Saturday, September 12, 2020

Last Days

 Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The West is burning, the pandemic continues, the economy prepares for another crash, civil unrest prevails, sharp political division easily makes one nervous for November, the perpetual changes and chances of today's home life is often stressful, and most of us are feeling a little more (or a lot more) anxious than usual. What is happening on the larger scale, especially when we see the errie spectacle of a red sun over our heads?! The word "apocalypse" is thrown around, and believe me, the rapturists are having a heyday right now: saber-rattling continues between nations, end-time signs are claimed around the middle east, the ice caps are melting, meteors approach the earth, and we are reminded of the increase of wickedness (and of this increase no one can deny).
Are we living in the end times/the last days? Of course we are, but we must keep this in the perspective of God's Holy Word and we must not succumb to the fear that the enemy tries to elicit in us during this time. There is so much more that is going on "behind the scenes," that is glorious and true.
St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy, "But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty..." (2 Timothy 3:1). The writer of Hebrews says in a straight-forward manner: "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son..." (Hebrews 1:1-2). The last days have been for millenia, and they are now.
But God, my dear Christians, is unchangeable. Our LORD is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He will never break His promise to hold you so firm that "they [you] will never perish, and no one shall snatch them [you] out of my hand" (John 10:28). In the midst of all the worldly threats, Jesus says to you and me: "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:38) and "In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). He says to you and to me: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, 'My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.' For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you" (Psalm 91:1-7)
Everyday for the baptized into Christ is a day in which the LORD encourages you: "And this is the victory that has overcome the world -- our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (1st John 5:4-5) So with a living faith, we heed Christ's Word and hear the Christ who has already conquered death: "The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent" (Exodus 14:14, words spoken to the Israelites and completely applicable to the Church today!) And, "Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted in the earth!" (Psalm 46:10)
We keep everything in perspective according to the eyes of faith in Christ, "for we walk by faith and not by sight." (2 Corinthians 5:7)
Right now, don't go along with the crowd: do not permit yourself the myopic view of the nightly news that makes politics everything. The three estates must be maintained for this is true life: the government (yes), but also the family (that the world wants to reduce to rubble), and of course the Church (that which the world wants to ignore). All three God works through. We have nothing to fear. God is in control, and He gives us so much to do that we haven't time to sit around and worry. Live in the holy vocations He has given you to live in especially the most sacred one: your baptized child-of-God life testifying to His love and mercy, and then all of the other ones as well as father or mother, husband or wife, child, brother, sister, cousin, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, friend (never underestimate the biblical import of this word), neighbor, co-worker, church member, citizen, grandfather, grandmother, grandchild, student, teacher, servant, witness, worshipper, evangelist...indeed, with all of this to do: "Therefore [Jesus tells us], do not be anxious about your life...But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble." (Matthew 6:28a, 33-34) And, 1st Peter 5:7: "casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you."
Luther taught how we should live as Christians: be fasting, be watching, be working... the fasting may come in many ways, but what we are doing is not drowning in dissipation, but controlling our bodies; the watching is living every day prepared to lift up our heads as Christ comes in glory; and the working is to be about the work the LORD has given you today as a form of worship to God through faith (Romans 12) and as a way of loving and serving your neighbor. Let us fast, let us watch, and let us work...and let us be ready, joyful, prepared, confessing our anxiety, and receiving God's gifts. "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:7) One more thing: remember we are the Church...we do not go along with the stark individualism of our day, but continue to pray, "OUR Father" and to love one another...we are brothers and sisters in Christ; let us know "Life Together" as Bonhoeffer referred to it, and let us encourage one another and all the more as the day of Christ approaches (Hebrews 10:25). We live as described in Colossians 3:16-17: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the LORD Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." And love each other: "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)
Jesus loves you. He will not let you go! He has made you an heir of God's Kingdom, He has baked you into Himself in Holy Baptism, He has granted you the Holy Spirit...God walks with you; His Word is your sword and shield. We have nothing to fear. The last days? Yes, and with God on our side, they are blessed days.
In Your Service and To Christ's Glory,
Pastor Alfonso
--
Rev. Alfonso Espinosa, Ph.D.
Senior Pastor, Saint Paul's Lutheran Church of Irvine (LC-MS)
Vice-Chair, Board for National Mission (LC-MS)
An Author for Concordia Publishing House
cell: 949-379-0883
"...and with his stripes we are healed." -- Isaiah 53:5
Cindy Ackley, Yolanda Espinosa-Espinoza and 171 others
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Monday, August 3, 2020

Chapter 8 of Faith That Sees Through the Culture (CPH, 2018) is my personal favorite chapter in the book and makes my next book Faith That Engages the Culture (CPH, 2021) all the more exciting as it nears release!

