Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sermon: Reformation (transferred)

25 Oct 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Rom 3:19-28

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Some things are just not for sale, nor should they be. Love is one such thing.

Can you imagine having to pay your mother to love you? Can you imagine having to perform a checklist of tasks to merit your father’s love?

It’s easy to forget that this is the very issue that sparked the Reformation that we call to mind on this day.

Today commemorates the anniversary of an event that set in motion a series of happenings that nobody saw coming. Martin Luther’s ordinary notice posted on the church door – the 16th century equivalent of the blog post – resulted in an extraordinary playing out of history: heated discussions that led to accusations flying in both directions, mutual excommunications, a restoration of the preaching of the Gospel, death and bloodshed, a renewed emphasis on God’s Word, people being burned at the stake, worship in the language of the people, military conquest and oppression, a renewal of Christian family life, and a western Christian Church that has become Humpty Dumpty never to be put together again.

The Reformation was, in short, a mixed blessing of nobody’s intention. And yet it was a necessary blessing for the sake of the Church and of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

But in the midst of all the doctrinal disputes, the history, the debates, the personalities, the political tug-of-war, and all the hype on both sides, the issue boils down to the question of whether or not love is for sale.

Before he was Dr. Luther the famous theologian, he was Father Martin, the obscure monk and priest who found no love, neither from His heavenly Father nor from his churchly mother. The God to whom he devoted himself required the impossible to be done, and Luther’s failure to do so resulted in what seemed to be unrequited love. Such a view of the Christian life is dreary and depressing, anything but good news. Furthermore, the Church into whose bosom Luther fled for comfort and refuge, demanded money up front before any love, any grace, any mercy, any comfort, any kindness – would be dispensed. The man we now know as Blessed Martin Luther, doctor and confessor of the Church, was tempest-tossed in a loveless and dysfunctional family of sorts.

His notice on the church door involved the sale of indulgences. This practice was so horrific because it made a mockery of the very concept of love. It turned the Church, the Bride of Christ, into a harlot, and portrayed our merciful God as an evil and brutish tyrant, an abusive Father.

But having found the love of God through Scripture, and having discovered the love of the Church through rightly administered sacraments and a Gospel properly preached –
Luther discovered love. He proclaimed that same love from the pulpit, distributed it at the altar, poured it out at the font, and defended it on the church door. Dr. Luther would preach and teach this Gospel in the classroom and in the sanctuary until the day he was buried in the floor of that same church sanctuary, where he waits to this very day for his body to be roused by his loving Savior on the day when love will be triumphant and eternal.

And it was in this very passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans that the Lord shared with us today that Dr. Luther discovered the unconditional love of his heavenly Father and the faithful and nurturing love of his churchly mother.

For just as our earthly parents love us in spite of our imperfections, even as our mothers wipe away our tears even when our wounds are self-inflicted, and as our fathers embrace us with strong arms when we have brought trouble upon ourselves, so too does our compassionate God grant us the gift of His righteousness, even when our works deserve otherwise. For “now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.”

Our heavenly Father and our churchly mother offer us a gift of love: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” And this is the Gospel proclaimed by the Church and reclaimed by the reformers: Jesus Christ is the “propitiation by His blood to be received by faith.” In other words, Jesus is the one sin-forgiving sacrifice offered for us, not for a fee, not earned by works, but granted as a free gift, gratis, purely by grace – and we receive it all through faith.

For instead of God the angry judge, Luther found the “forbearance” of the Father. Instead of despair at his own unjust works, he found the Son Jesus Christ the “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

And this is all free, dear Christians!

We who have come to be called “Lutherans” did not abolish the Mass, but rather abolished the price tag. Masses are not for sale, but are given away for free – for they are offerings of love from your Savior to you in His Word and in His body and blood. We Lutherans never abolished private confession and absolution, but rather abolished the works of satisfaction mandated by a penance. Absolution cannot be earned, because it has been bought and paid for by the sacrifice of your Savior on the cross, He who loves you and gave Himself up for you.

Nor did we Lutherans abolish good works, but rather abolished the notion that you merit salvation by doing them. You get no payment for your good deeds, your prayers, your gifts and offerings, your loving gifts of your time and talents to your church. For what loving child expects to be paid for saying “thank you” to his dear Father and nurturing mother? Good works are a freewill offering to your Lord. And they are most certainly required. For our good works demonstrate a living faith, the kind of faith that is a free gift of God.

In our culture and age, nearly everything can be bought for a price. But even in our materialistic and cynical culture, love is still not for sale. For the moment that money changes hands, or when a work is offered as a payment, it ceases to be love, and becomes a sad imitation.

Thanks be to our merciful God that in His righteousness, He gives us that righteousness as a gift – because he loves us.

Praise be to our loving God we confess a holy catholic and apostolic church that lavishly pours out on us the gracious waters of Holy Baptism, generously pronounces the loving words of Holy Absolution, sumptuously puts before us the faith-bearing and sin-forgiving miraculous meal of Holy Communion, and continues to preach and teach the eternal-life-giving proclamation of the Holy Gospel. Our mother does not charge us for her comfort, nor does our Father expect payment for His mercy through our deeds. The Christian life is rather the good news that we who confess our sins and remain in our mother’s arms are loved and cherished in spite of our sins and errors, and are given forgiveness and eternal life as a free gift.

And lest we be tempted to brag about having the correct doctrine or to boast in that which we deserve no credit, let us remember the words of St. Paul that led to the Reformation in the first place: “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

Thus our boast is in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, and under the infallible authority of Scripture alone. And it is all through the love of God alone. This is why for five centuries, Lutherans around the world have prayed this prayer together after sharing the Holy Eucharist, a prayer penned by Dr. Luther himself, a prayer which captures the very essence of the Reformation and of the Gospel by giving thanks for the Lord’s salutary gift of mercy, rooted in faith, and lived out in fervent love for each other:
“We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ, Your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Peter said...

Lovely sermon. As the psalmist once sang, "Can't Buy Me Love."

Father Hollywood said...

Thank you, Peter. I know of the Psalm, though the number escapes me. I believe it is considered "a miktam of John and Paul the Liverpudlianites."