Happy Reformation Sunday! (A day known in some circles as Lutheran Pridefulness Sunday). This is the day in the liturgical year on which we celebrate the Protestant Reformation led by our own homeboy, Dr. Martin Luther. I don’t mean to mock the monumental achievements of the Reformation—there really is a lot to celebrate! Because of the Reformation, the Bible has been translated into the language of the people, and we are encouraged to read it for ourselves. Because of the Reformation, we are no longer under the rule of a Pope. Because of the Reformation—a personal favorite of mine right now—our clergy are allowed to get married! We’ve come a long way, Baby! And at Trinity, we get to celebrate our amazing confirmands Hannah and Mekhi, two of the coolest teenagers I have ever known. Today we celebrate ourselves!
But whoever picked the texts for Reformation Sunday did not get the memo. What are they all about? Not a victory parade for the Protestant Reformation, or an uplifting graduation speech for two smart kids, but a lot of talk about sin and law. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and “All who sin are slaves to sin,” and “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Sin, sin, sin. How can these texts be illustrative our awesomeness?
The thing is, sometimes we Lutherans shy away from talking about sin, because it’s so overdone by the fundamentalist preachers, who make a living off making people feel scared and bad. But honestly, Martin Luther himself talked a lot about sin. He just didn’t talk about it the way televangelists do. In Lutheran teachings, sin isn’t all about whether or not we eat or drink or gossip too much; it isn’t just about whether or not we cheat on our spouses or our income taxes. Luther explains that sin is bigger than simple immorality. Luther describes sin as being in curvatus se—being curved in on ourselves, so obsessed with our own navel-gazing that there is no space for thoughts about God or our neighbors. Another way to put it is that sin is “missing the mark”—sin is all the ways we put ourselves in the place of God.
So sin can be alcoholism or passive aggression. It can be the hateful things we think but never say, or that feeling of superiority we get from helping others. Sin is the fact that even on my best days, my values and principles are not enough to make me do what I know I should do every time, and they aren’t even enough to make me feel what I should nor think what I should at every turn.
Anything that reveals those “shoulds” to me is what Luther described as The Law. The Law is what reveals sin, as Paul told the Roman church in today’s second lesson. Like a doctor opening up a wound even wider in order to put medicine into it, the “shoulds” hurt—but the pain is necessary for the healing to take place. It is the Law that forces us to see how far off the mark we really are. Whatever we believe the “shoulds” are (“I should be more generous in my giving,” “I should stop bending the truth,” “I should be nicer,” “I should eat only organic, locally-grown food…..”), there is always, always, always a gap between our ideal selves and our actual selves. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Sometimes no one but us knows just HOW short we fall from the glory of God. But we know; and in those moments alone when we are beating ourselves up, or trying to deny it, or again making promises of self-improvement, in those solitary moments we know what it’s like to have curved in on ourselves so deeply that we can’t get up. It looks like every feminist who secretly hates her body; like every social worker who can’t look into the eyes of the homeless man he passes every day. It looks like the one who shouts for equality but privately hopes for an enemy’s downfall. These people know what the Law can do to us. How cruel the distance between our ideal self and our actual self can feel. That feeling of not ever really hitting the mark, whatever mark that is, is the feeling of the Law convicting you.
Martin Luther knew what it felt like for the Law to convict him, accuse him, leave him with nowhere to rest. And it’s exactly this that really sparked the Protestant Reformation. While he was feeling knee-deep in his own inability to curb his sin, Luther read that passage we just heard from Romans: “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift.”
A gift! Luther grabbed onto that truth like a drowning man clings to a life preserver. He suddenly understood and believed that God’s grace really comes to us a gift. So Luther could no longer accept what the church of his time was teaching: that we are really saved by good works of the Law. The medieval church had pawned off Law as Gospel—they were literally selling the forgiveness of sins! Once Luther grasped the difference between Law and Gospel, he became a preacher of Grace, and THAT is what changed everything.
But let’s not descend into that anti-Roman Catholic “We’ve got grace, yes, we do, we’ve got grace, how ‘bout you?” competition that has so long been a formidable sin of Lutheranism. Let’s not be like the church I belonged to in Savannah, GA, who—as the Roman Catholic St. Patrick’s Day parade went by—stood on the steps singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Pawning off Law as Gospel isn’t a Catholic thing, nor a medieval thing. It’s a human thing, and we all do it all the time. In celebration of Reformation Sunday and in honor of two young people who could teach you so much more than I about grace, I offer you the Cliff-notes version of “How to Tell the Difference between Law and Gospel.”
The Law is an “if/then” proposition – If you follow all the rules in the Bible, then God will love you and you will be happy. If you lose that 20 pounds, then you will be worthy of love. If you never have a racist or sexist or homophobic thought, then you will be worthy of calling other people out on their racism and sexism and homophobia. The Law is always conditional and it is never anything anyone can do perfectly. When we treat Law as Gospel, there can never be hope or wholeness. Under the Law there are only 2 options: pride and despair. We are either prideful about our ability to follow the rules compared to others, or we despair at our inability to do anything right. Either way, we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. That’s the Law.
And that’s what makes the Gospel such good news! The Gospel is not an if/then proposition. It is a because/therefore proposition. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber of Denver puts this contrast beautifully that I just want to share her words with you:
[The Gospel] is more Wizard of Oz than that. The Gospel is a because because because because proposition. Because God is our Creator, and because we rebel against the idea of being created beings and insist on trying to be God for ourselves, and because God will not play by our rules, and because in the fullness of time when God had had quite enough of all of that God became human in Jesus Christ to show us who God really is, and because when God came to God’s own and we received him not, and because God would not be deterred, God went so far as to hang from the cross we built and did not even lift a finger to condemn but said ‘forgive them they know not what they are doing,’ and because Jesus Christ defeated even death and the grave and rose on the 3rd day, and because we all sin and are forever turned in on ourselves and forget that we belong to God and that none of our successes guarantee this and none of our failures exclude this, and because God so loves God’s creation God refuses to let our brokenness and inability to always do the right things to be the last word because God came to save and not to judge therefore…therefore, you are saved by grace as a gift and not by the works of the Law.
How about THAT for a little Gospel!? This is the truth about who God is and who we are, and THIS is the truth that will set us free!
We need the Law; it puts us in the position to hear the Gospel. But once the doctor has opened up the wound, then the cleansing, healing, renewing power can be poured in. When we are crushed by the truth about our inability to be God, THEN the Gospel light shines through, and we can grasp that we are God’s own beloved children. Suddenly we can hear and know that we are precious and valuable in God’s eyes, that we are given the free gift of belonging. Then we can be put back together by the goodness and glory of God.
In this way, The Law and The Gospel re-form us. We are, by God’s grace, people of a Re-formation. We have been and are being Re-formed.
This is most certainly true. Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider