"Love, Pain, and Reformation" - Reformation Sunday 2017
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
October 29, 2017 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
Matthew 22:34-46

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: October 29, 2017; Reformation Sunday

Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Matthew 22:34-46


Love, Pain, and Reformation


            After months and months of buildup to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, our Lutheran “high holy day” is finally here! Reformation Sunday has arrived, where we celebrate the prophet Martin Luther, who rescued the true Church from its centuries-long darkness and brought it back to the only source and norm for the faith – the Holy Bible. (This is an ever-so-slightly one-sided account of what happened, but never mind that!) We sing some of the Lutheran greatest hits, especially our anthem “A Mighty Fortress” (many of Luther’s other hymns are really hard to sing, but let’s just ignore that too!). Today is the day we glorify in everything Lutheran, or as Bishop Eaton says, we bask in our Lutheran-ness.


Ironically, we’ve identified Lutheran-ness with a deep resistance to change, exemplified by that tired old joke. Even if Brother Martin’s reforms were relatively conservative in hindsight, they were a great overturning of the status quo. Those of you who were at the Reformation dinner two Wednesdays ago may remember the image that Fr. Naseman brought of Cardinal Cajetan interrogating Luther. Luther is portrayed with arms out, defiant of church authority, foreshadowing his future defiance of both church and secular authority at the Diet of Worms. This was incredibly dangerous for Luther, not just because of the threat to him, but because of the threat to the church. And it might explain why Lutherans became so conservative later on. As we all know, October 31, 1517 didn’t just touch off a division between “Lutherans” and Catholics. It touched off a powder keg of resentments and pain in the Western church, leading to schism after schism after schism. There were other Protestant reformers who didn’t read the Bible “the right way”, the Lutheran way! (It is telling that Luther went after other Reformers just as ruthlessly as his Roman opponents.) The Reformation experienced on the ground was traumatic. Everyone believed that one could only be saved through the church, but the question was: where was that church? Was it the Roman church? Was it the Lutherans? The Calvinists? The Zwinglians? The Anabaptists? The Anglicans? There was so much painful division involved in the Reformation. And Luther, sadly, does not seem to be as motivated by love in his debates with his opponents as much as his desire to be right. (Go online to the Lutheran Insult Generator to see what I mean.) In short, the Reformation was a complicated, overwhelming, painful, traumatic, life-giving series of events that revealed not only the darkness of human sin, but also the infinite love of a God who is determined to re-form and transform us in his love.


In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, the Rev. John Ames writes (and I’m paraphrasing), “How do you tell a scribe from a prophet? Prophets love those they chastise.” This is something we would do well to remember as we enter the next 500 years of the Reformation. Love, the greatest commandment, is what drives all genuine reformation – of the church as a body and of ourselves as individuals. And because God is love, we know that God is the ultimate re-former, changing us from the inside out in our baptism. In Jesus, we are declared justified by grace, declared not guilty, freed from the burdens of the law. Instead, we are freed to learn how to love God and each other – to grow as the new beings God already declared us to be in our baptism.


Our reading in Matthew is the end of a long rabbinic back-and-forth during Jesus’ last week. The day before this interrogation, Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers and drives out the merchants in the Temple. When he comes back the next day to teach, his opponents are ready for him. An unlikely alliance of Herodians, Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes assemble to discredit this Galilean upstart. We’ve heard a number of their trick questions already. “By what authority do you do these things?” “Should we pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Jesus evades or counters the question every time. It’s like a theological battle royale, a throwdown among rabbinical heavyweights. You can see the crowd gathered around Jesus, becoming more and more amazed as he answers his inquisitors.


            Which makes Jesus’ final answer all the more amazing. He doesn’t evade the question at all; he answers directly, quoting both Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The greatest commandment of all is the commandment to love God and to love the neighbor, the commandment from which the rest of God’s law springs. All of the Ten Commandments, all of the laws of the Old Testament, every single admonition in the New Testament are commentaries and explications of these two commandments. If we see God’s law in that light – as a commentary on how to love God and each other – we’ll do much better in interpreting it for today.


            Interpreting God’s Word in light of the law of love means letting go of our pathological desire to be absolutely right. It means accepting that we and those we disagree with are in need of God’s grace and mercy. We certainly still make faith claims, but now we can make them without the drive to dehumanize or demonize each other. It frees us from “Here I Stand” syndrome and gets us on the healthier way of “Here We Walk”. Here we walk as Christians together, despite our deep differences. Here we walk, mindful that it is God’s grace that makes us acceptable and not what we do. Here we walk, hearing God’s Word once again in the light of his love for us. Here we walk, confident that the Christ who has walked through every century is walking through this one with his beloved universal church. Jesus is still with us, in the Word, in the Sacrament, beside us each day of our lives. Jesus continues to call us and challenge us to his way of love, assuring us that he will be with us to the end.


            Reformation, at its core, is a God thing, not a human thing. God forgive us for the times we’ve torn each other down. God continue to bring healing to that which is broken among the churches. And God help us to walk together, walking with him who is our rock, who shows us what love really is. Amen.


© 2017, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.