Apr 30, 2008

Learning the catechism

Karelis Santana

Luz María's granddaughter, Karelis Santana, surprised me by “reading” the 10 Commandments from the Small Catechism. Actually, she is seven years old and cannot read, but she knew the commandments by heart. That was in its way even more impressive.

We also were pleasantly surprised by Leandro Zapata, a boy between 10 and 12 years of age. Every week before beginning the Sunday school lesson I lead a brief service of evening prayer. This includes an invocation, the Lord's Prayer, Apostle's Creed, a Scripture lesson and meditation, a litany, individual prayers and songs. The children take turns saying prayers, and usually they give thanks for their parents, siblings, friends, etc. However, last Sunday, without any prompting Leandro prayed for “all the children in the street who are hungry.”

We have invited the parents of four families to the prayer service and hope that soon we will have a complete worship service and Sunday school on Sunday afternoons in La Caramuca.

One lesson that I recently read to the children, John 14:15-21, seemed particularly relevant to what they are studying:

“If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever – the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, for it neither sees Him or knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you. A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also. At that day you will know that I am in My Father and you in Me, and I in you. He that has My commandments, it is he that loves Me. And he that loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”

Thus, I explained, we memorize God's commandments to keep them, not because we fear God's wrath, but because of the love God has shown us in sending Jesus to die on the cross for our sins that we may live as children of God. Furthermore, God has sent us His Holy Spirit to give us the strength to live according to God's holy will and has promised eternal life to those who love Him. But those who reject God´s mercy in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit will one day know the wrath of the one truly righteous and incorruptible Judge.

On Mondays, the preschool week begins with the singing of the Venezuelan national anthem. Following this, I lead the children (those old enough to follow, anyway) in the Lord's Prayer and read a simple Bible verse, for example, John 3:16 or Romans 8:28.

La boda en Barinas

On April 25, 2008, I had the privilege of reading several Scripture verses at the wedding of Lusveidis Pinzon and Luís Orellana at Corpus Christi Lutheran Church in Barinas. Pastor Ted Krey traveled from Caracas to perform the actual wedding rite, while my fellow vicar Eduardo Flores lead the congregational singing with his guitar. Two sisters, Angly and Zoivy Vargas, sang a duet. Rafael Flores, Eduardo's brother, and Isaac Machado, son of José and Elsy Machado, served as ushers. Both of these young men are studying for the ministry with Pastor Krey in Caracas.

Double doors

Lusveidis is a longtime member of the church and there were many people at the wedding. Fortunately, the church's seating capacity has been greatly expanded. Corpus Christi has undergone a lot of physical changes in this past year. The building was once a bar, and for the first few years that the congregation occupied the site, there would be drunks wandering in on Sunday morning (!) and trying to order spirits of a different sort. Now, however, it is looking more and more like a church, especially with the front entrance consisting of double doors inlaid with stained glass. Of course, there is also the new kitchen and bathroom facilities, meeting room for Sunday school and weekday classes, and the apartment where Eduardo lives.

First birthday for Edwar Jose

April 25 was also that the day that Luz María's youngest grandchild so far, Edwar José Garrida, marked his first year of life. Edwar's mother, Sarai, is carrying Edwar's sister, so soon there will be a total of seven grandchildren.

I have found that in writing sermons, many times the chosen text speaks to me as much as to anyone else. This was certainly case for Sunday, April 13, 2008. The Gospel text was John 10:1-10:

“Most assuredly I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.

“Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them.

“Then Jesus said again, “Most assuredly I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out, and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.”

The most obvious lesson in this passage is that there is only one way to heaven – through faith in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God who died on the Cross the sins of everyone and who rose again on the third day. This passage immediately precedes the perhaps more familiar verse where Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd. Typically in Palestine, a sheepfold is a corral surrounded by a high stone wall with a single door in and out. A watchman guards the door and only opens it for those he knows as the true shepherds of the sheep. The stone wall not only keeps out wolves and other four-legged predators, but also the two-legged kind who would also rob and kill the sheep.

Anyone who teaches that there is a way to heaven other than through Christ is a spiritual predator who does not have your best interests at heart. These are the thieves and robbers. Christ Himself, of course, is the true Shepherd, the one to whom the sheep belong. Then there are the watchmen or gatekeepers, who Martin Luther in one of his sermons identified as the Old Testament prophets, the Twelve Apostles and nowadays those of us who are entrusted with the public preaching of God's Word. Our solemn duty is not to allow anyone but Christ access to His flock. When we preach, we preach in His name and if the sheep do not hear His voice – that is to say, God's Word – in our preaching, they are right to flee from us. We must also encourage the sheep to study the Word and learn to recognize His voice.

Farm dog

Here is another way to look at it. I gather that it is not the custom in Palestine or most of the Middle East to use sheepdogs to herd the flocks. But to my more European way of thinking, this makes sense: We are the dogs of Christ. It is up to us to guard the flock from the false prophets, the teachers of false doctrine, even, with God's help, those enemies of God's people who are more than flesh and blood.

My sermon text for March 30, 2008, the second Sunday of Easter, was John 20:19-31. This passage is understood as the institution of the office of the public ministry, for Jesus breathes on his 11 chosen disciples and tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The parallel passage in Mark 16:14-18 identifies this forgiving and retaining of sins with the preaching of the Gospel: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.” And likewise in Luke 24:46-47: “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”

But of course, the most well-known parallel to this sermon text from John is Matthew 28:19-20, otherwise known as the Great Commission: “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

I have found it very helpful to think of the Great Commission in this context, as it seems there is much confusion on this point. The command to preach, administer the sacraments and make disciples of all nations is indeed given to the church as a whole, but indirectly. The command was directly given to those whom Christ had called to be his apostles, and today it is given to those who the church has called to be pastors in Christ's name. This is why Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession declares, “no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.”

The missionary task of the church is the establishment of congregations where believers may gather around the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, and where unbelievers may hear both Law and Gospel proclaimed. “Friendship evangelism” (laypeople showing Christian love toward their neighbors, talking about their faith and inviting friends and relatives to attend church with them) is the fruit of Word-and-sacrament ministry, but not the basis of missionary activity. Once formed, every congregation has the right and responsibility to call a pastor, therefore it is the responsibility of the church as a whole to provide qualified men to answer these calls.

When I first came to Venezuela, I had the idea of serving as some sort of support person for the national Lutheran clergy. Then I realized that what the Lutheran Church of Venezuela desperately needed was not so much support personnel as those who could be authorized to preach and teach. As I came to a clearer understanding of mission and ministry, I realized that God had led me to a place where I could do nothing else but seek ordination and a call to serve as a true missionary in La Caramuca.

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