It never seems to fail. The phone rings, an e-mail received or there’s a knock at the door. On the other side of these is a person who wants to talk.
Parents announce they are divorcing.
Children pull away.
The company for which they work has been downsized due to the economy, and they have lost their job as a result.
Their spouse is finding comfort for what ails them in a bottle of scotch or in an affair with another person.
They are being abused and don’t know whether (or how) to get out of the relationship.
They have just found out that though they want to have a child badly, the doctors have said that there is a strong chance they will never be able to do so, at least biologically.
In other words, hell has broken loose, moved in, and just won’t leave them — us — alone.
Martin Luther knew something about hell breaking loose in the lives of people. His preaching, teaching and writing was, at heart, about addressing the troubled consciences of those who were under the wrath of sin, death and hell itself.
Luther’s theology has much to offer those for whom everything is falling apart.
Yet, some will want to question whether this aspect of Luther’s theology is even relevant to what people are really asking and living through today.
Those who ask this question whether or not people actually still experience troubled, anxious consciences. Is it not the case, they would argue, that people have moved on from this concern and are rather looking for meaning and purpose in their lives?
It is almost impossible, though, to consider meaning and purpose when one’s life is unraveling at the seams. One cannot move on from the concern for comfort and hope when one is stuck in hell.
While much modern theology depends on things such as meaning and purpose to be at the core of what we’re about, Luther’s theology is radically different because of where it starts.
Luther’s theology begins where and when everything falls apart, where and when hell itself tries to break loose and have its way with us, and where and when meaning and purpose are stripped of meaning and purpose.
Luther’s theology begins — and ends — in the cross of Jesus Christ, which is utter “foolishness” and “scandal.” (1 Cor. 1.18-25)
In the first century, New Testament theologian Martin Hengel tells us, the cross would be a “foolish” and “scandalous” way to bring about comfort and hope because of how the cross became identified with the humiliation, torture and death of those who committed treason or other crimes.
However else it matters, Luther’s theology is important for its emphasis on the “folly” and “scandal” of the cross as the source for comfort and hope of those whose lives are falling apart.
In the cross and empty tomb, Christ climbs into the rubble of our lives, thus humiliating and torturing the lie of hell, which tells us, by definition, that God is not and cannot be here.
In the cross and empty tomb, Christ dies in the rubble and is raised from death for us, thus putting to death the power of hell itself. In the hell in which we find ourselves, Christ enters in and makes all things new for us, right where we are.
Luther’s theology not only emphasizes the cross, it also proclaims it into the lives of people whose lives are so desperately looking for comfort and hope.
Such a word of comfort and hope, which is nothing less than the word of justification by faith alone, has many ways of expressing itself; among them, certainly, is this: “Do not be afraid .” (Luke 2)
To the outside world, such a word of comfort and hope may seem meaningless. Yet, for people who understand themselves and the world (and church) around them as simultaneously sinners and saints, there is no greater comfort or hope!
Paul Lutter is working on a Ph.D. in theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and is interim pastor of Fields of Grace Lutheran Parish in Lafayette, Minn., and is visiting instructor of religion at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minn.