A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on October 27, 2013 (Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time/Reformation Sunday)
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. – Romans 5:1-5
Perhaps I should have waited four more years to take up the theme of this morning’s sermon. Four years from now – on October 31, 2017 – will be the 500th anniversary of an event that changed the Christian church and the course of history of Europe. On All Hallow’s Eve in the year 1517 a Roman Catholic monk and priest and university professor named Martin Luther decided it was time to have a debate with the leaders of the Roman Church about some of the beliefs and practices of the church at that time. One of his major concerns was the sale of what were known as “indulgences” by the church as a fund-raising scheme – believers could pay money to the church in exchange for an assurance that their sins were forgiven, or that the souls of deceased loved one might find their way from purgatory to paradise sooner. Luther thought it was wrong for the church to sell for money what he believed was a free gift from God, and that they had absolutely no earthly power to grant.
And so, on that Halloween day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed a document he had written with “95 Theses” – propositions he wanted to debate with any representative of the church hierarchy who would be willing to meet with him – to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. This was not an act of vandalism – at that time, the doors of churches, which were usually located in a town’s central square, were like public bulletin boards. It was a medieval, pre-internet form of blogging.
He didn’t get the debate he wanted. Instead, he was summoned before a series of church councils, accused of heresy, and ordered to retract much of his writings, or face excommunication from the church he loved. He refused to do so. In the last of the church hearings, that took place in the town of Worms in 1521 (the Diet of Worms was a church hearing, not a weight-loss program), when he was asked to recant his teachings, he responded
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the 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. God help me. Amen.”
After that, Luther might have been imprisoned or even put to death, had he not had the protection of some very powerful political rulers to keep him safe. So Luther was able to continue preaching and writing and publishing his work – aided by a new machine, invented by a guy named Guttenberg, called the printing press.
Today I want to highlight just a few of Luther’s beliefs that helped to shape Christian churches like ours.
Luther began with a concern for his own personal salvation. He worried that he would never be worthy of God’s love, and never be good enough to get to heaven after his death because he could not live a sinless life, and he could never be able to confess all his sins. He read the works of the medieval theologians, and found them of little help, so he went back to the early church teachers and to scripture itself – and there he found some help.
In the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans from which we read this morning, Paul writes that, “…since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have access to this grace in which we stand…” (Romans 5:1-2). Paul believed that we are justified (restored to a right relationship with God) not by anything we can do – whether by following God’s commandments, or living a good life, or by giving money – but by faith that God loves us in Christ. Our forgiveness and acceptance by God are free gifts – grace – that we can never earn, but only accept with faith and gratitude.
Paul based his understanding of God’s grace on the story of the call of Abram (Abraham) in Genesis: God made a covenant with Abram not because Abram was particularly good (he had some serious moral flaws), nor because Abram did anything to earn this special relationship with God, but because Abram believed God and trusted God by following where God led.
This is an important truth about our Christian faith, but one that is difficult to believe and accept because we are so accustomed to the idea that we have to earn what we get. We get awards in school by working hard and studying hard and doing well on tests and assignments. We are compensated in our work for what we produce. Even our relationships with other people can sometimes be based on “What have you done for me lately?” If we were to receive a precious gift we know we could not repay, there is a good chance it would make us uncomfortable, and we might try to refuse it.
Many Christians still think that life and religion are all about being good people. When someone dies, folks believe they will find eternal life in heaven because they were good people, they worked hard, they loved their family, they served their country and community. These are all good things – but they really don’t earn for us God’s love or get us a ticket to heaven. Those are free gifts from God for those who believe and trust.
Luther’s teaching that we are saved by faith and by God’s grace is one of the basic doctrines of Protestant Christianity — yet we often don’t practice it. I marvel at the number of churches who have Confirmation programs in which young folks have to earn their Confirmation by attending a certain number of classes, doing service projects, and being examined by church leaders. I’ve never done that when I have taught Confirmation, because I think it contradicts the message of the gospel.
Let me mention briefly just a few other contributions of Martin Luther. In his day, only the clergy were allowed to read and interpret the Bible. That idea persisted in the Roman Catholic Church up until just a few decades ago – I know folks who grew up in the Catholic faith who said you would rarely find a Bible in a Catholic church, and there were never any Bible studies offered for lay people. Since he found such helpful teaching in the Bible, Luther believed that all Christians should be able to read the Bible and be guided by it, and so he translated the Bible into the language of his own people – German. It was a radical act at the time. In Protestant churches like ours, church members are encouraged to read and understand the Bible themselves, and the open Bible is an important symbol in many Protestant churches.
Luther also disagreed with how the church of his time divided people into two groups – spiritual and secular. Those who were spiritual – the priests and clergy and religious, were regarded as more holy than people who work in more mundane, earthly fields. But Luther believed that all Christians are called to live their faith wherever they are – through their work as much as in attending worship and receiving the sacraments. We can serve and praise God in whatever work we do.
The Roman church has taught that church members should regularly confess their sins to a priest, who mediates between ordinary people and God. Luther insisted that all believers could come to God directly to confess their sins and seek forgiveness. These ideas came to be known as “the priesthood of all believers.” So we don’t have confessionals where you are asked to confess your sins to me – although I would be willing to hear your confessions if you think it would be helpful. Instead, we occasionally have corporate prayers of confession in worship.
And perhaps one of the biggest contributions is due more to Luther’s followers than Luther himself: when he was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church, those who were persuaded by Luther did that the Roman church of the time had gotten off track started a new kind of Christian church – a Protestant church that “protested” against the theology and practices of the Roman Catholic church of that time. The various Lutheran churches in the world today still follow closely the teachings of Martin Luther and his early followers. And once the Lutherans started their alternative Christian church, it opened a floodgate of other Protestant churches: Reformed churches that followed the teachings of John Calvin; the Anglican church started by King Henry VIII of England and Thomas Cranmer, the first non-Roman Archbishop of Canterbury; the Baptists and Anabaptists. All of these, and their hundreds of varied offshoots, do not regard the Roman Catholic Pope as an authority over their life. The Protestant Reformation movement played a huge role in the subsequent history of Europe and the world.
Our Congregational and United Church of Christ tradition has been influenced by Luther, but not strictly limited to his teachings. He never intended to leave or destroy the Christian church of his time, but his honest faith caused him to ask tough questions and to seek answers that were helpful for him and the people to whom he ministered. He is an example of how our faith can make a difference and change the world. It has become a tradition of many Protestant churches to remember the contributions of Luther and the other reformers on this last Sunday in October.
May we learn from Luther and the other reformers a willingness to challenge the traditions of the church in the light of God’s word, and in order to minister to the people we are called to serve.
Robert J. von Trebra