May 2015’s Letter from the Pastor

To the faithful saints of the Medina-Streeter Lutheran Parish, greetings in the name of the Risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.

As we come to the final core Lutheran teaching that I wish to highlight in my letters to you all, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the core teachings that have led us to this point. We started at the most appropriate point a few months back in talking about how we are only justified by grace through faith for Christ’s sake. This is a teaching that becomes abundantly clear when we read Scripture through the lens of Law and Gospel; the law pointing out our sinfulness and the gospel pointing out God’s faithfulness. The gospel message of God’s love for us through Christ is brought then to our level through the means of grace; the physical elements that allow us to experience God’s grace and love first hand. This then led us to our topic last month in which we found that God’s grace is found in the most unexpected place: the cross. For the cross is the place where God came down to us, in order to give us the free gift of his grace. And so we now turn to the last core teaching of Martin Luther which now describes our role in God’s grace.

According to some faith traditions humanity is separated into two categories. People are either a saint, one who obeys God’s will, or they are a sinner, one who disobeys. Martin Luther saw a problem with this theology. If a person is either a saint or a sinner, where saints come under the grace of God, and sinners do not, through their obedience, or lack thereof, to the will of God, then there really is no hope for anyone. In Luther’s opinion, formed by Scripture, no human being would then ever rightfully be called a saint. It is as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Remember back, then, to Luther’s theology of justification by grace through faith, where we are told that we do not receive God’s grace by what we do, but instead by what Christ does. This tells us then that the only way we are seen by God as saints is through the cross of Christ, where God came down to us instead of us trying to climb our way up to God. However, if we are all now saints because of Christ, what then do we say about sin. For as we all know all too well, sin is still very much alive and well in our world. Enter in Luther’s teaching of being simultaneously a saint and a sinner.

Since our righteousness only always depends on God’s grace, the definition of a saint then changes in Luther’s understanding. Instead of a saint being one who obeys God’s will, a saint is a forgiven sinner. And since, as Paul wrote, all have sinned, there is no one that can be called a saint without the cross of Christ. Paul then goes on to say in verse 24 that those sinners “are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

The truth is we can do nothing but be sinners. Being sinful is built into our DNA; it is part of what it means to be human. Since that is the case, since humanity can do no else but to sin, Martin Luther gave us these words in a letter to his friend Phillip Melanchthon, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for [Christ] is victorious over sin, death, and the world.” What Luther meant by this was that a person should not be weighed down by the fact that they can do no other than to sin, but instead should cling to the fact that their sin has already be forgiven through the blood of Christ.

In Luther’s mind there was no distinction between a person who is a saint and a person who is a sinner. Every sinner is a saint, and every saint is a sinner. We are always both sinners and saints at the same time.

This understanding gives us the ability to realistically face and understand the cruelty and evil in this world. Yes, bad things happen, preciously because humans are sinful. But while humans are sinful, God’s grace is bigger than any sin, and covers them all with God’s grace, mercy, and love.

If there is only one thing that you were able to take away from these letters on Lutheran Theology it is this: we as Lutherans always want the action on what God does, did, and will continue to do over against what we do to earn God’s grace. If left to ourselves to earn God’s love, we would surely fail and there would be no hope for us. But thanks be to God that God did everything for us through the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I hope you all have a safe, and fun filled summer!

In Christ,

Pastor Ryan

April 2015’s Letter from the Pastor

To the two churches of the Medina-Streeter Lutheran Parish that are celebrating the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord: Greetings!

Up until this point we have been looking at some of the core themes that make up Lutheran theology. The themes we have looked at however, justification by faith, law and gospel, the means of grace, these are not inherently Lutheran. There are other denominations that hold these teachings to be true as well. The next theme that we will take up however, is a theme that begins to separate Lutheran teaching from that of other Christian denominations. That teaching is what Luther referred to as the Theology of the Cross.

