Reformation Sunday Sermon Notes (2018)

SERMON NOTES — October 28, 2018


Yesterday, as news was breaking about a hate-filled man walking into Tree of Life synagogue and murdering innocent worshipers, I was at a synod event to ponder the life and faith of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor martyred by Adolph Hitler in 1945. We watched a movie about his life, which was both inspiring but also scary. In order to fully understand the incredible witness of Bonhoeffer’s life, the film needed to help us to also better understand Hitler and his brand of nationalism. There were many clips of Hitler’s speeches. If I were to sum up there message, the most easily relatable way to do that would be, “Make Germany Great Again.” They had been beaten down by the rest of Europe after WWI. So the German people were understandably resentful and angry. But it would have been too dangerous yet to blame the rest of European white Christians, too dangerous to immediately fan the flames of another war. That would come later. No, Hitler needed a more alien Other to blame, to gradually stoke the embers of resentment and hatred over ten years until it blew up into the holocaust of WWII and the Final Solution of genocide against the Jews.

Back to today. Let me read some of Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s pastoral letter (copies available in the narthex). [Brief excerpts read.]

How do we respond? She suggests simple acts such as reaching out to neighboring synagogues. In terms of LCS’s Unifying Principles, this is about “reaching across the boundaries.” I was glad to see good participation from LCS at the ISAAC public meeting on Thursday. This is the best option, I think, in Kalamazoo for reaching out across boundaries through fellowship with a diversity of faith congregations, including our local synagogues. A rabbi participated in the closing blessing on Thursday. It is a way of being in friendship with other faith traditions.

I also continue to lift up the opportunities offered by sharing our building with the African Christian Fellowship. Day-to-day and week-to-week it offers many concrete ways to live out ‘simple acts of demonstrating our love as an extension of God’s love’ (from Bishop Eaton’s letter).

But, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I propose to you that it is long-past time to also go far beyond simple acts to a clear and major reform of our Christian church practice. It always must begin with the simple acts that present themselves in our lives. But as human beings our salvation must also lie in the other dimensions of being human. We are flesh and blood creatures in relationship to those immediately around us. But we are also spiritual beings whose spirits are intimately interconnected with people and creatures of other times and places through our institutions and cultures. And at the beating heart of those cultural dimensions has always been religion.

So, Brothers and Sisters, our response to such acts of hate must also be to reform — transform, if you will — our religion. To be able to do so requires a grace from God that goes beyond any of our religions, including Christianity as a religion. It requires a faithfulness beyond religion. For followers of Jesus, we propose that the faithfulness is revealed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as the outpouring of his Spirit in history at Pentecost.

But here’s the crucial thing which we have gotten wrong: this is not about a new religion and conversion to that new religion! It is about a faithfulness to the God of love and justice that goes beyond all our religions so that it can continually and gradually redeem . . . those religions themselves!

This is precisely the message that I believe St. Paul is conveying in the important Reformation text of Romans 3. I’ve offered a very careful — and, I believe, more faithful — translation of Paul’s message. This new faithfulness represent by Jesus the Messiah goes beyond any religions unredeemed by the New Creation which began on Easter. And we need to be honest that much of Christian history has been mired in an unredeemed religion because it has been so co-mingled with imperial cultures — beginning with the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, but then also after the Reformation through the splintered European empires. In the last 75 years, we need to also take a hard look at the American Empire. In what ways have we co-mingled the nonviolent, loving God of Jesus with imperial gods of military and economic might?

Why a new faithfulness beyond standard religion? It has to do with the theme we’ve developed since my first week with you (July 22): the shape of God’s grace in the world begins with God creating one new humanity out of two (Eph. 2:15). In short, God is healing the tribalism that displays itself through terrible and deadly things like Nazism, the murder at Tree of Life yesterday, and through the current rise in similar nationalisms all over the world today. As followers of Jesus, our response to tragedies like yesterday must also be standing against the way in which all religions have been deformed into tribalism. And so we must also respond by humbly making sure that our own practice of the Christian religion is open to God’s redeeming of religion into a way out of tribalism. We must be open to the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah that is beyond all religions.

Here’s some simple statements of what this means:

  • Jesus did not come to start a new religion. He was Jewish and never called for his fellow Jews to become “Christian.” He was calling for a new faithfulness that could redeem their practice of Judaism.
  • Similarly, as St. Paul took the Christian faithfulness out into the world, he stood against his fellow Jews who insisted it was about a conversion of religious practices — from pagan to Jewish. No! Gentiles don’t need circumcision and other Jewish practices. They don’t need religious conversion in the conventional sense. They need a new faithfulness which represents the conversion of all religions into religions that are no longer tribalistic!
  • So what is the Christian faithfulness if it’s not a new religion? It’s a new Way to be human. It’s a way of being human in which our institutions, cultures, and religions are converted — redeemed and transformed into cultures and religions that bring the whole human family into One.
  • And so it reveals a new Justice of God as relying not on punishment and violent retribution but as a God whose justice is revealed in forgiveness and love and that which heals us and brings us together.
Paul Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Savior
Kalamazoo, MI
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