Part 2: Core Theological Commitments
WARNING: This section of the essay has been eluding me for a few weeks. Mostly because, while Lutheran Confessions was one of my favorite classes in Seminary, I was baptized into the Lutheran church when I was 3 weeks old and have spent the last 33 years living and breathing as a Lutheran. I know how I feel and what I believe, and while the documents affirmed this all to be Lutheran, I struggle with how to cite and specify how my doctrine lines up in reference style for this essay. Therefore, I have decided to answer the prompts in my own words, and trust that they will unfailingly connect to the doctrine of my ELCA, because I AM a living Lutheran.
The key theological insights that have been influential in my development as a leader are as follows: baptismal vocation (diakonia), theology of the diaconate and diakonia (baptismal vocation), theology of the cross, and the priesthood of all believers. I will now dive into each specific insight further.
I believe that we are all called to the engagement of culture, faith, and service through our baptisms. In the vows made at baptism, we agree to “proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” This is also, remarkably, the definition of diakonia. In these words offered among a community of believers for and with either a child or adult at baptism, we are saying that this work belongs to the whole of the church. We are a community of people called to practice sharing the love of Christ through words, service, action, justice seeking and peace making. All of us are given this vocation at baptism. God clearly calls the church to be Christ in our various contexts. Because isn’t this definition of diakonia ultimately what Jesus was? He was a proclaimer of the kingdom of God, serving others, engaging the world in the struggle for justice and peace.
Nourished and Changed by the Eucharist:
The table is where we come to receive the mystery of Christ. When we eat the bread and wine, body and blood of Jesus, we are then told that we are forever changed, that we ARE the body and blood of Jesus. We will never be the same because we have ingested the truth that is Christ and we are called through these baptismal vows to diakonia. Without this nourishment, without this regular and transformative sustenance, we struggle to feel fueled enough to engage in the healing and co-creation of God’s world. We cannot be sent without being nourished. And to eat this communal meal without being sent out into the world anew is worthless.
The most formative theological piece of my journey to rostered leadership has been understanding what the diaconate is. Herein lies the distinction between diakonia and the diaconate. Where diakonia is the mission and ministry of the whole church, the diaconate consists of those women and men who are called to equip the church for diakonia. Where all are called to diaconal ministry because of our baptismal vows, our participation in the church, and partaking of communion, the diaconate is those prophetic voices that call the church to the places and spaces where servant ministry and justice are most yearned for. Members of the diaconate serve as the bridges between the church and the world, bringing the needs of the world to the church, and equipping the church to meet those needs with the peace making love of Christ.
As I have mentioned before, I have known from a very young age that I am called to engage those in the church, but it was always in ways of calling them out and preparing them to meet the needs of the world, but in ways that are different from the traditionally pastoral ways that church leadership accompanies congregational community. Learning about the diaconate helped me to validate my call as something the church recognizes, yearns for, and needs that is not a pastor. I have been called to equip the priesthood of all believers to their baptismal vocation of diakonia. Yay!
Priesthood of All Believers:
When Luther referred to the priesthood of all believers, he was maintaining that the plowboy and the milkmaid could do priestly work. In fact, their plowing and milking was priestly work. So there was no hierarchy where the priesthood was a “vocation” and milking the cow was not. Both were tasks that God called God’s followers to do, each according to their gifts. As part of my internship, I was asked to teach a section of the freshman course titled “Vocation and Formation” at Trinity Lutheran College in Everett, WA. I was often able to help students differentiate between what their vocation (baptismal vocation as a beloved child of God, called to diakonia) and their place of service (the temporary way or means through which they live out their vocation). Perhaps my understanding of diakonia is essentially the same thing as the priesthood of all believers. We are all called to the creation and healing of the world with God, regardless of how we live that out.
This also adheres to Martin Luther's desire for a less hierarchical system to be in place for church leadership. If we understand that we are all given the same baptismal vocation, then the various natures of how we are individually called to do that are no more worthy or unworthy than another. A pastor or deacon or bishop is no more important than a milkmaid, mail carrier, or butcher. In fact, they are no less important either! Additionally, the role of the pastor and bishop and deacon are equally valuable and important to the future of the church - one is not more worthy than the rest, just differently called.
