Commemoration of C. F. W. Walther, Churchman and Theologian (October 25, 1811 – May 7, 1887)
Sunday, October 23, 2011
“A Faith Worth Imitating: C. F. W. Walther” (Hebrews 13:7)
Reading from Hebrews 13: 7: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” This is our text.
Fifty years ago, “Walther” was a household name in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. After all, the synodical youth group was called the Walther League. Today, however, the league is long gone, and for many so is the man for whom it was named, Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther. In fact, there are probably some here today who are wondering why in the world we’re devoting a service to commemorating a man nobody knows!
Well, our text for this morning tells us why. “Remember,” it says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.” And nobody has spoken the Word of God more faithfully in the Missouri Synod than C. F. W. Walther. So today we are remembering him, as our church celebrates the 200th anniversary of Walther’s birth on October 25, 1811.
At one point in the history of our church body, everybody knew who Walther was; still today, our pastors, theologians, and seminary students study him. In his own times, Walther was the individual most identified with our synod–its first president, professor and president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, founding editor of Der Lutheraner (the predecessor of today’s Lutheran Witness), and head pastor of four–that’s right!–four Lutheran congregations in St. Louis. He wrote and he spoke and, in so doing, provided theological leadership that still marks the Missouri Synod. Yes, C. F. W. Walther is well worth remembering in our church.
And in our congregation in particular. A number of you here, our members, are descended from the Saxon immigrants who came over with Walther and settled in Perry County, or you come from one of the churches that Walther pastored in St. Louis.
C. F. W. Walther has been called the “Father of the Missouri Synod” and the “American Luther.” Tremendous accomplishments in his life! It would be easy, therefore, to spend the next several minutes–or hours–talking about Walther’s accomplishments, but our text suggests something different. “Imitate their faith,” it says. That’s not quite the same as just listing their achievements.
But if we want to imitate Walther’s faith, we need to see that faith in action. Faith in the heart is invisible; the words and deeds that reveal a man’s deepest convictions are not. So let’s look at Walther’s faith by considering an episode from his life, one from the beginning of his career. It shows us the man and that Walther’s faith is “A Faith Worth Imitating.”
Like many Americans in the nineteenth century, Walther was an immigrant to this country. Unlike most of the others, Walther came looking for religious liberty, not just the chance to make a good living. In fact, back in the old country, still a young man in his twenties, Walther was already making a living as a pastor in a little town in Germany. But in 1838, he resigned his call, left his people, and set sail for America. Why? What was his motivation?
Just this. Walther had become convinced that the Lutheran Church in his homeland was totally corrupt and beyond saving. The time to leave Sodom and Gomorrah had come. As his brother-in-law and fellow pastor put it, “Whoever does not emigrate is no Christian.”
So is this what we should imitate? A faith bold enough to forsake the comforts of home for the wilds of America? Not quite. Walther’s boldness quickly dissipated and turned into despair just months after his arrival in the United States, for the man whom Walther, and about seven hundred others, had followed from Germany to Missouri was caught up in a scandal. Their leader was a Lutheran pastor who had convinced Walther and the others to leave their homeland. It was his evaluation of the Lutheran Church they had accepted; it was his career as a pastor that the authorities had been threatening, not Walther’s.
As the scandal unfolded, the immigrants acted promptly to expel their leader, but now the second-guessing and recriminations began. Here they were in America alright, but should they have left Germany in the first place? After all, nobody was threatening Walther’s call; he was still preaching the gospel every Sunday in the old country. But then he had quit the congregation to which God had sent him for a place to which a charlatan and hypocrite had led him. To make matters worse, Walther had encouraged others to come too.
And how were the immigrants doing? Not very well. They were hungry and sick and dying! In fact, one of the ships on which they had traveled had gone down in the ocean with no survivors. Men, women, and children, now dead.
