No Short-Cut To Freedom

Martin Luther wrote many treatises. Perhaps the most world changing of them all was “The Freedom of the Christian,” in which he laid out how the Christian is perfectly freed by Christ’s gift to live for others.

Just two nights ago, on the 90 minute return from a startlingly beautiful concert of “Planet Earth Live” at Millenium Park in Chicago, two wonderful new friends asked Connie and me about our experiences since the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America took several actions to allow for the possibility of homosexuals to serve in ordained ministry and to have their unions somehow recognized and blessed in the church.

We noted how we and other members of Saint Luke Lutheran in Glen Ellyn, Illinois have discussed these issues through the years. And we were rather happy to report that, to our knowledge, no one had quit their fellowship at St. Luke because of the votes at the churchwide level.

But then I shared my strong belief that it is impossible to adequately prepare people to deal with this issue in any short-term study or process of discussion. This is because one cannot decide about ministry to or with homosexuals or any set of people on the basis of a few proof texts or official pronouncements. This is a matter of the way we relate to authority, in our lives and the way we envision and live our faith.

Luther was right. There is false faith that enslaves us falsely to demonic forces and then there is true faith which is a radical trust in the grace of God. Only this true faith frees us to live for others.

The issue of homosexuality is divisive because it dredges up people’s deep anxieties about sexuality which, in leave us particularly vulnerable to demonic forces which feed on fear and anxiety. To face them the way we must we must be able to practice our freedom. We must be able to relate to the authority not of demons, but of the living Lord.

False faith enslaves us to a need for certainty and control. We fall under the dominion of a false belief that our own or our institutional certainty is what saves us. We are saved because we are right.

Life in general is indeed full of uncertainties, and behind each of these we are both real and imagined threats. The entire biblical narrative can be seen as aimed at cautioning people not to fall victim to a paralyzing fear that the universe and history are composed only of threat. Deepest reality is a creation of God that is ample and good because they are in God’s hands. But false belief nudges us ever into the corner of thinking that, no, it is our understanding, control and certainty that saves us. The light at the end of the tunnel will be there for us because we are certain, in control and right.

In the case of homosexuality and the church people are told quite adamantly that it is all a matter of following what is laid out in the few Scriptural passages that condemn it. They are told it was the “ceremonial law” only that Jesus abrogated, so we know we are on the path of salvation when we believe Jesus enough to follow the moral laws of the Bible. When it is pointed out that we do ignore a great deal of the “moral law” when it involves sex and slavery and treatment of women as property and holy war, etc., those who are desperate enough to have certainty will simply retrench with their prejudices.

This is faith that is really no faith at all. Karl Barth criticized liberal Protestant theology as trying to defend Christianity by taking human nature and human religion as its starting point. He went as far as to suggest that all religion, because it seeks to understand and approach God on its own initiative, is  an exercise in unbelief. It is unbelief because it does not simply accept God’s self-revelation in the act of reconciliation in Christ.

What Barth said in response to liberal Protestant theology of the 19th and early 20th century could also be  said even more loudly about many iterations of orthodoxy today. In our zeal to defend the truth of our faith we slide into a defense of our dogmas in a way that causes us to forget our utter dependence on grace. For instance, while reading a catalog for a Lutheran seminary that saw itself as standing for a very pure and correct faith, I read the line that they believed in an inerrant interpretation of the Bible. Surely they wanted to say they interpreted the Bible with the presupposition that it was inerrant, but just as surely they inadvertently revealed where their true trust was placed: They are confident because they interpret without error and by logical extension, without sin.

Faith that is Christian belief is casting ones self on the mercy of God. We are sinners. We are fallible. And we are limited. We depend completely on the mercy of God. We are at the same time God’s highest creation and we carry with us the image of God and a Spirit-born thirst for God and righteousness. But, at the same time, we are creatures who are designed to be limited, dependent on God and interdependent on one another.

What allows us to live to our highest potential is nothing other than the intervention of God, and this comes in the form of grace.

When Jesus gives himself for us, it is this grace in its most accessible form. In spite of our sins and limitations we have been found and encountered by the God of mercy in Jesus Christ.

If there is any “exclusivity” in Christianity it is to insist that salvation must be by grace alone and Christ is the signal of that – the communication of that and offer of that to all humanity.

But the point is, there are no short cuts to this understanding. When you are stuck or enslaved in a counterfeit faith – a reliance on your own rightness, control and certainty, then it will take a great deal to liberate you. Only Jesus can roll back that stone.

The way Jesus does that is through the miracle of new creation—of allowing you to experience Christ’s resurrection in your spirit.

I suppose that can happen with a sudden miracle. But I am convinced such miracles really come about over time as we see the incarnate Christ working in community that is shaped by dialog with the Word of God in Scripture and in sermon and sacrament and in a sincere, honest living out of true faith’s freedom by people who live inside out. People who live the true faith are not concerned with being right or in control or even holy. Christ has taken care of all of that for them. They are concerned in living thankfully and amply for others.

What gets a person to that point? We don’t know. It is a mystery. As it is with all mysteries, we can know part but not all of it. We can, after years of life and thought, reflect on our own path. But we can never predict another’s path, much less build it for them.

It is only when we can get into living thankfully and amply and sense the power of community – the Body of Christ—does the Way, the Truth and the Life of the Scripture take shape as an incarnate Christ for us. Then we disregard the little ways we misunderstand or fail to fully appreciate the truths of Scripture and begin to get a small feel for the real truth.

Reinhold Niebuhr once quoted someone else in saying science tells a lot of little truths and added together they amount to one big lie. Religion tells a lot of little lies and added together they amount to one big truth. The big lie of science is evident in that we who strive the most to be advanced in technology and science have been led furthest from morality. We have fueled competition and destruction.

The many lies of the Christian Bible are notorious. There are errors to in science and history to be found there, and ample inconsistencies and self-contradictions. But the same is true of all poetry and literature that is worth anything. Yet poetic and imaginative truth is far more satisfying to the human spirit because we hunger for it. By the very fact that we cannot at any time possess all this deeper truth, we intimate that there is something else. Something beyond. Something greater than us and greater than our capacity to understand to hope for and strive for.

The way to approach authority rightly must be to do so as one liberated by grace to seek a Truth that leads us to live inside out – generously and amply. We thereby do not fear the loss of our own salvation, or the destruction of civilization or of the church. We trust all of that to the control and correctness of our saving God. Through this we open ourselves to the stranger more completely. We know God is not found in the certainty within us but in the vastness around us – the very things we do not understand or love enough. We know we are not saved by our belief in God, but by God’s belief in us.

It goes beyond saying that such a living and true faith is not arrived at easily. If we cannot listen to each other out of such a faith-born freedom we will not get very far by attending a half-dozen discussions or workshops. Our fears will sabotage every attempt at reconciliation or compromise.

There are no short cuts to the freedom of true faith or faithfulness. It is a life journey. It takes faithful pastoring and the mighty work of all the people of God. But above all it takes the gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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