Word Made Real

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53–55)

Recently, a colleague was telling me about his first experience on his road to the seminary, when her took a college course in philosophy. He told me that the very first assignment the class was given to the students was to write a paper explaining “how they knew that the reality they experienced was Real.”  After receiving a “D” on that first paper, he said it was only by the grace of God that he continued on and became a pastor.

How do we know what is Real? It is an important question that underlies everything we experience in our day-to-day life. The question is perhaps even more significant when we are dealing with the spiritual realities of “all that is seen and unseen.”

I am reminded of this when I consider the questions that are often asked about the sacrament of Holy Communion. People not only want to know what we believe, but why we believe it. Some put it even more bluntly when they ask: “How in the world can you believe that?”

Long ago, many of the people who experienced Jesus’ miracle of feeding the 5000 seemed to ask this same question of our Lord.  In John, Chapter 6, Jesus engaged the crowds who were following him (as he said), “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). He knew that their minds were hovering on a surface level, thinking only about the next meal that Jesus could provide for them. They had no thought for what the deeper meaning in all of this may have been, or the One to whom they were speaking.

But Jesus was pointing them away from the things of this world and drawing their attention to himself. Unlike the manna that the Israelites had received from God in the wilderness that melted away in the heat of each day and could not be stored up (Exodus 16:21), Jesus spoke of himself as the true Bread from Heaven. Jesus then said to them,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world… I am the Bread of Life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:32-35)

Ironically, there are many Christians who treat the Lord’s Supper as if it were just something we remember from the past. There are many for whom Holy Communion is nothing more than quaint ceremony, where they think back to something Jesus did long ago by engaging in a sort of “reenactment” to visually spark a memory of an event they never saw.  They may believe in something Jesus did, but they do not believe Jesus is doing anything in the here and now. They deny that the Body and Blood of Christ are his “means of grace” — or that by our participation in the Lord’s Supper we actually receive the forgiveness of God.

But the truth is, there is more going on in faith than just what we ourselves subjectively imagine to be Real — something that goes beyond what we may merely think or feel or perceive. True Reality is established by God himself!

Just as in the beginning God said “Let there be light, and there was light” (Genesis 1:3), we who are believers know that it is God’s Word that establishes reality.  And as followers of Christ, we know this Word has a name. We know that “in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the Word of his power” (Hebrews 1:1–3).

With the Living Word, Jesus Christ, as the foundation of our faith, it makes perfect sense that we would take Jesus at his word when he says of the bread and wine in Communion, “this is my body … this is my blood …” We believe when our Lord tells us that his blood of the covenant has been poured out “for the forgiveness of sins.” Because of his promise, we trust that something Real is happening.  God is doing what he says he is doing.  But not only that, he makes it clear that what he is doing is “for you.”

In this column, I have written many articles on the theme of Sacramental Discipleship, explaining how, as followers of Christ, God uses us as his means of grace to reach out to the world. Part of understanding the sacramental nature of our discipleship is to recognize that God is actually present and active in the world through us.  Paul is right when he says, “We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:1).

To say that we are the Body of Christ in the world is more than just a metaphor to contemplate. It is a statement of what is Real, just as he is Real. Our God is a real living entity with whom we interact and have a sacred relationship. It is because this Real God actually does things in the world and in our lives, that you and I have been made his people of faith by the power of his Word.

In this same way, we recognize that Holy Communion is the sure and certain Word of Christ — the new testament of a living God whose objective truth actually makes a difference in our lives.  Contrary to what the unbelievers may think, God’s promises are not just some old sentimental poetry we recite to make ourselves feel better; his promises are the divine means by which we receive his grace and mercy. The cup of blessing that we bless is a participation in the blood of Christ! The bread that we break is a participation in the body of Christ! These things are real, and they set us apart as people who belong to him.

Holy Communion is more than just a reminder of God’s presence in our lives, it is the actual intrusion and intervention of the Living Christ who come to us to take hold of our lives and make us his own. Because of what he has done — and continues to do for us again and again — by means of his Word, we can be “sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). That is what’s Real.

— Pastor Steven E. King

Unforgiving Culture

“Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb…”

(Revelation 12:10–11.)

As a pastor, I have had the opportunity on many occasions to teach about forgiveness from a biblical perspective. The theme is central to our understanding of the mission of Christ, and the blessing he came to accomplish on the cross. Forgiveness is key to our understanding of God’s grace and mercy, as well as our calling to go forth into the world to speak in his name.

