of Creighton University's Online Ministries
August 5th, 2011
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
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Today I reflect on the lessons in light of a little book I am reading this summer. It is an old book that I got from my pastor that follows some conversations we had about the need for Christians to find down-to-earth relevance in the Gospel, something I find that the Amish seemed to have figured out. The Amish keep their theology simple based on how they live their lives on this earth. My pastor reminded me that Luther also placed a lot of emphasis on a simple faith, but that over the years, Lutheran and other Christian traditions seemed to have complicated it all.
So when Jesus reminds us today that we must take up his cross and follow him, we are not so sure exactly what he means. And some of us think it is optional. As I ponder these challenges, I share what Gerhard O. Forde wrote in 1972 about Luther’s down-to-earth approach to the gospel in some reflections titled Where God Meets Man. According to Luther, a lot of Christians subscribed to a “ladder theology” in which they sought to make progress in ascending to heaven by trying to be better people. Instead, he said, we should be thinking about what it meant for Jesus to come down to be among us and how Jesus’ death and resurrection makes us better people. In other words, it is about what God did for us, not what we do for God that saves us. Luther expressed these ideas 500 years ago and since that time a lot of Christians, including Roman Catholics, have come to understand and appreciate what Luther was trying to make clear.
When thinking about what God does for us, we often try to figure out the nature of God the almighty and heavenly things. Luther thought that speculative theology about God’s almightiness was an exercise of trying to find loopholes in what God commands us to do by manipulating what we think God is. What we should be thinking about, he said, is how God solved our problems of not measuring up through the down-to-earth happening of the death on the cross and resurrection of Christ. The Old Testament lesson and Psalm for today tell us that God is almighty, but it also says that the Lord is God in the heavens above and on earth below. Rather than thinking about the God in the heavens, Luther thought it was much better to pay attention to the revealed God that came down to earth below to help us with our earthly condition.
So what does Jesus mean when he tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, follow him, and lose our lives for his sake? Clearly, it means that we have to experience death and new life just like Jesus did. But how can we do that? According to Luther’s basic ideas, we have to give up the selfishness and pride of our self-made attempts to manipulate God into buying off our sins with Jesus. Instead, we are called to live a life of faith and trust in God by daily dying to sin through repentance and daily renewal of our faith. To take up our cross means to have faith that gives us confidence that we can be entirely restored anew each day. But we still can’t be like God. The best that we can do is live in the image of God, which is without fear and anxiety. That is what it takes to follow Jesus. Living by faith and through God’s grace, we are raised up to new life. According to Luther, a daily death and resurrection experience will help us more clearly hear the Gospel and be inspired by it, leading us to be more responsible, confident and joyful new creatures rather than insecure slaves to the law. We can get on with the things that Jesus told us to do rather than worry about our sins or those of someone else. As new creatures, we can operate out of faith, hope, and love.
So today I pray that we will all gratefully die to sin each day, letting the prideful old Adam in us that seeks to save our own lives go, knowing that to take up our cross means that by faith and through grace we will be given a new life each and everyday. That will give us the strength and virtue to follow Jesus, loving our neighbors, caring for the sick and the poor, and sharing the Gospel message.
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