Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sermon: Reformation Day (transferred)

26 October 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: John 8:31-36 (Rom 3:19-28)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

“And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Truth is powerful. It frees us from the slavery of sin. It liberates us from ignorance. It protects us from the malicious intentions of the devil, who is the father of lies.

The word “truth” appears in Scripture over 200 times. Telling the truth is one of the Ten Commandments. And our Lord often emphasized his own truthfulness by saying “Truly, truly I say to you” (literally: “Amen, Amen”). And our Lord Himself also says: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” When Pontius Pilate looked the Truth in the face and asked “What is truth?” our Lord did not answer him – at least not in words. For some truths are indeed self-evident.

But truth is also dangerous. Evil cannot abide the truth, and is at war against the truth. For the truth is more than something that is factually correct or mathematically in balance. Truth is reality, and reality is this: Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, who has come into the world for one reason – to extinguish the father of lies forever. The Truth and the Lie have been locked in mortal combat for millennia, and will be until the last lie is hurled into the Lake of Fire along with Satan and his hordes.

Saints throughout history have incurred the wrath of Satan for speaking the truth.

A French girl named Joan was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in 1431. In 1455, her conviction was overturned, and she was considered a martyr. Finally, in 1920, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church declared St. Joan of Arc to be a canonized saint.

Some truths whisper for centuries in order to finally be heard above the roaring lies of the devil.

Reformation Day commemorates a rather ordinary event in 1517 – a professor putting up a notice in Latin to other professors seeking academic debate. But this professor was also a priest, and the topic involved a controversial practice of the Church. Martin Luther told the truth about corruption in the Church of his day. And like any whistleblower working for powerful bosses, his life was never easy after that point.

The matter under consideration was important. It was the nature of the Gospel and God’s grace. Can the forgiveness of sins be sold as a commodity? Can it be earned by good works? How does faith fit into the picture? The Blessed Reformer told the truth by repeating the same truth that was said a thousand years earlier by St. Augustine. Dr. Luther not only stuck to the truth that St. Paul spoke anew to us in the Letter to the Romans, that we are indeed “justified freely by His grace,”, he also held to the truth of the ancient Roman Catholic confession, so beautifully articulated by St. Augustine, that we can’t buy or earn salvation – for it is a gift of God.

The beautiful thing about the truth is that, unlike the lie, you don’t have to invent it. And having told it, you don’t have to “manage” it. For once you know the truth, you can simply repeat it: one time, ten times, a thousand times. As Mark Twain once quipped: “If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.”

By contrast, the lie requires an army of lies to back up the original lie. Eventually, the tangled web ensnares the liar, even as the devil’s lies brought about the wrath of the Son of God, who crushed Satan’s serpentine head from the cross. As we sing in a popular Easter hymn: “Let truth stamp out the lie.” The “stamping out” calls to mind God’s promise in the Garden of Eden that the “Seed of the woman” would vindicate mankind by crushing the serpent’s head. And though the Serpent indeed struck the heel of the Truth made flesh, and though telling the truth will always cause us to suffer the hatred of the devil, ultimately, truth always prevails. The lie cannot hold off the truth forever.

Reformation Day is a great celebration for us Lutherans. Our ancestors in the faith courageously spoke the truth to power. And as a result, many things changed. Even in churches that rejected most of Luther’s reforms, we saw a cleaning up of corruption. And in those churches that embraced Luther’s reforms, the Gospel rang out once again in the language of the people, the practice of selling the forgiveness of sins was rejected, and the preaching of the Gospel was restored to its ancient and rightful place as a means to God’s free grace.

In spite of all that we have to celebrate – including 500 years of magnificent Lutheran music and hymnody, rigorous theology, gospel-centered preaching, the retention of the reverence of the Mass and the confession that Jesus is physically present in His Supper, the upholding of the power of baptism, and a long line of heroes within our tradition, lay and clergy alike – our joy is tempered by sadness that Luther and his contemporaries left behind a shattered and splintered Church. The “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” is out of communion with itself, and has been so for centuries.

However, even as St. Joan of Arc waited 500 years for the Church to formally recognize her as a saint, even as truth cannot be suppressed forever, we have seen many of the breaches between the churches move toward healing – even if ever so slowly. Today, the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church speaks respectfully of Martin Luther, even citing him favorably in some instances. In the 1960s, a good many of the Reforms instituted by those early Lutherans were also instituted in Rome. And today, Lutherans are far more likely to rejoice in their common heritage with Roman Catholics than in the dark and shameful earlier times of bigotry and blind hatred.

The best and greatest contribution we Lutherans can make to the Church at large is our stubborn clinging to the evangelical truth that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners,” that He is the Truth, the exclusive Truth, the only way to the Father. It is “by His stripes that we are healed.” We have no new truths to offer, just the same truths which were already ancient in Luther’s day: the truth of the Gospel, the Good News of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, the cross, the resurrection, and the free grace of God. We must hold fast to this truth come hell or high water, we must whisper it in private and shout it from the rooftops. We must be prepared to bear the cross of the scorn of a culture that will not listen to the truth. And we must cling to the promise of God that the Church, in her confession of this truth, will even withstand the gates of hell.

Words, in and of themselves, even if they are true, are just some ink on a paper or a vibration of air. Sometimes they are barely legible or can hardly be heard. However, the power of words is not in appearances, but in their veracity, their truthfulness. For there is power in truth. And “the” Truth, the Word made flesh, “by whom all things were made” – is a powerful Word, a “strong Word” that not only “cleaves the darkness” but also “bespeaks us righteous.”

God’s Word never returns void. God’s Word is a two-edged sword that delivers the mortal blow of Truth against Satan, the father of lies. For indeed, as Luther’s hymn – sung today even in churches that once declared him to be a heretic – truly confesses regarding our Lord’s victory over the devil, it is indeed the Truth of the Word of God that: “one little Word can fell him.” Amen.

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

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