Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Migration Story - Season's Greetings from the Unitarian Universalist Church

MS St. Louis
Citations from the Book of Concord have been taken from Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord.
It’s that time of year again - time for the Christmas visit to Evansville, IN. It’s nice to get away from home and work for a while, and catch up with out-of-town family and friends. Of course it also means that I get to indulge in one of my other, more recent Christmas traditions; seeing what sort of nonsense the Unitarian Universalist Church is up to. Their church sign is usually good for a laugh, and some fodder for an article or two. This year has been no exception (though I don’t think anything will beat “Fire Communion” from 2013). 
Driving past the small white cinderblock building on Morgan Avenue, I saw that their sign advertised “A Migration Story.” I was immediately turned off, as this title conjured images of the whole, “Jesus was an unwelcome immigrant too!” chestnut, so often roasted by liberals when discussing the topic of illegal immigration. A little internet searching showed this Sunday’s service would indeed focus on immigration, but the message would be one that had been delivered on Thanksgiving at UU Rockford, IL by Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson. This piqued my curiosity so I went looking for the text. Unfortunately for me I was unable to locate the printed text, but the people at UU Rockford did publish a podcast to iTunes, which I downloaded and listened to.
I won’t do a point-by-point critique of the Homily. In summary, the Rev. Dr. Johnson’s message was that, in the wake of terror and fear, some people seek to close the doors of immigration altogether. How dare you! God loves the stranger, and you were a stranger once to.
“If we want to be fair about it, that it is only those folks whose migration stories predate written history who were themselves overrun by the Europeans some 500 years ago who I think get a vote on which migrants we take in now,” he said (Johnson, 2015).
As I listened to the Rev. Dr. Johnson spout on and on about Americans should be completely open to accepting refugees and illegal aliens because of the 500 years of white European oppression of brown people I was struck by two things, one concerning the left-hand, the other concerning the right-hand kingdom.
First, the left-hand kingdom issue: The bulk of the approximately 20 minute homily focused on the telling of Rev. Dr. Johnson’s own migration story, and the tragic tale of the St. Louis. For those who don’t know, the St. Louis was a ship filled with asylum-seeking Jews which departed from Germany in 1939 bound for Cuba. The ship was turned away. They attempted to gain permission to land in America. The Nazi government, attempting to “help” the United States, warned that the people on board the St. Louis were Communists, criminals, and all manner of subversives. They were again rebuffed. The ship eventually made its way back to Europe. The Jews of the St. Louis found asylum in Great Britain and other countries on the continent. Half of them, however, would not survive the coming Second World War (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2015).
Rev. Dr. Johnson explained how his family had come from Germany to America on that very same ship after the Great War. His people had been allowed to come into the country and live; these other poor wretches had been callously turned away and most of them had perished.
To those people who would turn away refugees Rev. Dr. Johnson explained that he’d like to sit down at the kitchen table with them and, “I’ll read it [the story of the St. Louis] again, and I’ll read it again, until their heart is opened and their conscience awakes” (Johnson, 2015).
There is something to be learned from the story of the MS St. Louis and we should apply that knowledge to our situation today.
The sad tale of the St. Louis is not, however analogous to the refugee situation which Europe and America is facing today with those coming out of Syria and Iraq. Whether we wanted to admit it to ourselves or not, sending the Jews on the St. Louis back to Germany was a death sentence. They had no safe place in Europe to which they could flee, at least for very long. We knew that the Nazis wanted to purge the Jews from their midst; Hitler had written of his intentions, and his hatred for the Jews in Mein Kampf over a decade previous.
There was no real danger that these Jews were a threat to the United States. There were no Jewish Nazis, and the Nazi propaganda regarding who the passengers aboard the St. Louis were was, most likely, designed to play on the anti-semitic feelings of those in power at the time. The reports from Germany that those Jews seeking asylum were Communists and subversives gave the excuse needed in order to turn the ship away.
Today, the tens of thousands of Muslims fleeing war-torn Syria and Iraq seeking refuge in Europe and America have a different story. They are fleeing the horrors of war, but they do not face genocide. Unlike the Jews of the St. Louis, they do have other Muslim countries to go to where they would not be forced to live under Islamic State.
Unlike the Jews of the St. Louis, the fear that terrorists could be hidden among the asylum-seekers is legitimate. While there were no Jewish Nazis, there are most certainly Arab Muslim terrorists. So, while it may take some time to check out the backgrounds of Syrian and Iraqi Muslims seeking entry to the United States, they have other safe places to wait in the interim.
The real analogy to the Jews aboard the St. Louis would be to the Syrian and Iraqi Christians, the people whom our government has largely been ignoring (Shea, 2015). These people have been targeted by the Islamic State for death. They face persecution and genocide. There is no safe haven for these Christians in the Middle East. Despite their desperate situation the U.S. has refused to allow the Syrian and Iraqi Christians entry in favor of Muslim refugees, so as not to appear Islamophobic. And, like their Jewish refugee counterparts from 70 years ago, there are no Christian members of the Islamic State. It would be much simpler to investigate the backgrounds of these people than it is proving to do with the Muslim refugees, and their situation is far more urgent.
Instead, for political reasons, we choose the latter over the former.
We should absolutely learn the lesson of the “Voyage of the Damned” - but we are repeating this sad episode all over again, this time with Arab Christians paying the price.
God cares for men spiritually through the church; He cares for them temporally through family and government, all of which have been established by him. Part of the job of the government (what we Lutherans refer to as the “left-hand” kingdom) is to protect its citizens and administer justice.
“Civil rulers,” it is explained in the Augsburg Confession, “do not defend minds, but bodies and bodily things against obvious injuries. They restrain people with the sword and physical punishment in order to preserve civil justice and peace” (AC XXVIII 11).
It isn’t wrong for the government to protect its citizens by being careful when admitting refugees, immigrants, and asylum-seekers into the country. To the contrary, a ruler thus engaged is serving his citizens faithfully according to his vocation.
This brings me to the right-hand kingdom issue. During the course of this homily “god” was mentioned only a handful of times. Jesus was totally absent. Holy Scripture was not read at all. What a curious way for a “church” to celebrate the First Sunday of Christmas. Of course, I am well aware that the Unitarian Universalist Church is not Christian, and it does not surprise me. This is what they have to say of themselves:
“In Unitarian Universalism, you can bring your whole self: your full identity, your questioning mind, your expansive heart. Together, we create a force more powerful than one person or one belief system. As Unitarian Universalists, we do not have to check our personal background and beliefs at the door: we join together on a journey that honors everywhere we’ve been before. Our beliefs are diverse and inclusive. We have no shared creed. Our shared covenant (our seven Principles) supports “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Though Unitarianism and Universalism were both liberal Christian traditions, this responsible search has led us to embrace diverse teachings from Eastern and Western religions and philosophies…We are united in our broad and inclusive outlook, and in our values, as expressed in our seven Principles. We are united in shared experience: our open and stirring worship services, religious education, and rites of passage; our work for social justice; our quest to include the marginalized; our expressions of love” (Unitarian Universalist Association, 2015).
War, bigotry, lawlessness, racism, and all the other things commonly referred to as “ills of society,” are the consequences of sin. Sin originated from our first father Adam who, by his disobedience in the Garden, made all men subject to sin and death.
“This hereditary sin,” Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles, “is such a deep corruption of nature that no reason can understand it. Rather it must be believed from the revelation of Scripture” (SA III I 3).
The Rev. Dr. Johnson said near the beginning of his message that he would sit down at the table with someone who was opposed to immigration, and read the account of the St. Louis to them over and over until their consciences awoke. When I heard those words I was saddened to think that this man would trade the God-breathed words we have been given in Holy Scripture, which are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness - the means of God’s grace, his living and active Word - for the words of men which have no power.
Wouldn’t it have been nice for the people listening to the Rev. Dr. Johnson to hear about their sin? No doctor can cure a disease which hasn’t been properly diagnosed, and the Rev. Dr. Johnson is no exception. He is attempting to cure the ills of society by applying a social gospel, which is really no gospel at all. These people, as do we all, need to hear how wicked they are. They, as do we, need to be called to repent of their sins. They, as do we, need to hear the good news that this sin of theirs has been paid for by the babe born in Bethlehem, Jesus, who was God in human flesh; that Jesus died on the cross in our place, and that he rose from the dead, and the gates of life eternal are opened to us by the grace of God through faith in him.
“Home.” Unitarian Universalist Church of Evansville. Accessed December 27, 2015.
Johnson, Rev. Dr. Matthew. “A Migration Story.” the UU Church-Rockford, IL. November 22, 2015. Accessed December 26, 2015.
McCain, Paul T, ed. Et. Al. Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord. 2nd ed. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.
Shea, Nina. “The State Department Turns Its Back on Syrian Christians and Other Non-Muslim Refugees.” National Review Online. November 2, 2015. Accessed December 27, 2015.
“The Voyage of the St. Louis.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. August 18, 2015. Accessed December 27, 2015.
“What We Believe.” Unitarian Universalist Association. February 9, 2015. Accessed December 27, 2015.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

