Friday, March 25, 2011

Martin Luther: Fire-Bender - A Brief Excurses on Discipleship

Lutherans have rightly acquired a reputation for laxity and passivity in matters of sanctification and holy living. Too often, we succumb to the temptation of the sloganizing mythos of "simul justus et peccator" (meaning "simultaneously sinner and saint"), crying "wolf" against the bogeyman of works-righteousness, thus nullifying the fact that while indeed sin and brokenness persist in us until our dying day, nevertheless, the Holy Spirit is in fact at work in our hearts, effecting growth into new creation. Even a cursory reading of Luther's great 1535 commentary on Galatians or the fourth article of the Apology for the Augsburg Confession will eradicate any inkling that Lutherans are somehow off the hook; indeed, sin ought daily to decrease, purged away by the Spirit's fire, such that while we remain sinner and saint, the former daily decreases that the latter may increase.

Furthermore, while justification is received passively, through no effort of our own, for Luther, sanctification is very much an active process. Commenting on Galatians 5.5, which reads "through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness," Luther draws several analogies between faith and hope that set up a helpful paradigm for understanding the Christian life. While faith is an intellectual act, an apprehending and trusting in the wisdom and truthfulness of God's Word, hope is an act of the will; if faith is teaching, then hope is exhortation "because it arouses the mind to be brave and resolute, so that it dares, endures, and lasts in the midst of evils. If faith can be compared to a theologian, "hope is a captain battling against feelings such as tribulation, the cross, impatience, sadness, despair and blasphemy; and it battles with joy and courage" (22). Hope is the forgotten theological virtue, but here, for Luther, it operates not just as a longing for future perfection, but also as the impulse of the Spirit in the heart by which one's faith is put into action, risked in confrontation with life-denying forces, both inward and outward. Possessing faith, hope and love together Luther is even so bold as to assert that "thus a man is whole and perfect in this life...until the revelation of the righteousness for which he looks, which will be consummated and eternal" (25).

Such perfection is not, of course, sainthood or freedom from temptation and affliction. Rather, for Luther, perfection is that capacity to face down with integrity the enemies of God - the world, the flesh, and the devil - confident in Christ's grace, looking not at our anxiety, our present lack of an experience of faith, or even our failures, and instead, clinging to Christ in faith, to take up the armor of God and the Sword of the Spirit and to "find out by experience what a good and a brave warrior you are" (26). Learning to live out faith by hope such that flashes forth in acts of love for one's neighbor and acts of resistance against the anti-god powers of the world is not mere intellectual achievement; rather, "this art is not learned without frequent and great trials" (27). As in so much of Luther's writing, despite the imagery of warfare and violence, learning to live by faith and by the Spirit for the Reformer is an art, learned not merely through speculation, detachment, and passivity, but rather, through active engagement, through failure, through forgiveness, and through triumph. To those willing to trust in the promises of God, Luther exhorts that such warriors will "eventually experience that this poor little spark of faith (as it seems to reason because it is hardly aware of it) will become like an elemental fire, which fills all heaven and swallows up all terrors and sins" (27).

Having recently just finished viewing the profound American anime series, Avatar: the Last Airbender (absurd comparison coming? perhaps!), there is a sense in which Luther is calling Christians to learn to become fire-benders. For those either over the age of 10 or out of the loop, Avatar is inspired by Chinese philosophy and martial arts, and follows the adventures of a group of young people as they learn to master their supernatural relation to the four elements, earth, wind, water, and fire. The ability to manipulate such elements is called "bending," and the Avatar, a boy named Aang, must learn to master all four in order to defeat the genocidal machinations of the Fire Lord. In the final season of the trilogy in which Aang turns to his former enemy-turned-teacher Zuko to train him in fire-bending, the two of them together journey to the ancient civlization of the sun tribe to discover the true source of fire-bending, which has long since been corrupted by the violence-driven Fire Nation. Aang and Zuko discover that fire is not merely a force of hatred and destruction, but is in fact, the essence of the energy that gives life to the planet through the sun, and hence can be harnessed creatively and for the sake of life, as an animating force or a dance. The revelation of such power ultimately turns the tide on the destiny of both young warriors.

Luther is calling Christians to learn to be fire-benders; to learn to trust that despite the sin which still clings to our flesh, the tendency towards violence, self-seeking, and despair, even so, the Christian must trust in the deeper energy, the life force of the Spirit, that burns in the innermost temple of the heart through one's intimate union with Christ. Like any warrior or artist learning a skill, such knowledge of one's inner power, and hence, present foretaste of the future consummation of one's perfection, can only be attained by facing trials, by moving beyond the security of one's passivity and the smugness of one's stance against so-called works-righteousness, to face the enemies that oppress, while seeking the ever-more-brightly-blazing fire of the Love that moves stars and sun. One may never become a master in this life; but the true wisdom in Luther's instructions to Melanchthon to "sin boldly, but be more bold in your love of Jesus Christ," is thus to remove the fear that comes from following one's own self-centered inclinations, and instead, to trust in God's promises, to stand fast by hope, and so to allow the Spirit's fire to bend us to the proportions of an elemental flame. It is an art learned by practice - not disembodied knowledge gained through theologizing alone.

Nor must such warrior rhetoric force us to the conclusion that the form of the Christian life is violence. Rather, building on Luther, we must be all the more bold in hope in confronting the forces of death, be they injustice, intolerance, idolatry, or ignorance, never remaining idle, but always looking to grow in serving our neighbors, no matter how great the challenge or risk to our life. Indeed, the seventh mark of the true church for Luther is the willingness to bear the cross. And the cross defines our means; it is our weaponry, and we are not permitted to shape that holy lumber into a spear or club, but rather, into a shepherd's staff, an instrument of music, or a vessel of assistance. The weapons which the Christian wields are those which Oscar Romero called "the violence of love," and must be the fruits of the Spirit. To follow Christ, then, is to learn to become a warrior of non-violence, a Spirit-bended Love-bender, willing to suffer and to endure, trusting in Christ, and embodying faith in the new creation that God has begun, and will bring to completion. We do not train and grow for our own sake, but so that, when the time comes, we will be all the more ready to serve our neighbor and our God, whatever the cost, wherever the cross.

(All references to Martin Luther, Luther's Works vol.27, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964.)

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