Proclaim Jesus Christ: Lutheran Response to Crisis

[1] When the Journal of Lutheran Ethics invited me to consider how Lutheran theology informs ethical preaching, I was curious to know where this question came from, undoubtedly because I understand both preaching and ethics to be contextual. The background to the question is the ethical issues that surround the events of September 11, 2001. Months after planes went down in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, Lutherans, like people of most religious traditions within American society, are reflecting upon what we preached and what we heard in the days and weeks following these tragic events. “In light of September 11. . . . ” The phrase crops up in nearly every sermon preached in recent days, providing the quintessential touchstone, reference point and illustration for proclaiming the gospel. Talking with people from across our church who have heard this preaching reveals that some among us are fatigued by “911 sermons.” Others are thirsting for something more or something other than what they heard. Few feel satisfied with the way the gospel was brought to bear on this tragedy.

[2] In the aftermath of the devastation that we experienced last September, and in the face of the fear mingled with certainty that such a catastrophe will be visited upon us again, both pastors and parishioners are asking, what do we as Lutheran Christians have to say to the world that is worth hearing? Or, more precisely, what do we as Lutheran Christians believe God is saying to the world that we need to hear?1 In the first section of this essay, we will briefly review one way that preachers might reflect theologically on crisis situations and critique “911 sermons” in light of this template. In the second section of this essay, we will assert that, from a Lutheran theological perspective, boldly proclaiming Jesus Christ is the way we respond to crisis. We will then suggest how this response might take shape in preaching. In the concluding section of this essay, I offer for consideration one of my own attempts at preaching “in light of September 11.”

Reflecting Theologically on Crisis

[3] Ronald Allen suggests that, from a theologically perspective, crises are of two types: crises of understanding and crises of decision.2 Crises of understanding cause people to question the existence, identity and nature of God. Is God all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving? If so, how could this crisis have happened? Since this crisis did happen, what is God’s nature? Could God have intervened to minimize or even prevent this crisis? Could we have done something to persuade God to intervene in this crisis? Do we know what that is? Why would God need to be persuaded? If God could intervene, why didn’t God intervene? If we could do something to persuade God to intervene, why didn’t we? People question God’s will in the crisis. They also question God’s existence.

[4] Crises of decision arise when people do not know how to respond to a situation or issue with which they are unavoidably confronted. These situations and issues escalate into crises of decision when people do not have time to consider their response, when there is no clear way to respond, when the way people want to respond conflicts with the way they know or are told they should respond, or when people are confronted with circumstances unlike anything they have previously experienced and there is no precedent to guide them.

[5] Although we have discussed crises of understanding and crises of decision independently, they are inseparably linked. Our understanding of God influences and may even determine how we decide to respond to a crisis. We respond one way if we trust a God who is with us in suffering, bringing life out of death and light out of darkness. We respond another way if we are convinced that God is distant, indifferent, and even dead. We respond a third way if we conclude that the crisis is the result of divine activity and judgment. From a theological perspective, how we decide to respond to a crisis is shaped, if not determined, by our understanding of God. On some level, a crisis of decision results from a crisis of understanding. If our understanding of God remains unaltered by a crisis, we will be able to discern and decide how to respond to that crisis.

[6] Much Lutheran preaching that I hear “in light of September 11,” and much Lutheran preaching that I hear about, presumes that, for the faithful at least, people’s understanding of God remained intact after the events of September 11. Preachers therefore approached this terrible day singularly as a crisis of decision. Time and again, people reported that what they heard last September and October was how to respond to September 11, whether that be by reaching out to those of the Islamic faith and not stereotyping people of Middle Eastern descent or by draping the cross in red, white and blue and calling the church to pray for and rally around the government of the United States. Many described “911 sermons” as instructions on how to react to the crisis as they lived their daily lives, lectures on the Islamic faith, and biblical analysis of U.S. military and foreign policy. I did hear of preaching that approached the events of September 11 as a crisis of understanding. Unfortunately, the message was that other preachers, who saw the events of that day as divine judgment, had misunderstood God’s will in the crisis and we should not understand September 11 in this way. While this message is imperative, it was not enough. We need to be helped to understand God “in light of September 11.”

