REFORMATION DAY SERMON

by

 Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan

The Lutheran Bishop in Jerusalem

October 31, 2002

Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Old City Jerusalem


Text:  Isaiah 61:10-11

          “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for

             he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with

             the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,

            and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.  For as the earth brings forth

             its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the

             Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the

             nations.”

 

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you always.  Amen.

 

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

 

     As I read the proclamation of salvation and righteousness by the Prophet Isaiah, I felt elevated out of this world.  When I read that “the Lord has clothed me with the garments of salvation and has covered me with the robe of righteousness”, I thought I had begun to live in an idealistic place of justice and salvation.  I felt revived in the same spirit as in the sixth century BC, when the hopes of liberation were being realized.

 

     But, alas, the reality of our tough, unjust world immediately struck me.  One of my Jewish rabbi friends asked me last week:  “Bishop, do you think there is a future for justice in our country?”  My answer was as always:  “As long as we believe in a living God, there is hope.”

 

      Another guest, a Christian woman, visited my office and she adamantly emphasized that the solution in the Middle East is spiritual before being “secular,” using her exact wording.

 

     Between these two stories, I started to feel the tension of this Reformation Day.  I started to struggle, like the Reformer Martin Luther, to find the gracious God.  I started to feel the tension that exists between God’s salvation, God’s justification for human beings by grace without works and merit, and the implications of justice in our broken world.  But again, I was reminded that justification by grace through faith is closely associated with the search for justice.

 

       As we look back in the Old Testament, we find that justice is grounded in God’s divine nature. This has far-reaching implications for righteous living, righteous judging and righteous rejoicing.  The worship expected of the righteous, the one who practices justice and righteousness, stems from obedience to the Covenant.  Professor von Rad says that there is no concept more important in the Hebrew Scriptures than justice.  When Isaiah called the people of Israel to repent and come back to their covenant relationship with God, they were reminded that it would mean seeking justice and correcting oppression (1:17), letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke (58:6).  The Prophet Micah spells out what God is really looking for, what God requires or expects from those who have covenanted to be a blessing:  “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” (6:8)

 

      The New Testament perspective of justice is rooted in the proclamation and inauguration of the reign of God in the person of Jesus Christ.  In the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus sets out His program, His purpose and His message of salvation.  It included the mission of justice.  “The Spirit has sent me to let the oppressed go free.”  (Luke 4:18)  In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus reminds the religious leaders that they had given too much attention to ritual purity and neglected the weightier matter of justice.  (Matt. 23:23)

 

      Dr. Ishmael Noko, the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, explains the relationship between justice and justification. It is a call to all those who are baptized into Christ to take part in building community across the barriers that exist between nations, ethnic groups, genders and generations.  Because we are justified by God and not by our own qualities or actions, we should all receive each other as God receives us. The gift of justification that we are given in Christ is an affirmation that we are all made in God’s image, that we are each of value as individuals.

 

      Being justified by grace through faith returns us to the real meaning of biblical justice.  It describes the ambiguity in which we human beings find ourselves.  We are at the same time sinners and saints, always in need of justice and liberation, which God graciously gives us. It means being simultaneously judged and being freed. Those of us experiencing injustice in this world have the promise of the wonderful hope of justice from the cross and resurrection of Christ. Yes, we are victims of injustice, but as we are saved by God’s grace, the Triune God will never allow injustice to have the final word. Justice and only justice will have that final word.

 

      What my guest told me is true – the crisis of justice is spiritual. As long as human beings are far from God, then true justice is far from the world.  As long as justice is deeply rooted in self-interest, economy and power, then God’s justification has no value for true justice. As long as justice has double or triple standards, then it contradicts the power of the cross. This is true justice, that God has redeemed all humanity equally, regardless of gender, ethnicity or race, whether powerful or weak, rich or poor, from the North or South, East or West.

 

      The justice of our modern world is dividing the world’s people and countries into an “axis of evil” in contrast to an “axis of good.”  This division is a challenge to religious communities and to our understanding of humanity. We need to analyze it, to discuss it in a constructive way.  When people and nations are said to be a part of the “axis of evil,” we must ask ourselves, “What is behind such language?  Is the Northern world trying to create religious, ethnic and theological polarizations that threaten to divide the world’s people into a number of warring camps, each possessed by the need to dominate through fear?”

 

      The editor of the ELCA Lutheran Magazine, Rev. David L. Miller, writes in his editorial:  “(The rhetoric) we are hearing simplistically defines nations in terms of our (American) needs, fear and anger.  It fixes the identity of entire peoples as essentially opposed to us, ignoring their needs, legitimate aspirations and groups within their societies with whom we share values and interests.”

 

     The rhetoric of the “axis of evil” fans war fever to convince many people that military options against the bad group are the only way of dealing with destructive leaders and governments.  It also depersonalizes entire peoples so we no longer see them, lest we notice the destruction that our national policies wreak on nations that are being demonized.

 

       Unfortunately, the rhetoric of “axis of evil” blinds the world to justice and to the reality that life is interconnected. No person or nation is an island. Our Creator fashions a unity in which each element is connected with the others.

 

       For these reasons, justification by grace through faith proclaims that the compassion of God has no respect for the world’s judgment of purity, acceptability or net worth. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  They are now justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:23-24) God’s mercy is for sinners, both in the “axis of evil” and the “axis of good”, rich as Zacchaeus and poor as Lazarus at the gate. The justice of God is seen in Jesus who died on the cross for all peoples equally and freely.

 

      Where politicians are seeing barriers, the Christian Church finds companions with whom it can join to oppose the barbarism of death, destruction and demonization.  United in its opposition, the Church becomes the “axis of hope” created by the Spirit, sharing in God’s loving dream for all peoples and the whole creation.  Wherever the Church finds people truly affirming the sacredness of life, there we find the Spirit of Life at work, creating an “axis of hope.”  The mercy of God’s future appears, creating a spiral – not of violence, but of life – working for justice that alone holds the promise of peace in our world.

 

     By saying this, I believe that justification by grace through faith calls the Church to be prophetic and even to swim against the waves of injustice in our world.  Professor Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way:  “It is part of the Church’s office of guardianship that it shall call sin by its name and that it will warn men and women against sin; for righteousness exalteth a nation, both in time and in eternity.”

If the church does not do this, it would be incurring part of the guilt ”for the blood of the wicked.” (Ezek. 3:17ff)  Only justice will save the world and humanity from wars, calamities and bloodshed.

 

      The Palestinian Church is also called to be an “axis of hope” and to be prophetic. It is called to condemn injustice but at the same time to bring hope, work for justice and prepare a generation of hope and peace. We do this by treating people justly at home and at work, raising our children to trust in Jesus Christ as our Savior, living just and peaceful lives. We do this by teaching justice and peace in our Lutheran and Christian schools, and practicing justice, peace and reconciliation in our congregations.  It is the call of the Church to condemn oppression, occupation and violence in our country, but at the same time to call for just peace for both Israel and Palestine according to the international legitimacy.

 

      The Christian Church needs to be prophetic in order to break the vicious cycle of hatred and revenge.  Justification by grace through faith calls the Palestinian Church not only to work for justice but also to be ministers of reconciliation in our homes, our congregations and in this land. We are to educate the grassroots of both nations to see God not only in oneself but also in the other, whom we consider to be an enemy. Once we see God in the other, then we can accept the humanity of the other and even the otherness of the other.  Once the humanity of the other is rediscovered, then we can mutually recognize each other’s human, civil, religious, national and political rights. Only then will our country, Palestine and Israel, become a promised land of milk and honey for both Palestinians and Israelis.

 

        I would like to conclude my message on this Reformation Day by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today I am sure Dr. King’s language would be inclusive, speaking of both men and women, but I am sharing this quotation from the 1960’s exactly as it was spoken:

 

       “When evil men plot, good men must plan.

        When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind.

        When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves

              to the glories of love.

        When evil men seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek

              to bring into being a real order of justice.”

 

      May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ fill your hearts and minds and souls with the gracious love of God. Amen.