Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit
Christians look at the world and see humanity as creatures that, when left to their own devices, will inevitably do bad things to themselves and each other. This behavior is frequently justified with words like, “I gotta look out for ol’ #1,” or “I’m getting mine while the getting is good,” or “If I don’t look out for myself, who will?” It is this drive to forsake all others, including self, in the name of taking care of one’s self that Christians call sin. Lutherans are Christians who believe that there is nothing humans can do to ever get away from this inward, selfish focus. This me-first way of life pollutes our relationships with each other, and with the one who created humanity and all that exists, God.
Christians believe that God tried and tried and tried again to reorient humanity to selflessness, trust in God and love for each other and God. God created humans to have relationship with them, but as long as humanity is self focused, the relationship is stunted and foul. The story of this struggle for between humanity and God is told throughout the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament of the Bible.
Christians believe that God finally decided to live among humanity, to be human, and exemplify how humans can exist without being self focused; loving each other, loving and trusting God, looking to God for everything. God being human is what Christians call Jesus Christ. Now Christ (messiah in Hebrew) is not Jesus’ last name, but rather his title, and it means “anointed one”. Christians believe that Jesus was conceived, not by a man and a woman in the usual way, but somehow, mysteriously, in a virgin young woman by the power of God, the Holy Spirit. Jesus was born to his mom, Mary, and her husband, Joseph, and grew up like any other kid, except that Jesus was never “Looking out for ol’ #1”. Never.
When Jesus became an adult, he went out to the Jordan River with a lot of other Jews of his time to take a ritual, cleansing bath given by John the Baptist. Only for Jesus, this was different. As he was coming out of the river, God sent the Holy Spirit to Jesus to begin doing what Jesus was born to do, show humanity what life with God is supposed to be like, and heal the gigantic rift between God and humanity caused by our inescapable self-centeredness. Jesus then gathered men and women disciples to himself, and started publicly walking the walk and talking the talk of what it means to live in community with God and each other, putting God as top priority and others and self second. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Christians believe that Jesus taught radically, healed sick people, performed lots of miracles, and raised people from the dead, all to teach and show what this God and neighbor focused life can be.
While some disciples and many peasants in Jesus’ day really got excited about his teaching and marveled at it, the powers that be, both Jewish and Roman, felt rightly threatened and publicly executed Jesus by crucifixion. The night before Jesus was arrested and executed, he ate a special meal with his disciples, instituting the sacrament of Holy Communion, a little meal of bread and wine become body and blood. Jesus told his disciples to eat this sacramental meal whenever they gathered from now on. Then Jesus was arrested and the next day he was crucified.
Christians believe that two days later God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus was the same human and somehow different, not quite living within the dimensions of space and time humans occupy. Jesus’ death and resurrection had somehow spanned the chasm that self-centeredness had erupted into between God and humanity. Christians believe that while Jesus has spanned this chasm, it won’t be completely healed over until after they die, when they are perfectly in harmony with God through Jesus in eternity.
Lutheran Christians believe that humans are not able to trust and embody this healing life, death, and resurrection of Jesus without the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the person of God who fills hearts and minds, who creates love and forgiveness within humans which they share with themselves and each other. Lutheran Christians believe that while there are many ways God interacts with humanity, it is through confession and forgiveness, Baptism, and Holy Communion that humans meet and receive God who is Creator, Jesus the Christ, and Holy Spirit.
For more information on Baptism, Holy Communion, and the symbols of Christianity, read the FAQ in the next column.
What is Baptism? What is Holy Communion?
Christians believe that God accompanies each and every person every moment throughout life and that there is nowhere one can go to escape from God. So, God is everywhere. But if God is everywhere, why can we see or feel God right here, right now? For Lutheran Christians, Baptism and Holy Communion are two events where we know we will encounter God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Baptism is a ritual in which the person being baptized either has water poured on his/her head or is partially or fully submerged in water while the minister or his/her agent says the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Lutherans believe that in that moment of water and word, several things happen. The person being baptized is adopted into the family of God. The person’s sin is washed away. The person becomes united with Jesus in his death and resurrection, “3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3-5 New Revised Standard Version) And, in baptism the Holy Spirit enters the person and grants to him/her the gifts of “wisdom and understand, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord, and joy in God’s presence.” (Isaiah 11:1-2)
Lutherans believe that it is impossible to fully comprehend or be ready for what God does through baptism so there is not state of mind or spiritual awareness required to be baptized. For this reason, and because parents and guardians desire the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of their children, Lutherans happily baptize people of all ages, including newborns and infants.
