What Is Paul Talking About? Part 3

During the Sundays of Epiphany, I chose to preach on the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians. Since these readings can be difficult to understand (even for preachers), each week I asked the question, “What in the world is Paul talking about?” I am deeply indebted to the Concordia Commentary on 1 Corinthians written by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Lockwood. This sermon is based on 1 Corinthians 8.

Words of Focus- “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” 1 Corinthians 8:1a

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we continue today with part 3 of a 4-part sermon series on 1 Corinthians, a letter that can cause some misunderstanding and confusion as to what in the world Paul is talking about, hence, the title of this series.

Let’s begin by reviewing the purpose of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church was a church divided over many issues. Remember that they were all recent converts to the faith. Christianity had not been around for very long at all. Therefore, these Christians were wrestling with their new faith and the implications that it had for their everyday lives. 1 Corinthians reveals to us a people trying to figure out what Jesus meant when he said that his followers should live “in the world, but not of the world.”

1 cor christ crucifiedThroughout this letter, Paul encourages the church to greater unity with each other and that unity was to be centered on the message of Christ crucified- foolishness to the world, but to those who are being saved, the very power of God. For Paul, the cross changes everything. It changes how we think, how we act, how we talk, how we live. Paul uses the message of the cross to navigate through the many issues that the Corinthian Church was dealing with.

We see the implications of the cross in our reading for today from 1 Corinthians 8. The issue that Paul is dealing with in this chapter, and really, chapters 9 and 10 as well, is eating. In Chapter 7, Paul addresses concerns and questions about marriage and the single life. Now he is switching to another concern that the church had most likely written to him about. They wanted to know if they should eat food that had been offered to idols.

Now concerning food offered to idols… What exactly is going on in Corinth?

In the city of Corinth, there were many temples in which pagan ceremonies and sacrifices would take place. Many of the Christians in Corinth would have most likely participated in these ceremonies before they converted. Outside many of these temples, there were large courtyards and eating areas. The ceremonies and sacrifices would not take place in these areas. However, the food that had been offered as a sacrifice to the idols was served for people to eat.

Many of the Corinthian Christians, while not participating in the ceremonies and sacrifices, would have still been invited to these courtyards by their pagan friends for meals and even birthday or wedding celebrations. And apparently, many of the Corinthian Christians regularly participated in the social events in the temple courtyards, which would include eating the food served, food which had originally served the purpose of idol worship. Some Christians thought this was fine. They knew, they had “knowledge,” that the idols were false gods and figured that meat was meat. Eating that meat would not harm them. Others did not share that view. They thought that eating the food sacrificed to idols implied worshiping that idol. They were unable to separate the food from idol worship, and so when they participated or saw other Christians participating, it would cause their faith in the true God to be weakened or even destroyed.

The church was seeking Paul’s advice. How do we live in the world but not of it in this situation?

life together knowledge loveRight away, in verse 1, Paul lays the foundation for his response. “Knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. In other words, even though some of you Christians have more knowledge than others, your knowledge is causing you to be prideful and selfish to the detriment of the church. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. Paul is differentiating between selfish pride and sacrificial love. Love, in all cases, trumps knowledge, as Paul will make clear later in 1 Corinthians 13: 1-2 “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

What we see going on here in 1 Corinthians 8 is a discussion about Christian freedom. Because of Christ crucified, a Christian is free from the condemnation of the Law. The Law can no longer condemn them. But are there limits to Christian freedom? We know we are not free to sin, but what about those things that the Law does not forbid or demand? We see this discussion take place in several of Paul’s other letters, especially concerning circumcision. Was a Gentile Christian required to still be circumcised? Paul ruled “No.” A Christian is free to remain uncircumcised.

So many of the Gentiles in Corinth, those who had knowledge, argued that they were also free to eat meat sacrificed to idols. So keeping in mind this phrase, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” let’s see what Paul had to say about this issue.

First, Paul affirms the “knowledge” of those who would eat the food sacrificed to idols. They argued that they could do so because they knew the idols were false gods. And Paul agrees with their knowledge. We know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

In other words, Paul does not have a problem with Christians eating food sacrificed to idols because those false gods do not exist and cannot exert and power. There is one God and one Lord. A Christian is indeed free to eat the idol-food on these grounds.

However, Paul continues, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. The “weaker” Christian is more easily offended by any participation in anything associated with paganism and idol worship. By eating the food, they would stumble in their faith and pick up their old pagan practices and beliefs.

Notice how Paul does not try to educate the weak so that they have all knowledge. “Come on! Quit being so weak, you big babies.” He knew that they were infants in the faith and needed to be treated as such. So he instead instructs all Christians, especially those who considered themselves wise or strong, to act in love, a love that builds up others in Christ.

agnus day knowledge lovePaul knows that “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Food or drink for those in Christ Jesus was a matter of no importance. But if a person’s faith was at stake, then Christians do not act according to freedom and knowledge, but rather, according to love. “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weakFor if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? Paul goes so far to say that a person who values his personal freedom more than his brother in Christ that he is sinning against him. He is being selfish and prideful. And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

Do you see how for Paul everything centers on unity in the faith, the body of Christ being built up? Paul then puts himself forward as an example. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. If Paul became aware that something as inconsequential as food was nevertheless ruining his brother, he would become a vegetarian for eternity. Why? “Because that’s my brother.” Without question, his brother’s eternal welfare is far more important than food.