Without any further explanation this teaching doesn’t seem all that different from other denominations since almost all Christian denominations teach that Jesus died on the cross. However, the Theology of the Cross is not referring only to the events that took place on that very first Good Friday. The Theology of the Cross instead refers to the way in which we think about God; as Lutherans we think about God from the view of the cross. This is distinguished from other denominations that adhere to a Theology of Glory, that is, as stated in Lutheranism 101 “focused on the power and majesty of God [apart] from God’s action in history.”[i]

If you have ever played the children’s game Chutes and Ladders then you will be very familiar with the concept of a theology of glory. In the game Chutes and Ladders each player spins the wheel that tells them how many moves to take to move to the top of the playing board. The winner of the game is the first person to get to the top of the game board. If you land on a specific spot at the bottom of the ladder you can move up more quickly. However, if a player lands on a spot at the top of a chute, they fall down the chute and have to try and climb their way back up starting on their next turn. The theology of glory can be explained in a similar way. A person goes through life trying to use the law of God to gain God’s approval; to climb the ladder to heaven if you will. One wrong move (sin), however, and you are sent back down to the bottom having to start all over again to reach the top. If you have ever lived life, which I am sure we all have, you will know right away that this becomes an impossible feat to accomplish. If it were only up to our own actions to reach heaven we would be out of luck, because it would never be able to be attained. As one Lutheran theologian once wrote, “A theology of glory lets human words set the tone for God’s Word, forces his Word into human logic. A theology of glory lets human deeds determine God’s deeds, for his demonstration of mercy is determined by the actions of human beings.”[ii]

The theology of the cross, however, takes the actions out of our hands and puts it where it rightly belongs, into God’s. The cross would be the last place where we would expect to find God, but sure enough that is exactly where God is found; dying on the cross so that the gates of heaven would be opened to us. As that same theologian wrote, “The cross is the place where God talks our language: it is quite clear what is happening as Christ cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ and dies. At the cross God meets his human creatures where they are, in the shadow of death.”[iii]

This is one of the key distinctions in theology that separates Lutheranism from other Christian denominations. In our belief, there is nothing we can say or do that will gain for us our salvation; we cannot make a decision for Christ in order to be saved. Instead Christ already made the decision for us by dying on the cross. The choice we then make comes in response to our salvation, not for our salvation. We do not choose to follow Christ to get to heaven; we choose to follow Christ in order to serve our neighbor, and point them to the cross that has already saved them as well. This is what Luther referred to as the Freedom of a Christian. When we are freed from the burden of trying to save ourselves, we are then freed to serve our neighbors.

The constant critique and shift in human expectations that is found in the theology of the cross leads us to our final core Lutheran teaching which we will discuss next month; the idea that we, as humans, are at the same time a saint and a sinner.

In the name of our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ,

Pastor Ryan

[i] Lutheranism 101: Culture or confession? Kathryn A. Kleinhans, www.thelutheran.org.

[ii]Kolb, Robert. Luther on the Theology of the Cross. “The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology,” Timothy J. Wengert, ed. Wm. B. Eerdamns Publishing Co., MI: 2009, pg. 38.

[iii] Ibid., 40.

March 2015’s Letter from the Pastor

Greetings in the name of our Lord! May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance!

By now we have hopefully come to see very clearly that Scripture teaches us, through Law and Gospel, that we are justified before God by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, the one who was sacrificed on the cross for the sin of the world. However, there is one small issue that I find arises from the core of the Lutheran faith centered on the grace found in Christ. That issue is that grace, in and of itself is not something we can physically experience. We can say all we want that God’s grace has been bestowed on us but until we are physically able to experience this it does not become real for us. It is almost like saying that you have had a savings account opened for you, but you are not able to physically touch that money nor are you able to see a bank statement verifying that fact. Unless we can experience it with any or all of our five senses, it just isn’t real for us.

However, God has given us gifts in which we can physically experience the grace of God in Christ Jesus. These gifts are what Martin Luther commonly referred to as the means of grace, where as “means” here refers to the way things actually occur. When someone asks “by what means of transportation did you come?” we know that they are asking how it actually happened that they arrived, was it by car, train, plane, etc. And so when we talk about the means of grace we are talking about the ways in which we physically experience God’s grace.

According to Lutheran teachings there are two means of grace: word and sacrament. That is through the holy word of God, i.e. Scripture, and through the two sacraments instituted by God, we are physically able to experience the grace God bestows on us through Christ Jesus. In the article Lutheranism 101 the means of grace is explained in this way: “When good news is preached, when someone is baptized, when we receive the Lord’s Supper, grace happens.”[i] In other words, when we hear the good news, when we feel the water, when we taste and smell the bread and the wine, we know that we are physically experiencing God’s grace.

With this understanding we can be certain that grace is not something that we have no connection to, but instead is something that we experience every time we come to worship, whether that be on a Sunday morning, at a midweek Bible Study, or by your own personal devotions. Through all of these methods we receive the means of grace by which we have received the justification spoken of through the Law and the Gospel by the cross of Christ.

