Saturday, April 13, 2013

Argo and Hollywood's War on History

We saw the movie, Argo, the other night.

Overall, I found it disappointing. In its enthusiasm for creating this sort of lone wolf character from the CIA, it failed to mention that the entire scheme used for getting six escaped Americans out of Iran in 1980, came from the Canadian ambassador, not the lone wolf played blankly by Ben Affleck. The real-life ambassador had even coached the six, who escaped the US embassy in Teheran when many of their number were taken hostage, on using Canadian accents.

Getting the Americans out was also not nearly as difficult as portrayed in the film either. That only made the endless profusion of Hollywood near-misses at the end more tiresome.

Once again, Hollywood fillmakers, most notably Affleck and George Clooney, who produced Argo, opted for telling the story they wanted to tell rather than the story that actually happened.

By contrast, the magnificent Lincoln, which also was up for Best Picture at the Oscars last year, was scrupulously factual and far more engaging.

I accept that films like Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and The George Gershwin Story aren't historically accurate. They're from a bygone day, when filmmaking was largely about mythologizing.

But one would hope that filmmaking had grown up enough not to present such blatant falsehoods like Argo, JFK, or Nixon, to name a few of the most egregiously awful films from the past several decades of Hollywood films.

If filmmakers are going to present fiction, they should label their work as such. But, filmmakers, quit making war on history by deluding movie audiences with false histories. That doesn't help anyone but the filmmakers' pocketbooks.

Friday, April 12, 2013

What It Means to Believe in Jesus

Believing in Jesus entails not only intellectual assent to the teachings of Scripture: that He was born of a virgin: that He performed signs and miracles pointing to His Lordship over sin and death; that He was sinless, yet went to a cross to bear the punishment of death each of us deserves for our sin; that He physically rose from the dead and still lives, God the Son; that by God’s grace through our faith in Him, Christians are saved from sin and death.

Believing also means entrusting my sins to Jesus, laying them at the foot of the cross, allowing our old selves to be crucified so that the new self can rise in what Martin Luther called “everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

President Obama's Tribute to Father Emil Kapaun

Army chaplain, Father Emil Kapaun, was posthumously awarded the nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, at the White House yesterday. The president's tribute begins at about 1:30 in the embedded video.

I will be honest: I was moved to tears by Mr. Obama's description of Father Kapaun's extraordinary faith and bravery. I think that you might be too.

In any case, it is worth hearing.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

What Does It Mean to Be a Lutheran Christian? The Augsburg Confession Series So Far

What does it mean to be a Lutheran Christian?

It's all about faith in Christ, trusting in His grace rather than in my performance as a human being or my conformity to religious or social norms.

That is the pervasive theme of the series of sermons inspired by The Augsburg Confession, a basic statement of the Lutheran understanding of Biblical, Christian faith, in which we've been involved over the past few weeks at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church.

Below are links to all of the sermons in the series so far, grammatical errors, missing words (usually infinitives or articles), and all. There are a few installments to go. But if you're new to the blog, you might want to check things out. I hope that you find them helpful. God bless!

The Three-in-One God
What is 'Original Sin'?
The Son of God
What is 'Justification'?
The Ministry of the Church
What About Good Works?
What Makes a Church a Church?
Holy Baptism
Holy Communion
Confession of Sin
Are Governments Necessary?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Is It Essential for Christians to Accept Jesus' Virgin Birth?

Was Mary, the mother of Jesus, a virgin when the One Christians believe is God-in-human-flesh was conceived in her womb?

Christians have always confessed that Jesus was born of a virgin.

This has nothing to do with notions of sex being unclean or beneath human dignity. It's neither of those things. After all, God created sex. Sex is part of the creation which God declared to be "very good" before humanity's descent into sin (Genesis 1:31).

