Fear God, and give him glory; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made the heaven and the earth and sea and fountains of waters.
This devotional reaches across national borders and across denominational lines, touching the lives of Christians around the world. It is unlikely that we would ever be found worshipping in the same church building, not just because of geography, but also because we see the world from much different perspectives. We like different types of worship styles. We have different ways of focusing our faith. We have doctrinal differences. It doesnít help to ignore the reality, but we are reminded that despite all our differences, there is something that holds us together. Though there are divisions among us, the Holy Spirit makes us one. We who are saved by faith in Christ Jesus are one body, no matter where we live, how we worship or how we serve God in the world.
I try, in this writing, to speak with a voice that reaches across the national borders and denominational lines. I try to speak to the heart of the body of Christ, to the place where we all live, in His grace. I am human, of course, and I have my own style, focus and doctrines which I believe and follow, and it is impossible for me to keep those separate from the messages I share. I pray every day that God will use my limited vision to touch the readers with a message that will touch them where they live.
That said, I canít help but focus this weekís Midweek Oasis on a moment in time that helped mold my life and faith: October 31, 1517. That is the day when Martin Luther posted the Ninety-five thesis on the door of Wittenberg Church and kicked off the Reformation. The theses were written to open debate between scholars about the abuses in the Church at that time, particularly the sale of indulgences. This began a conversation that lead to a movement that sought to restore the Christian faith to a simpler time, to a time when the work of God, His grace, was the center of the faith. The text for today is that which is used in many churches celebrating Reformation Sunday.
Germany is in the midst of a ten year celebration of the five hundredth anniversary of Lutherís bold act of faith. They are planning Jubilee celebrations for 2017, but there are already activities for those who are visiting Germany. The places where Martin Luther preached, lived and taught are regular sites for Lutheran pilgrims and have been renewed and restored for the tourists. Since music played a huge role in Lutherís life and ministry, there are musical events. They are having workshops and lectures. There are offerings in theater and the fine arts.
The decade of Luther has included annual topics which focus on some aspect of our faith: confession, education, freedom, music, tolerance, politics, image and bible. The focus for this year is tolerance. From the Luther 2017 website: ďAccording to the opinion of the Reformers, faith and conscience are fundamentally free. However, Lutherís demand for non-violent arguments was not always fulfilled. And his own tolerance also had its limitations, which were far more narrow than those later established by the human rights and the constitution. The modern concepts of freedom of conscience and tolerance are nevertheless essentially attributable to the Reformation. The Luther Decadeís theme year of 2013 is therefore dedicated to the history, the present, and the future of Reformation and Tolerance. Very consciously, the perspective will not be limited to history. Like many other religions and philosophies, the Christian faith is fundamentally neither tolerant nor intolerant, but is in the process of being lived and shaped. In a pluralistic society, the Reformationís story of learning continues until today Ė and will go on to develop into the future.Ē
I read an article about the upcoming celebration that was written a year ago. The article began, ďIt's rare to be invited to an event five years off and even rarer to bicker about its details, but Germanyís Catholic Church finds itself in that delicate situation thanks to an overture from its Protestant neighbors.Ē The article describes an invitation from Germanyís Protestant community to its Roman Catholic Christians to join in the celebration. After all, they live together, work side by side and the Reformation impacted their world in more ways than just religion. The churches are equal in size and they are equally active in public life. Intermarriage is common. It is not surprising that the Protestants might want to involve their neighbors, even if they are Roman Catholic.
As much as we want to celebrate the Reformation, the impact was not entirely positive; it was, in essence, a divorce. How do you celebrate a tragedy with merriment? While Lutherís translation of the Bible made it available for the average person and his work shaped the German language, the Reformation caused wars in which a third of the German population was killed. In the past five hundred years, hundreds, if not thousands, of new denominations have formed, further dividing Christís church. It is no wonder that the Roman Catholics of Germany are hesitant to join in the jubilee.
