SERMONS - OCTOBER 2019
6 October 2019 - Pentecost 17 - Luke 16:19-31
Today’s Gospel lesson from St. Luke is the familiar story of Lazarus and the rich man. Jesus tells us:
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.”
“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.”
The life of Lazarus, as described in this account, was a miserable life. Unlike Lazarus, however, I actually enjoy life. By American standards I am not a rich person. But I am definitely not poor and miserable like Lazarus, either.
I live a fairly comfortable life. I have a nice home. I enjoy the love and companionship of my wife, my children, and my grandchildren. I enjoy talking with friends, over a mug of beer or a glass of wine. I enjoy listening to good music, reading a good book, or watching a good movie. I enjoy the sound of a cat purring, while I scratch its head.
I enjoy being alive. And I think that this is probably true also for most of you as well. We live in a land of unprecedented freedom, prosperity, and security. It is possible for Christians and non-Christians alike to have a good life in America, filled with joys and successes.
But these extraordinary blessings might cause us to forget that this has not been the experience of most people, during most of human history.
In most other times and places - such as in first-century Palestine - there would be a small group of elites sitting in ease at the top of the social structure, enjoying extravagant wealth and self-indulgence; while the majority of the population labored and languished under great privation, in great suffering, and with great weariness. Sickness, and early death, were constant companions.
I remember my grandfather telling me, when I was a boy, what his father - an immigrant from eastern Europe - had told him. In the old country, he said, everyone was poor, and no one had any opportunity to work himself out of poverty.
My great-grandfather’s patriotism, as a naturalized American, was deeply informed by this experience in the old world - as compared to his later experience in the new world, where he was able to work and save, to buy his own farm, and to die full of years, looking back on a lifetime full of fulfilled dreams.
But again, we need to realize that the experience he had, growing up in a small village in the Kingdom of Hungary in the 19th century, was and is the norm of human existence in this world. What he found in America, and what most of us experience in our life in America today, is not the norm. It is the exception.
It is therefore probably difficult for us, as Americans, to relate to some of the sentiments we find in some of our classic hymns - which were not written in modern America, but which were written in very different eras, by people who were living in very different circumstances. In speaking of the inevitability and closeness of death, one hymn stanza, from the 17th century, says this:
I’ve met with storms and danger, Even from my early years,
With enemies and conflicts, With fightings and with fears.
There’s nothing here that tempts me To wish a longer stay,
So I must hasten forward, No halting or delay.
In my experience, I have to admit that there are a lot of things in this world - good things - that do tempt me to wish for a longer stay on this earth.
And then there are these stanzas, from another 17th-century hymn:
Oh, how blest are ye whose toils are ended,
Who, through death, have unto God ascended!
Ye have arisen From the cares which keep us still in prison.
We are still as in a dungeon living,
Still oppressed with sorrow and misgiving;
Our undertakings Are but toils and troubles and heart-breakings.
But again, this does not really describe the way I feel about my life. I don’t have these overwhelming feelings of frustration and entrapment. And I don’t think these unhappy words describe the lives of most of you, either.
But these unhappy words might describe the lives of some of you. And there are definitely other people in this world for whom these words of unhappiness and struggle express exactly how they feel. Not everyone in America has found the American dream that my great-grandfather found, and that I have found.
There very definitely are people in the world like Lazarus, the poor beggar in today’s text. There are people like Lazarus also in our world, who are within the reach of our charity and compassion.
Through accessible channels that are open to us, we are able to encourage and uplift discouraged and downcast people in East Africa and India, Eastern Europe and South America, whose options for a better future seem to them - at present - to be non-existent.
We have a real and practical ability to encourage and uplift discouraged and downcast people in our own nation, state, and community, who find it hard, emotionally, just to survive - people whom the opportunities and advantages of our free and prosperous land have, in large measure, passed by.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself right now, “I don’t really know anyone like that personally, although I know that there are people like that out there somewhere.” Or, you might be thinking, “I know some people like that, but their predicament is their own fault - caused by their own bad decisions in life. So, it’s not my responsibility to do anything about it.”
Well, if that’s what you are thinking right now, please realize that this attitude is frighteningly similar to the attitude of another character in today’s text. The rich man seems to have been aware of the existence of Lazarus. When he saw him after death he recognized him, and knew who he was.
