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Even More Talk From Matthew 24:15-28

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More Talk From Matthew 24:15-28

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What A Sower of Seed Jesus!

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Proper 10 / Pentecost 6                                  Trinity Lutheran Church

12 July 2020                                                     Murdock, NE

 

+ Jesu Juva +

 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

Buckle up folks.  This sermon is going to be quite a ride.  A longer ride than normal.  Just saying!  Give a pastor a pulpit … Are you buckled?  OK.  Let’s go!  It’s all about you being repented, faith-ed, and led to holy living according to God’s Word.  What else is there?

A parable today. Jesus was always telling them.  They are clever little stories. Human analogies about divine things. And what’s quite interesting is that Jesus tells parables to folks that actively scorned Him as the Good Friday Savior and His Good Friday teaching. These people considered Jesus to be a hick.  A rube.  A moron.  A dangerous fool.  So Jesus tells parables so that in seeing they would not see and in hearing they would not hear or comprehend. Those are verses 10-17.  Why the experts left those verses out of the reading is beyond me!  Nonetheless, this is exactly how Jesus does business with a bunch of too big for their britches know-it-alls that don’t want to be taught let alone be divinely given to.  So He rips off a bunch of parabolic riddles so they realize how spiritually foolish they really are.

And right out of the shoot is the parable of the sower and the seed He sows. Let’s get right to it.  A man recklessly throws out seed everywhere. The seed falls on four kinds of places – hard ground, shallow rocky soil, weedy soil, and good soil that’s been tilled. The only soil in which the seed produces anything is the cultivated and tended soil.  That’s the heart that’s been law-ed and gospel-ed.  Killed and made alive.  Repent-ed of sin and faith-ed in Jesus.  It alone produces thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold harvest.

Privately, the disciples ask Jesus about the parable’s meaning.  They are willing to be taught.  They are listening.  Not yet ready to turn their backs on Him and His salvational teaching.  So He gives them the scoop.  The crib sheet. The seed is the Gospel of the kingdom. To put it plainly, the seed the Sower sows is Jesus in the flesh — the promised Seed. The soils — they are the various conditions of the heart.

The hard ground is the callous, unbelieving, hardened heart. Though the Gospel is heard, it bounces right off. This happens when people hear the Good Friday Word of forgiveness in Jesus, but they don’t think they need to be forgiven. I’ve heard it for decades as a pastor.  The conversation runs something like this:

Jesus Christ died for your sins. “Died for my sins? Are you calling me a sinner Kuhlman?” Yes, and Jesus died for sinners, and you qualify. “So YOU ARE calling me a sinner!  How dare you Reverend!  I’m not perfect but I’m certainly not like… who smokes, drinks too much, drops the F bomb incessantly, goes to the casino and cheats on his wife. I love my dog. I’m woke.  I’ve gone green. I donate to the United Way and the Red Cross. I march in the streets for equality.  I wear my facial covering — even to bed and sanitize my hands every five minutes.  Forgiveness? ‘Christ died for sinners?’ Get the *&#$^ out of my house Reverend!”

That is how the hardened heart and Good Friday refusing heart talks. It bears repeating that in the Bible the only unforgivable sin is the refusal to be forgiven. That’s why we need to be reminded on a regular basis that, “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  So, if you don’t believe you are a sinner, then the Gospel is going to ping of your hardened little heart like seed off of rock hard pavement. And then the birds, that is the devil, come along and snatch it away.

Piggybacking off of Jesus comparing the Gospel to bird seed that can be pecked from the sidewalk, Dr. Martin Luther once remarked, and he was absolutely right, that the preaching or sowing of Gospel is like a regional pop up thunderstorm that drops refreshing and life giving rain in a place for a while and then, after people tire of it, get bored with it, blow it off, or reject it the gospel thunderstorm moves on.  And all you’re left with is a drought.  No more gospel rain.   Spiritual dearth and death!

The prophet Amos spoke of it as a famine “of hearing God’s Word.”  Pray that it doesn’t happen here at Trinity or in the church at large. I fear, that we are coming dangerously close to drought conditions. Why do I say that?  Well, we have been conditioned to unconditionally obey our fears, anxieties, panics, trepidations and apprehensions rather than God and His Word.  We have made our feelings and fears into idols.  We only listen to our feelings and fears rather than the Word of Christ! We relentlessly do everything to make sure that we feel good about ourselves rather than dying to ourselves and our feelings that we have shaped into pretend deities.

Well, the explanation of the parable continues.  Some seed falls among the rocks. Very shallow soil. This is shallow hearing of the heart.  A person hears the Gospel of Jesus and is full of joy, joy, joy, joy down in his heart. Faith based on feelings, even joy, is faith with no root. It is a shallow faith that simply cannot endure the heat of persecution, hardships and tests. Falling away from Christianity happens when you use your heart as a barometer of God’s presence and the Spirit’s working. History has proven it over and over again. Faith based on feelings and enthusiasms does not endure.

