Fools for Christ
We’re approaching the end of our series on Lutheran thought. Of course, there is a lot more that can be said – we’ve really barely scratched the surface. I’ve been trying to provide a quick glimpse of what it is, however, that motivates Lutheran thought, and how it affects various areas of our life and thought. If there is anything that you’ve gotten from all this, I hope that it is how central God’s grace is to all of our thinking. It is the “lens” through which we view God’s activity in the world, and the guide for our thoughts and actions as Christians. As I have said before, if we had a big chalk board up here, and were to diagram all of Lutheran thought, at the very center of the board, writ large, would have to be this word, “Grace.” Everything else flows from that.
Which brings us to today’s lessons, and today’s sermon – how do we minister, then, as God’s people – as people who have been captured by God’s grace? And the answer goes right back to our center: “gracefully.” We are recipients of a grace that we have received as a free gift from God; we then give this same gift – the gift of grace – to others as our response to God.
That whole concept is behind a couple of doctrines of the church, which we confess every Sunday in the Apostle’s Creed, the “Priesthood of all believers,” and the “communion of Saints.” The job of the priest, in biblical times, was to make sacrifices in behalf of the people, representing them to God, acting on their behalf. In the story of Jesus’ death, the writers of the story say that the curtain of the Jewish temple was rent in half. That was the curtain that separated God from the people – only the High Priest was allowed behind that curtain, and then, only once a year. But it was rent in half when Jesus died, so that all could enter into his presence. Hebrews says that Jesus is our Great High Priest, interceding in our behalf before God. As Christians, we share that high calling. We can enter into his presence. We can pray to God, knowing that God hears our prayers. We can intercede on behalf of others, asking for God’s help, or forgiving them, and be assured, as the scriptures promise us, that “what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.” You don’t need either a saint or a pastor to do that for you. You are God’s child. There is no one closer to God than you are.
That’s an amazing thing. In fact, Luther, during the Reformation, had one occasion when a congregation wrote to him, asking him to send them a pastor, because their local Bishop was against the reformation, and wouldn’t appoint them a Reformed pastor. Luther advised them, “Don’t you have someone in your congregation who can lead you?” There is nothing magical in what a pastor does. The pastor doesn’t have any more authority than the smallest child in the congregation. The ministry doesn’t rely on me. It relies on God’s Word and God’s promises – which is a treasure you all share. Our church wants clergy who are trained, so that they will be true to that Word – but there are no qualification given in the Bible – so many years of study, so much in homiletics or theology; we don’t have to have magic words said over us, or have any special “charism,” a gift of the Spirit, given to us. For the good order of the congregation, so that you don’t have all chiefs and no Indians, it’s important to set someone aside to lead worship, to preach, to distribute communion – but I’m just a waiter at the Lord’s table. As Luther said, “someone has to do it.” You chose me. I hope you chose wisely!
The “Communion of Saints” helps us to answer some other questions – like, “Why do I need the church at all? Can’t I just be a Christian by myself? Can’t I worship by walking through the woods or on the golf course? And “How can I find help in my Christian walk?” It helps to answer a lot of practical questions concerning the Christian life.
In his First letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul talks about the many gifts and ministries God gives to his church. It isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list – they are just “for instances:” administration, teaching, prophecy, tongues, healing and the rest. What he’s saying, is that out there, in the world, it’s easy to become overwhelmed or off-target. We hear so many messages in the world, and few of them point us in the right direction, however well-meaning they may be. If left to our own devices, we start to get off-track as well. We start, perhaps, thinking that money and success and those kinds of things are what life is all about, because that’s what we seem to hear everyone else saying all around us. We may easily get to thinking that God is mean and spiteful, always ready to zap us with a thunderbolt or some dread disease – because we hear a lot of that talk out there. Frankly, we hear a lot of that garbage out there in the world, and we do some self-generating of that garbage as well: we look at that face in the mirror in the morning, and wonder how anyone can love that. We wonder what use we are – why did God bother with us at all? And we come up with some pretty bad answers to those questions – ones that lead us to doubt or despair.
But Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” A couple of good Christian friends can give you a different perspective on your life, helping you with their gifts, giving you a sense that, whatever happens, you aren’t alone in it. As I’ve said before, they are the real arms of Jesus, wrapping around us, holding us, holding a higher vision for our life at times when we can’t see it ourselves, supporting us when we have no strength of our own, and holding us accountable when we get off-track. Where else in the world can you find something like that? Where else, other than the church? And each of them has their own gifts to add to the ministry of the church: some have gifts of administration, or preaching or teaching, of being healers, of caring ministries, or music, or writing, and so on.
There are a lot of things wrong with the church – there always have been. All you have to do is to read the Bible – just read this letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians, and you’ll see it. The Bible has never been shy about the church as a group of fallible human beings. But, at its best, it is so much more – there’s nothing like it, anywhere else in the world. And so that’s what we strive to be – that kind of church. A Priesthood of Believers, a Communion of Saints.
I’d like to end this with a quotation from Luther, which hangs on my wall. It summarizes this pretty well, I believe. He says, “This life, therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”
As we travel this road, we travel together. As we minister, it is not in our own strength alone, but through the strength of God’s Spirit, which lives in all those whom he has called. We are not yet perfected, but we are God’s saints, made holy by his Word and strengthened through the sacraments and by the ministries of others, that we may reach out in love to the world God loves.