From One Know-Nothing to Another

The Know-Nothing Party Flag

Dennis Gorecki of Orland Park, IL wrote a letter which was published in the Christmas Eve edition of the Daily Southtown newspaper (a Chicago Tribune publication). In his letter, which lists the collective sin of American racism like a litany – or an indictment – Mr. Gorecki’s calls for his “Christian brothers and sisters who support the xenophobic views of the Republican party,” to read Matthew 25:35-46. Those verses read as follows:

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:35-46).

He calls the Republican Party the new Know-nothings which, in many respects, is an accurate statement. The average American’s concern for the security of their country and its borders, however, does not automatically equate with xenophobia, as many leftists believe and proclaim. By citing St. Matthew’s Gospel, this implication is made all the more insulting, as Christians are painted to look like hypocritical racists. This view of Christians may fit well with the Left’s worldview, but it has little to do with reality for the majority of the faithful. Furthermore, Mr. Gorecki’s invocation of Matthew 25:35-46 as his coup de grâce betrays his ignorance of Biblical interpretation.

Christ, telling this parable of the sheep and the goats to his disciples, says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Who are Jesus’ brothers? His disciples! We learn this in Matthew 12:

“While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Matthew 12:46-50).

Again, who are those, according to Jesus, who do the will of His Father in heaven? Those who believe in him, or…His disciples! We learn this in John 6:

“Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent’” (John 6:28-29).

So, who is Jesus calling us to feed, give drink, clothe, and visit in prison in this parable? His brothers, those who believe in him…our fellow Christians. To say that this parable mandates that Christians welcome everyone who calls themselves a refugee into their country without a second thought or question, is to profoundly misinterpret Jesus’ words here.

Certainly this is not the only sense in which the phrase “my brothers” should be understood. Since we have been adopted into God’s family, we Christians are children of God the Father, brothers and sisters of Christ, and co-heirs with Him of His Kingdom. 

This is not to say that Christians are allowed to treat those outside the family of faith badly. To the contrary, Christians are called to love their enemies, a feature of the Christian religion not universally shared by the world’s religions. We are called to pray for those who persecute us, and to live in peace with everyone, insofar as it depends on us.

Christians expressing concern about the effects and dangers of unchecked illegal immigration does not equate with the “No Irish Need Apply” attitude of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Supporting tighter control of the way visas are issued, or not wanting to allow tens of thousands of Muslim refugees into the country without a proper vetting when Islamic terrorists are threatening kill Americans on American soil does not equate with the exclusion of Chinese immigrants, or with any of the other incidents of racism and xenophobia which Mr. Gorecki cites. And, while there are certainly a large number of people in America who are the type of bigot Mr. Gorecki describes, this in no way negates the founding principles of our country, or the picture of America as the land of opportunity for oppressed immigrants around the world. 

