If therefore the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
Last night I attended a show, a rock opera, about the life of Martin Luther. It was written and performed by the group Lost and Found, and was based on a graphic novel that was published by Dr. Rich Melheim. The songs told the story of the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation and ended with a song that made us all consider how the Reformation continues today. The refrain went like this, “If I knew that the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree today. There is hope amid the sorrow and there’s joy along the way. There’s a world in every moment and a moment when we find that the tree of life is growing all the time.”
I’ve been visiting a Christian bookstore that is closing its brick and mortar stores, buying books (too many!) as the clearance prices continue to go down. Several of the books have asked the question whether the Reformation is still relevant today. I have not yet read those I’ve bought, but I think it is a valid question. What do the thoughts of a 16th century German monk have to do with us today? Why do we continue to celebrate the day Martin Luther posted 95 theological arguments on a church door?
We point to Martin Luther as the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, but the work began long before his time. In the early 15th century, a man named John Hus was burned at the stake for speaking the same ideas that Luther put forth a hundred years later. Before him, John Wycliffe published the New Testament in English. Wycliffe also argued against the hierarchy of the Church. Though he died of natural causes in 1384, he was declared a heretic in 1415 and posthumously excommunicated. His body was exhumed, his bones burned to ashes and thrown into the River Swift. We might consider Martin Luther one of the most influential men in history, we have to remember those who went before him, as well as those who encouraged, supported, and worked with him as He fought the good fight. He served God in many ways as an individual, but he always knew that he was part of something much bigger.
The name Hus meant goose in German, and John Hus wrote from his prison cell, “Today you all roast a goose, but more than a hundred years from now a purer swan will come, who will finally sing you a different little song.” There aren’t many people who would call Martin Luther a swan; as a matter of fact, there are many who have nothing good to say about the man. Martin Luther was in no way perfect. He was arrogant in many ways, also brash and bold and loud. He was a sinner in need of a savior.
What made Luther the swan was that he never wavered in his faith and held firm to the truth no matter what others did to him. He stood firmly on the Word of God and lived in the grace that God has so freely given to each of us. Too many of the reformers were martyred at that hands of those who feared that these reforms would destroy their power, but thanks to God and those around him, Luther survived to accomplish incredible things. He risked his life, his home, his family and even his vocation to stand for the truth that he saw in the scriptures. He was excommunicated, threatened and forced into hiding. He lived through war and famine, disease and other disasters. He suffered from physical ailments, too. Through it all he believed. If there is anything that truly makes the Reformation still relevant for us today, it is Luther’s understanding of faith.
Martin Luther loved God’s word and studied it passionately. He was heavily burdened by his calling, fearful of the sin he knew he had committed throughout his life and fearful that his own sinfulness could impact those whom he shepherded. He was afraid that his sin was greater than God’s grace and did not see how he could be forgiven. He spent hours in confession repeating every little thing he had ever done. Luther was at the point of despair when he sought solace from God’s word and his confessor. Johann von Staupitz became very tired of his lengthy confessions. “Martin, during all the hours I’ve listened to you, I haven’t heard one thing remotely interesting.” He told Luther to come back when he’d actually done something worthwhile to confess.
It was Staupitz that reminded Luther of the Gospel of grace that Christ died for his sin. Luther grasped this grace when he read the epistle lesson from Romans 3 that we always use for Reformation Sunday. “But now apart from the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed, being testified by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all those who believe.” It is by faith we are saved, not by works; Jesus completed the work of justification on the cross. Martin Luther realized that his works would never save him and that an eternity in heaven is dependent entirely on the grace of God.
Luther’s confessor was the man behind the man. No man, not even Martin Luther, can do it all by himself. Luther’s story is filled with people who worked with him to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. That was his purpose all along. He wanted people to know that they are freed by the Gospel so that they would not be burdened by the expectations and obligations of manmade institutions. He posted the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church to begin a discussion about the abuses of the church. He didn’t want to divide the Church; he wanted to restore the Church that Christ built.
That’s what it means to reform. Reformation is not about making things new, but re-forming the world to be as it was meant to be. We all stray. You can see that throughout the story of God in the Bible. God created everything and it was good. As a matter of fact, after He created mankind He called it all very good. Yet, it didn’t take very long for Adam and Eve to turn from God. The patriarchs had many good attributes, particularly faith, but they all failed in some way to live as God expected. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon all wandered from the right path, but they cried out to God, turned to Him in repentance and were transformed by His grace.
The nation of Israel was just like those individuals. They had good moments when they were faithful, but it never took very long for them to turn away from God. The kings would turn to idols or seek help from the pagan nations and the people followed. They forgot the God who was their salvation. After a few generations, God raised a new king who would restore their relationship with God who would renew the promises He had made to their forefathers. Though they sinned, God never abandoned them. Sometimes God had to let them suffer the consequences of their unfaithfulness, but He never let them go. After a season, they cried out to Him, He restored them to Himself and they were re-formed into the nation He intended them to be. Sadly, it never lasted more than a generation or so.
Isn’t that what happens with us? We turn from God, suffer the consequences of our sin, cry out to Him, are forgiven and transformed, but eventually we turn from Him again. This is not how it is meant to be, but we are sinners even as we are saints. We have faith, but we are not always faithful. The same is true of the Church. She might be right with God in one generation, but it doesn’t take long for her to turn from Him. Again and again, human beings go from faithfulness to faithlessness to repentance and God is always there for us, to make us new again. He re-forms us into the people we are meant to be. One day, when time ends and we have entered into eternity, we will finally be restored to Him fully and completely forever. Then we will no longer need the Reformation. For now, however,we are, as Luther so eloquently put it, “simul justus et peccator” which means “simultaneously saints and sinners.” We need to be constantly re-formed.
When Martin Luther studied the passage from Romans 3, he rediscovered the foundation of the Gospel message: 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 don’t 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 imperfection because we are truly afraid of what He will do. 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 listen. He will heal. He will re-form. In Him and in Him alone, we have joy and hope and peace.
In the texts for today we see a strong and powerful image of God. He is “our refuge and our strength.” 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 “A Mighty Fortress.” 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.
The Old Covenant included a 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. That’s why God made the New Covenant that gives the believer the faith to live according to God’s Word. Unfortunately, even under the New Covenant the Church lays heavy burdens, make threats and use bribes to keep people in line.
This is why Luther nailed his 95 Thesis on the church door on October 31, 1517. Though it was the catalyst for the Reformation, we know in hindsight we know it is the least of his accomplishments. The Theses argued that the church had become law-centered focus of the Church in his day, and that it was wrong for the church to burden the people with the task of earning their place in the Kingdom of God. They demanded obedience that was impossible to keep which benefitted no one but the Church. His biggest pet peeve was that indulgences were sold to raise money to build yet another monstrous cathedral. Luther taught that we can’t buy our way into heaven; we are saved by grace through faith.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus told those listening that the truth would set them free, but the Jewish leaders didn’t understand what he was talking about. “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How do you say, ‘You will be made free’?” 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 work his way into salvation.
The New Covenant gives us a new attitude; it reforms our thinking about God’s Law and God’s 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, God’s Word is placed in the heart; faith is given so that the believer can act out of love rather than fear. We are no longer burdened by that Law, but we are set free to live out God’s Word by faith.
This life of grace is what Martin Luther discovered as he searched the scriptures for relief from his burdens. He longed to be freed from the fear, guilt and pain he experienced when he recognized himself as the sinner that he was. He knew there was no way he could be good or enough for the gifts of God. His fears threatened to affect his ministry, because he thought his lifetime of sin would invalidate the work he was called to do in the church.
Then he found the grace of God, that unbelievable truth that the work of salvation is not dependent on man but rather on the mercy of God. When we realize that we are sinners, in need of a Savior, our whole world is turned upside down. We are set free from the burdens of the law so that we might live to the glory of God in His grace. This is what happened to Martin Luther when he read Paul’s words to the Romans, “We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
This is as relevant today as it was in the days of Paul and of Luther. God’s Word will continue to re-form His people and to restore us to Himself when we wander off the path. This is true of us as individuals and of the Church. The Reformation is certainly still relevant today because we constantly need to be re-formed into the people and the Church God has created and redeemed us to be. We need to be reminded of God’s grace, of His forgiveness, of the hope that only comes by trusting in Him.
One of the stanzas from that song from the rock opera I quoted above goes like this: “Stumbling through the dark, when this all began, seeing what was wrong, yet without a plan. Now, we’ve come so far, it seems as though we’re done, but God’s reforming word has only just begun.” Every day is a day for reformation. Every day is a day to trust in God. Every day, even the final day, is a day to plant a tree, always hopeful and joyful that God will keep the tree of life growing for eternity because God has set us free to truly live as we were meant to live.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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