Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
I don’t think it’s an over-generalization to say that as long as there has been religion, there have been well-meaning religious people arguing about who gets to be in the community and who doesn’t. Every religion has its version of minimalist inclusivity and maximalist inclusivity. That is, in every religion there will be people who make the conditions for being in the religion so restrictive––so minimally inclusive––that only the most dedicated can belong. At the same time, there will be people who want to reduce as many conditions as they can––who aim for maximum inclusivity––so that the entire world can be included in that religion’s understanding of community. And, just to be clear, each side, if you will, is doing their best to act with integrity. The minimalists truly want to protect the holy and sacred nature of their religion. The maximalists truly want to reflect the love and spiritual generosity that they believe their religion embodies. Both sides are trying to be as faithful as they can––they just understand the embodiment of that faithfulness in different ways.
And so we come to our Scripture readings for today, and our celebration of today as Reformation Sunday. And we find, lurking underneath our reading from Jeremiah and our readings from the Letter to the Romans and the Gospel according to John, and indeed in the very history of this denomination, this tension between the minimalists and the maximalists.
The prophet of our Old Testament reading, Jeremiah, seems to be a maximalist. He lived at a time when Israel had been pummeled by other countries’ militaries, when its national and religious existence was threatened, and several prophets blamed it on Israel’s lack of religious commitment to God. These prophets said that the Israelites had abandoned the covenant God made with them, and so God had abandoned them, and the only way back was to strictly reinforce the law. But Jeremiah’s message is that God was reinstating the covenant. And God, who was not interested in a minimalist approach to inclusion, was going to put the covenant––what they called the law–––into the people’s heart, where it could never broken. The result would be that “they shall all know me, from the last of them to the greatest, ... for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” They shall all know me. That’s pretty inclusive, maximally so, we might say.
Unfortunately, it seems that over time, the people forgot, as we all do. By-and-large, by the time of Jesus and Paul, the minimally inclusive branch of the Jewish religion was again in charge. Now I’m not criticizing them. Israel was under extreme religious stress, with the Roman Empire setting up idols in the Temple in Jerusalem and demanding that Jews either worship the idols or pay a tax.
Those responsible for the well-being of the Jewish religion and the people were deeply concerned that their religion was being contaminated, and that they would no longer be holy enough for God to be in their midst. They instituted strict boundaries around holiness and righteousness and religious inclusion in order to protect their relationship with God, just as we find often ourselves doing.
For example, in the Gospel of John, which is truly minimalist. As beautifully as the Gospel opens, and as much we might love the imagery of the light shining in the darkness (which I do), the honest truth about this Gospel is that it is extremely restrictive about who gets in and who’s kept out. This Gospel is adamant that those who do not follow Jesus, especially the Jews, are excluded from God’s community (and yesterday we saw the horrifying legacy of that argument). In the case of the original Christians who wrote it, they were struggling to defend their relationship with God in the face of those who didn’t accept them, and so they retreated into theologically walled-off strongholds and erected strictly defined boundaries. They allowed only the few, only the completely trustworthy, into the Christian community. The minimum possible.
At the same time, though, we have Paul and his letters to the Romans. Poor Paul takes a lot of unpacking, and sad to say, for most of the past two thousand years we have read him completely wrong. We used to read him as someone who grew up a Jew and then met Christ and converted to being a Christian and rejected all Jews––a minimalist––but now we know, thanks to rigorous biblical scholarship, that this story about Paul isn’t accurate. Instead, what we know is that Paul turns out to have been a maximalist. He worked really hard to find out how to make God’s religious community as inclusive as possible. He recognized that the Jews are in an unbreakable covenant with God, that they are saved by the law (which, by the way, the Jews are able to fulfill, in Paul’s eyes.) But he also recognized that non-Jewish Christians are not in that same covenant. We are not Jewish, and so we are not in the covenant of the law, and so we are not saved. But how could this be? How could the people who follow the Jewish messiah not be saved? Paul’s answer was that God’s grace and mercy and righteousness was so complete and so concerned for all of God’s children that God sent Christ to die for us, so that we––non-Jewish Christians––would be saved apart from the law. Because––sorry, Christians––we aren’t blessed to be able to obey it. Paul wanted the maximum number possible to be included in God’s community––the Jews through the law and the non-Jews through Christ.
Of course, this tension between minimum and maximum inclusion continues throughout history. It’s the reason we celebrate Reformation Day today, in commemoration of Luther helping us to understand that it is God’s grace, which is infinite and eternal, that saves us, and not our finite and limited works. According to Luther, the Holy Spirit works where the Spirit will, and gives people faith, and draws us to church, and moves us to be baptized. Any participation in the Christian community comes from the Holy Spirit, not us, and the Spirit is radically inclusive. Luther wanted as many people as possible to feel included in God’s community, unlike the Catholic church of his time who were trying to restrict membership, or manipulate it.
Even today, within the Christian church we continue to experience both the minimalist and maximalist versions of inclusion. On the one hand, we have those who would argue that entrance into the Christian community should only be through a baptism where the one being baptized has consciously made the decision to come forward. We have those who would argue that participation in the Lord’s Supper should be restricted to those who’ve been baptized, lest Communion be treated frivolously and made less holy. We have those who, with the best of intentions and wanting to protect the holiness of God’s relationship with us, impose certain prerequisites for inclusion and participation in the Christian community. These are our Christian minimalists.
On the other hand, we have those who would argue that infants who are incapable of rational thought should be baptized, so that the decision is entirely up to God. We have those who would argue that the Lord’s Supper is open to all whom God brings forward, regardless of whether or not they’ve been baptized. We have those, with the best of their intentions, wanting to fling open the doors and shower everyone and anyone with the love and grace of God that they experience through Christ. They want to get rid of all prerequisites, so that everyone can be part of God’s community. These are our Christian maximalists.
So which direction ought we to pursue? It’s tempting, as we feel the pressures of the secular world and increasing religious diversity, to isolate ourselves in our mighty fortress, to double-down on protecting God’s holiness, and to follow the path of minimalism. There’s a security that comes from retreating to traditional ways, battening down the hatches, raising the drawbridge. We feel safer when we can pre-approve those who come into our midst. When we don’t have to fear that we’re diluting God’s presence among us.
But I am not convinced that this is the direction God is calling us. The history of our relationship with God, starting with the Old Testament and continuing through thousands of years and through the Reformation, tells us that God is constantly calling us to radically new inclusivity. God does not seem to be as concerned with protecting God’s holiness as we are, (probably because God knows that humans can’t possibly corrupt God). Through Paul, through Luther, through the courage of those who challenge our preconceived ideas of what religious commitment looks like, God calls us to constantly reform the restrictions we set in place. God calls us to new understandings of inclusion.
Now we still affirm that both the Gospel of John and the letters from Paul are the Word of God. Both the minimalists and the maximalists are inspired by their relationship with God. The tension between the two will not be resolved in our lifetime, or possibly at all on this earth. In the end, we can never fully know God’s mind, or who God welcomes in. All we can do is move forward in the faith given to us by the Holy Spirit, trusting in the grace and mercy of God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
And I’ll leave you with this. Over this past year, several states in Germany have proclaimed Reformation Day a public holiday. But not for the reason you might think. It’s very explicitly not a “Martin Luther commemoration day.” Rather, according to German Lutheran Bishop Ralf Meister, “The Day of Reformation is a day on which we will seek to promote tolerant relations among religions, confessions, and worldviews, based on dialogue.” [http://www.lutheranworld.org/news/reformation-day-new-public-holiday-germany]
Relations among religions, confessions, and worldviews as the focus of Reformation Day in Germany. That sounds pretty maximalist to me. May God bless us as we move forward in that Spirit as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.