Dear Friends in Christ,

Chapter 8 of Faith That Sees Through the Culture is the chapter in the book that doesn't just look at one duality, but two! The first duality is the Gospel that is both inclusive and exclusive (duality #1); and the second duality are the two possible states of whomever we engage with the Gospel: a person either considers the Gospel as unnecessary-irrelavent or thirsts for the Gospel to save them from their weakness and inability (duality #2). But as they say, first things first: we must understand that inclusivity and exclusivity are neither contradictory nor do they cancel each other out.

To establish the complementarity of inclusivity and exclusivity, we must first cross the bridge of what the Christian faith actually is. There are two basic options: 1) it is simply one anthropological subjective tradition that treats the mythological as real (what most people think of when religion is mentioned; and in this case all that matters is that the religion makes one feel good, cope with life better, or maybe even make one a better person). It's all so utilitarian; and 2) the Christian faith is true in that it corresponds with reality; that is while it requires subjective faith to hold to it; the Christian faith (body of teaching; and the gifts of the Sacraments) are objective.

If the Christian faith is the former, then inclusivity and exclusivity are undoubtedly contradictory since subjective preferences easily contradict, but no harm, no foul. "Contradictions" are unimportant when religion comes from sheer subjectivism and imagination. This realm is inherently flexible and responds to the whims of emotional and cultural fluctuation. If this is the case, then Christianity has no right to claim a special status from a universal perspective.

If, however, the Christian faith is the latter, then inclusivity and exclusivity are not only not contradictory, but they are necessary for the compelling truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is here that I offered perhaps the most important Christian apologetic in the book Faith That Sees Through the Culture. The fact is that we find many things in the realm of empirical experience that are both inclusive and exclusive at the same time.

The first example is from the realm of science (actually in the book I offer two examples), but for this blog lets stick to H2O. Water is universality available (at least in most cases throughout the world), but it is also absolutely exclusive in terms of its necessity for human life. We would find it ludicrous for someone to say however, "I am deeply offended that you would reduce necessary liquids essential to human life to water! Why not include -- for instance -- motor oil?! If we maintain a wide swath of potential liquids that will sustain life then not only would we be more politically and culturally considerate in our thinking, but no one would ever accuse us of being narrow-minded!"

There are many examples of this complementarity. In the book I also provide examples from relationships (i.e. if you are married, once upon a time when you were single, there were potentially many would-be spouses, but when you married the broad inclusivity of "possible" spouses was narrowed to an exclusive one to whom you now identify as your one and only spouse). The section on cultural artifacts was one of my favorites: food is inclusive (there are so many kinds of food), but Mexican or Chinese food are exclusive within the spectrum.

So, if this is the standard, why not just say that religion is a broad spectrum with lots of choices? The reason is because every "choice" makes truth claims about itself. What makes the Christian faith unique is that it is the only "option" in which God's love for you and all individuals is completely intact and guaranteed before a person does anything!

At the same time, in order for God's universal love and mercy for the forgiveness of sins to be certain and true, then the historical event of Christ's life, death, and resurrection (Christ's exclusive salvific work) provided the empirical and identifable evidence and verification for God's inclusive salvation. The inclusive requires the exclusive. No, these are not contradictory, but indeed complementary.

This leads us to the second duality in chapter 8: folks who either have no care or use for the saving Gospel of Christ; and folks who are hungry and thirsty for the salvation the Gospel freely gives. How do we know where a person is at? Here, it is vitally important that we avoid labels or make presumptions. A pastor or a very "religious person" may in actuality be in the first category: not feeling a need for the Gospel, but relying upon their own attempts at holy living, trying to convince themselves that they can earn or merit salvation. We can never make assumptions about people, nor should we try to pin-point and pigeonhole.

Instead, we engage in genuinely caring and loving engagment (and this is what the entire second book that is coming soon -- Faith That Engages the Culture -- is all about). Engagement seeks to hear what the one we engage with simply shares about themselves. The Christian offers no judgment; nor does she or he pretend to be able to read minds and look into people's hearts. No! At the same time, the Christian is entirely certain that God loves deeply the person they are engaging with.

So, we invest in relationships for people to share with us where they are at. If we find out that they consider themselves self-sufficient even to the point of facing death, then that dear person needs to hear the LAW of God. They need God's righteous standard to be put alongside their imagined security; they need to discover that their confidence is misplaced and that at the end of the day, a serious problem exists.

The Law's application, however, is neither obnoxious nor is it the occasion for the Christian to pontificate or stroke their own piety, not at all. Instead, the Law is a loving and gentle observation that God's standards for right and wrong are beyond human ability to perform. More important, however, is the reason for this: we are at the core, in our hearts, sinful and unclean. People are not sinners because they commit sins, but rather, people who commit sins are at the core sinful. Without a doubt, this condition is also inclusive!