The conception of Jesus in a virgin's womb is an act of new creation that anticipates the new creation of which Jesus makes all who repent for sin and entrust their lives to Him become a part: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)

The world has always objected that Jesus' virgin birth is impossible. My grandfather used to tell me when we weren't around the rest of the family that the Biblical teaching about Jesus' birth was a cover-up. "You know," he would say, "Joseph just got lonely out there in the desert. Things happened."

Cynics like my grandfather overlook that the creator of the universe specializes in the impossible.

Today, some of the virgin-birth skeptics reside in Christ's Church.

For example, the web site of my own denomination has a section called, "Dig Deeper," which has, since about 2009, been shorn of content. An "explanation" states:
The pages in this section have been removed while they undergo a comprehensive review to improve their usefulness as a resource for study and discussion with others.
But it's difficult not to suspect that this long period of review was precipitated by the outrage that some Lutherans felt when the official denominational web site equivocated on a basic teaching of Christian faith. Someone has restored the pages and in the section on the virgin birth, here's some of what we read:
When we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus was "conceived by the power of the Holy Spirt and born of the virgin Mary ...," and in the Nicene Creed that Jesus is "the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father ..." we are not making a gynecological assertion. We are saying that God entered into Christ and, in him, is fully revealed to humankind. This is God’s graceful act of reconciliation with creation and humankind’s redemption.
What ELCA Lutherans believe in common is that Jesus was
  • born "by the power of the Holy Spirit"
  • declared God’s "beloved son"
  • sent to the world to redeem God’s creation
and that born of a woman, he
  • died at the hands of death’s powers
  • overcame and defeated death
  • reigns as Lord over all — together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever
By omitting any firm assertion of what has been deemed a central teaching about Jesus for two-thousand years, the web site apparently sought to make the scandalous message about Jesus being born of a virgin more acceptable to cynics whose numbers have increased since the days when my grandfather whispered his "truth" to me knowingly.

Whoever wrote this piece is not alone in my denominational family. And they're not being challenged by bishops charged with ensuring that the Gospel is proclaimed in purity either. For example, in 2006, one ELCA pastor wrote in the pages of The Lutheran, our denomination's official publication:
One way to understand virginity is to think of it as a spiritual possibility, rather than as a physical condition: there is a place in each of us that the pride, power and wealth of the empire cannot touch. It’s that place, call it soul as Mary did, or spirit or heart, that remains “virgin”—untouchable and pure. And it’s from this place that God speaks to us and calls us to new possibilities.

It’s this “virginity” that enables Mary to say, “Here I am” and so face off against all the powers that said she was nobody, the lowest of the low—a young, peasant woman, expendable and of no account. It’s from this “virginity’ that she dares sing the words of the hymn of praise we know and love as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)
How's that for sleight of hand?

According to this view, Jesus was conceived in a "virgin" place in Mary like the virgin places that reside in each of us. This isn't Biblical thinking. It's Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson-style thinking. It ignores the reality that we are born in sin, utterly turned in on ourselves and selfish.

Mary's declaration of "let it be unto me" to the angel Gabriel's announcement that she would give birth to Jesus is not the statement of a good person with an innocent side to her nature. It was the declaration of faith of a person who, like Abraham before her and like centuries of believers in Jesus since, was a sinner empowered to believe the promise of God. That simple belief, not any virtue she may have possessed, not some virgin place in her soul, is what God counted as righteous. It's how we are counted right with God to this day.

If there is any virgin element to our souls, we wouldn't need a sinless Savior to bear our sins on the cross to make those who repent and believe in Christ one with God. Human beings conceived in the usual way are born in sin (Psalm 51:5). A Jesus born of human parents by the usual means, of parents who bear original sin, could not be the pure and sinless Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.

For the sake of His mission of dying and rising for sinful humanity, a Jesus born into the human race had to be born of a virgin.

Beyond that, does anyone really believe that when Matthew and Luke wrote their narratives of Jesus' birth they thought that as they wrote the word virgin, they had in mind a place in Mary that was "untouchable and pure." It would have violated their understanding of human nature.

