Maundy Thursday: Eating and Drinking Life

Preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on 17 February 2014. You can listen to a recording of the sermon here.
Text: 1 Corinthians 11:23–32

We have heard read tonight the institution of the Holy Supper of our Lord, as narrated by St. Paul to the church in Corinth, and with our own mouths we have confessed what this Sacrament is, does and signifies. Let us spend a few moments longer contemplating the great divine mystery, which we will not only study but receive before we leave this place.

It is not an exaggeration to say that God in the Holy Scriptures is extraordinarily focused on our eating. The first thing we are told about the Garden in Eden, the home of the first man and his wife, is that “out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” The very first commandment had to do with eating:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

In the middle of the Garden was the Tree of Life, which was the source of eternal life. For after the Fall, in order to prevent from fallen mankind to live forever under the curse, God placed cherubim with flaming swords to guard the Tree of Life and to keep man from eating from it.

And since man is what he eats, death began its reign. Cultivating a cursed ground for his food, he remained under the curse. Eating dead food, he himself was destined to be consumed by death.

But since God was determined to remain true to His loving purposes and be faithful even when we were faithless, He continued to provide life-giving food for the people.

When Abraham gave tithes to Melchizedek, the priest of God Almighty and the king of Salem who foreshadowed the true High Priest of God and the King of Peace, our Lord Jesus Christ, Melchizedek blessed Abraham and gave him bread and wine.

When the Lord redeemed Israel from the yoke of slavery in Egypt, He sent the people into their freedom fed with the meat of the Passover lamb and the unleavened bread.

In the wilderness, when the people were perishing for want of faith when food and water were scarce, God sent them bread from heaven and water from a rock.

When the Lord gave Moses the Law, He provided a sacred meal, the peace offering, so that the worshippers gathered in the tabernacle might sit down and eat the meat of the sacrifice in table fellowship with God Himself.

Through His prophets, God promised a time of restoration when there would no longer be a curse on the ground, when creation would be freed from its bondage to sin, when death would die. The people would once again eat the fruit of the land in all its abundance. “Open your mouth wide,” says the Lord, “and I will fill it.” (Ps. :)

* * *

However, not everything was suitable to eat. There was food that was unclean: food that came from things that had been distorted by the fall, and perpetuated the fallenness of creation—such as beasts that ate not the grass of the field but one another.

But there was one eating prohibition that stood above all others. Unlike the laws about clean and unclean food, which were given to Israel through Moses at Sinai, this prohibition was given through Noah to all mankind: “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen. :)

This commandment was repeated when the Law was given through Moses, not once but six times, and the whole of chapter  of Leviticus is devoted to it. Why was it such a terrible thing to eat blood? Because the blood was the life: eating the blood was to eat the life. Israel’s pagan neighbours would eat and drink blood, or pour it over their crops, to benefit from the life-force of another, whether an animal or a human.

To Israel God said,

If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people.

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.

Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood. (Lev. :–)

Life comes from God and it returns to God. You are not to take what is God’s for yourself. Nor should you seek to gain anything for your life, except from God, who has created you and numbered your days. The only use of another’s life is for the sake of atonement, one life for the sins of another, as commanded by God: hence the Passover Lamb and the sacrifices of atonement.

* * *

Today, we share the condition of Adam and Eve, of Noah, Abraham, Moses and the Israelites. Today, we still live off a cursed ground, in mortal bodies, eating dead food and being consumed by death. Our sins and the sins of others are still destroying us, until the wages of sin is paid out to us.

But today, we too are fed by God. Like Melchizedek, Christ brings us bread and wine and His blessing. But the bread and wine are not mere bread and wine, mere signs and symbols without a power of their own.

No, this bread and wine are combined with the all-powerful words of Christ. By the power of Christ’s words, the words of institution, we are given the flesh of Christ to eat and His blood to drink, hidden in, with and under the bread and wine. That’s right: we eat flesh and we drink blood. Only now the drinking of blood brings with it not punishment but blessing. Why? Because the blood is the life. The blood of atonement that was made once for all, the blood of the Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, is now given to us so that our sins might be covered, that the angel of death may pass over us, and that we might have in us the life of Christ, who overcame death and hell and lives forever.

