Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Easter Sermon Fail

Last week’s post titled “This Is Embarrassing” generated a flurry of comments, including former members, visitors, and current members of Faith Lutheran Church in Troy, Michigan. The post quoted a non-Lutheran who visited Faith and evaluated the service. This non-Lutheran reviewer summarized their visit by saying “On my trek home, I felt inexplicably sad that another Lutheran church has all but abandoned its beautiful, historic liturgy and intellectual tradition in favor of a very bland ministry. Help!” The reviewers comment was followed by my own:

Ouch! When the first time visitor is pointing out the non-Lutheran practices of an LCMS church, maybe it’s time to trade those seeker-sensitive lenses in for something ground a little closer to the Church of the Augsburg Confession.

One anonymous commenter who had been to Faith opined:

Yes, the format is contemporary. Evidently there are lots of people that like that because of their high attendance. The doctrine of Faith is Lutheran; the style of worship is not traditional but the message is always Biblical. This is not a church that waters down its message to attract the unchurched - though they welcome the unchurched. Go back.. .take a class.. listen to another sermon. I believe that pastor will be in a suit or at least a shirt and tie and that should make you happy if nothing else does.
while there, walk around the building and notice the ethnic worship service taking place in another part of the building. I suggest you try Sunday worship to get an more accurate picture of this or any other church. That's normally when Christians worship.

I believe it was the same anonymous commenter who also said this:

Your arguments are weak because anyone who has attended Faith more than casually knows that the sermons are Bible based; that scripture is always the basis for the sermon message and that Jesus is the center of all we do. We have some preconceived notions about this church; too bad.
Very strange but you mention the "all me" ;sermons. Just a few weeks ago, One of the points of the sermon message was about the "entitlement mentality" of our country. (yes, the sermon did relate to our daily lives- to me that's important) And yes, the pastors do preach the Gospel. What part of what has been written on this blog don't you understand. I suggest you be a man and go talk with one of the pastors. Make your accusattions to them- "man" to man. Hold them accountable for their teachings which you so piously criticize OR try attending again and listen for the law and the gospel; it's there... vestments or not.

I took the commenter up on his or her initial offer to listen to a sermon. I’d already listened to one sermon before doing the post, and found it to be “pretty weak from a Law/Gospel perspective” (see the comments section in the old post for a fuller review). The second sermon I listened to was the Easter sermon preached by Pastor Warren Arndt. I chose this sermon because it seemed reasonable to assume that in an Easter sermon the pastor would be at his best.

Pastor Arndt certainly did preach his sermon with conviction. He had a number of good sermon illustrations that I’m sure held the attention of the “audience” as well. Towards the end of the sermon he did mention the problem of sin, saying this:

Isn’t it incredible that when your life is all messed up, and your family is all messed up, and everything seems to be falling apart, and you went back to that thing you said you’d never go back to again, and you said “I’d never disobey you God in that way,” and there you are, you’re finding yourself in disobedience. You’re experiencing shame, and guilt, and “Oh no, I did it again.” Isn’t it incredible that God says my grace is greater than that mess in your life. Isn’t it incredible that He comes in Matthew chapter 11 and says “Come to me, all of you who are weary and you carry your burdens, and I’ll give you rest. I’ll give you rest.” Isn’t it wonderfully incredible that in Romans 3 it says we’re, we are made right in God’s sight when what? When we trust. When we trust in Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved. We all can be saved in the same way, no matter who we are or what we have done. No matter who we are or what we have done. Last night after the service a woman comes up and she’s just weeping. She grabs ahold of me, pulls me aside. Took her awhile to calm down. I said “What is it? What’s happened?” She said “Pastor. This is the first time I’ve come to the Lord’s Table in fourteen years.” She said “I’m not from your church. I go to a different church. I come here just to visit with my family and on holidays.” But she says “I was taught in that church ‘Oh, no, you can’t come to church and take Communion if you’ve sinned greatly or you are burdened with guilt or whatever.’” And I said “Whoa, wait a minute. We’ve all sinned greatly and we’re all burdened.” She says “I know.” She said “When you said those words ‘No matter who you are or what we have done,’” she says “something happened.” I said “Whoa. This is incredible, incredible moment.” The Holy Spirit touched her heart and her mind, and to say just for that reason of your sin and your shame and your guilt, that’s why He invites you to come.

