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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
October 09, 2022
Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:17-18, 22-24
My preaching text for today is from the first chapter of First Corinthians, beginning at verse 17. The Apostle Paul writes:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Word of God. Word of Life.
Grace and peace be yours, my siblings in Christ, from God our Father, and from his Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we are made new. Amen.
How exciting to be with you today! Thanks for welcoming me. And thanks for being open to this shared sermon series “Lutheran Theological Gems” with other local Lutheran congregations and pastors of the East King County Cluster of the Northwest Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Wow, that’s really saying a lot, isn’t it?
It really IS saying a lot, in more ways than one, as there is a growing spirit of collaboration and partnership among us. Conversations are moving us to planning, and planning to actions, like this pulpit sharing series, as we become more united for the sake of the gospel, an impactful Lutheran presence on the Eastside, our members, and our neighbors near and far.
I’m super excited about all this, and about getting to share one of those Lutheran gems with you today, Martin Luther’s core doctrine of the Theology of the Cross, as together – this year especially, together – we move toward the Lutheran High Holy Day – Reformation Sunday, and our shared messages on the greatest of Luther’s gems, “Salvation by Grace through Faith Alone.”
The story is told that, as a young man, before what we now would mark as the start of the Reformation, Luther shared this advice with one of his friend and fellow monks: “Learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to praise him and, despairing of yourself, say, ‘Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness.””
Years later, in heated debate with the illustrious humanist Desiderius Erasmus, Dr. Luther, by then well-known himself, would return to this foundation focus. Luther said to Erasmus, “We teach nothing save Christ crucified.”‘ This – what came to be known as Theologia Crucis or the Theology of the Cross – remained at the heart of Luther’s theology throughout his life and is still at the heart of what it means to be a Lutheran Christian.
Indeed, other than the four solas – Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, and Christ alone – perhaps no other Lutheran Theological Gem shines more brilliantly for and through Luther than the Theology of the Cross. From it flowed most of his other biblical and theological understandings – who God is, how God acts towards us, the human condition, the doctrine of the Word and Sacraments, his understanding of the calling of the preacher AND the lay person, and both his ethics and his pastoral approach when confronted by the pain and suffering of this world.
Luther first used the term Theologia Crucis in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, which he was called to in response to his famous – or for the established church of his day, his infamous – 95 theses or points of contention and debate. Luther expected his theses to lead to an open discussion among himself and other professors and theologians. The pope and leading bishops expected Luther to come to Heidelberg and confess his transgressions and theological errors. Neither ended up happening. Instead, Luther found himself in a standoff with his advisories. And the whole thing ended with his well-known conclusion – “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience and Scripture is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand; I can do no other. So help me God.”
And here WE stand, more than 500 years later, where Martin stood, at the foot of the Cross of Christ. It is here that we most clearly come to comprehend both the righteousness and the mercy of God. It is here that we come to know agape love, love beyond measure, love that counts not the cost nor the consequence. It is here we learn that our standing before God is not about who we are or what we have done, but about who Christ is, and what Christ has done for us – what we could NEVER do for ourselves.
The Theology of the Cross, like most of Luther’s great gems of theology, can best understood in contrast with its counterpoint. So it is that today we consider not only the Theology of the Cross, but that to which Luther compared and contrasted it, the Theology of Glory. For Dr. Luther, the primary difference between the Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory is their antithetical understandings of the ability or inability of humans to justify themselves before a holy God.
Luther explained that the Theologian of the Cross sees God, not oneself, as the acting agent in salvation, and understands the biblical truths of our utter inability to earn our standing with God by our own works, our own righteousness, our own religiosity. The Theology of the Cross in short, is the understanding that our only source of hope comes not from WITHIN us, but outside of ourselves. The Cross Theologian rejects the idea that humans can attain righteousness in any degree by keeping the works of the law, but is saved and sanctified solely by grace, as we read so often in the New Testament, especially the letters of the first and greatest theologian of the cross, the Apostle Paul.
This is the Theology of the Cross, which we confess sometimes when we come together for worship, when we share traditional Lutheran and Luther-an words – “We confess we are in bondage to sin and … cannot free ourselves.” We cannot free ourselves – not by any means, not even by our best efforts, not even by God’s good gift of the Law.
The Theology of Glory, on the other hand, focuses on us and our actions more than on Christ and the Cross. Those who have taught this understanding – in Martin Luther’s time, and still in our own – see humans of capable of being good, of doing good, of rising to the standards of the Law – if only we would just try harder, commit to doing better, have more faith, be more religious and pious and perfect. If only we…WE would do more.
