Posts tagged Witness

International Lutheran Council World Seminary Conference, Palanga, Lithuania

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Lutheran church and seminary leaders from around the world descended upon Lithuania over the course of the past 24 hours, traveling from every corner of the globe. They are here to consider the conference theme: Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom as Marks of the Church, a theme many of these confessing Lutherans know much about from personal experience. The conference is organized by the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a worldwide association of Confessional Lutheran Churches.

Bishop Mindaugas Sabutis, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Lithuania, a member church of the Lutheran World Federation greeted the group assembled at the Palanga Lutheran Church. In his remarks he noted that for Christians in Lithuania, persecution, in one form or another, has been nearly constant during the past 400 years.

Welcoming the group on behalf of the ILC was Dr. Albert Collver III, Executive Secretary.

“In the Book of Revelation, “those who had been slain” cried out with a loud voice to the Lord, “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth? (Rev. 6:10) The word used to describe the martyrs who cried out to the Lord from the altar in heaven is from the greek verb sphazo,the very same word used to describe Jesus as the “the Lamb who had been slain.” The martyrs had been slain like their Lord, Jesus. Like the blood of Abel, the blood of the martyrs calls out to the Lord for justice and the vengeance of the Lord upon the wicked. In a similar way the Lord’s church on earth cries out to be a witness to the work, and for deliverance from all evil. Ironically, the more the church prays to be a witness to the world, the more likely the church is to experience the cross and suffering, which in itself becomes a witness.”

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Collver noted that the theme of suffering, persecution and martyrdom has been a topic of theological reflection since the Book of Acts. “At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, the church has passed through a century where more Christians, numerically, have been persecuted and martyred than at any other time in history. “At the same time, Islam is spreading among peoples and through lands where the Gospel once held sway. If the external threats of secular humanism and Islam were not enough, the church is under attack from within,” said Collver.

“Through the crosses, that is, the sufferings in our lives predestined for us before the foundation of the world, The Lord conforms us into the image of His Son. What sort of Lord predestines the Holy Cross? The sort of Lord who in His divine foreknowledge ensured that no suffering, cross, or martyrdom would wrest you from His loving hand. This is the sort of Lord who has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. This is the sort of Lord who in the words of the Augsburg Confession said the church perpetual mansura, that is, will endure forever. Be assured that suffering, persecution and martyrdom as evil as it is, will turn into blessing by The Lord.”

Martyrdom and the Cross

The keynote presenter Dr. William Weinrich, Professor of Church History at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, Ind. provided a historical view of martyrdom and the cross walking participants through the accounts of the early church martyrs.

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Underscoring the relevance of the topic for our time, Weinrich noted that credible research has reached the estimate that more than 100,000 Christians are violently killed because of some relation to their faith each year, others are either displaced,see the destruction of their houses of worship, experience rape or the abduction of their leaders. In Western countries where the church has historically been an integral part of society, a trend emerges that increasingly marginalizes and restricts the ability of the faith community to bear mercy in the world.

“Today, being a Christian in the world is contested and is facing serious challenge, in some places with murderous consequences.”

Weinrich noted that, “To commune with the Body and Blood of Christ was to be bound with Him who was Himself the “faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5) and received the crown of life: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” “Luke 23:46) Union with Christ’s Body and Blood unites the faithful to the goal and destiny of Christian faith, namely, to that perfection whereby the confession of the mouth in instantiated by the sacrifice of ones’ life for the true confession. The death of the martyr was itself “witness” and “demonstration” that in Christ God had overcome death by the new creation of the resurrection.

As we think about the present circumstances of our Lutheran churches in the world and about how best to prepare our people fro further suffering, we should not forget the great resource we have in the Sacrament of the Altar. For it is not merely that which “strengths” faith but is itself the reality of life over death: “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.” (John 6:54)”

Suffering, Persecution, Martyrdom as a Mark of the Church

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In the afternoon, the Rev. Dr. Darius Petkunas pastor of the Palanga Lutheran Church, walked the group through the persecutions which took place under the Marxist-Lenninist regimes of the 20th Century.

The Life of the Church has been marked from the beginning by the presence of the cross, that particular form of suffering borne by those who confess the name of Christ. … In the both century Marxist-Lenninist communism clearly stated that for communism to succeed, the Church and its superstitions must be destroyed, and that the very idea of God must be erased from man’s heart and soul. It was at first thought that scientific-atheistic propaganda could accomplish this, for the Christian faith was thought to be nothing more or less than ignorant superstition which could be easily combated and overcome by reason and education. History shows that it was soon found necessary to employ more direct means to destroy the Church. Thousands of priests and bishops of all the traditional Christian confessions in the Soviet Union were sent to the gulags and for many of them it was a death sentence. By the mid 1930’s the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches in Soviet Russia had disappeared from the scene.

