Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
Since we are receiving new members at worship this weekend and since we have what appears to be a rather “odd” parable from Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson, a story that at first appears unfair, but only because it is not about fairness but is about God’s grace and love for humankind, I thought it appropriate to reflect with you on the basics of our Lutheran faith.
The basics of our Lutheran faith are centered in the grace, the love, of God for people, the generous love of God for people, which is the actual theme of today’s somewhat strange Gospel lesson which is often called the parable of the “Laborers in the Vineyard.” God is generous and treats everyone equally.
Fifteen years ago next month, on Reformation Day, October 31, 1999, representatives of the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church signed an historic agreement, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, at worship services in the city of Augsburg, Germany. One of those signing representing global Lutherans was then ELCA Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson. Other world Lutheran and Roman Catholic leaders also signed the document which basically said that Martin Luther was right, that, as Christians, we are justified, saved, by God’s grace, God’s love for us, alone and that we cannot earn our salvation – it is a free gift of God given to us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Shortly after this historic occasion, I took part in a US celebration held at the congregation where Kris and I were members at that time, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Park Ridge, Illinois. At that worship service, Bishop Anderson dialogued about this agreement with the local Roman Catholic Bishop, Chicago Archdiocese Cardinal Frances George.
It was a wonderful service, but what I remember most clearly was a question asked Cardinal George during the question and answer session which followed the service. A life-long Roman Catholic lay woman asked the Cardinal, “Does this agreement mean that the Roman Catholic Church is not the only true church?” This was obviously something she had been taught as she grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinal George answered without hesitation, “Yes, that is what it means.”
Of course, despite our agreement on grace, there still are differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics and other Christians. It is appropriate to talk about the basics of our Lutheran faith anytime, but especially on a weekend when we receive new members.
These are the great truths of Martin Luther that remain core beliefs for Lutherans:
• Justification by grace, God’s love for us, accepted through faith in Jesus Christ, which I have already mentioned today;
• The priesthood of all believers, how all are equal before God;
• The emphasis on the Bible and its teachings as the root and grounding for our lives as Christians;
• How we believe that each believer is both a saint and a sinner, sometimes at the same time, and still loved and saved by God; and
• How we are to live both in this world but remain not of this world.
Those are wonderful core beliefs that we Lutherans acknowledge and celebrate to this day. But, truth to tell, none of them alone is unique to the Lutheran Church. Many other faiths, even most other faiths, incorporate all or some of them as basic to their Christian beliefs also.
I well remember a question addressed in the question and answer column of The Lutheran magazine many years ago. The questioner asked, “Is the Lutheran Church the one true church?” The magazine responded, “Yes, as are the other Christian churches.”
When I speak with visitors and new members, I often speak about the differences among Christian groups, differences such as
• Infant or believer baptism;
• The number and nature of sacraments – Lutherans have two, baptism and holy communion, while Roman Catholics have seven; and
• The differing views of Holy Communion – grape juice or wine, how communion is shared – at the altar or passed in the pews, how we view the bread and wine during communion, whether it actually become the body and blood of Christ, as Roman Catholics believe, or remains bread and wine around which Jesus is truly present, as we Lutherans believe.
To these, I often add some of the obvious differences that our church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has from some other Christian denominations – we ordain women, for example, and have married priests/pastors, both obvious differences between our church and the Roman Catholic Church and even, in terms of women pastors, between our church and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod which does not ordain women. Similar to the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church we now also ordain both heterosexuals and homosexuals.
But, these are all adiaphora, a wonderful theological word which means “extra” or “peripheral.” They are important but not central to our faith. It really does not matter if a church practices infant or adult baptism or believes the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ during communion as Roman Catholics believe or that Christ is truly present in the bread and the wine as we Lutherans believe. It really does not matter whether one worships with a set order of service, as we Lutherans do, or in silence like the Quakers or very loudly like many Pentecostals. It does not matter if your worship music is hymns from the 16th, 18th, or 20th century or yesterday’s rap or hip-hop music.
What is central to the Christian Church, and all that is central, is Jesus Christ. What is central is Jesus Christ.
And, I believe, what is important when we do differentiate among Christian denominations and groups is how we view Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
You see, there is one very important difference among Christian Churches, one that theologians call the theology of the cross versus the theology of glory, the theology of the cross versus the theology of glory. This is one very important difference.
Our church, along with many others, emphasizes the theology of the cross. This Jesus willingly goes to a horrible death to save humankind. His life on earth is not triumphant. He does not wipe out his enemies or, as the Jews had hoped, bring God’s kingdom to earth during his life.
In reality, all does not go well for Jesus. He is arrested, mocked, imprisoned, and tortured. Then Jesus dies. Not only does Jesus die, he is executed cruelly by the Roman Empire.
This Jesus is not about triumph or glory in any earthly sense. He is about forgiveness and love.
Now, contrast this theology with one you might see offered by some television evangelists. It is called the theology of glory or the theology of wealth. Simply stated, this wrong-headed theology, I have no opinion on this (smile), says that once one believes in Jesus Christ and confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior, that all will go well in one’s life. Some carry this even further to state, or at least imply, that once one gives him or herself to Jesus, one will become rich and be successful. These charlatans live extravagant lives and, often, promise similar wealth and success to those who believe as they do. Actually, they promise similar wealth and success to those who send in money to support their high living!
This theology of glory has become a growing phenomenon in the so called “Third World” of Africa and Latin America. Churches which promise earthly success and wealth for those who believe as they do understandably have a huge appeal for people who have little or nothing, folks who are the poorest of the poor.
Such a theology of glory is actually very appealing to everyone. Think of it. This theology of glory promises that if I believe in Jesus all will go well in my life. That is truly appealing. And, as we all well know, it is also a lie.
You and I know this is a lie. Being a Christian does not promise that all will go well in one’s life. Our own lives are living examples of this. We believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and have accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and, yet, all does not always go well in our lives. Sometimes we suffer. Family and others dear to us die and leave us. Marriages and important friendships end. Those we love who are sick sometimes do not get well, they remain sick and even die.
Our own lives are living examples to the lie of any theology which promises glory in this life.
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, his promise of justification, love, for us for all time does not mean that our lives will be simple or easy or without tragedy. Let me repeat that important point – Jesus’ promise of love for us for all time does not mean that our lives will be easy. If you do not believe this, just look around this morning at your fellow believers worshipping with us today. You know the sadness and sorrow that many believers here carry every day.
Instead, Jesus’ promise is simple – Jesus promises that he will love us and forgive us. Jesus promises that he will love us and be with us for all times. Jesus will be with us through any and all the difficulties of this life, when things go our way and when they do not, in good times and bad times, even when our own lives and those we love are cut short by accident or disease. Through all of life, good and bad, Jesus promises to be with us, always with us.
There is no earthly glory here – for us in this life or even for Jesus. Instead, Jesus brings two promises: His continued love for us in this world, no matter what we may face in this life, and the promise of life eternal with him.
And, my friends, when you think about it, that is enough – the promise of God’s presence with us, from now until the end of time. No matter what this life may throw at us.
A wonderful promise from Jesus for us – love for us today and all days and in whatever is to come!
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California