"What is Reformation?"
John 8:31-36 w/ Revelation 14:6-7 & Romans 3:19-28
This morning, as we gathered for the Divine Service with the school children, one of our bright students asked me: “Pastor, what’s Reformation?” Something tells me that he knew, after all, the school children have been learning about Martin Luther and the Reformation for a few weeks now. I think this student just wanted to see what I would say. So I said, “Well, that’s why we’re here today, and that’s what I’ll talk about in the sermon.”
It’s a great question for us here this evening too. What is Reformation? What is it all about? We might be tempted to say, “It’s about Martin Luther and the many great things that he did.” And what great things would those be? Well, many may say Luther single-handedly put the Pope in his place. Others may think that Luther stood up for the rights of individual believers, over against some church hierarchy on steroids. Still others may claim that Luther was a brave soul who decided who break off from the big, bad church of his day and start his own church. But all of these would be false, very false! And celebrating Reformation Day is not at all about celebrating the unique achievements of Martin Luther. That’s nothing against Luther, not at all.
Consider our first reading, about the angel flying overhead. Here you have a good example of how this is not about Luther. As I’m told, some artist actually painted this story, and the angel, strangely enough, looked a lot like Martin Luther. But I think Luther would certainly say, “Not so fast!” While he was certainly a faithful teacher of God’s Word, Luther would not want Reformation Day to be about him.
So, what is Reformation Day about? Notice what the angel flying overhead does in this passage. He carries “an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him the glory….’” That’s what Reformation is all about – the eternal Gospel for everyone on earth, the message that leads us to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
Tonight, we also hear from St. Paul. It’s that classic “Lutheran” Bible passage (if we can say such a thing): “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” That’s what Reformation is about, but what does it mean?
Here’s where knowing Luther’s story comes in handy. We gather tonight, on the 490th anniversary of Luther’s act of posting his “95 Theses.” Dr. Luther was a university theology professor who wanted to engage his colleagues in some scholarly debate over some problems in the church. His studies of the Scriptures led him to see some problems, some abuses, in the church of his day – problems such as a fictional place called “purgatory,” where souls would wait and purge away their sins before entering Eternity; problems such as indulgences, the practice of selling and buying time out of purgatory, basically buying one’s way into God’s good favor; and problems of “relics,” the buying and selling of bones of the saints or supposed pieces of Jesus’ cross.
Here’s why Luther chose October 31 to post his challenge for debate. It’s the eve of All Saints’ Day – “All Hallows’ Eve” or, as we know it now, “Halloween” (Okay, there, I mentioned it! ☺). In Wittenberg, where Luther lived and taught, All Saints’ Day was set aside for setting out the relics for all to adore. It was an impressive collection, but Luther wanted to debate and say, “That’s not what the Church is all about!” Here’s what Reformation is all about – refocusing on what the Church is and how she lives from the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is St. Paul’s message: we are not justified, or made right, before God by our human achievements of trying to placate God, or appease Him, or buy Him off. No, we are set right with God purely and solely by Jesus Christ crucified and risen. And we cling to that radical righteousness by faith, by trusting that our God truly is gracious and merciful. That’s what Reformation is about.
We also hear some soothing, sweet words from the lips of Jesus. “If you abide in my word,” He says, “you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” And what truth is that? Listen to Jesus again: “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That’s our real problem. We sin, and we show, beyond all reasonable doubt, that we are enslaved to sin. Just think of any sin you’ve committed just today, and you have incontrovertible evidence of this slavery. And just in case you think you haven’t sinned today, you’d better look more closely, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And I doubt you want to call God a liar!
But Jesus then applies the healing medicine of more truth: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” That’s what Reformation is all about! No, not the kind of freedom that says, “Oh, goody, I can do whatever I darn well please – come to church when it’s convenient, treat everyone as I see fit, live life to its fullest in feeling good for the moment.” No, not that kind of freedom. Besides, that’s not really freedom; that’s the old slavery yet again. Rather, Jesus talks about freedom from our slavery to sin, freedom to be the human beings that God created us to be, not the self-absorbed minions of Satan. “If the Son sets you free – from sin, from death, and from Satan himself – you will be free indeed.” That’s what Reformation is all about.
Luther preached it this way in the Large Catechism: “For when we had been created by God the Father and had received from Him all kinds of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil. So we fell under God’s wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, just as we had merited and deserved. There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God—in His immeasurable goodness—had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness. He came from heaven to help us. So those tyrants and jailers are all expelled now. In their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation. He has delivered us poor, lost people from hell’s jaws, has won us, has made us free, and has brought us again into the Father’s favor and grace” (LC II:28-30). That’s what Reformation Day is all about.
The slogan that goes with Reformation Day says, “The Church should always be reformed.” How is the Church, the Body of Christ, always being “reformed”? By the eternal Gospel, by the message of God’s gift of being made right before Him, by the Son’s victory over sin, death, and Satan to set us free. The Church is always being reformed and restored by the message of sins forgiven in Christ Jesus and in His life-giving Body and Blood. So far, so good. So let’s not rush to aim our theological pea-shooters at our brothers and sisters in, say, the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, let’s first turn our prayers and desire for reform on ourselves. Yes, the Church always needs to be reformed, especially when we struggle with the aberration of church-men turning a church into a coffee house, or with pastors and congregations that abandon the Church’s liturgy for something, well, “more contemporary and relevant.” Many claim that we “must” do such things for the mission of the Church, that is, to attract people in through the front doors. But these, dear friends, are problems no less serious than what Luther faced. Doing “whatever it takes” for the mission of the Church draws our gaze away from Jesus and His eternal Gospel just as much as indulgences and relics did in Luther’s day. Man-made visions for innovative churches and liturgies are just as man-made as purgatory and indulgences. Reformation is about getting back to the Gospel, the eternal Gospel, the message of being right with God, the message of being set free from sin, death, and Satan.
So as we sing the “battle hymn of the Reformation,” “A Mighty Fortress,” look for how it paints the picture of our battle. We do not battle against our fellow Christians; rather, we battle against the forces of sin, death, and Satan. “But for us fights the valiant One, Whom God Himself elected.” And who is this? “Jesus Christ it is…He holds the field forever.” That’s what Reformation is all about! Amen.