[7] I am not contending that the gospel was not preached, only that, in many instances, the gospel was not heard. People were not overwhelmed by what Richard Jensen eloquently described as the connection between Calvary and Manhattan, God’s loving, saving presence in both.3 Did we presume the gospel? Did we assume that people’s understanding of God remained intact? Perhaps we took for granted that our hearers knew God’s will, nature and identity as it is revealed in Jesus Christ, and that their faith would not falter as the Trade Towers fell. For whatever reason, sermons moved quickly to gospel-centered response.

[8] Unfortunately, many in our pews (myself included) were (are?) experiencing a crisis of understanding, as well as a crisis of decision. Although we do in fact know our Lutheran theology and Christian doctrine, we find it difficult to connect this knowledge with, let alone allow it to penetrate, the shock, chaos and confusion that we experience both within and around us. We need help sorting out our questions to and about God. We need to be assured that the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ is available to us and to the world here and now. We need to hear again God’s word of promise. When we do not hear this good news, the call to respond is often heard and received as law, something that we as Christians “should,” “must,” and “ought” to do. One person observed that going to church felt like going to a funeral and being told not to be sad or angry because it showed lack of faith. A second mused that it would be nice if the pastor extended the same grace and forgiveness to Americans that he asked us to extend to the world. A third was alarmed that the line between church and state had so completely disappeared that faithfulness was equated with a certain style of patriotism, which she didn’t happen to share.4

[9] Preachers were correct in helping their hearers decide how to respond to the crisis. Shock, fear, anger and revenge had seized us. The situation was being cast in religious terms. It was easy and tempting to see our nation either as God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm or as the hand of the world’s oppressor. We needed reminding of who our neighbor is and of what it means to love. We needed to ask hard questions about justice and peace. But before any of this, we needed to be reminded who God is for and with us in this crisis. Until we had regained our equilibrium regarding God’s nature and relationship with us, we were not able to tackle these ethical issues. It is not that the church was called to respond; the call to respond came just a bit too quickly.

Proclaim Jesus Christ: Lutheran Response to Crisis

[10] More important than how to respond to a crisis, the good news that we as Lutheran Christians have to share is that, in the person of Jesus Christ, our loving God is for and with us (the entire world) in all that we face. As Lutheran Christians, we further confess that the way we live, the way we respond to a crisis, is our response to God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and not something we do in order to earn or secure God’s love or favor. “The Augsburg Confession” declares that

human beings cannot be justified before God by their own powers, merits, or works. But they are justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins.5
[11] Lutheran theology reminds us that our relationship with God is not something we earn or achieve but is God’s gift to which we respond in faith. John Stumme rightly observes that our Lutheran witness “takes on a critical edge (not “by our own merits, works, or satisfactions”) when we trust our moral activity to achieve what comes only as God’s gift of faith.”6 Restated using the terms we have been considering, our “decisions” are the result of our “understanding.”

[12] From a Lutheran perspective, proclaiming Jesus Christ is the purpose of all preaching. “Jesus Christ is the living and abiding Word of God. By the power of the Holy Spirit, this very Word of God, which is Jesus Christ, is read in the Scriptures, [and] proclaimed in preaching.”7 For Lutherans, the essential good news is that, in Jesus Christ, our loving God joins us in our suffering and brings us to new life. Therefore, the heart of a Lutheran response to crisis, especially a response made from the pulpit, is to clarify, reinforce, restore, and announce an understanding of God as gracious by bearing witness to Jesus Christ. Our Lutheran theology reminds us that, before we call people to respond, we boldly proclaim that the answer to our questions of God’s existence, identity, nature, and will is Jesus Christ. Preaching Christ and Christ crucified empowers us with the good news that God is gracious and reconciling. Rather than removing suffering and death, God in Christ enters into suffering and death for and with us. God’s response to us and to the world is to forgive and to give love and life. This good news frees us from thinking that we can and must persuade God or that we can and must build the realm of God by our energy and will. This good news frees us from the burden of struggling to discern what God is doing in the world. As in all the events of our lives and of our world, our first response and our ultimate decision in crisis is to have faith, to trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