Unfortunately, American religious soil, hooked with the old Adamic sinful flesh, is particularly shallow, trivial and silly. America’s religious past is shaped by two “great awakenings,” traveling revivals that pushed emotionalism.  In other words, that you had to FEEL forgiven. That you had to have some kind of conversion experience that you could FEEL. Now, don’t misunderstand.  I’m not saying this to downplay feelings. Feelings are part of what it means to be human. However, the emotional is not the equivalent of the spiritual. Emotion many times flows from the spiritual.  Like last Sunday.  I was weeping as I sang the Hymn of the Day.  However, the devil’s trick is to link your feelings with faith.  Be very careful. You cannot base faith only on feelings.

After all, faith based on feelings cannot survive the test of persecution. Faith based on feelings cannot endure under the sword of Islam, the hammer and sickle of Marxism, or fascist tyranny. For faith to be true faith in Jesus alone for salvation faith needs CHRIST’S OBJECTIVE WORD OF PROMISE given to you – in Baptism, Absolution, Communion, and the preaching of the gospel. What you need is a certain and sure external Word of Jesus that promises you salvation no matter how you happen to feel.  Like Mark 16:16:  “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”  Like Matthew 26:26:  “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Like John 3:16:  “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” 

Back to the parable.  Some seed fell among the thorns. The thorns are the cares and concerns of this world and the deceitfulness of riches. Anxieties such as what will we eat or what will we wear even on our faces and mouths. Houses, investments, portfolios, retirement. It’s no coincidence that two rich men that appear in Jesus’ other parables both wind up … WHERE ? In hell! The rich man that ignored Lazarus begging at his gate. And the farmer that dropped dead over the blueprints for his bigger barns to store his bumper crop of grain. St. Paul warned that some people, pursuing riches and gains, had forfeited their own souls.  The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

Here is a good test to see how weedy your soil is:  ask yourself what forbids you from hearing the absolution, the preaching of the gospel and eating and drinking Christ’s Body and Blood every time it is offered? What prevents you from being served all the treasures of heaven by Jesus on Sundays? Whatever that is, you have identified the weeds that are choking the Word and preventing it from being fruitful.

Again, the American spiritual soil hooked with the old Adamic sinful flesh has not been conducive to God’s Word being very fruitful. So many options on Sunday. So many important things to tend to on Sunday. So many ways to amuse ourselves – LITERALLY TO DEATH. We are a nation, generally speaking, of ABC Christians – Anything But Church! We teach our children to do the same thing. They learn at a very early age from their parents to put the pillow, play and work – anything – name it — ahead of worship. So why then are we surprised when our children and grandchildren join cults or become agnostics or atheists.  Anything But Christian.

Even the church has become quite weedy.  Very weedy.  The church these days appears to be more concerned with entertainment, numerical growth and paving the parking lot. Obsessed with property and programs rather than with repentance, forgiveness, and holy living.  If the church dies either here at Trinity Murdock or America, it will not be for lack of resources and programs, but for lack of repentance and faith. We will have choked to death on our own riches.

Then there is the seed that falls on good soil.  This is soil that has felt the blade of the plow. Broken and turned under soil. Hearts repent-ed.  Hearts faith-ed.  Such a soil yields a harvest – 100, 60, 30. It’s the only condition of the soil that is fruitful. Soil that is plowed. Dead soil.

Think about that for a second. Soil is dead. The life, vitalities and energies are not in the soil but in the seed. Seeds are embryonic life. Soil is dead. Soil is just dead stuff. And death is the medium in which the seed springs to life and grows and yields fruit. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” He was referring to His own death on the cross where He laid down His life for the life of the world.

The only soil in which the seed of Gospel, that is Jesus, is productive is dead soil. Plowed under soil. Broken down soil. Soil that can say like St. Paul: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Here is the bottom line:  our hearts must be broken. Repent-ed! Our hands emptied. Our minds cleared before the Gospel of Jesus can bear fruit – 30, 60, 100-fold.

Soil can’t plow itself. Wouldn’t that be great? Self-plowing soil. Gardening made easy. But you gardeners know what you have to do – digging, turning, rototilling. Hardpan ground cannot turn itself into good soil. Rocks do not automatically clear themselves from a field. Weeds do not pluck themselves. Sinners, children of Adam steeped in Adam’s sinful condition, cannot make themselves receptive to the saving Word of Jesus. They will not let Him in no matter how many times He knocks. We do not naturally and willingly repent. We must be driven to it.  Repented and faith-ed by the Lord!

