Reformation Sunday, Year B
October 26, 2008
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Forty years ago this country struggled through the tumultuous summer of 1968
when hopes (for some) and fears (for others) of revolution were on the rise,
and an increasingly ugly foreign war was taking the lives of young men and women,
many of whom served valiantly yet reluctantly.
Forty years ago the assassination of John F Kennedy was still a recent memory
and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy
ripped open old sores and created new ones in the heart of this nation.
Forty years ago in Chicago the Democratic National Convention
was mired by violent protests outside and nasty floor fights inside,
reflecting the divisions that ran through our society.
Forty years ago was a time when many called for a Revolution –
political, social, economic revolution . . .
Revolution to overthrow oppressive structures and inaugurate a new era of freedom.
Those of you who lived through it surely know better than me
that it was a time of incredible social change and turbulence.
And so in late August 1968, during the final throes of summer’s heat,
The Beatles release their Hey Jude single,
which included on its B-Side a little song called “Revolution.”
Revolution. The title itself just threatens to crank up the heat to a new level.
And to listen to the track even today, 40 years later, will blow your ears off –
it opens with driving guitar chords, thunderous solitary drum strikes,
and a drawn-out, death-rattling scream.
After that dramatic intro the song itself is still not quite like any Beatles song that preceded it,
with distorted guitar chords providing an edgy accompaniment that
rumbles and grumbles behind the smooth vocals of John Lennon.
And that’s just where the dissonance begins.
In this age of freedom-seeking Revolution, at the tail end of the Summer of 1968,
The Beatles sing us this song that,
despite its raucous and Revolutionary tone
actually attempts to temper the revolutionary tone of the times.
“You say you want a revolution, well, you know, we all want to change the world.”
But, Lennon sings, when you talk about destruction, you can count me out.
But, he sings a little bit later, when you want money for hate, you’ll have to wait.
It’s not hard to hear the skeptical tone in these lyrics,
to hear a rejection of radicalism for radicalism’s sake.
For their first song of a political nature, The Beatles were singing against a countercultural tide.
It’s as if they’re saying that revolution is great,
but you also need some restraint.
Don’t get caught up in the chaos of the times.
Violence only begets violence.
It’s at this point when echoes of another Beatles’ tune come to mind,
a less political song that nonetheless speaks to this moment –
All You Need is Love.
It is as if Lennon and The Beatles are calling on would-be radicals to
find some restraint,
and to become revolutionaries of love, not of violent rebellion.
I might be the first preacher to compare Martin Luther to John Lennon,
at least, the first preacher to do so in 30 or 40 years.
It is an imperfect comparison,
as I’m sure the esteemed and learned Rev. Dr. Scott Ickert,
church historian and theologian par excellence, could point out.
But . . . but it does help us to think about the relationship between Freedom and Restraint,
or to use more classically Lutheran terms,
Law and Gospel.
For Martin Luther lived in an era of radical change,
at the beginning of an era of revolutions in technology, philosophy and the arts.
Indeed, Luther himself was a major agent of some of that change.
But . . . But Luther was no radical revolutionary
calling on the world to be turned upside down and inside out.
Instead, he was a revolutionary – if you choose to use that word –
in a much more measured sense.
His was a voice critical of the abuses of the establishment leaders,
seeking, in a sense, a type of freedom from an oppressive system,
not unlike those voices of so many in the late 1960s.
And yet . . .
And yet he was also concerned about the excesses of senseless revolt,
not unlike the concerns expressed by The Beatles in their hit song.
For Luther’s proposals for the Reform of the Church –
which we commemorate this Reformation Sunday –
were no invitation to anarchy, no reckless assault on authority.
Rather, Luther understood his call to reform as bound to,
as restrained by the Word of God.
Luther’s call to reform was grounded in a message of God’s love and grace,
a clear articulation of the authority of the Word of God,
a Word which rules over all of creation,
a Living and Gracious Word which to which we respond with lives of service.
The Reformation project was one that sought to restore in the church’s piety and practice
a clear proclamation of the author of all life and grace, Jesus Christ.
For this reason the Reformation maintained – as we do today – the teachings of the
church’s early councils, the ancient creeds, and the Mass itself, which all proclaim Christ.
For this reason the Reformation sought – and continues to seek –
to put the Scripture into the hands of all so that the Living Word,
Christ, might be made known.
For this reason the Reformation churches
have long placed a special emphasis on service to those in need,
for in service we simultaneously proclaim Christ crucified
and serve Him who suffered, who is present today in those who suffer.
The Reformation was, yes, a Revolution of sorts, but not one that was reckless or ungrounded.
The Reformation was rooted in the Christ of Scripture and of living faith,
rooted in the Christ to which the Church’s best traditions had attested for centuries,
rooted in the Christ who in today’s Gospel tells those who believe in him:
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples;
and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Continue in my word . . . make you free.
There’s a wonderful tension in that verse,
a tension between restraint and freedom.
It is a tension of being called to continue in Jesus’ Word,
of being bound to that Word,
restrained by the Word.
Yet continuing in, being bound to, retrained by that Word leads to . . . freedom?
Yes, freedom! Even though freedom is the opposite of being bound,
that’s what Jesus tells us here . . .
that continuing in Him, that being bound to Him and His Word gives us freedom.
Bound and free.
We’ve heard this kind of paradox before.
For we know that it is in giving that we receive, that it is in dying that we live.
It is the paradox about which Luther writes in his treatise on Christian Freedom,
that in Christ the Christian is a free Lord, to use Luther’s late medieval language,
subject to no one.
Yet this Christian is simultaneously a dutiful servant, subject to every one.
Christians are at the same time free and bound.
Bound and free.
Free from sin, bound to Christ.
ed from slavery, compelled to serve.
This is the Christian life, dear friends.
It’s not just an unbounded and reckless freedom,
even though we celebrate our freedom in Christ,
yet neither is the Christian life characterized by iron-clad, restrictive law.
No. The Christian life involves both Law and Gospel,
it places demands on us, it shows us quite clearly when we fall short,
it names sin in our lives and in our world.
And yet . . . and yet this Christian life is also filled with promise,
with Good Gospel News,
words of hope and forgiveness,
with healing touches,
with expectations of a world set to rights.
The Christian life is, as we practice here today in our worship,
confession and forgiveness,
death and resurrection,
broken made whole,
mighty knocked down and lowly lifted up,
separate brought together,
ordinary made extraordinary.
It is in, with and under this tension,
that God speaks to us, and comes to us.
It is not in unbridled spiritual freedom
or unrelenting religious law that God comes to us.
Rather, it is in the space that Law and Gospel,
that freedom and restraint create where we encounter God.
Continue in my word . . . be my disciples . . .
know the truth, and be free.
Dear friends, the Good News is that you are free.
Free from the power of sin, free from the grip of death.
You are free, because you have continued in Jesus’ word
in worship and prayer and study,
in service to neighbor and in living out your baptismal vocations in so many ways.
But . . . . but more importantly, you are free because Jesus has set you free,
has come to you, and freely given you the gift and promise of new life.
In baptism you’ve been washed,
in holy communion you’ve been fed,
in the blessed fellowship we share you’ve been nourished and encouraged,
in the unexpected moments of the daily tensions of life,
Jesus has come to you, walked with you, blessed you, and set you free.
We may or may not live in Revolutionary times,
ours may or may not be an era of Reformation for the church.
But living in the tension of law and Gospel, of freedom and restraint,
we know that God continues to speak to us and to come to us.
And we know – with John Lennon and the Beatles – that it’s gonna be alright, alright.
It’s gonna be alright.
Thanks be to God.