Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Reformation Sunday - October 25, 2009 (John 8:31-38)

It is the season of the attack ad. Granted, this year isn’t as bad as last year, but in this race for the governorship of Virginia, battleground state that we are, the attack ads are blossoming and blooming all around us. I am counting the days until I can watch television or listen to the radio or answer the telephone without having to suffer through one of them. I heard them as early as last spring, and they will get even more frequent as we run up to the election a week from Tuesday. The experts say that attack ads, those political messages that rail against some aspect of their opponent’s record are actually effective in swaying voters, which is why we can’t seem to have an election without them. Rather than speaking directly to their own strengths, the Republicans attack the Democrats and the Democrats attack the Republicans, and cheap-shot-makers like me attack them both. Somewhere along the way, the truth of the message gets muddied a little.

It occurs to me that Reformation Sunday often becomes little more than an attack ad. We stand up each year on the last Sunday in October and remember that we’re Protestant—that, by golly, we’re Lutheran—and we lob attack ads against the abuses of Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago. We stand up and sing several rounds of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and give thanks that Martin Luther—political mastermind that he was—had the guts back in the sixteenth century to nail his original 95 “Attack Ads” on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. We often do this, and we do it proudly, but somewhere along the way, the truth of our message gets muddied a little.

If celebrating the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which effectively began on October 31, 1517, is about anything, it is about staying on-message. It is about telling the truth and making that truth as clear as possible. More like a positive, upbeat political ad that doesn’t attack another but instead touts the strengths and virtues of its own candidate, calling to mind the Protestant Reformation should help us tell the truth about the gospel, the truth about the church, and, tying it all together, the truth about God and God’s faithfulness. That was always Martin Luther’s original intent: to tell the truth about the gospel. Although he made some pretty inflammatory remarks about the Pope, and a few other church practices at the time at the core his was a message about staying on-message. He was simply pointing out that with which the Church catholic—including each and every one of its little congregations—had always, to some degree, struggled. Namely, it is too easy for the church to get its own proclamation muddled.

And what is the truth about the gospel? That is the crux of the discussion that Jesus is having with this group of people in this morning’s gospel text. This group of people is “the Jews who had believed in him.” These are people who were interested in listening to what Jesus had to say and were possibly even contemplating becoming his followers, but whose understanding was that their relationship with God was based on their history, their ancestry. They assumed they enjoyed certain status with God because they were people of God’s covenant. They pointed to people in their past like Abraham, noting that God had chosen their ancestors long ago and made them free. (They also claim that they’ve never been slaves to anyone, but I guess they’re conveniently forgetting that time in Egypt). They are confused, in any case, that Jesus is saying that in order to become free they would need to continue in his word and thereby become his disciples.

One of the truths that Jesus is trying to explain to them is that everyone is a sinner. The brokenness of sin is something that affects everyone equally. No person or group of people—not even the descendants of Abraham—has escaped the power of sinfulness. As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” That means everyone in creation—regardless of whether they have dutifully tried to follow the commandments, regardless of whether they have a covenant with God—has become captive to sin. Sin has been described in many ways. Luther described sin as “humankind being curved in on itself,” convinced of the idea that we can be separate from God and go our own way, set like stone into the pursuit of our own needs. One particularly deceptive and hurtful quality of sinfulness is the habit of thinking we can, in some way, earn our way into God’s favor. We fall into the trap of thinking we can do enough good deeds or pray enough or go to church enough to make God smile on us. And this is the type of false information that Jesus comes to abolish. Jesus tells the truth: there is no “enough” of anything on our part. Ever. All of us still fall short.

But the other part of the truth, which is the one Martin Luther said that the church must really get right, is that Jesus, alone, is “enough.” “If the Son makes you free,” Jesus tells those who had believed in him, “then you will be free indeed.” The truth that makes us free is that God has decided to do something about the world’s brokenness even when we cannot. Jesus, God’s Son, has been given to reconcile creation to God, to straighten out humankind’s inward curvature, to suffer the full brunt of what evil can do and still only respond in love. It is something we could never do. It is something we could never deserve. But yet in Jesus, out of God’s pure grace, the bonds of that evil are broken once and for all. When we look at Jesus, when we look at the cross, we realize God truly loves us and has claimed us. Not when we look at ourselves. As Karl Barth said, a Swiss theologian who stood up to the Nazi regime in Germany, “God does not love us because we are lovable. God loves us because God is love” (Church Dogmatics, IV/2).

This is the truth that sets us free because it releases us from the lie that we are lovable for any other reason, be that our good deeds or, as in the case of the people talking with Jesus, a certain historical line we’ve been born into. This is the truth that sets us free because it breaks us from the bonds of stubborn self-will and self-determination—as freeing as those pathways may sometimes seem—and sets us back on the track of the self-giving ways Jesus lays down before us.

By far the favorite game in the Martin household right now is called, “I-I-I’m Gonna Getcha.” Laura, our 17-month old, is especially fanatic about it. The way the game works is she starts walking either away from us into another room or towards something she’s not supposed to play with, like electrical cords or the top of the stairs. As soon as she starts away, I come up behind her and say, ‘I-I-I’m gonna getcha!” and then pick her up underneath her arms and set her back down in a safe direction. She actually thinks it’s hilarious and starts to giggle. So she immediately does it again: she turns around and starts off in the wrong, unsafe direction. So I chase after her and repeat, “I-I-I’m gonna getcha!” and pick her up again. This will go on and on until I’ve finally had enough and I just pick her up and hold her for awhile and let her know the game is over. I suppose when I do this I’m hoping that at some point she’ll realize that it’s pointless to crawl away because there’s nowhere I’m not willing to follow her to. I’m always going to go het her and turn her back around, and in doing so, I’m actually setting her free. Sure, she has the free will to wander where she wants, into danger, but the point where she is truly most free is when she’s living and growing and walking in the ways her parents hope to set out for her.

So it is with God’s relationship to us through Christ. There is no place we can wander where he will not follow, and, through his gracious forgiveness, attempt to set us back on the path that is truly freeing. And this is the truth that the church must always be very careful in proclaiming. It is the truth that should be the basis for any reform in the church, and it was the motive behind Martin Luther’s attempts at reformation in the sixteenth century.

If, for example, we become a community of faith that feels more like a clique, we won’t stay on message about that truth. We will feel more like a social club that excludes people. If we become lax in our practice and embodiment of confession and forgiveness, it will, again, be difficult to stay on-message about the truth. Instead we would send the message that God doesn’t really care about our brokenness, or that the health of human community isn’t that important. If we are tempted to make the church just another type of volunteer organization that does service projects for the community, then we could forget that we are, in fact, primarily a community of sinners who have been chased down by Jesus and put back on the right track. For if the Church—Lutheran or otherwise—does not stay on-message with this truth, who will?

Way down in the holler behind the congregation I served in Pittsburgh, along a road prone to flooding during rainstorms, stood a ramshackle building that called itself the Bellevue Chapel. I never met anyone who attended there, and I never saw much happening there when I passed by. One week, however, I noticed they had hung a huge sign across the top of the door. It stayed there for awhile. In big, bold, red letters it said, “Sinners only.”

That, in a nutshell, is the message of the Reformation, the message of a church that always should be reforming. On this day and every day, let us not send out the Lutheran attack ads, pointing a finger of condemnation to others around us. Instead, in the pattern of Martin Luther, let us remember the truth: this place is for sinners. Sinners only, prone to floods of grace. And it is here—at the font, at the altar, in the words of Scripture—where God says “I-I-I’m gonna getcha!” us and sets us free.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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