Jude 1:1-4, 17-23
Most Sundays I will preach on one of the readings assigned to us by the greater church. I do this as a sign of unity with fellow Christians and as a way of making sure we cover the Biblical content according to the church’s wisdom, not mine.
Today, however, I selected a reading on my own, from the book of Jude. It’s not a completely random selection. Today, October 28, is the day the church historically remembers Saints Simon and Jude. This minor festival is normally bumped in favor of Reformation Sunday among Lutherans, so we rarely observe it. But I decided to read through the short Book of Jude on my own, and there I discovered words that seem very appropriate for a Reformation observation.
Jude is one of those early followers of Jesus who wrote a letter to his fellow Christians, encouraging them in their faith and expressing some urgent concerns. The Church found the letter to be so compelling and timely that it was soon recognized as an inspired work of the Holy Spirit and circulated among all the believers. Admittedly, the Book of Jude also raises many questions, and for this reason it is not among the most widely read books of scripture today. However, its basic premise is as timely today as it was in the early church.
The first words of Jude that made me think of Reformation Sunday are these: “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” I can certainly relate to these words. Like Jude, I would much rather speak about the “common salvation” all Christians enjoy together, rather than bring up that which divides us. Reformation Sunday is a day which speaks to the divisions within Christianity. Not all Christians embrace the great reforms of the 16th century. As much as I believe that observing the Reformation is still important for our time, the divisions in the church also cause me to observe the day with an element of sadness.
And yet, like Jude, I know that these divisions cannot be ignored. The church is not called to find a message which appeals to everyone, but rather preach the message which God gives us in the scriptures. Where differences of Biblical interpretation exist we do not simply gloss these over, but rather work towards finding the truth.
In the words of Jude, we are to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” That’s what Martin Luther did, just about 500 years ago. He recognized that the message of the scriptures was being misunderstood, misapplied and at times even abused. So he called the church back to the faith once delivered to the saints.
It all started with his study of God’s Word. Luther was not a reformer who came from a place of power and wanted to lift his particular organization to a greater place of prominence. Rather, he was an individual Christian who wanted to share with others the joy and peace he found through a proper understanding of God’s Word. Such sharing led him on an amazing journey of reform, one that has blessed us to this day.
Of all the reforms that were made in Luther’s day, perhaps there are two that stand out from the others. First, Luther was concerned about the substance of the Christian Gospel. He felt that the heart of God’s Good News for humanity was being obscured by actions and teachings of the church. Like Jude, who condemned some in his day, stating in the strongest of terms that they “pervert the grace of God,” so also Luther strongly stated that the Church in Rome was failing to proclaim the Gospel in its truth and purity. Luther contended for the Biblical truth that we are saved by grace alone and faith alone, not by our good works.
This first great reform concerned the message of the church. The second concerned how that message was getting out. Luther urged that the preaching, teaching and worship of the church be done in the language of the people. While he knew and appreciated the rich treasury of theology contained in Latin, and vigorously studied the scriptures in their original languages of Hebrew and Greek, he also firmly believed that these should be translated for the people.
Here Luther also captures the spirit of today’s text from Jude, which refers to the faith as that which was “delivered to the saints.” Actually, this spirit goes beyond Jude and reflects the idea common among a number of the scriptural writers, who taught that God himself delivered this message. So Paul says: “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread… (1 Cor. 11:23)” and “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). Obviously the means of delivery of God’s message is very important.
Today is a good day to celebrate the reforms of Luther and the others who helped us get the message of Jesus right and get the message of Jesus out. That being said, we cannot be a church that simply looks to the past and sits on its accomplishments. We are responsible for the message and delivery in our day. Could it be that we need to contend for the faith also?
Jude claimed that there were some in his day who “perverted the grace of God into sensuality.” This sounds very similar to what is happening in our day. While we know that God’s grace is about forgiveness and God loving us despite our sins, this grace is often perverted into something else. It is seen by many as giving a license to sin, or a license to make our own decisions about what is right and wrong.
In our day, too many churches have given in to the spirit of sensuality which dominates our society. This is the spirit which says: “whatever feels good, do it.” Or, in another form: “it can’t be wrong if it feels so right.”
Jude goes on to mention the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah in the description of his time. So also in our time, sexual sins are the most obvious example of an age devoted to sensuality. People are encouraged to do whatever feels good, regardless of consequences. They’ve been led to believe that whatever consequence may arise there is always a pill to heal them, a procedure to unburden them, a government safeguard to help support them, a lawyer to help them prove it was somebody else’s fault and a church to tell them they did no wrong.
Our Gospel lesson for today contains a wonderful message from Jesus about freedom. “If the Son sets you free you will be free indeed.” Jesus is talking about freedom from the effects of sin. We are no longer sentenced to death because of our sins, because Jesus has paid the penalty for them. However, we dare not pervert this message of grace to mean that we can now do whatever we want. We are freed from sin, not freed to sin. Nor are we free to change God’s commands to accommodate the sensuous desires of our age. When we do so we can no longer claim Jesus as our Master and Lord, as the text from Jude reminds us.
Jude goes on to remind his hearers about something the apostles had predicted: that there would be “scoffers who follow their own ungodly passions.” We today sure know that there are plenty of people who scoff at the church. Many of them do it quite openly. The media knows there is a market for such talk. “Pushing the envelope” is always a popular strategy for those seeking to be heard, as is the bashing of those whose job it is to say “no.”
Our society today is in a moral shambles. And as in the day of Jude there are many in the church who contribute to the decay through their perversion of the grace of God. And yet, God’s Word will not let us simply point fingers at others. Especially on this Reformation Sunday we ought to look closely at ourselves and determine whether there are things in our personal lives or in our common life together that need reform.
Earlier we considered Luther’s great reform of the way the church got out its message. He moved the church of his day to speak the language of the people. What about us in our day? Are we speaking the language of the people?
Many try to adopt the language of today’s people and end up adopting its values too. Certainly we should not do this. On the other hand, if we don’t use the words of our culture, words like evolution, diversity, choice, dance, guitar, big-screen, sub-woofer, social media, organic, green – all of which can be understood in a good way—then we cede these to the non-churched culture and miss an opportunity to communicate.
Likewise, if we keep holding to high-brow standards of listening ability, musical ability, biblical knowledge and confessional understanding in order to participate at our church, might we exclude too many? Speaking the Gospel in the language of today is a difficult thing to do, especially because there are so many languages spoken. Perhaps the church’s best strategy is to be as bi-lingual or multi-lingual as possible.
Reforming the Church is an important and ongoing task. As members of the church we all have a calling to think about this and work on this. That being said, our first calling as individual members of the Body of Christ is to think about the reform of our own lives. As the church sometimes strays so also do its members. Each of us fails to live out our faith as we should. And each of us sometimes considers that this is really no big deal. But it is. Sensuous living erodes our relationship with God, and our neighbor needs our good works and our law-abiding witness.
Jude speaks of the need for Christians to see Jesus as their only Master and Lord. When we conform to the spirit of the age we make the world our Master and Lord. When we re-interpret the teachings of Jesus we make ourselves Master and Lord.
Beloved, as Jude did in his day and as Luther did in his, so are we called to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. There is a part of this calling that is indeed directed toward the contending that must be done in society. We in the church should not sit by idly and watch the ungodly of this land marginalize those of us who believe. However, the thrust of today’s text, and really the thrust of the New Testament, is for us to contend most vigorously for the faith within the church. Standing up against those who would pervert the grace of God is our responsibility. Where the people of God are faithful to the Word of God, blessings follow.
May God bless our work and witness, and may God bring to us and our church the reform that we need. In the name of Jesus. Amen.