I don’t usually post sermon texts here (sermons are performance pieces and difficult to capture in text). But given the recent government shutdown drama, the spectacle of a deeply divided country, and all the horrors generated by a globally divided humanity, I want to share some reflections on what many churches will mark tomorrow, October 27: Reformation Sunday. The texts here are Joel 2:22-32 and Luke 18:9-14. (I’ll be preaching this live at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California at 11am. Join us!)
Many churches – especially Lutheran and Presbyterian congregations – will mark October 27 this year as Reformation Sunday. The last Sunday of October each year is set aside to commemorate the day, October 31 in the year 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the cathedral in Wittenburg. (You have to be careful how you pronounce that word “theses.” Though of course Luther himself would appreciate a good scatological joke.)
That moment in 1517 was Luther’s line in the ecclesial sand, a watershed moment in what was emerging as the Protestant Reformation. That movement redrew the map of institutional Christianity and therefore also the map of Europe, because it also marked the emergence of what we know today as “nation states” at roughly the same time and for reasons deeply intertwined with Luther’s agitations.
Needless to say, Reformation Sunday does not appear on the liturgical calendar used by Roman Catholics. On the other hand, given what we’ve witnessed so far from Pope Francis, I’d say with gratitude that the reforming spirit seems to be stirring in the Vatican these days as well.
That’s an important reminder, it seems to me, of one of the slogans those early reformers adopted: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda, or “the reformed church always reforming.” (And I quote that in Latin because I find it mildly amusing that some Protestant theologians today still like to quote that slogan in the language of the institution their ancestors critiqued.)
More to the point: reformation is not an isolated event, relegated to a distant past some 500 years ago, but is rather part and parcel of what the Church always does – or rather should always do. It’s a reminder, in other words, that just like housework the Church’s work is never really finished. Or in more traditional language, conversion is not a single moment in the life of Christian faith but rather a lifelong process of transformation. Actually, some would say more than lifelong as death marks but one milestone – albeit a significant one – on our journey ever deeper into the life of God.
So I’d like to offer just a few observations about what this seismic shift in Christianity 500 years ago might still offer to our lives of faith today, what this dusty old moment from the past might still offer to that call always to be reforming. And I’m thinking especially of a twin concern shared by many of those early reformers – justification and sanctification. More precisely, being justified, or saved by grace alone through faith, and being sanctified, or transformed in the life of faith through the power of the Holy Spirit. Great theological code words but, really, does this stuff matter?
Actually the Bible might help us find reasons for why these things do matter and I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that the lectionary texts for today signal the twin concerns I just mentioned. Luke’s Jesus tells a parable about a sinner finding justification before God and the text from the prophet Joel is often associated with the Pentecost event of the Holy Spirit. So a few thoughts about each – and seriously, just a few. This topic has filled countless volumes.
First, justification: what in the world is that about? No really, what does this mean? Both the tax collector in Luke’s parable and Martin Luther himself could easily tell us. Luther, you might recall, was an Augustinian monk before launching on his institutional reform project. It was, Luther himself would say, a life of torment. He did everything his religious order demanded and the institutional church proscribed to lead a life of faith – and he was tormented by doubt. He was never fully convinced of his own salvation, he was never satisfied that God was satisfied with his efforts.
Never enough. Never enough. Never enough. … Oh, Martin, how I can relate!
Curiously enough, the turning point in his life came from reading carefully Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which Luther embraced as a sustained elegy to divine grace. The whole point of Christian faith, Luther realized, is not about what we do to justify ourselves but instead how God sees us through Christ, through the lens of divine grace – as cherished, and loved, and forgiven.
(Just a side note for the theology geeks among us: a similarly dramatic turning point occurred in the early twentieth-century life of the pioneering theologian Karl Barth when he also studied Paul’s Letter to the Romans; if you think the only thing to do with that letter is to refute Paul’s apparent condemnation of homosexuality in the first chapter, think again.)
