Sermon for Reformation Sunday – October 31, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
“If you continue in my word,” Jesus said, “you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Martin Luther continued in the Word. As a monk and a scholar he had the privilege of studying the Bible, God’s written Word, at a time when many did not have access to the scriptures. The printing press was still a very new invention, and there just weren’t that many copies of the Bible available. But Luther got his hands on one of them, and the more he continued in the Word, the more he discovered that the truth he found there didn’t align with the so-called truth that was being taught and practiced in the church at that time.
And so it was that on this day, October 31, precisely 504 years ago, that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He wanted to have a conversation about the truth he had found in God’s Word. He had 95 debating points, 95 truth claims gleaned from the scriptures, that he wanted to discuss so that the church could get back to the truth he found there. By posting it on the church door on All Hallow’s Eve, right before people would be pouring into church for All Saints Day worship services, he ensured that lots of people would see it.
Well, lots of people saw it alright! Luther’s call for the church to return to the truths found in God’s Word unleashed a firestorm that eventually led to him to being declared a heretic and an outlaw. Long before people ever talked about cancel culture, the medieval church tried to cancel Martin Luther. They burned his books. He was excommunicated from the church. He had a bounty placed on his head and was hunted like a common criminal, which made it necessary for him to spend nearly a year in hiding.
Luther unwittingly unleashed a fierce battle for the truth. On one side you had the medieval church claiming that it had authority over the truth simply because it was the church. For the medieval church, the truth was whatever advanced their purposes and lined their pockets. And so forgiveness wasn’t something proclaimed in Jesus’ name in accordance with his command found in scripture, it was instead something that was sold in order to pay for St. Peter’s Basilica. We know this part of the story pretty well.
What might not be as well known is that once the Reformation was underway you also had what came to be called the “enthusiasts.” The enthusiasts claimed that the truth was whatever they felt it was. They claimed direct revelations from God apart from the scriptures. The truth, for the enthusiasts, was based on their thoughts and their feelings. Once Luther opened that Pandora’s Box, they felt empowered to advance their versions of the truth as well. And so the Reformation was a time of great confusion about what the truth even was.
Does this sound at all familiar? We too live in a time of widespread confusion about what the truth is, about where the truth can be found, about what truths we should live by. We live in a time of changing technology. Like the printing press 500 years ago, the internet is changing the conversation about the truth in dramatic ways, both good and bad. On the one hand, the internet has made it so that the lies of major media institutions long seen as authoritative no longer go unchallenged, but on the other hand it has also provided easy platforms for a million more liars!
There is battle for information raging, a battle for the truth. There are so many different spins on the truth out there that people can pick and choose their own version, the version they like best, the version that allows them to do what they want, the version that is most comfortable for them. Some see the truth as whatever advances their agenda and power, and others see the truth as whatever their feelings tell them it is. The result is chaos and conflict and confusion.
“If you continue in my word,” Jesus said, “you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” So what is this truth, and how does it make us free?
As Luther battled both the authoritarians on the one hand and the enthusiasts on the other, he called both to the truth he found in God’s written word. The scriptures, Luther taught, proclaim God’s Word of law and gospel, God’s Word of command and promise. As such, this truth contains both bad news and good news.
The bad news is that, as we hear from Jeremiah this morning, we have broken the covenant God has made with us. The bad news, as St. Paul says in our reading from Romans for today, is that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The bad news, as Jesus says in the gospel reading, is that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin, and a slave doesn’t have a permanent place in the household. The scriptures tell the truth about us, the truth about our situation, the truth about our fallen human nature, and it is bad news!
Thankfully, there is good news too! The good news is that, as Jeremiah says, God forgives our iniquities and remembers our sin no more. The good news, as St. Paul teaches us, is that sinners are now made right with God through Jesus. We are justified by his grace as a gift, received through faith in him. The good news, as Jesus says, is that the Son has come to us with this truth so that we will be free, so that we will no longer be slaves to sin, so that we will have a permanent place in the household. And if the Son makes us free, Jesus promises, we will be free indeed!
This is not a freedom to pursue our own selfish interests. Christian freedom isn’t freedom to do whatever you want! As St. Paul so aptly puts it in Romans 6: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” We are freed from sin and death and freed for a life lived in relationship with God, a life of joyful obedience to God’s will and sacrificial love for our neighbors.
In a time of radically changing information technology and cultural upheaval, a time of pandemic and political turmoil, a time of chaos and conflict and confusion, we will continue to fumble our way through truth claims. We will probably continue to argue and disagree about what is true with a small ‘t.’
But as Christians of the Reformation, we have a heritage that continues to call us back again and again to the capital ‘T’ truth found in God’s Word. It is this truth that we can hold onto in the midst of everything going on around us. It is this truth that unites us as God’s people. It is this truth that we can all live our lives by. It is this truth that we can share with a weary and confused and hurting world.
As Christians of the Reformation, we have a heritage that calls us again and again to do exactly what Jesus calls us to do today: to continue in his Word. It is in continuing in Christ’s Word that we are truly his disciples. It is in continuing in Christ’s Word that we come to know the truth that makes us free.
As we continue in this Word our lives are rooted and anchored in the greatest truth of all: that though we are slaves to sin, by grace we have been given a place in God’s household, both today and forever. Though we are captive to our own self-centeredness, we have been justified by his grace as a gift, received through faith in Christ. Though we are in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves, we have been set free by the Son.
And if the Son makes us free, we are free indeed.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church