“We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” Every year this gospel comes around for Reformation Sunday, and every year there is the obligatory mention that this comment is obviously inaccurate. The time as slaves in Egypt was rather important to Hebrew identity. It’s an all-too believable denial of history. Yet the claim, “We are descendants of Abraham,” stakes everything on a certain telling of history. It concludes that everything must be a certain way today because of that history. The people talking to Jesus today believe their Abrahamic ancestry controls their present and their future, and guarantees their secure place. Therefore, they are not interested in Jesus. Jesus is calling them into something new, which challenges their interpretation of Abraham, and ultimately challenges them.
I find myself in these people. I am a Lutheran born of Lutherans. My Leitzke ancestors came to America to be Lutheran. The greatest controversy in my father’s family was over what kind of Lutheran to be. I cannot claim Luther as my ancestor, but I can claim him as my founder. Often in life my purpose in making that claim has been to rest on Luther and the triumphalist history I tell of him. In a similar vein, it has become popular to rest on a less generous portrayal of Luther. We “come clean” about his anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim prejudices and slurs, about his typical human capacity for seeking his own self-interest, sometimes at great cost to others. That, too, allows our Lutheran ancestry to control our present and future. We just opt to let Luther’s bigotry, rather than his genius, destine us.
I would love to say at this point, “The truth is it is neither Luther who is our founder nor Abraham who is our ancestor, but Jesus who is our founder.” It sounds powerful. The problem is that we can make of Jesus Christ what the “Jews” make of Abraham and what the “Lutherans” make of Luther. We can rest on him and say, “Everything is okay because: Jesus.” Like the driver who parked their truck across my friend’s driveway a couple of weeks ago, and blocked her for no apparent reason. She posted a picture of this to Facebook, and there above the bumper was a Jesus fish. I have no idea why this person parked there, but this seemed an apt analogy for resting on a Jesus confined to the past. Jesus won; I can be rotten. I can park across your driveway because Jesus; or enslave your native population because Jesus, or turn the God who ministered on the margins into someone who tells me never to associate with such people because Jesus.
Our little interpretations of Abraham, Luther, and Jesus have missed the point; Abraham, Luther, and Jesus matter to us not because we rest on them but because they call us forward. Jesus’ audience says, “We are descendants of Abraham.” Why is Abraham important? God calls Abraham out of nowhere, to move some place completely new and, despite being well beyond the age at which one has children, to become father of many nations. And Abraham follows. He lives his life, hopeful in what most of us would call a hopeless situation. He is faithful even when it makes no sense. Abraham inspires us to step into the unknown.
The Leitzkes (and some others) say, “We have Luther as our founder.” Why is Luther important? Luther called people to live in God’s radical grace. He called people specifically not to rest on some historical action. As we discussed at Adult Forum recently, Luther attacked indulgences because they were marketed as a way we could buy out our covenant with God; I don’t have to trust Christ and follow where he calls, I can just rest on that one time I bought an indulgence. Instead, Luther tells us that Christ frees us from sin—selfishness, greed, despair—and thus we can love and serve others. We can show the grace shown us.
Christians of all denominations are tempted to say, “We have Jesus as our founder.” Why is that important? It’s not because it waives certain parking laws. Jesus is God. Jesus is the eternal Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity. He was before there was space and time, and he will be when those things are no more. Risen from the dead, he is already at the End. That’s what resurrection signified to people of Jesus’ era: the end of all things. He is at the End, calling us to step into the End with him. By being in our history, Jesus has made the end part of our history. When we’re reading Scripture faithfully, we’re reading about a time that the future burst into the present and called all creation forward.
We are called into the future. Christ calls us to trust that the future will be what he says it will be. I see that happen in little ways. When my family puts money into the offering plate, we trust that what we’ve let go of will do its work. We may not always think of the offering as a future-oriented part of worship, but I let go of the money and cease to be the one deciding what happens with it. I steward that money by trusting in Christ’s future.
I see Christ call us to entrust the future to him when my girls climb on the school bus. I know they are autonomous entities with their own thoughts and feelings, but I remain larger and stronger than they are and can reach things they cannot, so they depend on me and I get to exercise some control (or at least the illusion of control) over them. When they get on that bus, I am trusting that they will do what they are supposed to do. I am trusting that they will learn, and be polite, and ask for help, and bring home everything they’re supposed to bring home. That’s parenting. That’s being a faithful steward of my children.
I see Christ call us to trust on every Reformation Day, as we roll out our Lutheran heritage, and hear Jesus say, “If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples.” And we are reminded that being faithful stewards of the tradition means not banking everything on Luther having existed, but rather trusting Christ as Luther did and as Luther calls us to do. We can try to confine Jesus to history or the pages of the book, but he calls us into the future, to trust that he has the future in hand.
It’s the same act of trust Jesus himself undertakes. He lets go on the cross. He trusts that the Holy Spirit will do her thing and raise him. He is dead: crucified, stabbed once to make sure, and shuffled into the nearest grave—buried like a grain of wheat, he says. I don’t know, for some reason that image sticks with me. We rarely read that passage in worship, John 12: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains but a single grain.” He’s talking about himself, in terms that evoke the smell of freshly turned earth, terms that describe planting but also burial. I am always struck by finality at funerals. Culture tries to avoid it, but graveside with the dirt and a casket or box of ashes, it’s blatant. Jesus knows that awaits him. And he knows that should the Holy Spirit decide she’s had just about enough of this Jesus person, thank you, he is going to stay in the ground. Nonetheless, he proceeds, because Jesus knows the Holy Spirit. They’ve met, the Second and Third persons of the Trinity. The Second Person, Jesus, trusts the Third Person, the Spirit, to raise him on Easter. And she does.
Christ calls us into that relationship of trust. “If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples.” Jesus’ word is himself. He is The Word, the revelation of God for us. Jesus reveals to us that God is a parent who lets go of all that is God and entrusts it to a Son; God is a Son who in living and dying for people glorifies the parent, and trusts that the Spirit will raise him; God is the Spirit, who raises the Son, raises us to new life each day, and at the last day will raise us to eternal life. God is these three persons trusting each other and calling us into trust with them, calling us to let that future of trust with God be a present of trust in God.
If we are to be faithful to 499 years and 363 days of the Reformation, we will acknowledge that October 31, 1517 and every one of those days since matters because the future broke into them, as it has been breaking in at least since Jesus walked the earth. And when we see Christ in those days past, we will see him calling us into the future. Christ will continue to call us, and form us, and do new things with us. Let us trust. Let us follow. Into the future. Into Christ.