Last month I retired after forty years as a Lutheran pastor. The next two meditations contain some of what I said in the sermon on my last Sunday (August 25).
…Many years ago, on my first Sunday in my first parish, an elderly lady introduced herself to me and then said with a sneer, “I’ve been a member of this church for a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of you pastors come and go, and I know what you are like, and you are all the same. Welcome to Christ Lutheran.” I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, and the way she said it was a little scary. But I do have to admit, part of what she said was true. Pastors are different, but we do come and go. And we are all the same in that we are sinners like the rest of you, and we do come with our own mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses, gifts and quirks, skills and short-comings, and annoying faults. But hopefully, along with all of those secondary, organizational things we have to do, we will by the grace of God, faithfully bring you a bit of God’s Word each week.
Now that elderly lady turned out to be a difficult one, but she was a pretty good person and a faithful servant of God as she served her church. She had a common trait of many church members– she was difficult because she cared. She cared about her church and wanted things done right, and that’s a good thing. But right for her sometimes meant doing things only her way, and that’s not a good thing. But I have needed to learn from people like her to appreciate the care and the hard work behind their rough edges; and people like her need to learn to care and work in less difficult ways. And none of us ever get it completely right. That is why we come to church to hear about the forgiveness of sins.
And, we also come to church to hear about eternal life. Several years ago a pastor friend told me a story about an old friend of his who was the pastor of a little church in a small town in Germany. The pastor would walk to church every Sunday morning, and on his way he would walk by the home of Albert. Albert was baptized and confirmed in that little church, but had not been there for worship since his confirmation day. Now he was old and retired and had nothing to do but sit on a rocking chair on his front porch and drink beer. And the pastor and Albert would always exchange friendly greetings, and oftentimes the pastor would invite Albert to church. “Albert, komm zur kirche,” the pastor would say. “Albert, come to church.” And Albert would always raise his beer mug and reply, “Nein, Pastor, Ich habe etwas besseres.” “No, Pastor, I have something better.”
There is much one can say about that interesting little exchange. Albert told the pastor he had something better. Isn’t that what we are all, always looking for in life– something better? A better house for some, a better job for others, a better car, a better vacation idea, better relationships, better financial security, or maybe even a better time of life, perhaps somewhere off in the future. It is a rare individual who is completely satisfied with everything in their life and can say they are not looking for any improvement in anything. And there is nothing wrong with wanting something better.
But there is something deeper in the pastor’s invitation to Albert to come to church. The pastor did not mean Albert should just change chairs on Sunday mornings, from the chair on his porch to a place in one of the pews at church, and there drink coffee instead of beer. The invitation to church implied the offer of something bigger than what to do on Sunday morning. It was an offer for a relationship with God in Jesus Christ, and the offer of eternal life in Him; not only something better for the here and now, but for forever. We go to church to hear about that eternal hope, and to sustain our faith in that. And Albert’s friendly refusal to the pastor’s invitation was not a personal snub. He and the pastor got along fine. Rather, it was an indication of Albert’s lack of interest in anything beyond the here and now. The glass of beer in his hand was ‘something better’ for him than what went on church every week.
The apostle Paul would not agree with Albert, but proclaimed in his ministry, as I have tried to proclaim in mine, that there is nothing better than what the Gospel has to offer. In this morning’s reading from I Corinthians he begins by saying: “I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved!”
Paul then goes on to say: “What I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” Paul first lays the basis for his trust in Jesus, and that is that Jesus rose from the dead. And he adds that well over 500 witnesses saw the living Jesus, back from the dead, and most of them, he said, were still living at the time. In other words, his listeners could go ask them.
Then, having laid the basis for his faith, Paul describes how that is the basis for his ministry, saying, “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am. I worked harder than all the others—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.”
So Paul begins by saying his message is of FIRST importance, something better than anything else we could come up with on our own. What could be more important than rising from the dead to live again, after this brief and troubled life is over? Then Paul tells the Corinthians why he believes in it. He has seen Jesus, back from the dead, with his own eyes. And then he says that is why he is a preacher, so that others can believe that great message and also be saved—so everyone can have that ‘something better.’ That German pastor wanted Albert to come and hear about it, so he could believe it, and receive it, and live, now and forever. (continued…)