Thoughts on the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Mark 13:9-13 (ESV)

In these days when the news is filled with images of people defacing or destroying the artifacts of history, is it appropriate to bring to mind the actions of the German princes who stood before Emperor Charles V in Augsburg on June 25, 1530? In spite of the recent attacks on the statues and memorials of our forefathers, remembering the past is always appropriate. The philosopher, George Santayana, once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We learn the mistakes of our predecessors, even as we are inspired by their successes.

In 1530, while the Holy Roman Empire was threatened by the Turkish invasion, the Emperor called for a meeting in which the opposing sides of the Christian Church could come to an agreement. He was concerned that dissension in the Church would cause member states in the empire to ignore the call to push the Turks from the doors of Vienna. Hence Charles V asked all the concerned parties, the Evangelicals (Lutheran), Reformed, and Roman Catholics to present their doctrine so there can be agreement.

The Lutheran princes, by signing the Augsburg Confession, moved the discussion of doctrine from the abstract musings of theologians to the practical theology of daily living. The author, Philip Melanchthon, was a lay man, not clergy, who worked closely with Luther on this statement of faith.

Unlike other church bodies, the Lutherans have not altered their confession of faith since it was first presented. God does not change. God’s Word does not change. Therefore, the confession of faith does not change.

Over the years, various Lutheran bodies have strayed from the clear confession made at Augsburg. By having an unchanged confession, the members of these churches, and other concerned Lutheran bodies, can call for repentance, to repudiate the false doctrines being adopted, and return to teaching pure doctrine.

Today, Trinity Lutheran Church in Slayton, Minnesota, remains committed to the confession of the truth once read before the Emperor. That confession stands under the clear Word of God, answering questions and controversies about our understanding of the Bible. No confession can stand above Scripture, but each confession declares the understanding in times of controversy.

At the heart of the Augsburg Confession is the Fourth Article: Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.

On this article, more than any other, the Church stands. Thus we confess that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, died for the sake of sinful mankind. Today we celebrate this confession, and ask God’s rich blessing as we proclaim His grace and mercy to this sin-sickened world.

May our Lord strengthen your faith, that you may make the good confession of Christ Jesus, even as did our forebears at Augsburg.

Hospital Calls

The Psalmist wrote, “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you and you will glorify me.” [Psalm 50:15]

Nowhere is this more evident than in the hospital. As society is opening again, hospitals are again allowing visitors, with certain limitations. Pastors can again bring comfort to those in distress.

One of my favorite verses for bringing comfort to those in the hospital is Psalm 130. This “song of ascent” begins, “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD. O Lord, hear my voice.” Somehow, when in the hospital for injury or illness, you feel like you are in the depths. You pray, “O Lord, deliver me.”

We are fortunate in Slayton that we have a good hospital in town. Rural communities seem to draw the kindest and most considerate nurses — they know each patient, they are not simply names on a chart. This kindness is above and beyond that which you find in the larger cities where people become numbers.

I’ve had the pleasure of bringing the good news of salvation by grace through faith for the sake of Christ to several parishioners in the past week. They received an answer to their prayers, “O Lord, bring me comfort,” as they heard the Gospel and received the Lord’s Supper. It is God giving them hope, lifting them from the depths, using the pastoral office.

There can be no greater joy than to assure someone they have eternal life because Jesus Christ bore the guilt of their sins. While they are in the hospital, they are confronted with the reality of their sin, for all disease and injuries come from this world being twisted since the fall of Adam and Eve. Yet that sin is covered, for Jesus Christ suffered death that we might have life everlasting.

The Psalmist continues, “If You should mark iniquity, O Lord, who could stand. But there is forgiveness with You that You might be feared.”

Like John 3:16-17, this Psalm truly speaks of God’s complete and utter love, His mercy. Is there a better answer to the prayer for hope? To God be the glory.

Thoughts About Opening

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 122:1)

Psalm 122 is one of several Psalms traditionally sung by the faithful while walking into the temple in Jerusalem. These “Songs of Ascent” serve much as the introit in our Divine Service. They set the tone for the time spent receiving the goodness of our loving Heavenly Father. They reflect our joy in sins forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

The church is opening. Our first opportunity to gather together, in small groups, with proper social distancing, is May 27. For eight weeks we have been unable to gather around Word and Sacrament to be assured of the gifts of God during these difficult times. That fast is now being broken, though we are only able to take small bites, metaphorically speaking.

