This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2020-06-13-at-2.34.52-pm.png
Volunteers from First Lutheran Church, Rock Island, Illinois, serving at smörgåsbord. Augustana Founders’ Day Reunion, 155th anniversary, Andover, Illinois, April 25, 2015 

I have begun to preach and lecture once more; in fact, yesterday I preached in your place. … Christ lives; and we are Christs — with and without the apostrophe (Christi sumus in nominativo et genitivo).” Martin Luther to Johannes Bugenhagen, 5 July 1537, trans. Jaroslav Pelikan.

Latin puns aren’t everybody’s idea of a good time, but this one appealed to me. (Puns do that. They don’t even have to be good puns.) It was thought-provoking and, after I thought about it a while, enlightening. I guess it goes to show you can take a freshman English teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the freshman English classroom out of the teacher.

And sometimes an off-hand remark, even one about the nature of Christ, can convey as much meaning sometimes as, oh, let’s say for example, Luther’s Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. Or any other theological treatise. This, I think, is one of those times.

What set me off on this tangent was a quote from a letter of Martin Luther’s translated by Jaroslav Pelikan, one of the editors of the Concordia-Fortress Press edition of Luther’s Works. I think the translation is brilliant. It takes a little unpacking, though.

So let’s see if I can translate the translation.

Writing in Latin, Luther said in 1537 to an academic colleague from Wittenberg who was also his pastor, “Christi summus in nominativo et genitivo.” This Pelikan translates as, “we are Christs — with and without the apostrophe.” Now I don’t read medieval dog-Latin, which is the language that 16th-century academics ordinarily used to communicate with each other, but I did recognize the names of the Latin nominative and genitive cases. In grad school I had to learn their counterparts in Anglo-Saxon, and they correspond to the subject and possessive in modern English.

But most English-speaking readers who didn’t study Latin — or Anglo-Saxon in grad school — probably wouldn’t make the connection. So Pelikan translates it like this: “we are Christs — with and without the apostrophe.”

And that, I think, is brilliant.

Apostrophes we recognize (although we constantly misuse them), and Jaroslav Pelikan’s “apostrophe-s” does in English what the genitive case did in Latin: It says we belong to Christ.

And, as Luther said many times in many different ways, we do Christ’s work.

The same idea shows up in the nameplate and logo of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: “God’s work. Our hands.” Volunteers in ELCA service projects often wear black-on-bright-highway-department-yellow T-shirts that proclaim the same message — you can see them in the photo above, worn by volunteers at an elaborate church smörgåsbord. “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Christi sumus in nominativo et genitivo. Same idea. With and without the apostrophe.

Here’s the other thing I love about the quote: It leads me right back to what I like most about Luther. Sure, he’s gone thundering down in history for his theological take on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, but this off-hand remark in a private letter comes very close to summing up a personal creed for me.

Now I wouldn’t exactly call myself a mystic. The word calls to mind those gurus who sit cross-legged on a mountaintop and dispense the secrets of life to baffled seekers. But defines a mystic as “a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.”

By that definition I might — or might not — qualify, but I want to know more about these truths that are beyond the intellect. Anything that gets me out of my academic, English teacher-y head trips is worth looking into.

An old man serving his stint

Both Luther and Johannes Bugenhagen, to whom he wrote the Christi sumus letter, were academics and biblical scholars. In fact Martin Marty, the church historian, likes to say Luther’s reformation was a “revolt of the junior faculty at Wittenberg.” But Bugenhagen was also the pastor at St. Mary’s, the “town church” in Wittenberg where he was Luther’s parish priest and confessor, and he is known to history more as a church administrator than as a theologian. In 1537 he was called to Denmark, to set up the administrative structure for a national Protestant church there, and Luther filled in at St. Mary’s while he was out of town.

Luther was 54 at the time, getting kind of old for the 1500s, and he was recovering from an illness when he took the pulpit at St. Mary’s. Before Bugenhagen returned two years later, Luther would preach 49 sermons on the Gospel according to St. John. (They were transcribed and collected in a book, for which Pelikan wrote the introduction in the Concordia-Fortress series.) Luther was nothing if not dutiful, even if he complained to another colleague, “As an old man who has served his stint (senex et emeritus), I should prefer to devote these days to an old man’s pleasure, observing the miracles of God in the garden.”

(I think that’s also one of Pelikan’s better translations, by the way. An emeritus “who has served his stint” has just the right connotations for modern American readers. Especially academic head-trippers.)

My hunch: When Luther wrote Bugenhagen in July 1537, he wasn’t expounding theology. He was just reporting, preacher to preacher, that he was finally getting under way on the sermons at St. Mary’s.

