God’s grace is permanently inscribed on our hearts and it re-forms us from within, shapes our hearts and lives into new ones for service in the world, a change which can be threatening to our sense of security in the status quo.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Reformation Sunday; texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Tattoos fascinate me. In the last decade or more, they have become more prevalent, and much more mainstream. People of all ages and backgrounds get them, not just people in biker gangs, even a fair number of folks here at Mount Olive. I find it so interesting that people are capable of making a decision to mark their bodies permanently. Mostly because I can’t imagine how I would pick exactly what art I wanted displayed on my body for the rest of my life – how could a person make that choice? Of course, a whole industry has also arisen around tattoo removal, for those who have second thoughts about that girlfriend’s name they chose, or about the design which seemed so daring at age 18 but somehow seems to be hindering job interviews at age 38. It seems it’s a painful and lengthy process, though. It’s probably best to think of tattoos as permanent when considering whether you want one.
So I don’t have a tattoo yet. If ever. But something like it is described in the words of the prophet Jeremiah today. Through the prophet the LORD God says “I will put my law within [my people], and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This is the new covenant the Triune God is making with Israel, with us, a covenant fully realized in Jesus, God’s Son. It’s a covenant, a promise, of forgiveness and love from God, and a covenant where God’s ways are inscribed permanently on our hearts, like a spiritual tattoo.
There’s a powerful sense of transformation in that image alongside the sense of permanence. This heart-writing God does actually changes us from within, makes us new, shapes our very hearts and lives, marking us as God’s forever.
This is what Jeremiah proclaims: God’s promise of grace is imprinted on our hearts and we will never be the same again.
It’s an astonishing image: God literally writes on our hearts this amazing love we know in Jesus, and a way to live in that love. It’s now part of our spiritual genes, so to speak; we act the way we’ve been marked. Much as our own genes shape how we are. It’s as if in writing on our hearts, God is re-writing our DNA and making us new from within. We will look different, act different, be different because of this marking, this writing.
I was recently looking at a picture of my 13 year old nephew, my sister’s son, alongside pictures of him when he was small, and it was remarkable how much he now looks like his father, but how when he was younger he looked like some of my siblings when they were little. It’s so interesting in families to see those traits, those shared looks, and how they change. Sometimes it’s almost uncanny how someone can channel a grandparent’s face, or an uncle’s turn of phrase. We are what our genes have made us to be, what our biological parents gave to us genetically.
And now, according to Jeremiah, God has done the same thing to us, has marked us to look like our heavenly parent. That’s the real power of God’s image here: that the imprint of God’s grace changes us.
It would be a great deal just to know God’s love and ways because they’re written in our core, on our hearts in baptism. Imagine how different the world would be if every person knew in their hearts that God loved them with a love death could not destroy. That all knew they were forgiven by God forever, that God forgets all their sins.
But it’s a far deeper promise: having God’s Word tattooed on us, we’re changed by it, transformed into new people. This vision of Jeremiah is that in having such heart-writing all would know the LORD and live by God’s ways, rather than needing written covenant or stone-carved law.
This is the core of Christian ethics, throughout Scripture: you are, I am, we are a new creation, made into new people in tune with God. Like King David in Psalm 51, we asked for clean hearts and we now find that God is going us one better. God’s remaking our hearts into new ones.
We should also note that God’s plan of heart-writing is for all God’s people. it’s a group thing, not just an individual thing.
God speaks of all the people as getting this imprint, all getting a heart tattoo of grace and a way of life.
This is more than just saying all are important. It’s about the experience of God’s grace and how it’s fully to be known and lived. Key to God’s inscription is that we all have it, we all share it, and we become God’s love to each other and to the world.
So when God wants to write the Word on our hearts, it’s as a group. Together we discern those ways, together we help make decisions about our lives, together we live in the covenant promise of God, and witness it to the world.
Together the heart of our community, of the Church itself is tattooed by God so we “know the LORD,” and so live in the world as people shaped by God’s DNA, as signs of this new covenant, ambassadors of this grace and love and justice God intends for the whole world.
But be very careful: we may not want this re-formation that God’s writing on our collective and individual hearts accomplishes.
Oh, part of these readings today certainly sound good, to think that God’s making a new covenant with us, especially the parts about God’s forgiveness and forgetfulness that mark that covenant, the parts about the Son freeing us from sin. To think of justification by God’s grace, Paul’s words for what this covenant looks like, as removing our guilt and our sin, this seems like a good thing.
That is, if we don’t read the rest of Paul’s words today, or the main part of Jeremiah today, or anything Jesus says today. It sounds good, that is, if we don’t consider all those things we’ve just been considering.
You see, if God writes on our hearts, and re-writes our spiritual DNA, we will be different, not just forgiven. Individually and collectively we’ll become a new creation, different people.
We’ve said that. But do we want that? Like those considering a real tattoo, we should be careful we’re ready for this change.
To be justified is not just to be forgiven. It is to be straightened out, fixed, made right, as much as justifying a paragraph in a text is, whether left or right or center. You straighten it out. It is as Jeremiah says, to be re-made into the image of God we were meant to be.
St. Athanasius  understood the fall of humanity to be like a gradual de-creation, that humanity more and more was becoming less and less the image of God. Moving further and further into something completely unlike God. According to Athanasius, the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Son who was there at the original creation, arrested that falling, that degeneration, that de-creation, and began to restore humanity back up into the image of God we were intended to be from the start.
That’s a beautiful thought. But it can be plenty threatening. Whatever we might think about what it would mean to be made a new creation, what is clear is that we cannot be who we were. We will become more God’s image, not our image.
All those comfortable sins, all those lovely habits – even the ones we think we want to be rid of – these things define who we are. We know our vices and our virtues, and the truth is, those vices sometimes are part of what we like about ourselves, part of what we are reluctant to release. And if they’re gone and we’re different, will we even be recognizable as ourselves? As our congregation? As the Church?
That is to say, if the Son sets us free, as Jesus promises, and if the same Christ makes us into God’s way of righteous, as Paul promises, and if God re-writes our hearts as Jeremiah promises, who then will we be? Are we ready to be something new and different?
I actually believe we could be ready, as long as we remain aware of our tendency to resist this change, this re-formation.
It is a part of our broken human nature to want to cling to even the things that are not of God, because they are ours, because they are familiar, because we fear not knowing what we’d be like without them. We can’t let ourselves remain naïve to our desire to thwart God’s transforming grace in our lives and in our congregation and in the Church. If we can be aware of this tendency, we can also ask God’s help to overcome such resistance.
Because this promise of a heart-writing that will transform us individually and collectively into a new creation, God’s own people, is the only source of our joy and hope. Our prayer today and always is that as God uses us to renew the world, and to continue to renew the Church, we more and more live with an awareness of our new identity and inscribed hearts, and let our lives show that love and transform the world. Let our lives truly be re-formed, renewed, made different.
Then God’s promise in Jeremiah can really come to pass: “They shall all know me, from the least to the greatest,” says the LORD, and they all, all, will be my people and I will be their God.” And all will be part of this new creation, this new grace that both frightens and thrills us.
Make it so, LORD God, make it so.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
 In his treatise “On the Incarnation of the Word,” http://www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation.html