Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 06/12/2016

In my most recent newsletter article I talked about how next year will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and how that anniversary provides us with an opportunity to think about what it means to be Lutheran 500 years later. I do think it’s worth thinking about because for better or for worse, for those who continue to go to church, it’s easy for church to mostly be a habit, a habit you don’t necessarily think too much about. You go to a particular church because it’s where you’ve always gone, you’ve got lots of friends there, maybe you married into it, it’s comfortable. If you’re Lutheran and you move away you look for another Lutheran church because you’re Lutheran; but maybe you seldom if ever really think about what we actually claim to believe as Lutherans or about how are we different from other denominations. You just go to church.

Even if you visit a church of another denomination, you might not notice much difference except maybe in the style of worship. What is preached might be pretty similar to what is preached in a Lutheran church which isn’t surprising because we share the same central beliefs with other Christian groups. If you went week after week you might start to recognize differences in what is emphasized, but usually you’re not there week after week.

Whatever church you go to, I think it’s good to be aware of what are its particular emphases not necessarily to dwell on them like some badge of honor, but just to be aware and maybe to ask yourself if it’s important to you. I know that when I do that I find that as much as I can be attracted by some of the theology of other churches and the things they emphasize, so far I find that I really am Lutheran. Since I’m the pastor of a Lutheran church, that would seem to be good thing.

Today’s lessons do provide an opportunity to talk a little bit about what we as Lutherans emphasize. The Galatians reading is exhibit A with Paul’s statement that “We have come to believe in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by doing works of the law because no one will be justified by works of the law.” Even if you don’t know much Lutheran theology I would expect that the phrase “justified by grace through faith” would be familiar. That’s the Lutheran refrain, the idea that we cannot earn God’s acceptance but that acceptance and forgiveness comes only by God’s undeserved grace. That is at the heart of Luther’s thinking. We are justified by grace through faith.

What that statement then sets up, what Galatians sets up, is the faith vs. works discussion because, as Paul says, “No one will be justified by works of the law.” It’s a statement and a discussion that can be misunderstood both inside and outside Lutheran circles with the idea that since I’m saved by God’s grace, not by works, I can do whatever I want, I’ve got a free pass. That’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Adding to the confusion is that Luther sometimes comes down so hard on the side of grace that he can make it sound like good works are bad; if you do something good for someone and it makes you feel good too, which it usually does, then it really wasn’t a good thing after all, because you were just doing it for yourself, to make you feel better.

It brings to mind the joke about the Catholic, the Baptist and the Lutheran waiting at the pearly gates to meet St. Peter, talking amongst themselves, wondering if they’ll be granted admission. The Catholic says, “I’m a little worried because I sometimes ate meat on Fridays.” The Baptist says, “I’m worried because I liked to have a beer once in awhile.” The Lutheran said, “I’m worried because I once did a good deed.”

The faith vs. works confusion actually stems more from Luther than it does from Paul. It’s from Luther’s personal faith struggle, his efforts to please what he perceived to be a wrathful God. As a monk, try as he might, he never felt like he could satisfy the demands of this God. As good as he was in doing all the rituals and practices the church prescribed, he knew he wasn’t good enough; the same desires and temptations continued to plague him. Plus, none of it was bringing him closer to God; it was just revealing a God he really didn’t want to be close to. For him, the effort to be good just deepened his despair until his study of texts like today’s from Galatians finally brought him around to the belief that his only hope was in the grace of God. Without that, he and we would always fall short of what God expected of us.

Luther did find texts like today’s from Galatians helpful in his struggle. He and Paul were very much on the same wavelength in their understanding of a gospel centered on grace. What has frequently been distorted though in both Paul and Luther is the perception of Judaism as a religion of works where you earned your way and Christianity as a religion of grace where acceptance is a gift.

Paul was a good and faithful Jew so he knew that the intent of Jewish law and ritual wasn’t as a means to earn your way, a way to make yourself right in the eyes of God. Instead, Judaism was about God’s steadfast love, in our terms, God’s grace in choosing the people of Israel as the people through whom his story would be told and this before they had done anything to make themselves worthy of God’s choice. Performing the works of the law then doesn’t get you in, it keeps you in. Jews don’t observe the laws to earn salvation, they observe them because they’re Jewish! They do it to honor and maintain the relationship they’ve been given by grace just as Christians take on spiritual practices in order that, in Paul’s words, Christ might live in them.

Luther was so convinced of “justification by grace through faith,” and he was so angry at the Catholic church that he sometimes went over the top in his condemnation of practices that could be part of a meaningful spiritual journey, in a sense throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Because of that Lutherans can be perceived as being strong on justification, that it is by grace that we are made acceptable to God, but that we’re weak on sanctification on how to live a godly and holy life.

Kathy’s not here today but one of the activities Luther discourages is pilgrimages to holy places, like the one she did to Santiago in Spain a few years ago, an activity that was very popular during Luther’s time and has regained popularity today or at least there are lots of books written about it and I think Kathy owns all of them. What Luther was against though, was the notion that this somehow got you points, that by making a pilgrimage you were earning your salvation. He was especially against the idea that by making such a pilgrimage it would cancel out the fact that you lived as a scoundrel the rest of the time. As I read Luther though, he would not have been against the idea of a pilgrimage as a spiritual practice, as a time of prayer and reflection that doesn’t earn you points, but deepens your relationship with God.

A closer reading of Luther shows that he isn’t just about justification but that he does also take sanctification seriously. He just views it more in the context of daily life, that one can honor God and grow in holiness in the way that they engage their daily tasks, whatever they might be. In particular, he suggests using the catechism as a guide, that you should gladly read, recite, ponder and practice the catechism.

Unfortunately though, many of us associate the catechism with confirmation, just something we had to memorize. It’s not so true with how we do confirmation these days, but it was. Luther was a fan of memorization but he also saw great value in spending time with the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer stating that “in these three parts everything contained in the scriptures is comprehended in short, plain and simple terms.” His idea was that one didn’t just memorize the commandments, the creed and the Lord’s Prayer and consider it done, but that one should return daily to a portion of the catechism and consider what it is saying in the present, using it as a guide to Christian living.

Lately I’ve been taking Luther’s advice, using the Large Catechism which covers the same material as the Small Catechism but with more in the way of explanation. It’s all available for free online by the way. What I’m finding though, is that Luther was right. Using the catechism as a devotional tool does provide much to ponder. You sometimes have to filter Luther’s venom, especially venom directed at the Catholic Church, but his goal throughout is for us to walk in the ways of God and to mindful of being in relationship with Christ in all that we do.

In short, that is sanctification; walking in the ways of God and being mindful of being in a relationship with Christ. It doesn’t earn you points; God’s grace turns off the scoreboard; we’ve already won and that victory is the starting point for Luther. The walk and the relationship are part of the journey that follows from that starting point and it too is part of what it is to be Lutheran.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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