Things like racism exist because human beings are sinful. Our natures are corrupt. In our natural state, we are God’s enemy. Our focus is bent inward toward ourselves. As a result, we don’t love God with our whole hearts, and we don’t love our neighbors as ourselves. For this we need to repent. We need to hear God’s forgiveness this Christmas – and every day of the year – that, despite our sinfulness we do not need to fear; that unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This Savior is Immanuel, God with us, who came to bear our sin on the cross while we were still his enemies. Repentance and the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s blood, shed on the cross, is the only thing which will cause us to act according to the Spirit rather than according to our sinful flesh.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Whip Nae Nae in Heavenly Peace

 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).

The war on Christmas is heating up, and “Christians” are “outraged” at the latest skirmishes, which involved a beloved television Christmas special, and a nonsensical rap song.

This past Thursday Glenn Beck talked about a Kentucky elementary school that was presenting A Charlie Brown Christmas as their Christmas program. Everyone on the show was shocked and outraged because, at the climax of the program, Linus’ speech explaining the true meaning of Christmas (which was really just a passage from the Gospel of St. Luke), had been cut. In another school, the speech was removed and Silent Night was replaced with the popular, and highly annoying, “Whip Nae Nae” by Silentó 

“I would get together with parents and I would — if I knew this was coming — take the script of what Linus actually says and I would stand up as a block of parents and just stop the show and just all of us at that point, ‘Doesn’t anybody know what Christmas is all about?’ And all of the parents stand up and just start saying it, even as the play is going on,” Beck said.

I love Christmas. I love the Peanuts. I love A Charlie Brown Christmas. I love St. Luke’s Gospel. Silent Night is arguably the greatest Christmas song ever written (in the original German, of course). So, what I’m about to say will probably confuse some of my friends: I don’t care that these people changed the Christmas show to remove the Bible passage. In fact, I wouldn’t have expected them to do anything different. I would have been surprised to see them leave the speech intact and sing Silent Night at a secular public school.

“There is no violation of the so-called ‘separation of church and state’ by allowing children to learn about theater and the origins of Christmas through participating in a stage version of this beloved program that contains the same religious elements as the television version,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Jeremy Tedesco, as quoted from a Fox opinion article.

I agree that there is no violation of the First Amendment. However, if my children are attending a public school, I want them to learn reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. I’ll take care of the religious education, thank you very much. That is, of course, why they don’t attend public school.

Making secular public school students do religious things is not an effective evangelism tool; it only causes strife in the community. I certainly wouldn’t want my children to participate in some school-wide Ramadan pageant. I understand that pagans don’t want their children to sing Silent Night. We shouldn’t expect those who are of the pagan secular world to think and act like Christendom. After all, the sinful mind is hostile to God, and cannot submit to God (Romans 8:6-8); The message of the cross is, after all, foolishness to those who are perishing. To the unbelieving secular world, the story of the birth of Jesus Christ from the Gospel of St. Luke makes less sense than, “Watch me whip…watch me nae nae.”

For the world, the federal holiday of Christmas is about presents, and trees, and lights, and days off from work. For Christendom it is about God taking on human flesh so that he could, before we did anything to merit his loving-kindness, keep the Law for us, bear our sin, and be our savior. I’m glad that Charles Schultz included the true meaning of Christmas in his show, but we can’t force pagans to act like Christians. Consequently, we shouldn't be outraged when they act according to their nature and reject and ridicule God’s Word. Instead of trying to glue a veneer of Christianity over the top of secular culture, the way to reach pagans is to lovingly deliver Law and Gospel to those around us according to our vocation, encouraging them to repent of their sin and gather around Word and Sacrament – and trust that the Lord’s Word will not return to him void. 


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Americanized Christianity: What is Love?

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:1-11).

While the author claims to provide a beginning point for people to dissect their Americanized Christianity, so that they might “return home to the life and message of Jesus,” reading the list of ten signs he presents might lead one to suspect that Benjamin Corey has a political agenda, rather than a religious one. I don’t want to address each point of contention I have with this article, 10 Ways To Determine If Your Christianity Has Been “Americanized,” as to do so would call for something much longer and more tedious than I have the time or inclination to undertake currently. Instead, I have chosen several sections from the article which, I believe, sum up the main ideas and where it is off-track. You can find the original piece here. Read it, it’s not that long, and is interesting, even if written in a disdainful tone. He starts right off with the whole “the early Christians were Communistic pacifists” argument:

If your primary identity is legitimately that of a Christian, you’ll be open to learning about Christianity as it was taught and lived by the earliest Christians. However, from an American mindset, original Christianity and the first Christians appear nuts: they were universally nonviolent (against capital punishment, abortion, military service and killing in self-defense), rejected individual ownership of property in order to redistribute their wealth (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:35), and rejected any involvement with the government. When reading about them they seem rather un-American, and this will cause frustration or disbelief among those in Americanized Christianity (Corey 2015).

While Christianity is certainly non-violent, it is not “against” such things as capital punishment, military service, and killing in self-defense. The Fifth Commandment says, “You shall not murder.” Luther’s explanation of the Fifth Commandment sums up the meaning of this commandment, in light of Christ’s words, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount:

We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every bodily need (Concordia Publishing House 1991).

This, however, does not mean that no one has authority to take another person’s life. Romans 13 commands us to submit to the governing authorities:

…for he [government] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:4).

Paul acknowledges here that governments, some of which carry out capital punishment, are authorities instituted by God. As such, we are to submit to them, at least until they command and act contrary to God’s Word. This would hardly constitute Paul – an early Christian – being “against” capital punishment. Furthermore, Paul continues to write contrary to Corey’s statement that the early Christians rejected any involvement with the government.

Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Romans 13:5-7).

The early Christians certainly may not have been in positions of authority within the government of the Roman Empire, but that does not mean they viewed governmental authority and submission to such authority and law as evil. To the contrary, we are commanded to serve the authorities instituted by God by gladly providing what they need or require (Concordia Publishing House 1991). Regarding their possessions, Acts 4:32 tells us that they (the believers) “had everything in common.” Rather than being an endorsement of communism, this scene gives us a glimpse of a restored creation.

