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Reformation Sunday Sermon
Romans 3: 19-28
October
28, 2018

 

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Romans 3:19-28

Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all 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, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us, in the name of his risen son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.

This week I found out something about myself – I think I may be afraid to be afraid. It happened as I was reading a reflection on Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane before he was betrayed and brutally beaten and crucified. Luke 22:44 reports that, “In his anguish Jesus prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling on the ground.” Jesus was not afraid to be afraid because he knew that it was just fear. We are afraid of fear because we believe it has the power to expose us for who we really are, and it fills us with shame.

One of the questions from a Pre-marriage Awareness Inventory that I use with couples preparing for marriage is this: The feeling I have the most difficulty conveying to my partner is … and the choices are discouragement, anger, sadness, happiness, excitement or fear. I dare say that if I were to personally answer that honestly it would be fear. Of what am I most afraid? Something tragic happening to my wife or kids tops the list. Something tragic happening to me is certainly up there. But I also refuse to let myself express these and other fears because it would expose my shortcomings or my inabilities to always do the right thing. Fearing for the future of this congregation might mean owning up to ways that I may be contributing to our who we are today, in good and bad ways. And I am fear that.
When I think of Martin Luther, I think that he had a lot more to fear than I do. Besides literally being hunted by the Pope, Luther agonized like Jesus in the garden over his own worthiness in the eyes of God. These fears led him to literally beat himself up everyday over every little thought or action which he deemed as, “sinful.” I sense that the reason for this was the predominant teaching of his day which centered on good works and tapping into the store of Jesus’ treasure of good works in order to save oneself from eternal damnation. The church was teaching that to tap into that store of good works, one could purchase an indulgence, a piece of paper sealed with a cross. This cross held, instead of the crucified Lord Jesus on it, the Pope’s coat of arms. Luther’s fear was founded upon the notion of being pronounced guilty by the great judge in the sky, and not having the silver or gold to purchase his way out of that sentence. Maybe my fears, besides the ones about things I cannot control, are founded upon the notion of being pronounced guilty by those around me of being a sinner, not living up to the life that is expected of me by my family, friends, colleagues, bishop and congregation members.

It was when Luther started really delving into passages like the one we heard from Romans 3 that he realized that we are already pronounced guilty by the judge. “No human being will be justified in God’s sight by deeds prescribed by the law …” Justification and righteousness are language from the court of law, and they both mean the same thing: to be put right or to be restored to good status in relation with God and your community. In this passage, Paul goes on to say that there is no distinction between anyone, “since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; they are NOW justified (restored to good status with God and the community) by God’s grace as a gift – through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Redemption is a word from the slave markets, and it referred to someone paying a price to release a slave from bondage.

I hope you see where Luther must have felt at the same time immense relief and fear. The relief was because of the reality that he has nothing to fear for his eternal salvation. He, like all of us, was justified, righteous and redeemed by God through Jesus because of the free gift of love which God has for all of creation. While this realization removed one kind of fear, it brought with it another kind of fear – the fear of facing the juggernaut called the Holy Catholic Church, which would not welcome this return to the Gospel with open arms.

This is why I admire Luther so much. With the fear of eternal punishment eradicated, he knew and lived out the confidence that the fears of earthly cannot expose us or shame us, because ultimately all of us are loved, justified, redeemed children of God. When Paul writes about faith, he does so on two different levels: one is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ who, facing the painful loss of his very life, continued to love as God called him to love until he hung on the cross, knowing that ultimately he was to be a risen Lord and savior. The cross was not the last word; God’s love was and always is the last word. So when Paul talks about the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe, he is speaking about the faithfulness of Jesus Christ on the one hand; but he is also talking about faith as our response to this wonderful gift of love and grace. Since the enlightenment, faith has been equated with intellectual assent to the presence of God – believe with you mind that God is real and you have nothing to fear!

I read someone equate the pre-enlightenment notion of faith with the receiving of a promise. First of all, your reaction to someone making a promise depends on the trustworthiness of the one making the promise! If you have been burned before, you might be afraid that the promise isn’t reliable. Secondly, when you receive such a promise as the one that opened Luther’s eyes – that we deserve to be pronounced guilty (and indeed are pronounced guilty) but are then pronounced righteous and just out of the mercy of our God, then your whole life is changed. You know that the impossible task of earning God’s love is not the reason for living your life a certain way. It is like I shared with the children, the motivation for driving safely is not to avoid getting tickets, paying fines or ending up in jail; the motivation is to be safe on the roads because your life and the lives of those around you are in danger if you don’t.

And that brings me back to the whole fear thing. Are you afraid to be afraid? Often that kind of fear stifles our faith because we hesitate to truly receive God’s promise of justification by faith. Surrendering to that fear means that we trust in the one who has made us this incredible promise: as Jeremiah put it, “I will forgive your iniquity and remember your sin no more.” We have nothing to fear from fear. Putting that fear aside, then we have the courage to live by faith: faith – receiving the promise of a trustworthy God. With that faith, we can go forth into our future, risking our very lives for the sake of sharing the love of Jesus, just as Luther and so many others have. May it be so, in the name of Christ; Amen.