Vision for our District: A focus for mission & ministry

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Love the Lord—Love People—Love Our Lutheran Theology 

Sometimes, it’s helpful when a pastor shares his vision for ministry with the congregation he serves. When I was elected president of our District, I didn’t stop being a pastor; I have been God’s servant ever since I was ordained in 2003. My pastoral vision continues to govern daily work in my new role of leadership within our church body.

With this document, I want to share with Minnesota South District pastors, teachers, other church workers—and especially with the men and women of our congregations—what I see as central priorities that will shape our work together in our District.

The three focal points below have defined my pastoral ministry for more than 15 years, and it seems to me that these three could also direct us in our District from top to bottom. And in my mind, I want you to know that you’re at the top.

God works through what happens every day in the congregations of our District and the individual lives that go about their God-given daily vocations, but also especially in the Divine Service when we gather together for worship. There, He pours out His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation through the preaching of His living Word and administration of His Holy Sacraments. These gifts remain the center of the wheel that moves the church out into the world, breathing life into the mission of the Church.

Put simply, in the Divine Service, each believer is forgiven and freed, renewed and refreshed, discipled and dispersed out into their daily vocations as the collective body of Christ to serve others in His name and share the faith and hope they have in Jesus Christ. In these chaotic and confusing times, it’s good to know that the unchanging mission of the Holy Christian Church, “to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Christ, to all nations,” (Luke 24:47) continues to lead us forward.  

 Vision Statement

To that end, in order to have sustained vitality and hope for vibrant mission and ministry in our troubled and exhilarating times, everything we do in our District should be governed by the following three priorities—in this order:

Love the Lord
Love People
Love Our Lutheran Theology

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Rev. Dr. Lucas V. Woodford, President Minnesota South District, LCMS

Rev. Dr. Lucas V. Woodford, President
Minnesota South District, LCMS

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Vision Statement Summary

Love the Lord

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (Rev. 1:5b-6)

Christ Jesus is at the center of our life and mission together. We love because He first loved us. Because of His shed blood, we have life now and to all eternity. His Word governs us; His salvation frees us; His love constrains us. Like St. Paul, we are determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. He is the alpha and omega. First, last, and always, Jesus remains both Lord and God.  

Love People

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” “Yes, Lord; You know I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15)

Love for Christ spills over into our love for others. Because He loved the unlovable, we do too. Rich or poor, citizen or immigrant, of our ethnicity or not, Jesus extends His love to all through us. We are the hands and feet of Jesus to extend His loving-kindness for every human need in body, soul, or spirit. Collectively, we witness and proclaim the Good News to one and all. By Christ’s living Word, the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and enlightens souls locked in darkness and the shadow of death.  

Love Our Lutheran Theology

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 3:14-15)

Every pastor, all congregations, and each church worker in our District are jointly pledged to faithfully uphold the teachings of Holy Scripture as well as our Lutheran Confessions as faithful exhibitions of the doctrine taught in God’s Word. We do this not simply because we know them to be true and right but because they are full of light and life, directing the Holy Christian Church and her passion for both the lost and found! Especially in our time of moral confusion and religious pluralism when truth is often pitted against love, doctrinal integrity is important. We need to encourage one another to constant faithfulness to the Christ-centered teaching of our biblical and confessional doctrine as Lutherans. Precisely because we love Jesus and love the people for whom He died, we also love our Lutheran theology. It is the solid foundation of our life and mission together for the sake of blood-bought souls in this world and the next.

Biblical Foundation for Vision Statement: The Parable of the Good Samaritan

“Who is my neighbor?” Some 2,000 years ago, a lawyer asked this of Jesus. That’s a good question as it applies to our mission today. We, too, should be asking Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” In other words, “Who am I obligated to treat kindly, serve willingly, love as myself, and share the Good News of the shed blood of Christ the crucified?”

Being neighborly doesn’t come naturally to fallen people like us. In fact, in a dog-eat-dog world, we’d like to know some boundaries for our love. Sure, insurance companies might advertise themselves as always being willing to help you out “like a good neighbor,” but often the neighbor living next to you isn’t. In fact, maybe he’s loud, keeps a terrible lawn, and lets his dog do his business in your yard. Or maybe she’s from a different country, speaks a different language, has a different skin color, follows a different religion, has a different view of morality, and always smells of curry.

So we want to get this straight. We can’t all be Mr. Rogers, after all. We want to know who’s in and who’s out. Who gets the “Howdy, come on over!” and who gets the cold shoulder?   

Luke’s account of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) gives some guidance. In this familiar parable, Jesus uses a story to illustrate the kingdom of God. It’s a good story to illustrate my vision for our District. This vision is a three-fold emphasis meant to frame our life and ministry together: love the Lord, love people, love our Lutheran theology—in that order.