God gives us property and resources for our neighbor’s benefit. The early Christians fully shared with one another, but not in the same way as the failed communist experiments of the twentieth century. Here there is no compulsion or involvement of the State – only believers are affected, and only goods are shared, not their production (Engelbrecht 2009).

This illustrates what is meant by a phrase popular among Confessional Lutherans, “God doesn’t need your good works. Your neighbor does.” I would also note that the believers are helping each other, not selling their property and goods to do charity work in the pagan slums.

Corey, in his second point, begins talking about love, and it is with this subject that we get to the real heart of the issue:

The chief calling of a Christ-follower is to love others. Whether a neighbor across the street, or an enemy across the world, Christ’s command is abundantly clear: we are to love one another. If your initial posture toward Muslims is that of viewing them as a threat instead of viewing them as people Jesus has commanded we radically and self-sacrificially love, then your Christianity might be Americanized (Corey 2015).

Is the chief calling of a “Christ-follower” really just to love others without condition? The chief calling of a Christian is to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:19). Love comes as a by-product of making Christians. Christians are commanded by Jesus to imitate the self-sacrificial love Christ showed by going to the cross, so that the world would recognize them as his disciples.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34.35).

Paul presents this teaching again in Ephesians:

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:1-2).

What, to borrow a question from Haddaway, is love? Reading Corey’s piece one would get the impression that real love consists of serving real people around you, unconditional tolerance and acceptance of illegal aliens, homosexuality, and support for the welfare state.

Jesus calls us to get busy serving the least of these– to get our hands dirty, to embrace the position of “servant of everyone,” and to pour ourselves out as we endeavor to change the world right where we are. America on the other hand, invites us to view political power and force of government as the solution to the world’s problems, and that’s a tempting offer for both liberals and conservatives. If you’re more focused on what they could do than what you can do, your Christianity might be Americanized…If you advocate cutting government programs for the poor but don’t actually tithe yourself…If you say “we’re a nation of laws” in reference to immigrants faster than you quote what the Bible says about immigrants…If you think Paul’s prohibition on female teachers is straightforward, but Jesus’ teaching on enemy love is somehow open to a thousand degrees of nuance…Somewhere along the line, the Americanized version of Christianity taught us that defeating gay marriage was perhaps the most pressing issue of our time. Sadly, as Americans we’re taught to be self-centered and this is an incredibly self-centered view that completely ignores the global issues of our time. It is the mistaken identity that our issues are the issues. The most pressing issues of our time? Let’s start with the fact that 750 million people around the world don’t even have access to clean water or that 805 million people are chronically malnourished (Corey 2015).

Corey raises some interesting issues. This isn’t love, though. This is an enumeration of a political platform. Our primary concern shouldn’t be about “what I can do” to “change the world.” Both Christians and non-Christians can, and do, hold positions on all of these issues. And while love does manifest itself in good works for our neighbor, focusing on these works first is to put the emphasis in the wrong place. We should hate what is evil, Paul says, and cling to what is good. As Christians, speaking in terms of our relationship with the secular world, we should live at peace with everyone, insofar as it depends on us, and serve our neighbor in our vocation.

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality (Romans 12:9-13).

Well-meaning Christians who look around and see all sorts of social problems chastise their fellow believers for not loving their neighbor. You must love your neighbor! You must be loving and tolerant of homosexuals. You must care for the needy! You must show compassion to immigrants, both legal and illegal! And, if you don't do these things precisely the way I deem acceptable, I will - lovingly, tolerantly, acceptingly - call you all kinds of names like Pharisee, insult you, and say you aren't a good Christian.

The thing which people who think like this don't get, however, is from where the love to which they exhort us comes. They think it comes from us. You're a Christian? Great! Get busy loving your neighbor. The more love you exhibit (Corey calls this “getting your hands dirty…”read do good works) the more evidence that you're really a proper Christian. Except, the love Jesus describes doesn't come from us, it comes from him. He commands us to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect. That's something we cannot do. 

They also forget that Paul told us to abhor what is evil.

Rather than being intentional acts which we perform to be better Christians, our good works flow from us organically; they are products of our New Man, the new creation God has made us into. Moreover, the good works which we do don't originate with us, even though we perform them. God has prepared them for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

It's irritating to me to hear someone admonish The Church for not being loving enough, or Christ-like enough, or "whatever" enough. I already know I'm not a good Christian. But you aren't either. The Christian church is made up of sinners. We all need to repent, and believe the Gospel, and be forgiven.

Being tolerant and accepting of homosexual behavior, or people who disregard the laws of the nation, is not loving, it's easy. It certainly isn’t Biblical. When Christians unconditionally accept unrepentant homosexuals into their fellowships, and advocate politically for illegal aliens without condition, it may seem loving to the secular world, and it may feel good to those who are doing it, but it's not love. It is simply a way of avoiding a negative reaction from the secular and politically correct society in which we live. In fact, if we treat sinners – any sinner – this way and simply tell them that we love and accept them without delivering to them Law and Gospel, we do them the worst disservice. Paul continues expounding Jesus’ command to love in Ephesians chapter five, with an important, “but…”

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God (Ephesians 5:3-5).

And, Paul doesn’t speak only of homosexuality (sexual immorality) as though it is some special, more grievous sin which is unforgivable. He includes all sin when he talks about what should not be named among us, and abhorred, and will disqualify us from our inheritance:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

Homosexuals, illegal aliens, adulterers, murders, liars, thieves, the self-righteous, gluttons – all people – need to hear that, though they are by nature sinful and unclean, and have sinned against God by their thoughts, word, and deeds, we have forgiveness through the holy, innocent, bitter suffering and death of God's beloved son Jesus Christ. The most loving thing in the world is for The Church to call sinners to repentance, and to believe the gospel. This is the Church's job, rather than being simply a social welfare agency, or leftist political activist group. We must be faithful to this mission and also compassionate in meeting needs. The good thing is though, when the first one happens, the second will follow.

