one in all of church history is as moved at Christmas as is Martin
Luther. Every time Luther
comes to write anything about Christmas he seems like a child, at least
in some respects. Heís as
excited as a five-year old who has counted the days for months.
Heís as eager as the child who has wanted something dear to her
and now canít wait to see if the gift sheís craved is finally hers.
Yet even though Luther is child-like around Christmas, he is
never maudlin; never sentimental; never gushy.
Luther is always profound. Characteristically
Luther is so very profound that every year, this year included, there
are more books published about Luther than about any figure in history,
Jesus included. Luther is so
very deep that we can never get to the bottom of him, never exhaust him.
Yet as profound as Luther is, heís customarily simple.
This shouldnít surprise us, since the deepest matters in life
are simple at the same time.
Whenever Luther speaks of Christmas, he speaks of the
congregation. And therefore
whenever he speaks of congregational life, he speaks with his
characteristic simplicity and profundity.
In the season of Advent, 520 years after the birth of Luther,
letís listen to Luther on the three forms of church community.
Luther maintained that the first level of Christian community, the first
stage of our life together, is putting our time, talent and treasure at
the disposal of everyone else in the congregation.
Eric McDonald fixes things, fixes anything a fixer-man can fix.
Pat McKinnon bakes shortbread.
Ralph Finch fiddles. Thereís
nothing extraordinary about this, because what Eric and Pat and Ralph
contribute they can do with their eyes shut.
Furthermore, what any of us can do to help, we do without
expecting extraordinary recognition for it.
All of us bring forward our natural gifts and abilities, as well
as our money and our time, wanting only to be helpful in any way we can.
This "physical service," as Luther called the first
stage of Christian community, we offer readily and gladly.
It sounds so very ordinary, doesn't it.
In fact it is ordinary. But 95% of
life is ordinary; and therefore the ordinariness that we offer up on
behalf of the community of Christ's people is always vastly more
important than many think.
When I was younger and occasionally mulled over what is meant by
gifts and abilities and talents I tended to think of what we commonly
call "talented people". Their
talents were dramatic, eye-catching, sensational, striking, even
freakish. In my older age I
esteem more and more the non-startling, non-sensational gifts that
finally help us much more profoundly.
When I was in
with the World Council of Churches on behalf of Jewish-Christian
relations I noted the gentle way and undramatic ability of Krister
Stendahl, the chairman of our group.
A Swede by birth, Stendahl had taught at Harvard for twenty-five
years, then had returned to
as Lutheran bishop of the city. At
the WCC meetings the Americans spoke their mind (forcefully), as well as
the British, the French, the Germans, the Dutch, the Africans.
As everyone continued to speak out it appeared that we were
moving farther from consensus, closer to chaos, one step away from the
fragmentation we seemed unable to avoid.
At such moments Stendahl would stare at the table in front of him
while someone else generated more heat than light, say nothing for a
minute or two, and then gently propose the idea or the statement or the
motion that marvellously gathered up what we all wanted to say but
didn't have the wherewithal to formulate it and therefore could only
push the meeting further towards collapse.
As Stendahl did this several times over we all forgot the pricks
where we thought we had been jabbed and moved ahead together to
accomplish what we had come from the four corners of the world to do.
Stendahl himself, in his genuine humility, made no more of this
than he would have made of saying "hello".
On the one occasion when Stendahl took three minutes on account
of an especially thorny conundrum and someone became impatient, he
dispelled even the whiff of animosity as he smiled good-naturedly and
said, "You will have to excuse me; it's been months since I thought
in English" (English being his third language, after Swedish and
I shall always be grateful for those whose gift is so undramatic
as simply to help us see that our perspective on a matter is not the
only perspective; and therefore those who disagree with us are neither
incurably stupid nor wilfully vicious.
If you sit at ice-level on the side of a hockey rink, the
ice-surface appears long from blue-line to goal-line, short from side to
side across the ice. Actually,
it's only 60 feet from blue-line to goal-line but 85 feet across the
ice. Yet at ice-level it
seems 20 feet across the ice and 150 feet from blue-line to goal-line.
It's no wonder that ice-level fans complain that the Maple Leafs
skate leadenly when they bring the puck out of their own zone, while
opponents look like hornets buzzing around inside the Leaf end.
As soon as we move to the end-zone seats our perspective on the
game changes with the altered angle of vision.
If we move high up into the nose-bleed seats it's a different
Several people in this congregation whom the world would find
undistinguished have spared me public humiliation (and worse) by gently
sharing with me their capacity to see things from a different angle, all
the while doing this without precipitating knee-jerk defensiveness in
Talents and gifts and abilities need not be the violin-playing of
Pinchas Zukerman or the singing of Pavarotti or the writing of Alice
Munro. The talent that most
frequently assists the congregation most profoundly is much less
dramatic than that. Whatever
our talent, then, we must put it at the disposal of the congregation.
