Thursday
Sep072017

September 2017

To paraphrase Jesus: conflict you will always have with you. Anyone who's been married for even a few years knows that there is no such thing as a conflict-free marriage. No one who's raised children has done it without conflict. No congregation has ever been conflict-free, going back to Acts 5-6.

The question for Christians isn't how to avoid conflict. Conflict doesn't go away because we ignore it. Instead, the conflict gets shoved underground or swept under our numerous rugs, and (to paraphrase the Lord again) the state of that house is worse than at first.

We know these things intellectually, but they are far harder to put into practice. The Spirit wills it, but our sinful flesh is weak.

But conflict, like marriage and child-raising, should be a school that teaches us how to live with one another in repentance, Christian love, and unity. We are warned by the Eighth Commandment that we must not bear false witness against each other. “For honor and good name are easily taken away but not easily restored.” It is very easy to pretend that the circumstances of a particular conflict free us to act sinfully against another person. We put the worst construction on their words and actions, and we assume the worst about their motives for saying or acting how they did.

Luther writes in the Large Catechism:

The third aspect of this commandment, which applies to all of us, forbids all sins of the tongue by which we may injure or offend our neighbor. “Bearing false witness” is nothing but a work of the tongue. God wants to hold in check whatever is done with the tongue against a neighbor. This applies to false preachers with their blasphemous teaching, to false judges and witnesses with their rulings in court and their lying and malicious talk outside of court. It applies especially to the detestable, shameless vice of backbiting or slander by which the devil rides us.

In fact, the Greek word for devil, diabolos, means slanderer. Speaking evil of others, regardless of the circumstances, comes from the devil. How much more damaging and cancerous it is in the Church when people refuse to bring their problems to the person against whom they hold those things. Our mothers knew what they were talking about when they told us that if we couldn't say anything nice, we shouldn't say anything at all. “Therefore, God forbids you to speak evil about another, even though, to your certain knowledge, that person is guilty. Even less may you do so if you are not really sure and have it only from hearsay.”

Much of the reason for intractable conflict comes from a lack of understanding. We assume far more often than we ask. Perhaps you know what happens when we ass-u-me. As sure as we are that we know why someone has said or done something, it is far better to exercise some humility and ask first anyway.

The only assumption Christians should be making about each other is that we are, each and all, baptized members of the Body of Jesus Christ. Beyond that, we daily sin much. Since our sinful flesh is not fully dead and buried, we can always find room to repent. None of us does everything that we should, nor do we refrain from doing everything we should not. When we approach conflict with another Christian, we do so knowing that Christ has covered all our sin. Therefore, because we are forgiven much more than anyone knows, we forgive what little we know of the other person's sin. Begin with your sin, and Christ's forgiveness of you, and you are much more likely to approach another person in that light and with that grace.

Pastor Luther teaches us how to pray the Eighth Commandment:

[We recognize that this] teaches us, first of all, to be truthful to each other, to shun lies and calumnies, to be glad to speak well of each other, and to delight in hearing what is good about others. Thus a wall has been built around our good reputation and integrity to protect it against malicious gossip and deceitful tongues; God will not let that go unpunished, as he has said in the other commandments.

We owe him thanks both for the teachings and the protection which hea has graciously provided for us.

Third, we confess and ask forgiveness that we have spent our lives in ingratitude and sin and have maligned our neighbor with false and wicked talk, though we owe him the same preservation of honor and integrity which we desire for ourselves.

Fourth, we ask for help from now on to keep the commandment and for a healing tongue, etc. [“A Simple Way to Pray,” LW 43:208]

May God grant it to us for Jesus' sake.

Pr. Winterstein

Thursday
Sep072017

August 2017

There are a few people who love working out. I have brothers who love to run. I am not one of those people. If exercise makes me feel better or gives me more energy, I am willing (although grudgingly) to do what it takes. I want to be healthy, but often the motivation is not there.

