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Pastor's Corner

November 2019

Perplexing Passages: Baptism for the Dead?

Perhaps one of the strangest passages in Holy Scripture appears in 1 Corinthians 15:29, in which St. Paul, arguing passionately for the truth of the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day, makes reference to a practice prevalent among the Corinthian Christians: “Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” This perplexing passage has given rise to all manner of different interpretations.

Some say that the Corinthians were baptized not “on behalf of” the dead, but literally “upon” the dead, i.e., upon the graves of departed Christians, to express the truth that those departed Christians will one day rise from the dead. There is, however, no evidence for such a practice, and it is not a very natural reading of Paul’s text. Others say that the passage should be interpreted somehow metaphorically as not actually referring to baptism, but this is a stretch. And the list goes on…

The most common interpretation, however, is that the Corinthians were practicing baptism by proxy, or “vicarious baptism.” Presumably they feared for the salvation of their loved ones who had died without baptism, so they underwent an additional baptism “on behalf of” the dead. Various heretical groups of the following centuries used this interpretation to invent their own practice of proxy baptism, and today the Mormons still practice it. That’s why Mormons are so into genealogy: they want to find as many people as possible to baptize by proxy so they can be saved.

While “baptism by proxy” might be a natural reading of Paul’s text, it stretches credulity to imagine that Paul would have let such a practice persist in one of his congregations without giving it a thorough rebuke. “Proxy baptism” suggests a superstitious, magical view of baptism that denies the role of faith in salvation. No one can have faith on someone else’s behalf. Each of us must believe the Gospel for himself. “Proxy baptism” is a denial of this truth. Furthermore, there is no other evidence that such a practice ever existed until the heretical groups that invented it on the basis of their misreading of this very passage.

So what’s actually going on? If Paul isn’t talking about “proxy baptism,” what else could he possibly mean by “being baptized on behalf of the dead”? First, I have to admit that I don’t know. Nobody knows for sure! This is a legitimate mystery of scriptural interpretation. I will say, though, that I recently came across a compelling possible interpretation.

In his book Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, which I recently immensely enjoyed reading, legendary New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias makes reference to a German scholarly article (written by a certain Maria Raeder in 1955, if you’re curious) that, in his judgment, makes a convincing case for a particular interpretation. As Jeremias explains, Paul’s phrase should not be translated “on behalf of” the dead, but “for the sake of” the dead. In other words, people in Corinth were being baptized for the express purpose of joining their departed loved ones in the resurrection on the Last Day. “Take, for instance, a case in which a young woman belonging to the Church, and engaged to be married, died, and whose heathen bridegroom had himself baptized ‘for her sake’—that is, in order to be reunited with her in the resurrection” (pp. 36–37). This is a natural reading of Paul’s text and it fits well with his argument in favor of a general resurrection. Not everyone is convinced by it, by any means, and I don’t know for sure that Jeremias and Raeder are correct, but it is at least one possibility of making sense of a perplexing passage.

What do you really need to know about 1 Corinthians 15:29? First, know that St. Paul is not teaching, and does not approve of, baptism by proxy, whether this text applies to that practice or not. Second, know that Paul’s theology of baptism takes for granted the truth that we will be raised from the dead on the Last Day. Finally, however the verse should actually be interpreted, take comfort in the knowledge that through your own baptism, in which you were promised eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, you will be raised from the dead not to be condemned, but to inherit the kingdom of your Father. The perplexity of this passage remains, but God’s mercy in Christ, expressed through Holy Baptism, is assured!

God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 




October 2019

Perplexing Passages: “A Time, Times, and Half a Time”

There’s a lot to be confused about when reading the book of Revelation. St. John’s sometimes bizarre vision is full of symbolism that takes a great deal of historical knowledge to interpret correctly. While some images are rather straightforward (the beast with seven heads and ten horns is the city of Rome, which was famous for its seven hills and had been ruled over by ten emperors at the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem), much of John’s vision remains shrouded in mystery for most readers (including me!).

But one strange reference in Revelation need not perplex us as much as it might seem. When John, in Revelation 12, has his celestial vision of the dragon (the devil) terrorizing the woman and her Child (Jesus), he writes that the woman escaped into the wilderness and was nourished “for a time, times, and half a time” (Revelation 12:14). While at first glance this may appear incomprehensible, upon further study the expression yields a straightforward meaning: “a time, times, and half a time” is three and a half days, or half a week.

(a time = 1) + (times = 2) + (half a time = ½) = 3 ½

What is really fascinating about this length of time is that it is exactly the same as several cryptic numbers that show up in Revelation 11. The Gentiles will trample Jerusalem for forty-two months (11:2). God's two witnesses will prophesy for 1,260 days (11:3). When the two witnesses are killed, they will lie dead for three and a half days before being resurrected (11:9, 11). In apocalyptic prophecy, it is common for a day to stand in for a year. If the three and a half days are understood as three and a half years, and if each year is made up of twelve months of thirty days each (a common way of reckoning months in the ancient world), then the three and a half years add up to forty-two months (12 + 12 + 12 + 6 = 42) for a total of 1,260 days (42 x 30 = 1,260). In other words, whether we’re talking about forty-two months, 1,260 days, three and a half days, or “a time, times, and half a time,” it’s all the same amount of time: three and a half years, or half of seven years.

Furthermore, John’s use of this period of time didn’t come out of nowhere. It derives from a much earlier apocalyptic prophecy, that of Daniel. There Daniel describes the tenth ruler of the Roman Empire, prophesying that the people of God “shall be given into his hand for a time, times, and half a time” (Daniel 7:25) before his kingdom yields to the reign of Christ, and that “the shattering of the power of the holy people” will come to an end after “a time, times, and half a time” (Daniel 12:7). Both Daniel and John seem to have witnessed the same events in symbolical terms.

There are a number of ways that this period of time, half a week or half of seven years, can be applied to salvation history. What seems most likely to me is that the amount of time being half of seven is significant in itself. Seven is God’s number. Half of seven is the devil’s mockery of God’s number. Everything that Daniel and John say will happen within the three and a half years is part of the devil’s dominion, during which he terrorizes the people of God. I believe that from the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in ad 70, we have been in the time of tribulation, the devil doing his worst against the Church of Christ until Jesus’ return to judgment on the Last Day. But however the expression is applied, my hope is that as you read Revelation and Daniel in your own devotions, you won’t just have to skip over those strange expressions, leaving them unexplained. They mean something! When you see “a time, times, and half a time,” you’ll remember that the expression stands for half a week, the time during which we wait expectantly for the final victory of Jesus Christ.

God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf




September 2019

Puzzling Passages of the Bible: Sacrificing to Zeus and Hermes?

For the last few months, I’ve covered several topics under the theme of “Basic Christianity.” This month I’m switching gears a bit and moving into a different series. I’m calling it, “Puzzling Passages of the Bible.” If you’re anything like me, pretty much every time you read the Bible you come upon puzzling passages, things that make you scratch your head and go, “Huh?” Many of these passages will remain a mystery to us until we enter into the blessed life to come. Fortunately, though, a lot of them prove to be a lot less puzzling after further study.

Our first “puzzling passage” is a strange event that took place in the Galatian city of Lystra. Galatia was a Roman province that sat pretty much in the middle of Asia Minor, in modern-day Turkey. It was there that St. Paul conducted most of his first missionary journey, recounted in Acts 13–14. The Galatian congregations that he founded on that journey, including Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, were also the recipients of what I believe to have been St. Paul’s first epistle: the epistle to the Galatians. What concerns us now is something that happened to Paul and his colleague Barnabas while they were preaching the Gospel among the Gentiles in Lystra.

According to Acts 14:8–18, after Paul and Barnabas had been preaching for some time in Lystra, they encountered a beggar who had been born crippled. Paul miraculously healed the man, but the response of the people was not what you might have expected. Instead of glorifying Jesus and becoming Christians, the people concluded that Paul must be the Greek god Hermes, and Barnabas must be Zeus, his superior. The local priest of Zeus even brought oxen to sacrifice to them! The puzzling thing about this passage is: why on earth would there have been such a response to Paul’s miracle? Why conclude that these men must be Zeus and Hermes specifically?

The answer comes from ancient Greek mythology. According to the Roman poet Ovid, who recorded many Greek myths in his work Metamorphoses, there was once a city in Phrygia (near the territory of Lystra) which Zeus and Hermes visited, disguised as weary human travelers. As king of the gods, one of Zeus’s chief concerns was to make sure that people practiced hospitality, welcoming travelers and providing for their needs. He was testing this city to see if the people would offer him and Hermes hospitality, but house after house refused them. Finally they came to the humble dwelling of an impoverished couple name Baucis and Philemon (Paul’s epistle to Philemon is written to a man who had the same name and lived in the same region). This couple welcomed the travelers and entertained them generously, but simply, with whatever rustic fare they possessed. When Zeus performed a miracle, the couple realized that they were entertaining gods unawares, and begged for mercy, even trying to sacrifice their household goose to Zeus. The gods refused the sacrifice, though, and having destroyed the rest of the city, turned the humble cottage into an ornate temple to Zeus, richly blessing the couple that had hosted them.

Given this background, our passage becomes less puzzling. The people of Lystra had just encountered two weary travelers, whom they generously entertained. The travelers then performed a miracle. The natural response was to conclude that these travelers must be the same as those encountered by Baucis and Philemon! And just like the couple in the story, the people of Lystra tried to offer sacrifice to the travelers whom they supposed to be Zeus and Hermes. Paul protested and tried to preach the Gospel of the living God, but “even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them” (Acts 14:18). The people were scared that if they didn’t honor Paul and Barnabas (or Hermes and Zeus) with the proper sacrifices, their city might be destroyed by the gods!

Hopefully this background helps to make this passage a little less puzzling as you read through your Bible. In the coming months I hope to offer some help with further puzzling passages!


God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf




August 2019

Evangelism in a Post-Christian Culture

At the end of July, I had the opportunity to attend a continuing education course at Trinity Lutheran Church on the Gospel of John, taught by one of my seminary professors from Fort Wayne, Dr. William Weinrich. The whole course was excellent, but one thing in particular seems worthy of my sharing with you: According to a 2019 Barna poll, the Quad Cities was ranked fifteenth out of the hundred top “post-Christian” cities in America (I have verified that this is in fact the case). What does post-Christian mean?

It means that there is no commitment to those fundamental truths about God, His Law, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ that our society used to take for granted. We live in a culture that is worse off than that addressed by St. John the Evangelist. The Jews of John’s day had to be convinced that Jesus was the Christ. The Gentiles had to be convinced that the God of Israel is the one true God who made heaven and earth. Our culture has to be convinced that there is a God, that there is truth, that there is good and evil, and that there is such a thing as sin. This is truly unprecedented. To take one especially egregious example, as Dr. Weinrich pointed out, never before in the history of mankind has there been a culture that assented to the idea that a man can marry a man. We live in a culture that is so fallen from all reason, from all connection to God’s created reality, that we have drag queens reading storybooks to our children at the public library. Evangelism in a post-Christian culture seems like a virtually impossible task. The usual means of introducing people to Jesus simply will not work. How can you convince someone to flee the coming wrath when that person has accepted the tenets of a culture so divorced from all reality?

Dr. Weinrich’s answer, apart from simply suggesting that we’ll have to learn how to evangelize in this context through bitter experience, is to live the form of evangelism practiced by the first Christians: be the people whom God has called us to be in Christ. The world around us celebrates pride in the most shameful imaginable sins; we refuse to participate, and we live dutifully in our callings as men and women. The world around us treats unwanted children and elderly as waste to be unceremoniously disposed of; we treat them as precious gifts of God, made in His image and worthy of our compassion and care. The world around us treats chastity as a quaint remnant of a bygone era of puritanical repression; we hold the marriage bed in honor, fleeing from all forms of fornication. The world around us treats religion as something optional, a cultural pastime that can still be satisfying for some people, but is obligatory for none; we treat our life together in Christ as a necessity on which our lives depend, and we would rather sacrifice everything, we would rather die, than cease to gather with the body of Christ for worship and praise. We need to live the life of Christ in such a way that the world cannot help but notice. We need to stick out like a sore thumb.

The consequence of such a life is that the world will hate us. They’ll label us as hateful, as bigots, as racists, as whatever other insult du jour they might come up with. But they’ll notice us, and they’ll know we’re different. And when our neighbors see that we love them with unfeigned love, that we never look down on them or talk ill of them, that we put our money (and our lives!) where our mouth is, when they are compelled to ask us for a reason for the hope that is in us (“Why do you insist on living so differently? So strangely?”), that is fertile ground for the Gospel to take root and for the Holy Spirit to bring forth life from the midst of death.

Related to this take on evangelism in the midst of a post-Christian culture is an evangelism tool developed by our own Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, called “Every One His Witness.” This is a method of evangelism that emphasizes the forming of sincere, lasting relationships and invitation to where Christ is found. The core of “Every One His Witness” is a six-hour workshop, designed for twelve participants, that provides guidance in engaging in Christ-focused conversation with our unchurched and dechurched friends and neighbors. I would like to host this workshop at Holy Cross. If you would like to participate, you may sign up on the sheet on Vivian’s office door, and I will be in contact with you to determine the best possible date, probably a Saturday in September.

But whether you participate or not, remember that you can be the best possible witness for Christ simply by living as you are called, living noticeably differently from the world around you, being constant in fervent prayer for your neighbors and your community, and being always prepared to tell other why you live so differently: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

EVERYONE HIS WITNESS

God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf

 




July 2019

Basic Christianity: God Alone Is Good

In our series on Basic Christianity so far, we’ve covered some of the chief ways in which we are most likely to misunderstand the Law of God. We’ve been reminded that even though our sins are forgiven through faith in Jesus, we should nevertheless try not to sin (though sin remains an inevitable part of our lives until bodily death). We’ve been reminded that Jesus should always be the most important thing in our lives; that God’s name is to be kept holy and treated with respect even in our day-to-day conversation; that the marital act is for marriage alone; that we should not speak ill of one another behind each other’s backs. These are all good things to remember, and we constantly have to work on putting them into practice. But they are all part of God’s Law, i.e., what God has commanded us to do. If we always put our sole focus on God’s Law, we risk losing sight of what alone has the power to save us everlastingly: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that through His sacrificial death on our behalf, we have the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. That’s basic Christianity at its most basic.

One of the most insidious ways we can lose sight of the Gospel is by imagining that we ourselves have kept the Law. That’s what I’ve encountered when trying to get people to come to church. There are many reasons for people not to come to church, but the main reason has always been, “I’m a good person.” If I am a good person, then church is just something extra, an optional social gathering. But if I am a wicked person, “a poor, miserable sinner,” and if the gathering of believers in church is where Jesus has especially promised to be present to forgive the sins of those who trust in Him, then I need church desperately. So there’s a lot hanging on whether or not I am, in fact, “a good person.” And it is basic Christianity that, in God’s judgment, you’re not.

How do we know this? We know it by comparing ourselves to the perfect and holy standard of God’s Law. If we peer inward and find in our hearts that there are sinful desires that run contrary to God’s commands, then we ourselves are sinners. One serious problem we face is that we don’t naturally consider to be sin that which God calls sin. So, for example, if I am holding a grudge against my neighbor, and it feels good and satisfying to hold that grudge, I am unlikely to take to heart the command of God to forgive my neighbor from the heart and to love my neighbor as myself. It won’t feel like sin to me, and I can still imagine that I’m “a good person.” But when that grudge is held up against the standard of God’s Law, it is shown to be sinful, and I am shown to be not, in fact, “a good person.”

And if our own experience has failed to prove to us that we are not “good people,” we have the clear testimony of God’s Word. The classic example is the list of Old Testament quotations in Romans 3:10–18 (I’d encourage you to check out those verses for yourself), which is summarized in the well-known verse 23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But there is another, less-used example worthy of our consideration. When the rich young man addresses Jesus as “good Teacher,” Jesus corrects him: “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). Of course, we know that Jesus is good, because Jesus is God. But the rich young man didn’t know that. He thought that Jesus was “a good person,” the same way we today think of ourselves as “good people.” And Jesus disabuses him of that notion. Our goodness before God does not come from doing good things or trying our best, i.e., by keeping the Law (because we can’t!). Our goodness before God has to come from somewhere else. In fact, it has to come from Him.

And our goodness before God is not just produced by Him. It is not as if God takes bad people and makes them good so that they can go to heaven. Our goodness before God is actually God’s own goodness.

How can that be? As we just said, Jesus is God. And because Jesus is God, He is good with God’s own goodness. But Jesus has suffered as a criminal and died a sinner’s death. So the goodness of God that is His is given to us as our own. God counts His own goodness to us when we believe and trust in Jesus. As St. Paul says, “To the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies [i.e., forgives] the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). We are not “good people” in and of ourselves, because of the things we do or the way we live. We are “good people” because God counts His own goodness to us for Jesus’ sake.

Now of course the faith that God counts to us as righteousness is a powerful, mighty thing. It brings forth in us a new life, so that we actually can do good things and become genuinely “good people.” But we are good people who recognize ourselves as sinners in need of God’s mercy. And our goodness in God’s sight is and remains His own goodness, the goodness of Jesus that is ours by faith alone.

God alone is good. We are good only with His goodness, through faith in Jesus. That’s basic Christianity.

God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf

 




June 2019

Basic Christianity:

Speak Well of Your Neighbor

“If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” I’ll always remember the rabbit Thumper saying those words in the movie Bambi. They were taught to him by his father and enforced by his mother. In the movie, the words applied to the greens that Thumper didn’t want to eat, but they apply even better to our relationships with other people. If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.

How often do we put that into practice? I had a miserable time throughout grade school because we children were so mean to each other. It almost seemed if we only said something when we had not nice things to say. My classmates constantly made fun of me, and when someone even more awkward and out of place than I entered our class, I joined in making fun of him (God forgive me). The only way we knew how to build ourselves up in our little community was by tearing each other down in the presence of others. It got somewhat better in high school, but something more insidious became part of the picture: instead of making fun of each other directly, we would do it behind others’ backs.

And that’s how it’s been in every community I’ve ever been a part of since. Whether college, seminary, workplaces, or any of the churches with which I’ve been connected, any time you gather a group of people together, there is no lack of speaking ill of others behind their backs. I’ve done it too, to my shame.

Brethren, these things ought not to be so. We ought to speak well of one another whenever we have opportunity, and avoid speaking ill of others whenever possible. That’s part of basic Christianity.

Remember what we say about this in the Catechism? “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, nor defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” That’s Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” I consider these some of the loveliest words in the Catechism. Far from stirring up others’ sentiments against our neighbor, we should defend him and speak well of him!