We look at the stay-at-home orders and wonder about the blessings. If the virus was as virulent as originally thought, if indeed our healthcare system would be overwhelmed with the sick needing extraordinary care, then the orders accomplished their objective. They “flattened the curve,” meaning that hospitals and care givers could prepare for an onslaught of cases. Never was the idea to eliminate the disease, something that is truly impossible in short order, but to delay the number of cases.

In this the lock down is a blessing. Reality did not match the models, the surge was prevented. We are now getting back together, responsibly.

As a pastor, the orders to shut down the church were depressing. How can I truly care for the congregation entrusted to me by God? How can I comfort the sick, care for the dying, rejoice with the faithful? We missed gathering for the most important festivals of the Church Year, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. We missed Ascension. We are gathering for Pentecost — let’s try to keep it within the guidelines. We are celebrating the confirmation of our youth on Trinity Sunday in a special service limited to the immediate families. But we are gathering.

We know that there are members of the congregation who are extremely vulnerable to the virus, who are at grave risk if exposed. If you are part of that group, please continue to stay home from the gathering. However, please avail yourself of the opportunity to visit the church (or invite me to your home) to receive the Lord’s Supper.

That which we learned during these eight weeks will serve the congregation for months and years to come. We will continue with the video services for those who are not able to join us in the building. We will continue mailings with news of the church. We will continue to send weekly sermons to our shut-ins.

A number of people stepped up during the shutdown. Our Board of Elders kept close watch on the spiritual well-being of the congregation. Kathy Schwartz and Carol Benda added their talents to enhance the worship services. Sally Williams spent hours with the mailings and running the cameras. There was a large team caring for this congregation, a team which continues to serve this church.

The Psalm of David truly speaks of our joy in returning to the sanctuary to receive again the gifts of Word and Sacrament. God’s grace and mercy are sure and certain in all times. We receive the comfort of the Gospel as we go into the house of the Lord.

Church — the Non-Essential

Although over 75 percent of adults believe in some sort of spirituality, some sort of higher being, probably less than 40 percent are active in a local congregation. Where we came from in Colorado, the percentage of non-active people was well over 90 percent.

This is well and good when everything is going fine. Moses warned the children of Israel that, when things got too good in the Promised Land, they would forget God. We see this throughout the books of Joshua and Judges, as well as the other historical books of the Old Testament. So, until a few months ago, people stayed away from church in droves simply because everything was going good.

What do we hear immediately when things go bad? “Pastor, will you pray for us?” Well, sure I will, that is something I am honored to do. Why, however, do you think that God will bless you when you have turned your back on Him? When you are surprised, you cry out, “Oh my God!” but your god is the latest fashion, the big screen TV, or one of the teams in the NFL.

On one hand, the powers that be have asked churches to step up and pray for this nation. If these leaders bothered to show up on a Sunday morning they would hear we pray for this nation essentially every time we gather to receive the good gifts from God. We pray for the president, the governor and legislature of this state, for all who make, judge, and enforce our law. The churches I have been honored to serve also hear weekly prayers for those who serve in the Armed Forces, and the families who are concerned as this nation still has enemies, both foreign and domestic. Being on the fringes of military chaplaincy, I also pray for the chaplains who serve God by serving His people in secular places.

Now we have the lifting of the stay-at-home order in Minnesota. May our Lord bless this state with health and prosperity as we are able, in an intelligent fashion, to go and come as we please. The liquor stores are open, as are the hardware stores, florists, and even abortion clinics. Churches are lumped with bars and restaurants, deemed non-essential, kept from opening for another couple of weeks.

If the church is non-essential, why would those who otherwise cannot be bothered about God seek prayers and the comfort of Christ when their worlds collapse. The faithful Christians, the ones who come week in and week out, who sit through sermons and hymns and Bible Class, who practice for the days of famine and pestilence, are on to something.

Those who believe that Christ Jesus, our Lord, is their only hope for salvation from sin, death, and the power of the devil, have a different perspective on life. “I’m But a Stranger Here, Heaven is My Home,” is not merely a fun hymn to sing (harmonizing the melody is very satisfying), but a firm statement of belief. We don’t belong here. The devil, the world, and even our own sinful flesh conspire to ruin all of God’s creation. Although we enjoy living, being called to Abraham’s bosom sounds mighty comforting.

I am going to disagree with the political idea that church is unessential. It is the most essential thing we have to give us hope. It is the most essential thing we have to put the pestilence into perspective. It is the most essential thing we have for suicide prevention, mental health, loneliness, isolation, and all the other consequences of this pandemic.