[13] And even our faith is God’s gift. The “Apology of the Augsburg Confession” declares that faith

takes place through the preaching of the gospel, which makes known the name of Christ and the Father’s mercy promised in Christ. The proclamation of the gospel produces faith in those who receive the gospel. They call upon God, they give thanks to God, they bear afflictions for their confessions, they do good works on account of the glory of Christ.8

[14] That our faith is God’s gift is expressed even more eloquently in the “Formula of Concord”:

God comes to us, first, out of God’s immeasurable goodness and mercy. God causes God’s holy gospel to be preached, through which the Holy Spirit desires to effect and accomplish this conversion and renewal in us. Through the proclamation of God’s Word and meditation upon it the Holy Spirit ignites faith and other God-pleasing virtues in us so that they are the gifts and activities of the Holy Spirit alone.9
[15] Our faith restored through the preaching of the gospel, we trust the gracious and loving God revealed in Jesus Christ. Moved by this trust, we decide to respond to the crisis in love. “For love is the fruit of faith. The faith that trusts God’s saving love in Jesus Christ binds us to do freely ‘the good works . . . God has commanded.'”10 Our response to any crisis is a response to the gospel.

[16] But how do we faithfully respond to the gospel in concrete ways? In order to concretize our faithful and loving response, Lutherans often turn to the Ten Commandments.

Following Luther, they exposit the Decalogue not only in its negative formulation but also in its indeterminately positive thrust. . . .11 There is structure and form to the Christian life. Love is the leaven and salt that enriches these structures without violating them. For the mainstream Lutheran ethical tradition, however, there is no third use of the law that stipulates a specifically Christian form of existence replete with distinctive patterns of obedience.12

[17] Lutheran social ethics does not lead in a specific ideological direction, if that is taken to mean a fairly detailed blueprint for public policy.13 Nevertheless, Robert Benne lifts up four “perennial themes” that constitute the Lutheran ethical tradition as it applies to public life:

(1) a sharp distinction between salvation through God in Christ and all human efforts,
(2) a focused and austere doctrine of the church that follows from the first theme,
(3) the two fold rule of God through law and gospel, and
(4) a paradoxical view of human nature and history.14

[18] Benne’s first theme asserts that no human effort or social or political transformation can claim salvific significance. God saves us through God’s gift of grace in Jesus Christ. We need do nothing other than accept this gift in order to be transformed. Though they may improve our lives in relative ways, all human efforts at transformation will fail to ultimately save us. Lutheran preaching does not confuse or equate any human response to crisis with the gospel.

[19] Benne’s second theme reminds us that “the essential and unique mission of the church is its calling by God to proclaim the gospel in Word and Sacrament.”15 The church’s responsibility is to proclaim the Christ event, particularly Christ’s cross and resurrection, as the most important event in human history. Although the church is concerned with justice and public policy, its primary mission is not to be a political actor, a maker of public policy, or an agent of social transformation. While faith in Jesus Christ leads Christians to obey the Ten Commandments, to love and to do justice, to regard all created life redeemed by Christ as precious, and to honor the covenant nature of God’s creation, this moral vision flows from the church’s proclamation of Jesus Christ but does not replace it.

