Reformation Day (Observed – October 30, 2016)
“Dusting Off the Relics of the Reformation” (John 8:31-36)
As you all know, I travelled to Germany for the first time in April. It was evident that they were preparing for a celebration, especially in the regions of Saxony and Thuringia in the former East Germany. Many monuments and buildings were receiving renovations, fresh coats of paint, new landscaping. Some had scaffolding around them and were closed to the public. The dusty old relics were getting a well-needed cleaning and face-lift.
Germany and Lutherans all over the world are getting ready to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year. October 31, 1517 is the date that historians have designated as the start of the Reformation of the Church. This was the day an obscure monk in the up and coming town of Wittenberg posted 95 Theses, or propositions for debate, on the door of the castle church.
The truth of the Gospel needed to be dusted off. It had become buried under so much rubble. The medieval church had seriously faltered in her task of heeding the Lord’s Word, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” There was corruption in the church, with the buying and selling of offices. Church and state issues were mixed together, with bishops often holding government positions at the same time as serving in the Church. You could be put on trial for heresy, and if convicted, you could be arrested, imprisoned, even executed. Traditions that had no source in Scripture and the word of pope and council were on an equal footing with the words of the Bible. The Bible and the liturgy of the church were in a language the people in the pew (or the nave, I should say, since there were no pews back then) could not understand. And then there was the deceptive system of indulgences where you could earn merit before God by your pious actions … attending Mass, praying to Mary and other saints, venerating relics such as the bones of a dead saint or pieces of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Later, indulgences were bought and sold – in particular in Germany – in order to help raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Luther’s 95 Theses were written in response to this practice. Luther didn’t expect to start such a firestorm. He was loyal to the Pope and to Holy Mother Rome. He simply wanted to discuss the matter.
But this was only the beginning. Luther continued to write on other matters. His writings were published and became popular. And by 1521 he was forced to appear before the Diet of the Empire (the gathering of nobles and clergy who elected the emperor) in the city of Worms. There he was told to recant all that he had written. He did not and was condemned to be punished, although he was first given safe passage back to Wittenberg. On the way there, friends kidnapped him and hid him in the Wartburg Castle where he translated the New Testament into German. Later came Luther’s Catechisms, both Small and Large. Then came the Augsburg Confession and its Apology by Luther’s colleague at Wittenberg, Phillip Melanchthon, with particular emphasis on the centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith alone … the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls, as the Reformers taught.
So today, we celebrate. But how do we celebrate? In a spirit of triumphalism? Far from it. Luther never wanted to break with the Roman church. He wanted to fix it. But he got kicked out. What’s more, the Reformation did not result in only two churches, Roman and Lutheran, but a myriad of divided denominations. This is why we often pray “for the well-being of the church of God and for the unity of all.” This is why Jesus prayed the night he was betrayed, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21).
So maybe our celebration should begin with repentance. We can always use a good dose of repentance if there is anything sinful that is keeping churches divided. Yet, if we are convinced of the truth, we should not go against our conscience, for as Luther said at Worms, “I cannot and I will not recant, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”
And after we have repented, we can do some dusting off of our own. We can dust off all that would obscure the truth of Christ in our day and age, so that Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins remains front and center in all our preaching and teaching.
We can dust off the history of the Reformation and retell it to remind us of its importance today. The Reformation reminds us to remain steadfast in God’s Word, to pray for and seek unity on the basis of that Word. It reminds us to not allow God’s Word to become a relic in our life, something we venerate and keep prominently displayed at home – like a “family” Bible – but never open or read. The Bible was never meant to be a good luck charm, a talisman, a knick-knack set out to show company how good and moral we are.
The Reformation can remind us to not allow our Confessions to become a relic, in particular the Augsburg Confession and Luther’s Catechisms, along with the other documents contained in the Book of Concord. These are not dry and dusty academic treatises, but they are devotional confessions that can read by all. Get yourself a copy of the Book of Concord if you haven’t already and read it. It’s a gem. It’s what our pastors are to unconditionally subscribe as the teaching of our church because it confesses what Scripture teaches.
The Reformation also can remind us to view the liturgy not as a relic – as a quaint, historical anachronism – but as the heritage of the Church, inherited from our forefathers from well before the Reformation, and that which reverently frames up and delivers God’s Word and Sacraments to you … a contemporary, living channel of God’s love and life for you.
When we dust off the relics of the Reformation, we do as the Lord Jesus told us: “Abide in my word.” This is so important when we are faced with what Luther called “anfechtungen” or “tentatio” in Latin …temptations, trials, and doubts. Like Luther’s day, we are faced with increasing opposition from government authorities. Unlike Luther’s day, we live in an increasingly secular age that wants nothing to do with the things of God. And all this “tentatio” drives us to “meditatio” and “oratio” … meditation on God’s Word and prayer.
Abide in Christ’s Word and “you will know the truth.” Relying on God’s Word, you can have certainty in God’s love and forgiveness for you. Don’t rely on your speculations or your emotional experiences, your feelings. Don’t rely on man-made traditions, the words of men or councils that have no foundation in Holy Scripture. Rather, abide in, rely on, cling to the sure and certain truths that because Christ Jesus shed his blood for you, you are forgiven, justified by faith alone apart from works of the law.
Abide in Christ’s Word and “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” When Jesus first spoke these words to the Jews who had believed in him, they replied, “We are Abraham’s offspring and have never been enslaved to anyone.” Had they forgotten about the experience of their ancestors in Egypt? Had they forgotten about the exile that their ancestors had endured in Babylon? Perhaps they meant that as the chosen children of Israel, they were free children of God no matter what their external circumstances. But Jesus explains that this has nothing to do with being in bondage to an earthly master. It’s about our sinful condition. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,” he says. That was the case of his hearers. That’s your case and mine. No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you exert your effort and will, you cannot escape your bondage to sin and death.
And this leads us right back to the beginning of the Reformation. In the very first of his 95 Theses, Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance … a daily, ongoing, continual turning from sin and turning to the Savior in faith and trust. Jesus says, “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
And this in turn leads us right back to the Incarnation, where the Son of God humbled himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men (Phil 2:7). Bound to his Father’s will, bound to the cross, he suffered and died for you, so that you could become a son, God’s child, adopted in the waters of Holy Baptism, freed from your bondage to sin, and given a place in God’s house forever. So take your place here today in God’s house. Take your place at the Lord’s Table, where the Risen Jesus is present for you and feeds you with his Body and Blood. These are no relics to venerate. No monuments to admire. These are true treasures that God gives you to eat and drink for life, forgiveness, and salvation.