Reformation Sunday Sermon (2003)

Reformation Sunday
Texts: Romans 3:19-28;
John 8:31-36; Jer. 31:31-34

RE-FORMING OUR FAITH IN GOD

Last Sunday (Proper 24B) we opened a can of worms that we are not going to be able to get back into the can. We took a look at the standard atonement theory that is still taught across the church. The doctrine of atonement is basically the meaning of the cross of Jesus, that is to say, of how it is that Jesus reconciles us with God. See if this standard version of atonement sounds familiar: God is a just and punishing God whose wrath would consume us because of our sins if Jesus didn’t step in and pay the price for us. In the terms of last week’s Gospel Lesson we said that Jesus came to ransom us from God’s wrath, to die in our places, taking God’s punishment for sins.

But we challenged that version of atonement, primarily because Jesus himself told us plainly the meaning of the cross. Over and over, Jesus told his disciples that he was going to give himself into human hands, not God’s hands. We are the ones who killed him. We are the ones who hold the ransom on ourselves in terms of the punishments we constantly dish out to each other. We are the ones with the problem of wrath and violence. We constantly wreak vengeance against one another and call it just punishment. God sent Jesus into the world to show us precisely that we are the ones who have the problem with wrath and violence, not God. Jesus gave himself up into human hands to make that clear. And the depth of our sin is so great that two thousand years later it still isn’t clear to us. We continue to teach atonement theories that place the problem back on God, teaching that Jesus came to save us from God’s wrath and violence. So I maintain that the Church is still desperately in need of Reformation. Luther gave it a valiant effort, but our sin is even greater.

Perhaps, though, you are not quite convinced. You might remind me, “But what about all those passages in the Bible that speak about God’s wrath. It’s the Bible that says God is wrathful and punishing, not just us, right?” That certainly seems to be true and may be part of the problem. But Jesus came to help us, among other things, to properly understand the Bible. On Easter evening, for example, there’s the wonderful story of Jesus was walking along the road to Emmaus with two disciples, who don’t even recognize him. Jesus is talking to them, and, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” Luke writes, “Jesus interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).

I submit to you that one of the things Jesus had to reinterpret for them is this idea of God’s wrath. Because that’s precisely what St. Paul is all about in his letter to the Romans. It was the letter that changed Martin Luther’s life and sparked the Reformation. But we need to fulfill the Reformation by seeing what even Luther failed to see. St. Paul in Romans talks to us about finally seeing God’s righteousness through Jesus Christ, which I’m convinced has precisely to do with understanding this issue of God’s wrath. We’ve said here this morning that Jesus came to finally show us that it is our wrath and violence which creates the problem. Here’s my proof, in the handout titled “A Re-Formation of Faith.” This short Bible Study is maybe the most important one I know, since it helps us to finally get it. (1) We can understand all those bible passages about God’s wrath because St. Paul leads the way for us.

What I’ve done is pull out all the instances of the word “wrath” in Paul’s Letter to the Romans:

  • Notice, first, how God’s wrath comes up right away in 1:18 as a theme in this letter.
  • But he will immediately begin to work a transformation of this idea; 1:24 is an example. Three times over the next several verses Paul will tell us how God’s wrath can be interpreted as simply a ‘giving us up’ to the consequences of our own actions. It’s the same word that Jesus uses for talking about giving himself up to their leaders that he might be put to death on the cross.
  • Here’s the rub of this idea of God’s wrath as giving us up to the consequences of our own idolatry: we are the ones who treat each other wrathfully. We are the ones who hurt each other and do violence to one another. Jesus gave himself up to that, without responding in wrath himself, in order to show us that the God of love and life is more powerful than the worst of our wrath. Jesus shows us God’s righteousness revealed in the cross (Rom. 3:22ff.), and it’s totally different from that idea of righteous violence we generally operate under in order to justify our own violence, our own wrath, turned against each other.
  • Sure enough, after Romans 1:18, St. Paul even quits calling it “God’s wrath”; he simply refers to it as “wrath” throughout the rest of Romans. In other words, it’s exactly what I’ve been saying: God hands us over to our wrath. It’s our wrath that will someday make for a day of wrath, a day when our violence will come to roost.
  • There’s one other verse, 3:18, where God is connected with inflicting wrath, but notice what Paul says after it: “I speak in a human way.” (Paul’s parentheses, not mine.) In other words, he’s telling us point blank that thinking in terms of God inflicting wrath is our human way to think!
  • But we still persist in thinking in human ways. Notice Romans 5:9 and 12:19. I’ve put the words “of God” in brackets in these two verses because the translators have inserted these words “of God” in the translation where Paul left them out in the original Greek. Paul is trying to re-work the notion of God’s wrath into one of turning us over to the consequences of our wrath. And we still won’t let him! We still read the wrath as “of God” even when Paul doesn’t say it! That’s our deep our sin of idolatry runs. As Jesus says in our Gospel Lesson, we are slaves to sin, until the Son makes us free.

