To have God’s law written on our hearts, to continue in God’s Word, is to be shaped into new people who look like Christ, think like Christ, love like Christ. It becomes our second nature, our true nature from Baptism.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Reformation Sunday; texts: John 8:31-36; Jeremiah 31:31-34
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Someone noted to me last week that I seem to preaching a lot about the Christian life of late. I hadn’t noticed, but looking back, I realized that it was true. I also realized that this is the way the readings from God’s Word appointed in the Sunday readings had led me since the beginning of September.
It’s a funny thing about the Scriptures, isn’t it? If we let them lead us and guide us, we don’t always know the path we’re walking until we stop and look back. But when we do, we see clearly God’s hand and direction behind it. And similarly, when we lead our lives our own way, we don’t always notice the path we’re walking until we stop and look back. And then we can see the wandering, and the mistakes, and the difficulty.
It’s almost as if Jesus understood this. Because today he says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Somehow he believes that “continuing” or abiding, living, dwelling, existing, in his Word will change us, shape us, free us. Will make us something we weren’t at the beginning of our journey with him and the Word.
It will make us new people. People like God is promising in Jeremiah today, people who don’t need to be taught to know the Lord anymore because God’s very Word is written on our hearts, written by God. People who not only belong to our Lord Christ but are shaped into Christ ourselves, given new natures.
This is a promise worth knowing, believing, “continuing” in. Because we certainly aren’t fond of the alternatives.
I don’t think it’s difficult for us to understand our need for a new nature, for a new way of being. Certainly it isn’t hard to understand our need for freedom.
Because we are not free, though our culture, our nation proclaims we are just as loudly as Jesus’ fellow Jews in today’s encounter. We often use the language of captivity and bondage to sin when we confess our sins publicly in worship.
We do this because the first letter of John does. But we do it because we know it’s true. We do not live as we have been called to live, as we’ve been created to live, as God hopes for us to live. This we know. And it is as if we are trapped in our behaviors.
Think just about last week’s Gospel. Do you live loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving your neighbor – everyone – as you love yourself? Why not? It’s not that you don’t know it’s what you’re called to be and do. And does our congregation, does the whole Christian Church on earth in all its actions and life in the world live in love of God and love of neighbor? If not, why not?
In his book Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis talks about this in a way that’s helpful. (1) In reflecting on his confession which he made at the end of each day, he realized that the vast majority of things he needed to confess to God were sins which showed lack of love. He writes: “Nine times out of ten the most obvious one is the sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed.”
But what was enlightening to him was his own response, the excuse that most easily formed in his mind: “I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself.” It was then that he realized the truth: surely the best evidence for what kind of a person we really are is how we behave when we are caught off our guard, when we haven’t had time to think, to prepare, to do well? And we extend that to our community, and to the Church: surely the best evidence for the state of our nature, for the reality of who we are is how we act and live when we aren’t thinking, when we are caught off guard.
And when we realize this, we truly understand our predicament, our bondage, our captivity. When we have time to think, we might be able to act as Christ individually or corporately. But our instincts are still captive, which we prove time and again. Our natural state, our true nature, is broken. And that’s what we need God to fix.
In fact, we need a new nature from God.
The funny thing is, we understand this idea in our culture and in our lives, though without attributing it to God. We use the term “second nature” to describe it. Coaches, music teachers, teachers of all kind know that to learn new behavior, new ways of being, it takes practice and repetition until the new behavior is “second nature.”
I was listening to a football coach talk about this a few weeks ago, and his goal was that his players knew what to do so well they “didn’t have to think” – that’s what he said, they didn’t have to think when on the field – in other words, their reactions were now shaped into new reactions. Old instincts were now replaced by new ones. Mr. Vlastuin, one of my elementary school teachers, wanted us to learn the multiplication tables so we could, as he said again and again, say them “just – like – that” (with a finger snap on each word.) Second nature.
And when it comes to the Christian life – whether in community or as individuals – we’ve heard forever about being given a new nature in Christ. Maybe we never understood just what that meant.
But this is what it means, surely. That we become so inured to the way of Christ, so familiar with it, so practiced in it, that our very instincts are changed. That when we are caught off guard, we act as Christ, love as Christ – because we don’t have to stop and think about what we are doing.
Lewis points out that when Paul says “put on Christ” in Colossians 3, he’s talking about pretending to be Christ. We might say practicing to be Christ, including all the attributes he names there, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, love. Not pretending so that we are faking love of God and love of neighbor – pretending because when we act as Christ as a community, as individuals, as the Church on earth, and we keep acting that way, we eventually are changed into new people, new community, new Church.
We are re-formed into the true body of Christ we were meant to be. And that comes, Jesus says, by continuing, abiding, living in his Word. Practicing his Word until it becomes, as we say, second nature to us. A nature which is our true nature begun in us in our baptism.
“If you continue in my Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Let me read you something which might help understand this: Jeremiah 1:5 – Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. Galatians 6:2 – Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Psalm 55:22 – Cast your burden on the Lord. 1 Peter 2:9 – Called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Romans 8.
This piece of paper is one that my mother had in her little Bible that she took with her to church each week. These weren’t necessarily all her favorite verses – some very important ones aren’t on here – but for some reason she wrote these down and stuck them in her Bible. But I wasn’t at all surprised to find the paper in her Bible. She quoted Scripture a lot, and it shaped her. And I can see from these some important shapings for her life.
This showed in other ways, too – for example, there are very few Bibles or religious books given me by my parents where they did not write a verse of Scripture inside the cover. Listen to something my father wrote inside the cover of the Book of Concord – the collection of our Lutheran confessional writings. (It might also be telling that I received this copy when I was twelve, as I began my confirmation studies. I’m pretty sure we didn’t study the Book of Concord, but my father wanted me to have a copy.) I’ll read it as he wrote it, with his little comment after the reading from John, and then portions of Luther’s meaning to the Second Article from the Small Catechism: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.” Jesus of Nazareth, who was the Son of God. John 8:12. He redeems me, He delivers me. He is my Lord. I am His and live under Him. I serve Him . . . to all eternity. page 345.
Just taking a look at all the little pieces of Scripture that my parents wrote down on these occasions tells you mountains about their faith and whose child they each knew themselves to be. My parents knew, and my father who is still with us, knows, what it is to continue in God’s word. To remain, abide in the Word.
I tell you this about my parents not to boast. They weren’t perfect parents, not perfect people. But you need to know something. They also were not seminary-trained theologians. They were regular lay people.
My father grew up in a church-going family, but I doubt they read the Bible together at home. Grandpa was a decent, hardworking man who ran a Phillips 66 gas station for years. Grandma was involved forever in altar guild and circles, and Ladies Aid. A normal, involved church family. And my mother grew up in a Denver Roman Catholic family that were regular mass-goers, but again, not especially trained theologically.
But both of them together were connected to the Word in a remarkable way. God’s Word informed their marriage, their parenting, their work in the world. They knew what it was to abide, continue, remain in God’s Word. And it seems to me that this is the kind of thing Jesus is talking about today, the kind of thing God promises in Jeremiah.
But continuing in the Word isn’t just about memorizing Bible verses, though that’s a helpful piece. It’s about living in the true Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. God promises to write this new covenant which we see in Jesus Christ on our hearts. It is God who does this, not us. Staying in the Scriptures, letting those words shape us, mold us, change us, isn’t something we do ourselves.
As C. S. Lewis says in the same section I’ve already mentioned, “it is God who does everything. We, at most, allow it to be done to us.” We have the gift of our Lord Christ beside us, helping us pretend, continually calling us to newness of life and in the Spirit making it happen. We are molded, shaped, formed as individuals and as a community by the one in whose Word we are invited to live. By the Living Word of God, God’s Son, our Lord.
So our pretending, our putting on Christ, our living in the Scriptures, all is empowered and driven by the One who died to give us life.
Because here is the miracle: though we are still sinful, God in Christ looks at us as if we are already little Christs. While we are still learning, while we are still captive, while we still forget God’s Word, God sees in us what we will be, and writes it on our hearts. And so God leads us to become what we already are, or what God already thinks and sees we are.
This is the freedom Jesus promises us. And thanks be to God it is the freedom Jesus gives us.
Let us continue in his Word, in the Scriptures, in our worship, at his Table, when we confess, as we are with each other. Let us pretend to be Christ, put on his Word, until with his grace we actually become Christ. It becomes second nature, written on our hearts.
Imagine what this world would be like if just one of us were so shaped and transformed. Imagine what it would be like if our whole congregation were so shaped and transformed. Imagine what it would be like if Christ’s whole Church were so shaped and transformed. Then the world might have a chance at life, and freedom and love. And that has been God’s hope all along.
(1) All the Lewis references are from Book IV, chapter 7, “Let’s Pretend,” Mere Christianity, Macmillan Publishing Company, © 1943, 1945, 1952; pages 146-151.