From time to time a meeting in any congregation unfolds and
appears to go nowhere. Whether
the board members be few or many, they canít seem to agree on
anything. By meetingís
end, of course, there is one thing everyone is
eager to agree on: adjournment. We
shake our heads and go home mumbling to ourselves, ďThat wasnít much
of a meeting tonight. All we
did was turn back motion after motion.Ē
I happen to think it was a wonderful meeting.
Think of what didnít
happen. Board members
didnít fall silent before something they secretly disagreed with, pass
it out of politeness so as not to hurt the feelings of the person
voicing it, only to realize that now everyone was stuck with a decision
that very few wanted. Think
too of what did
at the meeting had
freedom to be honest with each other.
At the end of the meeting everyone could smile about it.
For everyone knew that everyone else in the meeting had been
generous for years with time, talent and treasure, generous many times
over in congregational life. Because
of our common generosity there was common goodwill, even if this or that
motion didn't find support from other voters.
Luther insists that the simplest, humblest gift, put at the
disposal of the congregation, is the first stage of Christian community.
to Luther the second stage of Christian community is more intentional,
more deliberate, more pointed. The
second stage has to do more specifically with the strengthening of
faith. Here Luther lists
three matters: instruction in faith (teaching), consolation,
Teaching is plainly essential.
The old saying, "Faith is caught, not taught", simply
isn't true. Those who think
the saying to be true never seem to have come to terms with the fact
that Jesus taught every single day of his public ministry.
The apostles taught. In
the Presbyterian tradition the minister is known as the ďteaching
elder.Ē The church has
always known that apart from teaching, ignorance triumphs.
And with the triumph of ignorance concerning the gospel, human
depravity swells. We have to
Itís plain to any and all here that the Schomberg pulpit places
massive emphasis on teaching, on instruction in faith.
But what else should we expect?
Over and over scripture insists that mind and heart must be
developed in equal measure. To
be sure, if the Christian mind develops in isolation from the heart we
are left with abstract theological head-trips that may amuse the
pseudo-intellectuals among us but finally help no one.
On the other hand, to develop the believing heart in isolation
from the knowing head would leave us only with sentimentality, nostalgia
and superstition. The heart
believes upon him whose truth the head has been taught.
Then teach we must.
Teaching occurs in many settings besides the pulpit.
Teaching occurs in the Sunday School, in our Wednesday evening
adult study groups, at the occasional menís breakfast.
(Please note that what is learned at the menís breakfast
wonít be learned anywhere else.).
The apostle Paul writes to the younger Timothy, "Be
unfailing in patience and teaching."
We must always be teaching inasmuch as the natural state of the
mind is a darkened state (in the wake of the Fall); the mind has to be
enlightened. Donald Coggan,
former archbishop of
and former professor at the
Coggan used to say, "People are saved from
the dark, not in it."
At the same time we must always be patient in our teaching
inasmuch as a Christian mind isnít acquired overnight.
Teaching is a major ingredient in stage two, the more intentional
stage, of Christian community.
Yet teaching isnít the only ingredient; consolation is as well.
Faith grows through the instruction of teachers; and the faith
that grows through teaching takes a beating from life.
Just because we are always taking a beating we are always in need
The unnamed prophet who sustained God's people during their exile
in Babylon cries, "Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all
you who love her....that you may suck and be satisfied with her
consoling breasts." The
prophet is writing to people who are taking a beating in
They are nowhere near the geographic
he calls them to rejoice in can't be the city at the eastern end of the
whose breasts console them is the community
of God's people, the
The consolations of
the consolations of the church, are more profoundly consoling than
anything else just because the consolations of the church are finally
the consolations of God himself.
At the beginning of his second letter to Corinth Paul refers to
but does not identify a clobbering he and others underwent in
"We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of
life itself. Why, we felt
that we had received the sentence of death...."
The clobbering was indescribable.
Nonetheless at the beginning of his second letter to Corinth Paul
writes as well, "...the Father of mercies and God of all
comfort...comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to
comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we
ourselves are comforted by God."
Those most clobbered are most able to console, and most able to
console because first most consoled by God himself.
At stage two of Christian community we
whose breasts console those in our midst.
We are this just because there are always among us those who have
tasted the consolation of God and therefore can now console others, even
as these others will one day see the comfort given them as God's own.
The third aspect of stage two community is intercession.
We are to pray for each other.
The precedent for praying for each other is as moving as it is
authoritative. The precedent
is our Lord himself. On the
eve of his death Jesus poured out his heart before his Father on behalf
of the twelve. "I do
not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou
shouldst keep them from the evil one....Sanctify them in the
truth....And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be
consecrated in truth."