This is a thoroughly biblical principle. St. Paul often encourages us to build one another up with our speech, particularly in Ephesians: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you have been sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:29–31). And St. James warns strongly and extensively against the misuse of the tongue to harm the neighbor: “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness…. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:6, 9–10). James says further, “Do not speak evil against one another, brethren” (James 4:11).

This is much easier said than done. It’s easy to dismiss harmful speech against my neighbor as just “venting,” as “getting it off my chest.” True, there are sometimes legitimate reasons for speaking honestly about another person’s failings. Maybe that person has caused you extreme stress and you really do need to commiserate with others in private. Maybe you need to warn others against someone else’s sinful behavior. Maybe you need to seek the counsel of wiser brethren in dealing with a problematic individual. But if that becomes necessary, it should be done prayerfully, with a good conscience, and in a spirit of charity and genuine helpfulness toward the person of whom we’re speaking. Taking pleasure in speaking ill of another person just to tear him down in the sight of others is far, far from the Spirit of Christ.

I honestly believe this is the hardest of the commandments to keep, harder even than the Sixth. And someone who struggles with issues of chastity under the Sixth Commandment seems to me less far from the Kingdom of Heaven than someone who claims to love Jesus but constantly delights in tearing down his neighbor. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Or even better, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Speak well of your neighbor. That’s basic Christianity.


God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf




May 2019

Basic Christianity: Live Chastely

When I was growing up, my parents were very careful about what my brothers and I saw on television and in movies, what we heard on the radio, and what we read in books. They didn’t want us picking up bad language, or emulating bad attitudes, or being traumatized (or desensitized!) by graphic depictions of gore and extreme violence. But of all the things from which my parents sought to guard us, the biggest of them all was what I will euphemistically term “the marital act.”

You know what I’m talking about.

That’s why I always used to think that Christians generally knew that “the marital act” was, well, marital! The way I saw it, non-Christians tended to treat it more casually, as a source of passing pleasure rather than of awesome responsibility. Non-Christians would indulge in the act with multiple partners before marriage. Christians, on the other hand, would always strive to live chastely, delaying the marital act until after they had made their public marriage vows before God and man. If they messed up, they would repent and strive to live chastely from that point on. I totally took it for granted that that’s the way things were.

How completely, desperately, lamentably wrong I was.

Since becoming a pastor, I’ve learned that the vast majority of those in our day and age who term themselves “Christian” do not live chastely. It is almost standard practice for young Christians to live promiscuously during their high school and college years. Once they “get serious” about a potential spouse, they leap immediately into the marital act and put off marriage itself until years later. They move in together and establish joint households and have children, and then, at long last, they get married. And unfortunately, when a couple doesn’t live chastely before marriage, their marriage is far more likely to end in an early divorce, leaving the children as casualties.

So was I naïve to think that Christians would, or should, live differently than the rest of the world when it comes to chastity? I may have been mistaken about the way most Christians do live these days, but I wasn’t wrong about how we Christians should live. God expects us to live chastely (1 Thess. 4:3–5; Col. 3:5). He threatens to punish unchastity (1 Cor. 6:9–10, 18; 10:8; Eph. 5:5; Heb. 13:4), and He forbids us from tolerating it in the Christian congregation (1 Cor. 5:1–5, 11, 13; Eph. 5:3). That means no indulgence in the marital act before you’re married, even if you’re engaged. It means no looking at things you find on the internet that God has forbidden. It means not intentionally entertaining lustful thoughts and fantasies, and certainly never acting them out. We Christians are called by God to lead chaste and decent lives in word and deed—and thought! It’s difficult, and, especially when it comes to our thoughts, it may seem impossible (but it’s not, at least with practice). But the response to the difficulty is not to throw in the towel and decide to live like the rest of the sinful world and rely on Jesus to forgive us (He won’t forgive us if we refuse to repent). The response is to repent and pray to God for the strength to live as He has called us to live.

I’ve been told more than once that I shouldn’t talk about these things at Holy Cross because we’re an older congregation that doesn’t struggle with the sin of fornication. Unfortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth. We are affected by unchastity just like everyone else. And even if you who are reading this have been living chastely, how confidently can you rebuke your children and grandchildren when they live unchastely? How confidently can you make clear to them that their behavior excludes them from the kingdom of God, and that you expect them to change their ways and start living chastely again? How confidently can you support your pastor in the difficult duty of calling the unchaste to repentance, exercising Christian discipline until they repent? The Christian Church has work to do. Our congregation has work to do. I as your pastor have work to do in helping us to live chastely. That’s not some kind of pipe dream, an unrealistic puritan utopia. It’s basic Christianity.

In all earnestness, I ask you to take a moment right now, before you put down this article, to ask our heavenly Father to help all of us to live chastely, to forgive us where we have failed, and to help His Church once again to live as He has called us to live. Pray for Him to help you look kindly on your fellow Christians who have been living unchastely, not in judgment but in compassion and in readiness to forgive. Give thanks to God for covering our shame with the blessedness of His own righteousness, won for us by the death of His perfectly chaste Son on our behalf. And resolve, if you haven’t already, to live chastely and to encourage others to do so as well.

Live chastely! That’s basic Christianity.

God's Blessings!

Pastor Neuendorf




April 2019

Don’t Say, “Oh my God!”

 

Well, I said this would be a series on basic Christianity, and you can’t get much more basic than this: don’t say, “Oh my God!”

I was raised with a very strict application of the Second Command: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.” My brothers and I were forbidden from using any variation of God’s name for anything but worship or the serious discussion of the things of God. I vividly remember watching the movie Crocodile Dundee with my family. It’s a good movie, though there are some ungodly things in it. During one scene in particular, the reporter watches in awe as Mick Dundee hypnotizes a wild beast and compels it to let them drive past in their vehicle. The reporter’s response is to use the name of Jesus Christ, the name that is above every name, but she’s not using it to sing His praises or to worship Him. For her, it’s a thoughtless expression of amazement that has nothing to do with the Lord who saves His people from their sins, the Anointed of God. To their credit, my parents paused the movie and spoke to my brothers and me very seriously about why we should never use Jesus’ name as an expletive or a curse word. They would do that any time we encountered God’s name being taken in vain in movies or television. And of course never in my house growing up would you hear God’s name being used for anything other than prayer, praise, and the devout contemplation of the great works of God.

That’s why it has surprised me so much as an adult to hear so many lifelong Christians routinely using the expression, “Oh my God,” or any of its many variations. Nor is it limited to older Christians: our youth have enshrined the phrase in their texting dialect: “OMG!” Dear brethren in the Lord, this ought not to be so. God’s name ought to be held in awe among us.

Of course, the Second Commandment means more than not using God’s name as an expletive. As those who by Holy Baptism bear the name of our triune God, we take His name in vain by teaching false doctrine or leading ungodly lives. But as deeply as we might think about more spiritual ways of taking God’s name in vain, we ought never to lose sight of the simplest and most basic principle: in our speech, we should utter the name of God only when it means what it’s supposed to mean, not as a thoughtless expletive. As Luther explains it in the Small Catechism, “We should fear and love God that we may not curse, swear, use witchcraft, lie, or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”

Think about the times in your daily life when you use the words “God,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Lord,” and the like. When you use those words, are you actively praying? Are you intentionally praising God? Are you speaking seriously of the God who created you, who redeemed you by the shedding of His blood, who made you His own through Holy Baptism? Or are you cursing, or swearing, or just saying it as thoughtless filler when your mouth doesn’t know what else to say? Remember: “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

If you are in the habit of taking God’s name in vain, make the decision right now to change the way you speak. When you’re tempted to use God’s name as an expletive, take a step back and think about better ways of speaking. Approach God’s name as you would God Himself: with humility, fear, reverence, and love.

Don’t say, “Oh my God.” That’s basic Christianity!

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.

Exodus 20:7

God's Blessings!

Pastor Neuendorf




March 2019

Basic Christianity: Jesus Comes First!

What’s the most important thing to you? You might get a lot of different answers to that question, depending on whom you ask. Some might say, “Success,” others, “Happiness.” Most, I think, would say, “Family.” That’s a good answer, as far as ranking our earthly blessings goes. Our families are far more important than our entertainment, our possessions, our careers, our hobbies, or just about anything else. In fact, most of the earthy blessings we enjoy exist for the sake of caring for and enjoying our families.

Some people, though, recognize that there are greater goods than their own families. Some have experienced failure, disappointment, and even betrayal among their family members. Some have had their families tragically taken from them. Some have found that the relationships they have with others who genuinely love them are more meaningful than the relationships they have with family members. Some might even be willing to give up their families and relationships for the sake of a greater good, such as the survival and wellbeing of their country.

But I hope that if someone asks you that question, he’ll get an entirely different answer. What is the most important thing to you? Every one of us should be ready with the answer: “God.” To be more specific, “Our triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Or, to focus our answer even more on that one point through which God wishes us to know and love Him, “Jesus.” Jesus is far and away the most important thing to us in the world.

That seems obvious, doesn’t it? But it is much easier to say than to practice. So many things clamor for our attention and our loyalty. Consider some of the things that I have personally witnessed drawing people away from Jesus: Wealth. Sexual immorality. Grudges. Sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Band competitions. Sports events. Resentment. Family.

Before you respond in judgment toward those who allow such things to come between them and Jesus, consider your own life. Is Jesus really the most important thing to you? If you had to choose between Jesus and your children, how readily would you give up your children for Jesus’ sake? Are you tempted to compromise on what you know Jesus actually teaches for the sake of maintaining peace with your loved ones? After all, Jesus Himself said, “Whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37).

I remember talking with a man while I was in college. I told him I wanted to marry a Lutheran girl. He couldn’t understand why I would care whether my wife was Lutheran or not, or even Christian. Why does it matter, he asked, what your wife believes, as long as you love each other? And his response is not at all unusual. For most people, Jesus has to take a back seat to the relationships that really matter. But for Christians, Jesus always comes first. We can say with St. Paul the Apostle, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

Of course, by ourselves we are incapable of putting Jesus ahead of everything else. But as Jesus says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Even the impossible task of loving Jesus more than anything else becomes possible for us when the Holy Spirit converts us by the power of the Gospel and grants us the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, so that we fear, love, and trust in Him above all things.

Again, it may seem obvious, but it’s not as easy as it sounds: We Christians are called to love Jesus more than anything else in the world. Jesus comes first.

That’s basic Christianity!

God's Blessings!

Pastor Neuendorf

 




February 2019

Basic Christianity

I’ve been thinking for a while that it might be helpful to go “back to basics” in our newsletter articles. That’s because, over my time as a pastor so far, I’ve encountered many Christians who are simply unfamiliar with the basics of our faith. My hope is that our church members will be even better equipped to respond when these kinds of misunderstandings come up.

Note that I’m not talking about “basic Lutheranism.” My plan is not to cover teachings unique to the Lutheran Church. I’m intentionally calling this “basic Christianity” because I hope to address topics that should be familiar to everyone who claims affiliation with the followers of Jesus Christ, whether Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, non-denominational, or anything else. I am of course passionate about what distinguishes us as Lutherans, but I’m also passionate about the Christian faith in general, and I would like to take some time to address issues on which all Christians should be able to agree.

That said, the things I plan to cover as “basic Christianity” are actually not agreed upon by all modern Christian denominations. That is because many denominations today (not just Lutheran ones!) have forsaken their own roots and accommodated themselves to our corrupt, declining society. For example, it is basic Christianity to believe, teach, and confess that God Himself instituted marriage as the lifelong union of man and wife for the procreation of children. There are individual, modernizing denominations that deny that scriptural truth, but it remains basic Christianity, because it is the historic teaching of the whole Christian Church on earth, and it continues to be the teaching of all churches (not just Lutheran ones!) that still accept the Bible as the inspired, inerrant Word of God.

So where shall we start? How about this: It is basic Christianity to assert that we shouldn’t sin.

This seems obvious, doesn’t it? Of course we shouldn’t sin! But there are many who misapply the Christian teaching of the forgiveness of sins, as if God doesn’t mind our sins too much, or as if we can sin as long as we don’t hurt anyone and God will forgive us. But that’s not how forgiveness works, and it’s not the teaching of Holy Scripture. God forgives those who repent of their sins and turn to Jesus in faith—a faith that is always active in love (Galatians 5:6). And love is opposed to sin.

What does the Bible have to say about what our attitude toward sin should be? “From now on, sin no more” (John 8:11). “Let not sin reign in your mortal body” (Romans 6:12). “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cloak for evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16). “Everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning” (1 John 5:18). The Bible is crystal clear: Christians are not supposed to sin.

Of course, we all still do sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). That is because we remain weak, sinful flesh until our deaths, or our resurrection on the Last Day. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” (Romans 7:18). But the sin that we still commit should grieve us. We should want to do good, and we should not want to sin. “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). When we contemplate the sin that still afflicts us, we should say with St. Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). The answer, of course, is Jesus Christ. But until the time of our deliverance from sin, we should strive with all our might against the sin that we find within us. That means praying to God for strength to resist—and avoid—temptation, and trusting that when we do sin, “the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

Try not to sin! That’s basic Christianity.

 

God's Blessings!

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 




January 2019

Physical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?

I mentioned last month that, aside from the eye-witness testimony of the Gospels and Epistles, there is also physical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. What might that be? We do still have the tomb in which Jesus was laid and from which He rose. You can find it today in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is in the same building complex as the site of the crucifixion, which is found in a staircase leading up to the top of Mount Calvary (Golgotha), where St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, led a successful archaeological expedition in AD 326 to recover the cross of Jesus. Though there are other locations that have been suggested as possible sites for the crucifixion and resurrection, there is no serious reason to doubt the authenticity of the traditional sites.

We may have the authentic site of the resurrection of Jesus, the empty tomb, but that is far from actual evidence that He rose from the dead. After all, St. Matthew’s Gospel records that the enemies of Jesus spread the rumor that His body had been stolen by the Apostles to support the fraudulent claim that He had risen from the dead. The empty tomb in itself is not evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. But we do have something that actually is: the Shroud of Turin.

If you haven’t heard of the Shroud of Turin, I encourage you to do a quick Google search and glance at the images that pop up. The Shroud of Turin was brought to the Italian city of Turin in the fourteenth century by a crusader who claimed to have found it in Jerusalem. It is a large burial shroud with a ghostly image of a bearded, crucified man imprinted upon it, with actual human bloodstains consistent with the descriptions of the crucifixion found in the Gospels. Already in the Middle Ages there were claims that the Shroud was fraudulent, but no one has ever successfully demonstrated how the fraud was produced. I first learned about the Shroud of Turin when I was in elementary school. Back then there was still much that was unknown about the Shroud. Most of the available literature on it was more like tabloids than anything else, highly sensationalized and short on reliable facts. But now there are a number of things we can say confidently about the Shroud, so much so that it is my belief that the Shroud of Turin is actually the authentic burial shroud of Jesus.

The cloth of the Shroud itself is of a weave and material consistent with first-century Palestine, not medieval Europe. The bloodstains match those found on the supposed head-cloth of Jesus, the Sudarium of Oviedo (whether they are authentic or not, both the Shroud and the Sudarium had to have been made by being wrapped around the same dead and bloody body). The wounds are consistent with our modern understanding of what the crucifixion of Jesus was actually like, not Medieval misconceptions about it. The scourge wounds are inflicted by ancient Roman whips, not Medieval. Most tellingly, the nail wounds in the hands are found on the wrists, not the palms. Medieval depictions of the crucifixion unanimously depict Jesus with nails through His palms, and it is only recently that we have realized the nails would have had to pass through His wrists instead. An image like the one on the Shroud of Turin could have been designed by a modern fraudster, but if it had been a Medieval hoax it would have looked much more like what a Medieval audience would have expected.

And then there is the ghostly image itself. How was it produced? There have been all sorts of theories over the centuries. Until recent systematic testing, it was easy to believe that the image was simply painted on. We now know, however, that the image is produced by an actual darkening of the linen fibers. There is no paint or any other external material involved. There had to be some sort of heating event to darken the fibers, and the heat had to emanate from the body wrapped in the Shroud: the closer the fibers to the body, the darker their color. Could it be that when Jesus was resurrected, some sort of heat was produced in that moment by His glorified body, leaving the image on the Shroud?

John Calvin dismissed the Shroud as a fraud, because both the Shroud and the Sudarium are mentioned in John’s Gospel, but no mention is made of a ghostly image. But why would the Apostles have inspected the Shroud for such an image before packing it away? There are water stains on the Shroud consistent with folding and storage in a first-century Palestinian jar, and it was stored for centuries before becoming the celebrated relic that it is today. The Apostles were not necessarily concerned with gathering relics and would likely not have placed much value on the Shroud and the Sudarium themselves. After all, they didn’t need burial cloths and empty tombs. They had their own eye-witness testimony.

Ultimately, it is the testimony of the Apostles that convinces us not only that Jesus rose from the dead, but also that His resurrection was accomplished for our justification (our forgiveness and consequent salvation). But since we know that the resurrection happened, it should not come to us as a surprise that the Apostolic testimony is consistent with the material evidence we have at our disposal. In a way, that’s how we can approach all Christian apologetics. We believe not because of clever arguments based on natural reason, but because of the Holy Spirit working through the proclamation of God’s Word. But because God’s Word is true, it is also consistent with sound reason applied to the available evidence.

I hope this series on apologetics has been beneficial for you. May the Holy Spirit keep you steadfast in the faith of our Living God, who has really wrought marvelous things among us, and has yet more marvelous things in store for those who trust in Him through the testimony of His Prophets and Apostles.

God's Blessings!

Pastor Neuendorf

 




December 2018

Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, Part I

As we’ve considered the reasonableness of the Christian faith, we’ve spent time with three chief arguments for the existence of God: the cosmological argument (why is there something rather than nothing?), the teleological argument (why is that something so finely tuned for our existence?), and the moral argument (why is that something meaningful?). But so far, all of these arguments only bring us to a generic conception of God. They tell us some things about His nature and character (He is almighty, eternal, omniscient, and righteous, among other things), but they don’t tell us much about what He has actually done in the world or how He feels about us. One can accept the conclusions of all of these arguments and yet not know a thing about the Christian faith.

With the resurrection of Jesus, however, all of that changes. In the resurrection, we see that God was pleased to be intimately involved in our human lives, that He cares about our whole persons, body and soul, that He does not count our transgressions against us, and, most critically, that Jesus of Nazareth, born of the virgin Mary, is the Christ, the Son of the living God. The resurrection of Jesus is the fundamental fact of the Christian faith, so much so that St. Paul could say, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…. If in Christ we have hope for this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 19).

