Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermon: Reformation Day (Observed) and Confirmation of Bryton Powell

29 October 2017

Text: Rom 3:19-28

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

In 1948, an American professor named Dr. Richard Weaver wrote a thoughtful and widely-discussed book called Ideas Have Consequences.  In 1517, a German professor named Dr. Martin Luther wrote down some ideas that he thought needed to be discussed. 

And there were indeed consequences.

The world has had five centuries to consider those ideas and their consequences.  As with most ideas, there have been both good and bad consequences in history.  The bad news is that our once fairly united western church has been broken into pieces, like a mirror dropped on a marble floor.  But the good news is that the western church that had become hopelessly corrupt and consumed with false doctrine, has had to take a long hard look in the mirror.

Dr. Luther’s original idea was that the practice of selling indulgences seems to be a very bad idea.  His idea was to talk about it among the professors.  And so on the eve of All Saints Day in 1517, he put up 95 debate topics on the bulletin board, and even wrote them in Latin so that they would be limited to the classroom.

But someone translated these debate points, these 95 theses, into German, and then printed and published them using the latest Gutenberg technology.  The post went viral, and all of Europe was soon talking about these ideas about selling indulgences.

Now, an indulgence was a decree of time off of Purgatory based on prayers or good works.  But by 1517, you could buy and sell the good works of the saints, and the church discovered that this was a good racket.  It made so much money as to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  Nobody is proud of this today.  Nobody defends this practice.  A lot of people really didn’t like it even at the time, but Professor Luther’s post is the one that went viral. 

The debate spurred on other ideas and questions: Are pastors and bishops above the Bible, or must they too submit to Scripture?  Is there such a thing as Purgatory in the first place?  And finally, the really big questions that emerged: How do we get access to Christ’s forgiveness of sins?  And is justification given as a gift that we receive through faith, or is it something we earn?

And that last question quickly became the real heart of the matter.  There is no possibility of compromise.

Dr. Luther and his colleagues at Wittenberg University, as well as other theologians and princes began to study the actual words of Scripture as they were written in the original languages.  They pondered these ideas and their consequences in light older writings of the church fathers.  And for the sake of their honest inquiry, they were accused of heresy; they were ordered to stop; their books were burned; some of them were themselves burned at the stake. 

And yet they continued to read and study and preach and teach, even as St. Paul proclaims to us anew this day: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight…. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law… through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

We may read this today and take it for granted.  But in 1517, this was a dangerous idea, an exciting idea, and a liberating idea.  These simple words from the Bible – read in our own language – clearly state that we are not saved by works, by pilgrimages, by certain prayers, by decrees of bishops, or by transfer of money.  We can’t buy love, and we don’t earn love.  Love is freely given by the lover to the beloved, unconditionally.  If it is bought, it is no longer love.  If it is earned, it is no longer a gift. 

And so we are “justified by His grace as a gift.”  And this is Good News, which is what the word “Gospel” means.  In Latin, Gospel, is “Evangelium” – and so this rediscovery of an old idea gave us the nickname “Evangelicals.”  Our opponents thought that was bad PR for their side, and so they called us “Lutherans” instead – which horrified Dr. Luther.  But the name stuck.

Luther was not just a professor, but also a pastor and giver of “soul care.”  He was preacher of the Gospel.  He understood that the Bible is a Bad News/Good News story.  One example is our text: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Bad news.  But 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 in faith.”  Good News!  Evangelium!  Gospel!

This evangelical way of reading the Bible is nothing new.  It was precisely how the great bishop and doctor of the church, St. Augustine, preached and taught and wrote and lived his life a thousand years before Luther was born.

And so five hundred years after Luther’s post went viral, we are still proclaiming this Gospel and faithfully teaching the Word of God.  We are still forgiving sins in accordance with the command and authority of Jesus.  We are still eating His body and drinking His blood, as means to that grace which we receive through faith.  We are still refusing to buy and sell forgiveness.  In fact, pastors forgive in the name of Jesus for free.  That forgiveness has already been paid for by the blood of the Lamb.  It’s yours as a gift!

While we would prefer to be called Evangelicals rather than Lutherans, we honor Dr. Luther for his theology, his courage, his faithful preaching and teaching, his translation of the Bible into the language of the people, his catechisms, his hymns, and his tireless emphasis on the Word of God and the Gospel.

In fact, his Small Catechism still provides us with Christian instruction for young people, like our dear brother in Christ Bryton, to prepare to confess this Gospel and join us at the communion rail, even as he will today.  What a fitting day for a confirmation into the faith: not the Lutheran faith, but the Christian faith, the universal catholic faith, the faith of the Bible, the faith of the Gospel, the faith of the holy apostles, the faith of Jesus Christ!  Bryton will publicly pledge his life to the truth of God’s Word and to “continue steadfast in this confession and church, and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.”

Moreover, he will join us for the first time at the altar to receive the holy sacrament, having studied and confessed Luther’s catechism, not because it is Luther’s, but rather because it teaches the Word of God.

The great idea of the Reformation is the truth of the scripture that the Gospel isn’t about us: what we can earn or buy or do.  But rather it is about Jesus: what He has earned by His perfect life, what He has bought with His death, and what He does in redeeming us by the Gospel. 

“Then what becomes of our boasting?”  Asks St. Paul, just before answering his own question: “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.”

That idea has consequences, eternal consequences, evangelical consequences, consequences for Luther, the early Lutherans, for us, for Bryton, and for all Christians including those yet to be born five hundred years from now and beyond.  And those consequences, dear friends, are not just good news, but rather the best news ever: that Christ saves you by grace, through faith, by His blood shed on the cross, and His Word is the infallible, iron-clad promise written in Scripture.  Here we stand!  God help us!  Amen!

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

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