Likewise, there are people who seem to be born into a love of the liturgy, of studying the Scriptures, of hearing God’s Word and receiving His gifts in the Divine Service. (Obviously, this is not really the case, since we are all born sinful, but you know people who do seem to have a natural joy in the things of God.) Most people probably think pastors fall into this category, although there are plenty who follow every trend and fad in an attempt to be always relevant. I do love the liturgy and the things of God, but it did not come naturally; I was not born with it. Nor did I really grow up with it.

I remember, specifically, a time when my parents were filling out a survey on worship at my home congregation, and I wanted them to check “contemporary music,” or some such thing, as their preference. (Thank God they didn’t listen to me!) But even now, the music on my computer and on my iPod are not what most people would call “church music.” It is as foreign to the Divine Service as the Divine Service is foreign to our culture. It takes work to come into the joy of the liturgy, just as it does for physical exercise.

For most people in our culture, especially those who did not grow up or are not comfortable with liturgy and structure in the Divine Service, these things do not come naturally. That fact is compounded by our individualistic preferences, which rule in every other area of life: we have thousands of television channels, dozens of choices at restaurants, and supermarkets, shopping malls, and internet sites full of choices. Whatever you want, you can find on Amazon, or iTunes, or eBay. And so when it comes to church, we want what we want, or we will go somewhere else. If it doesn’t fit our style, or desires, or time limits, or any number of other categories, we can easily find another church in the American religious marketplace.

But if we are serious about knowing Christ for us, and not just about Him; if we hunger and thirst for righteousness, rather than just the junk food of culture; if we want the Truth, rather than religious opinions; in short, if we want what God wants to give us, rather than what we think He should give us, then we have to do a little work to discipline our sinful flesh.

It is, in fact, a lot like exercise. The only difference is that with physical exercise, the only limit is your own body. Otherwise, if you work hard enough, you can get whatever results you want. Spiritual “exercise,” however, cannot take you all the way. It is not your salvation, nor can it please God in itself. But that does not mean that there are no benefits to expanding spiritual strength, spiritual endurance, spiritual lung capacity. While everyone is in a different place with regard to knowledge and wisdom, those who have been Christians since God claimed them in Holy Baptism, should, by the time they are adults, be eating solid theological meat, rather than still slurping superficial milk. We should pray that Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians does not apply to us: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2; see also Hebrews 5:12-14).

We do not ever move on from the basic and saving truth that Christ has taken all our sins on Himself and that He is our salvation, our righteousness, our holiness. But much like physical workouts, where we expand what we understand about how our bodies work and work muscles we never knew we had, so also in spiritual workouts, we should be expanding our knowledge of how Christ is for us in every aspect of our lives, how He is our life, what it means that Christ is our salvation, righteousness, holiness. This can happen only through the Word of God, whether that is in the preaching of the Divine Service, the study of the Scriptures with the other members of the Body of Christ, or individual reading, memorizing, and digesting of the Word of Christ at home and with our families. In fact, it is the Word that will work us out: the Word that will create true sorrow for sin; the Word that will create ever greater thirst for Christ; the Word that gives Him whom it promises.

Our choice is no choice at all: understand where the truth of God’s Word in Christ is spoken and given out without fail, and cling to it because our life depends on it. In this truth, we are exercised (maybe exorcised!) and He strengthens us in the knowledge and hope of His promises. There is nothing better or more worthwhile than that.

Pr. Winterstein

Friday
Jul072017

July 2017

 

Why Does the Pastor Read the Readings?

Notice: the title of this is not “Why Must the Pastor Read the Readings.” Which means that this is not about why no one else can or may read the Scriptures in the Divine Service. It is about why I, as the pastor in this place, read them.

It starts with Paul's instructions to the pastor in Ephesus, with whom I share my name: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). This refers explicitly to the reading of the Scriptures in the assembly of the congregation, as Nehemiah 8:7-8, Acts 13:15, and 2 Corinthians 3:14 make clear. Paul's instructions in 1 Timothy are certainly enough for me. But, it's true, Paul does not command that it must be so everywhere and always.

