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The Luther experience

At Christmas a few years ago I received an e-mail from a priest who assumed, by virtue of my surname, that I was Maltese and, hence, Roman Catholic.

Almost all Maltese are.

Father Julian Cassar of St. Stanislaus Church in Pleasant Valley, N.Y., was conducting a study for the Maltese government on the religious experiences of immigrants and/or their descendants. “What difficulties do you find in practicing the Catholic faith here in the U.S.?” he asked.

His question revived painful memories. I had long since left the Roman Catholic Church, which I had embraced, studying at St. Peter’s College, a Jesuit institution in Jersey City, N.J., in the hope one day of joining the order.

Like Martin Luther, ordained an Augustinian monk, I had been passionate about my faith. Also like Luther, I would harbor doubts over a theological question that preceded the 95 Theses and would define our Reformation heritage.

Did God sit in judgment over sinners lacking adequate faith, as the first chapter of Romans might indicate?

“As it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:17-18).

Like Luther, I had struggled with the writings of Paul, author of Romans and a patron saint of Malta, shipwrecked there (Acts 28:1-10).

Did one have to “fight for faith” to earn salvation? If so, can one lose the fight? Can faith founder like a ship?

I lost my “fight” upon witnessing an incident involving my mother outside our Roman Catholic parish. The memory is still vivid. My mother and I approached the monsignor outside the rectory, where we were headed, his black-and-purple raiment reflecting in the evening sun. My mother, in tears, called to him and asked for absolution—the remission of sin or punishment due to sin. The word “remission” was symbolic. We were looking for a priest that day because my mother had just learned my father had cancer and would die soon.

Monsignor told her to return Friday, when he regularly heard confession, whereupon she fell to her knees and begged for absolution.

Denied.

I described the effect on me in my e-mail to Father Julian, informing him that “I am now a Lutheran, a faith that … better understands the concept of grace.”

However, I didn’t immediately join the ELCA. For a decade, I had no official church affiliation—which suited me well enough in my work as a journalist and later as a journalism professor at a state university.

Inwardly, however, I was empty.

One day I was preparing a lecture on the importance of the printing press and remembered Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Had he been born a century earlier, Luther, I theorized, would not have had access to books to challenge the authority of the church. Moreover, because of movable type, his theses could be posted on a thousand doors. The authorities could still silence the messenger, by excommunication or worse, but not the message.

In my research I came across this 1545 autobiographical fragment:

For however irreproachably I lived as a monk, I felt myself in the presence of God to be a sinner with a most unquiet conscience, nor could I believe that I pleased him with my satisfactions. I did not love, indeed I hated this just God, if not with open blasphemy, at least with huge murmuring, for I was indignant against him, saying “as if it were really not enough for God that miserable sinners should be eternally lost through original sin, and oppressed with all kind of calamities through the law of the ten commandments, but God must add sorrow on sorrow, and even by the gospel bring his wrath to bear.”

The passage shot through me, articulating how I felt after the incident involving my mother. Like Luther, I had raged against “the fight for faith.” Now I could redefine faith as “the gift of grace” and, again like Luther, proclaim “to have been born again.”

Grace is electric. Through it, faith not only can be known but felt. More importantly, when associated with grace, the writings of Paul become more powerful: It is through faith that a righteous person has life.

The gift of grace is a liberating concept, the understanding of which is at the core of the “Luther experience.”

Grace, though, knows no denomination. Ironically, my Luther experience has helped me come to terms with my old church.

Father Julian Cassar of St. Stanislaus Church is on his own lifelong mission of grace—to heal the hurt of past experience and replace it with redemption.

Likewise we can share the gift of grace, the cornerstone of our faith, by recounting our Luther experiences—however seemingly mundane. For some it can be a kind word when we clasp hands to share peace in the pews or eye contact when we cup hands to receive peace at the altar.

If we initiate dialogue within congregations, word will spread—just as it did in Luther’s day.

This, too, is part of our heritage. Before Luther, faith was a matter of infallible judgment. Because of Luther, it is now a matter of merciful grace.

That is the good news of the gospel through which God does not bring his wrath to bear but his Son to life.


Comments

Jack Labusch

Jack Labusch

Posted at 10:54 am (U.S. Eastern) 10/25/2007

Thanks for the extraordinary story.



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