But the Christian faith is about reconciliation and forgiveness, and in these years advancing toward that five hundredth anniversary, Lutherans and Roman Catholics are trying to find some common agreement. On Monday, a group representing the Lutheran World Federation met with Pope Francis and the members of a group called the Lutheran-Roman Catholic International Commission on Unity. They discussed the historical reality of the Reformation, an event for which we all need forgiveness. We see it differently, of course, but the reality is somewhere in the middle, and we have to find a way to agree on the history before we can ever really forgive one another.
Some might wonder, ďWhy bother?Ē after all, it isnít just the Lutherans who have found Christian faith apart from the Roman Catholic Church, and those who are Roman Catholic might wonder why we should find any agreement. Martin Luther never wanted division; he wanted reformation and restoration. Our ultimate goal, even today, is for unity in Christís Church. It may be difficult, it might even be impossible, but the Christian faith is founded upon forgiveness and reconciliation. If we canít forgive our brothers and sisters in Christ, how will we ever preach forgiveness to the world?
Most of you who are neither Lutheran nor Roman Catholic might wonder what this has to do with you. Some of you come from Christian churches that were not even formed out of the Reformation. Reformation day is meaningless to you. This may be true, but the lessons we learn from the texts chosen for this Sunday are applicable to all of us, the entire body of Christ, no matter our differences. The texts, which focus on Godís saving grace, are the foundation of our faith.
Martin Luther was an educated man who studied the scriptures and had a good sense of Godís love, but he was so riddled with guilt that he spent hours confessing his sins and seeking forgiveness. He was a priest and he was afraid that if he was not justified before God, then his entire congregation would be condemned forever. He included every minor and trivial thought, word or deed that was not perfect. He suffered great pains spiritually. He tried to be perfect, but when he was not perfect he obsessed over receiving forgiveness for himself for the sake of his congregation.
One day, however, Martin Luther realized that he could never confess himself into salvation. He rediscovered the foundation of the Gospel message in Romans 3: it is not by our works that we are saved, but by the amazing grace of God.
It is so much easier for us to do good works than to accept the humbling reality that we can never make ourselves good enough to enter into the presence of God. We donít want God to see our imperfections and we fear what will happen when He does. It is much, much harder for us to cry out to God in our imperfections because we are truly afraid of what He might say. Yet, the true path, the better path, is to cry out in faith knowing that God is gracious and merciful, full of forgiveness. There is nothing we can do to earn His grace, but in faith we can boldly approach Him with our needs. He will stop and listen. He will heal. In Him, and in Him alone, we have hope.
In the texts for today we see a strong and powerful image of God. He is ďour refuge and our strength.Ē We need not fear, like Martin Luther feared for himself and for his congregation, because God is a very present help in trouble. It was Psalm 46 that Martin Luther used as the basis for one of his most important works: the hymn ďA Mighty Fortress.Ē God is always there. He is a fortress in times of difficulty and a refuge in times of need. When things are looking bad in the world in which we live, as they must have looked to Luther in 1517, we can rest assured that God is present, active and faithful.
Martin Luther was terribly bothered by the sale of indulgences. This was the practice of selling a piece of paper that ensured the buyer that someone they loved would no longer have to wait in purgatory. The money was used to build bigger and more ornate churches. He knew that if you couldnít pray and confess your way into heaven, then you certainly couldnít buy it, and he knew that the leadership was binding the people to a false faith. Though it seemed like the indulgence made someone free, the reality is that the Church was enslaving the people to a work that could not save. It was no different than the ancient reliance on obedience to the Old Covenant Laws.
The Old Covenant included list of laws that were required for righteousness. Leaders demanded obedience, and they made threats or bribes to keep the people in line. The leaders laid heavy burdens on the people, and the people failed. Thatís why God made the New Covenant that gives the believer the faith to live according to Godís Word.
Jesus told those listening that the truth would set them free, but the Jewish leaders didnít understand what he was talking about. ďWe are Abrahamís seed, and have never yet been in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, ye shall be made free?Ē They relied on their heritage; they relied on Abraham and Moses for their salvation. But since they could not keep the Law perfectly, they would always fail to live up to the expectations of that Law. Jesus said that whenever you sin, no matter how small or insignificant, you are a slave to sin. This is what Martin Luther discovered when he was trying to confess himself into salvation.
