Reformation Day, October 31, 2021
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III
Nowadays people do interesting things with grammar. There’s a commercial on the radio for a health care provider with the slogan, ‘Because life.’ If you were in school when I was or before, and that’s over 90 percent of you, I think, you’re probably asking, ‘Where’s the verb?’ But no, that’s not the way they roll these days.
But if you need a verb, you can just turn any noun into a verb. It’s called verbing. Actually, this is an accepted part of English through the centuries, but it’s still jarring to hear someone say ‘I have to school today’ or ‘Do you even math?’ Well, people just grammar differently these days.
And don’t get me started on ‘I did it on accident.’ It’s ‘by accident.’ Don’t tell me it’s not, because when I learned it, it was ‘by accident.’ Don’t say that it matches ‘on purpose,’ because we don’t say, ‘I did it on mistake,’ now do we?
Now half of you are going to be thinking about ‘by accident’ or ‘on accident’ for the rest of the sermon. Try and put it aside for a little bit. I introduce grammar as a topic this morning because I think when we look back at the Reformation of the sixteenth century, we can say that it was a revolution in grammar. And not just because the Bible was translated into the different European languages and made available to the common people to read. What I mean is that theological grammar was changed, or perhaps, rather, it was emphasized that God is the subject of every active verb.
Just look at our Scripture readings for today. God is the one who makes a new covenant, who puts the law in our hearts and writes it on our minds, forgives our sins and remembers them no more. God is the one who has put forth his Son as a sacrifice for sin. The Son of God is the one who makes us free. If you look in the Bible, it is God who is initiating everything. God is the subject of the active verb. And we become the objects, whether direct or indirect, of God’s action. It is God who sets us free. We are justified by God’s action. Our sins are forgiven.
Why is the grammar of God so important? Well, for Martin Luther, it was entirely the obverse. His religious education convinced him that he was the subject of most of the verbs. It was his actions that were important in God’s eyes. If he took the proper actions, cleansing himself from sin, performing the good works that were necessary to gain salvation, if he loved God with an active love, he would be saved.
Of course, this is an oversimplification. Certainly Luther knew that God gave (Third Person Singular Past Active Indicative) his only Son for the world. But by and large, the emphasis was on him, Luther, as the acting subject towards God. And this terrified him. He was a completely inadequate subject to the verbs, ‘cleanse,’ ‘work,’ ‘love.’ To be an inadequate subject is to not be able to perform the verb of which you are the subject. We do not say that a stone can actively cleanse, and if we do, it is because some other person uses the stone to cleanse. But you would never say ‘The stone loves.’ Luther was taught that he had to love God for God’s own sake, and he knew from experience that his stony heart was not up to the task.
What happened? In short, a revolution in grammar. Luther did not discover this by accident. He discovered it because he was called to be a teacher of Scripture, and in studying the Scripture in order to teach it he found that God was the subject of the verbs, cleanse, save, love, and the like. In the words of First John, ‘This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.’ In the words of Paul in Romans, ‘God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.’ In the words of Jesus himself, ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’
To be a Christian, Luther found, was to start using the grammar of God, to put his faith in what God the subject had actively done for him, the indirect object, and not the other way around. He was free from being an inadequate subject because he was not the subject. He became free to stop worrying about what he could do and could not do and put all his focus upon what God did and was doing for him.
This should be good news for us, too, and it is. Many of us labor under a similar misapprehension as did Martin Luther. We look at ourselves and only see a failing subject who is incapable of the verbs associated with us. If we adopt the grammar of God, we will refocus our attention on what God has done for us. We are the objects of God’s saving love. What could be better news?
But there are other misapprehensions. Some people will receive the news that God is the actor and we are passive objects with gladness, because it means that they can be passive. Other people will rightly object that there are actually many places in Scripture where we are asked to do things. How are we to be active and passive at the same time?
Towards God we receive righteousness passively, the objects of God’s love and saving acts. Towards our neighbors, we are to be active subjects, doing that which God calls us to do for their sake. And in a way, if God is calling us to do for our neighbors, and equipping us with energy, resources, and hope for the tasks, is that not God actually still acting as the subject? He is working good works in us for the sake of the neighbor.
Finally, this grammar of God should put an end to the concept of God as an impersonal cosmic force, accessible to every and any religious conception, staying completely outside of time and indefinite to the point of complete incomprehensibility. To say that God is a personal God is simply to say that, like a person, God speaks about himself and God acts. A God who does not reveal himself and act in a specific way is a God who cannot help us. For if he does nothing, then we must do it all, and God is at the mercy of our subjectivity.
But instead, God acts. He is the subject of the verbs, and the verbs we hear today are joyful verbs: forgives, justifies, passes over, frees. We are called to faith in those acts of God: faith, perhaps as a new verb, ‘Faith this, and it shall be yours!’ Why? Because Christ.