Jesus’ parable wonderfully unpacks this emphasis and gives it biblical context for our contemporary times. It offers guidance, not just about loving the Lord and loving others, but also about why being Christians of a certain stripe is especially crucial today. We needn’t be shy about our confession; it’s tailored well to target the core need of the confused and hurting world we live in. We love our Lutheran theology because of its absolute clarity regarding the centrality of the shed blood of Jesus Christ for the justification of sinners.  

Let’s briefly review the parable: A man is walking down the road when he is assaulted by some thugs. They mug him, strip him, beat him, and throw him in a ditch, leaving him for dead. Then along comes not one but two professionally religious people, a priest and then a Levite. One at a time, they intentionally avoid him, passing by him on the other side. They don’t want to get their hands dirty. He’s isn’t like them; he might be contaminated goods.

As professionally holy people—a priest and a Levite—they knew the price of ritual defilement. Thus, they didn’t want to risk going outside the norm or take a chance at transgressing their ceremonial laws. They wanted to stay with what they knew was the safe bet. Besides, they didn’t know him. In other words, they were not comfortable being uncomfortable.

It’s the hated half-breed spiritual mongrel—a Samaritan—who comes to the man’s aid. He places him on his own donkey, takes him to an inn, pays the innkeeper to take care of him, then goes the extra mile by promising to return to see that his needs are attended to. In short, that’s the story. But you know the clincher: after He tells it, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” When the lawyer answers, “The one who showed mercy,” Jesus says, “Go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37).  

But, is that all there is to this story? It seems pretty simple on the surface: Be like the Samaritan—boom. Neighbor identified. Behavior solidified. Moral of the story objectified. Story told. Lesson learned. Job done. Now move on. Get out there and be a bunch of good Samaritans!

Not so fast. We need to have a look at the whole reason why Jesus told the parable in the first place. Look at the verses preceding the parable: “And behold, a lawyer stood up to put [Jesus] to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Luke 10:25). To be sure, it’s no small question. In fact, it is the question. It deals with the lawyer’s eternal destination, which means this exchange consists of more than a “neighborly” exploration.

What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer asks a vertical question—a question about a person’s relationship to God—rather than a horizontal question—about a person’s relationship to other people. In other words, it is a question about eternal salvation and not about interactions with the population.

Look at how Jesus responds: “[Jesus] said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How do you read it?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.’” (Luke 10:26-28).

As Lutherans, we are quite emphatic about these two commands, which clearly summarize God’s teaching in His Holy Law. In the Small Catechism, we divide the Ten Commandments into two parts: First Table, duty to God (commandments one through three), and Second Table, duty to neighbor (commandments four through ten). We spell out what we believe, teach, and confess about this Scripture, as we do regarding all other matters of biblical doctrine, with the questions “What does this mean?” and “How is this done?” It is part of the genius of how Lutheran theology naturally shapes both belief and practice.

Love the Lord

And so, the command to love the Lord is the first and chief command of all God’s commandments: You shall have no other Gods. To make sure Lutherans preach, teach, and learn more deeply, we routinely ask the catechumen, “What does this mean?” Our Small Catechism encompasses the whole of Scripture in its explanation to the First Commandment, teaching us to answer quite simply and directly, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” This teaches a believer that there are multiple layers to a life of faith in our triune God.  

The emotions and acts of the will expressed in those three English verbs—"fear, love, and trust”—undergird all other commands that we seek to fulfill as disciples at work in mission and ministry in our District. In short, they define our relationship with God and shape how we love the Lord.  

My desire is that this love for the Lord will be cultivated in the faith lives of the people in our District congregations through our ministry emphasis upon daily contrition and repentance, prayer, and meditation upon the Word of God. This is nothing new, of course; these integral habits of faith reflect our baptismal identity as those redeemed by Christ the crucified who grow in our love for God.

Keeping the First Commandment perfectly is, of course, impossible for fallen human beings. Seemingly, the lawyer got that point; his love for God was not reflected in his love for the neighbor. So, he pressed the issue about who qualifies as a “neighbor,” “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29).

Hear me clearly—my vision for our District rejects the notion of unnecessarily pitting love for the Lord against love for the neighbor or vice versa. Scripture is very clear about the First Commandment: God indeed comes first. But that ought never be used as an excuse to justify why we don’t have to make an effort to love our neighbor or as a reason to somehow qualify who counts as our neighbor, as different from us as they might be. Because we love the Lord, we also love our neighbor. It’s as simple  and comprehensive as that.

Love People

The lawyer wanted to trick Jesus—to catch Him in His own words. But in a matter of moments, Jesus turns the tables. He puts the lawyer on the defensive and catches the lawyer not only in his words but in his lack of love and lack of deeds.