Could you say the same? I already threw some of you off when I mentioned being a vegetarian. “Sorry, but if it comes down to my brother or sister in Christ or a bacon cheeseburger, I’m going with the cheeseburger.” But what can we learn from 1 Corinthians 8 since we obviously do not have the same issue regarding idol-food and pagan temples?

Well, I think we can go back to Paul’s foundational verse. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Rather than insisting on our own way out of selfish pride, perhaps a Christian’s first question before acting should not be “What am I going to get out of this?” but rather “How does this benefit my neighbor, especially my brother or sister in Christ?” Again, this is a radical change in thinking. This is foolishness to the world. Rather than seeking personal pleasure at all costs, a disciple of Jesus seeks the welfare of others at all costs, even if it means personal sacrifice on their part.

Martin Luther, writing on Christian freedom, put it this way. 1. “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to all.” 2. “A Christian is a perfectly free dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Well which is it? It’s both. A Christian is not to take pride in their freedom or their knowledge and rub it in people’s face, but rather use that freedom and knowledge in love and service toward others.

Examples: A Christian is perfectly free to enjoy drinking alcohol; however, someone who works extensively with alcoholics would refrain from drinking in their presence, lest they cause their brother or sister to stumble. They would not throw their Christian freedom in their face. (I did make the point in my sermon that I would not apply the same principle to “teetotalers.” There is a huge difference between someone who wrongly interprets the Bible and an alcoholic.) You would not invite a gambling addict to accompany you to the casino.

This may sound just like common sense, so let me try this principle out. Just because you can do something, does not mean that you always should. And how do you determine whether you should or should not do something? Love for others is the guiding principle, not selfish satisfaction. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The Lord wants his church to be built up as a community, and that can only happen when its members display unselfish love for one another.

Such love will be patterned on the example of Christ who died for the weak. See here we are again, rounding back to Paul’s main theme: Christ crucified.

Paul doesn’t set out to prove his knowledge. “I decided to know nothing among you except Christ crucified,” he says. And “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” It is the Lord Jesus Christ who provides the perfect example of one who is willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of others. In the sight of God, there is no one who is more superior to anyone else. There is no one righteous, not even one. We are all deserving of God’s wrath and eternal punishment. All of us, in our original state of sin, had no knowledge of God. But he knew us. And he loved us, even though we are unlovable. God shows his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Here’s the more amazing part: while we continue to sin and act selfishly and fight amongst ourselves, God still loves and forgives us through Jesus.

Rom-5-8 while still sinnersWe are all in the same boat, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all sinners saved by nothing else but the amazing grace of God poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit through the death of Jesus. It is that knowledge, the knowledge of God’s unconditional love for you and for all people, the knowledge of Christ crucified for you, which inspires your loving attitude toward others. It’s all about Christ crucified. If Jesus willingly sacrificed himself for the weakest brother, shouldn’t you be willing to forgo certain luxuries out of loving consideration for your brothers and sisters?

That is what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 8. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Let us pray: Lord God, once again we are challenged by your words for us today. We see that without your help and strength and your grace, we are nothing and can do nothing right. Send us Your Holy Spirit to encourage us and enable us to love sacrificially as you have loved us through Jesus. Keep us from selfish pride and build us up into a church known for its love. Amen.

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Reckless Love

sermon-on-the-mountA sermon based on Matthew 5:38-48

In the last few weeks we have made it all the way through Matthew chapter 5, the beginning chapter of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Allow me to back up a little bit to set the stage for Jesus’ teaching for today in verses 38-48.

Jesus begins his sermon with the Beatitudes, with a blessing for his disciples. Blessed are you because you belong to me. The Beatitudes are the doorway through which we must enter the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in order to understand it completely. We must receive the unconditional blessing of Jesus first.

After blessing his disciples, Jesus continues his sermon by identifying his disciples as salt and light to the rest of the world. Jesus’ disciples are to be his representatives on earth, people set apart for a special purpose, to be a light in the darkness, to do good works which will then bring glory to God the Father. After Jesus identifies his disciples, he then describes what the life of a disciple looks like. A disciple is called to a life of purity in thought, word and action. This was laid out in our reading for last week as Jesus explained God’s full intention for his Ten Commandments.

The life of a disciple is not an easy one. This is a fact that will become even clearer as we examine Jesus’ words to his disciples in verses 38-48. Jesus’ calling is to a radical way of life, completely different than the way of the world. This led Martin Luther to conclude at the end of chapter 5: “At this point you will discover how hard it is to do the good works God commands… You will find that you will be occupied with the practice of this work for the rest of your life.” The reason for this is that Jesus’ teaching goes directly against your sinful, selfish nature. It is a call to reckless love and generosity for others. My hope for you today is that you will be challenged by these words of Jesus and take them seriously for your life. But this is not going to be an automatic turnaround for you or me. Again, as Luther said, you will be occupied trying to figure out how this works the rest of your life! The Christian life is a struggle!

So let’s get started! Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

When you have an opportunity to use a Chuck Norris photo in your blog post, you have to do it. That's Blogging 101.

