Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
This coming Sunday, October 31, is Reformation Day. This is the day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, the event that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation.
It is a dilemma for us Lutherans as to whether we want to observe this day by celebrating our heritage or by focusing on the church’s continuing need for reform now and moving into the future.
I choose the latter: what does it mean for us to be Lutheran Christians today living into the future as it unfolds before us?
The familiar Gospel for this day from John, chapter 8, from which I quote 2 verses above, reveals to us our relationships to God, the community of faith, and the world in which we live.
One of the things that the pandemic has done to us is to tear at the fabric of our relationships of every kind. Let’s think of it in terms of our congregational life. Like no other thing that most of us have ever experienced in our lives, the pandemic has disrupted church life. At the onset of the pandemic, we couldn’t even meet in person and had to worship over Zoom or Facebook. Continuing in the present, we are still wearing masks in our churches and may be wary of meeting in groups. It is not surprising that we find ourselves yearning to get back to a pre-pandemic “normal.”
The reality is, of course, that at some level of our awareness we know it won’t happen that way in our churches for many of us. When we finally do get back together where everything is sort of like it was before, it will still be quite different than many of us remember it. We’ll have to figure out how our relationships to God and each other have changed and how we are going to live and serve as followers of Jesus going into the future.
I believe that we can receive this as a gift to us as we celebrate Reformation Day. God is always calling you and me to discover and live a new life of loving God and serving each other. What this day calls to our attention is that, like the Reformation itself, God often uses unsettling times and experiences to point us to ways we need to repent and reform our lives and our churches. The results for the future beyond these times can be a fuller life of faith than we have previously known.
This is what is happening in the John 8 Gospel reading for Reformation Day. The story focuses on Jesus’ conversation with the Jewish people who had come to believe in him. Here Jesus leads the people back to their relationship to God, to Jesus himself, and to each other!
Here’s what Jesus means when he says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” “Continuing in his word” means living in relationship with Jesus (through whom they knew who God is). And it means living in the community of believers who love one another and their neighbors in the world by forgiving, serving, and caring for each other! “Disciples” are those who seek to live continuously in this relationship. Both “truth” and “freedom” here are use relationally as they reflect life following Jesus’ way—not in the ways they are used in secular conversation as we would hear them in the news today. Jesus shows us what truth is in the way he lives and teaches about God. Freedom is living in community in the way Jesus shows us what love is and how it leads us to the best way of life that God intends for us.
A few years ago, our daughter-in-law gave Bonita and me a picture frame. The frame is a lovely collage that includes these words, “The first purpose of every relationship is to help each other become the very best version of ourselves.” While these words fit nicely with a marriage relationship, you can see that they need not be exclusively for that relationship. They can fit God’s relationship with each of us. And they can fit significant relationships we form in our lives—including friendships that we have not yet even encountered.
Do take time in the coming days to have a conversation with someone who is open to it about the ways in which God keeps nudging us toward reformation and new ways of connecting to one another as this text from John suggest to us.
Perhaps this can be a way going forward into the future for you and me to live out our faith—going from the churches where we have gathered for worship and building up the community—to connect with new friends we make in our neighborhoods helping them to become the very best versions of themselves, even as they do the same for us.
O Gracious God who is ever calling us to repent and reform our lives, may we know your gracious love as we live through these unsettling times in our world and in our churches. Help us to see that you will always care for us and lead us to a fuller life of faith where we can help each other discover the very best versions of ourselves.