The Christian does not need to "get into the boat" with the one they engage with, since Christians are also sinners, they should realize they are already in the same boat as with the one they engage! This one fact should inspire geunine humility. All the Christian does is demonstrate the Law's chief purpose: to expose, reveal, and convict one of sin. Not only is this not a bad thing, but it is a loving thing so that people finally see their real need for the Savior Christ!

But -- and on the other hand -- when a person is in despair, when they sense their need, and know their guilt and shame; when they know there is nothing they can do to give hope to themselves in the face of death, then the Christian shares nothing but the Gospel! For such folks, the Law has already visited them; they already know their need, there is no need to go there. Instead, the Christian should go straight to the Gospel: "God sent His Son to bear your guilt, your sin, your curse, your dread, your shame...and indeed, your death! Jesus conducted the happy exchange: He took your unrighteousness and put upon you His righteousness. What an exchange indeed! The unrighteous ones become righteous, and the ONLY RIGHTEOUS ONE willingly took upon Himself the sins of all the unrighteous ones! And why? Out of God's great love for all people!"

My forthcoming book Faith That Engages the Culture will present engagment in a very simple way; and I'd like to think in a very exciting way. After the first six chapters present the biblical "system" -- if you will -- on how to engage; the second six chapters then apply engagment to some of the more challenging issues of our day: cultural issues around us in the face of Christianity like science, politics, and dehumanization; as well as cultural issues within us which also challenge Christian engagement like sexuality, addiction, and depression. At every turn, the Word of Christ equips us to love people, all people, taking into consideration their unique cultural environment, and then standing back to see how the Holy Spirit works through granting others the realization that God is on their side all on account of Jesus Christ!

In Your Service and To Christ's Glory,

Rev. Dr. Alfonso Espinosa




Monday, April 6, 2020

Why Faith and Culture Side-By-Side? Because God so love the WORLD that He gave Christ to us!

Dear Christians,

This why this blog exists. 

From Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppostional Apologetics by R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984):

"Taken in its pejorative sense, secularization may mean the capitulation of the church to secularism, the surrender of her redemptive mission to the spirit of this world. In this sense the church would cease to be the church; its identity would be lost, its message but an echo of secularism. The fear of such an amalgamation moves some to embrace the reservation as a place where the pristine purity of the faith may be jealously guarded (while it dies in peace). But the church must be profane if it is to be the church; profane not in the vulgar sense but in the sense in which Luther used it -- that the church must come outside of the temple (pro fanus) and into the world. It is not the profanity of blasphemy but the profanity Christ inaugurated by the Great Commission. The process of secularization in the meliorative sense, began the moment Christ intruded into the Upper Room where the disciples had withdrawn into hiding because of their fear: Pentecost impelled the church into the here and now. The power was from on high but its focus was on the here and now." (pg. 6)

This is why this blog exists.

In Your Service and To His Glory,

Rev. Dr. Alfonso Espinosa


Faith That Sees Through the Culture Chapter 7 The Lutheran Lens: "What Am I?"

Dear Christian Friends,

It's easy to complain about the culture, but if we look closely into the mirror, we see one of the main contributors to the troubles where we live, move, and have our being: ourselves. It is easy of course to cast blame, but if we must do it, then we ought always begin with the person in our reflection. In every-day life it is easy to point out what that person did on the road, or what this other person did in the grocery store, or how uncouth another was at the dinner party. The blunders and offenses seem obvious to us, but then how often are we the ones not paying attention -- just not thinking while being distracted -- and oblivious when the traffic light changes; or when we hold up the line unprepared to conduct the transaction, or having had a little too much to drink while being sloppy with appropriate boundaries at that party? It is the easiest thing in the world to criticize, and then we are that person!

Why are we that person? St. Paul: "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" (Romans 7:15). You see, we carry with us this carcass of the old sinner around our necks. We rise up in the morning confessing it and drowning it once again that we might walk with God this new day, but at every turn, that nasty self is trying to break out from the grave to once again invade our lives.

The Christian faith knows this as the conflict or the battle. Every Christian -- if they're being honest -- knows exactly what I'm talking about. And this is the duality discussed in chapter 7 of Faith That Sees Through the Culture. On page 112 I offer these insights:

1. The conflict itself is not an indication that a Christian is not really a Christian. Much to the contrary, the conflict is a crucial sign that a Christian is truly a Christian.

2. The conflict, however, is not the Christian's focus, as if the conflict were a badge to take pride in or a suffering that makes them real Christians. Rather, its real purpose is to lead Christians back to Christ, their true focus.

3. The conflict is surpassed by an even more important experience, namely, the Christian's life in the Spirit -- the daily remaining in Christ -- which leads to living in faith and the active expression of that faith, especially love, which is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.