His address led participants through the following points:

1. Luther on the Seventh Mark of the Church

“Luther elaborates on the seventh sign by stating that Christians “…must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil…” In this way they are conformed to their head not by their own action and decision, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. They are punished not because they have done wrong or because “… they are adulterers, murderers, thieves, or rogues, but because they want to have none but Christ, and no other God. Wherever you see or hear this, you may know the Holy Christian Church is there…”

2. The Shape of “the World” and its relation to the Church

What Luther referred to as the seventh sign or mark of the CHurch is called into play when temporal, secular authority oversteps its omits and intrudes into spiritual affairs where God’s Word and will should reign supreme. When this happens Christians are to follow the example of St. Peter who when he was told by the Jewis authorities that he must not proclaim the person and work of Christ, responded that in such matters one must follow “God rather than men.”

3. The Seventh Sign in Historical Perspective

This seventh sign of the Church manifested itself most evidently when and where the faithfulness of the Church was put to the test by a strong state or government hostile to the Gospel. In the 16th century Lutherans most often found themselves in the minority in many territories. They were ready and willing to affirm by word and action the faith which they confessed. Indeed the CHurch and Christians who are determined to be faithful regardless the cost who are most likely to find themselves at the receiving en of trials and tribulations. … The example of the Prussian Church shows what happens when the CHurch either sees no need to make a clear confession of the truth of God’s Word or has allowed itself to be rendered incapable of articulating such a confession. If the CHurch has nothing for which it is willing to suffer it will not suffer, and it will not reeve the blessing which hardship brings with it. Here as Luther had correctly stated, the willingness to endure what a clear confession brings with it and the unwillingness to allow the secular realm to interfere in Church affairs together with the determination to make a bold and clear confession and bear the cross is a clear mark of the church.

4. The Situation Today: Some Observations

The seventh sign has always been regarded as a secondary mark of the Church. Its absence at a particular time and at particular place does not necessarily mean that the CHurch is no longer the true Church. However, it often happens that where the Church is unwilling to bear the pain of the cross, other marks and signs of the Church, including the pure proclamation of the Gospel, the right administration of the Sacraments, and the proper ordering of the Holy Ministry disappears as well.

Luther would insist that one must move beyond a simple consideration of the empirical evidence to a recognition that behind it stands the ancient consolation of “the Devil, the World, and the sinful flesh.” The Church and her people contend with forces which are not merely empirical and material, they are instead higher and stronger powers in heavily places. (Eph. 6:12) They must be combated by the power of God whom the Church confesses and proclaims.

Response

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Rev. Alexey Streltsov, Rector of LUtheran Theological Seminnary, Novosibirsk, Siberia, was one of the responders to the morning presentations and reflected on the nature and shape of suffering:

How much suffering does there have to be to call it suffering? Sometimes people who have some mild inconveniences call it suffering. But what we talk about here is a really an existential experience, when one is faced with such suffering the Holy Spirit is there to give counsel and aid.

In the culture I come from there has been much reflection on the theme of suffering and death. Not many [here] have gone through such experiences. But we have to realize that some in this room or our family and friends will face this in the future.

In the book 1984, George Orwell discusses how early Christian martyrs knew that when they would go to death they would be remembered by the church and this would bring them some glory. However, to think that when people are confronted with martyrdom today you likely will not be remembered. Whether this is the case or not, we should praise God for those Christians who no one remembers.

In secular culture, suffering is viewed as something to get over and then to have a winsome and positive attitude. No, when suffering comes it is not something to get over, it may never go away, it may only increase. Around us [today] it doesn’t look like things will get better. This history of the martyrs will help prepare us for what is to come.

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Rev. Dr. John Stephenson, Concordia Seminary, Ontario, Canada, responded by reflecting on the existential nature of suffering for the sake of Christ.

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Rev. Dr. Paul Kofi Fynn, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana spoke about the situation in Africa and the rapid growth of the Church. The need for more pastors and resources is large. He encouraged the group to be boldly and faithfully Lutheran because we have the truth of the Gospel.

Sons (and Daughters) of Nones

“Who were the three people who never had parents?” Answer: “Adam and Eve,” of course, and then also “Joshua, the son of Nun” (Josh. 1:1).

The riddle came to mind with all the talk these about “Nones,” the 30 percent of our population today who, when asked for their religious affiliation, answer “none.” A goodly number of these people once graced the pews of our LCMS churches. Among them are the children who were baptized but not confirmed, or the children who were confirmed but did not stay with the church as young adults. They may still consider themselves Christian, but their priorities have been changed by circumstances surrounding or impacting their lives. To such, immersed in today’s Internet-driven, “modern” way of life, the simple story of God’s grace and mercy in Christ Jesus can easily seem out of touch.

