Pastor’s March Ponderings
Although Roman Catholicism is still the predominant faith tradition throughout Latin America, Protestant denominations have made great inroads in bringing people to a different understanding of one’s relationship with God. Whereas Catholicism, like Lutheranism, is liturgical centered on the sacraments, a form of worship that is group oriented, Protestantism in Latin America in general, and in Central America in specific, emphasizes a personal relationship with God. Many of these faith traditions, new to Latin America in the past 40 years or so, are also charismatic. “Charism” is Greek for gifts, and a church that is charismatic will value the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and often requires that these gifts be manifested in individual believers. For example, some extreme charismatics require believers to speak in spiritual tongues as a sign that they have the gift of the Holy Spirit. Conversely, someone who does not have this gift is excluded from the fellowship. Another important gift in such churches is prophecy.
The theology and practice of Protestant churches in Latin America is very challenging to me. My husband, Antonio, sometimes tells me things about the church that his mother attends that I find shocking. Last week we were talking about that church’s ground-breaking for a new worship center, the pride and joy of which will be a sanctuary capable of seating 100,000. No, I didn’t mistype that number. Right now the sanctuary accommodates 50,000 weekly, by way of many services on Saturdays and Sundays. The hope is to have everyone together at one Sunday morning worship service and that the spirit of so many together in worship will help the church grow.
In any case, the point of theology we were discussing had to do with my understanding of the Gospel. The word Gospel means “good news.” For us in the Lutheran church, the good news is that we are justified (made right) before God by grace through faith. Our relationship with God is a free gift. We can do nothing to earn what Jesus won for us by dying on the cross and breaking the bonds of death by his resurrection. Antonio told me that his mother’s church believes in the Gospel of Judgment. Wow! At first that seemed so antithetical to what I believe that I had to step back from the conversation for a couple of seconds. I asked myself, “How can the Gospel be a message of judgment?”
However, as I thought about what that might mean, I came to understand the similarities between that gospel and our gospel. You see, Luther did emphasize sin as the first step towards accepting grace. Without knowing how we have sinned and how far short of God’s hopes for us we have fallen, how can we understand the amazing news that God loves us anyway? This is based on Paul’s view that sin leads to death, but, like Jesus, we die to sin and rise to newness of life.
The challenge of a Gospel of Judgment is to move beyond judgment: we understand and recognize our own sin, but what comes next? It’s too easy to get stuck right there. Life must be miserable if every day you recite a litany of what you have done wrong and never fully accept the forgiving love God gives us in Jesus. To me, that view of the gospel is pretty grim and doesn’t hold much joy in it.
On the other hand, we as Lutherans face the opposite dilemma. It is often the case that we spend too little time reflecting on our shortcomings and jump right over them to grace. Yes, we begin almost every service with a confession of sin, but only occasionally do we really talk about sin and its implications for our individual lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this “cheap grace.” His own life and ultimate death at the hands of the Nazis during World War II was a testament to how Christians know and experience—and live out—God’s love, even in the midst of evil. For him, action, rather than antipathy, was a sure sign that someone was alive with the good news.
The key here is, for me, a proper balance between the two. Rather than dwell on one to the exclusion of the other, both sin and the good news take their place in shaping our theology. To this end, a season like Lent, with its focus on sin, is very helpful. We are called to spend 40 days (Lent does not include Sundays) reflecting on how we have offended God by our individual actions. As such, we are called to have a bad Lent because at its end we should be oh so ready to hear the good news of Easter. Penitence leads to grace. Judgment yields its sadness to hope, joy, and love.
To this end, on the Sundays in Lent, our sermons will focus on the seven deadly sins. In Roman Catholic theology there are three kinds of sins: venial (for example, sass off to your mother); mortal (for example, steal something); and cardinal (that is, deadly). There is an increasing gravity to each type of sin that further and further removes us from God’s presence. In my 40-some years of ministry, I don’t ever remember emphasizing the seven deadly sins that threaten our very lives and pollute our personal relationships with God.
The seven sins are: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. At first, each sin may seem straightforward. Lust surely must have some sexual element in it. Right? Well, no. It covers all the ways in which we have an inordinate desire to possess something. Lust is destructive. Anything can become an object of our lust. The series starts on Ash Wednesday, February 26, with lust. It concludes with anger on Palm Sunday, April 5.
Another way for us to reach this balance between judgment and salvation by grace is to use the Lenten devotional booklet, “Your Nail.” The booklet offers a daily reading and reflection for each day in the season. Accompanying the booklet is a real nail that we might look at, hold, or carry around to remind us of our own sin. The nails and booklets were distributed prior to Lent, but if you are reading this and want one, please call the church office and one will be sent to you.
The nails can be symbolically ditched at the 8 p.m. service on Good Friday. Those who so desire may pound their nail into a real cross, indicat- ing how we as individuals nailed Jesus to the cross. It is a powerful experi- ence. For those who don’t want to do this, the nails can be placed in a basket on the altar. Others might want to keep their nails as a sign of the ongoing struggle each of us has.
On a lighter note, each Wednesday in Lent we will gather at 5:30 p.m. in Memorial Hall for a light supper. Then we will see a 30-minute video showcasing one of the most important churches in the world. We will look at ancient and modern buildings that embody the spirit of faith for people in very different times. The program will start at 6:15 p.m. It will be followed by Evening Prayer and Holy Eucharist in All Saints’ Chapel. A freewill offering can be made to help pay for the dinner.
So there you have it. Antonio’s mother would be happy because we are taking time to have a structured look at sin and judgment. We should be happy that this will lead to an Easter that is more joyous than ever, because we will know the Gospel of Grace rescues us from the death sin bring.
Pastor David Eisenhuth