Church is essential, for in church, as we gather for the Divine Service, we are given life everlasting for the sake of Christ Jesus, our Lord. We see that God loves us enough to sacrifice His Son so that we might be forgiven. We come to know of His grace, that He loved us long before we ever loved Him, long before He resurrected us from eternal death.

Although many believe that church is non-essential, rather than turning our backs on this world, we strive to pray for and to help our neighbors. We still look for ways to bring the comfort of God’s love to this sin sickened world, even when the world rejects the message of His mercy. It is not my place, in frustration, to condemn those who do not see church as essential to everlasting punishment. Rather, it is my place to pray for them, to ask God to enlighten them so that they have a change of heart, that they repent and hold firmly to Him.

Meanwhile, even when we are allowed to open, we will do everything in our power to keep our people safe. The Elders have been talking of things we can do to minimize contact, utilizing the vast wasteland of the front pews to provide room for social distancing, keeping people at a proper distance so to minimize the chance of spreading this disease. After all, if we are to reflect God’s love to this sin-sick world, we need to practice some intelligence.

I contend that church is essential. I contend that we need to be together, maybe in smaller groups spread throughout the sanctuary, maybe different times and days of the week, but in the presence of Christ Jesus to receive from Him the blessings of forgiveness and life everlasting.

So, pray for the president, the governor and legislature of this state, for all who make, administer, and enforce our laws. May God grant them wisdom to do that which is right rather than that which is expedient. And may this essential church continue to serve God by serving our neighbors.

The Making of Books

Solomon wrote, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” [Ecclesiastes 12:12b]

The book of Ecclesiastes is the work of the wisest man that lived, with the exception of Jesus Christ, Himself. As someone wise, Solomon sought to teach wisdom, sought to impart those helpful bits of information which make our lives easier. When we study Ecclesiastes, we see that Solomon pulls no punches, he speaks both of the good and evil of live.

His conclusion? “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

If the wise truly fear God, does that mean we walk around terrified of God? Luther wrote, “Being afraid of God is different from fearing God. The fear of God is a fruit of love, but being afraid of Him is the seed of hatered. Therefore we should not be afraid of God but should fear Him so that we do not hate Him whom we should love. … Therefore the fear of God is more aptly called reverence. For example, we revere those whom we love, honor, esteem, and fear to offend.”

If the goal of wisdom is to fear (hold in reverent awe), love, and trust in God above all things, then we desire to know more about Him. This is where the making of books and the weariness of study comes in. There are books which edify, which help us better understand the Gospel. There are books which simply point us to ourselves.

Doctor James Bollhagen, a professor at the seminary in Fort Wayne, wrote, “To be sure, some non-canonical writings are firmly based on Scripture and worthy of full acceptance, such as the three ecumenical Creeds and biblical confessions of the one true Christian faith. … When it comes to secondary and tertiary literature, some writers will genuinely try to be helpful. Others, however, in the lust for newness, will write just about anything to get published and gain tenure (and academic notoriety).”

Bollhagen continued, “It can be expected that the majority of researchers and writers will have no concept of the Gospel nor the fear and trust in God that goes along with the Gospel.” He suggest that most book turn us inward, are based on the law, and cause spiritual weariness. Especially as we study theology, such books should be avoided.

As I get to discover new (to me) books, such as the volume on Ecclesiastes from the Concordia Commentary series which I just quoted, I find many insights which will help me to better proclaim the wisdom which is born of faith. This wisdom points us to Christ Jesus as our Redeemer. It proclaims that we are forgiven for the sake of Christ, His death and resurrection. This gift of eternal life is truly a gift, given out of God’s love with no worthiness in us.

Yet we enjoy the many books, and learn more how God’s grace is revealed. May our Lord grant you many opportunities to enjoy the good authors who expound on the Scriptures for your joy and blessing.

Words

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
(Philippians 4:1-8)

We have the awesome power to make or break someone simply by the words we use. Consider, if you will, how a simple complement will improve someone’s day, while the criticism will cause great distress. The simple acknowledgement, the word of praise, and give someone hope and joy.

The big problem, we are surrounded by negativity. Bad news sells and gets ratings, good news goes by the wayside. Because of our sinful nature, we seek to control, to be on top, to have the last word rather than letting our speech uplift another. It is easy to build ourselves up by speaking against the accomplishments of someone else, by minimizing their work, their efforts.

