What's a Lutheran?

 Lutherans, like other Christians, along with most Muslims and Jews, believe that the universe has meaning and purpose because it is the creation of One we call God, who has a very keen interest in what happens in our world.  We call this interest God’s love for the world.  We believe that the world that God created is good and that human beings, as the only known creatures capable of reflecting on our own existence, have a very special role to play in this world.  Our role is to explore the world God created and marvel at its beauty.  In other words, our vocation is love the world God created (just like God does) and to love God for creating it. 

The imagination and intellect that allow us humans to perform this role in nature have helped us to accomplish the great wonders of art and science.  But these same gifts have helped us commit some atrocious acts: we have learned how to destroy whole populations and eco-systems.  While destroying life to create life is part of the natural order, human beings have the capacity to destroy life at a pace that unbalances the natural order, causing extreme suffering and misery.  We call this destructive tendency sin.  Sin, at its most basic level, is our tendency to destroy life without regard to the goodness of the world God created.  This happens when individuals, societies, and nations usurp more of creation than they need for their own survival, depriving other humans and creatures of what they need to live.  Since God is interested in what happens in the world God created, God desires this sinful behavior to stop. 

Over the course of thousands of years, our ancestors recorded their experiences as they sought to live according to God’s love for creation.  These records are our sacred writings. For Jews, these writings include the Law of Moses, the writings of the ancient prophets, and other wisdom written in both prose and poetry.  Jews call these writings the Tanak.  Christians embrace these same writings, but also embrace the writings of those who followed Jesus, about whom we will speak below.  Christians call their sacred writings the Bible, or the Old and New Testaments.  Muslims, while accepting the validity of much of what is written in Jewish and Christian scriptures, believe that the message given through Mohammed is a corrective re-interpretation of those scriptures.  Muslims call this message the Koran. 

Lutherans are Christians because we believe that God not only created the universe, God became a part of the world God created.  God entered creation in Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish man who lived at the beginning of the Common Era (around 4BCE to 30CE).  Christians revere Jesus as our messiah (or Christ), the one anointed by God to save humanity.  Jesus revealed God’s desire for humanity by healing the sick, liberating those enslaved to demonic powers, and by proclaiming that the Tanak is not just a bunch of rules to follow but a vision of God’s desire for the healing of creation. 

Jesus taught his followers how to love God, love each other, and love the world God created.  He also taught his followers how to live freely, in spite of human sin.  He said that in order to be truly free, humans must be willing to lay down their life.  He called this “taking up the cross.”  The cross was a means of execution used by the ancient Romans, who ruled the land of Palestine where Jesus lived.  The cross was painful, gruesome and, most of all, it was public so as to terrorize conquered people into submission.  It was used much like the noose has been used in American lynchings or the videos of beheadings have been used by radically politicized Muslims.  Romans used the cross to prevent slaves from rebelling, but Jesus taught that if people are willing to take up the cross, then the Romans (or any other oppressors) will have no power over them.  Jesus demonstrated this freedom by traveling to Jerusalem, where he would challenge the religious and political leaders of his day, even though he knew they would crucify him for this act of defiance.

Christians believe that Jesus was a great teacher and healer, but even more than that, we believe that he was God in human flesh.  In other words, God loved creation so much that God entered it, through Jesus, and experienced the human condition, including the human experience of suffering and death.  The death that God experienced in Jesus was more than just the termination of life processes.   That’s because for human beings, life is more than just a beating heart and a healthy body.  For human beings, life includes relationships with other people and with God.  These relationships are as essential to human life as air, water, and food.   Sin, remember, is that which destroys life without regard to the goodness of what God created.   Since human life involves relationships, sin results in broken relationships – with God and with other people.  So when God experienced death in Jesus, God experienced not only the termination of biological processes, God experienced the broken relationships that are part of human death.  

But here’s the really good news: God’s life as a part of humanity and creation did not end with the death of Jesus on the cross.  Christians teach that God raised Jesus from death.  Jesus continues to live in the communities of people who gather in Jesus’ name, who revel in the love of God demonstrated in Jesus, and who are empowered by the Spirit of God (the same Spirit who dwelt in Jesus) to continue Jesus’ ministry of healing, liberation, and reconciliation (mending broken relationships).

This is so important to us Christians.  It means that God is more than a cosmic watchmaker who creates the universe, gets it started, and then lets it run on its own.  It means that God is more than a cosmic coach, who cheers her team on from the sidelines.  God is a part of the world God created, experiencing the joys and the sorrows of life.  One needn’t be a Christian to recognize the truth of this.  If God keeps the atoms of the universe vibrating and the synapses of our brains firing, then God must – somehow – be a part of the world that God is creating.  We Christians believe that, and even more, we believe that, through the resurrected Jesus, God exists consciously within the world as well as outside of it.  God exists consciously within the world and is working to counter the power of life-destroying sin. 

Your tedious and long-winded answer is full of logical inconsistencies… and you still haven’t answered my question “What is a Lutheran?”

