Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Other Apology

Over the last few months I have written in this newsletter ad nauseum (so I’ve been told) of learning enough about what we teach, preach, confess, and believe as Lutherans to apologize (defend) our faith in the face of false teachings and untruths. This month, this Lent Season, I’d like us all to think about the other apology…
Some years back a teaching colleague and Baptist friend of mine were having a spirited chat about Christians and forgiveness. He offered this nugget of wisdom, which I still carry in my faith’s back pocket to this day: “Unforgiveness is like taking poison and hoping it kills the other person.” Why is forgiveness so easy to speak of in the pew (or from the pulpit) and so difficult to “do” beyond the sanctuary?
For God there are no unforgivable sins (though some well-meaning Christians are fond of pointing out Matthew 12:32; however, for the believer, no sin is unpardonable). Why, then, for the rest of us is the list of transgressions for which retribution is the only answer so long?!
I bring this up because a congregation is like a family—well, it is a family—and no family is perfect. A family is as imperfect as its members. And, let’s face it, some families can be downright dysfunctional. Christian families are no different. Scripture regularly reminds us of our seemingly infinite capacity for dysfunction, for hurting the ones we love. We are, after all, sinners, at odds with God from the day we were born.
Most of us associate human forgiveness (or lack thereof) with an apology (or lack thereof)—even God’s forgiveness is offered freely to apologetic (that is, repentant) sinners.  Yet it’s easy enough to make excuses when we hurt others, and some people (mostly men) believe saying “I’m sorry” to be a sign of weakness. Some believe that an apology is only needed to take the heat off; afterward, we can go back to living with just one real concern: self.
According to Psychology Today, an “apology is not just a social nicety. It is an important ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person. It is also a way of acknowledging an act that, if otherwise left unnoticed, might compromise the relationship. Apology has the ability to disarm others of their anger and to prevent further misunderstandings.”
Forgiveness requires neither an apology nor atonement to free the one who has suffered a transgression; however, the same is not true for the transgressor. The burden is truly upon the sinner to mend the fence, so to speak. Particularly for the believer before God, as Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew 5:
“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council… So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Forgiveness is a personal response to an acknowledged transgression for which the transgressor was clearly responsible. We say “You hurt me, but I am not going to seek retribution, because I forgive you.” Then—right then—the debt is cancelled. Jesus said that if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us (Matthew 6:14), yet I haven’t found anywhere in Scripture where that forgiveness must be unconditional. Atonement, in contrast to forgiveness, is a contrite acknowledgement of wrongdoing and any necessary reparation. Forgiveness and atonement work together to repair broken relationships.
Forgiveness certainly frees us from anger and resentment, but an apology—sincere repentance + the desire to “make it right”—is truly the first step toward patching up, even renewing a damaged relationship. When we mend our relationships with one another in Christian love, we mend our relationship with God. And then our faith can truly receive the forgiveness Christ won for us on the Cross.
(Just as Christ keeps forgiving us, so we must keep on forgiving our fellow men. If this precept were observed, says Luther in his exposition of Matthew 5:32, there would be fewer divorces.)
Until April, may the Lord’s Peace be with you all!
Pastor E.B.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Confessional Unity: Part 5 of 5

[Note: This article appears in the February 2018 newsletter.]

An open letter to the gentleman who brought the Communion card out of the sanctuary after the service…
…and very brusquely told me that he and his wife would not be back, that our Communion card says nothing about having to be a member of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS), and that he was of a non-Lutheran denomination. Sir, you left our church agitated, without ever giving me the opportunity to properly address your concerns; I was in the greeting line. Your comments to me are case in point why confessional unity is so important. Though I hope you will seek me out to see if we can find some common ground, I doubt I’ll see you again. So for the benefit of any others who may not be fully aware of our Communion practice and policy*, I will try to address your concerns here.
My job as a pastor is to bring as many baptized souls to the Communion rail as possible, not the other way around. LCMS pastors take a vow to uphold the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the practices of the LCMS. We, as a congregation of the LCMS, practice “close” Communion. This is clearly stated on the LCMS website. Things may seem a little different with a new pastor, I understand, but your denomination and ours have differing views on Communion—I wish we could have sat and talked, but you left. I suggest you contact the pastor of your home church and ask him or her to explain that church body’s Communion practice—and ask about whether he or she believes that Christ is truly present in the reception of the body and blood. Then find an LCMS pastor (I’m still available) to chat with. You must follow your heart. It’s not possible to subscribe to two confessions (you’d have to cheat on one somewhere along the way).
Sir, I’m sad that you left in the state you did this morning. I will pray that God will plant you in a place where you will feel comfortable and you will bloom. I truly apologize for any discomfort I or our church may have caused you.
This final article in the series—this letter—serves to punctuate the importance of confessional unity. It’s not enough to just “be” Lutheran, but to be aware of what we confess, preach, and teach. Scripture is our sole norm and source for all we say and do; as for the Sacraments, Christ said to do it (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), so we do it. There is nothing “Lutheran” about our three Creeds, and our liturgy is based on the ancient church’s order of worship. We are Christians first, saved by God’s Grace Alone through Faith Alone in Christ Alone!
Pastor Aleksei with wife Ana (glasses) and a few members
of St. Andrew Lutheran Parish in Simferopol, Russia
A postscript: Speaking of confessional unity, we officially became a “sister congregation” of St. Andrew Lutheran Parish in Simferopol, Russia (see map), on January 7! St. Andrew is a congregation of the EvangelicalLutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR), an LCMS partner church. We will keep Pastor Aleksei Shepelev, whom I've known for 15 years, and his church family in our prayers each week and they will do likewise (they gather for worship at 2pm on Sunday, 5am Texas time). More information about them will be on a bulletin board in the fellowship area soon!
Until March, may the Lord’s Peace be with you all!
Pastor E.B.

Zion Lutheran Church Communion Statement (printed each week in the worship bulletin): This Sacrament is intended for baptized, prepared Christians. Lutherans believe, teach, and confess that this Holy Supper was instituted by Christ Himself and that His body and blood are truly present in, with, and under the bread and wine and are received not only spiritually by faith, but also bodily, for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Because those who eat and drink our Lord’s body and blood unworthily do so to their great harm (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-29), because we take seriously the spiritual care of those approaching our altar, and because Communion is a confession of what our church teaches and believes, we ask that those not yet instructed, in doubt, or belonging to another church body or denomination not in fellowship with The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod please remain seated during Communion. Please see the pastor after the service with any questions.