When you have an opportunity to use a Chuck Norris photo in your blog post, you have to do it. That’s Blogging 101.

Jesus continues to explain here the true intention behind God’s Law. He uses the same pattern as verses beforehand. “You have heard it said…But I say to you.” He is challenging the commonly held view of the day. Jesus takes on the law of retaliation. This was an actual Old Testament law which described what sort of retaliation a person was allowed to act out against someone who harmed him or his family or livelihood. The law of retaliation prevented people from going too far in carrying out revenge. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, even a life for a life in some cases.

We have the same kind of unofficial laws of retaliation today. Retaliation is my right when I’ve been wronged! Tit-for-tat. Even Steven. He needs to get what’s coming to him. We keep score with those who have wronged us and believe it to be our right to hold grudges and get even.

But Jesus basically says, “Retaliation is not a right. It’s a choice. And as my disciples, let me present to you a different choice. Do not resist the one who is evil towards you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him to the other also.” A slap on the cheek is an insult, not an act of violence. Jesus tells us not to retaliate when we are insulted. Again, this goes against our human nature. When insulted, we don’t want to just stand there and take it. But Jesus then goes even further! If anyone sues you and takes your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If anyone forces you to go a mile, go with him two miles.”

In that day and age, the Romans were in charge. And it was a common occurrence for Roman soldiers to force citizens to carry their baggage for them. These Jewish citizens would have hated to serve the Romans in this way. It was demeaning. No doubt they were waiting for the moment that their Messiah would show up, and they would be able to retaliate against their Roman oppressors. But the Messiah was right in front of them, even if they didn’t realize it yet. And instead of retaliation, Jesus instructs them to willingly serve their foreign leaders and even go the extra mile for them! This was a radical teaching, both then and now.

Is Jesus telling his disciples that we have to be doormats? That we have to allow the world to walk all over us? In a sense, yes. Instead of a spirit of revenge, Jesus calls his disciples to lives of reckless generosity and even to be naïve when it comes to our dealings with other people. His words are meant to reform our first instincts and our quick reactions and our unwillingness to sacrifice. Jesus wants his disciples to err on the side of grace with other people by not retaliating, by yielding to others, by giving generously, and even by being taken advantage of.

Hey, at least he's honest!

Hey, at least he’s honest!

Think of Jesus’ next words: Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. Jesus doesn’t give any qualifiers to giving to the needy and the beggar. He doesn’t say, “Only give if they really seem worthy of it. Only give if they are seriously going around looking for a job. Be sure to give a thorough background check. Make sure that they aren’t just taking advantage of you with their sob story.”

Jesus’ words really cause us to do some self-examination, don’t they? “Have I always been generous in sharing with the needy, whether they are good or evil?” That question makes me uncomfortable because I can answer with a resounding, “No!” There’s always something holding me back from the kind of reckless generosity that Jesus is describing. Probably because of that word “reckless.” It seems reckless. It seems unwise and foolish. And I know it is fear that holds me back. Fear of being taken advantage of. Fear of having my love and generosity abused. Fear of looking like a fool. Fear of not having enough for myself and my family despite God’s promise that he will take care of my every need. I want to hold onto my sense of self-preservation, my sense of control over my own life, and that keeps me from freely giving and loving in the way that Jesus is describing here. Instead, we tend to give to whoever we deem worthy of receiving our generosity, if they pass whatever checklist we have made up in our own minds. I keep going back to Luther’s words: “At this point you will discover how hard it is to do the good works God commands…”

No kidding! Truer words have never been spoken. My sinful, selfish nature keeps dragging me down and holding me back from the reckless love and generosity that Jesus calls me to follow as one of his blessed disciples. And it does not get any easier, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

We tend to love those whom we think are worthy of our love, and usually it is those who love us in return. But Jesus points out that everybody does this, even the tax collectors and Gentiles, those evil people. Again a Luther quote: “Do you see now how pious you are if you are friendly and kind only to your friends? You are just as pious as the thieves and scoundrels and criminals or as the devil himself!” True love is not loving those who love you or who deserve your love. Jesus calls us to a reckless kind of love- love without regard to the worthiness of the people being loved and to pray for others in the same way.

Again, this kind of love makes us extremely vulnerable. It makes us look weak. It makes us look naïve and foolish. It makes us look reckless. And that is exactly the point. That is the way God works. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” God loves to use the weak, the foolish, the despised things of this world, and nowhere is that more evident than the message of the cross.

You see, Jesus does not ask anything of his disciples that he is not willing to do himself. The reckless love and generosity that he prescribes for you is the same kind of reckless love and generosity that God has already shown to you through Jesus.

wisdom of godWhen God set in motion his plan to save the world, including you and me, what if he had stopped and questioned whether or not we were worthy of his love and generosity. If he had done that, none of us would be saved. None of us are worthy of the kind of love and generosity that God has shown.  In fact, God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That’s how we know what true love is. It is reckless love- freely given, yet completely undeserved. It seems foolish to the world that God would give up his own life for us. It seems weak. It seems naïve. God made himself completely vulnerable, knowing that his love would be taken advantage of and abused- that we would continue to sin and ignore his laws. Yet God continues to love and show mercy. That’s why Paul says: The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Jesus shows us what love is by his life and sacrificial death. He did not seek revenge against those who insulted him and persecuted him even though he had every right to do so. He was accused falsely, he was mocked, he was beaten, and sentenced to death, and yet like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, so Jesus did not open his mouth- except to forgive his enemies.  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those are the words that Jesus spoke from the cross to his enemies.