Jesus said,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. (John 6:53–57)

We eat Christ and we drink His life—the flesh with its blood. Not dead food that nourishes a dying body for a moment, but living food that nourishes the body and soul to life everlasting. Really and truly—hidden but undoubtedly present.

The tree of the cross is for us the new tree of life, from whose fruit we eat so that we might live eternally in an imperishable Paradise. The blood shed on that cross brings us atonement, covering our sin and washing us so that our scarlet sins are made white as snow. Our garments, soiled by transgression, are purified and made white in the blood of the Lamb, and now we can stand with confidence before the throne of Almighty God, and His Son who will judge the living and the dead.

Thus though we don’t see our Bridegroom now as He is with our eyes, He is not far from us. Rather, He comes to us in a most intimate union, making Himself one flesh with His bride, the Church, and with each of her members. We are not left only to think about Him, whether in remembrance or in anticipation—no, He lives within us in His body and blood.

In this way, the miracle of the incarnation is echoed at Christian altars each time the words of institution are spoken over bread and wine: the Son of God makes His dwelling among us in the flesh of the Son of Mary. This is why Christians bow or kneel during at the consecration, to recognise and reverence the great mystery: that Jesus, our Immanuel, is with us. This is why Christians sing the Agnus Dei, the hymn to the Lamb of God, not to the backs of their eyelids, or up to the ceiling, but to the altar where the Lamb of God to whom we sing is present.

And this is why also the Church exercises great care in admitting people to this most holy meal: whoever eats such sacred food and drinks such sacred drink without recognising in faith what is being offered and for what purpose, profanes the holy mysteries and thereby incurs judgement rather than forgiveness, wrath rather than blessing.

And so, dear friends of Christ, we have come to the Holy of Holies, to the presence of יהוה of Sabaoth, the God of Israel. The benefits of the sacrifice of Golgotha are being delivered to us tonight, and Christ is giving us His immortal body and the blood of His eternal life to us to eat and to drink.

Examine yourselves, therefore: Are you a sinner in need of forgiveness? Are you weak, and in need of strength? Are you starving and in need of feeding, parched and in need of refreshment? Are you a sojourner, longing for your true home? Are you dying, in need of life?

Here is forgiveness and life; here is strength for the pilgrimage; here is food and drink; here is a foretaste from the banquet prepared for every prodigal son and daughter by the Father, a full token of Christ’s love for His beloved bride.

Come, open your mouth, and it will be filled!

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Liturgical Titbits: The Idle Congregation

“Why don’t we get to do more in the service? Why does the pastor get to do (almost) everything? All that the congregation seems to do is to sing hymns and say ‘Amen’ a lot. Why? It makes it feel like the pastor is more special and important, and makes us feel devalued.”

This way of thinking is based on a misunderstanding of what happens in Christian worship. It assumes that in church, like in much of modern life, doing makes you important, so doing less means you are less important. It also assumes that what happens in worship is that we come to do things. The more we do, the more involved and important we are.

But that is not what worship is about. Lutherans often use the term ‘Divine Service’, a translation of the German term Gottesdienst. What happens at church is Divine Service: in worship, God serves us. He is the host, we are the guests.

And like at any great banquet, the host does his serving by means of servants. They do the laying of the table, the cooking, the cleaning, the distribution of food and drink, the clearing up. At a banquet, the more you do, the less important you are, and the more important you are, the less you have to do. The guest of honour only has to sit back and wait for food and drink to appear and for dirty dishes to disappear again.

And so it is in church. The congregation are the guests of honour at the heavenly banquet. God is the host, Jesus the food; the invitation comes from the Holy Spirit. And then there are servants (the pastor(s) and any lay members who assist him/them) who distribute the goodies from the host to the guests. The more you do, the less important you are. The more important you are, the less you do. All you have to do is sit and wait for God’s gifts to appear, and your dirty dishes to be taken away. The only thing left to do is to receive and to say ‘Thank you’.

