Martin Luther said a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. Call a thing a thing. Which sounds to me like a call to use the best words you’ve got access to, and speak the truth.
That’s what our young people will do this morning, in making their statement of faith. Writing out a faith statement is one of our traditions for confirmands—these are young people affirming their baptism. When they are confirmed in the faith, they become full members of the church. They can vote in congregational meetings! Their voice can be heard.
But we’re not just here to create more members of the church. We’re here to nurture fellow workers in the reign of God. We’re here to form theologians of the cross. We’re here to learn how to call a thing a thing, to speak the truth, to recognize evil and to persist as agents of healing.
The forces of evil are huge, there’s no doubt. Evil visited our own neighborhood in the past week, in a school shooting at Central Visual and Performing Arts and Collegiate High School, where one of our church members is a student. We are grieving the lives lost, grieving the conditions that led a young man to commit such violence, grieving the gun laws that allowed this to happen, and we can’t help but ask, what does this mean?
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? This is the question asked over and over again in Martin Luther’s catechism. I don’t give tests as part of confirmation class, because life gives its own tests. Our faith has been tested, is being tested in the real world. Martin Luther read his catechism daily, to humble himself and to remember he always needed to be reminded of the basics of faith. If you’re not sure what’s a catechism or what it looks like, we have it printed in the hymnal—Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 1160.
It’s important as part of our faith formation to study theology, the words we use about God and about the reign of God. We talk about being sinners and saints at the same time, about law and gospel, about sin and grace. I wondered for a while if I was not a faithful preacher of the Gospel, or perhaps I’m not faithful enough to my tradition because I don’t tend to mention sin or grace all that often. But at a recent theological conference, I learned some interesting points from Dr. Ray Pickett, a New Testament scholar and a Lutheran.
He pointed out that when the texts of the New Testament were being written, the writers used the words that were common in their world, not necessarily the words that were common to religious language. Dr. Pickett gave examples of faith, righteousness—these were words that weren’t necessarily religious at the time the New Testament books and letters were being composed.
He said that we’re always translating the faith for the world, in words that will make sense. The language of sin and grace isn’t all that common in everyday language—how often do you talk about sin with your neighbor next door? How often do you talk about grace among your coworkers? Probably not a lot. Here’s my confession: I don’t talk about sin or grace all that often among my own colleagues, and my colleagues are other Lutheran pastors. <clutches pearls>
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t mean we’re not still talking about the essence of sin and grace. So what language do we use instead? Maybe I don’t say the word sin, but I do use the word brokenness, or I speak about disconnection, which is broken relationships, whether broken relationships between humans or a broken relationship with God.
And instead of grace, I find myself talking about connection or community—that’s how we understand God’s presence among us, the power of the Holy Spirit bringing together the Body of Christ in a community. Could it be that this is how we experience God’s grace, this mystical bringing-together of people who otherwise wouldn’t have anything in common? How is God working if not through us?—to show love to one another in real time, in the real world, with real tangible Sacraments and real food and what we call the real presence of Jesus Christ.
My point is: we’re always translating faith for the world we live in. That’s what Martin Luther did over five hundred years ago; in fact, this year is the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s translation of the Bible into the common language of the people of his time, where he lived.
We continue the reforming work begun so long ago, by sharing God’s love with our neighbors, welcoming people to be who they are as God created each of us in God’s image, unique and beautiful. We continue reforming the church, looking for ways to take part in God’s healing work in this broken world.
We continue reforming ourselves, which is what the ritual of confirmation is about—affirming the promises made in baptism, since these young people were baptized as little children and now they take on these promises for themselves. We are remembering who we are and where we come from—in baptism, we become children of God. We are created in God’s image. And no amount of evil in the world can take this truth away from us.
It is true that it takes an incredible amount of strength to get up every day, to send a child to school or to be a student in school, to go about our lives in a broken world. But it is also true that Jesus Christ has set us free from fear of death, free to live in relationship with God, free to be healed and to be part of that healing for others. Remember who you are, child of God.