While it is certainly not safe to stay away from the church and the means of grace, hopefully many of these Nones will be okay. When times get tough, as they always do, many of them, brought up in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6), will not have entirely departed from it, as promised. They will still remember their baptisms, their upbringing in Christian homes, the consolation of the 23rd Psalm. A spark of faith is a powerful thing.

Of greater concern must be the next generation, the sons (and daughters) of Nones who will not have a Proverbs 6:22 background. Through no fault of their own, they won’t be able to recall their baptisms and upbringing in Christian homes. There may not even be a spark to be fanned into flame. How important it will be for the church to remember them as it plans its outreach, helping them to become comfortable when they show up one day, catering to their particular interests and needs, holding out the Gospel to them as the one thing needful, being there for them when they begin to realize that they are falling, providing opportunity for the Gospel to reach their hearts–even though they happen to be sons and daughters of Nones who never had parents who were active Christians.

Ray Hartwig

Some Basic Questions on Witness, Mercy, Life Together

Some years ago I was working with a small congregation in a small town during a vacancy in the pastoral office. The congregation, never large, had been declining in recent years. The previous pastor had left for a more attractive position in another state.

When I asked them why they had no Sunday School, they told me there were no children in the congregation. When I asked them what their mission was, they insisted that just about everyone in town already had a church. They thought there was no mission field.

I decided to challenge them. “Go to every other church in town and find out what their average church attendance is, then add up those numbers for all the churches in town.” Several weeks later I heard their discovery. On any given Sunday less than half the population of the town was in any church, and many of the congregations also drew from the surrounding country-side. “There’s your mission field,” we said.

Every one of our congregations is surrounded by a mission field – even yours! I do not know of a single county in the USA where more than half of the population is found in church, and in many, many locales the percentage is far less than half or even 25%.

No, this is not the time for blame! Don’t be saying, “Well if these people were more welcoming or if our members were truly Lutheran, or whatever, we’d be able to do more.” Don’t be thinking, “Well, if our pastor were a better preacher, or more with the times, or whatever, then we’d…”

Instead, here are some other questions, some basic “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” questions, to ask together, and with God’s guidance seek positive answers, TOGETHER:

Witness:  Who are the people around us who do not know Jesus? Or have become disconnected from Him? How might we connect with some of them? Where are they? Who among us meets them as part of our various vocations? How might we get to know them so that we have the opportunity to confess the name of Christ? How might we find ways to baptize and teach them?

And we have seen and testify (witness!) that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God (1 John 4:14-15).

Mercy:  What are the needs in this community? Who are the “invisible” people in the community? The people no one else notices? How many folks in your community are hurting? Why? Who are they and what are their needs? What do we have to offer them in the name of Christ? How can we be the arms of Christ’s mercy for them? How can we find them?

We love because he first loved us.  If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:19-20).

Life Together:  What is the health of our fellowship? How are we connected to one another? More importantly, how are we connected to Jesus Christ? Are we regularly in the Word of God, remembering our Baptism, receiving our Lord’s body and blood, in which He gives life? How many of our people are? Does our congregation live in love with one another as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us?

If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).

In other words, the things we do as the body of Christ in “Witness, Mercy and Life Together” are part of sanctification. That is, they grow from our justification. Christ has made us His own, forgiven our sins in the blood of His cross, and declared us righteous by His resurrection. Receiving these gifts by faith, we can revel in them, knowing our connection to Christ is sure. Living as His forgiven people, witness, mercy and life together are simply what we do as the body.

Our congregations are all outwardly different. The communities we serve vary significantly. The specific answers to these questions may also look different on the surface. But the purpose is the same – drawing people, by the Spirit’s work in Word and Sacrament, into the worship of the Holy Trinity, the only worship that gives life. We witness so that the Spirit might connect some to Jesus. We show mercy that hurting people may receive the love of Jesus. We live together in Christ’s Word, because

God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9).

Well, what happened to the congregation I was visiting? The Lord sent them a pastor who helped them discover children in the community who needed a place to go after school. Their Sunday School never really revived, but their three hour program for kids Wednesdays after school regularly drew dozens, and even brought parents and families. People were connected to Jesus, and the Spirit grew the congregation.

How will you prayerfully ask these questions in your congregation?

+ Herbert Mueller
LCMS First Vice President

There Is Only One Life

What do you think of that statement?  There is only one life.  In some ways it sounds wrong.  Is this all there is?  Is our present life on this earth the only life we get? 

Many naturalists and secularists would agree.  Our natural, physical life here and now is all we know.  You are born, you live and you die.  Hopefully you can give your life some meaning and purpose by what you do, but don’t look for anything more.  This is all you get.  There is only one life. 

