Reforming and Responding
Grace and peace to you, dear ones. You are enough.
It’s Reformation Sunday.
I was raised Lutheran, so I have heard many, many times the story of Martin Luther having a revelation about grace at his little desk in Wittenberg, where he was a monk, a priest, and a professor. The story most often told is that Luther hated himself, that he was tormented by his own sinfulness and inability to do good, and that he had this revelation while reading the book of Romans – the very passage we read today. “[A]ll 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.” Luther, the story goes, was astonished! He was relieved! He was appalled by the Roman church! He was ecstatic to have discovered this heretofore hidden truth: Grace is a gift. Nobody is good enough. And yet, through Jesus, we are made good enough. And, growing out of that moment, voila! 95 theses! Reformation! The rest, as they say, is history. Except, of course, it’s not that simple.
The problem I have with jumping up and down in celebration about the Reformation is twofold. In the first place, I have been studying Luther this semester and the story is, as you might imagine, nowhere near that straightforward. The second issue I take with such a celebration is that it assumes that the reformation is over. It seems to imply that we are finished reforming. Luther did it! At least we got it right while all those other Christians can’t even read scripture properly. The celebration of the Reformation can be, if we’re not careful, conceited and condescending and judgmental, none of which is very Christlike.
On the topic of the oversimplification of the Luther story, the fact is that Luther didn’t altogether hate being a monk. His letters from the time period preceding 1517 indicate the lifestyle suited him rather nicely. And he had studied Romans – and other scripture – extensively before 1517, so the idea that he had a revelation all at once simply doesn’t fit. Lastly, the 95 theses he reportedly posted on the door of the chapel at Wittenberg dealt exclusively with indulgences – the purchasing of eternal credits, so to speak – not with justification by grace generally. The 95 Theses was really a very specific and targeted document. It would be years until Luther got to a deep understanding of justification by grace through faith, which was really only a seed in 1517. I admit I was a little disappointed to learn all of this – because I love a good eureka! moment as much as the next person – but it really makes much more sense that Luther came to believe and teach what he did a little bit at a time. That is how we learn and how we grow, a little at a time.
My second objection to celebration of “Happy Reformation Day” is that it seems to imply the reformation is over. Luther himself would be pretty horrified by this idea, I think. He wasn’t a big fan of codifying doctrine at all, but rather believed we needed to be constantly studying scripture, constantly praying, and constantly reforming ourselves. The work of becoming the church – the body of believers we are called to be – is never finished.
And so I find myself in the position on Reformation Sunday of telling you that there’s a lot left to do. And also that there’s nothing we have to do.
That’s the paradox, isn’t it? We are made whole, justified is the word Luther used but I also like to think we are made “acceptable.” We are made “liberated.” We are made “enough.” And it’s God who does the work. Through Christ, God justified. God makes us acceptable, whole, and beloved. God liberates. We are the recipients of this gift, thanks be to God.
Throughout all three of today’s readings, it is God who does the work. God who establishes covenants – relationships – God who forgets our sins, God who puts God’s law in us, God who writes on our hearts, God who through Christ makes us free. The initiative is always God’s.
So when I say “there is a lot left to do” as a church, as individuals, and as God’s beloved people, I say it with a little hesitation. There is nothing we have to do. And at the same time, it is the freedom we receive in Christ that allows us to respond to God’s call.
I actually like the term “respond” a little better than “reform.” Sure, we’re constantly reforming the church, in that we are adjusting our traditions and practices in big ways and small. But saying “we are reforming the church” seems to imply that we know what we’re doing, that the initiative is ours. I think of a person who forms and re-forms as a sculptor or a potter. It is the potter who forms and reforms clay into the shape she desires. But the potter knows what she’s doing. She is in control of what the clay becomes.
When it comes to forming and shaping the church – the Lutheran church, the church at large – I think it’s important to remember that we are not the sculptors. We are not the potters. We are the clay. We are the church, the body of gathered believers, and we are being formed. It is God, always, who is in the lead, God’s Spirit calling and forming us into who we are called to be.
And so I like to think of our work as the church, as the gathered body of believers, as “responding” rather than “reforming.” We are not the potter. We are the clay.
And if you’ll allow me, I will stretch the metaphor just a bit further. Do you know what makes clay flexible, moldable, and able to take new shape? Water. Just as, in the waters of baptism we are welcomed into the church, Christ’s body, and joined together with others as we are being formed in community.
Aside of all the initiative God takes in our readings – writing God’s law, forgetting our sins, making us free – there’s really only one thing that today’s readings say we, the believers, are supposed to do. The word comes from the Greek μείνητε [meno] and is translated “continue.” “Continue in my word.” It can also be translated “remain,” “abide,” or “stay.” Abide in my word. Just be there. And in the Gospel of John, we know that Jesus is one and the same with the Word. Abide in me. Rest your soul not in the facts about Jesus but in the truth that is Jesus.
Beloved, we are not reforming. We are receiving God’s gift of love in Jesus, and we are, at our best moments, responding to that love. It is a love that indeed frees us to make changes, to try new things like Blessing of the Animals and Pumpkin Painting and new worship schedules and being led by a largely untrained vicar. We can open ourselves to new possibilities not because we are certain where we are headed, but because we are certain of who Jesus is. And he sets us free to respond and to wonder about the community we can be together. Not to reform but to be formed into the community we are called to be.
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