But beyond teaching the forgiveness of sins as a theological concept, or examining specific instances from the Scriptures, I have also had the opportunity talk about forgiveness in terms of how it plays itself out in real-life circumstances. With a “how to” sort of approach, I have explored with people the nature and dynamics of forgiveness in our everyday live of faith as well as in our relationships with one another as part of the body of Christ.

With all that in mind, lately I have been interested in studying how the dynamics of confession and absolution play themselves out in the public sphere. In particular, I have paid attention to modern social media and the way in which “atonement” works — or does not work — in our popular, secular culture.

We live in an age of rampant accusation, coming at us from all sides and directions. Twitter mobs and social justice gangs roam freely on the internet, looking for the next victim to take down. Whether the accusations are true often has little to do with the discussion. Like the Pharisees who surrounded a woman they claimed to have caught in the act of adultery, people these days seem all too ready to pick up stones to throw, if only to be counted among the “righteous” crowd.

Our modern day “Cancel Culture” is one where people seek to take down their opponents, not by real evidence or with due process, but simply by vying to see who can shout their accusations with the loudest voice. Gone is any semblance of the “presumption of innocence” — guilt is always assumed. This is because, in reality, the motive of the mob is not justice, but simply the destruction of one’s opponents by any means. It is punishment they want to inflict, even if they must invent some ex-post-facto reason to inflict it. Whether it be politicians, journalists, pundits, or celebrity media figures — lies and false witness are no impediment to attacking someone with whom they disagree.

Many victims of such abuse will attempt to appease their accusers, by groveling to the mob with profusive apologies. But rarely does this satisfy. Others advise that in the current environment, the best strategy is to never make a public apology — whether one is right or wrong — for it only emboldens attackers when they taste blood in the water.

From a Christian perspective, all this is evidence of our human sin and the bondage in which we find ourselves. Indeed, “we are, by nature, sinful and unclean.” But on a deeper level, it is also a real-world demonstration of something even more dire — the fact that our society has lost is the ability to forgive.

Biblically, human beings have always been sinners. That is nothing new. We argue, we fight, we tell lies about one another and explain each other’s actions in the least charitable of ways. But, in faith, there was always a way in which we could address the reality of human sin.  Forgiveness, atonement, reconciliation — these are all biblical ways God has provided to restore our broken relationships.

These are the same ways that God himself has turned us from being his enemies, by making us his friends through the initiative of his mercy.

“While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:6-11)

In the midst of all the anger, pain, and accusation that surrounds us on a daily basis, this is something we must not forget. In a world that demands surrender with no mercy and no quarter, we must remember the One who has surrendered his life for us. “Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption” (Psalm 130:7 KJV).

In the same way, we must never lose sight of our Christian calling to speak his forgiveness to one another as well.  As disciples of Christ, our Lord commands us to be his ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:20).  He calls us to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations in his name (Luke 24:47).

This we can do!  To a world that has forgotten what it means to forgive, we go forth with God’s own promise: “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrew 8:10).

— Pastor Steven E. King

Means of Grace

“He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  (Acts 9:15-16).

The Apostle Paul began his religious career as a persecutor of the Christian faith. But God had something better in mind for him. Through a flash of light and the Word of the risen Christ, Paul was changed on the road to Damascus. Something happened to him that day — an inner reflection or decision of his own, but an act of God himself.

Later, it was by means of the hands and words of the disciple Ananias that the scales that fell from Paul’s eyes, he experienced a taste of both the cost and blessing of discipleship. Just as he said he would, God made Paul into a living means of grace, saying:

“He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  (Acts 9:15-16).

Physical instruments and tangible tools are the “means” by which we get a job done. The same is true for God. The Lord uses real-life things of his Creation to do his work in the world. This is true both in the Scriptures and in our own lives of faith.

God’s use of means is central to how Lutherans understand the way in which God instills and sustains faith in us as believers. We refer to Word and Sacrament as “the means of grace” — i.e., the ordinary instruments God uses to do his work in us. As the first Lutherans explained in the Augsburg Confession:

“[God has] provided the Gospel and the Sacraments; through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” (AC, Article 5)

Just as God did in the days of Scripture, our Lord still uses ordinary earthly means to communicate his promise of forgiveness in our lives. In the waters of Holy Baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion, as well as in the human voice of the preacher in worship, God communicates with us. In those very moments, he brings about forgiveness of which he speaks. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God uses these means to lay hold of our hearts and to do his saving work in us.

