Sunday, October 25, 2020
Today we observe Reformation Sunday. It is the Sunday in October closest to October 31st when Martin Luther, in 1517, nailed the 95 theses (or issues that he had with the Roman Catholic Church at the time) to the Church door in Wittenburg, Germany. This act ostensibly began what we know as the Reformation. Luther and other reformers challenged the teaching and doctrine of the powerful Roman Catholic Church. Much like many movements in history, the Reformation was made possible, in part, because of technology. Primarily for Luther and the other reformers, this technology was Gutenburg’s printing press. It allowed for mass production and distribution of ideas that challenged the Holy Roman Empire and led to the alphabet soup of reform churches that we know today (e.g. PCUSA, ECUSA, ELCA, UBS, UMCUS, UCC, NAUCCC, ABCUSA). (Similarly, one can argue that the technology that we have at our fingertips today is catapulting us toward a re-formation of how we live, work, and even understand ourselves and life together.)
Ironically, Luther’s break with the Roman Catholic Church created an understanding of our humanity that we take for granted today but was rather radical in its inception. Luther re-discovered the teachings of the Apostle Paul who wrote extensively to communities in the first century. Paul’s insight rephrased in our Gospel text for today is, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” There are two important points implied in this exhortation. One is that we cannot make ourselves free. Try as we might, we cannot save ourselves. This is captured classically in Paul’s famous writing in Romans, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” As humans, we are imperfect. Beautiful. But imperfect. The second, and more important, point is that the Greek phrasing in John’s gospel can be read, “If the Son makes you free--and he has--you will be free indeed.” The Son makes you free. And the Son has already made you free.
Thus, for Luther, the selling of indulgences to buy one’s way into heaven made no sense. The scaffolding of the Roman Catholic church around novenas and Hail Marys also were unnecessary, for they perpetuated a belief that if we did just enough, we could save ourselves. Luther, however, stumbled into grace. There is nothing that we can do. And more to the point, there is nothing that we need to do. What needs to be done has already been done by God in Christ. God’s love poured out wholly and fully for us in Jesus’ life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection is all that is needed. As one professor famously quipped, “The question with Luther is, ‘What are you going to do now that you don’t have to do anything?’” What are you going to do now that you don’t have to do anything? This is a radical reorienting of our sense of the world, our place in it, and our connection to others. We aren’t in a zero-sum game, with some winning and others losing. We are in a win-win game. God claims us, loves us, and that is what should undergird our action in the world, not seeking to claim some divine brownie points.
However, the question of what do you do now that you don’t have to do anything can be downright scary. What do you mean I don’t have to do anything? Wait a minute, if you live by that logic, there will be anarchy. People will go crazy doing whatever they want! Of course, such an understanding, misses the point of grace and what has been given to us. When we no longer must save ourselves, we are freed to actually live. When we no longer struggle under the burden of trying to be perfect, we are freed to live more fully into who God has created us to be. When we stop abiding by the rule that you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, we see more clearly how we are connected one to another. That’s how love works. Love doesn’t make requirements of us before we can be loved. Love doesn’t make us jump through hoops before we are acceptable. Love simply and graciously embraces us wherever and whenever we are. When we have been truly loved, we know this. And such a promise of unconditional divine love is the insight that Luther recaptured. Thus, we are freed to live.
For freedom, Christ has set us free. Thus, begins a chapter in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He exhorts the community in Galatia to live into the promise and freedom of what God has done in Christ and to turn their backs on trying to save themselves. When we hear these words today, I suspect that we have a very different conception of what freedom means than did the Apostle Paul, especially as individuals influenced by, ironically, Luther’s Reformation. Faith, because of Luther’s work, became an individual concept. Along with this, a catalog of personal freedoms emerged from the Enlightenment that followed shortly after the Reformation. All were important and good improvements to how we understand life and the rights of each of us. However, marinated in a culture of individualism and personal liberty as the highest form of freedom, you can imagine that we have strayed from what Paul meant by freedom. We live in the strange paradox of those demanding their freedom to bear arms, to shun masks, and to keep what they earn while what Paul saw as freedom had everything to do with how we treated one another. Indeed, freedom for Paul was defined by our commitment and care of one another. In a simplistic way, many see freedom today as freedom from something. Freedom from taxation. Freedom from rules that impinge upon us. Freedom from limits on self-expression. Yet, Paul saw freedom as freedom for something. Freedom for caring for others. Freedom for helping others. Freedom for supporting each other. Indeed, just a few verses later in his letter to the Galatians, Paul confirms this, “The only thing that counts,” he says, “is faith expressing itself through love.” Or, as the text assigned for this Sunday were we not observing Reformation Sunday counsels, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Our calling, therefore, in life is not to get as much as we can, because we can, and it is a sign of freedom. Rather, our calling in life is to love as deeply as we are loved and live out of that freedom. The heart of the Reformation is the understanding that God loves us completely, fully, and forever. Liberated with that knowledge, we are free to utilize the gifts that we have been given to make our way in life, and also share these gifts for the upbuilding of our community. We are freed to give out of the abundance that we have received, so that the burden of others may be lifted. We are freed to offer ourselves, as Christ offered himself, so that life may be realized by any and all who are compromised. We are freed to live, but not in an isolating way. We are freed to live in the community of God that ushers us into fuller communion with each other.