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Reformation Day, Cycle C (2016)


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), what this all means for everyday life.

Psalm 46
This is 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) which 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). Emphasis on Jerusalem has led some to categorize the Psalm as a Song of Zion (cf. 137:3). 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 (understood as Christ and God defeating the forces of evil) and also to explore how peace and refuge are afforded by these insights and 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 having as an ancestor 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 [karath] a New Covenant [berith], replacing the one given on Mount Sinai that had been broken (vv. 31-32). (This phrase is better translated as “cutting” a covenant, and doing so involved an animal sacrifice [prefiguring Jesus’ sacrifice for Christians].) The New Covenant made 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 now more intimately 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). Attention to Christ’s sacrifice in cutting the New Covenant might be given (Atonement). The confidence and peace of mind that having such a new 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 by 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) and what it means for 21st-century life. Also efforts might be made to 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
It is good to be reminded that this book is the last of the four gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called Synoptic) Gospels. In fact it is likely based on these earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John.

Recently, though, 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). Regardless, of its origins, though, most scholars agree that the book’s main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).

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 the revolutionary and comforting concept of 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 everyday life and 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