Competitive sports and good rivalries can be a lot of fun. When you’re the one playing the game, it is exhilarating to win. When you’re with a crowd cheering for your team, you’re all drawn together in this shared excitement. And when your team wins, you feel like you all got the win together!
Winston Persaud was one of my professors at Wartburg Seminary. He was born, raised, and went to college in Guyana in South America. Winston was also an enthusiastic cricket player and fan. I recently read an article of his, “Hermeneutics of the Bible and ‘Cricket as Text’: Reading as an Exile” where he describes the impact that a winning team can have on a whole nation.
Guyana was a British colony. The people of Guyana are mostly Afro-Guyanese (brought by the British slave trade) and Indo-Guyanese (brought later by the British as indentured servants). Cricket came to the Caribbean nations from the British as an activity for the privileged whites, who could afford to have leisure activities. The Guyanese people watched from the sidelines, made to live out their identity as second-class people.
Winston tells the story of Rohan Kanhai, who punched through the societal boundaries in the late 1950s and moved into the middle of Guyanese cricket to compete in international competition. Kanhai was an East-Indian, a more recent immigrant group to Guyana. As often happens for immigrant groups, other Guyanese were reluctant to recognize his identity among them as truly Guyanese. However, cricket was this unifying stage where Indo-Guyanese might distinguish themselves and gain some fame and recognition in the larger society.
If you don’t know much about cricket, there are international matches between teams from Great Britian and many nations that are former British colonies (Australia, Pakistan, India, Caribbean nations). In the late 1950s and early 1960s Kanhai emerged as one of the best in the world, setting records that still stand. The Guyanese people rallied around him as participants in his triumph. One writer recalled in 1988, “We all felt we were somebody.”
Kanhai was part of an immigrant population and therefore regarded as an outsider by the larger community. He punched through the boundaries and was then claimed as “our own” by the broader Guyanese society, but only as the exceedingly excellent cricket player, only as a “winner”. Sure, it is exciting to rally around a winner, but by celebrating him as a “winner”, the society called into question the meaning of their own social boundaries. Who are we keeping out and why? How does a cherished “winner” come from the population that we regard as “losers”?
In this article, Persaud goes on to compare the cricket player Kanhai to the Biblical book of Ruth. Both are outsiders who come to be regarded as the ultimate “insiders” in their communities. Both must work from inside a larger system that holds all the power over them.
However, Ruth is not an athlete, a ruler, or a warrior. There is no way that her story can be about categories of “winning” and “losing”. Identity and belonging are reimagined in a whole different way. In the story of Ruth identity does not come from power or victory, or even her ethnicity. Identity is faithfulness to God and God's people. Ruth had “world championship” level faithfulness to her mother-in-law Naomi, to the family of her dead husband, and to the God of Israel. She was faithful, even when Naomi told her that she should not be.
It’s true, sports are fun! (I’ll keep watching baseball and football). However, like in the story of Ruth and as people of GOD, can we build-up people’s sense of identity and belonging, can we make them into WINNERS in a way that doesn’t make others into losers?
(Inspiration and insight for this article came from Vítor Westhelle, “On the Authority of the Scriptures: More than Enough” in The Church Event: Call and Challenge of a Church Protestant, Fortress 2010.)
Let’s admit it, the Bible is really hard to read. It comes from a different time and from another part of the world. It is written in different genres that are unfamiliar to us. And often we don’t really know what it is we’re reading.
Lutheran Christianity gives us a great starting place. Our Lutheran tradition says the Bible points us to Christ. (Martin Luther said the scriptures are the manger that holds the Christ child.) Now, that doesn’t answer every question, but it does aim us in the right direction.
It can be hard to see how some Bible texts point to Christ. Martin Luther even pointed to some parts of Scripture that he felt did not convey Christ. Yet still… the broad sweep of Scripture reveals that: God is God of life and new life; God rescues, restores, liberates, and sets free; God has regard for the lowly and the powerless; God wants a relationship with God’s people; and when we mess things up, God works to bring us back. In all these ways, the Scriptures show that the way of God is indeed the way of Jesus Christ. In other words… the scriptures point to Christ.
The Scriptures show that Christ comes and restores us back to God (we call this salvation). We don’t earn it, deserve it, or make ourselves more acceptable to God. We are saved as a free gift of God’s grace. We grasp ahold of God’s gift of grace only by trusting and believing that the gift is real. This trust in God’s grace is called FAITH. Having faith is not a statement about ourselves; it’s a statement about God. God is worthy of faith because God is trustworthy and true.
Lutherans put these pieces together and say that:
Those four little statements (grace alone; faith alone; Christ alone; word alone) are Luther’s great insight and were the basis of Luther’s argument with the Roman Catholic Church of the 1500s and the reason there was a Reformation.
At that time, the Church taught that “there is no salvation apart from the church.” The Church had inserted itself between God and the people and claimed to have the authority to hand out salvation.
Luther argued that the Church does not save us! We are saved by Christ and Christ alone. Salvation does not come through our works and efforts; nor by the rituals, prayers, religious relics, or buying of indulgences offered (or required) by the Roman Church. Salvation is a gift from God by grace alone. Grace gives the gift and calls us to trust that the gift is real, by faith alone. And what is the basis and foundation of our faith? The hope, and the promise, and the truth of Jesus Christ, revealed in the word alone.
Luther’s message was important then (and still is today), but we need to remember that his argument belonged to a specific time and a specific issue. The issue was that the Church claimed it had the authority to hand out salvation and that religious activities and practices could help you “score points” with God and move closer to salvation. Luther’s argument was against the Church overreaching its proper authority. Instead, Luther pointed to Christ as the only way of salvation and the scriptures as the only reliable witness to Christ.
A lot has happened since the 1500s. Around the 1700s something called “The Enlightenment” occurred and people developed different ideas about what is “truth”. People came to think that only logic, reason, and hard observable facts counted as “truth”. The Bible came into question because at times it contradicted itself, some details were historically incorrect, and some stories defied “reason” or “logic”.
A good “Lutheran” answer to these doubts would have been to say that the Bible is “truth” because it points to God’s promises that come in Jesus Christ. To argue over every little dot and dash is meaningless compared to the much greater promise of the Good News of Jesus. But not everyone wanted to take this route.
Instead, some people opted for “defending” the Bible. They dug in, insisting every story was historically factual, every word correct, and the entire text was without error (inerrant). Rather than trusting the Bible because it pointed to Jesus, for them the Bible itself became the object of their faith. These “true believers” set themselves as the experts and made it their project to “prove” that the Bible is “true” (factual) in every detail; and to rebuff and reject those who dared to think differently. This is referred to as fundamentalism. For them, salvation is only for those who “believe in the Bible” and its “right interpretation”. They stole Luther’s “word alone” phrase and twisted it to mean that they would ignore logic, reason, science, or historical fact, and believe only the Bible (their interpretation of it). What gets lost is grace, and faith, and trust in Christ alone.
Fundamentalism distorts the Bible and distorts Luther’s teaching. It distorts Luther because “word alone” was never about rejecting logic and reason, but about challenging the authority of the Roman Church and returning authority to Jesus Christ and the witness of the Scriptures. Fundamentalism distorts the Bible because it makes a book, a created thing, into the object of faith.
It is important to know what the Bible is, for knowing protects us from trying to turn the Bible into something it was never intended to be. So then, what is the Bible? It is a book. To be sure, it is a holy book, but it is a book. The book points beyond itself to the hope and promise that is Jesus Christ, God’s Son. The book does not save us; God does. The book is not the promise; Jesus is. Jesus is light and life; Jesus is our hope and salvation; Jesus is God’s grace and truth made flesh. We have faith in that promise. We have faith because we trust that the witness of the Bible points us to Jesus Christ, our salvation.
We have images of the cross everywhere. We wear the cross as jewelry. We sing “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross”. As Lutherans we talk about a theology of the cross. Yet, for all this attention to the cross, do we know what it really means for us?