The rototiller of God’s law must plow us under. We need to be broken, turned six feet under, and crushed if the Word of Jesus is going to be fruitful in us – faith-ed. This is why the apostle says, “We rejoice in our sufferings.” This is why you ought to rejoice and be giddy-ly glad when someone confronts you with your sin, when you feel the pangs of guilt and shame, when you get caught red-handed, when you get the taste of your own death in the form of sickness and weakness, when you die to this world losing goods, fame, child, spouse, when the mirror of the Law holds up the ugly truth of what you are in yourself apart from Jesus.

When you find yourself afflicted, persecuted, suffering, whatever it is that plows you under and threatens to kill you, rejoice! Yes, that’s right:  Rejoice! Get down on your knees and thank God for your suffering and misery. Even for this pandemic.  You’re being plowed under by God. You’re being turned into good, productive soil!

No, it won’t make you happy. You won’t feel good about yourself. You won’t have anyone to blame but yourself. You won’t like it one bit when you come to the realization of how poor and miserable a sinner you actually are. I don’t think it was a happy moment when the apostle Paul wrote, “Wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death?”

The good news is that God does not leave the plowed field to lie fallow. The sower sows the seed. Recklessly. All over the place. The word is preached whether men like it or like it not. Whether they listen or listen not. Whether they believe it or believe it not. The Divine Sower casts the word of Jesus, the good news that in Jesus there is forgiveness, life, and salvation. That in Jesus there is no condemnation under the Law. That in Jesus there is peace and hope.

This parable calls for patience on the part of the church. We preach the Word. We baptize. We call people to repentance and faith. Few seem to hear it. Most of it pings off of hardened hearts. Some of it gets a shallow, superficial hearing. Some gets choked out by riches, cares and crises. Hearts grow cold. People fall away. We get discouraged. We stop trusting the Word and start doing it our way instead of God’s way. We try to make the Word more palatable, more pleasing, more relevant, more entertaining.

Instead, we ought to pray that God stir up trouble. That He afflict us with a godly grief that leads to repentance. That He run the plow of the Law straight through our hearts so that we will trust in Jesus with a fruitful hearing of His forgiveness.

And the promise in all this is that Word of the Gospel, that Word who is Jesus, never returns empty but always accomplishes His purpose. You’re dead in yourself but alive to God in Christ. You no longer live but Christ lives in you. Dead soil and living seed means a good harvest – 30, 60, 100-fold come resurrection day. You can count on it.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

 

1 Timothy 3:1-7 Part One

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Stay Christian My Friends

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Proper 9 / Pentecost 5                                        Trinity Lutheran Church

5 July 2020                                                          Murdock, NE

 

+ Jesu Juva +

Matthew 11:25-30

 

Some of the most militant atheists and haters of Christianity are former Christians.  Did you know that?  It’s true.  Why?  Well, it is because these former Christians believed that Christianity is mostly law and precious little gospel.  That Christianity consists mainly of commandments and man-made rules with little or no mercy or forgiveness.  Judged by fulfilling the expectations of others and your performance and accomplishments — not the continual reception of Good Friday salvational gifts.  What you have to do or not do 24-7-365 versus what Jesus did Good Friday-ly and continues to give in His Word of forgiveness especially in the Lord’s Supper.

 

The general scenario in America goes like this and it’s not good.  Jesus is used as Savior on the day of your conversion but after that rarely or never again!  Your Christian life after conversion is all about what YOU do or have to do.  And the Christian faith gets boiled down to a religion of the law.  The law is used as the instrument that ultimately saves you.  And people by the millions put their salvational lives into it.  100% effort.  Nonstop.

 

It’s spiritually deadly!  Why?  Well, because the law incessantly grinds you down.  Relentlessly beats you to a pulp.  Drives you to despair.  Newsflash everyone! Commandments don’t save you!  Instead, they take your sin and make it utterly sinful!  Commandments steroid-ily magnify, amplify, and increase your sin and sinning!  Christianity defined essentially in the way of the law leads to talk like this:  “I’m totally wretched!  Can anyone save me from this body of death?” 

 

Ever felt like that?  Many do.  Untold numbers of Christians, at first on fire for the Lord, eager to hear and study God’s Word, excited to give their hearts and lives to Jesus, and willing to tell others about their faith just give up.  Call it quits.  To heck with this Christianity which puts Good Friday Savior Jesus in the rear view mirror and only pushes Christianity in the way of one’s implementation of living a so-called victorious or purpose driven life.

 

After all, the more these folks tried to keep the law to prove their Christian bona fides, the less and less they kept it.  So they became sick to death – totally burned out of the never ending dos they couldn’t do and the don’ts they couldn’t stop doing!  All the supposed victorious and purpose driven life principles in the way of the law collapsed like a house of cards!  Hypothetically, if there was a statue of you, the “Victorious Purpose Driven Christian” in the public square, it would have to be torn down, covered with the Christian flag and then burned in effigy.