Being baptized, having one’s sin washed away, does not mean that one never sins. Rather, it means that when God looks at that one, God does regard that one’s sin, but rather the perfection of Jesus into which that one was baptized.
All Christians practice baptism, but various denominations of Christians practice it in various ways. Some Christians recognize any baptism done in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Others only recognize baptisms done in certain ways at certain ages by certain people. When one joins the congregations of certain Christian denominations, that person’s baptism may not be recognized and may be done over. Lutherans recognize any baptism done by any denomination done in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Lutherans do not rebaptize.
Many books in the New Testament tell that Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Jewish holiday of Passover the night that Jesus was arrested, the arrest which led to his crucifixion. The Passover meal is a family time, using prayer, actions, and a sumptuous feast, to tell and reenact the story of God freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. God brought the Israelites out of slavery to freedom in accordance with the covenant God made with Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, and all his descendants.
While eating this Passover Meal, “Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25 NIV) Christians understand these words of Jesus to mean that Jesus has made a new covenant with all who believe him which fulfills the whole covenant which God made with Abraham and his descendants, the whole Jewish people. By taking bread and wine or grape juice, blessing them with Jesus’ words “This is my body broken for you” and “This is the new covenant in my blood”, and eating and drinking the bread and wine/grape juice, Christians believe that they are keeping Jesus command to “Do this in remembrance of me,” and somehow communing with Jesus.
Lutherans believe that, during the worship service, when a minister says “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” and “This is the new covenant in my blood shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this in remembrance of me,” over the bread and wine/grape juice, that God is somehow fully present in the bread and wine, now somehow the body and blood of Jesus. When people in the church receive this bread and wine-grape juice/body and blood of Jesus, Lutherans believe that they somehow actually receive Jesus in, with, and under the appearance of the bread and wine. Lutherans do not believe that there is an actual, molecular change in the bread and wine-grape juice, but that somehow God comes to us in this little meal and gives us a taste of real love, acceptance, forgiveness, and life.
Lutherans believe that the presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine-grape juice is a mystery and not something that can be logically explained or that makes much sense. Since there is no age at which children will be mature enough to fully understand this mystery, the people at St. Martin of Tours Lutheran Church are happy to distribute Holy Communion to all people who are baptized and wish to participate in this meal.
From the very first years of the Church, worshipers were not given Holy Communion before they were baptized. While we can never fully comprehend how it is that Jesus is in the bread and wine-grape juice and that by blessing them with Jesus’ words they become somehow Jesus’ body and blood even though they are bread and wine-grape juice, nevertheless, there is much to learn about God: Father, Son-Jesus, and Holy Spirit, before one is baptized or receives Holy Communion. For infants and small children, parents and sponsors must learn about Baptism and Holy Communion before their child(ren) participate so that they may teach their child(ren) about these special times with God as each child is able to learn.
What are Good Works and are they necessary to get into Heaven?
The various denominations of Christians vary widely beliefs of why Christians do good things. Lutherans believe that we do good things in response and gratitude of what God has done for humanity.
“Salvation by grace, through faith, apart from works of law” is our mantra, although pretty well only the pastors know it. (ha ha!) What this means is that God saves humanity from the consequences of sin through Jesus’ death and resurrection which span the gap between the selfless perfection God made humans to be and the evil and selfish behavior that humans actually embody. Since Jesus is God, was born human, died without ever sinning, and returned to God for eternity, Lutherans believe that people who trust Jesus and seek God’s forgiveness and grace also go to God for eternity after death. This reunion with God is how Lutherans would describe heaven, and the activity that Jesus does to reunite us with God Lutherans call “Salvation”. So, salvation has everything to do with what God-Jesus does, and nothing to do with what people do.
The good things that people do, or “good works”, Lutherans understand to be acts of gratitude to God for salvation and love. Lutherans believe that God is present to us right here and now before death, but our selfish nature keeps us from fully relating to God. We do good things but it is impossible for us to act purely altruistically. Humans cannot fully relate to God save through salvation after death, when God somehow separates our sin from our real selves. Some Christians call this self minus sin the “soul”.