After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands… Rev. 7:9
In this time of tremendous turmoil and division, a vision of divine peace and unity soothes the soul. One of the great blessings of life in the church is that sometimes we get a worldly, visible picture of what we know to be the deepest spiritual realities that usually remain hidden.
All congregations have particular histories. As Christians took the Gospel throughout the world, congregations started up in different nations speaking different languages. When people started coming to America from all those tribes and peoples and languages, the Christians naturally founded new congregations, still in their own language and usually with the kind of art and architecture they were used to and all the trappings of the culture they came from. So we ended up with all kinds of Christian congregations crowding the same towns.
But over time most people began to have the same language; ideally the churches should have merged into one. But important doctrinal differences were hard to overcome, and in any event the old ethnic divisions remained. Throughout history and even today in the news we see so much bitterness and suspicion between people from different backgrounds and especially with different skin color. Times like these provide stark contrast to the Biblical view of the great throng of God’s people robed in the righteousness of Christ praising God together.
St. Paul’s, like every Christian congregation, has a particular history. It was founded by a group of people who mostly came from Germany at the time spoke German. That time is past. Our congregational history is German, but our congregational mission is not. The mission of every congregation is simply to be the people of God gathered around His Word and Sacraments, joining in earthly communion with the whole heavenly host. And we know that ethnicity has nothing to do with that.
That’s why it was so great this week to see our confirmation and graduation services be multi-ethnic events. We got to see a little bit of a picture of the spiritual reality that is so hard for sinners in a fallen world to realize—the family of Christ, people of all nations and tribes gathered together around the blessings of Christ and giving thanks to the God and Father of us all.
We’re all sinners in this world, and no congregation achieves the heavenly vision in this world because we all drag our bitterness, resentment, and fears wherever we go. But Christ in His mercy forgives and renews, and promises that when finally see Him face to face we will free of such things at last. Until then, we revel in His forgiveness and every opportunity He gives us not to go by worldly divisions but by spiritual reality.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard
…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 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.
“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