 The lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?” His question implies that there were some people who didn’t qualify as his neighbor. In other words, the lawyer knew he didn’t love everyone as himself. He was looking for a loophole. He wanted permission not to love others as himself. The truth is, many times we are no different.

Yet Jesus saw through this man’s question; He knew his lack of compassion. That’s why He tells a story that is so chock-full of compassion. Jesus knew the lawyer’s lack of mercy. That’s why He tells a story that is saturated with mercy. But He tells it not only to instruct the lawyer (and us) to go and be like the good Samaritan but also to show how we are the beaten and assaulted man needing healing. Even more, to show how Jesus Himself is the good Samaritan.

 You see, Jesus’ final call was to “go and do likewise.” Now that’s a pretty tall order. Who among us keeps God’s Law perfectly, after all? Yet that’s just the point Jesus is driving home to the overconfident lawyer—and us. To inherit eternal life you must keep God’s Law perfectly—which includes loving your neighbor as yourself. In other words, you must “go and do likewise.” Always love perfectly, sacrificially, selflessly—not just on the outside, but on the inside, too. In other words, you must always want to love perfectly, sacrificially, and selflessly. You must never hurt anyone—physically, emotionally, relationally. And you must always help everyone—physically, emotionally, relationally.

Yes, you must “go and do likewise.” Never harbor grudges. Never. Never seek retribution. Ever. When someone cheats you, instead of trying to get your things back, you need to give them more. You have to turn the other cheek to your most aggressive enemies.

You must “go and do likewise” just as Jesus has done. You must love others as He has loved you. You must love perfectly—the talented and the terrorist alike; the born and the unborn; the heterosexual and the homosexual; the immigrant and the indigenous. You must love perfectly. There’s no wiggle room. None! “Go and do likewise.” That is what Jesus said.

So, how is that going for you?

I ask for two reasons. First, because that is what it means to love our neighbor. They not only need our love; they need to know that our love comes from the love of Christ given through His shed blood on the cross of Calvary, poured out for every last man, woman, and child.

But the second reason for asking how you’re doing with expressing Christ’s perfect love is that, if we are being honest, we have to admit we are failing, and failing quite miserably. Of course, this failure does not free us from the command to go and do likewise, nor does it give us permission to hide behind our sinful nature. Rather, it simply limits where we place our confidence and drives us all the more to rely upon the Lord Jesus Christ for the love that speaks through good works for our neighbor.

Ephesians 2:10 declares, “For we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The new life we have in Christ moves us to walk in the good works that God has prepared for us to do. God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does. This most certainly includes loving our neighbor as ourselves. This means we love them enough to witness to them about the salvation that comes in Jesus Christ.

The vision for doing this in our District begins in your congregation and community and extends through everything we do together. We need to cultivate this love for our neighbors by mission and ministry that intentionally cares for, serves, teaches, sacrifices for, and shares the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those with whom we come into contact in our daily vocations, as well as those chance encounters with strangers along the way (as situation and opportunity afford). And our intentional outreach and mission efforts set forth by District initiatives help us do just that.

To love others like that will stretch us all. It involves risk and vulnerability. We may end up feeling hurt, rejected, and / or sense that we have extended ourselves too far. Yet there is a place for taking a risk for the sake of those we love in the name of Jesus without compromising the faith that defines our practice. At times, this means we’ll need to learn to become comfortable feeling uncomfortable, to take salutary risks, and to stretch ourselves. Such willingness and love begins at home. It includes the likes of family members, congregational members, and community members. It includes the saved and the unsaved.

We will never put truth at risk for the sake of love—nor will we ever compromise love for truth’s sake. We will always speak the truth in love, but only after we have earned the right to speak through our selfless service to others in love. This also means we are willing to give a voice to those who are lost and condemned in their trespasses and sins. It means being willing to risk loving them for the sake of the Gospel.

Love Our Lutheran Theology

Even as God’s Law demands that we do something, it remains powerless to create in us what it demands from us. In other words, the Law cannot produce either love or good works. Even more, every time the Law commands us to do something, it also accuses us and condemns us for our failure to do so (Rom. 3:20).

Since this is so, Jesus’ command to “Go and do likewise” is not a word of invitation; ultimately, it’s a word of condemnation. Yes, of course we should go and be like the Samaritan. God’s commandments are very clear, and we ought to strive with all our might to do them willingly and happily. However, Jesus came to show us that we could never love like the Samaritan unless we know that He Himself is actually the true “Samaritan.”

“Go and do likewise” was the ultimate answer to the lawyer’s question of “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Yet Jesus answered knowing the lawyer would not and could not go and do likewise. The lawyer thought he was pretty good at keeping God’s Law, but he wasn’t. You and I think we are pretty good at loving our neighbors. We aren’t. So when Jesus tells this parable, He wants us to identify with every person in the parable except the good Samaritan. He reserves that role for Himself.

