When I first joined the Lutheran Church, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the Church calendar and all of its holy days and seasons. As with most evangelicals, I was accustomed to an abridged calendar where Christmas and Easter were celebrated and that's about it. What was particularly perplexing to me was the season we now enter: Lent, a period of penitential reflection. Those words would bring me back to my evangelical days where the entire focus of the Christian life was on reflection and doing. Church teaching was geared towards making me read more of God's Word, meditate more, pray more, be more mission minded, join the worship band, get involved in small groups, serve more, fast more...
Don't get me wrong. Some of those activities can be good things. The problem is there is no Jesus there. And if He is there at all it's only as a distant helper who helps me do more and somehow grow closer to Him. What I need is a Savior. What I need is the life, death and resurrection of Christ that happened 2000 years ago FOR ME and my sins of today.
I can fast or meditate on Scripture for hours, days, years, and still not find the forgiveness of sins FOR ME. Is my repentance genuine? Am I really truly sorry for those sins I committed? Am I acting Christian enough? Am I growing closer to God? Penitential reflection left to itself leads to despair. No matter how much I look into myself and repent of my sins, no matter how much I reflect on the sufferings of Christ, there is still no Jesus FOR ME. Remembrance doesn't give me Jesus. Repentance doesn't give me Jesus. And the more I look into myself, the worse it gets. I remember this as a very sad reality for many people I knew growing up. Older people who had been in church for years would not take the Lord's Supper because they felt unworthy. They knew all the theology, read their Bibles and prayed daily, knew all the works of Christ, His dying and rising, but they could not be certain they were part of the elect. They felt too sinful, hadn't repented genuinely enough or seen enough fruits in their lives. They abstained from the Lord's Supper so as to not eat and drink in an unworthy way. How sad! They had misunderstood the Lord's Supper and turned it into yet another act of devotion rather than the pure gift of the true body and blood of Jesus given to sinful beggars.
What brought me to Lutheranism was it's Biblical understanding of the means of grace. As Martin Luther said:
"If I now seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ as Dr. Karlstadt trifles, in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the sacrament of the gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross" (AE 40:214).
There I found true comfort and certainty! The Lord's Supper is not some mental act of remembrance of Jesus and how He once lived, died and rose again. The Lord's Supper is where I come as a beggar and am nourished with the gift of His true Body and Blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins FOR ME. In this Sacrament, Luther affirms, "Christ takes me and devours me and gobbles me up together with my sins. I partake of his righteousness such that His godliness swallows up my sin and misery so that I have nothing but righteousness" (All become One Cake: A Sermon on the Lord's Supper, 15231).
Lent is a time of penitential reflection indeed but no amount of reflection, no amount of reading and meditating on Scripture, no amount of fasting brings me Jesus and His forgiveness. I get all of Him in the means of grace. So what better way to do Lent than to, as Dr. Norman Nagel once said, "Best way to celebrate Lent is close to the means of grace, rejoicing in our Baptism, rejoicing in the body and blood of Christ given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins."
Philippe deBlois is a member of Glory of Christ Lutheran Church, in Plymouth, Minnesota.
Created: February 18th, 2016