What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:10-13)
This October, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (1517 – 2017). It seems appropriate to say a little about how Martin Luther reflected a sacramental understanding of discipleship in his teaching, as well as in his vocation as a husband and father.
It would not be an overstatement to say that all the theological teachings and reforms undertaken by Martin Luther had a pastoral concern for the life of everyday believers. He wanted people to be able to hear the Word of God, so that this Word would create and sustain their faith in Christ. Luther recognized that one of the most important places in which the Word has an opportunity to be spoken is within families. Luther wrote:
Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. For whoever teaches the gospel to another is truly his apostle and bishop. (Luther’s Works, Vol. 45, on “The Estate of Marriage”)
This emphasis on the vocation and role of parents as the primary communicators of faith is a significant one. Many who quote these words from Luther do so in the context of teaching, emphasizing the essential role of parents in catechizing their children in the home. This, of course, is certainly important. Sound Christian teaching begins in the home.
But in speaking of parents as “bishops and priests” to their children, Luther was also speaking of an even deeper pastoral role, highlighting the way that parents are in the position to communicate the very mercy and forgiveness of God in words of absolution.
Luther is well-known for teaching what we know as “the priesthood of all believers.” He taught that the ability to proclaim God’s forgiveness in Christ’s name is not something reserved only for ordained clergy, but is available to all Christ’s followers through the “mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren” (Smalcald Articles, Article IV).
According to Luther, genuine absolution is proclaimed among Christians not only in the confessional booth, but across the family kitchen table as well. As Jesus said, every father and mother knows how to give good gifts to their children. We know to give a fish is better than to give a snake, we know to give an egg rather than a scorpion (Luke 11:13). On a spiritual level, as people of faith, we recognize that the greatest gifts we can give each other are those that come by the Holy Spirit, as we speak words of comfort, mercy, and forgiveness to one another in the name of Christ.
Though all of us as sinners fall short of his will, God is able to work in us through his Holy Spirit to bring comfort, forgiveness, and reconciliation in our lives and in the lives of those we love. God gives us the opportunity to serve as instruments of his grace and mercy in our life together, in the name of Christ himself. Nowhere is this more true than in our everyday relationships as husbands and wives, parents and children, and friends and family.
As Luther said, this is our vocation – a calling from God himself. To see ourselves as God’s “means of grace” is to acknowledge that we are simply earthen vessels, the transcendent power belongs to God himself (2 Corinthians 4:7). Not only are we called to give and receive forgiveness from one another as human beings, we have the privilege of communicating God’s own grace and mercy. God wants us to speak to one another on his behalf.
Those who have read his personal writings know that Luther exemplified this calling in his own vocation as husband and father. Martin Luther has left us a legacy in which we understand that communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most important task we have as the Church. One of the most significant places we live out this calling is in our own homes and among our own families.