All this led to some severe soul-searching in young Pastor Walther, and he didn’t like what he found. In a letter to his brother, he confessed his shame and guilt: “My conscience blames me for all the adulteries which occurred among us. It calls me a kidnapper, a robber of the well-to-do among us, a murderer of those buried at sea and of the numerous victims here, a member of a sect, a hireling, an idolater.” Walther’s conscience was working overtime, and he was blaming himself for what had happened. Instead of a bold faith in his heart, Walther was confronting his sin–ugly, shameful, damnable sin! So when we set about imitating this man, let’s remember what we see here: a sinner, not a hero; a son of Adam, not a saint. In fact, someone just like you, just like me; someone who needed a Savior, desperately.
And that’s what Walther found–thanks to the grace of God. In that same letter to his brother, he talked about obtaining rest and peace only in Christ Jesus. For God’s forgiveness in Christ was the only thing that enabled Walther to get past this confrontation with sin. Of course, Walther knew the Gospel already, but he also needed to hear it.
Walther was convinced that he had sinned against the people of his congregation in Missouri by following a false prophet. So he went to them and confessed his sin. He even offered his resignation. But how did they respond? With righteous indignation and self-justifying wrath? Not at all. Instead, Walther wrote, “They assured me to a man that they forgave everything from the bottom of their heart and with joy of conscience.” Usually, pastors are the ones pronouncing forgiveness, but in this case, God moved the people to forgive their pastor and so point their shepherd back to the Good Shepherd himself.
There are times when we are led to follow the schemes of man and our plans for success. We may be led by faith, duty, vanity, or pride. We hope for something big and grand. When our plans fail, we, like Walther and those Saxon immigrants, may experience a crisis of faith. Perhaps you’ve experienced that crisis of faith when things took a turn for the worst. Sin can plant those seeds of doubt that wonder whether God is still with us, whether anything we’ve ever heard or believed is true, maybe even whether or not we ourselves are truly Christians, or if we’re forever lost and hopeless.
And yet it is in those times, in that crisis of faith, when God is at work. Yes, many times God is doing his very best work when our plans come to nothing. We are not the people of God because we are smart or because we are perfect. In fact, being a child of God isn’t about anything we do at all. It’s about what Christ did for us and how he continues to be at work in our lives through his Word and Sacrament.
In our crisis of faith, when sin of our own or another’s ruins our plans, and we feel as though we are forsaken by God, the Gospel breaks into our woe-is-me with a great blessed-are-you! It proclaims again that Jesus died for us and has given us his Holy Spirit. It reminds us that in our baptism, God claimed us to be his very own. We are indeed the people of God, we are still Christians, and we are still part of Christ’s church.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, when our plans fail and our world seems to fall apart, the only thing we can turn to is the Word of God and the power of the Gospel, the Good News that announces that our sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. When our plans fail, the Gospel affirms our identity as the people of God and that he is with us.
Today we praise God for the gift of his Word, for the power of the Gospel in our midst, and for the life and legacy of C. F. W. Walther. It was not easy for Walther to get over the scandal of the immigration and his feelings of guilt, but God was at work through his Word, and, at length, Walther recovered and went on to become the churchman and theologian we remember today. Still, he never forgot the lesson of those early years, that Christians live by the Gospel–the message of God’s unconditional love in Jesus. During his last days and illness, when life was ebbing away, Walther relied on God’s eternal promises in Jesus. He prayed, “God be merciful to me!” and he repeated a hymn he first learned as a child:
Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
Ultimately, that’s what it all came down to for Walther, as well as for us–not our lives, perhaps marked by triumphs but certainly marred by sins, but Jesus, our Savior. With Walther and all the saints, we rely on him–on Christ–living, dying, and rising again! And that, my friends, is a faith worth imitating.
[This sermon is adapted from two sermons commemorating Walther’s 200th birthday, “A Faith Worth Imitating,” by Rev. Cameron Mackenzie, and “God’s Plans Prevail,” by Rev. William R. Wangelin, both in Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol. 21, Part 4.]