[Holding aloft a copy of the Pocket Edition of Luther’s Small Catechism] Was ist das?
Dies ist ein geschenk. This is a present. It’s a gift from us to you. These little pocket editions of Luther’s Small Catechism have been floating around the church, in one form or another, for almost five hundred years now. Written by Martin Luther and first published in 1529, various editions and translations of this little instruction book have been used to instruct children (and adults) in the faith by parents at home and by teachers and preachers in the church since long before any of us were born.
And, as you learned last week, we’re using these Sundays in Lent as a time of intentional instruction in the basic building blocks of the Christian faith. The churchy word for this process is catechesis, you see it written in Greek on the front of your bulletin. It literally means, “to sound down into the ears.” So, intrinsic to the process of catechesis is speaking and listening.
Last November I was speaking to a group of Lutheran grade school students at St. John’s Lutheran School on Montrose, and I was struck by how the students had memorized and could recite long sections of Luther’s Small Catechism — as they did during chapel worship. Never fear, I’m not going to ask you to do the same, though I am going to ask you to open the catechisms we passed out with your bulletins and turn to pages 12 & 13.
What you’ve got on the left side shouldn’t be unfamiliar, it’s the Apostle’s Creed. On the right page you get Luther’s explanation of the First Article of the Creed which deals with God as the creator of all. He begins by repeating the First Article, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” And then you see the phrase “what is this?” or “what does this mean?” — the English translation of Luther’s favorite little question, “was ist das?”
Here’s how Luther answers the question:
I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, livestock, and all property — along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all!
That last line is the most important one, so let’s say it together one time: without any merit or worthiness of mine at all!
Without any merit or worthiness of mine at all. This is a tough pill for even the most Lutheran of Lutherans to swallow, though if you were confirmed in the Lutheran church you probably at least learned the formal name for this bit of doctrine: justification by grace through faith. It is one of the foundational insights of the Lutheran Reformation, that we are saved by grace through faith and not by any works of our own. But being able to recite that theological formula surely isn’t the same as believing it, much less living it.
A couple of weeks ago Cynthia Stengel forwarded me an essay published in the Wall Street Journal last month by Alain De Botton, a Swiss writer and the author of Religion for Atheists, which comes out in hardcover here in the States on Tuesday. In his article he discusses the erosion of community that many of us sense has worsened in recent decades and suggests that one root cause has been the loss of a shared public religion. He’s not recommending a return to monoculture, but he is trying to understand what a common religious life has offered society as a step to suggesting how what has been lost might be regained in a pluralistic world. He writes,
“Insofar as modern society ever promises us access to a community, it is one centered on the worship of professional success. We sense that we are brushing up against its gates when the first question we are asked at a party is ‘What do you do?,’ our answer to which will determine whether we are warmly welcomed or conclusively abandoned.
In these competitive, pseudo-communal gatherings, only a few sides of us count as currency with which to buy the goodwill of strangers. What matters above all is what is on our business cards. Those who have opted to spend their lives looking after children, writing poetry or nurturing orchards will be left in no doubt that they have run contrary to the dominant mores of the powerful, who will marginalize them accordingly.”
By contrast, he continues,
“the Church asks us to leave behind all references to earthly status. Here no one asks what anyone else ‘does.’ It no longer matters who is the bond dealer and who the cleaner. The Church does more, however, than merely declare that worldly success doesn’t matter. In a variety of ways, it enables us to imagine that we could be happy without it. Appreciating the reasons why we try to acquire status in the first place, it establishes conditions under which we can willingly surrender our attachment to it.”
While I appreciate the good press, I’m not convinced we always do this quite so well as Alain De Botton suggests. Still, to the extent that we are able to enact this alternate vision of community, where worth is not tied to wealth, it is a reflection of our belief that our ultimate value lies in our common heritage as creations of God, the creator of heaven and earth.
That is what your confirmation teachers were attempting to instill in you as they taught you Luther’s explanation of the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed. That you are a creation of the same God who created the crab nebula pulsing in the constellation of Taurus; the same God who binds protons to electrons, making matter possible at the sub-atomic level. I’m not talking about creationism, I’m talking about creation in all its breathtaking grandeur. Everything that is and ever was, the heights of Mount Kilamanjaro, the depths of the ocean floor, and you.
You are one of God’s miracles, and that was true long before you ever opened your mouth or took your first step or accepted your first job or brought home your first paycheck. You are one of God’s most miraculous creations, and that is your birthright. That means it is a truth that no one and nothing can ever take away from you. That’s what the Creed is trying to tell you, which is why it’s always a little sad when we recite it the way I used to recite the pledge of allegiance in elementary school each day when the bell rang — still half-asleep and not quite sure of its meaning.
“I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Listen to the audacity of that claim. When Christians gather, we proudly declare that we believe that whatever God there is, however this spinning planet came to rest at just the right midpoint between the burning gasses of the sun and the deep freeze of outer space that allows life to flourish across the globe, that God is both almighty and parental. That God is both powerful and tender. That God is both transcendent and as close to us as a parent’s beating heart. That is not a truth to be droned, but sung.
The apostle Paul writes, “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” If I got to rewrite that sentence for a modern audience, which I do, I would translate it something like this, “You people of faith, you come from a proud lineage, but the thing that makes your family tree truly impressive is not the number of lawyers or doctors in it, not the number of famous or wealthy people in it. What makes your family tree truly impressive is that it encompasses the whole world. Your birthright, your inheritance, is the whole world to treat and love as your own family, just as the God who created the whole world has claimed you as God’s family, not because of who you are but because of who God is. Love. Believe that. You were created in the image and likeness of Love.”
Catechesis is what we call the process of teaching. Catechisms are the textbooks used to do the teaching. Catechumens are what we call the people being taught. In the days of the early church the catechumens were those preparing to be baptised at the Easter Vigil. We have carried that tradition forward in time, and today we use these forty days of Lent as a period of learning and relearning what it means to be the baptized people of God. The creeds that we recite in worship were first recited at our baptism, either by us or over us. They summarize the sweeping drama of God’s grace, from creation to salvation to resurrection, and they put us right at the heart of the action. Try to listen to the creed with fresh ears again today, not as a set of ideas to believe, but as a story to live. A grand story with God’s creative love and your miraculous being right at the center of it all.