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What Is It?

Last month, I introduced you to a way of considering what we do as a congregation and how we do it. Simon Sinek, in his book “Start With Why,” advocates what the name of the book suggests. When speaking to friends about St. John, start with why. When explaining to a friend who Lutherans are, start with why. When considering your own faith and life as a Christian, start with why

Admittedly, this can get uncomfortable. We are more skilled at describing what we do, say, or believe. We might even be able to explain how we choose to pray, worship, sing, live, and love — but asking why can be unsettling because we often don’t know. We’re afraid that we may not know, or that we may not be able to explain, or worse yet, that we may find out that we wrong. No one wants to be seen as ignorant, clumsy, or wrong.

When I, as your pastor, start with why,  I am not seeking to undermine your faith, your life, or your congregation. Exactly the opposite! Every gathering has its own, unique culture with practices, rites, and traditions. Right now, I’m in a period of discovery to learn why you do what you do. So also, Lutherans themselves have been given a unique place within the history of the Christian church. Again, we should learn why Lutherans emphasize and how they emphasize it. And still, Christians are alone in the world in who they believe in (Jesus) and how they have come to believe in Him (the Holy Spirit through the Word!)

As you might expect, not every why is as compelling as the next. First, saying, “we’ve always done that” or “we’ve always done it that way” is a valid why. There’s nothing wrong with an appeal to local practice and history. Second, some of the what and how of our life together are common to all or most Lutherans. We call this Lutheran doctrine in practice. And third, the Apostolic tradition is significant, that is, what the church has said, thought, and done universally since Christ Jesus sent forth His disciples into the World. And finally, at the highest level, there is Christ’s Word and His Institutions. As Jesus gives these Himself, these must not vary from place to place among Christians if they are to be considered faithful. 

You’ll notice that this is precisely what Dr. Luther does in the Small Catechism. With every command, every promise, and every practice he asks, “Was ist das?” and “Wo stehet das geschrieben?” “What is it?” And, “Where is this written?” Luther starts with why.

Think of Holy Baptism. Jesus tells you what it is: a “washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Jesus tells you how to do it: “baptizing (to wash with water) in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” But more importantly, Jesus tells us why: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.”

Lacking His Word, other reasons for why you might say, do, or think something… is less compelling. If the practice or tradition is from the Apostles and received by the church universal (catholic), then it is likely faithful to Jesus’s Word and Institution. It is theoretically possible that the Apostles, their disciples, and succeeding generations were wrong. But in keeping with the Fourth Commandment, we do well to listen to them and honor their wisdom. 

The same goes for Luther’s reforms. It is possible that Luther was in error in rejecting some practices or teachings. But to reintroduce what he and the fellow Reformers confessed to being incompatible with the Scriptures and Apostolic doctrine is likely neither safe nor sound. The Lutherans argue not only from God’s Word but the teaching of the Apostles and Church Fathers. Again, honor those who have come before you. Many practices and beliefs of the medieval Roman church Lutherans retained if they could do so without sin.

Next down the line of authority are the later reforms or renewals by succeeding generations of Lutherans, including the congregations of the LCMS. Here, local custom begins to play a more prominent role along with received tradition. St. John herself inherited practices from the various immigrant German peoples that founded her. Part of the reason why this church began, was because her forefathers were told that they no longer could pray, sing, or receive the Lord’s gifts in the way Jesus himself had given them, or as Luther and Reformers confessed them, or as their local custom dictated.

Once in America, some of those practices were later rejected and sometimes new ideas introduced. God willing, no teachings were confessed apart from that which God’s Word gives. And also, God willing, every new practice confessed God’s Word in the act of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. And finally, God willing, practices which were omitted or abandoned were revealed to be contrary to God’s Word and a risk to faith. Adding or removing should always be done with caution. And as Sinek and Luther advocate, start with why… not what or how alone.

Here’s the point: I want you to start with why because if you have God’s Word of command and promise, you have your only defense against the errors of the world, the temptations of the flesh, and deceit of the Evil One. God’s Word rebukes the Devil’s lies, drowns the desires of your sinful flesh, and is a sure defense against the deceit of this world. As Luther said (anecdotally) at the Diet of Worms, “To go against God and conscience is neither good nor right.” 

And where God’s Word has not spoken, when considering what we do and how we do it, let’s start with why. We might discover there’s no longer cause to continue what or how we do something. Or perhaps we’ll discover there was a compelling or even good reason all along!

+Pastor Christopher Gillespie