Category Archives: reformation

A Beautiful Paradox

A message about a favorite movie, a favorite reformer and a favorite piece of art, all tied together with themes from the Protestant Reformation and Romans 7:15-25.

A Beautiful Mind
Who here has seen the movie A Beautiful Mind?  The film came out in 2001 and starred the likes of Russell Crowe, Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly. And it was pretty well received by critics and audiences, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four of them, and grossing over 300 million dollars worldwide. What is it that made this movie so successful?

The film tells the real-life story of John Nash, a brilliant economist and mathematician. As the story unfolds we watch as John’s life achievements pile up; he earns a PhD from a prestigious Ivy League college, becomes a professor at MIT, and publishes articles that eventually lead him to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics. Along the way he also falls in love, marries the girl of his dreams and becomes a father. On the surface it’s the kind of American success story many of us aspire to, either for ourselves or our children.

But unfortunately, as is often the case, to capture the essence of a person we have to dig deeper, and go beyond just personal and professional successes. As the film goes on, we find out that John Nash suffers from a debilitating mental illness; John is a paranoid schizophrenic. Schizophrenia defined is a separation from reality, and in his case it causes John to experience auditory hallucinations. The film takes some liberties here and adds in visual hallucinations as well, John first hears, then sees, people that aren’t really there.

As you can imagine this illness takes a tremendous toll on John’s friends, colleagues, and especially his supportive wife. Once John becomes aware of his ailment there’s this remarkable scene in the movie where he grapples with what to do to resolve his problem.

In the scene John tells his psychiatrist: “It’s a problem, that’s all it is. It’s a problem with no solution. That’s what I do, I solve problems.” The psychiatrist replies, “This isn’t math. You can’t come up with a formula to change the way you experience the world.” John disagrees, replying “All I have to do is apply my mind.” The psychiatrist counters, saying, “There is no theorem, no proof, you can’t reason your way out of this.” “Why not?!? Why can’t I?” John wonders. “Because,” the psychiatrist tells him, “your mind is where the problem is in the first place.”

Despite his brilliance, his achievements, his successes and gifts, there is nothing John can do on his own to heal his mental illness. Perhaps it’s this paradox, of a highly successful person, who also is highly flawed, unable to fix his own problems, perhaps that is what attracted audiences to this movie in droves.

A Beautiful Reformation
This dilemma, of being created as good, as we all were in the beginning, and yet stricken with an illness, or perhaps a certain brokenness, or what some refer to as sin; this also haunted Martin Luther.

Luther’s insights into this dilemma, along with so many other of his insights paved the way for the Protestant Reformation. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of that reformation Pastor Bryan and I will take a deep dive, by way of a sermon series, to explore several revolutionary, scriptural concepts that led to this historic moment. Today marks the first week of that series. If you enjoy the message this week we certainly hope you return for more. And if you don’t enjoy it, well, still come back, as Pastor Bryan’s message next week may just catch your fancy instead 😉

Anyways, back to Martin Luther, the law student turned monk, turned priest, turned professor turned reformer. Similar to John Nash, Luther also had his own struggles. As a young adult Luther lived in a monastery, and worried about sin, constantly fearing that he may have committed it. When he thought he had sinned he would apologize to God, through confession, whenever he failed. He did A LOT of confessing.

Luther was so concerned with his own sin that he would often wake up the head monk in the middle of the night to confess. And at times Luther was so obsessed with sin he would literally whip himself, again, and again and again, as punishment. Painful stuff. So why all this extreme behavior? Because Luther believed that if he died without confessing all his sins that he was destined for hell. I can only imagine the hell this must have been for Luther, unable to stop sinning, or at least unable to believe he could, unable to save himself, with his salvation seemingly always hanging in the balance.

A Beautiful Paradox
Eventually Luther moved past this dark time in his life, due in part to a careful reading of scripture that includes the Romans 7 text we heard earlier. In that passage we have the apostle Paul saying all kinds of strange things, like in verse 15 where he finds that I do not understand my own actions and that I do the very thing I hate. Paul continues to struggle with his own identity in verses 22-23, saying for I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I am at war with the law of my mind.

At war, with the law of my mind. Does that remind you of anyone? Perhaps it reminds you of Martin Luther, at war with his own tendency to sin. And then beating himself, physically, because he was so distraught. Or perhaps it reminds you of John Nash, the brilliant economist who also happened to be schizophrenic. At war with his own mind, unable to heal himself of this terrible illness.

Who else does this war with the mind remind you of? It reminds me of, well, myself. Of course I struggle with sin, hopefully that’s no surprise. We all struggle with our own brokenness, struggle with our own inability to fully live into the inherent goodness that God has created within each of us.

So the Apostle Paul’s struggles described in Romans 7, of doing the very things we hate reflect Martin Luther’s struggles, and John Nash’s struggles, and my struggles, and yes, your struggles, indeed all of our struggles. It is, after all, the human condition.

Fortunately, when reading Romans chapter seven one day Martin Luther had an aha moment about this paradox, about this dual state we find ourselves in. From this passage Luther coined the Latin phrase simul justus et peccator (pronounced simil usetess et pe-caht-tor). The translation, loosely, means simultaneously saint and sinner. Meaning that, since the time of original sin, where Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, ever since, humanity has retained that sinful nature, it is part of us. And something we cannot overcome ourselves. The good news is that, through the life, death and resurrection of Christ we are made righteous in the eyes of God, made to be as saints.

This paradox, this dual identity is so important to what it means to be Lutheran that, during seminary, I ended up with two different articles of clothing that have some variation of simul justus et peccator written on it. The first is a t-shirt, in fact I wore it earlier this week when writing this message, kinda figured it would be good luck.  On the front of the shirt is that Latin phrase, in big letters. When people see me wearing it and ask what the phrase means, which happens a lot – I mean really, who knows Latin? – I’ll turn around and show them the translation, simultaneously saint and sinner, that’s written on the back of the shirt in small letters. It’s a fun thing to do; you too will likely see me wearing this shirt around one of these days as well.

The second article of clothing I have that relates to this theme is a sweatshirt, with an ambigram on it. An ambigram is an image – really a piece of art – that says one thing when you look at it from one direction. And says another thing when you look at it from the other direction. I brought this sweatshirt so you can see how exactly it works.

If you were to look at me wearing this sweatshirt you’d see this:

And when I look at this same image, while looking down, well, I see this:

This dual state, of being simultaneously saint and sinner, and being able to see that, together, in one image, I think it’s kinda helpful. It’s a reminder that we shouldn’t get too high on our horse in our identity as a saint. And on the flip side we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much about our identity as a sinner, it’s baked into who we are, something each of us struggle with.

This saint and sinner identity covers all kinds of people, from Nobel prize winners to church reformers to biblical apostles. What made this notion so revolutionary 500 years ago is that it cuts across all classes of society, from clergy to peasants, from kings to paupers. Even today it includes the richest of the rich, the poorest of the poor, and everyone in the middle. It includes the PhDs and those that have never spent a day in school. It covers the biggest givers at church, the non-givers, and the non-attenders too. If you volunteer a ton, you’re part of it. If you don’t, well, I think you get the idea. We are saints. We are sinners.

In the coming weeks, as Pastor Bryan and I continue to delve into the reformation we may greet you by saying good morning, saints! When you hear that please respond with an enthusiastic good morning! And we may also greet you with a good morning sinners! Please also reply, with the same energy, good morning! Both, at all times, are true.

Before we close I’d like to ask you to do something this coming week, consider it your homework. Try to see everyone you meet as a saint, for indeed they are, made in the image of God. At the same time, recognize that everyone you meet also has their flaws – some noticeable, others hidden deep below the surface – that’s the sinner part. And remember that this paradox, of being a sinner, with no ability to save ourselves, yet also being a saint, created in the image of God, and still seen as good in the eyes of God, all this is made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Amen.