The New Covenant gives us a new attitude; it changes how we look at Godís Law and Godís Word. In faith we respond to the call of God. The Old Covenant, which comes from outside, is replaced with a covenant that comes from inside. The Law still has a purpose, in that it helps us to see that we are in need of a Savior. When we hear the Gospel, Godís Word is placed in the heart; faith is given so that the believer can act out of love rather than fear or greed. We are no longer burdened by that Law, but we are set free by faith to live out Godís Word in the world.
I suspect that the Church leaders five hundred years ago did not understand that the indulgences they were offering were just another type of slavery. By demanding that the people pay for grace, they were burdening their people with a law that could not be kept. How would the poor buy bread for the day if they were buying indulgences for those they loved? But we are not much different today. We burden people with demands that they canít keep, making them slaves to our own ideas or practices. How many Lutherans and Roman Catholics fear for their neighbors because they are afraid that they have not adhered to the right faith? This is true also of the other Christians that disagree with both the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics. We all need to be freed by the Gospel of Christ that binds us together despite our differences.
I once listened as a church leader give a message about stewardship; he was talking about loyalty. He demanded that every member be loyal to that church, to that building and to that ministry. He missed the mark in that speech, and in doing so laid a heavy burden on the congregation. Our loyalty is not to a building or a pastor or even a denomination. Our loyalty is to God. It is good that we find a place to practice our faith with others who have similar ideas, enjoy similar worship and are able to focus our faith on the same things. It is good to join our offerings, our good works, and our gifts with others of like mind so we can work together in common purpose. In the meantime, people in other places with other ideas and styles and focus will do things together, too, all for the glory of God. But we have to remember that we are not serving the church or even the people; we are serving God and doing these things for Him. When we focus our loyalty on the world, we lose touch with God and we are once again a slave to sin.
The foundation of all our faith is forgiveness and reconciliation, first from God and then with one another. Yes, the differences are great and it is unlikely we will ever be one visible Church in this world, but we are one Body, Christís body by faith. When we rely on our own righteousness, we will fail; we will never really be free. Freedom comes from God, faith is the gift that is planted in our hearts and that changes our attitude. Faith distinguishes the slaves from the children of God. By faith you are a son or daughter of the Most High. This is the truth that both sets us free and makes us one with other Christians.
The turning point for Lutherís faith was the reminder of Godís grace. He realized that there was nothing he could do to make himself right with God. He was a sinner in need of a Savior, and only Jesus Christ could bring justification and sanctification to his life. This knowledge made Luther free. It makes us free, too, to live and love and work according to Godís righteousness, following the passions of our heart which by faith will be in line with Godís will. He calls us from the inside, through the gift of faith we receive as we believe in Jesus. The new attitude we have in the New Covenant will make us long to be actively involved in Godís creative and redemptive work. We are not forced to be righteous according to some man-made expectation. God has made us righteous and in that righteousness weíll do what is right. He has set us free.
Unity may well be impossible in this world, but we can live in the faith that there will be unity in eternity and work toward understanding one another today. On Monday Pope Francis said, ďWe know well Ė as Benedict XVI often reminded us Ė that unity is not primarily the fruit of our labors, but the working of the Holy Spirit, to whom we must open our hearts in faith, so that he will lead us along the paths of reconciliation and communion.Ē
Martin Lutherís nailing of the Ninety-five Thesis began something that he never intended: division in the body of Christ. But on this Reformation Day, just 496 years later, we can talk about forgiveness and reconciliation with our brothers in sisters in Christ across the national and denominational boundaries. We are bound together by something that cannot divide us, the grace of God. We can, as John writes, ďFear God, and give him glory; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made the heaven and the earth and sea and fountains of waters,Ē together in our own places, in our own ways, despite our differences. The God who formed the earth has saved us and given us the faith to live in the here and now until that day when we will be reconciled for eternity.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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