So why would this sermon be a failure? Because it doesn’t properly distinguish Law and Gospel. Luther said “Is it not blindness, yea, worse than blindness that [one] does not want to preach the Law without and before the Gospel? How can one preach forgiveness of sins before sins are known? How can one announce life before death is known? For grace must wage war, and be victorious in us, against the Law and sin, lest we despair” (online reference). Unfortunately, aside from this brief mention of sin toward the end of the sermon, the majority of the sermon avoided the mention of sin, removing it from the text of the verses that were alluded to in the sermon. The sermon fails to heed C.F.W. Walther’s demand that “a preacher must proclaim the Law in such a manner that there remains in it nothing pleasant to lost and condemned sinners. Every sweet ingredient injected into the Law is poison; it renders this heavenly medicine ineffective, neutralizes its operation” (The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, p., 80).

It seems reasonable to assume that on Easter Sunday there would be many people attending who rarely go to church. Wouldn’t this be the time when you would want to bellow the Law in all its fury, so that those itinerant listeners would be convicted of their sin, preparing them for the sweetness of the Gospel?

In discussing how the resurrection of Christ was an astounding discovery to the early tomb visitors, Pastor Arndt rightly points out that the resurrection is foundational to the Christian faith. Without the resurrection of Christ you might as well throw your Bible away. Don’t even bother reading it, because there is not Christian faith. This thought is an allusion to 1 Corinthians 15:16-17. But the allusion leaves out an important point that is specifically mentioned in the text, that without the resurrection you are dead in your trespasses:

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

This is not a one-time oversight in the sermon, it is a recurring problem. While we can all agree that the empty tomb is foundational for Christianity, without defining the why of the tomb, its significance is lost.

The sermon continues:

Now, as you look at this moment in history, what kind of word would you use in the story line that conquers death? The apostle Paul when he’s writing about resurrection in the great 15th chapter of the book of Corinthians, he says “this is of first importance.” People ask me, well what’s the most important thing in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Out of all the chapters out of all the books out of all the verses, what’s the most important.” Well the Bible answers it. Of most importance was Jesus was crucified, He died, He was buried, and He rose again. That’s of most importance. He says that’s what you need to preach every single weekend. That’s what we need to hear and be reminded of, and without that the book makes no sense. That moment is referenced all through the New Testament in a variety of different ways. Paul references it when he’s writing to the church at Rome -- in Romans 6 he said “By our Baptism, by our Baptism then we were buried with Jesus, we shared in His death.” And why? This is a purpose clause in Greek. “For the purpose that, or in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we, so also we might live a new life.”

The above quote paraphrases the first part of 1 Corinthians chapter 15, but it skips the first statement St. Paul makes:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, (1 Cor. 15:3).

Again, the why of Christ’s death and resurrection has been missed, “that Christ died for our sins.” The sermon then alludes to Romans chapter 6, picking out verses 3-5, while removing the context of sin found in verses 1, 2, 6, and 7.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:1-7)

At the ten minute mark in the sermon, Pastor Arndt mentions St. Paul’s appearance before King Agrippa and Governor Festus in Acts chapter 28:

…and he’s defending the faith. And he’s talking about the person of Jesus and the work of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus, the burial of Jesus, and he’s talking about the resurrection of Jesus. He’s defending the faith. And it says in Acts chapter 26, verse 8, he says these words: “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead.” “Incredible” is a great word.

Equally incredible, but left behind, are the words of Jesus Christ himself spoken directly to Paul and indirectly to us, as well as Paul’s words, proclaiming the reason for Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection:

‘…to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.' "Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” (Acts 26:18-20)

The sermon concludes with the words “Easter is just too incredible for words. Father forgive us where we take for granted the Easter story. Forgive us when we don’t hold it fresh and new and alive in daily life” [a statement of Law when the parishioners should be sent home with the Gospel]. What’s more incredible is not just that a dead man came back to life, but why he came back to life. The just for the unjust. And that this wasn’t just a man, the man was God incarnate. An innocent man who also was God in the flesh, taking our sin into his flesh, to be sin for us. Now that’s incredible, and that is the message of the cross. It is central to our understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection. Without it, Christ’s incredible resurrection becomes a riddle without an answer.