In other words, it was an off-the-cuff remark.

With the apostrophe

We are Christ’s —

It’s almost a cliche to speak of ourselves as children of God. The relationship has been claimed for, among others, the ancient Israelites, Jesus’ disciples, the early Christian church, 12-step recovery groups and fans at the Woodstock festival. And, as Joni Mitchell says in the song about Woodstock, “we’ve got to get ourselves / Back to the garden.”

Especially this year. When will we get back to the garden? Will we ever get back?

In the last month, we’ve been reading from John in the common lectionary, although not from the first four chapters that Luther preached on in Wittenberg. Instead, the pericopes have focused on the Last Supper discourses where Jesus tells his disciples he will leave them with the Holy Spirit after his crucifixion and resurrection. Especially in this year of COVID-19, they have resonated in an online bible study that we began at Peace Lutheran Church about a month into the pandemic. We have a rule — what happens in bible study stays in bible study — so I won’t go into detail, but it’s a wonderful way of engaging with scripture. It’s been a godsend — in the literal meaning of the word — and, as I’ve blogged elsewhere, it’s given me a whole new context for coming to know the Holy Spirit.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” says Jesus at the Last Supper. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” That is what it meant to Luther, I think, to be Christ’s. With the apostrophe. Elsewhere in the same discourse, Jesus says:

Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works [of the Father] themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

We liked that idea in the online bible study session. If we have faith and keep the commandments, we can ask for help and it will be granted. Maybe not always the way we expected, but it will be granted.

Some of Jesus’ other language in the last discourse is way over my head theologically. But Raymond E. Brown, whose commentaries on John are always helpful, suggests it’s about the Trinity and develops “the theme, namely, that if we keep the commandments, the respective divine figure will come down and dwell with us.”

In other words, as I think Luther might have put it, we are Christ’s.

Without the apostrophe

We are Christs —

In the farewell discourse John 14, Jesus also tells his disciples, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

Does that mean, in Luther’s words, we are Christs? Without the apostrophe?

I think it might.

I don’t want to overstate the case, but it reminds me of something a theologian named Tuomo Mannermaa of the University of Helsinki found in Luther. Mannermaa advocated ecumenical relations, and he developed a Finnish interpretation of theosis, or union with God, in dialog with Russian Orthodox and other Eastern theologians.

Some of the theologizing gets a little heavy here, but I think it leads somewhere worth going to.

In a book titled Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification, which I quoted last year on this blog, Mannermaa says, “the righteousness of Christ becomes our righteousness through faith in Christ, and everything that is his, even he himself, becomes ours … and he who believes in Christ clings to Christ and is one with Christ and has the same righteousness with him.”

One of Mannermaa’s students, Kirsi Stjerna of the Pacific Lutheran School of Theology, summed it up like this in his 2015 obit on the Concordia Seminary website: “Based on his close examination of Luther’s interpretation of St. Paul’s letters, he discovered the under-appreciated dimension of Luther’s central theology: the ‘real-ontic’ indwelling of Christ in faith, and the essential connection between love and faith.”

(Don’t be alarmed by that word, “real-ontic.” I looked it up, and it just means real, what is really there as opposed to what philosophers — and theologians — say about it. )

Mannermaa’s “indwelling of Christ in faith,” to quote Kirsi Stjerna, has been nothing if not controversial in western Christianity. But I don’t think it’s incompatible with the traditional Lutheran belief that by grace through faith we restore a broken relationship with God.

So … was Luther a mystic?

Depends on who you ask …

For one of the most influential theologians in western history, Luther can be awfully hard to pin down. He did not pretend to be a systematic theologian, and he wrote so many books, pamphlets, bible commentaries, prefaces, public letters and sermons, that his writing fills 55 volumes in the Concordia-Fortress edition of his works. He also loved paradox. Sometimes, maybe, he loved it a little too much for literal-mined readers. Put all that together, and stir well — and he’s open to interpretation.

Furthermore, the orthodox Lutherans (not Greeks or Russians but orthodox with a lower-case o) who followed after him were anything but mystical. Their emphasis tends to be on sin, repentance and what they called forensic justification, which strikes me as sort of a cops-and-robbers, law-and-order approach to Christianity.

But in recent years, this other side to Luther has come to light. It’s not exactly mystical, but it’s certainly based on a close personal relationship with God in Christ.

So today’s scholars, being academics, hedge their bets. In a very readable introduction to Mannermaa and the Finns, academic dean Kyle Roberts of the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities ventures that “Luther is perhaps more mystical than we assumed.”

