A recent comment from a colleague was telling and went something like this: “I have been called to a church that is deeply divided over what is happening in the ELCA. And when it comes to WordAlone, half of the members applaud it and are hoping for direction from it, and half of the members abhor it and would like to see it go away. I don’t know what to do. Any suggestions?” This is a theme often heard from both pastors and laity. But as Lutherans, we do have some clarity about “what do to.”
For Lutherans, after all, are those who share some common convictions about some very basic things: the Word, the church and the call.
The “Word” created the world. That same Word justifies the ungodly, creates faith, makes believers and is the end of all things. Jesus Christ, the alpha and omega, the way, the truth and the life is and does all of this. The Word cuts its own course in the world without any assistance from us, other than to proclaim it (which is also God’s doing). The Word, therefore, is not a lamb to be protected but is more like a lion to be unleashed. So one thing to do is to unleash God’s Word faithfully and fearlessly. Let it do its work.
Lutherans have also been clear about “the church.” While the New Testament may reveal and support a number of ways for churches to come together to structure themselves (in a first order way), Lutherans “travel lightly” when it comes to ecclesiology. Article VII is clear: “It is taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel. For it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word.” Anything that would suggest otherwise must be rejected by Lutherans.
That is why ordination requirements mandated by Called to Common Mission, the full communion agreement between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The Episcopal Church USA, and the current notion that the “unity of the church” can be broken by a vote in Orlando must be rejected. So, another thing one can do, then, is to define the church by being the church, while recognizing how this can put one at odds with a denominational stance.
Lutherans have also been clear about “the call.” “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments (Article V).” Pastors answer this call to proclaim in a way that is different, but in no way higher, than other calls to proclaim. When the external Word of the Gospel comes to the likes of us, it sends us as proclaimers to our neighbors. This is why Luther would answer the question, “Do I have a calling?” with another question: “Do you have a neighbor?” A “yes” to the latter is a “yes” to the former. Another thing one can do is to recognize the urgency of our callings.
But now comes the question: “Who is my neighbor?” And with this question of vocation (calling) comes the cross that meets us in our vocations. In Luther’s understanding of vocation, we see his concern for both the Gospel and for the neighbor. And, in truth, this was the concern of my colleague in the divided congregation. His faithful understanding of “the Word,” and “the church” and “the call” was clear and was preached and taught. He was really talking about the cross of vocation.
This is not a cross one seeks after, but it is one that comes to us in our callings. Out of concern for both the Gospel and the neighbor, Luther will not make it easy for us to flee from the call to proclaim boldly. He especially speaks here to preachers: “Anyone who is supposed to criticize the whole world – emperors, kings, princes, wise men, learned men – has to stick his neck out. But if I am hypocritical and say everything is all right with them, I get off scot free and keep their favor and acceptance. In the meanwhile, I flatter myself that I intend to preach the Gospel, too. Still I become salt that has lost its taste; for I am letting the people stick in their old delusions of their own flesh, until finally they go to the devil, with me in the lead (Luther’s Works, Sermon on the Mount).”
But Luther also will contend that the neighbor before us is the one to whom we are called. The “neighbor” for my colleague is the divided congregation to which he is called. To make abstract and simple something so concrete and difficult (that is: one’s calling) serves neither the Gospel nor the neighbor. For those of us who share deep concerns about the direction of the ELCA, this speaks clearly of the need to be in relationship with each other. This, of course, is the reason for coming together around a confession of faith that is the basis for an association of churches (see resolutions adopted at the 2005 WordAlone Convention on the WordAlone website).
THAT we are faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and serve the neighbor is non-negotiable. HOW we now carry out this calling will depend largely on the neighbor we have before us. WHEN we stand together is now!