Sunday, October 29, 2017

500th Anniversary Reformation

John 8:31–36




If the ghost of Martin Luther returned on this 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, perhaps he would wonder what we Lutherans were making so much fuss about. Luther once said, “I ask that [people] make no reference to my name; let them call themselves Christians, not Lutherans. What is Luther? After all, the teaching is not mine. Neither was I crucified for anyone. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3[:22] would not allow the Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian. How then could I— poor stinking maggot-fodder that I am— come to have [people] call the children of Christ by my wretched name? Not so, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names and call ourselves Christians, after him whose teaching we hold.”[1] Obviously we did not listen to Luther very well.


According to tradition, Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. His intent was not to begin a new church. He wanted to reform the church by ending the sale of indulgences. He believed that the common people were being sold a bill of goods. In late 1515 Pope Leo X proclaimed a plenary indulgence in large part in order to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A plenary indulgence provided remission of all temporal punishment due to sin. It seemed as if salvation was being put up for sale.


Luther’s protest against indulgences inspired the three fold rallying cry of the Lutheran World Federation’s commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation: “Salvation—Not for Sale; Human Beings—Not for Sale; Creation—Not for Sale.” Salvation is God’s free gift. It is not “a commodity on the `religious market’.”[2] As a young zealous monk, Luther had agonized over his inability to fulfill the demands of a wrathful God. The breakthrough for him was his discovery of God’s amazing grace. During his so-called “tower experience” Luther poured over Romans 1:16–17: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, `The one who is righteous will live by faith.” The gospel of Jesus Christ revealed to Luther a gracious God, who loves us unconditionally. Salvation is a gift from this gracious God; it is not for sale. We are made right with God by God’s grace. We cannot do anything to earn or achieve a right relationship with God.


Luther’s rediscovery of the power of the gospel was the catalyst that brought Catholic and Lutheran scholars and leaders together to work on the document From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Joint Commemoration of the Reformation 2017. On October 31, 2016, Pope Francis, Bishop Munib Younan, former President of LWF, and Martin Junge, General Secretary of LWF, presided over a joint commemorative service in Lund, Sweden, kicking off the 500th Anniversary Year of the Reformation. It was a historic event. This afternoon we will be part of a historic event when we join our brothers and sisters at Holy Trinity Catholic Church to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.


In the Foreword of From Conflict to Communion the authors assert that “in 2017, Catholic and Lutheran Christians will most fittingly look back on events that occurred 500 years earlier by putting the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center.” What we are waking up to in our time is our fundamental unity in the gospel. It is on the basis of this fundamental gospel unity that Pope John XXIII, who called the historic Vatican II Council in 1962, uttered his inspiring words: “The things that unite us are greater than those that divide us.” Catholics and Lutherans throughout the world are growing in our understanding that more unites us than divides us. Today we are commemorating the Reformation. Yet even more importantly, we are celebrating our unity in the gospel. In From Conflict to Communion the fourth ecumenical imperative is: “Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.”


Luther did not believe that the reformation of the church was a one-time event or historical period. One of the classic reformation principles is Ecclesia semper reformanda est— that is, the church is always being reformed. The church is being reformed today just as much as it was in Luther’s time. Reformation is not a matter of us reforming the church. It is about us waking up to how God is reforming the church so that we can participate with God in that reforming process.


Yes, Luther was a leader in the Reformation. But his key contribution was his insight into the gospel of Jesus Christ as the power of God’s reforming of the church. How encouraging it is that our Catholic and Lutheran leaders agreed on the importance of rediscovering the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time! Our unity in the gospel gives us a basis to work with our Catholic brothers and sisters on those issues that continue to divide us. For example, we will still not partake of communion together this afternoon. But given the power of the gospel, the time is coming when we will freely partake of the body and blood of Jesus Christ with our Catholic relatives. Surely God wants all God’s children to share the body and blood of Christ.


For Luther the gospel of Jesus Christ was the lens through which he interpreted all of scripture—the written word of God. One of the defining moments of the Reformation was Luther’s appearance before the Diet of Worms in April of 1521. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his advisors, representatives of the Pope, and political and church leaders from throughout Germany were gathered. Luther was asked to recant his writings. Empowered by his faith in the gospel, he refused. Witnesses recorded his famous words: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason— and I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other— my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me! Amen.”


Because Luther refused to recant, he was excommunicated from the Church— and the dye was cast for a new church body. In the wake of the Diet of Worms, and for Luther’s protection, his own Duke Frederick of Saxony had his henchmen “kidnap” Luther and take him to the Wartburg Castle. It was there that Luther worked furiously on translating the Bible into German. He and other reformers stressed education so that people could read the Bible for themselves in their own language.


In John 8:31–36, the classic gospel text for Reformation Sunday, Jesus tells his followers: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Inspired by the truth lifted up in this verse, the Lutheran World Federation adopted “Liberated by God’s Grace” as its overall theme for the commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Jesus’ word assures us we are liberated by grace. But the truth of Jesus Christ also exposes that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Ongoing reformation includes an honest, truth-telling assessment of where the church has fallen short as well as a celebration of our liberation by grace. In Bishop David Brauer-Rieke’s “Reformation 500 Reflection” this week, he exhorts people in the Oregon Synod to adopt “radical honesty as the proper lens through which to evaluate our own lives, the world around us, and our choices about how we will live this day.”


In Luther’s 1543 treatise, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” he labeled Jews as dishonest heathens and expressed hope that German political leaders would seize their prayer books and torch their synagogues and homes. In April of 1994 our own ELCA formally apologized for Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. Those writings were used in Nazi Germany to justify horrific actions against the Jews. “Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred,” declared the 1994 ELCA statement, “we express our urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people.”


Luther and his cohorts were also guilty of violence and persecution against the Anabaptists, many of whom were burned at the stake or drowned for their theological beliefs. At the 11th LWF Assembly in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2010, delegates confessed and entered into a new covenant of reconciliation with the Mennonite World Conference, which traces its roots back to the Anabaptists. In the ongoing reformation of the church those who abide in the truth of Jesus Christ will both cling to the assurance of God’s gracious love and face the truth about themselves.


In the biblical tradition there is no such thing as knowing the truth without acting on that truth. Those who know the truth are free, free to love and care for our neighbor, free to be responsible citizens, free to care for our Earth home and all its inhabitants.


Today we are commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. At the same time we are entering into the next five hundred years of the reformation of the church. Here at St. Andrew the gospel of Jesus Christ is waking us up to God’s priorities in our time and place. We are waking up to God’s call to welcome the stranger. Presumably that is why we adopted our Welcome Statement, five years ago, why we sponsored a Syrian Muslim refugee family, and why we are exploring what it means to be a sanctuary congregation.


We are waking up to God’s call to pursue justice. Presumably that is why we are joining MACG, the Metropolitan Alliance for the Common Good, and why we are getting involved in Family Promise, which helps families avoid long-term homelessness.


And we are waking up to God’s call to seek peace. In a haunting scene in the gospel of Luke Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” As racial violence rears its ugly head in places like Charlottesville, as the political divide in our nation widens and public discourse sinks to new lows, as religious violence plagues places like the Middle East and Myanmar, as we human beings continue our assault on our Earth home and its inhabitants, as the winds of war blow ever stronger in Northeast Asia, surely the risen Jesus must be weeping.


Brothers and sisters in Christ, the reformation is not over. God has plenty of reforming work for us to participate in. Such work will be done in a spirit of truth. Such work will be done in the power of the gospel. What a joy it is to know that we do this work in partnership with our Lord Jesus and with our brothers and sisters in congregations like Holy Trinity Catholic! What a joy it is to be reassured again and again that as we engage in ongoing reformation we are deeply loved by a gracious God all along the way.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.







[1] Luther’s Works 45:70–71.