by Matthew J. Garnett
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor.1:18).
I can’t imagine St. Paul’s words here being any truer than they are for the Lutheran church I attend each Sunday. Walk into that place during any given service, and you’ll see men dressed in what can only be described as togas with colorful sashes, waving their hands about in all kinds of strange ways, and making what seem to be hubristic statements like “I forgive you all your sins.” All this takes place while the people in the congregation bow and kneel and do weird things with their hands in response to the colorfully dressed men leading the service.
To be sure, there was a time when I would have unequivocally labeled all of this as “folly.” But now, as someone who has tried everything from Christian Fundamentalism to witchcraft, I must say, I love it. Once it was foolish; now it is genuine, meaningful, and indeed, divinely powerful.
Why I needed Lutherans
When I say “I’ve tried everything,” that is a gross understatement. For instance, the way I “tried” fundamentalism was to adopt all of their doctrines and make my way onto their clergy roster. I made my decision for Christ, was baptized and stopped drinking, chewing tobacco and dating girls outside of the in-group. I took very seriously the charge to “win souls.” If I didn’t do my part to win souls, after all, then people might go to hell on my watch.
As a “soul-winning” pastor, I used rock music, comedy and feel-good self-help lectures to bring in outsiders. God be praised, we baptized a lot of people in that effort. Some still have their faith to this day. Unfortunately, most do not.
Those who lost their faith included me. It seems axiomatic to me now that those who take seriously all that Evangelical fundamentalism teaches will crack under that kind of pressure. To put it in Lutheran terms, it is an all-Law environment. My reaction to this was not to seek the Gospel, but to escape the Law by running to the far left, mainline church world. I found no peace there, either. As it turns out, the liberal Christians I encountered had more rules and taboos than the Fundamentalists. The only difference was, they made up their own rules.
Strike two for me. In the Evangelical world, the Gospel was not properly taught. In the mainline Protestant world, the Law was twisted and mangled.
I was honestly seeking answers in all the wrong places. After a lifetime of searching for truth on “the cutting edge” of religious thought and finding those experiences to be utterly vacuous, the answers came when I finally acquiesced to the fact that Holy Scripture, understood through the Lutheran Confessions and lived out in the traditions of the Church, held the keys that could unlock the door. The solution, I found, was not to “get new” but to “get old” — as old, ancient and traditional as I possibly could, all while dodging the landmines of medieval Rome and the East by going back with Luther and the Reformers to the Church Fathers and the Biblical text.
Now, when that man (my pastor, whom I once thought to be silly), puts his hands on my head and tells me my many sins are forgiven — when he teaches me how to be a better man right from Holy Scripture, founded on the power of the Gospel; when he puts Christ’s body and blood into my mouth and His words into my ears — well, the folly of the cross has now become “the power of God” for me.
It is comforting beyond comprehension to know that the Lord has brought me and my family safely home. Despite all my best efforts to stay out in the pigsty of life and eat bean pods, the Holy Spirit, defying my own reason and strength, has welcomed me back to my Father’s house using what appears to be foolishness to the world: the Lutheran tradition. Now, each Sunday in His house, the gifts of Christ await us on His altar of undeserved grace and favor, and we partake knowing that on the day of His reappearing, we will celebrate the marriage feast of the Lamb, whose kingdom will have no end!
Not a bad way to spend a lifetime if you ask me … and an eternity, for that matter!
Why the world needs Lutherans
Like the liturgy I now love so well, “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
For Lutherans in our current cultural and religious context, the Gospel of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins, woven throughout our liturgical life, is a singular kind of folly — one dearer to our hearts even than the most meaningful ceremony. We actually believe that the bread and wine of the Supper are the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. We believe that water combined with God’s word saves us from hell and grants us adoption into the kingdom of heaven. We believe that mere words — “the word of the cross” — have power to rescue us from evil, save our souls and help us begin again to obey the commands of Holy Scripture.
This Gospel that we cling to as Lutherans is well worth looking a little foolish for. So I say to you, my brothers and sisters: Don’t be afraid to be Lutheran … all the way Lutheran! It’s what I needed. It’s what my family needed.
I am convinced that those who are being saved don’t need the pop-Evangelical smoke and light show. They need rich, traditional music and liturgy, laced with beautiful ceremony. They don’t need us to be libertine in our ethics and morals — or to be fed the antinomian, “all is grace” message so common among us here in America. They’ve had their fill of living like hedonists. They need unwavering instruction drawn fearlessly from Holy Scripture. They don’t need pastors to be a combination of Jerry Seinfeld and Tony Robbins telling them how to have “their best life now.” They need the simplicity and purity of the gospel of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins put into their ears and onto their lips and foreheads with forthright preaching, bread, wine and water.
Put simply, they need us to be Lutheran!
Matthew J. Garnett is the husband of Jennifer, the father of two children, a member of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Ind., a professional truck driver and host of the audio broadcast “In Layman’s Terms.”