The ELCA as a whole and its members individually excel in doing good. Internationally, we have effective, efficient, well-respected organizations such as ELCA Disaster Response. Nationally, Lutheran Services in America is one of the foremost human service providers in the country.
Parishes do an amazing amount of charitable work as well. For instance, in my parish we prepare and serve a meal at a homeless shelter each month. I am sure your parishes do many similar things and more.
Often overlooked is the essential care ELCA members provide for their own family members and neighbors, such as caring in their homes for small children and the frail elderly, as well as being generally productive, law abiding, helpful members of their communities. Those everyday ministries in daily life need to be recognized and celebrated.
Why have Lutherans historically, and even today, placed so much emphasis on doing good works — especially when our foundational belief is that we are justified by grace through faith, not by works of the law?
This question becomes especially salient when we consider that various secular organizations, such as the government, provide many of the same services we do, and they often have more resources to invest in their work.
What is unique and distinctive about the ELCA helping others?
What is our particular motivation?
The miracles of Jesus
In the Gospels and Acts we see Jesus and his disciples curing the sick, casting out demons and even raising the dead. These miracles are not so much demonstrations of Jesus’ divine power as they are parables acted out in real life.
Each instance of healing, every service rendered, is a foretaste of the ultimate healing and restoration accomplished by Jesus’ resurrection.
As in the sacraments, Jesus is giving us a preview of the joy and wholeness that accompanies the coming of his kingdom. These are acts of mercy. We, as Jesus’ modern-day disciples, are also called to share Christ’s mercy with all people and witness to him through our service to others.
True, Jesus did not build orphanages or counseling centers, but working together we can accomplish “the greater works” Jesus said his followers would do in his name.
Our service to others is not for our profit, either materially or spiritually. We do not earn our way into heaven by doing good works. Jesus earned that on the cross for us, and we do not sell God’s grace for lucre.
God does not need our good works, but our neighbors do.
People touched by the love of God, those who are saved by grace, will just naturally want to respond in gratitude to God with works of love for their fellow human beings. The Holy Spirit inspires and moves Christians to do that.
There is a great temptation for us to lose sight of our Christ-centered purpose.
In the Great Commission Jesus commands us to teach and baptize. Helping others goes hand-in-hand with preaching and teaching. Service is a form of evangelism.
We should not be afraid to name the name of Christ when we help others because he is our motivation and our power. We can do nothing truly good without him. Whatever the goals of other groups doing good works might be, whether it be turning a profit or advancing an agenda, ours is always to promote and expand the kingdom of God.
Those that we help can be blessed in such a way that they in turn will be a blessing to others, but only if the One who is the source of all blessings is made apparent to them.
I believe that there are two great challenges and opportunities for us in the human services sphere today.
The first is to maintain and enhance the Lutheran identity of our existing institutions. Lutheran schools, nursing homes and other service organizations should be distinctly Christian and Lutheran, and be named as such. To do otherwise would imply that we are somehow ashamed of our Lord and his church. We must be open and honest about who we are, what we are doing, and why we are doing it.
The second is to attempt to meet otherwise unmet needs. We need not duplicate what other groups are doing, and we do not have to compete with secular organizations for a slice of the market share in any human services field.
It is important for us to identify populations that are not served by other groups — we might call them the modern-day lepers and outcasts. These are the people who need our services, and especially need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ the most.
May God grant us the strength and will to serve those whom God has put before us.
Eric Ash is the former pastor of The Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Monroeville, Pa. He is a graduate of the Lutheran seminaries at Gettysburg and Philadelphia. He and his wife of 29 years, Melanie, have two adult children.