What’s the matter? Have I lost my faith?  No, not at all.  But I still say, there really is only one life.  You may be thinking that I am referring to a distinction between physical life and spiritual life.  Yes, but not entirely. 

You see, there is only one life, and that is the life God gives.  When you were conceived in your mother, your life was worked by God (Psalm 139:14f).  Every breath you take is a breath God gives you.  You are alive because of God. 

Yet we still die – life ends. “Sin pays off in death,” the Scripture says (Romans 6:23).  Death contradicts God’s work of life.   It even seems to have the last word, for we all die.  No one is excepted. 

In the face of this reality, the Scripture says of Jesus Christ:

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5). 

There is one life death could not destroy.  Oh, death thought it had Him (if we can speak of death thinking) when Christ was dead and buried.  But death could not hold the one who is the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25-26).  God’s gift of life cannot be extinguished, for Jesus lives, and lives forever. 

Now Jesus promises,

“This is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3). 

There is only one life – this life, the life of Jesus Christ.  Knowing Him you have His life.  Anyone who does not have Jesus has no life (1 John 5:12).

“The thief,” Jesus says, “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10).

So, you see, there is only one life, the life God gives, the life that is ours in Jesus.  It begins now but continues forever. 

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life;  he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24).

Eternal life is a present possession for the believer in Christ.  And when Christ returns, this eternal life will be revealed in the resurrection of the body. 

One more thing.  You probably already know that Jesus gives this life wherever people come together to hear His Word and to receive His body and blood.  But do you know anyone else who does not know or trust in Jesus?  Who is not close to Him?  Without Jesus, they have no life. 

You have this life.  Did you know you can give it away?  Tell them about it.  Tell them what you have.  Bring them into the worship of the Triune God where life is given.  For there is only one life.  His name is Jesus. 

Did you know that your congregation is a mission outpost?  A place where Jesus gives His life for you and for others?  You also are sent by God to bring life, to invite people you know to receive life in Jesus.  As Jesus promised,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). 

So it’s true.  There is only one life – eternal life in Jesus.

+Herbert C. Mueller
First Vice President

Lent: An Evangelism Opportunity

Have you ever realized what a great evangelism opportunity Lent is?  Here you have six special Wednesday evening services (many congregations even serve dinner), each service focused on some aspect of our Lord’s Passion.

In many of our churches the passion history is even read as part of these services (if not, why not ask for it?).  Even if the passion is not read, the services will be Christ-centered and cross-focused. 

What an opportunity!  It’s ready made for inviting friends and family who do not know Jesus or have become disconnected from Him to come to church with you.

What an opportunity for your church to live out the fact that it is a mission outpost where Jesus gives life.  Lent is a great time for your church to look for new ways of bringing the Gospel into your community.  Everyone in your town belongs to a church?  Don’t be fooled.  Demographic studies show there is no portion of our country where church goers number more than 50% of the population.  Not one.  Wherever you are, your congregation HAS a mission field!

Find those people and invite them to church with you this Lenten season.  They’re all around you – at work, school, in your family.  Now is the time (Lent is only two weeks old) for you to talk to your pastor and to the leadership of your congregation regarding what your church will do to bring people to worship during Lent and Holy Week.  Now is the time for you to pray about whom you will invite to come with you.

Some of you may feel embarrassed doing this.  That’s OK.  Do it anyway!  Perhaps you think your church is too small or there are too many problems.  That’s OK.  No church is perfect, but we do have a perfect Savior, Jesus, who will make up for any imperfections on our part.

Besides, Lent is all about living in repentance – indeed, the whole of the Christian life is one of repentance and faith in Christ crucified for us.  In the book of Acts, when Paul finishes his speech to all the Greek philosopher types on Mars Hill in Athens, he tells them,

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed, and of this He has given assurance to all people by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31). 

That’s why Lent is an evangelism opportunity.  To repent is simply to turn around – to turn away from sin to see Jesus crucified for us.  It’s a turn around worked by God, but He uses us to extend the invitation to others.  No one is left out, all are included.  But there’s only one way, and His name is Jesus. 

He lived for us, offered Himself for us and then died for us.  Rising from the dead, He gives new life to all who believe in Him.  Remember, at the end of Lent waits Easter with the Resurrection of our Lord. 

What a fantastic Easter this will be for someone you bring with you to church this Lent, for whom God’s Spirit has the opportunity to work repentance and faith in Jesus!  Then will come true for that person, and I pray also again for you, the words of Paul in Ephesians:

 “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light!” (5:14). 

Bring someone with you on your Lenten journey of faith.  Jesus will be with you on the way.  For Jesus gives life at 6000+ mission outposts – the congregations of the Missouri Synod – and your church is one of them!

 +Herbert C. Mueller
First Vice President

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