Lectionary Commentaries for October 30, 2011
Reformation Day

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 8:31-36

Clayton Schmit

This pericope begins in an unusual way: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him…” (8:31).

It is not feasible to interpret this in the obvious way (that his listeners had faith in him as the messiah) because by the end of the story, Jesus says to them “I know you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me . . . .” (8:37).

Clearly, they do not believe in Jesus’ ministry or mission. John uses this description to distinguish these particular listeners from the disputatious Jews Jesus regularly encounters, as in the pericopes that precede this one. There, Jesus is being challenged and examined by Pharisees and scribes. Here, he seems to have a somewhat more open audience.

Yet, what he says to them is a challenge. If they “continue” (meno ¬in Greek) or have a firm relationship with Jesus’ word, they will know the truth and will be made free. The Jews take offense at this, claiming that as descendants of Abraham, they have never been slaves and do not need to be freed. They say this, in spite of the fact that it was the descendants of Abraham who lived in bondage in Egypt, and were made captives to several neighboring states throughout their history, and were currently in a form of bondage under the Roman regime. 

Jesus corrects their literal understanding of his statement. They may not be in slavery, themselves, but are certainly bound to, enslaved to sin. That he begins with a solemn preamble (“Very truly, I say to you . . .”) indicates the sincerity with which Jesus utters the truth: they are in bondage to sin, but he (“the Son”) can set them free.

One of the abiding themes of Reformation Day is that Luther and the other Reformers discovered freedom in the gospel. This lesson raises that theme for the day’s homiletical consideration. 

Young Luther was particularly caught up in the problem of Jesus’ auditors. Though not strictly enslaved in a literal sense, like them, Luther was trapped in his own sinfulness. Through reading the gospels with fresh understanding, Luther began to grasp its truth. Christ was not merely the Judge eagerly waiting to exact punishment on hapless sinners. Christ, through his victory on the cross, overcame sin so that those who live in it have the opportunity to be freed from it.

Any church or denomination celebrating Reformation Day can use this opportunity to consider the significance of the theology of the cross. The cross is the greatest irony in history. An instrument of condemnation and death, it becomes the vehicle for triumph over evil and death.  The word of Jesus is the word of the cross and it sets humankind free from their bondage to sin.

People will be aware, however, that in one sense, they are not completely free from sin. They continue in sin, as before. Perhaps as believers, they sin less than before they learned to live in close relationship to Jesus’ words. But, sin is ever present in life. The difference is this truth: the cross changes the game entirely.

Before it, sin meant the just sentence of death. After the cross, sin brings the possibility of forgiveness. Death is replaced by forgiveness of sins. That is a striking reversal, one that affirms that sinners are free from the terrible fate they deserve. 

Freedom, then, is the good news of this text and will be the good news shared by textual preachers. But, the word has two distinct prepositional directions. We can be freed from something, but we can also be freed for something. “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (8:36).

Clearly, by following the word of Jesus, we are set free from sin. But what are we freed for? The answer brings us back to the word meno. To remain in Jesus’ word is not merely passive, as in to remain, to stay, or to wait. The word pushes also toward the active: to abide, to live, to continue.  It is used this way repeatedly in John. How shall the disciple abide? How shall he or she live? In what shall the disciple continue?

Those released from sin are freed to live an engaged life in the word. This is an active life of staying near the word by performing it in the world. To live in the word is to live a life of justice, of faithful devotion and study, and a life of commitment to the things that Jesus is committed to. 

The resounding call of Reformation Day is both to celebrate the good news that we are free from sin and to move from celebration to action as Jesus’ agents in the world.


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

On this Reformation Sunday, we hear words of promise from the prophet Jeremiah, words about a new covenant and a renewed relationship between God and God’s people.

The words are addressed to a people in exile, far from home and bereft of hope. The covenant between God and Israel, the covenant made so long ago at Sinai, is (or seems to be) broken. God has not protected Israel from harm and they have been taken into exile.