So how do we know that Jesus rose from the dead? Is there an argument for that? Is there real evidence? Ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who, through the proclamation of the Gospel, convinces us in our heart of hearts that Jesus has been raised and that we will live in Him. But that’s not the only reason we believe the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. The devil and his minions believe that fact too, and the Holy Spirit certainly hasn’t wrought faith in their hearts!

As it turns out, there is good evidence that Jesus actually did rise from the dead. That evidence comes from the Scriptures, considered as human documents rather than as the inspired Word of God, and also from some fascinating material remains.

We Christians are accustomed to accepting whatever the Bible says just because the Bible says it, and we know the Bible to be the Word of God. But even those who do not believe the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God are still forced to wrestle with the biblical books as human documents. And as human documents, the Gospels and the epistles of St. Paul are strong witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels all record the resurrection from different perspectives. They include different details, some of them seemingly contradictory (though on careful study there are ways to harmonize the accounts). If the evangelists had made up the resurrection, why wouldn’t they “get their story straight” and come up with a consistent narrative shared by all four of them? Instead, what we get turns out looking an awful lot like eyewitness testimony from different witnesses. The Gospels as history are powerful witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.

Even stronger, though, from a historical perspective, is the epistles of St. Paul, particularly 1 Corinthians 15. Skeptics have questioned the identity of the evangelists and of the author of most of St. Paul’s epistles, but all serious scholars are agreed that 1 Corinthians was actually written by Paul of Tarsus, who experienced a conversion on the road to Damascus. In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul gives his own eyewitness testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. He also records that over 500 eyewitnesses are still alive, i.e., still available to corroborate his own claims and bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus. I would encourage you to pick up and read 1 Corinthians 15:1–8 and see for yourself!

What about material evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? That will have to wait for next month. For now, rejoice that the Holy Spirit has called you to faith in Jesus, and that He has left abundant testimony that your Savior truly has risen from the dead!

He is Risen.

He is Risen, Indeed!

God's Blessings!

Pastor Neuendorf




November 2018

The Good Guys Always Win (In the End)

What makes a good story? The answer is simple: you need a conflict between good and evil, in which the good guys win, at least in the end. This understanding of what makes a good story seems innate in us. We naturally find such stories satisfying, and we try to interpret real life in terms of such a storytelling pattern.

This hints at something that is common to us all, Christian and non-Christian, believer and unbeliever alike. We all have a moral compass, a conscience, a sense of good and evil. And we all know innately that good needs to win out in the end. We are frustrated and dissatisfied by injustice. We often have difficultly telling just what the good side is, but we virtually always want the good side to come out on top, and if we’re knowingly working on the side of evil, we tend to be ashamed and miserable, even if outwardly we gloat. The human race knows by nature the difference between good and evil, and the need for good to triumph.

And actually, this is one of the most effective arguments for the existence of God. We have heard in past months about the cosmological (why is there something rather than nothing?) and teleological (why does that something allow for our existence?) arguments, which appeal strongly to the intellect. The moral argument appeals strongly both to the intellect and to the heart. It runs something like this: atheism predicts a world in which there is neither good nor evil, but only matter and energy meaninglessly interacting. Theism, including Christianity, predicts a world in which the goodness of God lends a certain goodness to the world He has made, and in which evil will be overcome. We all know by experience that we live in the latter world, and not the former.

 

What about the fact that we often see evil triumph, at least in the short term? What is critical to the moral argument for the existence of God is not whether good wins every time, but the fact that we want good to win every time. We recognize that there is such a thing as good and such a thing as evil, which cannot be explained simply in terms of physics and biochemistry. Physics and biochemistry provide the sphere of activity within which the drama of the conflict between good and evil is played out. Good and evil transcend mere physical reality.

Critical to note is what happens when the transcendent basis of morality is denied, and that denial carried to its logical conclusion. Ethicists who ground morality in evolutionary biology alone, with no transcendent basis, are not shy about arguing for euthanasia and infanticide. The denial of transcendent morality leads to the denial of our very humanity, and most atheists find such a position abhorrent. But those same moral atheists struggle to find an alternative basis for their morality. They are pretty much forced to take morality for granted, with no mechanism for explaining it.

It is also important to note what the moral argument is not. It is not the claim that in order to be moral one must believe in God. There are many moral atheists, and there are many immoral theists. The moral argument is an argument not for morality, but from morality. We can and must take basic human morality for granted. It is this very morality innate in most atheists that proves that there is a transcendent basis for their morality. In other words, the morality of most atheists proves that they were created by a moral God in His moral image. Despite their sinful human nature, they are, in a fundamental sense, still good, the fallen pinnacle of God’s good creation. To use the language of St. Paul, “they show that the work of the Law written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15).

We all know that good and evil exist, and we all want good to win. But “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). Fortunately, we know that our good God will win in the end!

__________________

*Actually, atheism predicts no world at all, but we’ll grant them the existence of the world this time!

God's Blessings!

Pastor Neuehdorf

 

 




October 2018

The Hand of the Designer

Last month I wrote about the “cosmological argument” for the existence of God, which asks the question to which God is the obvious answer: Why is there something rather than nothing? This argument is compelling, but it leads to another that has proven even more difficult for serious atheists to contend with: Why does the something that exists include beings like us? This is what we call the “teleological argument.”

The word “teleological” comes from the Greek word “telos,” meaning “goal” or “purpose.” We naturally recognize that everything has a telos. Everything has a meaning. Everything is there for a reason. But why should this be so? If we take for granted that there is something rather than nothing (without using God to explain it), then why isn’t that something mere disordered chaos? Why should there be any meaning at all in a universe that just popped into existence from nothing, for no reason?

The meaning and purpose inherent in reality requires that there be Someone to give that meaning and purpose. This is so fundamentally true that, in the nineteenth century, when atheism was sweeping the elite classes of Europe, those who took seriously the thought of a universe without God, that is, a meaningless universe, were overwhelmingly driven to despair and the contemplation of suicide. If there’s no God, and therefore no meaning to any of this, then what’s the use? Better just to get the absurd joke that is existence over with. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries this has taken an even more diabolical turn, as mass shooters conclude from the meaninglessness of an atheistic universe that not only they, but all of us, are really better off dead.

But this can be explained in more concrete, definite terms, without recourse to the destructive tendencies that atheism can have in our society when pushed to its logical limits. Consider one of the most remarkable things about reality as we know it: We live in a material universe that can accommodate life. And I don’t just mean human life, or intelligent life. Any life at all, at whatever degree of complexity, requires just the right mix of natural laws to make even the most minimal complexity possible.

In our great quest to make sense of the world around us using the scientific method, we have boiled down the laws governing the material universe to four: the force of gravity, the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force. If you were to tweak any one of these forces in the slightest, the whole universe would cease to work. Reality would be nothing but a disordered mass of formless matter and energy. But the fundamental forces as we actually have allow complexity, and therefore life, to exist. We live in a “goldilocks universe”: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. And the chances of the universe being just right are slimmer than your chances of picking just the right atom out of all the atoms in the universe. In other words, the order inherent in the universe—the order that makes life, and therefore us, possible—simply cannot have arisen by chance. Someone designed the universe this way, for the purpose of populating it with life, and ultimately with intelligent human life. That someone we call God.

Last month I mentioned the atheist public intellectual Christopher Hitchens, who spent his last years debating Christian apologists (together with Jews, Muslims, and anyone else who was willing to champion the existence of God). Though publicly dismissive of all the standard Christian arguments, in private he revealed that of all the arguments for the existence of God, he and other prominent atheists have the hardest time dealing with this one: the teleological argument, the “fine tuning” apparent in the universe. It didn’t convince him to believe in God, but he did find it non-trivial, and the most difficult for him to dismiss.

Thankfully, we don’t have to tie ourselves in knots trying to figure out how there can be a grand design without a Grand Designer. We’ve known the Grand Designer all along! The teleological argument for the existence of God doesn’t tell us who He is, or how He feels about us (other than that we are worthy of His attention—after all, He tailor-made the universe for us!), but “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaim His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). They do indeed. Let us follow suit!

God's Blessings!

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 




September 2018

Something from Nothing?

Why are we here? Why does the world around us exist? Why is there anything at all?

In other words, why is there something rather than nothing?

It’s easy to suppose that we’re here “just because,” and that we’ve always existed in pretty much our current form. After all, we are status quo creatures: we naturally live as if life will continue in the future as it has in the past, and we have difficulty imagining a past that is radically different from our present. But all it takes is a little bit of thought to realize that there’s much more to the picture than this: what we are now is the effect of a series of causes in the past. And that’s true of the entire universe around us.

Everything that you are experiencing right now is an effect of something else, what we call a cause. If in turn we trace those prior causes to their source, we ultimately come to the beginning of the universe. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the universe—time and space itself, together with all matter and energy—did indeed have a beginning. From this beginning has issued a long stream of effects causing additional effects and so on until the present as we experience it now. Barring miraculous interventions, there is nothing that we experience today that does not issue from the stream of causes and effects traceable to the beginning of the universe.

That leaves us with a problem, though. Everything that exists depends upon a prior cause, but it all had to start with something that did not depend upon a prior cause. Something had to get the ball rolling, so to speak, and that something could not in turn have been caused by something else. Logical necessity compels us to assume an uncaused cause, an unmoved mover, something that is not a part of our present reality, not a part of space and time, not composed of matter and energy—something that exists outside and independent of the natural universe.

Furthermore, this something had to have some capacity to make a decision—the decision to bring everything into existence from nothing. To be capable of making such a decision, this something had to be personal. This personal being, existing eternally beyond the constraints of time and space, matter and energy, is what we call God.

Notice that I have not appealed to Holy Scripture, or to faith. I have not asked you to suspend disbelief and suppose that such an eternal, personal being exists. All I have done so far is argue rationally from premises that are readily accessible to us all, requiring no special revelation from above. This is why St. Paul can say that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and godhead, have been clearly perceived from the creation of the world in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). The existence of God is not a matter of faith. It’s a matter of fact.

Christian apologists call this the “cosmological argument” for the existence of God. In debates with atheists, the apologists tend to lead with this argument. I’ve watched a number of debates with the late Christopher Hitchens, who was known for his passionate opposition to the very idea of God. In many of those debates, Christopher Hitchens claims that there are other, better explanations for the existence of the universe without recourse to an “uncaused cause,” i.e., God. The remarkable thing, though, is that, try as I might, I cannot find a single instance in which Christopher Hitchens actually offers such an alternative explanation. I don’t believe there is one. Simply put, to be an atheist is to believe that something, viz., the universe, sprung into being from nothing, purely spontaneously. This is incoherent, unintelligible, unbelievable, and unnecessary. There must have been, by logical necessity, an uncaused cause of all that exists, and that uncaused cause is what we call God.

I must emphasize again that it does not take faith to believe that God exists. Most people through history have believed this, and for good reasons, but without having saving faith. Faith in the Christian sense means a steadfast reliance specifically on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, revealed to us in Holy Scripture. But before we come to arguments for the divinity of Jesus, we’ll take a few months to consider further arguments for the existence of God.

 

In the beginning. . .GOD

Amen

Pastor Neuendorf

 




August 2018

Christian Apologetics:

Why Should We Care?

Do you know what I mean when I use the word “apologetics”? It may not be a word that we use all the time in our everyday conversations, but it has great significance for you, whether you know it or not. Apologetics is the discipline of defending the Christian faith—your Christian faith. I don’t mean “defending” in the sense of deploying armed soldiers to protect Christians from bodily harm. I mean defending the truth of Christian claims against those who deny them.

For example, atheists often argue that we Christians have as much basis for our belief in the Holy Trinity as one might have for an invisible Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). Who’s to say that the creator of heaven and earth is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, on the one hand, or the FSM, on the other? They’re both invisible. Both have to be accepted by faith, not reason. (By the way, there is an actual Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whose adherents, called Pastafarians, enjoy official recognition in some countries. They exist simply to make the point that Christianity has no more legitimate a claim to truth then they do.) If the FSM is invisible, his existence cannot be disproved any more than the existence of the God of Christianity. So what’s the difference?

Christian apologetics proceeds from the conviction that there actually is a difference between faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ versus faith in an invisible flying spaghetti monster. There are compelling philosophical reasons for believing in the existence of an eternal, omnipotent creator, and there is compelling evidence for believing that Jesus Christ is in fact God in the flesh. Christian faith doesn’t mean believing in the absence of evidence. It means taking God at His Word and trusting Him personally. And the God who demands our trust has given us ample reason to trust Him.

Jesus was critical of the Jews of His day for demanding a sign. St. Mark the Evangelist records, “The Pharisees came and began to argue with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven to test Him. And He sighed deeply in His spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation’” (Mark 8:11–12). This seems to indicate that Jesus expected His followers to trust Him blindly, without any reason for doing so. Consider also Jesus’ appearance to Thomas: “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (John 20:29). Jesus implies that Thomas should have believed in His resurrection without physical evidence.

But consider how St. Matthew adds to St. Mark’s account of the Pharisees’ demand of a sign: “He answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’” (Matthew 12:39 – 40). What is the “sign of Jonah”? It’s the resurrection of Jesus on the third day! The resurrection is the sign, a reason to believe that Jesus is who He said He was. And consider what was happening when Jesus chided Thomas for needing to see to believe: Jesus was actually appearing before him in the flesh, inviting him to touch His wounds! And we believe on the basis of the Apostles’ testimony to what they saw with their own eyes. We have reasons for believing.

I would like to take the next few months to address various approaches to apologetics. We will start with some general arguments for the existence of God, then zero in on actual evidence for the resurrection and divinity of Jesus. Through it all, we should remember that it is the Holy Spirit who calls us to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, since our faith is real, it has made a real impact on the world, and there is great value in considering the signs that God has actually given us, signs that He expects us to use in defending our faith against attack. You have good reasons for being a Christian!

Amen

Pastor Neuendorf

 




July 2018

What Makes Your Pastor Happy?

Something that my classmates and I repeatedly heard in seminary was that when we got out to the parish, one of the most important keys to success was to “love our people.” That’s good advice, as long as it is always understood that real love means laboring for the eternal wellbeing of the beloved, not just doing what they want at the moment. I can honestly say that I love the people entrusted to my care (that’s you). I want what Jesus says is best for you. And because I love you, you are capable of making me very happy.

I love it when you are happy. I rejoice along with you, as long as you are happy for godly reasons. But your present happiness is not the main thing that makes me happy.

I love it when you respect me as your pastor. It makes me feel good personally, but far more than that, it shows me that you have respect for the Christ who sent me as your pastor. But your respect for me is not the main thing that makes me happy.

I love it when you support me. It lifts me up and encourages me when you do things that show you have my best interests at heart. It’s good for my family, too! But your support is not the main thing that makes me happy.

So what is the main thing you can do that makes me happy?

The main thing you can do to make me happy is show me your hunger and thirst for the Word of God.

That hunger and thirst may reveal itself when you ask me to be present with you at a surgery or medical procedure. It may reveal itself when you come to me for private counsel because something of eternal significance is truly weighing on you. It reveals itself when you lovingly criticize me because you are worried that I am not teaching quite as Jesus would have me teach. It reveals itself when you bare to me your anxieties and misgivings as you confront the reality of sin and death around you. It reveals itself when you are willing to be honest with me about your weaknesses, your failures, and your desperate needs of soul and spirit—and about my own weaknesses and failures, too.

Why does that make me happy? It’s not because you are weak or sinful or needy, and it’s certainly not because you are experiencing anxiety and distress. It’s because those needs reveal to me very clearly that for you, the Word of God is real. What I do as a pastor really matters. The Christian faith is not just a bedtime story we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better for a while. It’s a confrontation with sin and death that has real, everlasting consequences. It is our eternal salvation in Christ Jesus, and He has given me a role in securing that salvation for you.

If you want to make me really happy, bring me your problems. Ask of me what Jesus has promised to give you through your pastor: the living Word of God. Join me in seeking from God what only He can give. Be honest about your doubts and misgivings and anxieties so that together we can confront them in Jesus’ name.

A lot of things about you make me happy. But chief among them is when you show me that you are a sincere child of God who draws your life from Jesus Christ and Him alone. And in that sense, I sincerely hope I make you happy too.

Amen

Pastor Neuendorf

 




June 2018

We Have This Treasure in Jars of Clay

St. Paul had a twin problem with his fledgling congregation in Corinth: his people thought too much of themselves, and at the same time too little of themselves. How can this be? They thought too much of themselves because they valued their own talents and accomplishments as if the Corinthians themselves had produced them. On the other hand, they thought too little of themselves because they viewed their talents and accomplishments as merely human and not divine. To deal with this twin misconception, St. Paul used the illustration of “treasure in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

My Uncle Don serves as a pastor in Michigan and was an early inspiration to me in my own path to the Office of the Holy Ministry. For a birthday many years ago, he gave me an earthenware pot originating in ancient Israel at about the time of Jesus. The fact is that this pot is not very impressive. Someone probably made it just as an ephemeral container for unremarkable materials, never dreaming that it would find its way into the home of an Iowa pastor thousands of years later. I can readily imagine that this was just the sort of “jar of clay” that St. Paul had in mind as he wrote to the Corinthians. It is unimpressive, unnoticeable, unremarkable.

What better place, therefore, to store one’s most valuable possessions? No thief would think to look in such a humble pot for gold, silver, and precious stones. The pot would have a humble appearance, but would contain within itself an unimaginably great treasure.

That is what the Corinthian Christians were—and what we are. Outwardly we are merely human. We are weak, we are ailing, we are dying. We continue to be beset by sin. Anything that we regard as coming from ourselves must be deemed worthless, of utterly no value in obtaining everlasting life, yea, worthy only of destruction. We are jars of clay. Inwardly, however, we contain a vast treasure of unimaginably great worth: we contain God Himself, who “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Far from being worthless, we are precious, not because of what comes from us, but because of what God has given us: His own self.

Think about that as you walk among your friends and acquaintances. All they see is a jar of clay. They see what comes from you. They see your humble outward appearance, suggestive only of the merely human life that they have in common with you. But hidden from their sight is a glorious light that, if they could only behold it, would stun them into holy fear and mystical awe in your presence. This light, this treasure of surpassing worth, is truly within you by faith in Jesus Christ.

And every now and then, those around you may get a peek into what you, the humble jar of clay, contain within yourself. The God who shines within you in the face of Jesus Christ continually renews you according to His divine image, making you more and more like Him. Your works of love and your faithfulness to your God in Christ reveal ever so slightly the vastness of the treasure you contain. Those who catch a glimpse of that treasure are given the opportunity to become themselves vessels of God’s glory, jars of clay that contain the divine treasure.

May we never think too much of ourselves, boasting in our own talents and accomplishments as coming from ourselves. By the same token, may we never think too little of ourselves, forgetting that, though we are but jars of clay, we bear within us the Light that enlightens all men.

Amen

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 

 




May 2018

Is Doctrine Worth Dying For?

We can imagine many things that we would die for. Men willingly die for their country serving in our armed forces. We would die for our spouses and for our children. As Christians, we know that we would willingly die for our Lord Jesus Christ. But would we die for doctrine?

Most people think of Christian doctrine as more of a nuisance than anything else. It’s that pesky stuff that keeps the various Christian denominations from being united in one visible church. When it comes to a church body like The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, our insistence on pure doctrine means that we can’t even share Communion together with close family members who have joined themselves to congregations that teach different doctrines than ours. Most people would gladly dispense with doctrine and get about the important business of serving God and loving our neighbors.

Given that prevailing attitude, it may seem crazy even to ask if we would die for doctrine. Most people won’t tolerate unpleasant dinner table conversation about doctrine, much less contemplate dying for it!

It may be surprising to learn, therefore, that many faithful Christians through the ages actually have died for doctrine, sometimes in surprisingly horrible ways. You could say that the early Christian martyrs died for the doctrine that Jesus is the only God, and that the Roman Emperor is merely a mortal man and not a divinity comparable to the Holy Trinity. Still, it’s easy to see how those early martyrdoms were suffered directly for Jesus’ sake, not just for some teaching. Perhaps a clearer example of someone dying for doctrine is John Huss, a precursor to the Lutheran Reformation.

In 1415, close to a hundred years before Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses, John Huss was burned at the stake at the Roman Catholic Council of Constance. Huss had been summoned to the council with the promise of safe conduct back home following the proceedings, but instead he was condemned and executed by being burned alive. He had every opportunity to save his own life simply by denying a few doctrines, but he refused and willingly suffered a terrible death rather than compromise on doctrine.

What was the doctrine that John Huss was willing to die for? One of the main doctrines was his teaching on the nature of the Church. Huss taught that the Church is, properly speaking, the communion of saints, that is, the fellowship of all of those holy people, living and dead, who are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. The Roman Catholic Church condemned this doctrine because they taught that the Church includes wicked people (such as many of those men through history who have held the office of Pope even while leading openly ungodly lives), and that to be in the Church requires not belief in Jesus, but submission to the Pope. John Huss refused to accept the Roman Catholic doctrine, and so he willingly endured the flames and commended himself into the hands of God.

Our own Augsburg Confession teaches the same thing about the Church as John Huss did, and the Lutherans who signed their names to the Augsburg Confession were willing to die for that doctrine. Are you? Would you allow yourself to be burned alive rather than deny the doctrine that the Church is the communion of saints? Would you be willing to do for the other doctrines contained in the Book of Concord? I hope so, because our doctrine is not something dreamed up by men to engender needless controversies, but the teaching of Christ and His Apostles. To deny Christ’s doctrine is to deny Christ Himself. We love Christ’s doctrine because we love Him. May God give us the strength to confess His true doctrine no matter what—even to die for it if need be. After all, like John Huss before us, even if we die for Christ’s doctrine, we will live eternally with Him. The doctrine of Jesus Christ really is worth dying for!

I was overwhelmed with astonishment, I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man (John Huss), who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill.

Martin Luther

 




April 2018

Real Peace

I don’t know about you, but I place a premium on peace. I don’t like stressful situations, and I dread conflict. I would gladly sacrifice a great deal of my own needs and desires in order to maintain peace with those around me. Not everyone is like this, of course. There are those who seem to thrive on conflict—they like to throw their weight around to get what they want, and they aren’t at all scared of stepping on other people’s toes. But most of us, I think, would rather go along to get along. We prize peace.

As it happens, peace is a significant blessing mentioned repeatedly in Holy Scripture. At the birth of Jesus, the angels proclaimed “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). When Jesus had risen from the dead, He pronounced peace upon His disciples (Luke 24:36; John 20:19, 21, 26). St. Paul preaches the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). And that doesn’t begin to exhaust the scriptural witness to the blessings of peace. Clearly peace is a good thing that we Christians should always pursue!

But that’s not all there is to say about peace. We must understand that there are different kinds of peace, some good, some bad. Genuine peace with God is always something to be desired, but the delusive peace that comes from deception is a great evil. The Scriptures warn of the dangers of such false peace. Jeremiah, speaking for God, says of the false prophets of his day, “They have healed the wound of My people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11). The people of Judah had angered God through their ongoing impenitence, and the false prophets curried favor with the people by telling them that God was not offended by their sins. In other words, they said, “Peace,” even though wrath was being stored up. This is a dangerous delusion that robs sinners of the opportunity for repentance and leads ultimately to condemnation.

There is also danger in prizing peace with other people too highly. We should always lead “a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). But sometimes peace with others is not possible. We may find ourselves in situations in which we have to stand up to others in order to protect and defend the neighbors entrusted to our care. Or we may be required to offend others in order to remain faithful to our God in Christ. The Word of God causes scandal wherever it is purely preached, and surely our Lord came not to bring peace, but a sword (10:34), setting the faithful against the unfaithful in every household. Peace forged with others at the cost of unfaithfulness to God’s Word is false peace, and it ends in anything but peace.

These two kinds of false peace are closely related. Often we peddle false peace with God in order to maintain false peace with our neighbors. Believe me, I have been tempted, and continue to be tempted, to seek peace with other people by proclaiming peace with God lightly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. I am thinking right now of specific instances in which I agonized over my duty to tell an impenitent sinner the truth about his relationship with God, or to confess what God has given me to confess even when it is sure to result in conflict. To my shame, I am also thinking right now of times when I gave in and told someone what he wanted to hear rather than what God commanded me to preach. God forgive me, and God make up for my faithlessness and bring His elect to repentance despite my failure to preach His Word aright.

The dangers of false peace are clear enough, but where does genuine peace come from? Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you” (John 14:27). Real peace comes from Jesus. Not from the fictitious Jesus manufactured by sinful hearts, but from the real, flesh and blood Jesus, who walked among the disciples, who taught in the synagogues and in the countryside, whose bold preaching of God’s unadulterated Word led to His own brutal execution. Real peace comes from the real Jesus who rose from the dead, who blessed His people with peace in the forgiveness of their sins. The world gives peace through deception, by papering over differences and healing wounds lightly. Jesus gives peace by confronting the reality of our sin head on, suffering for it, dying for it, and calling sinners to repentance. This is the peace that surpasses all understanding, the peace that comes from knowing that God is reconciled to us in Christ Jesus through His death on our behalf, the peace that comes from being certain that even if the world rages against us, God is still for us, and at the last He will bring us into His kingdom, where real peace will reign eternally. God grant us this peace, real peace, in His Son Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Pastor Neuendorf

 




March 2018

Free to Grow

There is a certain tension inherent in the Christian faith. On the one hand, Christianity is all about peace and rest in Christ. On the other hand, Christianity is all about painful growth and struggle and strife with the devil, the world, and our flesh. Both ideas are repeatedly affirmed in the Scriptures. Jesus promises us rest (Matthew 11:28). God promises us a Sabbath rest from our labors (Hebrews 4:10).  St. Paul affirms over and over that we are saved by grace through faith, not by our own works (Romans 3:28, Ephesians 2:8). And yet Jesus is constantly exhorting His people to do good, and St. Paul also urges us to strive (1 Corinthians 9:24) and to fight against the flesh (Galatians 5:16–17).

So which is it? Should we Christians be relaxed, restful, always abounding in joy and peace? Or should we be anxious, stressed out, always lamenting our failures and trying to do better?

We can begin to relax this tension by putting things in their proper place, maintaining the proper relationship between peace and struggle. Yes, we are to struggle daily against sin. Yes, we should be dissatisfied with where we are in our spiritual growth. But the improvement for which we strive always takes place within the loving context of a familial relationship. God is our Father, and His unconditional love for us is assured.

I grew up with very kind and loving parents. They provided my brothers and me with a household in which we knew that we would always have the help we needed, and nothing we ever did, no matter how inexcusably bad, would compromise their love for us. My parents were also strict. They expected us to obey them, and when we didn’t, there were consequences. As we grew older and took on more responsibilities, our parents would always badger us about them. I doubt I would ever have gotten into college if my parents hadn’t pushed me to fill out applications and get them in the mail. But all the pushing and badgering and disciplining that my parents did served to keep us growing, and it all took place within a context of enduring love and support. That meant that I felt real pressure from my parents, and it was pressure I needed in order to improve as a human being, but it was pressure that had no power to upset the settled peace that I had dwelling with my parents in our household.

It’s no accident that Holy Scripture uses the metaphor of fatherhood and sonship, family and household, in describing our relationship with God in Christ. God is by nature the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He has eternally begotten His only Son. But by His grace He has adopted us into His household, so that we are now His children, too. With our sonship in the household of God comes the pressure to obey and grow and become the sorts of people who will make our Father proud, but always within the context of a loving relationship that nothing can destroy.

It is important to remember that this relationship is constituted by faith. Without a living faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that is active in love and that shows itself in a fruitful commitment to God’s Word, we simply are not God’s children. We are outside His household and under His wrath. A faith that views God as an indulgent, permissive father who doesn’t care how we live is no faith at all. But with faith, we are adopted into God’s household, and nothing will snatch us out of His hands. With faith, our sins remain to a degree, but they have no power to condemn us in God’s presence. Yes, God pushes us to overcome our sins. He disciplines us and chastens us and badgers us with His Law until we grow into responsible members of His kingdom. But this process of growth and increase in holiness always takes place within the loving context of the household of God, where we are not slaves, but children, and His love for us is unconditional and unlimited.

So yes, we struggle and strive and grow. We will continue to do so throughout our earthly lives. But we don’t do so the way an employee might strive to win the approval of his employer, as if that approval could be lost. We struggle as children who want to please our Father, but who know that even in our weakness, He loves us and cares for us with an unconquerable love in Christ. The knowledge of God as our Father gives us freedom to grow.

Amen

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 




February 2018

Are We Fundamentalists?

Last month, I sought to answer the question whether we Missouri Synod Lutherans should consider ourselves Evangelicals. The answer is, on the one hand, “No.” American Evangelicalism is a distinct movement within Protestant Christianity that includes some elements with which we cannot agree. We must recognize, however, that we have much in common with Evangelicals, and the things for which the world hates Evangelicals are things for which the world hates us, too.

A related question has to do with fundamentalists. We hear about fundamentalists in the news nearly as much as we hear about Evangelicals. So who are they? And are we among them? There are a number of ways to go about answering that question.

Most strictly speaking, fundamentalists are those early 20th-century Protestants who upheld the traditional faith against the incursions of modernism and liberalism. They did so by identifying and embracing five “fundamentals”: 1. The authority of Scripture; 2. The literal truth of Scripture’s miraculous accounts; 3. The virgin birth of Christ; 4. The bodily resurrection of Christ; and 5. The substitutionary atonement (i.e., Jesus paid for our sins by suffering on the cross in our place). These fundamentals are by no means an exhaustive list of what Christians are obligated to believe, but they do serve to draw a sharp distinction between traditional Christians and those modernizing, liberal Christians who, for example, deny that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, deny that the miracles recorded in Holy Scripture actually took place, deny that Jesus was born of a virgin, deny that Jesus rose bodily (not just spiritually!) from the dead, and deny that God punished Jesus for our sins by His death on the cross. If fundamentalists are simply those who accept these fundamentals, then we must include ourselves among them.

When we hear the term “fundamentalists” in the news, however, the term is usually not being used in the strict sense of those who embrace the five fundamentals. It usually means something more like traditional believers, whether Christian, Muslim, or otherwise, who are so extreme in their faith that they hold to the strictest interpretation of their religion. So, for example, most American Muslims take a modernizing, liberal approach to their faith, dismissing the Koran’s commands to kill infidels. Islamic terrorists, on the other hand, are fundamentalists because they take literally and seriously the traditional teachings of their faith, including the duty to kill Christians and Jews. Similarly, many modern Baptists have embraced a modernizing, liberal version of Christianity. Fundamentalist Baptists, on the other hand, practice a strictly literal form of the historic Baptist faith.

Even according to this broader definition, we would qualify as fundamentalists. We practice a strict, traditional form of Lutheranism that our forefathers would be comfortable practicing as well (though, to be honest, some practices have crept in among us that would make our forefathers uncomfortable, but such practices are not embraced by all of us). We still take the Bible seriously, and we still believe all the teachings of the Book of Concord, written nearly five hundred years ago. In fact I wouldn’t reject the label “fundamentalist Lutheran”!

True, we have serious differences from many fundamentalist Christians. We disagree on teachings such as the nature of the Sacraments and the role of the human will in conversion—serious matters indeed. But the world doesn’t hate fundamentalist Baptists because they deny infant baptism. The world hates fundamentalist Baptists because they still teach what the Bible teaches about, for example, homosexuality, fornication, the role of women, and the lordship of Jesus Christ. In that sense it is our duty to stand alongside these dear Christians and bear the hatred of the world together with them. We ought not to try to score points with the world by pointing out that we’re not technically fundamentalists (though by most definitions we actually are).

Amen

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 




January 2018

Are We Evangelicals?

We tend to hear a lot these days about Evangelicals. They are the dominant form of American Christianity.  They’re a political force to be reckoned with. They support this candidate or policy and oppose that one. Obviously Evangelicals are important. But who are they? And do we count as Evangelicals?

The word “Evangelical” comes from the Greek word for Gospel: “ev” means “good,” and “angel” means news, so an “Evangelical” is someone who is in some way characterized by the Good News, the glad tidings of great joy concerning Jesus Christ—the Gospel. In this sense the term “evangelical” (small “e”) was first applied to Luther and his adherents. In fact, to this day the Lutheran Church in Germany is simply called the “Evangelical Church.” That is why our Missouri Synod congregations, including our own Holy Cross, tend to be called “So-and-so Evangelical Lutheran Church.” We preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are characterized by the Good News that He, through His suffering, death, and resurrection, has accomplished the salvation of the world and gives us the forgiveness of sins, which we receive by faith alone. In that sense we would certainly be considered “evangelicals.”

But what about the uppercase “E”? As a movement, American Evangelicalism is distinct from the broader category of evangelicalism in which we would be included. American Evangelicalism can trace its roots to America’s First Great Awakening, the revival that took place in the 1730’s among Reformed Protestants. It can also be traced to John Wesley, founder of Methodism, who underwent an adult conversion experience: while hearing a reading of Luther’s Preface to Romans, in which Luther praises the living and active nature of truly saving faith, Wesley felt himself “strangely warmed,” and for the first time sensed himself to be assuredly saved, by faith alone.

These early roots of American Evangelicalism have led to the current defining characteristics of the movement: 1. A conversion experience; 2. Assurance of salvation; 3. Commitment to the Bible; and 4. Missionary fervor. Ideally, we evangelical Lutherans share points 2, 3, and 4. We are assured of our salvation: through the proclamation of the Gospel, we can be assured that our sins really are forgiven for Jesus’ sake, and that we will go to heaven when we die and inherit the Kingdom of God at the second coming of Jesus. We are committed to the Bible: everything we teach must be drawn from Scripture alone, which we regard as the pure Word of God and as our sole authority for teaching and practice. We possess missionary fervor: because we know that forgiveness and salvation come by faith alone, and that faith comes by hearing, we want our neighbors, both near and far, to hear the Gospel and become heirs with us of the grace of life.

Point 1, however, is where we part company with American Evangelicals. There are many of us evangelical Lutherans who came to faith as adults and can remember a specific conversion experience, but most of us came to faith as infants, being born again of water and the Spirit through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. I myself, for instance, have never had a conversion experience. For as long as I can remember, I have trusted in Jesus Christ for my salvation. Certainly my faith ebbs and flows. I have my dark days, and I have those times when I especially feel the activity of the Spirit of God within me. But I, and probably most of you, have never experienced conversion. This would be regarded by most of our Evangelical brethren as a serious deficiency, and some might even question our salvation due to the lack of conversion experience.

There are other, less tangible differences between evangelical Lutherans and American Evangelicals. We Lutherans tend to be old-fashioned, favoring the ancient forms of worship inherited from our fathers, while Evangelicals tend to adopt more recent trends and revivalistic methods, viewing modern trance-inducing worship music as essential in allowing the Holy Spirit to transform the hearts of worshipers. We hold firmly to our old confessional commitments (in our case, the Book of Concord), while Evangelicals tend to eschew such labels and often congregate in “non-denominational” churches. We are committed to the role of the blessed Sacraments in creating and sustaining faith, while Evangelicals tend not to believe in baptismal regeneration or the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion. And there are a host of other differences.

But when you hear about Evangelicals in the news, particularly as a political force, it’s worth knowing that you fit pretty well into that category. As a rule, Evangelicals are opposed to abortion, same-sex marriage, and other forms of state-supported immorality. We are too. No evangelical Lutheran can in good conscience support a political candidate who promotes abortion or same-sex marriage. In the ways that matter to the media, we are little different from Evangelicals. While recognizing the things that divide us, we can count many Evangelicals as our brethren in the faith, who fight the good fight alongside us. God grant us faithfulness in confessing what distinguishes us from American Evangelicals, and brotherly love in laboring alongside them in His kingdom.

Amen

Pastor Neuendorf

 




December 2017

Prayers for the Dead?

I have to admit that, before becoming a pastor, I didn’t think a whole lot about the question of prayers for the dead. It seemed to me to be enough simply to trust in the mercy of God and know that He always does what He knows best. But when I started officiating over Christian funerals, and sometimes even over the funerals of those whose faith was, at best, in doubt, as I stood before the body lying in the casket, whether at the visitation or during an open-casket funeral at the funeral home, I felt compelled in my conscience to offer a brief prayer to God, prayer that He would have mercy upon this pour soul and, in His grace for the sake of Christ, receive the spirit of the departed into His kingdom. This has led me to investigate a bit more the Lutheran testimony to prayers for the dead. I have drawn three conclusions that I wish to share with you. First, it is not an ungodly thing to pray for the dead if such prayer is understood rightly. Second, the propriety of prayer for the dead hinges upon our uncertainty regarding the state of the deceased. Third, the value of prayer for the dead hinges upon our certainty regarding the mercy of God in Christ.

It is not a sin to pray for the dead, as long as we do not believe that thereby we can bring about eternal salvation for those who in this life did not believe in Jesus Christ. The Scriptures do not speak of prayers for the dead, either for or against. This led Martin Luther to preach in a sermon on the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19–31), “We have no command from God to pray for the dead; therefore no one sins by not praying for them; for what God does not bid or forbid us to do, in that no one can sin. Yet, on the other hand …, we will not and cannot restrain them, nor count it as sin, if they pray for the dead.” In the same vein, Philipp Melanchthon writes in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession that the Lutheran churches “do not prohibit” prayers for the dead (Ap. XXIV.94). God has left us free to pray or not to pray for the dead as our conscience directs.

We may pray for the dead because we are uncertain regarding the present state and final sentence of the deceased. We cannot peer into the hearts of the dead to see if they really believed in Jesus Christ. Only God knows that for certain. Those who professed faith in Christ may have been hypocrites, and those who did not profess faith in Christ may have come to repentance in their final moments. We don’t know, and that means we don’t know for absolutely certain whether our loved ones are in heaven or hell (though we can be joyfully confident regarding the salvation of those who professed faith in Christ and proved their faith with a godly life!). Praying for the dead, therefore, is similar to praying for a loved one who has just been involved in a disaster but whose fate is as yet unknown to us. If I know that a loved one is in a burning building, I will not hesitate to pray for him, even if it is entirely possible that he has already succumbed to the flames. As long as I am uncertain, I will continue to pray that God would deliver my loved one.

Going ever further, Luther, in the same sermon cited above, reminds us that “God has not permitted us to know how it is with the souls of the departed and we must continue uninformed as to how He deals with them…. For we are ever certain from the Gospel that many have been raised from the dead who, we must confess, did not receive nor did they have their final sentence; and likewise we are not assured of any other, that he has his final sentence.” We are not certain of anyone’s final sentence until the Last Day. Thus, because of our uncertainty, we may pray for the dead.

Finally, we may pray for the dead because we are certain of God’s mercy. Allow me to quote Luther’s sermon once more: “Now since it is uncertain and no one knows whether final judgment has been passed upon these souls, it is not sin if you pray for them; but in this way, that you let it rest in uncertainty and speak thus: Dear God, if the departed souls be in a state that they may yet be helped, then I pray that Thou wouldst be gracious. And when you have thus prayed once or twice, then let it be sufficient and commend them unto God. For God has promised that when we pray to Him for anything He would hear us. Therefore when you have prayed once or twice, you should believe that your prayer is answered, and there let it rest, lest you tempt God and mistrust Him” (emphasis mine). As uncertain as we might be concerning specific matters that remain unrevealed to us, we must always be certain that God is merciful for the sake of His Son and that He has commanded us to pray and has promised to hear us. God will not spurn the prayers of His faithful who long for the wellbeing of the deceased whom they love as themselves, according to His command.

If you would like to speak more with me concerning the propriety of prayer for your loved ones who have departed this life, please feel free to see me about it. It could be a source of comfort to have something we can still do for our loved ones, not just for their bodies, but also for their souls. But whether we pray for them or not, our hope remains in Him who alone is the resurrection and the life, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 




November 2017

Can the Scriptures Really Be Understood?

One of the battle-cries of the Reformation is “sola Scriptura,” i.e., “by Scripture alone.” It is by Scripture alone that the truths of the Christian faith are demonstrated and confirmed. It is not the church hierarchy, the Pope, church councils, or vague traditions that determine what we believe, but the very Word of God, written by the Prophets and Apostles.

But have you ever tried to read the Bible? I mean really read it, cover to cover, with full understanding of what it says? If you have, you know that the Bible is often difficult to understand. In fact, there are many passages of Holy Scripture whose meaning remains entirely hidden from even the most careful and well-trained biblical scholars. How then can we claim to rely on “Scripture alone” as our sole source of Christian teaching?

The expression “sola Scriptura” can have no meaning if the Scriptures are obscure and impossible to understand, because if the Scriptures cannot be understood on their own, that means that there has to be an authoritative interpreter of Holy Scripture. The Pope, for example, does not claim to teach anything by his own authority. He teaches what the Scriptures teach, but only the Scriptures as interpreted by him. If I object to the Pope’s interpretation, I cannot appeal directly to the Scriptures, because they cannot be understood unless they are interpreted by the Pope. So the view that the Scriptures are unclear leads directly to the practical supplanting of the Scriptures with some other authority.

“Sola Scriptura,” therefore, depends upon the Scriptures being understandable, or clear. And yet we find that often they are not. What’s going on here?

When we say that the Scriptures are “clear,” we do not mean that anyone can pick up a Bible translation and on one cursory reading immediately see the whole meaning of every passage without difficulty. Only after years of careful study will the meaning of many passages dawn on the attentive reader. Furthermore, the meaning is often obscured until the text is studied in its original language, whether Greek (for the New Testament) or Hebrew (for most of the Old Testament). Even for someone trained in the original languages who dedicates his life to the study of Scripture, many passages remain obscure.

What makes the Scriptures “clear,” however, is not the accessibility of every passage to every student. What makes them “clear” is the fact that the body of doctrine, the sum and substance of what the Christian Church believes, teaches, and confesses, is and must ever be drawn exclusively from passages that are clear, whose plain meaning can be demonstrated to all who approach the text in honesty and reverence. The divinity of Christ, the trinity of Persons in the Godhead, the exclusive role of grace (from God’s side) and faith (from man’s side) in obtaining the forgiveness of sins and righteousness before God—these and all true Christian teachings can be confidently established on the basis of passages whose meaning is clear.

That means that what you believe as a confessional Lutheran, instructed from Luther’s Catechism, is not something made up by man. It’s not a collection of clever ideas or cute sayings. What you believe is what God has taught His Church through the Prophets and Apostles, whose writings have come down to us in the present day. The confidence that flows from this conviction is a precious gift that we have inherited from the Reformation. May we ever flee from the doctrines of men and cling only to what God has taught us by Scripture alone—sola Scriptura!

VERBUM DOMINI MANET IN AETERNUM

The Word of the Lord Remains Forever

Amen

Pastor Neuendorff

 

 

 




October 2017

The Ninety-Five Theses Are Not Lutheran!

October 31, 1517, is widely recognized as the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation. That is because it was on that date that Martin Luther publicly disseminated his famous Ninety-Five Theses. This is not a new celebration. For centuries the Lutheran Church has recognized this day, and in previous generations the Feast of the Reformation was celebrated with three days of services: Vespers (the evening service) on October 30, and Mass (Holy Communion in the morning) and Vespers on October 31 and November 1. Even within Luther’s own lifetime October 31 was celebrated as the anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. It might surprise us to realize, therefore, that the Ninety-Five Theses aren’t Lutheran!

What do I mean by that? I mean that, though they were written by Martin Luther himself, and though they judged current church practice based on the standard of Holy Scripture, and though they set in motion the series of events that would culminate in the excommunication of Luther and the establishment of the Lutheran Church as separate from the Roman Catholic Church, nevertheless, when we explore their contents, we find that the Ninety-Five Theses do not reflect Lutheran doctrine. They were written by a Roman Catholic monk who still believed most everything taught by the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, though Luther used Scripture in his critique, he also used the laws of the Roman Catholic Church herself. He acknowledged the authority of the Pope, the existence of Purgatory, and even the propriety of selling indulgences! He just wanted to rein in the hyperbolic and misleading preaching of the indulgence salesmen, returning to the authentic Roman Catholic teaching on indulgences. It was only later that he would reject the whole concept of indulgences entirely.

It is true that the Ninety-Five Theses involve a biting critique of the church of Luther’s day. Consider Theses 65 – 66: “[65] The treasures of the Gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth. [66] The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men.” But overall the Ninety-Five Theses certainly don’t read like a clarion call to cast off the shackles of papal dominion and embrace the freedom of the Gospel. In fact, in some ways they are the opposite of what we might expect. We tend to think of Luther as helping us to see that salvation is easier to come by than it was under the papacy, and we tend to think of the corrupt Roman Catholic Church as keeping salvation under lock and key, inaccessible to all but the most wealthy. But what Luther actually does in the Ninety-Five Theses is show that salvation is harder to come by than the indulgence salesmen would have their audiences believe! Salvation cannot be bought. It must be obtained through heartfelt repentance, cross, and trial. The Theses end, “[94] Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head, through penalties, death, and hell; [95] and thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace.”

If you’d like to read the Ninety-Five Theses for yourself, you can find an accessible modern translation at www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html. A more classic translation, followed by Luther’s original Latin, can be found at www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/274/pg274.html, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. If you do undertake to read them, you’ll find that they are quite difficult. They are written for experts in the Latin theology of Luther’s day, and they assume a certain familiarity with what is now arcane theological terminology. But if you’re willing to give it a go, they’re certainly worth your time and effort. Just remember that Luther himself looked back on the Ninety-Five Theses as reflecting the thoughts of a Roman Catholic monk, not those of the Reformer of the Church. Their significance is not in their content, but in their effect: they brought Luther into direct conflict with the papacy, and they paved the way for his development as the Reformer, and especially for his later discovery of the Reformation principle of salvation by grace alone through faith alone for the sake of Christ alone as taught by Scripture alone.

Amen

Pastor Neuendorf




September 2017

Reformation Day: Why Halloween?

As we’ve learned over the last couple of months, Martin Luther was motivated by his roles as Doctor of Sacred Scripture and as parish pastor to protest the sale of indulgences. We also know that he ultimately nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517—which happens to be Halloween! Why did Luther choose that particular date to begin his public critique of indulgences?

As we know, Halloween is short of “All Hallows’ Eve.” The “Hallows” are the saints. The word “hallow” is etymologically related to the word “holy,” and we still use it in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be Thy name,” i.e., may God’s name be kept holy among us. All Hallows’ Eve is the eve of All Saints’ Day, much as Christmas Eve is the eve of Christmas Day. We still celebrate All Saints’ Day on November 1, so we celebrate Halloween on October 31 because it falls on the evening before All Saints’ Day.

Luther’s nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses, therefore, had more to do with All Saints’ Day than it did with our modern conception of Halloween. Luther did not have costumes, party games, or trick-or-treating in mind. He was thinking of something that would happen on All Saints’ Day: the Church of All Saints would open with one of the greatest displays of relics in the world.

Relics were the remains of the saints. For example, one might display a saint’s knuckle bone, or a vial of a martyr’s blood. These relics could be venerated to earn an indulgence, i.e., time off one’s sentence in purgatory. Luther’s prince and protector, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, possessed one of the worlds’ greatest collections of relics, and every year, on All Saints’ Day, he put his relics on display in the Church of All Saints, the court church or castle church (Schloßkirche) in Wittenberg. Visitors would flock to his church to venerate the relics displayed therein, earning thousands of years off their time in purgatory. In fact, Frederick the Wise forbade indulgences from being sold in his territory, not because he objected to indulgences themselves, but because he didn’t want other indulgences competing with the indulgences gained from his own relics collection!

When Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, he was protesting not only the sale of indulgences, but the whole system of indulgences itself. He was protesting what was going on in a church in his own town! That’s why he chose Halloween.

Next month, for our October newsletter, we’ll learn about the contents of the Ninety-Five Theses. What was this document whose posting we celebrate at this upcoming five-hundredth anniversary? The answer may surprise you…

Amen,

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 

 

 

 




August 2017

Luther the Pastor:

Starting the Reformation

It was chiefly as a Doctor of Sacred Scripture that Martin Luther led the Protestant Reformation. He believed himself to have received a call from God, ratified through the authorities at the University of Wittenberg, to be a “teacher of the Church.” Universities in those days were ecclesiastical institutions, and a call to teach at a university meant the conferral of a general teaching authority.

Furthermore, as mentioned last month, Luther taught at a university that had embraced a new way of learning, which emphasized original languages and primary texts. Luther worked and taught within a generation that for the first time had access to the full riches of Holy Scripture.

Nevertheless, it was not as a university professor, but as a parish pastor that Luther was driven to perform the first public act of the Reformation. As a part of his experience at the Augustinian monastery, Luther was ordained to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. As a priest it was his responsibility to say mass (i.e., preside over Holy Communion) and to preach. Part of administering the Lord’s Supper was hearing the confessions of those who wished to commune at the next mass. Father Luther would meet privately with those who came to confess their sins, and when they demonstrated the sincerity of their repentance and their desire to turn away from sin, he absolved them, as Lutheran pastors still do today.

But in 1517, something new was happening. Instead of coming to Father Luther and confessing their sins, some of the parishioners presented a certificate for which they had paid a pretty penny in the neighboring town. The certificate entitled the bearer to one absolution by a priest of his choice, with no need for repentance, as well as one further absolution upon his deathbed, also without the requirement of repentance. If one could only pay enough money, one could be forgiven all sins, skip all time in purgatory, and go straight to heaven—all without even having the slightest sensation of guilt for the sins one had committed!

These certificates, of course, were called indulgences, and they got Father Luther riled up. He refused the honor them, and he set about composing ninety-five statements that amounted to one long protest of the sale of indulgences. We call these the Ninety-Five Theses, and they were intended to be debated among Luther’s colleagues in a formal disputation. It is true that the Theses were academic in nature, and it is true that they were intended for the learned throughout Europe, not the parishioners under Luther’s care. But what motivated Luther to compose and defend them was his pastoral concern for the souls whom Christ had entrusted to him.

Luther’s chief fear was that by putting their trust in indulgences, and by being led away from repentance as a real turning away from sin and a heartfelt trust in the forgiveness won by the death of Jesus, his parishioners faced the threat of eternal damnation. He could not sit idly by and watch that happen in his own parish and throughout Christendom, so he set about the work of calling the whole Church to return to the pure teachings of Christ and the Apostles.

We have learned why Luther composed the Ninety-Five Theses. Next month we will learn why he chose October 31, 1517, to post them publicly on the door of the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg.

Amen

Pastor Neuendorf




July 2017

Origins of the Reformation

As our celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation draws nigh, it is worth our while to reflect on where the Reformation came from. On October 31, 2017, we will remember that precisely five hundred years before, Dr. Martin Luther, Doctor of Sacred Scripture at the University of Wittenberg, nailed (“pinned,” “tacked,” or “posted” might be a better word) the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church. In this and coming months, we will consider who this “Dr. Luther” was and where he came from; what led him to write and pose his theses; why he chose that particular date and that particular place for their posting; and how this event catapulted him to the forefront of the Reformation.

Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483 (nine years before Columbus discovered the New World!), the son of a miner, Hans Luther, in Eisleben, Saxony, a northern territory in Germany. He grew up in the nearby town of Mansfeld and received the standard education for his day, becoming fluent in Latin and well trained in music, both performance and composition. His father paid for him to attend law school, in the hopes that he could serve the family business in legal disputes. On a trip from school, though, Luther was caught in a terrible lightning storm. Fearing for his life, and uncertain of his eternal destiny should he perish, Luther vowed to become a monk should he survive. Survive he did and, much to the chagrin of his father, he left law school and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.

To be a monk meant to take the threefold vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience: poverty, meaning that Luther sold all he had and led a communal life with his fellow monks; chastity, meaning that Luther promised never to marry and therefore never to engage in marital relations with anyone; and obedience, meaning that Luther submitted himself to the authority of his superior, in this case Fr. Johann von Staupitz—a godly man who led Luther along the way to his discovery of the Gospel. Luther was faced with a crisis, however. He had understood monks to be the holiest of the holy, men who actually lived the way Jesus commanded. Their merits were supposed to be sufficient to save both themselves and the common people who relied upon them. But what Luther found was that when he became a monk, he did not become holy. His manifold disciplines did nothing to ease his conscience. He could not hope to save himself, much less the people around him. Luther therefore conceived a dread of damnation and a hatred of God, who had created him to be a sinner and threatened divine punishments that Luther could not escape.

Thankfully, Luther’s superior came to the rescue. He urged Luther to despair of himself and trust in Christ alone. Furthermore, he found tasks to keep Luther busy, and hopefully distracted from his spiritual struggles. He sent Luther to Rome on official business, and he arranged for Luther to be educated in the Scriptures, culminating in Luther’s reception of the degree of Doctor of Sacred Scripture. Luther lectured on the Scriptures at the University of Wittenberg, an up-and-coming institution that embraced a new way of learning, focusing on original languages and primary texts. It was largely through this study that Luther gained the knowledge that compelled and empowered him to launch the Reformation.

Luther’s concerns were not merely academic, however. It was chiefly through his role as a pastor that he was confronted with the issues that led to the posting of the ninety-five theses. It is to this that we will turn next month.

Amen

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 

 

 

 




June 2017

Understanding the Priesthood of All Believers

We recently celebrated Ascension Day, when we remember Jesus’ ascension “far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. And some he gave as … pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). Jesus gives us pastors! But why? What about what we call the “priesthood of all believers”? If we’re all priests, why do we need pastors? After all, many modern Lutherans might point out that Luther rediscovered the scriptural teaching that it is not pastors alone but all Christians who serve as priests before God. This is based on 1 Peter 2:9, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” There is no denying that the priesthood of all believers is a scriptural teaching.

There are, however, some widespread misconceptions about just what it means that we, as the people of God, together constitute a “royal priesthood.” I remember traveling with my wife in Virginia some years before becoming a pastor. One Sunday morning, we attended a service at a Missouri Synod congregation—which isn’t always as safe a thing to do as you might think! Among a number of things that made me uncomfortable about the service was a note in the bulletin explaining the use of lay readers in proclaimingthe Scripture Lessons: they had laity proclaiming the Scriptures to show that they believed in the priesthood of all believers. In this understanding, for us to be a “royal priesthood” means that we are in effect all pastors. Those who are actually called and ordained exercise those functions that uniquely pertain to the pastoral office, such as proclaiming the Scriptures in the readings, preaching the Word of God in the sermon, and administering the body and blood of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar, but the laity are just as qualified, and just as called, to do the same things. Preaching, teaching, and administering the Sacraments are viewed as part of “proclaiming the excellencies” of God.

But this is not what St. Peter teaches, and it is not what Luther taught when he rediscovered St. Peter’s teaching. Luther understood the Office of the Ministry, with all its functions (publicly reading the Scriptures, publicly preaching the Word, and publicly administering the Sacraments), as belonging to the congregation as common property. Every Christian has the right and the duty to proclaim the Word in whatever walk of life in which God has placed him. Fathers are to proclaim the Word to their households. Mothers are to proclaim the Word to their children. Teachers are to proclaim the Word to their students. Children are to proclaim the Word to one another. And pastors are to proclaim the Word to their congregations.

Luther’s explanation was that if something belongs to everyone, no one has the right to exercise it without the express authorization of the whole group. That’s our understanding of the call to the pastoral office: we all have the duty to proclaim the Word, so none of us ought to exercise that duty publicly without the consent of the whole congregation. It’s like a public park: the park belongs to everyone, so I dare not pitch a tent and live there without the permission of the whole community. So also the Office of the Ministry belongs to everyone, and we dare not exercise it unless everyone has agreed to entrust us with that responsibility, and unless God has made it expressly clear that He has called us to that task in that place.

Following Luther, C.F.W. Walther expressly taught that the priesthood of all believers is distinct from the pastoral office. We are all priests, to be sure, but we are not all pastors. We all proclaim God’s excellencies according to our stations in life, but it is pastors who have been entrusted with the public proclamation that takes place in the corporate worship of the Church.

The priesthood of all believers is a doctrine that has seen much abuse in recent years, but that ought not to stop us from deriving from it the encouragement that St. Peter, and the Holy Spirit speaking through him, intended for us. Let us proclaim the Word boldly to those among whom God has placed us: our children, our spouses, our friends and neighbors, and especially our enemies, whom we are called to love and serve. And let us offer spiritual sacrifices to God, sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise, good works and acts of mercy and love—which is what priests do! Meanwhile we thank God for those whom He has placed among us, those “called and ordained servants of the Word,” who act “in the stead and by the command” of Christ and are given to us as gifts by our triumphantly ascended Lord.

Amen.

Pastor Neuendorf




May 2017

After 115 Years, What Makes Us Different?

This year the congregation of Holy Cross observes the hundred and fifteenth year since her founding in 1902. Much has changed in our congregation since then. No longer do we gather in a preaching station or a storefront to worship in the German language. The location of our church building has moved from Belle Avenue to Locust Street. Even our “new” church building has seen several significant expansions. Surely if the founding members of the “Evangelisch-Lutherische Kreuzgemeinde zu Ost-Davenport” could join us on a Sunday morning, they would be astonished at how different things are!

But they would also notice some significant similarities. Even though we now worship in English, the founding members of Holy Cross would still be able to follow along with our services, which adhere to the same outline they’ve had for over a millennium. Even though we gather in a “new” building, our sanctuary retains the churchly architectural cues that indicate, “The place where you are standing is holy ground.” Even though we sing in a new language, and many of our hymns are recent compositions, we still sing many of the old Lutheran hymns that were so dear to our forebears, using the same tunes and extolling the same Christ. And most importantly, we still teach the same things that we taught the day we were founded.

This continuity with our own past is more remarkable than it might at first seem. There are plenty of churches that are significantly older than ours who have nevertheless changed beyond all recognition. Some choose to worship in buildings that are intentionally indistinguishable from secular venues. Others use exclusively novel forms of worship that would be totally alien to the Christians of generations past. Still others have changed their teachings so dramatically that one wonders whether the name “Christian” still applies.

What makes us different? In a word, nothing. Nothing, that is, except the free, unmerited grace of God.

No people has ever been so blessed as the people of Israel, God’s chosen nation. And yet God said of His chosen people, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set His love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that He swore to your fathers” (Deuteronomy 7:7–8). God chose Israel by His grace alone, and it was only by His grace that a remnant was preserved even as the rest of the people perished in their folly and unbelief. This pattern holds true in the New Testament as well. St. Paul writes that “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy” (Titus 3:5).

If our congregation has been kept faithful to the inheritance bequeathed to us, it is only because God has been gracious and merciful to us. It is not because we are inherently any better than those who have given in to the harmful changes in the culture around us. It is not because we are stronger, smarter, or in any other way more fit for institutional survival. Our faithfulness is an unmerited, undeserved gift, and we would do well to heed the warning of St. Paul: “Let him who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

As we celebrate a hundred and fifteen years of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in East Davenport, may the congregation of Holy Cross continue in faithfulness toward the God who has proved to be faithful to us.  Here’s hoping that in another hundred and fifteen years our spiritual descendant will still be about their Father’s business at Holy Cross!

Amen

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 




April 2017

Desperation? Or Boldness?

When you think about the state of our congregation, do you feel desperate? I have to admit that I sometimes do. The fact is that I have a tendency to view people as doing our congregation a favor by joining us for worship. I naturally see the people around us as those who could potentially benefit our congregation by becoming members and taking an active role in our life together. And that means that I automatically approach others from a position of weakness, a weakness that can come off as desperation. Some of our more recent members may have seen this in my approach to them.

Nobody finds desperation attractive. When you’ve developed romantic attraction to someone, was it because that person was so desperate for your attention? Or was it because you were drawn to something about that person, something that was good and true independent of you? We are attracted not to desperation, but to confidence, or what the Scriptures call boldness.

When you read of the early Christians, you don’t get the impression of weakness or desperation. The disciples weren’t trying to sell their religion, and they didn’t view people as doing them a favor by uniting themselves to the Christian Church. As St. Luke records of the first Christian congregation in Jerusalem, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31).

What gave them boldness? The Holy Spirit! Before the Spirit was poured out upon the Church, the Apostles and the rest of the disciples were anything but bold. They locked themselves up for fear of Jesus’ enemies! Even after they witnessed Jesus’ resurrection, they continued to cower. But once the Spirit had been poured out at Pentecost, the same St. Peter who had fearfully denied his Lord three times got up with all boldness to confess his Lord to thousands, and the same St. Peter who had fled the sufferings of his Savior rejoiced that he was counted worthy to suffer dishonor for Jesus’ name (Acts 5:41). The Apostles were not desperate, they were not weak, and they did not try to sell their proclamation. They were confident, they were bold, and they preached as those who knew that they had what their hearers needed. The results of their preaching they left to Him who “added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

I am trying, with God’s help, to reclaim this spirit of boldness. When I share the good news that we proclaim at Holy Cross, it ought not to be as a product that I hope a client will buy. It ought to be as the source of my own life and salvation, which I fervently desire for others to have as well—not for my benefit, but for theirs! Boldness, not desperation, is what God promises us and expects of us.

And interestingly enough, the more confident we are in Christ, and the less desperate we are toward those around us, the more people will want to join us. If you were moving to a new town, would you want to join a congregation that was desperately seeking new members and begging you to join them? Or would you want to join a congregation that was confident in Christ, knowing that they have all they need in Him, freely welcoming you into their fullness? In Christ we truly do have all things. We don’t proclaim Christ out of desperation for new members. We proclaim Christ because that’s who we are. It is not that we need more people, though from an earthly perspective we certainly do. It’s that others need what we already have!

Please pray for me, that I would be diligent in sharing the proclamation of our salvation in Christ as God gives opportunity, and especially that I would grow in boldness and confidence in the Lord of the Church. We are who we are: the body of Christ, assured of our forgiveness and eternal life in His name. May as many as God has appointed to eternal life believe (Acts 13:48), and may our congregation be not a product to be sold, but a haven for the afflicted and a refuge for the weary. God grant us boldness in Christ!

Amen.

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 




March 2017

Our Lenten Theme:  The Lord’s Supper, Our “Salutary Gift”

This year, I am using a set of resources from Concordia Publishing House to prepare our Lenten midweek services. The theme of those resources is “The Lord’s Supper: The Salutary Gift.” That expression, “salutary gift,” comes from one of the post-Communion collects that we pray after receiving the Lord’s Supper: “We give thanks … that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift.” 

So where did this prayer come from, and what does “salutary” even mean?

The post-Communion collect from which we derive the expression “salutary gift” was written by Martin Luther. In the 1520s, a number of reformers were moving to introduce the use of the vernacular (i.e., the common language, the language of the people—in this case, German) into public worship, particularly the mass (what the weekly Communion service was called among the Reformers in those days). This was an unfortunate opportunity for zealous reformers with questionable theology to introduce their unique ideas into common use. There was also a risk that liturgical chaos might result, with each church using its own order of service. Imagine what it would be like if you never knew what a church service would be like from one congregation to the next!

In an effort to address these concerns, Luther prepared his own “German Mass” in 1526. His hope was that the order of service he prepared would be theologically sound and could help to stem the tide of multifarious practices throughout Germany. He introduced a metrical German version of the Sanctus (found in the Lutheran Service Book at No. 960, “Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old”), provided the tune for the Kyrie that we still use today in Setting Three, and provided tones for chanting the Scripture lessons and the various parts of the liturgy (we still use Luther’s tone for chanting the Words of Institution). Among the many contributions that Luther made in his German Mass, one that has proved to be of enduring value is his post-Communion collect:

We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

So what does Luther mean when he calls the Lord’s Supper a “salutary gift”? The word that Luther uses is “heilsame,” which we might recognize as related to our English word “wholesome.” The translation “salutary” comes from Latin, in which the word “salus” means “health.” A good English approximation of Luther’s meaning might be “healthy,” not in the sense that I am in good health, but in the sense that a wholesome meal is healthy, promoting good health.

What sort of good health does the Lord’s Supper promote? Luther explains that immediately after: the Lord’s Supper strengthens us in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another. In other words, the whole of our Christian faith, both God’s promises that we believe and His commands that we keep, finds its source and its strength is the sacrament of our Lord’s body and blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins. The offer of forgiveness in Christ strengthens our faith, and it is our faith that gives rise to selfless works of love done for the neighbor. A salutary gift indeed!

This Lenten season, and throughout your Christian walk, may you find strength in the salutary gift of the Lord’s Supper!

Amen.

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 

 

 

 




February 2017

Faith Seeking Understanding

Medieval theologians wondered: does a theologian start with reason and work his way to faith? Or does he take the teachings of the faith for granted and then seek to understand those teachings retroactively? The Christian Church has taken the position that faith seeks understanding, not the other way round. Faith can save without understanding, but understanding can never save without faith. In fact, understanding doesn’t save us at all!

I’m a curious person. I like to understand things. I like to probe mysteries until I come up against the limits of what is possible for the human mind to grasp, and through academic discipline, I’ve become far less inclined to take anyone else’s word for anything than I once was. I try to believe only what can be firmly established by the soundest methods. Does that describe you? Certainly there are plenty of people who are willing to accept life (including the Christian faith) as it is and don’t need everything explained to them. But I’ll bet there are many under my care who share my curiosity, and who, like me, are interested in exploring the foundations of what they believe.

How does that jibe with the nature of Christian faith? Aren’t we simply to accept what God teaches us in His Word without questioning Him? Isn’t that what faith is? After all, Jesus extolled the faith of those who believe without seeing (John 20:29), and St. Peter wrote of us Christians, “Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him” (1 Peter 1:8). Shouldn’t we just believe the teachings of Christianity without needing any demonstration that they are true?

In a way, yes, we should believe without seeing, without (and sometimes perhaps even contrary to) evidence. But faith like this is impossible for us. We simply cannot believe something without it being demonstrated to us. That is why saving faith has to be wrought in us by God Himself. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Our reason can never produce faith. St. Paul warns that “the wisdom of the world” cannot save us, but “since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of preaching to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). If we find our faith slipping, we are not to bolster it by rational arguments. We are rather to seek strengthening of faith from Him who alone works saving faith in us: “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Does that mean that Christianity is an anti-rational religion? Certainly not. If what we believe is true (and it is!), we will find it confirmed through the right use of reason. The historical facts of the Christian religion can be convincingly demonstrated through the study of the Scriptures as historical documents, without reference to their divine inspiration. Even someone who does not believe the Scriptures to be the Word of God could reasonably conclude through the study of the Gospels and the Epistles of St. Paul as merely human documents that a man named Jesus was seen alive by many after his public death.

Nor does human reason at its best support a materialist worldview, i.e., the idea that physical objects, interrelated by clear-cut chains of cause and effect, are all that exist. A recent book on the significance of quantum physics for our vision of reality includes the following provocative statement: “Since ancient times, philosophers have come up with esoteric speculations on the nature of physical reality. But before quantum mechanics, one had the logical option of rejecting such theorizing and holding to a straightforward, commonsense worldview [St. Paul’s “wisdom of the world”?]. Today, quantum experiments deny a commonsense physical reality. It is no longer a logical option.” Yes, as it turns out, those no-nonsense militant atheists, who take for granted that all that exists is what we can see, are in fact naïve! The current state of scientific inquiry does not support such a worldview.

But as we consider such things, we always do so as those who are already, by a miracle of God in our own hearts, convinced of the truth of the Christian faith. The faith that God supplies is sufficient. It is sufficient for the infant at the baptismal font, for the Alzheimer’s patient in the memory care unit, and for the good neighbor who is too preoccupied with loving those whom God has commanded him to love to be bothered with unnecessary questions about the nature of existence. But for those who do probe those difficult questions, our divinely wrought faith frees us to explore the mysteries of God’s creation without fear. Whether or not we ever obtain understanding, may God keep us in His faith unto life everlasting!

Pastor Neuendorf

 




January 2017

Resolution and Failure—Or Success

New Year’s Day is mostly a joyous time. I love the treats, the late-night celebration, the promise of a clean slate, the novelty of writing out the new date for the first time (I just saved this file with the date 2017!), and most everything else that goes with it. But believe it or not, I also find New Year’s Day to be rather discouraging, not because of the swift march of time or anything like that, but because of the whole principle of New Year’s Resolutions.

The fact is, I make resolutions all the time. When I’m driving alone on a long trip, I have plenty of time to ruminate on my own habits, both professional and personal, earthly and spiritual, and to come up with great ideas for how I could do things better. I get all fired up, but then as soon as normal life starts up again, all those great ideas go out the window and I settle back into my old routine.

It’s much the same on New Year’s Day. I look into the new year and think about how it could be different from the last. How could I do things better? How could I improve my lifestyle, my routines, and my habits? How can I live more fully the life that God has given me? I come up with all kinds of ideas, but always in the back of my mind is the memory of New Years past, and the plethora of resolutions that I didn’t end up keeping.

I wonder if you share my experience. From my perspective, looking out over my congregation, I see people who have it together. You are all responsible, dedicated people who make the most of the blessings that God has entrusted to you. But do some of you share my anxiety for the New Year? Do some of you share my discouragement at how difficult it can be to make meaningful changes in your lifestyles? If so, you’re not alone.

Actually, this is largely what the Christian life can be for many of us. We watch as faithful Christians, whether the heroes of the faith in times past or our own admirable contemporaries, go from strength to strength, living triumphant on the promises of God. We, meanwhile, continue to languish in the old bondage under sin. We struggle to pray as we ought, to meditate as we ought, and to live as we ought. We, like St. Paul before us, cry out, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:18b–19, 24).

To this seemingly hopeless situation, St. Paul speaks a Word of comfort: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! … There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 7:25a; 8:1). This comfort is twofold: first, God does not hold our failures against us; second, God strengthens us to make real change.

Whatever the failures of past New Year’s Resolutions may do, let them have no power over your conscience. Jesus Christ has delivered you from such condemnation! When God looks upon you, He does so not to castigate you for failing to live up to your own ideals, or even His perfect ideals for you, but to give to you as a gift the successes and victories of His own Son. Admit your failures and receive with thanksgiving the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is yours by faith in Him.

Furthermore, no matter how often we have failed in the past, God never wants us to despair of His strength in the future. In our Christian walk, we continue to be beset by the contagion of sin, but God does lead us by His Spirit so that, insofar as we are new creations in His Son, we can obtain the victory over sin. As Luther teaches in the meaning of the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “we pray … that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, nor seduce us into misbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and though we be assailed by them, that still we may finally overcome, and obtain the victory.” Never give up striving for righteousness, straining for the victory, even as you rely entirely on God’s mercy to you in Christ.

May this New Year be a time of repentance, renewal, and hope in the Lord Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Pastor Neuendorf

 




December 2016

Christmas: A Pagan Holiday?

You may have heard that Christmas, though we regard it as a celebration of Christ’s birth, nevertheless has roots in a pagan holiday. There are even Christians who believe it to be immoral to celebrate Christmas because of its alleged pagan connection. But what about us? When we celebrate December 25 with trees and tinsel, with gifts and goodies, with music and feasting, are we joining ourselves to paganism?

It is helpful to consider how the date December 25 really came to be the time for the celebration of Christ’s birth. It is often alleged that the early Church felt the need to replace a pagan festival of the winter solstice with something more appropriate to Christians. The truth, though, is rather the reverse. As it turns out, the early Church chose the date December 25 to correspond to another important date: March 25, the Annunciation, when we remember the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would become the mother of our Lord. The date March 25 came about because of an ancient belief that prophets died on the same calendar date as their conception or birth. The death of Jesus was calculated to have taken place on March 25 (in actual fact, His death probably took place in early April). Working on the assumption

that Jesus was conceived the moment Gabriel proclaimed the Word of God to Mary, His conception would have been on the same calendar date as His death. And if Mary’s pregnancy lasted exactly nine months, His birth would have been December 25. Hence the traditional date of Christmas!

What about the connection to the winter solstice? As it turns out, the ancient Romans did not originally celebrate the solstice. It was not until the reign of the third-century emperor Aurelian that the festival of Sol Invictus (“The Unconquered Sun”) was imposed to compete with the Christian feast of Christmas.

What is more, one of the most likely candidates for the star that led the wise men to believe that a king had been born in Judea would have appeared around December 25. The traditional date of Christmas may be less arbitrary than we have been led to believe. It may be that Jesus actually was born on Christmas day!

When it comes down to it, though, whether Christmas replaced pagan holidays or whether pagan holidays tried to replace Christmas, and whether Christ was really born on December 25 or not, what matters is how we celebrate the holiday. It is with a good conscience that we rejoice at this time in the birth of our Savior, however much the naysayers may protest. Be of good cheer and rejoice this year with all the Christian Church in Jesus’ birth!

Pastor Neuendorf

 




November 2016

Observing All Saints’ Day with Blessing

On the first Sunday of November, we typically observe All Saints’ Day, which falls officially on November 1 (hence the term for October 31 “Halloween,” i.e., “All Hallows’ Eve” or “All Saints’ Eve”). As a church holiday, All Saints’ Day has rather superstitious roots. It was intended as a day to lump together all of those saints who could no longer fit on the calendar of the Church Year, not unlike our Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The term “saints” was understood as referring to all those who had made it straight to heaven and, not being bound in purgatory, were able to work miracles for those on earth who prayed to them. By celebrating all the saints at once, it was hoped that the faithful could obtain the saints’ favor and assistance even without calling upon them individually by name.

By Luther’s day, there was an added superstition surrounding All Saints’ Day. Luther’s patron, Frederick the Wise of Saxony, held the largest collection of relics (body parts and mementos of the saints) in the world, and anyone who venerated, or payed their respects to, every relic in Frederick’s collection on All Saints’ Day would receive a generous indulgence, i.e., time off their sufferings in purgatory. This was why Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the eve of All Saints’ Day: he was calling into question the whole system of indulgences embodied in the collection of relics housed within the very church where he posted them.