Father, forgive them!

Father, forgive them!

Those are the words that Jesus says to you. Your sin put Jesus on the cross. For you too were once an enemy of God. But God loves his enemies. Back to Romans 5: For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. God had every right to retaliate against you for the sins that you committed against him. You have wronged God, and the wages of your sin is death. That is what you deserved, no arguments about it. But God’s love and generosity is so reckless, so great that we cannot even begin to comprehend it. God even knew that his love for us would be abused and taken advantage of, and he still gives it to us freely through Jesus Christ.  1 John 4:9-10 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Let me tell you a story about a man named Rod to illustrate the reckless love and generosity that God has poured into your life. Rod once wrecked his car when he was sixteen years old. Rod had been drinking, and in fact, he and his friends were all drunk. After the accident, Rod called his dad and the first thing his dad asked him was, “Are you all right?” Rod assured him that he was fine. Then he confessed to his father that he was drunk. Rod was naturally terrified about how his father  might respond. Later that night, after Rod had made it home, he wept and wept in his father’s study. He was embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty. At the end of the ordeal, his father asked him this question: “How about tomorrow we go and get you a new car?”

A great book!

A great book!

How do you feel about his dad’s response? Rod is now a Lutheran teacher and speaker. He says every time he tells that story in public; there are always people in the audience who get angry. They say, “Your dad let you get away with that? He didn’t punish you at all? What a great opportunity for your dad to teach you responsibility!” Rod chuckles when he hears that response and says, “Do you think I didn’t know what I had done? Do you think it wasn’t the most painful moment of my whole life up to that point? I was ashamed; I was scared. My father spoke grace to me in a moment when I knew I deserved wrath…and that day I came alive.” (Illustration taken from One Way Love by Tullian Tchividjian)

That’s the nature of true love and grace that has been displayed in your life. Rod’s dad’s response looks reckless and foolish. But it is the same response that God, your heavenly Father, has toward you. God is willing to look foolish and weak and vulnerable for you. He has poured his unconditional love and generosity into your life and identifies you his blessed disciple even though you are completely unworthy of his love. Our offenses are infinitely greater than a 16-year-old getting drunk and wrecking his car, yet God boasts about pouring out His one-way love on His undeserving children.

No one had to tell Rod to be sorry for his foolishness. No one had to tell Rod to be thankful that his dad didn’t repay him “as his sins deserved.” That one act of reckless and mercy transformed him- and his whole life was changed by it. Because that’s what God’s love does. It changes and transforms us into people who can’t help but show love and generosity to others. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. You see, it is God’s love that inspires us to a life of love and service. We love because he first loved us. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. May God’s love be perfected in you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Happy Reformation Day!

For your reading pleasure on this Reformation Day I give you a wonderful quote from Martin Luther himself:

May you ever cherish and treasure this thought. Christ is made a servant of sin, yea, a bearer of sin, and the lowliest and most despised person. He destroys all sin by Himself and says: “I came not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). There is no greater bondage than that of sin; and there is no greater service than that displayed by the Son of God, who becomes the servant of all, no matter how poor, wretched, or despised they may be, and bears their sins.

It would be spectacular and amazing, prompting all the world to open ears and eyes, mouth and nose in uncomprehending wonderment, if some king’s son were to appear in a beggar’s home to nurse him in his illness, wash off his filth, and do everything else the beggar would have to do. Would this not be profound humility? Any spectator or any beneficiary of this honor would feel impelled to admit that he had seen or experienced something unusual and extraordinary, something magnificent.

But what is a king or an emperor compared with the Son of God? Furthermore, what is a beggar’s filth or stench compared with the filth of sin which is ours by nature, stinking a hundred thousand times worse and looking infinitely more repulsive to God than any foul matter found in a hospital? And yet the love of the Son of God for us is of such magnitude that the greater the filth and stench of our sins, the more He befriends us, the more He cleanses us, relieving us of all our misery and of the burden of all our sins and placing them upon His own back. All the holiness of the monks stinks in comparison with this service of Christ, the fact that the beloved Lamb, the great Man, yes, the Son of the Exalted Majesty, descends from heaven to serve me.

quote-we-are-beggars-this-is-true-martin-luther-248525

When God Seems Far Away

Today is the day of Jesus’ ascension into heaven as recorded in Acts 1:6-11.

ascension disciplesSo when (the disciples) had come together, they asked (Jesus), “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

I recently had someone tell me that God seemed far away. They have really been through a lot in the last couple of years, struggling constantly with medical issues. It has been one thing after the other. Understandably, this person was discouraged. They wondered if God was really listening to their prayers. They wondered if God really cared. I was reminded of David’s words in Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

2 How long must I take counsel in my soul

and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

It can seem that Jesus is absent from your life. In fact, that is exactly what Satan wants you to think. “Jesus left this earth! He left you behind! He doesn’t care. He isn’t with you always like he promised!” Yet I was reminded today by Martin Luther that Jesus has not abandoned us. He is very near, and we know where to find him. He doesn’t tell us to look in our hearts to find him or feel him. He points us to visible signs of his grace and presence. I’ll let Martin Luther take it the rest of the way, and I pray that you will be strengthened by Christ’s very real presence on this Day of Ascension.

