Reformation Sunday (Ref. Series: Doctrine of Justification)
October 29, 2017
Five hundred years. I know this will reveal what a church nerd I have always been, but I’ve had this day on my radar since I was a kid. I remember thinking how old I would be when the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation came about! Turns out, fun fact, that Luther was exactly my current age when he posted his 95 theses on the church door.
Well now that it’s here… I don’t really know what to say. On the one hand, there is something to celebrate. Because 500 years ago, a young monk (and he was young!) said to the Church, “Hey listen, you’ve distorted the heart of Christian faith. You’ve got people believing they can buy their forgiveness, when really, that comes free from God!” What followed was a reformation of the Church as it was, resulting, hopefully, in a greater emphasis on God’s grace.
But that also brings up the dark underbelly of the Reformation, which is that this event spilt apart the Church. And that is nothing to celebrate. Division wasn’t Luther’s desire, nor was it Jesus’. Jesus prayed that we would all be one – and the Church now, 2000 years after Jesus’ death and 500 years after Luther’s bold act, looks nothing like one, united Church. Christians differ from each other even on the most basic tenets of faith, and that difference has led to bloodshed. In fact, Luther’s words did much to cause some of the pain the Church has experienced for the past half millennium. He also said awful things about Jews. Nazis used his words to justify their actions. He wasn’t always kind to other Christians, either. Lutherans today have worked hard to heal some of the very divisions and pains caused by our namesake.
And so, 500 years later, I find myself as prone to lament and even repent, as I am to celebrate. But I think that’s okay. After all, the first of those 95 theses states, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” I can lament and repent that my denominational heritage hurt people along the way. I can lament and repent that there is division in the church. I can lament and repent for what I have or haven’t done to heal that division. Lament and repentance are an important part of the life of faith.
Because of the complexity of this historical event in the Church’s life, the word we are supposed to be using is “commemorate.” A recognition, but not a celebration. That said, I do also want to recognize that there is something to celebrate today. And that is the realization and the articulation, by Luther and his colleagues, of the life-changing, spirit-filled, liberating theology known as the doctrine of justification: that we are saved by grace and not by works.
That’s a lot of fancy church words, so let’s break this down into more accessible words, drawing some inspiration from our Gospel reading today. Jesus is talking to a bunch of Jews, saying that the truth will set them free. “Free?” they respond. “But we don’t need to be freed. We’re not slaves. We were never slaves.” You might be inclined to feel the same about yourself. We’re American, after all, living in the land of the free. I don’t even have slavery in my family history. I know nothing of slavery. But if you know something about Jewish history, you’ll remember: they were very much slaves! Remember that whole bit in Egypt? How Moses had to ask the Pharaoh a bunch of times to let God’s people go? How Moses finally led the Israelites, God’s people, out of Egypt in dramatic fashion, through the Red Sea? Uh yeah, it’s sort of a big part of their history that they were slaves!
And while it may not be quite so obvious in our own histories, we were and are still very much slaves, too. We are enslaved to the love of money and all it can do for us, to building and maintaining our reputations, to our work, to our schedules – always trying to justify ourselves by saying our diligent attention to these things will increase the level of happiness for ourselves and our families… But in the end, it is just a never-ending race of trying to keep up, trying to succeed, trying to prove to ourselves, our neighbors, and to God, that we are enough.
And that’s really the driving motivation in all of our enslavements, isn’t it? We want to be enough: good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, faithful enough. And we try to prove to ourselves and the world that we have achieved “enough” by ensuring our kids have all the best opportunities, and we make a good salary, and contribute something worthwhile, and maybe that we have whatever the hot item is. We are slaves to the relentless desire to be enough.
But we are not doomed to spend our whole lives in this enslavement – we can be free. “The truth will set you free,” Jesus says. “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Did you hear that good news? It is the Son, Jesus, who makes us free. Not the right number on the bathroom scale, not the higher salary, not your kid earning straight As, not getting that award, not even doing good deeds. Those things aren’t bad in and of themselves – really, they are good! – but while they may make us feel good in the moment, they will not set us free from that core fear of not being enough. Only the Son can do that. Only Jesus’ work on our behalf can do that. Only the promise we receive in baptism – that we are beloved children of God, whose sins and failures are always forgiven by a merciful God – can free us.
I like how Lutheran pastor Emily Scott put it. She says, “I am only interested in a conversation about the Reformation insofar as it is centered on the liberation of God’s people. The life-giving theology Luther and his colleagues articulated has rescued me from a life depending only on myself.” To me, this really is life-giving news! How much pressure we put on ourselves, believing that we can pull ourselves out of our own darkness! I am pretty smart and capable, and often I am able to fix my own problems, but the most pressing ones, and especially the rat race of trying to prove to myself and the world that I am enough, never seems to have an end, at least not as long as I’m in it alone. I always seem to resort to comparing my own success or failure with someone else’s, and it turns out, there is never any joy in comparison. It always results in my feeling like I could be more or better, like I’m not enough. But the good news of the Reformation is that there is an end to that race, and that end is Jesus Christ. Through Christ, God says, “You are already enough.” It doesn’t depend on you or your goodness. It depends on God and God’s goodness.
That is the end of the rat race – but it is the beginning of a life of faith. Pastor Scott goes on: “If we are to remember the Reformation, let it stir us to see the suffering of God’s people in our midst,” and reach out to them with love. This, you see, is also the heritage of the Reformation. Once we hear that good news that we are free from sin, free from the temptation to compare ourselves to others, free from the constant effort to prove ourselves to everyone, we also realize that we are freed for a purpose. We are freed for serving others. We are freed for speaking up on behalf of those held captive by oppressive power structures. We are freed for giving our time, talents, and treasures to those who lack what they need. We are, in short, freed for loving our neighbors and seeking their well-being as fervently as we love and seek our own.
For Luther, you see, and the theology he described, neighbor-love was an implied response to the good news that we are saved by grace and not by works. When we hear that good news, he says, when we really hear it with our whole being, we are compelled to love and serve our neighbor in whatever way is possible – not because it’s a nice thing to do, or to get a gold star in our crown, or so others will look to us and say, “Wow, they are great!” or even to get into heaven or to be saved. We serve others because it is what springs out of the good news that we are loved and forgiven and embraced by God, who loves us and says we are enough just the way we are. We don’t serve others to be loved and saved. We serve others because we already are loved and saved. This truth, sisters and brothers, will set you free.
On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, you may, like me, feel a mix of emotions. Sadness that the Church is still working toward unity, but gratitude for the work that has already been done. Lament for the ways people of faith have been nasty to one another, often using our own Martin Luther’s words as fuel, and hope in seeing that many are working hard to mend the brokenness. Despair that this world still has so much pain and fear, but immense joy that Christ continually promises to be with us in the pain, and bring us toward new life. There is room in our faith for all those feelings. As we commemorate the Reformation, may we let it be a reformation of our hearts, knowing that lament leads to repentance, and repentance leads to hope, and hope leads to joy in the promise of a new life of freedom.
Let us pray… Reforming God, by your Son you have freed us from the shackles of sin and doubt and promised us that we are beloved, and we are enough. Continue to reform our hearts, that we would see the needs of our neighbor, and reach out to them with your love and grace. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen