Some of your best memories of church services have probably been services that weren’t the normal Sunday morning service. Singing on Christmas Eve (even at the midnight services), getting up while it was still dark for the “sunrise services” in the wee hours of Easter morning, hearing the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” as the ashes are applied on Ash Wednesday, listening in the darkness as the psalm is chanted and the altar stripped at the end of Maundy Thursday services—these tend to be very memorable services that aren’t at the normal time of weekly worship.
It gets harder and harder for these special services to compete with our convenience-dominated culture. People don’t want to stay up late, get up early, go out of their way, or otherwise change their schedule, much less do so with sleepy children. So in most (not all) churches, the late night Christmas Eve service is lightly attended if even still offered. Same with Christmas Day. At Easter the “sunrise service” has been moved to a more reasonable hour and is not packed like the later services. And special services for high feast days like Epiphany, Ascension, Reformation and All Saints very often just get moved to the closest Sunday so they can be celebrated without inconveniencing anyone.
So it might come as a surprise to us that for many centuries the most important church service of the year was the Easter Vigil, which, as the name implies, lasted hours and hours through the night and ended with the Easter proclamation and communion at dawn. This was (and is in many places) the service in which all the adult catechumens (converts to Christianity who had been taught the faith over the course of the year) were baptized, received into membership, and took their first communion.
Most places do not really keep vigil through the night but celebrate the service either Saturday night or Easter Sunday very early. This year were are going to have an Easter Vigil service here at St. Paul’s at 8:00 p.m. on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. I encourage you to attend because it is one of those special services that make an impression. No, it won’t go all night. In fact, it will only be the first half of the service, and the 7:00 a.m. Easter service will complete it.
The service begins outside with the lighting of a paschal candle (“Paschal” is from the old word for Passover and in church usage just means “Easter-related” because at Easter we celebrate that we have passed over from death to life) from a small bonfire, which in our case will be in the courtyard. The worshippers light their own candles from the paschal candle and go into the darkened sanctuary, with their candlelight symbolizing faith in God’s promises in a fallen world. Various Old Testament readings and musical responses recount God’s faithfulness through all of human history. We then remember our own baptism and crossing over from dark to light, from death to life in the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death, and hell.
Normally the service goes straight into the Easter proclamation and communion service, but we are going to leave the church in silence and resume Easter morning with the great celebration. Please consider changing up your Easter weekend routine to join us for this very solemn and meaningful service. Most people who do it once find that it quickly becomes one of their favorite services of the year.
Church attendance nationally is down, and not just by a little bit. It is as though in the last fifteen years our culture has just collectively decided that going to church on Sunday is not a "thing" anymore. And what is true for our nation is certainly true for us here at St. Paul’s. In 2001 our average weekly attendance was 822. In 2015 the average was 463. But trends are not fate.
While our societal trends are not really in our control except to the degree we participate in them, we can still focus on what we can influence, which starts with ourselves. Most of the drop in attendance here at St. Paul’s is not because people have quit church altogether but because they have stopped attending regularly. Many people who used to be here every week now come once or twice a month. People who used to come every other week now come a few times a year. We have stopped taking it for granted that our week ought to begin with first things first by attending church and starting thinking of it more like a commodity, something to do when we really feel a need for it or when it is convenient. What was formerly a "given" has turned into an option.
The New Testament tells Christians not to stop meeting together. Apparently some of the earliest
Christians had already begun skipping regular worship under the mistaken impression that “going to
church” didn’t matter for them as long as they had faith. But that misses most of the point about
attendance. The key word is “together,” which means that you not only benefit from the presence of other people as you sing, pray, and hear the Word, but your presence also benefits them.
When you decide to skip church, you aren’t only deciding for yourself that you can do without Word
and Sacrament ministry and the mutual consolation of the brethren for a week. You’re also unilaterally declaring that everyone else can do just fine without you there. And you are wrong. The indelible impression on young minds of seeing widows and newlyweds, trouble-makers and respectable folk, black and white, rich and poor, young and old all singing and praying together can never happen if most of those people don’t show up.
When you stay home because your toddler is such a hassle, you aren’t only making your morning
more manageable. You’re also declaring that the 90 year old who sometimes sits behind you shall not have your toddler to smile at and thereby have his faith in the future of God’s promises reinforced.
When you as a twenty-something stay home from church because Sunday is the day you sleep in and
you don’t feel like you get much out of church anyway because you already learned it all in Sunday
school, you’re not only getting extra sleep for yourself. You’re also depriving some other twentysomething visitor, who never did learn it all in Sunday school, and who is nervous and uncomfortable in church, of the assurance your presence might have given that this strange place is a place for them, too.
