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Reading Luther’s Small Catechism Again, Mid-Week Lenten Message for Feb. 27, 2013

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Mid-Week Lenten Message for Feb. 27, 2013

Reading Luther’s Small Catechism Again

Luther was a very great scholar, having mastered Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as well as reading the complete scriptures twice every year, indeed translating the New Testament from Greek in 1522 and the whole bible from Greek and Hebrew in 1534. His “works” number over a hundred thick volumes, while he taught that we are not saved by our works, but by faith alone. But he wanted to speak to common, ordinary people in simple language and have our Christian faith be understood by laypeople, and for the catechism, especially by children. When his little three year old son was learning to speak he ran around the room pointing to things, asking, “Was ist das?” (What is that?) So to put the basic beliefs in the most understandable form for even little children to understand, he asked the question of his little son, which we translate “What does this mean?” after every basic commandment, article, petition, and explanation of the sacraments.

The Small Catechism (meaning “instruction” in Greek) is designed to be a whole course for confirmands and Luther’s Large Catechism is designed to be the “leader’s guide.” It was also thought to be used by parents to teach the basic beliefs of our faith to the children of their family. Tonight, however, just some highlights can be mentioned. But this catechism also can be put into a shirt pocket and used for meditation and better still, be memorized and then no need of a shirt pocket: you can have it in your heart and meditate on it.

The explanation for the first commandment is really important because it explains our faith in God: “I am the Lord your God: What does this mean? We are to fear, love, and trust in God above anything else.” That’s our faith in a nutshell.

The large catechism has a famous psychological explanation:  “If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.” So you have to examine yourself and see if money, sex, or power, for example, is really your God. Our faith boils down to trusting in God. All the other commandments flow out of this one and return to it in a circulation of grace, the source of strength by which we fulfill these commandments.

The order of the five parts of the catechism is important. Luther placed the commandments first and then the Apostles’ Creed. We go from the law to the Gospel and not from the Gospel to the law. We believe in the freedom and creativity of a Christian and we do not believe that the gospel merely issues into the law or discipline in the way of John Calvin and the Reformed. This makes a big difference because then Calvin teaches that we can have a Christian order or state, while Luther thinks the order or state has to be built on reason. We can have only greater or lesser approximations of justice and every order will always be answerable to the Kingdom in Heaven.

Let me just point out that in “Thou shalt not steal” Luther argues that not paying a livable wage is stealing from the worker. We are to improve and protect our neighbors’ means of making a living.

There is so much to say about the law. Like the first Psalm begins with it and the longest Psalm 119 “meditates on it day and night.”

To now turn to the Apostles’ Creed we have the Gospel of the Son sent us by the Father and leaving us with the Holy Spirit for the good news here on earth. Dorothy Sayer, a mystery writer, wrote a book, The Mind of the Maker about the Trinity: she compared the Three Persons to an author writing a book. The idea for the book is the Father, the actual printed book that we read, is the Son; and the idea that everyone gets from reading the book is the Holy Spirit and, you see, they are all one.

We should not get the false impression that the Father is the only Divine Person involved in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Holy Spirit in sanctification. All three Persons are involved in all three. The Father created the world, but the Word spoken was the Son, and the Holy Spirit, hovered over the waters. (In the Hebrew the Spirit of God is the Ruach Elohim.) God was in Christ reconciling the world with himself. And the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son and fills all those who believe with Christ and lifts up their witness to Christ as well as strengthening their faith in God.

Another point to make is how Luther believes in the continuous creation. We are being sustained on a daily basis by God and all our needs are met by God and everything in the universe would turn to nothing without God’s sustaining it. God is more minute than the tiniest cell and greater than the whole spectacular universe. Be sure to read those famous explanations of the three articles. Let me just point out something from the third one:

I believe that I cannot by my own understanding, strength or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and kept me in true faith.

If we base our faith on ourselves, we can never be sure. But when we base our faith on God, we cannot go wrong.  We cannot live out of our own strength, but we live out of the source of all strength. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2:20)

Luther teaches his barber how to pray, in “A Simple Way to Pray for Master Peter the Barber” who had trouble with praying. Luther would say, “I have so much to do, I’ll have to pray another hour in order to get it done.” When he mentions that we should recite the creed and Lord’s Prayer before going to sleep, he does not mean for us to do that word for word. He wants us to put the seven petitions and the articles into our own words. As he writes,

For I do not bind myself to such words and syllables; I speak the words one way today and another tomorrow, according to my feelings and what mood I am in. Nevertheless, I stay as close as I possibly can to the same thoughts and ideas. Often it happens that, in one part or petition, I lose myself in such rich thoughts that I let the other six petitions go. And when such rich, good thoughts come, then one should forgo the other prayers and give room to those thoughts and listen in silence. Then, on pain of death, make no hindrance, because there the Holy Spirit’s divine self is preaching, and when the Spirit preaches, one word is better than a thousand prayers. In this way I have sometimes learned more in one prayer than I could have ever gotten from much reading and thinking.[1]

Luther then ridicules those whose prayers have become ritual formulas, so that their minds and thoughts can wander away to other things while they are praying, while they should be pouring out their hearts to God.

We cannot go much farther about prayer, except to say, when we say “Our Father in heaven,” then we believe that God is truly our Father and we are the “children of the heavenly Father.”

Now Luther’s theology is often referred to as the Theology of the Word. But never in a Lutheran church will you see a pulpit moved into the center of the church and the congregation made into an audience for the word. Luther always features the word and sacraments. So the pulpit is on one side, the altar as a table in the center, but the baptismal font for baptism and communion rail are always there so that we receive divine gifts in, with, and under the water, bread, and wine. “How can water do such great things?” It is not the water alone, but the word with the water! “Water by itself is only water, but with the Word of God, it is life-giving water!” Luther never excludes the earthly elements just like he always speaks of the completely human Jesus Christ, who is also the most Holy Second Person of the Trinity, the very Son of God. We get divine gifts in, with, under, and through the water, bread, and wine and not in some false spiritual way that disregards these earthly gifts from God.

In Holy Communion Luther features the “for you” message. What good is it to you if somebody else wins the lottery? It hardly matters unless you won and all that money came to you. What do all the promises of God matter, if they are only for others and not for you? What good is it if another congregation enjoys the beloved community, but not our congregation? another country and not ours? another family but not ours? somebody else but not me? Holy Communion is for you. God’s promises have your address on them and God wants you to sit at the table of the Lord, as an heir of the Kingdom, and a child of God!

Sometimes the office of the keys as well as confession and prayers are included. (With a key you can open a door or lock it and confession is good for the soul.) Then there would also be seven parts, where the commandments, creed, Lord’s Prayer, and the sacraments of baptism and communion make the other five.


[1] Philip and Peter Krey, editors, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), p. 221.

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