What good is it for The Church to meet the physical needs of a suffering immigrant, if they will spend eternity in Hell because they are an unrepentant sinner? What have we done for the homosexual, if we have simply, oh so tolerantly, invited them to practice their behavior openly, but not called them to repentance? We have not done what Christ has commanded us to, that is certain. I’m not saying that we should forsake the physical needs of people who are suffering, far from it! I am saying that penitent sinners who have faith in Christ will perform good works – They can't help it. If they have a faith that is alive, good works will follow (James 2:22-23). I am also saying that a Christ-less Christianity, devoid of repentance and the forgiveness of sins as described in Corey’s article, which is really nothing more than a social welfare agency or leftist political activist group is no Christianity at all.

Works Cited

Concordia Publishing House. Luther's Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.

Corey, Benjamin L. 10 Ways to Determine If Your Christianity Has Been Americanized. Web Article. July 21, 2015.

Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

For All The Saints

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:13-17).

“…while worms and rottenness are before our eyes, we cannot be unmindful of them, nevertheless there will be a time when God will wipe away every tear, as is stated in Rev. 7:17. Therefore faith should begin to forget tears and dishonor which it does not see. Although the eyes see the rottenness, the ears hear the complaints and sobs, and the noses smell the stench of the corpses, nevertheless it is the part of faith to say: “I do not know this. I see nothing. Indeed, I see a multiplication and a brightness surpassing the sun itself and the stars.” Therefore such examples are set before us in order that we may learn that God is the Creator of all things, restores the dead to life and glorifies worms and the foulest rottenness. And He wants this to be acknowledged and celebrated by us in this life in faith. Later, however, in the future life, we shall experience it in actual fact.”[1]

"For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest"
by William W. How, 1823-1897

1. For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

2. Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

3. Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old
And win with them the victor's crown of gold.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

4. O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

5. And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

6. But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

7. From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

8. The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Hymn #463
The Lutheran Hymnal
Author: William W. How, 1864, cento
Composer: R. Vaughan Williams, 1906, arr.
Tune: "Sine nomine"

[1]Luther, M. (1999, c1965). Vol. 7: Luther's works, vol. 7 : Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 38-44 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (Ge 41:53). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Reformation Day!

Selling Indulgences
Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses in 1517 as a protest against the selling of indulgences. After he sent a copy of the theses to Albert of Mainz (who sent a copy to Pope Leo), Luther continued to write, elaborating on the issues raised.

He makes three main points in his 95 theses: 1) Selling indulgences to finance the building of St. Peter's is wrong, 2)The pope has no power over Purgatory, 3) Buying indulgences gives people a false sense of security and endangers their salvation.

"Therefore I claim that the pope has no jurisdiction over Purgatory. ... If the pope does have power to release anyone from Purgatory, why in the name of love does he not abolish Purgatory by letting everyone out? If for the sake of miserable money he released uncounted souls, why should he not for the sake of most holy love empty the place? To say that souls are liberated from Purgatory is audacious. To say they are released as soon as the coffer rings is to incite avarice. The pope would do better to give everything away without charge."

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Christian Nation

The Committee of Five:(L to R) John Adams, Roger Sherman,
Robert LivingstonThomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.
At the beginning of October conservative news outlets were bemoaning the fact that a controversial statue of the 10 Commandments was removed under cover of darkness from the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds, after the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that its placement was a violation of state law. On social media the story about the removal of the 10 Commandments statue was juxtaposed against a story about a statue of Baphomet being erected in Detroit (Jenkins 2015). Baphomet, for those who aren’t up on their satanic worship, is a goat-headed representation of Satan. The two stories together were meant to show the change in American culture – from a Christian to a pagan, or at least an immoral, nation.

Some lawmakers have promised to bring the issue of using public money and/or property for religious purposes to the voters (KOCO News 5 2015). These legislators have vowed to introduce such a resolution when the Legislature reconvenes in February. KOCO news in Oklahoma City reports the following:

Its placement at the Capitol prompted requests from several groups to have their own monuments installed, including a satanic church in New York that wanted to erect a 7-foot-tall statue that depicts Satan as Baphomet, a goat-headed figure with horns, wings and a long beard. A Hindu leader in Nevada, an animal rights group and the satirical Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster also made requests (KOCO News 5 2015).

The Flying Spaghetti Monster
I am certainly no worshipper of Baphomet or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but this time opponents of the 10 Commandments statue have a point. Either all expressions of religion should be allowed on public property supported by public money, or none should. I tend to lean toward the idea that we should keep the Left and Right hand kingdoms separate. Bruce Prescott, a Baptist minister from Norman, OK who complained the statue violated the state constitution had this to say:

Frankly, I'm glad we finally got the governor and attorney general to agree to let the monument be moved to private property, which is where I believe it's most appropriate…I'm not opposed to the Ten Commandments. The first sermon I ever preached was on the Ten Commandments. I'm just opposed to it being on public property (KOCO News 5 2015).

These cases, we are supposed to believe, illustrate just how far the Christian United States has fallen from the principles of its founding. While the Founding Fathers would certainly be shocked at our careless treatment of the Constitution, the idea that America is a Christian nation just isn't supported by the facts. Certainly Christians were involved in the founding, but so were non-Christian deists and atheists. Also, what I will call American civil religion bears no resemblance to actual Christianity, though it borrows its language and forms. I present four prominent examples from among our Founding Fathers to illustrate my point.

Much is made of the fact that Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence and third President, published a New Testament. He is often said to have extolled the moral teachings of Jesus as, “…the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man” (Monticello n.d.). His work, however, often called the Jefferson Bible, is anything but orthodox. The Jefferson Bible is notable for its exclusion of all of the miracles of Jesus, or anything supernatural. Jefferson literally used a razor to cut out the moral teachings he admired, pasting them into a volume while leaving out such trifles as the Resurrection and any indication that Jesus was Divine (Monticello n.d.). It is not a work that would be accepted by any orthodox Christian body, and could arguably be called blasphemous. The words recorded in Revelation 22:18-19 come to mind[1]; Jefferson will surely have to give an account for removing and discarding God's word in such a manner.

