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 happen.
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
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 Why 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.