Why are Brick and Mortar Churches Essential in a Digital World?

The 500th Anniversary of the New Testament in the Language of the People          1522 – 2022

The First Churches

Why are brick and mortar churches essential in a digital world?

Acts 2:41-47: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

From Martin Luther’s sermon on Acts 2: “It is not enough simply that Christ be preached; the Word must be believed. Therefore, God sends the Holy Spirit to impress the preaching upon the heart–to make it in here and live therein. Unquestionably, Christ accomplished all–took away our sins and overcame every obstacle, enabling us to become, through him, lord over all things. But the treasure lies in a heap; it is not everywhere distributed and applied. Before we can enjoy it, the Holy Spirit comes and communicates it to the heart, enabling us to believe and say, “I too, am one who shall have the blessing.” To everyone who hears is grace offered through the Gospel; to grace is he called, as Christ says (Matthew 11:28), “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden.”

Now, with the belief that God has come to our rescue and given us this priceless blessing, inevitably the human heart must be filled with joy and with gratitude to God, and must exultingly cry: “Dear Father, since it is thy will to manifest toward me inexpressible love and fidelity, I will love thee sincerely, and willingly do what is pleasing to thee.”

The believing heart never sees God with jealous eye. It does not fear being cast into hell as it did before the Holy Spirit came, when it was conscious of no love, no goodness, no faithfulness, on God’s part, but only wrath and displeasure. But once let the Holy Spirit impress the heart with the fact of God’s good will and graciousness towards it, and the resulting joy and confidence will impel it to do and suffer for God’s sake whatever necessity demands.

Let us, then, learn to recognize the Holy Spirit–to know that his mission is to present to us the priceless Christ and all his blessings; to reveal them to us through the Gospel and apply them to the heart, making them ours. When our hearts are sensible of this work of the Spirit, naturally we are compelled to say: “If our works avail naught, and the Holy Spirit alone must accomplish our salvation, then why burden ourselves with works and laws?”

By the doctrine of the Spirit, all human works and laws are excluded, even the laws of Moses. The Holy Spirit’s instruction is superior to that of all books. The Spirit-taught individual understands the Scriptures better than does he who is occupied solely with the Law.

Hence, our only use for books is to strengthen our faith and to show others written testimony to the Spirit’s teaching. For we may not keep our faith to ourselves, but must let it shine out; and to establish it the Scriptures are necessary. Be careful, therefore, not to regard the Holy Spirit as a Law-maker, but as proclaiming to your heart the Gospel of Christ and setting you so free from the literal law that not a letter of it remains, except as a medium for preaching the Gospel.”

community

These Bible verses and excerpt from Martin Luther emphasize the importance and power of the church as a community of people who come together to read, pray, listen, serve, and share. We come to know Jesus through the struggles in our heart which leads us to believe in a very personal way. After the Resurrection of Jesus from the grave, the disciples lived in fear because the Jesus they had come to know and trust was no longer with them. But just as Jesus promised, He came to them on Pentecost in a powerful and visible way and they believed. The dimension of their belief after witnessing Christ’s Resurrection, the baptism of thousands of people from many different countries and cultures, and the breaking of bread is what changed the world! This is documented historical evidence.

They followed the teachings of the apostles, which is the Gospel that Jesus loves each of us and gave His life that we might be saved, be free from sin and death, and experience His grace through an intimate relationship with Him. This is the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of a loving church. Many churches involve passive listening but the church described above involves active engagement!

There are many good and uplifting philosophies that inspire us. They teach us to do good, show kindness, accept others, and help people in need. There are many who call themselves Christian and speak enthusiastically about God, Jesus, and the Spirit. Acts 2:44 tells us that the Christians in Jerusalem had one thing in common – they knew Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior!

Faith is a long-distance journey, it is a calling and gift, it involves constant work because we stumble with the challenges of life in a sinful world.

Comments: hbitten@reverendluther.org

The Stoning of Stephen

The Stoning of Stephen and the Big Picture of Pentecost

How did Stephen’s faith give him the freedom to forgive his murderers in the pain of his violent death?

