Today I want to talk about a concept in Lutheran theology known as sanctification. It is not a topic that you hear preached about much because it revolves around works, the things we do in the name of faith. We have proclaimed that we are saved by God’s action in Christ and not our own actions so often that it has put an unclear value on our actions, our works.
In Lutheran theology, the bad idea is a thing called works righteousness which is pretty much any theology or scheme that says that through my actions I can make God do something. I can make God save me. I can make God bless me. I can make God reward me. I can make God like me more by doing good things. Historically, the problem is that people really like the idea that by doing good things, I can please God, get a little more notice from God, I can affect God. It is self-empowering. It feels good and justifies my hard work of discipline. It is also a biblical concept. You can find this idea in the scriptures. This is why it is important to realize that the scriptures don’t have a single image of God or a single voice or a single understanding of God. The oldest Hebrew scriptures describe God as the best deity among many regional deities, blessing the particular region of the territory of Israel, blessing the reader in his or her own lifetime.. This is a very different concept of God than the one who is described a couple thousand years later by the author of Revelation, a God who is and was and is to come. Our understanding has expanded to the point of saying that the God who is made known through Jesus is infinite, and if God is infinite and God’s love is infinite, you can’t get more of it than you already have.
But that doesn’t mean that good Lutherans shouldn’t be doing good things. There is no place where Jesus says, or Paul says, or Luther says, “You have been saved by grace, so sit on your rump.” In the Lutheran tradition the idea is that for people of faith, works are just a natural part of it. If you are in relationship with this infinitely loving God, that love can’t help but flow out of you. A few times Luther suggested that if there are no works, it calls the faith, the relationship, into question. If you claim to have faith in the good news that you have been set free by the love of God in Christ and it doesn’t move you to respond with love of God and love of neighbor in some form, there is a disconnect in the faith.
What the Lutheran tradition is skeptical of is that there is a single, legalistic formula for what those works should look like, for what Christian life must be. The exception to this is one you might be able to predict if you have been listening to these sermons: word and sacrament. Luther assumed that Christians would gather and would hunger to hear the gospel and hunger for the meal that Jesus both promised and commanded. In Lutheran understanding, Christ is fully present at the communion table; it is not a symbol for Jesus but is in fact a living encounter with Jesus. So if you have faith in Jesus, you will be at the table.
But the Lutheran tradition does not mandate how you are going to grow toward God; it assumes that you are seeking to grow. And that growing toward God idea is the meaning of sanctification. As we find ways to deepen our faith and deepen our love, it’s not that God loves us more; it’s that we become more aware of the expansive nature of that love. We become more aware of our need for Christ. We become more aware that God is present in every moment.
Once you get beyond word and sacrament, you discover that there are many and various ways to deepen your faith: prayer, study, serving others, giving, sharing, welcoming, protesting, Sabbath keeping, seeking justice, working for peace. One can argue that stewardship of your body, stewardship of your home, especially working toward greater simplicity, stewardship of the environment are also acts of discipleship that help us pay attention to God. The legalistic thing is to say this is in the Bible so this is what you have to do. Again, that is an attitude you can find in some traditions who see it as coming from the Bible, especially if you assume that Bible has one united voice. But within scripture the thinking seems to evolve. For instance, observing the Sabbath is an identifying marker for Israel (and by Sabbath observation I mean a full day of rest, not just morning worship as it has become for many Christians). The Israelites will not work on that day. It is one of the ten commandments, commented on at length, punishable by stoning to death. Then Jesus comes along and invites people do the work of feeding yourself and healing others, saying the Sabbath is about freedom and not legalized rest. “The Sabbath is made for people and not people for the Sabbath.” Then Paul comes along and makes it sound very much like a personal choice. In his letter to the Romans he writes, “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. “ The Sabbath goes from something that you have to observe under threat of death to something that you could do because of the freedom we find in Christ.
And this is how Lutherans treat most ideas about works. Here is something that you could do to deepen your faith. Here is something you could do to grow toward God. As such, works are not a requirement but a gift. And here we will get another Lutheran paradox. We are free in the gospel. We are free from legalistic interpretations of scripture that say you have to do it this way. At the same time, self-imposed legalism that we take on in the freedom of the gospel is itself freeing.
Just about every morning I sit for 20 minutes in silent prayer, seeking to pay attention to God. At first this was very difficult and some mornings it still is. For those of you who think that this kind of prayer isn’t doing anything, I challenge you (invite you) to sit with me. I have established a personal discipline. I don’t have to do it. God doesn’t love me more or less for doing it. But what I have found is that when I carry out this discipline, the rest of my day is transformed, more focused, calmer, more peaceful. Some may say, “See, God is blessing you.” I think that there is a gift that is inherent in the discipline.
Some people establish a discipline with their prayer, some with their finances, some with scripture. Some people create a habit of serving. Some people create a habit of giving. In the Still, Small Voice we have been looking at selections from the African American theologian and contemplative, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman. One of the quotations we used fits this well. “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
The Christian life doesn’t have to be uniform, but it needs to be turned toward God and this turning is the process we call sanctification. So I want to make an invitation. It was something that I wrote about in my report for the annual meeting so I know that you all read it and remember it. But in case you have forgotten. I want to invite you to some one on one time with me as your pastor to talk about how you are growing toward God, sort of a Christian coaching session. We can talk a little about faith and I will share some things that you could do to deepen your relationship with God. To some of you, I might invite you to try silent prayer. Others, I might encourage you to read a book of the Bible. Maybe others, to work at getting rid of some of the clutter in your life, a discipline of saying, “No,” to more obligations and more stuff. We might look at ways to serve or look at ways to grow in awareness of God during your daily lives.
This is something new. It is new for me as well. The good news is that none of you have to do it but all of you are invited to try, like so many things in the Christian life. I know that people are concerned about numeric growth, how to we get a little bigger. I want to suggest that being place that is conducive to personal growth in faith is key. As I have said before, if you are not interested in growing in faith why do you expect anyone else to want to come here and not grow with you? There are so many beautiful ways to grow toward God and wonderful consequences of following them. But the greatest consequence is drawing yourself more deeply into the story of Jesus, the story of promise and life, the story of hope and joy. The greatest consequence is realizing that we are always only able to respond to the God who has already shown us infinite love, respond to what God has already done for us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.