Reading on Martin Luther this week, I was struck by a passage in which Luther argues that God’s forgiveness in Christ is not just found in sermons preached but ‘in every corner’; more specifically:
They not only find the forgiveness of sins in the congregation but also at home in their houses, in the fields and gardens, wherever one of them comes to another in search of comfort and deliverance. It shall be at my disposal when I am troubled and sorry, in tribulation and vulnerable, when I need something, at whatever hour and time it may be. There is not always a sermon being given publicly in the church, so when my brother or neighbor comes to me, I am to lay my troubles before my neighbor and ask for comfort…. Again I should comfort others, and say ‘dear friend, dear brother, why don’t you lay aside your burdens. It is certainly not God’s will that you experience this suffering. God had his Son die for you so that you do not sorrow but rejoice.’
Luther had a clear understanding of the distinction between law and Gospel: the law convicts us of our sins and reminds us of our inability to rely on ourselves for our standing before God the judge, while the Gospel confers upon us the promises that come in Christ – his righteousness and his obedience, such that, being found in Him, we too could stand before God and be declared righteous. But this, Luther contended, is not merely conferred in preaching or in the Lord’s supper – it takes concrete form in the lives lived as one is plugged into the local church. We receive the Gospel as we engage in friendship – we are in a relationship with God precisely as we comfort and are comforted by those who are absorbing God’s word.
This is a reminder of a basic fact: we cannot grow in the Christian faith without a good community and thus without good friends. We may go to church week in and week out, but without the company of good friends that nurture those truths, bringing it home to us on a regular basis, we would not be able to grow in the faith. This takes hard work, commitment, accountability and transparency. Luther knew that this was the source of a great deal of immorality that arose out of Medieval Roman Catholicism: because the congregation depended so much on the works of the Priest, and not on each other, moral laxity arose. They were not committed to each other for their absolution and forgiveness – they attended the rituals of the mass and the priests, but on a daily level, they were not tending to themselves. Luther redirected the promises of Christ not on the works of the mass that operated automatically, but to the priesthood of all believers, granting them, on the basis of God’s word through them, the authority and capacity to nourish one another in the promises of God.
Lots of us want the authenticity, meaningfulness, and enduring value that come in serious and vulnerable relationships, but few stick around long enough to find that those things come only with long-term commitments and friendship. This is why it’s so much easier to claim to have a personal relationship with God, watching sermons on youtube and attending weekly church services, rather than being plugged into the local church. It’s easier to retweet and watch the sermons of famous celebrity pastors than to engage one another daily, entering into the messiness of accountability and the pain of confessing our sins to one another. It is one thing to desire meaning, but another to become vulnerable.
This is true no less in academia as it is in the church: learning occurs not merely (or even mainly) in the lecture halls, but in the conversations at the local pub or the dining room afterwards. The tutorial system in the UK universities try to cultivate a culture in which conversations that center around the key texts assigned and the taught subject matter would be a norm. Most of our daily lives are lived in the concreteness of habits and friendships – the lectures, essential as they are, take up little of the actual percentage of time we inhabit. Likewise, the lives that are formed in the seminaries, too, are due not merely to the lectures but to the habits and friendships that endure when one is laboring through Hebrew verbs together late at night in the local 24 hour diner or Starbucks. Sermons, books, lectures, are all being instilled in one another through those lengthy conversations and prayers shared among friends. We are who we hang out with, just as much as we are what we love.
Luther’s insight reminds me of one of the central features of Hegel’s thinking, argued to good effect by Kevin Hector’s Theological Project of Modernism. For Hegel, freedom and identity cannot be realized without the recognition of others that confer those things upon us. In other words, we are not free unless others recognize us as free; likewise, we are not who we are apart from what others recognize us to be. This is the function, no less, of the church: we know that we are embraced by God (through the doctrines of, say, union with Christ and justification, or predestinarian election), as we are embraced by the church. Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ is no mere aesthetic flourish: it is a reality. The church would be doing its members a serious disservice if its doctrine be sound while in its daily living reflects not the doctrine she preaches; likewise, members cannot expect to grow in their faith if they are disconnected from their body.
 Cited in Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 135.