Indulge me a bit and take a few moments to read and consider the two passages in the Gospel that overtly assert Jesus' virgin birth.

Matthew 1:18-25
18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.  

Some skeptics look at this passage and point to verse 23 as proof that Mary was not necessarily a virgin, one who had not engaged in sexual intercourse. The skeptics are right in pointing out that, in citing passages from Isaiah, Matthew doesn't quote from the original Hebrew Scripture, but from a Greek translation dating back to the second-century BC, the Septuagint. The Old Testament passages Matthew cites, Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6, in the original Hebrew don't use the term usually used for virgin, but a more generic term that means young woman (which can also mean virgin).

If that's all that this passage told us about Mary's virginity, skeptics would have a good case. But, notice several other things:

1. Verse 18 says that Mary "was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit." This isn't definitive, of course, but it certainly strongly implies that the child is not necessarily conceived by the normal means.

2. Verse 19 tells us that Joseph knew that he Mary's fiance, at least was not the father of the child. Mary, from what both Matthew and Luke tell us, seems to assert that she has not had sexual relations. Anyone who has read the Bible from cover to cover knows that its authors are not inclined to sugarcoat the moral shortcomings of believers: Abraham and Sarah had such failures of belief that they resorted to having Abraham make love to Sarah's slave in order to conceive a child they thought God was tardy in sending; David murdered and committed adultery; Solomon faithlessly worshiped foreign deities; Moses whined to God about his responsibilities; Saul/Paul persecuted the Church. If Mary's pregnancy was the result of fornication, that is, sexual intimacy outside of marriage, the Bible would tell us. After all, the Bible is not a book of Christian heroes; it's a witness of God's actions to save sinful humanity from sin, death, and the devil.

3. Verse 25 seems to underscore Mary's sexual purity, saying that Joseph had "no marital relations" with Mary until after Jesus was born.

4. Finally, Matthew's use of the Septuagint's rendering of the Isaiah passages indicate that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it was his understanding that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived in her womb.

Luke 1:26-38
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. 

The "sixth month" of verse 26 refers, of course, to Mary's kinswoman Elizabeth, who, thought to be barren, was now pregnant with John the Baptist. So, what does this passage say to those who are skeptic about Jesus' virgin birth?

1. In the original Greek in which Luke (and all the New Testament writers) wrote, verse 34 has a better translation than that of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) above. Let me give you the literal Greek first:
1:34   είπε [said] δε [And] Μαριάμ [Mary] προς [to]  τον [the]  άγγελον [angel], πως [How] έσται τούτο [will this be], επεί [since] άνδρα [a husband] ου γινώσκω 1I know not [or, not I know].
A more literal translation of the passage then, might read:
But [or and] Mary said to the angel, "How will this be since do not know a husband?"
From Old Testament times to know another person was to know them intimately, sexually. Mary was mystified as to how she could possibly be pregnant since had not known anyone sexually. She understands that babies aren't usually born of virgins. Here, Mary asserts her virginity without using the term translated variously as maiden and virgin, the Greek term parthenos

2. In verse 35, the angel says that Mary will conceive when the Holy Spirit "overshadows" her. Episkiazo, the term translated as overshadow can also mean cover. When, earlier in Luke 1, the angel visits Zechariah to say that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son, there is no indication that the conception will happen in any other than the ordinary way: Zechariah will have sexual relations with his wife and God will cause the conception of John by that usual means. The child to be born of Mary though, will not, apparently, possess the genes of either Mary or Joseph. The Spirit will overshadow Mary and be conceived in her womb.

3.  In verse 38, Mary accepts the word of the angel on faith in God. She does this in spite of the scandal likely to attend her pregnancy. The angel offers the pregnancy of Elizabeth as proof that God can accomplish the impossible, even conceiving the Savior of the world in the womb of a virgin.

Is the teaching about Jesus birth of a virgin an essential element of Christian belief? 