Here’s the rub of all this: When we get it straight about God’s wrath — as not really a wrath at all, but instead as a suffering mercy that hands us over to the consequences of our wrath against each other — then Luther’s main point also becomes more clear: It’s not God’s wrath threatening us that straightens us out. Rather, it’s God’s merciful forgiveness that puts us straight as a free gift. God’s righteousness — in other words, who God truly is — is revealed apart from the law, apart from the need to punish, or threaten with punishments. The only thing that really has the power to change our hearts is God’s mercy.

Let me finish with another of my favorite stories, from my favorite storyteller, Lutheran pastor and writer, Walter Wangerin, Jr. (2) It would probably be easiest if you simply let me tell his story in his place in first person:

Three times I tried to get my son Matthew not to steal comic books! This is the truth! I’m not sure why, but my son started this comic book collection. And when he couldn’t get them fast enough by buying them, well, he then began stealing them. I tried three different efforts to get Matthew to stop stealing comic books. Matthew! My dear son! My hungry son! Who collects whatever he collects … in the thousands! I tried my best to change him. Three times I used the old law; three times I was the fool.

The first time I found out that Matthew was stealing he had stolen from a public library. So I figured: shame the kid! I called up the librarian and said, “Look, I’m bringing the kid back, and he’s going to return the comic books which he stole from you. Would you please kind of — chastise him?” I thought that the Lord would look down upon Matthew and that he would feel very uncomfortable when the librarian chastised him. So Matthew came in, put the comics in front of her, and said his piece. And she said, “Matthew, Matthew.” (She was very good. She’s an excellent librarian!) “Do you know what you have done,” she said, steel-eyeing him. “You’ll never do that again, right?”

The second time I caught him stealing comic books, I tried a different tact. I used the Word of God, the seventh commandment. I didn’t know if he knew it well enough, so I shook my head and sighed a whole lot, and repeated all the commandments for him. And then for good measure I burned all of his comic books … one at a time. I thought that this disciplinary action was sure to change Matthew. “He’ll never steal comic books again,” I thought. “Look at this conflagration, doesn’t it remind you of hell?”

The third time Matthew stole comic books was while I was teaching at Seminex in St. Louis. While we were staying there, Matthew went around the corner and stole some comic books from a store. Well, that seemed more desperate then ever to me, because I was teaching the Word of God, and my son was stealing comic books!

So this is what I finally decided to do. I took Matthew into my study, and I spanked him. I laid him over my knees, as you do. I decided I should feel what he felt and use my bare hands right on Matthew’s bottom. I told him why I was doing it: that in this position he really left me no other choice. I had to spank him.

The first swat that came down on his bottom came hard. And when it did, I felt his entire body stiffen. And I don’t know why, People, but it was that stiffening that pierced me to the heart. It was that stiffening that made me breakdown on the inside. And I think I gave him maybe four or five good, solid swacks on his butt after that. ‘Cause he was so stiff. He was a board. My son was a board on my knees. And as soon as I was done, I left the room. I went out to where our piano is … in the hall, and I burst into tears. And blessed Thanne, my wife, she came over to comfort me, with her arms around me. Well, I cried at the thing I had done, and then I went back into the room.

Now, this is fortuitous, because I tell you the truth: A number of months later, while the family was driving in the car: out of nowhere, Matthew says to me, “Dad, do you know why I stopped stealing comic books?” (And he had stopped!) I said, “Yea, I finally spanked you.” He said, “What!” And he looked at me. He said, “No…. It’s because you cried….”

God’s righteousness is revealed apart from the law. The old law may shame us, and the old law may restrain us, and the old law may blame us, but it cannot change us. But at the foot of the cross, it is God’s merciful forgiveness which can change us. Almost five hundred years after the Reformation began, let us pray that Christ’s Church is Re-formed in faith, hope, and love. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Kenosha, WI, October 26, 2003

Notes

1. In saying that others have not fully realized what St. Paul is about in Romans with the “wrath of God,” I cannot say for sure that others haven’t stumbled upon the following insights. But I have only run across them, in such a concise reading, among Girardian scholars: Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 100-103; James Alison, Raising Abel, pp.46-47, and The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 126-128.

2. This telling of the story is based primarily on several times of hearing Pastor Wangerin tell it in person (once made available on audio tape). For a written version, see The Manger Is Empty, “Matthew at Seven, Eight, and Nine.”

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