George Washington is rightly considered Father of Our Country, as the nation looked to him to set precedent and offer guidance during the early days of the republic. Perhaps that is the beginning of the confusion and ambiguity regarding America's collective spirituality. The subject of Washington's religion is still hotly debated today. What we know for certain is that Washington was an Anglican. He served as a vestryman and as a church warden. He attended worship services regularly, but very rarely participated in Communion (Neill 1885). He believed that religion was important to public order, morality, and virtue. Washington also believed in prayer as evidenced in his writings, and his presidential executive orders. When speaking about things religious, he often referred to “God,” “heaven,” and “Providence,” but rarely to Christ, something which is also odd for a devout Christian. This is exemplified by Washington’s National Thanksgiving Proclamation on October 3, 1789:

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be-- That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks--for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation--for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war--for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed--for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted--for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us. And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions-- to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually--to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed--to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord--To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us--and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best (Washington 1789).

Washington was also a Freemason, something which would not be tolerated, or at the very least be frowned upon, by orthodox Christian bodies today (The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association, Inc. n.d.). Judging him by his church participation, and putting the best construction on it, Washington was perhaps a grudging Anglican, who saw religion – specifically Christianity - as a way to provide an additional layer of stability for the nation he was integral in creating.

Though he sometimes wrote and spoke in deistic terms, John Adams was a Christian, who professed that Jesus was the redeemer of mankind. He was a Congregationalist, though later in life he became a Unitarian (McCullough 2008). Confessional LCMS pastors would certainly have barred him from receiving the sacrament of the Altar but, in the context of the Founding Fathers, John Adams was a strong Protestant Christian. He argued with atheist Thomas Paine, who derided orthodox Christianity, and Adams viewed the morality of the Christian religion as important to the life of the country (Paine Relief! n.d.).

Benjamin Franklin considered himself a Christian, but stated in his autobiography that he was a deist (Franklin, Franklin's Autobiography 1916). He believed in "virtue" which, to be certain was informed by his Puritan upbringing, but he did not claim any of the spiritual aspects of the Christian faith. In fact, Franklin wrote in his autobiography that he believed the most acceptable service to God was doing good to man (Franklin, Franklin's Autobiography 1916). In 1728 Franklin published a formal statement of his religious beliefs. This statement omitted any mention of the religious dogma one would expect from even a liberal Puritan. Most conspicuous by its absence was any statement of belief in the divinity of Jesus or in the substitutionary atonement. Even a cursory reading of his statement will show that Christian theology played little part in Franklin’s thinking:

I CONCEIVE then, that the INFINITE has created many Beings or Gods, vastly superior to Man, who can better conceive his Perfections than we, and return him a more rational and glorious Praise. As among Men, the Praise of the Ignorant or of Children, is not regarded by the ingenious Painter or Architect, who is rather honour'd and pleas'd with the Approbation of Wise men and Artists. It may be that these created Gods, are immortal, or it may be that after many Ages, they are changed, and Others supply their Places. Howbeit, I conceive that each of these is exceeding wise, and good, and very powerful; and that Each has made for himself, one glorious Sun, attended with a beautiful and admirable System of Planets. It is that particular wise and good God, who is the Author and Owner of our System, that I propose for the Object of my Praise and Adoration (Franklin, Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion 1728).

Franklin, like many people in our day, wanted to claim the label of Christian while redefining Christianity to be rationalism mixed with whatever "spiritual" things tickled his fancy, as well as with a liberal helping of good works. In fact, I believe it to be true that the "Christianity" of America – American civil religion – is a religion of works.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive survey of the religious beliefs of the founders. These examples, however, show what the founders all seemed to have in common, and it wasn't Christianity; it was moralism. Moralism is not Christianity. Luther once commented:

All religions that depart from the true Christian religion are ex opere operato (by the outward act), that is, teach, 'This I will do, and that will please God.' But one must hold fast to the rule that every opus operatum (outward is idolatrous (Luther 1967).

There are really only two religions in the world - Christianity, and idolatry. Christianity is characterized by fallen, sinful human beings, who are saved by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Idolatry, in particular the worship of self, is characterized by man, feeling some vague need for redemption, attempting to redeem himself through some outward act, or work. This religion of virtue and good works is what united the founders, atheist, deist, and Christian. And, in terms of civil righteousness, one could say that the United States has a morality based on Judeo-Christian principles. The United States is not, however, Christian, and never has been, because Christianity is not a works-based religious system.

The Constitution is a social contract in which the rights of man, given to him by Nature and Nature’s God, are protected and enshrined. Like any other contract, the duties of the parties to that contract are enumerated. For the purpose of keeping civil order, the American civil religion of virtue is sufficient as it basically adopts the second table of the Law as its basis. Theoretically, however, any defined system of morality could be substituted for the base. It is a system which is concerned with behavior and adherence to the rules – whatever those rules might be. It is a religion devoid of Christ. It certainly does not address the primary problem of mankind, which is sin.

The perfect illustration of what I mean is the prayer of the VFW chaplain on Memorial Day, one of the American civil religion’s sacred services:

Almighty God our Heavenly Father, in Your hands are the living and the dead; we give You thanks for all those, our comrades and sisters, who have laid down their lives in the service of our Country. May they rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them. May the good work of seeking justice for the oppressed and peace for all mankind be rewarded with success, that their sacrifices shall not have been in vain. And may we never fail to remember the awesome cost of the freedom which we enjoy (Veterans of Foreign Wars 2012).

Or another:

O Lord God of Hosts, as we gather to honor and pay respects to our comrades and sisters who have departed this life, it is fitting that we remember first our great Nation. You have given us a rich and beautiful land for our heritage. We humbly pray that we may always prove ourselves a people constantly aware of Your favor, and therefore anxious to demonstrate our gratitude in seeking to know and to do Your will. May our land be blessed with honest and productive industry, and a people of integrity who are anxious to learn and willing to respect one another. All this we ask of You, Almighty God, in Your Holy Name (Veterans of Foreign Wars 2012).

