Sermon for Reformation Sunday – October 28th, 2018
Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
On the last Sunday in October, Lutheran Christians as well as a few other Protestant church bodies celebrate Reformation Sunday. Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on October 31st, 1517. It was a call for debate that sparked the Reformation, and we have been celebrating it ever since. Some of you remember that last year was the 500th anniversary, which was a big deal around the world.
While the date for Reformation Sunday is inevitably tied to Martin Luther and his hammer banging on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, ideally we do not celebrate Martin Luther himself. He would be the first to tell you he was a sinner not worth celebrating. Actually, to quote him directly, he once described himself as “a poor stinking bag of maggots.” So, we shouldn’t turn this into a day for patting ourselves on the back for being followers of Martin Luther. Instead, this is a day to celebrate the work of the Spirit in uncovering the great truths of scripture that had been buried for so long. It is a day to celebrate Christ Jesus and his work for us. It is a day to celebrate the Word we hear in our readings for today, the Word that makes us free.
Today we celebrate that the new covenant Jeremiah spoke of in our first reading has been established with us in Christ. Through Jesus, God has forgiven our iniquity and remembers our sin no more. God has not just written the law in stone for us to obey or else, God has written that law on our hearts, calling out of us the fruits of faith as a response to what Christ has done for us.
We celebrate the great truth St. Paul wrote about so powerfully in our second reading from Romans, that though all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we are now justified by his grace as a gift! That passage alone is reason enough for a party, right?
In our gospel reading for today we hear Jesus say that if we continue in his word we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free. Today we celebrate that through his finished work for us on the cross, we have been set free from sin and death. And if the Son makes us free, Jesus promises us, we will be free indeed!
These are great and life-changing truths that need to be proclaimed again and again. And so ideally Reformation Sunday is not a Lutheran pep rally. It is a time for us all to be centered once again in the gospel.
As many of you know, I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago. It was put on by a group called 1517. The mission of this group, not coincidentally, is to share the great scriptural truths recovered by the Lutheran Reformation. However, this is not a group exclusively for Lutherans. Among the speakers at the conference there were Lutheran pastors of every stripe – ELCA, LCMS, and WELS (God bless you if you know what all those letters mean) – but there were also speakers from the Episcopal church, the Presbyterian Church, and a non-denominational church. What brought them all together was a commitment to the cross, a commitment to salvation by grace through faith, a commitment to the gospel!
As great and diverse as the speakers were, I think the most interesting part of it for me were the attendees. They too were diverse. They came from all over the country with all kinds of denominational backgrounds. There were pastors and laypeople, Lutherans and many other types of Christians, and they were all there to hear the good news of what Christ has done for us on the cross. In visiting with these people I was reminded of how important, urgent even, it is for this message to be proclaimed. Because you see, just as the church in Luther’s time had buried the gospel underneath all kinds of other stuff, so too does the church continue to do so today.
I had breakfast one morning with a nice man from Colorado who was there with his wife and daughter. He told me he had been going to evangelical churches for years but that now he was in between churches. He was looking for something different. He said he was worn out by the constant message he was hearing that Christianity was all about self-improvement. He was tired of leaving church every Sunday with a list of homework on how to grow in holiness. He was near despair at his inability to live up to the demands he was constantly hearing at church and about ready to give up on Christianity altogether. He said, “I’m almost 60 years old, and I think I’m about as holy as I’m ever going to get.” The churches he was attending talked about Jesus, but the gospel, the good news of what he has done for us, was being buried underneath all kinds of demands.
Then I had a hallway conversation with a pastor from a conservative Lutheran church body serving in Ventura, California, just outside of L.A. We talked about the Dodgers a bit before we started talking about the conference and the church. He told me that because he had befriended and worked with a pastor outside of his specific branch of Lutheranism he had been threatened with charges of fraternizing with liberals. That’s not exactly what they call it. It is actually called unionism or syncretism, and pastors in that tradition can be defrocked for it. Rather than being free in the gospel to rub elbows with different kinds of people, he was expected to maintain theological purity, which apparently extended to the company he kept. And so the gospel gets buried underneath wagons that get circled in tighter and tighter.
