Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 46 | Romans 3:19-28 | John 8:31-36
So, when I was growing up in the Lutheran church in Des Moines, Iowa it was like this: Reformation Sunday was a big deal. Reformation Sunday was a day for pulling out all the stops. My dad, the church musician, made sure there was a lot of brass and timpani and festival settings of the liturgy so that you would know what a big deal Reformation Sunday was. Kids got confirmed on Reformation Sunday, as if to make the point that they were being confirmed Lutheran (as opposed to just being confirmed Christians, as an affirmation of their baptism). Preachers preached about the abuses of the Roman Catholic church on Reformation Sunday, to make sure we understood that we weren’t like them.
Reformation Sunday was like the Lutheran Fourth of July, the Lutheran Bastille Day, the Lutheran Cinco de Mayo. Reformation Sunday was the Lutheran Juneteenth, the Lutheran Passover, the Lutheran Pride. Looking back I’m almost surprised we didn’t have a Reformation Day parade. I’m sure we would’ve if we all hadn’t been so, well, Lutheran.
The point is, when I was growing up Reformation Sunday was a big Lutheran-fest filled with undertones of almost nationalistic pride. It was identity politics from the pulpit. No matter what was said, it was hard not to get the impression that we were celebrating not only our heritage, but the “rightness” of our heritage. Our heritage over and against the experiences of Christianity found in other Protestant churches; but even more, our heritage over and against the Roman Catholic tradition.
Certain things had to happen to make it Reformation Sunday. People had to wear red, to signify the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Martin Luther and the community that sprung up around him. You had to say “justified by grace through faith” at least three times. But, chief among the things that had to happen, we had to sing, “A Mighty Fortress,” as we’ve just done.
No strength of ours can match his might! We would be lost, rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight,whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he!
Christ Jesus, mighty Lord,God’s only Son, adored. He holds the field victorious.
If Reformation Sunday was the Lutheran Fourth of July, then “A Mighty Fortress” was the Lutheran “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was our national anthem. To sing it was to be filled with pride. We sang it with the gusto generally reserved for ball parks and stadiums, as if when we sang, “he holds the field victorious” we meant that he was pushing other faiths back behind the line of scrimmage.
The point is, it was all so familiar. There was a ritual and an expectation to Reformation Sunday. It was comfortable and familiar, and it generally affirmed us in our thinking. In other words, it was nothing at all like the early Lutheran church. For the early Lutherans, coming together for worship couldn’t have been comfortable or familiar. The church in Rome was not only the center of religious authority, but also the guardians of truth.
Do you remember the story of Galileo Galilei, the Italian physicist, mathematician and astronomer who challenged the church’s teachings by positing that the universe rotated around the sun and not the earth? He was tried for heresy, as though he had launched an assault on the authority of scripture, when he was just trying to understand the truth about how the earth is related to the sun and the other planets that move through the sky. But the Roman church considered itself to the be the keeper of truth, and used scriptures and an early form of biblical literalism as the basis for what they taught.
Well, Galileo’s trial for heresy took place over a hundred years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517. In Luther’s day the power and authority of the church was that much more consolidated. To take part in the revolution that was the Protestant Reformation would have been exciting, but also unnerving. It meant that you were setting yourself against the established keepers of the truth. It was not comfortable and familiar. It would have been nerve-wracking, even terrifying. It was to and for people who were challenging the established norms that Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress,” people who needed reassurance that they would be kept safe through the turbulence of the Reformation, because they had no way of knowing.
From this side of history we can look back on what happened in the 16th century and call it the Reformation. We can celebrate its profound effect on religion, politics, worship and democracy. But while it was happening people had no idea how it would all turn out, it was a massive experiment, a movement, but who could have known where it would all lead? Historians named it “the Reformation,” in the moment it was just chaos and upheaval.
In the moment Luther was speaking to the complacent, self-assured voices of the Roman church the way Jesus spoke to the Jews who were following him when he said, “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Jesus was reminding members of the community he came out of that they were God’s chosen people because God had chosen them, not because of anything they’d done to be chosen. God had rescued them from the slavery of Egypt, but they had forgotten that part of their history. So they answer him, “we are descendents of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘you will be made free?’”
Luther was reminding members of the community he came out of (he was, after all, an Augustinian monk) that they were God’s chosen people because God had chosen them, though to make the point he used the language of justification he’d learned from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans,
For there is no distinction, 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.
Not only were they God’s chosen people through no merit of their own, but they were God’s chosen people in the way that all people are God’s chosen people. As the prophet Jeremiah put it,
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
But there appears to be some impulse in the human spirit that cannot remember that we all belong to God (and to one another) by grace, as a gift from God, because of who God is – namely the one that is always bringing us out of the narrow places of thinking and living and organizing our communities, and into the promised lands of freedom.
So somewhere between 1517, when Luther nailed his talking points up on the door and 1987, when I was a young American Lutheran belting out “A Mighty Fortress,” the church had managed to work its way back to that point of forgetfulness again. A couple of times actually, since this cycle is always going on. We Lutherans were like the Jews Jesus addressed, like the Roman church that Luther addressed. We thought we had all the answers. We thought we had the truth. We had turned being right about church into a thin substitute for being made righteous by God.
We are living in a period of
social and religious upheaval that I suspect will end up with a name like “the Reformation” when historians look back at our era five hundred years from now. All the old certainties, all the old truths seem to be giving way to new understandings of faith, spirituality, community and religion. People are breaking away from established patterns of worship, and even from the pattern of worshipping at all. For some of us it looks like heresy, for others it looks like liberation. We don’t know how it will all shake out, but if we look at the pattern described by scripture and by history we can make some guesses.
God seems to move on the side of history that favors people over policies, love over laws. God generally finds a way to use us fragile, wayward people to communicate a message of freedom much larger than the truths we invent for ourselves and cling to. When we create structures too rigid to communicate that message, God reforms us – gives us a new form, a new shape, a new structure that is large enough to keep pushing us toward people, love, freedom – each other.
Listen to the hymns we’re singing today. All written by Lutherans, most by Luther himself. They sound strange to our ears. They don’t sound like the songs we sing anymore. That’s good to remember. The Reformation is ongoing. It didn’t start with we Lutherans and it doesn’t end with us. Today we mark the piece of the story that has our name on it, but our chapter is only one in a book that starts with God’s forming and reforming love in the act of creating the world and everything in it; and that ends with all of the creation being gathered up and adopted into God’s reign. Everybody in, nobody out.
In the name of Jesus,