“Religionsgespräch [Colloquy] zu Marburg,” Christian Karl August Noack, 1867 (Wikipedia)

Seen on the unofficial ELCA discussion group’s Facebook page, an allusion to Luther’s comment “that God is [present] in his cabbage soup.” I’d never seen it before, and I loved the quote! Hence this blog post, so I’ll know where to look for it. Maybe even what to do with it.

Also so I can link to articles that: (a) use the quote; and (b) are worth further study.

I saw the cabbage soup quote in an ELCA group thread about the Eucharist that got into some pretty arcane (to me) discussion of doctrines like the Real Presence in the sacraments and the ubiquity of Christ, so the cabbage soup brought things down to earth. It was in that context a pastor in Washington state cited Luther’s remark:

My understanding of Luther is that he was trying to convey ubiquity and at the same time that sacraments combine the physical with Word and Promise, hence his comment that God is in his cabbage soup, how can one say God is not in the Bread Wine and Water[?]

I don’t want to hit the ball too deep into the theological weeds here, but I should define my terms. Or, better yet, let the Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions define them: Ubiquity is “[t]he claim, in general, that God is present to all events and circumstances, i.e. is omnipresent. In Luther, ubiquity is the presence of Christ to each enactment of the Lord’s Supper.” The others are clear enough, but to Lutherans “Word and Promise” refer to grace and faith, the basics of Christian faith.

Next I did a couple Google searches and found several items with a fuller version of the quote:

  • Padraig McClure, cantor, Augusta Lutheran Church of Hyde Park, the Lutheran campus ministry at the University of Chicago: “Many know the quote of Luther to the Swiss reformer Zwingli, who held that Christ, being raised and seated at God’s right hand, could not be physically present in the sacrament.  Luther’s response was classic Luther… ‘God is present in your cabbage soup as in the sacrament, the difference is that God is hidden in the soup and revealed in the sacrament.’  The ubiquity of God’s presence, hidden and revealed is beautifully encapsulated in this quote.” 
  • Stacey Siebrasse,pastor, First English Lutheran Church, Billings, Mont.:God’s omnipresence. In a letter to Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli on the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, Luther wrote that ‘God is as present in your cabbage soup as in the sacrament. The difference is that God is hidden in the soup and revealed in the sacrament.’ I love this statement, affirming God’s omnipresence in every aspect of our lives.”

Both are worth going back to. Apparently writing at the height of the pandemic, McClure had some interesting thoughts on the sacraments, which I’ll get to in a minute; Pr. Siebrasse was included in a feature story for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses in Living Lutheran magazine — along with others who were asked to list “ways the Reformation still impacts pastors.”

Especially interesting was a 2015 article by Larry Rasmussen, professor emeritus at Union Theological Seminary, on what he terms a “Lutheran sacramental imagination.” Drawing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others, he suggests a new Lutheran social ethic to grapple with the existential crisis of climate change. He mentions Luther’s cabbage soup quote only in passing, but his context is fascinating. Even inspiring. Rasmussen says:

Luther, in a letter to Zwingli on the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament, writes that “God is as present in your cabbage soup as in the sacrament. The difference is that God is hidden in the soup and revealed in the sacrament.” Remember that the next time you sip soup, just as you remember Luther’s advice as you wash before the meal: “When you rinse your face, remember your baptism.”

After a brief aside about naming hurricanes after climate change denier, Rasmussen elaborates on the metaphor:

Luther’s imagination is sacramental. The entire universe is alive with the presence and power of God in Jesus and the Spirit. All material reality is sacred, ourselves, soup, and rinse water included. As God’s abode and handiwork, creation is inherently worthy of reverence. (“Worthy of reverence” defines “sacred.”)

Plenty to think about there. (Parentheses in the original, by the way.) Plenty to come back to later, but I’ll have to start with a close reading of Rasmussen’s entire article.

Of course climate change is in an entirely different world from Luther’s and Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli’s, when Luther wrote about cabbage soup in the 1520s. Their conflict over the sacraments was fundamental to the development of the Protestant Reformation, since Zwingli was a precursor of the Calvinist reformers, so it’s of great historical importance. But maybe not so much today. I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about historical Jesus research, and I wonder if we can make a similar distinction between the historical Luther and the Luther of faith.

