Learning to Laugh from Luther

This little essay first appeared as the 2nd place essay in the 2016 Gritsch Writing Contest: http://www.ericwgritsch.org/archives/archive_2016_essay_2nd_place

In a sense, crisis consumes every moment in the life of those who belong to the Christian church.  Between Jesus Christ’s resurrection and His coming again in glory, our Lord continually calls us and we must respond.  But, we also live within the World and within history, and so, different moments in history present unique opportunities for us as church people to respond to the call of Jesus Christ.  As church demographics dance and politics continue to divide, we who reside in the United States find ourselves at a crisis point.  And while many potential points lie before us, all of the paths involve the same basic decision: will we take ourselves seriously or will we live with humor?

     The path of taking ourselves seriously and of getting down to the hard work of living out the gospel is a well-trod path.  It is a path that church people in the United States have trod for much of our history.  On this path, we must hear the words of the Gospel and renounce!  We must discard our possessions, work for our neighbor and bring about the kingdom of God.  When we take ourselves seriously, we work for our neighbor to “help and befriend him in every bodily need”1  and to “help him improve and protect his property and business.”2  This well-trod path of the American church is a path of great results. It is the path of Martin Luther King, Jr. marching on Washington, Desmond Tutu resisting Apartheid.  However, it is also a dangerous path.  It is a dangerous path because taking ourselves seriously can quickly become taking ourselves too seriously.  If we walk the well-trod path without a keen knowledge of our pride and sin, we will walk straight past the narrow gate.  Distracted by our burdens, we may forget why we walk and for whom we walk.

          Path number two, on the other hand, is a path that few in the United States have dared to wander down, because it is not a serious, hard-working path. Path number two is the path of humor and irony. It is a path that grabs hold of “the biblical sense of life as a mean meantime before the Last Day.”Even more, it Is a path that realizes that “a Christian man is righteous and a sinner at the same time, holy and profane, an enemy of God and a child of God.”If we church people wander down this path, we will, perhaps for the first time, be able to look at the works of our hands and laugh. We will laugh because we realize that all of our hard work, all of our striving has been at cross-purposes both with God and with ourselves. We will laugh because we will realize how ridiculous it is that Jesus Christ saved us miserable sinners. We will laugh because we will realize that when we thought we were striding triumphantly forward, we were hopping the wrong way with our shoes tied together.  The humorous path is the path of the church people who understand the irony that when the church thinks it is doing its best work, it often forgets its Lord.

     The humorous path is a path of humility, of joy, but it’s also a frightening path. It’s a frightening path because when you walk on it, you look at yourself and realize that your life and work does not look holy. You realize that your life and your work looks comical and normal, and you worry that God will not accept it. 

However,  as faithful Christians on this path, we can “smile about adversaries”And “laugh at them because the anticipated joy of a future without sin, evil, and Death outweighs all earthly anxiety.”5  In short, the paths that stand before the Churches are the paths that stand before each individual Christian.  As church people wandering in the ways of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live our days in tension. It is the tension of walking in the light of the cross and in the humor of the human condition.  Above all, it is the freedom of walking as a redeemed child of God.5

Martin Luther, “The Small Catechism”, on Book Of Concord: The Confessions Of The Lutheran Church accessed 10/9/2016
3 Eric W. Gritsch, The Wit Of Martin Luther (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress 2006), 77.
4 Martin Luther, Lectures On Galatians 1535: Chapters 1-4 (Saint Louis:: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), 232.
 5 Gritsch, 77.

An Open Letter to All Who Took Garrison Keillor’s Op-Ed Seriously

Some of you may have read Garrison Keillor’s recent Washington Post Op-Ed on his search for a new religion in the aftermath of the election. If not, you can find it here.  The Op-Ed is meant humorously, hence his arrival at “Confusionism” as his religion of choice, but that said, it touches on a sentiment that many have expressed post election and that I feels need to be addressed.

To Whom it May Concern,

Let it be said that I actually like Garrison Keillor. Over the years, I’ve found his humor to be a) funny and b) sensitive to the absurdity of being a Scandinavian-American. But, in his recent Op-Ed in the Washington Times, he propped up a view of the Christian church that though a) constantly recurring and b) typically American, needs to be addressed.

Just about 1500 years ago, in North Africa, Christians did bad things. Cowardly things. Under pressure from the Roman government, they did not stand up for themselves or others, instead handing over their Bibles and hoping that the government would be nice to them. Among these Christians were even bishops and priests. In righteous indignation, a man named Donatus ascended to the office of bishop and declared that confessions, baptisms, and communion administered by those traitorous priests were invalid. For his trouble, Donatus got a heresy named after him. He was opposed, you see, by another bishop from the town of Hippo, a man by the name of Augustine. Augustine’s position, was simply this: the sacraments are an act of God, not the people who perform them. In the end, Augustine won out, and Donatus got Donatism named after him.

Despite the acceptance of Augustine’s position as orthodoxy, Donatism has not gone away. In fact, I would argure that it’s the most prevalent heresy in the modern United States; it’s just changed its outward garb. Within the Catholic-sacramental system in North Africa in the 4th century, the issue was whether unholy priests could administer holy sacraments. In the Arminian-moralist system in the United States in the 21st century, the issue is whether unholy people can make up a holy church.

In the United States, we are obsessed with good people and likewise we are horrified when the people who sit in our church pews don’t act in the way that we consider upright and holy. To paraphrase Eugene Peterson, we are shocked to learn that not only are congregations full of sinners, but they generally have pastors for sinners, too. And yet, despite the fact that this should be plainly clear to us, whenever congregations show off their sinfulness, we run out looking for a new church or even a new religion.

But Augustine’s point remains the same and remains just as valid today as 1600 years ago. The preaching and the sacraments that constitute the Christian church are an act of God, and they do not require holy people to perform them. In fact, if they required holy people, there would be no church. It was this conviction that caused the framers of the Augsburg Confession to declare in Article 7 that the church is found wherever the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered. To put it in another way, the people who come into a church on Sunday (or Saturday or Tuesday) do not constitute the church. God’s action through the preached Word and Jesus Christ’s promise to be present in the bread and the wine constitute the church.

And this is important because even when Christians seem to be behaving, even when Christians are voting for the right candidate and being nice to each other, congregations are still full of sinners and they still have sinners for pastors. Sometimes the ways in which we sin are more obvious than others, but they are never absent. Christian churches are not the place where good people get together to do good things for others. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to save the lost, and so until he comes again in glory, churches will be full of nothing but wretched sinners. Selfish sinners, angry sinners, confused sinners, nothing but sinners. For goodness sake, Peter, the rock on whom Christ would be build his church, the rock against whom the gates of Hell would not prevail, that same Peter was a bumbling fool who cut off a man’s ear with a sword, made shameful excuses for not eating with people, and denied his Lord three times. Dearly beloved, if Peter himself was a sinner and a fool, you and I have no chance.

And so, if you walk into church on Sunday, and you suddenly realize that your church is full of loathsome sinners, don’t start shopping for a new one. Remember, he was called Jesus Christ, friend of sinners, not friend of nice people. And though I probably don’t know you (and if I do know you, I can say this with absolute confidence), I know you’re in the right place. Because you, too, are a sinner. And so, you go to church, not to rub shoulders with other good people, but to be convicted of sin, to hear words of forgiveness, and to be fed with the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It’s a nonsensical deal, I know, but we’d all be lost without it.


Kristofer Coffman