Reformation Day 500: Considering Sin and Love

I hesitated to post this so quickly after a great Shark Week here at Daily Theology, but given the 500th anniversary this Reformation Day, I wanted to contribute just a few brief thoughts.  As a Lutheran myself, this past year has included no small amount of opportunity to reflect on what the commemoration of the 500th anniversary means, and I’d like to speak for a few lines on at least what it means to me.

The documents From Conflict to Communion and Declaration on the Way provide very helpful frameworks for thinking about the anniversary (as well as the wonderful document published for today by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity), but in addition to these, at least as I see it, the 500th anniversary means very little if it is not most especially an occasion for us Christians to learn to love better.  This is it, for me, or at least the most important part.  I have seen many Christians of all stripes recognize the anniversary, with varying degrees of appreciation, accolade, commemoration, and of course occasional dismissal, derision, and even animosity.  These all bring important forms of encounter to the conversation, but from where I’m sitting, their value is measured most importantly by how much they take place in the service of Christian love.

Here I do not mean “Christian love” as somehow a theoretical theological concept; I mean the actual practice of Christians loving their brothers and sisters, Christian and not.  I think the 500th anniversary brings at least two important elements to the fore in this practice that has as many facets as there are persons: first, the horrific pervasiveness and potency of sin, and second, our need for God’s presence and action to order our lives toward love.

Probably the most famous image depicting Luther.  I’m still not sure what to make of his half-smirk here.

Much can be said about what Luther brings theologically to the table, but on the heels of our Shark Week on Racial In/Justice, I think his commitment to recognizing sin, even and especially in structures that we too often assume are sinless or neutral, is one of the most important gifts his legacy can give to Christianity today.  In a context where even the entities that form our views of justice can themselves be unjust, Luther’s recognition of the enduring power of sin even in the context of Christ’s redemptive life and work is indispensable for the practice of loving well.  Love, this side of the eschaton, is never untouched by sin, either directly or indirectly.  To love ever better, we need to be unafraid to see with increasing clarity the ways in which we and our structures miss that mark, and mar our efforts to love with the sickness of sin.

The second point, that of recognizing our dependence on God to help us live lives of love, I think springs from the first, for two reasons.  In the first place, the very inescapability of sin makes it more than a human task to resist.  In my view, this is especially true in terms of structures: I rarely think of the ethical implications of which shirts I buy, or which meals I prepare, or which electronics I use.  This is of course a problem, but as I tell many of my students, if I woke up tomorrow and decided to be sinless, I’d be hungry, naked, and unplugged for quite a while.  I need more than just myself in order to resist sin.

This leads to the second reason: I cannot hope to undo the causes, to say nothing of the effects, of sin in my lifetime, but fortunately the economy of salvation is not measured by my lifetime.  Luther’s emphasis the action of Christ in the lives of Christians (especially in his commentary on Galatians) leads away from ethical defeatism to realistic work for justice and love, or at least it should.  We may not love perfectly, but let us work to love better, the task of many lifetimes, and apparently the task of more than 500 years.  As Luther wrote once in a letter to his friend Phillip Melanchthon:

“[B]e a sinner, and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly”

-Martin Luther, “Letter 91, to Philip Melanchthon, Wartburg, August 1, 1521,” Luther’s Works 48:282.