Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God. Amen
Brothers and Sisters, as you know, today we celebrate Reformation Sunday. This Sunday is set aside to mark the occasion of October 31st, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church. Luther’s theology was (and continues to be) radical stuff. To think that you were saved by the grace of God, as a free gift, rather than doing anything to merit your own salvation...well...that’s hard to wrap your brain around. It’s freedom, but it’s the kind of freedom so real and so raw that it hurts. Because we do not know how much we need it until we have exhausted all other options.
In today’s Gospel we have Jesus speaking to a group of his followers. Our text picks up just after Jesus has foretold his own death. Jesus proclaims that those who “continue in his word” will be free, but those listening miss the point that he is trying to make. They feel like they are completely free and completely capable of handling things for themselves. They say, “we have never been slaves to anyone” and seem pretty self-assured that they have this whole salvation thing figured out. They just have to avoid sinning. Easy enough, right?
How easy it is for us to fall into the same trap. We want to think of ourselves as fundamentally good people. We want to think of ourselves as the sort of people that KNOW we are justified by faith as a gift from God, but deep down, hope that the fact that we are nice and helpful to our neighbors might earn us a few extra points. We decidedly do not appreciate the fact that mean people, or on a different level, those who commit heinous crimes, might get that same freedom in Christ. Because after all, they don’t deserve it! The sin of the drunk driver or thief or person who commits adultery is so visible, that we invite ourselves to judge them. We would certainly never do such a thing. Our sins are of a different caliber. As long as we manage to avoid the REALLY BAD sins, we like to think that we will be okay.
We heard in the second reading from Romans, “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed...the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sin...it’s not actually the bad things that we do to one another. It is a separation from God, it is a state of being. It is our human nature and compulsive self-reliance telling us that we ought to try harder next time. We should have known better. If we would just follow the right path, then we will be okay.
All of these “ought’s” and “should’s” and contingencies convict us over and over again. We feel like it is completely possible to save ourselves, until we try and discover that we can’t. We have been enslaved by the things of this world. With regards to sin, we are anything but free. Left to our own devices, we are bound to keep doing the same things over and over again and not getting any closer to salvation. We need a God who comes to us in the midst of all of this earthly mess to free us from the bondage that we live in. The Gospel reading today talks about freedom. We as Americans tend to equate freedom with the ability to do whatever we want all of the time. Freedom of expression. Freedom of the press. Freedom of religion. Freedom of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And often, nothing makes us happier than being in charge of our own destiny.
But this isn’t the sort of freedom that Jesus Christ brings. Through Christ, we are freed from having to justify ourselves, but this comes at the cost of the death of the old self. We are given salvation as pure gift through faith and the overwhelming grace of a God who wants nothing more than to love us into wholeness. We will experience this firsthand today in just a few moments when we celebrate the baptism of baby Eleanora.
John’s Gospel is unique in that from the very beginning, it is made clear that Jesus is the Son of God. God is in the world doing a new thing, God became flesh and lived among us so that we might never have to be separates from God again. Jesus goes on to say that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, and slaves have no freedom, but the son of the father is free forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
So where does that leave us?
Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “they are NOW justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Now is an important word here, it signifies that something radical and new has taken place. God is a reformer. What if the Reformation is not the celebration of the historical event that gave birth to Protestantism, but rather a celebration of the reforming nature of God?
When we treat the Reformation as merely a historical event that was set into motion by Martin Luther, not only do we make it yet again about our own abilities as human beings, but we neglect to see how God is continually active as a Reformer in our world. We are constantly being formed and re-formed into a new creation by the actions of a loving God. The Reformation is not just something that happened 500 years ago and it’s not merely a chance to drag out the red paraments and sing “A Mighty Fortress”, it is a confession of the very nature of God and what it means to be people of faith. So I leave you with a story and a of couple questions to ponder.
A week ago Saturday I returned from five days in Chicago as part of an urban immersion for people who are interested in becoming mission developers, or people who start new churches. Our group was hosted by a Lutheran Church called Shekinah Chapel in the deeply impoverished suburb of Riverdale, which has a population of 12,000 people, about the same as St Peter. Shekinah Chapel is the new congregation that started after a very old Lutheran Church, Our Savior’s, closed its doors in the neighborhood. Shekinah is doing incredible things to organize their neighborhood for real change. They have after school programs for at-risk youth, they lobby officials to pass laws to protect the safety of their people from the rampant gun violence in Chicago, Riverdale is home to the gun shop that sells 40% of the guns recovered in violent crimes in Chicago, and they provide a Lutheran church home to a whole bunch of people who wouldn’t normally find themselves in a church at all, let alone a Lutheran one. Shekinah let me be a part of their community for a short time, and I came away changed. Their worship does not look like ours, and the people who make up their community do not look like us, but we are part of the incredible body of Christ together. God’s work, our hands. This is an example of God always making things new in our church and in our world. Change is scary, reformation is not without anxiety, but there is something really beautiful on the other side. A new creation. That is the promise of the Gospel and the promise of the Reformation.
So….Your homework for this week is to consider a couple questions:
First, where are you being reformed by God?
Second, where are we being reformed as a congregation and as the ELCA?