Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sermon: Reformation Day (transferred)

30 October 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Rom 3:19-28

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”

Some might argue that the “we” in this sentence means “Lutherans.” But it doesn’t. For when St. Paul – under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration – penned this verse as part of his letter to the Roman Christians, there was no such thing as a “Lutheran.” Even the Christian pastor whose last name would lend itself to Lutherans would not even be born for another 14 centuries – another Christian theologian who was to write a few letters of his own to Roman Christians as well.

“For we hold…” says St. Paul. “We” is an important word, especially in our day and age of individualism and as we live in a culture where all opinions are considered equal. But the text says: “For we hold” – not “I hold.” The confession of faith that a person is “justified by faith apart from works of the law” is not merely a personal opinion or a Lutheran opinion, but rather the one universal Christian truth. This is not just what we believe because we bear the name of one man, Martin Luther, but rather because we – the big “we,” the collective “we,” the catholic “we,” – all Christians of every time and place “hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

This biblical understanding of the relationship of faith, works, and the law is crucial to the confession of the Christian faith. So crucial, in fact, that St. Paul is really saying that unless you believe this, you are no Christian at all.

Does this mean that only Lutherans are real Christians? Not at all, dear friends! Not at all! For even though Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians fought over this point, it is also true that rank and file Christians of every denomination believe that Jesus Christ is their Savior, that they cannot earn salvation by their works, that sin has crippled them to the point that they must depend on God’s mercy through the blood of Christ the Crucified, and that we, as St. Paul teaches us, have nothing to boast about in ourselves.

We Lutherans come from a tradition within the Christian church that teaches this point with clarity and confesses this doctrine, hopefully, with charity – knowing that this is not merely a Lutheran doctrine, but a Christian doctrine, not merely something the “small we” of Lutheran Christianity confesses, but the “large we” of the Church catholic has always confessed with St. Paul and the apostles and the martyrs and the doctors of the Church – right up until our own day and age.

Today, we celebrate the contribution of the sixteenth century reformers of the Church, largely led by a priest and doctor of theology named Martin Luther, in searching the Holy Scriptures for truth instead of relying on the fallen hearts and minds of sinful men. We confess with these reformers – whom their opponents insulted with the name “Lutheran” – that faith is necessary for salvation, as faith is the means by which we sinners receive God’s grace and mercy that He extends to us in Christ Jesus. And we also understand that if our faith were credited to us as a good work, we could boast of our justification as a personal accomplishment rather than as a “gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

St. Paul could not be more clear, dear friends, as he also taught the Christians in Ephesus: we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by our own works.

And we thank God for Doctor Luther and the reformers for preaching this, even when the hierarchy of the Church was more interested in saving dollars than saving sinners, more concerned with hoarding up treasures of gold for itself than for storing up treasures in heaven for the redeemed. The Church’s leaders needed to change, to repent, to hear and heed the Word of the Lord – but they refused.

And this is why the Reformation is such a bittersweet celebration. Of course, we are honored to wrap ourselves in the mantle of Luther, but we also know that it is a mantle that is splattered with the blood of thousands of peasants, of innocent victims of religious warfare, and of the devastation of war crimes committed in the name of the Prince of Peace.

We surround ourselves today in the color red: not only the color of the Holy Spirit’s fiery Pentecost descent upon the Church that He watches over, “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies,” but it is also the color of the blood of the martyrs – ancient and modern – whose lives were laid down as a witness and testimony of a truth so sacred that people were, and are, willing to die rather than surrender it.

Many who confessed this truth of the “eternal Gospel” were put to death. Many were tortured. Many were exiled. Many were put on trial. But as our Lord taught us: “The kingdom of heaven has suffered violence.” Satan has always unsheathed his loathsome sword to shed the blood of confessing Christians. The Reformation was tragic insofar as Satan had infiltrated the Church itself and used Christians to shed the holy blood of other Christians – the blood of the body of Christ Himself being spilled by the Church in the name of Jesus.

And yet, brothers and sisters, our forebears made the good confession: pastors and laymen, men and women, nobles and peasants – people who yearned for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and who were taught the faith from preaching, from the liturgy, from the catechism – all rooted and grounded in the Holy Scriptures themselves.

This is what we celebrate in the Reformation – and it is a great and wonderful celebration – even if it is muted by the senseless and horrific acts of violence that characterize this period in our history.

But notice, dear brothers and sisters, dear catholic Christians who to this day bear the name “Lutheran,” notice that we are not to boast. For let us not forget what St. Paul also taught us: “What then becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.” We have nothing to boast about. The fact that we hold this clear and biblical teaching about justification is nothing for us to brag about, hold other Christians in contempt over, nor puff ourselves up. It is purely by God’s grace that we – each one of us – confess the teachings laid out in Luther’s Small Catechism. We have been taught the truth of Scripture, and we joyfully confess it – but never apart from the humility with which our Lord exhorts us to display. For we have been saved by grace, by God’s mercy – nothing more, nothing less. And we deserve this grace no more or no less than any other poor, miserable sinner. For that is the definition of grace: it is undeserved mercy. Dear friends, our own boast is in Christ. Christ alone. All other boasting is excluded.

Rather than boast, we are to be about the good works prepared before the foundation of the world that the Lord has prepared for us. We are to work out our salvation – that salvation given to us as a free gift – by doing the works that we do not have to do out of fear, but rather that we wish to do out of love.

St. John saw a beautiful vision that has been placed into our ears again this morning: “Then I saw another angel... with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.”

Given that we confess the gospel in its purity, we are not called to boast, but to proclaim, not to pat ourselves on the back, but rather to be the hands of Christ in the world, proclaiming an “eternal gospel” to all people.

When we are busy doing the work we have been given, knowing that we have been saved by grace, there is neither the inclination nor the time to boast. Dear friends, let us confess the eternal Gospel with clarity and let us confess this doctrine of justification with charity, knowing that our only boast is in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer. Let us celebrate the Reformation not with pride, but with humility, knowing that at the heart of our Reformation is the cross – by which the Lord has saved us by the shedding of His blood. Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone be the glory – now and forever. Amen.

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

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