Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Church According to Martin Luther: Worthaus, Not Buchhaus

(Portrait of Martin Luther from the ELCA Archives

Martin Luther used to say that the Church is not a Buchhaus = bookhouse, but a Worthaus = Wordhouse.  By that I think he meant that our continual challenge is to translate, i.e., to "carry across", the text of the Word.  Though Christians are a people of the Book, the Book speaks to us who, hopefully, live in and by the Spirit by carrying across that Word.  Our challenge is to translate the text of the Word into life, into action.  It's interesting for us to read the Bible, but another thing to let it have an impact on what we do.  We admiringly study the prophets' words and deeds, or Paul's letters, but we grow uncomfortable and hesitant when those texts face us with action which we must take here and now.  The challenge is to translate the text of the Word.

Take for example the passage in Luke 4:14-21 which recounts a sermon Jesus gave in his hometown Nazareth synagogue.  Jesus reads a text from Isaiah against his own background and the needs of his hearers.  The text of the Word will come to life in Jesus' person and activity in his ministry.  He speaks not a dry, dead Word from the past, nor a Word which puts one at ease and anesthetizes one in the present, but a Word, a futuristic Word, yet a realistic and attainable Word, prompted by the Spirit's presence, which announces a hands-on agenda of bringing good news to poor people and freedom to people locked up in any form of oppression.  Luke clearly implies that Jesus' challenge to his readers is to translate, to "carry across" the text.  People didn't then and don't now like to hear that.  You can see that by reading on in Luke's narrative a few verses to see how Jesus' own townsfolk reacted:

"All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers* in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way."

I think that sometimes a preacher's greatest criticism and indictment is to have someone say after the service: "That was such a 'nice' sermon!"  It isn't really very nice if you and I haven't been challenged to translate, to carry across, the text of God's Word into hands-on action.  Our challenge is to be the Church as Wordhouse, not as a Bookhouse, to learn together from Jesus' words and actions how to translate the text of the Word into concrete servanthood.

Walter Rast, professor of theology at Valparaiso University, Indiana, writes:

"...And here is a most poignant message for the modern church.  Have not the divisions in the church often come about through lack of attention to the caring mission of the church? Some years ago the Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann made the startling suggestion that the divided churches could well begin to find their way back toward a unity of belief and purpose if they would undertake common tasks of social concern.  For two decades now such shared work has gone on among the churches, with great reserve in many quarters.  But wherever it has occurred, at least the people in the pews have found themselves in their understanding of the servant calling of the church."

We don't know the full content of what Jesus said in his preaching that day in Nazareth.  One thing is certain: he got their attention with his opening statement -- what, in sales presentations, we used to call a "ho-hum crasher":
"...he began by saying to them, 'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.'"  He's not just identifying this passage with his person; he's speaking about what he's already doing, his acts of bringing good news to the poor, release to the imprisoned, and sight to those who can't see.  

Hopefully, Jesus grabs our attention as we read and meditate on the Word, for God's love seeks out the needy and the oppressed at all times and under all conditions, but only through us, God's servants.  As the servant body of Christ we're invited to translate, to "carry across", to fulfill the Word into action, today, right now, in behalf of the disadvantaged members of our society.  As congregations and as individuals we need to grasp that it's our responsibility, in the light of God's Word, to address the peoples' pressing needs, indeed to go further and attempt to change those social and economic conditions that make people poor and needy.  Who else will address the sad reality of jails and prisons in our land, or minister to victims of violence and abuse, particularly against women and children, or labor against the social inequalities which breed disregard and crime?  As uncomfortable, repugnant and frightening as it may be, we're invited to dirty our hands in what the late Richard John Neuhaus called the "naked public square".  

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