God has given us Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, and absolution to bring Christ very close to us, so that we can have Him not only in our heart but also on our tongue, so that we can feel Him, grasp Him, and touch Him. God did all this for the sake of those shameful spirits who seek God according to their own pleasure, with their reason and their own ideas and dreams. To make it possible for us to recognize Him, God presents Himself to us perceptively and clearly in signs.

But we do not accept these; nor are we concerned about the divine Word, although Christ the Lord Himself says: “The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own authority, but the Father who dwells in Me does His works” (John 14:10); again: “He who hears you hears Me” (Luke 10:16); and again: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation; he who believes the Word of God and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:15-16).

But we utterly disregard such words of the Gospel as well as absolution. Thus we perceive God not only with our hearts but also with our eyes and our hands, for He gives us a tangible and visible sign of Himself. At all times Good has so governed His people that He could also be recognized visibly by them, lest they say: If it were possible to find God, we would roam to the ends of the earth in search of him.” If you had ears to hear, it would be needless to wander far in search of God. For He wants to come to you, plant Himself before your very eyes, press Himself into your hands, and say: “Just listen to Me and take hold of Me, give Me eye and ear; there you have Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar. Open your mouth, let Me place My hand on your head. I give you this water which I sprinkle over your head.” – Martin Luther

Where is Jesus? Right here

Where is Jesus? Right here

How Should a Christian Vote? Pt. 3

Election Day is tomorrow! So let’s draw some conclusions! If you would like to read Part 2, you can click here.

I have spent a lot of time laying the foundation of the Lutheran understanding of church and state. Let’s begin by reviewing what has been said so far.

The Bible teaches that God works in two different ways here on earth. He works in His right hand kingdom, and He works in His left hand kingdom. The right hand kingdom is the church. What is God’s purpose in the church? Justification- that all mankind would be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth. How does God accomplish His purposes in the church? Through His Word of Law and Gospel. However, the Gospel always predominates in the church.

God’s left hand kingdom is the state. God has established human authority in this world and has given earthly governments the power to wield the sword- to punish wrong-doing. What is God’s purpose in His right hand kingdom, the state? Justice- that good behavior would be rewarded and evil behavior be punished. The state should be concerned with good order. How does God accomplish His purposes in the state? Through the Law. The Gospel has no place in the state. The Gospel belongs to the church alone.

Remember that both church and state belong to God and matter to God. And while they must be kept distinct, they do not have to be kept separate. And while they can cooperate, they must never be confused. In Part 2, I described a book called Christ and Culture which explains different ways that Christians have tried to reconcile church and state. Martin Luther’s explanation of the Two Kingdoms of God falls best under the category of “Christ and Culture in Paradox.” Christians live with a foot in both church and state. We recognize the primacy of the church and the Gospel, but we also can have something to say about the state.

After all, we are involved in “Left-hand Kingdom” stuff all of the time, even in the church. Schools fall under the category of “state” as do voters’ meetings. Both have to do with human authority and establishing good order. It may surprise you to know that the Bible does not endorse one form of government over another. Democracy is not a God-given right. God can work through dictators and republics and empires. The Church of Jesus has been able to survive and thrive in any form of government.

That being said, we are blessed to live in the United States of America in which “We, the people,” have an opportunity to vote for candidates and laws that we feel best represent us and our values.

However, can we truly “Vote the Bible” as some Christians claim? What does that look like? Are you really casting a vote for God when you check one candidate or the other? How much freedom does a Christian have in the voting booth? What can help guide the Christian who seeks to be active in the state by casting their vote?

Let’s turn to Martin Luther again. Luther has this great quote on Christian Freedom: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.” There’s another one of our lovely, Lutheran paradoxes. What does this mean? As people living under grace, freed from the demands and condemnation of the Law, we are not obligated to anyone or anything. Christ is our one and only Master. However, as people who have been given a new life in Christ, we have also been given a purpose. We are not here on our own, and we are not to live for our own benefit. We live for the benefit of our neighbors.

So the only guidance that we get from Scripture in terms of voting is the “law of love.” You have been freed from the demands of the Law. Salvation is yours. Eternal life is yours. You are secure in Christ’s arms forever. You have nothing to worry about or fear. You are free. And it is because of this security and freedom that a Christian can then turn their attention to their neighbor and their neighbors’ needs.

This turns voting in our elections on its head a little bit. Most often, people vote for the candidate that they believe will be better for themselves and their own life. They want a candidate that will ensure their own future. The union worker votes for the candidate that will defend the power of the union so that they can keep their job and be secure. The rich business owner votes for the candidate that they feel will best protect their assets and wealth. Voting is mostly self-serving. Voting actually exercises power over other people. Your vote is an attempt for you to get your way. (If anyone actually tells you that you shouldn’t try to impose your beliefs in the public sphere, ask them if they vote in elections. That’s exactly what voting is- trying to impose your beliefs and opinions on others.)