We might need to this time. Certainly Bonhoeffer and Paul Rasmussen’s ideas about climate change are implicit in Luther’s writing, but the historical Luther was in the middle of a bitter dispute with Zwingli over the nature of the Eucharist when he wrote about cabbage soup. It all came to a head in a face-to-face meeting between the two known as the Marburg Colloquy in October 1529. Wikipedia, my Summa Theologica for all matters of medieval disputation, puts it like this:

Luther believed that the human body of Christ was ubiquitous (present in all places) and so present in the bread and wine. This was possible because the attributes of God infused Christ’s human nature. Luther emphasized the oneness of Christ’s person. Zwingli, who emphasized the distinction of the natures, believed that while Christ in his deity was omnipresent, Christ’s human body could only be present in one place, that is, at the right hand of the Father

Luther and Zwingli came to agreement on 14 out of 15 disputed theological points at Marburg, but not on the 15th — the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. So the failure of the Marburg Colloquy led to a permanent break between the Lutheran and Reformed, or Calvinist, churches. And that, in turn, helped lead to a hundred years of doctrinal strife and warfare.

At this point I wish to state for the record I recognize the importance of the theological points they argued. But my interest in Luther’s remark about finding the presence of God in a bowl of cabbage soup lies elsewhere.

Apparently writing at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Padraig McGuire turned to it an undated post on Augustana-Hyde Park’s website, and it must have brought comfort when the sacrament couldn’t be celebrated in person and students were scattered anyway: “Here Luther reminds the reader of God’s strong promise, that Christ is here in our midst though word, element in our very presence… asking that we receive what is given.” Until I was fully vaccinated, I wrestled with the same issues.

But what especially caught my eye was when Larry Rasmussen cites Luther’s letter to Zwingli in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics; says “Luther’s imagination is sacramental“; and adds that “[a]ll material reality is sacred, ourselves, soup, and rinse water included.”

This rang a bell with me, loud and clear. I grew up in a sacramental church that was less precise about fine points of doctrine than Luther and Calvin; and in confirmation class, I was expected to learn this passage from the Offices of Instruction, the Episcopal counterpart to the catechism:

Question. What do you mean by this word Sacrament?
    Answer. I mean by this word Sacrament an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive this grace, and a pledge to assure us thereof.
    Question. How many parts are there in a Sacrament?
    Answer. There are two parts in a Sacrament; the outward and visible sign, and the inward and spiritual grace.

That’s more or less the same as the Lutheran definition — I’m sure the 16th-century archbishops of Canterbury were no less precise than Luther — but I don’t remember much stress on the “ordained by Christ himself” part. Maybe I was looking out the window in confirmation class. What stuck with me was the “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

That’s still how I think of a sacrament — outward and visible signs of any inward and spiritual grace — and I see sacraments everywhere. They’re not limited to baptism and communion (not even to the Episcopalians’ added sacraments of confirmation, confession, matrimony, ordination and supreme unction), either. I’ve blogged about the sacraments more times than I can count, and I’m pretty broad-church and latitudinarian, to use terms from the Anglican tradition, about the whole thing.

And that way, I can apply it to my daily life.

osWhen I volunteer to do the dishes, as far as I’m concerned it’s an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace (and I don’t even have to think of Brother Lawrence for it to be so). Same thing when Debi does the dishes. Or fills the bird feeder, a sacrament act of stewardship we’re commanded to in the book of Genesis. When friends offer to run errands for us while we’re quarantining because of the pandemic, or when a neighbor left a 24-roll pack of toilet paper on our back porch in the early days of panic buying and shortages, these were acts of grace. The list goes on.

Also this: If Martin Luther sensed the presence of God in a bowl of cabbage soup, I’m going to consider that an act of grace that has long outlasted the tumult in Europe that followed the Marburg Colloquy of 1529.

So when an emeritus professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary tells me there’s such a thing as a Lutheran sacramental imagination that affirms my belief the “entire universe is alive with the presence and power of God in Jesus and the Spirit” (Rasmussen’s words, not mine) — and it’s available to me now, today — I’m going to sit up and listen. And I’m going to try to act accordingly.

Links

Padraig McGuire, “Communion, the Ubiquity of Christ,” n.d., Augustana Lutheran Church of Hyde Park, Chicago https://augustanahydepark.org/communing-at-home/communion-the-ubiquity-of-christ/.

“Marburg Colloquy,” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marburg_Colloquy.

“Offices of Instruction,” The 1928 U. S. Book of Common Prayer, Society of Archbishop Justus http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1928/Confirnation.htm

Larry Rasmussen, “Lutheran Sacramental Imagination,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Feb. 12, 2014 [para. 62-63] https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/42#_ednref2.

“Reformation 500: 50 ways the Reformation still impacts pastors,” Living Lutheran, Oct. 13, 2017 https://www.livinglutheran.org/2017/10/26157/.

[Published June 26, 2021]

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