Some say the cross represents the necessary sacrifice for our salvation. True, Christ gave himself completely for our sake; that is to say, he gave himself sacrificially. Yet, the Bible makes it clear that GOD does not demand sacrifices (1 Samuel 15:22, Psalms 40:6-8, 50:8-14, & 51:16-17, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:6-8).
Some say the cross of Christ represents payment for our sins. But I recall one of my seminary professors challenging us: "If the cross of Christ is payment, then who is receiving the payment?" It doesn’t make sense to say that God is paying Himself. And if God is God, above all else, then there is no one else that God needs to pay.
Some say the cross shows us how to “bear our cross” in humility, but this gets twisted in corrupt ways. Slave owners taught slaves to suffer patiently and obediently. Abused women are told to go back to their abuser and endure their suffering in humility. And in glaring hypocrisy, many proponents of “suffering in humility” then argue that they have “the right” to defend themselves. Suffering meekly becomes a convenient tool to manipulate and control others.
So then, what is the cross? Cynthia Moe-Lobeda is a professor and theologian at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. In her chapter contribution to the book Cross Examinations: Reflections on the Meaning of the Cross Today, she offers us an understanding of the cross of Christ that calls us to live more fully engaged with life in God’s good creation.
First, the cross reveals that we’re “curved in on ourselves” (Luther’s phrase). Jesus Christ comes into a broken world. Through Him sinners are forgiven; the sick are healed; the cursed become blessed; the hungry are fed; suffering is relieved; and death is transformed to life.
But healing what is broken means recognizing that things are broken. Jesus revealed not just the brokenness of individuals, but the brokenness of whole systems. Religious systems didn’t have a solution for sin. Religious rules labeled and excluded the sick and suffering, not heal them. The Roman Empire claimed to be source of all goodness and benefits, yet vast portions of society had no share. The systems are sin-sick and serve their own needs.
The difficult thing (not just back then but for all of us in every time) is that we can’t remove ourselves from sinful and broken systems that surround us. The systems are too vast, too complex, too interconnected. Most of the time we just “go along to get along”.
And the hope-filled message of the cross is that Jesus shows up even here, in our broken lives and broken systems. The light shines into the darkness. Remember, Jesus was present even for the Roman centurion who stood guard at the foot of the cross (Luke 23:47).
Second, the cross shows that we have God’s unfailing love. Yes, we are sinful and broken people, stuck in and participating in sinful and broken systems. And yet, at the same time, we are people saved by the grace, love, and mercy of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the love of God coming into the world for the world (John 3:16-17); and Jesus says he now “abides in” us (John 15:1-4). At the cross we see that God’s love in Jesus Christ will not stop. That unfailing, unstoppable love for the whole creation lives in us and makes us one in Him (John 17:11).
Third, the cross points forward to the resurrection. Sure, the cross looks like defeat. Sure, some days it seems like the sin and evil of the world are just too much for us. But the resurrection says that there is more to the story. There is reason to hope; there is life and new life on the other side of the cross. Jesus rises and calls his followers to keep living the faithful life; to cast our nets into the water one more time (John 21:5-6) and to go to Galilee and carry on the ministry that He started (Mark 16:7). Death is not the end.
Fourth, the cross reveals that Christ is present in all things. The Word becoming flesh does not simply mean that God has joined humans; the amazing thing is that the Creator stepped down into the creation. God is present in these living bodies of flesh and blood; and when Christ dies, God is present also in that which is dead. And in the resurrection, everything old has passed away; everything has become new! (2 Cor. 5:17). This new creation is everything (Gal 6:15). Martin Luther wrote, “Christ is around us and in us in all places… [He] is present in all creatures, and I might find him in stone, in fire, in water…” The Earth is the dwelling place of God. This hurting and broken world is now filled with hope, life, and new life by the grace of Jesus Christ. We, the body of Christ, are called to care for and steward this good earth where Christ abides.
I am “pure Swedish”. That’s what my parents used say to us. What they meant was that all four of our grandparents were of Swedish ancestry; three of them were born in Sweden. It also meant that dad grew up speaking Swedish; my parents both attended the same Augustana (Swedish) Lutheran congregation in Illinois; and both graduated from Augustana College in Rock Island, a Swedish Lutheran college. Their heritage was a source of identity and pride.
When I met Kristi, she felt it as something different. Sometimes the “pure Swedish” thing came off feeling like a bit of superiority. Was this a suggestion that others were impure? For her, it was personal. Kristi’s ancestors had been in the United States for many generations. Former ethnic identities had long ago lost their significance; her heritage was more blended. Did my family think that being “pure Swedish” was a notch up on everyone else?
I have also come to realize that much of my way of being a Lutheran Christian is mingled with pieces of that cultural heritage. And that is fine; God is always present among us in the specifics of our lives. That Swedish Lutheran heritage has given us “Children of the Heavenly Father” and some really good theologians. Yet, our heritage can get to be a problem when we impose our cultural forms as a requirement on to the faith of others.
Recently, I read “Baptism in Muddy Waters” by Bishop Leila M. Ortiz, a contribution to a 2018 book on global Lutheranism. She is Bishop of The Metropolitan Washington D.C. Synod of the ELCA. She describes herself as mestiza because of her mixed Spanish, African, and indigenous ancestry. She adds that she is also culturally mestiza, born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York; and never regarded as “American” enough or Puerto Rican enough by either one. And to add a bit more to the mix, she was formed in the Pentecostal tradition and at age 27 she says she was “liberated by Lutheran theology.”
Bishop Ortiz shares that she has met other women with similar stories. These women now cherish their Lutheran Christian faith, offering them new space to breathe that they did not know before. They hear the promise of the Gospel, not the weight of the law; grace, not guilt or shame; life and promise, not death or damnation. Yet, the challenge for them has been finding ways to embrace the things that they loved from their Pentecostal tradition. They miss exuberant worship, praying out loud together, joyful singing, and even crying. They long for the vibrant and expressive spirituality of their previous church tradition.
Could there be a way to hold different things together and imagine them becoming a new thing? Bishop Ortiz offers the image of the estuary. The estuary is a coastal area where a freshwater river meets the salt-water ocean. Water levels rise and fall with ocean tides and river flooding. This is a place of beginnings and endings. Some plants or animals cannot exist in this difficult environment. And yet, the estuary is home to unique and diverse life forms that exist only here. An estuary is one thing that is, in fact, the coming together of many things.
Bishop Ortiz suggests that the church could be a kind of estuary. This imagery makes me think of Carl and Kelsey Grulke. Kelsey (daughter of Tim and Sue Erickson) grew up at Fjeldberg, formed by what could be described as “traditional” Lutheran practices. Now, she and husband Carl are in Botswana with Lutheran Bible Translators. Daily, they live in the mix of different languages, cultures, nationalities, story-telling practices, religious experiences, social and economic structures. Some of their traditions and practices that they brought with them may not work in this new environment. And yet, what does grow in this new setting will bring diversity, excitement, and life to Christ’s Church.
This blending of languages, cultures, and traditions is not just “over there” in far off places. In recent years roughly half of new ELCA congregations have been among non-European or immigrant communities. Bishop Ortiz reminds us that “more and more of our Lutheran membership will come from various cultural and theological backgrounds, submersion into the estuary is necessary for the growth and edification of our church.”
This is not just about demographics or population trends. It seems that the Holy Spirit is moving here with a type of Pentecost fire; new people, new traditions, new practices, and new words flowing and rising together. The Spirit will give us new eyes to examine and explore the beauty of our own tradition through the experiences and practices of others. The Spirit is doing something among us; and the Church will be better because of it.
Is the focus of the Christian faith OUT of this world or INTO the world?
Does it matter for the way we live in the world?
Before we jump into our answering those questions...
let’s think about the WAY we think about those things.
(My reflections are informed by Lutheran professor & theologian Terra Schwerin Rowe, who was a student a Wartburg Seminary when I was there).
Augustine (354-430), an early Christian theologian and bishop, dramatically altered the way people think about personhood. One might think the most identifying things about us are: our family, our friends, our relationships, the parts of the world we interact with, the work that we do, and even the air we breathe. But Augustine said the interior world of the self is the truest self. This inner self is where we find our closest connection to God.
