Sunday, October 29, 2006

Reformation Sunday - Romans 3

- wma audio link -

(Beward the typos!)

Gosh. I’m excited this morning. Are you excited this morning? I’m excited this morning.

Do you know why I’m excited this morning? Is it because we brought in new members last week? Is it because there are more and more people stepping up to the plate to do the jobs that need to be done for this congregation? Is it because our sister congregation St. Paul’s has voted to keep funding us because they’re excited about Project Resurrection? Or is it simply Project Resurrection itself, the chance to challenge the shifting secular culture head on, to do something adventurous, a little bit risk, and yet tremendously hopeful?

These are all exciting things, but they’re not really the reason I’m excited this morning. I’m excited because today is Reformation Sunday.

Ohh…I can see it in your eyes. Now you’re excited too. … You know what this means. This means that we’ve just hit the beginning of one of the most exciting seasons in the entire Church year. This means that next week is All Hallows day, and then, within a few weeks, we’ll have Christ the King Fulfillment Sunday. From there it’s a hop and a skip to when Advent season starts, and we get to come to those beautiful Wednesday evening services, (such a calming and peaceful time for family to gather before God – while the chaos of the shopping season goes on out there – such a blessing to let it all fade away as we sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel”) And then, well, you know what comes next.

From here on out its down hill. A virtual smorgesborg of Churchly celebrations, and each one of theme a change to taste something a little stronger, a little more spiced than those dreary latter weeks of August and September which we’re coming out of.

And it all starts today, with the celebration of the Reformation. That alone is enough reason to be excited, because, after all, without the Reformation, where would we be? It almost wouldn’t be worth having church if it weren’t for what happened almost 500 years ago, this Tuesday.

Or am I wrong? Maybe you don’t really know what Reformation Sunday is. Maybe the entire concept of the Church seasons and their gorgeous flavors of worship life are something you’ve never really been invited to experience. Maybe you’ve even been dozing through all the festivities so far this morning. Maybe you haven’t even noticed that the paraments on the altar are red this week. (That only happens 3 Sundays a year, by the way!) Maybe to you, the term “Reformation” is meaningless, carrying little more with it than some image of Martin Luther with a hammer standing by a doorway. So what? Big deal. Who cares?

Actually, if the Reformation were really about some guy named Marty who took a hammer to a church door, then I think I’d pretty much agree with you. If it was just another time in history when people got kind of fussy about this or that, but its all passed and not that important now, then I don’t think I’d even be standing in this pulpit. But the Reformation is about so much more than that. The Reformation was one of the central most important moments in the entire history of the Church since Jesus left. Really. I’m serious.

Let me paint the picture for you. It’s going to take just a little bit of a history lesson. Just a little one. So it won’t hurt that much.

By the time the year 1500 came along, a lot had happened to the church. The entire “dark ages” had more or less come and gone. Western civilization was rediscovering itself through scholarly study of the classics of literature, like Plato and Aristotle, not to mention the great writings of the early church. It was an exciting age, when the learning curve of western man sky-rocketed to heights that hadn’t been seen for centuries.

But not everything that was happening was good. For over a thousand years now the organized Church had been a major player in society. Not only did it control the pulpits of the land, but the Popes were the ones who were looked to give the crown to emperors and kings. The office of the high bishop of Rome was the most powerful throne in the world, and this kind of power came with a price. By the 1500s, the seats of archbishops and cardinals – high ranking men in the church – had long been bought and sold to the highest bidder. Corruption dominated much of the Church’s trade. Pastors and priests were largely uneducated, and even the Lord’s Supper was generally something monks and “more spiritually minded” people in monasteries, rather than a gift to the laity for their forgiveness.

It was in one of these monasteries that Martin Luther, a slightly better than average monk (and I say that meaning that he was a top rate scholar in a very good, though very small school in northern Germany) – there, Martine Luther, like all those around him, devoted himself to the Church’s teaching on how to achieve salvation from death and hell.

Now Luther was a good man. He had a very active conscience. He knew sin when he saw it, and he saw it most often not out there, among the world, but in here, in his own heart. He saw, deep down inside himself, how, as much as he tried to love God, to serve him, and to submit and abandon himself to complete surrender, he couldn’t ever really do it. This tormented Martin immensely. But, what could he do? He listened to the Church. “Do penance,” they said. He prayed harder, crawled up staircases on his knees and took a whip to his back. It didn’t work. He saw Christ. He believed in Christ. But he hated this Christ, for this Christ was a judge who demanded of Martin something Martin could never achieve: perfection.

All of this would have probably come to very little had not something else happened. The pope in Rome wanted a new cathedral for his city, the Vatican. But, unfortunately, the treasuries were a little dry. The pilgrimages to the holy shrines and relics which brought in much of the cities money had tapered off a bit. And the black plague was having a nasty influence on whether or not people decided to travel. So, the pope and some of his high officials came up with a plan. A priest named John Tetzel was sent out to do the traveling himself, and he took with him a special offer, a special series of “indulgences,” quality letters signed by the seal of the pope himself, which promised complete release of you or any of your relatives from pergatory directly into the gates of heaven. And this wonderful blessing was free to anyone who wanted it (with a small donation of $9.95.) “When the coin in the coffer clings, the soul from pergatory springs!”

It was this traveling salesmen, selling forgiveness of sins, that really set Luther off. He’d been reading the Scriptures, particularily the psalms and the epistles of Paul, and he was increasingly being convinced by the words of Holy Writ that there was something missing from the standard teaching in the Church, something which the Scriptures themselves were very concerned about. Something which a pope selling heaven in order to build a church building really has no concept of: grace. Grace in Jesus Christ.

So…put off by this sorry state of affairs, and truly thinking that the pope was probably unaware of this charleton selling heaven in his name, Luther did what scholars of the day normally did. He started a debate. He began the debate in the usual course, by publicly nailing the opening theses to the large church doors – which was the place where news and information were usually posted in those days.

But things didn’t go the way he expected. He thought he was going to be commended by the pope for calling attention to the abuses and atrocities that were going on in the name of God. Instead, he found ,very quickly, that he had a choice of doing one of two things: shutting up, or being excommunicated.

But that presented a very specific problem. For Martin to shut up, he would also have to deny something he’d only recently become aware of. He would have to give up something he’d only in the last few years come to receive – an understanding God in which Christ was no only the judge, but the mediator, in which forgiveness was not something earned by the performance of rites and special works, but which was given, as a gift, for the sake of a man who died on a cross. He would have to give up, simply, what Paul said in Romans chapter three this morning:

The whole world is held accountable to God. But by works of the law, no human being will be justified in his sight [that means, by what a man does with his hands and his heart, not one of us will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and be acquitted, or declared innocent.) And yet, the righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the law, although the old testament codes bear witness to it – the righteousness of God is given through faith in Christ Jesus to all who believe. Beyond this, there is no distinction between men of any sort: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. [All have become unrighteous, and this is proven by our works, by the wickedness of our hearts and the way it spills over into our lives, into greed and envy, discord and discontent, anger and vengeance. All are born into this wretched estate, and none of us leave it until the day that we die in it.] And yet, it is given that man is justified [that is, declared innocent and free from guilt] by the grace of God, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

“Eureka!” Luther exclaimed when he had first read words similar to these in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The answer to your sin, your despair, your death and your enemy the devil who seeks to drag you into the fires of eternal hell is not yourself and your penance and your work to prove that you are worthy of salvation. The fact that you need salvation means you are not worthy. But God has known this, and, because he is merciful, he has worked that salvation for you as a free gift in his Son Jesus Christ, whom God put forward as a propitiation [that means, a payment] by his blood, to be received by faith.

Jesus bought Martin Luther, and you and me, and all of the elect who will join us in paradise, with his very own spilt blood. And these words are only received by faith. Works cannot believe a promise. Faith can. And all of this is because God wanted to show his own [great and marvelous] righteousness, passing over former sins so as to be not only just, but also the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

This news, straight out of Paul’s letter to, coincidence of coincidences, the Church in Rome, hit the medieval world like a nuclear bomb. Wars were fought. Peasants revolted. People were burned at the steak and cut into pieces and hidden in castle towers. Princes and dukes were excommunicated. The Emperor himself got involved. It was madness. The madness of the Reformation.

And yet, in the midst of it, at the very center of it, this profound, almost unbelievable news: the news that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was gift from God given to mankind, not to demand that we stop sinning and earn forgiveness, but to take away the sins of the world by forgiving them – this Word of Gospel rolled like a tidal wave through the continent of Europe. Something big had started. Something big had been remembered. Something big was being preached loud and clear once again, for the life of the world, for the sake of the elect children of God, because of the mission of Christ which neither pope nor king nor darkness to death can stop or hold back. The cross of Jesus Christ as the promise of salvation by grace was being preached, and to this day it has not stopped.

Loud and clear the Reformation bells tolled, telling those who claimed to be Church that to be Church they better start preaching Jesus again. And many listened, and many believed. You and I believe. That is why we are here, named “Lutherans” by our enemies who do not understand that we are catholics who simply love the Evangel of God’s Gospel more than we love the seat of the pope.

That is what we celebrate today. That is why I’m excited. There is nothing more exciting than salvation by grace through faith. There is nothing more exciting than being justified, declared innocent, as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ. And this itself sets off a season of celebration in the Church – a season which will lead us passed the Church itself, to the very throne of God, and then beyond even that, to a manger, where a baby boy whose face was the face of God lay waiting for a day when he would take up a cross and make all things new. If that kind of future doesn’t make you excited, then I don’t know what will.

Today is Reformation Sunday. Today is living proof from history that though darkness come and the grass withers, though the organized church miss the point and the flowers fade, though all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, the Word of the Lord stands forever: you are justified freely, as a gift, by the redemption that is in Jesus Christ who has paid for your every last sin with his blood. Believe that, and rejoice, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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