Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sermon: Festival of the Reformation (Transferred)

28 October 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 8:31-36 (Jer 31:31-34, Rom 3:21-28)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

There is a famous proverb: “The best things in life are free.” You won’t find it in the Bible, but it is a conclusion we can draw from Scripture – especially from our epistle reading. “Being justified freely by His grace” is how St. Paul sums up the Christian life.

To be “justified,” as St. Paul explains it, to partake in “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” to receive the “propitiation by His blood,” to benefit from having our “previously committed” sins “passed over” is not just one of the “best things in life” it is the one very best thing in life. It is life itself. And it is free.

This forgiveness, this righteousness, is not for sale at any price. It is purely offered to us gratis, by grace, at no charge. It is received by faith, by belief. It is never purchased by gold or silver or earned by the sweat of the brow. “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”

The very best thing in life, life itself, eternal life, is free.

And this is good news indeed. It is “the” Good News, the Gospel so often spoken of in the Word of God. This gift has been given away by the Christian Church since the days of the apostles – who were given the authority and the duty to give away this Gospel freely through preaching and the administration of the sacraments.

But in every human endeavor, con men and racketeers will make their appearance. The greatest of all con men are the ones who can extract payment for that which is free in the first place. For they pay nothing for the commodity they vend, but they charge a lot of money to distribute it. Fortunes are amassed this way – and sadly, the Church in the middle ages was chock full of such flimflam men.

The medieval church was rife with corruption: bishops bought and sold their offices, popes routinely broke canon law and acted as tyrants, church and state conspired together to enrich nobles on the frightened backs of pious peasants. But worst of all, the Gospel, Christ’s Gospel, the very reason the Church exists at all – was being sold like trinkets and baubles. What the Church was given to give away became a racket to enrich both popes and princes.

We might wag our heads and express shock that this happened. But the medieval churchmen were no different than the believers in Christ in today’s gospel. For the notion that the truth could give them freedom was offensive to them. And that implied that they were in need of release. “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone.” Not only were they offended at the Gospel being offered for free to anyone (given that they felt a sense of entitlement, being sons of Abraham), they were offended that Jesus was offering it to them.

Jesus is offering them freedom with no strings attached, no charge, not even an obligation to earn it. And this is offensive.

That’s our sinful nature. We know the offer must be too good to be true. For in this sinful life, nothing is free. According to our worldly “wisdom,” the old Latin saying: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” applies not only to armies with big wooden horses, but also to a Hebrew Preacher offering eternal life. Thanks to our natural distrust, rather than depend on someone’s mercy, someone’s grace, we’d rather make a purchase and save the receipt. Thanks to our sinful pride, we would rather earn than beg.

The medieval churchmen knew people would pay dearly for justification, for everlasting life, for making peace with God. And so hucksters and hawkers went far and wide, selling indulgences and filling chests with ducats and florins, shiny coins of gold and silver. The people were being taken advantage of by ruthless marketers, but they were also to blame. For they liked buying a piece of paper that absolved them from even coming to church, to make confession, to receive the body and blood of Christ. They liked being able to point to their own money and their own labor for their place in heaven they think they earned. They were content to play the game and purchase these certificates for family and friends – even the dead.

But it was all a lie.

The pious and godly priest and scholar, Dr. Martin Luther, and his fellow theologians from Wittenberg - told the truth. They studied Scripture inside and out. They knew the history of the Church, and grasped what she had taught in times past. They also understood sin. It simply can’t be atoned for with filthy lucre or a babbled quota of prayers.

As a result, the Gospel was once more given free reign. But that part was not without price. The red in our sanctuary today is a somber reminder of the martyrs who gave their lives for the sake of the free Gospel. This time, it was not pagan Roman emperors spilling Christian blood, but Christians in Rome that assumed the role of the tyrant.

But lest we become too proud of ourselves, let us remember that we too are sinners. We also have our pride and spurn the grace of God by sinfully thinking highly of our own deeds and doctrines. We too shun the free Gospel by sinfully putting our trust in our intellectual ability to articulate doctrines, in our denominational and synodical affiliations, in our sharing a name with Martin Luther.

But as Luther pointed out, Luther did not die for our sins. And as the 4th century church father St. Ambrose of Milan wrote, we are not saved by cleverly arguing doctrine. Nor are we saved by our hearty Lutheran hymns, our rigorous Lutheran theology, or our Lutheran tradition of beauty in liturgy and church architecture. We are freely saved because the Son Himself makes us free. We have been redeemed not by our own blood and sweat, but rather by the death and suffering of Christ alone.

Just as the church at Rome in St. Paul’s day needed to be reminded of the Gospel, and just as the Church of Rome in Blessed Martin Luther’s day needed to hear the good news anew, so do we, dear brothers and sisters, so do we!

In this day and age where Lutherans around the world now have contact with one another, we’re finding out that not everyone shares our American customs – which we too often equate with what it means to be Lutheran. For example, our brethren in Africa and Scandinavia have retained bishops, their pastors are still referred to as priests, the people address their pastor as “father,” and the faithful still kneel and genuflect when the bells ring and the incense smoke wafts heavenward at the Sunday High Mass. Some in America charge these faithful Lutherans with “Romanizing” as though the reformation were fought over such things as bells and terminology.

In the early days of the Missouri Synod, the first president C.F.W. Walther had to deal with the charge of “Romanism” because our churches used candles and crucifixes, our pastors wore vestments and chanted, and our services followed the ancient liturgical form of the Western Mass.

To toss around the term “Romanizing” over such things is sadly to miss the whole point of the Reformation. Though the Reformation did of necessity address such topics as the role of the papacy and bishops, the place of Scripture in the rule of faith, and the role of tradition in the life of the Church; the issue that ties it all together is the free Gospel.

The issue of the Reformation is the Gospel. It is free, because God’s Word says it is. It is by grace, because our loving God wants to rescue us solely by his mercy. It is not a matter of ancestry or tribe – for those who sin are slaves, regardless of ancestry, and it is the Son who makes all believers sons – Jew and Greek, male and female. It is not a matter of labor. Working by the sweat of the brow is a curse of sin, not a solution. It is not a matter of obeying the law, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

For even in the days of Jeremiah, the Lord sums up the meaning of the covenant He has with His people in this way: “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

That, dear brothers and sisters, is good news. That, dear friends, is the Gospel. The Lutheran martyrs gave their blood and the Reformers gave their sweat so that we might remember that neither our blood nor our sweat can earn that which is free, that which is a gift.

But lest we think free grace is cheap grace, let us heed the preaching of another Lutheran martyr, one from the last century, Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We cannot buy or earn God’s mercy. But Someone did. Our Lord Jesus Christ shed the blood and the sweat, He earned and purchased us, He redeemed us, “not with gold or silver,” as Luther says in his Small Catechism, “but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.”

“Where is boasting then? It is excluded.” Neither being a son of Abraham, nor holding a papal indulgence, nor calling oneself a Lutheran is cause for boasting. For the best things in life are free. Eternal life is free. “If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” This is most certainly true!

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

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I'm glad my insomnia, and the blog-hopping it yields, caused me to read this very well done sermon. :)