A Homily for Reformation Day
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who has justified us by grace through faith. Amen.
Most of us know this story by now, either from confirmation or history class…especially after the build-up to the five hundredth anniversary festivities two years ago and the Vespers series* we just finished. But once more with feeling: On October 31st, 1517, a German Augustinian friar, deeply disturbed by the sale of indulgences, posted ninety-five theses, or topics for discussion, on the church door in the university city of Wittenberg to spark an academic debate among his fellow scholars. In doing so, Martin Luther launched the Reformation, and the world was forever changed. Of course, the historical reality is much more nuanced than that, with centuries of developments before and after that fateful day, but the October 31st story makes for convenient short hand.
What’s funny, though, is that for all of our emphasis on that one day, the Reformation isn’t really about those ninety-five debate topics. Some thirty-four years after Luther died, his spiritual heirs compiled a book of key Lutheran documents – including the ecumenical creeds, the catechisms, and the Augsburg Confession, but not the 95 Theses. What gives? If this were a movie screenplay, it would be panned, like the writers forgot to tie the inciting incident into the resolution and dropped that plotline halfway through.
What then was the motivation behind the Reformation, its central argument, if not that original list posted on the church door?
Simply this: we are justified by grace through faith. Proclaiming this central tenet, which had been obscured by the medieval Church’s lust for political power and the money from all those indulgences, is what drove Luther and his colleagues like Philip Melanchthon and later theologians like John Calvin and Thomas Cranmer to risk everything. This is the euangelion, the Good News, that they sought to give greater emphasis in the Church.
This is the heart of the Gospel of our Lord: that by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father, we are redeemed by grace through faith and set free from our slavery to sin and death, not for what we have done but because of what God is doing. It was this essential truth that Luther saw when he read today’s text from Romans. This is the freedom that Christ offers in the Gospel according to Saint John. Everything else flows from that – worship, our loving service to our neighbors, all that we are called to do is possible only because Christ has set us free. When Luther and others translated Scripture into the common tongue or re-structured the liturgy, it was in order to put this truth into the hands of the people in the pew. The Sacraments, those sources and summits of our life, are only of value because they are tangible means of that same grace.
Five hundred two years later, this is the gift that we as Lutheran Christians have to share with the world – the hymn Ein Feste Burg, not Bach’s organ music, nor Scandinavian lefse and lutefisk, not beer and brats, nor any other northern European cultural trappings. We have something so much better than those cultural relics: the theological truth of freedom in the Gospel. It is this reality that German and Danish and Swedish Lutherans cherished through the trials of the Thirty Years’ War and carried with them across the stormy Atlantic to North America, but it’s also the same theological truth proclaimed by the Augustinian Lutheran Church in Guatemala, by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, in Palestine by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and by the ELCA’s own Bishop Guy Erwin as a member of the Osage Nation. Every day, Lutherans proclaim this glorious reality in German, Spanish, Arabic, Swahili, and Malay.
Celebrating the Reformation isn’t about what one German monk did one night in 1517 or about the faith of European ancestors. No, dear ones, the Reformation is an on-going reality lived out by the Church across the world. The Reformation, from long before Luther put pen to paper, through our own day, and until Christ returns in glory at the end of the age, is rooted in nothing less than the new covenant to forgive sins made between God and the house of Israel and spread to all the nations, fulfilled in the Cup of Salvation in Christ’s blood, made present here for us at this table.
Each of you, dear ones, is a reformer! God has written this truth in you! Each of you is called by name through these waters to carry on this work together in this time and place. Christ has set you free for this moment, to proclaim the Good News, to preach freedom to those held captive by the powers of this world, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins.
It’s scary out there for prophets and reformers; it certainly was for Martin. You have undoubtedly heard it said that the Church is dying and that the world has no need of the message we preach. Many of you, in years past, received letters about closing those very doors back there. In the midst of this, it can be hard to celebrate the past, let alone to hear God calling us into the future; we’re more inclined to idolize what was and lament what is. And I feel that fear with you – that we are in a perilous position, struggling to keep the bills paid and the lights on. These same fears keep me awake late into the night, and I know that many of you, with ties to this place running back longer than I have been alive, have even more reason to feel that deeply-rooted anxiety. Truth be told, there are days we feel this fear written in us more than we trust the truth of God’s loving forgiveness.
But the Church is built on the rock, with the promise that not even the gates of hell shall prevail against her. This perilous time is an opportunity for new life and to live into another great truth: ecclesia semper reformanda est. The Church is ever to be reformed. The Church of the next five years, five decades, five centuries, will undoubtedly look different from how it looks today or fifty years ago or five centuries ago. We may have to let go of some programs or buildings of the past, but that is only so that we take up the new ministries God is giving us. We may have to let go of some traditions, but we will always have the Gospel and the Sacraments to graciously keep us in the true faith. The Church will undoubtedly be changed, but she will endure because we have been liberated from sin, and even death is not the end. Come what may, the Church shall stand because we have Christ as our Risen Lord, and he has set us free indeed.
Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the glory. Amen.
*Editor’s Note: Vespers is a Wednesday night service of prayer and study based around the format of evening prayer.