Monday, November 22, 2010

Will You Stand Up or Just Watch?

A more literal translation of the original Greek in Luke 23:35, part of yesterday's Gospel lesson, reads like this:
And the people stood beholding. And also the rulers scoffed, saying, "Others he saved; let him save himself, if this man is the Christ, the Chosen One of God."
The verse comes as part of Luke's account of Jesus' crucifixion. It describes two groups: the people (in Greek, the laos, from which we get the English word laity) and the rulers (in Greek, the archontes, or the first ones), which can be translated as leaders. "The rulers" in this passage is not a reference to the civil rulers, the foreign Roman conquerors, but to the religious leaders. They were the Temple leaders of God's chosen people, the Jews.

The "actions" of each group interest me.

The people stand and watch as a man who has committed no crime is subjected to execution at the hands of the Gentile Romans. The people may have been horrified by what they saw, but they did nothing.

I think it's safe to say that they actually relish their lack of religious power or influence. These things enable them to hide behind a feigned ignorance about Jesus. Their ignorance must be fake because even one of the hardened criminals being executed next to Jesus can see that Jesus is the King. He understands that Jesus will somehow live on beyond death, confesses his sins to Jesus, and professing faith in Jesus as the King of kings, asks to be remembered in Jesus' kingdom. The people simply could not have been ignorant about Who Jesus is.

But the people know that if they confess their sins and profess faith in Christ, crosses might await them, too. They'd rather save their necks and forgo being part of Jesus' eternal kingdom than be with Jesus in paradise. Taking a stand is too risky for them, too inconvenient.

The other group in the verse is the leaders. One thing especially interests me about their words. There is an intrinsic confession of faith in Jesus' power: "Others he saved." They acknowledge the reports about Jesus to be true. They knew that Jesus had saved some from death (like Jairus' daughter and his friend, Lazarus), saved others from demon possession, saved some from blindness, saved some from execution, saved others from disease, saved still others from social shunning. In other words, they acknowledged all of the saving deeds that pointed to Jesus as the long anticipated Christ (Messiah or Anointed One or King), but refused to bow down to Him.

The leaders knew Who Jesus was, but instead of welcoming Him or trusting the witness about Him in God's Word--what we Christians know as the Old Testament portion of our Bibles, they wanted Jesus dead. They loved their own power and position more than they loved God. In fact, they had replaced God's Word with their own teaching. When God showed up in the flesh, He threatened them.

In the days of the Reformation, Martin Luther pointed out that the leaders of the sixteenth century Church had arrogated powers to themselves that didn't belong to them. Through an elaborate legalistic system, they stood between the God revealed in Christ and the laity. They tried to keep the people from reading the Bible. They changed the liturgy, usually spoken in a language only elites could understand, from a means of praising and interacting with God, to an object of terror, grim obligation, superstition, and extortion.

Luther, in many ways, sought to tear down the walls between the God revealed in Christ and the people. He pointed to passages like 1 Peter 2:9-10, to say that "ordinary" Christian laypeople had a priesthood. (A priest is a person who advocates for God before people and advocates for people before God.)

This, of course, is a liberating notion. Historians like Rodney Stark and Alvin J. Schmidt have shown that this teaching that all believers are equal in the sight of God, each with their own ministries, played a central role in the development of the Enlightenment, the idea of the individual, the modern democracy, and market capitalism.

But the priesthood of all believers also carries with it responsibility. Christian laypeople who know Jesus as Messiah and King can no longer dodge either His Lordship over their lives or their responsibilities as priests. Peter says that the priesthood of all believers has a purpose; God makes us priests "in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9).

In Lutheran circles, this means that while pastors have certain functions--our confessions speak of the pastor's ministry of "Word and Sacrament," it doesn't alter the fact that all Christians are privileged to have their own relationship with Jesus Christ. It doesn't alter the fact that they are called to know the Word of God for themselves. It doesn't alter the fact they're called to grow and mature in their faith and that they have their own ministries.

Today, many of the elites in my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), in the name of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call, "cheap grace," are telling us that people don't need Christ for salvation, that repentance is unnecessary, that the Word of God is only one source of authority in the lives of Christians and the Church (rather than the authoritative source and norm of our life, faith, and practice), and that if you accept the Bible's teachings that sexual intimacy is to be confined to heterosexual marriage, you're guilty of sin.

The question before laypeople in the ELCA is simple: Will you accept these false teachings and ignore your duties as priests of God, or will you lay claim to your God-given role and trust in Christ alone? Will you seek to reform our denominational body?

Today, in modern North America, no Christian leader can order your crucifixion. So, the only things impeding any ELCA layperson from praying and working to bring our denomination back under the Lordship of Jesus Christ are indifference, laziness, or complicity with false teaching.

ELCA Lutherans: Our denomination is in error. Will you stand up for Jesus or will you just watch?

If you're intent on doing more than watching, why not take the following initial steps?
  • Pray that God will bring reform and renewal to the ELCA
  • Get involved in a group Bible study in your church
  • Go to the Lutheran CORE web site and see for yourself if what you find there doesn't make sense and square with what Lutherans believe about Christian faith (Lutheran CORE is a group committed to reform and renewal in North American Lutheranism, whether one is committed to remaining in the ELCA or to being part of new bodies, such as Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ or The North American Lutheran Church)
  • Read The Book of Concord, containing the basic confessional affirmations of Lutheran Christianity
  • You might also want to read a book of essays written mostly by Lutheran laypeople and clergy called, By What Authority?: Confronting Churches Who No Longer Believe Their Own Message
  • Ask God what He might want you to do as part of your own ministry

[UPDATE: The verification words that popped up when I posted the link to this piece over on Facebook were: "On Lummox." They don't quite have the ring of, "Onward, Christian soldiers," but when spoken to a spectating denomination, might, I guess, have the same basic meaning.]

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