Lectionary Commentaries for October 31, 2010
Reformation Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 8:31-36

David Lose

You know the advice concerning festival preaching as well as I do: preach the texts, not the day.

More often than not, however, that advice is difficult, if not impossible to follow. First, the texts are chosen precisely because of the day and so we naturally think of how they support the liturgical celebration at hand. Second, all the other liturgical elements of the day are so pervasive they provide a nearly inescapable interpretive framework through which we read, hear, and preach the biblical passages.

So perhaps better and more realistic advice might be to preach the texts in light of the day. That is, our task remains to preach the texts — to do anything else would be to offend the heart of the Reformation we celebrate. At the same time, we will do well to acknowledge the festival that shapes the particular occasion on which we hear these passages and honor the potential hermeneutic it offers.

John in Context
John 8:31-36 draws us into a brief but intense scene that is part of a much larger drama of increasing tension and opposition that runs from the beginning of chapter 7 to the end of chapter 8. The backdrop to all of it is the Festival of the Booths (or Tabernacles), the Jewish harvest celebration that commemorates God’s protection and accompaniment of the Jews on their wilderness sojourn from the bondage of Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land (see Leviticus 23:39-43). Participants in this Jerusalem Temple-based festival would often construct booths, draw water from the pool of Siloam, and light candles to commemorate the odyssey of their ancestors.

It is in this context that we must hear Jesus’ declaration that he offers anyone who is thirsty rivers of flowing water (7:37-39), that he is the light of the world (8:12-20), and that those who continue (Greek, meno, literally, abide, dwell, or tabernacle) in his word will be truly free. Jesus is saying that he is the embodiment of the festival and now mediates God’s sheltering presence to the people.

Such a bold claim prompts sharp division between those who believe and those who don’t, though at points — including in today’s reading — it is difficult to tell who is in which camp. The phrase “the Jews” in John almost always refer to the opposition, and the history of the misuse of this passage to justify anti-Semitism makes it simply imperative that preachers point out that this was not meant to refer to all Jewish persons in Jesus’ day or our own. Indeed, in today’s passage John refers to “the Jews who had believed in him” (31).

Today’s sliver from this larger scene focuses on the third element of the Tabernacle celebration: freedom. “If you abide/dwell/tabernacle in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” As is customary in John, Jesus’ interlocutors misunderstand this initial statement (see 3:4) and offer a reply — “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!” — that simultaneously sounds foolish (are we forgetting Egypt, the liberation from which occasions this festival?) and gives Jesus opportunity to elaborate.

He is not talking about physical slavery but a spiritual, even existential state of being enslaved to sin. Further one is not delivered from such slavery by either history or birth rite, but rather by a present and ongoing relationship — relationship to the Son, the one who is in the bosom of the Father and makes the Father known (1:18). Only those who abide with, dwell in, and are in intimate relationship with the Son, the living Word, the logos of God, are free indeed.

Reformation Day as Context
It may at first seem striking that the gospel for Reformation Day says nothing about justification by grace through faith. On second thought, however, perhaps that is just right. The Reformers were not out to establish a doctrine as the source and confidence of our salvation nor would have ever imagined celebrating it as such. All too often, Reformation Day celebrations have been constructed to celebrate the grandness of our theological heritage or, worse, our superiority over other traditions from which we believe Martin Luther delivered us. You can almost paraphrase too much Reformation Day preaching along the lines of today’s reading: “We are the theological descendants of Martin Luther, and have never been slaves to anyone!”

In contrast, the sole aim and intent of the Reformers was to invite Christians into a new vision of the possibility of genuine relationship with God that was not regulated by ecclesial officials, of the promise of forgiveness predicated not upon what we have done but upon what Christ has done, and the guarantee of access to God’s grace and promise of life eternal that was not mediated by church regulation or bureaucracy. The sole aim and intent of the Reformers, that is, was to invite Christians to freedom.

But what does freedom mean? The opposition to Jesus defined it in political terms. We may do the same, or we may add material terms — wealth to buy what we want — or temporal terms — time to do what we want — or relational terms — persons to enjoy as we want. Yet all of these definitions still fall short of the spiritual condition Jesus speaks of: “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” and so is not free. Sin here might be understood not as “bad things” we have done but rather a corrosive insecurity that inhibits us from trusting God and each other and instead drives us to secure our destiny on our own terms.

What can the gospel promise of freedom in Christ, one might ask, possibly offer to the self-made man or woman of the twenty-first century? In a culture that constructs freedom as independence — from responsibility, regulation, taxation, relational obligation, even mortality — how can we speak of the mutual dependence that Christian freedom describes? Luther once declared that as Christians we are simultaneously free from all things — that is, no one can determine our future with God — and yet bound in service to all persons — committed to their wellbeing and advancement.

Christian freedom is freedom from precisely the need to justify and establish ourselves on our own. At the same time, Christian freedom is freedom for life in relationship with God and each other because we believe we have been created for just such relationships and cannot be either whole or free apart from them.

It may seem a long road from freedom as seductive self-reliance and independence to freedom as life-giving mutual dependence, but that is the road we are set upon, the road that began back at Jerusalem, led through Wittenberg, and now runs right along side the congregations we serve. We keep walking, knowing that Jesus himself trod this way and bids us still to follow, promising yet again, “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Fred Gaiser

The end of the church year brings several special occasions or festivals (Reformation, All Saints, Christ the King), which, like all such days, inevitably cause the preacher to ponder whether to preach on the event or on the text.

The answer for Reformation Day is clear: preach the text—it is pretty much what the “event” was about!

I argue more broadly, in fact, that preaching the text is always the answer to that question. The liturgy, prayers, hymns, anthems, vestments, and adornments will “preach” the occasion; the sermon should preach the text. I do not mean to be silly, to be sure, and insist that the sermon never even acknowledge the day—all preaching must take account of the context—but, still, what drives the sermon is the text. That is the only thing that makes it a sermon. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, “Since the sermon is the proclamation of the Word of God, its whole promise rests upon the assumption that it remain bound to the Scripture and the text.”1

Another danger of special occasions is that they seem often to invite preachers to run through all the lessons for the day, taking a piece here and a piece there to speak to the “theme” of the event. So, while I am at it: Don’t do that either. Dietrich Bonhoeffer again said, As much as possible the preacher should avoid the practice of putting two texts together and stick with only one text.”2 The reason, for Bonhoeffer, was to avoid preaching about “pet ideas” or themes rather than preaching particular texts. Incarnation is always and only particular, never general, and to be particular, sermons should stick with one text. Again, I do not mean to be silly: intertextuality is always in order, in the sermon as it is in the Bible; but intertextual references should illuminate a particular text—again, in the sermon as they do in the Bible.

So, on to Jeremiah 31: one particular text for this particular day. One more caution, though: if you choose to preach on this text, do just that; do not preach on the uses of the text in the New Testament (for example, references to the “new covenant” in Jesus’ blood in Holy Communion: Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; or to the “new covenant” established by God in the life and death of Jesus more broadly: 2 Corinthians 3:5-14; Hebrews 8:8-13; 10:16-17). Those references are significant, of course, for without that new covenant in Jesus Christ, the Jeremiah passage—indeed, the entire Old Testament—would not be Scripture for those of us who are Gentile Christians.

But now, grafted into the God’s chosen people (Romans 11:17-24), the Old Testament becomes our Scripture, just as it continues to function, of course, as Scripture for the Jewish people. What I mean, though, is this: if your sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 sounds just like a sermon on Luke 22:20 or Hebrews 8:8-13, then you have, in fact, not preached on Jeremiah 31.

To preach on Jeremiah 31 is to read it, first, in the context of the book of Jeremiah and its historical setting. Jeremiah has announced God’s judgment, directly and terribly, and that judgment has come to pass in the exile. But now, says the prophet, the “days are coming” when God “will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah” (30:3)—introducing what has been called “The Book of Consolation” in chapters 30-31. The promises here are as radical as the judgment that has occurred. What is needed is nothing less than turning “mourning into joy,” that is, life out of death—the recognition that the exile represents the death of what was, while the restoration brings new birth or resurrection.

In other words, the new thing announced in the New Testament, while truly new, grows out of the nature and character of God who, in New Testament and Old, is the one who re-creates and re-enlivens, breathing new life into a people who had been counted out, both by themselves and the surrounding nations. God does the new thing because God is completely and forever a God of surprising grace. A dead Israel can as little “pull itself together” as can a corpse—or, for that matter, a dead church. But God can do all things, which is why this text works as a Reformation Sunday lesson: everything, life itself, depends solely on the grace of God. God forbid that some (say, Lutherans) would pat themselves on the back for “getting this right”—for that would be the greatest abuse of the text and the day. We all continue to live with the daily need for rebirth and the hope of God’s promise to bring it both to ourselves and our churches.

People argue about just what is “new” in Jeremiah’s new covenant: certainly not the character of God, as we have seen, nor the nature of the covenant relationship that ensures, as always, that “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (verse 33). Nor will Torah go away—that is, God’s law, teaching, and instruction. People still will only live from the word of God. New will be the fact that “all” will know God, from the least to the greatest—that is, none will be privileged in the divine relationship—because God will have put the law “within them.” In this new age, all mediation between God and God’s people will be unnecessary. Why? Because “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (verse 34).

Amazing! Our life depends upon God’s self-imposed forgetfulness! And everything, in the old covenant and the new, depends upon the forgiveness of sins. This is by which this passage clearly means not so much overlooking the individual peccadilloes and naughty acts to which we are all prone (though, those are included as well), but rather restoring the disruption of life and world, politics and creation, community and culture, body and soul that humans bring upon themselves through both their willful refusal to “Let God be God” (the title of Philip Watson’s classic 1947 study of Luther’s theology) or their unhappy following of the path of least resistance.

Thus, the frequent Lutheran equation of the gospel with the forgiveness of sins seems correct, according to Jeremiah 31:34, but only if the forgiveness of sins includes all God’s work of re-creation and restoration, rather than just an individual act of penitential piety, as valuable and importance as that is.

Are we there yet? Have we arrived in those days that “are surely coming?” Yes and no. God worked restoration for exiled Israel in the sixth-century B.C.E., and God brought restoration to all people and all the world in Jesus Christ. But we still await the time when God will have written the law indelibly on all our hearts. We are thankful in the meantime for the daily forgiveness and renewal God continues to bring through the gospel in every generation.


Commentary on Psalm 46

Hans Wiersma

“Ein feste burg ist unser Gott…” is the original, German phrase that opens Martin Luther’s famous hymn.

In English we sing “A mighty fortress is our God” but that is not quite the meaning of “feste burg.” In German, the word “fest” means “fast”-not “fast” as in “quick” or “speedy” but “fast” as in “unmoving,” “secure.” When something is unmoving and secure, we would say it “holds fast.” That is the idea of “ein feste burg”: a fortification that holds fast against any assault, a castle that can withstand every onslaught, a citadel that keeps those on the inside safe and secure from all attacks.

This is the sense of the opening lines of Psalm 46, the Psalm upon which “A Mighty Fortress” is purportedly based.1 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Note that in the NRSV version there is a footnote after the phrase “very present.” Here the translators have indicated that the verse may also read: “God is our refuge and strength, a well-proved help in trouble.” If you go with “very present” you have a God who is right there with you, keeping you secure in your time of trouble. If you go with “well-proved,” you have a God who has been time-tested and, over and over again, can be trusted upon to keep you secure in your time of trouble. Either way-and in all times and circumstances-you have a God who has got you covered. That is what Psalm 46 declares. And that is what Luther wanted to proclaim in “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”2

When you compare all of the verses of Psalm 46 with all of the stanzas of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” you will see the connection between the two works, even though they differ somewhat in language and imagery.

Luther’s hymn is an explicit proclamation of Christ Jesus as victorious warrior, the “man of God’s own choosing” who has been sent to wage battle against that “old, evil foe,” the devil.3 This Christ fights at our side, able to subdue Satan with “one little word.” Therefore, no matter how many devils prowl the world “threatening to devour us,” Christ holds the field. True, the enemy can inflict severe wounds (“may take away our property, our children, our spouse, our life”). Nevertheless, Christ’s kingdom endures and is ours forever.

Instead of Christ, Psalm 46 names God (Elohim) as the LORD of Hosts (YHWH Sabaoth), the one who watches over and controls all that transpires on earth. Therefore, we need not fear when our world is upended, when “the nations are in uproar” and the “kingdoms totter.” For God melts the earth with a word, making it desolate. And the Lord of Hosts “makes wars cease,” breaking the bow, shattering the spear, burning the shield in fire.

The central connection between Luther’s hymn and Psalm 46 lies in the proclamation that God is in the mix, present, fighting on our behalf. In the Psalm, “the Lord of Hosts is with us” in all kinds of natural and political tumult; in Luther’s hymn, Christ fights at our side, no matter what our struggle or temptation, trial or tribulation. Despite these connections, there remains a key difference. In Psalm 46, the lyricist seems to have in mind actual war and the cessation of war, while in “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the warfare is more of a spiritual sort.

Here, it is worth pointing out “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was written by a man who was profoundly familiar with the internal tumult of “spiritual affliction.” Luther preferred to describe his internal, spiritual affliction using the German word, Anfechtung. Note the word fecht (“fight”) in the middle of Anfechtung. For Luther, Anfechtung described the devil’s attacks on faith in Christ. Luther experienced these “fiery darts” or “flaming arrows” of the devil (see Ephesians 6:16) in the form of doubt. That is, the devil would cause Brother Martin to think salvation depended upon personal good works, rather than upon Christ’s work on the cross.

Luther took refuge from such “spiritual distress” by immersing himself in the Word of God, in the company of Christian friends, and occasionally in good food and drink. Sometimes Luther would fight back and engage the devil in the battle over his conscience. With the “whole armor of God” (again, see Ephesians 6), Luther would quote scripture and confess Christ. And if that didn’t work, Luther would simply mock the devil and, somewhat infamously, fart at him.4 Whatever works!

