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October 25, 2020 – REFORMATION SUNDAY
Jeremiah 31:31-34 – The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah: law on their hearts.
Psalm 46 – The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. (Ps. 46:4)
Romans 3:19-28 – No one will be justified by the law. Now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed.
John 8:31-36 – You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.
Romans 3:19-28 – Justification by Grace through Faith
Here is the Romans 3:19-28 text in its entirety:
19Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets,22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
The Romans’ faith is known throughout the world already at the time of Paul’s writing (57 A.D?). Christianity is making its mark on Rome, a city of 400,000 people, enormous for this time in European history. Perhaps not all are equally excited about this.
Tacitus writes early in the second century:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. (Annals 15.44. http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html)
In Romans 1 Paul introduced his thesis. In rhetorical terms, it is his propositio:
16For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
Paul’s gospel: the righteousness of God is revealed through faith, for faith.
What does “through faith, for faith” mean? Luther interpreted ek pisteos, ein pistin to mean “by faith alone.” Ben Witherington III prefers a more nuanced translation: “from the faithful One, unto faith.” As we’ll see below, I take this to mean through Christ’s faith, so that we too might have faith.
In Romans 2, Paul levels the playing field. All have sinned, therefore Jews and Gentiles are on the same level. It is not having the law that justifies, but keeping it. On this count, he contends, all have fallen short. Therefore you have no excuse in judging others.
In Romans 3 Paul develops his thesis a bit more. Now that the playing field has been leveled, Paul shows that Christ has revealed that righteousness comes apart from works of the law. We are saved through Christ’s faith, but that faith elicits a response from us, also faith.
A growing number of scholars agree that Romans 3, along with Galatians 2:15-21 and Philippians 3:2-11, speak of Christ’s covenantal faith. We are justified by the faith of Christ, not our faith in Christ. This is Michael Gorman’s conclusion in Apostle of the Crucified Lord. One might argue that through faith, Christ binds us to himself and his faith. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but without it, we risk turning faith into just another kind of works righteousness. If I can just muster up enough faith…
Paul was born into a Roman world of citizens and slaves. Slavery was not racial, like US slavery was, but it was widespread. The Romans enslaved everyone. By Paul’s time, Gorman tells us, most slaves were born into slavery. A slave’s children were the property of the slave-owner. This is the ultimate dehumanization, to have your children belong to another human being who also “owns” you. If you disobeyed in any way, your children could be sold so far away, you would never see them again. (By the way, George Washington also employed this disciplinary technique on his slaves.)
The Pax Romana, Roman Peace, was well-known. Order was kept in the vast Roman Empire of many diverse peoples through military conquest, domination, taxation and crucifixion. Gorman calls it “peace through war.” The Romana invaded and enslaved. Like lynching in the U.S., Roman crowds gathered to watch crucifixions, and laugh tauntingly as dissidents and opponents died in naked shame. That Christians honored, worshipped or followed a crucified man was considered an absurd idea.
We cannot understand Paul without understanding this context. Paul understood citizenship and slavery. Paul understood freedom, and he saw the gospel as freedom. Faith in Christ gives us a different kind of citizenship. We are freed from sin and death, even death doled out by the empire by crosses, animals in the arena, burnings at the stake and beheadings.
The Reformation is dated to the moment in 1517 when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel (or perhaps, some historians suggest, he simply mailed them to the Archbishop of Maintz). In any case, within weeks there was not a town in Saxony that did not have a copy of the 95 Theses. The new technology of the day assured that: Guttenberg’s printing press, which, ironically, was first used to print indulgences.
As Luther’s personal legacy and influence were complex, so are the religious and cultural developments that resulted from his actions on October 31, 1517. It leaves us to ponder the meaning of the Reformation for today.
In 1517 Luther invited the faculty at Wittenburg to discuss 95 theological position statements. There was nothing out of the ordinary here. Such discussions were common, and posting an invitation was normal. What made these theses “pop” was the strong opposition to the sale of indulgences. Luther was irked by a 16th century Dominican televangelist who was peddling indulgences. “”Do you not hear the voices of your dead parents and other people, screaming and saying: ‘We are suffering severe punishments and pain [in purgatory], from which you could rescue us with a few alms, if only you would?'”
For Luther the sale of indulgences was both a theological and practical problem. In Medieval Christendom, forgiveness was a sacramental power given by the Papacy to priests through ordination. Luther didn’t’ disagree with that. He was concerned that this forgiveness was being sold, for personal gain, and that it was being done so indiscriminately. That is, forgiveness was being doled out with without repentance or turn of the heart. He was also concerned for the economic disparity this revealed. The wealthy could afford indulgences. The vast majority of Germans were poor, and could not afford them. Yet they would deprive their families food to scrimp and save in order to free some dead relative from purgatory. 50-65% of the population lived on the edge of subsistence. Luther taught that it was more righteous to give to the poor than to buy indulgences. This was his heresy.
Samuel Torvend writes:
One wonders, then, what was going through [Luther’s] mind on October 31, 1517, as he sent a copy of his theses to Albrecht, the new archbishop of Maintz and the man who had hired Johannes Tetzel to sell indulgences in the diocese bordering Wittenberg. Did he imagine that the archbishop and the indulgence preacher would come to the university for a sip of schnapps and a cordial debate with the faculty? It mattered not. By December of that year Albrecht had forwarded the document to Pope Leo X. Within a few days, every member of the papal household knew the German monk’s name and wanted him silenced.
I think we forget that the Reformation was as much economic and political as it was theological. But the theological undergirded the whole thing. It comes down to this: What is at the heart of the gospel? Or to put it in theological terms, whence cometh salvation? Who controls the purse strings to the treasures of heaven? Dismantling the oppressive hold of the religious establishment meant dismantling the theology that supported it, or something Luther had unearthed in Romans: justification by grace through faith.
Now, he wrote, “the church fishes for the wealth of men.” Widows, orphans and the hungry poor could not participate in the spiritual economy of the late Medieval Christianity. The poor would spend money they didn’t have, buying themselves and their dead relatives out of purgatory. Furthermore, Luther was concerned that this spiritual economy actually perpetuated poverty, Torvend argues, by taking resources that could otherwise alleviate hunger and homelessness and funneling it to finance the Church, which already had more wealth than ancient Rome. Some say the church owned 2/3 of the land in Europe.
The Church lifted up poverty as a virtue; Luther saw poverty as a something to be eliminated, not emulated. We must be concerned, even today, any time church uses superstition to gain wealth. Luther felt poor Christians should not be using their meager financial resources to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The wealthy should redirect their resources to alleviate poverty as opposed to building mansions in heaven. Christians should be taught that it is better to give to the poor than to buy an indulgence. Those who ignore the poor, he says, and spend their money on church parchment, purchase nothing but the wrath of God.
Perhaps Luther, responding to his intense biblical studies, his conscience, and his Anfechtung could not have foreseen that challenging the spiritual economy was also challenging market economy of his day and all who benefitted from it. Within a very short time, his ideas would be condemned by those in power. You don’t sock people in the wallet and get away with it. Luther called for the sale of monastic, mendicant and ecclesial properties, so that the money could be kept in a common chest to be used for the poor. The chest was to be administered by a board of directors that consisted of two people from the parish congregation, two from city council, three town citizens and three peasant farmers. These orders were put in place in Wittenberg and Leisnig within six years of the 95 Theses.
Luther’s theology of the cross meant that God is revealed in the suffering Christ on the cross. God is present where least expected, in humility, shame, weakness, suffering and death. In Luther’s commentary on Matthew 25, Luther says Christ invites his followers to encounter him in the hungry, the stranger, the homeless. A church that wants to encounter God must be willing to encounter the suffering in their community.
Luther understood sin as people and communities encurvatus in se (turned in upon themselves). Self-centeredness was inbred, so we should not be surprised that greed usually wins the day, even in the church, since we’re all simul Justus et peccator. Grace, however, at work in the life of the Christian has the power to turn people and communities outward (curvatus ad extram). Communities not outwardly-focused are simply not Christian. Luther critiqued the fraternities of his day as being self-serving. I wonder how our congregations would fare under his scrutiny.
The Sacraments for Luther had socio-economic implications. Sharing one bread and one cup in the Eucharist meant being one body: becoming part of a community that has all things in common so that no one has need. He grieved that many gladly share in the benefits of the sacraments, but were not willing to share in the costs, like serving the poor, working for justice, especially at personal risk. They are self-seeking persons, whom this sacrament does not benefit. Luther linked sacramental practice and social welfare. “Learn that this is a sacrament of love.”
While Luther’s early theological writings have had much play (The Freedom of the Christian, Letter to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church) during this same period Luther also published works on trade, international commerce, banking practices, state regulation of business and so on. Luther critiqued predatory lending, what he calls usury, loaning money at high interest rates, and asking payments that cover only interest, not principal, so the poor are kept in perpetual poverty.
So, the Reformation was not about some abstract, hypothetical, theological controversy. It was a pastoral concern about real people living in real poverty. It was about economics and justice. It was about encountering Christ through feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and in prison. It was then and it was today.
Instead of harping on indulgences, we might look inward and ask: How are we addressing injustice today? How might we be guilty of using superstition to create a false economy, that perpetuates poverty? How might we overturn those schemes that promote predatory lending, and redirection of resources away from those who need them most?
It is no small mental shift from a God who is hell-bent on damning everyone and everything, and who has given us a little bit of a loophole in Jesus Christ, if we will just come under the authority and sacraments of the church, or believe the Bible, or believe the creeds, to a God who is heaven-bent on redeeming the whole cosmos, lock, stock and barrel, that only relentless rejection of the free grace offered to us will jeopardize. This is a shift from an angry God of guilt and torment, to a loving God who numbers the sparrows and hairs on our heads. This is a God, who Jesus teaches his disciples to call “Daddy,” in his famous prayer, who invites us to trust God like a Father, to trust God’s mercy and propensity for redemption as surely as the waters of baptism make us wet. This is truly good news. This is a truth that will indeed set us free. This frees us from and endless obligation of penances and masses, to immerse ourselves in a joyful relationship with the God of grace and love.
The question remains for the preacher: How will you translate this into the 21st century American context? Do we whip people up into a Medieval dither about an economic and ecclesiastical system that no longer exists? I think not. We must emerge from the bipolarity of Lutheran-Catholic animosity and recognize the truth that set us free: grace. I have heard and read some of the most powerful pronouncements of free grace from Roman Catholic colleagues, and I have also heard legalistic claptrap from Lutherans. No denominational system has a corner on the gospel. Perhaps this is the true spirit of the Reformation, that we recognize that all our ecclesiastical structures are penultimate, limited and in need of reform.
John 8:31-36 – Truth leads to freedom
31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
In this reading from John, following Jesus leads to truth, which leads to freedom. At least this is the conclusion at which Emerson Powery, Professor of Biblical Studies at Messiah College in Grantham, PA arrives. Does truth lead to freedom?
Jesus > Truth > Freedom
Paul certainly would agree:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
For Paul, we are free from the law, but not free to hurt one another. We are free from the law so that we can become slaves to one another in love. Dogged adherence to the minimum requirements of the law is replaced with love of God and neighbor.
In John’s gospel, Jesus is the Word, the logos, full of grace and truth (John 1:14 and 17). Powery says chapter 8 packed with “truth” verbiage.
…Jesus’ teaching leads to truth (8:32), a truth that Jesus “heard from God” (8:40), and would be followed by the true children of Abraham (8:39). Furthermore, Jesus’ testimony to truth was the primary reason he came into the world (18:37), to teach the truth that will lead to freedom (8:32), and will make people holy (cf. 17:17, 19). According to John, Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6). The teaching about the kingdom of God — central to Jesus’ mission and teaching in the Synoptic portrayals — is basically absent from the fourth Gospel (cf. John 3:3, 5; 18:36 [3x]).
Mark Tranvik, Professor of Religion at Augsburg College points out that there are many kinds of freedom. There is political freedom, economic freedom, religious freedom, personal freedom. Am I free to do whatever I want, even if it hurts you, or limits your freedom? The topic of freedom comes up in the tension between freedom to assemble, and the need to social distance. Am I free to not wear a mask, even if I am endangering my neighbor? Am I free do disobey the law?
Jesus defines the freedom of which he speaks. Anyone who commits a sin is slave to sin. Tranvik reminds us that sin here is not just an action, it is a condition. Alienation from God, the world and one another is a kind of slavery. Freedom requires truth: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…” (1 John 1:8) Recovery groups know this is true. There is no recovery without confronting the facts. Here are the first four of the 12 Steps of AA:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Freedom begins by facing our bondage.
We’ve had a few sayings in my family and in the churches I’ve been privileged to serve. All of these get at a similar premise:
- The facts are your friends.
- Eat That Frog. (Brian Tracy book based on Mark Twain quote)
- The truth will set you free. (Jesus)
- A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. (Luther)
The facts are your friends. We sometimes avoid the truth because we cannot bear it, like the person with abdominal pain who won’t go to the doctor, for fear of hearing they have cancer. The fact of the matter is, if detected early, cancer is treatable. 50% of all cancers are detected in early stages. The 5-year relative survival rate of cancer is now at 70%. The sooner you catch it, the more likely you are to get the treatment you need and survive it. The facts are you friends, even when you don’t want to face them.
Mark Twain famously said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.” The logic is compelling. If you wait until the end of the day, the anticipation will ruin your day. It can only get worse. If you eat the frog first, the day gets better. “Eat the frog,” I would say to colleagues. “Do what you must do quickly.” Jesus said. “Pull off the bandaid all at once,” is another common phrase.
The truth may be a bitter pill to swallow at times, but it is most likely to set you free. Luther, at the Heidelberg Disputation (the Augustinian chapter meeting, just six months after the 95 Theses), broke with traditional scholastic theology and introduced his “Theology of the Cross.” We are to move past our self-centered lenses and view the world as it is, through the lens of the suffering of the cross. A theologian of glory calls good evil and evil good. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. No rose-colored glasses. Tell it like it is.
As Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale said, after his imprisonment at the Hanoi Hilton, you must hold two things together. You must face the most brutal truth about your situation, while that the same time never losing faith that you will prevail. When asked which prisoners didn’t survive the brutal prison camp, Stockdale replied:
Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
This came to be known at the Stockdale Paradox.
There are plenty of applications to our current situation. Those who believe the pandemic will just disappear in a month or so are ripe for disappointment. We will come through this as a country, but to do so, we will have to face the facts.
If the Reformation is about anything, it must be about return to sources, Ad fontes! The source of our faith and life is Scripture, which calls us to focus on the cross of Christ. To take up our cross and follow Jesus leads to truth, which leads to freedom.
The truth will set you free.