Saturday, October 2, 2010

Life Overflowing: Semper Reformanda

Out of my distress I called on the LORD;  the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place.
Psalm 118:5

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1

On the last day of October we celebrate Reformation Day, recalling Martin Luther’s instigation of a far-reaching reform movement within the Catholic church of the middle ages. With a hammer, some nails and a freshly-written document (The 95 Theses) Luther lit a reforming fire that is still refining the church on earth.

“Semper reformanda” is a Latin slogan that means “always reforming.” Although the phrase was first coined by Dutch reformers a century after Luther lived, we 21st century Lutherans gladly lay claim to this watchword. There is a vibrancy and a renewing impulse that continues to bubble up from the Reformation Luther set off—claiming and sending us out in our time and place.

Pinched, Brittle, and Joyless

But does it always seem that way? Nowadays I am struck by how pinched, brittle and joyless so many Lutherans have become. Some have reduced Luther’s world-turning Magna Carta into tired formulas, stilted vocabulary, and theological strait-jackets. They appear to be nervous defenders of a “mighty fortress” rather than daring ambassadors for God who is reconciling the whole world unto himself, in Jesus Christ (II Cor. 5:16-21).

Last November, when Joy and I visited our companion synod in southern India, we were struck by how unapologetically members of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC) embrace and even advertise their robust Lutheran connections. It shows up in the names they regularly give their children in Holy Baptism—names like “Luther Paul” (one of the six synod bishops of the AELC) or “Monica Melanchthon” (a professor of Old Testament at the Gurukul Theological College). It also shows up in how they order their church life, e.g. all the pastors of the AELC gather annually for worship, learning, fellowship and deliberation on Martin Luther’s birthday (Nov. 11).

Primarily, though, it shows up in what matters most to the people of the AELC:

• Freedom in Christ

• Joy in believing

• Being bold and imaginative in God’s mission.

Free in Christ

Whenever the founder of a movement dies, the movement itself changes. There is an understandable impulse to “freeze” the convictions and vision of the founder.

Something like this happened soon after Martin Luther died in 1546, and it is apparent even in the Lutheran confessional writings in our Book of Concord. There is a feistiness and warmth in the documents that Luther himself shaped (e.g. the Catechisms) and a corresponding formulaic stiffness in the document that was added after Luther’s death (aptly named the Formula of Concord).

This sort of thing has continued for nearly 500 years, even as it keeps impacting the Lutheran movement in the 21st century. And it is about far more than academic concerns.

For at the heart of the Reformation was a renewed experience of the honest-to-goodness freedom that Christ bestows. Luther himself was dying for such freedom in the church of his youth. Laboring incessantly under the load of the Law, living daily in fear of God’s wrath, Luther hungered to know a gracious God.

And when Luther found this God—or better, when this God of boundless grace found Luther!—it was as if the heavens had opened and life could begin again: “And this is the reason,” wrote Luther, “why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive.”

Dear friends in Christ, we too are surrounded by folks who live under a load of the Law—paralyzed by their failure to measure up, restricted by their sense of shame and unworthiness, dying for a Word that might set them free. I believe that rather than offering old formulas that make sense only to life-long Lutherans, we are called to preach and teach Jesus Christ with such nerve and boldness that real live sinners will be set free for the life God created them to live.

The psalmist offers a memorable way of picturing this: it is like the movement from a stifling, confined space into a wide and open plain. “Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place (Psalm 118:5). How might our congregations become—for all who enter our doors—such free, broad, open spaces for those who hear the gospel?

Joy in Believing

When we visited AELC congregations in India last November, we were struck—repeatedly—by the overflowing hospitality and genuine warmth of each welcome we received. Musicians led impromptu parades around the church building, rose petals were tossed on our heads, people—especially the children—sang their hearts out, and gifts were showered upon us.

Prof. Hank Tkachuk of Concordia College, who traveled with Bishop Larry and Joy Wohlrabe to the AELC last November, receiving a flower garland gift from a student at the Girls School in Bhimavarim, India

What we witnessed in all of this “fuss” was the sheer joy of believing and following Jesus that our Indian sisters and brothers exhibit. And that, too, is consistent with the founding vision of the great reformer, Martin Luther.

To be sure, Luther had his own dark days—and as some have noted, he may have suffered from bouts of clinical depression. But Luther also lived the Christian life with an earthiness, a humor and a hope that was contagious. Perhaps Luther’s own joy in Christ shone through most compellingly in the hymns that he wrote and how he felt about the place of music in the Christian life: " "I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor.”

In this regard, we too are called to the joyful task of semper reformanda. God has given us the best news we could ever imagine: “For freedom, Christ has set us free…” (Gal. 5:1) What if the “buzz” about us became: “Those Lutherans—what a zest for life they have! They really know how to throw a party! Wherever Lutherans are found, the joy of Christ is real”

Bold and Imaginative in Mission

Our friends in the AELC, we learned last autumn, are also deeply grateful to the missionaries who traveled to India, bringing the gospel from other parts of the world. They still honor the memory of missionaries, like John Frederick Christian Heyer (1793-1873), the first American Lutheran in America to be sent abroad to share the gospel.

Bishop Larry and Joy flank a statue of J.C.F Heyer in the city of Guntur, India, where Heyer’s missionary work began in the 19th century. Bishop Suneel of the AELC is 3rd from the left.

These and other global Lutherans might be surprised to hear that there has been a long debate among scholars of the Reformation as to whether Martin Luther even had a vision for global mission. Luther, after all, lived in a place (Germany, within the Holy Roman Empire) and a time (born in 1483, nine years before Columbus “sailed the ocean blue”) when it was assumed that the whole known world was at least nominally Christian.

Despite this “gap” in Luther’s theology, James Scherer, writing on the topic, “Lutheran Mission in Historical Perspective,” has argued that “there is a rich abundance of hints and suggestions about mission available from Luther’s primary writings.” Indeed, I believe that if Luther were serving in the missionary situation of our North American context in the year 2010, he would argue that the greatest service we can render our neighbors is to share with them the reason for the hope that is in us (I Peter 3:15).

Semper Reformanda!
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:

1. Where do you see the spirit of semper reformanda—always reforming—in today’s church?

2. How do congregations become “free, broad, open spaces” for persons liberated by Jesus Christ? What does that look like?

3. When, in your own experience of the Christian life, are you most keenly in touch with the joy that Christ brings?

4. What is one bold, imaginative venture your congregation could attempt in order to serve God’s mission in the world?

This is the ninth in a series of articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

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