Monday, September 28, 2009

Something to consider when looking for a church

I am sometimes asked questions concerning how one finds a ‘good’ church.  I will of course do some quick research and point them to the closest confessional Lutheran parish near them in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments correctly administered.  Furthermore, I would hope to find the availability of private confession and absolution which lies at the very heart and center of pastoral care.  Among the Lutherans, “The Mass is held among us and celebrated with the highest reverence (AC XXIV).” 

One thought I often hear is “I want a church where I feel comfortable,” or more specifically “I want a church that fits my lifestyle.”  I suppose I can agree that it is right and good to have a comfortable church, especially for family, children and so forth.  A church family ought to be friendly, hospitable, and loving.  However, I do wonder how this squares away theologically if we make “comfort” a fixed and primary principle when it comes to prayerfully finding a church and desiring membership.   

Being in a Christian community however, is not so much “comfortable” in the sense that we desire.  It is not “self-affirming.”  True preaching of the Gospel does not build up my “self-esteem.”  The preaching of God’s law doesn’t not support my “lifestyle” in any way whatsoever.  I am not “accepted” the “way I am."
True preaching breaks us.  It exposes and shames us.  It is devastating.  Self-righteousness, self-esteem, my lifestyle, and the flesh are crushed.  The Christian life is not especially comfortable.         

In Peter’s first sermon when he preaches Christ crucified we find that those listening, “were cut to the heart.”  Then those hearing desperately cried out to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself" (Acts 2:37-39).

The act of preaching and hearing of the Gospel involves a crucifixion of Christ.  Those hearing are “cut to the heart.”  Preaching lacerates the human heart which is a factory of idols.  It exposes shameful sins, and vice, and brings them to the light of Christ’s cross.  This is not comfortable.  In holy baptism the old adam, the old sinful being, who desires self righteous comfort and inner security “should be daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” 

That we are to be drowned and killed is not a metaphor for some new-age spiritual quest.  Saint Paul writes, “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).

We ought to desperately approach a faithful church community that confesses the work of Christ and disperses his Holy gifts in Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Preaching, along with God’s Word of Absolution – that is Jesus.  The flesh wants none of these things however.  The old man does not want to be crucified.  He does not want to be exposed.  He does not want to be shamed.  He does not want to risk “being cut to the heart.”  He was to be “accepted as he is” and this old man goes to great lengths to find or develop a church community that reflects his own image rather than God’s. 

One of my favorite theologians of the church Hans Iwand (1899-1960) provides an excellent commentary on Luther’s theology on faith as relates to the first commandment.  Iwand’s very insightful reflection here may be a helpful consideration when considering where to worship and receive the gifts of Christ.   

“True faith has to do with being confronted with Another who makes us relinquish our own calculations and thoughts, wishes and hopes, and who breaks into our lives as a foreign reality, insisting that we recognize him as such.  God judges over the world and over all people and faith means to make this judgment one’s own.  But the judgment of God over people and their, their will, and their inner life is diametrically opposed to what people want to believe about themselves.  Thus whenever God’s Word meets us, it meets us as the enemy.  For, wherever God’s Word is portrayed so as to be in accord with people’s hopes and desires and wherever it is accepted as a truth that corresponds with their preconceptions, then we know right away that is not God’s Word we are dealing with.

The adjusting of the Word to man and to his preferences Luther sees as an immediate and general sign of heresy.  To the degree that men align God’s will with their own and his revelation with their own wishes and desires, they cancel out the concrete reality of God and make him into their own likeness or what they’d like him to be.  Luther calls this the annihilation Dei, or the annihilation of God.”[1]    

[1] Hans J. Iwand, . The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2008, p. 22.
(I took the picture at the top somewhere near Armitage and Hoyne in Chicago - I cannot remember the name of the church)

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