Immediately after instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus taught this to His disciples:

For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:27)

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession expresses the same truth thus:

The difference between this faith and the righteousness of the Law can be easily discerned. Faith is the divine service (latreia) that receives the benefits offered by God. The righteousness of the Law is the divine service (latreia) that offers to God our merits. God wants to be worshipped through faith so that we receive from Him those things He promises and offers. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV:29)

So, when in church, don’t do something: just sit there!

P.S. Yes, in many churches there is a lot more ‘lay activity’ in the service than in the Lutheran church. But that’s because frequently they have a very different view on what the nature worship is.

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A Year of God’s Grace

Our Saviour Lutheran Church

Annual General Meeting
20 March 2014
Pastor’s Report

Church SignOur Saviour Lutheran Church has enjoyed another year of God’s grace, receiving and sharing the love of God in Jesus Christ. There have been many joys, some deep sorrows—but above all, the constancy of God’s loving gifts.

Except on two of the Sundays when the pastor was away on holiday, Divine Service (service with Holy Communion) has been held “on every Lord’s Day and on [many of] the other festivals”, as enjoined by our Lutheran confessions (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XXIV.1). Sunday attendance by the members of the church has remained regular, with very many attending every Sunday unless they were away. In addition, a good number of members also attended services for Ascension and Ash Wednesday. I am very grateful to DL who, as the elder, led services during my annual leave—as he did faithfully during his whole long tenure as elder—as well as to Pr. GJ who led the service, preached and administered the Sacrament during the same period of leave. In addition, in February students from Westfield House assisted in the service by preaching and by assisting in the liturgy.

We have experienced greater variety in the liturgical life of the congregation than in the past. In addition to Settings III and IV, the Easter season, we used the Healey Willan setting of the Divine Service, and during Advent, an unaccompanied setting of the Divine Service, which is being prepared by the ELCE’s Committee on Worship.

Thanks to the faithful service of our Sunday school teachers and helpers, Sunday school has been held on almost every Sunday of the church year, and our children continue to grow in the knowledge of God’s word.

A whole new set of services came into being from September. In co-operation with the Parish of St. Peter & St. Paul, regular Daily Office services began to be held at St. Francis’, Funtley: Matins on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and Vespers on Wednesdays. Although members of the congregation have not begun to attend these services regularly, it is nevertheless an encouragement that there is regular prayer for the congregation and for the wider community. Moreover, some members of the local community who are not members of Our Saviour have attended some of the services from time to time.

In the traditional Advent Vespers, we studied the Epistle readings for the Sundays of Advent. In the current series of Lenten Vespers, we are taking a leaf out of Martin Luther’s book, and going back to being students of the Catechism (Introduction to the Large Catechism), with each week’s service focusing on one of the Chief Parts.

Bible study remains well-attended. This entire past year has been taken up by a close study of the chief confession of the Lutheran Church, the Augsburg Confession. Several adults and two children have been receiving instruction in the Church’s doctrine in preparation for full membership in the Lutheran Church.

There have been many joys. On Pentecost, H was received into communicant membership through the rite of Confirmation. As in past years, we have had the opportunity to serve the children of the local area through holiday clubs and the Drama Club. Since the autumn, a newly-formed youth club has met fortnightly, generously hosted by B (even while she was away in Australia!). We have been able to serve the elderly members of our community through ongoing care home visits, as well as regular visits to a newly-built care home. As a church family, we have met monthly over excellent food and drink at Saturday suppers. In January, the congregation was able to lend their pastor to extend God’s grace to a Finnish family in Galway, Ireland, to bring their newborn daughter S to the saving waters of Baptism. We hosted the LWLGB convention in November and a Westfield House weekend in February.

