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“Do you know we go up to the altar today?” asked the friendly woman seated in front of me. “We go up and receive bread and wine. It’s up to you; we’re not going to ask if you’re baptized or confirmed.” (The welcome card did note that “all who commune at this altar confess” that “they are baptized in the Christian faith” and “that Christ Jesus is truly present in the bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins,” but this was not at odds with the woman’s assurance.)

Good Shepherd’s pastor, Gregory Stenzel, was away on Sunday, but he left a meaty meditation in the bulletin on Martin Luther’s receptive spirituality. The piece contrasted the old pattern of reading, meditation, and prayer — which culminated in “waiting for...the bestowal of spiritual illumination” — with Luther’s model of prayer, meditation, and temptation. “This, in turn, leads a person back to further prayer and intensified meditation,” such that “the spiritual life begins and ends here on earth.... Luther...does not imagine the spiritual life as a process of self-development but as a process of reception from our Triune God,” which turns us into “humble beggars before God. This, then, is the secret to our spiritual lives.”

The readings for the day bore a similar, earthly bent, full of talk about the life of the community — in particular, the care one ought to have for the moral good of one’s neighbor. “If...you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die...but his blood I will require at your hand” — Ezekiel. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” — Romans. “Whoever causes one of these little ones...to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” — Matthew.

But the rest of the liturgy tilted more toward eternity. Guest pastor David Peterson’s opening prayer praised God for His “great promise,” a promise written below the fine stained-glass image of the resurrection on the side wall of the old church: “Because I live, you also will live.” The communion hymn, sung as the congregants knelt at the rail surrounding the altar, promised that “In this bread there is healing/ In this cup there is life forever,” while the post-communion blessing asked that “the true body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ strengthen you and keep you in His grace, unto life everlasting.” And Peterson’s closing prayer asked God to “bless us as we go with that wonderful blessed assurance...of Your presence, of forgiveness, of life.”

The sermon, too, seemed tailored to a congregation with more ultimate things on its mind. Peterson segued from a line in the Gospel about God’s joy at the recovery of lost sheep to Christ the Good Shepherd (depicted in the window above the altar), and from there to Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...” It was the last line of that psalm — “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” — that he was after. “Jesus talked about that house at the Last Supper — ‘Do not let your hearts be afraid. In my Father’s house, there are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you.”

In contrast to the Father’s eternal house, there was “the house we live in here, this temporal tent of the Holy Spirit.” And by way of comment, Peterson told the story of how Stuart Hamblen came to write the song “This Old House.” Hamblen was hiking in the Sierras when he came across a dilapidated house “that seemed ready to fall apart.” He called out but received no answer. He went inside, “and in the back room on a couch lay the body of an old man; some snow lay on his chest, blown in through a broken windowpane.” Hamblen wrote the song “not just about the deterioration of a house...but about the aging of the human body. “Ain’t got time to oil the hinges/ Nor to mend the windowpane/ Ain’t gonna need this house no longer/ I’m getting ready to meet the saints.”

“We say in the creed that we believe in the communion of saints,” continued Peterson, “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.... We do not need to dread or fear death. He overcame it, and one day we will also. He gives us hope. Paul writes, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’ H stands for ‘heaven’; o stands for ‘our’; p, ‘promise’; e, ‘eternally.’”

What happens when we die?

“There is a judgment," said Peterson, "and there is a heaven and a hell. But God will give us what we want. If you want His grace, if you want eternal life, He’ll give you that. But if you don’t want it — you got it.”

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Denomination: American Association of Lutheran Churches
Address: 4335 Van Dyke Avenue, City Heights, 619-284-7228
Founded locally: 1928
Senior pastor: Gregory D. Stenzel
Congregation size: 50
Staff size: 3
Sunday school enrollment: 25 (adult)
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: casual to semiformal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour
Website: none

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