Reformation Sunday (Oct 27, 2019)

John writes, “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Jeremiah writes, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Know and be free, forgive and forget. Which is it?

            God forgives. That’s not just a Lutheran slogan. It runs throughout the Bible. God’s forgiveness is not contingent upon our actions. That’s an article of faith. Someone always retorts, “Yeah, well, if God forgives, then no one will feel motivated to do good things.” This is simply not true. God has been forgiving sins since the dawn of time and people still do good things every now and then. Furthermore, when you’re horrified of what God might think, you tend to have really bad ideas. How many people are marginalized, denied basic rights, denied medical care, because someone else is scared to death of God? No, God forgives. We can never surrender on that.

            So, is Jeremiah correct? And, if so, what do we make of John saying, “Know the truth, and the truth will make you free”? The truth is something we’d often rather forget! Sometimes a culture collectively forgets the truth. They still live with its consequences, but don’t understand why. America has tried its best to forget the Vietnam War, both Gulf Wars, and the ongoing Afghan War. We don’t talk about it. We love our displays of patriotism and the color guard and flyover at the ballgame. We don’t want to talk about those wars and how they affected those involved. Well, some people are carrying the affects around. Knowing the truth—facing the reality—is crucial to the well being of everyone. It would seem remembering no more—what Jeremiah says God will do—remembering no more is something we can do only from privilege and power. Just like as a non-veteran I can forget the wars, or as a non-resident of a war zone I can forget the damage, or as someone whose income is not directly dependent upon weapons sales, I can forget the weapons industry. Is Jeremiah correct? Or is John?

            When in doubt, Lutherans consult St. Paul. Today’s passage is the big one for us Lutherans. Instead of talking about forgetting or knowing, Paul talks about justification, or “being-made-right.” For Paul, justification is in the flesh, not just in theory. God changes us. Over the centuries, Christians have fantasized of God as a judge in some courtroom in the sky. In this fantasy, we are the accused (and we’re also obviously guilty). But then, Jesus does something—says he knows us, reminds the Father of that time he died, whatever—and God the Father says: Righteous; Not Guilty. We’re still clearly guilty, but God regards us as not guilty. That is not what Paul is talking about.

            According to our translation, Paul says God put forward Jesus as a “sacrifice of atonement.” Translators dispute what Paul meant by what we translate as “sacrifice of atonement,” and these disputes are colored by the centuries of sky courtroom fantasy. The word Paul uses literally translates as “mercy seat” or “place of atonement.” In Paul’s day the Mercy Seat was a literal spot in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Paul says God put forward Jesus as the mercy seat. The place where God is merciful is Jesus Christ. Every year on the Day of Atonement the High Priest entered the room and rubbed blood from a sacrifice on the mercy seat. (The Hebrew word we translate as “atone” means “rub clean. Think of scrubbing a pan or changing a diaper.) Paul says where the priest put sacrificial blood on the mercy seat, Jesus offered his own blood. God is merciful and does all the scrubbing. So, our courtroom fantasy needs revising. The courtroom in the sky is not in the sky at the end of time; it is here, now. The judge is Jesus—God the Son—who is not a judge but rather one who mercifully rubs us clean, like someone washing dishes or changing a diaper. The courtroom is more of a kitchen sink or bathtub. Jesus does not declare a dirty pan clean; Jesus cleans the pan. Jesus does not declare a stinky baby changed; Jesus changes the diaper. Jesus does not declare you righteous when you’re obviously not; Jesus makes you righteous. Jesus transforms you. That’s what Paul says.

            And that’s like what St. John says. John comes at it a different way. John’s gospel begins with the famous poem: “In the beginning was the Word; all things came into being through him.” We know from the start of John that Jesus is the source of all things. Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, “If you continue in my Word you will know the truth,” or God’s reality, which is reality. You’ll see things as they are, and Jesus vouches for the accuracy because he makes everything. Most of our life rests on stories we tell ourselves. That’s human nature. The stories aren’t necessarily true. Returning to earlier imagery, we tell ourselves, “The war is over, and we dealt with it.” Yeah, that’s not true. In Christ God gives us a different point of view. We see the stories as stories and the world as God’s world. God keeps giving this point of view. We don’t receive it once and we’re done. We’re constantly making up new stories that aren’t accurate. “Hey, God says men wear pants and women wear skirts!” Yeah, that’s not true. That’s why Jesus says, “If you continue in my Word.” We keep going. Jesus is always giving the new point of view. That’s John’s way of saying what Paul says: God transforms you.

John and Paul come at the same idea from different angles. God transforms us from those who construct worldviews into those who see things as they are. Now, let’s put the brakes on any misunderstanding. It would be a ridiculously lofty claim to make of ourselves: we see things as they are. We don’t. God is forever transforming us into seeing things as they are. We do not possess that. The moment we claim to own the correct point of view, we become the folks in John 8 who say, “We’re descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” Aside from forgetting the entire OT, they’re claiming to own God’s point of view, in this case by virtue of genetics. Rest assured. Everyone is full of it. Anyone who tells you they own the accurate worldview is especially full of it. Anyone claiming to own the accurate worldview due to genetics is exceedingly full of it.

God is transforming us into people who sometimes by the grace of God see the truth. That truth sometimes disturbs or bothers us. The truth challenges us and our stories,. In the example I used earlier, the truth challenges us to deal with war: with veterans who carry its damage, with families who carry emotional holes where there loved ones used to be, with faraway peoples and lands who know us only through violence and trauma, with people who are displaced because of our decisions, with an economy dependent upon producing more war machines. God is also transforming us into people who by the grace of God have the capacity to do something about the world.

So, is Jeremiah correct? Does God really forgive, or are we to move beyond that? Jeremiah writes that God will write a new covenant in us. That’s language of transformation, too. God will transform us, and God will act toward us as though sin is not hindering our relationship with God. God does not store up grievances to be wheeled out at useful times, like we do. God treats the sin as dead and forgotten. Our life as baptized Christians is life trusting that, life believing God loves us and no one can take that away from us. People who know a loving God don’t marginalize others. They include them. People who know a loving God don’t deny basic needs or rights to others. They ensure those needs and rights. People who know a loving God do not fear the war machine. They minister to the broken, and work to prevent making more broken. People who know a loving God know a loving God because God transforms them.

We get to act out that transformation this morning, in Holy Baptism. In preparing for baptism, Will, Kate, and Calla have gone over the most important message in baptism: God loves you, God has you, no one can take that away from you. Or, as Will puts it, “We are becoming Children of God.” That’s always. Always becoming.That has been true, is true, and will be true. Nothing about that changes. However, they showed up dry; that will change. As far as I know they showed up with zero olive oil in their hair. That will change. They showed up not wearing the stylish white linen ponchos they’ll get. They will transform a little bit before our eyes. That transformation is on the surface. We’ll also pray for an ongoing transformation: “Sustain them with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.” Then, we welcome them to what the Spirit makes us able to do: giving thanks and praise to God and carrying Jesus to the world through words and actions.

God transforms Will, Kate, Calla, all of us, into people who see that no matter what stories we come up with about the world (and we come up with some doozies), behind it all and in it all is a merciful and loving God, and we are becoming God’s children.