October 29, 2017 / Reformation: Theology of the Cross / Sara Wolbrecht / Romans 4:4-5
Friends, this fall we chose this journey through Chunk of Change, listening together for how our God is a God who meets us in our everyday lives – including in the midst of the changes we face and the threshold times we are invited to step into (as our video reminds us). And also to see that our God invites to repent, to change – mind, heart, soul change.
And that choice, this journey for our fall was no coincidence, given the historic moment we find ourselves perched on today, together.
For you see, in 2 days, is not only Halloween, but Tuesday will mark the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. And if that means nothing to you – that is absolutely ok. But let’s say a little bit about it. Martin Luther, an energetic thirty-three-year-old Augustinian friar and professor, hammered his Ninety-Five Theses to the doors of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, in Saxony Germany, on October 31, 1517. Portrayed here: (Luther pic #1) I also like this picture: (Luther pic #2 – hammer time) The 95 Theses were his list of grievances with the church, the beginning of what he hoped would be dialogue, conversation, to reform corrupt practices of the church so it may become more reflective of this Christ they claimed to follow.
But eventually, Luther’s actions ended up splitting the thousand-year-old Roman Catholic Church into two churches—one loyal to the Pope in Rome, the other protesting against the Pope’s rule and soon, in fact, calling itself Protestant. The Protestant church continued to split and split as many branches of what we experience as denominations today, took their root.
Salt House is rooted in Lutheran theology, we’re a Lutheran church (ELCA). Which simply means that we see and follow the life of Jesus in a way that is flavored by the lens that Luther and the other reformers gave us.
There is a fabulous article this week in The New Yorker, “How Martin Luther Changed the World,” on Martin Luther and the influence he had on history which is fabulous. It paints a rugged, honest picture of who he was and the historical impact. It’s shared on Salt House’s Facebook page if you’re looking for it.
And I mention it because, I don’t want to spend today talking about Martin Luther – because although it is worth knowing more about him, his life, the work he did, there are also portions of his theology that are atrocious. Like any human being, he was not a perfect specimen of holiness. So to be clear: as Lutherans, it is not a rubber stamp for the person and every word written by Martin Luther.
But we do make time to name this historic moment, and pause today to name that we are people of story. Jesus taught us to love story – our own and that of others. We live in the large narrative of the story of God – which we read in scripture, and that continues through the Protestant Reformation and continues on the pages of our lives and world today. Luther nailing those 95 Theses – this is part of our story, too, and so it is good for us to be curious about our own story.
And to be clear: you don’t have to identify as Lutheran to be here at Salt House – which I hope you already know. Yet there are many of us who do not know much about Lutheranism – and have wondered. And so, in light of this being a historic week that literally changed the trajectory of the western church through history, that is also a part of the water we now swim in here when we gather, it seems appropriate to explore what it means to be Lutheran here and now on this corner of Kirkland, WA.
And so today, as I wrestled where to go in all of this – knowing that we couldn’t unpack five hours of Reformation history and theology, today, we choose one piece of Lutheran theology to hold as our own. This piece, honestly my friends, is what keeps me coming back to the Lutheran lens. When I was in college I tried the full spectrum of Christin worship and life. From Roman Catholic to charismatic evangelical. And I want to share with you the piece of Lutheran Theology that keeps me here. Sound good?
To get there: a question to orient us. when in your life have you lived through a really hard time? Maybe it is now. Probably more than once. I think of those in our SH community – those facing infertility, break-ups and divorces, emergency surgery, broken or challenging relationships, those facing difficult decisions, parenting challenges, the private pain of addiction, abuse, depression, those facing shame for causing pain for others. Also consider what we see in our headlines, in our world – Puerto Rico’s still mostly without power. War and fighting in the middle east and throughout Africa is the norm. The rights of our LGBTQ and refugee neighbors in this country continue to be abolished, threatened. The question I ask you to answer, specifically, is when have you suffered? When have you faced a hard time? I invite you to have an actual answer and hold on to that time, the experience as we go through this.
Hold it as we jump back to 1517, and Martin Luther. Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, the document itself simply proposed the framework for a university debate. Luther was arguing only for a revision of the practice of selling indulgences. This is a good Reformation, historical word for you to know if you don’t already. What were indulgences? Indulgences were a kind of a get-out-of-jail-free card used by the Church to make money. (Indulgences pic) When someone purchased an indulgence from the Church, they obtained—for themselves or a loved one—a reduction in the amount of time that person had to spend in Purgatory (which from Dante’s Inferno, you may know refers to that in-between place where people go to atone for, make right, their sins before heading onward to Heaven. Which is, by the way, not a fun place to be). Simply paying an agreed-upon amount of money, the purchaser in return, was given a document saying they were forgiven x amount of time in Purgatory. Three easy installments of $99.99… The more time off, the more it cost. (By the way – no mention of Purgatory in the Bible – not something we believe these days).
So again, in his 95 Theses, Luther was addressing selling indulgences, and certainly not calling for widespread theological and church reform.
