On Reformation Sunday, we baptized 2 adults, received 21 others into membership in addition to 6 children for a total of 29! Many are new to the Lutheran tradition so this Message reviews some of the many gifts of the Reformation given to us by Martin Luther. It was a good review for me, too! Based on John 8:31-36. Romans 3:19-28 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas.
Last night I attended a wedding where my husband, Dan, a Presbyterian pastor officiated, and this lovely couple met online. Since the onset of the internet, many of the weddings we have performed have been for people who have met on a dating site or app.
Of course, you can read everything about a person online–their likes, hobbies, family background and education, their favorite music and movies, what kind of work they do, what they look like, and whether they like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain, but at some point, you have to swipe right and meet them in person. You do not know if you are a match until you build a real relationship. You can be a perfect pair on the computer, but in person, there might be no chemistry, or they might be boring, or self-absorbed, or their interest in the Kardashians or the Cowboys might be a freakish obsession. Knowing everything about someone is not the same thing as having a personal relationship with them.
This is a great metaphor for understanding what happened to Martin Luther prior to the start of the Reformation in 1517. He was an Augustinian monk and priest in the Roman Catholic Church. He knew all about God and the rules of the church. He did everything he was supposed to do–he followed the rules of his order more perfectly than anyone else, he said the prayers at the appointed hours, did all of his studies, understood the doctrines, he even had a Doctorate in Theology. But he was so deeply troubled by his sin, he would sometimes spend 6 hours in confession! He was so stricken by fear before the majesty of God and his sinful nature, that he could barely say his first mass as a priest. But during his first trip to Rome as he climbed the Scala Sancta, the holy stairs on his knees to free his grandfather from purgatory, he heard a voice speak from the bottom of his heart, “the just shall live by faith.”
When he heard this voice of mercy rather than of anger, punishment, and fear, Luther was revived and returned home to study the Scripture with a new lens. A few years later, Luther wrote the following when reading the beginning of Romans:
The righteousness of God which is revealed by the gospel, is a passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.' Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. (Source: blog, Haykin)
In this moment, Luther shifted from knowing about God and all the rules of the church, to having a real relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ. He experienced grace and forgiveness of sins, freedom, release from the torture of 6-hour confessions, and worrying about missing a sin he did not confess. He experienced what we hear in our passage from Romans today, verse 23: since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
Making this relationship of grace and forgiveness freely available to everyone without barriers, fueled him and the other Reformers into first posting the 95 theses in 1517. Luther wanted everyone freed from the torment of sin and that sense of judgment and separation from God that he felt before Jesus found him and said, “you are saved by faith and grace which is a free gift of love–and through that love, you become new, you are transformed, you are freed from the torment, guilt and shame of sin.”
This is what Jesus means when he says in our Gospel reading, If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.
Notice Jesus says, Word, not words. The Word is Jesus himself. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. We hear the echo of the beginning of John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Jesus is saying, If you continue in a relationship with me, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.
This Word, Jesus himself, spoke the truth to Martin Luther, that it is a relationship with Jesus, not rules, not doctrines, not even right beliefs that bring us wholeness, life, light, healing, forgiveness, freedom, and truth.
So everything Martin Luther and the Reformers did was to help people come to this truth–to have access to, connect with, experience a relationship with Jesus, the living Word of God, the light of the world, the one who died so we can experience the free gift of grace, love, forgiveness, and union with God.
So for the sake of some of our newer members and Lutherans, we’ll look at some of the changes Luther made that help us deepen our relationship with Jesus, and experience grace and forgiveness:
Luther translated the Bible into German to get it into the hands of the people, so they could study Scripture for the first time ever. Through Scripture, the Holy Spirit brings us to faith. This is why bible study is so important to Lutherans–we encounter the living presence of Jesus when we read the Bible, and our relationship with the living Lord helps us understand the meaning we need for our lives today. In 1545, the year before he died, Luther said with resounding forcefulness, Let the one who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture.
The view of the priest changed: The pastor has a role in the Christian community, but you can pray directly to God and talk directly to Jesus without having to go through the priest. This deepens your own relationship with Jesus and experience of grace. (we didn’t ordain women until 1970, but hey, better late than never!)
Pastors can marry: Martin Luther married a nun, Katharina von Bora–they had 6 children!
Children: It was very important that children learn the faith and have a relationship with a gracious God so Luther wrote the Small Catechism. Catechism means to teach by mouth–usually with questions and answers. The family was expected to review the Catechism every week so everyone in the household, including servants, would learn the meaning of the 2 Sacraments, the 10 Commandments, the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. If he thought of it, he would have added children’s sermons, too!
Baptism: Every single one of us is a priest through our Baptism. Jasmine and Scott received the Holy Spirit today in their Baptism. He identified us as the
Priesthood of all believers: Luther rejected the notion of the ordination of priests as a sacrament and instead, affirmed that, Through baptism we have all been ordained as priests. As priests each of us are to pray for others, intercede with God, proclaim the word, and confess sins to each other. This means we are all to be little Christs to each other, and Jesus' hands and feet in our daily life.
New Members: Since Luther emphasized that all Christians are priests, and equal before God, we welcome our new members as equals in our community. As much as humanly possible, we do not deem anyone more important than another with regard to talents or service, years of membership, level of giving or any human constraint or measurement for we are all one in Christ; all sin and fall short of the glory of God; and all are saved by the same Lord Jesus Christ.
Music: Luther shifted the role of sacred music from professional performance to music that served the Word of God as sung scripture. The Reformation gave us the 4 choral divisions of Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass that we still use today. Music had to be in an understandable language and benefit the church, thus Luther started congregational singing. People who were illiterate learned scripture through hymns and could actively participate in culture and faith which deepened their relationship with Jesus and his love.
Both the words and the music of A Mighty Fortress is our God, our opening hymn– were written by Luther between 1527 and 29.
The Offering: Martin Luther protested the poor giving what little they had to the church in Rome for false certificates of forgiveness and the promise of heaven, so he began the Community Chest. This was a place for those with extra resources to provide a kind of social security fund for the support of those most in need. Such offerings became a source of social change during the Reformation as the community moved to care for everyone. Our relationship with Jesus moves us to offer ourselves and our resources to serve those in need, as well as to ensure the Gospel is proclaimed and lived out here in our mission. This is also why Lutherans have such large social service, refugee, mission, adoption, and disaster relief agencies around the country and the world.
Holy Communion: A final gift of the Reformation that we have expanded today is an open Communion table where everyone is welcome.
We can know everything there is to know about Jesus, but this is where he welcomes us into a relationship of forgiveness and love, constant presence and indwelling peace.
Because finally, God is not doctrine or denomination, (God is not even Lutheran!); God is not war, or law; God is not policy or opinions; God is love in a real relationship with Jesus Christ. And this Jesus is here now for a real relationship of love and grace. We don’t even have to swipe right on a faith app, we just come forward to be filled with grace and forgiveness, love and his promise to be with us always. For Jesus is here, in with and under these gifts of the earth in bread and wine. So come and get to know him, for he already knows you.
Come and be forgiven and freed by love, and know that he is always with you, to save you by grace and not by your own good deeds or worthiness. Let this truth set you free and lift your hearts as did for Martin Luther, and as it does for all of us today who share with you, the joy that God is fully and finally about a relationship of love.