Note: I preached a version of this sermon on October 30, 2016 (Reformation Sunday) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
On Friday night, Kerry and I went with some friends from out of town to see a play at the Goodman Theatre downtown. Now I don’t go to the theatre very often at all, but I knew I was not going to miss this particular play for two reasons: first, it was written by a friend of mine from high school. And second, it’s about magic. In fact, it’s called The Magic Play. You should all go see it.
I’ve been fascinated by magic since I was a little kid reading books and watching clips by Penn and Teller, trying to learn how they worked their illusions. A cool thing about this particular play is that the lead actor is also a magician, and magic tricks are a major part of the play. So the play is about how magic works: how a magician builds trust with the audience, how he controls the choices audience volunteers make, how he creates illusions—illusions the audience wants to believe.
That’s the thing I love about magic: it engages our need to believe that something impossible can happen. And at the same time, it engages our desire to figure out the trick.
Now the story of The Magic Play gets interesting when the on-stage world of tricks and manipulation gets tangled up in the real world of love and human relationships.
When we’re in an audience, we want to be led on, tricked, deceived by sleight of hand. In the real world, face to face, we don’t want that at all. We don’t want to be led on, tricked, manipulated. Instead we want to give ourselves freely to one another, and we want to receive the free gift of another person in return.
And this is one of the questions that has bedeviled us as Christians: should the church be more like a magic show, with God dazzling us into love and good behavior by sleight-of-hand, leading us to where he wants us to go like unwitting audience volunteers?
Or is church supposed to be more like what we want in the real world, with God appealing to us freely without tricks or manipulation, in search of our free response?
This week for Reformation Day we hung new banners in the sanctuary. And these banners commemorate something in Martin Luther’s work, something he called “the holy possessions” of the Christian church.
Luther wrote about these things because he had to answer a very urgent question: how can you recognize the church of Jesus Christ? How do you know the people in a given place are really church and not some kind of counterfeit?
So to answer this question, Luther said, you had to look for seven things, seven “holy possessions” left by Christ for his church. And if you saw them, you would know you were in the church:
- The holy word God, spoken in preaching and heard by the people
- Holy Baptism, the sacrament that joins us to the death and resurrection of Christ
- The Sacrament of the Altar, the body and blood of Christ given to us in, with, and under the bread and wine
- Confession and Absolution—or as Luther called it, “the office of the keys”
- The holy ministry, in which people are set apart to administer these holy possessions on behalf of all
- Public praise and worship, in which the people sing to God, give thanks to God, and pray to God for their needs
- The holy cross and suffering, when God’s people are scorned and abused for the sake of Christ
I’ve been thinking about these holy possessions a lot lately. And I think I find them so compelling because they are so plain, so ordinary, so unadorned. There is no trickery or sleight of hand, no magic in any of these things Christ gave us Christians to do.
They are simply there, offered to us unconditionally. We can seize them or ignore them, we can celebrate them joyously or misuse and neglect them. There is no stacked deck in God’s vest, no illusion to any of it. The secret of Christianity is not what is hidden. The secret of Christianity is what is on the surface, plain for all of us to see.
—The Word of God speaks to us in commands and promises. The commands are infinite, hard as iron, even terrifying. The promises are unconditional, soaring, full of joy and hope. As human beings we are tempted to shrink them down—little commands, little promises, for little people. But God’s word is not addressed to little people. It is addressed to us as the pinnacle of God’s creation. And we are invited each week to swallow them whole—the commands with all their glory and fear, the promises with all their grace and possibility.
—Holy Baptism makes us into a new family by water and words. It gives us a new identity with all the baptized. It makes us into something greater than any nation or any language. It tears down every wall of race or sex or class or anything else, making us brothers and sisters to each other.
—The Sacrament of the Altar joins us in a shared act of eating and drinking, the most ordinary, most human thing there is. Christ gives himself to each of us, and Christ joins us into one Body by sharing his.
—Confession and absolution proclaims and gives full pardon and release for all kins we repent of, simply by God’s promise. When the words are spoken and believed, they are real.
—The holy ministry gives us people whose job is to provide all of these possessions to God’s people freely and lovingly, not for power and domination.
—Public worship is the people’s work, something we do together without competition or compensation. God’s people work together to create a shadowy image of God’s kingdom on earth, where voices join in wobbly harmony and everyone is included and has a place and plays their part.
—And the holy cross shows the world that God cannot be known through wisdom, or good works, or power, or glory, but only through suffering. And it calls us, over and over again, to defend and protect anyone who is oppressed as Jesus was oppressed.
There is no trick to any of it. There’s nothing you’re not seeing and nothing we aren’t telling you. These holy possessions are just there for us to seize, to treasure, and to share.
And so it doesn’t matter if our faith ebbs and flows. It doesn’t matter if our feelings fluctuate or our sins don’t just fade away. It doesn’t matter if we show up here, like grumpy moviegoers, not ready to suspend our disbelief. God doesn’t need us to suspend our disbelief. God isn’t seeking an audience. God isn’t putting on a show. God seeks you, the real you, the person who wants to know and be known, see and be seen, love and be loved. And God seeks the world, the real world. God uses us to create a picture of the life of the world to come.
That is what I want to leave us all with today. Jesus says in our Gospel today, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.” The whole task of faith is to take him at his word.
This day, and this Gospel, and these holy possessions are not about Lutherans versus Catholics or Christians versus Jews—God forbid. But all of this is about the struggle of each of us to be made free, to be free indeed. Free to serve God without fear. Free to love one another without shame. Free to seize the gifts God has given to us.
Free to be changed into something new and marvelous by words, by water, by blood, forgiveness, ministry, worship, and suffering. And free, with those holy possessions, and with the gift of each other, to change the world.