Sermon for Reformation Sunday, Year A
Based on Jn. 8:31-36
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
"Set Free By Christ"
Reformation Sunday….There is the tendency among us Lutherans to be overly proud and triumphalistic on Reformation Sunday. We are sorely tempted to glorify our traditions and engage in the near idol-worship of Martin Luther. We tend to idealize and romanticize Luther and the Lutheran Reformation.
Unfortunately, sometimes we end up with a lot of sentimental gobbledygook. The tragic irony of all this is that we so easily forget the true spirit of our legacy as a Reformation Church. The question that we can not and dare not avoid as we celebrate Reformation Sunday is this: What does it mean for us to be a Reformation Church today?
This question may very well have even more relevance this last year of the 20th Century as we celebrate Reformation Sunday, precisely because of the very historic event taking place right now in Augsburg, Germany ~ namely, the signing of an international agreed upon statement on the doctrine of justification by Roman Catholic and Lutheran leaders. If Catholics and Lutherans are able to agree on the most significant doctrine defining Lutheranism, then what is it about us Lutherans that makes us a Reformation Church today?
This question, which I am raising for us today is based on a very important Protestant Reformation Principle. The Principle is this: The Church is always in a state of Reforming. That means we are a Pilgrim People. We are still on the journey of faith, we haven't yet arrived. This is well expressed when we sing hymns like: 'Guide me ever, great Redeemer,' 'Jesus, still lead on,' 'Lord, as a pilgrim on earth I go,' and so on.
If we're truly a Reforming Church; if we live and believe our faith as a pilgrimage; then one aspect of reform for the Church today is the process of removing our false securities.
In our gospel today, Jesus addresses the issue of false securities in a rather confrontational manner. Some of the Jews of his day ~ and I emphasize some, because there were a host of differences among the Jewish people at that time ~ felt that they had the security of their traditions, which, they believed, were automatically given to everyone who was a descendent of Abraham. Jesus tells them that this may very well be a false security ~ traditions and birthright do not necessarily make a person free. In the case of some ~ especially those who've experienced their traditions and birthright in oppressive, discriminatory ways ~ their traditions and birthright may very well have an adverse or reverse effect.
We Lutherans are sometimes like some of those Jews who relied too heavily upon their traditions as a form of false security. We too have our false securities and traditions. Some Lutherans may very well think that "they have it made" because they are Lutherans by birthright. Other Lutherans may "rest on their laurels" because they belong to the "Right" or "Most Orthodox" synod. Other Lutherans may feel that they have "The Most Direct Line To Heaven" because their worship is "The Most Liturgically Proper." So it goes, on and on, we Lutherans continue to fight and bicker with one another. (My apologies to those of you reading this sermon who are not Lutheran!)
Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, once said in his book The New Being: "There is no freedom where there is ignorant and fanatical rejection of foreign ideas and ways of life. There is not freedom but demonic bondage where one's own truth is called the ultimate truth. For this is an attempt to be like God, an attempt which is made in the name of God."
The truth of the matter is that if we Lutherans would only stop fighting and bickering amongst ourselves about our false securities; we may then discover The Heart Of The Matter. The heart of the matter is: That As A Gospel People We Are In Constant Need Of Reform. The heart of the matter makes us all realize: We Are Sinners In Constant Need Of Christ's Freedom And Christ's Truth.
We often waste far too much of our time, energy and resources fighting and bickering over what the Lutheran Reformers called matters of "Adiaphora" ~ that is, matters which are neither forbidden nor commanded in the Bible.
As individuals, as a congregation or parish, as a denomination; we all need The Radical Surgery Of The Gospel. Only Jesus Christ and his gospel are able to remove all of our false securities, traditions, pretences, illusions, and all other sorts of garbage which we are preoccupied with far too much of the time.
As A Gospel People; As A Reforming Church; we Lutherans have been given the priceless gifts of Christ's freedom and truth to enable us to reconcile our differences;listen to each other with trust and respect; love and encourage one another, even if we agree to disagree; and yes, to celebrate our diversity in Christ.
Christ has given us his truth and that truth has indeed set us free. The Apostle Paul is the most articulate in spelling out the implications of Christ's freedom. He tells us that We Are Set Free From the powers of sin, death and evil ~ thanks to the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He also tells us that We Are Set Free For living a new life in Christ. A life of loving service to all of humankind ~ in grateful response to Christ's saving, loving action towards us.
Getting back now to celebrating our diversity ~ another very important aspect of the Church always in the process of reforming is Participation In The Ecumenical Church. The days are gone ~ And Thank God They Are! ~ when we Lutherans are able to ignore, or worse yet, condemn all non-Lutheran Christians. The pilgrim, reforming Church is Ecumenical because First And Foremost, Jesus himself prayed for the unity, the oneness of all Christians ~ and second, because we have finally learned that we all need and benefit immensely from each other.
I do not believe for one minute ~ on this side of heaven ~ that the unity which Jesus prayed for is a unity of everyone becoming Roman Catholics; or everyone becoming Lutherans; or everyone becoming some other denomination. The worst, most evil heresy of Christianity is to believe that one particular denomination has a monopoly on the truth ~ that it possesses all of the truth in all times and places. It is not God's intention that all Christians become united into one particular denomination. Rather, God loves the richness of diversity embodied in our respective denominations; insofar as this rich diversity reveals more clearly the presence of Christ and the multidimensional message of the gospel.
Nor do I believe in a unity of the lowest common denominator, which attempts to sweep all differences under the carpet. That would certainly be an insult to the freedom and truth that Christ has given all Christians. Rather, our unity is based on what I believe the early Church modeled for us: Our Unity Is In Diversity and Our Diversity Is In Unity.
Each denomination's best strengths, ironically enough, often become its worst weaknesses. Therefore, each denomination's unique differences are to be loved and respected precisely because those differences often serve as a necessary corrective for all Christians. Remember, we are disciples, thus we are able to learn from and grow with one another. For to be a disciple means that we are always in the process of being learners. To be learners/students means that our relationship with other Christians is one of humility, trust, love and mutual respect.
In short, it's a unity which insists upon the centrality of Jesus Christ and his cross. This means that the unity of all Christians is best expressed and fulfilled as The Servant Church. We are set free by Christ's truth, to respond to him by freely offering our lives to each other as Christ's servants.
After all, the greatest purpose for the unity of all Christians is Not For Christians Only. Rather, as Jesus said, it is That The World Might Believe. In this process of Christ's truth setting us free, our servanthood will always move out in ever widening circles to embrace all of humankind. That's what it means ~ in part at least ~ to be a Reformation Church today.
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