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'Where's Lutheran?'

Where's Lutheran on globeby Elizabeth A. Eaton

When I served as bishop in the Northeastern Ohio Synod, it was our custom to invite the newly assigned seminary candidates in our synod to meet with us so that we could get to know each other better. During one of these con­versations, a candidate told us about her encounter with the reality that not everyone knows about Lutherans. She was wearing a Luther Rose pendant, and her waitress noticed it and said, “That’s beautiful. What is it?” “It’s Lutheran,” our candidate explained. The waitress asked, “Where’s Lutheran?”

This story is at once charming and disquieting; charming because the waitress thought that “Lutheran” was a place of beauty, an actual, if mysterious country. It was disquieting because the waitress had never heard of Lutherans before. She is not alone. In fact, I suspect that some of our own members have never heard of Lutheran.

Our relative anonymity in many parts of the United States and the Caribbean is about to be disrupted. 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. There is going to be a lot of attention paid to Lutherans by the religious and secular press. And, if it’s a really slow news day on October 31, 2017, the media will be knocking on our doors. For a brief moment, Lutherans will be celebrities (an oxymoron, I know). What will we tell them? What account will we give of ourselves and of the Lutheran movement? What does it mean to be Lutheran 500 years after the Reformation?

Many Lutherans in the ELCA came to this country in immigrant waves in the 18th and 19th centuries. We tended to stay in our ethnic and language groups, and so, safe in our enclaves, we were not immediately assimilated into the deist, Calvinist culture of the new nation. This had its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage was that we, for many years, were able to preserve and share a distinctive Lutheran voice in ecumenical and interreligious conversations and in the public square. The disadvantage has been that we have come to identify Lutheranism with particular European ethnic groups. We poke fun at ourselves with jokes about Jello, Tater Tot hot dishes, shyness, lefse and the consumption of lye–soaked cod. We are proud of our central and northern European heritage—and rightly so. These ancestors built churches, universities and hospitals and established social service agencies. They cared for each other and for their com­munities. Their descendants form the base of many of our congregations. But if being Lutheran means that one is or must become like a particular ethnic group in order to be truly Lutheran, we are placing limits on the gospel. When congregations in my synod would claim to be a close-knit family, a colleague of mine would ask, “How does it feel to be an in-law?”

If culture and cuisine don’t define us, our theology must. Some might question the relevance of the theology of a 16th century German monk, but Luther’s clear expo­sition of the gospel is as fresh and powerful today as it was 500 years ago. It is still liberating to hear about grace. It is still necessary to understand that God’s word is always one of law and gospel, of judgment and promise, and that, as Luther wrote in The Freedom of the Christian, “The Christian is perfectly free, lord of all. The Christian is perfectly bound, servant of all.” The theology of the cross is still a needed critique of the theology of glory. Luther’s understanding of our lives being lived in two kingdoms– God’s left-hand kingdom, having to do with civil life and society, and God’s right-hand kingdom, having to do with God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ—make it possible for us to engage in political activity and to be active in public life while at the same time being clear where our ultimate allegiance lies.  

Luther introduced (or re-introduced) hymn singing by the congregation and reading Scripture and hearing the sermon in the vernacular. He also, gradually, made the liturgy available in German. Luther did not do away with the liturgy; he made it more accessible. We are a liturgical church, which has nothing to do with styles of music. God can speak to God’s people through Bach cantatas and contemporary Christian music. “A Mighty Fortress” is sung in hundreds of languages and musical genres across the world. Salvation does not depend on the form of our worship. But we have chosen to place ourselves under the discipline of liturgical worship. When we gather for Holy Communion, we participate in a tradition with other Lutherans around the globe and across the centuries. Talk about multi-cultural and multi-generational!

Luther took God seriously. Luther was acutely aware that all of life is lived in the presence of God. God was not a theory or a philosophy. For Luther, God was an actual living being: holy, righteous and jealous. Luther lived in a system that emphasized these attributes of God and demanded penance and satisfaction. It was also a system in which the individual Christian was obligated to do what was in her power to make herself acceptable to this holy, righteous and jealous God. I am not entirely sure that we have the same holy reverence for the Almighty. In our culture, God has become a cross between a cosmic Barney (“I love you, you love me…”) and an ATM. This cuddly, transactional God does not inspire reverence or awe. I wonder if we have domesticated God. If so, then we are missing the earth-shattering, life-changing good news of the gospel.

Think of it this way—Lutherans talk a lot about grace. It is the best way to apprehend the reconciling love of God, especially as demonstrated in the death and resur­rection of Jesus Christ. Among the inexhaustible riches of this concept, Lutherans hold up two key understandings. First, grace presupposes that we need it. Second, by defini­tion, grace is a gift. If we can achieve our own marvelous­ness apart from God, who needs grace? If we can achieve our own justification apart from grace, who needs God? If we don’t need God, we miss the wonder of the Creator becoming a creature, of the Infinite becoming finite—all out of love. And if we cannot accept grace as a gift, then we spend our lives in the relentless and futile effort to justify ourselves, to be good enough.

If we let this truth sink in, that we are not loved for what we do or for who we are but because of Whose we are, we can begin to understand Luther’s jubilation. Luther said, “Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righ­teousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through the open doors into paradise.”

To be Lutheran 500 years after the Reformation means to live in this freedom. It means to live in this, as Luther wrote, “living, daring faith.” It means that we are free to serve the neighbor as a person in his or her own right, not as a means to an end. It is the possibility of being open and genuine and honest because we are loved completely by God, who knows us completely.

This is most certainly true!

Elizabeth A. Eaton is the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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