Apparently so. When the early Church set out to express the basics of Christian faith in both the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, it held that essential to faith in Jesus is acceptance that He was born of a virgin. The Church has held to this belief for 2000 years because it has believed it to be the revealed truth of God.

But its importance has nothing to do with the virtue of Mary. Jesus Christ could have chosen to enter our world and bring new life to those who repent and believe in Him by any means He chose. But if Jesus were to be born of a woman, it was essential for our salvation that while He must share our humanity, He must not share our common human inheritance of sin, our inborn alienation from God. (Hebrews 2:14-17, 4:15)

For us to receive salvation. Jesus had to be, in Paul's phrase, "the second Adam," the new human being, as sinless as Adam and Eve when God first created them, the only human being Who could take the death sentence we deserve and yet remain worthy of being raised from the dead so that sin, death, and the devil would be conquered for all who "loved [Jesus'] appearing," repented for sin, and believed in the only name given by which we can be saved, the Name of Jesus. (2 Corinthians 15, 2 Timothy 4:8, John 1:12-13, Acts 4:12).

One of My Biggest Mistakes: Running for Political Office

One of the biggest mistakes I've made as a pastor came when I ran for political office nearly a decade ago.

I have come to believe that pastors should never run for political office. And most of the time, we (I)  should keep our mouths shut on political matters.

A study we've been doing at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, looking into The Augsburg Confession, a basic statement of the Lutheran understanding of Biblical Christian faith, has underscored what a bad mistake it was for me to run for office.

As mentioned in last Sunday's sermon, the Bible teaches that God rules the world in two ways, through two kingdoms.

One kingdom is the kingdom of God, a kingdom whose citizens have been transformed from enemies to friends of God by God's grace granted to all with faith in Jesus Christ.

Authority in this kingdom is wielded through what Jesus calls "the Office of the Keys," through the use of the "weapons" of the Word and the Sacraments (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion). These weapons are misused when exercised in the pursuit or maintenance of worldly power. In this kingdom, power is exerted not by coercion, but by grace, by the declaration of forgiveness to the repentant and the withholding of that declaration from the unrepentant.

The other kingdom over which God rules is the kingdom of the world. In this kingdom, power is coercive. It includes governments and their powers to make war, police, and enforce laws, codes, and regulations.

Pastors, called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, should refrain from political engagement except when governments command idol-worship or when they act unjustly.

Even then, pastors (and the Church) should not presume to take control of political power nor even attempt, even by lobbying or by political activism, to impose their own versions of God's kingdom on a pluralistic society. (Only God can usher in the full expression of God's kingdom, by His devices and according to His timing, anyway.)

When I ran for the State House of Representatives, I tried to make clear that I wasn't running as a Christian candidate for office. I also made every effort to point out to people that all of my opponents were Christians too.

Yet, I'm sure there were some people who voted for me because I was a Christian pastor. This in itself was a misuse of my authority as a pastor, seeming to imbue my views on things like school funding (the issue that most motivated me to run), with God's stamp of approval.

More significantly, my candidacy was a tacit laying down of the superior authority of God's eternal kingdom in favor of the inferior time-bound authority of the kingdom of this world.

Except in the instances mentioned above--command to idolatry or injustice--the Church should stay out of politics.

To me, it's breaking faith with God when we do.

When bishops and pastors, in essence, throw in the towels and endorse political candidates, pieces of legislation, or particular budget figures for appropriations by government or run for offices themselves, we tacitly say, "We no longer have faith that God can transform lives through preaching God's Word about Jesus Christ or by administering the Sacraments. We no longer accept the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives by the simple witness that sin, death, and the devil have been defeated for us for all eternity by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead of patient faithfulness to God's call to make disciples, we instead are taking up worldly authority and will try to coerce people into living Christian lives."