Into such a situation, the prophet speaks words of promise. But he frames those promises in terms of the very relationship in question. The prophet speaks of a covenant — like the one made at Sinai — between YHWHi and Israel. “The days are surely coming, says YHWH, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31).

There is both continuity and discontinuity with what has come before. The continuity lies in the character of God and the love God continues to have for a wayward people. God will not abandon Israel forever. God will not forget God’s promises made so long ago at Sinai:

“I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God.” (Exodus 29:45; cf. Exodus 6:7)
“And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” (Leviticus 26:12)

Just so, in this new covenant, God promises, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). The relationship is not new. Israel knows this God, and God knows this people. The promises Jeremiah speaks build on a long and shared history between YHWH and Israel, a history marked by wavering on the part of the people and by faithfulness on the part of YHWH. God continues to love this wayward people; they continue to be God’s treasured possession. In this new covenant there is indeed continuity with what has come before.

The discontinuity is, of course, implied with the term, “new.” This is a new covenant with Israel, not like the covenant at Sinai, “a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says YHWH” (Jeremiah 31:32). Still, what is new about this covenant is not so much its content, but the means by which God will bring it about.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says YHWH: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know YHWH,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says YHWH; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

The old covenant, written on stone tablets and scrolls, will be replaced by the new covenant, written on flesh. The first set of stone tablets was broken (Exodus 32:19), the second set written again (Exodus 34:1) and hidden away in the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 10:5). The book of the law, containing the stipulations of the covenant, likewise was stored beside the Ark (Deuteronomy 31:24-26) and mostly forgotten until it was rediscovered in the reign of King Josiah (2 Kings 22), in the early days of Jeremiah’s prophetic career.

Unlike the old covenant, then, written on stone tablets that can be broken and scrolls that can be lost, the new covenant will be written within the people, on their very hearts. No need for remedial religious education, because everyone will know YHWH, from the king to the stable boy, from the oldest elder to the youngest child.

And it will all be YHWH’s doing. “I will forgive their iniquity, and will remember their sin no more.” The people have not demonstrated a great aptitude for faithfulness during the many years of the old covenant, so this time YHWH will do it differently. This time, the covenant relies solely on YHWH’s mercy, YHWH’s ever-present grace in forgiving a disobedient people and calling them back into relationship with him.

The themes of a new (or renewed) covenant and of God’s overwhelming grace are, of course, fitting for a celebration of Reformation Day. Martin Luther did not believe that he had discovered something radically new in Scripture when he found there the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. He rediscovered a treasure that the church of his day had largely lost. The movement he began was as much a restoration as a reformation — the rediscovery of God’s abundant grace in the new covenant established in and through Jesus Christ. Luther was restoring the church to a right understanding of that covenant.

There is, then, in Luther’s theology a deep continuity with what had come before. Luther knew that God’s nature does not change. God was, is, and will continue to be a God of great mercy, forgiveness, and love for a wayward people. It is that people’s (the church’s) understanding of God’s nature that had become clouded in Luther’s day. Like Jeremiah, then, Luther called the people of his day to a new understanding of God and a renewed emphasis on God’s grace and God’s abiding love even for a sinful people.

And it is all God’s doing. In and through Jesus Christ, the God of Jeremiah continues to forgive, renew, reform, and call God’s people into right relationship with him and with one another. God is faithful, even when we are not. That is the good news that both Jeremiah and Luther proclaimed, and it is news that can and should be celebrated on this Reformation Sunday, preferably with trumpets and always with great joy.


iI do not vocalize the divine name out of respect for our Jewish brothers and sisters, who do not traditionally speak that most holy name out loud.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 46

Rolf Jacobson

“A Mighty Fortress is Our God” — the hymn, which according to Ulrich Leupold, “more than any other epitomizes Luther’s thought and personal experience” — is a rather free paraphrase of Psalm 46.

