Luther’s quote got it right
We’ve fallen but are also raised up—a prescription against paralysis
A MONTHLY MESSAGE FROM THE ELCA PRESIDING BISHOP
The account of the Ascension in Acts has two great questions. The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6). Then, as the disciples watch the Lord ascending to heaven, the angels ask the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” (1:11).
The disciples had walked with Jesus, they had experienced the crushing defeat of his crucifixion, they had seen the risen Christ, and yet they seem to be afflicted by nearsightedness and farsightedness at the same time. They are looking for a restored kingdom and a vanishing Messiah.
I wonder what we as the church want to have restored. Do we get a little nearsighted or shortsighted about the church and about the earth-shattering, life-changing power of the death and resurrection of Christ? When we long for some remembered golden age are we blind to this new thing that God is doing in the church?
We are in the middle of a seismic shift in the church. In her book The Great Emergence (Baker Books, 2012), author and lecturer Phyllis Tickle points out that every 500 years or so the church goes through a major upheaval.
I think that’s where we are now. And while it is interesting to read of church upheavals in the past, living through one can be pretty uncomfortable. What is emerging? What is falling away? When will we know that the new thing has come into being? What is going to happen to us?
But hey, take heart, I don’t think anyone woke up on June 7, 1518, and said, “How’s the Reformation going today?”
When we ask that the kingdom be restored to the church, we are really asking for the kind of certainty that arises from human need. We want clear, measurable, tangible signs that our world will be ordered to our specifications. That certainty will never be achieved this side of heaven. That is not the certainty we really need and it is not the certainty God has given us in our new life in Christ.
Which leads to the second question, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” Or more to the point, “People of God, why do we stand looking up toward heaven?” Maybe because a vision of glory is a lot more appealing than what we have facing us right now. But that is not what we are called to do.
We are not called to be the church of the past nor the church of some distant future, but to be the church right now. For whatever reason, we are the ones God is using at this time, in this messiness. We are not going to get it right all of the time. We are broken and sinful creatures, but we are also redeemed creatures. In baptism we have already died the only death that really matters. Can we start to live like we believe that?
Martin Luther is often quoted as saying “sin boldly.” He actually said, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” It’s an honest acknowledgement that we have fallen, but is an even more joyful acknowledgement that we have been raised up. It’s a prescription against paralysis. It is not up to us to fix the church or the world—that has already been done in Christ.
And since the victory has been won we are free in this in-between time to live into the new life God has brought about in this world.
So here we are dear church. Living in the absolute certainty that we and all of creation have been redeemed, we don’t have to fret about getting it right. We don’t have to chart a perfectly accurate course. We don’t have to conserve our assets, physical or financial. We don’t have to worry about saving our lives.
What a powerful freedom the certainty of God has given us in this uncertain time. Let’s not waste this gift.
The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
This column originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Lutheran magazine. Reprinted with permission.