Theology of the Cross:
Let me begin by explaining what I don’t mean by this: I do not mean some kind of atonement theory where God has to punish Jesus for our sins. In the Lutheran tradition, we understand the theology of the cross to mean something like this: that God heals and creates the world not by brute force or power over people but by joining humans and human community in its darkness and pain, and thereby bringing new life precisely there.
I believe that the Lutheran church is a church of the cross. We are called to not only follow Jesus, but to follow his lead as we are called to diakonia, and participation in God’s healing and creation of the world. Death on a cross was not a dirty job that God required of Jesus, but rather the response of a culture of domination that feared the radical and prophetic way Jesus was engaging God’s way of mutuality - or the Kingdom of God.
In my baptism, I was made to die to the ways of domination culture, to die with Christ, and I was re-born into the kingdom of God - into a freedom that offers me the chance to deny glory and accept my role as a co-creator and healer of the world with God. I have been freed to dedicate my life to the liberation of creation and humanity, so that I may boldly walk in solidarity with human pain, vulnerability, and community.
This Lutheran understanding of the cross helped me to acknowledge that the suffering and heartache experienced by the world is not justified, predestined, or given by God to strengthen us. That suffering and pain simply are. Chaotic and unyielding, suffering is. Yet no matter what, God is in that with us, knowing exactly how we feel because God has felt it before, and feels it in the moment, too. The cross reminds us that God yearns for us to join in the creation and healing of a world made broken by cultures of domination, and it will not be easy. We will not become victorious unscathed.
Yet, at the foot of the cross, we realize that we are in the midst of holy community, and that we need one another. True community is born here - at the place where we freely lay down our lives and pick up the cross of Jesus. We do it as the family of God called to action. For we are called to be like Jesus - bold, loving, compassionate and prophetic, in a culture that sees that as a worthless, unrealistic goal. However, we know the end of the story - that God reigns and Jesus lives. Here is where we can access the boldness we need to trust in God, and follow Jesus into his death and resurrection.
These theological insights contribute to the way that church acts as church-in-the-world in deeply formative ways. If we were to organize these insights linearly, they would look something like this, “gathering, word, bath, table, sending.” Or, in more formal words, ‘the liturgy.’ For thousands of years, the church has been attempting to follow this model of theology, living it out in our worshipping communities and spaces as a way to practice what Jesus calls us to engage in during the rest of the week. We are gathered together because of our suffering and need for community. We experience the living word of God through scripture that comforts us in our affliction and challenges us in our complacency. We die in baptismal remembrance with Christ and are brought to new life with a renewed vocation to service and justice, healing and creation with God in the world. We are fed with the body and blood of Jesus who changes us and makes us one with him. And we are sent out into the world nourished and fueled to foster new relationships and engage in God’s way of mutuality and meaning-making in a world that is broken and worn down, and in need of engaged, accompanying people who know what it feels like to suffer and hope at the same time.
The world needs this. People yearn to belong - to know that they are accepted, that they were created with intention, that they are beloved. The gist of what Lutherans mean by being church is what the world yearns for. And yet, Lutherans still struggle with how to portray this message of hope and solidarity with the world. The ELCA is striving to remedy this disconnect, specifically with the recognition of the diaconate (Word and Service Rosters). The world is aching for allies in justice and peace making efforts. Society wants to see religious institutions stand up and loudly proclaim Micah 6:8, and Matthew 28:19, and 1 John 4:7-8. The ELCA is recognizing that the long standing method of sending called religious persons down the path to become clergy is no longer (nor ever truly was) the only relevant call to servant leadership. The world is screaming for the diaconate to lead the church to fulfill her baptismal vocation of LOVE and ACCEPTANCE and JUSTICE and HOPE making movements in the world.
I believe, with all of my heart, that the ELCA is getting ready to be the most influential, forward-moving, missional, and innovative denomination, because we have all the necessary resources at our fingertips. We must be able to acknowledge the various parts of this church body and give them the space do what they are called to do. If we can heed Martin Luther’s advice to be less hierarchical, and if we trust the priesthood of all believers and our communal vocation to service and ministry, we will be a church that not only grows, but thrives into the future of God’s world.