[20] The twofold rule of God, Benne’s third theme, reminds us that Christians live in both the new realm in Christ and the old realm of law and sin. We must take both realms seriously because God is active in both. In the old realm, God governs and seeks justice through the administration of law and the maintenance of order. In the new realm, God announces and brings about ultimate and everlasting salvation and life in and through Jesus Christ. Rather than distinct spheres, these two realms describe God’s two ways of acting in the world. While the church’s primary calling is to proclaim the gospel, the church is also called to address the world according to God’s law, applying the dynamic law of God to all the structures of social life by lifting up the ways that God’s radical love revealed in Jesus Christ are relevant to the affairs of the world. For Lutherans, there is no separation of church and state when it comes to proclaiming Jesus Christ and the life he intends for all people.

[21] Benne’s fourth theme, a paradoxical view of human nature and history, reminds us that, both as individuals and as a society, we are simultaneously saints and sinners. Our efforts, undertakings, accomplishments and visions reflect both our devotion to ourselves and the desire for justice, love and freedom that comes from faith. Inasmuch as our motives and endeavors are mixed, only God can bring history to its completion and fulfill its purpose. We are free from attempting to manage history according to some great scheme. Our calling is to trust God and strive for relative good. We expect neither too much nor too little from society and its institutions.

[22] Both the Lutheran confessions and Benne’s perennial themes of Lutheran ethics make clear that, when responding to crisis, our emphasis is not on specific actions but on proclaiming Jesus Christ. From a homiletical perspective, when preaching in the aftermath of crisis out of a Lutheran theological tradition, providing specific directives on how to respond to the crisis is the last “move” of the sermon, and this move is made very carefully. The first “move” of the sermon is to boldly, clearly and concretely proclaim the good news that our loving, saving, forgiving God, made known in Jesus Christ, is with us in this crisis, experiencing our shock, chaos and confusion, that nothing will take God from us, and that God in Christ will bring us to new life. The second “move” of the sermon is to assure the congregation that this God is trustworthy, and to call and invite them to respond to the crisis by having faith in this God. It is only when these two moves have been made that we can dare to speak of how we are free (not “should” or “must”) to respond in concrete ways. In order to illustrate how this kind of sermon might be constructed, we conclude our discussion with a sample homily.

Sample Sermon: “Not Taken, But Left!”16

[23] “But understand this,” Jesus says, “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” Jesus’ image is so much more real this Advent. In October I returned to my beloved Notre Dame for a football game and was struck by how much sleepy South Bend resembled Hyde Park. Police were everywhere – in cars, on horses, walking in the crowds. People were alert, watching one another. I sensed them ready to reach for their whistles, so to speak. As I have flown around the country this fall, having my briefcase searched and my body hand-patted have become a matter of course. I am told it is because I am legally bind. One security person explained that they are keeping a special eye on people like the disabled, who are often assumed to be powerless. I am still struck when I see the folks in our mail room wearing gloves and realize that, if I open the wrong envelope, I will be dead because I put everything in my face in order to read it.

[24] Now on our fourth “terrorism alert” from the White House, we have become a more vigilant people. Jesus tells us that, as we are watchful in this life to protect ourselves and our property, so we ought to be vigilant for the coming of the Son of Humanity. For the Son of Humanity will come at a time that no one expects. No one – not humans, not angels, not even the Son himself–knows the day and the hour when heaven and earth will pass away. So we must remain vigilant. We must remain ready. For every day and every hour have the potential to be charged with eschatological significance. Any hour could be the hour.

[25] But how do we remain vigilant? How do we stay ready for the Christ who will come? The temptation in preaching on this passage is to rev us up to be raptured. After all, it is right there in the text. Jesus says it: “One will be taken and one will be left.” Raptures are tempting. Confronted by bombs in the Middle East and a war in Afghanistan, and aware of so much more violence that will never make the news, who is not tempted not only to turn away from the television but also to flee from the world? But when Jesus likens the coming of the Son of Humanity to the “days of Noah,” his point is not that everybody else is so sinful that God regrets ever creating them, and we few righteous folk will be hauled to safety in a heavenly lifeboat. In fact, being “taken up” from mill or field may not be desirable, even if it were possible. Elsewhere in Matthew, those that are taken or “plucked up” are likened to weeds that are destined for the fire.17 If this is the case, we should all hope to be “left behind.” There is nothing here to suggest a rapture or rescue of faithful Christians in advance of the end.