Comparing the Theology of the Cross and its reliance on grace to the Theology of Human Glory and its reliance on human effort, why would anyone teach or preach or be drawn to and attempt to practice the latter when offered the former? To be good enough, to be PERFECT, to save ourselves? It seems … well it seems to be what both the Bible and Luther call it. It seems impossible, right?
So then, why did this counter understanding of salvation arise in Luther’s day? And why do we still see shadows of it today, and hear echoes of its heresy in our time?
The main answers I have to offer – in line with Luther and others – are pride and power. Human pride wants to believe that we can make it on our own, or that we SHOULD be able to, by our own efforts. Human pride wants to place us on center stage, to be the lead actor in our human drama, and to be the lords of our own lives, the captains of our own destinies. Pride tells us that if we can earn our place before God, and our place in heaven one day, we can walk through those pearly gates with our heads held high, chins up and chests out, because we did it. We made it. We deserve it.
Pride also tells us we not only deserve heavenly rewards for being so good, so righteous, so religious, but earthly ones, too. It’s from this age-old theology of glory that we get today’s false gospel of prosperity, with famous and often very wealthy themselves pastors telling themselves and their congregations and their viewing audiences that God wants them to always be happy and healthy and wealthy and live lives that are blessed and carefree.
Pride is the bait in the theology of glory trap. But some have also been driven to it by the misuse of power. Especially in Luther’s day, but again in our own, some in places of religious power – which they are called to use for the sake of others but have historically misused for the perpetuation of their own power and prosperity – have tried to convince ordinary Christians that without them – priest and bishops and popes – and without the church and church rules and regulations and church practices like buying indulgences – which were “Get out of Jail Free Cards, or really get out of Purgatory faster cards – and pilgrimages, and payments to the church, and regular confession to an ordained priest who can prescribe penances to make up for such mistakes and who alone can pronounce forgiveness.
If ONLY the church and church officials can save, then people had to rely on and support and bow down to the church and church officials. The church, in this way, displaced God as the focus of faith. Today, while this kind of abuse still exists, it is more likely that what is taught ultimately leads to the individual human and their will and their efforts displacing God.
Like all sin, the grave error of the theology of glory is the desire for humans to want to be like God, to be gods, or at least the god and lord of their own lives. This, they would say, is the core of Christianity. Trying to be a good, godly, god-like person who, by their own efforts, ultimately saves themselves, at least to some degree.
For Luther, everything in Scripture, everything in human history, points to the cross, which points us to Christ, who points us to the God the Father. For Luther, and for Lutherans, this all points us to the Theology of the Cross, and to the truth that one’s relationship to God depends entirely on the saving event of the cross of Christ. Without Jesus, and without the Cross, we would be forever captive to sin. There is no other way, according to Luther, than the way that leads to Christ on the cross.
If this is so – and my friends, THIS IS SO – then, to ask a very Lutheran and Luther-an questions, well known to those of you who grew up learning to hear and speak your Christian faith with a Lutheran accent, perhaps in confirmation classes – “What does this mean?” What does the theology of the cross mean for us today?
First and foremost it means that God so loved the world – a world full of us fallen and fallible and due to sin imperfect beings – that God pointed out our condition to us through the Law and then, to save us from sin and ourselves, God sent his Son to us, not to condemn us through the Law, or condemn us to the impossible task of trying to live up to the law, or even more, to save ourselves by our own efforts, our own works, but that by grace through faith alone, anyone who believed in him, trusted in Jesus and not in themselves, would be saved. This is the good news. This is the gospel truth.
And because of that, being theologians of the cross also means we are set free by God to live for God and for one another and for all our neighbors, guided by the law and by the example and teaching of Jesus and by faithful proclaimers of Christ’s truths like the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther. We strive to live as God calls us to, in part through the Law, not in order to earn our salvation or prove to God we are worthy of mercy and grace, but in RESPONSE to God’s loving and merciful and gracious actions toward us.
And third, it means we also strive to know our place, and God’s. God is God, and we are not. Christ is Lord, and we are not. Salvation is from above, and not from below or within us. So we can let go of the burden of trying to be something or someone we are not, and live the life of liberty God offers us, a life of loving service, marked by gratitude and not by pride, focused upward and outward and not inward, curved in ourselves, which is how Luther described all sin.
Dear ones, dear fellow followers of Christ, dear fellow Lutherans, dear fellow theologians of the cross, let us keep our eyes upon Jesus, and on his cross, through which you and I have truly been set free. Free to live. Free to serve. Free to love. Thanks be to God. Amen.