Editor’s Note: The Rev. Dr. Steven K. Gjerde is a former VP of Lutheran CORE.
“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” So says our Lord Jesus Christ, and who knows spirit and flesh better than He does? Through Him and for Him all things were made, and in these last days He has become all that He made us to be: flesh, soul, and spirit, and heart and mind, too — even now He lives and rules in our flesh, His Spirit testifying with ours that we are children of God. So when this Lord and God says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” we stop to listen.
His Special Concern
If the flesh is weak, then our flesh is the object of Christ’s special concern. “It is not the healthy who seek a doctor,” He reminds us, “it is the sick,” and even so our Good Physician came for the sinful and not the righteous. Our flesh rests in the perpetual care of Dr. Jesus. Ages ago He fitted Himself to our embodied life, matching His Word to our speech by means of a mouth and our disease to His health by the touch of His hand. That same, gracious work continues today as He fits His salvation to our dying flesh, making His grace speakable and edible, hearable and felt. “Gospel is touch,” a friend of mine likes to say, making even the least gnostic of us a bit uncomfortable and exposing just exactly why quarantines hurt.
But if our flesh rests in the care of Christ, then so do other things that pertain to the flesh, such as the whole tactile life of the church, with all of its dreaded institution, nearly a byword among the diaspora. Like it or not, you cannot escape it. Sure, you can have the Holy Supper in the open air, but you’ll still be standing on ground, ground that can be taxed or untaxed, mowed or unmowed, shoveled or drifted, beautiful or ugly; someone will have to agree to buy the stuff (and you know how it works: once people have skin in the game, it gets serious); and finally, you’ll have to arrange it at a time and a place where all of us little hobbits and earthlings can make our way without too much trouble. You get the point: if you want Christ, then sooner or later you’ll want that dreaded institution, too, in one form or another, because with Christ the Virgin’s son comes all of human flesh, His special concern, the thing He loves to raise from the dead, and with human flesh comes all of the creation made for it.
With the Church come buildings that shelter and fellowships that organize and papers that say things in ink to make it all clear and bank accounts, because soon you’ll have real people with real bodies and individual minds and arthritis and hormones and a longing for beauty and health, and most of all, backpacks full of sin and history and grief. Associations and coalitions follow hot upon their (our) heels, and some of those organizations will become big enough or deluded enough to start calling themselves The Church, this Church, or herchurch, and the pious will start wondering if it’s all just the anti-Church, and maybe life as a spirit would be better? Some say the angels are bodiless spirits, and they don’t seem to complain (at least not the ones who kept their club privileges). But no, it’s not better. There’s a reason why the angels envy you, and the devils hate you, and it’s not your spirit —
–and all this I say by way of introduction as to why my congregation and I stayed in the ELCA, and why we have now left it.
On Being Dust, Soil, and Free
“Why are you still ELCA?” I think I got Christmas cards with those words embossed in gold. On the one hand, the only possible answer is that I am a sinner, a rotten sinner lousy with sin, who did it all wrong; and on the other hand the answer is that I’m a saint with the courage of King David (the Early Years). But really, it’s not even about me, it’s about Jesus and His special concern for the flesh.
He gave me a call, voted, inked, and delivered, and those votes and ink (that earthiness!) make it no less but all the more the call of God. I served and still serve a real people with a real zip code, different from yours, and therefore with different longings and gifts and histories and griefs. Diversity isn’t our strength (saith the Lord), but it is a thing, a flesh thing, and if you’re a pastor who is also a believer, then you’re a priest in the best sense of the word, and pretty soon that diversity of your people is part of you like a country’s soil is part of its wine and cheese. Within the very real diversity of the church, far transcending the fiefdoms of identity politics, the Lord fits His time to different calendars and lengths of patience. “The Lord is coming soon!” — it’s true. But just as soon as a man’s ready to fit that clarion call to his own schedule and jump in the car, he remembers he’s married, and there’s a five year old who has to pee, and the man must wait. Along with the Church in every time and place, he discovers, after all, that he is but dust.
I’m not getting into specifics, is the point. The specifics would only bore you and tempt you to sit in the seat of scoffers, which is very bad. But you get the drift: there were reasons good enough that they don’t need defending anymore, because it’s all done with, anyway. We simply pursued our Lord’s path of fitting grace to the flesh, with its drooping hands and weak knees. We looked on our institution as a gift, not a burden—I mean, what else is it, unless you’re a Manichean? — and by pursuing that God-given mission, we pressed ourselves more and more deeply into the local soil and the call of the neighbors and the catholic stink of evangelical ministry, until pretty soon we became something the ELCA simply didn’t want anymore (“inclusive”), and we said, “Ah! There it is. Well, okay, then.”
The Transfigured Flesh Part
You’d have done and said it differently if you’re from Georgia or Albuquerque, but you’d have done it somehow — I know you would have, because you’re all brothers and sisters, believers and sinners and courageous saints. But here’s the last part, and one of the best parts, the transfigured flesh part: when I first stayed ELCA, it was just my single congregation and me. We spoke our objections loudly, got picky about the pocketbook, and fenced the altar—and still it was just my congregation and me. But as the Lord squeezed His time into our time and thus turned our time into His time, and as He led us down deeper into the flesh and the soil over the objections of so many, He changed all that.
He turned this congregation into this congregation plus another one to serve and love, and a third one who wants to know more; and He turned me into me and another pastor, and then an intern who’s now a pastor, and still another pastor, three good brothers in the ministry who joined me at this address and walked its path, the path right into the ELCA and now out of it, even though they weren’t originally on that path, and they’re pure gold; and He turned all of us into us with all of you, Lutheran CORE and the NALC and the LCMC, and Missouri Synod folk, too, you who are a consolation and strength in all of this. A seed fell to the earth, died a thousand deaths, and bore a thousand-fold harvest.
So now we’re LCMC, and probably will be other things, too, and that usually makes lots of folks happy except when they feel we didn’t do it fast enough — but land’s sake, people: the kid had to pee, the car needed fuel, she forgot the casserole. There were reasons. Cut us some slack, take our coats, and put on the kettle. You’re Lutherans. You know how to be gracious with the flesh, and how to be people of skin and bones, with all the history and grief and institution that comes with it, because you know, as so many other Christians do not know, just what it is for the spirit to be willing, and the flesh weak. It means showing greater honor and more consideration to the weaker member, because that weaker member is Christ, crucified for the sins of the world.
Where Love Is Known
The flesh is where love makes itself known, see, and that’s why the devil hates our flesh: Christ has shown it such great honor by becoming it and redeeming it. And that’s why everything, absolutely everything that we face these days, is all about the flesh. Not only church but also the culture wars and politics, with Trump and Biden and all the rage and spite — it’s all about the flesh, in the end, a heavenly conflict stoked by the bitter disappointment of the devil, that angry, ravenous wisp, howling for the flesh that he is not, frantic to devour it all so that it will no longer be, and (he hopes) the hobbits and earthlings won’t even be bones anymore but pure smoke, having cast themselves into the flames, confusing smoke with spirit.
Against all that, we devour the flesh of Christ, which only increases the more it’s eaten. Yes, that’s how it goes: wherever the Supper is, there you find the Words of Institution; and where the Words of Institution, other institution follows, all the flesh and land and shelter and ink that a Supper demands, and through this weakened flesh the willing Spirit has His way, and He knits together the growing body. For who knows our flesh and spirit better than He who became our flesh and breathes the Spirit? He makes us bold to bear that weakened flesh, that beloved body, the body that He has so lovingly destined for glory, no matter the times it may bring.
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Thank you – a good read. I am part of an LCMC.
typo……I am a member of an LCMC congregation.
Thank you! God bless you as you continue to trust in our Lord.