October 25, 2009
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today in Havertown, PA, my hometown just outside of Philadelphia,
members of Temple Lutheran Church are wearing red
to mark the festival that we too celebrate here today: Reformation Sunday.
However, unlike the stately red tie or red dress that you might expect,
at Temple Lutheran Church many of their members today are wearing Phillies red,
celebrating the new era for the Christian Church that the Reformation inaugurated, yes,
but also marking a new era in Philadelphia baseball.
You see, my beloved Phillies are going to the World Series for the second time in a row,
and for only the 7th time in their 127 year history.
Until last season, the Phillies had won only one World Series in 125 years …
Ours is a team that just a few years ago recorded 10,000 losses over the history of the team ….
the first professional sports team to attain such a milestone of mediocrity.
And so, in the face of such a dismal history,
when the Phillies get to the World Series two years in a row –
the first National League team do so in over 30 years –
people begin to talk of a new era, a new day in Phillies baseball,
not unlike that of legendary New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys or Chicago Bulls teams.
"It's a new day in Philadelphia.
Break out the red, revel in the streets, and celebrate this new era."
A new day, a new era? Perhaps.
But even the most die-hard of fans know that this too will pass,
that the Phillies' current greatness is altogether capable of fading quickly,
like an aging pitcher's fastball,
and that perhaps in a few years we'll be looking at losses stack up
while other teams steal the limelight.
Still, we Phillies fans will take this new era and soak it up … however long it lasts.
As we commemorate the Reformation today,
with festive red color and hymns from the pen of Martin Luther himself,
we mark what was a new era for the church …
a historic event that changed the course of Christianity.
We give thanks today for the theological richness of the Reformation,
for the faithful insights and the fresh expressions of the Gospel from that era.
We give thanks for the Reformation's "newness,"
and yet also its faithfulness,
its simultaneously deeply-rooted foundation in the ancient faith of the church
as articulated in the creeds and witness of the early church fathers.
The Reformation was something so new, so fresh, so exciting, yet …
yet the Reformation was something not new at all,
but rather a refocusing, a renewing, a returning
to the ancient truths of an ancient faith that had been there all along.
Today we celebrate the Reformation and its many blessed legacies ….
but we also ought to acknowledge the painful legacies as well,
particularly that of the division of the Christian Church.
In a sort of domino effect,
the efforts of the Lutheran Reformers,
together with the political aspirations of civil leaders
seeking to distance themselves from the civil authority of the Pope,
led to the fracturing of Christianity, and to the divided church we have today.
Lutherans gather here, at 6201 Washington Blvd.
But Catholics meet down the street at St Ann's,
Anglicans (who have separated from the Episcopalians) are over in Falls Church,
Episcopalians are on the other side of Westover,
just a little ways past the Baptists …
The Presbyterians can be found over by Nottingham Elementary School,
the Methodists just a few blocks into Falls Church …
And this isn't even to mention the various
evangelical, pentecostal, or predominantly African American churches out there,
scattered about, each in their own place, behind their own walls.
In our opening hymn we sung of a Lord who binds all the church in one … (ELW #645, vs. 1)
yet joining together as one is something for which we work, hope and pray,
but sadly it is not the church we have at present.
Some scholars question whether our Reformation Sunday celebrations,
taking place now nearly 500 years after the Reformation and in an era marked
by Catholic/Lutheran dialogue with the goal of achieving a full, visible unity of the church,
are not a bit anachronistic, over-the-top, or overly parochial in an ecumenical age.
I'll admit that, in preparation for this Sunday, I found myself wrestling over the past few weeks,
but with slightly different concerns.
I wonder what it means to celebrate a uniquely Lutheran festival
in a society where non-denominational evangelical Christianity
overshadows the traditional, historic protestant denominations,
and where a blase attitude toward most any form of religion predominates …
Ours is a society that increasingly looks with a skeptical eye toward the church,
a society in which even believers struggle to grasp the basics of Christianity and the Bible,
let alone the nuances, insights and legacy of the Lutheran Christian tradition …
Martin Luther. The 95 Theses. The Reformation. What does it all mean?