The second half of why I read the readings publicly is—as you probably get tired of hearing from me—vocation, vocation, vocation. Must a nurse be the one to check your blood pressure when you go to the doctor? Must a mechanic be the one to check your oil or fluid levels when you take your car in? Must the plumber be the one to undo the pipe that leads from your sink to the ground? Must the pastor be the one who reads the readings? To all of those “musts,” we must say no. There's nothing that would prevent anyone from doing any of those things. There's no command or law that rules any of those things off-limits to someone who hasn't been trained as a nurse, mechanic, plumber, or pastor.

But that's not really the point. The point is the realm of responsibility that's been given to particular people for particular things. The pastor has a very limited sphere of responsibility: the Word and the Sacraments. That's it. Only when it comes to what is spoken from the Word of God and what pertains directly to that does the pastor have an explicit responsibility. About everything else that happens in a congregation, the pastor may—probably does—have opinions. But the pastor's opinion has no more weight than anyone else's about a budget, or the church grounds, or schedules and times, or any number of other things that do not fall within the realm of the Word and the Sacraments.

But why does God call pastors to congregations? Precisely to give His people His Word and His Sacraments. This is why the very first two items on the “Supplement to the Diploma of Vocation[!]” that you sent me when you called me to be your pastor say “In the name of the Triune God and by His authority, in order that we may carry out His mission to the world, we hereby authorize and obligate you: To administer the Word of God in its full truth and purity as contained in the Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and as set forth in the confessional writings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as found in the Book of Concord; To administer the holy sacraments in accordance with their divine institution.”

That's my goal: to do what you called me to do the best that I can do it. The “administer[ing of] the Word of God” includes reading that Word publicly and regularly in the Divine Service. I do not read the Scriptures out of a misplaced sense of having to be in control, or having to be in front, or having to be seen. If you know me, you know that the last thing I like is drawing attention to myself. (Ask my wife: if we have the music up loud in the car, I have to have the windows closed so the people around won't look at us.) I simply want to carry out my vocation among you: to give you the Word and Sacraments that are Christ's life for you as you go out each week to do the responsibilities of your vocations. God has given us each unique, though sometimes overlapping, vocations. Let's rejoice together in the way that God distributes His gifts to all the members of Christ's Body, and the ways that He serves all of us through each of us.

Pr. Winterstein

 

Friday
Jul072017

June 2017

 

164 years ago next month, the very first president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, C.F.W. Walther, wrote this in the official publication of the Synod, Der Lutheraner:

Whenever the divine service once again follows the old Evangelical-Lutheran agendas (or church books), it seems that many raise a great cry that it is “Roman Catholic”: “Roman Catholic” when the pastor chants “The Lord be with you” and the congregation responds by chanting “and with thy spirit”; “Roman Catholic” when the pastor chants the collect and the blessing and the people respond with a chanted “Amen.”

Even the simplest Christian can respond to this outcry: “Prove to me that this chanting is contrary to the word of God, then I too will call it ‘Roman Catholic’ and have nothing more to do with it. However, you cannot prove this to me.”

If you insist upon calling Romish every element in the divine service that has been used by the Roman Catholic Church, it must follow that the reading of the Epistle and Gospel is also Romish. Indeed, it is mischief to sing or preach in church, for the Roman Church has done this also.

Those who cry out should remember that the Roman Catholic Church possesses every beautiful song of the old orthodox church. The chants and antiphons and responses were brought into the church long before the false teachings of Rome crept in. This Christian Church since the beginning, even in the Old Testament, has derived great joy from chanting…For more than 1700 years orthodox Christians have participated joyfully in the divine service. Should we, today, carry on by saying that such joyful participation is Roman Catholic? God forbid!

Therefore, as we continue to hold and to restore our wonderful divine services in places where they have been forgotten, let us boldly confess that our worship forms do not unite us with the modern sects or with the Church of Rome; rather, they join us to the one, holy Christian church that is as old as the world and is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. (This is translated from Der Lutheraner, July 19, 1853, page 163.)

