Reformation Day/Pentecost 20 A: Original Insecurity and the Power of Love

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I have a hunch that paying attention to just a little bit of grammar might help you preach the readings appointed for Reformation Sunday (and, for that matter, Pentecost 20). The point of grammar in question is that we often speak of sin in the plural when we should focus on the singular. A small thing, I know, but before you dismiss this distinction, let me explain first what I mean and then why I think it matters.

When we talk about sin, it’s almost always in the plural – sins – as in describing bad things we’ve done. But sin described across Scripture, and particularly in Paul, is not so much a thing as it is a force – the power that seeks to rob the children of God of abundant life – and a condition in which we are trapped. In this second sense, the condition of sin is very much a state of existential insecurity – being fearful or anxious that you are not safe, not sufficient, not worthy of love and respect.

This matters largely because sin (singular, the condition of insecurity) precedes most if not all of our sins (plural, those harmful things we do). That is, we do bad things because we feel bad about ourselves. I realize that sounds a little self-helpy, but let’s test it by going back to the beginning. You know, the story of Adam and Eve. We tend to think of this story as the birthplace of the “original sin” of disobedience. But when you read the story closely, you see that before there is original sin there is what we might call “original insecurity.” That is, Adam and Eve (and let’s keep in mind that while Eve does the talking, Adam is right there with her the whole time) are insecure, worried that God has not shared with them all they need to know, and are thereby seduced into trying to establish their worth and place through their own knowledge and power and apart from their relationship with God as God’s children and stewards. Because of their insecurity, in other words, they disobey God’s command and sin.

Why do I think this distinction matters? Because there are only two things you can do about sins, that is, those things we do wrong: punish them or forgive them. Either response, however, risks leaving the person involved unchanged – that is, stuck in the condition of sin – unless you also deal with the underlying insecurity. And there’s only one way to deal with insecurity, and that’s love. Love creates a whole person no longer plagued by insecurity. Think for a moment: when was the last time that you felt completely loved and accepted, worthy of dignity and respect, and confident that you are enough, and still felt tempted to sin?

Which brings me back to these two Gospel readings that fall on Pentecost 20 and Reformation Sunday. In each, there’s this peculiar attempt at self-justification going on that stems, I’d argue, from insecurity. In the passage from Matthew 22, the Pharisees, perhaps made insecure by the failure of the Sadducees, again want to put Jesus to the test, justifying themselves and their position and authority by bringing him down a peg or two. In the text from John, Jesus offers freedom. In response, and made insecure by the implication that they are not free, his interlocutors justify themselves by declaring that they don’t need Jesus’ freedom because – apparently forgetting about the whole Egypt-thing – they have never been slaves.

Both texts, then, hinge on our penchant to justify ourselves. Which is, of course, what the Reformation was all about. All too often, though, we think of self-justification in religious categories only, assuming it’s our attempt to somehow earn our salvation. But self-justification – also known as “justification by works” – is much more about our attempts, like that of Adam and Eve, to go it alone, to define ourselves on our own terms, to secure for ourselves a place in a cold and indifferent universe by our own means and devices.

This kind of self-justification takes many forms. Perhaps in the first century it was by observing tradition for tradition’s sake, ignoring or denying that God was doing a new thing in Jesus. Perhaps in the sixteenth century it was creating and using religious mechanisms by which to guarantee one’s place in heaven. And perhaps today it’s by acquiring sufficient wealth, status, or prestige by which to create the illusion of a meaningful and purposeful life. Whatever the particular time or devices, however, each of these attempts share in common the desire to craft for oneself an identity independent of our relationship with God.

Eventually, however, these attempts fail. No matter how much wealth I have, I cannot buy love. No matter how many hours I work or awards I garner, I have no guarantee that they will create for me a sense of meaning and purpose. No matter how much power I accumulate, power doesn’t equate acceptance. And when our attempts at self-justification don’t seem to work, we typically have bought so deeply and thoroughly into the worldly mentality that you must go it alone that we only redouble our efforts, wreaking personal and communal havoc in the meantime.

This is what Jesus meant, I think, by talking about “the kingdom of God” as opposed to the world. In God’s kingdom, we are accepted not because of what we’ve done or acquired or accomplished, but simply because God loves us. Our identity isn’t some hard earned award but rather a sheer gift of grace. And our destiny is secured not by our own merit or achievements, but rather is secured and guaranteed by the one who died on a cross and was raised again, proving once and for all that God’s love is more powerful even than death, the great limiting factor that mocks all our attempts at self-justification.

Paul puts it a little differently in the portion of his letter to the Romans that is typically read on Reformation Sunday, but conveys much the same message:

For there is no distinction, since 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, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law (3:22b-28).

Paul’s description of our condition and God’s response is instructive. None of us can establish ourselves on our own and, indeed, we have done great harm to each other trying. Because absent any measure by which to secure our place on our own, we too often compare ourselves to each other, ultimately establishing ourselves on the back of our neighbor or suffering the same ourselves. The only result of such efforts is condemnation: God loves us too much to allow us to justify ourselves against each other. But God’s ultimate response is not judgment – for while sins (singular) would be punished, sin (plural) would remain. Instead, after demonstrating that our attempt to justify ourselves is doomed (what theologians normally call “the law”), God then justifies us by divine command, giving us by grace that which we cannot attain ourselves and drawing us into our identity as beloved children of God (what we like to call “the gospel”).

So what about if this week, Dear Partner, we boil the gospel that occasioned the Reformation and still animates the best of Christianity today all down to this: God knows us – even our insecure attempts to justify ourselves through our work, accomplishments, wealth, or status – better even than we know ourselves. But God also loves us, accepting and loving the insecure, wayward persons we are. Not the person we’ve tried to be or promised to but, but the person we really are. And so God not only forgives us those sins (plural) we commit, but also promises us God’s unconditional love, acceptance, and regard. And this gift of grace and love both puts to death our attempts to justify ourselves (sin, singular) and raises us to new life as we discover not only that we deserve love and respect but have already been given those things by none other than the creator of the cosmos.

This can feel like complicated stuff, Dear Partner, but attending to this bit of grammar and simplifying our complex theology to “God’s knows you and God’s loves you” can help not only honor the texts of this day but also create new life for your hearers in and through the power of the Spirit. Thank you for your hard work, and blessings on your proclamation.

In Christ,


Post image: Depiction of the sin of Adam and Eve by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens (ca. 1615).