PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious Father, we pray for your holy catholic church. Fill it with all truth and peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in need, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Is the Reformation over? For over a decade now I have been asking myself that question each year as Reformation rolls around and I struggle to come up with something fresh to say about it. What, exactly, are we trying to reform now that we are altogether exiled and living independently from the Roman Catholic Church? What is left for us protestants to protest? Are we not a little like the angry ex-spouse at the bar stool ranting to anyone who will listen about the hurt, indignity and injustice s/he experienced in his/her crappy marriage-even after the divorce has long been finalized and the other spouse has remarried and moved on? After five centuries, isn’t it time we got over ourselves?
Of course, as everyone who has been through the process knows, a divorce is never quite final no matter what the court papers say. Like it or not, the relationships in which we have lived are part of our stories. They have shaped us, for better or for worse. We can perhaps shape the meaning and significance they will have for our lives going forward, but the past cannot be erased. The very fact that we continue to identify ourselves as “protestant” betrays the enduring connection we have to our Roman Ex.
Moreover, there is an obvious problem with my divorce analogy. Divorce is not an option for the Body of Christ. The outcome of the Reformation was, in biblical terms, more analogous to an attempted amputation than divorce. I say “attempted” because the church is “one” just as it is holy, catholic and apostolic-whether we like it or not. At least that is what Roman Catholics and most protestants confess in the Nicene Creed. Accordingly, we protestants have vacillated between insisting on the one hand that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church inheres within our own particular denominations and that the rest of Christendom is less than truly Christian, and on the other maintaining that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we are somehow still one church. I think the lack of credibility for both positions undermines more than anything else our evangelical witness in the 21st Century. After centuries of defining ourselves in terms of our differences from Roman Catholicism and the various other flavors of Protestantism in a culture that was at least nominally Christian, Lutherans are finding it difficult to make themselves understood to a population that simply doesn’t give a flying fruitcake for the sordid details of our dysfunctional ecclesiastical relationships. So far from reflecting “the wonderful diversity within the Body of Christ,” as one colleague recently characterized it, the bewildering variety of churches in every American town-often within a stone’s throw of each other-simply feeds the American perception of religion as one more consumer commodity sold under numerous brands, styles and flavors. Your choice of church (if any) is of no more consequence than your choice of the Ford Fusion over the Chevy Spark.
There is, indeed, a growing hostility in our nation to the very idea of passing our faith on to the next generation. At the far end of the spectrum is scientist and commentator Richard Dawkins who insists that religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse. While I suspect that few Americans subscribe to that extreme view, I have met a good many who have given up on catechesis, leaving their children free to choose whether or not to adopt the faith of the family or any faith for that matter. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out, however, few of these parents take the same sanguine view when it comes to deciding what, if any, affiliation their children will have with the United States of America. Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics and Life, (c. 2013 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 88. Our cultural practices and our entire educational system are geared toward producing good American citizens. I suspect that parents casting doubt upon this enterprise are looked upon with no little degree of suspicion. Raising a child to be religiously neutral is open minded. Raising him or her to be less than completely loyal to America is treason.
So why is indoctrination of a child from infancy into an “American” identity any less narrow minded and abusive than raising him or her a Christian, Jew or Muslim? If it is abusive to teach an impressionable child to recite the Lord’s Prayer, isn’t it just as abusive to teach the same child to say the Pledge of Allegiance? I don’t believe this has much to do with the rightness or wrongness of indoctrinating children. I cannot imagine how anyone can raise a child without indoctrinating him or her into some value system filled with preconceived assumptions the child might come to question later on in life, whether religious or not. Simply put, our American identity runs far deeper than our Christian identity. We will gladly and proudly send our children to kill and to die for America, but we won’t pull them out of soccer practice to worship the Prince of Peace. The church ought to be testifying in word and deed to the supremacy of God’s reign over the nations (America included); calling people to obey Jesus above all other claims to loyalty (including loyalty to America); and inviting our neighbors to pledge their ultimate allegiance to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic communion of saints that transcends every other societal demand (including the demand for loyal American citizenship). It is difficult to make that witness, however, when the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church looks to all the world like a string of competing boutiques in a typical American shopping mall.
So I ask again, is the Reformation over? I am not convinced that we are any closer today than we were five centuries ago to recognizing the centrality of grace in the church. That goes for us protestants every bit as much as for our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic communion. We are still too fixated on rules, structures, traditions and practices of human origin that dehumanize us rather than form in us the mind of Christ. We still suffer from the afflictions of self-righteousness, pride and arrogance. We need to be reminded still that we are redeemed by God’s grace alone through Christ alone by faith alone. But getting the good news right is only half the equation. The other half is proclaiming it to the world. It is becoming increasingly clear that the church’s witness to reconciliation of all things in Christ is being fatally compromised by the lack of reconciliation within itself. So maybe the Reformation is not so much over as it is in need of reorientation. The next wave of reformation must focus on repairing the damage left in the wake of the first.
That said, I have a hard time imagining how to begin such a movement. I am afraid it will take a little more than nailing a document to the door of a church. I also doubt that our anemic efforts at ecumenism will be able to overcome our fierce individualistic consumerism. We are Burger King people. We are too set on “having it our way” and having it now. Most of us can’t last long in a church that doesn’t instantly meet our institutional, ideological, programmatic and stylistic needs. Suffering with one another’s perceived shortcomings, praying and working patiently and tirelessly for change, allowing God to take God’s own good time healing the church’s divisions is not in our cultural DNA. Churches, like fast food joints, are a dime a dozen. If you don’t like the one you happen to be in, there are plenty more to choose from. If none of them appeals, you can always start your own. Choose whatever feels right. It’s what we do.
Though we will pray this Sunday for God to reunite the church, I wonder whether, like James and John in last week’s gospel lesson, we do not know what we are asking. Our lesson from Jeremiah is a sobering reminder that God must sometimes employ drastic measures to create in us a new heart. It took a brutal conquest by the Babylonian empire and decades of exile to form the covenant people we now know as the Jews. Perhaps the same drastic measures will be required to reform the church. I fear that, in order to heal the wounds in Christ’s Body, God will have no alternative than to make us so small and inconsequential and to place us in such a hostile environment that we will no longer be able to escape our need for one another. That isn’t what any of us want, but it might be what we need. Even so, Come Lord Jesus.
For a brief but excellent summary of the Book of Jeremiah see the Summary Article by Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org. Recall that Jeremiah prophesied immediately before and for some time after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. This particular oracle in Sunday’s lesson is regarded by most scholars as coming from Jeremiah’s post 587 prophesies. Jerusalem was in ruins and a substantial part of the population had been deported to Babylon (modern day Iraq). There seemed to be no future for Judah. Yet here Jeremiah, the very prophet who refused to offer Judah’s leaders even a sliver of hope for deliverance from Babylon, now speaks to the sorry remnant of the people about a new beginning. Such words could not be heard by Judah before the destruction of Jerusalem because her leaders were too intent on preserving the old covenant that had been irretrievably broken. Judah was hoping that salvation would come in the form of a Babylonian defeat that would preserve the line of David, the Holy City and the temple of Solomon. But that would not have been salvation for a nation that had so thoroughly strayed from her covenant with her God. Hope lay not in preserving Judah and her institutions, but in the new thing God would do for Israel after all these things had been taken away from her. Israel would never again be the glorious nation she was; but through the new covenant Jeremiah promises, Israel will become precisely the nation God needs.
I have said many times before that the prophet Jeremiah might have an important word for a church coming to the end of its prominence and position in western culture. A broken and fragmented church on the fringes of society unable to support the denominational missions, ministries and educational institutions that defined it in the past might not be the “church of the future” we would choose if we had a choice. But such a church might be exactly the kind of people God needs to be the Body of Christ in the world of the Twenty-First Century.
The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks does not differ substantively from the old. The “law” which God promises to write upon the hearts of God’s people is the law delivered to Israel at Sinai. The problem is not with the law but with the people who failed to internalize it and therefore observed it only in the breech. For example, during the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, the Babylonian armies advanced and captured all but two of Judah’s fortified cities. Jeremiah 34:7. Hoping to placate God and induce the Lord to save Judah from conquest, Zedekiah persuaded the people to do away with a longstanding practice of enslaving their impoverished fellow Hebrews beyond the six year limit on servitude established under Torah (Exodus 21:2-6). See Jeremiah 34:6-10. Shortly thereafter, Hophra, Pharaoh of Egypt, marched north to attack the Babylonian forces in Palestine. Babylon was forced to raise the siege against Jerusalem and draw its troops down to repel the Egyptian forces. When it seemed as though the Babylonian threat had receded, Zedekiah revoked the decree freeing the slaves and reinstated the lawless practice of indefinite servitude. Jeremiah 34:11. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah that this blatant act of hypocrisy would not go unpunished, that the Babylonian army would return and that there would be no escape from destruction. Jeremiah 34:17-22.
As Jeremiah saw it, the kingdom of David was beyond redemption. The faithlessness of the people could not be addressed by changing or reforming Judah’s existing institutions. Change must come at the very deepest level: within the heart. Salvation is still possible for Judah, but it lies on the far side of judgment. Such restoration does not come easily. In the wilderness of exile, the people will learn once again to depend upon their God for sustenance. Only so can the Torah be written upon the hearts of God’s people.
The promise “I will be their God and they shall be my people” encapsulates at the deepest level God’s final (eschatological) intent for humanity. Vs. 33. The same refrain echoes throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:20; Ezekiel 14:11; Ezekiel 36:28) and appears again in the concluding chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-4. Under this new covenant, it will no longer be necessary to instruct people in Torah because Torah, the very shape of obedience to God, will be wholly internalized. If you ask me what such a community looks like, I cite once again the powerful example of the Amish community following the Nickel Mine tragedy. In extending forgiveness to the murderer of their children and offering support to his family, the Amish demonstrated to a sick, violent and gun wielding culture what the kingdom of Christ looks like. This response speaks louder than all the preachy-screechy moralistic social statements ever issued by all the rest of us more mainline, official and established churches. Here, for a brief instant, it was possible to see at work hearts upon which God’s words have been inscribed.
This psalm is associated with the protestant Reformation generally and Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in particular. Structurally, the hymn is made up of three sections punctuated twice by the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/fortress.” Vss 7 & 11. Each section is followed with the term “selah.” This word is found seventy-one times in thirty-nine of the Psalms and three times in the book of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:9; Habakkuk 3:13). It is most likely an instruction to musicians or worship leaders for use in liturgical performances added as a marginal note to the manuscripts and ultimately incorporated into the text. The Greek word (diapsalama) used in the Septuagint to translate the word “selah” means “interlude.” Werner, E., “Music,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3, (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 460. The exact meaning has been debated among rabbinic scholars since the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 270 B.C.E. Suggesting that whatever function the term originally served had ceased even then.
In the first section the psalmist declares confidence in God’s protection in the midst of an unstable world. Earthquakes, storms and floods were terrifying events often attributed to angry deities. The psalmist does not speculate on causation here, but confidently asserts that the God of Jacob can be trusted to provide security and protection even in the midst of these frightening natural phenomena.
The psalmist turns his/her attention in the second section to the city of Jerusalem which, though not mentioned by name, can hardly be any other than the “city of God,” “the holy habitation of the Most High.” Vs. 4. The “river” that makes glad the city of God might be the Gihon Spring, the main source of water for ancient Jerusalem. The spring gushes forth intermittently from a natural cave four or five times a day during the rainy season and, though less frequently, during the dry season as well. It was this water source that made human settlement there possible. The Pre-Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem dug an underground passage permitting them to draw the water of Gihon without being exposed to attack during a siege of the city. The Gihon was used not only for drinking water, but also for irrigation of gardens in the adjacent Kidron Valley which, in turn, was a source of food for the city. The Gihon was an inspiration for prophetic imagination throughout the Scriptures. The prophet Ezekiel relates a vision in which a miraculous river flows out of the restored temple in Jerusalem to give life to desert areas in Palestine. Ezekiel 47:1-14. Similarly, John of Patmos describes “a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22: 1-2. God’s presence in the midst of the city recalls the promise of Jeremiah that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33.
As a relatively small nation existing in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood, Israel was no stranger to “raging” nations and unstable kingdoms. Vs. 6. But the psalmist will not be rattled by these dangers. S/he knows that the Holy City is under the protection of the Holy One of Israel. It is not the nations or their rulers who determine the course of history. The God of Jacob is the one whose voice “melts” the earth. So Isaiah would try in vain to convince King Ahaz to be still and wait for God’s salvation from his enemies rather than allying himself with the empire of Assyria-which would be his nation’s undoing. Isaiah 7:1-8:8.
In the third section, the focus is upon the geopolitical scene. The Lord causes wars to cease. The God of Israel is no friend of war. To the contrary, “he makes wars to cease to the end of the earth.” Vs. 9. Moreover, he destroys the weapons of war. He does not call upon Israel to deal violently with the nations of the earth. The psalmist assures us that God can handle that job without us. God says instead, “Be still and know that I am God.” Vs. 10. When confronted with violent enemies (as Israel frequently was), the people are called upon to put their trust in the God of Jacob who is the one and only reliable refuge. In a culture indoctrinated with the belief that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the contrary witness of this ancient psalm is critical.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is the only one in which he makes a sustained theological argument from start to finish. For that reason alone, it is impossible to interpret any single passage in isolation from the whole work. As I have said in prior posts, I believe that Paul’s primary concern is expressed in Romans 9-11. In that section, Paul discusses the destiny of Israel in God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. It is not Paul’s intent to discredit his people or their faith. Rather, he is making the argument that through Jesus the covenant promises formerly extended exclusively to Israel are now offered to the gentiles as well. Though some in Israel (most as it ultimately turned out) do not accept Jesus as messiah, it does not follow that God has rejected Israel. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. Paul points out that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah has occasioned the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant promises. “A hardening,” says Paul, “has come over part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles come in.” Romans 11:25. I must confess that I don’t quite understand how Israel’s rejection of Jesus as messiah makes it any easier for the gentiles to believe. Nevertheless, Paul sees some connection here and, in any event, Israel’s salvation (which is assured) is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the gentiles. According to Paul, Israel and the church are both essential players in God’s redemptive purpose for creation.
With all of this in mind, let’s turn to our lesson for Sunday. Paul points out that “the law” speaks to those under the law so that every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. Vs. 19. Here it is essential to distinguish between “Torah” and “law” as Paul uses it. Torah was always understood and accepted by Israel as a gift. The commandments, even those governing the smallest details of dietary and hygienic practice, were not intended to be oppressive and controlling. They were designed to make every aspect of living, however humble and mundane, a reminder of the covenant through which Israel was privileged to be joined with her God. As such, observance of Torah was a joy, not a burden.
Nevertheless, when observance of Torah is misconstrued and understood not as a gift, but rather a means or method of pleasing God or winning God’s favor, it becomes a burden. The focus is no longer on God’s grace in giving the Torah, but upon my success in keeping it. When that happens, the gift of Torah becomes the curse of “law.” Law always accuses. Think about it: no matter how well you do on the exam, isn’t it usually the case that you come away feeling that you could have done just a little better? Try as we do to be good parents, I have never met one that didn’t feel he or she failed his or her children in some respect. How can you ever be sure that you have done enough? The fear of people in Luther’s day was that God would not be satisfied with their repentance, their confession of sin and their efforts to amend their lives. In a secular culture such as ours, we might not fear eternal damnation quite so much. But we find ourselves enslaved nonetheless to our fears of social rejection and anxiety over failure to meet societal standards of beauty and success. That is why we have young girls starving themselves to death because they cannot measure up to what teen magazines tell them is beautiful. It is also why men become depressed, violent and prone to addiction during prolonged periods of unemployment-a real man earns his own living and pays his own way. We may be a good deal less religious than we were in Luther’s day, but we are no less in bondage to “law.”
Verse 21 contains one of the most critical “buts” in the Bible. “But now,” Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” So just as all are judged guilty under the law, so all are justified by God through Jesus Christ as a gift. Henceforth, being right with God is no longer a goal to be achieved through obedience to rules of one kind or another. It is a gift promised by God. Our obedience is no longer an onerous effort to win God’s favor but a thankful response to the favor God freely gives us. That is as true for Jews as it is for Gentiles as Paul will go on to point out in Romans 4. Abraham, after all, was called and responded in faith while he was still essentially a gentile, being uncircumcised and without the Law of Moses. Jews are therefore children of promise who owe their status as God’s people to God’s free election. They did not earn their covenant status through obedience to the law and therefore have no grounds to exclude the gentiles from God’s call to them through Jesus into that same covenant relationship. Importantly, Paul makes the converse argument in Romans 9-11, namely, that gentiles are in no position to judge or exclude the Jews from covenant grace, not even those who do not believe in Jesus. Their status as covenant people does not rest on their obedience or disobedience, but on God’s irrevocable call.
