The free gift: Lutherans’ motto, our food, fellowship and faith

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The celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is only a little over a week away from today.

I made a commitment to write a weekly column about the meaning of this celebration each week until Reformation Sunday.

That makes this column the next to last one on this topic, and as with most penultimate editions, the last real opportunity to make any kind of point before that finale summary and farewell saved for the last.

I’ve spent a good bit of time in these ruminations recounting some of the history of the Reformation, some of the legacy and outcomes of Martin Luther’s life’s work, but most of the time I’ve been weaving a theological point that many times gets glossed over or twisted by modern churches to promote a more prosperous business model that can more easily fill pews and offering plates.

The bottom line of that theological point from the human perspective is really one word: free.

If you want to know where the motto for Lutherans comes from, it’s right there in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter three (all of which elaborates the point, but specific verses make up the phrase): Justification by grace, through faith, apart from works of the law.

Luther’s “Ah, ha” moment, as fleshed out in the many and various accounts now available in video and print as we get closer to the actual anniversary date, is truly understanding grace as a free gift.

If polled, most Lutherans give you a one-word explanation of what Lutherans hold as the “truth which sets you free” — grace. And the operative working of that word is free, no strings attached, a gift in fullness and wholeness as an unconditional offering from God to his creation in humanity.

There is no payment required on the part of God’s children. That’s why we call it good news.

Despite what desperate preachers may want to claim, your attendance in worship does not buy you a place in heaven. Your copious donations in the offering plate do not buy you a spot in the kingdom. Jesus already paid any price for you by sacrificing on the cross. And that’s the only reason we can call this story gospel, which means “good news,” because if you or I had to do it, we could never do enough.

The reason you might want to come to church (and indeed, we will have a huge celebration service on Oct. 29 at Ascension Lutheran Church) and the reason you might want to give to a church’s ministries has very little to do with what happens in the kingdom of God, but very much to do with how this earthly life plays out for you and your brothers and sisters in the world.

You might live and breathe a little easier if you hear that “good news” proclaimed every week in a church service to help assuage your fears and empower your gifts. And what you give to ministries like the Hurricane Disaster Relief sponsored by my denomination and the only recipient of any donations that might be received at our Oktoberfest today might act as a gift in the here and now to those who have lost everything.

Which brings me to my final chance of invitation to what is taking place on this very day you read this at our little Lutheran expression of faith on Nash Street called Ascension (which means to lift up, you know). From noon to 5 p.m., we are offering free food, a chance for free fun and an opportunity for free fellowship on our campus at our Oktoberfest.

If you come, you will not be given a golden ticket to open the heavenly gates, but you can have some German potato salad and a brat, jump around in a bouncy house and ride a pony.

You will have the chance to learn some more about the Reformation, engage in conversation (I’m hosting an open forum from 4 to 5 specifically to answer questions and engage in conversation based on the articles I’ve written) and learn more about outreach opportunities that might not only change your world, but also change the world as a whole.

There’s really no catch at all. In fact, if anything, this is just a big party to try to illustrate how free a gift can be. It is a chance for your local Lutherans to give you a few hours to just enjoy the life our Lord has given you and the freedom of knowing that God has you covered.

My own mantra of the joy we find in having our burdens taken by Jesus has been reinforced by a new song by Darius Rucker called “Life’s Too Short,” which along with having an infectious tune, lifts up some of the simply joyful blessings that Southern living provides. And rather than threatening us with what might happen if we don’t do something, simply reminds us not to miss out on what’s right here in front of us, because this life, this side of the kingdom, is short.

The chorus, as best I can tell, goes like this:

I don’t like this livin’; I love it.

Sweet magnolia, blue skies up above it.

I don’t call Carolina just a place I visit;

I call Carolina home.

I don’t like drinking beer; I love it.

On a back porch swingin’ with my honey.

Life’s too short just to like it

So you better get to lovin’ this livin’ before it’s gone

Life’s too short. Better get to livin’ it.

The beer’s ice cold. Better get to sippin’ it.

The song’s in the air. Get you out a lighter.

If the party’s rockin’, you pull an all-nighter,

Cause life’s too short

The invitation is right in front of you. You are welcome to church services all around your community. You’re welcome to the ones at my congregation, especially next Sunday which is Reformation Sunday. And you are certainly welcome this afternoon to our Oktoberfest celebration.

We’ll have all of eternity in the kingdom of God, but God gave us this life to know his love, his grace and each other. So if you have a chance this afternoon, drop by Ascension, take a break and just say “Hi!”

After all, it’s a free gift. And life’s too short to want to miss it!

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 26 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.