Reformation Sunday Sermon (2020)

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


Religion — The Solution, or the Heart of the Problem?
Do you have friends or family members — or perhaps you yourself — who say, “I’m spiritual but not religious”? Why do many people today want to distance themselves from being considered religious?

What would you say if I told you that I think St. Paul was trying to say something like this in today’s Second Reading? He’s saying that salvation must go “beyond religion” to “the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.” (Note: this sermon is based on my own translation of this text that I argue for at Reformation Day.) In other words, salvation is a matter of the spiritual relationship that Jesus had with God; it was a deep faithfulness that took him to the cross. Why?? Why would Paul say something like this?

In recent weeks, I’ve proposed to you that I think the most crucial sin Jesus came to save us from is our violence. And we need to understand that our violence is not just a person-to-person violence. Violence, since our human beginnings, has become embedded in our cultures and institutions. St. Paul understood this. He, in his former life, was the epitome of this. In his religious zeal for Jewish Torah he became a persecutor of his fellow Jews that had become followers of Jesus of Nazareth. That is until Jesus’s blinding presence knocked him off his horse one day and confronted him with that violence: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus asked him. Saul, converted to Paul, was being saved from the violence that his religion was calling him to do.

Paul came to see that our salvation must go beyond religion to the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, a faithfulness that led him to be crucified precisely by people who considered themselves religious. Paul talked incessantly about “life in the Spirit” (see especially Romans 8:1-17). In other words, his religious violence caused him to move beyond the religious to the spiritual.

OK, that’s Paul’s story. What’s ours? At this time of a shrinking church, can it be it a similar story for us? Why are people today disavowing religion in order to claim spirituality? I believe deeply that many people today are experiencing a similar dynamic as Paul. They have come to see religion as at the heart of the problem of violence, not a solution to it, so they are seeking something beyond the religious.

Two weeks ago, I shared in my Bible Study on African Sunday what is now called the Doctrine of Discovery. It is a papal decree by Pope Nicholas V in 1455:

invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens [Muslims] and pagans [indigenous peoples] whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.

That explains a lot of our history as European Americans on this continent, doesn’t it? We might try to respond, “But that’s the Pope, and this is Reformation Sunday. That papal decree doesn’t apply to us Protestants.” But in recent decades we are learning to be more honest than that, aren’t we? Didn’t we Protestants follow this decree when we brought millions of Africans to this continent and stole their labor through enslavement? And isn’t that what we Protestants did to Native Americans, killing them by the millions and stealing their lands?

Do you see? As we have become more honest about our violence, done in the name of our religion, many people have taken to Paul’s strategy of seeking a spirituality beyond religion. Millions of people have left the church in droves over the past two decades. Many of them are our closest friends and family members who we now miss at church.

Jesus Didn’t Start a New Religion; He Came to Save Us from Religion
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I urge us to follow Paul’s lead and finally get beyond religion to a new faithfulness in Jesus the Messiah. The so-called Reformation failed to so. Essentially, the Reformation simply started a new Protestant religion that only added to the religious violence of Us against Them. I fervently believe, with every bone in my body, that the Church needs a more drastic overhauling of its message if it is to survive. I sometimes refer to a New Reformation, but it may be more drastic than that — nothing short of redeeming religion itself from its complicity in violence.

For starters, we need to understand with St. Paul, as evidenced in today’s Second Reading, that Jesus absolutely did not come to start a new religion. He came to establish a new faithfulness to the nonviolent God of love that can save our religions from violence. Our task as followers of Jesus is thus not to convert people to a new religion but to transform our current religious practices in worshiping a God of nonviolence and love. We need to go beyond our current religions and experience a God who is uniting the entire human family.

Here’s the bottom line: religions, since the beginning of humanity, have been at the heart of the problem — namely, the problem of dividing the human family, leading to violence of Us against them. Religions have always been at the center of giving our group an identity over against those folks over there who practice a different religion.

We live in a historical moment in which we are hopelessly divided over so many things. People see the history of the Church and see how it has been at the center of such division. They are leaving the church in search of another message that brings together the human family.

But here’s the thing: we already have that message! It’s the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah who went to the cross letting himself be declared as a “Blasphemer” by the Jews and an insurrectionist by the Romans. In other words, he let himself be declared as a “Them” opposed to “Us.” He gave up his body and spilled his blood to begin the process of healing our endless divisions, and the violence which issues from them, and to instead begin to bring us together as one human family. In today’s reading from Paul, he says it this way:

All are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Messiah Jesus, whom God intended to be the source of unification in his blood effective through faithfulness.

In his Letter to the Ephesians, I think Paul puts it even more clearly:

But now in Messiah Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups [Jew and Gentile] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished religion with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Eph. 2:13-16)

We already have a message that takes us beyond religion for the healing of our world!

But we have been misreading it and misapplying it in ways that have submerged us deeply back into division and violence again. In short, we’ve turned it back into a religion that divides humanity instead of unifying it. The message I grew up with went something like this: ‘Jesus came to save me from my sins by dying on the cross for me. If I believe this it will save me from God punishing me in hell for eternity.’ What does this false version of the Gospel do? First, it turns the nonviolent God of Jesus into a violent monster who punishes people for an eternity. Second, it divides humanity into believers and unbelievers, the eternally saved and the eternally damned. Brothers and Sisters, this is not the Gospel Jesus died for! Listen to St. Paul! God sent Jesus to forgive all people in order to begin a process of unifying the human family.

In this historical moment, our terrible broken and divided world desperately needs us, the followers of Jesus, to get our act together — to get our message of Good News straight. As we move to the most consequential election of our lifetimes, we need to listen to St. Paul when he says,

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

Let us follow Jesus beyond religion to a new spiritual faithfulness that helps lead this world to healing and peace. Amen

Paul Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Savior
Racine, WI, October 25, 2020

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