In other words, we are the priest, we are the Levite. Too often, our religion is only skin deep; we fail to “go and do likewise.” We are sick with the sin of selfishness. Even more, we are the man left for dead. We are the man who’s been wounded and assaulted by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. Like a cancer ravaging the body, our selfishness and the selfishness of others smack us and attack us.

The cruelty of others wounds us, our own selfishness condemns us, and Satan’s accusation oppresses us. As a result, we crave compassion. We long for mercy. We need someone to rescue us. We need someone to come and heal us!

This parable tells of that rescue. This parable tells of that healing. It’s a picture of God’s amazing grace, not some new demand placed upon the human race. It’s a divine medicine and healing balm that brings life, forgiveness, and a protecting calm.

When we see ourselves as this broken, beaten, and abandoned man, then we can see the desperation of our condition; then we can see how diseased we truly are. Lying in a ditch of despair, we know firsthand that this world is cruel, that people are cruel. They sin against us, and they scar us. Their lack of compassion hurts us, and their words haunt us.

We are beaten down by life, battered by fears, and robbed of hope. We are broken and left for dead—just like the man in the parable.

But then along comes the good Samaritan. Jesus and Jesus alone is the good Samaritan. Like the Samaritan, He was despised and rejected by the power structure of his day. But unlike the priest and Levite, He doesn’t avoid us. Jesus crosses the street—from heaven to earth. He comes right down into our mess and gets His hands dirty. More than that, He gets them nailed to the cross.

And this, my friends, is why we love our Lutheran theology so very much: at the core of it stands the truth that Jesus Christ died to justify the ungodly and to heal the brokenhearted. The beating heart of our Lutheran theology is this truth. The proper distinction between Law and Gospel and letting His Gospel always predominate is what it means to be truly Lutheran.

Where we are commanded to love God and love others, the only way we can do that is because we stand squarely in the center of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Yes, Jesus knows firsthand the cruelty of this world. He knows from His own bitter experience what it is to be bruised, battered, and even abandoned. He experienced all the frailty of life Himself. He knows what it is to be left for dead because He actually died that first Good Friday.

But in order to rescue us from death, He had to conquer death by dying Himself. In order to bring us compassion, He needed to endure the suffering of the cross in His own body. In order to bring us hope, He had to walk through that valley of death. And so He did!    

Jesus does not pass us by. He never avoids us. As the good Samaritan gave the battered man first aid, then took him to an inn for long-term treatment, so our Lord Jesus first resuscitates us with His life-giving Word and Sacrament, then places us within the fellowship of His Holy Church where He continually applies the healing balm of the medicine of immortality—His body and blood given and shed for us, to forgive us, to protect us, and to strengthen us. Lutheran theology robustly clings to this sacramental truth and the tangible “for you-ness” of the sacramental nature of God’s Word.

To be sure, Jesus does not avoid us but comes directly to us. Baptized into His name, we are wrapped in His compassion. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, our wounds are washed. Our sins are cleansed. Our sores begin to heal. Hope is restored. And the life of repentance is begun.

He gives us a whole new life to live! Not our life but His. Clothed in Him by Baptism, we live in Jesus and He lives in us. Eating of His own body and blood under bread and wine, we have His death-defying medicine of forgiveness and spiritual healing coursing through our veins.

Covered in Jesus’ righteousness, cloaked in His kindness, and full of his love, we can “go and do likewise” because Christ lives in us by faith. The compassion that we give and the love we share is nothing less than the very love of Christ at work in us.

His life in our life. His love in our love. We are freed to love our neighbor, serve our neighbor, and witness to our neighbor, as Christ our good Samaritan loves us. That’s Jesus for you. He picks us up out of our ditch, cleans us up, nurses our wounds, administers His healing medicine to heal our hurts, and sets us free to live again in love and hope and abiding peace. This is what stands at the heart of our confession. This is why we love our Lutheran theology.

Conclusion

The words of Jesus will certainly lead us forward in our District. “Go and do likewise” is possible because Jesus has come and declared, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Now we are free to be who we are in Christ, living a Spirit-filled life of faith expressed in love. I submit that this threefold approach to love the Lord, love people, and love our Lutheran theology will provide our District a sustained vitality and profound hope for vibrant mission and effective ministry for our times. We’re all in this together in our common confession and mission. I pledge you my prayerful support as your president, even as I covet your prayers for me. By ourselves we are nothing. But we are not alone. Our Lord Jesus has called us to serve Him jointly in one fellowship and communion and promised never to leave us nor forsake us. In Him we cannot fail.

 

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

(Eph. 3:20-21)