This is Memorial Day weekend, and like you, I am thankful for our nation, and especially thankful for the men and women who have sacrificed and served to provide the liberties we enjoy. In our worship services we will remember our veterans in prayer and ask God’s blessing upon our nation. I will also take the opportunity and speak to those who may lament and think that we have taken God and prayer out of our schools and the flag out of our churches. Most Lutheran theologians like me believe the kind of prayer many Christians want in public schools and meetings is not very Christ-like anyway. In fact, it may sometimes be the kind of public piety that Jesus condemns. So, why do many other pastors lobby for it, especially here in the middle of the Baptist Bible Belt?
At the heart of the difference between Lutheran theology and that of some other Protestants is an understanding of Law and Gospel in the Bible. The Law divides and excludes and establishes boundaries; the Gospel unites and includes and breaks down boundaries. In regard to church and state, Martin Luther spoke of two kingdoms. The State is called by God to establish justice and to keep the peace. Civil laws are established for just those purposes. The gospel of Jesus Christ which the Church is called to proclaim has nothing to do with the state and nationalism. In fact, Jesus makes it very clear that the kingdom he came to establish is not of this world. The reign of God which Jesus came to establish is witnessed when barriers that divide by nation and race and gender and socio-economic status are broken down. When we gather around the Word and Sacraments to worship, we do not do so uniquely as Americans. We do so as brothers and sisters in Christ united with the communion of saints around the world.
Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” Jesus has reconciled the world to God. That includes our Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic and even atheist brothers and sisters. Of course, they don’t know and believe that, but the GOSPEL calls us to proclaim that they are God’s children, too, no less than Americans who call themselves Christians. Christ died for all people. Paul writes, “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” The older I get, the less patient I am with members of the “Evangelical Right” in this country who are bent on preaching the Law as a path to God. “If we can just pass the right laws, if we can just get all the ‘sinners’ out there to behave like us, then God will bless our nation and world.” There is nothing evangelical about that kind of thinking! What a misnomer! The word “evangelical” refers to sharing the good news of the gospel. The Law can not save. That’s the heart of Reformation theology. Lutherans are true Evangelicals! We know that law makers in Austin and law makers in Washington can never and will never get people or our nation right with God. Preachers who think they can breed nothing but hypocrisy and self-righteous intolerance in their parishioners.
Before his ascension, Jesus explains to his followers that in him, everything written in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms has been fulfilled (Luke 24:44). May God open the minds of contemporary American Christians to understand the scriptures. The Apostle Paul later explained it this way to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
At the conclusion of our 140th Anniversary celebration our congregation was given a challenge. Members of Immanuel Lutheran Church are challenged to give glory to God by doing 140 intentional acts of service outside our church walls. Acts of service will be anonymously posted on a banner outside the Parish Hall. Before the church picnic on June 29th , we’ll see if we have met the challenge of at least 140 acts of service. We were created in Christ Jesus for that way of life, but not in an effort to get ourselves right with God. Christ alone could do that, and he already has! Our keeping the Law, our acts of service are in response to the gospel, the good news that God loves us and all people for Jesus sake. May that be the message we live and share, as we gather and worship, grow in the Word, and serve God by serving people.