Accomplishments are not a zero sum proposition, however. Unless we are competing in some sort of contest where there can only be one winner, your accomplishments do not diminish mine. Your success does not take away my ability to succeed.

How we speak to others, how we look at their accomplishments, reflects how we look at the gifts of salvation which we have received. How we speak, how we act towards each other, is a result of how we look at the world. If our focus is on the negative, on the death, disease, and destruction wrought by sin, then our words will destroy.

John Chrysostom, an early Church father who died in 407, was noted for his eloquent speaking. Chrysostom may be translated to mean “golden-mouthed,” showing his skill at preaching. He wrote, “‘Whatever is lovable’ refers to what is lovable to the faithful, lovable to God. ‘Whatever is true’ refers to that which is virtuous. For what is really true is virtue.Vice is falsehood — its pleasure is false, its glory is false, and everything in it is false. Whatever is pure is the contrary of ‘thinking earthly thoughts.’ ‘Whatever is honorable’ is the contrary of those ‘whose god is their belly'”

Thus Paul encourages us to first set our eyes on that which is true and noble, that being Christ Jesus, the Word made flesh. As we look at the world, as we look at each other understanding that each person is special, important enough for Christ’s death, then we seek to build up. We truly can be of gentle speech, helping rather than hurting.

As we respect each other as ones redeemed by Christ Jesus, we come to understand that we are truly saved by grace alone. We proclaim that grace, and the results of that grace, to each other.

May our Lord continue to bless you with the assurance of His love as we are allowed to help our neighbors in thought, word, and deed

Encouragement

If the timeline for social distancing remains in place, we have just over two and a half weeks of being essentially home bound. Not that on May 4 everything will open, and crowds will gather, and all will be as it was before. Rather, those in the know suggest that we will still be distanced, people will still be wearing masks and gloves, and we will be highly aware of our surroundings.

The newspapers and broadcasts have talked of the isolation, especially of those who are perishing from the coronavirus. Because of the need to isolate patients, families cannot gather at the bedside of dying loved ones. There is no chance to give that final goodbye, that final “I love you,” that final touch. Streaming video doesn’t replace being in the same room.

In the midst of all this bad news, of the isolation, we still can speak with each other. Several members of our congregation have sent cards and emails to thank us for producing the online devotions and church services. These videos take a couple of people, someone to monitor the recording, an organist, an editor, and the pastor actually leading the service. Those simple words, “thank you,” mean a lot. Many go on to say how they have used the videos, or note specific things they enjoyed.

The encouragement we offer each other is priceless. It makes the isolated days much more enjoyable. We feel connected, even though we are separated.

This Easter season is a time of encouragement. We are reminded again that Jesus’ tomb is empty. That empty tomb says that we are not separated from our loved ones forever, that our isolation will end, that we will be in the presence of all those who have gone before us in the faith. Unlike the day when we are able to again socialize, taking care to sanitize everything we touch, still wearing our masks, the day of the resurrection will give us complete freedom from sin and death. Body and soul reunited, families reunited, there in the presence of God we have life everlasting.

That day is coming. When, we don’t know. Is it soon? We hope so, we believe it may be. But even if the day of the resurrection is far off, we still are aware of our own short time on earth. Therefore we encourage one another, saying today that which we may not be able to say tomorrow. Above all, we hold to the hope of heaven, the gift of the forgiveness of sins given to us for the sake of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Isolation

Jesus promised, as recorded in the last chapter of Matthew, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”

As we look out of the parsonage windows to the traffic on Broadway, we are struck at the look of Slayton as being close to a ghost town. Where, a month ago, there were few parking spots in front of the stores, and there was a lot of traffic going in and out of Pizza Ranch, today there is little activity.

This is a perfect opportunity, while we are at home trying to avoid any sort of social contact, to catch up on our reading and studies. Electronic books and the Kindle (trademark of Amazon) reader or application put almost an infinity of reading materials at your finger tips.

There are several new authors making themselves known in the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. May I call your attention to Pastor Jonathan Fisk, the senior pastor at Saint Paul Lutheran Church, Rockford, Illinois. Also, Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller, the pastor at Saint Paul and Jesus Deaf Lutheran Churches in Austin, Texas. Both are exceedingly good authors who approach confessional and historical Lutheranism in a clear and understandable style. We can’t forget to mention our Synodical President, Rev. Matt Harrison, who has translated and authored a large number of excellent books.