To whom are these prayers made? Who is the “Almighty God?” The second prayer makes its petition in “Your Holy Name.” Which name would that be? It doesn’t really matter, as long and it is sufficiently generic to allow all people to insert the god of their choice. Christianity, though, is not a generic religion. It all hinges upon the question, “Who do you say that I am?” to which Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The American civil religion of virtue which is practiced by well-meaning Christians in the public square does not allow its practitioners to assert Peter’s answer. If they did, they would also have to accept Baphomet and Flying Spaghetti Monster statues. Rather than allow the square to become cluttered with idols, they opt to cleanse Christianity of Christ in an effort to make it acceptable to everyone. They know that the chaplain means Jesus when he says, “…in Your name…” and that’s a work acceptable in their sight.

Christianity, contrary to the American civil religion, is the life and salvation God has given to mankind in and through Jesus Christ. It is the truth that mankind, having been plunged into sin by the disobedience of our first parents Adam and Eve, cannot please God, and are by our very nature sinful and unclean. We deserve nothing but God's wrath and eternal punishment. But God, before mankind ever did anything to merit his favor, graciously atoned for our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and counts as righteous all who believe in Jesus. Moreover, man cannot by his own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him. God instead grants man repentance and faith through the working of his word.

There it is, Christianity in a nutshell: The blessed exchange of Christ's righteousness for my sin. This has nothing to do with the religion of morals and virtue to which the majority of our Founding Fathers adhered. Theirs is a religion of works, partially designed to provide stability to a government and society. It also appeals to something deeper in mankind's sinful nature, whether the founders meant to do that or not. The American civil religion of virtue and morality also appeals to our sinful spiritual desire to please God on our own terms, by our own works, rather than through faith in Christ and his work on the cross.

We should not, therefore, lament the decay of the American civil religion of virtue. We certainly should not attempt to establish, through the reimagining of history, a bastardized Christianity, devoid of Christ, as the American civil religion, pretending that our Founding Fathers were pious, churchgoing, orthodox Protestant Christians. We should instead gather regularly around Word and Sacrament. We should pray for our leaders, our nation, and our fellow man. We should deliver the Gospel to them in the context of our vocations, as Christ intends us to.

We should not spend so much time trying to “church up” the court square. Saving faith in Christ cannot come from American civil religion. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). The word of Christ has no place in American civil religion. Besides causing problems with those among whom we live, setting up a nativity scene – or a 10 Commandments statue – does little to evangelize our neighbors. I’m not saying we should retreat from the public square, just that we shouldn’t allow the Left Hand Kingdom usurp what belongs to the Right Hand Kingdom. We are, after all, free to be faithful, and we must listen to God rather than men. So, when the government attempts to infringe on our right to free expression of religion, or to redefine the meaning of the First Amendment to be freedom of worship, or force us to do something against our conscience, then we must resist. Until that time, though, we must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.


Franklin, Benjamin. "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion." 1728. (accessed October 16, 2015).

Franklin, Benjamin. Franklin's Autobiography. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1916.

Jenkins, Nash. "Hundreds Gather for Unveiling of Satanic Statue in Detroit." Time. July 27, 2015. (accessed October 15, 2015).

KOCO News 5. 10 Commandments Statue Removed from Oklahoma Capitol. Oklahoma City, October 6, 2015.

Luther, Martin. Table Talk. Edited by Theodore G Tappert and Helmut T Lehmann. Vol. 54. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1967.

McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008.

Monticello. "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Monticello. (accessed October 15, 2015).

Neill, Rev. E. D. "Washington's Religion." The New York Times, January 2, 1885.

"Paine Relief!" Classic Works of Apologetics. (accessed October 16, 2015).

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association, Inc. "George Washington, The Mason." The George Washington Masonic National Memorial. (accessed October 16, 2015).

Veterans of Foreign Wars. "The Chaplains Handbook." Veterans of Foreign Wars. 2012. (accessed October 16, 2015).

Washington, George. "Thanksgiving Proclamation." George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. October 3, 1789. (accessed October 16, 2015).

End Notes

[1] I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book (Rev. 22:18-19).

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Celebrating a Life

Patrol cars lining up outside the funeral home
in preparation for the procession.
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:17-27).

As a police officer, part of my job is to sometimes attend civic functions. We are sent to Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Fourth of July parades. A nearby town has a Pet Parade to which we always send at least one patrol car. In Hodgkins, we have a summer festival the Second weekend of September and the police spend a lot of public relations time there. I usually spend the day driving children around in our parade car, a 1929 Ford Model A Phaeton.

Then, of course, there are the things that are not as much fun to attend.

Officers assembling at the church for the
honor guard detail.
We attend a lot of funerals. This month, there were two funerals for officers who have been killed. I had the privilege of attending the funeral for Steven Smith, the Chicago Ridge police officer who was killed in a DUI car crash on I-294 on September 13. I got to be part of the funeral procession, which included dozens of squad cars from I don't know how many police agencies. I participated in the police honor guard detail at the funeral home, and at the church. We stood at attention on the street in front of Our Lady of the Ridge Roman Catholic Church, along with a detail of flawlessly dressed (and immaculately choreographed) Marines, as the Emerald Society paraded in front of the hearse playing pipes and drums. It was a moving scene, and the police officers with whom I spoke were all, without exception, moved and gratified to see the entire town of Chicago Ridge honoring officer Steven Smith. Hundreds of people lined the streets as the funeral procession passed by. They waved American flags, and blue ribbons were tied to trees and lampposts along the way. There wasn't an empty seat in the church for Mass.

As a civic ceremony, this funeral for a man who had a positive impact on the community in which he grew up and lived will remain in my memory for a long time. It was the perfect way for a community to collectively express gratitude toward one of its sons and loyal civil servants. The religious ceremony, however, disturbed me.

