Sermon preached at Christ Lutheran Church, Spring Green, WI, on 10/26/14.
© 2014 Shawn Brooks
Today is Reformation Sunday, a day of great tradition in the Lutheran Church. Today we look back to the great reformer Martin Luther and remember his mighty act of protest against what he saw as corrupt practices within the church. We sing the traditional songs, we read the same scriptures that we use every year on this Sunday, and we remember our roots. We take pride in being a part of something that has lasted almost 500 years now. Perhaps we even feel connected to Luther himself as we contemplate the mighty work that he began and that we continue.
On this Reformation Sunday, some of you might be remembering your Sunday School or Confirmation days, thinking about the Small Catechism and Luther’s ever-present question “What does this mean?” Others of you might be pondering the “solas”, those Latin phrases that ring through Luther’s writings and give our theology its identity, telling us that we are saved sola scriptura, by word alone, sola fide, by faith alone, sola gratia, by grace alone. Or perhaps you are reminded of Luther’s summary of the human condition, that we are semper simul justus et peccator—always both saint and sinner at the same time.
There is some irony in this celebration of our traditions, and that irony should not be lost on us as we remember. The irony is that today we are celebrating traditions built around the actions of a man who wanted change. Luther was outraged at the many things that were for sale by the church of his day, in particular clergy positions and the forgiveness of sins through a piece of paper called an indulgence, sort of a religious “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Luther argued that indulgences were unnecessary. God has already forgiven our sins through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Nothing we do, no human action, can affect, cause, or add to this forgiveness. As the Apostle Paul says in our text from Romans, “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” We are justified, made right with God, by Christ’s faith and by our faith in Christ. We are “justified by God’s grace as a gift.” Through this gift, we, who fall short of the glory of God through being slaves to sin, are made free. Through Christ, the living Word of God, we are made free, by word alone, by faith alone, through grace alone.
This simple concept set the church, and therefore all of Europe, on its ear, because it seemed to challenge the church’s structure and power. Luther was accused of trying to speak for God in place of the church. He was accused of trying to destroy the church, of trying to start a new church with himself at the head. But Luther wasn’t trying to start a new church—not at first, anyway. He was simply trying to change the church in which he considered himself a faithful member. But the church hierarchy rejected Luther’s changes, even as many members of the church embraced them. The Pope excommunicated Luther, and figured that he and his teachings would fade away under the full displeasure of the church.
Does that sound at all familiar? It might remind you of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t trying to start a new church either. He was just trying to return his church to a better relationship with God, one with less emphasis on the letter of the law and more emphasis on the spirit of love for one another that God desires in people. But the church authorities of Jesus’ day thought that Jesus was trying to destroy both the church, by abandoning the law, and the Jewish people, by bringing down the wrath of Rome on their heads by his actions. So the church hierarchy rejected Jesus’ changes, even as many of their worshippers embraced what Jesus was teaching. The leaders finally found a way to trap Jesus, and they had him killed. That was the end of that, they thought.
Except that it wasn’t, of course. The Jewish religious authorities hadn’t trapped Jesus at all. Jesus went willingly to his death because his faith in God led him to know that was what God wanted. Jesus let himself be killed, and asked forgiveness for his killers, in the ultimate act of love. His death, followed by his resurrection, brought about the biggest change of all—it set us all fee. We are free from sin. We are free from the power of death. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we have new life and new hope. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, everything changed.
My friends, people of God, today we celebrate the traditions of our church, and it is good and right that we do so. However, we can celebrate our traditions and our history all we want without altering a basic truth: the church is always changing. Our brothers and sisters in some other Protestant traditions have another Latin phrase they use regularly: ecclesia semper reformanda est. The church is always reforming. On one level, this means that we need to regularly examine our practices and our beliefs, testing them against scripture and making sure both that they are sound and that we have not made a belief out of a practice. Making our practices more important than anything else is a form of idolatry, one to which the church is particularly susceptible.
But just as the church is always reforming, so it is always re-forming. Every time a new member is added or lost the congregation changes. Every time the world presents a new challenge through which we must minister faithfully both to members and to the world, the church changes. The church is always changing, always being made new. The church should always be changing. Life changes, the world changes, and our response must change accordingly. But although the church of today does not look like the church of 50 years ago, and although we cannot imagine the church of 50 years from now, some things will never change. God loves you. Christ lived, died, and was resurrected to save you from your sins and from the power of death. The Spirit is active among you, working in your lives and leading you to do God’s work in the world. You live your lives made right with the God of power and might by word alone, by faith alone, by grace alone. And this makes you free: free to serve, free to love others as you love yourselves, free to live in God’s grace and for God’s glory.