For dinner one night I sat next to a pastor from Virginia. He serves in one of the mainline denominations and shared his frustration that his church body, at the national level, had largely abandoned theology and had become caught up in partisan politics. He said that in his tradition, you can openly disagree with or call into doubt aspects of the Apostles’ Creed and you’ll be considered edgy and cool, but if you disagree with or doubt aspects of the Democratic party platform you are automatically considered a “hater.” It was pretty clear to me that this man was not a hater. He was a gentle, kind, thoughtful man who felt ostracized by his church tradition for not agreeing with every aspect of their official politics. The gospel that should have been the source of their unity was being buried underneath a bunch of positions on policy.
Now it might sound like I’m picking on these other expressions of Christianity, but that’s not what I mean to do. I’m sharing what I heard from these people because I think these impulses are not just a denominational problem – they are impulses that run through the heart of every Christian, including each of us here today.
Without even realizing it, we often turn Christianity into a religion of demands. We turn it into a self-improvement project. We live under all kinds of “ought tos” that can become crushing. I ought to be more like this, I ought to be more like that. And it’s true – you probably ought to! But let me tell you, whether you’re 8 years old or 80, you’re probably about as holy as you’re ever going to get. But it’s OK! Didn’t you hear? God forgives your iniquity and remembers your sin no more! You live under a new covenant established by Christ. The law is no longer written in stone for you to obey or else. It is instead being written on your heart as the Spirit calls out of you the new person you are in Christ. This is not a burden, it is a joy – because it is not our work, it is Christ’s work in us!
We too have a tendency to want to stick to our cliques, keeping our distance from different kinds of Christians, or those of a different faith altogether, or those with no faith at all, thinking they will contaminate us somehow. Nothing buries the gospel more deeply than this kind of isolationism! While choosing your company carefully is always good advice and there are times when certain people may well need to be avoided for our own health and safety, generally speaking we are set free by the gospel to move through this world unafraid to fraternize with our neighbors who are different from us. We can rub elbows with all kinds of people just like our Lord Jesus did, loving them like he did and, when the opportunity presents itself, bearing witness to the grace that has saved us. Our neighbors are not a threat to the gospel, they are the very people we’re called to share it with as we serve them in love.
We too, whether we’re on the left or right, have a tendency to conflate politics and faith, to confuse the city of God with the city of man, to use St. Augustine’s words. Certainly our faith should influence our politics and shape how we see the world, but let’s stop assuming there is only one clear-cut Christian answer to the complex problems of our day. Let’s stop demonizing those who are the opposite end of the spectrum from us. Let’s call both sides to repentance for their increasingly dangerous obnoxiousness. If there’s anyone who can help turn down the temperature in our political climate today it can be us Christians. The gospel teaches us that Republicans are sinners who need Jesus. The gospel teaches us that Democrats are sinners who need Jesus. That realization should be enough to tone down the self-righteousness and the vitriol and encourage a little more humility. It should also be enough to call us as the church to our primary mission of proclaiming Christ’s love and mercy for all.
One of the great slogans of the Reformation is Semper Ecclesia Reformanda, which is Latin for “the church is always reforming.” This does not mean the church is always needing to adopt every single fad or idea that comes along. It means that the church is always needing to be reformed by the Word. It is always needing to be re-centered in the gospel. It is always needing to be renewed by the message that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. It is always needing to be re-rooted in the work Christ has completed for us on the cross.
This kind of re-formation is needed as much today as it was 500 years ago, and it happens as our hearts are re-formed by the Word – the Word that sets us free from our failures and shortcomings, the Word that sets us free to love others, even those we think are wrong, the Word that sets us free from sin and death to live in joy and peace and hope.
May the Lord keep us steadfast in this Word, that we would be free indeed. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church