Our reading is part of a much larger exchange beginning at John 7:1 where Jesus declines his brothers’ invitation to accompany them to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, but later comes on his own slipping into Jerusalem unnoticed. John 7:1-13. In the midst of the feast, Jesus goes up to the Temple and begins teaching the people. At first, the people do not seem to recognize Jesus. They can see that he is a common person of the type usually untrained in the finer points of Torah. But there is no question that Jesus is, in fact, learned in the law and they marvel at his teaching. When it becomes clear that this strange man is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the chief priests send officers to arrest him. But instead of bringing Jesus in and booking him, they return amazed and overawed by what they have heard. Exasperated, the chief priests ask the officers why they have not arrested Jesus as ordered. They can only reply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. The chief priests then vilify the officers and the crowds, cursing them for their ignorance of the law. But Nicodemus, a member of the council, cautions the chief priests against pre-judging Jesus’ case before hearing him-only to be rebuffed. (We meet Nicodemus early on in John’s gospel at chapter 3 when he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. John 3:1-21. We will meet Nicodemus again following Jesus’ crucifixion as he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus. John 19:38-42).
The narrative is interrupted by the story of the woman caught in adultery, a story that probably was not originally part of John’s gospel. John 8:1-11. Then Jesus’ discourse begun at the last day of the feast picks up where it left off in John 7:37 ff. Though the opposition continues, Jesus is gaining some support. We read that as he spoke, many believed in him. John 8:30. But success is short lived. Our reading picks up just where Jesus turns his focus upon these new believing supporters and tells them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Vss. 31-33. Clearly, this remark rubbed them the wrong way. “Just what do you mean by that? We are Abraham’s descendants and we have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you promise to set us free?” Vs. 33. Jesus’ newfound supporters appear to be experiencing a “senior moment.” Have they really forgotten the four hundred years their ancestors spent as slaves in Egypt? Have the forgotten the Babylonian Exile? Israel has in fact known bondage under the whip of foreign masters and beneath the tyranny of many of her own leaders. But the greatest tyrant is not Egypt or Babylonia or Rome. The greatest bondage is slavery to sin.
John speaks of sin almost exclusively in connection with each person’s response to Jesus. It is not that people are sinless before they encounter Jesus. Rather, their encounter with Jesus reveals their sin and confronts them with the choice of remaining in sin or being set free from sin. It is precisely because Jesus’ opponents both see and claim to understand him that their guilt is established. John 9:39-41. To know and be set free by the truth is to know Jesus. This knowledge does not consist of propositions about Jesus. To know the truth about Jesus is to know Jesus-just as you know a loved one. That sort of knowledge requires the cultivation of a relationship that grows over time and, as all of us who experience friendship know, is never fully complete. We are always learning more about the people we love and think we know so well. How much more so with Jesus, whose life is the eternal life of the Father?
I believe much of our catechetical practice in the Lutheran Church has been warped by a misunderstanding of what it means to know and to teach the truth. We have modeled our Christian education programs along the lines of public schools. Sunday school involves teaching kids stories and rudimentary doctrines about Jesus. Confirmation consists in teaching Luther’s Catechism as a set of propositions that must be publicly affirmed by middle school aged kids who are just beginning to test and question what is true and believable. That, however, is not how Jesus taught his disciples. Rather than inviting them to come to his seminars, he called them to become fishers for people. He taught them by involving them in his ministry, sharing his meals with them and taking them with him on the road. By contrast, we confirm kids in the spring time (when graduation commencements occur) and very often figure that we have done our job. Once kids have been taught the truth and when they are old enough, we can include them in the church’s ministry. Trouble is, when that time finally comes, they are already long gone. And why not? They got whatever truth they needed to get in the system. The rest is just a refresher course and who needs one of those every single week?
In sum, we have not done a very good job of teaching people who have come through our congregations that discipleship, not membership, is the end point; that discipleship is growing intimacy with Jesus, not just a boat load of facts about him. Perhaps the next reformation can address this shortcoming.