New Growth in the New Year

I am interested with how God will grow our membership as a congregation in 2017. Connection to a local community of believers is important. St. Paul wrote to the people in Ephesus, “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). It is in the local church that we have the opportunity to experience unity with those the Spirit has called to faith. Jesus love His church, and so should we.

There is nationally a decline in church membership, and I am interested in slowing this decline at St. Paul Lutheran Church. To turn the tide against decline, I believe that God is providing our congregation with the gifts and resources necessary to reach the unreached and raise faithful children. God provides to us His Word which leads us to trust in Christ. Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ is His witness. We all can share the good news of Jesus with our friends and neighbors and invite them to church.

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The growth of the membership in our congregation will happen in more than one way. Congregations gain the overwhelming majority of their membership from natural growth, which is what happens when families in our congregation have more children. Our easiest growth is from children of adult members raised in the faith. As couples have children and the children are then baptized at St. Paul Lutheran Church, our congregation will experience growth. We had some joyous baptisms in 2016, and I look forward to more in the new year. Infant baptism is a wonderful opportunity to witness that faith is a gift from the Holy Spirit and not a work of our own reason or strength.

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As our congregation grows through infant baptisms, we remain concerned that these children remain connected to a local church. I want all children baptized at St. Paul Lutheran Church to be nourished and strengthened by God at work in His Word. The LCMS has lost 1 in 5 baptized members since the peak membership in the 1970s. The backdoor loss of people concerns me. We need to plan effectively for the spiritual care of people who are baptized at St. Paul Lutheran Church so that they remain connected to Jesus. Handing down our faith to our children and our children’s children is important. Our congregation has joined the Family Friendly Partner Network to be better equipped as a church to partner with homes to pass on faith in Christ. Throughout 2017 we will look for opportunities to provide families the resources they need to be His witnesses.

We will also experience growth in 2017 through Lutherans from other congregations moving into this area and transferring their membership. As people move around they have to search out new banks, doctors, grocery stores, and also a new church. Church shopping can be an exhausting experience. I hope people visiting St. Paul will find a community of welcome and grace that helps them feel at home. When looking for a new church, people should place a high priority on joining a congregation where the Word of God is clearly preached and the Sacraments properly administered.

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We will not only experience growth through our own tribe (German-American Lutherans), but we will also discover that God is sending people to St. Paul who have not grown up Lutheran. I find it exciting when new people are present on a Sunday morning at St. Paul. I am encouraged when I see people going across the aisles and introducing themselves to guests. Outreach to people in our community is important. We desire to be a community that welcomes people who come from all sorts of experiences because we trust that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all the nations.

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There is a decline in religious identification in the United States. The recent dramatic increase in the number of people who claim no religious identity or affiliation is alarming. Our task is clear in this age of declining identity with religion. We will witness to people the truth. We are sinners in need of a Savior and Jesus is this Savior. Our message must remain focused on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the United States the attitudes of young people on average is negative towards religious institutions. There is a growing skepticism concerning any institution that claims authority. This negative attitude of young people may not be new, but it does remind me of the need for us to share Jesus Christ more than share the building or institution of the church. We do not invite people to join a corporation. We invite people to join the Body of Christ gathered at St. Paul Lutheran Church.

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I trust the Holy Spirit has placed in our community people who will believe the Word of God and find welcome at St. Paul Lutheran Church. I am confident the Holy Spirit has gifted each person in our congregation to be His witnesses. Please pray to God to send the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see the people He places into our lives.

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Baptism is for Infants and Adults

ainfant-baptismThis is written in response to Wes McAdams blog article in which he attempts to explain why it’s not biblical to Baptize an infant.

http://www.radicallychristian.com/why-its-not-biblical-to-baptize-an-infant

First, he says, “Infant baptism is usually NOT even ‘baptism’”

Wes McAdams makes his first point because he believes that the Greek word for baptism means immersion. This Greek word is used in Scripture to refer to “washing.” He is mistaken to require of all hearts to believe in their baptism that they must be immersed.

The Greek word can mean cleansing or washing as well as immersion. It is just bad use of a dictionary to say that in Greek the only definition for this word is “immersion.”

Second, he states, “An infant cannot believe.”

I’m not really sure what Wes McAdams would do with the passage in which Jesus says, “Let the little children come onto me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14) The word “little children” is a specific Greek word that is used to describe an infant. The infants are the focus of the passage. Jesus speaks to us the promise that faith is an act of trust even before it may be words upon our lips.