In this column of Connections magazine, I am now starting my seventh year writing under the title and heading, “Sacramental Discipleship.” It has been my way of trying to describe how God uses us as followers of Christ as his “chosen instruments” — just as he did with Paul.

Broadly speaking, to describe something as “sacramental” (with a small “s”) is to say that it has the quality of means. Something sacramental is a real, tangible expression of God’s grace, empowered by his Word, that conveys the promise of Christ. In this sense, our very lives as disciples are sacramental, in that, through us, God is at work in the world to spread his gospel and accomplish his will. We are the tools God uses to show his love to the world as we love, serve, and forgive our neighbors on his behalf.

This is why, when Paul later wrote of our everyday lives as disciples of Christ, he used the same biblical language of instrument and means. He wrote:

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness (Romans 6:13).

You and I may not have had as dramatic a call as Paul did on the road to Damascus. We may not have been brought from darkness to light through a literal healing of our eyes. But through our Baptism into Christ, we too have been set apart as his chosen instruments to carry his name to all the world. (Lest that seem too big, we can always start with our own homes and communities!)

Like he did with Paul, God has made it known that intends to use us as his instruments for righteousness. By granting our baptismal identity, and marking us with name, he has prepared us for this very thing. God desires to use us as his “tools” for creating faith — both in the world at large and in the lives of our neighbors. God has set us apart by the Means of Grace so that we would be “means of grace” — accomplishing his work of salvation and redemption through us.

 — Pastor Steven E. King

Only God and Savior

To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:25)

The word “Amen” appears hundreds of times in throughout the Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments. Some may assume that this word, commonly heard at the end of a prayer, a blessing, or doxology of praise, is simply a religious way to say, “the end.” But the word “Amen” means much more than that.

It is an expression of agreement and assent to something heard or read. We say “Amen” in response to a statement with which we agree. To say “Amen” is to say, “Yes, that’s the way it is!” When we respond “Amen” to someone’s prayer, we are saying “that is my prayer, also.” When we say “Amen” at the end of a blessing, asking for God’s grace and favor to be poured out on his people, “Amen” means “Yes. May it be so.”

Often, in the Gospels, Jesus also uses the word “Amen” to introduce a true saying. I’m sure we are all familiar with Jesus’ expression, “Truly, truly, I say to you …” In Greek, this is literally, “Amen, amen, I say to you …”  In this sense, to say “Amen” is to affirm that a statement is real and true, representing the way things really are. It is a confession of faith, bearing witness to what we believe in our hearts.

For example, in the introductory quote above from the end of the Book of Jude, the Apostle speaks of Christ as the only God and Savior, to whom he ascribes “glory, majesty, dominion, and authority” for all eternity. To this, he adds his own “Amen” as a way of bearing witness that in his heart he believes that “this is most certainly true.” But for we, the readers, it is also the opportunity for us to agree to the Apostles’ witness, saying, “Yes! This is what I believe as well!”

Speaking for myself, I am not ashamed to say “Amen” to the Apostles’ words, and let people know that this is what I believe. I acknowledge that Jesus Christ — true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary — is my Lord.  I agree with what is written in the Scriptures, that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

But I recognize that not everyone would agree such a stament. There are other faiths and other confessions in the world that would speak nothing of Christ as Lord and Savior. There are even those among our own religious tradition who regularly mouth the word “amen” but don’t really agree. They may be willing to affirm the words, but don’t believe the Word is true. As Christ himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Over the years, among people of the Church, I regret to say that I have encountered many who are not quite willing to admit that Jesus is their only Lord and Savior. To be clear, I’m not talking about atheists or agnostics, from whom one might expect doubt and hesitancy. I’m talking about people who acknowledge Jesus, know the right words to say about him, but don’t really believe there is “salvation in no one else” – because they want to preserve a little saving credit for themselves.

Ironically, I have found this especially true among Christians who claim interest in work of Evangelism. Time and time again, I heard people bear witness to salvation in Christ, only to hear them turn to their audience and say “now this is what you must do…” While some will openly speak of salvation as a “50/50” cooperative effort between God and themselves, more often, you will hear it described in the range of a 90/10 split, or even as far as 99/1. They are willing to admit that Jesus deserves most of the credit for their salvation. They may even affirm that Jesus deserves nearly all the credit for their salvation, but that last little bit they reserve for themselves.

