Freedom and the Theology of the Cross

A Homily for Reformation Sunday

Texts: Romans 3:19-28; St. John 8:31-36


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, and from the Holy Spirit who has called and renewed the Church throughout the ages. Amen.

Were we able to pluck Martin Luther from the 1500s and drop him into a car in our parking lot or in front of a computer screen today to worship with us, I doubt he would recognize what we are doing here today: broadcasting the service over the radio into people’s cars? While others watch a pre-recorded service on YouTube? First we’d have to explain what a camera is, what a microphone does, the basics of both radio waves and the internal combustion engine, what a computer is, and how a network of various wires connects almost the entire globe.

It’s worth recalling that in Luther’s day, moveable type print had only been available in Europe for less than a century, and Europeans had only known about what we now call the Americas for something like two decades.

But if we take the 30,000 foot view, during a massive and dangerous pandemic, we’re using the tools of modern mass communication to reach the people of God with the Gospel. Well that’s very much something Luther would understand because that’s precisely what he did five centuries ago. It was the printing press that allowed Luther’s ideas to spread further and faster than any medieval reformers. And the threat of pandemic disease was very real.

Indeed, when the bubonic plague hit Wittenberg in 1527 – just ten years after the posting of the 95 Theses – Luther penned an essay which has been widely shared these 493 years later. He advised Christians not to let fear rule them but to be steadfast in protecting their neighbor’s health and life and to heed the advice of experts, especially doctors of medicine.

The faith which has developed over the past five hundred three years since Luther’s defiant act, the faith we have inherited today, is a faith for these trying times: forged in its earliest years under Roman persecution and the threat of the cross and the arena, enduring through centuries of turmoil and renewed by saints like Francis and Clare, reformed during the political and economic upheaval of the 16th century, confronted repeatedly with violence, disease, and the temptation to cling to political power and human might rather than to trust God. Luther called the true faith a “theology of the cross.” Theologies of glory praise human effort and fail to see thing for what they are. A theology of glory sees salvation in earthly power and human realms, calls for the pope to sale access to the assurance of grace, erects building at the expense of the Church, and tries to forge alliances between the Church and political powers. A theology of glory calls good things bad and calls sin good. But a theology of the cross sees a thing for what it really is: sin and death are evil, and our own efforts to overcome them only serve to further the corruption of this world. Only God is good.

To embrace this faith, then, is to recognize that the world is fallen, to label sin and death as evil, and to depend fully on God.

But so what? If we see sin and death for the evil they are, that is no balm. What hope is there for this fallen world?

Only this: God is not far removed but is makes haste to deliver us. We worship a God who intimately knows our suffering, who has dwelled among us in this sin-plagued world, but who has overcome. We worship a Divine Parent who knows the pain of watching a Child die. We worship an Incarnate Lord who has known hunger, encountered disease face-to-face, who has felt brutal pain and the sting of death. We worship a Spirit, literally a Breath, sent forth from a God who on the cross breathed his last. But we also worship a God who has created from nothing and who has risen from the Grave! This is the God who made a covenant with a wandering Aramean, who delivered slaves into freedom, who looked with favor upon his lowly servant Israel.

This is the God, the one who healed the sick, who comes to us in this time of pandemic.

This is the God, the one who gave up his breath on the Cross, who hears the cries of “I can’t breathe!”

This is the God who has guided, reformed, renewed, and revolutionized the Church.

This is the God who has set us free.

This is the God who sets us free from death for life.

This is the God who sets us free from fear for faith.

This is the God who sets us free from sin for righteousness.

We have been set free from slavery to sin and death that we might become servants of God.

Amen.

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