Acts 7: 54-60  54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

Stoning of Stephen-Rembrandt-1625

The Stoning of St. Stephen by Rembrandt, 1625

This is Rembrandt’s first painting with a biblical subject. Stephen was a member of the Christian community in Jerusalem. Stephen’s job was to care for Greek widows. “And according to Acts 6:8, Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.”

A group of Jews became jealous. In front of the high priests they falsely accused Stephen. He defended himself with a long plea that ended with accusing the priests. Stephen claimed they did not uphold the law, and that they betrayed and killed those that announced the coming of the “Just One” who is Jesus Christ.

The crowd in the temple was infuriated and seized Stephen. Outside the city he was stoned to death. That made Stephen into the first Christian martyr: someone who died for the faith. The yet unconverted Saul (Paul) looked on with approval. (Acts 6, 7 and 8:1).

In the background to the right are the priests. In the top center members of the Christian community watch with fear and worry. Stephen wears a fine gown, common among the deacons in Rembrandt’s days. His last words were “lay not this sin to their charge”. The light that shines on Stephen’s face represents the sign that heaven saw all this happen. The man on horseback is probably Saul, the persecutor of Christians, who will soon take a trip to Damascus where he is converted to the Christian faith after being without sight for several days. His name is changed to Paul.

In the selected passages from Martin Luther’s sermon on St. Stephen’s Day, we discover how faith gives us freedom.

Do we need churches?

“There is no other reason for building churches than to afford a place where Christians may assemble to pray, to hear the Gospel and to receive the sacraments; if indeed there is a reason. When churches cease to be used for these purposes they should be pulled down, as other buildings are when no longer of use. As it is now, (1523) the desire of every individual in the world is to establish his own chapel or altar, even his own mass, with a view of securing salvation, of purchasing heaven. Let us, therefore, beloved friends, be wise; wisdom is essential. Let us truly learn we are saved through faith in Christ and that alone. This fact has been made sufficiently manifest.”

The Faith of Stephen

First, we see in Stephen’s conduct love toward God and man. He manifests his love to God by earnestly and severely censuring the Jews, calling them betrayers, murderers and transgressors of the whole Law, yes stiff necked, and saying they resist the fulfillment of the Law and resist also the Holy Spirit. More than that, he calls them “uncircumcised in heart and ears.” How could he have censured them any more severely? So completely does he strip them of every creditable thing, it would seem as if he were moved by impatience and wrath.

Stephen’s love for God constrained him to his act. No one who possesses the same degree of love can be silent and calmly permit the rejection of God’s commandments. He cannot dissemble. He must censure and rebuke everyone who opposes God. Such conduct he cannot permit even if he risks his life to rebuke it. Love of this kind the Scriptures term “zelum Dei,” a holy indignation. For rejection of God’s commands is a slight upon his love and intolerably disparages the honor and obedience due him, honor and obedience which the zealous individual ardently seeks to promote. We have an instance of such a one in the prophet Elijah, who was remarkable for his holy indignation against the false prophets.

Stephen’s conduct is a beautiful example of love for fellowmen in that he entertains no ill-will toward even his murderers. However severely he rebukes them in his zeal for the honor of God, such is the kindly feeling he has for them that in the very agonies of death, having made provision for himself by commending his Spirit to God, he has no further thought about himself but is all concern for them. Under the influence of that love he yields up his spirit. Not undesignedly does Luke place Stephen’s prayer for his murderers at the close of the narrative. Note also, when praying for himself and commending his spirit to God he stood, but he knelt to pray for his murderers. Further, he cried with a loud voice as he prayed for them, which he did not do for himself.

Who can number the virtues illustrated in Stephen’s example? There loom up all the fruits of the Spirit. We find love, faith, patience, benevolence, peace, meekness, wisdom, truth, simplicity, strength, consolation, philanthropy. We see there also hatred and censure for all forms of evil. We note a disposition not to value worldly advantage nor to dread the terrors of death. Liberty, tranquility and all the noble virtues and graces are in evidence. There is no virtue but is illustrated in this example; no vice it does not rebuke. Well may the evangelist say Stephen was full of faith and power. Power here implies activity. Luke would say, “His faith was great; hence his many and mighty works.” For when faith truly exists, its fruits must follow. The greater the faith, the more abundant its fruits.”

hbitten@reverendluther.org