René Descartes (1596-1650), a key source of the modern philosophical view, taught that the only thing that can truly be “known” is the self. Only self-knowledge and self-awareness can be trusted with certainty. He prioritized the mind so much that it seemed virtually disconnected from the body. This led to an understanding where mind and body (or spiritual and physical) are separated and distinct.
The ideas from these two men continue to be profoundly influential on Western (European and North American) thought. The result has been a sharp divide between the “internal” and “external” worlds. Terra Rowe observes, “this private inner self has become a basic assumption of Western religion.” We’ve ended up with an overly “spiritualized” Christianity, focused primarily on “saving the soul” and exiting out of this world. The result has been that knowing ourselves as fundamentally inter-connected with the earth was dismissed as mere folklore of "primitive" peoples.
What if Augustine and Descartes were wrong (or at least off-base)? What if the Bible tells a different truth? Maybe our truest self is much more than just our inner being.
In the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, Cain kills his brother Abel. God asks Cain where his brother is. And Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9). The implied answer is clearly, “Yes! You are! And, by the way, you failed at it.” God did not come and say to Cain, “Tell me about your inner thoughts.” What matters, what shapes Cain’s truest identity is his relationship and responsibility to his brother and to God.
In the book of Leviticus, God speaks to the Hebrew people before they enter the land of promise; “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God” (19:9-10). God did not say, “When you come into the land, think deep thoughts about me.” The people’s lives, their future, and their identity is intimately tied up in their inter-connectedness to this particular land, to what the land produces, to other people, and to God.
And when the risen Jesus appears to his disciples, He says to them, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). These were not mere inner thoughts about Jesus. Jesus showed up, physically and in person. It was indeed him when it was physically him.
Consider this from personal experience. Are we our truest self when sitting alone with our thoughts? Or are we most fully ourselves when we live into our most precious relationships with children and grandchildren, parents and grandparents, and those we love? We are, in fact, most truly known when we are known relationally.
Descartes made the further claim that only self-knowledge and self-awareness can be trusted with certainty. But do we really know ourselves with certainty? On the one hand, we lie to ourselves, denying our faults and sins, and forgetting that “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). On the other hand, we can be so critical of ourselves that we fail to see that we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Because we fail to see the truth about ourselves, we don’t know the truth about ourselves with certainty. Drawing into our inner self is not the way to truth.
Truth comes in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God is revealed and WE are also revealed in Him. God comes down and God the infinite steps into this fragile, finite human form. Terra Rowe writes that in Jesus, “God is born, God nurses at a mother’s breast, God sleeps in a cradle, God walks and stumbles, God wanders, God finds nourishment in food through the lives of other creatures, God is rendered vulnerable to suffering and loss, God dies. Luther insisted on this divine humility because only then could he be confident that his own experiences of suffering, vulnerability, loss, and struggle were not signs of the absence of divinity, but of God’s full presence with him.” God is truly present in the physicality of our existence.
In Jesus Christ God does not call us OUT of this world. Jesus Christ is God coming to live in communion with God’s creation. The presence of God in Jesus Christ fills the whole creation with the presence of God. And this did not end 2000 years ago but continues in the Holy Meal. Luther said that Jesus is present IN the bread and wine; WITH the bread and wine; and found UNDER the forms of bread and wine.
Seeing Jesus Christ in communion (or in relationship) with the whole creation means our faith is not an escape OUT of this world, but rather a calling to live IN this world with greater care and attention. Christ’s birth among us, his earthly ministry, his teachings, his dying and rising, and his presence in bread and wine testify to us that we are called to live IN the world, WITH the world, and UNDER the forms of this world as Christ himself has done. This shapes our relationship with, responsibility for, and our stewardship of God’s good creation.
I want to offer a couple of stories.
The first is about a family: a mother, father, and four kids. This family knew another girl in their community whose mother had died a few years earlier and whose father was unable to raise her. So, the family decided that this girl would come to live with them. They didn’t adopt her and there was no foster care arrangement. It didn’t fit any of the “normal” categories. She just became part of their family.