Why, then, do we in the Lutheran Church continue to observe a holiday that involves so much superstition? The answer is that we have reinterpreted the significance of the holiday. No longer do we view it as a “catch all” for saints not listed on our calendar. Nor do we regard it as a special observance of those who are not in purgatory—we don’t believe in purgatory, because it has no foundation in Scripture. Nor do we take it as a time to earn indulgences by venerating the relics of the saints. No, we observe all saints by remembering the biblical use of the term “saint” as referring to everyone, living and dead, who by faith in Jesus Christ is holy (the word “saint” most simply means “holy”).

When we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we do so with the joyous understanding that we are still members of the Communion of Saints, the Holy Christian Church. When we receive the Lord’s Supper on this day, we are entering into fellowship with all the saints who feast on Christ by faith, including those who have departed this life. All Saints’ Day for us is a time to reflect on the heavenly reality that all Christians who have departed this life in the faith are now in paradise with their Savior, and that we are destined to join them if we continue in that faith.

God grant us all a blessed observance of All Saints’ Day, wiping away ever tear from our eyes, not through the deception of vain superstitions, but through the pure consolation of His sure Word. Amen.

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 




October 2016

Some Principles of Christian Outreach

Our Outreach Committee has recently begun planning in earnest for activities geared toward getting the message of our congregation out into the community in which God has placed us. I am very pleased about these efforts, and I pray God that they may bear much fruit in keeping with His good and gracious will. One of those efforts which you will be hearing a lot about in the coming weeks is the Neighborhood Giveaway. I am particularly enthusiastic about this effort because I believe it embodies some of the chief principles of Christian outreach: it is local, it is not self-interested, and it is unconditional.

Christian outreach is local. Of course, every congregation is called to be involved in foreign mission work as much as they are able. Every one of us owes our Christian faith—and thus our portion in eternal life—to some congregation’s foreign mission work, beginning with that of the church in Antioch, which sent St. Paul to Asia Minor and Europe. But every congregation is also called to minister to the needs of those among whom God has placed them. St. Paul urges the Galatian congregations to “do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). But that “especially” does not negate the “all men.” Service to the poor, both within and without the Christian congregation, is perhaps the single most basic and oft-admonished good work that characterizes our faith as truly living and active, and not a dead faith of mere words. I praise God that we are seizing opportunities to be of service to those who are right here among us and in need of a helping hand.

Christian outreach is not self-interested. We do not preach the Gospel and provide for bodily needs that our congregation may grow, that we may prosper, or that our budget may increase. We preach the Gospel and provide for bodily needs because God commands it and our neighbors need it. The giveaway that we are planning is not a fundraiser with the object of making money off customers, nor is it a recruitment tool through which we hope to expand our membership. It is an opportunity for service. Our object is to benefit others, not ourselves. And here is an interesting paradox: if we engage in outreach with the purpose of getting people into our congregation, our outreach will be less effective because those we reach will be able to tell that we are expecting something from them and they are being “sold to.” But if we engage in outreach with the purpose of benefiting the bodies and, yes, the souls of our neighbors, they will be able to tell that we have only their best interests at heart, and they will therefore be more likely to want to explore the possibility of membership at our congregation! Remember, the giveaway we are planning is not bait intended to lure people in. It is service from beginning to end. Only when it is and remains pure service will it also be effective outreach.

Christian outreach is unconditional. Our giveaway will benefit any who come to us for help. We will not ask whether they are Christians. We will not require attendance at a certain number of church services. We will not require that they hear a message first. We will simply be generous to them. To be sure, we will provide them with materials that make clear who we are and why we do what we do. They will know that our generosity stems from the new life that we have been given in Christ, who loved us and gave Himself for us. But as Christ loved and served us before we could possibly love and serve Him, so we will love and serve our neighbors whether they reciprocate or not. This is love—no strings attached!

May God prosper our efforts as He pleases, for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ! Amen.

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 

 

 

 




September 2016

How Do We Know God?

Saving faith is much more than believing that God exists. Saving faith means trusting in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Sacrifice for the sin of the world, whose blood reconciles you to God through the forgiveness of sins. But such saving faith is impossible without believing that God exists in the first place.

How do we know that God exists? There are a number of proofs that can demonstrate God’s existence logically. One is the argument from causality. Everything is caused by something else in one way or another. I was caused by my parents, who were caused by their parents, and so on down the line. But eventually that chain of causes has to stop somewhere. It can’t just keep extending farther and farther back into an ever more remote past. There has to be something that has caused everything else, something that itself has no cause—an uncaused cause. That uncaused cause is what we call God.

Of course, just knowing that God caused everything doesn’t tell us much about Him. There are other helpful arguments that can get us a little farther. One is the argument from design. If you were to find a watch on the seashore, would it be more logical to imagine that the functioning timepiece was assembled spontaneously by the motion of the waves sweeping debris together, or that some intelligent person designed and built that watch? There are magnificent designs throughout the universe. In fact, theoretical physicists tell us that the very fabric of the universe itself is an astonishingly intricate and precise design by some intelligence. That intelligence, the force behind such structures as the eye, the cell, and even reality itself, is what we call God.

We can also know a lot about God’s character. Every one of us has a conscience, which testifies to us about what’s right and what’s wrong. We all know that we are answerable to someone for our actions. We are all burdened with a sense of guilt where we have erred, and we are all desperate to show ourselves to be in the right. That sense of goodness we can trace back to God, who gave us our consciences and wrote His law in our hearts. The righteous and good source of all righteousness and goodness, the architect of the conscience, is what we call God.

And yet, as we lie dying in our beds, the thought that God is the Uncaused Cause, the Intelligent Designer, the Author of the Law, is but cold comfort. It may be easy to convince our intellects of God’s existence, but our hearts take rather more work. What comforts us in times of trial is not clever arguments, but an actual, direct, and personal knowledge of God.

How do we know God directly and personally? Through His Word and through prayer. When we hear and learn God’s Word, we are entering into an encounter with the Living God. We hear His voice and know who is speaking. When we come to Him in prayer, we call upon Him who made us and the world in which we live, who has a claim upon us as our Maker and Redeemer. We come to know God as we know a friend or a family member, as someone real whose existence we can take for granted.

It is therefore important that we take the time now, when we have the chance, to get to know God. Read His Scriptures regularly. Gather every week, if possible, with your fellow saints to hear God’s Word in the public assembly of the congregation. Pray at least every morning and every evening. Through your regular encounter with the Living God, when it comes time to pass through the valley of the shadow of death, you will do so not with an intellectual concept, but with a familiar Friend.

In Christ's Love,

Pastor Neuendorf

 




July 2016

Closed Communion: How Do We Practice It When We Travel?

We all know that as a congregation of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, Holy Cross follows the historical and biblical practice of closed Communion. I administer the Lord’s Supper only to those who are publicly united with us in our confession of faith and who repent of their sins. This leads, of course, to some awkward moments, and it can be difficult to explain our practice to other faithful Christians who are unable to commune at our altar, but Jesus never promised us that faithfulness to Him would be easy!

But what about when we ourselves are in attendance at other congregations? Closed Communion works both ways. Not only do we administer the Lord’s Supper only to those who are in public agreement with our confession of faith, but we also do not approach the altars of churches outside our fellowship. To do so would be to engage in a false expression of unity when in fact disunity prevails, and to unite ourselves with false doctrine. If I, for example, commune in a congregation of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), that means that I am expressing my own agreement with the false teachings of their church, such as women’s ordination, abortion rights, and same-sex marriage.

What does that mean for us in practice? It means a couple of things. First of all, and most obviously, when we are traveling, or when we are visiting the churches of our friends and family members who are not within our fellowship, we are not to approach the altar for the Lord’s Supper. This doesn’t have to be done offensively. There’s no need to make a scene. We just remain quietly in the pews throughout the distribution of Holy Communion, and if we are in a church where the Supper is distributed directly to the pews, we simply pass the bread and wine along without partaking. If someone has questions about your decision to decline to receive the Lord’s Supper with them, offer to talk about it after the service. You can even refer them to me. Feel free to share my contact information with anyone who asks you about your practice of closed Communion.

Our practice of closed Communion also means that we will show courtesy to other congregations and pastors within our fellowship. When you are visiting a Missouri Synod congregation, make sure that the pastor knows who you are well before the service begins. Take a moment to introduce yourself, and make sure you include the following information: that you are a member in good standing of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa, a congregation of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Only approach the altar if the pastor invites you to do so. If for some reason you are unable to speak to the pastor beforehand, for the sake of his conscience do not approach the altar that morning. Ideally, however, you can approach the altar with his knowledge and permission. What a beautiful expression of unity within our fellowship for faithful members of sister congregations to be able publicly to commune together!

If you cannot commune for any reason, remember that you can still benefit from reflecting upon what it is that is given at a Christian altar, and why. Remember that Jesus’ body and blood were offered up on the cross as a sacrifice for your sins, and that there are distributed to us for our forgiveness, life, and salvation. Such an exercise of faith is possible whether we commune or not, and leads to great blessedness.

Closed Communion is difficult to practice, both as a pastor and as a layman. But by following those brief guidelines, we can make it easier for everyone concerned, while also maintaining faithfulness to our Lord Jesus Christ. As always, let us continue to pray for the visible unity of all Christendom in the true confession of the faith on every point, so that we may all commune together. And let us take heart in the knowledge that in the life to come, all error will fall away and we will all be in perfect unity.

In His love,

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 

 




June 2016

Should Forgiveness Be Conditional?

We in the Lutheran Church delight in the free forgiveness of sins. You might even say that our emphasis on the free forgiveness of sins is what, more than anything else, actually makes us Lutherans. In fact, the chief reason that we continually gather as a congregation, week after week, is to hear and receive that forgiveness, which, because it eternally unites us with our God in Christ, is more precious to us than life itself.

But whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminded that God expects us, too, to forgive as He has forgiven us: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Does this mean that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiveness? Could we rightly say, “If we forgive others, then God will forgive us”? Surely not. God’s forgiveness does not come to us as a consequence of our forgiveness toward others. Jesus makes this clear in His parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23–35): the king forgave the servant’s debt first, before the servant could do anything good or bad to his fellow servants. So also God starts by forgiving us who are unworthy of forgiveness. In the parable, it was only after the forgiven servant imprisoned his fellow servant for failure to pay off a much smaller debt that the king rescinded his forgiveness. The lesson for us, as the parable concludes, is, “So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). Rather than say that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiveness, we should rather say that God’s withdrawal of forgiveness is conditional upon our withdrawal of forgiveness from others. God forgives freely, without any merit or worthiness in us, but He holds our sins against us if we afterwards reject His mercy and impenitently treat others with cruelty as a result of our unbelief.

 

 

 

There is something else at play here, too: repentance. When the king in the parable first summons the servant to settle accounts, he doesn’t start by forgiving the debt. He starts by threatening the servant with slavery. Only after the threat of punishment does the servant prostrate himself before the king in repentance, and only after the servant repents does the king freely forgive him. So also God does not forgive those who do not repent, and His forgiveness comes only to those who, having been terror-struck by the punishments threatened in the law, beg God for forgiveness and throw themselves upon His mercy in Christ. Repentance is not a good work by which we merit God’s forgiveness. It is rather the means, the tool, by which we receive the forgiveness that Christ has won for the entire world—and it is a tool that must be wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, since no one can repent of his own power.

When others sin against us, we ought to do good to them, as God does good to the righteous and the unrighteous alike, rewarding good for evil, and we ought to be ready in our hearts to forgive them, as God is ready to forgive the entire world. But we need not worry that we are failing in our Christian duty when we withhold forgiveness from those who will not repent for the wrong they have done us. We do not hold grudges, and we do not allow anger and bitterness to consume us, but neither do we act as if no sin has been committed, no wrong perpetrated. The erasure of wrongs comes only when forgiveness has been granted through repentance.

This becomes especially clear when we consider the duty of pastors to forgive sins in Jesus’ name. Jesus did not simply command His disciples to forgive sins indiscriminately. Rather He said, “Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:23). As Luther explains in the Catechism, pastors are to “retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent,” and “exclude manifest and impenitent sinners from the Christian congregation.”

That is why Missouri Synod pastors used to add the following words to the absolution at the beginning of the Sunday service: “I … announce the grace of God unto all of you who do heartily repent of your sins, believe in Jesus Christ, and sincerely and earnestly intend by the help of God the Holy Ghost henceforth to amend your sinful lives, and in the stead…” These words were translated from the German services inherited from the earliest Lutherans. They have since been omitted so as to reinforce the truth that God’s forgiveness is unconditional, but in an age when the only sin is “judging” others (i.e., acknowledging that sinful behavior is, well, sinful), it might be well to add them again. Forgiveness does not come to those who will not repent, since impenitence is simply a manifestation of unbelief. Nor do I as your pastor have the authority to forgive your sins if you intend to continue in a sinful life.

So in an ethical sense, God’s forgiveness truly is unconditional: He does not require good works as a condition of forgiveness. In an instrumental sense, however, God’s forgiveness comes to us through means, viz., through faith in His Son, which always expresses itself through repentance and through works of love toward the neighbor. God grant us repentance and faith by His Spirit, that we may forever rejoice in the free gift of forgiveness for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ! Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 




May 2016

 The Filioque (What?!)

Last month, I shared with you some of the background of the thesis I’ve been working on for the STM degree at our Fort Wayne seminary. This month, I’d like to give you a glimpse into some of the interesting conclusions I’ve drawn as a result of my research. As it turns out, the filioque is a very important doctrine of the Lutheran Church, even if most of us have never heard of it (and believe it or not, most present-day Lutheran theologians and pastors have given very little thought to it!).

To sum up, the filioque is the teaching that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son together. That is to say, from all eternity the Holy Spirit has His origin from both the Father and the Son, and not from the Father alone. In John 15:26, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father.” The word “proceeds” here doesn’t just mean that the Spirit comes from the Father into the world. It actually means that the Spirit originates in the Father. Another way that theologians will speak about this is to say that the Spirit is “breathed” by the Father (one meaning of the word “spirit” is “breath”). As human breath originates in the man who breathes, so the Holy Spirit originates in the Father who breathes Him forth. But the Father who breathes forth the Spirit is one God with His Son. This means that it is the Father and the Son together who as one God breathe forth the Spirit, eternally bringing Him into being.

It is important to keep this in mind when we think about the filioque. When all we say is that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son,” as we confess in the Nicene Creed, it’s easy to get the idea that the Father and the Son are to be seen as two different sources, as if each breathes on His own and their breath meets in a confluence that is the Holy Spirit. This, however, is not the teaching of the Lutheran Church. Rather, it is because “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) that the Spirit proceeds from the Son as from the Father. He proceeds from them, not as from two distinct sources, but as from one God.

This is why the Scriptures can call the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of the Father” (Matt. 10:20), the “Spirit of His Son” (Gal. 4:6), and also the “Spirit of God” (Rom. 8:14). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of both the Father and the Son because He is the Spirit of God. These, by the way, are only representative verses. There are many more that could be referenced in each category!  It is also why the Scriptures speak of the Father sending the Son (John 20:21), and of the Father and the Son both sending the Spirit (John 14:26; John 15:26), but never of the Spirit sending the Son, and never of anyone sending the Father. What gives one divine person the authority to send another divine person? How can one person within the Godhead have authority over another? It’s not that the Father is greater in honor than the Son and the Spirit, or that the Father and the Son are greater in honor than the Spirit. No, they are all of equal honor and majesty, being all one God. What gives the Father authority to send the Son, and what gives the Father and the Son authority to send the Spirit, is their manner of origin, the ways in which they eternally come into being. The Father originates from no one, so He is under the authority of no one. The Son originates from the Father alone, so He is under the authority of the Father alone. The Spirit originates from the Father and the Son, so He is under the authority of the Father and the Son.

Finally, this relationship of origin and authority is why Jesus names the persons of the Trinity the way He does, commanding His Apostles to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Why did He not say, “In the name of the Son and of the Spirit and of the Father,” or some other order? Because there is a specific order within the Trinity, an order that is not due to honor or majesty or power or might, and can only therefore be due to origin. The Father originates from no one, so He is first; the Son originates from the Father alone, so He comes second; the Spirit originates from the Father and the Son, so He comes third. And yet together they are one God, sharing the one divine name.

It may be tempting to ask why any of this matters. What does it have to do with us? Well, the early Lutherans thought it mattered, and they were unwilling to compromise with the Greek Orthodox Church on this teaching. They thought it mattered because without distinguishing the persons of the Trinity in terms of origin, we would be forced to distinguish them in some other way, which would threaten their perfect equality within the Godhead. They thought it mattered because to deny that the Father shares with the Son the breathing forth of the Spirit is to suggest that the Father can do things without the Son, which threatens Jesus’ teaching that “I and the Father are one.” They thought it mattered simply because they found it to be taught in Holy Scripture, and whatever the Scriptures teach is important for us to learn. And they thought it mattered because it concerns the nature of God.

This last point is worthy of our special consideration. What could possibly be more important to us than our God? What could possibly matter more to us than the God who created, redeemed, and sanctified us? Contemplation of divine mysteries such as this may be difficult, but there is great blessing in recognizing that such contemplation soars far above the things of this world. Paradoxically, by having absolutely nothing to do with the frivolities of this earthly life, contemplation of the Holy Trinity is the most relevant thing imaginable to every one of us.

Never tire of studying God as He has revealed Himself to you in His Word. Never weary of contemplating His divine essence, nor of adoring the three Persons who desire above all else your salvation from sin and death and your eternal communion with God. After all, once we enter into the blessed life to come, the contemplation of God will still be an inexhaustible font of joy and gladness. Reflecting on the mystery of the Holy Trinity is to taste of heaven.

In Christ's Love,

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




April 2016

A Theological Oddity

For the past five years, I’ve been working off and on to complete my thesis, required for the STM (Master of Sacred Theology) degree at our Fort Wayne seminary. You may remember that Holy Cross graciously allowed me to delay my ordination and installation back in 2011 so that I could complete my thesis first. Unfortunately, I only got it about half done. Since then, I’ve worked on it as I’ve been able—which hasn’t been much. Now it’s due mid-April if I am to graduate from the STM program, so with the end of Holy Week I’ve been trying to play catch-up. I thought it might be worthwhile to give my congregation a brief glimpse into what I’ve been writing about.

