happen. Indiana and Illinois seem to disagree. People in stores seem to disagree as to what measure remain necessary. We all have our own preferred “experts” whom we trust, and those experts disagree. When the Bible says that there is a time for everything, it doesn’t say with specificity when those times begin and end. Some disagreement and give and take is just a normal part of life in the world.
What Ecclesiastes is really getting at, though, is not a timetable for everything but that everything comes to an end. There is nothing permanent under heaven. Normal is not permanent. Abnormal is not permanent. Neither health nor illness endure indefinitely. That’s why Ecclesiastes lists pairs of opposites—a time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to reap, a time to weep, a time to laugh, etc. No particular time just goes on and on.
A time of disruption, therefore, invites to consider what is permanent and eternal. Nothing “under heaven,” that is, in this life and world, really is permanent. Nothing, that is, except the Gospel. Christ, who is eternally God and Man and who lives forever, became incarnate in this world “under heaven” for us. Christ is the only thing about which we can say “always,” to any “when” question.
The day-to-day details of the shut down can frustrate people. We do not know how to plan anything. But the shut down can also make us look at the larger scheme of things, our phases and stages of life, and big picture aspects of how we have organized our lives. But the little picture and the big picture get their meaning from Christ, who is all in all.
If you find yourself getting frustrated by the little inconveniences or overwhelmed by larger changes going on, put it into context. The only eternal context. This day and your life are redeemed and therefore have eternal significance beyond the “under heaven” futility of Ecclesiastes. Christ who has conquered all and gone through the heavens remains with you in this life in the Word and Sacraments.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. II Tim. 3:16-17
School has continued to meet remotely during this time, so much of the effort has focused on the means of teaching, doing assignments, giving feedback, etc. It is not for the faint at heart. The whole St. Paul’s community can be grateful for the work our teachers are doing. Far from being less, it has been above and beyond what anyone bargained for. Learning new electronic tools, recording presentations, emailing back and forth with constant questions—the whole experience has been different.
Regardless of the means, however, the point of continuing school has been that the content remains the same as much as possible. Math isn’t going anywhere. History is history whether you know it or not and whether you learned it in person or remotely or not. We have to adjust everything we do in order to keep focusing on the purpose, which is teaching people what they need to know and nurturing in them a way of life and a worldview that benefits them body, mind, and spirit.
The centerpiece of all Christian education, of course, is Christ as revealed in Scripture. It teaches, corrects, reproves, and trains the Christian. But only when we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it. Just owning a Bible or having one around doesn’t accomplish much. That’s why we must not let this change in how we do things prevent us from having Bible studies. The Word and Sacraments are the food of the soul. Just as you had to keep eating even though the restaurants all closed and the grocery stores set up a bunch of strange new rules and procedures, so you can’t just put off spiritual things until everything settles down again.
This Sunday we will continue our look at Colossians, but at a new time. Since we’re going back to having regular worship services this week on the summer schedule (5:30 p.m. Saturday, 8:00 and 9:30 a.m. on Sunday) with all social distancing in place, we’re going to do the Bible study at 10:45 a.m. The Zoom info is included in this update, but please make a note of the new time.
Please also ask for help if you don’t know how to use Zoom or don’t have access to a device that accommodates it. We want everyone connected as much as possible. Every member of St. Paul’s deserves to be--is called to be—complete, equipped for every good work.
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I Corinthians 1:10-13
No matter how quickly the world might be changing as a result of Covid-19, the old adage seems to remain true—the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Christian Church still fails, at least visibly, to live in the unity God intends for us. In worshipping via livestream, we all realize that we have thousands upon thousands of Christian and pseudo-Christian choices available to us at the click of a button. What makes them different? How are they united and how are they divided? You might have driven past some church a thousand times on your way to St. Paul’s and thought to yourself, “I wonder what goes on in there.” Well, thanks to Covid-19, it is pretty easy to find out anonymously. We have no idea who is watching our services, and nothing stops anyone from watching any other church’s online services.
