by Patrick Niles
There have been many jokes over the past 497 years about the good Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” We have had centuries of exploring and memorizing explanations and Scriptural proofs for the theology we have been taught. “What does this mean?” is a central question for any system of beliefs and religion. After almost 500 years of asking this question, it has been my observation that the central question for American Lutherans is beginning to change.
In a society that has recently seen drastic movements towards secularization, adherents to confessional Lutheranism might find themselves out of place in the larger context of America. Abortion, homosexuality, increasing breeches of religious freedom and the continual demonizing of Christians on comment boards across the Internet often leaves Bible-believing Lutherans feeling like an island to themselves. Where do we fit in? How do we remain wary of the trajectory of society without becoming Doomsday Preppers, isolationists or just completely jaded? How can we participate in societal conversations without being written off as “religious extremists”?
The Apostle Paul saw persecution that few Americans could even imagine. Stonings and beatings had riddled his body with scars and imperfections. Imprisonments brought life in conditions that are a far cry from the penitentiary system of America. There were no televisions, three-square-meals, weight rooms or air-conditioning. A hole in the ground for a bathroom made a Porta-Potty look like a master bathroom. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he writes from prison in Rome. He sends words of hope and comfort to a church struggling in the midst of persecution. With arms clasped in irons, he writes the following to the church at Philippi:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9).
Where do we fit in? How do we remain cognizant but not paralyzed by fear? How do we defy the labels and generalizations made about “our kind” in the public sphere? By returning back to the question that has been the substance of Lutheran theology.
We focus on answering the question of “What does this mean?” This is exactly Paul’s encouragement. Do not forget what you have learned and heard and received and seen. Return to the Word of God, time and time again, for the hope that is found in Christ, the very peace of God for you. Gather together with other brothers and sisters in Christ where that Word is proclaimed in its truth and purity. Gather around those altars with those people and receive God’s good gifts: those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praise-worthy.
These things were the very life-blood of Paul’s faith, and it is no different for us. Paul was not meant to “fit into” society. He was sent to proclaim Christ. We were not meant to “fit into” society. We were meant to shine as lights in a dark world (Phil. 2:15-16). We are called to serve our neighbor in our vocations each and every day, and it all stems from God’s presence for us in Word and Sacrament, forgiveness and strength. This is where we belong–right where God has placed us–and the God of peace will be with us.