Being the only Lutheran church in Halifax, folks who weren’t up on the various denominations didn’t know what we were all about. We Lutherans weren’t a big brand name, like the RC’s, Anglicans, or United Church. Many people thought we were a cult, like JWs or Mormons, or thought that we were connected to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. At first, I was perturbed by these accusations. After all, anyone with even a passing interest in world history must have stumbled across the colossal event know as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther, loved and hated, heroic and foolish, stood at the doorstep a new world, indeed, pushed the door down so that the chimes of freedom would ring throughout the whole Christian world. After Luther, the western church was split two, launching the great democratization of our faith. No longer was the individual believer beholden to the cruel teachings of the Holy Roman church, just the bible and the individual conscience was enough to discern the Word of God, Luther said. This was an event which spilled into so-called “civilized culture” until the western world was singing the liberating songs of faith, unshackled by chains of tyrannical Roman authority.
Or so the story goes. But maybe I’m a wee bit biased.
But when stopped on the street and being asked what a Lutheran is, I always reverted to some church-speak that I learned in seminary, “A Lutheran is a Christian who believes that sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone, not by works of the law.” An answer which met a glassy stare. The great triumphant Reformation call of the gospel was unintelligible to modern or post-modern ears.
But where they the only ones? What about those of us inside the church. What would your answer be if asked what a Lutheran is? I often ask my confirmation class what they know about Martin Luther and the history of our church and I am often met with that same glassy stare as the person on the street.
This being Reformation Sunday, the day in the church year when traditionally, we trash the Roman Catholics for not being Lutherans. For not “getting it.” But recent events might suggest that we’ve turned a corner in Lutheran/Catholic relations. On this day in 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed a document called the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” At first glance, and with help from official church statements, one would think that the main problems which divided the churches for 500 years ago where smoothed over and that now there is no real argument between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. This is simply not the case. If you read closely, what was agreed upon was that, according to each other’s reading of the bible, one could arrive at two entirely different yet equally valid conclusions. In other words, the Roman Catholics were telling us that the Lutheran understanding of salvation, that salvation was a free gift from God, was a valid interpretation. And the Lutherans, in turn, told the Roman Catholics that their understanding of salvation as a co-operative effort between God and humans was equally valid.
Once I realized what the LWF was doing on our behalf, my protestant blood started to burn. “So, which is it, salvation as free gift or by human co-operation? You can’t have it both ways. Either salvation is free or it is not.”
It’s not that I’m so super-Protestant that I’m anti-Catholic. Many of my favorite spiritual writers are Roman Catholic: Thomas Merton, Michael Higgins, and Basil Pennington. In fact, there was a time when I worshipped in a Roman Catholic Church while I was studying music, and I even seriously considered joining a Roman Catholic religious order. But I couldn’t stop the nagging voice in the back of my mind that Martin Luther was on to something. That no matter how much effort we make to earn our way into heaven, or to gain merits (to use the theological term) ultimately, our salvation is in God’s hands. If it weren’t, then why did Jesus die?
I remember the first time I really heard and experienced the gospel and it solidified my connection to the Lutheran church. It was in seminary, oddly enough. I heard the gospel previously of course, in church, in bible study, etc, but never really experienced it. It was in church history class, of all places, and the professor, Dr. Oz Cole-Arnal was lecturing on – you guessed it – the Lutheran Reformation. The way he described Luther’s understanding the salvation: salvation was something that you couldn’t earn, you couldn’t do a thing to curry God’s favour, you couldn’t even choose salvation. Salvation was a gift, pure and simple. There was nothing we could do to make God love us more and there was nothing we could do to make God love us less. Our salvation was taken care of when Jesus stretched out his hands in suffering and death, and rose again to bring us new life. To suggest that we could co-operate in any way with our salvation was an offence, an insult to the sacrifice Jesus made for us. And in our baptism we die and rise again with Jesus, named and claimed as God’s own beloved children, clothed in the garments of salvation.
