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Reformation Day, Cycle B (2015)

Freedom! The texts and the festival invite consideration of our freedom from the law and uncertainty about our worth (Sin, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works).

Psalm 46
A Korah Psalm (one of the songs attributed to professional temple singers [see 2 Chronicles 20:19]). The reference in the psalm’s Preface to Alamoth is uncertain. We do know that this is the psalm (especially v. 1) that inspired Martin Luther’s famed hymn “A Mighty Fortress.”

God is said to be our refuge [machseh] and strength [oz], a present help [exrah] in trouble. We need not fear [yare], for he subdued all others (vv. 1-3). This may be a reference to what God will do in the last days. God is said to be in the midst of the city, a reference to Jerusalem as God’s dwelling place. In that sense the promise is made that Jerusalem will endure forever (vv. 4-7). Reference to the river making the city glad is an image for the service of blessing. Reference to Selah after verses 3, 11 probably is a direction to insert an instrumental interlude at that point in the Psalm. The establishment of God’s kingdom will bring peace (vv. 8-9). We are urged to be still and know that the Yahweh is God, exalted and our refuge (vv. 10-11). These words may be a divine oracle of salvation, giving God praise for his observance of help against enemies.

Application: Sermons on this hymn might examine our fears and troubles (Sin) with the assurance that God is still our refuge and (Justification by Grace). Opportunities are also provided to consider the Atonement (the Classic View, whereby Christ and God defeat the forces of evil) and also to explore how peace and refuge are afforded by these insights, how they provide a sense of freedom from anxiety.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The lesson is drawn from a Book of Prophecies of the late seventh/early eighth BC prophet of Judah, dictated to his aide Baruch during the reigns of Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah through the era of the Babylonian Captivity. Some of the prophet’s criticism of the house of David and the temple, giving more attention to the Sinai Covenant or a new covenant, may relate to his being an ancestor of one of David’s high priests, Abiathar, who lost control of the Jerusalem Temple and was finally banished (1 Kings 2:27). This text is part of the Book of Consolation (30:1–31:40), words of homecoming, promising a restoration of Israel, probably written just before the Babylonian Captivity.

The lesson prophesies that the Lord will establish a New Covenant [berith], replacing the one given on Mount Sinai that had been broken (vv. 31-32). The New Covenant will involve putting the law in the hearts [leb] of people and renewing Israel’s status as God’s people (v. 33). All will know him and the people’s sin will be forgiven [salach, or sent away], for God will remember [zakar] their sin no more (v. 34; cf. Ezekiel 11:19).

Application: Sermons on this text do well to proclaim the good news of the new identity that the New Covenant established by Christ’s work affords (Justification by Grace and Sanctification as spontaneous good works). The confidence and peace of mind that having such an identity affords can be described as an experience of freedom.

Romans 3:19-28
This letter of introduction was written by Paul between 54 AD and 58 AD to a church which to date he had never visited. The lesson is a transition from Paul’s discussion of the world’s need for redemption to a discussion of God’s saving act in Christ. Paul begins by contending that the law [nomos] of God silences us, for no human may be justified in God’s sight [enopian] by works [ergon]. The law, it is said, gives knowledge of sin (vv. 19-20; cf. Psalm 143:2). The righteousness of God is revealed apart from the law, though it is attested to be the law and the prophets (i.e., Hebrew Scriptures) (v. 21). Paul refers here to the righteousness of God through [dia] faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, but are now justified by God’s grace through the redemption [apolutrosis, or “loosing away”] in Christ as a gift (vv. 22-24a).

We have noted in the past that there has been much dispute in New Testament scholarship about the meaning of the righteousness of God [dikaiosune tou theou], and how it relates to the teaching of Justification [dikaiosis] by Grace through Faith. Of course the similar related roots of the Greek terms for justification and righteousness are indisputable. But some contend that the Protestant Reformers totally overlooked the Jewish roots of Paul in their interpretation of the concept. Certainly in its original Hebraic concept, righteousness [tsedeq] could connote legal, strongly judgmental actions on God’s part or a legalism. Yet most Old Testament scholars note that this attribute of God is not in any way punitive but more about relationship. It has to do with God’s loyalty to his covenant in saving us and even at times later in the Old Testament era the righteousness of God construed as something bestowed on the faithful, as it is in verse 25 of this lesson (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 373, 376ff). So whether we continue to employ a judicial metaphor for understanding the concept of righteousness (God declaring us righteous) or regard it as God’s faithfulness to the covenant in restoring his relationship with the faithful, it does not ultimately matter. Either way, righteousness and so justification is a gift of God.

Paul proceeds to note that all this transpires through Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a propitiation [hilasterion] or sacrifice of atonement by his blood. This shows God’s righteousness, because in his forbearance he passed over sins committed (vv. 24b-25). It proves that God himself is righteous, justifying the one who has faith in Christ (v. 26). This excludes boasting, for a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law (vv. 27-28).

Application: Several homiletical possibilities are provided by the lesson. It affords another opportunity to proclaim that we have been affirmed by God (Justification by Grace) and also to consider the freeing implications of knowing this (that we have been “loosed away” from our sin). Other possibilities include addressing the controversy of what the righteousness of God means (see the second paragraph of the interpretation of the text, above), proclaiming the Atonement (Christ’s sacrifice to give us this freedom), and making clear that it is not faith that saves (it is just an instrument for receiving God’s grace, as the text only claims we are saved through faith).

John 8:31-36
John is the last gospel to be written, probably not until late in the first century in a sophisticated literary style (and so not likely the work of the apostle John), perhaps written for a Jewish Christian community actually expelled from the synagogue and consequently particularly concerned to assert Jesus’ divinity that he was Son of God (20:31). In the first post-biblical church history text, Eusebius of Caesarea claimed that John had perceived the external facts made plain in the gospel and been inspired by friends and the Spirit to compose a spiritual gospel (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2/1, p. 261). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John. Recently some scholars have suggested an alternative account of the origins of John’s gospel. Appealing to the writings of a late first/early second century Bishop Papias, who may have implied that John’s gospel was the result of eyewitness origins, such scholars have argued that the book is in fact an authentic historical testimony to Jesus (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, especially pp. 423ff; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 154-155).

The lesson, unique to John, begins just after Jesus had been proclaiming himself as one from above [ano], perhaps a prophecy of his Ascension (vv. 21-30). He proclaims to Jews who had believed in him that if they continue in his word they are truly his disciples (v. 31). The truth [aletheia], he claims, will make them free (v. 32). Elsewhere he identifies truth with himself (14:6). The Jews who are addressed object, contending that as descendants of Abraham they have never been slaves (v. 33). Jesus responds, claiming that any who sin are slaves [doulos] to sin (v. 34). The slave does not have a permanent place in the household, but the Son has a place there forever (v. 35). So if the Son makes us free we are free [eleutheros] indeed (v. 36; cf. Galatians 4:1-7).

Application: With this lesson preachers can focus on Christian freedom (Sanctification as freedom from sin and the spontaneity of good works). The idea of Christ as part of the household suggests an intimacy in our relation with him (Justification as Intimate Union with Christ). The implications of this freedom for Social Ethics might also be explored.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen