With arms wide open

File:Luther-Predigt-LC-WB.jpg

Watching for the Morning of October 28, 2018

Reformation Sunday

The name ‘Lutheran’ was originally a slur cast by Luther’s opponents against those who were persuaded by Luther’s profound insight into the scriptures and the central truth of Christian faith.

Perhaps some heard only a call for the reform of the church’s life. Perhaps some saw the possibility of personal advancement or enrichment. But I suspect these came later. In the beginning there was only a compelling explosiveness to Luther’s teaching that the favor of God is freely given not earned.

Their opponents called them ‘Lutherans’. The name implied they were something separate from the Christian community, followers of a heretical and sectarian leader rather than of Christ and Christ’s church. Luther insisted that ‘Christian’ was the correct term; they were followers of Christ. He also accepted the term ‘evangelisch’.

The German word ‘evangelisch’ translates as ‘evangelical’, from the Greek word for ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’. Though ‘evangelical’ has come to have a different meaning in the modern American context, it was powerful and accurate for Luther and his movement. They believed that God had revealed anew the ‘evangel’, the news of a victory won for us over sin, death and the devil. We are not soldiers on the moral battlefield of life; we are hostages rescued and set free. We do not have to become holy; Christ has enveloped us in his holiness. Where we see too well our sins and failings; God sees only the image of his beloved son with arms stretched wide.

Yes, wrapped in Christ, graced by God’s spirit, there is a path to follow, a new creation to be. But the favor of God does not depend on us but on Christ. We are free from rites and rituals thought to appease God so that we can be about those things that truly please God – loving and serving our neighbor.

The celebration of the Reformation on this coming Sunday is not about the Lutheran church or the protestant communion. It poses no cheers for ancient heroes or the teams that now bear their names. It speaks to us of this Gospel, this fundamental truth that lies at the heart of our life together: our hope is not in ourselves and our accomplishments, but in this God who forgives sins and raises the dead, not because we deserve it – for we surely do not – but because God delights to give.

Church bodies shaped by such an insight cannot be self-righteous or judgmental; they can only be communities with arms wide open and feet ready to walk with those in need.

The Prayer for October 28, 2018 (for Reformation Day)

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The texts for October 28, 2018 (assigned for Reformation Day)

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and the people at Sinai lies broken (what God’s people promised they have failed to do and kingship and temple have perished) God’s promise abides and God will establish a new covenant where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the 16th century reforming movement and subsequent Lutheran churches.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

Sunday we will also make use of the assigned Gospel for the Sunday from October 23 to October 29:

Appointed Gospel for Proper 25 B: Mark 10:46-52
“As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.” – Once again in Mark’s Gospel opening blind eyes follows an account of the disciples failing to understand Jesus and his mission.

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Follow these links for other posts on Reformation Sunday.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luther-Predigt-LC-WB.jpg Attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Like Christmas morning

Christmas Tree and gifts

Friday

Romans 3:19-28

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,

I was baptized in a Lutheran congregation as a child, in the church where my father had been raised. My mother was raised in a Lutheran congregation. Their parents were all from Scandinavia, so of course they belonged to Lutheran churches. I made my confirmation in a Lutheran church; I attended a Lutheran college; I went to a Lutheran Seminary. But it was in my fourth year of seminary that I became a Lutheran.

I was one of those students who would ask the provocative question. I was never content to take notes and regurgitate answers; I wanted to understand, to push through to the heart of the matter. So one day, when my required World Missions class had a guest speaker from the Lutheran Church in Thailand, I raised my hand and asked “Why do you, a person from (then) 20th century Thailand, identify with a 16th century German monk?”

Without being phased at all, he answered me: “I don’t identify with a 16th century German monk; I identify with his understanding of the Gospel.”

In that moment all the light bulbs went off and I became a Lutheran. The Lutheran expression of Christian faith isn’t about the culture of church music, hymns, coffee and potluck suppers. It is about an idea. One central, unshakeable idea: God has come to make us his own for no reason but his own goodness. God has come to give salvation as a gift. God has come to heal a broken world, forgive an indebted world, deliver a captive world, redeem a world in bondage. God is the physician who does not ask whether her patient is worthy of her ministrations; she simply works to save the life of the patient before her. God is the lifeguard who does not ask what kind of idiot swims out beyond their depth. God is the fireman rushing up the World Trade Center without asking if its safe; there are people to be rescued and a fire to be extinguished.

Lutherans call it grace. The official phrase the 16th century reformers used to summarize all this is: justification by grace through faith. We are brought into a right relationship with God by his free gift and favor, a relationship that is a relationship of faith, of trusting the gift that is given.

There are other things to talk about in Christian faith. What does it mean for us to live as sons and daughters of the Most High? What is our mission in the world? What does the scripture mean when it calls us to holiness of life? Lutherans can argue about all manner of things – and usually do: sexual ethics, capital punishment, worship and liturgy, gender neutral language, the authority of bishops, whether we should even call them bishops. But none of this defines us. What defines us – or should define us – is this idea of grace.   We defend that idea like a dog with a bone.

It’s not grace and works. It’s not grace and a certain spiritual experience. It’s not grace and a doctrine. It’s not grace and democracy or capitalism or liberalism or anything. It is just grace. Life is gift. Redemption is gift. Forgiveness is gift. The life of the age to come is a gift. It is not the only doctrine, but it is the font of all other doctrines.

Yes it’s a gift that is of no use unless you receive it. But the receiving of it is no credit to us. No one stands around on Christmas morning to say, “Oh, look how well you opened that gift!” They ooh and aah at the gift.

Sunday morning is, and should always be, a kind of Christmas morning, oohing and aahing at the gift.

And Christian life is living every day as Christmas day.

 

Photo: dkbonde