All of us in the Schomberg fellowship are to consecrate ourselves
for the sake of everyone else in the fellowship.
We are to do this in order that we all alike might be consecrated
in truth, confirmed in truth, cemented into truth.
I pray for you people. I
know that many of you pray for me. All
of us need to be maintained in truth.
The alternative to being maintained in truth is to be found
languishing in error, falsehood, delusion -- and ultimately, in
degradation. The alternative
to being sanctified in truth is to fall victim to that one, the evil
one, whom Jesus pronounced a liar and a killer.
Then itís no wonder we are urged everywhere in scripture to
pray for one another.
Pray for each other with the cavalier indifference of "Now I
lay me down to sleep"? No.
We are to pray for each other with an exertion that rivals the
exertion of the lumberjack or the athlete.
Paul tells the three men whose kingdom-work immerses them in
danger (Aristarchus, Mark, Jesus Justus) that Epaphras "prays
earnestly" for them. The
English text says "earnestly".
The Greek text uses a much stronger verb: AGONIZOMAI -- (from
which we derive the English word "agony".)
Agony: this is the measure of the intensity and anguish of Epaphras
when he prays for the three men in danger every day.
For that matter our Lord was scarcely the picture of "Now I
lay me down to sleep" when he cried out for us on Thursday evening
"Keep them from the evil one; sanctify them in truth."
When we were children and we were learning scripture through such
vehicles as bible quizzes we soon learned the answer to the question,
"What is the shortest verse in the bible?"
(Answer: "Jesus wept".
Here is another quiz-question.
What is the second shortest verse in the bible?
It's in 2 Thessalonians 5: "Brethren, pray for us."
Oceans are concentrated in these four words.
Intercession is an aspect of the second stage of Christian
community, the more deliberate, more intentional, more pointed stage.
maintains that the first level of community (giving up time, talent and
treasure for each other) is relatively easy.
Somewhat more difficult is the second level of community: the
effort and learning and patience needed for teaching, the
heart-wrenching empathy required for consolation, and the anguish of
Difficult as the second level is, says Luther, there is one level
even more difficult: bearing the weakness and sin of our
fellow-Christian, fellow-parishioner, brother or sister in faith.
Now it seems to be a great work of love when we let our
possessions become the servants of someone else.
But the greatest of all is when I
give up my own righteousness and allow my righteousness to serve my
"giving up my own righteousness and allowing my righteousness to
serve my neighbour's sin"; if this most effectively, most
characteristically, forms and cements Christian community, then what
most thoroughly, most characteristically, fragments and destroys it?
Luther says nothing breaks down community like using our sister's
weakness and sin to fuel our self-exaltation; nothing destroys our life
together like using our brother's misstep to feed our supposed
superiority. If sin
overtakes our brother and we feel good about it, feel good about it for
any reason at all, then -- says the Wittenberger -- we are simply
Have you ever pondered what it is to be hated?
Luther says we can be hated when the person hating us has no feeling
of hatred toward us at all. We
are most hated when the following happens.
"When I am stuck in my sins, he [my brother] should weep
bloody tears and come to my help; instead he [my brother] rejoices and
says, 'I am righteous in God's sight'."
Let's come back to the statement of Luther that may have startled
you. "The greatest of
all is when I give up my own righteousness and allow it to serve my
neighbour's sin." What
does Luther mean by this? He
directs us to 2 Corinthians 5:21: "For our sake God made Jesus
Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the
righteousness of God." By
the Father's appointment the sinless Son became the sin-bearing one in
order that we, the sin-condemned, might be pardoned before God.
What our Lord has done no one else can duplicate.
At the same time, what our Lord has done must move us to do what
we can do; what he has done must fire us with the same spirit and
outlook. We are to support,
cherish, uphold, and bless the brother in our fellowship whom sin has
overtaken. We are never to
turn up our nose at our sister and thank whoever might be listening that
whatever else we might be at least we aren't like her.
This is not to say that our fellow-Christian's sin is to be
indulged. It is never to be
indulged, never to be approved, never to be winked at.
Our Lord forgave sinners, after all; he never excused them or indulged them
or winked at them.
In his discussion of this point Luther refers us repeatedly to
Philippians 2:5: "Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in
As Luther returned to the theme of bearing our fellow-Christian's
sin in the congregation he returned as well to the gospel-incident of
our Lord's washing the feet of the disciples.
We too must be willing to wash the feet of those we judge
(rightly) to have sinned atrociously.
And who is able to do this? Who
is able to wash his brother's feet?
Only those who cannot deny that they have had to have their feet
washed by the master himself.
childlike amazement at the birth of Christ is matched by his wisdom and
profundity concerning the congregation, the community of Christís
MARTIN LUTHER ON CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY