Today, a history lesson. Several, in fact. In late October 1517, a young priest and professor of Old Testament in Wittenberg, Saxony, wrote out 95 statements regarding the sale of indulgences and posted them publicly for debate. Legend has it that he posted the list of statements, commonly known as "theses," on the door of the Schlosskirche / Castle Church, where many public announcements were posted. Legend may or may not be true. What is true for certain is that this one priest was caught up in a web of courage and circumstance that led to a changing of an era.
What do you know about this thing we call "The Reformation?" Well, since this is a campus ministry, it seems that perhaps a pop quiz is in order. So, here goes.
1. True or False: Martin Luther was the first person bold enough to stand up to the Church and demand reform.
2. Martin Luther was a member of the _____________________ Order.
3. True or False: The Reformers were unified in their determination to change the church and their beliefs about how it should be changed.
4. The four "solas" or "alones" of the Reformation are __________ alone, ____________ alone, ____________ alone, and ____________ alone.
5. The tune for "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" was:
a. a common drinking song.
b. a Gregorian chant melody.
c. written by Luther himself.
6. Luther was sent to college in Erfurt to become:
a. a schoolteacher.
b. a miner.
c. a priest.
d. a lawyer.
7. True or False: Once the Roman church agreed not to persecute Protestants, everyone was free to choose whether they would be Protestant or Roman Catholic.
8. The Reformation ended:
a. when the Augsburg Confession was presented in 1530.
b. when Luther died in 1546.
c. when the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648.
d. it hasn't: the Reformation continues to this day.
9. True or False: In 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic church signed a Joint Document on the Doctrine of Justification, which outlined significant areas of agreement regarding the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ and a revoking of condemnations between the two churches that had stood for nearly 500 years.
10. The greatest and most important change brought about by the Reformation is:
a. translation of God's Word from original Latin, Greek and Hebrew to thousands of languages around the world, making it accessible to every ethnic group known to humankind.
b. worship in the local language, making an understanding of God's presence in the sacraments possible to all who come and see.
c. the revelation of the "priesthood of all believers," a major theological tenet of the Protestant church from that day to the present.
d. all of the above.
Why Reformation? Why spend a Sunday commemorating what was, in many ways, the darkest, bloodiest and most misunderstood era in the body of Christ? Is it a feast to commemorate Martin Luther? NO. Reformation Sunday is not about Luther – at least, not specifically. What we commemorate today is rather the gifts God revealed to the whole church through the work of the Reformers.
First, GRACE. Jesus says, "Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the Son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed." We cannot come before God this day on the merit of the things we do. The power that brings us here today is not dependent upon our good works, our moral clarity or our own spiritual ideas. What brings us here today, to gather before God in worship and praise, is the grace of Jesus Christ alone. No other power in heaven or on earth can free us from our bondage to sin, death and the power of evil. No other power in heaven or on earth can heal the wounds we cause to ourselves, to each other, and most importantly, the wounds we inflicted on the Son of God when we demanded his death rather than accept God's forgiveness. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2.8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…" The church at times over the centuries has buried the power of grace under the weight of our good works: today we celebrate the means by which God has used reformation to restore the power of grace, calling us in and gathering us together when no other power or person could have done it.
Second, FAITH. Paul also writes in Romans 3, "…we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law." Again, at times throughout history, our church has fallen victim to the false belief that God's law can save us from our sins, that if we just work hard enough, live well enough, all will be right and every reward God has for God's people will be ours. Those of us who've been working through the book of Job in our weekly Bible study know how that worked out for Job – the upright man who was so conscientious he offered sacrifices for his children on the off chance that they might have sinned. Through the work of Reformers of every age, God has reminded the church again and again that our works cannot save us – the gift of salvation is already ours in Jesus Christ, the blessed Son of his loving Father. And here's an important distinction: even faith in Jesus can become an idol if we're not careful. Some would have you believe that you must pray a certain prayer or attain a certain level of belief before you are saved. Folks, if the Reformation taught us anything, it is that the power of superstition and fear are constantly at work, even in the places where God would meet us in faith. In Christ you have all you need, and the only thing that can sever that relationship is your refusal to acknowledge the gift God has already given to you in Jesus. "Since all have sinned," Paul writes, "[we] are now justified by God's grace as a gift." In other words, you and God are okay, right now: believe it, because it's true.
Finally, FREEDOM. On this day we celebrate the gift of freedom, and not in some über-patriotic blather about 'spreading democracy' or some such nonsense. When we children of the Reformation talk about freedom, we mean true freedom, bestowed upon us by God and by God alone. In the grace and mercy of Christ you and I have been set free from the tyranny of sin, death and, especially, self-delusion. We are free from any demand the world can place upon us to justify our existence, because by grace through faith we have been convinced that we are God's beloved children, and we need no other rationale for our existence. Think of a child beginning to question her parents about how she came to be: how will good parents answer their child's questions? "Well, we loved each other, and we wanted a child to love also, and so in our love and God's care you were born." Some of you may not have had earthly parents who feel this way about you, but I can promise you that you have a heavenly parent who does love you, even more deeply and passionately than all our words can describe. If we are assured of this love, what power in heaven or earth could harm us? AND, since that great love has swept us up into itself, we are now free of every chain this earthly life might attempt to throw upon us. But here is the final great gift of this freedom: we are now free to live, not for ourselves, but for the loving God who created us and our brothers and sisters who surround us. As Luther once wrote, "Although I am an unworthy and condemned [person], my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.
Friends, we don't come to this day to celebrate a rebellion – we come to this day to celebrate a renewal. The reformers believed that the church, reformed, is always being reformed, and so we gather today as reformers ourselves, the spiritual descendants of all those who have gone before us. We give thanks for all those whose work has changed the church and called us back to faith in Christ, and we joyfully bow our necks to take up the yoke and continue the work all of God's reformers have begun. Brothers and sisters, my fellow children of the Reformation, your lives have been swept into an ongoing story of grace, faith and freedom: God bless you as you continue the work of Reformation from this day forward. Amen.