On Friday evening, October 21, Crown of Life Lutheran Church and School hosted “Proud to Be Lutheran” night. The evening included worship, a school play about Martin Luther, chili cook-off dinner, children’s artwork displays relating to the Lutheran Reformation, and more. The offering from the opening Evening Prayer service resulted in over $3,000 for tuition assistance at Crown of Life Lutheran School. The following devotion was a part of the evening’s opening service:
How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Twenty-three years ago, when our current hymnal, Christian Worship, was first published, there was a definite answer to that question. How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Ten: One to change the bulb and nine to say how much they liked the old one better!
There is no shortage of jokes about Lutherans (just ask Garrison Kiellor to tell you a few!), and there is quite a bit of “inside humor” among Lutherans. Lutherans supposedly like to drink coffee even if it’s 110 degrees outside; rumor has it that some churches consider coffee to be a sacrament! Lutherans are known for filling a church from the back; rare is the person who willingly chooses to sit in the front row. Lutherans assume that Jello is one of the four basic food groups; in fact, if you’re really Lutheran, you prepare Jello that matches the liturgical color of the season. Lutherans are more reserved with their emotions in worship, to the degree that some have labeled Lutherans, “the frozen chosen.” Even though we are more reserved with our emotions, we are nevertheless quite musical: Lutherans can sing four-part harmony moments after coming out of the womb.
Most humor has an element of truth in it, and there is an element of truth in the humor you just heard, but at the end of the day, that’s all those comments are—humor. Your love of coffee does not make you Lutheran (which is good, because I don’t like coffee)! So what is it that makes you Lutheran?
Perhaps the first question we should ask is what made Martin Luther Lutheran? Luther, after all, was once as devout a Roman Catholic as you could have found in the medieval church. Why would he have made the move from staunch loyalty to the church to staunch criticism of the church to becoming the inadvertent founder of the Reformation church that now bears his name? And why would he have made that move when it almost cost him his life?
The answer to that question can be discovered, at least in part, in our short Bible reading for this service. For a long time, Luther struggled with the Bible’s phrase, “the righteousness of God.” Every time Luther heard the expression, “the righteousness of God,” all he could think about was God’s righteousness, God’s holiness. God is holy and righteous and perfect, and that’s the same kind of behavior that he demands from us, but even the most obedient and pious monk couldn’t live up to God’s righteousness. And with that misunderstanding of the term, Luther found himself in spiritual despair, frustrated by the fact that he was never going to be righteous enough in God’s eyes.
But as Luther struggled with his understanding of “the righteousness of God,” the Holy Spirit used that wrestling with the Scriptures to finally give him the understanding he needed. In tonight’s reading from Romans, Saint Paul said that the gospel reveals the “righteousness of God,” and that this righteousness of God is something is completely “by faith.” Suddenly Luther understood that what the Bible was talking about was not a quality in God but a gift from God. The “righteousness of God” wasn’t referring to God’s holiness—though God certainly is holy. That phrase was referring to the holiness that comes from God through Jesus. When the Holy Spirit brings someone to faith in Jesus Christ, they receive the perfect holiness of Jesus so that Jesus’ holiness counts for them. God the Father looks at everyone who trusts in Jesus and he no longer sees their sin, but rather he sees the righteousness that Jesus lived for them and on their behalf. The person who trusts in Jesus has been covered and clothed in the perfection of Jesus. Our sin and guilt are very real, but sin’s guilt and punishment were removed when Jesus suffered for our sins on the cross.
When Luther finally realized that the phrase he found so troublesome simply meant the righteousness we receive from God, it completely changed the way he viewed God. He wrote that he felt like heaven’s doors opened when he finally came to correctly understand that phrase. And if you have spent any time in Luther’s shoes—any time wondering if a perfect God will tolerate your imperfections—you can probably appreciate the feeling of having heaven’s doors opened when you came to a clear understanding of “the righteousness of God.”
What a blessing to know and trust that what Jesus did on Calvary’s cross, he did for me! What a comfort to not have to lie awake at night replaying my failures of the past 24 hours and wondering if God is going to make me pay for all those failures for the rest of eternity!
That’s a big part of what it means to be Lutheran: We believe, teach, and confess that Jesus’ righteousness counts for us; that by simply trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we stand before God as his perfect and perfectly forgiven children. And that’s an understanding that we can certainly be proud of. We can, in a sense, be proud of the clear confession of faith and the clear expression of God’s grace that is proclaimed in the Lutheran Church.
But we dare not let that pride turn to boasting and bragging. It is one thing to be proud to be Lutheran, to be proud and grateful that the Holy Spirit has led us to understand and appreciate God’s gracious gifts to us. But it’s quite another if we use that as reason to look down on others who may still have a faith that’s not completely clear about the gospel. We dare not become the Lutheran Pharisee in the temple who says, “I thank thee, God, that I am not like other men: Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, or even like those mega-church members down the street.” That’s not being proud to be Lutheran. That’s just hellishly arrogant.
Being proud to be Lutheran means we are grateful for God’s grace. Being proud to be Lutheran means that we recognize our relationship with God was accomplished entirely by God—from God the Father choosing us to be in his family from eternity, to God the Son coming from heaven to earth and enduring hell so that one day he will bring us from earth to heaven forever, to God the Holy Spirit using the Word (represented by this pulpit) and Sacraments (represented by this altar and baptism font) to bring us to faith and keep us in faith. Being proud to be Lutheran means that we aren’t boasting in ourselves, but we’re proud to boast in our perfect Savior and our gracious God.
I’d like to suggest that being proud to be Lutheran should mean one more thing. If we realize that our relationship with God is entirely accomplished by God, and if we realize that we cannot claim an ounce of credit for these great blessings we have received, then is there any reason that we should think that these blessings should only belong to a certain “club” of people who bear the name Lutheran? I don’t know if this is always a fair assessment, but I’ve heard it said that Lutherans aren’t always the best at evangelism. I’ve heard the claim that Lutherans aren’t always aggressive when it comes to confessing their faith among others so that others may be led to faith in Jesus or to a clearer understanding of their faith in Jesus.
I don’t know if that’s a fair assessment. Sometimes criticism can be painted with a brush that’s too broad. But there’s one sure way to make that criticism invalid. Be proud to be Lutheran! Let people see that love of coffee and Jello is not what makes you Lutheran. Let people hear you confess the grace and gift of God’s righteousness to you from Jesus. Let people see that Lutheranism is not a club of upper Midwest conservative German-Americans, but a family that warmly invites and welcomes people from every race and tribe and nation. And then pray that through your bold witness and your proud confession of faith, others may hear and believe and take pride in the gospel gift of Jesus’ righteousness that is yours and theirs simply by faith in Jesus Christ.
With those thoughts in mind, we hear the apostle Paul speak to us in tonight’s Scripture selection. A reading from Romans, chapter one: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'”