We are not generic Protestants


We are not generic Protestants 
Wartburg Castle near Eisenach, Germany,
was a place of refuge for Martin Luther.

Text study for John 8:31-36
Lectionary texts for Reformation Sunday,
Oct. 30, 2011

By Elizabeth Eaton

Ah, Reformation Sunday! We deck the church with red, sing the fight song, chant Romans 3:28, maybe order up some extra brass for the choir anthem and celebrate being true descendants of the Great Reformer, Martin Luther.

Having grown up in the Mighty Fortress of Lutheranism, I was stunned when my Episcopalian husband not only did not observe Reformation Sunday, he had never heard of it.

With great condescension I pitied those who could not spend one glorious Sunday a year exalting in the recovery of the true gospel and the return of light to the church’s darkness. And the appointed texts, our texts -- Jeremiah 31:31-34 the word of God written directly upon our hearts (Lutherans don’t need intermediaries), Romans 3:19:28 justification by faith (fie on your good works) and John 8: 31-36 we know the truth (we suspect others do not).

How can we keep from singing?

This year however, the story of Jesus’ interaction with the Jews who had believed in him made me take a closer look at what it means to be Lutheran in America today.

Many of our Lutheran ancestors came to this country in waves of immigration in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. They settled in ethnic enclaves where English was a second language and out-marriage was rare.

They were not part of the Calvinist, Reformed, revivalist Protestant majority. They were aliens in America.

There has been a long and gradual assimilation of Lutherans into American Protestant culture and American civil religion. We are quite at home in America now. But there is great danger in this.

In Jesus’ encounter with "the Jews who had believed in him" you can feel the tension as Jesus challenges the people’s assumptions about truth and identity.

Did they recognize in Jesus the incarnate I Am and the implications of a soon to be crucified savior?

When offered freedom, they denied they had ever been in bondage and claimed Abrahamic ancestry as proof. Are we the Jews in this story?

Gerald Sloyan in his commentary on John’s Gospel states that being a slave to sin does not mean "moral fault in general" but rather boasting in our pedigree.

Is that what Reformation Sunday has become?

The great themes of the Reformation -- justification, grace, law and gospel, the theology of the cross, two kingdoms, the Lutheran hermeneutic -- need to be reclaimed in our teaching, preaching and living.

We are not generic American Protestant citizens in the land of American Exceptionalism.

We are a theology of the cross people in a culture of glory. We are a two-kingdoms people who would never claim a covenantal status for America or any other earthly government.

We understand that the quest for holiness and purity -- the works righteousness of the religious right -- and the attempt to bring in the kingdom through social programs -- the works righteousness of the religious left -- is vanity.

We are sinners utterly dependent on the crucifixion, which not only destroyed sin and death but put to death the false hope of good intentions and human agency.

We are saints made righteous by the resurrection, which has made us alive and makes it possible for us to bear God's creative and redeeming word to the world.

We need to become aliens in America again.


• As a Lutheran are you at home in America?
• Is the doctrine of justification by grace through faith un-American?

Elizabeth Eaton was elected bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the ELCA in 2006. She was ordained in 1981 and began her ministry as pastor at All Saints Lutheran Church in Worthington, Ohio. She was interim pastor at Good Hope Lutheran Church in Youngstown, Ohio, from 1990-91. In 1991 she accepted a call to become pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Ashtabula, Ohio, where she served until her election as bishop.

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