A self-described “Evangelical” once summarized this for me when he said, “We thank God for all  that Jesus has done for us, but in the end, it comes down to how you and I respond to God that determines whether or not we are saved.”

There was a time in my life where I would have felt I needed to argue with a statement like that, providing the biblical and theological evidence for why such a statement is wrong. Being an adversarial type, I thought it my duty to set a person like that straight and make sure they came to a “right” theology. As I look back, many are the sermons and Bible studies throughout my ministry where this has been the primary theme, believing it to be what Luther called it, “the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls.”

To be clear, over the years, my conviction and theology have not changed on this point, nor has my faith and confidence in Christ alone as Lord and Savior of the world. But as I have grown older, I have come to see taking credit for one’s own salvation as less as an error that needs to be corrected, and more simply as a confession of where that person’s faith is at in that present moment. Which is to say, when someone now tells me that they are saved because of something they have done, I simply take them at their word. I acknowledge that this is, in fact, what they believe. This is their witness.

My response is no longer to make an argument or try to convince them that they are wrong. My response is simply to bear a witness of my own. My goal is articulate what I trust and believe as clear as I can.  I have come to realize that I cannot control what someone else says or what they believe, but I can certainly give testimony to what I believe. Without speaking for anyone else, I can reserve my “Amen” for what is true of me.

Both now and when I stand before the throne of God on the day of judgment, I desire to take no credit for myself, but rather, to confess that Christ alone is my Savior. I want to say with all assurance that “truly, truly” he has saved and redeemed me through nothing I have done, but purely by his own grace and mercy.

I simply acknowledge that this is how it is for me, and how I pray it always will be. In my heart I know it is true that I can do no other than to stand with Jude and the other saints and proclaim aloud: “To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever.” Only to this can I say “Amen.”

 — Pastor Steven E. King

Doing “Good” Evil

Jesus said: “I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’” (Luke 22:34)

Evil is a tricky thing. As Scripture tells us, with the exception of Jesus himself, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). As fallen human beings, we all turn aside and do wrong. Sometimes this may be by mistake; but often we know we are doing wrong when we do it.

On the other hand, to “do evil” carries with it a more serious connotation .  Evil goes beyond accidents and mistakes, or errors made in ignorance.  There is a willfulness to what is evil; it purposeful and deliberate.  Evil knows what it is doing and wants to do it.

However, in many cases — perhaps most cases — evil does not recognize itself as evil. Even as “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). Evil often comes in the form of what is good, and appears good to those who practice it.

I would even go so far as to say that to truly commit evil deeds, people must first be convinced that what they are doing is right.  Most villains see themselves as the hero of their own story. They tell themselves that what they are doing is for the greater good, or at the very least, that their goal is the right one and the ends justify the means.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately, especially in how they treat those with whom they disagree.

After a year of stress and concern over the Covid-19 virus, people are worn out – mentally, physically, and spiritually. Just as we thought we were past the worst, we face renewed reports of Covid variants, threatening a continuation of the pandemic we hoped would be over by now. In speaking to the people I know, whatever their experience or point of view, people want to do what is right.

As people continue to argue for or against wearing face-masks, economic shut-downs,  or whether they are pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine, no one has suggested to me that their goal is to deliberately do what is wrong. To the best they can determine, everyone thinks what they’re doing is right.

That might not be bad if we were able to talk to each other in a civil manner, and show each other respect. But we have deteriorated so far into “my team” vs. “your team” that it is no longer a debate on the choices we can make, we have made it a battle between those who we see as good and those that we see as evil.

Here is where the temptation to genuine Evil rears its ugly head.  No one ever forces other people to act against conscience unless they are convinced that they themselves are right and the others are wrong.  It stops being about deciding what is best ourselves, and becomes about forcing others to submit to what we think is right. It become less about being helpful for the sake of the neighbor, and more about punishing those who disagree with us.

We are seeing the signs of this around us. Whether it be censoring views with which we disagree, and denying the speech of those we consider evil, or whether it is demonizing our opponents and scape-goating those we believe have caused the evil we feel around us, we all consider ourselves in the right.  That is field in which evil plays.

