Unity Lutheran Church + Cross of Life Campus
27 October 2019 + Reformation Sunday
John 8.31-36; Jeremiah 31.31-34
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
When I was growing up, my dad so tried to get me into sports, bless his heart. But one piece of sports wisdom he shared that actually stuck with me: Root for your team, not against the other team.
That strikes me as sound advice for us today as we commemorate Reformation Sunday – now 502 years since that day the young Augustinian monk Martin Luther posted his (in)famous 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, setting into motion the Protestant Reformation. Little did young Martin realize that his simple list-making would eventually splinter the Christian church into more denominations and sects than we care to remember. And for us (ELCA) Lutherans, as we belt out “A Mighty Fortress” loud enough to be heard across Waukesha County, this day tends to become not so much about who we are, but who we are not. Which is why I’ve nicknamed this day “Lutheran Superiority Complex Day” – a day when it seems we root for our team so loudly that it can feel like we’re rooting against everyone else.
When I preached on these Reformation texts in my preaching class during seminary and suggested such an interpretation, it marked the first and only time I’ve ever been called into a professor’s office for a chat. In fairness to her, she wanted to be sure I understood the significance of our Lutheran theological heritage. But I’m not convinced those two things are mutually exclusive. I suspect calling out our own superiority complex this day is actually more in keeping with the spirit of the Reformation. In the face of an institutional church that claimed to have all the answers, Luther dared to ask questions. Half a millennium later, to suggest that we of all denominations have somehow managed to get it right, end of discussion, feels out of step with our namesake reformer’s approach. At best, it strikes me as awfully presumptuous; at worst, it feels downright blasphemous.
During the time when Jeremiah prophesied to God’s people, things were chaotic. The people had been conquered by a foreign empire, and their two most precious national institutions – the temple in Jerusalem and the monarchy in the line of King David – had been destroyed. The places where they had presumed to expect God’s promise and presence were gone. They thought they had it all figured out, end of discussion…until they didn’t.
To this audience, Jeremiah preaches…a new covenant, a new promise, a new hope for the future. If ever God shows up with a word of hope where we least expect it, it’s here. In the midst of destruction and hopelessness, we find these verses – often called the “Book of Consolation.” A reminder of God’s faithfulness, despite the people’s faithlessness…of God’s yearning to forgive, despite the people’s miserable track record…of the surprising ways God still shows up outside of the places we’ve come to presume could somehow contain God.
So often, we try to confine God to neat boundaries in an attempt to understand or even control God. But God breaks through all those attempts. And Jeremiah shows us this God unleashed…God unbound. God cannot and will not be bound by an ancient temple or monarchy, just as God cannot and will not be bound by any one tradition or theology. God is so much bigger than that.
The God who cannot be bound also unbinds us: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (“But we’ve never been slaves to anyone!”) Either the people are experiencing temporary amnesia or flat-out lying because the main story about their Jewish identity is the Exodus story…a story of liberation from literal slavery. But whatever the reason for their forgetfulness, Jesus seizes the opportunity to remind them and us of the ways we are bound to sin – to the ways we abandon a relationship with God and with others, becoming distant and self-absorbed.
Yet in our bound-ness, Jesus calls to us with a word of freedom. That’s a loaded word in our US American context, where we tend to associate “freedom” with the 4th of July and independence. But independence is not the kind of freedom Jesus is talking about. The freedom Jesus calls us to is relational. True freedom draws us back into relationship – with God and with God’s people, our siblings in faith.
Luther hit the nail on the head in his 1520 essay “The Freedom of a Christian,” where he talks about not only being freed from our sin and brokenness but what it means to be freed for something bigger. Being made free calls us outside of ourselves, outside of our own self-centered interests, to love and serve all people, as indeed Christ has done for us. Being unbound from sin binds us together in community.
So what holds us back? What keeps us from experiencing that kind of relational freedom? What are we yearning to be freed from? Our anxieties and worries…peer pressure and others’ expectations of us…addiction to substances or habits…self-preservation…survival as a congregation or fear of change… What if we were freed from those things? What would that feel like? What courage and boldness could that call us to as a church?
In the midst of sin that curves us in on ourselves, Jesus calls us to freedom – to stand upright, to see our fellow siblings in Christ, to be made whole in community again. This is not just a hypothetical freedom. This is a wide open invitation to the abundant life of abiding in Jesus, who draws all people to himself and who shows us what it means to live a life outside of ourselves, to live a life in community with all God’s people. That kind of freedom means that it is decisively not about us, or having all the answers or the “right” theology, or belonging to the “right” church.
Far from a “Lutheran Superiority Complex,” this day calls us outside of ourselves and into wider relationship with all of God’s people, as we strive for the freedom and liberation of all creation…pointing us to a God who is still re-forming us, who daily sets us free, indeed.