And Bernard McGinn of the University of Chicago and the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa, drily observes that Luther “had a complicated relationship to mysticism.” Writing in a survey of northern European mysticism from the pre-Reformation Theologia Deutsch (or Theologia Germanica), which Luther edited, to 17th-century German pietist Johann Arndt, McGinn suggests that maybe when you come right down to it, well, it’s hard to say:

Luther may well have been a mystic in the sense of a believer who rooted his faith in a unique and direct inner encounter with God; but, viewed in the context of the Western mystical tradition, there are reasons for questioning the appellation of Luther as a mystical author. For one thing, Luther never wrote a mystical work in the sense of a commentary or treatise designed to guide the soul through the various practices designed to reach loving union with God. Rather, he embedded re-interpreted aspects of mysticism within the context of his new evangelical theology. 

Whatever else you can say about him, Luther wasn’t a systematic theologian.

And he wasn’t the kind of guy who sits on a mountaintop and seeks nirvana. Or sits in a cloister and seeks union with the divine. He’d already tried that, and it didn’t work for him.

While he was churning out those 55 volumes of pamphlets, tracts, commentaries and addresses to the nobility of the German nation, Luther continued to teach, even at the dinner table as his remarks were taken down by students and recorded in volumes known as Table Talks. Even as a senex emeritus filling in at the town church while Bugenhagen was up in Denmark, he managed to come up with 49 sermons — delivered on Saturdays — on the first four chapters of John.

Whatever Luther may have said about good works — and he had plenty to say — he certainly accomplished plenty of them.

Which is why I’m willing to look at the whole issue of justification, forensic or otherwise, in a new light. And Luther’s offhand remark — we are Christs, without the apostrophe — is intriguing. If we internalize Christ’s teachings — his commandments, as the evangelist John might say — are we not acting on Christ’s behalf as we go out into the world? As members of the body of Christ, of the church, are we not ourselves acting as Christs in the world?

Which brings me back to those T-shirts I mentioned earlier.

They say “God’s Work. Our Hands.” It’s in the ELCA logo, right under the name on the churchwide website’s homepage, and every September since 2013 it’s been the theme for an annual day of service. And congregations can order those black-on-yellow T-shirts for the service day. It’s a big deal.

“Service activities,” says the 2020 announcement, “offer an opportunity for us to explore one of our most basic convictions as Lutherans: that all of life in Jesus Christ – every act of service, in every daily calling, in every corner of life – flows freely from a living, daring confidence in God’s grace.”

The announcement page also carries a link to an order form. You can get T-shirts in Spanish and Arabic as well as English, as well as black-on-yellow wristbands, ballcaps, sweatshirts and hoodies. For $20 extra, you can get your congregation’s name with the ELCA logo on the back (and customization — i.e. the name — is available on orders of 10 or more). T-shirts in more decorous colors can be ordered in bulk for congregations with more refined taste, but the black-on-bright-yellow is practically iconic.

I first noticed the T-shirts in 2015 when I demonstrated a Scandinavian musical instrument called the psalmodikon at an anniversary celebration of the old Augustana Lutheran Synod in Andover, where the first Swedish-American Lutheran parish was founded in 1850. It was a gala affair. ELCA’s presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton preached, and Orion Samuelson of the U.S. Farm Report and This Week in Agribusiness television shows (as well as an “Uff Da Band” that did Scandinavian novelty songs) keynoted the smörgåsbord. A lot for the congregation in Andover (population 578) to coordinate.

So a group from First Lutheran in Rock Island (pictured in the photo above, yellow T-shirts and all) came down to help out in the kitchen, and I thought it was a lovely example of a church being church … being the body of Christ. Doing God’s work with their hands.

I don’t want to overdo this, or carry it too far. But if service is the way we do God’s work with our hands, isn’t it also a way we can be Christs? Without the apostrophe, of course.

[Rev. June 17, 2020]

Works Cited

Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1988, p. 76.

B[ernard] McGinn. “Mysticism and the Reformation: A Brief Survey,” Acta Theologica, 35.2 (2015): 50‐65

“Johannes Bugenhagen,” Reformation 500, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, 2017

Martin Marty. Interview with Brian Lamb [transcript], Booknotes, C-Span, April 11, 2004

Kyle Roberts. “The Mystical Luther That Time Forgot,” Unsystematic Theology, Patheos, Aug. 2, 2017

Jaroslav Pelikan. Introduction, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters 1-4, Vol. 22 in Luther’s Works (St. Louis: Concordia, 1957), pp. ix-x.

“Tuomo Mannermaa: Father of Finnish Interpretation of Luther Dies,” CondordiaTheology, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Jan. 21, 2015

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