The Legend of the Bluebonnets
What in the world does the legend of where Bluebonnets came from have to do with the Reformation of the Christian Church which began on this date 482 years ago? Plenty. This legend can help us understand a crucial fact about Martin Luther's rediscovery of the Gospel that is in danger of being lost today.
I'm not making the legend of the Bluebonnets up that I'm about to tell you. It comes from a book by that name which one of my kids brought home from the North Zulch school library. The book is subtitled "An Old Tale of Texas." It claims to have traced the legend of the Bluebonnet to the Comanche Indians. Enough background; let's hear the legend.
The tale begins with the Indians experiencing a terrible drought that is killing off land, animals and people. They pray to the great spirits in the sky asking what should they do so that the spirits would send the healing rains. The great spirits tell the medicine man that because the people have sinned they must sacrifice their most valued possessions by a burnt offering. Then the drought would end. The Indians respond with a song of thanks to the great spirits for telling them what to do. But they all conclude that the great spirits couldn't be talking about their particular prized possession. "It couldn't be my new bow," said a warrior. "It couldn't be my special blanket," said a woman. So, they all returned to their tepees to sleep.
Except for a little girl named She-Who-Is-Alone. (She was called that because all her family had died in this great drought.) She-Who-Is-Alone takes her only doll, the only thing she had left from her family, goes to the hill where the great spirits meet the medicine man, and burns that doll as a sacrifice to the great spirits. Next morning she awakes to see a carpet of blue, blue flowers stretching from all sides of the hill. The flowers were a sign of the great spirits' forgiveness. From that day on the little girl was named "One-Who-Dearly-Loved-Her-People." Every year the great spirits remember the sacrifice of the girl and fill the hills and valleys of Texas with beautiful blue flowers.
Do you recognize the theology in this story? It's what Catholicism teaches. God is angry with sinners and needs to be appeased. How is God appeased? The same way the great spirits were in the legend, by people doing something, by sacrificing. I quote from the 1994 official catechism of the Roman Catholic Church: "In this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered Himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and OFFERED in an unbloody manner." Yes, the official teaching of Catholicism is that the priest in the Mass resacrifices Christ in an unbloody manner for the sins of the living and of the dead. God is angry with humanity, just like the great spirits were angry with the Comanches and He demands a sacrifice to make him not angry.
Dear friends don't be fooled by what you're hearing in the news about Catholics and Lutherans agreeing on the doctrine of justification, on how sinners are saved. It's not so. In November 1998, the Pope released a letter that granted people time off in purgatory. Purgatory is where Catholicism believes God purifies sinners after death by roasting them in fire. If they make "private sacrifices" such as giving up smoking or drinking for a day, saying the rosary, doing the stations of the cross, or visiting the sick or imprisoned, the Pope now grants time off from purgatory. Does that sound to you like what Lutherans teach about being saved?
But make no mistakes; it is what we're all tempted to believe. We're all tempted to believe that God is angry with us and we have to make Him not angry by doing something. What do the people at Pentecost say when they have been confronted by their sins? "What must we do?" What does the Philippian jailer say when the earthquake shows him how angry God really is at his sin? "What must I do to be saved?" What rolls around in your head when you're faced with frightful things in your life? God must be angry with me. That's how come when we're confronted with serious illness or death we too try to bargain with God: "I'll do this or that God, if You'll do this for me." Fallen sinners naturally think they have to do something to make God not angry because they know their many sins deserve His wrath.
That's why we can never cease to proclaim to each other that while the Law certainly does show us a wrathful God, the Good News of the Gospel is that God poured all of His wrath out on Jesus Christ. Jesus took the cup of wrath and drained it. Jesus was sacrificed once and for all; there is no wrath of God left that needs to be appeased. In terms of the legend of the Bluebonnets, God doesn't ask us to sacrifice something before He'll put away His wrath. No, He has put away His wrath already by sacrificing not some prized doll but His only begotten Son!
We must ever maintain this pure sweet Gospel over against the error of the Church of Rome, but that is not the error that threatens the Church of the Pure Gospel today. "How can you say that? The Lutheran World Federation representing the ELCA and other Lutherans world wide is meeting this very day with the Catholic church to sign away the Gospel!" That's true, but here in America the obvious works righteousness of Catholicism doesn't fly well.