It concerns me to see that some cities, states, and nations have decided to deny basic goods and services to those who will not do what the authorities think is right. It worries me that many would not only trade liberty for security, but would actually force others to do what they think best by taking away their means of making a living. I not sure I want to live in a society where we can’t talk about important subjects, and seek to silence those who disagree. I don’t want to live in a society where we must sift out dissenters, creating a system to divide people into groups for punishment and reward. Such things deeply concern me; I wonder where this all will lead. 

However, as I recognize the evils present in the world, it would be easy to point at the things around me and the external threats we face as those which pose the real danger.  Like everyone else, I could put myself in the place of the “good” and “right” and try to make others do things my way. But I wonder if that is where the true temptation lies. As God said to Cain, “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).

How do I master evil in myself? I look to the one who is the Master.  Instead of resting on the certainty of my own “rightness,” I am called to “number myself among the transgressors” as Christ himself did.  If He who was without sin could take on the title of Sinner, how much more should one like me, who has truly earned that name?

If it is true, that to truly commit evil deeds, people must first be convinced that they are doing is right, then I should be willing to admit that this is not true for me. So long as I remember that “there is no one good but God alone” (Mark 10:18), the impulse to see myself as better or more deserving than others is given pause. Ironically, when all is said and done, the certainty that I am not right becomes for me a shield against evil. To refuse to claim for myself the righteous that belongs to Christ alone keeps me protected under his wings.

I will be the first to admit that evil is real and present in the world, as well as in my life. But though I walk through the darkest valley, I do not fear this evil, for God is with me.

— Pastor Steven E. King

Modern Censors

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

I am of the conviction that one of the qualities essential to true discipleship is humility. In this, I am not referring simply to a self-effected posture of lowliness, or the outward appearance of timidity and self-deprecation. Rather, I am talking about a genuine suspicion of our own sinful nature, and a realization that no matter how good and right we think we are, we are subject to the same temptations that face all human beings.

I remember the days not long ago when the most common stereotype of religious people, and the accusation made against them, is that they are too judgmental or “holier than thou.” I used to joke that the only Bible verse that every atheist had memorized was Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” This used to be the go-to verse, used against Christians by those who did not want to have to be called to account for their actions, or question whether what they were doing was wrong.

But the funny thing is, something I’ve noticed lately is that I don’t hear that phrase as much as I once did. People don’t seem to mind judgmentalism as much as they once did. Those who used to say “don’t judge me” seem to have become fewer in number, perhaps because they are often the ones who are now doing the judging.

It seems like judging and condemnation have become a popular sport in our society, especially online, across the internet. Criticizing the words and actions of others, and meting out punishment to those with whom they disagree, is how one comes to feel superior. Offering moral pronouncements and calling into question the character of those with whom they disagree, has become the preoccupation of many who would never think themselves religious. They have become the very people they used to try to avoid.

I remember a board game we had in our house when I was a child, where the goal was to figure out a person’s identity. The game board had pictures of many different people, each of different occupations and appearances (hair color, clothing, expressions, etc.). By asking only yes or no questions, players would try to determine the character who was “it” by a process of elimination.

I can still picture one character on the game board who was labelled “The Censor” (representing a person who judged and disapproved of everything). The Censor was depicted as an old woman in conservative clothing and severe hairstyle, with a stern scowl on her face. It was the stereotypical image of what might be described as a “church lady” – judgmental and self-righteous.

Ironically, in our day and age, if we were honest, “The Censor” would have to be depicted differently. To match our current culture, the Censor would need to be portrayed more like a young, liberal, college-student or “social justice warrior” angrily typing out condemnations on social media. It would be the sign-carrying activists, who like to think of themselves as revolutionary, but are funded and supported by establishment corporations and mainstream media.

The censors of our day are the kind of people who would never think of themselves as moral prudes, but are ever-willing to attack others for the evil of their perceived “-isms.” In an attempt to signal their own secular virtue, they are people oblivious to their own ideological arrogance. They are the purveyors of Cancel Culture — unable to imagine that they could ever be wrong, or that they are guilty of the very things for which they condemn in others.

Or perhaps, that is exactly why they do it. After all, everyone knows that in the new religion of our secular culture, there is no forgiveness and no mercy. The only way to avoid being accused and condemned is to join in the mob accusing and condemning others, displaying your own moral correctness so as to avoid being targeted by others. In this kind of climate, humility puts one in danger.