Amid the joys, we have also endured sorrows. The upheavals within the ELCE in the past year were and are felt painfully by all: when one member suffers, the whole body suffers. Our service of prayer for friends and strangers, which manifests itself in a long prayer list in the weekly bulletin, encapsulates many needs of loved ones and others. Some prayers have been answered with a ‘Yes’ through relief and healing, others with a ‘No’, as we have had to bid a final farewell to those for whom we have prayed. Above all, we lost from our visible fellowship our dear friend and sister in the faith, Forbes. She has gone to the promised glory ahead of time. We, who are left behind, grieve, yet not as those who have no hope but rather in the firm assurance of the resurrection of the body and our reunion with all the saints in God’s heavenly kingdom of glory.

Beyond Fareham, Brighton Lutheran Mission had its second anniversary in January. The work continues to grow and develop slowly and steadily. The monthly services and Sunday Bible studies are regularly attended by five to eight people, of whom three are receiving adult instruction with a view to Baptism or Confirmation. In addition, since last spring, there has been a regular Bible study on the afternoon of the fourth Friday of the month. In addition, I have had the opportunity twice now to share the Gospel with guests at the lunch club run by Holland Road Baptist Church, our generous hosts in Hove.

Our Saviour continues to serve the wider ELCE also by supporting the pastor’s regular visits to Oxford Mission, enabling that small but steadfast community to receive the same gifts of grace which God gives to us.

Finally, my thanks are due to all who have assisted me and served the church in various capacities: DL, who during his long tenure as Elder, which came to an end in August, was always exemplary in his concern for the welfare of the congregation, and who continues to serve as Treasurer; MC, as Chairman and as incoming Elder; to all the other office holders; to the Sunday school teachers; the musicians who make it possible for us to have accompanied services; those who make tea and coffee, the washer-uppers; all who cook; those who have hosted guests; those who give lifts to others; holiday club helpers; and to all for your prayers.

In human terms, the future of our church remains uncertain, all the more since we received the added financial burden of retrospective pension liability payments. Nevertheless, none of that needs to make us anxious: we are not a human society but a divine society, the body of Christ in Fareham and Southern England. Whatever is uncertain to us, whatever shortfalls we may be aware of: none of those are a concern to our Heavenly Father, from whom all blessings flow. Whether the future promises growth and greater resources, or decline and the reduction in worldly goods, we have the sure promises of Jesus. He will be with us always to the end of the world. The Church is His Church, and the gates of hell not prevail against it. So all is well, because all will end well!

Soli Deo Gloria: To God alone be all glory!

Respectfully submitted on the Thursday of Reminiscere Sunday,

Rev. Tapani Simojoki
Pastor

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Aaron

Holinesse on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To leade them unto life and rest.
Thus are true Aarons drest.

Profanenesse in my head,
Defect and darknesse in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest,
Poore priest thus am I drest.

Onely another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another musick, making live not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well drest.

Christ is my onely head,
My alone onely heart and breast,
My onely musick, striking me ev’n dead;
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new drest.

So holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my deare breast,
My doctrine tun’d by Christ, (who is not dead,
but lives in me while I do rest)
Come people; Aaron’s drest.

George Herbert (1593–1633)

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The Lord Who Saves

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, 5 January 2014
Text: Matthew 2:13–23
You can listen to the sermon here.

La fuite en ÉgypteWhat’s in a name? For us moderns, not a lot. Names are labels chosen from a stock of traditional or (increasingly) non-traditional stock. We name children after relatives or celebrities, or we pick a name that we like the sound of. We avoid names that we dislike, or names that bring back bad memories. Yes, there are all sorts of more or less complicated reasons for our names, but in the end, it’s all about our preferences and tastes.

In the Bible, however, names have a far greater significance. Numerous times in the Old Testament, when a person is named, a little explanation is added to tell us the significance of that particular name. Adam called his wife Eve, which means life-giver, “because she was the mother of all living”. God took Abram, whose name meant ‘exalted father’, and re-named him Abraham, which means ‘father of a multitude’, “for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” Likewise, God took Jacob, whose name meant ‘he deceives’, and gave him the new name Israel, ‘he strives with God’.