Baptism of an infant is an opportunity for us to witness that faith is not a work of our reason or strength but entirely a work of the Holy Spirit, at work in the gospel, turning our hearts to trust in God to be our salvation.

Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit for an adult and for an infant. Adults in their arrogance are taught a lesson when they confess that the Holy Spirit may provide faith to an infant. We all were once dead in our trespasses and we are saved purely through the work of Christ (Ephesians 2:1-4). We receive this work of Christ through faith. Our saving faith is a gift from God that comes through Word of God (Romans 10:17).

In Matthew 28:19 Jesus said, “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” All nations is a phrase that has been understood to mean “everyone.” Jesus desires that His saving messages be shared to everyone, regardless of race, color, sex, age, class, or education. If we say that infants are not to be included in the command of Christ, then where will we stop?

In the Old Testament an infant boy entered into a covenantal relationship with God through circumcision when eight days old. In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul shows that baptism has replaced circumcision.

Wes builds on the idea that baptism only follows an oral confession of faith and he says that neither parents nor anyone else can make that confession for a child. I agree that a child is not saved through the confession of faith that a parent nor anyone else will make for that child. A child and an adult are all saved equally through the work of Christ. In baptism we receive this work of Christ by the command of Christ in the water and the word. The benefits of baptism are not provided in a mechanical way just by being near the water. The benefits of baptisms are delivered through the water and the Word and received through faith. Faith receives the gift of baptism. When we confess our faith before a baptism, we are putting to words the very same faith that the Holy Spirit is providing to us through the working of His Word. We are not offering our faith as effective for an infant, we are showing our unity with the same faith that this child is receiving in Christ.

Third, he states, “An infant has not inherited sin.”

At this point Wes McAdams has significantly diverged from the way sin is described in the Scriptures and by the church for centuries. Scripture teaches that we are sinners from the time of our conception. Psalm 51:5 confesses, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” Also in Romans 5:12, St. Paul explains that death has come to all because one man sinned. In other words, we all experience the effect of sin; we all die. The fact that infants die is a sign that they are sinners. We sin because we are sinners. We all have this condition even as infants and little children. One way to describe sin is that we are unable to have true fear or faith in God. When we describe sin only as actions we make sin something we can overcome through our own efforts. When we properly describe sin as a broken relationship with God, that is something that can be overcome only through the reconciling love of Jesus. Also in Romans 3:23 (“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”) we find the truth that ALL have sinned and need the rescue of salvation that Jesus provides.

Now Wes uses Ezekiel 18:20 in an attempt to demonstrate that God does not hold the guilt of past generations upon future people. Okay, I am not judged on the sins of the past. Unfortunately, I am judged because I am a sinner.

Fourth, he notes, “An infant cannot repent.”

Repentance is the turning of a heart to trust in God. This repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit and is accomplished through the power of God’s Word. He turns repentance into an appeal to God, when in fact not one of us can make this appeal through our own human will. We are dead in our sins. We are blind in our sins. We are unable to turn to God through our own will. This failure of the human will is true for adults and for infants. The only ones that can be saved are those born again of water and the spirit (John 3:1-17).

Baptism is commanded by Christ and offers to all the benefits of the forgiveness of sins, rescues from sin and death, and grants eternal salvation.

Some other helpful places to read about baptism:

Martin Luther’s Small Catechism

http://wittenbergtrail.org/forum/topics/lutheran-responses-to

http://www.orlutheran.com/trinfbap.html

http://www.lcms.org/faqs/doctrine#baptism

Baptism

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I love performing Baptisms at St. Paul Lutheran Church. The Baptism of babies, young children, and adults are all priceless moments in the life of our congregation. When I speak the Word of God and I generously pour water over the head of the person, I trust God to be at work delivering the gift of the forgiveness of sins. I fondly recall looking into the eyes of babies as the water hits their foreheads and witnessing their surprise. Some babies have cried, some have smiled, some have tried to wiggle out of my hands, some have looked steadily over to mom and dad, and others have tried to stay asleep. For all of these babies, the Holy Spirit is at work delivering the good news of Jesus Christ through the water and the Word. Our Lord Jesus Christ commands Baptism, and these priceless moments are not just moments of tradition or family reunion in our congregation.

Water and the Word

Baptism is founded upon the Word of God. Our Lord Jesus Christ says in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is not an empty human ritual. Baptism cannot be ignored as the invention of the church. These words from Jesus demonstrate that Baptism is divine. To be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is to be baptized by God. As a pastor I speak the words of Jesus’ command and I pour the water of Baptism, but it is truly the work of God. The water of Baptism is water full of the commands and promises of God’s Word.

