The Roots (and Future) of Our Faith - Pentecost 9A
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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
August 6, 2017 at 10:15 AM
Central Passage
Romans 9:1-5

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: Pentecost 9A; August 6, 2017

Genesis 32:22-31; Romans 9:1-5


The Roots (and Future) of our Faith


            Take thirty seconds and think of someone who modeled or taught you the Christian faith. It could be a parent, grandparent, friend, teacher, or pastor. Thirty seconds. I’ll watch the time (pause). All of us are here, member and guest, because someone cared enough for us to teach or show us the saving love of Jesus Christ. Our faith, therefore, is not a solitary faith. Salvation is never just a “me-and-Jesus” affair; it is always us and Jesus. It is corporate, not singular, and whoever you thought of is part of the bedrock of your faith, just as you are or will be part of the bedrock of someone else’s faith.


            The roots of our Christian faith stretch back even before theres was a Christianity per se. In Paul’s letter to the Roman church, a church becoming more and more Gentile, he agonizes over the fate of our ancestors in faith, the Jewish people. Paul himself, of course, was Jewish – a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin, to be precise – and never repudiated his Jewish heritage. Jesus, all twelve disciples, and every single member of the early Christian community were also Jewish, through and through. And yet, as the early church spread throughout the Mediterranean, it became more and more Gentile. Fewer and fewer Jews became part of the church, while more and more Gentiles converted. And this created controversy. If the Jews were God’s special covenant people, why did most of them refuse to accept Jesus as Messiah? Had God totally rejected his own people? More troubling questions followed: had God’s word failed? Was God a god of empty promises?


            Paul emphatically rejects any notion that God has rejected the people of Israel. He also rejects the notion that somehow, the Word of God had failed. He points to the immense bedrock of faith that comes from Israel: the adoption (God adopts human beings as his children), the covenants (with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and others), the giving of the law (the Ten Commandments and the other 603 laws of the Torah), the worship (Temple rites and sacrifices, given by God through Moses and Aaron), the promises (again to David and others), the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and sons) to which we can add matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel), and most significantly for us, the Messiah, Jesus. What he does say is that God’s salvation has been expanded and offered to all people, no matter their ancestry, heritage, race, or ethnicity. God is a God who, in his freedom, has decided to show mercy on others as well as his first covenant people.


            As Christians who bear Martin Luther’s name, however, we have a particularly dark history of misinterpreting Holy Scripture, justifying violence and anti-Semitism. Such violent invective is in Luther’s own later writings. In his great disappointment that the Jews of Europe did not flock to the Lutheran churches, he exploded in a nasty diatribe called, “On the Jews and Their Lies”, in which he advocated the destruction of synagogues, expulsion, and forced labor, among other things. Even a number of Luther’s fellow reformers, Philip Melanchthon and Andreas Osiander, were disturbed by Martin’s unhinged writing, and the Reformed churches of Zurich, Switzerland wrote this response to it, “if it had been written by a swineherd, rather than by a celebrated shepherd of souls, it might have some – but very little – justification”. This writing was revived in 1930s Germany to devastating effect. Lutheran churches there, with only a few exceptions, caved to pressure and cooperated with the Nazi regime. Some of the seeds of the Final Solution are, grievously, from the pen of the great reformer himself.


            So what does this tell us? Is our faith based on a fraud? Do we carry the name of a great reformer of the Church catholic, or of a vicious, cruel, anti-Semite? And what does this tell us about ourselves and about Scripture?


            The truth is that our name, the Lutheran name, epitomizes both the holy drive for reform of the Church, and the unholy temptation to see ourselves as the only recipients of God’s grace and mercy. We can say that God has shown us faith, mercy, and love, as Luther did, and that God guides us to ever greater reformation and transformation. What we can’t say, as Luther also did, is that God does not bestow mercy on certain other people. We can’t say that God is not working in the lives of others, even if we do not see it ourselves.


            We know where the roots of our faith lie: they lie in the promises given to Noah and Abraham, to the faith of the Jewish people which continues to the present day, to the revelation of Jesus as Messiah, to his first followers, the early Church, to the churches and councils of eastern and western cities, especially that of Rome, and from the Lutheran reformers of the 16th century to the present day. We can’t say that we know exactly how God’s plan of salvation will work out for people. We believe that Christ is Lord of all, but how exactly that works or will work is not for us to say.


            It also isn’t for us to say how God might be working in the lives of those who seem to be estranged from the church. Many of you faithfully brought your children to the Christian faith in this very congregation. Some of them remain part of a congregation, but many of them do not. And this phenomenon isn’t unique to Zion – it is part of the rise of the “nones” – those who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. Perhaps you too share Paul’s feeling – that you wish you could be “cursed and cut off from Christ” for their sake. You pray and pray for them, but nothing seems to happen. What then? What can we say? What can we do? We’re in a time where the church (and we ourselves) seem to be more and more powerless to do anything.


            But we are not powerless. God has given us the greatest gift of all – salvation from sin, death, and devil through Jesus Christ. And in sure and certain hope of that salvation, God commands us to pray. To keep praying. To embrace God’s embrace of us and the world. To pray, not so much that God change others, but that God keep changing us, to make us better witnesses to his saving work. And God has given us so many examples of persistent faith in Scripture, in church history, and even in our own families. And God has also given us other examples – heroes with feet of clay, like Luther – who embody both the best and worst of the Christian faith. Sinners and saints. People who remind of both the joys of saving faith and of the temptations to denounce or hurt others using the Word.


            So we go forward as people of God, who bear the name Lutheran, both as a reminder of what God calls us to be and as a warning to what can happen if we see ourselves alone as blessed, ourselves alone as chosen. As Paul will later write in Romans, we are but branches grafted onto the olive tree. How God will see to that tree of faith and life in the future is up to God alone. And thanks be to God for that. Because if it was up to us, we would all be lost.


            Let us pray.


            Holy God, you have given us faith built on a foundation of reformers, apostles, patriarchs, and prophets, who are themselves built on the pre-existent Word, Christ. Keep us from the danger of assuming how you show grace to people. Keep us humble but confident in our faith. We pray this through Christ our Lord. Amen.


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