When God Reforms Us

Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ[a] for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. ~Romans 3:19-28

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. ~Jeremiah 31:31-34

Poor Martin Luther. He was a very unhappy man.

Five hundred years ago, Luther was a German monk, dedicating himself diligently to a life of prayer, fasting, reading scripture, and other good works. But he was troubled by something, a practice of the church he considered unbiblical. He was troubled by the sale of “indulgences.” These were certificates verifying that the holder had a guaranteed reduction of punishment for their sins after they died. They were a little like those Monopoly “get out of jail free” cards. They found their biblical basis in Jesus’ words to Peter that “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth, will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).

Luther was seriously bothered by this practice, and it didn’t exactly help his mood when, in 1517, Pope Leo X offered indulgences to anyone who would make donations to help rebuild Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. For Luther, this was the last straw. And exactly five hundred years ago this Tuesday, he wrote a letter to his bishop about it, and included what we now call the “95 theses,” points he was interested in debating in an academic setting. (According to legend, he also nailed these theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenburg.) Luther was a professor, and this was the custom for testing your theories: offer to debate your colleagues, and may the best man win.

Church practice was not the only reason that Luther was unhappy. His distress had another, deeper source. For years Martin Luther lived in fear and dread because he did not believe he was worthy of God’s love and forgiveness. He wrote,

I was indeed a good monk and kept the rules of my order so strictly that I can say: if ever a monk got to heaven through [being a monk], I should have been that man… And yet, my conscience could never give me certainty: I always doubted and said, “You did not do that correctly. You were not contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.” The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak, and afflicted conscience with the traditions of men, the more each day I found it more uncertain, weaker, more troubled[i]

Ultimately, Luther turned to scripture for comfort. He began another study of Paul’s letter to the Romans (which he had already taught at the University of Wittenburg). He came across the phrase “the righteousness of God,” which had always irked him, because he felt utterly condemned by that righteousness. But eventually he was drawn to the fuller context of that phrase: it was not simply “the righteousness of God,” but “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” To put it in more modern terms, Luther came to understand that we humans are saved, not because we are good, but because God is good. Years later he wrote, “that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.”[ii]

So, I’m wondering… what scripture has been, for you, a “gate to paradise”? What passages does your bible fall open to, or have lots of underlining, or do you turn to every morning, or every night?

I have lots of contenders…

1 John 4:7: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and everyone that loves is born of God, and knows God.”

Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Psalm 147:3: “The Lord heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds.”

And this, from the prophet Jeremiah 31:33: “…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

In this morning’s passage, Jeremiah is writing to the people of God following what can only be described as the destruction of everything they hold dear, every assurance of God’s love and protection. Jeremiah witnessed the armies of the Babylonian empire invading Jerusalem, destroying the Temple, God’s holy place on earth, and then killing or carrying off into exile the entire royal family, the priests, the prophets, and even, most of the people.[iii]

But Jeremiah insists: God is not dead. God is not gone. God is, in fact, right here, and more determined than ever before to be in intimate covenant relationship with God’s people. Jeremiah does not report that God declares retribution on the Babylonian enemies. God doesn’t promise to make the people mighty and fearsome. There is no language of war or conquest. Instead, it is the language of family, a mother leading her children by the hand; a husband, promising to love and cherish.

God promises to love and forgive. God promises that the people will know it in their hearts, in their bones. God promises all this, not because people are good, but because God is good.

I almost feel that this passage describes exactly what happened to Marin Luther: the love of God moved from being an elusive abstraction, something out there, unattainable, to being something inside him, a part of him, written on his heart.  A “gateway to paradise.”

We Presbyterians are part of the “Reformed” tradition, because our churches came about as a result of the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther helped to set in motion. And let’s be clear. The Reformation whose 500th Anniversary we mark this Tuesday came at a steep cost: the unity of the church of Jesus Christ. An article I read this week lamented that celebrating the Reformation was a little like celebrating a divorce. Is it really something to throw a party about, our inability to hold the church together?

Reformation is not a painless experience. Before receiving the promise of a new covenant through the words of Jeremiah, God’s people went through an experience that is probably best understood as a death. The late Phyllis Tickle, Christian author, activist, and lecturer, observed that, every 500 years or so, the church undergoes something she called “a great rummage sale,” in which we let go of forms and norms that are no longer serving the gospel of Jesus Christ. It started with what Tickle called “The Great Transformation,” that time when God walked among us in Jesus. The next was the time of Gregory the Great, the first pope to send out a large-scale mission to convert people to Christianity all over the known world. The third was the east-west schism, and the fourth was the Protestant Reformation. If you’re doing the math, that means we are undergoing the fifth right now. Tickle called it “the Great Emergence,” and we can see it all around us. We are witnessing—we are a part of—a change in the church’s role in the world, and a change in the way people experience and express their faith. It is frightening and invigorating. Some experience this, too, as a kind of death, but never forget: Ours is a faith founded on resurrection.

We can see that all around us, too. Everywhere there are signs that God’s Spirit continues to move among God’s people on both sides of the Reformation divide. Protestants and Catholics are marking this 500th anniversary together. This past Thursday, Pope Francis met with a delegation representing the Church of Scotland. During that meeting, he said,

“The past cannot be changed, yet today we at last see one another as God sees us. We are first and foremost his children, reborn in Christ through one baptism, and therefore brothers and sisters. For so long, we regarded one another from afar, all too humanly, harboring suspicion, dwelling on differences and errors, and with hearts intent on recrimination for past wrongs.” 

Now, he said, Catholics and Protestants are “pursuing the path of humble charity that leads to overcoming division and healing wounds,” are working together to serve the poor and promote justice, and are standing together to defend the rights of Christians undergoing persecution.[iv]

It just may be that, we Christians who separated from one another 500 years ago, are figuring out that coming together as brothers and sisters in Christ is our next “gateway to paradise.”

I would put it to you that the entire church of Jesus Christ, Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox alike, is constantly being reformed by God. 75 years ago Presbyterians did not allow women to step into church pulpits as ministers of Word and Sacrament. In 2016, Pope Francis made the hearts of many Catholic women leap for joy when he created a commission of 12 scholars—six women and six men—to study the ministry of women deacons in the early church.[v] These are signs of God reforming us, as God has in the past, as God does in the present, as God will do, as long as there are humans calling upon the name of Jesus.

God’s faithfulness is with us still. God still seeks us, even as we seek God. God desires that none of us should suffer from the kind of doubt that plagued Martin Luther. God reaches out to us in the midst of all turmoil and fear, and promises to love and forgive. God promises that we will know this love in our hearts, in our bones. God promises all this, not because we are good, but because God is good. God promises us, even today, a gateway to paradise.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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[i] Martin Luther, “Luther on His Monastic Life,” from E. G. Rupp and B Drewery, eds., Martin Luther, as quoted in A Reformation Reader, 77.

[ii] Martin Luther, “Autobiographical Fragment: Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings, 1545, as quoted in A Reformation Reader, 75-76.

[iii] The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, “Commentary on Jeremiah 31:27-34,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=705.

[iv] Cindy Wooden, “Reformation at 500: Christians see they are brothers, sisters, pope says,” Catholic News Service, Crux Now, October 26, 2017, https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2017/10/26/reformation-500-christians-see-brothers-sisters-pope-says/.

[v] Ibid.