This is especially true of the most impressionable among us. Sadly, many young people today live in constant fear of being “called out” by the social media mob, requiring them to enforce a strict self-censorship on all their words and actions, terrified of deviating in the slightest from the norms of popular culture, knowing that the mob may crush them at any moment. This constant fear of judgment creates peer pressure on the highest level. Unfortunately, it is the new normal — one that has taken on a kind of “religious” fanaticism.

Which brings me back to where I started. There is something about being a disciple of Jesus Christ that requires humility. In the midst of a world that offers no forgiveness and no mercy, we must not be tempted to do the same. We must recognize the temptation to attack others before they attack us. We must fight the temptation to hurt and destroy the lives of others by indulging our own self-righteous offense. We must be humble enough to see in others the same vulnerabilities that all of us share, and to treat others with the same compassion that we would want to be treated.

To ask God to “lead us not into temptation” is not just an appeal that God would keep us from falling into stereotypical sin and vices. It is also a prayer in which we ask God to keep us from the ideological arrogance that assumes we can do no wrong. It is a prayer that God would not let us fall into the temptation of being overcome by fear and the intimidation of the secular mob. For we have a God who sees us as we are, and yet is still a God who shows us mercy and grace, and loves us as his own.

In a society where people vie to point the finger at others, perhaps the best we can do is follow the example of the One who was not ashamed to be “counted among the transgressors” – the same One that suffered at the accusation of the mob, yet could not be cancelled.

Like our Lord Jesus, may we have the same bravery and courage to not give in to the righteous forces of judgment and the temptation to justify ourselves, but rather to trust in our merciful God and live in the freedom of his grace.

— Pastor Steven E. King

Called to Forgive

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:21-23)

Every once in a while, when people talk about Jesus’ words here about forgiving or withholding forgiveness, they speak as if they think Jesus is offering us two different options in how we might choose to respond to sin. It’s as if they hear Jesus saying, it’s up to us as disciples to evaluate whether someone is worthy of having their sins forgiven or not, and then apply our own judgment in what Jesus is calling us to do. Do we announce God’s grace and mercy in Christ, or do we refuse? Do we think it is up to us to decide?

In these words from the risen Christ, as he sent his disciples out with his peace, Jesus was not placing before us an option. Nor was he telling us to divide the world into different types of sinners or different degrees of sin in considering the message that he wants us to deliver. Rather, he was giving us a promise and a warning as speakers of his Word, showing us the blessing and the consequences of whether or not we, as Jesus’ disciples, carry out his calling.

Jesus is not giving us a choice on whether to forgive or not forgive, according to our scruples and sensibilities. He is calling us to forgive as we have been forgiven by God. He is also warning us of the dire consequences that will come from not heeding his call. To put it another way, Jesus is telling us that he has sent us into the world with the power of the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins in his name to a world overcome by darkness and evil — and he wants us to know that if we don’t do it, no one else will.

As I look at the current state of the world in which we live and the diminishment of faith in the public sphere, this is one of the things that troubles me most. The very concept of forgiveness has almost all but disappeared. When one looks at the modern phenomenon of “social justice” mobs piling on condemnation for whatever they deem to be the offense of the day, to the raging Cancel Culture that seeks to take out vengeance and destroy the lives of any who depart from the established and “accepted” narrative, what we are witnessing is a spiritual failure. Our society has lost all sense of the need to forgive.

And don’t be deceived, this is what it is — a need to forgive. Just as in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus shows our physical need for daily bread, he follows it up by showing that we have a spiritual need for daily forgiveness. If we know the Scriptures, we know that this is at the heart of what Jesus came into the world to do.  It was his death and resurrection that addressed our need for forgiveness. This is not just the case for Christians who acknowledge themselves as sinners, it is a need shared by all of us as human creatures.

The truth is, without forgiveness, the very structures of society begin to break down. The bond that holds us together is destroyed. This is because all of human society is based on relationships, and our individual relationships with one another overlap in larger and larger networks with many other people. As each cord is broken, the net that holds us together becomes weaker, until there is no bond left and everyone we encounter becomes our enemy.

In giving us his Holy Spirit, Jesus not only entrusts us with the power and authority to forgive in his name, he lets us know what the world will become if we don’t. Scripture tells us, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). If we neglect the calling and command to bear his grace and mercy, our world itself will find the basis for life withheld.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, God has made us his instruments – his living means of grace. Through us, God is in the world, bringing to an end the legacy of sin, death, and the devil that hold all of us bound. In Christ, God is loosing the bonds of sin, one person at a time, by placing in our hands his Key of forgiveness – for he is the only One who truly has the power to set us free.

