Oct 29th, 2023 “Reformation Sunday ”
“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord.”
Today we celebrate!
We are wearing red, we are singing A Mighty Fortress is Our God - Martin Luther’s hymn and we read in the letter to the Romans the verses that inspired Luther and the reformation.
Reformation Sunday has been in the past a day of smugness for Lutherans. But it should not be about that now. Many Christians do not celebrate the Reformation. There are enough divisions in our world - faith based as well as social, economic, political, philosophical etc that a smug attitude has no place.
If marking the Reformation does not generate ongoing life and vitality there is very little worth celebrating.
On Reformation Sunday it is tempting to hit the highlights. To talk about Luther’s upbringing, his education, his role as a priest, a theologian, a reformer, a husband. But to do that is a bit narrow. As Lutherans we also have to acknowledge that Martin Luther was not perfect. He would say the same about himself. After all it was Luther who said he was equal parts saint and sinner. Martin Luther had scathing things to say about Jewish people. His words were used as weapons and have done great damage. His work and his words have also been used against people of the Roman Catholic faith.
In Martin Luther’s time there existed a common practice in the Church called a “deputation”. This was a way - a safe way for two sides to be able to argue a theological point without being accused of heresy. Theologians could argue and the Church could use them to explore points of faith and doctrine before making them public.
The original title of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses was “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.”
Legend tells us that Martin Luther nailed this document to the Church doors and thereby made them public. This may not be fact. But it is a fact that he sent them as a letter - he made them public, putting them out into the world for all to debate.
Martin Luther had 95 points in his document. But what did it all really boil down to? Luther was upset that the Roman Catholic Church was getting richer and richer on the backs of the poor. The practice of selling “indulgences” was abhorrent to Luther. There were also national overtones as the money raised by selling indulgences went to Rome - it did not stay in Germany.
Buying an indulgence was kind of an insurance policy or a “get out of jail free card” like you would find in monopoly.
By buying an indulgence you could reduce your time or the time of a loved one in purgatory.
What was Martin Luther’s catalyst for writing his famous theses?
Paul’s letter to the Romans was Luther’s “aha” moment - his inspiration and the key to the Reformation.
Paul’s words that are at the heart of Martin Luther’s preaching.
Romans was probably written in 57 CE and this letter to the Church in Rome includes the fullest existing theology of Paul. The letter was intended to prepare the Church in Rome for an in person visit and an appeal for money for his mission to Spain.
Things were not going smoothly in the Church in Rome. There were divisions among the believers. A priority for Paul is to address the polarization which included splits between Jews who professed Christ as Messiah and the Gentiles. Things were not well for the House Churches in Rome.
Paul has to be very careful how he addresses the issues. He does not want to fracture the community further. Paul is careful to put everyone on an equal footing. And Paul is clear that there can be no true relationship with God if there is no true relationship with your neighbour.
Martin Luther came to believe that there is nothing that we can do to earn the love of God. It is a grace freely given. All we have to do is accept it. Radical then and radical now.
We need to hear these words - this theology again and again because we live in a transactional society and we feel there is a catch if something is offered to us for free. Yes, free. We say “there is no such thing as a free lunch” because deep down we believe that there will always be something we have to pay.
Martin Luther taught us that it’s not like that with God. There are no learning modules to complete. There is no checklist. There are no metrics to meet. Nothing we can earn, nothing we can buy, nothing we can do. No amount of Good Works will do it.
Grace is a gift. Martin Luther urged people to accept it. And this is the radical nature of the Reformation. Things would never be the same.
Why did Luther put out his thoughts so publicly and not go through the regular practice of the deputation? Perhaps he knew that by playing by the rules he would not get the kind of results he hoped for.
So the deed was done. The 95 theses were out there for debate and discussion and a ground shaking change in people’s faith life. And further reformers would follow in his footsteps, people like Wesley or Barth.
And that is really the point of Reformation Sunday today - Reformation Sunday is not about the past. It is not about a festival that centres on 1517. Reformation Sunday is about now.
Reformation Sunday is about now. Martin Luther did not want a stagnate Church. Martin Luther wanted a Church that was continually reforming. Constantly reforming to keep pace with society.
Scary stuff. But necessary. This is not the Church of 1517 or 1817 or 1917 it is probably not even the church of 2017 any longer.
This is the Church of 2023 with all of our anxieties about the future, with our sorrow at the losses we have experienced or the closing of our Churches.
The Church must continually be reforming. What does this mean? I do not have a pat answer. I cannot bring back the Church that used to be. I can only continue to proclaim the Good News in this time and at this juncture in the life of the Church.
The Good News is that we are all beloved children of God. We are loved and accepted for who and what we are and what we have done and what we have failed to do. The Good News as Martin Luther preached that God’s grace is freely given. Take the gift. Live and love abundantly as God wants us to. Live into the fullness of that love and then share it. Share the Good News that Christ taught - about the Kingdom of God, about love and mercy and peace and grace. Share the Good News that the Spirit is at work in us and through us, each of us here and now and always.
The Church must continually be reforming. Well let’s get at it. It is a leap of faith - one that has been taken over and over again in human history. Let us proclaim our faith. Let us say that we know that God is with us. That Jesus is with us. That the Holy Spirit is with us. This knowledge brings us hope and that hope translates into action.
Yes we must continually be reforming. I don’t know what that will look like. But I do know that if we can live out our faith, working for peace, loving our neighbour, striving for justice for all and at all times, feeding the hungry, looking after those who are ill or suffering in any way then reforming and renewing are very very good things.
As Paul says in v 28 “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
Jesus only gave us two commandments. All the rest is commentary.