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

 

Friday
Jul072017

April 2017

 

It's no secret that the Scriptures view the resurrection of Jesus—and the eternal life that flows from Him—as of first importance and all-encompassing (1 Corinthians 15). But what does it mean for our lives in this world where death, and not life, seems to reign and rule?

First, it means that if we are joined to Jesus' death and resurrection (which He says happens in Holy Baptism), then if Jesus is alive, not even death can separate us from Him. He's already on the far side of death so that, when we die, He will bring us into life.

Second, it means that we are freed from making things more important than they are. We are freed from the anxiety and worry that if we do this or that, or if we don't do that or this, then everything will be okay. Everything is already more than okay, because resurrection is the final word! Anxiety and worry and fear come because we cannot see or know the future. We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, or next month, or next year. So we start to get nervous and try to take things into our own hands or under our own control. We constantly live on the edge, and if you live on the edge, your nerves will always be on edge. Everything, even the simplest word or action, becomes a matter of near-life-and-death. If someone says something, we take it in the worst sense possible. If someone does something, we assume it means this or that. The fear in our gut rules us, because we do not know what will happen.

But we fear and worry and become anxious because what we see in our surroundings and circumstances become disconnected from Jesus Himself, and His victory over both life lived in the midst of death, and of death itself. If He is risen from the dead, what do we have to fear? What do we have to fear from our own bodies or minds? What do we have to fear from other people's words and actions? What do we have to fear from the world or the devil? What's the worst that can happen? Death? Is death anything where Jesus, the Life, is present and active? The resurrection of Jesus, by which He restores all things, means that we are free from our consuming desire to control every outcome for ourselves, our congregation, and our lives.

The life that Jesus has in Himself, the life that is in His Father and the Holy Spirit, He gives to us through His own life-giving means. His gift of life is not in doubt and, therefore, the future—finally—is not in doubt. We can let love cover over a multitude of sins and small slights, a multitude of words, a multitude of worst-case assumptions and scenarios. Is Jesus really risen from the dead? Then all things belong to Him—past, present, and future.

“If Christ had not been raised from death/Our faith would be in vain,/Our preaching but a waste of breath,/Our sin and guilt remain” (LSB 486:1). But “Jesus lives! The vict'ry's won! … Jesus lives! And now is death/But the gate of life immortal;/This shall calm my trembling breath/When I pass its gloomy portal./Faith shall cry, as fails each sense:/Jesus is my confidence!” (LSB 1, 5). Jesus is my confidence, here and now, and into eternity.

Pr. Winterstein

 

Friday
Jul072017

March 2017

What is the goal of what happens on Sunday morning? What is your goal when you come? What are you looking for? What is your expectation for what you will have when you leave?

Those are some of the questions we can ask to get at our real motivations and expectations for gathering on a Sunday morning. Our answers to those questions are probably formed by many things: our childhood experience in church, or our lack thereof; our adult experience in church(es); what our friends and family tell us they get; what we've observed at other congregations we've attended; and the (sometimes) subconscious desires and preferences and prejudices we bring with us. There is not a single person in a given congregation who is not formed and shaped by some combination of those things (and probably more).

But one thing that consistently comes up in conversations around worship is some variant of the following thoughts and words: I felt uplifted and inspired/I want to feel uplifted and inspired. I want to leave happy. I don't feel what I used to. I don't feel the way I think I should when I leave. There's a lack of joy now that I used to have.

Is there anything wrong with these sentiments? Of course not. God has created us with feelings and emotions that run the entire human spectrum. And it probably goes without saying that people who feel good when they leave a place or finish a particular experience are more likely to return to the place or repeat the experience. Social scientists and psychologists and others have spent a lot of time and money studying the power of such human experiences, including in religious contexts.

When Lutherans gather together on the Lord's Day, we understand how powerful human emotion is. Lutherans have always understood the connection between those emotions and music, in particular.

But there's another side to that, which makes emotion the end and goal of worship. Once, an organist told me that when she filled in at a certain congregation, she was instructed to play louder or softer, and that the lighting was adjusted, in order to create particular emotions and feelings. Admittedly, that's a crude and extreme example. But that is the logical result of aiming at particular emotions, rather than the emotions accompanying what happens.

When we aim at emotion, our feelings become the measuring stick for whether something good has happened. When we aim at emotion, we model that to our children and then they measure their experiences by it. Our world is full of emotions, both positive and negative. We all know how emotivism (the theory that ethical statements are not really true, but simply express the feelings of the speaker) rules our daily social interactions in the world. Our world is full of emotion, but it is not full of Jesus, crucified and resurrected, for people whose emotions are constantly changing and shifting based on the day, the month, the year, the experience, and the circumstance.

So Lutherans will never aim at emotion. We will never manipulate people into feeling a certain way. We will aim at proclaiming and delivering Jesus to people who need Him. If we do that according to His own Word and Sacrament, the emotion may or may not accompany church on a given Sunday. But we can be absolutely certain that Jesus is doing His work, whether the feeling is present or not. That's assurance that doesn't change, no matter how we feel.

We cannot make particular feelings, experiences, and emotions into the goal or point of the Divine Service. That is emotional idolatry. But if we look for Jesus, hear His Word, eat His Body and Blood, and know His promises about where and how He is present among us, then there can be no doubt that we will receive what He has promised to give.

Will we always feel the way we would like to feel? No. But I thank God that His gifts to me do not depend on my own fickle, fleeting, changing emotions. There is no certainty in me. But there is always certainty in the promises of Jesus, whose forgiveness is delivered with His own Spirit-sealed guarantee. With such a promise, true joy cannot help but follow.

 

Pr. Winterstein