The Emerald Society preparing to play.
Wakes and funerals are curious things, especially the way they are done in America. Rather than being a means to help grieving friends and relatives cope with the death of a loved one, wakes and funerals oftentimes become a celebration of the very thing that took their loved one away – death. They end up, rather than comforting people, reminding them of all the good things they have lost to death. Funerals and wakes, generally and without meaning to, put on display all that the deceased was in this life. It usually happens in the form of photographs, bulletin boards, flowers and personal mementos scattered throughout the funeral parlor. All these things, in effect, tell the living who have gathered to mourn, “Look what you have lost and will never again experience”. The most heinous part of the entire wake experience is, quite possibly, the corpse itself.

The body of a deceased loved one painted and dressed; face plastered with makeup and frozen in an almost-but-not-quite serene expression, made to appear as if asleep. In the hands of the wrong funeral director, a corpse becomes morbid marionette that serves only to focus attention on the “star” of the hour – death. At a wake, what a victory death seems to have won. And, no more awkward a question has ever been asked than, “Boy, doesn’t he/she look good?”

No, they don’t look good. No one looks good lying in a casket.

The priest, in his homily, referred several times to this funeral mass as being a "celebration of life." He eulogized the officer, recounting all sorts of incidents and anecdotes from his life, talking about what a wonderful person he was to those around him. The point he made at the end was, in recalling these things and sharing them with others, we keep him alive, just as we keep Jesus alive when we recall what Jesus has done, and imitate his love for his fellow man.

This made me cringe. It almost sounded as though the priest was denying an afterlife, let alone the resurrection, and saying that the dead - including Christ - are kept alive only in spirit, through collective memory. This emphasis was confusing, particularly since he read from John 11:25:

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;

He did say that Christ was the only way to access God. But there was no mention of sin, or its forgiveness through the atoning sacrifice of Christ's death on the cross. With a casket in the center of the church, the saccharin words about celebrating life rang somewhat hollow, and you could see it on the face of Officer Smith’s mother.

The second thing that stuck out to me was the celebration of mass. I don’t intend to get into an in-depth comparative study of the Roman and Lutheran liturgies here, or to debate transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and the Real Presence. I have attended other masses in the past, and am familiar with what goes on. I have previously watched the presentation of the gifts, the bread and the wine, and heard the priest call on God to sanctify these offerings, that they may become the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have seen priests re-present this unbloody sacrifice and offer it, “in reparation for the sins of the living and the dead and to obtain spiritual or temporal benefits from God” many times in the past (Roman Catholic Church 1994). These works were performed at this funeral Mass as well. Again, when there is a casket containing the body of one of those faithful departed for whose repose the congregation is praying, it gives one a bit more perspective on what is taking place.

During all this my eye was drawn to the family of the deceased. Quite understandably, their faces were the picture of anguish and despair. The only hope which was being offered to them, however, was in the work of performing the Mass, and in praying that their son’s soul would rest in peace. Even the little bit of Gospel given to them earlier in the service during the readings was taken away during the celebration of the Mass, by the lack of certainty that he would “rest in peace.”

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Romans 5:1-11).

Being the obstinate and hateful Confessional Lutheran that I am, I was one of only two police officers who did not participate in the Eucharist that day. With the words of the Augsburg Confession in my head, there I sat, I could do nothing else, God help me! Amen!

Scripture teaches that we are justified before God, through faith in Christ, when we believe that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. Now if the Mass takes away the sins of the living and the dead simply by performing it[1], justification comes by doing Masses, and not by faith. Scripture does not allow this (AC XXIV 28-29)[2].

Because of our disobedient first parents, we have to deal with sin and death. Sin, after the fall, became a part of the human nature. And, while it is true that everyone must die, death does not have the same meaning for those who trust in Christ. This is what all those gathered to “celebrate the life” of Officer Smith desperately needed to hear. This is what I wanted Officer Smith’s parents to hear about their son, a baptized child of God.

St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians the following, my favorite passage of Scripture:

I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:50-57).

For those who do not know Jesus Christ, who do not believe and trust in him as their redeemer, the prospect is grim. Death, for these people, remains the victor. Scripture says that they will experience eternal death. In the shadow of this prospect, the wake room and funeral service becomes an extremely cold, dark and dismal place.

...He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death." (Revelation 21:7-8).

The Christian, however, can look death in the eye unafraid. To the Christian, death is more than a consequence of original sin and a fallen creation; more than the cessation of life. It is the portal to life everlasting and a relationship with the Creator as such a relationship was intended to be. No suffering, no pain; only eternal joy with God and all the saints forever.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true" (Revelation 21:3-5).

For the unbeliever, the traditional wake is appropriate. An entire life summed up by a bulletin board full of old photographs and a coffee room filled with sad, frightened people discussing everything but that which is in the parlor. For the Christian, it is inappropriate, as they have, in their baptism, passed from death to life. By their physical death, the deceased Christian has passed from this life to life eternal. The Christian wake and funeral, though an outlet for grief and mourning is, and rightly should be, also a celebration of Christ’s victory over death and the grave by his resurrection - the anticipation that those who trust in him as the atonement for their sins will live forever as well. The Christian funeral can be called a celebration of life. It is a celebration of the life Christ has won for us on the cross, without any merit or worthiness in us.

Death is not good. God, however, has taken what is evil and turned it to our benefit, by the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of the body and life everlasting are sure and certain to those who trust in him; to those who remain faithful unto death. Therefore, for the Christian, especially when confronting death, the words of St. Paul should provide us strength, consolation and comfort:

Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

Works Cited

Concordia Publishing House. Luther's Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.

McCain, Paul Timothy, Robert Cleveland Baker, Gene Edward Veith, and Edward Andrew Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Translated by William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

Roman Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Rome: Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994. 

End Notes

[1] Ex opere operato – by the outward act. Scripture certainly teaches that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace and that the chief blessing of it is the forgiveness of sins, which Christ’s body and blood have won for us on the cross. Forgiveness of sin, life and salvation are certainly not given simply by the eating and drinking (the outward act), but by believing in the words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” along with the eating and drinking. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: “forgiveness of sins” (Concordia Publishing House 1991).

[2] McCain, Paul Timothy, Robert Cleveland Baker, Gene Edward Veith, and Edward Andrew Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Translated by William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.