When I started my thesis, I was working on one theologian’s approach to the teaching on the Holy Spirit in general. That was largely because I was fortunate enough to be in possession of that theologian’s chief writings on the Spirit in the original Latin. Since then, however, I’ve found that there’s a wide range of sixteenth and seventeenth-century sources available as scans from German libraries. That has allowed me to broaden the sources I’ve consulted and narrow my doctrinal focus to one question regarding the Holy Spirit: the filioque.

If you’ve never heard of the filioque before, that’s quite understandable (though I’d be very impressed if you have!). It’s a Latin word that comes from our version of the Nicene Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit … who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Those words “and the Son” (filioque in Latin) were not originally a part of the creed. They were added by Latin-speakers in the sixth century in order to safeguard the divinity of Jesus, since there were those at that time who claimed that since the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, the Son must be less than fully God. If the Spirit proceeds from the Son, that is, if He eternally derives His existence from the Son, then the Son must be fully God.

The Greek Church, however, took offense at the addition of the filioque. Over the course of several centuries, a serious controversy developed over whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone. The controversy finally led to the ongoing split between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Since the Lutheran Church comes from the Roman Catholic Church, we have inherited the filioque from them.

When I first left the Orthodox Church to become a Lutheran, my biggest difficulty was saying the filioque in the Creed. It bothered my conscience so much that for a while I just didn’t say it. But eventually I came to the conclusion that when Lutherans say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, we’re not talking about His eternal procession, but about His being sent in time. That soothed my conscience until well into seminary.

One day, however, as I discussed this with my vicarage supervisor, he urged me to reread our dogmatics textbook on this question. I did, and what I found stunned me: the Lutheran Church has always believed, taught, and confessed that the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son, deriving His divine essence from both. I had to study that further.

Next month I plan to give you a further glimpse into some of the conclusions I’ve drawn as I’ve researched the filioque in the Lutheran tradition.

In Christ's Love,

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 

 

 

 




March 2016

Contending for the Faith

The Lutheran Church has always confessed that saving faith in Jesus Christ is a gift of the Holy Spirit that comes to us only by the grace of God. In fact, all three persons of the Godhead are cited in the Scriptures as having the initiative in our salvation. "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (John 6:44). "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him" (Matthew 11:27). "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). Our salvation, and thus our faith in Christ, is entirely in God's hands. 

But does that mean that we ought to sit back and let God do His work of salvation without being involved at all? Well, when it comes to our own salvation, we ought not to "resist the Holy Spirit" (Acts 7:51), but as St. Paul tells us, "work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12–13). God's work toward us, and our God-wrought response to His work, go hand in hand. He is responsible for it, but He doesn't save us without actually engaging our own wills. 

That informs how we relate to others as well. We are not to remain inactive and expect God to convert people out of nowhere. Rather, St. Peter tells us to "be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). That "defense" of which St. Peter speaks is what we call "apologetics," which really just means arguing for what we believe, or contending for the faith. 

Apologetics doesn't create faith. Rather it tears down intellectual barriers to the proclamation of the Gospel. For example, someone who believes that life evolved from nothing over billions of years would be unable to believe what the Scriptures say about the creation of the world (a creation that Jesus affirms; Matthew 19:4), and would therefore also have a difficult time believing what the Scriptures say about Jesus and our forgiveness through faith in Him. By engaging in the apologetic task of poking holes in the theory of evolution, and showing how the scriptural account can be reconciled with nature as we observe it, we serve as God's instruments in paving the way to a blessed hearing of the Gospel. And by presenting the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, we can remove those intellectual arguments by which the devil keeps his subjects bound in unbelief. 

In fact, the very idea that we can argue for the resurrection of Jesus based on actual evidence gets at the heart of a major gulf that separates Christianity from some other religions. For instance, in Islam, adherents are expected to believe that Muhammad received private revelations from the angel Gabriel, though there were no other witnesses. And in Mormonism, adherents are expected to take it on blind faith that Joseph Smith used supernatural spectacles to translate text written in a language recorded nowhere else in the world on golden tablets that were then taken into heaven with no one else ever seeing them. In contrast to these made up religions, in Christianity we have a Savior who "appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time" (1 Corinthians 15:6), and we receive the testimony, not of one man, but of the whole company of the disciples. 

Again, you can't argue someone to faith in Christ. But God uses your bold confession to wrest control of hearts from Satan and make straight the path before His Son. And when it comes time for our final battle against the flesh in our departure from this life, we can set aside intellectual arguments and rest in the Spirit's proclamation of the Word in our hearts, as He "bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Romans 8:16). Only that blessed argument of the Spirit of God will finally bring us eternally into His presence. In the meantime, God grant us boldness in proclaiming the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light!

Amen.

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




February 2016

The Prayer of a Christian Wife

Last month I shared the prayer of a husband from a prayer book published early in the twentieth century by Concordia Publishing House. Now I would like to share with you that prayer’s counterpart, the prayer of a wife. For all its beauty, this prayer might appear offensive to those formed by today’s heathen society, which acknowledges none of the distinctions that God has built into the relationship between men and women, husbands and wives. A Christian, however, who is formed by the Word of God and who loves the Law of the Lord according to the inward man, will recognize in this prayer a true godly spirit of submission to God’s will and peace in His promises:

O BENIGNANT GOD and faithful Father, since Thou in grace hast   called me to domestic duties in holy wedlock, a state in which I can also serve and please Thee, O my God—give grace unto me, Thy servant, that I may constantly keep Thy fear before mine eyes, also love and trust in Thee, my Creator and Redeemer, above all things; but in second place fear, honor, and love my husband, not coveting any other. Do Thou grant that according to Thy decree my will be subject to that of my husband, yielding to him with all readiness, and that my heart be ever graced with that mild, peaceful spirit and those manifold virtues shown by the holy women of ancient days, who placed their hope in God and were subject to their husbands. Grant to me, Thine handmaid, a chaste and proper walk in fear and humility, so that I may, with kind and modest words and in a gentle spirit of piety, prevent or allay any wrath or ill humor of my husband, ever treating him with gentleness and forbearance. May I rear my children and domestics in a mild spirit to the praise and glory of Thy holy name, and may they readily follow my guidance to what is noble and good. Grant, furthermore, that I may be a true helpmeet to my husband, being careful and not wasteful with the substance Thou hast graciously given us. Also grant that I work and exert myself, that I "have to give to him that needeth," and may extend my hand in charity to the poor. Preserve us from dishonest laborers and evil-minded domestics, who would diminish or waste our property. Also bestow grace, I pray Thee, for a patient bearing of my cross, so that I do not grow timid and dismayed at prospects of a trial, inasmuch as by trials and adversities our faith is proved. O Lord God, into Thine almighty hand I commit myself, my dear husband, all my children and domestics; preserve us, I pray Thee, from sin, shame, and all ills, through Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

The first assumption in this prayer that might shock modern heathen sensibilities is that the wife is to show her husband fear, honor, and love, “in second place” after the fear, love, and trust reserved for God alone. Shocking as this may be to our unbelieving friends and neighbors, this is a scriptural way of speaking. St. Peter holds up the example of Sarah, who “obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (1 Peter 3:6), and St. Paul writes that “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3). As Christ is to the husband, so is the husband to his wife! How can this be? Are Sts. Peter and Paul, and the wife in this prayer, advocating idolatry? No more so than when God commands children in the Fourth Commandment to honor their parents. All honor belongs to God alone, but because God has placed our parents and rulers in authority over us, we honor God by honoring them, for they rule in God’s stead and by His command. Likewise God has placed husbands in authority over their wives, and wives by honoring their husbands show honor to God. Blessed is the wife who can pray with the wife in this prayer: “Give grace unto me, Thy servant, that I may … in second place fear, honor, and love my husband.”

Another shocking element in this prayer is the wife’s request that God would help her to “prevent or allay any wrath or ill humor of my husband, ever treating him with gentleness and forbearance.” Is it really the wife’s responsibility to keep her husband from getting angry? Our heathen society teaches us that if a husband is wrathful and unpleasant, his wife should leave him for the sake of her own happiness. But we Christians are called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) and to bear all things (1 Corinthians 13:7). Yes, even if it appears unreasonable, a Christian wife will do what she can to keep from angering her husband, even as husbands are called to be gentle toward their wives: “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (Colossians 3:19). God will surely hold to terrible account husbands who are abusive toward their wives in word or deed, but Christian wives will not unnecessarily egg on their husbands and tempt them to wrath.

It is good to remember, however, that though man and wife stand in a relationship of authority and submission as long as their earthly marriage endures, nevertheless before God they stand on equal footing. As St. Paul writes, “There is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Thus the wife in this prayer asks, as did the husband in the prayer that I shared last month, for patience under the cross. Man and wife alike are called to bear their crosses, and both are called to remain faithful to God and to one another even in the midst of the fiery trial. Both are sustained on the Word of God, and both will inherit the crown of everlasting life through faith in Jesus Christ. As St. Peter writes to Christian husbands about their wives, “they are heirs with you of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7).

God grant that we all live as we are called, according to His holy Word, purging out the old leaven of this world’s rebellion and rejoicing in the vocations in which He has placed us, looking forward with joy to our final calling in the life to come.

Amen.

Pastor Neuendorf

 




January 2016

Christian Prayers: The Godly Husband

I recently came across an old Lutheran prayer book, published by Concordia Publishing House in the 1920s. I was struck by the beauty and godly spirit of the prayers contained in this tiny volume, so much so that I would like to share some of these prayers with my congregation.

First, though, a word about the use of prayer books like this. Some prayers are intended to be memorized and prayed word for word.

These would include the Lord’s Prayer, Luther’s morning and evening prayers, and the blessing before and after a meal. There are, however, much longer and more in-depth prayers intended to give us a feel for how to pray rather than to serve word for word as our own prayers. My recommendation would be to start by praying these prayers as you read them. After praying through them a few times, as the ideas and phrases sink in, you will begin to feel comfortable praying them from your heart, adapting the words and ideas to your own circumstances.

The first prayer that I will share is intended for husbands:

ALMIGHTY, Beneficent God, Thou hast Thyself instituted holy wedlock, and hast, by means of the first miracle of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ, honored and distinguished it as a state pleasing to Thee, in which also many sainted fathers and prophets lived a godly life, well-pleasing to Thee. And since by Thy guidance I have entered holy matrimony, and Thou hast ordained me to be the head of a household and dost take especial delight in the following of three things: that brethren dwell together in unity, that neighbors love one another, and that husband and wife serve each other in love, I now pray Thee, from the inmost of my heart grant that I, in Christian love, harmony, and consideration live with my wife as the weaker vessel, that I accord to her the honor due her as co-heir to the grace of life eternal, that

I incline her, together with our children and domestics to a knowledge of Thee and Thine honor, doing all this in chastity and propriety. To this end do Thou bestow grace, that the members of my household follow my guidance when I direct them to what is good and godly. Prevent the evil one from introducing discord and contention, and if, through weakness of the flesh, the spirit of discord get the upper hand, grant that harmony be speedily restored. Graciously grant that I may never covet a strange spouse or woman, nor look upon her to lust after her. If it is Thy divine will, keep sickness from me and my family. And grant to me, Thine humble servant, that I be diligent in my calling, eat my bread in the sweat of my brow, and do not grow disheartened over stress of work, for Thou hast so ordained it. And bestow Thy blessing upon my substance, that it may increase without damage or loss to others. Favor me with pious servants and faithful laborers. Preserve from harm my house and my home and all Thou hast given me. Also help me patiently to bear my cross, and after this life gather us and all Christians in Thy kingdom above. Amen.

Note some of the themes found in this prayer. A godly husband asks God for a harmonious household, free of discord and strife. He prays that God would grant him chastity and decency, that the marriage bed may be kept pure. He prays for the gift of leadership, that he may serve faithfully and well as the head of his wife and of his household. He prays for the eternal salvation of all those under His care. Finally, he prays for the temporal blessings of the health and prosperity of his household, and for patience should it be God’s will to withhold those blessings for a time. We husbands would do well to incorporate these themes into our own prayers.

Next month I will share a prayer for wives. God bless the households of Holy Cross, keeping us steadfast in his Word and faith unto our end!

Amen.

Pastor Neuendorf

 

 

 

 

 

 




December 2015

Church Attendance and the Christian Life

Part IV: The Holy Sacraments

So far we have learned how God requires church attendance according to the Third Commandment; how Jesus founded not an individual reading plan but a Church, that is, a community of believers who actually gather together; and how every Christian is placed under the care of a pastor who will be answerable for his soul at the Final Judgment. This month, we’ll end our series on Church Attendance and the Christian Life with a look at something you can get in church and nowhere else: the holy sacraments.

The single most important thing to every Christian in this life is the Word of God, for it is God’s Word alone that shall endure forever (Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:25), even as the rest of the world gives way, and it is in God’s Word that we find eternal life through the forgiveness of our sins for Jesus’ sake. God’s Word is communicated to us chiefly through writing, that is, through the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, and through faithful preaching, which takes the message of the Scriptures and applies it directly to us. The Scriptures we can read by ourselves, and preaching we can hear on the radio or online. But the Word of God is also communicated to us through the visible means of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

One thing about Baptism and Communion is that we cannot administer them to ourselves. To be baptized, we require someone else to pour water over us in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And to commune in the body and blood of Jesus, we require a pastor to consecrate bread and wine using the words left to us in Jesus’ last will and testament, the Words of Institution (“Our Lord Jesus Christ, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread…”). Through Holy Baptism we are reborn of water and the Spirit and thus receive the forgiveness of sins. Through Holy Communion we receive the forgiveness of sins and with it life and salvation. These are undeniably important things in the life of a Christian, and one who willfully neglects these sacraments is no Christian at all. And to receive these sacraments, we need to gather where they are administered: with our Christian brethren in church!

Of course, some of our members are physically unable to join us in church. In such cases I bring Holy Communion to them at their own residences. But far from suggesting that church attendance is unnecessary, this only goes to show how critically important are the things that we can only receive when we gather with fellow Christians. I will do whatever it takes to make sure that those under my care can regularly receive the sacraments that Christ has instituted. In the vast majority of cases, that means the public preaching and administration of the sacraments that takes place in our regular gatherings, that is, in church.

If you have strayed from the gathering of saints at Holy Cross; if you have particular hang-ups that keep you from our weekly assemblies; if you have simply fallen out of the habit of getting up on Sunday mornings (or coming on Saturday evenings!) to worship the God who loved you, redeemed you, and sanctified you for eternal life—please consider this your wakeup call. When I call to encourage you to join us in church, please pick up the phone, reply to your messages, and do what you can to get back into a pattern of regular church attendance. Don’t worry about how our faithful members will respond when they see you again after a long absence. If their excitement at seeing you fills you with embarrassment and self-consciousness, don’t let that get in the way of your reception of God’s blessings in Christ. If you’re expecting them to show more excitement than they do, don’t let your hurt feelings keep you from receiving the precious gifts that Christ has prepared for you. What a tragedy for someone to be condemned on the Last Day because he didn’t like the attitude of a fellow Christian one Sunday morning and so renounced the Word of God! It may take some time to adjust to getting back into church, but the rewards are of such surpassing worth that we would die for them a thousand times. Surely we can come to church once a week. I hope to see many of our straying sheep back among us in the weeks to come. I am praying steadfastly for that very thing, and I ask all of our faithful members to pray for the same. God grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Yours in Jesus Christ our Lord,

Pastor Neuendorf




November 2015

Church Attendance and the Christian Life
Part III: The Necessity of Pastoral Care

For the last two months, we've been learning about how very necessary church attendance is for the Christian life. We've learned that God commands church attendance in the Third Commandment, and that not coming to church is a sin for which repentance is required. We've learned that Jesus instituted His Church as a household of brothers and sisters in Christ, who gather together to hear and learn His Word, and to encourage and be encouraged by one another. This month, we'll learn about another necessary component of church attendance: pastoral care.

Do you have a pastor? Of course, if you're a member of Holy Cross, I am your pastor. But have you seen me lately? Have you been spiritually fed by the Word of God that He has entrusted me to preach for your benefit? Have you received from me the blessed Sacrament of our Lord's Body and Blood in Holy Communion? If not, you might well wonder if you really have a pastor at all.

Having a pastor is not optional for Christians. St. Paul writes that our ascended Lord gave "pastors and teachers" as gifts to men (Ephesians 4:8, 11), that is, to His Church. What does it say about our devotion to our Lord if we despise the gift that He has given us and never come to see and hear our pastor? St. Paul also said to the pastors of the congregation in Ephesus, "Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the Church of God, which He obtained with His own blood" (Acts 20:28). If we are not under the regular care of a man whom God has made an overseer over us, can we really say that we are a part of "the Church of God"? Furthermore, the same Apostle wrote to the Thessalonians, commanding them "to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work" (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). Staying home rather than taking the time and trouble to hear your pastor's sermon and participate in the service he is leading is the opposite of respecting and highly esteeming him whom God has placed over you in the Lord.

There's something else at play, too, when it comes to the necessity of the pastoral office for Christians, something that I as a pastor find very sobering and humbling. The Scriptures resoundingly proclaim that pastors are responsible for their people, so much so that they will have to give an account for the souls under their charge. St. James write, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1). God warns the Prophet Ezekiel, "If I say to the wicked, 'You shall surely die,' and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand" (Ezekiel 3:18). The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls as they that must give an account" (Hebrews 13:17). If you are a Christian, that means that of necessity there is a man whom God has made responsible for your soul. Can you identify such a man in your own life? If not, you are most assuredly not a Christian. If you are a member of Holy Cross and are reading this newsletter right now, your soul has been entrusted to my care, and I will have to give an account before the judgment seat of Christ if you should perish in your sins. If I fail to warn you against your sins, and if I fail to admonish you to repent and believe the Gospel, then God will hold me responsible for your damnation. I believe, though, that I have thus far faithfully discharged my office, and can say with St. Paul, "I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:26-27). I nevertheless pray that all those among us who have drifted away may come finally to repentance and inherit eternal life.

As you can see, having a pastor responsible for your spiritual care is a necessary part of being a Christian. Who would you say is responsible for your soul? Can you identify the man who will have to answer for your soul at the final judgment? If not, you are outside the Church of God, without the hope of salvation. But praise God, you have been given a pastor, and you need only come to him to receive the free forgiveness of sins for Jesus' sake. For those who stubbornly stay away from church, there is only stern judgment and no forgiveness, but for those who return, there is nothing but grace, mercy, forgiveness, and rejoicing in heaven and in the Church of God.

Next month, we'll conclude our series on church attendance and the Christian life by considering something you can get at church and nowhere else: the Holy Sacraments.
 
Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Pastor Neuendorf




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