But even when such political endeavors--whether by conservative or liberal Christians--are successful, the fact remains: Changing people's external behaviors will not change their internal attitudes or their eternal destinies. For the latter changes to happen requires the grace of God, given through Jesus Christ to those who turn from sin and trust in Christ as their God, Lord, and Savior.

Besides, the surer path to greater justice in any society is not through the Church being in charge. History adequately demonstrates that, I think.

The surer path to justice is to preach and teach the Word about Christ and to administer the Sacraments, unleashing the Holy Spirit's power to create and sustain faith in Christ, encouraging people in a life of daily repentance and renewal whereby they seek to live out their faith in Christ in their daily lives, including the ways in which they view society and politics, the ways they vote.

I can't say with any certainty what specific policies God may want to institute in government to further His aims for people's lives. My politics are my politics and I have no right as a Christian or as a pastor to implicate God in political views that are undoubtedly riddled with my faults, sins, and blind spots as a human being.

It's a mistake for the Church to not keep its eye on our only mission: making disciples of Jesus Christ.

And it was a huge mistake for me as a pastor to run for political office, for giving up on God in that way, and for, in effect, taking His Name in vain by, however unintentionally, presenting myself as God's spokesperson in the political arena.

Thank God for the forgiveness I have in Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

“We grow small trying to be great.”

Those words from E. Stanley Jones come at the end of today's fantastic installment of Our Daily Bread. The Christian mindset is that, in gratitude for the undeserved grace God gives in Jesus Christ, we are to do everything to God's glory.

The sinner in me rebels against this notion, which is why I pray everyday that God will make war on my ego and use me for His purposes. I pray that for this blog, too.

Please read the Our Daily Bread piece by Randy Kilgore right now.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Understand Easter?

We have nothing to celebrate on Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead, if we don't understand what really happened on Good Friday, when God incarnate, God-in-the-flesh, died. John Schroeder writes:
Oh how sweet grace, the grace of Easter, becomes when one truly realizes what is being forgiven. Jesus is not just forgiving me "my sins," He is forgiving me for killing Him!

What response can we possibly offer to such revelation? I am certain nothing I ever do can in any fashion merit the grace I am granted nor compensate Christ for the agony He suffered. But I must make the effort -- with the total commitment of all that I am and all that I have. Every time I sin, each slip I make, is another hammer blow on one of the spikes holding Christ to the cross - or driving the spear just a bit deeper into His side. I do not wish to be a part of that hideous scene anymore. I MUST give my all to overcome it.
Please, take the time to read the whole thing!

Are Governments Necessary? (Part 12, The Augsburg Confession)

What is the role of governments in God’s plans for the world? How should Christians relate to governments? Should Christians be involved in government?

Before you go to to sleep realizing what today's sermon is about, remember that these are important questions!

The Lutheran Confessions’ answers to them come straight from God’s Word, the Bible, and are different from the answers given by other groups of Christians through the centuries.

So, what does it mean to be a Lutheran Christian living in a world of governments and politics? Please turn to John 19:10-11. These verses are part of the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion, which we read during our Good Friday services last week. Jesus, under arrest, is standing before Pilate. We’re told:
...Pilate said to [Jesus], "Are you not speaking to me? Do You not know that I have the power to crucify You, and power to release You?" Jesus answered, "You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given to you from above...” 
Jesus says that Pilate’s power and the power of the Roman Empire to decide Jesus’ fate and Pilate's power to govern, didn’t come from Pilate or the emperor. In fact, contrary to what Thomas Jefferson would write in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jesus is saying that governmental power doesn’t even come from “the consent of the governed.” It comes “from above,” from God.