And actually, here’s the thing that many of us don’t know: Luther had already said much more controversial things in another document a month prior. In it, Luther critiqued the whole way in which medieval theology had been done for centuries. That document, however, passed without a murmur. And it only came to light because of what happened after the nailing of the 95 Theses.
Here’s briefly how it happened: in response to the nailing of the 95 Theses, the Augustinian Order, to which Luther belonged, made a significant mistake in that they chose to deal with the problem as if it were a minor local difficulty. There was a meeting called in April 1518 (six months later), and Luther was asked to present a series of theses outlining his theology, so that it could be assessed by his colleagues. It was here, then, that the relatively bland Ninety-Five Theses gave Luther an important opportunity to articulate the theology that he had expressed in his September document, they met in Heidelberg, so this document came to be as The Heidelberg Disputation. Dun dun dun!
The Heidelberg Disputation is significant for it really sparked the Reformation, for in it, amongst other pivotal teachings that formed the future church, most significantly Luther speaks of what came to be known as: The Theology of the Cross. This my friends, this right here, is also a good phrase for you to know, for this Theology of the Cross is what keeps me grounded in Lutheran Theology as the place that’s right for me, it’s a phrase and a way of seeing that I hope you will feel renewed in if you know it already, or take it with you today as something new, and what we explore now.
Are you still connected to that question about your suffering? Keep holding it.
Near the end of the Heidelberg Disputation, it says this (warning: Luther’s writing style can seem a little archaic and awkward to our modern ears, so focus in with me…):
19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20].
Pause there. This is an interesting statement – Luther is saying that to be theologian (or a “Jesus-follower” as we might say) – that it isn’t right, it isn’t enough, that we see God at work in the things around us, that we perceive God in unseen ways. Which I find somewhat surprising – I actually do think that seeing God at work in the everyday things around us is a thing! And Luther is saying – nope, that’s not enough. But the key is how Luther holds this up against the rest of his statement. (I’ve made it gender neutral):
20. [That person] deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
A theologian, or how I would say it, a person who follows Jesus is one who sees God in the places of suffering, that God is made known most profoundly on the cross. To hear that, if we’re feeling a little mental discord with this, we should. Cognitive dissonance should be a thing.
Luther says here, The Theology of the Cross, is where we see God as the God who was made most known and available and visible in Jesus’ death. That was the moment of God’s most profound revelation of who God is, showing us God’s glory, God’s power. Which sounds completely flipped upside down from what we expect power and glory and God to look like.
We have named this in different ways at Salt House – because, we are Lutheran – and you have likely heard this in subtle or direct ways even in other non-Lutheran churches. This is where it comes from (and from the apostle Paul writing in the New Testament, who Luther largely is influenced by). We’ve heard this, and yet I’ll say it again – this should feel uncomfortable, even wrong. And let’s explore why.
We still hear today, what Luther would call, The Theology of Glory, a perception held in contrast to The Theology of the Cross. We live in a world, and a Christian narrative that speaks a message of the Jesus-story that contradicts the Theology of the Cross. Examples of this Theology of Glory are those that tell us that God is a transactional God – that we work hard to be good people, to achieve, to do our work and get our act together – and then God blesses us (pat on the back, good job! Gold star by your name – you are on the good list). We also hear this even more strongly from preachers who claim that once you give your life to Christ, suffering vanishes, and look out because lots of money and all you could ever want is coming your way. Often called the prosperity gospel. In this Theology of Glory, God’s power is known as blessing, riches, and the avoidance of pain and suffering. We hear this perspective, don’t we? And a final piece of the Theology of Glory is also all the ways in which power means being on top and that it comes through winning, which means someone loses, very often involving violence, hatred, and the oppression of others. That’s power.
The Theology of Glory continues to be something we hear, something we even speak at times – because, it makes sense. It aligns with our systems of privilege and power and earning a reward that are part of “how our world works” right? And it is not that God is absent from times of blessing – because I do believe God can be in those things, too. But if we’re saying that, then what do we make of suffering? Is it God cursing us? Is God absent in the suffering times? Where is God in those times?
Enter: The Theology of the Cross. People often talk about how hard it is to comprehend God – how hard to see and grasp who God is, what God is. The Theology of the Cross affirms this – man, it’s hard! How God is so hard to wrap our minds around and to see. But not for the reasons we suspect. It is not that God is hidden in majesty and power, not too glorious in that sense for us. But the God we know in Jesus is broken. We follow a broken God. A God made greater and most glorious and revealed to us in death on the cross. And the language we use in the Theology of the Cross is to say that God is hidden. Our God is most clearly revealed as hidden. How’s that for contradiction? How’s your cognitive dissonance now? We say God is “hidden,” because God is right where we’d never expect God to be.
Because: where would we never expect to see God? Well, born in a manger as a vulnerable newborn. Sitting at tables with lepers, tax collectors – the fringe of society. Turning over tables in the temple. Feeding the hungry and touching the sick and healing them. Being tortured and publicly executed in a brutal display of violence and power. Yeah, God was there. Where else? We would never expect to see God in our pain, suffering, in war, sex trafficking, racial profiling, injustice, betrayal. The Theology of the Cross names that God is our God who is present in suffering, found in suffering, the one who suffers with us. Pull to the forefront now, your experience – whether current or past – of suffering.
