A laughed yesterday when my three-year-old appeared for Vacation Bible School with his new shirt: “Give Peas a Chance.” It had a nice pea (the vegetable) on the front. Frankly, it is a shirt that was much better suited for his older brother, for whom anything green was anathema, but that’s another story…
So, the New Testament reading for today in The Treasury of Daily Prayer is John 20.19-31, which includes this:
" On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”" (John 20:19-23, RSV)
When the Lord Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection He did not speak words of condemnation to those who had—in one way or another—abandoned Him. Rather, He spoke words of forgiveness: “Peace be with you!”
This forgiveness—the declaration of God that the punishment for sin is paid by Christ and that His merit is applied to those who believe in Him—this forgiveness is the heart and center of the Christian life. It is forgiveness that gives true peace, that rest of soul which is confident—come what may—that one is secure in God’s love and care.
Thus, at the center of the Christian life is how forgiveness comes. Shall we obscure the work of God and credit ourselves—even in some small way—with the faith that grasps the Gospel message of Christ’s forgiveness? No!
"Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God." (John 1:12-13, NIV)
It is God’s work that we have forgiveness and peace, and God uses “means”—things outside ourselves (Luther used the word “alien” to describe this for-us-from-the-outside aspect of faith.) to give forgiveness and life to us by His Word.
Thus, we come to my little summary of “The Lutheran Difference,” my attempt to speak to the essence of Lutheran theology in a way that is not a caricature but rather opens the door to the beauty of the Christian faith and, in particular, the Lutheran confession thereof.
I put it this way:
The Lutheran difference is characterized by an absolute, unrelenting focus on forgiveness…and the means by which Christ promises it.
I have found this difference to be profoundly peaceful, as—in the midst of my own sins and failures—I find my hope and confidence totally outside myself, in Christ’s Word and sacraments. In these God comes to me with the forgiveness, peace and hope that only the Creator and Redeemer of the cosmos can provide.