Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday. This is not a day of Lutheran nostalgia and triumphalism. It is a day to celebrate and reclaim indeed what Luther and reformers before him and after him reclaimed and recentered so that the Christian faith be celebrated and lived as freedom from authoritarian privileges and so for courageous love on behalf of the neighbor.
So, let’s start with a language lesson.
The words “Protestant” and “Protest” are odd. Straight away they came to mean the opposite of what they literally say. “Test” comes from “testimony,” as in bearing witness. “Pro” means “for;” the prefix aims to say something positive about the root word to which it connects. Oh, it could mean “according to.” But that’s a secondary usage. So “pro-test” means to be for a certain message, or even that the message itself is positive. But we use “protest” to be against something. Since that’s so, why don’t we use “antitest” instead? If we were only about being against something, like church and political tyranny back in 1517, why didn’t we get tagged with the word “antitestant?” There. That says what it means. Say it with me. “Antitestant.”
Well, of course, that’s not going to work. We’re not going to start a new Reformation movement with that word. Just like a whole swath of a certain Christian style has turned the word evangelical inside out to have a reputation exactly opposite to what Martin Luther meant by his recover of the term: that evangelical has to do with the Gospel, which means “Good News,” and not a legalistic connotation of righteousness and alignment with a particular political party as a requirement for salvation.
I learned again how globally wide and deep that reversal of meaning is when last week a journalist from Kyoto News (“the Associated Press of Japan”) asked to interview me. When he arrived, I asked, “why me?” He answered that the word “evangelical” is in our church name and I had the right receipts to speak with authority about that. Then truth outed. He wanted to know “why evangelicals support the current administration.” He thought we were “pro-testants” (not “antitestants”) for a certain kind of politics! I tried to educate him about what the words “evangelical” and “protestant” really mean. I said our political theology means that we insist on independence from any political partisan position, so that when necessary, as brother Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, the church would be the conscience of the nation, and that we would criticize-prophesize when necessary and that we would be pro, as in for, any party and any policy that fulfilled God’s command to love as much as possible any and every neighbor anywhere as ourselves. I could tell this reporter didn’t get it. Like most westernized people, including Americans and the vast preponderance of religiously illiterate journalists, he self-identified as secular and did not even know his own cultural Taoism and Confucianism.
With m simultaneous pro-test and pro-fession, I tried to emphasize with the reporter that we belong only to Christ. Any other alliances could never be ultimate; they could only be instrumental to achieve as best we can God’s purposes. The church cannot fuse with any temporal political ordering because the church must have the space to practice its own politics as protest and profession. Having the confidence that God has our backs in Jesus Christ so that we can be both against the things that abuse God’s children and be for all that advances God’s love, we then are free servants of a both much higher and much humbler order. To celebrate the Reformation, then, is not to practice nostalgic identity politics; it is about tuning in to God’s Spirit to maximize the good that God intends for every moment. To protest is to profess.
This is the Reformation Good News. It frees us from the compulsion to prove to others and to ourselves that we are worthy of love. God simply loves us. Trusting that God’s love is more than enough, I can be brave in love for others and brave especially to challenge when others would tie faith to the selfish ends of individuals or nations. Reformation always means that Christians are God’s own political party for all the universe. There is no such thing as “Christian left” or “Christian right.” Those only mean that the word “Christian” is conscripted into service of a political noun and Jesus then is merely used as a mascot for political game playing.
And so today, we accent that again with the Affirmation of Baptism in the Rite of Confirmation for two of our younger congregation members. Jacob and Heidi, you are soon to make promises yourselves that your parents and church to this point made for you; that you will promise to live with protest against all that defies God and of promoting all that is from and for God. That includes standing up for those who are treated unfairly and against the bullies whether they occupy school grounds or high government offices. You can and will do so because you are freed from any judgements and pressures put on you by anyone else. Because God has once and for all declared through Jesus Christ that God is on your side and that you are the apple of God’s eyes, you will grow to be bold and smart, needing only to worry about how you are bold and smart for the good of others; you know the language: you are vowing to be a man and woman for others! You are free.
God sees us and loves us and so defines us from without and within. That means freedom from our false images of ourselves and freedom to be God’s healers wherever we go. We know this. We “feel” this. We can use every means to share how God raises us and God’s church even from the ashes of the fires we sinfully have set. As cherished apples of God’s eyes, God wants the rest of the world to know God’s joy and justice through us.
Divine words and acts are in our repertoire. Also liturgies and songs of protest and profession in the same lyric. From “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” Luther’s “Mighty Fortress,” from Dylan’s “Times They are a Changin” to Springsteen’s “The Rising,” Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” after George Floyd and Lady GaGa’s songs of belonging for all the “little monsters,” every people of every culture has sung and can sing yet Reformation protesting and professing, especially the professing, all as God’s own choral voice.
Lets do that now. Let’s sing the faith even in today’s pop terms. Know again that when we look to God, who looks on us always in a love we cannot imagine, we see again that we are complete, that we are whom God made us to be. In these words from Peter Gabriel’s song, Your Eyes, let “your eyes” mean God’s eyes, and may the rest of the lyrics speak lament and hope, protest and profession, the life of reformation, graced life.
(1)“Love, I get so lost sometimes.
Days pass, and this emptiness fills my heart.
When I want to run away, I drive off in my care.
But whichever way I go, I come back to the place you are.
All my instincts, they return. The grand façade, so soon will burn.
Without a noise, without my pride,
I reach out from the inside.
(Chorus): In your eyes (the light the heat), Your eyes (I am complete)
Your eyes (I see the doorway) Your eyes (to a thousand churches)
Your eyes (the resolution) Your eyes (of all the fruitless searches)
In your eyes (I see the light the heat) Your eyes (I want to be that complete)
In your eyes (I want to touch the light) In your eyes (the heat I see) In your eyes.
(2) Love, I don’t like to see so much pain
So much wasted, And this moment keeps slipping away
I get so tired of working so hard for our survival
I look to the time with you to keep me awake and alive.”
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church, Houston, TX October 25, 2020