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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before October 25, 2015

Romans 3:19-28

19Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

What I Am Learning:

It has been nearly 500 years since Martin Luther, a German monk, priest, professor and wine enthusiast, saw in this passage a vision of a grace-filled God. This gifting-loving-forgiving-suffering God turned a mild mannered Martin into a person who would eventually take on the central powers of Western Europe. This vision of God would lead him to actions that would see him excommunicated, his writings burned, and his life under a sentence of death.

He found that this God's love for him would give him a freedom from the expectations of others so that he could love his neighbors and struggle for a renewed church.

Just as Luther found the good news of Jesus reduced in his own time, I fear we have once again reduced it in ours.

Now this is inevitable.

  • Human beings will often reduce the suffering of Jesus into some sort of payment to a God who accepts violence and pain as a sort of currency.
  • Human beings will often reduce justification into a get into heaven free card.
  • Human beings will often assume that works righteousness comes from loving our neighbors too much.
  • Human beings will often reduce God grace into an excuse not to love our neighbor.

And God loves us anyway.

The most curious way this passage gets reduced is the way Lutherans interpret the word "law." Many say that the word "law" means the 613 laws that Jewish teachers saw in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Justification by grace through faith apart from works of the "613 laws" is how many understand the text.  Well that sounds easy, since all we have to do is to ignore our Jewish forebears and their pesky legalisms.

This is not at all what Paul means by "law."

While it is true that he uses Jewish law as a sort of metaphor, he is really talking about something much more powerful in the lives of human beings: the power of culture itself.

Human civilization began not with farming but with a system of meaning to deal with human mortality and vulnerability. ( Humans are cursed and blessed with the awareness of how small we are and how large and powerful the universe is. Since we are going to all die anyway, what is the use of living today? So, humans began to join together in larger groups, telling stories and engaging in rituals that gave us a sense of meaning in the midst of it all, and a sense of permanence in that others would tell the story even after we died.

This is a great gift of culture.

But it comes at a price. The price is that we have to play by the rules set out by the stories and rituals. And these stories and rituals are not value neutral. They each carry positive and negative potentials for the human beings within them.

We have many examples of this:

  • North Korea's godhood of the Kim family
  • Germany's Nazi's
  • Babylons creation story about humans as slave
  • Our story of competitive individualism and unlimited natural resources

When these stories of meaning tell us that we are only human when we have power over others then much violence between us and much violence inside us gets created. When this happens human beings experience much pain and numb it with addictive behaviors. Paul speaks of this in chapter two of Romans.

When Paul uses the term "law" is is speaking about the power of culture to warp human beings and human community into a community of violence, a domination/submission culture - what he means by the word "flesh" in his writings.

But if we are justified by God and not our culture, if we are so deeply affirmed in our existence by God then we we don't need our culture quite so badly. If the God beyond our idea of God affirms our existence then we can begin to be free enough to see the negative side of our own culture's particular stories and rituals.

Justification is not an invitation to ignore the 613 laws, but rather is an invitation to freedom in the revolutionary love of God, self, neighbor and the earth.


God’s justification in Jesus grounds us so deeply in God’s love and affirmation of our existence that we are freed from social pressure to conform to unjust attitudes, relational patterns, institutions and structures. The freedom of justification, because it is grounded in God’s love for us, others and creation, joyfully calls us to ever deepening love of self, neighbor and creation.

We can see this beckoning to freedom in Luther's own life. He grew in a capacity to question the way the stories and rituals were used to make people dependent on the church, to take their money and to keep them quiet.

He said: The Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; the Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

We are being freed from our culture's own human life warping stories and rituals to lives of meaning lived in love.

Many Lutherans think that the field of play of all of this is the specific thought-world of religion and Judeo-Christianity.

The field of play is life, all of life.

The reason that Luther used the language of theology is that in his time it was central to how people thought about life, all of life.

This is not the case today.

Today our theological conversations are a quaint and often irrelevant backwater in our larger culture. Obviously I care deeply about these conversations nonetheless - minority traditions can retain gifts for the larger culture like seed vaults.

Our larger culture does not need to adopt our sub-culture's theological language. But it does need our freedom in and for love that our tradition can speak of.

The world needs our freedom to love.

In the end it was not Luther's theological language that made the Great Reformation, but rather it was his freedom in love to love his neighbor and to invite others to do the same.

We have many neighbors in need of our love; and we are in deep need of their love as well.

For myself, I am feeling drawn to stand publicly with our American Muslim sisters and brothers. There is a fear industry that is dovetailed into the military industrial complex dovetailed into the racism of many in the US that together form a powerful climate of terror for them.  There are many reasons to fear being associated with them as the climate of terror is very powerful and has many agents. We believe, however, that in the end love conquers fear.

When people in our world see this kind of freedom to love the Reformation continues and the kingdom comes among us of its own accord.