The Theology of the Cross speaks to our experiences, our pain, and God says – Hi, I’m here, with you. There in weakness, despair, vulnerability, betrayal, hard times – God is there. Hidden there where we least expect. Suffering with us, for us. So yes: our God is hidden right where we’d never expect God to be. Our Hidden God.
In your own story, in hard times, have you been found by our hidden God who was there, suffering with you? Before serving here at Salt House, I led the Care Ministry program at a large Lutheran church in the Bay Area. I was all up in people’s suffering all the time. And I’ll tell you what, in the midst of such heartbreak and pain in people’s lives, it is THIS, the Theology of the Cross, Jesus finding us there in the pain (which I witnessed over and over) – is the only thing that got me through. That made it possible to not only not be burnt out, but to actually grow in my love and faith in our God who is hidden in suffering. And I wonder: is this your story, too?
We have talked a lot about suffering this month, because this month we have walked the road of compassion. Because: how have we defined compassion? To suffer with. And with intention, we finish this month of compassion on this 500th Anniversary Celebration of the Protestant Reformation by naming that our God suffers with us! The Theology of the Cross! God is compassion by definition. And God’s compassion is the defining source of our compassion. Our God who suffers with us. Our God who finds us in the darkness of suffering. Our God who pours compassion through us so that we might meet others in their darkness, too.
Has this been your story, too? Were there (are there now) glimpses of God’s love, presence, encouragement, showing up in the words, actions, love of others and the circumstances that got you through? Those breadcrumbs leading us through the darkness.
Breadcrumbs, that always lead us through the darkness of death… into resurrection. That’s it, right? That’s what it means for God to be revealed on the cross – because the cross leads to resurrection. That God goes there to the death with us – meets us in our deepest vulnerability and shame, with those breadcrumbs that lead us to the light of a new day.
Which gives us hope (another thing that is hidden there in suffering!). Theology of the Cross says that we hope because of the darkness, we hope because of suffering and death, knowing that it is the very place where God finds us, the place where resurrection becomes a possibility.
And here it is then, here’s why Theology of the Cross matters: If all our crucifixions are leading to some possible resurrection, and are not dead-end tragedies, this changes everything.
If God is somehow participating in the suffering of humans and creation, instead of just passively tolerating it and observing it, that also changes everything.
Do you hear that? My friends, this can change everything for us. We can be changed by this. The Theology of the Cross claims suffering and pain as the birthplace of God’s presence with us, leading us into resurrection.
To close our time, I want to offer a way of living into this (a how-to of sorts) and frame it also in this fall series of change and being changed that we’re living in.
Scripture offers so many nudges for us, naming how we live into this Theology of the Cross. For just one example, here is Romans 4:4-5. A passage that was pivotal in forming Luther – particularly his naming of “justification by faith through grace” this idea that it is God’s effort, not ours that sets things right in us and between us and God. And this passage speaks, also, to how we embrace this Theology of the Cross…
Romans 4:4-5 (The Message) If you’re a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust him to do it—you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked—well, that trusting-God-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift.
Here it is – God is hidden with the gift of grace – not when we’ve worked hard and earned it (that wouldn’t be a gift!), but the grace and gift and being met by God happens in our surrendering. That trusting-God-to-do-it. Simply in opening ourselves to receive the gift.
Alongside this, let’s hold and end with a quote from Luther’s “Defense of All the Articles,” from a few years later 1521. To this, please continue to hold your experience of suffering. 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.
I love this vision of how our lives continue to unfold, and yes, how this articulates the journey we are on this fall as people being changed. Always. This is life, the life we live in Jesus. The reason I am a Lutheran (and a Lutheran pastor at that), is because of all this. (And you don’t have to be Lutheran to believe this). But I am grateful for the voicing of the Theology of the Cross that Luther offered us 500 years ago. I am a Lutheran because I believe that the most important thing I can do is let God do it. Is surrender to God, and to be found by God not when I have worked my tail off and done things the right way (though I try) but to be found when I am hurting and lost and suffering and overwhelmed by the pain of the world – there is God. Our God who meets us there and puts us on the road to change.
Because we believe that we are being changed. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. Becoming. And it is at the Cross, not on the mountaintop where God finds us, and invites to come and die – to live.
The Protestant Reformation was not just a moment – it is a movement. We are part of a tradition that never stops reforming, that never stops being met in darkness to be drawn into who we are becoming – both as individuals, and absolutely as a community of people who belong to God and to each other.
Friends, as the band comes back up, I invite you to sing this great hymn written by Martin Luther, and as you do to let these questions tickle your mind and heart. Two questions of continuing reformation: where/how is God inviting you to be re-formed (hint: it’s probably connected to your place where you are struggling)? How is God inviting you to continue the reformation of our church and our world? We are not yet what we shall be, but let’s keep growing toward it, together.