The apostle Paul underscores this when he writes to Christians in Romans 13:1-7:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is [pay attention to this and in place of the word, authority, put words like president, senator, judge, sheriff, commissioner] God’s minister [The word translated as minister there is, in the Greek in which Paul first wrote it, diakanos, deacon, and it means servant. The political authority is, Paul says, God’s servant] to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’s sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
In other words, from the standpoint of God and His Word in the Bible, there is nothing evil or dirty about serving in governments. Whether Christians work as presidents, generals, VISTA volunteers, NASA engineers, fighter pilots, FBI agents, or IRS case workers, the Bible says that they’re functioning as ministers of God, installed in their positions by God Himself in order to do God’s work in the world. And Christians not in government are to obey, honor, and support their governments and pay their taxes as our service to God.

But, you may think, I thought Jesus Christ ruled over God's people. Why do we have to give consideration to governments?

Lutherans believe that, in passages like these and others, the Bible teaches that God rules over this world through two different kingdoms at the same time.

First, there’s the kingdom of God. It’s made up of those who have been saved from sin and death by the charitable grace that God gives to all who repent for sin and believe in Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther said that the citizens of this kingdom--Christians--don’t need to be forced into treating their neighbors with Christian love. They strive to do so out of thankfulness to God for saving them from sin and death through Jesus Christ!

But not everybody in the world lives voluntarily under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. So, God also rules the world through another kingdom. This is the kingdom of worldly authority.

It exists because all human beings are sinners. We are, by nature, prone not to love God or our neighbors, but to love and only look out for ourselves.

The sinful behavior of human beings won’t be controlled by the Gospel of God's charitable grace if people don’t seek to daily surrender their lives and wills to Jesus.

Through Jesus Christ, God sets Christians eternally free from sin, death, and the devil. So, in the kingdom of God, God rules through the Gospel, through His grace.

In the kingdom of the world, God rules through the Law, through force, through penalties, fines,  regulations, incarceration.

Through the kingdom of this world, God institutes governments, in part, to make the world safer for Christians who voluntarily live with Jesus as their Lord.

But, God institutes governments for another reason: They act in service to the other kingdom, the one of which God wants all people to become citizens for all eternity, the kingdom of God.

Let me explain: Do you remember when you were kids and you had a substitute teacher, how you would always spend the first few minutes of class, seeing how much you might want to get away with that day?

When a substitute incapable of maintaining discipline took over for my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Goldsberry in Room 17 at Westgate School in Columbus, we all decided that we could act like convicts. And we did. The lunatics took over the asylum! And nothing that poor substitute tried to teach us got through.

But then something happened. Miss Grener, our principal showed up. We all loved Miss Grener. I had never even seen her angry. But when she walked into that classroom, filled with 35 fifth-graders acting up, throwing paper wads, cracking jokes, and generally misbehaving, Miss Grener was clearly mad. She made it clear that we would behave or there would be grave consequences.

All of a sudden, each of us became model students. We listened. We learned.

God rules through the kingdom of worldly authority, through law, through school principals and others in authority, in order to clear away the chaos that exists in world where sinful people behave sinfully so that, somehow, we have a chance of entering the Kingdom of God by hearing and absorbing the Word about Jesus Christ that can transform us from enemies of God to children of God and transfer us from the kingdoms of this world to the kingdom of God!

So, governments aren't inherently bad, evil, or corrupt. In fact, they can serve God's purposes, tamping down chaos, immorality, and lawlessness enough to let people hear the Word of God that tells people, "God so loved you that He gave His only Son so that all who believe in Jesus Christ--entrusting their sins, lives, hopes, and dreams to Him and letting Him be the authority of their lives--will not be eternally separated from God, have eternal life in God's kingdom!"

This is what Philipp Melanchthon was getting at in Article 16 of The Augsburg Confession, one of the basic confessional documents of the Lutheran movement. It says:
Our [Lutheran] churches teach that lawful civil regulations are good works of God. They teach that it is right for Christians to hold political office, to serve as judges, to judge matters by Imperial laws and other existing laws, to impose just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts, to hold property, to take oaths when required by a magistrate, for a man to marry a wife, or a woman to be given in marriage...
Now, having said that, we know that governments can veer off-course from God’s intentions for them. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. Government personnel are human beings. That means that they are sinners tempted to sin, perpetrate injustice, even taking power only God can wield. The ruling regimes of Nazi German, the Soviet Union, or contemporary China all show how governments go wrong.

