The key to understanding Lutheran theology is a small word, a familiar conjunction: “and.” Our understanding of God and faith resists the convenient pull and exclusion of “or” and lives in the tension of “and.” This tradition looks back to the impulse of the earliest church that insisted that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, even though that makes no practical sense. We talk about a faith founded on law and gospel; that Christians are fully free and fully bound to serve; that God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful; that in Jesus the kingdom of God has come in its fullness and the kingdom of God has not yet been fulfilled.
Today I want to talk about a bedrock idea in the Lutheran tradition. You can’t watch a Luther documentary without someone, somewhere throwing out a fancy Latin phrase: simul justus et peccator, roughly translated it means that we are saints and sinners at the same time. The saint and sinner idea springs forth from the place where gospel and experience meet. The gospel, the precious good news, is that everything necessary to be in right relationship with God, to be justified, to be saved, has already been accomplished through the work of Jesus. If the cross saves then it saves completely. If the loving actions of Jesus makes us saints, then we are already saints, because it has already happened. Jesus has died. Jesus is risen. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The cross is not dependent on us. There is nothing we can do to add to or take away from its life-giving power. Everything necessary has already happened.
So this is the gospel, but that promise of sainthood sits in tension with our lived experience. Most of us cannot look at our day to day lives and say, “I am a saint,” at least as we imagine saints to be. Most of us have moments where we are turned in on ourselves, or ignore someone in need. Most of us have moments where we just hate somebody, even for a second or two. Most of us have moments where we say words we regret or take actions that, in retrospect, were simply the wrong move. We make mistakes. We miss the mark. We sin. Typically, we might say we weren’t that bad but we can’t say we were perfectly good either.
Now if we can sit with those realities in tension, saint and sinner, it can be a beautiful thing because I can acknowledge and openly admit that I do make mistakes but rest in the assurance that the consequences of those mistakes are not the last word, that God’s love and God’s promise are greater than anything I can toss at them. But we don’t like to live in tension so we actually end up creating more in the form of guilt and shame. It’s much easier to put things in categories. It’s much easier to think that one side is 100% right and one side 100% wrong. It is much easier to say that conservatives are fully without compassion and liberals are fully without sense. Some religious professional looks at you and says, “God loves you and if you really loved God you would do this or if you really loved God you would stop doing that.” And we look deep in our souls and say, “But I don’t do this and I may not, cannot, will not stop doing that.” So I may do this now and then because I am told to but I never really enjoy it because it feels forced and I don’t have time for this so I feel a bit guilty because this religious professional says I have to do this if I love God but I don’t enjoy this, so does that mean I don’t really love God and I am a little angry because I live in New England and, “Nobody tells me what to do.” And as I said before I may not, cannot, will not stop doing that so I just do that in secret and now I am ashamed because deep in my heart I know if I am still doing that I must not really love God, at least that is what the religious professionals tell me.
That is why we like the “and” in our tradition, saint and sinner in tension. As Luther wrote, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but trust even more boldly in Christ.” This is grace-centered thinking, thinking that says God is the primary actor in our relationship and in Christ God has done the work. We then are set free and invited to respond. Part of our response may be acts of discipleship; part of our response may be trying to turn away from ways of being that hurt ourselves and hurt others, turning away from sin. But we don’t have to be perfect. As I said to the 4 stalwarts who made it to church last Sunday, God is constant so that we can be inconsistent. We may admire people who have the self-discipline to spend hours in prayer and study or choose voluntary poverty and simplicity. We may elevate those who seem able to work past selfishness and pettiness and sacrificially care for others. Some people are gifted and fall into such patterns naturally but for most of us, faith is path of growth over time. The further we go, the deeper we go, the more beautiful it becomes.
So when Luther says, “Sin boldly” it is not an invitation or a celebration of sin and mistakenness. Rather it is an acknowledgement of who we are and where we stand. God’s love in Christ is simply more powerful than anything we can throw at it. Now a lot of people don’t like this because it makes us seem rather insignificant, part of our pride is that I can do something that will have an effect on God. But the effect of your mistakes on the love of God is a bit like the effect of dropping a match in the ocean or throwing an ice cube at the sun. Yet I think that this is another important “and”: that the love of God means that God knows each one of you deeply and specifically and the love of God is essentially unaffected by what you do.
Again, many Christians, especially Western Christians, struggle with that idea because we really want our actions to be somehow necessary to the relationship, even if that means God won’t like us if we are bad. But as I said, if the cross saves, it saves completely; if Christ did everything necessary, then nothing we do is necessary. So where will that leave us? Because if nothing we do is necessary, why are we sitting in church and paying a religious professional? The word that keeps coming back to me is “beauty.” When we deepen our lives as disciples; when we actively seek to connect ourselves to the love of God, when we share our food and care for our neighbor, when we seek to refrain from harming others, we are creating something beautiful. You have been set free to make something beautiful, your life as a holy work of art.
You know when you look at a sunset or you have watched the full moon rising the past couple of nights, and you take a deep, contented breath and you are moved to say “Thank you,” or even “Wow.” We always seem to talk about those beautiful moments as something seen in nature, but I suggest that those moments are happening around you every day among people you know, moments of compassion and thoughtfulness, moments of lovingkindness and creativity, each one a work of art. You have been set free to be God’s beautiful work of art, crafted in love and with love. You are a saint and a sinner, and when we dwell in tension that is balanced by the love of God, true beauty can be found.