 

Now, I want to give you the highest of pastoral care today.  Don’t give up.  Don’t quit.  Christianity is about a merciful and forgiving Savior.  Not just for the day of your conversion, but all of your Christian life on this earth. Salvation is in the way of the gospel, not of the law.  Christianity isn’t about you.  It’s about Jesus!  It’s about being passively served by Him – with His daily forgiveness and mercy won for you on the cross.  I beseech you therefore, to listen to Jesus in today’s text.  It is the core of Christianity and being a Christian:  “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” 

 

Christian sinner, did you hear the Savior?  He says to you today:  “Come to me.” That’s His way of saying:  “Trust in me with all your sin and sinning.  Hang on to me who hung Good Friday-ly on the tree bearing and answering for all your sin.”  Jesus is the Savior.  Not the law.  Not any of your doing or not doing.

 

So He gently invites you to trust only in Him for salvation against all your sin, death and the devil every day of your life.  After all, He came to you.  Conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Born of the Virgin Mary.  Suffered under Pontius Pilate.  Was crucified, died and was buried.  Yes, Most High God Jesus came to you while you were still sinners and He did the It-Is-Finished-On-The-Cross-Salvation-Job FOR YOU.  He still comes to you.  In His Word and sacraments.  To be Savior FOR YOU still.  You who are burdened and heavy laden with sin and the daily, incessant battle against the world, the devil and your sinful flesh.  He comes to give you rest.  Salvational Sabbath rest.  In the forgiveness of sins that He won on the cross FOR YOU and delivered TO YOU in the Word and sacraments.

 

This is Christianity in simplicity.  And yet Christianity at its best!  All in the way of the gospel:  grace, peace and mercy to you in Jesus.  Jesus is the Savior of sinners.  Even Christian sinners.

 

This is the high pastoral care I want to give you today and as long as I am your pastor.  The gospel is like 100% 24 carat good news, that Jesus died FOR YOU.  All your sin is forgiven because He shed His blood FOR YOU.  Jesus bore the burden of all your shame and guilt in His death.  In response faith is simply given to.  Faith says:  “Amen.  Thanks so much!”

 

I emphasize this because usually when people find out I’m a pastor on the golf course, on the school bus or wherever I’m at on a particular day, the absolute first thing they want to talk about are the RULES!  They tell me that’s why they don’t and won’t go to any church let alone Trinity:  THERE ARE TOO MANY RULES!  And they know they can’t follow them.  Can’t meet the high standard.  That’s not good news.  So they despair.  Or remain angry atheists.

 

Now I think you’re beginning to understand why Jesus blasts off this prayer to His Father:  “I thank you, Father … that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.”  Little children?  Yes!  Little ones trust the words they hear.  You say to your child, “I love you so much,” and he believes it.  You say, “Jesus died for you.  You are saved,” and she believes it.  You say, “I promise to be back and pick you up after work,” and he believes it.  Children believe what they hear!

 

All right you Little Ones here at Trinity.  Listen up!  “Come to me and I will give you rest.”  Sabbath Day Salvational Rest!  Again, just so you take these words seriously, these are the words of JESUS.  This is the same Jesus who rose from the grave on the third day. He knows the Father.  The Father has given Him all authority in heaven and on earth. His Word to you and for you is certain and sure!

 

So come to Jesus today.  He is gentle and humble of heart.  He isn’t some overbearing and demanding pretend deity.  He is the Savior.  The Shepherd.  The Redeemer.

 

He is not interested in one bit about what you can do for Him.  He is only interested in you.  He wants you.  To come to Him with all your burdens.  All your cares.  All your sorrows.  All your brokenness, lostness, doubting.  All your sins and sinning!  Jesus wants it all.  Everything that you carry around each day He wants to be under the yoke of His Good Friday cross where all your burdens were borne by Him and Him alone!

 

When St. Paul, only looked at himself – what he did or didn’t do – his only conclusion was:  “Wretched man that I am!”  Dittos.  And if that’s as far as you get as a Christian, then you’ll despair and call it quits.  You’ll flame out.

 

The good news, no, the BEST NEWS in all the world is the gospel.  The gospel promises that you have been delivered from this body of death by the body of Jesus offered as the one and only sacrifice for all sin and every sinner on the cross; by the body of Jesus that rose victoriously from the grave; by the body of Jesus that reigns at the right hand of God the Father FOR YOU and for YOUR SALVATION – even His very body and blood with the bread and wine for you to eat and drink with His promissory words:  “given and shed for you for the remission of sins.”

 

The Collect for the Day got it so Christian-ly  and comforting-ly right.  It’s so delicious I want to pray it again.  Let’s pray:  “Gracious God, our heavenly Father, Your mercy attends us all our days.  Be our strength and support amid the wearisome changes of this world and at life’s end grant us Your promised rest and the full joys of Your salvation.”