A person may wonder how a handful of water and some words spoken by a pastor help a person. Water is just water. Water can clean dirty hands, but how does water clean the stain of sin that weighs down the soul of a person? When the water is joined with the Word of God, at the command of Jesus, it becomes a work of God. We respect the power of Baptism because we respect the power of God to work through His Word (Isaiah 55:10-11).

The Forgiveness of Sins

Christ instituted Baptism to save us from our sins. Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). God is at work in Baptism delivering to us His promises. St. Peter writes, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). When we talk about being saved in the church we are talking about being delivered from sin, death, and the devil. St. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14).

Faith Grasps the Work of God

The great benefit and power of Baptism is received through faith in these promises. Without faith, Baptism is of no benefit. We do not gain or merit or receive salvation through our works or activity, faith receives the promises of Baptism. In the book of Hebrews we read, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Also St. Paul writes in Romans, “Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Some may question if infants can confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord, but in Psalm 8:2 we are reminded, “Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.” This psalm demonstrates that God has established that young children can praise God with their lips, even if it is in the broken babble of a child that we cannot understand.

Baptists and Lutherans agree that a person that believes in Jesus Christ will be saved. Lutherans and Baptists disagree on how a person comes to believe. We cannot come to Christ or make a decision for Jesus. As sinners we are spiritually dead and we cannot move to Christ on our own. The Holy Spirit delivers us to saving faith through the Word of God. The Holy Spirit gives this saving faith to a person as the person hears the Word of God. Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Whether a person believes in Jesus Christ because of a sermon that he heard or by the power of the Word combined with water at Baptism, it is always God and the power of His Word that creates saving faith. Baptism is a treasured means by which God promises to deliver to us the good news of Jesus.

Infant Baptism

Sadly, there are churches and individuals that deny Baptism to young children and infants. We perform Baptism for infants and children for the same reason adults are baptized. We are all conceived and born sinful and under the power of the devil until Christ claims us as His own. We all are in need of the mercy of God that is promised in Baptism. When Baptism is rejected or ignored for young children and infants, then a person is ignoring the command of God. In Luke 18:15-17, Jesus invites the children to come to him. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus states that Baptism is for “all nations.” On the day of Pentecost, Peter said about Baptism, “The promise is for you and your children” (Acts 2:39). When John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb when he heard the word of God (Luke 1:41-44), we find the gift of faith present in a baby.

How can a baby have saving faith in Jesus Christ? In the same way that any person believes in Jesus, the Holy Spirit gives to us a heart that trusts the promises of God. We baptize babies because we baptize people in agreement with Christ’s command to baptize “all nations.” We trust the power and promise of Baptism is the work of Jesus Christ.

I encourage you to remember your own Baptism, and so remember the work of Jesus to deliver you from the domain of darkness into the eternal victory of Jesus’ resurrection. Martin Luther sums up well the joy and promise of Baptism when he writes, “We see what a very splendid thing baptism is. It snatches us from the jaws of the devil, makes us God’s own, restrains and removes sin, and then daily strengthens the new man within us.”

Wearing Christ Inside and Out

ImageSt. Paul writes to the Colossians on how we are made new creations in Christ. “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).

He extends the image of the new creation later in the chapter (Colossians 3:12-17) when he writes about the clothing of the holy and beloved. The clothing of Christ on the outside includes compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. When wearing this outside clothing I will bear with one another. If I have complaint against anyone I will forgive them. 

But I struggle with how to live with this clothing. Continue reading

Living in the beauty of Baptism and the struggle of the wilderness

For Lent 1, Mark 1:9-15 is the gospel. Only a few weeks ago parts of this lesson formed the gospel reading for the Baptism of our Lord and Epiphany 3.

As we begin our journey to the cross we begin with Jesus and his baptism. But the reading for this Sunday bridges from the baptism into the wilderness and then continues by celebrating Jesus first proclamations of the kingdom of God coming near.

When I look at this reading I am struck by the beautiful confirmation of purpose that is revealed in the voice from heaven, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”

That beautiful confidence is immediately matched with the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness.

I think the God-seekers will struggle with this contrast. If Jesus is God why does he experience the wilderness? More importantly for us today, if he is God, why do we continue to experience so much of our lives in the wilderness?

In Mark 8:27ff Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

They told him essentially that people think you are a sure thing hall of famer, you are a part of that super hero cast of characters from our past, you are “John the Baptist; and others say, ‘Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”

The people were placing Jesus up on the pinnacle of humanity. But their answers show they struggled with imagining he could be more.

People saw the beauty of Jesus’ ministry. They could see in Jesus’ trail a path filled with victorious healings and exorcisms.

God-seekers try to understand the beauty and authority of Jesus with the struggle of the wilderness. Because I want Jesus, I want this mystical vision of Jesus that has the heavens opening up with the affirming voice of the heavenly father.d

But I know that when I look at those that have sought God, they still live in the wilderness. I hate the illusions of following God that make think that in Jesus everything is easy.

I struggle in the wilderness. I am pained by the loneliness of the deserted places. I do not know the authority of God as always present, because it seems like I keep experiencing the disobedience of my own flesh and the decadence of this world.

I find it easy to identify Jesus as the one that can reach to the heavenly father. He is the perfect, obedient one that does everything right. He is my comic book superhero. He is perfect, a hero, legendary.

But when Jesus goes from his baptism and the voice of God that splits the heavens into the wilderness, he is not just a Biblical superhero that can reach higher then the rest of us.

Little kids try to figure out Jesus as divine and human and so will pull out the trump card of Jesus. Who can throw a football better than Tom Brady, the kid answers, “Jesus can!” Hah! You got me. He can do everything better and more beautiful than anyone else.

But is the beauty of Jesus all that I need to trust in today as I go through the wilderness of my life?

I don’t just need Jesus who can reach higher than me. I need Jesus, the very hand of God, reaching into my life. I need to know that Jesus isn’t the only one that reach all the way up to God. I need to see in Jesus the very hand of God reaching into me.

So where does Jesus go? The Spirit drives him into the wilderness.

To the God-seeker that sees the heroics of Jesus, there may be a struggle to see God suffer in our own wildernesses.

Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”

Peter answered with all of us a faithful answer, and it is an answer that finds a remarkable location. Where does the anointed one of God go? After Peter answered Jesus, Jesus told the disciples that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after the third day rise again.

If you are the Christ, Jesus why must you suffer? If you are the Christ, Jesus why must I suffer?

Why do we go from the beauty of the voice splitting the heavens and have to witness Jesus being driven into the wilderness?

I think the struggle with locating Jesus in the wilderness and in the suffering and dying and rising of the cross is because we want to have Jesus be either our superhero that does everything we can’t or try to add him simply as an add-on to a perfectly okay life. Good to have Jesus around. He can do great things. He is the beloved son after all. But do I really need him, or can I just add him to make my life a little better?

Jesus is not a super hero who we all watch on the journey with the detachment of an audience.

Jesus is not the compassionate friend that shows up to console us in our struggle but is actually so weak to not be able to do anything about our actual struggle.

He is the one who has the beauty of the voice from heaven confirming his mission. But we do not just stand as observers of this beauty. We don’t stand in faith with glassy eyed, fuzzy and glowing views of Jesus.

Jesus preached, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.”

“Repent and believe” means it is time to refocus and trust Jesus. I need to daily refocus and look around. I stop looking with fuzzy, glowing view of what I wish life was like, instead I see what struggles I truly experience. When I look and seek the truth of my struggles, I thankfully trust that Jesus has come. I am glad because I am in a wilderness.

Even after repenting and believing in Jesus we will continue to journey in this wilderness. Even after seeing the beauty of Jesus, we will continue to see him driven into our wilderness.

So why do I keep experiencing the wilderness even after I have repented and believe in Jesus. In my own journey I experience the lonely desertion of the wilderness and I will never forget how necessary God is for living a vibrant life.

In the wilderness that God continues to allow us to experience we will never forget that can’t just have Jesus become our beautiful hand bag accessory.

The God-seeker wonders why we still experience the wilderness if Jesus is really God. The answer is that we can see in both the beauty of the baptism and in the struggle of the journey that God is present in both.

Preaching from the Gospels in the New Year

In 2012 I will plan to preach more often on the gospel readings of the lectionary. I want to be able to teach the doctrines of the Christian Faith through sharing the life of Christ. I remember a classmate of mine from the seminary, Jeremy Gorline, said he spent one year just preaching from the Gospel lesson. He said it sounds like common sense and easy until you start hitting some of those texts that challenge us.

Jesus in the Scriptures is not always the same Jesus that we have constructed for ourselves. When we get challenged by the truth of Scripture it may feel easier for me to skip over to the Old Testament or Epistle lesson.

So on January 8 at St. Paul Lutheran Church we will celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. The Gospel Lesson is Mark 1:4-11.

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

(Mark 1:4-11 ESV)

How in this text do you find the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at work in bringing about your salvation?

God is united in his purposes for you.