Next month, as we get closer to Holy week, and the season of Easter, we will take an in-depth look at what Lutherans call the Theology of the Cross.

 

In Christ,

Pastor Ryan

[i] Lutheranism 101: Culture or confession? Kathryn A. Kleinhans, www.thelutheran.org.

February 2015’s Letter from the Pastor

Greetings of peace be to our entire community in love and faith through the Lord Jesus Christ!

The foundation of our examination of core Lutheran principles has been established. Last month I hope you all had a chance to reflect on God’s amazing grace through the theme of justification by grace, through faith in Christ Jesus. That theme has laid the footings for what we will build upon in the coming months; we cannot become justified in God’s eyes on our own, it is only because of the grace God has bestowed on us through the faith God has given us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The next logical question to ask is how do we know for sure that we cannot become justified on our own? This is where a basic understanding of Scripture comes in handy. Now I don’t mean that everyone should be able quote verse after verse from the Bible in order to answer this question. All a basic understanding of Scripture entails is understanding the ways in which scripture verses function. In order to understand this easily Luther talked about Scripture verses in two ways: Law and Gospel.

The first place Luther started, as he should have, was with the law. When we hear that word our minds automatically go to thinking about the laws in which govern our lives handed down to us by our government. This is the most basic understanding of the law and what it does; the law is a set of rules. In the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, among others, we are given a variety of laws, the chief of which is the Ten Commandments. The Law tells us what we should and what we should not do. They govern our lives in order that we are kept safe while at the same time bringing punishment for those that do not keep them; in this way the law functions as a curb, keeping us on the right path. But this this is not the only way in which the law functions. Luther also understood the law to function as a mirror. When we look at ourselves through the lens of the law we come to see ourselves as not being able to live up to the expectations that God has for us. The law gives us clear examples of how we continually fail to justify ourselves before God. Once we have seen ourselves as poor miserable sinners the law then acts as our guide driving us toward that which can justify us before God.

This, then brings us to the second understanding of Scripture: the Gospel. Once the law has convicted us of our sins against God it is time for the Gospel to administer to us the cure for our sinfulness: the good news of our salvation given to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection. In contrast to the law, the gospel does not tells us what we ought to do but instead tells us what God has already done for us. The gospel tells us that we are justified by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.

In Luther’s eyes all of Scripture functions simultaneously in these two ways. If we were to pick out certain random verses from the Bible we would be able to tell what is law and what is gospel. But that is not the way we use Scripture. Instead we are to look at Scripture as a whole, allowing it to show us the law and the gospel of God’s grace.

Next month we will keep building on our foundation as we look at how we experience God’s grace in our lives.

May the undying love of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you God’s embrace now and forever.

In Christ,

Pastor Ryan

January 2015’s Letter from the Pastor

Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior, the One who has been born among us!

With the season of Christmas coming to an end we begin to look to the year ahead. As so many do, we look for the new year to bring about changes in our lives through resolutions. Many are resolving to live a healthier life: eating better and exercising more. Others are making resolutions to focus more on their relationships with family and friends, while still others are resolving to right wrongs within their life. With the start of the New Year people all over the world are getting a chance to start over.

Coincidentally, starting over is the core Lutheran theme that ushers us into this new year in our series of what it means to be Lutheran. One of the most central teachings of the Lutheran Reformation was centered on this idea of starting over; the idea of justification. Before the Reformation the church taught that justification came to people through penance and through the purchase of indulgences. However, for Luther, this form of justification was contrary to what he found in Scripture, specifically Romans 3 & 4. And so Luther began to teach justification by grace through faith. The difference being the emphasis on what God has and is continuing to do over against what we as humans try but fail to do. As the reformers wrote in the fourth article of the Augsburg Confession, that is the document by which the churches of the reformation interpreted scripture, “Also [the churches of the reformation] teach that [humanity] cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.”

The point Luther and the other reformers were making here was that nothing a person does can justify us before God; we are helpless in trying to start a new on our own. Instead we are given a new start through God’s grace bestowed on us by Christ. We come to know this through faith, a faith that does not come from within us but again has been bestowed on us by God. We are justified by grace, through faith, for the sake of Christ.

