Sunday, October 26, 2003

Reformation Sunday
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

I have not yet seen "Luther, the Movie." Down here in the Arkansas corner of the Bible belt, where Lutherans are as scarce as live snails in France, I didn't think I would get to see it until it arrived on video. One of the local theaters has decided to carry the film, opening on Reformation Day, October 31. It will mean missing "trick or treat," but we are planning to go.

When I was a child, I thought Reformation Day was something everyone celebrated. It was such an important day in our church that I thought all the other Christians would think it important also. I eventually realized that the Roman Catholic Church would not be real thrilled to honor Martin Luther, but I was much older before I knew that many other Protestants did not even celebrate the day.

Now I realize how silly it was to think that Martin Luther's posting of his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517 might play a role in the worship of other churches, and yet that one small act has had phenomenal impact on the whole world. At the turn of the millennium, Martin Luther's name came up on several lists of the most influential people. Yet, there are many who do not know who he is or what he accomplished. I talked to a woman recently who told me a young girl asked her "Is the Luther in that movie Martin Luther King, Jr.?" In the past five centuries, Martin Luther has often been misunderstood and misrepresented.

I'm certainly not a Luther scholar, so I won't even try to explain his life or his theology. With such a diverse group of readers, many of whom are not Lutheran, and an interest in the man Luther because of the movie, this might be the best time to look at his greatest accomplishment - bringing light to the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is grace.

Now, Luther was certainly not the first in the church to preach the Gospel of grace, nor was he the only one to seek reform in the church. He just happened to do so at a time when all the circumstances were perfectly aligned for a radical change in thought - politically and spiritually. The printing press made it possible to share information with the masses. The people had been oppressed for some time and were ready to rebel against authority. Darkness reigned in many ways, as the people were led by superstition and hunger rather than faith.

It all started when Luther posted a list of discussion topics on the church door at Wittenberg. The Ninety-five Theses were never intended for public perusal, they were written for debate in the halls of sixteenth century academia. The debate reached much further than the walls of Wittenberg and set off debate within the church that would change the world in many ways.

Yet, that was not really his greatest accomplishment. He wrote volumes of works on the scriptures, explaining the meaning and bringing out the grace of God in the words. He translated the Bible into the common language of his people, putting it into their hands so that they could read it for themselves. He made the people more active in the worship, inviting them into the praise and thanksgiving through song and at the Eucharistic table. He wrote great hymns such as "A Mighty Fortress is our God" and "Lord, Keep us Steadfast in Your Word."

These were all great things, yet they still were not his greatest accomplishment. Luther believed that faith was not a once a week thing, that faith belonged in every aspect of one's life. While some in his day believed that the only truly faith-filled life could be lived separated from the world in monasteries, Luther believed that everyone was called by God to live faithfully every moment of every day. The bishop and washerwoman were equal in the eyes of God, both saints and sinners called to use the gifts God had given them to His glory. He wrote a Catechism booklet that was intended to be used by all Christian families at home, to instruct the young and deepen the faith of the old as they worshipped God together, remembering their baptism daily.

Yet, these were still not the greatest of his accomplishments. Just as Jesus Christ had done fifteen hundred years before, Martin Luther turned the world upside down when he rediscovered the amazing grace of God. The people of his day were superstitious, often believing that they could control the uncontrollable with the right words or actions. The church fed off this superstition by selling indulgences, which bought salvation and forgiveness for the dead and those who could afford to pay. The Catechisms of Luther's day put a greater focus on works, earning salvation. Luther himself was obsessive about confessing his sins, thinking that if he left even one tiny sin unreported, he would destroy the souls of his parishioners.

Then, one day, he was reading the book of Romans and a light shined in the darkness of his existence. He realized that justification comes from faith not from works of the Law. The doom and gloom of his inability to be good enough was conquered by the truth that God is good enough and did overcome his sin on the cross of Jesus Christ. It was the most freeing thing that Luther could have discovered, that grace is given to set people free from sin and death. This is the heart of the Gospel. It is not by my own ability that I am saved, but by the grace of God through the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. This we know by faith, faith given to us by God Himself.

In the passage from John, we see that we are all slaves to sin. We can't do anything good, right or true because we are bound by our selfishness and hatred for God. Yet, Christ died that we might be reconciled to His Father and be saved from ourselves to live and love and serve in joy and peace. We are set free from all that keeps us from the One whom gave us life by the truth. That day when Martin Luther rediscovered grace, he was set free from fear and doubt.

It was indeed a time of darkness, but God had a greater promise for His people. Jeremiah foresaw the fulfillment of the promise in the Old Testament passage for today. God would give the people a new covenant. "I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more." The law would no longer be an outward requirement for righteousness, but would be the Spirit of God dwelling within the hearts of all who believe, forgiving and guiding them into righteousness and peace. What was once an impossible task for man, who is unable by our own power to save ourselves from death and the grace, became real by the grace of God.

Psalm 46 was among Luther's favorite passages; it is the passage on which he based the hymn "A Mighty Fortress is our God." If there is anything we can learn from the life of Martin Luther, it is that God is indeed our refuge and our strength. Life was never easy for this man of faith. Many, sometimes for good reason, hated him. He was not the most gracious person, was bold and unwavering with his opinion, no matter whom he hurt with his words. He has been described as arrogant and chauvinistic, but he loved his wife, children and the people of his congregations. Most of all, he was grateful to God for his mercy and grace and sought to live out his calling in this world by sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with all who would listen. Luther believed that Christians were simultaneously saints and sinners, saved by the grace of God but still living in this world.

It may seem odd to spend so much time in this Midweek Oasis on one man and so little time on the scriptures for this week. Yet, despite the fact that he was imperfect, simultaneously a saint and sinner, his life shined the grace of God and through his words and ministry we always look toward Christ as the center of our faith. He was freed from fear and doubt, blessed with a renewed understanding of God's new covenant with His people. Luther knew that God, and only God, is our refuge and our strength, that all we have is His and all we do is for His glory.

The Psalmist wrote these words, "Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth." Luther heard those words and lived them to the glory of God. Even if you don't belong to a tradition that celebrates Reformation Day, I pray you will join me in praising God for all the wonderful things He did through Martin Luther for all of us in this world. Thanks be to God.

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