And this Israel, the man who strove with God, gave his name to all his descendants, to whom God promised to give all that He had promised to Abraham and Isaac, all the blessings He had intended for His creation. In Israel and through Israel, God would do His work of restoring the creation that had fallen when Adam and Eve disobeyed the Creator.

It didn’t take long, however, before it seemed that God’s promise to Israel would be snuffed out before it had even begun to manifest itself. Jacob and his sons were on the verge of extinction, because there was a great famine about to fall on the land. The curse on the land that their forefather Adam had earned for himself and all his descendants, was about to undo the promise to the woman’s seed, that the serpent’s head would be crushed and the curse lifted.

But God’s promises will not be thwarted. God turned the evil intentions of the ten older brothers for His own good purposes. When they plotted to destroy their younger brother Joseph, God used their evil plot to send him ahead of them to Egypt—so that he might feed them and their families there. And so it was. Joseph, the younger brother, rose to power in Egypt just in time to feed his father and his brothers when they ran out of food, and to give them a home in the rich land of Goshen. He who was the son and the younger brother to Jacob and his sons, became a father to them, and under his care and by God’s blessing, they were fruitful and multiplied. For his name was Joseph, which means, ‘he will add’.

In the fullness of time, God took Israel out of slavery in this foreign land and led them home to the land He had promised them, a land flowing with milk and honey. During their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, they proved to be an unworthy bearer of their forefather’s name. For they strove not with God but against Him, again and again.

Nor did their rebellion end when they were safely established in the Promised Land. Time and again, they contended against God and the prophets whom God sent them to call them back to His good and gracious care. They were busy forfeiting the promised redemption through their idolatry and disobedience. Judge after judge, things got worse, until God gave them kings to be shepherds of his people. But king after king, things degenerated yet further. The kingdom was split, brother against brother after the image of Cain and Abel, and then first one, then the other half of the kingdom was destroyed by their enemies—a just punishment for the rebellion of Israel, their insistent striving against God. The nation that had been called to be a kingdom of priests, to shine the light of God’s truth in a fallen world, instead left her God and went the idolatrous way of the world.

And so Israel embodied in her history the history of all humanity: a called, redeemed creation refusing to heed the call of Him who made and redeemed it. Insisting on its own way, the broad highway of death, over the narrow way that leads to life. Rejecting the wisdom of God, preferring instead the folly of this world. Heeding the siren-call of what our eyes see and ears hear, here and now, rather than receiving by faith what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.

Separated from the Lord, whose name is יהוה, ‘the one who is’, the world is rushing head-long into oblivion.

But this name, יהוה, tells us something more about God than a mere label would. He is the one who is, the being one. And as He is, so is His word. As the one who is, He will endure forever. As He is, so is His word: it will endure forever.

Therefore, once He has made a promise, He will by necessity keep His promise. Otherwise, His word of promise would fail to endure. And so in the fullness of time, God sent His Son, born of a woman, and gave Him a name that would change everything: Jesus.

The English name Jesus comes to us from the Greek transliteration of Jesus’ Hebrew name Yehoshua, or Joshua. This name is made up of two parts, God’s own name, יהוה, plus the verb, ישׁע , which means ‘he saves’. God sent His Son, and called Him, יהוה saves’, ‘the one who is saves’, ‘the Lord saves’—for, as the angel told Joseph, He was to save His people from their sins.

And in this Jesus, all the promises to Israel were to be fulfilled: the promise that Israel were to be His chosen people, that Israel were to be blessed through the keeping of God’s Law, that Israel were going to receive an eternal heritage from God in a land flowing with milk and honey, that Israel’s prayers were going to be pleasing to God, that Israel was going to have a means of atonement and God’s forgiveness forever—and that through Israel, all the nations of the world would be blessed.

