October is a month filled with celebrations. In fact, like most months, there are national celebrations for almost every single day. You can celebrate everything from National Ghost Hunting Day on October first, National CB Day on 10-4, National Taco Day, National Gumbo Day, National Bald Day, all the way to National Grouch Day. In addition to a few other things, October 31st is National Knock-Knock Joke Day, which may explain my warped sense of humor. My wife has told me several of those special days seem to apply to me …
Of course, October has a few more significant celebrations as well. It’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s also Clergy Appreciation Month. Since late August the stores have been reminding us about Halloween. For many of us, who have grown up in the Lutheran Church, it is also the month we celebrate the Reformation. In fact, we are on the eve of the 499th Anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg in 1517.
As people prepare for the big 500th Anniversary in 2017, many trips have been planned to visit the Luther sites. Numerous celebrations are in the works across the world, not to mention those being planned in our own Synod, District, Circuits and congregations. It will be an exciting year to proudly reflect on our heritage as Lutherans. However, I strongly believe that Anniversary celebrations are a great time to look back, but they also provide an opportunity to look forward. Looking to the past while trying to move forward causes one to walk into a wall!
Luther looked to the past and didn’t really like what he saw. He was discontent with what the church of his day had become. It had built wonderful legacies of traditions, but had moved the focus off of Jesus. For Luther it was all about God’s free gift to us in Jesus. I sometimes wonder if the church in our day hasn’t somehow slipped back into a false sense of security, bolstered by knowing the right doctrines and words, rather than celebrating a living faith in Jesus.
I used to tell a story in Adult Instruction class about a family who brought their precious baby to be baptized. On the day of his baptism a wealthy family friend gave the baby’s parents a large check to bless this baby in the future. It was actually for a million dollars, and this friend could well afford it. These parents were overwhelmed by this generous gift, and never having seen a check for a million dollars, they framed it and hung it on the wall of the nursery. It brought smiles to their faces every time they saw it hanging there because they knew that their child’s future was secure.
In time the baby began to grow, and the nursery became a bedroom, and as the boy grew this check was actually forgotten, and it was packed up with a lot of the items that had adorned that nursery. The boy grew, and as he was about to graduate high school tragedy struck and his parents were killed in a terrible car accident. He was left an orphan. At the funeral, in the midst of the sorrow, the family friend whom the boy had heard about but never met, came to the service. He expressed his condolences and learned that the boy would be left virtually penniless. He asked him about the check, and the boy vaguely remembered it being on the wall.
Days after the funeral, as he was packing up the house, he came across the box with all his baby things, and he found that framed check. He was astonished that his parents never cashed it. He took it out of the frame and took a huge risk. He went to the bank and he learned that the check was still somehow valid after all these years. He was able to cash it, and once he did this family friend came and helped him learn how to invest it. It took him through the rest of his life.
Obviously this was a made up story, and flawed at that. However, it had a point. How many of us are never given the opportunity to be invested in the life we’ve been given through baptism? How many fail to take advantages of the promises offered to us there? How many miss out on something because they just didn’t understand the gift that has been given? Here’s the point—the gift is still valid, even if it’s stuck in a box and forgotten. It’s time for the church to unpack the box and start living for Jesus!
My mother, now in her 80’s, has an iPad. She resisted touching a computer when my father first got one, even though I tried to explain to her the benefits of being part of the digital age. She got her iPad primarily to keep up with pictures of her children and grandchildren, and now great grandchildren. Here’s what she discovered. She got an iPad expressly to look at pictures, then she discovered that it could do so much more! She now reads books on it, she looks up recipes, and she keeps up with Facebook, and even facetimes on her iPad. I think she regrets not trying to do this sooner. Living with regret is bad when you’re talking about technology. It’s even worse when you talk about faith. That’s why we need to invest in the Word and live it out each day.
Luther, when he learned we were justified by faith apart from the law, wanted all Christians to understand God’s grace as a free gift. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We are saved by grace, not to celebrate our good fortune, but rather so that we can walk in good works to proclaim Jesus to the whole world!
Luther’s whole struggle with the Church was born of a desire to bring about a true reformation, refocusing people on the beauty of God’s gift of grace to us in Jesus. The Church of that day had become so institutionalized, so ritualistic, and so controlling of people with fear of the law rather than devotion inspired by faith in Jesus’s love and grace. The Church was actually teaching that if you did certain things, if you said certain words, it you obeyed the church, you could earn your way to heaven. Luther encouraged the Church to go back to the basics of Scripture, focusing on God’s Word. In a world that was so culturally influenced by the Church in wrong ways, Luther moved outside the box for the sake of the Gospel. In fact, one of the primary emphases of the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers, meaning that each of us are gifted by the Spirit for service to Jesus.
We are living in a day when some feel that we’ve fallen back into the trap of celebrating our traditions rather than living out our faith. There are some who feel because they bear the moniker “Lutheran” they will get to heaven despite the fact that they have boxed up their faith rather than investing it. The LCMS has marked the theme for next year as “Its still All About Jesus!” My heart resonates with that, because as we engage in the Master’s business, we want to connect people to Jesus, and it is ALL about Jesus! Luther saw the Reformation as urging the church to return to the very Gospel we proclaim, and he was willing to lay down his life for it. How about you?
Next fall, in the midst of our celebrations of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, the FLGA District will host the President’s Equip Conference—a brand new idea to meet the needs of a church in transition. Rather than simply focusing on continuing education for pastors and teachers, the conference next year will also additionally focus on raising up the laity. People who seem to know and understand things far better than me are telling me that in the next five years or so the LCMS will experience a tremendous change in pastoral leadership as our baby boomers, which represents the largest portion of our pastors, will begin to retire. We are not replacing workers at a rate consistent with the growing needs. We already have an abundance of congregations without pastors or an inability to afford full time workers. What is the solution? I certainly don’t claim to have an answer, but in part I believe we need to raise up an army of our laity who become passionate about their faith and life in Jesus. This would be a true reformation!
To that end, the President’s Equip Conference is being designed for pastors and teachers, but also for our laity. It will be held on Thursday afternoon, Friday and Saturday, September 28-30, 2017, to encourage our laity to attend. As always we will offer breakouts for professional church workers, in addition to offering practical strategies and training for congregational officers and elders, for volunteers to understand their purpose and place in the context of congregational ministry, partnering with pastor and other staff for the sake of Jesus. There will be times of inspiration, fellowship and times of learning and applying skills for the sake of God’s kingdom. We’ve tried to find a centralized location in Ponte Verde at Sawgrass to that people from both Georgia and Florida can drive and participate. You’ll definitely be hearing more about this in the coming days, but mark your calendar now and make plans to be with us as we celebrate the Reformation and how God is reforming living stones!
What will the church look like in the future? We know that those great Sola’s of the Reformation (Sola Scriptura, Sola Fides, and Sola Gratia) won’t change. However, as God continues to shape us, He is transforming us into His people who move beyond the institution and traditions of our church to people who actively live out their faith to reach this world for the sake of Jesus. That’s always been His heart’s desire. As we celebrate this month, let’s remember that even now it’s still all about Jesus, and that is something to celebrate!