Jeremiah 31.31-34; Romans 3.19-28; John 8.31-36
In the book of Jeremiah from our first reading, we hear Jeremiah proclaiming that God is going to put a new covenant in the hearts of people, so that they can develop a relationship with God that comes from within each person, rather than from some rules developed by someone else. Jeremiah was reacting to the pressure of the priests of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. In Israel during Jeremiah’s time, there was a tendency towards exclusivity when it came to worshipping God. Israelites were being told that the only legitimate place to worship God was in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even though there was a Temple in Samaria, and one in Elephantine in Egypt, and even though the Israelites had their own thriving religious practice in their homes, the priests of Israel insisted that the only way to worship God - the only way to have a relationship with God - was by worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem. If you didn’t live in Jerusalem, too bad - you would have to make your way there at least once a year. That the priests demanding religious conformity of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem were working at the Temple in Jerusalem was not lost on Jeremiah, or on many of the prophets. But that didn’t stop the priests. They insisted there was only one way to worship God. Only one way to develop a relationship with God.
This attempt at what I call religious conformity is behind Paul’s writing in Romans, too. I mentioned last week that the early Christian communities were struggling with the mix of Christians who were Jewish and Christians who were Gentiles - non-Jewish. And this comes out in this letter - the Jewish Christians thought that the Gentile Christians should conform to the religious practice of Judaism - namely, circumcision - in order to be Christian. The Jewish-Christians were arguing that followers of Christ could obtain righteousness only by developing a Jewish relationship with God, Father and Son. They insisted that there was only one way to develop a relationship with God. They insisted on religious conformity - conforming to a single religious practice.
Today is Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate our Lutheran history as a denomination that protests this very thing. Our readings for today emphasize the problems that come when we try to force people to practice their religion in one uniform way. As we hear so often in the Lutheran church, early on in Luther’s life, the Roman Catholic priesthood were insisting that church services be in Latin, and that the Bible be translated only into Latin. Their insistence on this was how they controlled access to God - after all, only priests could read Latin. Regular people couldn’t read or understand it, and so they relied on the priests to tell them what the Bible said and they went to church so that the priests could perform the proper rituals - in Latin - that would guarantee forgiveness of sins and establish their relationship with God. Prior to Luther’s reformation, priests in the medieval Roman Catholic church insisted that there was only one way to develop a relationship with God.
But, thanks be to God, we celebrate on Reformation Sunday that God does not actually demand religious conformity. God does not insist on only one way of developing a relationship with God. In fact, we see God resisting these ideas. In our first reading, we hear Jeremiah proclaiming that God, in fact, is putting God’s covenant in the hearts of the Israelites, so that they no longer are bound by the rules of the priests in the Temple. God’s very own actions speak against the demand for exclusive worship at the Temple, and God resists the demand for only one way of relating to God.
And in the letter to the Romans, Paul is very clear to emphasize that the Christians in Rome are free to worship as they wish - the Gentile Christians are not bound to worship as the Jewish Christians do. Gentile Christians can have a relationship with God that is not based on Jewish requirements - their relationship is “apart from the law,” as Paul says. Their relationship with God is determined by God, and not by human interpretations of God’s words to another people.
And Luther, dear Luther, reformed the church when he proclaimed that God did not need the priesthood in order to develop relationships with Christians. Luther insisted that the Bible and the services be in local languages, so that people could interpret the Bible for themselves, and participate in worship on their own, and develop relationships with God that weren’t mediated by someone else. Luther’s insistence that individuals are free to develop relationships with God completely apart from the priesthood is at the core of our Reformation celebrations, and something that we Lutherans continue to hold dear. God resists, and we protest, any attempt to force religious conformity and any argument that says that there is only one way in which people can have a relationship with God. Go, Luther.
But. But before we launch into a rousing version of The Church’s One Foundation, it’s important to take a minute and see if we really are living out this message of religious freedom that we are so quick to claim. Because Christians, like everyone else, sometimes (often) have a gap between what we say and what we do, and when we don’t recognize that, we fall into it. Paul, for instance, despite his insistence that Christians are freed from Jewish practice to develop their own relationship with God, nevertheless was pretty clear that the only way to a relationship with God was through Christ. And Paul was insistent that everyone becomes followers of Jesus. Those who didn’t would live lives of ruin and misery. (That’s from verse 16, right before our reading starts.) But Paul is ignoring his own words that it is God who develops relationships with people - God is the one who brings people to God, in God’s own way. We are not supposed to judge another’s relationship to God, and we are definitely not supposed to judge the path they take to get there. In fact, we all know individuals who live incredible lives of good deeds and selflessness and who are deeply spiritual, but who aren’t Lutheran. Or even Christian. These people have deep relationships with God that exist outside of the church. Do we judge them? Do we insist that they must relate to God in the boundaries of the church, do we insist on religious conformity and that there is only one way to have a relationship with God?
Again, we have to look at that gap between what we proclaim - religious freedom - and what we do. The writer of the Gospel of John frequently fell into that gap when it came to the Jews. John was constantly bashing Jews, and constantly arguing that they should repent of their ways and follow Jesus. He frequently implies that Jews should worship God through Jesus - that they should convert to Christianity - ignoring that Jews actually already have their very own solid relationship with God. John insisted that the only way to a relationship with God was through Jesus, completely ignoring that Jesus himself related to God as the Jewish God - the God of Abraham and Isaac, and that Jesus himself never called his followers to abandon their Jewish faith.
Even this very Sunday - Reformation Sunday - can be a time when we fall into that gap between proclaiming freedom from religious conformity and pushing for it. All too often, Reformation Sunday, in the Lutheran church, become a day of Catholic-bashing. We can get a little too carried away proclaiming how awful those Roman Catholics were, and continue to be, with their priests and their Latin and their strict rules about baptism and communion. And we forget what we proclaim - that everyone is free to worship God in their own way - that they are free to develop their own relationship with God - even if that way is Roman Catholic. The truth is that God frees us to practice our religion in whatever way brings us closer to God, whether that way is Lutheran, Roman Catholic, or something else.
This truth of the Reformation needs to be celebrated more often than just once a year. Because we so easily forget it. We start insisting that there is only one way to worship, or only one way to have a service. We insist that only members can come to Communion, or that only Christian families can baptize their babies. We insist that Communion can only be celebrated one way, or that only pastors can preach. Even pastors forget this. We insist that only certain people can be leaders in the church, or we insist that parishioners agree with us on every theological issue. We demand religious conformity, and we establish requirements about what kinds of relationships with God are acceptable.
But that’s not how God works. Jeremiah and Paul and Luther and Jesus himself remind us that we are free. We are free to develop our own relationship with God, in the manner that is most meaningful for us. Why? Because, as Luther reminded us, God is the one at work in these relationships. God, not us, is the one developing the relationship with you. This is not the work of Paul, or John, or even Luther. Jeremiah was right - God is the one who put God’s covenant in your heart, God is the one who sent the Holy Spirit to you in baptism. God is the one who calls you to God, and God is the one who moves you to worship. Your relationship is the work of God, not of humans.
As it turns out, John was right, too - the Truth will make you free - Jesus proclaims that you are free to develop your own relationship with God, just as Jesus did, either inside or outside the institution. Paul was right - you are free to develop your own religious practices because you are made righteous through God’s work, and not your own. And Luther was right - you are free to worship God without going through the pastor, or through the congregation, or through the denomination. (Of course, the congregation of believers is a really great place to be supported in that relationship, but you don’t have to go to church to have a relationship with God.)
What we celebrate today is that God has freed you to develop your own relationship with God, however you want - either in the church or out of it, through traditional means or contemporary ones. You are free to relate to God as a Father or as a Mother, free to be Catholic or Lutheran or something else entirely. You are free to agree with your pastor or to disagree. What we celebrate today is that you are freed from the need to conform, through the work of Jesus Christ. Your relationship with God is as unique as you are, and it is called into being and nurtured by God, who calls all people to love and freedom. Thanks be to God. Amen.