As part of my process to become an ordained minister in the ELCA, in 2016 I was required to write an essay focusing on my hopes and dreams for the church, where I see God at work in the world, and what I believe about our incredible God. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing excerpts of this essay, as our Learning Lutheran educational series continues and we as a congregation dive into our faith, I invite you to dive into my faith with me.
- What are the distinctive contributions of the Lutheran theological tradition for both (1) the Church’s discernment of and participation in God’s mission in the world and (2) the formation of disciples for mission in a pluralistic society?
I think the most important contribution Lutheran theology can give for the Church’s discernment of and participation in God’s hope in the world is that we are more than just buildings, we are more than just places of worship. The church is the holy Christian people who meet together, who are sanctified by the Holy Spirit[i], who are brought together by the power of the Spirit and by the power of the cross.
Our discernment and participation in God’s dream is driven by the call and gathering by God. These holy Christian people have been “marked with the cross of Christ forever,” “are claimed, gathered and sent for the sake of the world.”[ii] It is this marking, this claiming, that our theological tradition allows for our discernment in and our participation in God’s dream for the world. Because God’s dream is for the world. It is not for us alone in our church buildings or denomination, but it’s for us as people in this world.
“As members of the ELCA, we believe that we are freed in Christ to serve and love our neighbor. With our hands, we do God’s work of restoring and reconciling communities in Jesus’ name throughout the world.”[iii] It’s in the freedom we find at the cross, in the forgiveness we find through our sacraments, and it’s in the publicity of our personal and corporate call that we reach out into the world as God reaches out to us and we act in it. We are apostles, evangelists, and prophets for the sake of the Gospel.
Luther reminds us that even if the original apostles, evangelists, and prophets have long since passed, “the church shall last until the end of the world [Matt 28.20]. Apostles, evangelists, and prophets must therefore remain, no matter what their name, to promote God’s word and work.”[iv] It is part of our discernment as individuals and as the gathered Christian people to discover what it means for us to reach out, to be these holy Christian people. Our tradition calls us to walk away from the fear of the death of the church, and to walk towards the resurrection.
“A holy Christian people is to be and to remain on earth until the end of the world. This is an article of faith that cannot be terminated”[v]. Freed from our fear, freed from trying to increase the numbers in our pews, what might it mean to actually believe the words Christ tells us in Matthew – that Christ will be with us until the end? What might it mean to believe that the holy Christian people, that the people of God will continue to exist? What kind of freedom does that give us to truly participate in God’s dream for the world?
I have faith. I have faith that when we let go of our fear, when we trust in the resurrection, when we trust in the promises made by Christ, that we can be freed. And it’s in this freedom that we can “grow in sanctification and always become new creatures in Christ. This means ‘grow’ and ‘do so more and more’ [II Pet. 3:18]”.[vi]
So with this in mind, with this freedom, with this calling, with this promise, how can we form disciples in a culture that is pluralistic? I think there are two things that must be said. The first is that we need to empower our holy Christian people to be able to actually articulate their faith, their vocation, and their participation in this dream. The second is that we need to be in the public. We need to be part of this world, part of this society – the holy Christian people, the church, needs to have a voice that can be heard.
How do you talk about faith today? I know my Facebook feed is full of Scripture quotations and snappy one-liners from religious organizations, but sit down and talk with someone who identifies as Christian, and often people don’t know what they believe. Christian radio proclaims 30 second sound-bites of theology. Christian films teach our congregants an understanding of faith that is often black and white or shallow compared to (in my opinion anyway) Lutheran theology (I think particularly of God’s Not Dead and more recently the film War Room). This Christian media has infiltrated much of our lay theology, and I often find myself wondering if anyone knows what they’re saying when we profess the Apostle’s Creed together.
I wonder what it might look like to work together in our churches to better understand and better articulate what it is that we believe. I think we need to be able to give our members the tools to see God at work in their lives. Being able to teach and nurture a person’s understanding of their own participation in God’s call is so important. It might be in giving new language to conversations on vocation and everyday life. It might be preaching the Gospel, preaching the love and forgiveness given to all of us through Christ’s death and resurrection in a way that is not only meaningful, but also creates a call to action.
But there is another issue – how do we talk about our faith in the world today? How can we form disciples to go out into a society that doesn’t want to hear about their faith, and a society where their faith and their fellow holy Christian people doesn’t seem to have a voice?
Something I’ve discovered is that are so many Christians who want to be able to talk about Scripture and the world today, but we often find ourselves afraid to bring too much controversy into church. Church should be a place to pray, worship, be happy, and maybe hear the Gospel, right? But what about the church that speaks to our experiences when we leave the building?
We as the church often don’t want to talk about anything that matters in the lives of our church members, because we are afraid. We are afraid of ruffling feathers, of angering church members. We are afraid of people leaving. We are afraid we won’t know what to say.
But we are freed from fear, right? We are freed by the cross. We are freed by the resurrection. We are freed to be a church that is part of the world, we can speak in the world, and we have a voice. My internship project was focused on exploring this particular calling. I was leading discussions and questioning on the often awkward conversation of faith, God, and sex. Our culture is so explicitly engulfed in sex and sexuality, speaking to it, through the lens of faith, is a powerful way to begin deeper wrestling with our faith. We ended up with in depth lectures and discussion on two topics – gender and gender-based violence.
My hope was that as this project continued, the same format might be used for other difficult conversations. What does our faith say about racism? How do we love our neighbor if they believe something differently than we do? I believe this is part of forming disciples – having difficult conversations, trusting that this is a God for the world and not just for us, and sharing that trust through learning about our own faith, and what that faith means for us and for the love of our neighbors. This freedom isn’t always easy, but I believe it is part of our participation in God’s dream for us and for the world.
[i] (Luther, M. (1966). The Marks of the Church (Vols. Luther’s Works, vol. 41). (E. Gritsch, Ed.) Philadelphia: Fortress Press.) pg 144
[ii] (Mission. (2016). Retrieved from Evangelical Lutheran Church of America: https://www.elca.org/About/Mission)
[iii] (Mission. (2016). Retrieved from Evangelical Lutheran Church of America: https://www.elca.org/About/Mission)
[iv] (Luther, M. (1966). The Marks of the Church (Vols. Luther’s Works, vol. 41). (E. Gritsch, Ed.) Philadelphia: Fortress Press.) pg 155
[v] (Luther, M. (1966). The Marks of the Church (Vols. Luther’s Works, vol. 41). (E. Gritsch, Ed.) Philadelphia: Fortress Press.)pg 148
[vi] (Luther, M. (1966). The Marks of the Church (Vols. Luther’s Works, vol. 41). (E. Gritsch, Ed.) Philadelphia: Fortress Press.) pg 166