As a Christian, we are liberated from this self-centered way of thinking. Our future is secure. Christ is Lord. He is in control. So as Christians go into the voting booth, they are free to vote not for themselves and their own way of life, they are free to consider “Which candidate or law best serves my neighbor?”

Granted, we can answer this in several ways. First of all, we have to ask “Who is my neighbor?” All people in this world are our neighbors. However, I think we can narrow this down a little bit more. Who does God seem to have the most concern for in this world? God, over and over again, says that He cares for the downtrodden: the widows, the orphans, the poor and sick. In other words, God is concerned that those who are lowest in society also have justice!

Again, there are many different opinions on how we can help the downtrodden. Some people believe that the government should be more involved. But if giving is forced, is it really giving? Others feel that help for the lowliest in the world are best served through the generosity of others. But what if people are not generous enough, and those who are in need still don’t get the justice they deserve? There are no easy answers here, and I am not going to give you my own opinion.

However, I believe that one issue cannot be ignored by Christians. If we are to look out for the lowliest in the world, those who cannot defend themselves, then we must turn our attention to the lives of the unborn. Who is more helpless than a human being in the womb? And yet, these human beings are being destroyed, and they cannot speak up for themselves. For me, the sanctity of human life and the horror of abortion have become the number one issue when it comes to voting. I hope and pray that someday the abortion laws in this country will be reversed, but for now, I will vote for the candidates and laws that I believe will limit abortion as much as possible. At the same time, we cannot rely on the government to right this wrong. It has to be done in relationship, and that is where the Christian carries the most influence. It is about educating others about the sanctity of human life, which means that Christians must be informed on this subject. Click here to read an article by Scott Klusendorf, president of the Life Training Institute. This helps clarify some of the issues on abortion. Again, if we truly live by the law of love as Christians, caring for our neighbor, I do not believe that we can ignore the horrors of abortion.

So now you have a basic framework with which to sort through some of these issues. We have to be careful to maintain the distinction but not the separation of church and state. Our goal is not a “Christian” nation. Our goal is a just and moral nation. But how do we determine morals? As Christians, we believe in a divine moral law-giver. God establishes morals and justice and values, so in that sense, yes, we can vote “Pro-God.”

I’m going to leave you with a few more links and helpful material on these issues.

Here is a great summary of what took me three, probably confusing, posts to write.

Basically the government rules by the sword, punishing the evildoer to keep law and order; that is to keep everyone from turning on their neighbor. And the church has the Gospel, not compelling men to believe but by granting faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. So, for example, a political candidate who wishes to legislate belief in the Gospel (using the sword of the state) is mixing the two spheres by which God reigns in creation.

So, the Gospel does not compel you to pick a Christian candidate. If it did, and anyone who preaches this is preaching a false Gospel, you might end up electing an incompetent politician (though he remains a Christian). Rather the Gospel frees you from any law in picking a candidate except the law of love. Your neighbor is your chief concern in choosing a candidate; who will best serve his interests.

This is no easy task in a fallen world. You have your first article gifts to be discerning about who you vote for (First article refers to the first article of the creed which confesses God as creator of all things, including giving you a brain). So, you can pray discernment from God as you weigh each candidate or even political party. Yes, that means being an informed voter or you are not serving your neighbor.

For more information on the HHS mandate which limits religious liberty, check out this website provided by our church body, the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod. http://www.lcms.org/freetobefaithful

I also promised to talk about the “pro-Israel” part of the church marquee sign that I saw in town. To be brief, there is no spiritual or Biblical reason to “vote for Israel.” This is a purely political issue. For a better explanation, read this.

Finally, I encourage all of you to keep Psalm 146 in your hearts and minds on Election Day.

Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord, O my soul!

2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;

I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

Put not your trust in princes,

in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.

4 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;

on that very day his plans perish.

5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the Lord his God,

6 who made heaven and earth,

the sea, and all that is in them,

who keeps faith forever;

7 who executes justice for the oppressed,

who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;

8 the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;

the Lord loves the righteous.

9 The Lord watches over the sojourners;

he upholds the widow and the fatherless,

but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10 The Lord will reign forever,

your God, O Zion, to all generations.

Praise the Lord!

 

 

 

How Should a Christian Vote? Pt. 2

For Part 1, click here.

In Part 1, I laid the framework of Martin Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine, or, as I have decided to label it for our purposes: church and state. Remember, the key in distinguishing church and state is that both of them belong to God. God is not just concerned about what goes on in the church. He is the one who establishes the authority of the state as well.

While both church and state are under God’s authority, they have different purposes. The church’s main goal is justification: that people are declared righteous before God based on Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. The church’s primary tool is the Gospel: the Good News of Jesus.

The state’s main goal is justice. The state has the authority of the sword: that is, to punish people for breaking the rules. They are concerned with good order and the protection of those they have been placed in authority over. The state’s primary tool is the Law: to curb wrongdoing and ensure that people receive justice.

The question for Christians to consider is this: how involved should the church be in affairs of the state and vice versa? Should Christians bring their religious beliefs into the political realm, or should they just keep those beliefs in church where they belong? How should we apply Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine? As Christians, we obviously have a foot in both kingdoms during our lives on earth. How do we reconcile them?