 

Stay Christian my friends!  And always rest in Jesus!  In the Name of Jesus.

 

 

Matthew 24’s Abomination of Desolation

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Statue Talk & Matthew 24:15-28

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Matthew 28’s Teaching Everything Jesus Has Mandated With Regard to the Ordination of Women

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Rejoicing in Matthew 24:14 / A Reprise

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A Theological Opinion Regarding the Pandemic

Facts and Faith: What We Know To Be True in the Face of a Pandemic

A Faculty Opinion in the Tradition of Gutachten

WHEN THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC FINALLY COMES TO A HALT, as all things do, both church and state will likely look back at these times and acknowledge that some decisions made in an attempt to protect the physical health of those entrusted to their care were reasonable, while others were unreason-able. This is to be expected when fallible human beings approach the un-known.

Public officials strive to follow the best scientific and medical advice in establishing policy. We Christians ought to be thankful when they carry out their God-given vocation faithfully. At the same time, their decisions may be marred by either a lack or an excess of caution, distorted by political motives, or simply limited by inadequate advice and knowledge. And, of course, their scope embraces only this-worldly concerns. In our thoroughly secularized society, our leaders no longer value the work of the Church. Pub-lic worship, reception of the sacraments, and pastoral care are deemed non-essential, as leaders focus exclusively on protecting physical (and not spiritual) health.

The Church will therefore assess the evidence and gauge the needs of her people according to different criteria. Certainly, Christian pastors and churches must sift through the evidence diligently and wisely in order to decide how to apply public policy to their unique situation. In the process there is an ever-present danger of playing “armchair scientist”, questioning public policy and thereby trespassing on other people’s vocations (AC 28:13). But while respect is due to the experts, the task is made confoundingly difficult by a surplus of conflicting scientific and medical opinions, in which context the Christian theologian is merely an amateur.

Christians, however, are privy to a different kind of knowledge that applies to a different realm. Together with the physical, Christians are concerned about spiritual welfare; when the two come into irreconcilable conflict, Christians will choose the greater good (Lk. 10:42). Only the Word of Jesus can tell us what this is. For this reason, the Church must even be ready, when necessary, to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

As theologians, the responsibility of this seminary faculty is to speak the Word of Christ that is needful for us to hear in this situation. Only His Word can tell us what is true beyond all doubt. What we know to be true is what 2 Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary

Christ tells us. The seminary faculty have received numerous requests for guidance from LCC’s pastors and people. The following brief comments are offered as a response to the Church proceeding from this foundation.

A “New Normal”?

A sober historical perspective is not the exclusive possession of Christian theologians. But as the phrase “unprecedented situation” is repeated ad nauseum, those who know history are obliged to question it, recalling the count-less epidemics that have plagued the world since the time of the New Testament. Throughout each crisis the Church and her ministers have been present with the faithful people in their suffering, offering the succor of God’s healing Word and sacraments. What is “unprecedented” in this latest crisis is governments’ side-lining the Church’s ministry, locking her doors, and presuming to tell her that live-streaming services is an adequate substitute.

As our leaders look ahead to our emergence from this crisis, whether they envision a regular, seasonal return of a coronavirus pandemic or conquering the disease through an effective vaccine, they repeat a second slogan: we must be prepared for a “new normal”. To some extent this is a truism. In many small ways our daily lives will be changed irrevocably. Just as SARS led to the ubiquitous dispensers of hand sanitizer and 9/11 meant pocket knives would be confiscated at airport security, so COVID-19 will lead to permanent changes in practice and behavior, like high water marks left behind when a flood recedes.

For crucial reasons, however, Christians must not accede to talk of a “new normal”. Yes, we can recall countless recoveries from war and pestilence, and we should remind our world that “this, too, shall pass”. But more importantly, we confess that Christ is the Lord of history, “the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). We know that the Father “who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6) holds us in His hand and will not let us go (Jn 15:28f.). Clinging to His promises, we must be confident that we will return to the “normal” that He has graciously established and wills for us. We must not be tempted to think that the world can no longer accommodate the ways and deeds of historic, biblical Christianity, as if the gifts of Christ given out in the way He instituted are obsolete and have no place in the “new normal”.

This exhortation to return to the “old normal” will be applied concretely to the practice of the Lord’s Supper below. But the implications are broader. While vulnerable parishioners may choose to wear masks and will be conscientious about keeping their distance from other congregants, we must Faculty Opinion: Facts and Faith: What we know to be true in the face of a pandemic 3

consider the message of fear and doubt conveyed if masks become an ongoing feature of public worship. In some jurisdictions authorities have forbid-den singing (or even brass music) on the basis of dubious and disputed evidence that it might spread the virus more effectively than speaking. The devil is delighted when he can silence our praise. Here, too, the Christian must have confidence that what God has instituted is for our good. Singing His praises is not an optional part of worship (Psalms passim; Eph. 5:19).

