Reformation Sunday: On Being Reformed… Sort Of

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John 8:31-36

Demetri Martin — he’s not a Reformation hero. He’s one of my favorite stand up comedians.

I like him because his internal monologues and musings are essentially in the same vein as mine.

This is the man who said, “I think the worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades.

“Especially if your teammates are bad guessers.”

He has this monologue when he talks about the phrase, “sort of.” He says, “’Sort of’ is such a harmless thing to say. Sort of. It’s just a filler. Sort of – it doesn’t really mean anything. But after certain things, sort of means everything. Like after ‘I love you’ or ‘You’re going to live.’” (1)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus sort of has a conversation with some people who believe in him — sort of.

He’s just given them the famous, “I am the Light of the world” speech — “I am the Light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). He’s just invoked the name of God — he’s told them that after they kill him — he says, “[after that], you will know that I am” (John 8:28). (Your translations will say “I am he.” The Greek says “I am” and the translation is interpreting it in English. I could talk for a long time about that, but if you’re curious, ask me later.)

Point is, Jesus has just told them, fairly eloquently, exactly who he is. He is Love and Light. He’s the Word made flesh. And this time, lots of folks believe him — sort of.

Things start to go south during this other famous passage: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

These folks respond, “Free? We’ve never been slaves.”

Specifically, they say, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone” (8:33).

Which is funny, in a sort of not-funny way, because the story of the descendants of Abraham runs right through slavery. “When we were slaves in Egypt” and phrases like it are a refrain that echoes throughout Jewish history, right up to today. This particular group of Jews, however, had forgotten where they came from.

This is a good time to pause and say that the record of Martin Luther on the Jewish people is terrible. The history of the relationship of Christians, Lutheran Christians, and Protestant Christians towards Jewish people is terrible, too. The cry of the Reformation is “semper reformanda,” or “always reforming.” One of the ways that we are reforming is in respect to our Jewish neighbors, who are our partners in faith, and God’s own people.

The Gospel of John also talks about “the Jews” in ways that need unpacking. The Christian people at the time had come under fire from the Jews in Israel, as any group that steps out from a religious pack does, and John’s Gospel reflects that. BUT, if you read closely, Jesus is incredibly Jewish in John — he attends all of the religious festivals. He makes Jewish references. And he argues with Jewish leaders and takes their arguments seriously, even as he engages with common Jewish folk. Our own faith makes little sense apart from the faith of our Jewish neighbors, and it’s about time we gave them their due respect.

End of sidebar.

So in one of these arguments, the Jewish folks Jesus is arguing with leave off the Exodus: “we’ve never been slaves to anyone.”

Jesus goes in a different direction: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” I used to think of “being a slave to sin” as Jesus looking disapprovingly over my shoulder for every wrong thing I’ve ever thought about doing, and about how I couldn’t stop saying cuss words and I couldn’t stop drinking.*

*Note: I’m not an alcoholic; there was about a day and a half period when I was three years old when I became very concerned that when people talked about “drinking” or “drinking too much” or “drinking and driving” they meant drinking anything. So I felt very guilty for drinking my juice and water until my aunt set me straight. And I’m really glad she did, because I was very thirsty.

The point is, Jesus isn’t trying to make you feel guilty about being a slave to little things you feel sorry for. But destructive behaviors — the things we do to hurt other people and ourselves — do have their way of holding us captive.

But then he makes a little switch. He’s talking about being a slave to sin, then he says, “A slave doesn’t have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (8:35).
Wait, wait. Hold on. Who’s the master — sin, or God?

Try this: “Everyone who breaks the law is a slave to the law.”

Whose Law is it?

But if God sets you free from the Law, you will be free indeed.

By grace you have been saved, through faith.

You can’t be free by being perfect.

That is the heart of the Gospel that Martin Luther and the Reformers were willing to die for.

500 years ago, something started. A fire got sparked. 500 years ago, the Spirit of God signed us all up for something that we’re still working out. Some of us look around and see fewer people than we used to and we say that we must be dying. But just like those Jewish folks who were talking to Jesus, we forget where we came from. We forget that the Church has died and risen again many times. If we are to be an Easter people, we will have the same number of Good Fridays.

It seems to me that people often come to church for a sense of settled-ness or peace. And providing that is part of why we exist for the world around us. It’s why we exist for each other. So that when you’ve lost someone or when you’re sick or when you’re hurting, we will surround you with care. But when lose ourselves a little when we say, like the Jewish people in the Gospel, “We’re good church folks. We’re Americans. We’ve always been free. Our church is reformed.”

We think we’re done. We think Luther did it all.

But we still screw it up, a lot. We Lutherans have been all kinds of things in 500 years. We’ve been anti-Semitic. We’ve been racist. We’ve been complicit when Hitler took over Germany and began exterminating millions of Jews and others, including LGBTQ folk. Lutherans have committed hate crimes and sexual harassment and pushed racist ideologies.

And we still screw it up today. A lot. In small ways and big ones.

We’re reformed, but we’re still reforming.

Semper reformanda — we are always being reformed. We aren’t celebrating an event today. We’re celebrating the date that something started: when a somewhat grouchy, sometimes crude, always beer-loving, 33 year old monk put his life on the line to start something whose ripples are still being felt 500 years later. We stand in the shoes of a guy who felt strongly enough about his convictions that the Gospel is a story about God, not our own piety, that when threatened with excommunication and even death, when asked to recant, he still said, “Nah.”

500 years later, we’re still doing the same thing, preaching the same Gospel, gathering with joy around the same table, not because we must, but because we may. And regardless of what any of us do, as long as there’s a Gospel, there’ll be a people called Lutheran. Because, as the movie V for Vendetta told us, ideas can’t die. Especially ideas worth dying for.

And the idea is simple: you can’t be free by being perfect. You can’t follow enough religious rules or be pious enough to clear your conscience, and the harder you try, the more trapped you’ll be.

But God put on flesh to say that if the Son sets you free, you’ll be free indeed. You don’t have to be perfect. You’re loved just because you breathe, and because of that, you’re free to do more than beat yourself up. God loves you deeply, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and that in this community, we fail a lot, but we’re built on the idea that maybe we should try to love each other that much, too. We’re reformed, but we’re still reforming.

Which is another way of saying, you know, sort of, to sum up, sort of — I mean to say that 500 years ago our church was reformed — sort of.

——-

1. You can watch Demetri Martin’s entire monologue, If Ihere.

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