In 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr published a book called Christ and Culture, in which he provided five interpretive models by which we might better understand the history of the Christian church and civil government. For Niebuhr, these are the typical answers that Christians have given to the enduring problem of Christ and culture: “Christ against Culture,” “The Christ of Culture,” “Christ above Culture,” “Christ and Culture in Paradox,” and “Christ the Transformer of Culture.” By culture, Niebuhr means “Man’s effort to order the cosmos and define effective and correct ways to live in it.” So you can see how this fits into our political discussion. The battle between Democrats and Republicans is because they define “effective and correct ways” differently. They would also order the world differently. Let’s take a quick look at all of these answers, starting with the two extreme positions on either end.

“Christ against Culture” is an uncompromising defense of Christ’s authority for the Christian. This model calls for a radical break from culture which means that Christians should not be involved in politics at all. Some Amish and Mennonite groups exhibit this anti-cultural, anti-political approach. This model seeks to emphasize the Lordship of Christ, but it overemphasizes the purity of the Christian community. It also does not recognize God’s good establishment of earthly authority and his function for government.

“Christ of Culture” goes the opposite direction of “Christ against Culture.” There is no tension between Christ and culture or church and state. This model presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the hopes and aspirations of society. It tends to see human culture as basically good, tends to deny the full effects of the fall, and so they recreate Christ into various cultural images. The big weakness of this model is the loss of any tension or any real distinction between society and church.

The three remaining models fall in between these two extremes. All of them share the conviction that some tension must be maintained- that both Christ and culture have legitimate, although different, claims upon the Christian.

“Christ above Culture” means that Christians live in both realms, but Christ, as Niebuhr puts it, “neither arises out of culture nor contributes directly to it, but He is the fulfillment of cultural aspirations and the restorer of the institutions of true society.” Both church and state are believed to serve one, divine purpose , but the weakness is the extent to which this unity must be imposed forcefully on a resistant culture, with the Gospel being the prime casualty as a result.

“Christ and Culture in Paradox” acknowledges that humans do not encounter in God a simple unity. God is the God of grace and mercy, but He is also the God of judgment and wrath. Christians using this model don’t withdraw from the world but tend to be rather oblivious or ambivalent to it, recognizing the legitimacy of government as established by God’s hand but also recognizing that it does not have anything to do with God’s grace and mercy.

Finally, the middle ground “Christ the Transformer of Culture” has a hopeful attitude toward the potential of human culture to serve Christ. Those who hold to this model tend to emphasize overcoming and overturning the consequences of sin in culture. I believe those who push for a “Christian America” hold to this model. The strength is the unity of God’s purpose, but it’s weakness is that this unity must be imposed or forced by the church onto the state.

Here is a chart that puts each model in its rightful position.

Now that we have looked at these helpful distinctions, where do you think Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms falls?

We Lutherans love our paradoxes! Luther’s teaching falls best into “Christ and Culture in Paradox.” The strength of this view is its realistic portrayal of the Christian’s actual struggles to “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” However, its weakness has been a persistent passivity toward government.

So how does all of this information help you as a Christian to understand your role in both church and state? First of all, again recognize that both belong to God and that God does have something to say about the state and about how we govern ourselves. He is the one who has ultimate authority.

Second of all, recognize the separate functions of church and state. The church is for justification. The state is for justice. Both are good. They should be distinguished. The should not be confused. But that does not mean that they must be completely separated.

As a person living in two kingdoms, with a stake in the church and in the state, a Christian can absolutely be involved with politics. A Christian can also absolutely bring their religious beliefs into the political realm. However, our goal is not to establish a “Christian” nation. That is a bad confusion of both Law and Gospel and church and state. (See Part 1) Our goal is a just nation.

But how do we define justice? We define justice the way God defines it. We define it according to God’s Law. Everyone has the Law of God written on their hearts whether they recognize it or not. That is why every government has laws against murder and theft. As humans, we know these things are wrong. This is not an intrusion of the church into the state. This is a recognition that God knows best for both the church and the state. When things are ordered according to God’s will, things go better for us humans.

Martin Luther has been attributed a saying that he may not have actually uttered, yet we can still agree with it in principle. The quote is “I would rather be governed by a wise Turk (meaning Muslim) than a foolish Christian.” The point is this: we should seek to elect leaders and pass laws that establish justice for all people. The goal of the government is not that everyone become Christian. Just because someone is a Christian does not mean that they will be a competent leader. (This goes for other occupations as well. Should I go to a barber just because he is Christian even though the barber down the street will do a much better job? No. We have no obligation to do so. I also apply this to music. I don’t typically listen to “Christian” music. Nor should any Christian feel obligated to do so just because it is “Christian.” I prefer to listen to bands that I enjoy and that I believe are extremely talented musicians. As one pastor has put it, “Christian is a better noun than an adjective.”)