One day, of course, there will be a “new normal”. Christ Himself will change all things at His return. The world and all that is in it will be burned up and remade (II Pet. 3:10). We, His people, will be called up to meet Him in the air (1 Thess. 4:17), to process with Him into the eternal banquet. Christians need to maintain such an eschatological focus in the midst of what the world around us considers to be an apocalyptic-scale crisis. Neither nuclear war nor climate change nor over-population nor pollution nor pandemic will destroy the world or human life upon it. Such things will never separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35). We are not to fear those people (or things) who can kill the body but not the soul, but rather to fear the God who can destroy—and preserve—both (Mt. 10:28). On That Day He will judge us for our faithfulness in maintaining or abandoning what He has given us to do. Until He chooses to do so, we must leave the “normal” in His hands.

Thus, we ought to be exceedingly cautious in speaking about a “new normal” in regard to how we conduct worship in the future. Changes in society are not the norm for the conduct of Word and Sacrament ministry, but rather the mandate and institution of Christ to which we are bound at all times to return.

The Virtue and Vice of the Virtual

It has been often remarked that the present lockdown would have been much harder to take only a decade ago, when live-streaming and video-conferencing were the preserve of experts. We can be thankful that from a tiny handheld device a pastor can broadcast his proclamation of God’s Word and invite his flock to join him (though they are unseen) in prayer and praise. We rejoice that faith, which comes from hearing (Rom. 10:17), can be strengthened and preserved in this way.

But to be content with such limited, virtual access to the grace of God is akin to remaining in the age of the Old Testament prophets and demurring with thankless hearts that the coming of Christ in the flesh was wholly un-necessary. “In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old by the prophets, but now in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:1f.). God was not content to leave His people with the distant word of a 4 Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary

prophetic mediator. He chose to bridge the gap by coming in the flesh. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt [tabernacled] among us” (Jn 1:14). In that flesh, Jesus did not stand aloof, but entered into the homes of tax collectors and sinners, to the great consternation of the Pharisees (Mt. 9:10f.). They were concerned about contracting impurity or disease from such people. But Jesus came precisely in order to bear our iniquities and illnesses (Isaiah 53).

In the foyer of our seminary, a reproduction of the Isenheim altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald vividly depicts this theology by showing Christ on the cross distorted and pock-marked by the ravages of the plague which was afflicting the patients cared for in the monastery where it had been installed. At the altar He was with them in their suffering. Christ is by no means afraid of meeting with us and wants us to have no fear in meeting with Him: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may re-ceive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, 1512. Wikimedia Commons.

God’s desire to enter into our sin-sick lives through the incarnation of Christ is most vividly enacted in the Lord’s Supper. The Sacrament of the Altar is the high point of the Christian Church’s weekly gathering. The Faculty Opinion: Facts and Faith: What we know to be true in the face of a pandemic 5

preaching of the Word is meant to lead us to the altar, to prepare us for intimate communion with our God, which one day will reach its fulfillment when we sit at the eternal banquet table before His very face. As much as live-streaming can faithfully broadcast the oral Word, it cannot carry out this ultimate function. The Lord’s Supper can never be virtual. The Lutheran Reformation fought for the actual Communion of the people in profound preference to the mediaeval spectacle of “virtual Communion” by mere observation. The gifts are given from mouth to ear and from hand to mouth as through the minister Christ once again enters into the midst of “tax collectors and sinners” like us.

No medium is neutral, as men like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman have so convincingly demonstrated. For better or worse, screens alter the character of what they present. A medium that is primarily used for entertainment, information, or even manipulation can never be a wholly appropriate vehicle for conveying the holy things of God. Reverence falls victim when the service is delivered to our televisions and computers, when worshippers sit on couches and rightly feel awkward about standing and kneel-ing, involving their bodies in an event that is so obviously not “real”. A one-way medium cannot accommodate the two-way path of worship. Proclamation that is not accompanied by prayer, praise, and thanksgiving is as dysfunctional as a heart that pumps out but fails to draw back the depleted blood. Thus, while it is obvious that the Lord’s Supper cannot be received online, there are good theological reasons to be cautious even in trumpeting the value of virtual preaching.

Thus pastors will need to be careful not to judge hastily those parishioners who choose not to participate in virtual worship and instead hold a physical service of the Word at home. Such concerned consciences may well be choosing the better portion. As our churches re-open for public worship, pastors must also be prepared to address the opposite problem of those who will choose to continue to worship “virtually” instead of gathering before the Lord with the faithful—a catastrophe (in part) of our own making.