1 In fact, little is known about the circumstances that inspired Luther to craft his most famous hymn. The hymn apparently first appeared in a German hymnal dated 1528. Yet the hymn’s tune and its themes are similar to Luther’s first published hymn, “We Lift Up a New Song” (1523).
2 “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is not the only English translation of Luther’s “Ein Feste Burg.” Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth century Scottish commentator, offered this version: “A safe stronghold our God is still, a trusty shield and weapon.” Carlyle’s contemporary, George MacDonald, rendered stanza one, verse one, in this way: “Our God he is a castle strong, a good mailcoat and weapon.”
3 Hymn quotes are from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006).
4 See, for instance, LW 54:15, 16.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

Dirk G. Lange

Anyone commenting or preaching on these well-known verses better hesitate.

For preachers, at least in the Protestant world, these verses have become like clichés. How does one preach a cliché without always saying the same thing? We have heard these verses so often that they simply go in one ear and out the other. And yet, in these verses, Paul is rewriting, reformulating, reinterpreting tradition. Paul boldly seeks to understand what it means for all of us that Abraham was saved by faith and this faith is now also ours.

To begin with, Paul notes that we are all under the law. This is the first critical point and one that needs to be ever brought back to center stage. Western interpretation has, unfortunately, focused on a consequence (which Paul also mentions): since we are all under the law, we have all sinned, we are all sinners. Though this is a logical consequence, though it is correct to assert that we are all sinners, it is also note-worthy to recognize that Paul does not focus on that fact. He continually insists that we are all under the law.

This means, for Paul, that no one can reach God through her or his own merits, abilities, good conduct or works. No one can capture God. No one can reach God. It is precisely God who comes to us. We can name this inability to reach God “sin,” but it is also much more. Yes, its consequence is sin, but its deeper reality asserts that even in the most beautiful of moments, even in the most intellectually or artistically stimulating moments, even in deeply spiritual insights, even in the most intimate love, we still have not reached perfection…and we will not, through any of those moments, reach God. This is what it means to be under the law. Every mouth is silenced. There is nothing that we can do. Through the law, we recognize this inability and then our sin as well (as we try to by-pass the law).

In contrast, Paul describes the righteousness of God, the righteousness that is given to us. This righteousness comes to us through faith in Jesus Christ. Is faith then a work? Is “believing” something we do? There is certainly a temptation to think that faith or believing is our work. This temptation is written within the text itself, but Paul excludes such an interpretation by what he has just previously established. Every mouth is silenced. Lips are sealed just as the tomb was sealed by a great stone. Nothing we can do will open the tomb, nothing will get us to God. No, the faith Paul writes about here is the faith of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God’s righteousness. It is this righteousness that creates faith in the first place. It is this righteousness, this person, Jesus Christ, who, as promise, awakens faith within us. Faith itself is a gift bestowed on us through the Holy Spirit, where and when the Holy Spirit wills.

What are we to make of Jesus Christ as “sacrifice of atonement”? Is our God a parent who sacrifices an only child? We are well aware of the stinging and justified critique that has been leveled at this notion of “sacrifice of atonement.” It is one we need keep in mind, especially as preachers, since a metaphor describing God’s action has far-reaching consequences in the faith and prayer life of believers. Metaphors of works produce more work! Metaphors of violence can too easily engender more violence.

The Gospel, however, is not about a God who is appeased by a sacrifice. It is not about a God who needs to be bargained with; many atonement theories, grounded in this idea of sacrifice, are simply guises for a ladder theology (we can still do something to get to God). As Gerhard Forde pointed out, these sacrificial theories incorporate God into human works, into human scheming.

The Gospel, however, is gift in a radical way: faith alone. I, you, have nothing that can get us to heaven so God comes to us and events faith in our heart. “By his blood…”–this is the radical nature of the gift of faith. It does not shy away from death itself. The “sacrifice of atonement by his blood” expresses the radical gift of the incarnation, albeit it in difficult words!

Luther is the first to acknowledge that Christ’s death on the cross is better described as an execution (see his commentary on Psalm 111), and yet, he also acknowledges we continue to use the word sacrifice. To a certain degree, we are made responsible for this word. We are responsible for making this word understandable, approachable, for believers today. I think one way to do this has just been outlined: as the ultimate expression of God’s radical and total involvement within creation and human history (as solidarity and not as appeasement or bargaining).

“He did this to show his righteousness…” God came not to show us what we have to still do, not show us a way to perfection (that is, sacrifice yourself — it is good for you!). God came to reveal to us how great is the righteousness that is now given to us (verses 21-22), that now becomes ours as faith. We have here an instance perhaps of that other metaphor for atonement: the happy exchange. Christ takes everything that is ours and lays the burden on himself and gives us everything that is his. The gift of Christ’s faith carries us. This gift imparts righteousness to us, makes of us believers, not through our work (for we are silent, we cannot boast!) but through the promise that Christ has accomplished all for us.