Wow. I walked out of class renewed, and committed my whole life to sharing this good news as a minister of the gospel. The piece that really got me was the “not by choice” part of it. It was a message that was so contrary to everything I’ve ever heard. Our society places a premium on personal choice and individual rights. “Free will” people call it. But Luther said that free will is an illusion. Sure, we are not robots, we make certain decisions about life; freedom about what job to take, where to go grocery shopping, or what car to drive. We make what could be called “free decisions” all the time. But this freedom, Luther says, does not extend to our salvation. As the old confession prayer says, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” In other words, we can’t make free decisions not to sin or even to choose our salvation. If we could, why don’t we? Also, if we could choose to not sin, then why did Jesus have to die when he could have given us just a really good argument so we could make proper decisions?
But this “choice” theology is rampant in the North American church. Billy Graham’s magazine is called Decision. A billboard on Highway Two reads “choose Jesus.” I remember hearing one Baptist preacher say that God’s greatest gift to humanity was free will. I remember thinking “God’s greatest gift? How about God’s greatest curse? If we are free, look what are doing with our freedom. War, greed, violence. We spend more time hurting each other than healing each other.”
“Our culture demands that we be “free” persons, but then is unable to tell us what is worth doing with our freedom. What we call “culture” is a vast supermarket of desire where we are treated as little more that self-interested consumers. I’ve got freedom of choice, but now what do I choose? We are free, but also terribly driven. The boring nine-to-five job, monthly mortgage payments, over programmed kids and dog-eat-dog competition for grades at school, before we collapse in front of TV to watch mediocre TV shows that diminish our capacity to think creatively or act lovingly as they reinforce the world’s values of self-interest – this is what we call freedom.” (paraphrase of Willimon)
So Luther, taking his cue from Paul, reminds us that “we are not under the law,” that is to say, that we as Christians have a different kind of freedom. Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde said that “being under the law…means that you are always in the position of chasing yourself, trying to fill the emptiness of your being, whether it be with pleasure, greed, sex, money, self-esteem, feeling, and sometimes even more ‘spiritual matters’ like all the talk of spirituality or ‘new-ageism – all the ‘gods’ of modern religion.” (Forde, The Irrelevance of the Modern World for Martin Luther). For Luther it was freedom from oppressive religious obligations. For us, it could be freedom from the world demands and from human judgments. But in the end, Luther would remind us, that our fundamental struggle as human beings and as Christians is the struggle against sin, death, and the devil. Three words that don’t get much play these days. Sin is often a euphemism for illicit sex. Death is either a splatter fest movie or cosmetically altered so we don’t have to confront the force of its reality. And the devil is a little red man running around with a pitch fork or a beautiful woman offering three wishes before dragging the poor soul to hell.
But for Luther, these three things were very real. Even you dismiss his experience as the superstitions of the medieval mind his essential struggle is drawn deep from the well of his own anxieties, which I think, ultimately haunt every living soul as well.
This past week I watched the movie Wit, with Emma Thompson, and it’s been haunting me ever since, infiltrating my dreams. The movie documents a 48 year old university professor’s last stages of cancer. She punctuates her experience with quotes from the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, which help provide a philosophical framework for her experience, but ultimately do not calm the anxious soul that she is surprised to have. I think this movie hit me so hard was because Emma Thompson’s performance was so real and so raw that it showed me the anxieties I have about dying, that life is so delicate that it could whither and fall at any moment. And that makes me fearful. For me ultimately, it is not consumerism or greed or any other comparatively superficial sins that terrify me. What terrifies me is the end of my existence. Maybe that’s what Luther means by sin, death, and the devil; everything that denies life and hinders new life in Jesus.
But then it is at that point, where Luther gently but defiantly whispers in my ear, “Take heart, anxious soul, you are justified by grace alone through faith alone, not by works of the law. This is not mere theological speculation or dogmatic assertion, but a living hope in the living God for our salvation. Or, as Jesus might put it, “…if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
May this be so among us. Amen.