America is the land of Protestants. Speaking of sacrificing to make God not angry is recognized by most Protestants, when they area thinking clearly, as being as pagan as an Indian legend. That's why the 1994 Catholic catechism tries to avoid speaking of a "resacrificing of Christ". It tries to hide the language of sacrificing to make God not angry by saying the priest "REpresents" the sacrifice of Christ. But Hebrews 9:14 teaches that Christ "with His own blood entered the Most Holy Place ONCE FOR ALL, having obtained eternal redemption." There is no more presenting of Christ as a sacrifice.
Friends, except in bad moments, you're not going to be tempted to sacrifice something, to do something to make God not angry with you. You're not going to be tempted by the Catholic error, but living in America you're going to be tempted by the Protestant one, in fact you might be up to your eyeballs in it already.
The Protestant error is that faith makes God not angry with you. Well, doesn't it say, "the just shall live by faith?" Didn't we just get done reading "we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the Law?" Those passages speak of how we receive justification, how we receive salvation. They do not speak of what causes God to forgive us.
Let's go over this more slowly. The Protestant error is that God looks down from heaven and if He sees that we have believing going on, faith aimed at Jesus then He forgives us. That doesn't sound so wrong, does it? In fact that probably sounds like how some of you understand being saved by faith. But let me put that teaching in the terms of the Legend of the Bluebonnets. Catholics see salvation like the legend. God is angry until the individual makes a sacrifice. Protestants reject that teaching clearly that God is the One who made the sacrifice for sins by putting to death His only Son. So in terms of the legend the great spirits not the little girl makes the sacrifice. But in Protestant theology the great spirits still don't put away their wrath until the girl believes, accepts God's sacrifice. The Bluebonnets don't come till the girl shows faith to the great spirits.
Friend, this is the real error we are tempted with, and I can prove it. Why else would so many of you be consumed with whether you have enough faith, whether it's strong enough if you didn't think faith is what causes God to put away your sins? You say things like, "I wish I had as much faith as Moses," or, "as much faith as him or her" because you think the quantity of faith somehow matters. And it would, IF faith caused God to put away your sins. Then you would have to be concerned with whether you had enough faith to make God forgive you just as the Catholic must forever be concerned about having enough works. But why does Jesus highlight the little amount of faith needed? He points us to faith the size of a mustard seed not the size of a coconut.
Friends, we have become the victims of our own shorthand. We Lutherans have come to think our chief doctrine is "salvation by faith," which puts faith into a causal relationship with salvation. But that is not our chief doctrine; it's shorthand for "saved BY grace through faith." Faith is the way we receive salvation. The cause of our salvation is God's free grace toward's sinners for Christ's sake. The message of the Gospel is God has put away your sins for Jesus' sake; you won't die;. It's not God has put away your sins IF you believe it.
Let me put it into the terms of the Bluebonnet story. Catholicism says the Bluebonnets come IF you sacrifice enough to God so He's no longer angry over your sins. Protestantism says the Bluebonnets come IF you believe in God's sacrifice, IF you accept Jesus, IF you invite Jesus into your heart. IF you believe, God will put away His wrath towards you.
Lutheranism says God for Christ's sake, without any merit or worthiness in us has carpeted the land with Bluebonnets. While we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly says Paul. He says that God has reconciled Himself not to people who have works or faith but to the whole world. Lutheranism proclaims, just as Christ did, to tax collectors and prostitutes, that God has put away all sins; He is no longer angry. We don't show a bare field able to be covered with Bluebonnets if only you believe. No, we show a field covered by God with Bluebonnets for sinners, a God smiling from heaven pleased with all humanity for Christ's sake.
Friends, this is the joyous heritage we have as Lutherans. God spread our fields with Bluebonnets while we were yet sinners. Before we turned to Him in faith, while we were still ungodly sinners shaking our fist at Him, He poured out the blood of His Son paying for the sins of all. The fruit of His redeeming work is our fields being spread with Bluebonnets. We are invited by faith to walk and play, to sing and dance in these fields, but our faith doesn't cause those fields to be there; Jesus does.
Folks this is the Good News that changes sinners. Tell a sinner that he must sacrifice something to God so God won't be angry with Him anymore and you have doomed him to labor all his days to sacrifice enough. Tell a sinner that God won't be angry with him if only he believes that God has sacrificed His Son and you have sentenced him to a lifetime of wondering, "Do I believe enough?" But tell a sinner, as I now tell you, that God isn't angry with you because He forgave your wickedness 2,000 years ago on a Friday called Good, and you have spread a field full of Bluebonnets for him to play in before His smiling God forever and ever. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Day (10-31-99)