Wow, I’ve said a lot this post, and I am not sure how much you will find helpful. Hopefully, I did not bore or confuse you. If I did, please comment, and I will try to clear things up. You might find the next post more interesting. In Part 3, I will get more specific as far as voting goes. Are Christians obligated to vote for one party or another or for one issue or another? How much freedom does a Christian have in the kingdom of the state? I will also examine the church marquee sign and video that sparked these posts. Can you truly vote the Bible? Also, I believe there is one guiding principle for Christians to live by in this world, and it applies to voting as well. Check back soon to find out what that principle is….Shoot, I may need two more posts…

I owe much of the content of this post to Niebuhr but also to the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and their booklet “Render Unto Caesar…and Unto God: A Lutheran View of Church and State.” You can read their whole document by clicking here. It’s the 13th one down.

How Should a Christian Vote? Pt. 1

In my previous post (which you can read by clicking here) I promised that I would give some thoughts on the upcoming election. This does not mean that I am going to tell you how to cast your vote. I just want to give you some principles to think about as you consider whom to vote for. This series is inspired by a marquee sign above a church in town that reads: Vote the Bible. Pro-God. Pro-life. Pro-Israel. I will address all three of those “pros” in another post. But for starters, I want to lay some groundwork for a Christian in regards to the political realm.

Does the Bible tell us how to vote?

There can be a lot of confusion when it comes to Christians and voting. Some Christians will tell you that you have to vote one way or another to truly be a Christian. Some Christians will say that you should not vote at all. Others will tell you that voting is not only your right but your responsibility. Some Christians will say that the goal is to create a “Christian” America. Others will say that a Christian should not bring their religious beliefs into the government sphere.

What are we to do with all of these conflicting messages?

The most helpful guide regarding a Christian’s involvement with government is Martin Luther’s doctrine of the “two kingdoms” (also sometimes called the “two realms”). This teaching of Scripture and explained by Luther and many other Lutheran theologians is a framework for understanding God’s total activity in the world. A prerequisite for understanding the Two Kingdoms doctrine is a familiarity of the distinction between Law and Gospel.

For a quick summary of the distinction between Law and Gospel, I am going to turn to Rev. Dr. John Pless’s book Word: God Speaks to Us. This is from the chapter “The Words That Kill and Give Life.”

God speaks in two completely different voices to us in the Scripture. His Law is the preaching of wrath against sin It is that voice from Sinai’s lofty heights that thunders with condemnation of the sinner and his sin. The Gospel stands in distinct contrast from the Law. While the Law makes demands and threatens with punishment, the Gospel makes promises and bespeaks peace with God in the blood of Jesus Christ. The Bible is misused when the Law is not clearly distinguished from the Gospel. The Bible is misused when Law and Gospel are not used together to teach and meditate. If Jesus is transformed into something other than a Savior, and seen only as a ‘new Moses,’ a spiritual coach, a teacher of moral precepts, or the pattern for the pious life, the Bible is misused and the Gospel is abandoned.

Both Law and Gospel are words from God. Both are important. The Law shows us our sin. The Gospel shows us our Savior. Pless makes another important point however:

I’ve got to get myself one of these!

Law and Gospel are both there in the Bible, but the Gospel is the goal. It is God’s ultimate Word of forgiveness and peace. You have not finished your study of any biblical text until you get to that Good News.

What does this have to do with politics? Hold on, I’m getting there. I hope.

Martin Luther’s Two Kingdom doctrine goes like this. Luther recognizes two different kingdoms at play on the earth. He also refers to them as two realms. You could use two governments (of spiritual and temporal authority.) For our purposes, let’s just refer to them as “church” and “state” since that is familiar to our American eyes and ears. Both church and state have authority in this world, but they have a different kind of authority. They also have different concerns. Here is the most important point to remember as we distinguish church and state: while they are different, they both belong to God. God has ultimate authority over the church. We obviously know that. But God also has ultimate authority over the state or over the civil realm. Another way to describe this is to distinguish between God’s two hands. God has his hands in two different pots. With his left hand, he controls the state. With his right hand, he guides the church. Both are under God.

But again, the church and the state have different purposes. Here is where the distinction between Law and Gospel becomes important. The church is primarily focused on which of the two, do you think, Law or Gospel? The church is primarily focused on the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. The church is concerned with justification, that is, mankind’s right standing before God based on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The church is chiefly involved with spiritual matters: faith, grace, peace, righteousness and so forth. The number one task of the church is to preach the Gospel. Yes, obviously the Law is important as well since people need to be shown their sin so that they can know their need for a Savior. But the Gospel predominates in the kingdom of the church.

Again, the state, or God’s left hand, has a different purpose. While the church’s main goal is justification, the state’s main goal is justice. In the church, the Gospel predominates. In the state, the Law predominates. In fact, the Gospel really has no place in the state. It is all Law, all the time. The state is concerned with good order. That is why God established authority and government- for the sake of order and justice. For really the best explanation of the authority of the state, we can turn to Paul in Romans 13:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

That passage is quite obviously all Law. Obey the government because the government has authority from God to “bear the sword,” meaning the authority to dole out punishment for wrongdoing.

I think that is enough information for right now. I do not want to make these posts too long. For next time, we will dig into the question: How involved should the church be in the affairs of the state and vice versa? This is really the key question when it comes to Christians and the political or civil realm. We will take a look at how various Christians have answered this question and also see how Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms helps in sorting these things out.