What is a Lutheran?

By Pastor Andrew Hagen

Since I returned from a vacation in Germany I have been thinking quite a bit about my heritage as a life-long Lutheran from a family that traces its Lutheran heritage back to the Reformation. What does it really mean to be Lutheran?

Fans of National Public Radio's "A Prairie Home Companion," are regularly treated to descriptions of the prototypical Lutherans of Minnesota by Garrison Keillor. Lutherans in his fictional hometown of Lake Woebegone are serious, humble, caring, dependable and a little bit boring except for their love of green Jello with carrot shavings in it. The Lutheran culture some of us grew up in includes potlucks after church, singing hymns at the top of our lungs, passing on the faith to our children, and thinking of fellow church members as part of our extended family. While I appreciate my Lutheran background I know that many members of Lutheran churches (like Advent) have never heard of lutefisk and don't have any interest in Bach Chorales. That's okay because being a Lutheran is much more than these cultural connections.

It would make sense to say that being Lutheran means being a devotee of Martin Luther. However, Martin would turn over in his grave that I just visited in the King's Church in Wittenberg, Germany if anyone were to suggest such a thing. Luther was a 16th century monk who protested (hence, Protestant) against the corruption and heresy of some of the Roman Catholic leaders of his day. When he was expelled from the mother church others went with him and these people were derisively called "Lutherans" by their enemies. Luther first complained in his 95 Theses nailed on the same King's Church door that many of the current Christian practices had no basis in scripture. In order to allow people to see for themselves, he translated the Bible into German and encouraged pastors to teach the bible on Sunday mornings. His sermons and theological writings are still influential today. But since many Lutherans know very little about "Marty" we really haven't answered our question yet.

Is being a member of a Lutheran denomination or congregation what makes someone Lutheran? On paper this is probably true. By belonging to a Lutheran organization you are lumped in with the group the rest of the world calls Lutherans whether you like it or not. The Evangelical Lutheran Church denomination we belong to trains pastors, feeds the hungry, provides resources to congregations, sends missionaries out to the world, and a host of other things we appreciate and some other things we may not. On a local level, Advent has a particular Lutheran flavor to its ministry. For example, we call our ordained leaders, pastors, not "father," baptize infants and adults, believe that the bread and wine are really his body and blood, think Lent and Holy Week are important, and say the Lord's Prayer and Creed at every service every week. Does going to Advent make you Lutheran? The answer to that question is probably up to you but probably it's more a yes than a no.

What does it really mean to be Lutheran? All of the above factor in but the most important meaning is found in a small but powerful word called "grace." Grace is the word we use to describe how God chooses to love us. Contrary to the way people in the world love us, God's love for us is unmerited and unconditional. It is also unbelievable, unreasonable, unstoppable, unending and unfathomable. There is nothing in the world like it and we can't really truly live without it. Though we are doubters and sinners God reaches out to us first in love to forgive and reclaim us and no matter what we do God never lets us go. While some Christians might say "they found Jesus," Lutherans would always say that "Jesus found me." If it weren't for God's amazing grace none of us would ever be able to sing and believe that these words are true, "I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see." Thanks to Luther, who was obsessed with his sinfulness until he rediscovered the concept of God's grace in the scriptures, Lutherans are still obsessed with God's grace. While Lutherans don't always understand or preach it right or even live like we have it, we just can't take our eyes off God's amazing grace. And while we don't have a monopoly on the concept of God's grace amongst other Christian denominations, the message of God's grace doesn't always get through in their preaching and teaching. So Lutherans carry this banner as high as possible so none of us will forget, "We are saved by grace!"

Everything it really means to be a Lutheran comes from our conviction that God's grace is where the Christian life starts and ends. In the end, Lutherans are just another brand of Christians. But by God's grace, Lutherans continue to focus on God's grace in a way that challenges other teachings and opens up new possibilities. A Lutheran is someone so capture by grace that, in the end, they humbly and gratefully seek to become instruments of God's grace in everything they do and everywhere they go. As Luther would say, "this is most certainly true."