From The Sunday Page, October 15, 2017

Scandalous Grace

by Michael Larson, Worship, Arts & Service Director

As we observe and celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and as we discern who we are as The Lutheran Church of The Good Shepherd in this time and place, I am filled with questions revolving around Lutheran identity. What does it meant to be Lutheran today? What does it mean to be Church?

In her article, “Oct. 32 and beyond” (Living Lutheran, October 2017), ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton writes about what Martin Luther revealed in the events of the Reformation and what relevance this plays today. Luther, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, did not place great emphasis on reforming the church. The phrase, “always reforming” (semper reformanda in Latin), is actually associated with Reformed theologian Karl Barth in 1947. Instead, Luther was transformed by liberation in Christ through faith. In The Freedom of a Christian, he writes that liberation in Christ is both a freedom from and a freedom for. Bishop Eaton elaborates:

Freedom from is liberation from all spiritual bondage. We are set free from being trapped in ourselves, consumed by ourselves, from the belief or terror that we can and must save ourselves, that our self is the center of the universe. Life in Christ is not an inward-dwelling experience. We are free to get over ourselves…. We are liberated from terror and despair…. We are liberated from the incessant and impossible task of measuring up. Freedom from liberates us from estrangement from God and God’s creatures…. Freedom for means that in Christ we are set free for loving and serving others. Freedom is a relationship, not a new set of activities or the demands of a new law.

Most poignantly for me, Bishop Eaton writes: “This freedom is scandalous because it is based on unconditional grace.” The word, “scandalous,” gives me a powerful set of chills. It makes me reflect on just how scandalous the concept of unconditional, non-transactional, and radical grace of God was in Luther’s time. It is paradigm-shifting (and, hence, reforming)! Due to Luther’s scandalous work of translating God’s Living Word into the language of the people, we read and learn just how scandalous Jesus was in proclaiming and embodying God’s radical love to the lowliest and most outcast around him. We learn of Jesus’s scandalous welcome of all people.

Unfortunately, this radical inclusion of God’s unconditional grace is still quite the scandal today in the world and in our own communities. We confess in our liturgy this season that “we have not allowed [God’s] scandalous grace to set us free…. We hear [God’s] word freely given to us, yet we expect others to earn it.” Even striving to be God’s scandalous love in the world, we tend to “turn the church inward,” creating lines of who’s in and who’s out.

On National Coming Out Day last Wednesday (October 11), many people in my life boldly came out once again or for the very first time as LGBTQ+ individuals. Sadly, I know many of these stories involve negative experiences from religious communities. Regardless of whether or not these marginalized people are a part of a supportive religious community, the louder “Christian” message in our society seems to prevail that God will never love you if your gender identity and/or sexuality does not align with “what is right.” This theme of casting out also extends to other groups historically and currently marginalized by society and the Church. This sad reality makes me grateful for the community of Good Shepherd, the ELCA, and others who have made and continue to make bold statements in their proclamation of God’s unconditional love and grace to all people. Good Shepherd’s “Welcome Statement,” explicitly naming and welcoming the outcast and marginalized, is a one example of how a community can be God’s scandalous grace and radical love today. How else are we being called to be God’s scandalous grace and radical love in the world?

Source of all life, reform us to be a Love-powered people,

willing to speak for what is right, act for what is just,

and seek the healing of your whole creation. Amen.

If you have questions regarding liturgy, music and arts, please don’t hesitate to connect with me in person or via email (michael@gsolympia.org).