Now is a good time, therefore, to really take a look at what makes various churches the same or different, and what makes any given difference important or unimportant. To that end, we’ve begun a Bible study via zoom in Wednesday evenings at 7:00 to examine the various teachings of different church bodies. Everyone is welcome to attend, so feel free to invite your friends, relatives, and neighbors. After all, amid all the cons of not being able to meet in person, we may as well take advantage of the huge pro of this situation, which is that people can join in from anywhere. The Zoom info is included in this update. Ask for help if you need it. We’d love to have you.
Last week we looked at the broad ways of understanding how various kinds of churches relate to each other. One way is to look at how different churches order our sources of knowledge about God—Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience, Church Councils—in terms of their authority for Christians. Another way is to trace a timeline and look at the history of how various factions broke off from each other or reconnected to each other.
Tomorrow we’re going to look at one of the most basic questions we all face. How is it that there can be more than one kind of Lutheran church in the United States? What makes them different? How did they get that way? Which differences really matter, and which are merely a matter of cultural preference or history?
In future weeks we’ll look at other church bodies and movements, comparing what they believe, teach, and confess, and how those beliefs show up in the way they worship and live, to what we believe, teach, and confess. So if nothing else, it will really help all of us delve into our own faith and refresh our sense of why we do what we do. That might be yet another good thing God brings out of this difficult situation. Hope to see you tomorrow night!
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” Ps. 122:1
Yesterday’s worship service brought with it a flood of unfamiliar feelings. For some, it might have been finally feeling the gladness the Psalm talks about after years of taking it for granted or not really appreciating it in church. For others, it might have been the sinking feeling of walking into the sanctuary and seeing roped off pews and all the social distancing measures in place. For others watching online, it might have been a keen yearning for the day when they, too, can attend church in the sanctuary safely, or in some cases resentment that for some people that day has arrived sooner than for most. Whatever the emotions, though, the promise remains the same. The service of the Word as livestreamed and the Word and Sacrament in person point us to our Risen Lord and, in different ways, give Him to us by faith.
The total attendance yesterday was 46. As expected and encouraged, the vast majority of the congregation remained unable to worship in person due to health concerns. That will likely remain the case for quite some time. Attendance will return slowly. Nobody should rush back or feel pressured to attend until it is safe for them. Nor should those who do return be condemned for doing something unsafe; we strictly followed every health guideline.
As we gradually move back into a regular worship schedule we will continue to livestream the services. Our congregation has done a commendable job of keeping in contact with one another and remaining united as a church family in this crisis. While such unity and harmony could be threatened if we focus on the distinction between those who are able to start returning to worship sooner and those who cannot yet even consider coming back, I don’t expect St. Paul’s to have much of a problem. I’ve been impressed at how people have rallied, and the gradual transition out of crisis mode in the coming months need not affect that. Rather, what we should look at is how both groups of people—those who can attend in person and those who cannot-- are able to illustrate a truth about worship in this world, which is that it is always only a foretaste of the feast to come.
Yesterday in the children’s message Jaymes Hayes talked about how Jesus went to prepare a place for us in God’s house. When we come to church, we’re coming to God’s house only in a prefigured way. We gather in God’s house here in this world to receive the promises that will ultimately be fulfilled in God’s house in the world to come. People who yearn to be in church, in God’s house, every Sunday and who feel the separation most keenly are experiencing something that is true of the whole Christian life, which is that we yearn for the feast in God’s house that we have been promised. And people who can be in church on Sunday experience the foretaste of the feast to come, but they, too, sense the separation from their church family and the absence of so many of the brothers and sisters in Christ, and yearn for when we can all be together.
We all look forward to the day when we can be back in church together. But being back in church together is itself an exercise in looking forward to the Last Day, when we all, without hesitation or concern, without sin or regret, can be glad as we are ushered into the eternal house of the Lord. That day is coming for all of us. The promises in the Word and Sacraments are for all of us. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana