Texts: Romans 3:19-28;
John 8:31-36; Jer. 31:31-34
CELEBRATING THE VICTORY OF FAITH
Being a big Tiger fan, I've really noticed the way baseball teams
celebrate after big wins. In a locker room entirely covered in
plastic, players don goggles to protect their eyes and commence
spraying everything and everyone with champagne. The Tigers have
done this three times already: after winning their division, after
winning the divisional playoffs against Oakland, and after sweeping
the vaunted Yankees for the American League pennant. I'm hoping for
one more big celebration as World Champions, but with the Tigers
down three games it will take a miracle. What I'd love to see is the
locker room attendant prepare the San Francisco Giants locker room
for the next four games in a row and have to tear it down without
using it for a celebration! [This opening paragraph can be worked
into a Children's Sermon, using pictures of celebrations.]
A week from Tuesday there'll be Election Night parties all over the
country. Followers of hundreds of candidates will be prepared to
celebrate a victory as they watch election returns. Some will end up
celebrating! But some will end-up commiserating over their
candidate's loss and, perhaps trying not to fear the worst, begin to
hope for the best in supporting the person who did win.
Each Sunday we gather as disciples of Jesus to celebrate a victory
that began two thousand years ago on Easter morning. But as we look
around us at a broken and troubled world, still with so much
suffering, we sometimes wonder exactly what we are celebrating. The
biggest challenge right from the start was highlighting the cross
which looks much more like a loss, not a victory. This has been the
challenge throughout the first two millennia of Christianity. How do
we understand something that looks like a loss as instead a victory?
Here at PoP we've been trying to understand the original way of
celebrating the victory, the way in which Jesus and the Apostles
understood that victory. We've been wondering out-loud about the
recent centuries of Christianity as being off-track by making it a
victory primarily for the after-life. Yes, there is an element of
victory for us when we die. Christ did defeat the powers of death.
But there's a growing voice in the church telling us that making
that the centerpiece of the victory is not most true to what Jesus
and the Apostles were celebrating. They were celebrating a whole new
start on creation and, with it, a whole new way of being human.
This morning, as we celebrate Reformation Day, I'd like to put the
matter more boldly. Our celebration of the Reformation has become
more like the baseball locker room covered in plastic to protect
everything from sparkling juice that's not flowing. It's
more like the Election Night party where we need to commiserate with
one another over a victory that hasn't yet come. Five hundred years
ago, the church had definitely drifted away from the apostolic
understanding of the victory that began on Easter. Luther and the
Reformers thought they had isolated the problem with a new emphasis
on grace. And, again, I want to say, 'Yes, the emphasis on grace is
a big step forward. It's why I've loved being Lutheran all my life.'
But for nearly five hundred years Protestants have celebrated
a victory, thinking that we have gotten back to the Apostolic
understanding. And this morning I'm reporting to you that many
across the church have been casting that victory seriously in doubt.
The change that most needed to happen five hundred years ago did not
What was that change we missed? Ask our twenty-something generation.
They can tell us, as they explain to us why they're no longer in
church. In a recent newspaper article about why the younger
generations are leaving church, two college students explained, "We
grew up in the church. We're still followers of Christ, but we're
not attending church any more. We can't find a church that doesn't
load a bunch of extra baggage on us. We tried, but they all had this
long list of people we had to be against. It's just not worth it." (1)
When I asked our confirmands last week about issues that concern
them, the first answer was the growing gap between rich and poor.
And more immediate to their daily lives are the cliques in high
school and bullying. In short, they are concerned about the ways we
human beings are broken and divided.
And so, in a world torn apart by conflict, our young people see
religion as part of the problem and not part of the solution. We
have long lists of people to be against. The victory we needed at
the Reformation was not for true religion to win out over false
religion, which is how we've seen it for five hundred years. Rather,
for a true Reformation we need to see that religion itself is part
of the problem. Religion itself is in need of redemption from the
powers of sin that divide us. The new creation Jesus came to
inaugurate is for humans to lead the way for a harmonious creation,
by ourselves living into being one human family. Anything short of
that is short of the victory Christ won on the cross. To the extent
that religion continues to be another thing that divides the human
family rather than unites us, religion is in need of saving, too.
I think it's exactly what people are getting at when they say, "I'm
not religious, but I'm spiritual." They're seeking to express that
we need to get beyond the divisions of religion to a spiritual
relationship with the God of Oneness who can then make humanity One.
That's what Jesus died for -- not to give us a new religion. He came
to get us beyond religion so we can be reconciled with one
another because we are reconciled and unified with God. In a renewed
relationship with the God who forgives us, we stand on faithfulness
-- not religion.
The victory we celebrate here each week began when Jesus let himself
be cursed by both the Jewish and Roman religions, which were the
foundations for their law. On Easter morning God raised Jesus with a
resounding "Not Guilty!", an overturning of all human law and
religion, which had succumbed to the powers of sin to divide us. And
in Jesus' way of peace and justice, his way of love and forgiveness,
we now have a way forward, too, by which we can finally live into
being one human family.
Faith. St. Paul named this victory as faith. Not in the sense of
certain things we believe, but in the sense of faithful
relationships. Jesus himself lived a life quintessentially faithful
to God, in a way of peace that helped him to live faithfully caring
for and serving with others. Through his Spirit unleashed on Easter,
you and I are able to live more faithfully as God's children and in
faithfulness to each other. Faith, as in faithful relationships,
that's what the victory is about.
Does sin still threaten that victory? Yes! In fact, the main point
in Romans for Paul is that sin even threatens our good institutions
like religion, in at least two ways. First, in making us fully aware
of sin it ironically leads us deeper into the sin of judging others.
We too easily think it gives us the basis for judging someone else's
sin. Against this tendency, St. Paul reminds us that we all have
sinned and fall short of God's glory. We can support one another in
struggling against sin, but not by judging others. Let's each judge
where our own sin separates us from others, and come to
one another for support, faithful to the oneness of God and our
oneness under God. Would it help to understand what Paul is talking
about by mentioning Alcoholics Anonymous? Alcoholics knew only the
condemnation of others in the church to the point of needing to form
their own faith communities where they could help one another with
encouragement, guidance, and accountability, but not condemnation.
Do you get the flavor of the difference? Our churches need to become
faith communities of Sinners Anonymous.
And the second sin of religion is that it tends to form its identity
as hostile to other religions. This is the main theme of our book
study on Sunday mornings this fall, the hostility of our typical
Christian identity. (2) My reading of
Romans supports this theme. Paul saw religion as part of the
problem, too, as do many of today's younger generations. Religion
seems to always be another occasion for division instead of healing.
The Reformation did nothing to reverse this trend but instead has
arguably made it worse. It continues to play the game of posing true
religion vs. false religion. Paul in Romans is saying that it's not
about religion. (3) It's about a
relationship of faith to the God of Oneness who can restore and heal
our relationships with each other. It's about how to live in
faithful relationships with one another. [Addressing the
Confirmands:] It's about how to be good friends to each other . . .
about how to stand up to bullies on behalf of others. It's about
learning to be peacemakers.
What could be a model for such a community of peacemakers? Once
again, I would look to Gandhi, a Hindu, who gathered peacemakers
into what he called asrams, which we might call Beloved Communities.
He did not require that people convert religions, but rather that
they faithfully live as God's children, loving and supporting one
another. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and people of other faiths,
who nevertheless shared the basic faith in a God who makes us One.
To the extent that the church can be reformed in the ways we've just
outlined, we stand a better chance that these eight wonderful young
people being confirmed in their faith this morning will still be
part of a faith community ten years from now. Faith. Not so much in
the sense of believing certain things about Jesus, but in the sense
of faithfully following Jesus in lives of faithfully caring for one
another. That's the victory we celebrate each Sunday, the victory of
the God who is making us One. Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, October 28, 2012
Return to Reformation Day webpage.
1. Brian McLaren, "Why
We're Leaving Church: A Report From the Nones," a blog on
HuffingtonPost.com posted Oct. 16, 2012.
2. We were studying Brian McLaren's
Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?:
Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.
3. I believe this point is even clearer in
Ephesians 2 where the insight of grace is paired with the creation
of one new humanity out of two, and the coming down of walls of
hostility is accompanied by the abolishing of religion.