When you as a middle-aged man skip church, you’re not only (mistakenly) reasoning that you have
more important places to be, but you are robbing some fatherless teenage boy whose mom made him go to church that morning of the example your presence in worship might have given.
When you stay home because you’re too embarrassed to use the wheelchair, you are robbing your
church family of the comfort of seeing that growing old gracefully is possible, and that should the day ever come from them to be a wheelchair, their church would welcome them as it welcomes you.
No matter who you are or what your situation is, when it says in Hebrews not to stop meeting together, God isn’t just telling you that you will be blessed if you go to church. He is also telling you are a blessing to the others there whether you know it or not. Don’t selfishly rob everyone else of the blessing God wants to give them through your voice, your problems, your prayers, and your presence with them in worship.
God never runs out of fresh starts. A blanket of new-fallen snow can make a whole bleak and dirty
world look beautiful. A new calendar all clear and unsullied (back in the days before everything was online and people actually went calendar shopping in December) gives us a feeling of clean slates and new possibilities.
A simple Christmas carol reminds us that no matter bleak the midwinter, no matter how weary the world, God comes into it fresh as a newborn to bring righteousness and holiness to a fallen, sinful people.
When I talk to people at St. Paul’s I’m always struck by how much importance they attach to God’s
Word. Even people who rarely if ever come to Bible study nevertheless tend to say that Bible study is very important. And of course that makes sense. God’s Word is what draws us all together here.
Because Bible study is such an important part of the life of St. Paul’s, and because for so many people getting to Bible study is like getting in shape or saving for retirement, that is, easy to say it is important but hard to act as though it is important, we want to make it as easy as possible for all of our members to be involved, and we want to encourage all of our members to use the fresh start of the new year to take the plunge and actually do the thing they’ve been meaning to do for a long time—get involved in Bible study.
A Bible study isn’t always simply an examination of the text of the Bible, important as that is. Our
Wednesday and Thursday morning Bible studies typically just choose a book of the Bible and study it closely with lots of discussion and questions, and our Sunday lectionary study during the adult education hour does the same thing with the readings for that Sunday. But sometimes a Bible study can be topical, perhaps a series on Evangelism or Stewardship, or based on some practical, everyday concern for Christians.
Starting in January everyone at St. Paul’s will have several options for Bible study on Sunday
mornings. We will continue the lectionary study in the adult education room each week, usually led by one of the pastors but sometimes led by one of our gifted Lutheran teachers, Rick Arndt. We will also offer a six week series on Christian Parenting taught by our principal, Barb Mertens, who has certainly worked with every kind of child and parent over the years. We will also offer a video-based discussion led by our DCE Jaymes Hayes and Rick Arndt on Life Issues. The videos are published by Lutherans for Life and cover many practical topics from end of life issues to beginning of life issues to the value of all human life in between.
Later in the Spring when those series end we will have a series on Big Questions/Biblical answers on a variety of topics, and after that we will offer a series on the book of Ephesians. The whole time, of course, there will be confirmation class (open to anyone who might want a refresher) going on in the sanctuary and New Member classes going on as well. Check the bulletin for room assignments.
There will always be an excuse not to be in God’s Word. Let this be the year of no more excuses. Use
the fresh start of A.D. 2016 to deepen your understanding and faith in the everlasting newness of life Godgrants us in Christ Jesus.
Remember all the hype around Y2K? All kinds of people thought that computer glitches would threaten civilization. My brother was locked in at LTV Steel that night to be there in case emergency measures were called for needed his engineering expertise. Or perhaps you remember when the ancient Mayan calendar ran out of numbers, briefly popularizing the idea that the end of the world was nigh. People have always been fascinated by such major calendar events. Even if you’re not a conspiracy theorist or Da Vinci Code type of kook, major anniversaries make you think.
Another such big anniversary is coming. October marks the 499th year since the traditional date for the beginning of the Reformation, when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses (theological statements he was willing to publicly debate) in Wittenberg, Germany. That’s one short of the Big 500, but that just gives us time to really think about the significance of that time span and prepare for how we want to acknowledge it.
We are St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School. If the people who fought and died for the right to teach salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ could leap ahead 500 years and see us today, what would they think? In what ways would they say their sacrifice was worth it, and in what ways would they expect better of us? It is an interesting thing to ponder because we have a whole year to work on it.
They fought for getting the Bible into languages the common people could read and for getting copies of the Bible into their hands. Do we view that as a precious enough birthright to actually take advantage of? Or do we treat regular Bible study in the home and in church as something we can live just as well without? They fought for the Gospel of free forgiveness proclaimed in the name of Jesus to penitent sinners. Do we treasure that Gospel or take it for granted and view it as a superfluous part of our week amid all the more important things we have going on? They viewed sound Christian teaching as something worth being martyred for. Do we hold fast to the truth, or do we treat doctrine as no big deal?
Much has changed since 1517. The Roman Catholic Church has changed greatly, adopting many of the positions enumerated in the Augsburg Confession. We don’t need our 500th anniversary to be some sort of “in-your-face” to Catholics. But we do need to dedicate ourselves to receiving and passing down the Gospel. We don’t know, of course, whether there will be another 500 years of history, but if there is, we want there to be another 500 years of people proclaiming and believing the Gospel message here at St. Paul’s, and we are a critical link in that chain.
Let the one year lead-up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation be for you personally and for all of us at St. Paul’s a chance to think about how we can best be the faithful recipients of the of the faith once handed down and the faithful forefathers of some future people who will look back at us 500 years from now, God-willing, and thank Him that they received the faith through us.
When we celebrate the resurrection, we’re declaring victory in a great struggle. Not only does Life defeat Death, but do so in an amazing, come from behind, against all odds triumph. In the words of a thousand-year-old hymn in our hymnal (#459-460) called Victimae Paschali:
Christians, to the Paschal Victim
Offer your thankful praises!
The Lamb the sheep has ransomed:
Christ, who only is sinless,
Reconciling sinners to the Father.
Death and Life have contended
In that combat stupendous:
The Prince of Life, who died,
The idea is that not only does Life defeat Death forever, but He does so by dying. It is precisely when Death thinks it has won that it loses because of the miracle of the Resurrection. More importantly, the hymn makes clear that Jesus’ victory is our victory. We are sinners, He is sinless, but because He shared in our humanity, like a Shepherd who is also a Lamb, we receive the forgiveness that reconciles us to God the Father. This means that the life we live and the news we bring to the dying world is good, one might even say impossibly good, except that it is true.
We in the Church celebrate what has been called a “culture of life.” We see all people as having an inherent dignity, we protect all people, care for all people, even as we utterly reject the sin, death, and hell that Christ defeated. We never think of death as simply a natural part of life but as an enemy that has been defeated in Christ. Same with sin, what the Bible calls the “work of darkness” or the “fruit of the sinful nature.” We don’t tolerate sin, celebrate it, or other-wise treat it as okay, but instead treat it as a defeated enemy in Christ wherever we find it, whether in ourselves or others. We know it is destroyed by the word of victory/forgiveness we bear.
Our hope is not in this world, in finding a fountain of youth somewhere to defeat death or a political program to defeat the human condition, or a therapy to do away with sin. Our hope is in the promise of forgiveness and eternal life precisely when it most seems like sin and death have the upper hand. So let the Gospel this Easter season comfort you, encourage you, and empower you to live out your faith without fear. Death and Life have contended. The war is over.
It probably makes for bad theology to say that a picture is worth a thousand words. After all, Christ, the very center of Christianity, is called the Word. Spreading the Gospel is done via language. But on the other hand, Christians have always used art to express and teach aspects of the faith, and Jesus is also called the exact image of God.
Christianity has made much of sacred art, filling churches and public places with images of Christ and His followers engaged in the various events recorded in Scripture. Jews and Muslims do not have the equivalent of crucifixes or manger scenes. Things like our stained glass window depicting Jesus praying in the garden would never appear in a traditional mosque or synagogue. In Jerusalem there is a large, modern statue of King David playing the harp, but his nose and some fingers are missing. It was defaced not by Israel’s enemies, but by devout Jews who consider it a violation of God’s law to make such a graven image. And of course we all know from the news about the objections of Muslims to any depiction of their prophet. Those religions usually use symbols and designs rather than representational art. So even though Jews, Muslims, and Christians claim to be Abraham’s offspring, typically only Christians would paint a picture of Abraham.
Sure, there have been Christian groups called “Iconoclasts” who have rejected the use of images in churches. For example, many of the Swiss Reformers (the fathers of modern Protestantism) painted over sacred art in churches and smashed beautiful statues on the theory that they amounted to graven images forbidden by the Bible. But Lutherans and most Christians generally have never fallen for the error of Iconoclasm. Our churches historically have featured plenty of statues and paintings depicting the great people and events of the Bible and Christian history.
This Lenten season our midweek services will look at some great Christian art in order to better understand the classic themes of Lent, like temptation, sin, sacrifice, and atonement. Hopefully this series will help us connect those high theological concepts with our regular, concrete, flesh and blood lives in Munster in 2015. Please plan to attend.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana