Bishop Elizabeth Eaton: A Place Called Lutheran


Reformation themes need to be claimed in all we do

A first-call candidate as-signed to the Northeastern Ohio Synod came to me about an interesting encounter she had with a waitress. The waitress admired our candidate's Luther Rose pendant and asked what it was. "It's Lutheran," replied the candidate. "Where's Lutheran?" asked the waitress.

We chuckled that the waitress imagined a place of beauty and mystery called Lutheranand were a little rueful that she had never heard of Lutheran before. Her question "Where's Lutheran?" has stayed with me ever since.

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Lutheran does not coincide with Lake Wobegon. It's not found only in Philadelphia or Minneapolis or South Dakota, but everywhere from Maine to Hawaii, from Alaska to Puerto Rico. The cuisine of Lutheran is not limited to green bean casserole and Jell-O, but also tortillas, greens, fried rice and goat. It's not populated exclusively by the descendants of Central and Northern Europe, though there are a lot of those folks. It is not a place of rigid conformity or where anything goes. 

Lutheran would never be confused with utopia. Its citizens have too realistic a view of disobedience, sin and brokenness to believe that any human habitation can claim goodness and righteousness for itself. But Lutheran is also a place of great hope.Lutheran is a place where the incessant human struggle for self-righteousness and self-justification is left at the border and, free of the burden of making themselves holy and acceptable to God, its people cling to the cross of Christ as the true assurance of life. It's a place where people can spend their lives in service to God and neighbor.

Lately people have been taking a closer look at Lutheran - perhaps because of the unexpected events of the 2013 Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh. I have been asked to explain the ELCA to an audience that, much like the waitress, has no idea who we are. I tell them that we are church. At the center of our life is worship, and at the center of our worship is the crucified and risen Lord. We should be "lost in wonder, awe and praise," and we should be intentional about the spiritual practices of worship, prayer, silence, generous giving and Scripture study.

 I tell people that we are Lutheran, that we have a distinctive voice that has something to add to the Christian, interreligious and cultural conversation. The great themes of the Reformation - justification, grace, law and gospel, the theology of the cross, two kingdoms, the Lutheran scriptural hermeneutic - need to be claimed in our teaching, preaching and living.

We are a theology of the cross people in a culture of glory. We are a two kingdoms people who would never claim a covenantal status for America or any other earthly government. We understand that the quest for holiness and purity (the works righteousness of the religious right) and the attempt to bring in the kingdom through social programs (the works righteousness of the religious left) is vanity. We are sinners utterly dependent on the crucifixion, which not only destroyed sin and death but put to death the false hope of good intentions and human agency. We are saints made righteous by the cross and joined to the resurrected life of Christ that makes it possible for us to bear God's creative and redeeming word to the world.

We are church together. There is no way that the churchwide organization or synod offices can be with the saints and be present in the communities where our churches are planted. The local congregation does that. But there is no way that the local congregation by itself can run camps, train leaders, engage in disaster response or accompany global companions. That is the work we do together as synods, agencies, colleges, seminaries and the churchwide organization.

We are church for the sake of the world. We have experienced God's extravagant love in Jesus. We want others to know that love too. That is what motivates our evangelism and our work to make the abundant life promised by Jesus a reality for the most vulnerable. 

This is who we are as the ELCA. By God's grace Lutheran is a beautiful place.

Taken with permission from the November issue of The Lutheran.