Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/3

Today’s second lesson began a series of readings from Second Timothy, one of the New Testament letters or epistles, and for the next few weeks we’ll hear parts of this letter read.  I’ve also been teaching a Lay School class this fall on NT epistles and, while it can be a little hard to discern on Sunday morning when you only hear bits and pieces of these letters read, for the most part what they talk about are issues and/or problems present in the Christian communities to which they were written, some issues and problems that might still be relevant today, some that might not be.  Many of these letters were written by the Apostle Paul as he wrote to churches he had founded, addressing problems that had come up since he left.

In conversation a couple of weeks ago in class we wondered what Paul would be writing to various churches today.  What issues would he want to address?  What problems would he see?  You could also ask what he would commend a church or a group of churches for.  What would he give thanks for?  Would the overall tone of his letter be harsh or would it be gentle?  Paul could go either way.

The answer would undoubtedly be different for different churches, but today our focus is on this church, Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church as we celebrate our 140th Anniversary; yesterday, October 2nd, was the actual day.  The Apostle Paul didn’t found this church; instead it was a group of immigrant Swedes “50 Swedish men, besides women and children” as the history says, who came here to work in the mines that were beginning to flourish in this area in the mid to late 1800’s.  You can ask the same questions though; if the founders and others involved in the early years of this church could write us a letter what are the issues that would be raised?  Would the letter be mostly praise or mostly condemnation?

One can’t really know.  Paul wrote his letters within a few months of having been in a given place so the basic context of that place wouldn’t have changed a whole lot, whereas a lot has changed here since 1870.  As a way to get at this though, I quote a section of the Dedication from Bethany’s 75th Anniversary booklet, something that I also quoted in the October newsletter.  It says, “We would remember the days of old with gratitude to God for his faithful servants and for the spiritual blessings which have come through Bethany Church.  We would go forward into the future with faith in God.  God opens the doors.  It is for us to enter.” 

That statement is 65 years old now, but what strikes me about it is the fact that it is so open to the future.  “We remember the days of old, but we go forward into the future.”  The past is acknowledged, but they weren’t stuck there.  The movement is forward, into the future even though that future was not clear, the doors of the future hadn’t opened yet.  Based on that, I think that one question that might be asked of us is, are we stuck in the past, or are we moving forward?  Do we remain confident, as they were 65 years ago, that God is active, that he’s still opening doors for us to enter?  In my opinion, this is a central question facing not only this church, not only the ELCA, but the wider church across all denominations.  

Among most churches and most denominations these days, there is anxiety about the religious landscape especially regarding declining numbers, dollars and influence.  There is anxiety about the future and that anxiety has caused a number of responses across the church, but I think you can pretty much narrow them down to two general responses, one of which is clinging to the past, the other of which is looking to the future.

Whenever people are in a state of anxiety about what is going on in their world, some will advocate some kind of return to the past, a return to some perceived golden age.  In the church, among other things, that can mean an attempted return to doctrinal purity where all the questions have been answered, all the gray is gone, everything is black and white.  It can mean a more literal reading of the Bible which simplifies things but which can also cause the Bible to be misused when isolated verses take priority against the Bible’s overall message.  Often this response has to do with one or two hot button social issues that become perceived as the source of all that is bad in the church or in the world.

This kind of thing is going on.  It’s going on in the Lutheran church, in the Catholic church and in most mainline denominations.  In some ways it’s an attempt to pretend you can get everyone to march in lock step according to “correct” teaching and doctrine so that there are no disagreements to be dealt with.  Just believe the “right” things, and we’ll tell you what those things are, and everything will be OK.  Also keep in mind that some churches are hiding this kind of theology behind guitars and drums and projection screens and calling it something new, calling it contemporary; but it’s not contemporary; it’s the same old thing wrapped up in a new package. 

Now don’t get me wrong; there are many good, faithful Christians attending churches that espouse this kind of theology.  There are also many  respected church leaders and theologians who would say this is exactly what the church should be doing; standing firm against a changing culture.  In my opinion though, this approach is not forward looking, it’s not future looking.  It’s clinging to the past.  It also perpetuates a state of anxiety and as Walter Brueggemann said when he was here, “People in a state of anxiety have no time for the common good.”  God’s work doesn’t get done.

The other choice is to move cautiously, but confidently toward the future.  For quite a long time among those who study such things, there has been the feeling that Christianity is moving into something of a new age, although it isn’t really all that new as it will more closely resemble the earliest days of Christianity.

As Christianity developed after the Resurrection of Jesus, people were followers of Jesus.  There was a sense of Jesus being the fulfillment of Jewish expectation concerning the Messiah and faith was hope in the dawning of a new age of freedom, healing and compassion as Jesus had modeled in his own life.  To be a Christian at that time was to live in the Spirit of Christ and to be his body in the world, following his model of forgiveness, care and sacrifice.

Among those who followed Jesus, there was a wide range of beliefs about him and what he represented.  For most there was some sense that he was “divine” but there wasn’t agreement on what that meant: was he the same as God, equal to God, not quite the same as God but above humans?  Was he part God and part man?  You get the idea.  Among the earliest Christians there wasn’t agreement on these things, but for about 300 years, for the most part that was OK; they were all still followers.  It wasn’t a perfect golden age; the church did grow but there were internal problems and also persecution from the outside mostly because they weren’t worshiping the Roman emperor and his gods.

When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the year 312, he decided he wanted to bring some order to things, to determine what constituted “correct” belief about Jesus.  Councils were held, different views were discussed and out of such things come winners, whose doctrine becomes official.  So with the first version of the Nicene Creed in 325 belief about Jesus became central and Christianity entered a new age.  If you didn’t accept the doctrine of the winners, you were a heretic and many were killed for their heresy.  The opposing voices were still around though, they didn’t go away, they just had to operate on the fringes.

The development of creeds and doctrines, and then later the confessions and theologies of Luther and other reformers in many ways represent a great gift to the church.  They contain brilliant insights about God and Jesus that have been critical in the development of Christianity, critical in the development of Christian faith.  However, among those who see the church moving into a new era, the feeling is that the time when the creeds and confessions can be used as a litmus test for proper belief is waning.  The idea is that for Christianity to survive, something of a return to following Jesus as the earliest Christians did is necessary.

For that reason, in response to the “Are we moving into the future” question, I would respond with a resounding and enthusiastic, “YES!”  We talk a lot around here about “Join us on the journey;” it’s the focus of the first ads we’ll have on TV6.  Implied in that is that we’re all following Jesus, but that can mean different things to different people because we’re not all at the same place on the journey.  We respect and are guided by the creeds and councils of the early church and we value the insights and changes brought about by the questions of Martin Luther but we understand ourselves to be part of a tradition of questioning and reform that continues.  The Reformation didn’t end 500 years ago.  

As Luther did, we see the Bible as a living word of God that requires interpretation in light of changing realities in the world, just as those who wrote it, inspired as they were, were responding to changing realities in their world.  We take the Bible very seriously, but not literally.  As always, it speaks words of forgiveness and hope about a God who invites us into a relationship, a God who cared enough about us to become one of us, a God who invites us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus in ways that lead to the future and don’t confine us to the past.

That’s the direction in which we are headed here and I feel good about that.  As we celebrate this anniversary day, it is a direction that honors a proud tradition of Christian witness established by those 50 Swedish families, 140 years ago.  We remember the past, but we’re not bound by it.  God is still opening doors; it is for us to enter.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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