Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reformation Day

If someone asked you what a Lutheran was, how would you respond? I posed that question to the confirmation class a few weeks ago and they looked as blankly then as you do this morning.

For most of us, that’s a tough question to answer. Lutheranism has such a rich and diverse tradition. But it’s also very specific. How do you sum up a whole faith history in a few words?

Those of us initiated in the deeper workings of the Lutheran theological tradition would throw around weighty words such as “justification” and “sanctification” before lapsing into latin spewing phrases such “sola fide” “sola gracia” “sola scriptura;” high sounding words to explain what is a really tremendously personal faith. “Why,” ask Lutherans, “would you use a 50 cent word when a $100 word will do just as well?

Others, more narratively minded, will tell the story of Martin Luther, from whom we derive our name “Lutheran.”

You’d mention his beginnings as a law student, before being caught in a rain storm, thinking he’s going to die, he cut a deal with St. Anne that if she helps him survive the storm, he’ll devote his life to God and become a monk.

She did. And he did.

You’d mention that in the Monastery Luther beat himself up - literally and figuratively - to punish himself for his sins. He believed that he couldn’t do anything acceptable to God. And so, Luther said he hated God for creating him sinful, then punishing him for those sins.

And then, you tell how Luther, while reading the passage from Romans we heard this morning, finally realized that we sinful human beings as justified by faith alone, and not by works. You’d explain that this is a fancy way of saying that God declares us clean, forgiven, and freed from the power of sin because of Jesus and not because of how much we pray, go to church, live moral lives, give to the poor, or anything else that we think will make us acceptable to God. We ARE acceptable to God because we’ve been joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection in holy baptism.

It may sound like the story stops there but you’d keep on going. You’d tell how Luther was sent to study and teach at the University of Wittenberg. Meanwhile, in Rome, Pope Leo X wanted to build a big cathedral for himself but didn’t have the cash. So he recruited Johann Tetzel - slimiest, smooth talkingest stickiest-hand-in-the-offering-plate-iest - preacher he could find to scare the hapless German Christians into handing over their hard earned paycheques to Rome to so Leo could pay for his ego enhancement.

Tetzel told them that if they wanted to free Uncle Hans from purgatory all they had to do was hand over a few dollars to the traveling preacher. He would ask, “How could you let Aunt Mary suffer when all you had to do was put some extra cash in the offering plate, and she would be released into heaven?”

With an advertising campaign so slimy that it would make Don Draper blush, Tetzel came up with a slogan: “When the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Catchy, eh? This practice was called “selling indulgences.”

You’d emphasize how Luther, who was also a parish priest, caught wind that his parishioners were buying these worthless indulgences, and he went ballistic. And Luther did what every good clergy person would when overheated with anger at the injustice and abuse in the church: he composed 95 debating points (which we call the “95 Theses” with a “th” NOT an “f”) and nailed them to the church’s front door, for discussion and debate. This was the 16th century equivalent of writing a blog post.

Luther nailed his 95 these on October 31, 1517. Which is why we celebrate Reformation Day on October 31. Or usually, on the last Sunday in October. But October 31 is officially Reformation Day.

We remember October 31 because it was when he nailed his 95 these to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg that Luther set a match that ignited a fiery change to Europe’s religious landscape - and beyond to the whole world.

Luther was eventually excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church - but he didn’t care. He believed he was doing God’s work. You’d point out that Luther didn’t intend to split the church. He wanted to simply reform it.

He wanted to rid the church of the abuses that were exploiting everyday Christians. He wanted everyone to participate in worship instead of just watching clergy folks litugize. It’s because of Luther that we sing hymns during worship. Before him, worship was a spectator sport for those who didn’t have collars around their necks.

But most importantly, you’d want to say that being a Lutheran is about being saved - put in a right relationship with God not through any outside works or inward prayers. We have a right relationship with God because of Jesus death and resurrection, to which we are joined in Holy Baptism. We call this: grace.

In fancy theological language, grace means “unmerited favour.” In regular speak, grace means receiving God’s love and salvation even though we DIDN’T nor COULD WE do anything to deserve it. When we say that God is gracious, we are saying that God loves us even though we’re not entitled to God’s love. We didn’t earn it. And we couldn’t earn it even if we tried. Grace is living with the hope that God has a hold on us in this life, and faith that God will carry us into eternity.

But I’m guessing that for you, if asked what a Lutheran is, you might simply say that it means salvation in Jesus. And that would be a great answer. But it would also be just the beginning.

Being a Lutheran isn’t just remembering the story that shapes us. It’s looking to the future to see how the story ends.

And not just our small, individual stories, but God’s GREAT story of the salvation of the world, the new birth of the New Creation, where God will make all things new, where tears will be wiped from our eyes, where mourning, crying, and pain will be no more, where the kingdom of heaven and the brokenness of the world unite in God’s healing love, and where every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord.

And so, as Lutherans, we confess it’s by grace alone through faith that we - and the world - is saved.

May this be so among us. Amen.


Blogger Michael Gormley said...

Some Protestants have the notion that Catholics do not “believe” in the Bible, so they bring up Second Timothy 3:15-16 to support their belief of Sola Scriptura:"... from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."

Certainly Catholics believe in the Bible (Catholics put together the Bible!) but this verse does not really support the belief of Sola Scriptura; it does not say that scripture alone is an adequate guide to the faith For that matter, the whole Bible does not say that we should believe in the Bible alone, nor does it say which books are inspired by God. This is only one hole in the belief of Sola Scriptura; there are many more.

10:29 PM  

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