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
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not 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. – John 8:31-36
During the runup to the recent Scottish vote for independence, comedian John Oliver said that most Americans only know Scotland as being “the birthplace of Shrek, and that accent you think you can do, but actually can’t.” Well this Sunday morning in Presbyterian churches all around the country, a lot of people will be trying out their imitation Scottish accents to try to sound like John Knox, the Scottish Reformer and father of Presbyterianism. And a lot of us will feature bagpipes in our services, and a lot of others will deck the sanctuary out in tartan[plaid paraments, and in some way, regardless of our actual ethnic heritage, maybe we’ll all pretend we’re at least a little bit Scottish in honor of the roots of our Presbyterian tradition.
And a lot of us will hear sermons about the origins of the Reformation, and Luther, and Zwingli, and Calvin, and other great reformers. We’ll discuss some Reformation history during the Forum hour, but today’s sermon isn’t going to be a history lesson. Instead, I want to talk about some of the reasons the Reformation is still important to us today.
One of the truly great, lasting things to come out of the Reformation was emphasis on the idea, captured in the catchphrase, “the Church, reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” The idea that in every time, every place, the Church is to be renewed, refreshed, in accordance with the way people in those times, places, and cultures understand and interpret God’s truth found in the scriptures. This was a relatively new way of thinking: rather than the Church being some permanent unchanging thing that we’re all supposed to circle around and guard, and protect from any outside pressures to ever change, the Reformation said that the Church *had* to change over time. Through this new understanding of the Church and the faith, especially in our Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, this means that the church is to grow, and change, and evolve, with the guidance of God’s Spirit, in ways that the original Reformers might never have dreamt of – *could* never have dreamt of, or frankly, even agreed with. But that was the magic, the beauty of this way of understanding the church that these dead old white guys devised. It’s a simple, beautiful truth: that as time progresses, human knowledge and ways of understanding changes; and those changes will cause us to see and understand God’s truth in different ways. Our understanding of the faith cannot be forever bound by the historical, scientific, and cultural understanding of 16th-century Western Europe, or anywhere else, for that matter. So it’s actually a bit ironic, when we hear voices within the church who would demand that in order to be “true” Presbyterians, we have to swear allegiance to the theology as expressed in, say, the Westminster Confession of 1664; or that we can’t find new understandings of scripture based on our own current knowledge base and cultural location. By digging their heels into the sand that way, those people are actually denying, refusing to accept one of the absolute key, fundamental essential tenets of our Reformed tradition that they claim to be fighting to uphold.
That’s a great legacy of the Protestant Reformation, this new way of understanding the Church as a “living” institution that can, and needs to, change and evolve over time in order to truly carry out the mission Christ established it for. But beyond the big change this meant for the church, what does the Protestant Reformation matter to us today? I mean really, what’s it matter to us? Five hundred years ago, a bunch of people were arguing, and even killing each other, over fine points of theology. What difference, if anything, does it make to us today as we go about our day-to-day lives?
Well, I think there are a couple of things that became re-emphasized during the Reformation that still speak directly to us, and the way we understand ourselves, and you can hear those things in the two Lectionary texts we heard today.
The first of these things has to do with the idea of sin – that we all sin, and that makes us all slaves to sin, as Jesus says in today’s gospel passage. We don’t generally like that word, sin, so much these days. It’s an old fashioned word from another place and time, and I think sometimes we get a little embarrassed and uncomfortable talking about it. In our liturgies, we’ll sometimes avoid using the word, replacing it with more modern, acceptable words like “failings,”, “shortcomings,” “brokenness.” But uncomfortable or no, sin – our sin – still exists, and we’re still slave to it. There’s a scene in the movie “Glory,” where Matthew Broderick, who’s playing Robert Gould Shaw, the commanding officer of one of the first African-American regiments in the Civil War, is having a conversation with Denzel Washington, who’s playing one of the privates in Shaw’s regiment. The two men are talking about the evil of racism that’s still structurally, systemically a part of the country, and will still be regardless of the outcome of the war. And how, at the end of the war, Shaw, the son of wealth and privilege in Massachussetts, will go back to that life of privilege, but nothing much will really change for African Americans. At one point, Broderick just says, “It stinks, I suppose.” And Washington answers, “Yeah, it stinks bad – and we all covered up in it; ain’t nobody clean.” I always thought that was one of the greatest, simplest ways of stating the Reformed understanding of sin; the understanding that Jesus teaches in this gospel passage. Whether it’s through our own direct actions – our direct sins – of not loving each other as we should, in all the ways that plays out – or whether it’s through the more systemic sin we unavoidably take part in – buying products based on prices only made possible by paying slave wages to factory workers somewhere in the Two-Thirds World. No matter even if we try to do good things – we try to volunteer time and tithe finances and be as compassionate as we can; no matter if we buy Fair Exchange coffee and tea, or whatever, we still end up being complicit in multiples ways in sin. We can never really, totally escape being part of – slave to – sin. We’re all dirty; ain’t none of us clean, and even though we’ll occasionally brush off that thought, deep down in our own hearts, we know that’s true.
That fact, in and of itself, wasn’t anything new to come out of the Reformation. But what those Reformers did re-emphasize, contrary to many of the teachings of the established church at the time, is that there’s absolutely nothing that we can do to extricate ourselves from that. Even if we wear ourselves out trying, we can’t work, or buy, our own way out of sin and into God’s favor. That’s just as true today as it was in 1517.
Well, if that Reformation takeaway is a bit of a downer, the second point, which you can hear in the passage from Jeremiah, makes up for it. In that passage, we hear the absolutely incomprehensible depth of God’s love for us. That even though the ancient Israelites – and by extension, all of us – have broken the covenant God made with us, God still says “I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sin no more.” Did you catch that? God, despite knowing better, will remember our sin no more. It’s what the great preacher David Lose called God’s “intentional amnesia.” God chooses to regard us as if we were perfect and blameless, in spite of the reality.
That is indeed very good news for us. In that scene from “Glory,” after Denzel Washington’s character says we’re all dirty, ain’t none of us clean, he thinks for a second and wistfully says, “It would sure be nice to get clean, though.” We can probably all identify with that at times. Those times when we just feel completely at odds with life, when everything just seems wrong, out of sync, and we just want to feel clean and right and realigned with God and the universe. In this passage from Jeremiah, God says not only that we can, but that in fact, that we already are. We just need to recognize it. This re-emphasis on the grace that God pours over us is one of the great takeaways of the Reformation that still affects the way we live, every day.
But that can be hard news for us to accept. For many of us, it just doesn’t sound fair, for God to act in the way we heard, to just forgive and forget our sins in spite of ourselves. We want to craft a God who operates by our own human understanding of fairness and justice. But we just don’t find that here at all. What we find time and again in the scriptures is a God who knows that we’re slaves to sin – both the kind of sins we can do something about, and the kind of sin that we can’t – and who chooses to extend this gift of complete forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s a gift so big and so great that it’s hard to even accept it sometimes, because we don’t think we deserve it. And of course, we don’t – but that’s exactly the point.
Thanks be to God.