For that reason, the psalm is assigned for Reformation Sunday. But as Leupold notes, Luther “did not write [the hymn] to express his own feelings, but to interpret and apply the 46th Psalm to the church of his own time and its struggles.”1  This is a fine summary of the preaching task — to interpret and apply the biblical text to our own time and struggles. So why not preach this Reformation Day on Psalm 46?

The Text of the Psalm
The psalm is tightly composed, with three, three-verse-long stanzas and two refrains:
Stanza 1 (verses 1-3)
Stanza 2 (verses 4-6)
Refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (verse 7)
Stanza 3 (verses 8-10)
Refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (verse 11)

An important note about the text of the psalm is necessary, because some recent modern editions of the Book of Psalm “restored” (a fancy scholarly term meaning “fussed with”) the text of the psalm to include the psalm’s refrain after the first stanza, too. The Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978 and The Book of Common Prayer of 1977 both used a version of this psalm with the refrain so restored.2 

More recently, however, postmodern sensibilities have rightfully undermined scholarly confidence in the ability to fuss with the biblical text in these ways. So here is the point: Just be aware of which text your congregation is using. The commentary here does not supply the supposed missing verse. If you are still using a version that “restores” the refrain after the first stanza, adjust your interpretation accordingly.

Stanza One — The Roaring of Creation and God “Our Refuge”
In the first stanza, the hymn juxtaposes the steady and secure image of God as “refuge” with the image of the earth and seas in uproar. (For more on the key Hebrew term “refuge,” see the commentary on Psalm 91:9-16.
) The image of “earth” shaking and “sea” roaring is an image of creation itself in rebellion against God’s creative order. This image is a reminder that the fallen condition of creation goes beyond mere human disobedience. The fallen condition encompasses all of creation, all of nature. Thus, the “law” that the psalm names is the reality that creation itself is broken and in rebellion against the Creator. Earthquakes and tsunamis cause destruction. Disease and disability strike. Death awaits all. And the “gospel” that the psalm names is the one trustworthy source of security that can be relied upon in the midst of this roaring rebellion: God is our refuge, “therefore we will not fear.” Notice that similar to other poems of trust, such as Psalm 23, the strategy of the psalm is to name the very real reasons there are for fear, and then to confess trust in God in the midst of those fears.

Stanza Two — The Roaring of the Nations and the River of God
The second stanza of the poem intensifies both the threat that is named and the promise that is proffered. The first stanza remained at the more universal level, naming the universal threat of creation in rebellion and offering the general promise of God (using the generic term elohim) as refuge. The second stanza focuses in more specifically on the national identity of God’s chosen people. It refers to the nations (Hebrew: goyim) that threaten “the city of God” (also known as Jerusalem) and the refrain employs both the personal name of “the Lord” as well as the epithet “God of Jacob” — a reference to the nation’s ancestral patriarch.

All of which is to say that in the second stanza the poem intensifies the sense of threat by naming the national threat that empires such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and many smaller nations posed to the descendants of Jacob throughout Israel’s existence. This intensification of the naming of the threat also balances the first stanza by naming a second, more particular and more direct way in which the fallen condition of sin affects human — through human sin.

Yes, all of creation is fallen and in rebellion, but human sin and rebellion is more nefarious, or at least more potent — if only because the combination of human intelligence and will make evils such as genocide and war possible. Thus, “the nations are in an uproar” (the Hebrew verb hamah is used both for the nations in verse 6 and the sea in verse 3) summarizes the intensification of the rebellious threat.

The corresponding promise that the second stanza offers is the presence of God with the people. Here, God’s presence is metaphorically described as “a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” There was and is no river in Jerusalem, of course, but that is not the point of the poetic flourish. The point is rather the powerful promise resident in the stark image of the refreshing and life-sustaining river to a city and people in an arid climate under siege by an invading army. The image of the river flowing from the throne or habitation of God was, moreover, a metaphor known throughout the ancient Near East and one that found its way into the promises of the New Testament (Revelation 22:1-2).3 

The promise of the presence of God with the people in the city was a key element of the theology of the southern kingdom of Judah. The city, and in particular its Temple, was “the holy habitation of the most high.” According to this theology, God had chosen both the Davidic monarchs and the City of David, Jerusalem. This “dual election” included the promise of protection for both (see Psalm 89; Isaiah 7:1-17; 2 Samuel 7:1-7). In the refrain, which we can imagine the entire congregation singing, the words of trust become almost a creedal confession of confidence: “The Lord of hosts is with us.”

In the New Testament, this theology modulates to a new key, with Jesus coming as both the presence and habitation of God and as the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah (the royal descendant of David) — who is present wherever two or three gather in his name, to the end of the age.

Stanza Three — Be Still and Know that I am God
The psalm’s final stanza culminates with a statement of trust that is cloaked as an invitation and then with a promise. The invitation is the imperative cry, “Come!” which occurs in Psalms 95 and 66 in calls to come, see what God has done, and therefore to praise God. Here, the call is not so much to praise God, but to come and be silent — to witness God’s powerful ability to crush rebellion and then to be silent.

In the end, God even speaks the promise: “Be still, and know that I am God.” To know, in Hebrew, does not mean just to acknowledge something intellectually, but to internalize or to embody the truth fully. And then God’s voice closes the psalm by asserting God’s exaltation over both spheres of creation that have been in rebellion against God in stanzas 1 and 2 of the poem: “I am exalted among the nations” (stanza 2) and “I am exalted in the earth” (stanza 1).

That is the promise of both the psalm, and in a larger sense, of the entire Bible. That the God of Jacob and the Lord of Israel will, in the end of all things, prove a faithful refuge for those who are caught in the fallen condition of creation and humanity.

The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.


1In Luther’s Works 53: 283.
2This restoration to the psalm can be found in such important scholars as Hans-Joachim Kraus [Psalms 1-59 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988) 458-9]. The argument is entirely internal, assuming that because the Hebrew word selah follows each of the three stanzas, the refrain should follow also. But here is no external textual support, either in ancient Hebrew manuscripts or among the ancient versions, for such a change to the psalm. If you read this footnote, you can now impress your colleagues in your text study. What does selah mean? Glad you asked. Nobody knows, but the best guess is that it was a musical or liturgical direction calling for some now unknown action to take place.
3For what it is worth, certain psalm scholars have argued that this psalm must have originated in some other city, since the mention of the river does not fit Jerusalem, and that the psalm was only “adopted” by Jerusalem. This argument misses the poetic power of the image of river and betrays a way of interpreting the Bible that is, in my view, hopelessly enslaved to a literalistic hermeneutic.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 3:19-28

David Tiede

“But Now!”

Romans 3 and Reformation Sunday belong together. Both Paul’s witness and the day in the church’s calendar deserve to be taken joyfully, but not in the triumphal ways of the past.

One preacher dragged a log chain into the pulpit and clanged it noisily to emphasize how Luther freed the Bible from the Papacy. He didn’t know the loud speakers in the steeple broadcast his rant around town. His Catholic neighbors firmly advised him, “We also read the Bible!”

Historic polemics against the Jews have had even more devastating consequences, requiring Christian repentance for brutality and genocide. The dark blot of Martin Luther’s anti-Judaism has made many preachers afraid of Paul’s powerful witness, and some others have become ashamed of how Paul has been misinterpreted as merely an “introspective conscience.”

But the misuse of Paul and Reformation Sunday does not excuse disuse. Many reformations have been inspired by Paul. Augustine was stirred to “take and read” Romans, Luther sensed rebirth with the gates of paradise opening, Wesley’s heart was warmed, and Karl Barth’s Romans commentary sounded a thunderclap in the playground of 20th century theologians.

Paul’s letter to “all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” is “solid food,” to use Paul’s term (1 Corinthians 3:2). It is hard to digest if a congregation has been coddled on baby food. But this reading from Romans 3 gives working preachers and the people something to work at, to chew on. In his 1980 Augsburg Commentary on Romans (page 14), Roy Harrisville identified three portions of Paul’s sturdy fare: the Law upheld, justification at the heart of Paul’s gospel, and the new existence as hidden in Christ.  All three call forth God’s reformation in the church.

“But now,” Paul confesses (verse 21), inviting reformation now, in the light of God’s reign in Jesus.

God’s law is in force, and it is still speaking, disclosing the reality of sin (verses 19-20). It might be easier to consign the Ten Commandments to the past or minimize them as moral suggestions, but more is at stake than our morality or human justice. The reason “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18) is that the living God is the Lawgiver.

God’s law is not only “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105), but it exposes how continually and deeply I have turned away from God, pursuing my self-interests. God’s law is a mortally inconvenient truth. It reveals my ungodly life (Romans 5:6-11).

To tell this truth, working preachers need to slow down to break into denials of sin and death. The evidence of this human tragedy is all around us. The gospel gives courage to tell the truth because God’s remedy is stronger than our illness.

Paul affirms that “the righteousness of God … is attested by the law and the prophets” (verse 21) in full agreement with all Israel that their scriptures are enduringly valid and authoritative. The only scriptures Paul and the early Christians had were Israel’s scriptures, and Paul continually dwells in them. “But now,” Israel’s scriptures are to be read theologically in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s will has not changed, but God’s righteousness works in a new way.

When the law is upheld as God’s law, God’s righteousness is newly fearful and wonderful. Paul explores Israel’s deep story of God’s justification. “Righteousness” and “justification” are close synonyms in biblical vocabulary, whether in the form of nouns (dikaiosune) or verbs (dikaioun). Academics may make fine distinctions, and dogmaticians insist on rigid precision, but the apostle is leading us into the passion of God’s heart which is alive in every generation.

Through the centuries, reformations of many kinds have been stirred by these revelations, many drawn very literally from Paul, who was reaching deep into the scriptures. The lamb’s blood Israel put on its doorposts in Egypt once restrained God to pass over their firstborn (Exodus 12). Now God “put forward” Christ Jesus “as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (verse 25). 

The power to reform is fired in the forge of God’s holy righteousness, now revealed in “forbearance,” passing over “sins previously committed” (verse 25). God’s ultimate righteousness is enacted in justifying or making righteous those who were God’s enemies through trusting God righteousness at work in Jesus for them, indeed for us.

“But now,” every working preacher, joining the Apostle himself, can bring the timely truth, the joyful Gospel truth that reveals the new life in Christ when Reformation Sunday is about “now.”
Paul expresses his testimony to our dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ in a rich mix of prepositions: “through faith of/in Jesus Christ” (verse 22), “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (verse 24), “from faith of/in Jesus” (verse 26). The relationship is all in the present tense.

This is God’s power of reformation, as Augustine, Luther, Wesley, and Barth all realized.
This reformation does not call for trying harder or partisan denominationalism. In fact, our striving has hidden and distorted the very justification of our lives we have sought. To be “justified by God’s grace as a gift” (verse 24) is God’s righteousness at work, not ours: Jesus Christ with us, Jesus Christ in us, Jesus Christ for us.

This reformation begins in repentance, turning away from our striving and techniques. This is the change of mind and heart (metanoia) of returning to God in joy, of trusting the source of our life and being renewed in our vocations to care for our neighbor and the world God loves.

It may have been a long time since you, working preacher, have heard or proclaimed a reformation call to repentance (metanoia is also the word for “conversion,” but that might blow all the circuits). Maybe like Augustine, Luther, Wesley, and Barth, as you dwell in Paul’s message, you will hear this call and promise yourself. 

When God’s law is upheld, the pretense of our ambition is exposed. When God’s righteousness is revealed in the mercy of Christ Jesus, the scriptures sing with God’s promise for the world. When our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), God’s reformation is renewed.