True that.  Instead of trying to answer that question myself, it would have been better for me to refer you to the great minds of history who have reflected on our life with God.  It’s not too late, though, for you to learn more.  Here are some contemporary authors who explain all this far better than I can: Rabbi Abraham Heschel, one of the great Jewish theologians of the twentieth century; Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim imam who explores both the mystic and political dimensions of Islam and who, incidentally, has gotten himself into a heap of trouble with leaders in his homeland, Turkey… but truth-tellers often get themselves in trouble; and Jurgen Moltmann, a Christian theologian whose dense writing will reward the persistent reader with tremendous insight into the Christian faith.  If you like your theology with pictures, read anything by Daniel Erlander, especially Manna and Mercy.  Or better yet, read the Bible!  We Christians believe that God speaks to us through the Bible, so the best thing to do is explore the Bible yourself.

A word of warning, though: if logical inconsistencies freak you out, you may find the Bible frustrating.  It’s wonderfully inconsistent!  But rather than undermining the testimony of the Bible, this inconsistency reveals the Bible’s richness.  Rather than giving us just one creation story (Genesis 1), the bible gives us two creation stories (also Genesis 2-3).  They aren’t entirely consistent with each other, but together they reveal rich truths about God and the world God created.  Rather than giving us just one story about the life of Christ, the Bible gives us four stories that don’t always harmonize with each other.  Together, though, these stories reveal the rich diversity of perspectives on Jesus and his work. 

The people who decided which books would be in the Bible could certainly have chosen only those writings that were consistent with each other.  Some early Christians, like a man named Marcion, argued in favor of that.  If Marcion had his way, our Bible would include only the Gospel of Luke/Acts, and the writings of Paul.  But the leaders of the early church decided to follow in the tradition of their Jewish forebears, including a variety of testimonies rather than limiting themselves to just one school of thought.  They were willing to sacrifice logical consistency in order to gain a diversity of perspectives… and to include within the Christian community people whose ideas about God differed from one another. 

The fact is, we are trying to make sense of God, who is beyond our understanding.  What can we logical human beings say about whatever preceded the Big Bang?  What can we say about an existence that is not governed by the laws of gravity, thermodynamics, time and space?  If we’re humble, we shouldn’t say anything.  But on the other hand, we can’t help speaking, since our vocation is to marvel at the beauty God created.  We try as hard as we can to discern the face of God without dying in the process… and then we try to explain what we have seen.   To do this, only symbols suffice because symbols are objects in creation that can be manipulated to point to something beyond themselves.  The heart refers not only to the thing beating in your chest.  They heart symbolizes love, emotions, the center of your being… concepts that cannot be described easily without symbols. 

The problem with symbols is that sometimes we have trouble discerning the difference between the symbol and the thing it points to.  On occasion, our scriptures refer to God as a warrior, using the symbol “warrior” to point toward the power of God’s desire to liberate humanity.  Problems arise, though, when people start believing that God really is a warrior – that God is this beefy man in heaven shooting arrows (or thunderbolts or hurricanes or earthquakes) at whomever dares to disobey. 

The failure to discern the symbolic character of language about God is what the Bible calls idolatry.  According to the Bible, idolatry is the greatest sin of all because it attempts to reduce God to objects that we can control and manipulate.  The Bible is far more critical of idolaters than it is of atheists, about which it says very little.  Quite possibly, it is better to worship no god than a false god. 

Most often, our idolatry leads us to ascribe to God features that reflect our own identities.  “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” my idolatrous self tempts me to believe, “if God were a white male, since I am a white male!”  The Bible gives us a rich diversity of symbols for God so that we realize that God cannot be reduced to any one symbol.  Both male and female symbols are used for God so that we don’t commit the grievous sin of idolizing maleness or femaleness.  God is like a warrior, yes, but also like a lover, like a doctor, like a potter, like a farmer, like a lamb, even like a slave!  Hallelujah!  Praise God for giving us such a mind-blowing assortment of images and ideas upon which to reflect.  The heavens do, in fact, reveal the glory of God, and so does the earth!

That’s nice, but can you please just tell me, what is a Lutheran?!

I want to say that I am saving the best for last, but that would be an example of what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.”  When people try to describe their own identities, they tend to get the most worked up about the small differences that distinguish them from others.  This is why great wars have been fought over seemingly small theological differences, such as the differing views of what happens when Christians gather to share the Lord’s Supper.

Being a Lutheran matters to me.  If it hadn’t been for Lutheran theology, I might not be a Christian. But, truth be told, what I as a Lutheran hold in common with other Christians is far more important than what separates us.  We all center our faith on what God has accomplished through Jesus Christ.  Similarly, what I as a Christian hold in common with Jews and Muslims is extremely significant: together we proclaim a God who loves the world and seeks justice among human beings.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims stand together in opposing idolatrous powers that elevate themselves and demand the worship reserved for God alone. 

Lutherans differ from other Christians mostly in what we choose to emphasize.  Lutherans emphasize how God’s life-giving work is something that God performs for us freely, out of love for us, regardless of how little we deserve it.  We call this free gift of God “grace.”   “Faith” is the word we use to describe our acceptance of this gift.  We Lutherans love to celebrate how God’s grace continues to reach out to us even as our sinful inclinations keep pulling us toward death. 

Recognizing God’s free gift of grace is a tremendous source of freedom for Lutherans (and other grace-oriented Christians) because it means that we don’t have to jump through all kinds of religious hoops to prove to God that we are worthy of salvation.  These religious hoops are what we call “superstition.”  Superstition says that if I perform certain acts I can manipulate God into behaving in a way that will benefit me.  Lutherans recognize this as a lie. 

Rather than trying to manipulate God, we celebrate all that God has done and is doing for us.  We don’t demonstrate our gratitude to God by trying to do things for God or by trying to give things to God – everything belongs to God anyway.  We demonstrate our gratitude to God by loving what God loves.    God loves all that God created, so we celebrate God’s grace by loving it too.  And we recognize that our ability to love is also God’s free gift to us.  Everything we are and everything we have comes from God, including our faith.

I said that the difference between Lutherans and other Christians is a matter of emphasis.  Most other Christians would agree with what I am saying; Lutherans just say it a little more emphatically.  That’s because the Lutheran movement began during a time in Christian history when the church was not very clear about God’s grace and our response to it.  Superstition had crept into the practices of the church.  Some leaders of the church were even trying to convince people that they could buy God’s grace by giving money to the church.  As a pastor in the church, I understand the temptation of those leaders: if I could convince people that God would treat them better if they gave me money, that would be a pretty lucrative racket.  But of course, that’s a lie.  Martin Luther, after whom we Lutherans call ourselves, tried to help the Christians of his day see through this lie.

Most people today are not inclined to believe the lie that was being taught in Luther’s time.  So many Christian leaders have demonstrated how unChristlike they are that few people would believe giving money to the church is the same thing as giving money to Jesus.  Nevertheless, the anxiety that led people in Luther’s day to believe the church’s false teaching still exists.  People are as anxious as they ever were.  Anxiety is a part of the human condition.  Since we human beings are able to reflect on our own existence, we recognize how vulnerable we are.  We didn’t create ourselves and there is nothing we can do to keep us alive forever (at least not yet!)  In order to reduce this anxiety about our own existence, we go to great lengths to prove to ourselves and others that we are worthy of the life we have been given.  In our consumer culture, one of the most popular ways to do this is by making purchases.  The central myth of our consumer culture is that we can create an identity for ourselves by purchasing mass produced goods that will somehow say something about who we are and why we matter.  When you think about it, this lie is not so much different than the lie that was promulgated by the church during the time of Martin Luther.  Now, however, instead of churches and bishops proclaiming the lie, we have corporations and marketers proclaiming it.  So, we Lutherans still have work to do in proclaiming the truth about God and God’s grace. 

In trying to describe the relationship between Lutherans and other Christians, some have called Lutherans “Evangelical Catholics.”  Now if you are an ethical, love-oriented person, those two words must sound really bad.  Evangelicals are those right-wing hypocrites who believe that “bobbed hair, bossy wives, and women preachers” are the downfall of America (see the work of John R. Rice, who influenced many evangelical leaders of the past generation.)  Evangelicals are the people who teach that the world was created 10,000 years ago, who believe that climate change is not as big a threat to our world as gay marriage is, who heap praise upon very unChristlike politicians.  Why on earth would anyone be an evangelical?

Well, believe it or not, the word evangelical means “good news.”  Originally, the term referred to the good news of God’s victory over sin and death in Jesus Christ.  Lutherans embrace that original meaning of the word even as it has become increasingly tarnished by the behavior of misguided American Christians. 

And the word “catholic” doesn’t just refer to Roman Catholics, who share with American Evangelicals a discomfort with those who don’t abide by prescribed gender roles.  You might also be led to believe that the word “catholic” means someone who would rather see the whole world destroyed by nuclear annihilation than permit one desperate woman to have an abortion.  But, ironically, the word catholic actually means “all-embracing” and “universal.”   Catholicism was the movement in early Christianity that turned away from sectarian divisions.  It sought to embrace Christians across cultural and ethnic boundaries by emphasizing those truths that all Christians could accept. 

So, when Lutherans describe themselves as Evangelical Catholics, they are holding together the centrality of the good news of Jesus Christ and the desire to remain in fellowship with Christians of every time and place.  Rather than rejecting the traditions handed down by our spiritual ancestors, we embrace them, as long as they do not interfere with the good news of Jesus Christ.  This is why Lutherans can seem a lot like Roman Catholics (our worship services are very similar and we have bishops); at the same time, we seem very Protestant (we have women pastors and don’t believe that you have to be a member of our church in order to be saved).  In spite of the distorted meanings of the words evangelical and catholic, held together these words actually say something important about who we are.

Thanks for asking!

Pastor Steve Keiser

Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby