St. Paul writes to the Corinthians:

“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (II Corinthians 5:1-5).

As is common in the Bible, Paul is speaking in metaphors. We human beings often use figurative language to communicate complicated ideas. When we do so, however, the images which we use sometimes bring along with them connotations which are not helpful.

For example, in the passage above Paul talks about having a “building from God” which then becomes a tent which then seems to become clothing. The building is “eternal in the heavens” but is a tent in which we dwell without which we would be naked! That said, neither the building nor the tent nor the tent become clothing, if worn on earth, would prevent us from being naked in an earthly sense. If you think that this is all too risque, keep your clothes and your hat on too!

In a passage like this, Paul is speaking metaphorically chiefly about baptism. As Paul says in Galatians 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Does that mean through baptism that Jesus could launch home, camping, and clothing produce lines and secure a tidy prophet?

The Bible is full of ways of trying to describe and define the seemingly improbably if not impossible with pictures. How can one adequately or even rationally talk about the idea of God becoming a human being? How does one convincingly describe the Trinity, one God in three persons? What does it really mean in baptism when we say with Scripture that we have died and are raised to newness of life when it only appears that we are just a little wetter? Furthermore, Lutherans say that no matter who appears to be performing the baptism, it is really Jesus who is doing it. How can that be?

Similarly, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Lutherans confess that the bread and the wine are actually the body and blood of Jesus. Even though the bread and wine remain bread and wine, Jesus promises to be present in the bread and wine forgiving our sins. Furthermore, regardless of who is speaking the word of institution, i.e. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when he was betrayed …,” Lutherans say that Jesus is saying those words. How can that be?

In Matthew 10:40, Jesus says, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” In other words, or perhaps better, with the words from the Word incarnate, Jesus’s words create their own reality, just like the words of God at creation. When God speaks, it is true. It happens. God’s word by nature is promise, is reality.

This concept is very difficult for us to grasp because we know that human words are so often frail, fallible, and false. To confuse matters even worse, the same mouth which can speaking fallacies one moment, might be speaking God’s truthful promises the next. So, how do we know which words to believe and which words to reject? Sadly, we don’t, but God does.

In the his explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther writes,

“I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and to all who believe in Christ. This is most certainly true.”

Look at that opening line, “I believe that … I cannot believe…” All by ourselves, our own faith is at best a faith in our faithlessness – such a contradiction in terms! Luther continues, “But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel … just as he calls … the whole Christian church on earth…”

This is part of the good news, God calling us through the gospel. It is all God’s doing, done for us by God as a gift. In spite of ourselves and our sin, God brings Jesus’ words to us sinners through us sinners to proclaim his forgiveness of sins to us sinners. The Holy Spirit takes what appear to be human words and through them creates a divine, living faith in our dead hearts through our deaf ears. How does God make this happen? As Luther explains,

“It is God’s nature to make something out of nothing; hence one who is not yet nothing, out of him God cannot make anything. Man, however, makes something else out of that which exists; but this has no value whatever. Therefore God accepts only the forsaken, cures only the sick, gives sight only to the blind, restores life only to the dead, sanctifies only the sinners, gives wisdom only to the unwise. In short, He has mercy only on those who are wretched, and gives grace only to those who are not in grace” (WA 1:183-184). To which we can only, say, “Amen!” or maybe even, “Hallelujah!” That, however, might be just a little too exuberant for us Lutherans!