"The days are surely coming," says the Lord,
"when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah."
These are the opening words of our first reading today, from the prophet Jeremiah,
and for we who might be susceptible
to over-celebrating the Reformation as a new era of the church,
the lectionary here recalls for us the hope and promise of our faith –
not that God will reform our churches into ever-more faithful communities,
but that God will make a new covenant, a new relationship with his chosen people,
one that does not require laws written on tablets,
but one in which God's laws and Gods' ways will be written on our hearts.
That is, on the occasion of the Reformation, when we mark a new day in the life of the church,
we read of God establishing a new day, a new covenant in his chosen people,
an enduring promise of God to renew his relationship with Israel …
and indeed, through Israel, to renew his relationship with the whole world.
These verses are forward-looking, they speak of a future hope, an anticipation of things to come.
Recognizing his people's fractured commitment to the covenant he made with them, God says,
"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."
Though not quite the language of New Creation, used by St Paul in 2 Corinthians and elsewhere,
God here in Jeremiah 31 promises to perform a bit of surgery on the human heart,
to re-make the heart so that it is imprinted with his law …
so that God's law is no longer external but internal,
a part of our bei
ng, our nature, our DNA.
He goes on:
"No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD,"
for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD."
Yes, in this future realm knowledge of the Lord will be innate,
understanding of his precepts will be second nature …
We won't need Sunday School or Confirmation Class in this promised future,
for we all shall know the Lord, making teaching or admonitions to "know the Lord" obsolete,
from the least to the greatest.
And finally, in this passage we hear a promise of forgiveness,
and a hope for restored relationship with God, when God says,
"I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more."
Indeed, this last promise about the forgiveness of sins especially,
leads many Christians to interpret this passage from Jeremiah 31
as already being fulfilled in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Does Jeremiah 31 point to Jesus of Nazareth? Yes … and no.
Yes, for in Christ we receive the forgiveness of sins promised here in Jeremiah.
In Christ God establishes a new covenant, a new relationship with the world …
"this cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people,
for the forgiveness of sins," Jesus says at the Last Supper.
But also, no,
for though Christ lived and ministered and died and
rose from the dead and ascended into heaven …
the Kingdom which he proclaimed, the new covenant which Jeremiah fortold,
has not fully been realized.
We still need God's law as an external presence,
for it is not yet written on our hearts.
We still need to say to each other, "Know the Lord,"
for we do not fully know him.
We still need to teach each other for there is so much yet to learn …
The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks, this new day in the life of God and his people,
has yet to come to us.
Even if we catch a glimpse of it in the person of Jesus Christ,
it has not yet full arrived.
Indeed, the new Kingdom of which Jesus speaks so eloquently,
particularly in the Sermon on the Mount,
the coming Kingdom for which we pray each week in the Lord's Prayer
when we plead, "Thy Kingdom come,"
the Kingdom which we anticipate in the words of the Apostle's Creed
when we say that we believe in "the resurrection of the dead
and the life everlasting,"
the Kingdom which we bid our Lord to fully establish when in the liturgy we cry,
"Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again" …
this Kingdom … has yet to be made complete.
It has begun in Jesus, it has been established at the foot of the cross …
it is already here, in this place, around this table …
but it is not yet fulfilled.
This future hope,
this promise of Christ's return in glory,
this establishment of a new covenant
is the new day which our faith anticipates,
is the new era for which our church longs.
We don't look back, dear friends, at a time gone by,
as blessed and wonderful and worthy of commendation as it may be.
And neither do we hope for a fleeting era of celebration and revelry
like that brought on by the victory of our favorite sports teams …
No, dear sisters and brothers in Christ.
We look forward to the day when God's new covenant will be fully realized,
when Christ will rule on earth as he does in heaven,
when the Kingdom of God will be an earthly reality,
when the fullness of God will fill the land,
remake our hearts,
renew our relationships,
recreate the world.
This is our hope, this is our vision …
A future that breaks into today,
a promise that shapes our present.
Come, catch a glimpse.
Come, taste and see.
Come and pray that God's Kingdom come,
God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven,
A new covenant. A new kingdom. A holy promise.
Good news for us today.