Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon: Presentation of the Augsburg Confession – 2017

25 June 2017

Text: 1 Tim 6:11-16

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

October 31st of this year marks the 500th anniversary of when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther nailed the “Ninety-Five Theses” to the church door at Wittenberg.  And that was an important event.  Unfortunately, that date will not fall on a Sunday this year.  But today marks a date that is actually more important, and it does fall on a Sunday.  On June 25, 1530, four hundred and eighty seven years ago today, a document called the “Augsburg Confession” was presented to the emperor.  

It was not a declaration of war, but rather an offer of peace.  It was not a break with the Catholic past, but rather a restoration of the Catholic past.  It was not an outline of a new religion, but rather, the good confession of the old one.

The confessors at Augsburg, lay and clergy alike, extended a hand of friendship to the emperor and to the pope.  Their confession was a call to unity.  But that hand was rejected.  And when the emperor, whose mind had already been made up, attempted to command and threaten the German princes into becoming obedient again to the pope, they literally bared their necks, and fearlessly told the young, brash emperor that he might as well chop off their heads, because they were not going to recant their confession of faith.  They would rather die right then and there.  The startled emperor backed down.

Most people, including a lot of Lutherans, get the Reformation all wrong.  It was not a radical revolution, but just the opposite; it was a conservative reactionary movement to replace the new with the old.  It was not about a Lutheran faith to replace the Catholic; but rather the ancient Catholic faith to replace the new and corrupted version.  Our opponents insulted us with the name “Lutheran”; our forbears referred to themselves as catholic and evangelical Christians.

In one sense, our reformation was a failure.  For it resulted in a divided church.  Roman Catholics and Lutherans no longer share altars and pulpits, and have not done so officially for 477 years to this very day.  But in another sense, our reformation was a success, for in accordance with our confession, we continue to practice what page 319 of your hymnal calls “the catholic religion” and we continue to confess what pages 319 and 320 of your hymnal call “the catholic faith.”  There is nothing new under the sun or in the Augsburg Confession, for it is the confessional catholic faith of more than a thousand years before Luther.  

St. Ambrose’s fourth century catholic preaching of the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith could have been proclaimed by Luther.  St. Augustine’s fifth century catholic theology that we are not saved by works could have been taught by Melanchthon, who wrote the Augsburg Confession.  Indeed, the catholic position on the Gospel of the sixth century was the very same Lutheran position on the Gospel of the sixteenth century.

Our Augsburg Confession itself says: “This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known by its writers” and “our churches dissent in no article of the faith from the Church Catholic, but only omit some abuses which are new, and which have been erroneously accepted by the corruption of the times, contrary to the intent of the Canons.”

For there is nothing we properly practice, teach, preach, or confess in this parish, in this synod, and in the confessional Lutheran churches around the world that can’t be found faithfully taught by popes and councils in ancient Roman Catholic history, and most importantly of all, in the Bible.

For as St. Paul instructed another faithful pastor, preacher, and theologian as recorded in our Scriptures: “O man of God…. Pursue righteousness… Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”  Indeed, we are the church, the people of God, and we teach the universal faith, the catholic faith.  We pursue righteousness, the righteousness that Paul continuously teaches is a gift of the grace of God, and not of ourselves or by our own works.  And indeed, we fight for this faith, and we will fight and contend and scrap and refuse to bow before any idol, whether commanded by president or potentate, by king or commissar, by pastor or pope, or by professor or pop-culture. We will fight. We will not surrender.  We will confess.  We will bare our necks if necessary.

To be a disciple of Jesus is to take up the cross of Jesus, to confess Jesus, and to also confess with Jesus, “who in His testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession.”

And this is why, dear friends, this remarkable document – short enough to be read in a single setting, profound enough to be studied for an entire lifetime, is called a “confession.”  To confess is to say the same thing.  That which Jesus said at Jerusalem, that which Paul said at the Areopagus, that which Ambrose said at Milan, that which Augustine said at Hippo, that which Luther said at Wittenberg, that which Melanchthon said at Augsburg, and that which we say at Gretna, is the same thing that Scripture teaches.  This is what St. Paul means by “the good confession.”

And, dear friends, confession is not always easy.  The princes who bared their necks could have had their heads removed, as St. Paul did.  Ambrose and Augustine lived in times not far removed from when Christians were fed to lions.  Martin Luther was himself condemned to death, and had he not been protected by faithful princes, he would have been burned at the stake – even as many faithful Lutheran confessors were.  His widow Katie Luther was to die penniless in a Germany ravaged by the pope’s vengeful armies seeking to wipe our confession from the face of the earth.  But Katie Luther was also to die a faithful confessor, saying on her death bed: “I will stick to Christ as a burr to a topcoat.”

We don’t know what Paul’s counsel to us today to “fight the good fight of the faith” and that we make “the good confession” will mean for us in our own lifetime in our own country.  But to be a Lutheran, to be an Evangelical Catholic, to be a believer in the Holy Scriptures, to be a believer in Jesus Christ, is to be a confessor: of the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith, of the cross and the blood of Christ that pleads before the Father on our behalf, of the truth and reliability of the Holy Scriptures over and against every shred of human opposition, and of the hope of the world to come.

And with our fathers and mothers in the faith for 487 years, we continue to confess before God and men, “that in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic” and “If there is anything that any one might desire in this Confession, we are ready, God willing, to present ampler information according to the Scriptures.”  That is our confession.  Christ is our confession.  Amen.

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

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