The conflict is used by God to bring us back to Him on a daily basis; it is blessed reminder -- in-spite of its real unpleasantness -- that we can't go it alone; that we mustn't take our faith for granted. There is only One who can keep us alive in faith, hope, and love: The Lord! The conflict slaps us daily to wake up to see that we must call on the Lord to save us from the mess we're in... that begins with ourselves.

If this offends you, then don't waste your time with the Christian faith. Evidently, you don't need it, because it is just everyone else who messes up. The saving faith is only for those needing salvation. It is only for sinners...for those who know the conflict...and for those who rejoice in Christ all the more, because His forgiveness is constantly given, daily affirmed, and perpetually received. We know it through the conflict. Just remember that conflict itself is not our preoccupation, but rather the Lord Jesus we hold to!

We've entered Holy Week! Day 1 -- Palm Sunday -- saw Christ riding triumphantly into Jerusalem. He rode in to save us from sin and death. Day 2 "Holy Monday," is the day Jesus cleansed the temple: tables were overturned, His whip chased away those dishonoring God in the holy court. Jesus was angry...and full of love. He was getting our attention: we need to wake up about how we are treating His new Temple: His Church on earth, and the individual members of that Temple (those with mini temples called "our bodies"). We need to make the most of our conflict, so that we look to Jesus who has ridden into our lives and is desirous -- always -- of cleansing our temples that we might live for God.

We are also in the midst of the coronavirus, a terrible thing that is causing great anxiety, fear, and is bringing many to the portal of life's end. Yet, the LORD is still at work. He desires that His people delivered from any condemnation their conflict might have resulted in, might respond to Him by helping others during this time. His people are permitted to be little Christs, God's lights during this time; and people full of hope. Practicing all that must be practiced to properly care for our neighbor: whether it is proper isolation and distancing, the avoidance of hording, or being vigilant against a lax attentiveness that would miss the neighbor close by to encourage them during this stressful time. Such conscientious comes when people know much they have been helped by God...always helped in the daily conflict...and want to give back; who want to respond to God's love by loving God back. Knowing at the same time that to love God back requires love towards the neighbor -- sinners like us -- and since the LORD has loved and loves us...we love. It's just that simple from those who have been saved by Christ; from those who daily rise above the conflict by holding to Jesus, the Author and Perfector of their faith.

In Your Service and To Christ's Glory,

Rev. Dr. Alfonso Espinosa

Monday, March 30, 2020

Chapter 6 from Faith That Sees Through the Culture: The Lutheran Lens -- What Is Real? And status report on new book submission: Engagement Triangle: Faith That Engages the Culture

Dear Friends in Christ,

Chapter 6 in the book Faith That Sees Through the Culture is the first big duality or paradox discussed in the book. It is extraordinarily important and is the theological basis for the truism: "never judge a book by its cover," or "things are not as they seem." Behind this from a Christian theological perspective, is the theology of the cross. When our Lord was on the cross of Calvary, He appeared as anything but the Victor overcoming sin, death, and the power of the devil. What the world "saw" was a dying man in agonizing pain. And to add insult to injury, one who saved others, but was helpless for saving Himself. He could not back-up His claim to be the Son of God, because He would not (evidently could not) come down from the cross as He was dying. To the fleshly eye: He was failure.

What appeared to be the case, however, was categorically not the case at all. Instead, the Lord remained on the cross precisely to finish the work of atoning for the sins of the world and winning the forgiveness of sins and overflowing life (yes, through His death) for all people who might hold to His victory through faith.

In this Gospel, wondrous news of God's loving and merciful work for us, we learn that things indeed are not as they seem. Instead, Christians do indeed walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7 which was the main Scriptural theme of the book Faith That Sees Through the Culture).

In the new book -- Engagement Triangle: Faith That Engages the Culture -- that I hope will come out by January, 2021, I summarized the right perspective on the chapter elaborating upon 1st Peter 3:15, the biblical perspective for loving engagement with people for the sake of truly serving the neighbor with the life-saving and life-giving Gospel of Christ. The point here in the "Luther syllogism" I propose, is that Christians have good reason to have hope against all appearances contrary to hope. Why?

"Luther's logic:

Premise 1: God works good through what appears to us as either good or bad.

Premise 2: When we sanctify Christ in our hearts and live in faith, God works good.

Conclusion: Therefore, whatever happens to us good or bad, [we may] affirm God working good."

God is working good even through the terrible circumstances we are facing at this time with the coronavirus. This does not make the virus itself good. It isn't, but what the Lord will do in the midst of it, especially through the demonstration that human beings have continued to pour out sacrificial love toward their neighbor, shows the world that there are indeed signs of our gracious God. Look at the neighbor who serves at great risk. This is love.

In Your Service and To Christ's Glory,

Rev. Dr. Alfonso Espinosa