Sermon – October 26, 2014 Reformation

Reformation Sunday

Reformation is Love

Ecclesia Semper Reformata est.
The church is always in need of reform. This idea has been batted around seemingly by everyone interested in changing the church. It has become something of a campaign slogan, sort of like, “I like Ike!”, Or “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!,” Or “It’s morning again in America.

But at its root it has nothing at all to do with public relations. It is instead a fundamental and historic idea born from within the church, for the sake of the church. Reformation is organic to the church.

Today is, of course, Reformation Sunday, an annual celebration of the seismic shift in the Western church that began, or at least is marked by, Martin Luther’s challenge to the church intellectuals and clergy to debate issues of concern in the 16 century. Those 95 theses, or points of proposed discussion, were nailed up on the door of the Wittenberg church and the rest is history.

Martin Luther loved the church. He was a monk, a priest, a professor who was all in. He was in many ways the ultimate insider. So when he challenged the church, when he advocated reform of the church, he employed the things of the church to make his case: Scripture… Sacraments… Theology… Worship.  He and the reformers wrapped their pleas, their arguments and their efforts around a dependence on the things the church had proclaimed since the time of the apostles. Grace. Faith. Scripture.

These were the ingredients that flavored the stew of Reformation and in the eyes of the reformers this was a return to first things. To reform, that is, to remake from the original.

That very idea was Jesus response to the lawyer’s question about what is the most important law. Now that lawyer knew that there were at least 631 different laws that one was required to keep. That on its face is an impossible task. Its result is either dishonesty, “oh I certainly have kept the law,” or simply despair at the realization that if it is left up to me, I cannot please God. Jesus recognizes this returns it to its source… Love… Of God… Love… Of neighbor… And, love… Of oneself as a child of God.

This is a return to the root understanding of God’s beloved creation crowned by those created in his image.

Jesus, in his time, of course, was instituting a reformation of Judaism. In doing so he returned to the heart of the law and show that from there all things in our relationship with God and one another would follow. As such, Reformation is remembrance. Jesus is tapping the holy memory of God’s covenantal relationship with humanity. Jesus is making real Jeremiah’s proclamation of the new covenant.

If Reformation is remembrance, one of the key realities we are led to recall is that we are, as Paul says, all sinners who fall short of the glory of God.  We are all, each one of us whether or not we’ve 631 items of the law or not, unable to accomplish our own sanctification – meaning the making of our own holiness – or of our own justification, meaning our establishment of a right relationship with God. We simply cannot do that on our own. In the realization of that reality, in the remembrance of that reality, we are exposed to our utter dependence upon the God revealed in the heart of the law – the God of love. One of the battles of the Reformation was to lift up this God of love whose mercy endures forever, over against an idea of God who was miserly with the divine gifts and demanding of great sacrifices for a glimpse of his mercy. Luther saw this as a return to the demands of the law – that our salvation could be counted by the coin in the coffer, and that the sinner would be left in her sins by her own poverty of person spirit. Instead, Luther proclaimed grace with great urgency that our hope, our salvation, our reconciliation is through faith in the one who is himself,  mercy, love and forgiveness. And it is finally in this Christ, in this face of God, in this person, on that cross where we saw demonstrated the full expression of love of God and neighbor, and which now saves us all.

This is so important to us today, not just as a mere historical fact of our heritage and the heritage of the Western church, but to remind us of that which we so easily forget, that which we are so easily talked out of—that we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. That we, too, will convince ourselves that our righteous living has earned us God’s favor, but in order to do so we must tell ourselves the same lie as those who claim to keep all 631 laws. Or, we will simply despair in the face of the reality of our hatred of our neighbors, of our own greed, of the daily lies we tell to get us from point a to point B and the routine betrayal of our convictions out of fear, self-interest, or just plain cynicism.  We need this word of grace and mercy that reforms our lives and calls us into renewed practices in the world fueled by gratitude, and not fear.

Christ’s call to the heart of the law was not just a theological proposition, but a call to action. Without that call to action, Reformation is simply a proposition. But, with that call, Reformation becomes practice, becomes deployed.
A modern-day Reformation in our lives and in the church will lead us to new relationships, new understandings, new ways of living in the world and new practices of the faith.  Today, maybe more than anything, we need to be led to better love one another.

The failure to love one another as neighbors and as an expression of our love for God, has consequences.  We see this in our politics and public affairs, in our churches and in our own lives as we are always struggling with the demand to live outside of ourselves and outside of our set.

And that is a burden because we understand intellectually, just as that lawyer did that day, the command to love another, but we just find it so exceedingly difficult.  Partly that is because we view the act of love toward the neighbor in minimalist terms.  If I can do the least that I can do, and it can qualify, then I am off the hook.   That is love out of the law, and it is turned inward and that is self-serving, because it is an attempt to prove ourselves, not just to God, but to our neighbor or to anyone else who is watching.   That was the flaw in the lawyer’s understanding of love and it is one that bedevils us today.   We all can conclude that the failure to love one another has hurtful consequences.  But Jesus is saying, loving one another as we love God is how the world is changed, how we live in joy, how our neighbor is served, and how God is glorified.  This is the consequence of grace.  To love one another is to turn from the path of self-interest and self-justification to the practice of the gospel, which is to love God and neighbor.

What’s new in Jesus’ teaching is the understanding that none are beyond the reach of his love.  There’s the change.  Under the old standard we were to love your neighbor so long as; it was contingent and conditional and qualified on the object of the love meeting a certain criteria.  But when challenged to love someone outside the circle, the law gave us an out.   Remember the story of the Good Samaritan who, unlike the other religious leaders who passed by, loved outside his circle.   Remember the story of the Prodigal Son.  That father had no obligation to love his son who had insulted and betrayed him.

Jesus is expanding the definition of neighbor to include all people, and to take away the minimum commitment we have to one another based on a limited criteria for love.   That was the danger of the law, it was limiting and self-referring..  The character of love that Jesus calls us to is the expression of our thankfulness to God for his saving grace, and for the love that frees us from the sense of obligation to our neighbor, and instead leads us to embrace them joyfully and fully even as we love ourselves.

Now, the practice of gospel love is not a warm and fuzzy feeling, not Hollywood love.   I read in a commentary on this passage that says, “In an age where the word love is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection, but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that the Bible demands of us, but rather, stubborn, unwavering commitment.   Similarly, to love our neighbors doesn’t mean we feel affection for them, necessarily, but love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.”

That is the path that we have been called to as followers of Jesus Christ, taking seriously the needs of the world.  The gospel frees us from the false assurance of the law, which says if you just do the least for the least, you’ll get by.  Instead Jesus says love God with all of you and then love your neighbor as yourself.

Love is a tangible action in the world, in so many ways, whether it is coming to worship, gathering to pray, looking compassionately on the least among us, caring for our children as though their place in the world as a whole and hope filled person matters, taking seriously the hurts and needs of the brokenhearted, the lost, the struggling.

As God’s created and blessed community our circles have been broken, our sects undermined, our isolating impulses challenged and overcome.  Our challenge, our change, our reformation, is stop building them back up. We are family, and isn’t that the yearning of our hearts that we would have a place where we are loved, where we belong and where we are reconciled.

We need look no further than our own families for an example of that yearning.

Ernest Hemingway wrote of a time when he was in Spain, where someone put in the personal ads, “Paco, meet me tomorrow at noon at the Hotel Montana.  All is forgiven.  Love, Papa.”  The next day the police had to be dispatched to deal with a mob of over 800 Pacos who had come to be reconciled to their Papa.

There are millions of Pacos out there, yearning for a place, the love of the father, an invitation to come home, victims of war and oppression, the hurting and disenfranchised, those crying for forgiveness, feeling far from God, looking for a place of welcome.  With them, we yearn for the understanding and the opportunity and the power to be the family of God. Catchy phrases, campaign slogans do not suffice.  Jesus shows us the way, helps reform our paths inward to the road outward, and he gives himself not only as an example of that kind of love in his death and resurrection, but continues to give himself as the light for the way to love God with all we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Thanks be to God.
Amen