What Does It Mean To Be A Lutheran?
October 29, 2017
Pastor Richard Holmer
First Reading: Jeremiah 31: 31-34 Second Reading: Romans 3: 19-28
Gospel : John 8: 31-36
What Does It Mean to Be Lutheran?
Martin Luther’s favorite question is: “What Does This Mean?”
It is the question he poses repeatedly throughout his Small Catechism. What do the Ten Commandments mean? What does it mean to say “I believe in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit?” What does it mean to pray the Lord’s Prayer? What does it mean to be baptized? What is the meaning of Holy Communion? Luther offered straightforward answers to these questions in order to help ordinary Christians have a better grasp on the essentials of their faith. He intended his catechism to be used by parents as a resource in sharing the faith with their children. For generations, Lutheran congregations have employed Luther’s Small Catechism as the foundation for confirmation instruction. Here at St. James, the final assignment for our confirmands is to write an essay on the question: What does it mean to you to be a Christian? Each year on Confirmation Day we get to hear their responses. This year’s essays are still posted on the kiosk.
On this day marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I want to reflect along with you on this question: “What does it mean to be a Lutheran?” Now for starters it must be noted that Martin Luther was appalled that any of his followers should bear the name “Lutheran.” After 500 years it’s ironic that we still call ourselves Lutherans. Luther wrote: “I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christian. Who is Luther? I have been crucified for no one.” Actually, the name Lutheran was first used by opponents of Luther as a derogatory label for his followers. In any event, five centuries later the name is still with us. Yet, you and I were not baptized Lutheran. We were not confirmed Lutheran. We don’t profess our faith in the Lutheran Church, but rather in the one holy, catholic and apostolic church. We are Christians first and last. A person does not “convert” to a new religion if you move from a Lutheran Church to a Catholic Church.
And yet we do hang out on the Lutheran branch of the living vine that is the Church of Jesus Christ. We do not claim to be the only church. We affirm that we are part of the one church which includes all the baptized believers. Lutherans recognize that we can learn at least as much from other Christians as they can learn from us. Still, there are some distinctives that go with living as a Lutheran Christian. I do not intend to go into all the particular doctrines and practices of the Lutheran Church. Those are well stated in documents like the Augsburg Confession. Instead I want to offer a more personal reflection on what it means to me to live as a Lutheran Christian. Much of what I will share is surely not unique to Lutheranism – yet is perhaps especially prominent in the teaching and actual habits of Lutherans.
For me, living as a Lutheran begins in the assurance that I am forgiven. The good news of God’s grace and mercy for all in Jesus Christ is the bedrock on which I stand and live each day. Many things can be truly said about God – yet the first and best thing to be said is that our God is a God of grace – grace that is freely given to us as a gift. Infant baptism is a radical demonstration of God’s redeeming grace. Every time an infant is baptized we are reminded that God bestows the blessings of forgiveness and eternal life on us when we have done nothing to earn or deserve these incomparable gifts. If Lutherans know anything, we know that life is not a matter of trying to be good enough for God but rather rejoicing in the wonder that God is more than good enough for us. To know and believe that God had made us his daughters and sons is to realize that nothing can ever separate us from his love. It is a great comfort to understand that while our heavenly Father longs for us to grow up into the likeness of Christ (and we can!), we are loved and welcomed just as we are. And no matter how far we may wander away from our Lord – we can never stray so far that our Good Shepherd will not find us and restore us. So forgiveness is more than a blessing we receive at wordship – it is like the oxygen we breathe, moment to moment. As Luther says in the catechism: “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life.”
Of course, along with assurance that I am forgiven, comes the recognition that I need to be forgiven. (I really do!) As theologian Paul Tillich noted: “The gospel is only an answer to one who is asking the question – the question implied in our existence.” I know I need a Savior because I know that I am a sinner. The blessing of grace is lost on those who are unaware of their need for it. To be a Lutheran is not to slog through life carrying a burden of guilt and remorse. Jesus did not come pointing his finger; he came reaching out with open arms. So to see a sinner staring back at me when I look in the mirror does not make me ashamed – it makes me humble. (There’s a difference.) It is humbling to be aware of the many ways I fail and fall short. It is humbling to know Christ loves me in spite of my vices – not because of my virtues. It is good to live with humility (not that I always manage to do so). Christ demonstrated the way of humility be setting aside all divine privilege and coming among us as a servant. In Christ we see that humility does not mean thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. (Not a lot of Lutheran celebrities or politicians.)
The other consequence of living in forgiveness is gratitude. Luther described Christianity as a religion of gratitude. (I appreciate the banner in our narthex.) Since we can do nothing to deserve God’s gracious love, we can live in grateful response for this gift. A spirit of gratitude makes it possible to experience joy in this world – despite whatever losses, sorrows, and deprivations we may face. To focus on what we don’t have is to lead a life of frustration and despair. To be thankful for what we do have is to know contentment and joy. I will always remember what my brother said when our mother died after many declining years with Alzheimer’s disease: “I’m grateful,” he said. “Grateful for all the goodness we shared for so many years.” Gratitude finally trumps grief.
God’s gracious love for sinners like us is the truth that sets us free. To know Jesus is to be liberated from the bondage to sin and death, from guilt and fear – and to experience what St. Paul described as “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” My clay feet often feel mired in sin and stuck in the muck. But in my heart I have known the exhilarating freedom that comes with the love of Jesus Christ. When I feel as though everything depends on me – I am weighed down and constrained. But when I trust in the goodness of Christ, I experience a liberating buoyancy, a lightness of being. Luther summarizes the paradox of the freedom we enjoy as Christians: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Luther said you and I are called to live as “little Christs” in this world. Christ was absolutely free, and has set us free. Christ came not to be served, but to serve – and so we aim to do likewise. We have a freedom “from” and a freedom “for”. We have been set free from condemnation, from guilt, from fear, from self-centeredness, from having to earn love, free from death. We are set free for loving and serving others, free to give glory to God by becoming fully alive.
I must say a word about worship and music – for this has played such a huge part in forming me as a Lutheran Christian. Luther gave lasting blessings to the church by bringing the language of both the Bible and worship into the language of the people. He also brought congregational singing and restored the importance of preaching – while retaining the observance of the sacraments of baptism and communion. To be a Lutheran is to be blessed and fed on a weekly basis by a rich diet of Word and Sacrament, graced by glorious liturgy and music. Worship is by no means the only place we encounter God’s grace – but it is a sure and dependable place. I am always strengthened, encouraged and renewed by the experience of worship. And one of the ways I feel closest to God, most filled with the Holy Spirit, is singing praise to God together with fellow believers. I have no doubt we will be singing in heaven! (and laughing, too!)
Finally, a word of hope. Luther lived in very volatile and troubled times – times of conflict and violence. His life was under constant threat. The reformation he launched had some unforeseen and tragic consequences, including terrible wars and lasting enmities. However, Luther could still write these words, “Everything that is done in this world is done by hope.” Luther found hope not in his own great gifts and intelligence – but in God. We also live in troubled and uncertain times. The church itself has experienced decline, and our nation is deeply divided. Still, we have reason to hope – and we can be – and must be – a source of hope in this time. And so we still sing: (in the words Luther wrote to “A Mighty Fortress”)
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever!
Thanks be to God!