As we implement safety precautions, we must likewise anticipate the un-intended consequences of such changes. What message will be conveyed to our children (indeed to all our members) if the pastor preaches and presides in a mask and gloves? Do we wish to teach our people that the divine service is dangerous, something to be feared? Do we wish to hide the face and hands of Jesus from those who come to Him in weakness and distress? What a contradiction it would be to deliver the Aaronic benediction through a mask! If Jesus did not hold back from entering the homes of the lowest in society, so too should those who stand in His stead, speaking for Him and giving out His Body and Blood, show His gracious face without fear. 6 Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary

There will be long-term repercussions if our churches introduce new practices in response to this disease, as dreadful and deadly as it has indeed been. Masks and physical distancing, whether they are necessary for a time or not, must not become the norm among the family of God gathered in their Father’s house.

What Did Our Lord Institute? And What Did He Know?

The Church’s practice of the Lord’s Supper is normed not by public health directives or individual freedom, but rather by Christ’s institution. Note how Paul anchors his instructions to the Corinthian church in faithful delivery of this mandate:

23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (I Cor. 11:23-25 ESV)

The detailed liturgical instructions of the Old Testament remind us that God is perfectly capable (!) of anticipating the contingencies of life among His people. When He wishes, God can provide detailed instructions for every circumstance. And yet, in instituting His Supper, the Lord Jesus did what He did, and bade us do what He did. No qualifications. He unambiguously commanded the eating of consecrated bread and drinking from the common cup of blessing. The very word “communion” (κοινωνία) means the reception of something in common, both the earthly elements and the divine gifts they contain (I Cor. 10:16f.).

It is tempting in the arrogance of our modern age to think we know so much better than our forefathers. We understand how disease is communicated; we can take pictures of viruses and find them on surfaces. This arrogance is not entirely justified. Even in the Middle Ages people understood that disease was conveyed from person to person and they debated whether or not to hold public services or flee the plague. But in a time of greater faith, they tended to trust the Lord.

The first century, in which Jesus took bread and wine and instituted their common eating in the Sacrament, was also a time of widespread disease. And yet our Lord did what He did. It would be fallacious at numerous levels to assert that Jesus would not have instituted the Sacrament as He did if He had only known what plagues we would be suffering today. This shocking supposition falters on the fact that far worse and more untreatable illnesses ravaged ancient peoples. More importantly, it calls into question both the Faculty Opinion: Facts and Faith: What we know to be true in the face of a pandemic 7

divinity and the gracious purposes of our Lord. Jesus knew how disease was spread; He foresaw every crisis in human history. And yet He instituted for His Church a common meal with a common cup.

To this common meal Christ attached great promises of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Life, not death! Like any good father who would not give a snake to his child when he asks for a fish (Mt. 7:10), our heavenly Father does not give us, His children, a meal that will harm us. Luther’s oft-repeated words must be heard again:

We must never regard the sacrament as a harmful thing from which we should flee, but as a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine which aids and quickens us in both soul and body. For where the soul is healed, the body has benefited also. Why, then, do we act as if the sacrament were a poison which would kill us if we ate of it? (LC 5:68)

When we receive the Lord’s Body into our mouths from the pastor’s hand, when we drink from the common chalice, we have nothing to fear.

The life offered in the Sacrament of the Altar is, of course, a heavenly and hidden sort of life. There is no clear Word of Scripture to support the notion that no illness could ever be contracted during the reception of the Sacrament. While the Sacrament itself will not harm those who commune worthily, we may possibly be infected by those with whom we commune. Christians suffer even while doing good (I Pet. 2:20). God’s purpose in al-lowing suffering is not always clear (e.g. Job!). Yet faith accepts that it is better to be faithful to God and receive His gifts as He wishes to give them than to say, “no, I know better.” God can work good even in or through suffering (Rom. 8:28). Throughout history, when war and disease threatened God’s people, they ran to His house and gifts for shelter and care, not away from them.

The world fears death above all because it knows nothing of eternal life. The Christian knows that physical death is an enemy overcome by Christ’s resurrection. Death has lost its sting (I Cor. 15:54-57). There are countless stories of our Lutheran forefathers continuing to provide pastoral services during the plague, in spite of the possibility of becoming infected them-selves. And indeed some died with their people. These faithful and courageous ambassadors of Christ teach us that there are some things worth dying for. In the early church, tales are told of bishops who had to prevent Christians from seeking martyrdom, volunteering to enter the colosseum. Still to-day, Christians continue to meet in places where assemblies are illegal (e.g. the Middle East or China), despite the risk of government officials finding and executing them. They count the cost and weigh the risk, but value the spiritual benefit more highly. With Paul they know, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). 8 Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary

A Family, Not a Crowd

Public health advice in the current pandemic recognizes that families who live under one roof cannot distance themselves from one another. They share all things, and if one becomes ill it is likely and unavoidable that others will follow. For married couples this is part of the “in sickness and in health” to which they commit themselves. Parents gladly suffer with their children—and would suffer in their place, if it were possible.

