Sermon from Sunday, October 30, 2016, on Romans 3:19-28.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today, along with many other Protestant churches, not just Lutherans, we are commemorating Reformation Sunday. And so, I thought I’d begin with a question: What is the Reformation? It’s a trick question, really, because it has a ton of perfectly correct answers.
What is the reformation? It’s a historical event—brought together by the changing society of the Late Middle Ages, by Gutenberg’s printing press making mass media possible, by the German princes just looking for a reason to revolt against the Holy Roman Empire, and this monk Martin Luther throwing a match into the powder keg, changing the political face of Europe forever.
What is the reformation? It’s a theological revolution—this Martin Luther calling into question church doctrine that was accepted as fact, challenging the power of the pope, the Bishop of Rome, writing treatises, having debates, splintering the church into more pieces than he could have ever imagined.
What is the reformation for us today? Is it a historical event? Is it some conjured image of a monk nailing a piece of paper to a church door in 1517? A chance to remember and recall the last 500 years? Is the reformation to Lutherans what the fourth of July is to Americans? A day to celebrate, for revelry?
It is all that and more. Throughout the next year, as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we will have times for commemoration, times for history, times to celebrate the work that has been done, especially in the last 50 years, to build bridges and heal old wounds. Tomorrow, Pope Francis and the President of the Lutheran World Federation with lead a common prayer service in Sweden. (You can livestream it online.)
The reformation is all these things. But at the same time, it isn’t. Because if we were stripped away each and every one of those things, if we took down all of the red vestments, if we never remembered the history, or the hymns, or the great names, we would still have the reformation.
Because we would still be left with the core of the reformation, and it was in our reading from Romans this morning: For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works. It’s a radical statement that forces re-thinking and re-formation of institutions.
It was radical when Christ lived it out in his ministry: He healed the sick on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the word of God. He touched the unclean and unworthy and extended forgiveness to violators of God’s law. He overturned tables and spoke truth to the religious powers of his day, which ultimately cost him his life.
It was radical when Paul wrote it in Romans: he included all people in his message of Christ’s gospel—Gentile and Jew, women and men, slaves and free. You did not, could not, earn your way into a relationship with God. No one had a leg up on anyone else, for we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works. It didn’t matter if you were a Jew or not, it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, a socialite or an outcast. All people had the same standing before God.
It was radical when Luther made it the cornerstone of his theology: God’s grace is freely given, not something that we earn on account of our good deeds. It is not something that the church can store up and mete out as it sees fit, because it is God’s good pleasure to justify and make righteous all people through faith.
It is radical today. We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works. The danger in having this be the cornerstone of our theology is that we begin to know it too well. We use it as a slogan, put it on signs and t-shirts, and we forget that it is a radical statement. It becomes a tame statement that loses its potency.
Jesus said, in the gospel of John, If you are my disciples and you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free. Freedom here is not about personal independence or autonomy. It’s not about the ability to do whatever we want. If you continue in my word, you will be free. Freedom does not mean that one is free to do what one wants. Rather, freedom means to be bound to a relationship with God, a relationship marked by freedom from sin and death. The truth will make you free.
Two truths: First–All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We say it every Sunday, when we begin our service with confession— “We have turned from you and given ourselves into the power of sin.” It’s another thing that’s in danger of becoming a cliché, because we say it so often and so often by rote. But it bears thinking about.
We are under the power of sin, and cannot free ourselves. It’s not only about small things that we do or don’t do, little wrongs, or even big wrongs. It’s about the orientation of our lives. We get caught in cycles of self-justification, of trying to earn our way by just doing the right things, by being the right people and we focus on ourselves instead of our neighbors. Sin is what keeps us from living our lives as God’s people. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Second truth: We are justified by faith apart from works of the law. If sin holds us back, God sets us free. Free to be in relationship with God, unbound by fears of inadequacy, instead justified and righteous as God’s people. It is a gift from God because of God’s great and undying love for us. We are freed from the need to worry about our standing with God. We are freed from the need to try and earn God’s love. We have it. We will never lose it. If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.
What is the reformation? It was a German priest, nailing some paper to a church door. But it is also the church today, Christians today continuing in Christ’s word and being made free. Amen.