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Theology Matters

March 12, 2018

“Theology Matters” John 3:1-21; Ephesians 2:1-10 © 3.11.18 Lent 4B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Theology is mostly autobiography. “At its heart, theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Tillich, working out their systems in their own ways and in their own language, are all telling us the stories of their lives, and if you press them far enough, even at their most cerebral and forbidding, you find an experience of flesh and blood, a human face smiling or frowning or weeping or covering its eyes before something that happened once” (https://www.facebook.com/Frederick.Buechner.Center/posts/1425542354162962).

That’s one of my favorite observations from author Frederick Buechner. The way we understand and experience who God is and what God wants, which is what we mean by “theology,” is filtered through the sieve, seen through the lens, of our circumstances, relationships, education, fears and prejudices, needs and wants, hopes and dreams, whatever it is that we include in our story. Perhaps that’s as it should be for people who believe God came among us in human flesh.

We need look no farther than the biography of Martin Luther to find abundant evidence that Buechner is correct. Especially the ladies who have been discussing the Reformation will know the story of the great Reformer. As a young man, Luther suffered great spiritual anguish, though he lived as a monk beyond reproach. None of the rituals or methods of the day seemed to bring relief for his torment of soul. Though he confessed his sin up to six hours a day, he did not feel forgiven. Advised to follow the mystic path of total surrender to God, he found no closeness with the Divine. Instead, he suffered from terrible insecurity and frightful panic. In nightmares, he saw Jesus the Holy Judge coming to take his life. Rather than love God, Luther hated him.

His mentor Johann von Staupitz finally assigned Brother Martin to study for the doctor’s degree, undertake preaching, and assume the chair of Bible at the University of Wittenberg. Luther, understandably, was floored at such an audacious proposal. But von Staupitz presumably believed that in caring for others, Luther might find the

answers he sought. And in returning to the source book of the faith, Luther would be helped. We may be surprised that in all his torment, the monk has not turned to the scripture before. But his course of study in theology in those days did not include the Bible!

So, in 1513, Luther’s acquaintance with the Bible began. First, he taught the psalms. Then, Romans, followed by Galatians. In reflection on the 22nd psalm, the young man realized that Christ had also suffered anguish, alienation from God. This was all new. Before, Christ had been the stern Judge who condemned sinners. But here was One who suffered as Luther did, as we all do. As the biographer Roland Bainton phrases it, "[t]he judge upon the rainbow has become the derelict upon the cross" (Here I Stand: 43). Luther had discovered that Christ took upon himself the iniquity of us all. The God whom Luther so feared became the All-Merciful who in some mysterious way had reconciled humankind to himself through the death of Christ. He became the Life-Giver, who raised up Christ from the tomb, and so brings us new hope.

The journey continued as Luther studied Romans in the original language, and found the nuances that go unnoticed unless one reads the text in Greek. In the first chapter, the monk seized upon the passage which spoke of “justification by faith.” Let Luther himself tell the story from here, ultimately in the terms of the text from John this morning: “‘I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

“‘Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through sheer grace and mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be [born again] and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven….

"’If you have a true faith that Christ is your Savior, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This is it to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness…” (Bainton: 65).

Do you see what was happening in Luther’s life? Theology—thinking about God–intersected Luther’s need, Luther’s heart. That’s why theology matters, in the phrase of the 1994 PC(USA) General Assembly. It matters not as a tool to manipulate somebody or to argue a position. It’s important not to prove a point or badger someone into submission to you or me. Theology matters because it has power as a tool of God to change lives—yours, mine, everyone’s. As the Catholic contemplative Richard Rohr put it recently: “I come at things theologically because that’s how I was educated and because it has such a significant impact on our culture and individual lives, whether we realize it or not. If you do not have good theology, you will almost always have an unhealthy worldview, largely held unconsciously” (“The Givens,” https://cac.org/the-givens-2018-03-04/).

As Luther discovered and Rohr notes, not just any thinking about God will bring us hope and deliverance. There is such a thing as bad theology or inadequate theology. The Reformer had had plenty of philosophy and theology that came from somewhere other than Scripture. No, it’s reflection on the God revealed in the Bible that can make a difference for the burdened, the frightened, the sinful.

Luther gave to the Church the three great, enduring themes or slogans of the Protestant tradition, commended to us by our own standards: grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone. The first two of those flow almost directly from the text from Ephesians this morning. He showed us, too, that it’s essential that those theological ideas become operative in our daily lives, really touch us at the point of our need and challenge us where we’re too comfortable and too self-assured.