If you belong to Christ, you have no choice: you are an Ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). You are forgiven; you are set free, that you might make use of that same freeing power in the lives of those around you.  This is the promise of Christ. You have the opportunity to do what the world cannot do, and to give a gift that this world cannot (or will not) give.

Christ has given you the Holy Spirit, with the promise that “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them,” trusting that God will “forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

— Pastor Steven E. King

Emptying Barns

“God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:20-21)

The verse above is the conclusion to Jesus’ parable of the man who built bigger and bigger barns for his wealth, often referred to as the Parable of the Rich Fool. In this parable, a man is blessed with productive land and an abundance of crops. His response to this blessing was not to share with those less fortunate than himself, or to invest the money in a manner that would help his community. Rather, the man decides to pull down his existing barns so that he can build larger ones, so that he would have more room to store up his goods for himself.

Having not been acknowledged (or even mentioned) previously in the story, God suddenly shows up to speak directly to the man. God calls him a “fool” and tells the man that what is required of him is his soul – his whole life – which belongs to God himself. The things that this man thought he possessed were nothing compared to what God himself owned, the claim that God has on all of us as his possession.

Today, as I write my article for this issue, I face the prospect of picking up my household and moving to another part of the country. I realize these days, this is something fairly common for people to do. But it forces me once again to take stock of all the “things” I claim as my own.  I remember back to the first days, when my wife and I were newly married, it seemed as if each time we moved — from seminary to internship, then back to seminary and on to my first call — the moving truck kept getting larger and larger. By the time I moved to my second call, my children were just reaching school-age when we moved into the church’s parsonage. Not long after, we bought own house in the town of Maple Lake, where I served most of my ministry. Again, the amount of “things” continued to grow.

It was not until I shifted from parish ministry to full-time in the publishing ministry, that my wife and I became so-called “empty nesters.” While it was true that the birds had grown and flown off, the nest itself was still filled with many things. Not until the next move did we have our first experience with down-sizing.

It was more difficult than I would have imagined. Though the new house to which we were moving was about the same size as the one we were moving from, the amount of storage space available went from plentiful to minimal. Hard decisions had to be made, and we were not entirely successful in our attempt to divest ourselves excess inventory.

But now, as we prepare to move again, I am surprised to find this process far less difficult. I would like to think it is because I am older and wiser, and am better able to travel light. I would like to think that I have learned the lesson of not building bigger barns, having a greater faith and trust that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). But I am not sure that this is the case.

Rather, I think it has more to do with the experience of loss, and how God shapes us by what he takes away. Like the Vinedresser, pruning the branches of the vine, I have come to understand that God’s blessings are not just in what he gives, but perhaps even more visible in what he removes.

As one who believes in a Savior who “takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), I recognize that there are many other things that God has taken away — hard experiences by which he has shaped me in faith. The things that I once thought of as my own now seem somehow less tangible, compared to the value I find in the unseen things of faith.

After a lifetime of praying, “Lord, give us this day our daily bread,” I have learned not only the value of what God gives, but also the value of what he does not give. Perhaps that is why God does not promise us our yearly bread, our monthly bread, or even our weekly bread. What he promises is daily bread. Having the Lord empty my barns has made me more conscious of my dependence upon him every single day. For that I am grateful.

In teaching the Word, I have often compared the life of faith to a candle that begins tall and slowly burns down as we mature. I have suggested that our prayer as disciples should be that when our time on the earth has ended, there would be nothing left but a nub, for we would have given all we have and all we are for the sake of Christ.

In my own life, what I have found is that this is the only way his light will shine in us. Only by the burning of the candle is the light of our Savior made known to the world. For only by his Light is the darkness of this world overcome.

So I give thanks that God came to me in Christ while I was still a fool, while I was building my barns. I give thanks that he has opened silos and poured out the grain I thought was my own, and instead, has claimed me as His own.

— Pastor Steven E. King

God Willing

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-12)

In old English, people expressed an action in the future tense by using the word “shall” — as in “It shall rain tomorrow.” The wording indicated an unaccomplished action, or the certainty of something that had yet to happen. People in those days, however, expressed their future desire by using the word “will” — as in “someday, I will become the master of my destiny” (meaning, I want or wish to do so).