And what Israel according to the flesh, Jacob and his offspring, failed to do, the Son of God undertook to do. And so God took the evil intentions of Herod who wanted to destroy the beloved Son, and used them to take Joseph to Egypt. There, Joseph became father to the one who was his creator and his elder brother, by taking care of his wife’s son, Jesus. And having been taken to Egypt, Jesus traced the way of the Israelites: from exile in Egypt back to the land of Canaan. There, he grew in Galilee, the land of the people living in darkness, obedient to His earthly parents and to His heavenly Father.

In the fullness of time, He took upon Himself the sins of the whole world by taking on the sinners’ baptism of repentance from John the Baptists. He faced the wilderness for forty days, but resisted the temptations of the evil one, repelling Him with the word which both Adam and the people of Israel disregarded to their own peril. Keeping the Law to the end, He strove with God in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking the cup of suffering to be taken from Him, but only if it was the Father’s will. Thus, having been obedient to the point of death, He was crucified and destroyed for all of Israel’s transgressions—and for the sins of the whole world. When the first Israel, Jacob strove with God at the brook of Jabbok, God relented and let Jacob go with His blessing and the new name. When the second Israel, Jesus, strove with God on the cross of Calvary, God did not relent but forsook His obedient Son, so that He might bless all the disobedient sons and daughters of Adam and Israel who had incurred His wrath by their disobedience. Thus, the cross of Christ was set up as the beacon for the world, where those weighed down by sin may leave their fatal burden and find a gracious God, and the crucified Saviour was the priest who brought the light of God’s truth to all the people.

But what has all this to do with you?

Everything. When you were baptised, you were truly Christened: you received the name of Christ and were made a Christian. Your incorporation into Him by the circumcision of the heart in baptism made you a member in Him—a member of Israel. Thus, all the promises of God to Israel throughout all of Scripture are His promises to you. He striven with God for you, so that you need not strive but to rest in His salvation. You have been brought from the Egypt of slavery to sin into the freedom of the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom, where you are not a slave but a son and heir. You, a member of His body, are as beloved as the head. He has defeated Satan, and all of Satan’s accusations and temptations, for you. He is your mighty fortress, to which God has gathered you from among the nations, as we sang in the  Gradual.

In short, יהוה, the Lord, has saved you. Now you are a member of that nation of priests, Israel, called to proclaim the excellences of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light. He who has done this, He who has promised all this, is the one who is and stands forever, whose word stands forever. Whatever temptations, anguish, discouragement, persecutions come your way, He will see His promise through as long as you stay in the One who has done all this and who has won the victory for you, Jesus, the Lord who saves.

May God give you His grace in this New Year to enjoy His great gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, seeking His kingdom in the joyful knowledge that all other things will be added to you as well.

In the holy name of ✠ Jesus. Amen.

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Death as debtor to Christ

An interesting thought from Luther’s sermon for New Year’s Day in the Church Postil:

For when death fell on Him and killed Him, and yet had no right or case against Him, and He willingly and innocently submitted and let Himself be killed, then death became liable to Him, did Him wrong and sinned against Him, and itself spoiled everything, so that Christ has an honest claim against it. Now the wrong of which [death] became guilty toward Him is so great that death can never pay nor atone for it. Therefore, it must be subject to Christ and in His power forever, and so death is overcome and put to death in Christ. (Luther’s Works 76 [CPH, 2013], 45)

Again, this fits beautifully with the centrality of the baptismal union:  all things are subjected to Christ, for the Church (Eph. 1:22). Apart from Christ, death rules over my body. In Christ, death is subject to me, because it is subject to Him and I am in Him.

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Divine monergism in salvation leads to synergism in good works

When the Holy Spirit has worked and accomplished this, and a person’s will has been changed and renewed by His divine power and working alone, then the new will of that person is an instrument and organ of God the Holy Spirit. So that person not only accepts grace, but he also co-operates with the Holy Spirit in the works that follow.

From the Formula of Concord, Epitome II.18.