As we begin this New Year, with all our so called resolutions, let us never forget how, why, and for whom we are given our true new starts; by grace, through faith, because of Christ’s death and resurrection. Praise be to God!

In Christ,

Pastor Ryan

November’s Letter from the Pastor

Grace and peace in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

You may be a Lutheran if…you think that an ELCA bride and an LCMS groom constitute a mixed marriage.

Joking aside, this little bit of humor gets at the heart of what my article is about this month. When someone declares that they are Lutheran it is almost inevitable to want to know which kind. Are they ELCA, LCMS, WELS, LCMC, AFLC, NALC, and many, many, more right here in North America (for a list of the various different Lutheran bodies in North America visit http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutheran_church_bodies_in_North_America). With all the various divisions within the Lutheran church it should come as no surprise that there are some strong ill willed feelings between them. It seems like we have taken ourselves back to when Lutheranism first began, at least in the sense where the term “Lutheran” was used as an insult.

Looking back on where we have come as a body of believers, we find that we have strayed from what Luther had originally intended when he set out to reform the church. In fact Martin Luther was appalled by the fact that people wanted to call themselves Lutherans in the first place. Luther once said, “What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone.” The whole point of the Reformation as Luther envisioned it was to get the church back to its roots, back to the basics of teaching the Word of God, and only the Word of God. When the catholic church refused to listen to Luther, the group of people that formed following Luther’s teachings called themselves “evangelical.” In an publication about Lutheranism the author writes, “As ‘evangelical’ Christians, they understood themselves in light of the gospel, in contrast to ‘papal’ Christians whose identity was rooted in their relationship with church structures and authority centered in Rome, especially the pope.”[i] What Luther wanted was to get the church’s focus back onto the Word alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This ideal has shaped many people in many different ways, which in turn has led to the many different divisions with the Lutheran church today.

Despite the many differences that all of the Lutheran bodies have, there are certain teachings, or themes, that all Lutherans seem to ascribe to. Such core Lutheran themes as Justification by grace through faith, Law & Gospel, the Means of grace, the Theology of the Cross, and finally the theme of people being both Saint and Sinner. These distinctive Lutheran themes will be the focus of my articles in the coming months, each month taking a closer look at each of these themes, with the intent to figure out how they shape our understanding of God’s Word for our daily lives.

The grace of Christ be with you forever.

Your willing servant,

Pastor Ryan

[i] Lutheranism 101: Culture or confession? Kathryn A. Kleinhans, www.thelutheran.org.

October’s Letter from the Pastor

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

A few weekends ago I received an interesting email that got the wheels turning in my head as I sat down to write to you all. This email came from a Business Development Manager who looks at websites and emails companies that he thinks could use his services. In the email this person writes:

I was surfing through your website and realized that despite having a good design; it was not ranking on any of the search engines for most of the keywords pertaining to your domain.

I was wondering if you would be interested in getting the SEO or Web Designing done for your website.

There is a simple equation that is applicable to the online world.

Ethical SEO -> Better Traffic -> Higher Sales.

The goal of this Business Development Manager is to convince companies that if they hire him they will be able to increase their profit. For most companies this is probably a very tempting offer. But as I read his email to me, there was one problem that he seemed to over look. As a church we are not in the business of selling anything. The “product” we provide, that is the good news of Jesus Christ, is something that is free and available to all people. It is not something that we hold ownership over as a church, but instead something that was given freely by God to all people through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the foundation of what Lutheranism is all about.

Needless to say, as a church we will not be acquiring a Business Development Manager in order to “increase our sales.” But this email that came to me got me thinking about the message of Christ from a Lutheran perspective. This is quite appropriate at this time of the year, for as I am writing to you, we as a church are preparing to welcome some familiar faces as New Members. Some of these New Members have spent there whole lives as Lutherans, while others come to us from various faith traditions. Either way, these New Members, along with all the rest of our communities of faith could use a reminder of what Lutheranism is all about. With the end of October being the celebration of what many call the birth of Lutheranism, the Reformation, this seemed like a perfect time to begin a series of articles on Lutheranism. Over the next few months we will look at what Lutheran teaching is all about, including looking at some of the major themes that are distinctive to Lutheran teaching. This look into Lutheran teaching will attempt to answer the question, “What does it mean to be Lutheran?” We will begin our look into Lutheranism next month by looking at what the Lutheran church looks like today and where it all begin. Until that time may the peace and love of God abide with you always!

In Christ,

Pastor Ryan