When extended families gather, the bubble is expanded. We lay out food on a common table, eating “family style”. We may sample something scrumptious from a cousin’s plate, or pass a glass of craft beer from brother to brother to taste. There is always some risk of passing germs, but the family bond is more important. Naturally, we behave differently with strangers.

The Bible pictures the Church not as a collection of strangers but as a family, sons of God through incorporation into Christ (Gal. 3:26) and brothers and sisters of one another (Heb. 2:11). This new family relationship transcends or sometimes even replaces our physical family (Mt. 12:46-50). To say that the Church is our family is more than just a sentimental platitude. Our bond with our brothers and sisters in Christ is higher and stronger than blood ties, and will persist into the eternal banquet of heaven after family ties are dissolved.

The Lord’s Supper is thus not a restaurant serving strangers but a family meal. Christ presides as pater familias over a table at which His younger brothers and sisters recline. We take holy bread from His hand and drink from the cup He offers without fear or scruples, as we would participate in a family meal in our own home. Adopting this biblical attitude will lead to an entirely different approach to the holy Sacrament than the world would promote.

Is the Science against the Faith?

In offering a few concluding thoughts on medical and scientific matters, we do not intend to trespass onto territory beyond our expertise. But since scientific evidence is often used to call into question the practice of the Lord’s Supper as Christ instituted it and the Church has observed it, some comments are necessary.

Firstly, Christians must avoid the danger of “scientism”, the idea that only science is able to answer the important questions of human life. Such a view proceeds from a denial of spiritual realities and posits a purely physical ex-planation for all things. Thus, presuming to be true what it simply asserts (begging the question), scientism fails to be truly scientific. People fall into this trap when they think that medical science alone can tell us how to Faculty Opinion: Facts and Faith: What we know to be true in the face of a pandemic 9

observe the Lord’s Supper in a safe manner, to the exclusion or diminishing of theological reflection on God’s Word.

Scientism can appear in various guises. Even apart from this pandemic, it arises, for example, when churches presume to change the instituted elements (substituting grape juice for wine) in response to medical concerns about the physical or psychological dangers of alcohol for some people. Such concerns, while legitimate, represent only one field of knowledge. Pastoral care requires consideration of theological realities, including Christ’s institution and what is spiritually healthy. Scientism presumes to speak facts in opposition to faith; Christian theology acknowledges that there are other truths that must be brought to bear.

Secondly, even within the realm of medical science difficult conflicts can arise. As important as the fight against this pandemic is for public health, there is growing concern about other significant health problems that are arising or going untreated. Patients with cancer, for example, have had treatments cancelled or postponed for fear of catching the coronavirus in the hospital. The stress of lockdown has led to a spike in mental illness and even suicide. Treating one disease has come at the expense of others, and the time finally comes when doctors choose to proceed with the more vital care even at risk of patients’ catching the virus. In a similar way, the Church has an obligation to offer vital spiritual care to treat the ongoing illness of sin, with its consequent distress and despair, that remains deadly serious even during a pandemic.

Thirdly, it is important to listen to what doctors and scientists are actually saying. For example: scientific experiments have demonstrated that the coronavirus can survive for hours or days on surfaces. In theory the disease can be contracted by touching these surfaces and carrying the virus to the eyes or nose. There is therefore good reason for caution, not touching the face while in public places, etc. But our leaders and the general public regularly ignore the qualification medical scientists put on these warnings: touching surfaces is not the usual way in which the virus is transmitted; the risk is actually quite minimal. The normal way the virus is transmitted is through airborne droplets that are breathed in. The disease cannot be contracted through the skin (even open wounds) or through eating food. These facts are relevant to the practice of the Lord’s Supper and indicate that it is (medically speaking) far less risky than extended close personal contact.

Fourthly, then, in the present crisis we must be careful to distinguish be-tween the possible and the probable. Once we defend against the most prob-able causes of transmission (through physical distancing), the possible causes recede in significance behind countless other risks in life. Thus it is important from a purely human perspective to assess risk in a sensible manner. 10 Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary

It is quite impossible to hold public worship with zero risk to physical health. But not to hold worship entails grave dangers of a spiritual nature. The Church must endeavor to minimize risk to physical health; but her primary obligation is to provide such spiritual care.

Thus, what is most important is to approach the dangers and worries of life from the perspective of faith. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Mt. 7:11). “Fear not, there-fore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mt. 10:31). God’s perfect love drives out fear (I Jn. 4:18).

The faculty of Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, offer these biblical reflections to encourage confidence in God’s goodness and faithfulness to Christ’s mandates as the Church reconvenes for public worship.

Rev. Thomas M. Winger, ThD

Rev. John R. Stephenson, PhD

Rev. Harold Ristau, PhD

The Third Week after Pentecost 2020