But during his and Lazarus’s mortal life, the rich man was oblivious to Lazarus’s human needs. And he was oblivious to his responsibility, under God, to show compassion to Lazarus, and to help him.
In his darkened conscience, he didn’t know about these obligations of human kindness and decency. And he didn’t care that he didn’t know. He would have shrugged his shoulders in indifference, if anyone had suggested that he should do something to help Lazarus, sitting outside his gate.
The rich man was a man with much money and wealth, but he was a man without God. And on the other side of death, when he found himself in Hades, he was still without God.
Even on the other side, his attitude toward Lazarus - and people like Lazarus - hadn’t really changed. Even then, he saw Lazarus only as someone whose job it would be to wait on him, and serve him.
“Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame,” he said.
Now, the rich man was not spiritually lost and separated from God because he was rich. Abraham himself was a wealthy and powerful figure during his earthly life. But in death, Abraham found a place in the Lord’s Paradise. He was there to welcome Lazarus, when he died, as today’s Gospel tells us.
Elsewhere in St. Luke, Jesus tells us: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
And St. Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle, from his First Letter to Timothy:
“We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.”
So, even though Abraham was wealthy, he didn’t serve his wealth, or love it. He didn’t live just to accumulate wealth and consume wealth.
He lived for God, and he loved and served God. He believed the promises that God made to him: regarding the son, the nation, and the Savior, who would all come from him.
If you are like Abraham, blessed by God with faith in your Savior Jesus Christ, and blessed by God also with material possessions, your attitude toward your possessions will be like the attitude of Abraham toward his possessions, and not like the attitude of the rich man, in today’s story, toward his possessions.
You will be aware of the fact that God has given you the things he has given you, and you will be thankful. And, you will be aware of the presence of people like Lazarus in your world. You will notice them. You will notice their needs. And as the Lord enables you, you will help to meet at least some of those needs.
And it’s not just people who are deprived of money who should be on the radar screen of your Christian love. Some people have enough money, but they are emotionally impoverished and drained.
Their lives are weighed down with grief, or remorse, or shame, or loneliness. Or maybe they are discouraged by chronic illness or irreversible injuries. It is a struggle for some people just to push themselves through each day.
What they need is your friendship - not a superficial pretense of friendship, but a real friendship: the kind of friendship that takes a genuine interest in the other person, and that invites the other person to share a part of your life with you.
The rich man in today’s text was incapable of this. In and of yourself, according to your sinful nature, you would be incapable of it, too. Our sin turns us in on ourselves, and mixes a selfish and self-serving motive into everything we do.
What makes you capable of befriending others in a deeply genuine way, is the friendship that God has shown toward you in his Son Jesus Christ - by which your sins have been forgiven through his atoning death; and by which a new nature, which wants to serve God and man, is engendered within you by the power of his Word.
God has made promises to you, and like Abraham you have believed those promises. Consider the promise he makes through the Prophet Isaiah, in conjunction with an important admonition that he also gives:
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
As recorded in John’s Gospel, Jesus also said this, very soon before his own arrest, trial, and crucifixion:
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”
When God gives us a new nature in Christ, he gives us a new set of eyes by which we now look at the world differently, and notice things we didn’t used to notice. With these eyes, we see the suffering that is all around us, and we are moved to a godly compassion for those who are hurting.
But what we also see, is that apart from Christ, all of us would be - and were - deeply impoverished in spirit. All of us - the materially poor as well as the materially prosperous - without Jesus and his generosity, would be like Lazarus in our souls: sick and wounded, homeless and lonely, hungry and never satisfied.
But, as St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
In Christ, we become rich, as Lazarus was rich in divine mercy, even when he was poor in health and property. In Christ, we cease to be poor, even as Lazarus, with his citizenship in Paradise, and with his fellowship with the saints of old, ceased to be poor.
At the conclusion of today’s reading from St. Luke, the rich man, from Hades, said this to Abraham: “I beg you, father, to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house - for I have five brothers - so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”
And [the rich man] said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” [Abraham] said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
Dear friends, we have Moses and the Prophets - and also the Evangelists and the Apostles - who warn us from the pages of Holy Scripture about the misery of those who close themselves off from God, and who thereby also close themselves off from other people.