Jesus preached His own sermon on the significance of His death and resurrection to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Here’s what He had to say:

and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem…” (Luke 24:46-47).

This sermon does not preach repentance. It does not convict the believer or the unbeliever of his sin. It doesn’t matter whether the sermon is preached at Christmas, Good Friday, or Easter, the sternness of the Law and the comfort of the Gospel must be clearly preached. Anything less is a failure. Walther says

Here, friends, is the reason why even believing Christians will still need the Law: they still bear the burden of their sinful flesh lusting against the Spirit, which indeed needs to be crucified and terrified and kept under restraint by the Law. What is likely to happen if within the Christian church the Law were no longer preached, but only the Gospel? Soon both Law and Gospel would be lost, and everything would perish in security and corruption. Therefore Luther, in his church message on today's text, Matthew 22:34-46, says concerning the doctrines of the Law and of the Gospel: "If one of the two is lost, it takes the other along with it, and likewise where the one remains and is rightly used, it brings the other along with it." (online reference)

There will be those who will say that this post is an attack on Faith Lutheran. It is not. It is my sincere hope that this post will help those who attend Faith to critique and understand what it is they’re hearing, and if the sermon is lacking, gently ask for a rightly divided sermon.

Do I believe Pastor Arndt is purposely omitting the Gospel (in the broader sense) with some evil intent? No, of course not. This sermon fits well with those sermons that seek to avoid offending the seeker by avoiding the severity of the Law. Pastors who follow a seeker sensitive path for a long enough time naturally and unintentionally water down the Gospel by watering down the Law. It becomes their native language.

For anyone who wants to take up the commenter’s suggestion to listen to another sermon, sermons can be downloaded or listened to by going to Faith’s home page, clicking on “RESOURCES” at the top right, then click on “Downloads,” followed by “Click Here for Online Audio Messages.”


Anonymous said...

I'd give this sermon an "OK, but..." rating. If it was preached by the Senior Arndt, that may explain things a bit. There is a tendency in the Seminary graduates of that era to preach the Gospel without much reference to the Law, treating sin as "weakness", rather than rebellion. Unfortunate.
This sermon can best be described as "Lutheran Lite." Give it a B-


jim said...

Whenever I get confused or need some guidance on what is really important, I go back to the Augsburg Confession and look at the first four topics, and the order they are presented:

- God
- Original Sin
- The Son of God
- Justification

It's always one of those "oh yeah!" moments - first things first

Anonymous said...

This summation of the Easter sermon at Faith Lutheran Church is quite disheartening as a Lutheran.
The woman the pastor spoke about that approached him after the service Saturday was not a Lutheran and took communion at the Lutheran Church.From what she said to him it is probable that she is Catholic or another non-Lutheran Church.
This sounds like open communion which isn't in agreement with the Lutheran Confessions.
I just don't understand why the pastor would tell the congregation the next day during the Easter sermon that a person received communion at the Easter Eve Service that is not a even Lutheran and is probably a Catholic.
A pastor in the LCMS knows what the Lutheran teaching is concerning the Sacraments so why would he speak about this event as if it were incredible and good?
Plus he attributed this to the working of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit may have given her faith in Christ for the forgiveness of her sin but recieving the Sacrament as a Non-Lutheran is not the usual practice.
Why would he tell this knowing that instruction should be given so as not to bring condemnation upon her soul for not recieving the Sacrament rightly.
It sounds like the Lutheran Confessions are being blurred and confusing to the members and visitors of that church.

Scott Diekmann said...

You are correct in your assessment anonymous. Faith has a very liberal open Communion policy.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps if more people at this church would take the time to read C.F. Walther's book(The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel) and perhaps the Book of Concord, they would understand the difference. Maybe what they are hearing goes back to what Luther called the enthusiasts! I still can't understand why the elders of that church don't realize that the pastor endorsed giving the Sacrament, to that woman he spoke of in this sermon,who was not even of the same denomination!