Luke’s parable captures far more concisely what Luther experienced. There Jesus contrasts the religious leader who boasts of all his good works and the tax collector, a despised Roman collaborator and social outcast who bewailed his sinfulness. It was not the clergy person in that parable but the cultural pariah who returned home justified, Jesus says. And that is justification by grace through faith, as Luther declared in his world-changing insight.
I totally identify with both that tax collector and Martin Luther. Oddly enough, I did so especially in the Evangelical Christianity of my youth. In that tradition, preachers frequently issue “altar calls,” the invitation to turn one’s life over to Christ and be saved. I did precisely that as a teenager – multiple times. I responded to those altar calls again and again because I worried and fretted that the conversion hadn’t really “stuck.” I had to be sure, I had to know, I had to keep providing evidence that this time I really meant it. This time, God, really, I mean it.
And of course, just like Luther, I had missed the point. It’s not what I do – not even responding to an altar call – but rather what God does, that provides all the justification anyone needs. Or as my liturgy professor in seminary likes to say, we are “drenched” in grace.
Good news, to be sure. But there’s something more lurking around this text that deserves our attention. Luke’s parable is not only about the promise of divine grace; it is of course just as much a parable about not judging others.
No one’s life project is finished. No one has sufficient reason to boast before God. No one has it all figured out.
Or in more traditional language, this parable is calling of us all back to a profound posture of spiritual humility.
By saying that I just provided a classic illustration of a preacher preaching to himself with the hope that it might also be helpful to others. When I am convinced of something, I am not exactly known for sharing that conviction humbly. Yet I do believe we need more of precisely that, both in our political discourse these days as well as our religious circles.
Actually, that’s probably stating the case a bit too mildly. Some would say that the ideological and political divide in our country today is as bad as it has ever been, with each side unswervingly claiming the moral high ground. More still, religious conviction is fueling war and the rumors of war around the globe.
Yet even more: the despicable treatment of lesbians and gay men in Russia; the unabated practice of hanging gay teenaged boys in Iranian public squares; the draconian legislation in Uganda that makes “homosexuality” a capital crime. All of these moments and more spring from absolute religious conviction. Did you see the image of fully vested Russian Orthodox priests throwing stones at marchers in a gay pride parade? If it weren’t so tragic, it would be a scene from a Monty Python movie.
But here’s the thing: Even if I am right about something, I am no less in need of grace than the person with whom I disagree. I am absolutely convinced that those Russian Orthodox priests are wrong. And I need divine grace as much as they do.
I read Luke’s Jesus as offering a not-so-subtle nudge to level the playing field. To do that, I need to revise how I associated myself above with the tax collector. I am just as much the Pharisee in this parable – probably more than “just as much.” And that’s why sanctification and not only justification was so important for the Protestant Reformers.
Martin Luther used a medical analogy to illustrate the necessary relationship between justification and sanctification. Being justified is like a doctor having just administered a sure and certain remedy for a fatal disease. The physician pronounces the patient cured (read “justified”) even though the next step is also required for a full restoration to health: a process of rehabilitation (read “sanctified”).
While I find that analogy useful, I have to say that I find it troubling as well. It’s probably a theological hangover from an Evangelical youth, but that analogy comes perilously close to identifying the human condition itself as fatally flawed, or as John Calvin would say, suffering from “total depravity.”
Now, to be sure, there are days when I read the newspaper and think that humanity as a whole is thoroughly and utterly depraved. But I don’t read the Bible that way and I don’t read my friends and colleagues that way. Do I read my detractors and enemies that way, as totally depraved? Of course I do. That’s why Luke’s Jesus makes me squirm.
And that’s why I appreciate that the reformers stressed sanctification as a process. No one’s life project is finished. No one has reason to boast. No one has it all figured out.
And indeed, that’s why Christians keep coming back to the Eucharistic Table on Sunday mornings. We might come to that Table for the reminder of the justification and forgiveness that God has already accomplished in Christ. Even more, we come to the Table to deepen the sanctifying process.
We have a long way still to go in that process. But by God’s amazing grace, the reformed church is always reforming.