Now is the time to go to Concordia Publishing House (https://www.cph.org/) or Amazon to find various books by these authors. In addition, Pastor Wolfmueller has republished a number of older Lutheran books which are available from LuLu (https://www.lulu.com).

Personally, I have been reviewing the We Confess anthology by Hermann Sasse, a twentieth-century Lutheran theologian. I’d read the three books in this anthology a while ago, and was glad I was able to replace the books after our fire in 2018. The Board of Elders and I are still reading The Blessings of Weekly Communion by Rev. Kenneth Wieting. Again, these books are readily available from either CPH or Amazon as electronic books.

Rather than bemoaning the lack of traffic on Broadway, I’m enjoying the chance to read and study. It is good to get back to the basics, which these authors have done so well. Let me encourage you to take advantage of these quiet days to explore the works of these authors.

Ninety Seconds

Last week I had the pleasure of talking with the manager of the local radio station. Trinity, Slayton, has been broadcasting devotional messages for several years. The manager and I talked about the guidelines for these short broadcasts.

The most stringent guideline is to keep the broadcasts around ninety seconds. That works out to be a bit less than 300 words. OK, a posting on Twitter is limited to about the same, so it looks like we can at least begin to develop a theme within that constraint.

Dr. Donald Deffner, of blessed memory, suggested that every sermon, indeed everything we write, should have a theme of 15 words or less. Unless you can state your theme in such a short sentence, you are not ready to write.

In this respect, the 15 word theme is a lot like Paul’s statement, “We preach Christ crucified.” There is not enough time from now until our Lord comes again with the angels and the sound of trumpets to fully explore everything about this statement. Just the word “We” demands that we come to an understanding about the church, the office of the ministry, the purpose of our faith in Christ Jesus, and a host of other topics all related to the group of people who proclaim Christ crucified.

Add to that the question of who Christ is (the incarnate Son of God), why He was crucified (to redeem us from sin, death, and the power of the devil), and how that is offered to each person (through God’s rich grace as a gift, something we don’t earn), and how it is applied to each one who believes in Jesus (God’s Word and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution).

Yet ninety seconds is enough to to proclaim that our heavenly Father sent His Son into the world to pay the price of our sin. It is enough time to say that we are saved by God’s grace, His undeserved love, for the sake of Christ Jesus.

Let’s face it, ninety seconds is three times the length of the “elevator speech” that we learned to have ready as we studied marketing. Maybe, however, the ninety seconds will help people realize there is much more to the story.

What a Change

Six months ago, if anyone would have suggested that we would be living in southwest Minnesota, I would have been inclined to chuckle. We were firmly ensconced in Leadville, Colorado, where I was serving as the pastor of a small congregation, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.

Leadville has the pleasure of being the highest incorporated city in North America. Outside our back door you could see the highest peak in the state. The view was beautiful, especially because there was little air to block the scenery.

God, in His infinite wisdom, has allowed us to move to a place which has many things we did not have in Leadville, the foremost being oxygen and moisture. These make a difference.

Though the scenery has changed, you can actually see for miles without rocks getting in the way, the message of the church is still the same. We preach Christ and Him crucified. It is the heart and core of everything we do.

The primary reason that any congregation exists is to bring the peace of God to this sin-sickened world. Be it disease, personal tragedy, or destructive weather, all creation is twisted by our sin. When our first parents defied God by eating that which was forbidden, creation itself was harmed. What was once a paradise turned deadly.

The peace of God is this, our heavenly Father sent His Son to pay the price of our sin. By grace alone we are given the gift of forgiveness which brings us eternal life. This forgiveness we do not earn, nor can we ever repay. As John the Evangelist wrote, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”

Now, this isn’t to say the Christians get a free pass from all the problems in the world. Far from it. But we do have a different view on the death and destruction caused by sin. We know it is not God’s plan, but that we should be eternally blessed by living with Him. While we still are in this sinful flesh, we will suffer the effects of our transgression. We believe, teach, and confess, however, that we have a new life in Christ Jesus. The old hymn reminds us, “I am but a stranger here, heaven is my home.”

Meanwhile, we are privileged to serve God by serving our neighbors. One of the post-communion collects we use includes the petition that the reception of Jesus’ body and blood in and under the bread and wine will “strengthen our faith towards You and our fervent love for one another.”

That is the message and comfort I was privileged to bring the good folk at Good Shepherd, Leadville. That is the message I am privileged to bring to Trinity.

We pray that we are able to serve this congregation and Slayton in accordance with God’s will, and to His glory.