Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Simultaneously Saint and Sinner...also known as A Perfect God's Imperfect People" - Lent 2017 series, Lent with Luther: 1517 Ideas through 2017 Eyes

Romans 7:19-25

19 I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do. 20 But if I do the very thing that I don’t want to do, then I’m not the one doing it anymore. Instead, it is sin that lives in me that is doing it. 21 So I find that, as a rule, when I want to do what is good, evil is right there with me. 22 I gladly agree with the Law on the inside, 23 but I see a different law at work in my body. It wages a war against the law of my mind and takes me prisoner with the law of sin that is in my body. 24 I’m a miserable human being. Who will deliver me from this dead corpse?25 Thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then I’m a slave to God’s Law in my mind, but I’m a slave to sin’s law in my body.

Matthew 7:1-5

7 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s[a] eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor,[b] ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s[c] eye.

There is a website called which sells merchandise with traditional Lutheran themes, things like novelties and mugs and clothing. One of the most popular items for sale there is a T-shirt that is a bit of an optical illusion. When read one way, it says “Saint,” but when flipped upside down, it spells the word “Sinner.”  The font in which it is written resembles the calligraphy of ancient manuscripts, as if it is something a saintly monk may have written in one of those oversized manuals he transcribed. For me, it also looks like the style of writing found in gothic horror novels or biker tattoos. Seen one way it can seem holy and fancy, but it also has an edgy, ominous, devilish look to it. The design is clever because it is somehow both, rolled into one: saint and sinner, holy and sinister, whole and broken.

It is intended to depict visually a theological idea that Martin Luther wrote extensively about during the Protestant Reformation. That is, a believer is simultaneously saint and sinner. He or she is not ever really one or the other—as if at any given moment a person finds their life in a good column or a bad column or even a neutral column. When it comes to her relationship with God, a believer understands that she is both stuck in sin, in deep need of God’s mercy, and, at the same time, fully named and claimed as a holy child of God, set free from her bondage.

Martin Luther did not make up this idea that we are simultaneously saint and sinner, but it did become a central component to his teachings. He found it in Scripture, especially in the letters of apostle Paul. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he hears the apostle, who clearly is a man of great faith, struggle openly with his own sinfulness. Paul maintains steadfast faith in the victory of his Lord Jesus Christ over sin and death, and he talks extensively about the meaning and importance of his baptism, but he also is frustrated that he is still captive to sin. He finds himself still wanting to do the very things he should not do, putting him in conflict with the new, forgiven person he yet knew Christ had made him to be.

Martin Luther saw this conflict in himself, and it was struggling with this concept of his own imperfections in the face of God’s mighty perfection which really led him to launch his critique of the church in his day. He recognized that in this life we are never really totally free from that desire to sin, that tendency to transgress what Paul calls the law. We always fall short in our ability to live up to God’s righteousness.

In his commentary on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Luther says, “The true way of salvation is this. First, a person must realize that he is a sinner, the kind of a sinner who is congenitally unable to do any good thing.” “Congenitally” in this case means a firmly established habit, as if from birth. The first step in become one of this perfect God’s imperfect people is realizing you are instinctively flawed, broken.

And yet, at the same time, we also have the promise that Christ is given for us—we are assured through God grace that Jesus, who is God’s own Son, makes us righteous before God. We grasp this through our faith, we feel it in the water of our baptisms, we hold and taste it in the Lord’s Supper, and we know it is true for us. It’s a free gift, and like a garment that shields us, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross makes us holy in the eyes of God. Luther goes on to say: “[Let me] give a short definition of a Christian: a Christian is not somebody who has no sin, but somebody against whom God no longer chalks sin, because of his faith in Christ.”

In Luther’s day, this was a helpful guide for reforming the church and reorienting its message to the gospel truth. The church had practices and official stances that led people to believe they could get rid of their own sin by living perfect, virtuous lives, or by donating enough money, and that a Christian was someone who had successfully done just that.

Luther’s view helped people realize that God’s love for us in Christ was sufficient for our salvation.

But what about today? How does the church’s proper understanding that we’re both sinner and saintly at the same time—that we’re a perfect God’s imperfect people—meet modern culture and become a word of grace? To some degree, I believe that there is already a yin-and-yang sentimentality present in most people’s minds—that is, that life is mixture of opposites, and that some of the opposites are right within us. A yin-and-yang philosophy may not be the same thing as saint and sinner, but it is somewhat similar.

And yet I hear within our day and age a strong tendency to place humans fully in one category or another, to make hard-and-fast judgments about human worth. I see the debates over renaming schools here in Richmond or the possible removal of Confederate war memorials, the requests to no longer quote Thomas Jefferson, slave-owner, at the University of Virginia (which he founded!) and wonder if they all might be symptoms of this tendency to paint people all one color according to their sins. The most recent edition of one of the magazines I subscribe to, The Christian Century, deals with the struggle to make sense of Martin Luther’s own legacy, because along with the wonderful things he said in regards to church and faith and service to neighbor, he also said some hateful things about groups like Jews, Anabaptists, and Muslims.

And we come to conclusions about folks we know on a personal level, too, thinking that certain people have little capacity to embody God’s holiness or show forth the love of Christ because of our past experiences with them, or because of stereotypes we’ve developed through the media. There is a lot of confessing of other people’s sins these days, of pointing out the specks in others’ eyes we feel can’t be overlooked.

Things like slavery and discrimination are certain evils, and discussions about the ways they have intersected and impacted the witness of people’s lives are important ones to have. And yet it is easy to focus only on the sin, only on the parts of one’s life that seem to be irredeemable to us. Without an understanding that it is Christ who makes us saints—and not our own power to name and root out all wrongdoing and avoid all inconsistencies in character and thinking—our judgments of people can risk throwing out the righteous baby with the sinner bathwater. That is to say, it is best to view everyone with the knowledge that Christ offered his life for them, just like he did for us. Insofar as anyone—and you and me—is in Christ, they are one of God’s holy, loved people, part of the host that are promised to join him in the feast to come.

On the other side of the coin, saint and sinner thinking can help combat the human triumphalism that I fear is gaining ground in today’s world. Sometimes I worry that there is a growing attitude that humans are congenitally awesome, not congenitally flawed, as Luther would say, and there is great danger in this. There is an optimism about human nature and human capacity that on our own we can solve all problems, bring about all good. Such thinking is bound to ignore that some of the twentieth-century’s greatest horrors—World War I, the Holocaust of World War II, the eugenics programs in this country—were in large part brought about by a philosophy of human perfection, that we were in complete control of our own destiny.

But here I go confessing others’ sins, and there’s a log in my own eye, right? Saint and sinner understanding keeps all of us honest about our brokenness, helps us maintain a sense of humility about our human condition, with all its ugliness. We all have sinned, and all fall short of the glory of God.

I saw a meme recently that said, “Remember that you are mud, but you are also made of stardust.” It was a modern spin on simultaneously saint and sinner, a scientific re-thinking of Luther’s concept. We are dirty, fallible creatures, capable of making a mess of ourselves and the world, but also in our atoms lie the very same elements that make up the heavens, resplendent in their beauty.

We know now, too, that even our DNA, which contains the recipes for our bodies to heal on its own, for things like the color of our eyes and the shapes of our beautiful bodies and faces in all their diversity. And yet we are learning that within these same mysterious molecular codes are inscribed the instructions for many of the diseases that kill us. It seems as if biologically we are perfect and imperfect at the same time.

What a gift it would be to remember that when it comes to our whole life—our soul, our ambitions, our virtues—we are a perfect God’s imperfect people, being made more and more perfect in Christ’s image as we continue the journey of faith, which always includes repentance and confession. And, of course, forgiveness.                                                  

Several years ago one of my colleagues in Pittsburgh told me the story of baptizing a three-year-old one Sunday. As they held him over the font, he screamed “NOOOOOO!” at the top of his lungs, flailing his arms and legs wildly around. The very next week he underwent a five-hour-procedure at a hospital, followed by six hours of having to remain perfectly still. His nurse entered his room after recovery, asking the obligatory, “What’s your name?”  Without hesitation, this three-year-old replied, “Nathan Johnson, child of God.”

May we be so confident in our identity of who we are (sinners)…and also whose we are (saints!). May we by God’s grace remember that we, sinners that can scream in defiance, have been received by the Lord who offers up his own priceless life back to us in order that we may be children of God. That is…saints!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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