[26] When Jesus speaks of “the days of Noah,” his point is that ordinary activities – eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, working in the field and grinding at the mill – these things do not distinguish the faithful from others. In fact, we are expected to be about our everyday tasks when the Son of Humanity comes. The distinction is that we strive to conduct our everyday tasks and our everyday relationships as a response of faith and an act of discipleship.

[27] Advent calls us to get beyond rapture, to get beyond being taken, to get beyond the big ways that we serve the Christ who comes – giving up everything in order to come to seminary and going wherever it is that Christ’s Church will send us. Advent calls us to consider what we are about when we are left to our everyday lives. Advent calls us to embrace the tasks at hand – as well as our leisure – as arenas for service to God and our neighbor in anticipation of the Christ who will come. I don’t know about you. But in this last week of the quarter, I’m not so sure that I want to be left to all that I have left to do. I would find it much easier and a lot more fun if Jesus commanded me to leave my nets and follow than if Jesus left me here to faithfully tend and mend the nets that are before me. But Advent reminds us that the tasks of this hour are the way we get ready for the last hour.

[28] For Christ will come in the last hour as Christ comes in this hour. Christ will come to claim us as Christ’s own. Although we don’t know when it will happen, we do know that this is our future. For the difference between the days of Noah and the days of Jesus is that, in the days of Noah, everyday life was flooded with destruction. In the days of Jesus, everyday life was flooded with God’s love as Jesus poured out his life for the world. And when God raised Jesus from the dead and us from the font, the certainty of God’s promise became far more important than God’s timetable for fulfilling it.

[29] Advent invites us to be aware of God’s promise, to trust in God’s future, as we eat and as we drink, as we marry and are given in marriage, as we work in the field, grind at the mill, and tend our nets, whatever they may be. And we will be alert. We will be ready. We will be vigilant. For, rather than looking for the end time, we will live our lives anticipating the next time. The next time that Christ comes to claim us as Christ’s own. For although we don’t know when it will happen, we do know that it will.

End Notes

1 Cf. Joseph R. Jeter, Jr., Crisis Preaching: Personal and Public (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), p. 21.

2 Ronald J. Allen, Preaching the Topical Sermon (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), pp. 21-22. In the following discussion, I am indebted to Jeter, Crisis Preaching, pp. 25-26, 38.

3 Richard A. Jensen, Sermon preached at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Chicago, IL, November 6, 2001.

4 These comments are a sampling of electronic correspondence from across the church.

5 “The Augsburg Confession,” IV, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), pp 38-41.

6 John R. Stumme, “A Tradition of Christian Ethics” in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, eds. Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), p. 1.

7 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 1.

8 “Apology of the Augsburg Confession,” XXIV, The Book of Concord, pp. 264.32.

9 “Formula of Concord Solid Declaration,” II, The Book of Concord, p. 557.71.

10 Stumme, “A Tradition of Christian Ethics,” The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, p. 1; “The Augsburg Confession,” VI, The Book of Concord, p. 41.

11 Luther presents the Decalogue as a guide to the Christian life in both the Small and Large Catechisms.

12 Robert Benne, “Lutheran Ethics: Perennial Themes and Contemporary Challenges,” in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, p. 17.

13 Ibid., p. 18.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid., p. 20

16 Craig A. Satterlee, sermon preached at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Chicago, IL. The scripture text is Matthew 24:36-44, the gospel appointed for the First Sunday in Advent, Year A. The sermon was edited into a literary rather than an oral style for incorporation into this article.

17 Mark Allan Powell, Proclamation 5: Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year, Series A, Advent/Christmas (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992), p. 10.