Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sermon: Commemoration of Blessed Martin Luther

18 February 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 15:1-11 (Isa 55:6-11; Rom 10:5-17)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

By all accounts, Martin Luther was a great man. A truly great man. As secular a publication as Life magazine rated him the 3rd most important person of the past millennium. Given that our congregation has the name “Lutheran,” it’s no surprise that we hold him in great esteem as a Doctor of the Church. He died on this date in 1546, and as is the custom in honoring her departed saints, the Church celebrates today as his “heavenly birthday.”

Dr. Luther was a brilliant theologian, an expert scholar of Scripture, a world-class authority on Greek and Hebrew who also spoke fluent Latin. He was a man of profound integrity and courage who at the risk of his life, brought the Gospel of the mercy of God through Jesus Christ back to preeminence in Christian theology, both in the academy and in the congregation. He was a parish priest, professor, and guest lecturer; a devoted husband and doting father, a generous host and settler of disputes, a prolific author, a powerful preacher, an occasional cartoonist, a renowned translator, a gifted lute-player, and legendary hymn writer.

And yet, Luther’s greatest achievement was knowing how worthless all of these things are before God. Not a single one matters as a person draws his final breath in this life.

For there have been many great men, who, having been convinced of their own greatness, went on to self-destruct as prisoners of their own legends. But not Luther. For as bombastic and belligerent as he was, he knew where he stood before God – merely a filthy beggar. And this is Luther’s greatest gift to mankind. Not religious freedom, not the Bible and the Divine Service in the common language, not brilliant theological insight and discourse, but rather the simple reality of our unworthiness before God, and the undeserved rescue God does on our behalf in spite of our unworthiness.

Listen to Luther’s reaction when he learned that some in the movement to reform Roman Catholicism were being called “Lutherans”:

“We should not be called Lutherans but Christians. I was not crucified for anyone. St. Paul would not have it that Christians should call themselves Pauline, or Petrine, but Christians. How did it come about that I, poor, stinking bag of maggots should have the children of God called by my miserable name.”

As arrogant as Luther could get in the midst of debate with his opponents, he had no delusions of his own lack of merit before the Lord.

For what gives us life is not of our own doings, but we are merely branches of a great vine, as our Lord Himself testifies. We are connected to the vine by other branches, through which our nourishment comes. Like leaves on a plant, we are helpless on our own – no matter how glorious and green we may appear. We are connected by a thin lifeline that binds us to the Source of our life and our strength. “For without Me you can do nothing.” Anyone who severs himself from the vine invites death.

We Christians are to “abide” in Christ. We cling to Him. We hold on for dear life like a helpless leaf. And by virtue of this lifeline, a miracle happens – we “poor stinking bags of maggots” can, and do, bear fruit! We can indeed bear the fruits of good works in our lives for the sake of the Kingdom. By grace, through the faith that binds us to the True Vine, we are spared from being cast away, and we are made able to bear fruit pleasing to the Vinedresser.

Luther understood this.

The Church binds us to Christ, and to destroy that bond would be to invite death through starvation. The Church was in need of reform, not destruction. The Church was in need of pruning to bear fruit, not in being torn out by the roots as the radical element of the reformation sought to do.

This is why Luther never abandoned the Church, though she had become brown and shriveled, with very few good fruits to be found anywhere. Dr. Luther understood that Jesus brings gardens from deserts, and life from death. The only hope of a re-blossoming of the Church is spelled out in the Book of Isaiah which the good doctor knew so well: “For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”

The Word of God, the same Word of God through which all things were made, the Word that brought light from darkness, the Word that rose from the dead on the third day, was just as powerful in Luther's day in the 16th century as He was in the first century, as He was in Isaiah's time 7 centuries BC, is today, and ever shall be.

The Word of God was the only hope for a church that had fallen into error and compromise with the world, and yet remains the Church’s hope today.

Luther was only repeating St. Paul’s words “The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach).” Paul lays out just how life flows from Christ to the Christian, from the vine to the branches: “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent.”

As brilliant and pious a man Dr. Luther was, his greatest strength was that he was a preacher of the Good News, a Servant of the Word, a steward of the mysteries of God, a minister in the priestly service of the Gospel. Of all the magnificent things he wrote, they are all worthless compared to the simple declaration found in our Liturgy, taken from the mouth of another preacher named John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”

Although we owe Luther a great debt for his role in the reformation of the Church, in the reclaiming of the light of the Gospel from the darkness of false doctrine and worldliness, and though we certainly agree with Life magazine that Luther was a pivotal figure in the history of the western world, and though we are grateful for the courage and fidelity of this great doctor of the Church - we understand where true greatness lies – in the Crucified One, into whose name we are baptized and by whose merits we are forgiven.

We are merely branches, struggling to stay green with life, and seemingly unable to produce fruit. But we imbibe nourishment and strength from the True Vine, as the grace of the gift of life seeps into our very cells, joining Christians from every time and place, along with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven as our individual branches extend down deep into the ground of Truth and reach upward toward the very heavens. By God’s grace, we have the promise of bearing much fruit for the Kingdom of God, grapes that are destined to become the sweet wine of the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb.

On our own inevitable and unavoidable “spiritual birthdays” when we will pass from this life, we, along with Luther in one of his last writings can, with great comfort and joy, assert: “We are beggars, this is true.” For we need not, and dare not, depend on our own strength or merit, but simply rely on the grace and mercy of Him to whom we beg: “Lord, have mercy.” And we too will be able to answer the final question put to Dr. Luther on his deathbed on this very date 461 years ago by his old friend and fellow pastor Justus Jonas: “Reverend Father, will you remain steadfast in Christ and the doctrine which you have preached?” As he slipped from this life to eternity, he replied audibly with a “Yes!” – that is to say: “It is so! Amen!”

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Past Elder said...

Thank you, Father. My eyes were full of tears after reading this one. What an excellent presentation of what it is to be, well, Lutheran, and why I am/became one. And it came at a perfect time for me right now for a variety of reasons.

Vielen Dank. Wir sind alle Bettler!

cheryl said...

It's just such a shame that practicality has left us with no choice but to resign the name "evangelical" and to further identify ourselves as "lutheran". Even the name "lutheran" has come to mean something less than orthodox to many.