That lovely phrase, “the new will of that person is an instrument and organ of God the Holy Spirit” wonderfully sums up the relationship between the work of the Holy Spirit and the regenerate will of the believer.

This is why St. Paul was able to write to the Romans, “… be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2 ESV). In other words, be what you have been made, and become what you are.

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Would this be sung at your church?

Unconditionally

Oh no, did I get too close?
Oh, did I almost see what’s really on the inside?
All your insecurities
All the dirty laundry
Never made me blink one time

Unconditional, unconditionally
I will love you unconditionally
There is no fear now
Let go and just be free
I will love you unconditionally

Come just as you are to me
Don’t need apologies
Know that you are worthy
I’ll take your bad days with your good
Walk through the storm I would
I do it all because I love you, I love you

Unconditional, unconditionally
I will love you unconditionally
There is no fear now
Let go and just be free
I will love you unconditionally

So open up your heart and just let it begin
Open up your heart and just let it begin
Open up your heart and just let it begin
Open up your heart

Acceptance is the key to be
To be truly free
Will you do the same for me?

Unconditional, unconditionally
I will love you unconditionally
And there is no fear now
Let go and just be free
‘Cause I will love you unconditionally (oh yeah)
I will love you (unconditionally)
I will love you
I will love you unconditionally

Source: YouTube
HT: twitter.com/richardengland, via Peter Ould

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Putting s back into Christmass

Here’s a brief article I wrote for the Christmas issue of the magazine of a local Baptist church. It’s distributed to hundreds of homes in the area where our congregation worships.

What’s missing from Xmas?

The answer: the second ‘s’.

Get it? If not, bear with me, and I will explain.

It’s coming up to Christmas time. At the time of writing, I’m preparing the first church services in December, including the first carol service of the year.

Now, whether you love Christmas or hate it, it’s probably for the same reason: all the Christmas traditions. It’s the carols, the decorations, the food, the cards, the presents, the TV specials, Father Christmas, as well as all sorts of family traditions that have developed over the years. Some love them, others detest them. And for some people, they are a cause of regret or sadness or grief—bringing home the realities of loneliness, tragedy or loss in a particularly painful way.

There’s one other tradition, a more recent one, that I didn’t include in that list: Christians complaining about the fact that for most people there is no more Christ in Christmas. It’s all Xmas, Christmas without Christ: the jolly bits originally there to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, but without Jesus. Santa, not God’s Son, is now the central character.

It’s all festive season without the Reason for the Season. Add the grotesque commercialisation of Christmas, and even those who aren’t Christian will begin to complain.

To be fair, I’m with the complainers. Up to a point. Contrary to what you might have read or heard, Christians never did steal Christmas from the pagans—but in these latter days, the non-Christian world does seem to have taken over Christmas and pushed out its real meaning altogether. And that’s regrettable, to say the least.

On the other hand, there’s this to consider: why should someone celebrate the birth of Jesus if they don’t believe in Him? And it doesn’t seem right to insist that shops, supermarkets and public broadcasting companies should take responsibility for teaching the real message of Christmas—their job is to make money or to attract viewers and listeners. They are just doing their job, even if they sometimes do it almost too well.

No, putting Christ back into Christmas isn’t a matter of forcing the general culture, or commerce, to talk more about Jesus—even though, if they did, I would be the first to be pleased.

Just as much as we need Christ instead of X in our Xmas, we also need the second ‘s’. The real meaning of Christmas is ‘Christ’s Mass’—the church service to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Church at Christmas is more than a tradition: it is where we encounter Jesus today in His word and in Holy Communion.

The Son of God who came to earth as the child of Mary comes to us today as we gather in His name to hear and meditate on the words of the Bible, to pray in His name, and to eat and drink the bread and wine of which He said, “This is my body, this is my blood.”

It’s when you put Mass back into Christmas that you will also get Christ back into Christmas—and with him, lasting joy. Not just for Christmas, but for every day of your life, and to all eternity.

Happy Christmas!

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