Sermon for Reformation Day 2014
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Joint German/English/Arabic Service
The Rev. Carrie B. Smith
To see photos of this joint service:
ELCJHL Smug Mug Page
To see photos of this joint service:
ELCJHL Smug Mug Page
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
One day last week, I escaped from my office here at Redeemer to spend some time in prayer, around the corner at the Holy Sepulcher (Church of the Resurrection). Even with all the tourists and the nearly constant flurry of activity there, it still feels like holy ground. If I can find a spot to sit out of the way of the crowds, one of my favorite things to do there is to just watch people. Young and old, from near and far—and though they may not have entered a church back home for years—pilgrims are still coming to Jerusalem to touch stones, to light candles, and to be as close as possible to events that happened more than 2,000 years ago. This is a visible sign of the enduring power of the cross of Christ and his resurrection.
On this particular day, however, I was doing more than praying and watching people. I was also thinking about this sermon. Sitting just steps away from the tomb of Christ—the site of the radical event that re-formed the whole world—I was contemplating what I should say on this, my first Reformation Day in Jerusalem. How do we understand “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda” (the church is always to be reformed) in this place where changes turn holy sites into battlegrounds, where buildings and traditions are carefully preserved, and where even ladders shall not be moved?
Was ist das? What does this mean? How are we to be a reforming church in this time and place?
In the style of Martin Luther, the Apostle Paul might reply:
We are to fear and love God, working out our own salvation, for it is God who is at work in us.
This is most certainly true.
These are the words Paul wrote to the church in Philippi: “Therefore…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Theologians and preachers in the Reformation tradition have pondered these two brief verses for nearly 500 years. Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Bonhoeffer (among others) have all tried to make sense of what Paul means for believers to “work out their own salvation”, when Scripture has revealed that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. As heirs of that tradition, we boldly proclaim the Good News that it is God in Christ Jesus who declares us saved, apart from any good works. Here we stand, we can do no other!
And Paul says, “Now quit standing there, and go work it out.”
I doubt the Apostle Paul meant for these verses to be so problematic for future generations of Christians. In fact, we know he wrote these words from prison, not to start a debate, but in order to comfort and strengthen the church in Philippi. He wrote to them as a pastor, thanking them for their faithfulness to his ministry, but also reviving their spirits in his absence, in a time when they faced opposition and persecution. “Work out your own salvation” may seem at odds with “for it is God who is at work in you”, but remember, this is the same letter in which Paul writes “For we put no confidence in the flesh”, and then a few verses later, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
“Work out your own salvation—for it is God who is at work in you.” There is much that could be said here about the proper relationship between law and gospel, between faith and works. In fact, Luther (who was a famously prolific writer) probably already said most of it! But when the words of Scripture remain in the realm of theological debate and church history, they are of little use to us today. It’s when we let them speak to us and to our situation that they become living words, carrying the Good News to those who desperately need to hear it.
And God knows we need to hear some Good News today.
All around there is so much darkness, so much pain, and so much conflict. Here in Jerusalem, it seems every day brings news of another child killed, another home demolished, another rock thrown, another political maneuver, another step further away from a just and lasting peace. Across the Middle East, our fellow Christians are persecuted, harassed, and killed. Epidemics of diseases like ebola, but also of poverty, of extremism, and of violence, threaten God’s children everywhere.
More than ever, the world needs the gospel of love.
More than ever, the world needs the light of Christ.
And more than ever, the world needs the church to work out its own salvation through radical peace-making, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
We need pastors and church leaders who will speak boldly and prophetically for peace with justice for all God’s people.
We need congregations who will resist the pull to become merely social activity centers, and who will instead be catalysts for transformation in their communities.
We need young people who will raise their voices to prophesy a better future – and institutional structures which will allow them to speak.
This is a lot to ask, isn’t it? Our Lutheran ears may start to tingle, afraid of slipping into the perils of works righteousness. True, the task before us is huge, and the darkness can seem overwhelming. But we have not been given a spirit of fear! We do not face the enemies of the gospel as ones who are afraid. Paul’s phrase “fear and trembling” never implies we are “weak in the knees”, but rather that we humbly stand in awe of the precious gift of grace we have received. For while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. While we were lost in sin, we were given a new birth through the waters of baptism. And although we did nothing to earn such a gift, we have been reconciled with God our Creator, through the radical self-emptying love of Christ Jesus.
Therefore, we, the church, will answer the Apostle Paul’s call to work out our salvation in confidence, because we know that it is God who has been and continues to be at work in us.
It is God who was and is at work in this church.
It was God at work when the Lutherans first came to Jerusalem and established hospitals and schools.
It is God at work when children from Gaza are able to receive medical treatment at Augusta Victoria Hospital, funded through proceeds earned by volunteers harvesting the Mt. of Olives’ 800 olive trees.
It is God at work when young adults come from the United States to spend a year volunteering at ELCJHL schools and ministries.
It is God at work when our Lutheran schools educate Christian and Muslim children side by side, raising a generation who knows how to work and play together.
It is God at work when Palestinian youth have the opportunity to preserve their culture—and express the next generation’s interpretation of it—through art, music, and dance at Dar al Kalima University in Bethlehem.
It is God at work when Lutherans, Presbyterians, Mennonites, UCCers, Catholics, Orthodox and others come together to pray and sing on Reformation Day—a festival that in many places is little more than an exclusive “Lutheran Pride Day.”
On this Reformation Day, I give thanks for our shared Lutheran heritage, with its clear and uncompromising message of grace. I give thanks for the many ways that the Lutheran church in this place has worked out the gift of that salvation through its hospitals, schools, congregations, and other ministries. I give thanks especially for the reforming spirit which makes it possible for me, a woman, to stand before you today as a called and ordained pastor of the church.
And it is this reforming spirit which I hear coming to us as a living word and a challenge for the church today. For immediately after the Apostle Paul encourages the church to work out its own salvation in the confidence of God’s grace, he writes this in Philippians chapter 2, verse 14:
“Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, the world needs us to shine like stars. In this time of darkness and conflict, the church must provide the light of hope. The world needs the church as a whole, giving respect to our differences of theology and practice, to nevertheless be one bold and prophetic voice for peace, justice, and reconciliation. We do this best when drawing our strength of voice not from perfect agreement, but from the mighty fortress of God’s word, the firm foundation of Christ’s love, and the communion of the Holy Spirit we have received in baptism. Nearly 500 years after Luther, this reformation of the heart, and reclamation of our voice, is one powerful way we can work out our salvation for the sake of our neighbors.
And now, united as one by the Holy Spirit, and in the confidence that God is already at work in us, we are sent from this place to work out our salvation. You, the church of Jesus Christ, are shining stars in this dark and broken world. Let your light shine. Amen.