Each in turn, then. First, grace alone. Who of us has not tried to save himself or herself by working hard enough to merit God’s favor? Who of us has not placed impossible requirements on ourselves or others, then despaired when we were unable to fulfill them or become angry when someone didn’t meet our expectations? Perhaps we’ve even experienced the church as an institution which is constantly trying to save itself through some new structural plan, some new position paper, some new addition to the Book of Order. But as someone once observed, “the thing we all need to quit is the endeavor to save ourselves, to prove ourselves good enough for God. It is the attempt to demonstrate that we can, on the basis of resources already available, go it alone, achieve the good life, solve whatever problems we encounter and through it all be assured of a place in the world to come….This is what we are really called to quit” (A.N. Wells, “Time to Quit,” The Presbyterian Outlook, October 8, 1985: 5).

I suspect that all of us are conditioned by upbringing and by culture to believe that it’s wrong to take, to receive, something we neither worked for nor deserve. And that makes it very difficult to accept the grace of God, which is God’s loving, liberating initiative toward us in our ungodliness, our sin, our need. Sometimes it takes our being broken and vulnerable to open us to the grace and love of God. Sad that it must come to that, but it’s true, at least in my experience. The rest of the time, we can do just fine, thank you; we’ll call on God when we need him.

But the reality is we have nothing we did not receive from the hand of God. The very air we breathe, the possessions we love and sometimes idolize, our- families, friends, not to mention our salvation, are the blessings of a generous God who delights to bestow them on us who, as Ephesians puts it, were “dead through trespasses and sins.” Sisters and brothers, that’s grace: gifts beyond imagining, beyond deserving, beyond measure that come to us daily, because God—this marvelous, benevolent, extravagant God—showers his rich kindness on us.

So how do we receive the grace of God? We simply reach out our empty hand in gratitude and let it touch each of us. In our desperate times, we cling like mad to the One who will not let us go. We remember that even touching the hem of Jesus’ garment, as in one of the stories from the synoptic gospels, is enough. Faith, faith alone, is all that’s necessary to have what God offers. We enter into relationship with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, the One who gave himself up for us in the ultimate act of grace. Our faith is not in an idea or a doctrine or the Bible. It’s in a person, namely, Jesus. It’s trust, reliance, loyalty, believing that this God who loved us, indeed, the whole world so much he gave his only begotten Son will not let us fall no matter what. In our down times, when we can’t believe anyone could or does love somebody so rotten, so worthless, faith is accepting that we are accepted, as Paul Tillich said. It’s saying “yes” to God, to life, to the future.

How do we know God acts in grace toward us, that we only need to receive this gift in faith? “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Karl Barth, a great 20th century theologian, is said to have observed that the little Bible school song sums up the gospel. Luther would have agreed. In his day, the scriptures were considered to be inferior to Church tradition. The Bible was the servant of the Church. But in actuality, it’s the story told in the Bible that created the Church. Of course, the Bible was written by members of the Hebrew and Christian communities of faith. But every pronouncement, every doctrine, every practice of the Church of whatever stripe must be held up the scrutiny of the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture, the Spirit whose movement is not subject to human control, who mystery eludes our grasp.

Scripture alone, though, is not so much about a book as about the One to whom it points. The Bible is the one, necessary, and sufficient witness to Jesus Christ. For Luther, and for us, the center of Scripture is Christ. He is the Word of God, the communication of God’s self to us, the Word made flesh, as John’s gospel puts it.

We study the Bible because in it we discover Christ. It’s as the Bible intersects our personal world and the larger world around us that it becomes truly authoritative for us, that its words matter. As the Holy Spirit provides guidance for life through its words, the Bible becomes the Word of God. Scripture alone doesn’t mean that some theory of inspiration or authority is the object of our faith; that’s idolatry. Scripture alone means that nowhere better than in the Bible do we find Christ, who is the center of the Bible and is the center of the life of every faithful believer and every faithful church.

Grace alone. Faith alone. Scripture alone. Those three phrases sum up a theology. A theology that matters. How we understand what they mean will impact our daily lives—the way we treat others, the way we see ourselves, how we proclaim the gospel, how we relate to the God we worship. It doesn’t take but a moment to say them. But they’re life-changers, not just once, but over and over. To discover what they mean is a life-long pilgrimage. As Luther said: “I did not learn my theology all at once, but I had to search deeper for it, where my temptation…took me… Not understanding, reading, or speculation, but living, nay, rather dying and being damned make a theologian” (Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers: 60-61). And we are all theologians.

Autobiography is mostly theology.

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