This man is revolting. He is rotten, inside and out. He is toxic, and whatever he’s got, it is spreading. It spreads from person to person, and if we’re not careful it will consume our whole nation. There is a place for folks like him, and it’s not among decent people. If it were up to me we’d send him somewhere we’d never have to see him again.
But somehow he’s still here. Despite the obvious rot, he is still treated as though he is a person of substance, a person deserving our attention and respect. Why is that? How is it that this man believes there to be one set of rules to govern the majority of people and a different set of rules that apply to him? Is it because he is wealthy? Is it because people are afraid of him, because of his history of combativeness? Is it because his exploits have made other people rich? Is it because he enjoys the favor of the ruling establishment, because he has the endorsement of the nation’s elites? Is that why he thinks he plays by different rules?
You know who I’m talking about, right? His reputation precedes him. He’s the kind of public figure who needs no more than a single name.
He is Naaman.
By 1530 it had been more than a decade since Luther had presented his 95 theses and launched the Protestant Reformation. Families, cities, and nations were deeply divided and the rhetoric used by each side to describe the other was so inflammatory it might actually make us feel better about our present electoral embarrassments. Writing against the Roman papacy Luther once remarked,
“You are desperate, thorough arch-rascals, murderers, traitors, liars, the very scum of all the most evil people on earth. You are full of all the worst devils in hell — full, full, and so full that you can do nothing but vomit, throw, and blow out devils!”
And you thought “basket of deplorables” was rough? Luther had all the best words. Though Paul still advises us to avoid “wrangling” over them. (2 Tim. 2:14)
In 1530 the Lutherans were tasked with doing more than railing against all they did not agree with and could not support, but to make a positive statement of faith which became one of the most important documents of the entire Reformation, the Augsburg Confession. In it, Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and other early theologians of the Lutheran reform movement found new words to share the good news of the free gift of God’s love, justice, mercy, and liberation. Describing what we have come to know as the doctrine of justification, the Augsburg Confession says,
“It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our own merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.” (AC IV)
Later, because we have such a hard time believing that our standing before God has everything to do with God’s grace and nothing to do with our goodness, the Lutherans had to write an explanation and defense of all they’d written in the Augsburg Confession, so they expanded their explanation of justification:
“Reconciliation does not depend upon our merits. But if the forgiveness of sins depended upon our merits and reconciliation were by the law, it would be useless. For since we do not keep the law, it would also follow that the promise of reconciliation would never apply to us … For if the promise required the law and condition of our own merits, it would follow that the promise is useless since we never keep the law.” (Apol IV.42)
Still, God does not simply meet us where we are — God graciously changes us, though in practice it can feel like anything but a gift. For Naaman, change came in accepting that he was no better than any other of God’s own people. There was no special water reserved for people like him. There was no elite baptism. God’s love and God’s justice are strong enough that they do not fail to encompass even a narcissistic, belligerent fellow like Naaman; but God’s love and God’s justice do change Naaman who, in the end, takes his place among all God’s ordinary saints, proclaiming that there is no God in all the earth but the one who met Israel in the waters of liberation from slavery, who met them in the crossing of the Jordan as they entered into a promised land, the same God who meets us at the font.
If the story of Naaman is just a story about how God works through ordinary water to heal and restore people to fullness of life, I can accept it. It’s a miracle story from Hebrew scripture that prefigures the Christian sacrament of baptism, so let’s just sing “All Are Welcome” and continue feeling good about ourselves. And if the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is just a bit of Reformation history, passed down through the generations for confirmands to memorize, then I can manage it. It’s one more bit of theology in one more book on one more shelf to be referenced in one more sermon.
But this story and our history is more than that.
The story of Naaman is the voice of our ancestors telling us that there will always be rotten bullies spreading their illness, getting preferential treatment, enjoying the spoils of war and the approval of the nation. Still, God meets them in the water. The power of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is that it tells the truth about me. That too often I believe I have earned my place in this world when in reality my successes are the products of a wide set of factors, many of which I have no control over and for which I can claim no credit: my race, my gender, my class, my nationality.
Even more fundamentally, the doctrine of justification reminds me that I am not a good person. I am filled with anger at others but minimize my own failures. I set goals and intentions for myself that I am not able to keep. I delight in the public embarrassments of those I consider hypocrites and pray that my own hypocrisies will remain hidden. I judge people. I judge them over important things and over petty things. But if I stood before God’s judgment, as I do, as we all do, I would come up lacking. When we stand before God’s judgment, we come up lacking. We are rotten. And still, God meets us in the water.
Our stories and our histories, our confessions and our doctrines, are not abstractions for us to agree or disagree with, they are our attempts to describe reality as we have experienced it in our skin. As we begin this 4-week series looking at the legacy of the Lutheran Reformation at the start of the global observance of its 500th anniversary, we are reminded that our history as a movement within Christianity includes the fact that we were born at a moment no less political, no less violent, no less corrupt, no less horrifying than the one we’re currently in. This week’s outrageous statements shock us, but they should not surprise us. Honestly, we’ve all heard worse. The depth of the divide in our nation scares us, but it should not defeat us. Our nation has been through worse, more than once, and so has the Church. If these recurring atrocities of human nature should convince us of anything, it is that human nature is inherently atrocious.
Therefore, it is a gift when we remember that Christ did not come to reward the righteous, but to save sinners. God did not come looking for perfection, but offering salvation. The Holy Spirit who breathed life into us as the first of many gifts comes to us over and over and over again to heal us, to justify us, to liberate us, to forgive us, to save us. What else can we say in response to such grace, such divine generosity, so many gifts, but “Thank you!”