JoAnn A. Post
31. Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32. and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." 33. They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'?"
34. Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
The right combination of chemicals and compression can fling a rocket out of our atmosphere and into outer space.
Once upon a time, it is said, a thousand ships were launched for the sake of Helen of Troy’s beautiful face.
500 years ago, the world was plunged into one of the bloodiest eras in history—the Thirty Years’ War, ignited by a prayer.
“Lord, help us obliterate our enemies?” No.
“Lord, make our commanders smart and our steeds swift?’ No.
“Lord, keep us steadfast in your word.”
The Thirty Years War, fought between 1518 and 1548, was launched by conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants over the authority of God’s Word. That religious battle morphed into a geo-political conflict among the great powers of Europe. Its cost? Three million lives, disease on a scale unseen since the plague of the middle ages, and national unrest that would not be righted for a hundred years. All because of a prayer.
In some parts of the church Reformation Sunday is occasion for celebration and chest thumping bombast, as though God is a prize to be won. In other parts of the church it is unknown—I promise you our brothers and sisters at St. Phillip’s aren’t celebrating Reformation Day. But perhaps the most faithful stance toward this annual observance is humility.
The struggle we now call the Reformation started, not as a violent insurrection, but as an earnest desire on the part of Martin Luther and others to offer the church a new vision of God. The church of Luther’s day was a scary place—ruled by unhealthy alliances between popes and princes, the church encouraged people to be afraid of an Angry God who needed to be bribed into forgiveness. But Luther and the reformers, through their diligent study of scripture, knew God not as a vindictive, power-hungry, war-inciting tax collector, but as a creative force, a loving father, a merciful judge.
Two principals emerged from the Reformation, principals which guide the church to this day. In Latin class you learned these two concepts as “Sola Gracie” and “Sola Fida.” Only Grace. Only Faith. Not popes. Not indulgences. Not limbo. Not guilt. Not pride. Only God’s passionate undeserving love for sinners, and our grateful trust in that love.
You would think this gracious love, these simple Reformation principals, would have set the whole world at ease. That billions of people would heave a great sigh of relief—“God loves us as a parent loves a child. We have nothing to fear.” That world leaders would lay down their war plans and weapons, modeling their leadership on God’s benevolence. That billionaires and the desperately poor would share with one another their wealth and poverty so that no one lacked and no one lavished. After all, what could we possible need or worry about if God loves us without condition, if all God asks is that we trust? If only it were that simple.
Over the years, our household has known its share of blessings and curses, as have all of yours. But when I count the tears we have cried, more of them were for joy than for sorrow, so we’re fine. One of the things we have always marveled at is that we have never lacked for what we needed. Sometimes it was not clear from whence our help would come, but we have never been without a meal to eat or a place to sleep, we have not gone a day without encouragement and kindness. You would think that, by now, we would have completely forgotten how to worry, since all our worries have been for nothing, all our needs are known. Only Grace. Only Faith. What more could we need?
On Friday we signed a contract to purchase a home near here, and in a few weeks the sale of our home in Connecticut will be final. (We’re not leaking any more information than that, so don’t try. It feels like a Rube Goldberg contraption, one misplaced signature and the whole thing might collapse.) You would think, given our experience of God’s durable care that I would be sleeping like a baby. And I have been—if the baby in question is teething and colicky and hungry and wet. Then, yes, I’ve been sleeping exactly like that irritable infant.
All night long I do the math—mortgages and interest rates and what-if-one-of-the-deals-falls-through. My dreams have been of appraisals and inspections, moving trucks and 46-page loan documents. Moving to a new home here means leaving another home behind—and friends as dear to us as our own lives.
Occasionally, my midnight musings are interrupted by remembrances of what I have been teaching and believing for decades: God is faithful; we need only trust. Only grace. Only faith. But those hard-won truths are quickly crushed by the weight of worry I have chosen to carry.
I have always believed that Lutheran theology and scripture study are a gift to the world. Of course, they are not for everybody. There is still a brisk market for God who alternately judges and rewards, who keeps track of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. But though our voice is small and sometimes hard to hear, the word we offer from our experience of God cannot be stifled.
Ancient scripture texts heard today speak of God who writes a promise of faithfulness on our hearts (Jeremiah 31), of Jesus Christ who lays the law aside for the sake of mercy (Romans 3), of a home where all of us are free sons and daughters of God (John 8).
Five hundred years ago the world went to war because someone dared posit a God who loves all indiscriminately, who forgives freely, who asks nothing of us but trust. Millions of people died in the struggle over who gets to own God’s face in the world. And I fear millions more since then have lived lives of fear and discouragement, trying to please a God who wants only to love them.
And here we are. A lone loving voice in a community and a world that whips us to work harder, amass more Twitter followers, worry incessantly, make more money, wage more efficient war. Toward what end?
Perhaps Ascension can offer that war-inciting prayer, “Lord, keep us steadfast in your word.” Perhaps Ascension will be that place where hearts are etched with God’s promises, where our only law is love, where God’s sons and daughters—all of them—are welcome.
We are all about grace. We are all about faith. We are all about that God.