Keeping It Real

Our religion can often become idealized, especially in thinking that our faith is mostly about learning how to be better.  Martin Luther’s Reformation, however, was all about keeping it real.  Keeping it real about us, and keeping it real about God.

Reformation Sunday (Year B) – October 25, 2015 – John 8:31-36

St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia

Keeping It Real – Pastor Evan Davis

Among other things, the Reformation was about preaching. In fact, modern preaching as we know it was invented in the Reformation. Because what Martin Luther was all about was you, the people of God, hearing the gospel good news, the promise of salvation for you in Jesus Christ, for yourself.

So, I hope you like my preaching. I imagine, however, that sometimes you might like me to preach more about how to be a Christian. How to live well as a follower of Jesus. Lord knows we need some Christians in this world.

Isn’t that what religion is all about? Creating people with values, with morals, who will be leaders and examples in this world? Lord knows we need them. A set-apart people, to keep the laws, the blessed teachings of God and thereby show the world who God is.

Lord knows that when one in ten Virginians live in poverty1.…when people don’t take care of their children….when their parents are forced to work such long hours and paid so little they can’t afford childcare, healthcare, or education….when a young man feels so entitled to women that he picks up a gun and murders a bunch of people because he didn’t get what he wanted…..when drugs or alcohol become the first priority in someone’s life…when we keep burning fuels that pollute our atmosphere just because it’s the most convenient thing to do…..when we have no addiction recovery centers in our community……we need to evaluate our priorities and consider our commitments…we need morals, we need God’s teaching, we need God’s justice.

Sin is real. Sin has consequences – particularly for our neighbors, for the earth, and yes, for ourselves. Our sin also has consequences for God, and that consequence for God ultimately was the cross.

So yes, Lord knows we need to get better. We do need consequences in this life. We need to learn to take responsibility for our actions as individuals, and to take responsibility as God’s people that we seek justice and opportunity for everyone, that we truly seek after their well-being. We need to teach people how to become servant leaders and caretakers of each other and our little corner of the Creation. Our neighbors need that. The world needs that. I could spend all my time preaching and teaching you how to be better, how to take hold of the Way of Jesus, and hopefully teach myself.

But if religion is only about getting better, only about learning to do the things we really need to do, becoming mature enough to set our priorities straight, disciplined enough to follow the ways of God in all our ways, then WHO NEEDS GOD? If God is just a spectator, watching us try our little hardest to live up to his standards, to do the things he wants and commands us to do, the things our neighbor really needs us to do, well, that God sounds awfully small and awfully powerless to me. That kind of God is a slave to human choices, human achievement, and human failure.

Our faith would be a religion of us and our abilities, not a religion about God and what God is doing.

Our symbol wouldn’t be a cross, it would need to be a human being heroically and confidently getting it done, pumping her fist. Because that kind of faith that is all about human moral strength and determination, and that may be a very good thing, but it’s not the faith of the God we know in Jesus Christ. It’s not faith in God, it’s faith in ourselves. And that faith is pretty misplaced. That kind of religion is still as popular and prevalent as it was in the days of Luther. It’s self-help religion. Get better religion.

The Reformation is about getting real. So let’s “keep it real,” as they say these days. My professor Dr. Tim Wengert always loves to ask, “so how’re you doing with that?” How’re you doing with loving your neighbor who is poor? How’re you doing with protecting the earth, especially when doing so cuts into your bottom line? How’re you doing with not coveting your neighbor’s possessions, or that person’s unique gifts? How’re you doing with loving and trusting God above all things? Like Jesus’ fellow Jewish companions in the reading from John, we think we’re slaves to no one when we are, in fact, slaves to our own sin. We think we can deal with the old satanic foe (whether you image the devil as a little man with horns or the evil that creeps in all our hearts), but let’s keep it real. No strength of ours can match his might. We are lost, rejected. We’re not doing so hot. This kind of “keeping it real” is what Martin Luther calls the LAW.

But we also have to “keep it real” about God. The truth is…the God of the Bible, the God Martin Luther preached about, is “a mighty fortress.” This God gets what he wants. And what God wants is to set you free from sin to experience abundant and eternal life. Even better, this God will not stop, and cannot be stopped, until he gets what he wants. He takes your fear and anger, nail by nail in his hands and feet, and turns it into love. He takes your judgment, and turns it into grace. We put him in the grave – he puts you in his kingdom, now and forever.

How powerful is your God? He breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod and wins salvation glorious. He holds the field victorious. Luther preached about the God who can do something, who makes sinners like you and me righteous by his choice, his power, his promise, his Word – preached, washed over you in Baptism, taken and eaten in his holy meal.

Lutherans do not lift up ourselves. We lift up the cross of Jesus Christ, the symbol of human failure and weakness, the symbol of God’s might and victory. The cross of the Son who makes you free indeed. This kind of “keeping it real” is what Martin Luther calls the GOSPEL.

Ever since Luther and his friends started preaching like this, people have asked, but surely you still have to teach people to be good? What’s the motivation if it’s not to get into heaven? But the funny thing was and is, that the real gospel of our powerful God transforms sinners into saints, it transforms scared, self-focused people into confident, comforted disciples who want to be like Jesus, who want to love and serve their neighbor, knowing they’re already in heaven.

[Story of Paul Keller and Pastor Rick Rouse from Forgiveness: A Miracle of Love]

Let’s keep it real. The gospel is that God’s Word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes, who fear it; for God himself fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit. Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever. Amen.