Reformation Lutherans At a Time Like This
This really is an extraordinary time. There is an underlying fear and an overarching tension in America that the heartfelt patriotic singing of "God Bless America" can't drive out. There is an overload of information, and yet how very little we really know. What are Reformation Lutherans to make of a time like this?
At a time like this, religious differences DO matter. Contrary to all this talk of religious unity, contrary to prayer services where everyone who prays to any deity is invited, contrary to most Americans believing that all gods are included in the phrase "God Bless America," Lutherans who take the Reformation seriously say religious differences still matter. The temptation to believe that religious differences DON'T matter is intense right now. It is always that way in a time of war. Political leaders know and citizens feel that it is important to present a united front to our enemies. There is real power in unity.
In times of national threat, the temptation is always there to follow the emotion to unify rather than the Word of God, but the Word of God does not recognize all religions as equal. The Word of God says that religious differences do matter. The Word of God says you're only a disciple of Christ insofar as you hold to His teachings, and Jesus says elsewhere that holding to His Word will not bring peace on earth but division. But the feeling in our country right now is that the one thing we don't need is division of any sort. Let's all just get along. Emphasize what we have in common; don't pay attention to our differences.
What's a Lutheran to do who takes the Reformation seriously? Our forefathers were pressed to unite with the Catholics to show a united front against the invasion of the Turks in the 16th century. Our immediate forefathers in the Missouri Synod were pressed by German princes to unite with the Reformed. They in fact were being forced to, so they left for America. Now should we who've come from a long line of people who would not give up the Word even though they suffered and died for it, do so now? Should we pray with the Muslims, have worship services with the Catholics, and commune with the Reformed for the sake of unity?
Dear friends while there is a certain amount of power in unity, there is far and away more power in the Word. While there is a certain amount of comfort in unity, there is far and away more comfort in the Word. While there is help in unity, there is far and away more help in the Word. While there are many earthly benefits in being united with your fellow man at the expense of God's Word, there are eternal benefits in being united with the true God through His Word. The Word brings us forgiveness, comfort, and power. Inasmuch as we deny it, we deny ourselves forgiveness, comfort, and power. That is not at all helpful at a time like this.
At a time like this, Lutherans who take the Reformation seriously know that faith talk is not enough. In a time of crises, faith talk is what people want. They want to hear how sure, how certain our victory is. When the king of Israel wanted to go to war against his enemies, the prophets of Baal boldly proclaimed his certain victory. The lone prophet of the Lord, Micaiah, wouldn't engage in that sort of faith talk and so was thrown in prison to live on bread and water. When Jeremiah foretold the defeat of Jerusalem, he was thrown in a well because he wouldn't talk the faith-talk of everyone else who said Jerusalem would never fall. Peter talked great faith-talk. When Jesus said all the disciples would desert Him, Peter boldly said that he never would! I was at Army chaplain school when the war against Iraq broke out. Chaplains gave stirring devotions declaring the sure victory of America. Everyone loved it. But if you want faith-talk, do you know who has the best? Muslims. The Koran, their bible, speaks about the power of believing constantly.
But isn't the Reformation about faith? Don't we speak about sola fida, salvation by faith? Yes, over against the Roman Catholic doctrine of being saved by works, Reformation Lutherans speak about being saved by faith. Believing in Jesus does indeed bring all the forgiveness and good works necessary to be saved. Our works do not need to be added to it. However, over against the Reformed who also speak about salvation through faith, Lutherans don't emphasize faith-talk. The Reformed place everything on faith. Jesus is safe in heaven. His benefits are there. His blessings are there. Faith rises to heaven and gets them. Over against the Reformed emphasis on faith, the Reformation Lutheran speak of the Sacraments.
Sacramental talk is talk of Jesus here with us. Here in our flesh and blood. Here in our blood, sweat and tears. Here in a world being terrorized. Here in a world beset by fear, death, and disease. Luther spoke very pointedly about the "hereness" of Jesus. In the last letter he wrote to his wife, he told here that there was no need to worry about him. He had One bigger and stronger than her to worry about him, the One who nursed at the breast of the Virgin. See how "here and now" that image is? Both the devil and Christ are present here in the world, but only Christ is bodily present here. When we disembody God by placing Him far away in the realm of the spirit only accessible to us by faith, we demote Him to the level of the devil.
Now this concept is not beyond you no matter how little education you might have or how poor your Bible understanding might be. You sing about this all the time in the great Reformation hymn, "A Mighty Fortress." That hymn speaks about both the devil and Christ being here. It says of the devil, "On earth is not his equal." And what's the answer to this demonic beast? Our faith? Our believing? No, "For us fights the Valiant One,/ Whom God Himself elected. Ask ye who is this? Jesus Christ it is." This One is "by our side upon the plain with His good gifts and Spirit," we sing.
Jesus Christ is not tucked away safe in heaven. He's down here amid the threat of anthrax and bombs, amid the disease and the depression, amid the sin and the death. He is here in your Baptism where He clothes you with Himself: His righteousness, His holiness, His life. He is here in His Word which sounds through the mouth of a physical pastor sending your sins away from you and bringing you the power and promise of God that neither height, nor depth, neither anthrax nor terrorists, neither disease or even death can separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jesus Christ is here; that's the great joy of Reformation Lutherans at a time like this. He is here not just in Water, not just in Words, but in the flesh. In the Bread and Wine of the Sacrament, the Body and Blood of Christ are here. He is here though my faith be weak and doubts assail me. He is here in my hand, in my mouth, in my decaying, aging, diseased body. He is here strengthening and preserving me in the faith even though my faith is as tiny as a mustard seed. Christ Jesus is here in a time like this, at a time like this bringing the timeless gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation for a time like this..
At a time like this much in the present is up in the air, so at a time like this, the past is important to a Reformation Lutheran. People keep telling us the world has changed since September 11, but has it really? We all remember that when Luther was called before the Holy Roman Emperor he said, " I cannot and will not recant...God help me." But no one remembers what Emperor Charles V replied. He said, "I have decided to mobilize everything against Luther: my kingdoms and dominions, my friends, my body, my blood and my soul." Do you know who is mobilized against us now? Not even a nation or a government but fanatics. O but they have biological weapons. Well, in addition to facing the wrath of the emperor of most of the world, 16th century Reformation Lutherans faced the recurring danger of bubonic plague which wiped out whole cities. And not only that, our forefathers also faced a whole nation of Islam, the Ottoman Turks.
Reformation Lutheranism was born for a time like this. Our Introit is taken from the Psalm Luther based "A Mighty Fortress On," Psalm 46. It says, "God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore, will not we fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea." Lutheranism was born out of time when the mountains were being shaken into the heart of the sea and it was born for a time when skyscrapers fall and people shake with fear.
Another hymn in our hymnal, "Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word," was written by Luther for children at a time like this. Our hymnal's version reads, "Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word;/ Curb those who fain by craft and sword/ Would wrest the kingdom from Thy Son/. And set at nought all He hath done" That's not what Luther wrote. Our 1927 hymnal preserved the original. "Lord keep us in Thy Word and work,/ Restrain the murderous Pope and Turk,/ Who fain would tear from off Thy throne/ Christ Jesus, Thy beloved Son." Folks imagine how threatened our forefathers felt to have had their children singing hymns like that.
Many Lutherans did die at the hands of the Pope. Many died from the plague. And some died from the Muslim Turks. Our forefathers knew times just like this. And during it do you know what they did? They confessed their inadequacy but God's adequacy. Their weakness but God's strength. Far from putting everything on their believing, they put it all on God's doing. We still teach our children that to this day, at a time like this. We teach them the Explanation to the Third Article of the Creed which says, "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him." All of God's blessing our in Jesus. They come only by faith, yet we confess that we cannot on our own believe.
But then as you know, the Explanation goes on to say, "But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith." God does the impossible; He works faith in sinful hearts. Reformation Lutherans put everything in what God does and nothing in what they do. They put everything in what God did in Christ down here on the cross at Calvary and in the places He delivers the benefits of the cross today: Baptism, Absolution, and Communion.
As our forefathers were pressed by religious persecution, biological threats, and war, they felt like we do now sometimes, that death is all around us in our cities, planes, and even mailboxes. Death was so prevalent among 16th century Lutherans that a popular saying was, "In the midst of life, we are surrounded by death." If the plague didn't get you the Turks did; if the Turks didn't get you the Pope would. At a time like this, it would've been easy to give way to fear. But Luther turned the popular Medieval saying around. He said, "In the midst of death, we are in life." There in that Font, is new life in Christ to reborn sinners. Here in this Word for sinners is the forgiven life for Christ's sake. Here on this altar is the Body and Blood of Christ that was given and shed for sinners. Truly in the midst of death we Reformation Lutherans are indeed surrounded by life even at a time like this. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Sunday (10-28-01)