Two of today's lectionary readings were enough to give a Lutheran hives: Texts where God tells us, in some pretty strong language, to do stuff. To love God with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength. To not only listen to Jesus, but to actually do what he says.
But then, sandwiched between them we heard our favorite text, the one that gets us to humming "A Mighty Fortress," there in the 3rd chapter of Romans: "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from the works prescribed by the law."
How do we harmonize these two concepts? -- that God has a claim on our lives, and certain guidelines for how we live them, but that despite this we do not live under the burden of the Law?
It's hard. And a lot of American Protestantism doesn't seem able or willing to try. I can't tell you how many Internet discussions I've had with "born-again" folks who are determined to turn the Gospel into the Law, and who confuse justification with sanctification -- who start out agreeing that, yes, we're saved by grace through faith and not by works, but who in the next breath add, "...and then you have to....and then you have to..." As my pastor likes to say, "That's supposed to be the Good News?..."
We Lutherans, on the other hand, often seem entirely too complacent in our justification; content to remain "the frozen chosen," in a sort of spiritual infancy -- not willing to learn to turn over on our own, to start crawling and babbling, walking and talking and otherwise growing into our faith as we live in the world. We've got the "saved" part of the equation down; the "saved for what?" not so much.
But I think I might have an insight into our dilemma, based on my own experience.
I'm a relatively new homeowner. After spending all of my early adulthood renting, I returned to my hometown, to my parents' house...which I affectionally call Cold Comfort Cottage, because like the house in Cold Comfort Farm, this house has, shall we say, maintenance issues: gutters that leak; squeaky floors; bi-fold closet doors with a tendency to run off track; external insulation around the foundation that is degrading. The place was intended to be my parents' easy-come, easy-go retirement cottage after 40 years in a big old farmhouse, and frankly toward the end my dad was too tired to care a whole lot about keeping the place up.
Enter me. Bottom-line: I am not a fixer-upper kind of person. I don't have the same home-ownership fire in the belly that makes some people spend every weekend at Home Depot learning how to build a deck or texturize paint. And when circumstances force me to learn a new home maintenance task, I don't go about it with the same relish that I would, say, learning a new language, or how to use some interesting new piece of electronics. I have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the project. And I tend not to go about it with my whole heart; I'm tentative, whiny, prone to half-measures.
After thinking about this for awhile, I realized what is holding me back in my tool-time duties is...fear; the other bad four-letter word starting with F. I'm afraid of screwing up. I'm afraid of making the situation worse. So I tend to do nothing unless I absolutely, positively have to.
I think fear is at the root of both Christian legalism and Christian complacency. Some of us process our fear by obsession-compulsion; needing to cross every T and dot every I, "or else," and getting very angry at others who don't or won't get with the program. Some of us process our fear by never taking that first step into the unknown when called upon to do "the next right thing."
That's the bad news. The good news, according to our lessons, is that we don't have to do it right; we just do it, because the God we love tells us it's our job and that makes us want to do it for God, knowing that, no matter what degree of competence or success we seem to experience, we live enfolded in God's grace -- grace that makes us bold to act.
Martin Luther actually wrote a great deal about Christians performing good works on behalf of their neighbors, noting at one point that someone in whom Christ dwells through faith can't help but do good works. Says Luther elsewhere, of Christ present in faith in the life of a Christian:
A Christian becomes a skillful artisan and a wonderful creator, who can make joy out of sadness, comfort out of terror, righteousness out of sin, and life out of death.
(This quote, by the way, was taken from Christ Present in Faith by Tuomo Mannermaa, Fortress Press, an outstanding book that finds intriguing parallels between Luther's theology of Christ's indwelling presence in the life of the Christian and the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis.)
I'm still nervous about tackling my gutters -- but apprenticing myself to the Artisan who can give me the courage to tackle the next right thing on behalf of the people around me in my particular Sitz im Leben, minute by minute, day by day...I want that. As the hymn in With One Voice puts it, "I want to walk as a child of the light." And not just because the boss is my Brother, the benefits are swell, I won't get fired, and I won't fall off any ladders. Well, I'm not sure about that last one.
Just do it. That's what the lessons tell us today. As Augustine put it, love God and do as you like, and pretty soon what you like starts getting closer to what God likes. Christ has begun an exciting new construction project in our hearts, and is sending us out on jobs of our own. Talk about "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."
Go in peace and serve the Lord!
Thanks be to God!
"Christ the Carpenter," Christ Church Priory