World Communion; October 1, 2017
Some stories are intersecting here this morning. One of them is the story of this character from the Bible, Abraham. God had summoned him to leave his home, along with his wife and servants and a troublesome nephew, and to resettle elsewhere. God had made three promises: I will give you this land, I will give you descendants, I will bless all the nations of the world through you. In the story, Abraham is an old man and his wife Sarah is almost as old, and they have no children, so the promise of descendants is a hard one. But, as it says here, Abraham "believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness."
He believed the Lord. He had faith in the words of the Lord. He trusted the Lord was telling the truth. As far as the Lord was concerned, that was righteousness. Usually we think of "righteousness" as a moral, pious way of living. That righteous person is the lady down the street who always disapproves of whatever you're doing. Or to be righteous is to fall over yourself doing good deeds. But the Book here says that God considered Abraham's faith to be righteousness. Abraham trusted God, and that was enough.
Here's another story. Martin Luther, not quite thirty-four years old, had struggled for years over his own failings. He was raised to believe that you had to do good deeds in order to please God, but he never felt as though he was good enough. I'll go into this story a little more deeply on Wednesday evening, but I'll summarize by saying he became convinced that he had been given a wrong picture of God and of the nature of our relationship with God. We aren't destined for hell or, at best, a long term in purgatory, unless we do enough good deeds to please God. And so he wrote ninety-five theses in October 1517, 500 years ago this month, and we Protestants consider that date - October 31, 1517 - to be the beginning of the Reformation. Kathleen and I spent two weeks in Germany, visiting places associated with Martin Luther and the Reformation, and it is all very fresh on my mind. And I think of Martin Luther, struggling over the demand that he be good enough, and realizing that the key to life with God is not doing enough good works; the key is "sola fide," only faith. Have faith in God.
And a third story. During our trip I did quite a bit of reading, including the next Men's Book Club selection. One book I read was by Rachel Held Evans, now about the same age Martin Luther was when he started the Reformation. Since she is about 30 years younger than I am, she is closer to the point of view of today's young leaders. Ms. Evans is a journalist from Tennessee, and her book (Searching for Sunday) reflects on her experience of church and of faith. She was raised in "sola fide," that faith is what matters, and she was taught that to have faith means to agree to all the right things. You have to oppose modern science, especially evolution; you don't believe that human beings have any effect on the climate; you vote against equal rights for gay and lesbian persons. Her church experience was of wonderful, caring, loving people, drenched in the stories of Jesus, but with a strong dose of social conservatism as part of the package. She wondered if it was possible to have faith, to love God, to follow Jesus, without denying evolution or voting against the civil rights of gay and lesbian people.
Knowing how taken I was by her book, I have a feeling you'll be hearing some more Rachel Held Evans from me, just as you'll be hearing more Martin Luther. And John Calvin, too; I haven't forgotten that I'm a Presbyterian. It was fun, however, to travel around Germany with a busload of Lutherans.
All these stories intersect at the point of faith. And they all suggest that faith is key to life in God, far more key than getting your behavior right or your politics right or just generally trying to be good enough to get God to love you. God does love you. Faith is trusting God, taking God at God's word, believing God when God says something outrageous, such as "Count the stars, if you can. That's how many your descendants will be."
I affirm to you that if you start there, if you trust God, take God at God's word, then God and God's people will help you do some good works. Maybe you won't agree with every line of the Apostles' Creed or a recent Presbyterian statement, but if you trust God then God and God's people will help you sweat the details, if you want. Or just enjoy your company, if the details don't interest you.
A good place to focus is right here at this Table, this day of World Communion. We hope and pray that every person of Jesus, everywhere in the world, is having communion today. And we do this today in the hope and prayer that every Church of Jesus will welcome and accept one another. Different types of churches say a lot of different things about what happens at this Table, and it was mostly that quarrel that prevented the unity of the many churches of the Reformation. But can we simply say that to participate in this ritual meal is to have some sort of experience of Jesus? I'm happy to sweat the details and to dive into theology with any of you, but what does Jesus say? "This is my body; this is my blood; eat and drink in remembrance of me."
So if you want to have dinner with Jesus, eat and drink. If you want the "real presence" of Christ (as we Calvinists say), eat and drink. If you want transubstantiation (Catholic) or consubstantiation (Lutheran) or some other "ation" in Christ, then eat and drink. Righteousness is not getting the details right. Righteousness is not being a better person than that yahoo next door. Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master