What then? Are Christians supposed to support governments like that?

Look at the last three sentences of Article 16, please. It says: is necessary for Christians to be obedient to their rulers and laws. The only exception is when they are commanded to sin. Then they ought to obey God. 
Notice that Melanchthon there mentions Acts 5:29, from the New Testament. Turn to that passage, please. Peter and the apostles have been told by the temple authorities never to speak of the crucified and risen Jesus again. Acts tells us:
But Peter and the other apostles answered and said, "We ought to obey God rather than men.” 
The history of God’s people--from Old Testament figures to the Christian martyrs of today--is filled with examples of people of faith choosing to obey and honor God rather than governments who commanded that they sin or put the governing authorities in a place higher than God. Just a few examples suffice to make that point:
  • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego endured the fires of an oven rather than worship the king instead of God; 
  • Daniel went to the lion’s den when he refused to stop praying to God when commanded to do so;
  • Early Christians accepted martyrdom rather than renouncing Christ and worshiping the Roman emperor; 
  • Martin Luther came under an Imperial Ban, meaning that anyone had the authority of both Church AND State to kill on Luther on sight because he told the truth that human beings are saved from sin, death, and the devil by the grace of God through their faith in Jesus Christ and not by adherence to laws and traditions established by churches or governments. 
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer went to a concentration camp, where he was executed, rather than giving homage to Adolf Hitler.
Christians are to honor governments and those who govern in order that there can be some level of civic peace within which people are able to hear the gospel of eternal life that belongs to all who turn from sin and give their lives in trust to Jesus Christ.

But when governments command their citizens to sin or when they try to take the throne that belongs only to God, Christians must speak up. In his most famous essay on this subject, Luther said that the Church is bound by God to speak out against injustices perpetrated by governments.

You and I are blessed to live in the United States. There have been massive injustices perpetrated in the history of this country. Some are ongoing. But a central theme of US history has been to always move toward the eradication of injustice, more and more, usually too slowly but still moving in the direction of greater justice. Our leaders make mistakes; they’re human. But we’ve never had a despot or a king who would command Christians to disavow Jesus Christ or violate our creeds.

And I suppose that’s made us comfortable. Maybe too comfortable.

We take the peace and order God has granted us through our government in order to share the Gospel with others and instead of sharing the Gospel, we waste much of our lives on self-indulgent pursuits.

The result is predictable. The percentage of Americans saying they have no religious affiliation rose from 15% five years ago to 20% today. And our own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, experienced a steeper decline in membership in 2012 than any other mainline Christian denomination in this country.

The book of Ephesians warns us though, “Be you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” This world, remember, for all its beauty and blessings, still groans under the weight of sin. Many of the people you and I meet each day aren't yet citizens in the Kingdom of God, Jesus' kingdom of grace.

How wise are we Christians living in these evil days? (I know that I don't use as much of my daily life honoring God or spreading the good news of new life through Jesus as I could!)

In these days before Christ returns, judges the world, and fully establishes the kingdom of God, we need governments.

But whether we serve in governments or as good citizens, our call as followers of Jesus Christ is our highest priority. It’s the call the risen Jesus gave just before He ascended to heaven and told Christians like you and me:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  (Matthew 28:19-20)
God, by His grace, allows you and me to live in a free land kept in relative peace and order by governments He establishes.

Let’s take advantage of these blessings by sharing with as many people as we can that they can have everlasting life with God when they turn away from sin, trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior and King, and become citizens of the only kingdom that will last for eternity, the kingdom of God.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Leadership Tidbit #10

Leaders humbly believe that in times of both surplus and surfeit, they "can do all things through" Christ "Who strengthens" believers in Him (Philippians 4:13).