Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sermon: Reformation - 2010

31 October 2010 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Romans 3:19-28

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

There’s an old saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Of course, it is implied in this saying that if something is broken, it ought to be fixed. Both this old saying and its implied opposite describe the Lutheran reformation that we commemorate today.

For in the sixteenth century, everybody knew the church was broken. And whether they admitted it or not, everybody did know it – from the pope and cardinals, to the clergy, the monks and nuns, and to the lay-people. From princes and kings to peasants and beggars – the festering corruption in the church was laid bare for all to see, like an open sore.

And for centuries, Christians of goodwill from all walks of life – bishops and cardinals, abbots and abbesses, professors and teachers, laymen and lay-women called upon the church’s leadership to repent.

But the church was so broken that she didn’t even know what it meant to repent.

Popes and bishops had become princes and overlords. Priests were engaging in openly scandalous lifestyles. Preaching had become almost non-existent. Parishioners no longer sang, confessed their sins, or professed the creeds. Very few people even understood the Bible readings. Masses became commodities to buy and sell, and the church had become more concerned with maintaining gold and relics and bureaucracy than she did with saving souls, serving, and shining forth the good news of Jesus Christ.

But thanks be to God that this would not stand! For even in this mess of medieval brokenness there were great men and women who understood the Gospel, taught their families the good news, and extracted forgiveness and life even out of the stingy fingers of a church gone awry.

For not even the gates of hell would prevail against the holy church – even a hypocritical church that had largely lost her way. The Lord was merciful, and thanks to scholars and teachers and printing presses and princes, through preaching and teaching, singing and reading, and through the miraculous leading of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Lord allowed the brokenness to heal, the wrongs to be righted, and the darkness of false doctrine to be illuminated by the light of Christ in those churches where the reformation took hold.

For what was broken was fixed: the priests found their prophetic voice of preaching and teaching, the people once more hungered and thirsted for the Word in their own language and the sacraments that they knew were to be had without price. The Mass ceased to be a commercial enterprise and was stripped of its superstition and once more became the Holy Supper. Professors read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew and looked to the Word as the rule and norm of our faith. Hymns of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving again rang out from our churches in languages spoken by our people. Children were taught from the cradle of God’s love and mercy. No more would the holy saints be treated like gods and goddesses. The reformation was a revival as that which was broken was fixed.

And central to all of these changes is the good news itself: “By works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law….” For although “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” the good news is that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.”

“All have sinned” – we cannot deny it. We “are justified” – declared righteous by God’s mercy. In Christ is our “redemption,” dying on the cross as a sacrificial atonement, a “propitiation by his blood.” His atoning blood is offered to all as a free “gift” – a gift of salvation and eternal life. This gift is “received by faith,” not by works, not by money, not by jumping through a broken church’s ridiculous set of hoops. And it is the church’s job, dear friends, as it has always been, to proclaim this from the rooftops, to be fishers of men, to give away this free gift like there’s no tomorrow – for there may not be a tomorrow, even as we await our Savior’s return.

And when the church is engaged in this preaching and teaching, in distributing holy gifts to sinners, in healing the sick and raising the dead by the Word of God and through His Sacraments, there we find not only a broken church being repaired, but a broken people being made whole.

And indeed, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” As broken as the church was in the sixteenth century, there were many things that were not broken: the proclamation of the Gospel through the liturgy, the Word ringing out among those preachers who did continue to proclaim, the constant prayers of the monks and nuns that were focused on God’s Word – especially the Psalms, the ongoing true presence of our Redeemer Jesus under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, and true confessions and true absolutions. Even in these dark times, the wick burned dimly, and yet it burned.

It burned through countless confessors and preachers of the Gospel, known and unknown. It burned through Fr. John Staupitz, the man who taught a broken monk by the name of Martin Luther the true meaning of the Gospel. It burned through scholars like Erasmus, who brought the Scriptures back to the center of the Church’s discourse. It burned through St. Bernard of Clairvaux who cried out for reform four centuries before Luther. It burned through John Wycliffe who translated the Bible into English, and St. Catherine of Siena who scolded popes, three hundred years before Luther. It burned literally in the flesh of Blessed John Huss, who was executed at the stake a century before Luther.

The Lutheran Reformation stood on the shoulders of these giants, and carried their torch, the torch of God’s Word, as a light unto the church’s path.

And we Lutherans of today hold on to that which was not broken. We baptize people young and old for the forgiveness of sins. We have retained the ministry of called and ordained pastors who stand in the apostolic ministry and preaching office for the forgiveness of sins. We confess our sins and receive absolution from the pastor for the forgiveness of sins. We reverently celebrate the Mass for the forgiveness of sins. We confess the ancient creeds and confess the one true faith with the ancient fathers for the forgiveness of sins.

And most importantly of all, we know what is still broken must still be repaired by the forgiveness of sins. We, dear brothers and sisters, are broken and must be fixed, century after century, year after year, week after week, moment by moment. Our Christian life is a life of constant repentance and forgiveness, of being broken by sin and of being renewed by grace.

To stand in the train of the Lutheran reformers is a high honor, but even more so, it is humbling. For the reformers taught us most importantly of all that we are in need of a Savior, and that we have been rescued by Jesus Christ. We have nothing to boast about but Christ alone.

“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.” Thanks be to God that the one and only One who was not broken and who needed no fixing was willing to be broken on the cross as a fix for us broken ones, we who have been saved by His grace and mercy apart from our works. And thanks be to God for those who have proclaimed this Christian truth throughout the history of the Christian Church.

We have been broken by sin, and we have been fixed by the cross. This is the good news. Today is yet another Reformation Day for all sinners made saints by the Word of God. Thanks be to Him who has saved us by grace! Amen.

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

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