 

Pr. Winterstein

 

Friday
Jul072017

May 2017

 

How would you identify yourself—your confession, your belief “system,” your religion—to someone who is not a Christian? If asked, of course you would identify yourself as a Christian. Christian—even with all the assumed baggage that Christianity carries in the United States—means that you belong to Christ. You do not belong to Buddha, or Mohammed, or Krishna, or to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, or to any of their books. You belong to Christ and so you live by the Words (the Scriptures) that testify to Him. You do not belong to Luther any more than you belong to any other Christian teacher. No matter who the person is, ancient or modern, the Scriptures are the ruler by which you measure any human being's teaching.

It is good to recognize in a world that barely knows Christianity—let alone its various stripes and differences—that our identity is always and only in Christ and not in any man, certainly not in Luther. But this can sometimes mislead us. Perhaps we will say, “I am a Lutheran-Christian,” where “Lutheran” modifies “Christian” to tell us what kind of Christian we are. Or perhaps we will say it another way: “I am a Christian first and a Lutheran second.” On the one hand, this is a good impulse: we want to be identified by what belongs to Christ, and not what belongs to human beings. But, on the other hand, it can mislead us. Such statements can very easily assume that Lutheran or Baptist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic are additions to Christianity. In other words, we assume that there is a core of what we call “Christianity,” and then various people added various, other, more secondary teachings to the central Christian faith. It very well might be the case that human beings have built wood, hay, or straw onto the precious foundation of Christ. But it is not necessarily so.

Perhaps we might remember C.S. Lewis' book Mere Christianity, and think that it describes the center of Christianity and then all the denominations added their own spin and human traditions. But even Lewis describes his book as a hallway in a house. “But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.”

There are certainly things that all Christians share in common. We might point to the ecumenical, or common, Creeds as the summary of those teachings. But you are just as likely to hear something along the lines of, “Why do the people who put together the creeds, or you, or anyone else get to tell me what it means to be a Christian? I feel like I'm just as much a Christian as you are, even though I don't believe half those things.”

But when it comes to actual, lived Christian experience, there is no such thing as “mere” Christianity. Different traditions are simply different ways of seeing. And since you have to see, the only question is, how are you going to see? How are you going to see Christ and the Scriptures and faith and salvation? As soon as you touch on or answer any of those questions, you are going to find yourself in one tradition or another. If those churches called “Lutheran” have indeed added something to Christ or the Scriptures, then you ought not to be a Lutheran. Likewise, if any other tradition has added or removed things from Christ's word, you ought not to be in a church of that tradition either. If I believed that the Book of Concord is anything other than a true summary of what the Scriptures teach, not only would I not be a Lutheran pastor; I wouldn't be a Lutheran at all.

Lutherans—if they truly are Lutherans—will not be bound to anything but Christ's word, adding nothing to it, and taking nothing away from it. We believe the Book of Concord does exactly that, which is why its writings are listed in our constitution and is the secondary basis of every one of our pastor's ordination and installation vows. There is no congregation that is merely Christian. Non-denominational churches are just as much denominations as any other (usually Baptist in their theology). But every single Christian has to examine the Scriptures and decide which tradition teaches those Scriptures truly. This, of course, depends on Christ being faithful to His word and preserving His Church at all times and all places, even in our age.

Finally, even if someone decides that Lutherans truly teach the Scriptures (as I, of course, do), that does not mean that Lutherans know everything about God or that there is nothing to learn from other traditions and teachers. We don't claim to know God completely; we only claim to teach truly what God has given us to know—and, certainly, individuals are fallible and error-prone, and will not always teach Christ correctly in all points, no matter what tradition they claim.

There should be both confidence and humility in our confession: confidence in the Christ who has taught His Apostles His own life-giving Word; confidence in the Christ who has made promises to us in Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution and His Holy Supper; but humility in realizing that we have nothing that hasn't been given to us. It's all gift, and we do not “own” it, anymore than we own our bodies, or our children, or anything else in this creation with which God has freely blessed us.

So we give our Lutheran confession freely, because we believe it whole-heartedly, and we continue to pray fervently for unity under the Word that we confess. Everything else is outside our control and, finally, we will know the unity for which we pray only in the fulfillment of all things in the new creation.

Pr. Winterstein