October 28, 2012
Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 8:31-36
How many of you in this room truly know God? Let me see a show of hands! According to the prophet Jeremiah, every one of us should have a hand up in the air, because Jeremiah says that in God’s new covenant, everyone shall know God, from the least of them to the greatest. Now, either Jeremiah was wrong, or many of us in this room don’t realize that we know God when we actually do. So, which is it? Well, I guess that we just proved that Jeremiah was wrong because not too many of us raised our hands. In fact, if the truth be known, does any one of us really know God? Besides, in what kind of dream world does Jeremiah live? What is the point that he is trying to make with this grandiose declaration that from the least of them to the greatest, everyone shall know God?
Jeremiah is presenting to his people the idea that sometime in the future, God will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. I would remind all of us today that any time that we hear this term, “new covenant,” in the Bible, the term actually is talking about a covenant renewal—a process in which what is still true about the former covenant is retained and then whatever is new is added in order to make a new covenant. That’s what happened during the time that we know as the Reformation. Martin Luther retained what he believed to be the correct teachings in the Roman Catholic Church, cast aside what he believed to be false, and then added his own teachings in order to reflect what he believed to be true about God according to how he interpreted the word of God.
Was Martin Luther correct about everything that he claimed to be true according to the will of God? I think that with 20/20 hindsight, most of us in this room would answer this question with a resounding “no.” We know that Martin Luther was wrong in many of the things that he proposed because he was a radical and a zealot when it came to his belief that we all are saved by God’s grace alone and none of us can do a darn thing to merit God’s grace and favor. In his fervor to proclaim this new insight that he had about God’s grace, Luther condemned the Anabaptists, the Jews, and many other infidels as lost souls and heathens who were worthy of death because of their unbelief or false belief.
Given this connection with the prophet Jeremiah, I would like to go back to the time of Jeremiah and recall for us a little bit about the context in which Jeremiah made this bold statement in our first lesson for today. Jeremiah’s country of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians and virtually everything that Jeremiah had known in his life to be the source of his identity and security was gone. Jerusalem had been destroyed. The temple had been burned to the ground. In addition, their king had been captured and deported to Babylon, along with many of the prominent people and leaders in Judah—at least those who were still living after all of the battles with the Babylonian army and the subsequent slaughter of so many men, women, and children.
As far as Jeremiah was concerned, things could not get any worse. Like everyone else in this situation, Jeremiah was left with the haunting and nagging question, “Where did we go wrong that we had to experience this terrible catastrophe at the hands of the Babylonians just as the house of Israel had experienced over a century ago at the hands of the Assyrians?” In answering this question, one of the conclusions that Jeremiah realized was that the people of Judah had become too dependent upon the priests who were beholden to the king to tell them what God’s will was for their lives. Given their loyalty to the monarchy, the priests would tell the people what the king wanted the people to hear about who God was and what God’s plan was for making sure that the people were safe, secure, and prosperous.
Assuming that the priests were the only ones who truly knew God and understood all of God’s commandments, the people were duped into believing as they were told that prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing. However, since the king and many of his wealthy supporters were the only ones who were prosperous throughout Judah, Jeremiah recognized that everyone from the least to the greatest had become guilty of going after unjust gain so that they could be assured that they also had been blessed by God. Today, we would identify this kind of teaching about God as prosperity theology.
This same kind of dynamic and corruption also was alive and well in Luther’s day. The sale of indulgences that the priests were promoting as God’s will for the people to pay for their sins and buy their way into heaven was all a pretense in order to raise money to pay off the king’s debts. When Luther realized what was going on, he nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg chapel, not only to expose this corruption by the priests, but also to challenge the entire theological premise that was being used to justify this sale of indulgences. As far as Luther was concerned, no one had to pay for their sins and no one certainly could buy their way into heaven. God’s grace was sufficient for both of these gifts to be a reality without any purchase of indulgences. Such was the essence of Luther’s covenant renewal that we historically have labeled as the reformation.
As we all know, Jeremiah and Luther are not the only reformers in this long line of covenant renewal. Jesus also was a reformer. He had no intention of breaking away from Judaism and starting a new Christian sect. Jesus simply wanted to reform some of what he perceived to be incorrect theological premises and corrupt religious practices that were being devised and promoted by the religious leaders of his day. Do we begin to see a pattern here? In all 3 of these situations, the ones who were being critiqued were the religious leaders who were acting on behalf of the governing authorities of the day, protecting their own status in society, and promoting theological ideas that allowed them to control their people and in the meantime, pad their own pockets as well.
Jeremiah, Jesus, and Luther were all advocates for their people to have direct access to God without having to go through the religious leaders of their day. They believed that everyone had the God-given capability to know God, to be in communication with God, and to understand what God’s will was for their lives without being dependent upon their religious leaders to tell them what they already knew in their hearts to be true. This conviction on their part is a good reminder to all of us today to listen to our own hearts. Even more so, if we believe that the heart is the locus where God’s will is made known to us, then we are going to have to trust what the Spirit of God is saying to us in our hearts. The word of God that we read in the Bible is only one source of this will of God—a word that too often can be misinterpreted and misused by those who want to manipulate us and get us to serve their ends rather than serve God.
Now I have to be very clear about what I am suggesting, because if I am not careful, I am going to be talking myself out of a job because you don’t need me to be in communion with God. Each and every one of you has direct access to and connection with God. That is what Jeremiah was saying. Everyone will know God in their own hearts. That’s what Jesus was saying. Everyone will be free to be in a relationship with God and know the truth, which is the divine will of God. That is also what Luther was saying when he emphasized the communion of saints—a term that emphasizes that each and every one of us has the capability to know God in the core of our being.
Each and every one of us can trust what the Spirit of God is saying to us in the core of our being as much as we ought to trust what our religious leaders are telling us is true. Luther recognized that only a few prominent religious leaders were recognized as saints in the Catholic Church and he wanted to make sure that everyone knew that sainthood had to do with one’s relationship with God without having that relationship defined by what the law or the religious leaders would determine. He believed that every one of us is a saint because of God’s grace and favor, not because of what we do to fulfill the letter of the law or what we do to stay in compliance with what our religious leaders are telling us, especially if our religious leaders are bound by their loyalty to the governing authorities of the day.
In this regard, I want to emphasize that the term “communion of saints” implies that whatever renewal or reform we might pursue, we do it together with one another. Each and every one of us individually may know God, or think that we know God, but as the communion of saints, the important thing is that we know God together. That’s the true meaning of the word, “conscience,”—knowing together with one another what the word of God is saying to us and what the will of God is for us. None of us, including myself, has a market on the truth because the Spirit of God speaks to each and every one of us a word of truth which, when shared with others, can become a collective word of truth—one that could lead to a renewal and a reform within the church and in the world toward being more faithful to the will of God.
Toward this end, we need to be in conversation with one another about how we know God, because we all have something to contribute to this conversation so that in good conscience we know how to be in communion with one another and communicate to the world the truth about the grace of God, the complete forgiveness of God, and the conviction of God to save everyone for all eternity. As we proclaim and live out this conviction, may the grace and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our Savior. Amen.