Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
Yesterday, on the Jewish Sabbath, another act of violence was perpetrated against a community of Jewish people gathered to worship God. No one knows yet what precipitated the synagogue shooting, and no explanation will ever speak comfort to the deaths of innocent people. We can only hope that this won’t turn out to be another instance of hatred toward Jewish people that is justified by invoking Martin Luther’s teaching. Especially today, as we mark the great Reformation of the Church that Luther helped initiate.
Let’s be perfectly clear. Luther had a toxic sixteenth-century attitude toward Jews, sadly common among European Christians. At least one of his early writings includes remarks about treating Jews as neighbors, deserving of our care and concern. But it has faded into obscurity beside his later harsh criticisms of Jews whom he vilified for refusing to accept the teachings of Jesus and denying that Jesus was God’s Messiah.
As an outspoken reformer, popular for his earthy language and caustic wit, Luther’s writings were widely read and preserved, becoming historical documents of the Reformation and the Lutheran Church. Luther was a celebrity, and as we all know, fame can have tragic consequences.
Luther knew and confessed his own captivity to sin. Nowhere is that captivity more clear and painful than in his anti-Jewish writings. Luther can’t make this confession from the grave, and we can’t make it for him, so we can only resolve to do better, and to be better than that.
Since we also can’t ignore his writings, Lutherans world-wide have instead opted to say publicly and clearly that we do not accept or defend Martin Luther’s negative statements about the Jewish people. We reject them with formal statements by our national Church bodies, in common Sunday sermons, and personally by honoring the dignity of Jews and of all human beings.
Besides, using Luther to justify anti-Semitism makes an enormously ironic statement about the Reformation. Because after all, one of Luther’s central arguments was against abuse of authority by Church leaders. He argued was that just because someone in authority says something authoritatively, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
Paul, who knew a thing or two about authority said that all our striving for authority puts us in an un-winnable competition with God. Luther himself needed to hear that there is a far greater righteousness than what humans have ever managed to produce. God’s righteousness is utterly beyond us and we are dependent upon it.
Luther found hope in Paul’s letters. What needed to be said then, and always needs to be said, is that no one can make themselves worthy of God’s love. “Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That statement is pretty much always true of human beings. But God loves us anyway.
Under the circumstances, all efforts to justify ourselves become not just irrelevant, but even arrogant. This is why even the Law ends up folding its cards and leaving the table when playing with God. God holds all the cards and God always has the last word.
Divine love is the force behind God’s leading of the Israelites out of captivity in Israel. It drove Jeremiah’s message that God was making a new covenant that would exist in hearts rather than on breakable stones. God said, “know me” as the divine forgiver and forgetter of your sin.
Paul’s earnest language about Jesus as God’s sacrifice of atonement is something that the best scholarship of the last two millennia has never managed to unpack satisfactorily. When I studied atonement theory in seminary I found no theory I could entirely agree with. I wrote that at the end of my final paper, with great resignation, worried that I had somehow failed to comprehend the material. It turned out that my reluctance to choose any one theory was an acceptable answer.
But at the heart of Paul’s writing is passionate belief that God sent Jesus as a message of God’s continuing mission to renew the earth and bring light into darkness with love, mercy, and justice. The more we try to try to explain this technically the less we honor God’s mystery and majesty.
We need to resist anxiety about God’s salvation. Does Jesus represent God’s one time offer for salvation? Of course not. Jesus reveals the saving character of God.
Another danger is becoming so comfortable with God’s loving promise of grace and forgiveness that we neglect the living word that God speaks to us in the person of Jesus. Jesus said, “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”, Jesus said to Jews who already believed that he was the Messiah. They accepted that God was speaking to them through Jesus. Perhaps they thought that their belief was all that God wanted. A changed mind about who Jesus was. But Jesus made it clear that where their minds had gone their actions needed to go as well. If we call ourselves followers, then it seems reasonable to expect that we won’t be standing still.
“…the truth will make you free,” said Jesus. Perhaps one of the most difficult kinds of slavery to overcome is hatred. It wears many clever disguises, even posing as the high ground of truth. The gospel of Jesus will never be Good News if it comes packaged with any kind of hate. And unless all of us are free from hatred, in the end none are entirely free.
“If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus was and is God’s Word, a Word that freely forgives, loves, and forms new community. Some people, some communities, may choose to ignore Jesus. But we of God’s community, answering to Jesus Christ, cannot allow ourselves to dig in and anchor ourselves to any truth except the truth that God is love.
Martin Luther and other Reformers were on the right track in calling for a Reformation. But it’s not over. Renewing the church is part of renewing the world. And God knows there’s a lot to be done. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.