She stayed with them through high school; and they even helped with her college expenses. When she got married, the whole family came together for the wedding. When the family gathers for Christmas and Easter and all the big family events, all five of the children are together; the four born to that family and the one who came along a bit later. They are one family.
The second story is about a father and a daughter. The dad is an ordained Lutheran pastor in Pennsylvania, doing what pastors do—proclaiming the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. The daughter grew up as a pastor’s kid in a Lutheran home, doing what church kids do—Sunday school, Confirmation, youth groups, and all the rest. The daughter grew up, and then went to college, and she met a guy.
It turns out the guy was Jewish. Of course, she ended up marrying him. They lived in Brooklyn and she formed a close connection with her husband’s family and with their synagogue. They had a “Jewish” home, but the daughter was quite convinced that she was “too Lutheran” to ever convert to Judaism. Except… she did! She became Jewish.
But wait, there’s more. The father, the Lutheran pastor, got elected to be a Bishop in Pennsylvania and the daughter started studying to become a rabbi. At the dad’s installation as Bishop, his daughter was there, and she read from the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament); she read in English and in Hebrew. The Bishop, her dad, said, “What went through my mind was intense pride and love for my daughter’s charismatic presence, her poise, and yes, her faith.”
One family. One God.
It is interesting how the lines that divide us do not always stay so clear, even lines like family and religion. In the encounters of real life, dividing lines get blurry.
I’m not saying it is easy when we bump up against those boundaries. For the family that added the daughter, it cost them space in the home and cost them money. Even more difficult, they had to figure out some new lines of relationship. For the Bishop-dad and the Rabbi-daughter they had to reconsider religious claims about absolute truth. More than that, they had to think about their sense of identity and belonging. Those things are big demands.
And yet, out there at the edges… where we meet those who are different, that’s where the growth happens; that’s where we learn and where we stretch ourselves.
Mary “Joy” Philip was born and lived in India, where she was a professor in zoology. She then studied at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and is now a professor and theologian in Waterloo, Ontario. In her scientific and theological studies and in her life, she knows what it is to be at the margins. In her contribution to a 2010 book, in her chapter titled, “The Elusive Lure of the Lotus,” Philip writes, “Margins are spaces where there is movement, where there is constant dissembling and reassembling, where there is always a metamorphosis, the possibility of being and becoming.”
She points out that Jesus did not carry out His ministry hunkered down at the center, in Jerusalem. “Jesus, the godman lived at the margins, in the Galilees, where from, in the eyes of others, no good could come” (a reference to John 1:46). What Jesus did in his ministry was move outward… He met people out at the margins. Jesus went to the lepers, the beggars, the man living among the tombs, the woman at the well, tax collectors, sinners, and those despised Samaritans.
It’s not easy going out there; it’s not safe. Many people were unhappy with Jesus; they said he was abandoning traditional values and even that he was immoral. But it is good for us to remember, the Good News of Jesus Christ did not start with us, someone had to take it to us. The reason we have the Good News is that Jesus and others were willing to move OUT, away from the center, and take this Good News out to the margins and into the world.
There are some loud, noisy, and angry voices in our world today. People who want to define the “center” and they believe it’s their prerogative to do so. They want to reject anything with a different skin color, a different language, a different nationality, or a different religion. But pulling in to the “center” and rejecting those at the margins, that is NOT the Jesus message.
Jesus sees those other people, other groups, other “flocks” (John 10:16) and Jesus throws his arms wide open. Jesus will bring them along as well; and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Jesus didn’t say that we will all look the same, or talk the same, or think the same, believe the same things, or all worship the same way. And Jesus didn’t say it would be easy or affordable. But the direction of Jesus, the movement of God in the world is to draw us together.
This Savior, this Good Shepherd (John 10:11) came for a world and for a time just like ours, now. Jesus went out to margins for our health and healing and growth. Jesus came for the well-being of all. He came to draw us together.
One flock. One shepherd.
Pastor Erick Swanson