Ironically, over the years it became so common to express one’s future intentions in this way that in modern English, the word “will” has all but replaced the word “shall” as the way we express the future tense. People say “I will do this…” or “This will happen…” to indicate things yet to occur.

In a subtle and selfish conceit, we have come to use an expression of our human desire as a way of speaking about the certainty of our future. This tells us a lot about the power and priority we like to ascribe to our individual human will.

But Scripture does not do this. When Scripture speaks of what shapes our future and destiny, it does not give that credit to the human will, but rather to the will of God.

For example, when John describes those who have received Christ and are born again in faith, he says they, “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but the will of God” (John 1:13). This is strikingly different from the way many Christians talk about “receiving Christ” as an act of their own human will. According to Scripture, to be saved by grace through faith is an act of God’s will. As Scripture says, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

It is with this understanding of faith that Jesus taught us to pray to the Father: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We are not asking to get our own way, but rather that God would have his way with us.  We are not praying that our own wishes and desires should determine our destiny, but that God and his will would rule our destiny just as he rules in heaven. Faith is not an act of the human will; it is the surrendering of our will to God’s. To be a disciple is not to set our own destination, but to simply follow to the destination where our Lord leads us.

This is why the Apostle Paul was able to rejoice when he said:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6)

Paul gives thanks for a decision God made – an act that God accomplished in Christ – when he determined to make us his people. Paul gives praise that God’s will has been done for us in Jesus Christ, just as we were chosen in heaven before the foundation of the world.

It may seem quaint to us now, but there was a time when people spoke of what they hoped to do in the future, they would add the phrase “God willing” — to indicate who was really in charge. Such an expression was one that came from faith, acknowledging that the will of God is sovereign, not our own.

It is because I trust that God’s will be done that I pray he keeps each and every one of us in faith and that, God willing, all people would come to know the power and promise of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

— Pastor Steven E. King

The Holy Spirit’s Work

“To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, he has provided the Gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” (Augsburg Confession, Article 5)

For some time now, in my articles for Connections, I have been writing under the title of “Sacramental Discipleship.” The main theme I have tried to convey is that in our lives as disciples of Jesus, we serve as a kind of living “means of grace” in service to the world. That is, God uses us – real human beings – to convey the message of the Gospel through our word and actions, so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

Scripture teaches us that it is the Holy Spirit who creates faith, and he does it by means of his Word, spoken and heard (Romans 10:17). It is by the Spirit’s power, active in the message of Christ, that God turns us into believers. This foundational truth underlies the very definition of faith that Martin Luther describes in his Small Catechism.

Many often point to Luther’s words in his explanation to the Third Article of the Creed, where Luther affirms that his faith in Christ did not come “by my own reason or strength,” but rather because “the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel … and kept me in true faith.”

Luther’s statement echoes the Scriptural affirmation that “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” (Ephesians 2:8-9). It also reflects the same definition of faith that Luther presents when he addresses the Second Petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Luther wrote, “The kingdom of God comes indeed by itself, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may also come to us.” First off, we must realize that the biblical phrase “kingdom of God” is a reference to the reality of faith in our present lives.  Such language is not about an earthly kingdom of this world, nor is it simply about a future life in heaven. It is the way Jesus described what it means when he rules as King in our hearts through faith (Matthew 6:33).

So when Luther goes on to ask the question, “How does God’s kingdom come?” he is able to say plainly, “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and live a godly life now and in eternity.” The kingdom comes to us when God himself brings us to trust and believe in Jesus.

But underneath Luther’s statement is also a clue to how Discipleship fits into this equation. As followers of Jesus, it is clear that we are not the ones who create faith – either in ourselves or others. But God does use us to make it happen. God has sent us out into the world as bearers of his Word. We are the instruments and ambassadors of God through which his message of the Gospel goes out to all nations – not to mention our own local congregation and communities. The Holy Spirit uses our witness as the means by which he enters the ear of listeners and takes hold of their hearts. As disciples of Christ, God uses us as his “means of grace” to communicate the promise of the Gospel to others.

As Scripture tells us: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). You have the promise that the Holy Spirit is at work in the words you speak in the name of Christ.

“As through means, God gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” This is how God builds his kingdom in the world, one believer at a time.

— Pastor Steven E. King