Twenty-fourth Sunday in Pentecost or Reformation Sunday
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.
For the past few weeks, we have heard Jesus tell stories about how not to act if one is a disciple of Christ. In His parables He has pointed out the worst of human nature and has pointed his finger at the religious leaders of His day. All too often in the past few weeks, we could hear His condemnation for our own practices and policies. We've seen that our sense of justice and mercy differs greatly than that which Jesus preached.
All this time, Jesus has been walking toward the cross, toward the completion of His work and to that moment of glory for which He was sent. He was not sent to be popular or famous. He was not sent to gain a huge following or build a great church. He came to reform the religious understanding of His people, to bring mercy and grace. Most of all, He came to die for the sake of those who believe in Him, to take the burden of their sin and banish it forever.
As He drew nearer to the cross, His message became more urgent and more direct. In today's Gospel lesson Jesus speaks to the crowds about the insincerity of the teachers of the Law. "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not." The teachers do not practice what they preach. They do everything for the sake of appearances. "But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, Rabbi." For them it was about power, and they held a great deal of power over the people.
Sounds much like it was in the sixteenth century when a monk named Martin Luther sought to reform the church. Though there were many issues facing the church in that day, one of the most important to Luther was the fact that the church had a power over the people that made them like slaves. Hope in the afterlife was dependent on acts of penitence commanded by the church. This included indulgences given to the church in payment for a reduction of sentence in purgatory. The indulgences were used to build bigger churches and more ornate decorations in Rome. They also put a heavy burden on the people for they believed the all that the Church proclaimed and they feared that if they did not do as they were told that they would spend eternity in hell.
This fear was not uncommon in Luther's day. The sixteenth century was a time of intense superstition. Age old practices associated with the spirit world were popular among the people. They believed the myths and the tales associated with death and they feared the unknown. It was a time of early scientific discovery, but so many explanations seemed as if they came from another world. Witchcraft was feared and change was to be avoided. This gave the Church a great deal of power over the people because the only hope they could see was in the answers they received from their priest. They had no access to the scriptures and had to rely on the Church to interpret God's word for them. The liturgy, a most beautiful proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, was spoken in language the common folk did not understand. Even the scriptures were read in Latin. All they had was a message which rarely spoke of grace or mercy. The sermons focused on law with little or no Gospel. The religious leaders refused to let go of the power and authority they had over people.
When Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door at Wittenberg, he simply wanted to set in motion some academic debate about the state of the Church and what reforms were needed. There were other reformers but Luther stands out among them. Perhaps it was because he was a charismatic speaker, or the fact that he was a prolific writer. There are about eighty volumes attributed to his name. He did not conform to societal standards – he was honest to the point of being insulting and offensive.
Luther was a priest and a teacher, burdened heavily by his calling. He feared sin and he feared that his own sinfulness was greater than the mercy and grace of God. He did not see how he could be forgiven and spent hours in confession fearing that his own sinfulness would invalidate the mass and his congregation would suffer the torments of hell on his account. Luther was at the point of despair when he sought solace from God's word and his confessor. Johann von Staupitz, tired of Luther's lengthy confessions, reminded Luther of the Gospel of grace – that Christ died for his sin. Luther grasped this grace when he read the epistle lesson we always use for Reformation Sunday. "But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God; for the showing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus." It is by faith we are saved, not by works. Jesus completed the work of justification on the cross and continues it in our own lives. He reforms us daily through our baptism as we walk in faith. In that faith we have hope and the freedom to live in His grace.
This revelation spurred Luther to reform the Church. The timing was just right – the printing press provided widespread distribution of his message. It was a time of political, social and scientific upheaval. He had the support of powerful men, so his reforms reached far past the religious realm. He sought education reforms, desiring that all children be literate. This lead to the building of schools and other changes that benefited children. He advocated separation of the two kingdoms, temporal and spiritual and encouraged justice.
Luther seemed to have found the very meaning of today's Gospel message – that when we are saved we are made free to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. For him freedom was not to do whatever we wanted to do, it was freedom to be as God created us to be. He never sought division, he sought change. Unfortunately, just like the religious leaders in Jesus' day, the religious leaders in Luther's day had no room for God's word in their lives.
In John 8:37 Jesus tells the religious leaders that they have no room for His words. They believe that their salvation is dependent on who they are – sons of Abraham – and not on God's promise. It is interesting that they say they've never been slaves to anyone, yet they seem to have forgotten the yolk of slavery under which their people lived under Egypt. They were also ignoring the oppression of the Romans under which the Jews were living. They had power, they had authority and they had control. That's all that mattered to them. The things Jesus was saying threatened their way of life. There was no room for change, because change meant they would lose all that they held dear. In this way they were slaves, slaves to sin.
Jeremiah provides for us the promise of what Christ would do – institute a new covenant with God's people. He says, " But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith Jehovah: 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 new covenant would be founded upon grace, the grace that Jesus offered from the cross. We know God not because we do anything but because God loves us. It is not through men that we receive God's grace, but by His Word, the Word that came in flesh.
All fall short, but Christ overcomes our shortcomings by His grace. Through our baptism daily, Jesus reforms and transforms our lives so that we will continue to live free in the Gospel to do all that we were created to do. Luther learned this nearly five hundred years ago and a reformation began. Though Luther is no longer alive, the reformation continues – at least it should – within the church. We as the body of Christ are called to live in God's redemption so that as His body we are constantly being reformed and transformed to live together free in the Gospel.
We are free to live. We are free to love. We are free to stand firmly in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and go forth in the faith He gives, doing all He calls us to do. We are not bound by laws, but God's law gives us direction so that we will do justice and share hope so that all might know His peace in this world. We are free to be Christian where faith does not conform to the expectation of the world. We are free to be children of God, heirs to a kingdom that is beyond this world. Luther learned this and lived it daily, sharing this good news with all who would hear. His work sparked change around the world. We remember him today, knowing that he was a sinner in need of the Savior, just as you and me. We honor this day with the understanding that Christ calls us to be servants not rulers, humble not haughty. He calls us to make room for His Word, the word that reforms people and churches and the world. That's what Reformation Day is all about – making room for God's Word to bring change so that God will be glorified in all that we do. Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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