For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law…. Romans 3: 28
Signe Gunkel, one of the older members of St. Bartholomew’s Lutheran Church in Trenton, asked me, “Pastor, why don’t we do Reformation Sunday up big like we did years ago?” “What do you mean?” She replied, “Well the Lutherans would fill the War Memorial in Trenton and we’d sing our hymns, get in a great preacher and celebrate being Lutheran. It was wonderful.” Apparently, people in the other congregations in the Trenton Lutheran Cluster where asking their pastors the same thing, so we decided to do Reformation 1983 up big. Not at the War Memorial, but at Advent Lutheran Church and for our preacher, we recruited Dr. Krister Stendahl, Professor of Divinity and the Dean of Harvard Divinity School. It was a grand day. The sanctuary was full, the music, majestic Lutheran chorales, the people all wearing red, so pleased with themselves, dreaming it might be the beginning of a revival of Lutheranism in the city of Trenton.
Then Dr. Stendahl began his sermon with a story about two Lutherans who went to the same church, German, Frederick and Swedish, Karl. They had an ongoing debate about who would get to heaven, the German Lutheran or the Swedish one. So, they made a pack: whoever died first would come back to tell the other what to expect. A week or so after Karl’s funeral, Frederick heard him in his sleep, “Frederick, it’s me Karl. When I first got to heaven all I could hear was the angels’ choir singing, Children of the Heavenly Father in Swedish. I was so excited. But as I got use to the sights and sounds, I recognize A Mighty Fortress, Ein Feste Berg, in German and I thought there is a place for my friend, Frederick in heaven. Then I heard chanting in Latin by people making the sign of the cross – Catholics in heaven? This was followed by Hebrew being sung by Jews wearing prayer shawls while bowing over and over again. There were Muslims too, kneeling on prayer rugs, Buddhists meditating and others I didn’t recognize. Heaven is so much bigger than either of us ever imagined.” Only then did Dr. Stendhal talk about the truth making us free and how that truth resides not in us, no matter how great we are at being Lutherans, but in God’s righteousness, God’s goodness alone. In his story he moved us beyond ourselves, beyond our pride and traditions, our fears and anxieties, to experience the heart of God.
The heart of God – that’s what Paul’s sharing in his letter to the Romans. It’s his only letter written to a congregation that he did not help start. Though he’d hoped to visit them soon. In the meantime, Paul shares with his theology of mission, one developed out of his call to be an Apostles to the Gentiles and Scripture which for him was the Old Testament. Romans is Paul’s account of how his mission to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, fits into God’s total mission in the world which is the mending of the creation.[i] For Paul that mending began in the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, the children of God.
The heart of God is also what Martin Luther longed to experience. He was a blameless monk, yet no matter hard he tried to be faithful, he failed. He felt could never measure up and believed a righteous God could only send him to damnation. He said, “Far from loving that righteous God…I actually hated him.” But then in the third chapter of Romans, he realized that God’s righteousness isn’t an angry, judging, condemning curse, but instead a glorious, effervescent gift. It’s Christ dying for us, with us, never letting us go. Once Luther experienced this, his hatred, frustrations and self-rejection were transformed into beautiful acceptance and wondrous joy. He said, “I felt as though I had been born again, as though I’d entered through open gates in paradise itself.” For Martin Luther the mending of creation was the reform of the church so that everyone might experience the amazing grace of God.
What about us? Last year we developed a strategic plan that led to changes in our schedule, our staff and our ways of welcoming, worshiping and working together. We are living into that plan. For some it’s been a joy, while for others, a struggle. This is the nature of change. That’s something Paul and Luther both knew well and so they constantly focused upon God’s righteousness, what God was doing in the midst of change. In Hebrew the word righteousness is zsedaqahand means setting things right. It’s what God does when God calls Abraham and in the very act of calling gives him faith. It is what Jesus does when he dies on the cross, taking all the sin, the brokenness, the evil in the world upon himself, becoming the sacrificial lamb of God and dies. Three days later he rises from the dead because means death does not have the last word, God does and it is the word of life. God sets things right, so that we may be right too. Last week someone who was back to worship after a long time away because of an injury shared that she really missed worship. When she was away, she realized she was no longer who she had been, that she was different now. Dare I say she was righteous – not in the sense being self-righteous, but righteous in that she felt right, whole, complete, loved.
Our challenge is the same as Paul’s and Luther’s. How is our mission, our life together of living, growing and sharing God’s love, part of God’s total mission in the world — the mending of creation? First, let’s understand that the continuous reforming work of tsedaqah, of righteousness, is our call, not our choice. It’s what God gives us in the gift of faith. Second, WE are in this together. “Us/them battles” sacrifice valuable energy. Instead we are to stay focused on unity while embracing the God-willed diversity of humankind, yes, of the whole creation.[ii] This is also true in the practice of democracy for our constitution begins with “WE, the people.” Third, God’s grace is sufficient and is more evident through weakness rather than through strength. Luther called this the theology of the cross. Fourth, love, love, love, love. Dr. Stendahl writes “Christianity is an experiment in living together – and with a certain flexible ability to take difference into account without being divided.” The same is true in marriage. Love, love, love, love.[iii] And finally, we are to be righteous in our own unique way – each of us and together as a community of faith. God doesn’t want us or need us to be another church, for our beloved church, this one, is held in God’s heart.
Years after Signe Gunkel’s hoped for a Lutheran revival in Trenton, she stood in front of the congregation on the Sunday of St. Bartholomew’s 75th anniversary. She was well into her 90’s, our oldest living member. The original charter of the congregation was on a table and she showed the children where as a teenager she’d signed her name. Then she looked out over her brothers and sisters in Christ and declared, “Now, I’m satisfied.” Ah, righteousness. Amen
[i] Krister Stendahl, Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Fortress Press 1995, ix.
[ii] Ibid., 40.
[iii] Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, Fortress Press, 1976, 66.