May 22: Cycle of Destruction
“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
May 18: Most Certainly True
“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.
March 30: The Cruelest Month
March 30, 2020
“April is the cruelest month…”
That’s the first line of T. S. Eliot’s poem called The Waste Land. It seems appropriate for today as we approach the end of March with the news that things are going to be shut down through the month of April while this virus tries to lay us to waste and we seek to resist the spread of it. That means we will have to do everything differently for the very biggest church celebrations of the year; nothing will be normal. Cruel indeed.
But one thing that will seem very odd, but which is actually just things going back to normal, is the idea of Christian teaching taking place in the home. The first line of Luther’s catechism, which we have used for five centuries to teach the faith to the next generation, is “As the head of the family should teach in a simple way to his household…” In Luther’s eyes, ongoing, daily learning in the home was normal. By contrast, the ways we in the modern world have compartmentalized our lives in separate, unrelated spheres—church, home, school, work, sports, social life, etc. would be abnormal to him. My guess is that he would see what we consider to be normal as somewhat spiritually debilitating.
One advantage, among the many disadvantages, of teaching the catechism remotely online, is that it lets us take at least one step toward better reintegrating church, school, and family. To be clear, such integration is always one of our goals at St. Paul’s, even in “normal” times. But increasingly, modern life militates against that goal. Integration of faith into all the spheres of life is easy to have as a goal, but seemingly harder and harder for many people to have as a reality.
The Reformation itself disrupted the world’s routine in the name of getting things back to normal, to the way they should have been. The reformers saw that the way everyone was leading their Christian lives had taken a bad turn. One of those bad turns might be familiar to us—compartmentalization. Monasteries were communities of worship (meaning Scripture teaching and learning, prayer, and praise) and service of the community and the wider world. The Church had begun to teach that people who lived in such communities were earning righteousness, were on a higher spiritual plane than regular people. The reformers would know—many of them, including Luther, lived in such communities.
Luther demolished the idea of earning forgiveness with good works, no matter how good those works might be. But when he left the monastery, his point was not that the things they did were bad. The point was that those things ought to happen in the Christian home. We don’t need to flee “worldly” callings to pursue spiritual calling. We need to integrate them. We need to make the Christian home the hub of all the facets of Christian life.
Basically, your house is a monastery. I know it probably feels like that more than ever these days. But seriously, your house is nothing other than a community of worship and service (and this is true even if you live alone). Everyone in the house wakes up with a calling from God not only to be strengthened in faith via the Word, and pray, but also to serve the household and the wider world according to each person’s role within it. The idea of strict compartmentalization—church for churchy stuff, school for facts, work for earning money, home for rest and amusement—insults the dignity of the home.
Today we begin a walk through the basic teachings of Christianity via video link. I’m no tv star, but I will be posting a 5-15 minute video each day, or most days, that go through the catechism bit by bit through the month of April. The confirmands are assigned to watch them, but I hope the whole congregation will join in. But here is the key. Watch them together with anyone else who lives in your house. Don’t take turns, or watch with headphones, or sit in separate rooms. Make it something you do for a few minutes together. Doing so will bring together, that is, integrate, church, home, and school at least partially in your Christian life. You should be able to link to today’s video below, or from the website soon.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana