Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Preaching on Mary and Free Love

Perhaps, for Reformation Day this year, we will preach on the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Rightly or wrongly -- and the answer is wrongly -- the lectionary provides a single rather drab set of readings for Reformation Day.  Year in and year out, it is Jeremiah, Romans, and John.

And yet it was Galatians that Luther compared to his own wife, and Genesis upon which he taught some of his longest lessons in the classroom. (Remember the "sacristy prayer"?  That's where it comes from.)  Surely these books have something to offer us by way of insight into what people began talking about on Halloween in 1517.  (And the Common Service did prescribe Gal. 2:16-21 for Reformation, a text that is positively pregnant with opportunity for a teacher interested in the relationship of pistis to theosis.)

One of these years, by gosh, we will muster the courage (and the advance planning) to throw out those idiotic bulletin inserts, set aside the lectionary, and choose our own readings for Reformation Day.  But this year, we regret to say, it will be Jeremiah, Romans and John.

Most of our attention will probably go to the last of these, and the promise of Christ that "the truth shall make you free."  The text is almost certainly chosen to refer us back to Luther's famous essay on Christian freedom, written in 1521, and so we have been reviewing our battered paperback copy this afternoon.  This essay lacks the wild ambition of Babylonian Captivity -- in which Luther re-imagines the sacramental system -- but may have more lasting relevance.  It is an astonishingly deep piece of writing, so deep that its meaning may sometimes be difficult to discern.

Here, fairly early on, we begin to sense the complex relationship that Evangelical theology will have to the Law.  In places, as when he cites 1 Timothy to the effect that "the law is not made for a righteous man," Luther does start to sound like the antinomian some have tried to make him.  He is not, by any means, and no sustained reading of the treatise will support that idea.  But as Leonard Klein often remarked, during his days as editor of Lutheran Forum, "At its best, Lutheran theology does come very close to antinomianism."  Close, but never ... quite ... there.

For Luther, no matter what drivel you have heard to the contrary, faith and works are inextricably linked.  Indeed, we believe these days that the real hermeneutical key to Luther is to grasp that faith and works are not, really, ontologically, separate things.  "Faith" is a word which expresses a condition of the soul in response to divine grace; this condition is manifested in obedience to the Law.  It is not that faith inspires works, or expresses them, but that where faith in the specific sense Luther intends is present, so too is obedience.

All of which leads us to this illustration, which we had long since forgotten:
The Blessed Virgin, beyond all others, affords us an example of the same faith, in that she was purified according to the law of Moses, and like all other women, though she was bound by no such law, and had no need of purification. Still she submitted to the law voluntarily and of free love, making herself like the rest of women, that she might not offend or throw contempt on them. She was not justified by doing this; but, being already justified, she did it freely and gratuitously. Thus ought our works too to be done, and not in order to be justified by them; for, being first justified by faith, we ought to do all our works freely and cheerfully for the sake of others.
Ah.  There it is.  (And no, we don't think the translator meant "free love" in that sense.  Get your mind out of the gutter, this is the BVM we're talking about.)

We do not know about Mary's faith from any verbal affirmation (here), but from the fact of her obedience to the Law -- and at that, the ceremonial law, the covenant law, which most Protestant theology dismisses out of hand.

So what then does it mean that she was not "bound" by the Law?  Here is that Augustinian thing, about the meaning of the Law in the life of the converted.  She was not bound to it by the threat of punishment, since she had been delivered from that punishment by grace.  But this does not mean that she was "free" from it, in the sense that modern people might hear those words -- she was not free to disobey it.  That was not the effect of God's grace or Mary's faith.  The effect was that she obeyed "freely and gratuitously," or in a more modern translation "out of a free and willing love."

All this, of course, is summed up by the simple preacher's shorthand "Not freed from the Law, but freed for the Law."  You've said those words a million times, and so have we.

And come Sunday, we'll say them again.  But next year, Galatians.

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