Receiving God and Believing Victims (or, Why Reformation is Impossible Without Receiving Revelation)
This week our emphasis in our Re+Forming Faith series was Receiving God. If you want to hear a part of that conversation, you can listen to my sermon be clicking this link or downloading the file at the end of the document.
Reformation is impossible without revelation. This is a true statement, at least theologically. Reformation in our tradition means something like a purposeful transformation toward God's desire. But how can we reform toward God if God hasn't revealed to us who God is, how God acts, what God desires? Before we reform into God's image and likeness, we must receive an image of God, a likeness of God.
For us, and indeed for all creation, Jesus is that fundamental image, that incomparable likeness. Jesus, of course, was a victim of violence at the hands of the state and the will of the people. A victim of death because, ultimately, people didn't believe what he came to say about himself, about God, or about the sinful nature of humanity.
Today, still too many within the church don't believe victims of sexual assault who come forward to speak of their traumas and identify the perpetrators. We don't believe what they say about themselves. We don't believe that God's on the side of the oppressed or marginalized enough to trust the voices of those oppressed and marginalized by the aggression of those in power. We don't believe what these victims say about the sinful nature of humanity and how it has so profoundly affected them. When we don't receive these victims with integrity, how can we ever expect to reform the world into a place that's safe for women and femmes? Or, for that matter, a safe place for other victims that we don't believe: people of color and migrants, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community and a whole host of others that interpret reality to us, only to be turned away rather than received.
One of the scriptures that just won't let me go is when Jesus says, "When you did (or did not) do something for one of the least of these, you did(n't) do it for me." Because, and here's the rub, to do something for someone, you must first receive them and believe what they say to be true. When, how, and whether we receive someone in our midst - someone insignificant to the world order, someone powerless accusing those with power, someone in need of assets under our care - relates intimately to when, how, or whether we receive God.*
My undergraduate philosophy professors now ring loudly in my ears: “That’s not a necessary or sufficient cause.” Indeed, treating people poorly doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll ignore God’s presence or activity in our lives. However, that same philosophy department emphasized the growth of virtues in the formation of habits. In other words, the more we practice the good life, the more the good life becomes natural to our existence.
More fundamentally, though, as images of God, victims reporting crimes against their bodies deserve to be believed on account of their God-given integrity, not simply because believing them might help us to more faithfully engage with God. People, and God, aren’t means to an end. They’re ends in themselves.
“You did(n’t) do it for me.” God so closely identifies with disadvantaged people that disavowing the needs, the words, the requests, the testimonies of those that come to us constitutes a denial of God’s very self. It’s impossible to help someone in need of we do not believe and receive them. It’s impossible to reform in God’s image if we refuse to believe and receive God’s good news.
We at Capital University are together on a journey of reforming, evolving faith. Before we reform, we must receive God’s revelation. Before we act, God acts. In the world, in our every day life, this means that if we want the world to change, then we must receive the messages that will change the status quo, that will upend the seats of power, that will accomplish true justice in God’s image and for God’s images.
*I don't talk at length about the likelihood of false reporting because, as the research suggests, false reporting is incredibly unlikely, and even the numbers we have (between 2% and 7%) are likely inflated. It does not enter the conversation for me, not because it is impossible, but because it is so incredibly rare that to treat reporters with skepticism is simply dishonest about the nature of reporting assaults and unfair to victims who have been treated with unfounded distrust.
Of equal importance is a lack of discussion about presumed innocence of the accused. This commitment, to believe victims, is based in incarnation theology and not constitutional theory. I will not recenter the conversation on alleged perpetrators when the story belongs in the hands and the voice of those who report.
This semester, the guiding theme for Embrace Ministries is “Re+Forming Faith.” Over the past year, Lutherans have been awash in the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation. Concerts, educational events, celebrations, commemorations, and yes, even lamentations marked the 500 years since Luther produced the 95 Theses (whether they were actually nailed to a door is disputed). This historical focus provided an invaluable grounding in our theological heritage and enlightened many outside the tradition to why Luther’s movement to reform the church eventually changed the entire world.
Yet, as the drivers of our lives, we cannot leave our focus in the rearview mirror. We must look forward, to the car we drive and the road ahead. So, springing from that history, it’s now time to attend to the present and future of the church. From within the reformation traditions, God’s Spirit calms us to be an actively reforming church. Karl Barth popularized the phrase ecclesia reformata semoer reformanda - the church, reformed and reforming - as a clarion call to this posture of expectant formation. What does it mean for us at Capital University that we're "Re+Forming Faith"? It means that God calls us to be reforming, evolving people.
The form of the verbs, the -ing at the end of reform and evolve, suggests both activity and purpose. Our identity as church isn’t static. You're likely not shocked to hear that we're not perfect, and imperfection always leaves room for growth into what we're supposed to be. God's church, at our best, is dynamic as we continue to grow in God’s image. Transformation ought to be the personal and communal norms of Christianity.
The “R” in Re+Forming, which unsurprisingly stands for reform, implies purposeful change. It’s not just random, but instead is change with a goal in mind. Luther wanted to recenter the heart of Christianity: we experience salvation by God’s grace, through faith, apart from works of the law. His reforms intended (sometimes accomplished, at other times most certainly not) to lift up this centrality belief about God and about our being as Christians, which would then reform our own home lives, political behaviors, work activity, and theological action.
The “E,” evolution, borrows from more recent reforms in science. Evolution here simply means growing in the capacity for life to thrive. The logic behind the theory of evolution is just that: the species that adapt and live more abundant life because of that adaptation do more than just survive; they thrive. An evolving faith looks to the purpose of reform and uses the metric of God's abundant life as the plumb line of our evolution. There's at least one problem with the evolution we've observed in nature, however. Namely, it focuses only on the individuals thriving and the survival of the species. In faith, we're called to the kind of transformation that helps all creatures thrive, that promotes abundant life for all creation.
How do we practice that kind of faith? That's the focus of our entire semester. You can follow along here on this blog for more reflections throughout the semester. If you're in the Columbus area, come check out Capital Worship Wednesdays at 10:05AM or Candlelight Worship on Thursdays at 9:09PM, both in the Kerns Religious Life Center. We'll also focus on this at our Monday Mindfulness and Meditation event, a time for interfaith devotion, each Monday at 12:30PM. Use the comments or social media for reflections on where you see a need for evolving or reforming in the church or in your own spiritual life.
Until we meet again, may you find the abundant life God's opened to you.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.