But at the same time, we hear and heed the wonderful promises from God, which also come to us through the Scriptures, regarding the joyous pathway of faith and love that Jesus has opened up for us by his death and resurrection.
And the crucified and living Christ - who did rise from the dead - does indeed fortify us with faith, and inspire us in love, as he abides with his church in his gospel and sacraments. And as we find ourselves in this holy fellowship of God’s people, we do care about the things that are important, and that are of eternal consequence.
We care about God’s Word. We want to hear God’s Word, confess God’s Word, and live and die in God’s Word.
And we care about other people - the rich and the poor; the healthy and the sick; those who are at home with us now in God’s family, and those who are still alienated and alone. We notice all of them, and we care about all of them, because God in Christ has noticed us, and cares about us.
At the Last Supper, as St. John records Jesus’ words on that occasion, our Savior left this teaching for his church:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
As we prepare today to partake of the sacrament that Jesus instituted on that occasion, we remember this teaching. And as we remember it together, we - as God’s family - sing and pray together:
Yea, Lord, ‘twas Thy rich bounty gave,
My body, soul, and all I have
In this poor life of labor.
Lord, grant that I in every place
May glorify Thy lavish grace
And serve and help my neighbor.
Let no false doctrine me beguile,
And Satan not my soul defile.
Give strength and patience unto me,
To bear my cross, and follow Thee.
Lord Jesus Christ, My God and Lord,
In death Thy comfort still afford. Amen.
20 October 2019 - Pentecost 19 - Luke 18:1-8
Is God unjust? It is an article of faith among us, taught in Scripture, that God is not unjust.
Psalm 145 declares that “The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.” And in the Book of Daniel we read that “the Lord our God is righteous in all the works that he has done.”
As we recall what we have learned from our catechism concerning the attributes or characteristics of God, we would say that God is, in his nature, always just.
We would add that God abhors the injustice that we human beings often inflict upon each other, in our sinful dealings with one another. “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed,” as Psalm 103 reminds us.
That’s the doctrine that we profess. That’s the doctrine that we know we are supposed to believe.
But do we actually believe it, all the time, whatever the circumstances of our life may be? Do you always acknowledge, from the heart, that God is just, in all his dealings with you?
Sometimes, of course, we do not perceive God’s justice in our lives. Sometimes, from within the limitations of our human perspective, we might perceive what would seem to be injustice on God’s part.
He sometimes seems to be breaking his promises, or to be forgetting about them. God sometimes seems to be forgetting about us: abandoning us, ignoring us, and allowing us to be victimized by the devil and other enemies.
You call out to him for help. But from everything that you can see, help does not come.
You remain unemployed. You lose your savings and your house. Your cancer is not cured. Your family, and your life, continue to fall apart.
You pray for relief. But as far as you can tell, no relief comes.
When painful trials such as these prompt you to feel that you have been abandoned by God, your confidence in God wanes. And when God seems to be ignoring you - in your despair, in your fear, in your loneliness - you cannot help but to have those forbidden thoughts:
God is not just. God does not care.
Doubts arise in your mind about whether God really is with you in this trial - whatever it may be. These doubts then deepen. Has God ever been a part of your life?
Or were your past feelings of spiritual satisfaction and peace just a matter of wishful thinking and subjective emotions? Were they figments of your own religious imagination?
And then these doubts deepen. Does God even exist? Maybe the problem is deeper than the question of whether God is unjust, and has stopped caring about you.
Maybe the whole notion of a God who watches over this world, and guides people in this world, is a myth, invented by a human race too afraid to face up to the horrible reality that we are actually all alone in this universe; that our existence has no ultimate meaning or purpose; and that our dreams, hopes, and aspirations are nothing more than cruel hoaxes that we perpetrate upon ourselves.
God’s seeming silence, in those fearful times when we want him to say something; and God’s seeming inaction, in those desperate times when we want him to do something, can lead - in our own minds - to the most demoralizing and depressing of consequences.
So, what do you do, when you begin to feel that way? What options do you have, when you can no longer see and sense - in your own experience - the memorized certainties of your catechism?
To whom can you now turn, once you have turned to God, but nothing seemed to happen? When God appears to be unjust, and uninterested, to whom can you appeal? ...
Jesus told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray, and not lose heart. He said:
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’”
“For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.”
And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them, speedily.”
In this text - today’s Gospel from St. Luke - Jesus is not teaching that God, to whom we pray in his name, is ever actually unrighteous or unjust. But when God seems to be unrighteous or unjust, and when he seems no longer to be honoring his own promises and pledges, we are to pray to him still!
When God seems to be ignoring us, we do not appeal this apparent injustice to a higher authority. There is no higher authority.
Rather, we appeal right back to God. We appeal to him, over and over again, even if we see nothing tangible that would lead us to conclude that he is interested in our prayers.
In keeping with the point of his parable, we might imagine Jesus asking us: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?”
He would not be joking around when he asks this, however, because he knows how serious it can be when God’s love and concern for us, or even God’s very existence, are doubted in a time of trial. But he would remind us of the example of Job, in the Old Testament, who said: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”
How can you avoid losing heart, at a time when God doesn’t appear to be noticing you, or caring about you? How can you continue to trust in the Lord, even if he is, as it were, slaying you?
How can you be persistent in offering prayers that he seems to be ignoring? ...
St. Paul writes in today’s lesson from his Second Epistle to Timothy:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it; and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
If you are going through a severe trial, and God seems not to be anywhere close, you can know that he is close, when you have your Bible with you. This might sound trite, but it’s not.
I don’t mean the Bible as an object, functioning as a good luck charm or amulet. I mean an open Bible, and a read Bible.
And if you have committed certain portions of Scripture to memory, you really can bring those passages with you wherever you go - into a desert, or to a prison cell; into a foreign land, or to your deathbed.
If you are going through a time when God seems to be distant and silent, you can know that he is not in fact remaining silent, if the message of Scripture is being heard, and remembered.
The Scriptures are inspired by God, true and without error in all respects. They were breathed out from the Holy Spirit.
The Scriptures were breathed out through the experiences, the emotions, and the thoughts of their human authors. They thereby took on a human form, according to the Lord’s will, so that we humans can understand them and relate to them.
And the Scriptures were breathed out into enduring, objective texts. Throughout the ages of all human history, the Scriptures are always the same. As they were written, so they remain.
The times change. The attitudes and opinions of men change. The Scriptures are unchanging.
Throughout all the ups and downs of your life of faith - in times of confidence and firm trust in God, and in times of doubt and discouragement - what the Scriptures tell you about Jesus Christ and his salvation is unchanging.
Jesus said: “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” And he also said: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”
There is something extraordinarily powerful and compelling about the sacred texts of the Bible. Perhaps this is why the Bible is mocked, ridiculed, and attacked so often, by so many. It is a scarey and unsettling book, to those who are hostile to the God who inspired it.
Belittling the Bible, and making fun of it, is a subconscious technique - employed by unbelievers - to “protect” themselves from the sobering demands that the Bible makes upon them; and to “shield” themselves from the serious claims with which the Bible confronts them.
For believers, however - even troubled, weak, and fearful believers - the divine voice of the Bible is a comforting voice. Through the Sacred Scriptures, God tells us that he is listening to our prayers - even when there is no external proof otherwise, that he is listening.
Through the Sacred Scriptures, the evidence of God’s enduring and unvarying love for us is impressed upon us, when the message of Christ crucified for sinners is impressed upon us.
St. Paul, as an inspired apostle, does not teach that God shows his love for us by always giving us what we ask for, when we ask for it, according to our sense of what we need from him. But in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul does teach that “God shows his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The God who sent his Son to win your forgiveness on the cross, is the God who forgives you now, through the gospel of that Son. In the pages of Holy Scripture, God himself tells you this, and gives you a peace such as the world cannot give - regardless of anything else that may be going on around you, or that may be happening to you.
The certainty that God is with us, and that he is helping us, is supernaturally birthed within us once again, when the message of the risen Savior’s victory for us - over all the forces of death and evil - also comes to us through these sacred pages.
That divine message penetrates to our mind, to our will, and to our soul. And that divine message shines the light of Christ into us - all the way to the darkest recesses of our inner doubt and despair.
You are not alone, no matter how alone you may sometimes feel. God has not abandoned you.
God is with you in Christ, in his inscripturated and preached Word. God is with you in Christ, in the sacraments to which the Scriptures bear witness - and which are administered among us according to the Lord’s Biblically-revealed mandate and invitation.
Knowing all this, and knowing how you know all this - namely, through the Bible - you are sustained, in faith, through those times of spiritual doubt, and spiritual drought, when you don’t feel God.
You don’t need to feel God, to have God. You don’t need to see visible evidence of God’s closeness, to know that God does indeed have you; to know that you are within his Fatherly embrace, and under his Fatherly care.
When you pray, he is listening. If he seems not to be listening, pray anyway, because he is listening.
Pray early and often, in good times and in bad, in days of safety and in days of danger. Pray persistently. Never lose heart. Never lose hope.
Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so. Amen.
27 Oct 2019 - Reformation - Ephesians 4:1-6
Please hear with me the words of St. Paul the apostle, as written in the 4th chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians, beginning at the 1st verse.
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call - one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
So far our text.
Sustained criticism of Martin Luther, from various corners of Christendom, is very common. One thing in particular that Luther is often criticized for, is dividing the church.
According to this critical narrative, Luther almost single-handedly spoiled the unity that the Christian church had enjoyed for 1,500 years. When he came along with his novel and idiosyncratic ideas, and succeeded in mesmerizing half of Europe into following him in his rebellion against God, that unity was shattered.
Ever since then - as the narrative goes - everybody who comes up with his own unprecedented and uninformed interpretation of the Bible thinks that he, too, now has the right to invent his own new religion, and set up his own new church, just like Luther did. Luther is blamed for all of this.
Leaving aside for now the mistaken assumption that the institutional church was outwardly united through the first 15 centuries of its existence, this charge against Luther is a serious accusation. If Luther was actually guilty of causing such divisions in the church, in such a way, he committed a great sin.
There is one Lord and one faith, as St. Paul teaches us. And Paul also teaches that Christians are to be eager to preserve the unity that God wants them to have.
If Luther is guilty of ignoring St. Paul’s teaching, or of deliberately opposing it, this is not something that should be celebrated by us today - or on any day. If Luther did in fact divide the church, sinfully and selfishly, we should be ashamed of him, and should repudiate him.
But let’s take a closer look at the passage from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians that we read a minute ago. Paul does speak of one Lord, and of one faith. But he also speaks of one baptism:
“One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
The Nicene Creed quotes what St. Paul says about “one baptism,” and combines that with a quotation from St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon. And so the creed in this way acknowledges “one Baptism for the remission of sins.”
This is what Peter had said, as recorded in the Book of Acts:
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children.”
The true unity of the church consists, then, in a unity also in this one baptism - and in a unity in the forgiveness of sins that is connected to this one baptism. The forgiveness of sins thoroughly permeates all of those institutions that Jesus has left for his church, and that he tells his disciples to preserve and extend until he comes again in glory.
When Jesus inaugurated the sacrament of his body and blood, he connected the forgiveness of sins to that sacrament. “This cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins,” he said.
In the special commissioning of his disciples that took place on Easter evening, Jesus told them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.”
And St. Luke reports that Jesus instructed his disciples, after his resurrection, that their ministry from then on was to be characterized by the preaching of “repentance and forgiveness of sins” to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
“One Lord, one faith, one baptism” manifests and applies itself chiefly in this one supreme divine gift of forgiveness. The one Lord has revealed to his church one saving faith - in which the forgiveness of sins is the centerpiece.
Humanity’s fundamental problem is sin - and the offense that sin causes over against a holy God. Humanity’s fundamental need is for reconciliation with God.
God’s forgiveness of sins - in Christ - is his fundamental solution to that problem, and is his fundamental satisfying of that need. And since sin is a persistent problem, forgiveness is a persistent solution.
Forgiveness is not something that happens only at the beginning of our Christian pilgrimage on earth. Rather, at the beginning, at the end, and at every step in between, our sins are forgiven in Christ.
That’s why you and I confess in the Small Catechism that in the Christian Church, the Holy Spirit “daily and richly forgives me and all believers all our sins.”
This is like breathing for us. For a Christian, it’s that natural, and that necessary.
We continually “exhale” - toward God - our repentance of sin. We continually “inhale” - from God - his forgiveness of sin.
And from this continuing gift of forgiveness, a continuing renewal of spiritual life and faith also flows into us - and through us. “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation,” as our Small Catechism also teaches.
The Lutheran Reformation was about this. One Lord, one faith, one baptism - for the forgiveness of sins: Forgiveness won for us by Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection; forgiveness distributed to us, and impressed upon us, by the Spirit of Christ, in his gospel and sacraments.
Indeed, that is the kind of unity of which Paul speaks in his Epistle to the Ephesians. He admonishes us to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit.”
The unity of the Spirit is the unity that the Spirit creates and sustains, through his delivering of the forgiveness of sins to the church; and through his bringing forth of the fruits of that forgiveness, in the forgiving love that Christians then bear toward one another.
Luther was not against anything in the church of his time - or of earlier times - that properly testified to the grace of divine forgiveness. Luther did not repudiate anything in the church of his time - or of earlier times - that legitimately delivered God’s gracious forgiveness to penitent sinners. On one occasion, Luther wrote:
“It is our confession that, in the papacy, there are the right Holy Scriptures, the right Baptism, the right Sacrament of the Altar, the right keys for forgiveness of sins, the right preaching office, the right catechism - such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed. ... Now if Christianity exists under the pope, it must be Christ’s true body and members. If it is His body, then it has the right Spirit, Gospel, Creed, Baptism, Sacrament, keys, preaching office, prayer, Holy Scriptures, and everything that Christianity should have.”
The problem, of course, is that the medieval church had also embraced teachings and practices that contradicted, and worked against, these remaining salutary things. A sifting of the wheat from the chaff needed to take place, for the sake of faithfulness to the church’s true message and mission.
A reformation needed to take place: not a rebellion or a revolution, but a reformation, which at this pivotal time in history implemented St. Paul’s exhortation in his First Epistle to the Thessalonians:
“Test everything. Hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”
And so, under the supreme teaching and correcting authority of God’s Word in Holy Scripture, and with an ear always to what delivers God’s gift of forgiveness to those who need it, Luther rejected the extravagant claims of the medieval papacy, which had set itself over the church. But he did not reject the ministry of the genuine preaching office, within the church.
Luther did away with the practice of invoking saints, and of calling upon them for help. But he did not do away with prayers addressed to God, in keeping with the Lord’s invitation: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you.”
Luther renounced the medieval doctrine and practice of the sacrifice of the mass, since it violated the teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews that “when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” But Luther did not renounce the blessings and benefits of the Lord’s Supper as Christ instituted it, in which the benefits of Jesus’ one sufficient sacrifice are made available to communicants.
Luther abolished the imposition of penances, the selling of indulgences, and the whole concept of purgatory. But he did not abolish the true office of the keys. He did not silence the absolution that is pronounced in the Lord’s name by the Lord’s ministers: for our liberation from the guilt and power of sin; and for the restoration of our peace with God and with each other.
The Lutheran Reformation was not a movement for the breaking up of the unity of the church. It was a movement for the restoration and strengthening of the true unity of the church, resting upon the apostolic basis for that unity: one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
And the Lutheran Reformation was not really about Luther, either. If it was just about him - his personality; his whims and opinions - it would not have spread beyond the circle of those who knew him. And it would have fizzled after his death.
But because the Lutheran Reformation was actually about the unity of the church - built around the forgiveness of sins, which continually revitalizes that unity - Luther’s protests, and Luther’s preaching, resonated with people throughout Christendom.
By the grace of God, we today are the heirs of the Reformation. And the fruits of the Reformation are still evident among us - whenever God’s free and freeing forgiveness through Christ is pronounced upon us; and whenever our consciences are set free, from fear and turmoil, by that forgiveness.
God’s forgiveness is not available only in the Lutheran Church. But God does not want his gift of forgiveness to be encumbered or hindered by human teachings, and human practices, that obscure the full benefit and comfort of that forgiveness; and that thereby also sow seeds of disunity in the church.
This is what Luther stood for. This is what Confessional Lutheranism has always stood for. This is what we stand for.
Jesus died as the atoning sacrifice for your sins. In his Word and Sacrament, the risen Christ now comes to you - to all of you who have been baptized into his death and resurrection - to forgive your sins, and to fill you with the hope of everlasting life. Be of good cheer! - today and every day. Your sins are forgiven!
“There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call - one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Amen.