Date: October 29, 2017
Bible Text: Romans 1:16–17; 3:19–24 CEB | Reverend Dr. Jo Forrest
For I am not ashamed of the gospel;
it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith,
to the Jew first and also to the Greek.—Romans 1:16
Call to Worship
In the year of our Lord 1516, a pious and scholarly monk in Wittenberg by the name of Martin Luder, L-U-D-E-R, wrote these words in his preface for a Commentary on Book of Romans.
Faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God…It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts, and all our powers…Faith is living, bold trust in God’s grace…Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful, and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith.
Saul was a man consumed with upholding the Law of the Hebrews and preserving Israel’s unique “chosen-ness”. Saul lived by the Law, he fought and killed those who obstructed this sacred Law, because he firmly believed it was the one and only way to earn the right to stand before God.
Then, along came the risen Christ. Christ Jesus struck him down on the Damascus Road and asked him, “why do you persecute me?” changing Saul’s life forever, including his name, who was henceforth known as “Paul.” Paul was liberated from the need to earn an elusive righteousness through the law and given the grace and freedom to live fully before God.
He turned all his passion and rhetoric to stand against conventional religion and proclaim the good news of God’s love made known in Jesus, wherever, and to whomever he could.
Paul wrote to a church in Rome, filled with Jews and Gentiles, who had been debating how you were saved., It layouts the sweeping narrative of God’s salvation plan for all people through Christ. It is dense and life-giving.
We will begin with his thesis and then one of his supporting arguments. Before we hear his words, please pray with me.
God, stir among us as we hear these ancient words. Stir our hearts and minds with your holy spirit that in hearing, we may experience afresh the life-giving words of the gospel and in hearing, believe, and in believing give our life back to you.
Romans 1:16–17; 3:19–24 CEB
I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.
Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, in order to shut every mouth and make it so the whole world has to answer to God. It follows that no human being will be treated as righteous in God’s presence by doing what the Law says, because the knowledge of sin comes through the Law.
But now God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the Law, which is confirmed by the Law and the Prophets. God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in Jesus. There’s no distinction. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by God’s grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus.
How can I live in a way that pleases God? Does it earn me a place in heaven? How would l know?
The questions can be exhausting and frightening. The answers should be satisfying and liberating.
Last week, Bill’s sermon, Why We Should Have Never Left the Mother Church lifted up a passage from Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus entrusted Peter with the keys to heaven and the responsibility to bind or forgive our sins. From this statement, the early church claimed authority through the apostles who succeeded Peter to shape the lives of the faithful. You’ve seen artists’ interpretations of St. Peter standing at the pearly gates of heaven with a logbook of someone’s sins as the great inquisitor of that person’s life. Sometimes comedic. Sometimes terrifying.
Peter had been a faithful apostle but also one of the most failing. He seemed to always get it wrong before he got it right. For Jesus to choose Peter, as the emblem of heaven’s gatekeeper, seemed to say, “even you may be included.” As with Jesus’ earthly gatherings, Christ’s image of heaven seemed to have an open door to sinners and those who had failed and just about anyone who tried to have faith.
By the late Middle Ages, the church in Rome was no longer bringing people into faith with a gospel of the good news. Evangelism was not necessary; they were the only game in town. From the original teaching and desire for control arose the ideology that there was no salvation outside of the church. You must remain obedient to the teachings and sacraments and dogmas of the church for any chance of life eternal.
The teachings maintained God had been angry at humans’ disregard for the law, which revealed not only the sins they committed but their sinful nature, so God demanded retribution through the suffering and death of Jesus. Since Jesus suffered and died, people were also to suffer. They needed to confess and endure penance until they had paid the price for entrance to heaven. Penance included prayers, giving alms, fasting, making pilgrimages, and other forms of self-denial. Until that penalty was paid, one would linger in purgatory.
Who could stand under such weight before God?
Since there was no salvation outside of the church and its decrees, it almost seems merciful when it created indulgences. The word, indulgence, originally meant favor or relaxation. These indulgences exempted a sinner from some or the entire penalty of sin. If a family member had strayed badly before death, an indulgence proclaimed his or her soul could be liberated. Or, if someone was aware of how far he or she has fallen from obedience, an indulgence became an insurance policy to avoid suffering and agony in eternity. The original intention was compassion. But, an indulgence was not really a gift—it was a piece of paper you had to buy.
If life on this earth seemed hard and God remote, the burden of sin made heaven seem impossible.
Martin Luder, became so convicted by his sins that he suffered with scrupulosity. From “scrupulosity” the word “scruples” is derived. It is the “obsessive concern with one’s own sins and compulsive performance of religious devotion.”
He, like everyone else in the late 15th century, breathed this air of human sinfulness such that he abandoned his father’s investment in him to become a lawyer and instead took refuge in an Augustinian monastery.
Becoming a monk made it worse. Consumed with his own sin and inability to confess everything and frequently enough and all the ways he wallowed in penance annoyed his confessor. Finally, Brother Martin was commanded to get off his knees, stop scrubbing the floor, and channel his intellect and obsession into studying scripture.
He rocketed through the ranks of the academy. In 1515, he struggled with Paul’s letter to the Romans, trying to reconcile this holy scripture with what he had been taught, particularly verse 1:16, the gospel “is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God.” Paul clearly argues we are saved by faith.
In the next verse, “God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith.” Paul’s letter meant that God’s goodness is revealed not in the law but through the gift of unmerited grace.
According to Brother Martin’s discovery in Paul, “sin” is being curved in on one’s self without concern for God or neighbor and it’s all the ways we put ourselves in the place of God. We cannot escape it nor can we earn our way out of it.
But, God does not abandon us. God came to us in Jesus to turn us back to God, lift the burden of our sin, and offer forgiveness, generously. God’s grace is freely given to those who have faith.
The man who suffered from scrupulosity wrote, “I felt I was altogether born again and had entered paradise through open gates.”
Brother Martin became convinced not only of the heresy of indulgences but of all the theology that placed the burden of salvation individuals and kept them from knowing and receiving God’s grace. In 1517, he drew up a list of 95 theses—or points to be argued—and when he mailed them to the bishop, he signed his name “Luther” for the first time rather than “Luder.” “Luther” is a pun on a Greek word for some one who is freed or liberated.
Indulgences were the first of corrupted teachings to fall. No longer would people need to buy a piece of paper to prove their value or worth. No longer would Luther support doctrines that oppressed people when God only seeks to love them.
Sin does not have the last word. God has the last word and it is “grace.”
What a nice history lesson.
Our post-enlightenment minds would not allow some institution to tell us how to live. Nor would we fall prey to some notion that our worth is bound up in a piece of paper—or would we?
May I list a few?
Join the travel soccer or hockey team (or insert sport, music or interest) and hone your skills to catch a recruiter’s attention.
Score high on the SATs and ACTs but also write the standout essay to move to the head of the pack.
Graduate summa or with enough internships to catch the eye of the right employer.
Maintain your figure. Create the winning fantasy football team. Kill the quarterly revenue numbers.
Someone is always keeping a ledger and the scorekeeping is rarely kind.
Woe to the one who fails because recovery is elusive if impossible.
All this pressure to perfect one’s life, particularly when there is no possibility of perfection, may lead to obsessions or anxiety or fear or any of the number of ways we find to harm ourselves. Kind of like Luther’s scrupulosity?
To combat these emotional and psychological burdens, we have practices for meditation, theories to reduce stress, and medications to anesthetize us from life but rarely are they sufficient to remove the impossible goals that caused the anxiety in the first place.
What I want to showcase is how oppressive it is to try to earn our worth through the eyes of an omnipotent and wrathful other. We don’t live in a world that offers to many “do-overs.”
I also want to showcase the relief we might experience if we were willing to admit, with humility, what the grand narrative of faith tells us about our fallible, human nature: we will fall short. And in the gospel promises God always keeps God’s covenant to claim us with grace. With God we do get do-overs.
Here is an important disclaimer…I am not criticizing the 20–25% of us who suffer from some form of mental illness as not having a good grip on reality. In the face of any illness—physical or mental—it is mark of health to pursue diagnosis and treatments.
But our perfection-seeking culture has infected too many of us with anxiety.
In the late Middle Ages, sin was levied so heavily while grace was withheld that people struggled under burden without relief. Luther’s Reformation lifted the weight of being labeled a “sinner” for eternity by restoring divine grace, freely given by God.
In our post-enlightenment mind, we don’t like to hear about sin and avoid those instances when we are asked to acknowledge that we don’t measure up. Avoiding sin, we have also lost the capacity to experience the life-giving grace that frees us. We miss out on God calling us “good” and “beloved.”
Nadia Bolz Weber is Lutheran pastor who stands 6’2” wears a buzz cut, is covered in tattoos, and defies any norm of what a pastor should look like.
From her experience of founding churches, she knows people are averse to confessing sins. Early in her life the practice alienated her as well.
“my suspicion is that…when I heard, ‘you are a sinner’ what I really heard is, ‘you are a bad, immoral person’ and hey, if I am someone who doesn’t cheat on their taxes or their spouse and doesn’t murder or steal then I don’t really want to spend my Sunday mornings having someone in a white robe imply that I do.
Why should I care if someone says to me that some God I may or may not really believe in has erased the check marks against me for things I may or may not even think are so-called ‘sins?’
Nadia Bolz-Weber continues…
(U)sually only we know just HOW short we fall from the glory of God. But we know; and in those moments alone when again we are beating ourselves up or trying to deny it or again making promises of self-improvement, in those solitary moments we know.” 
It was Luther who recovered the biblical truth that sin is what turns us from God, inward and towards smaller idols. And it was Lutheran theology that gave Bolz-Weber the path: from confession’s humble posture comes freedom. We can be assured of God’s grace.
The church she founded, a House for all Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO serves those on the margins, drag queens, drug addicts, aging hipsters, and those who would not have felt welcomed in a mainline, middle America, Protestant church. It was filled with those like Nadia used to be—she too abused drugs and was a creature of the night.
The church too struggled, meeting in old houses, but held on to the Lutheran liturgy, and her preaching.
After Bolz Weber preached at Red Rocks Amphitheatre one Easter morning, House for all Sinners and Saints started to attract a bunch of people wearing Dockers who drove in from the suburbs. At first it annoyed her since these people would have been welcomed anywhere and her church was for those that had no other home.
In a church meeting, one of these new participants said he had no idea what he believed, but something happened in the Eucharist. He would have never been at House for All Sinners and Saints if he wasn’t sure that broken people were welcome.
Another suburbanite felt this was a place where she could really pray and finally be herself.
A Brownie troupe leader was not sure she could fit in, but felt closer to God in the liturgy.
Then a long-term member spoke up “as the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I want to say I am glad there are people now who look like my mom and dad. Because I have a relationship with them that I just can’t with my own mom and dad.”
Lutheran theology blows away all the life equations we are so often handed—“try hard and you will be rewarded.” “Don’t let anyone see you sweat.”
I was raised a Lutheran. Those potluck dinners with casseroles and a rainbow assortment of jello salads nourished me. The liturgy taught me that after confessing my sins and receiving the assurance of grace, I could kneel shoulder to shoulder with everyone else. They are also a denomination that paved the way for me to also be ordained and have the privilege of wearing a collar and preach.
We should all be Lutherans. Confess our sin and then know the truth: God wants us to live in freedom.
Another Lutheran pastor, Emily Scott, who founded a dinner-church in Brooklyn writes, “at its best, Lutheran theology has the capacity to be profoundly freeing. It proclaims that each and every one of God’s creatures is loved wholly and completely, just as we are. We need not suppress the fearful and wonderful ways each of us has been made.”
Just as Jesus said, ‘Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light’ —Matthew 11:29–30.
 Scott Hendrix, “Martin Luther, Visionary Reformer,” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).
 Hendrix, Martin Luther, 57.
 Hendrix, Martin Luther, 51-52.
 Paul R. Hinlicky, “Purgatory Now! Luther’s 95 Theses and the Cross, The Christian Century, July 5, 2017, 33.
 Nadia Bolz Weber, “Sermon on Why the Gospel is More Wizard of Oz-y than the Law,” Patheos, October 2012, Accessed October 10, 2017, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2012/10/sermon-on-why-the-gospel-is-more-wizard-of-oz-y-than-the-law/#fKlC2JCholVuAOU0.99
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix, The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, (Jerico Books, 2014): 186.
 Emily M. D. Scott, “And Then Comes Freedom” Reflections, Vol 104, No 2 (Fall 2017): 38.