Below is my sermon from Sunday, October 29, Reformation Sunday! This year (today actually) marks 500 years since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which in Lutheran circles meant lots of festivity, pomp, and considering what our past means for our present and future.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Happy Reformation Sunday! As we approached this day, the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther posting the ninety-five theses in Wittenberg and beginning what we now call the Protestant Reformation, I wondered what there could be for me to say on this morning.
So much has been said about the religious, cultural, and political change that Martin Luther began 500 years ago. Posting his 95 Theses, asking for debate and change in a church that he was part of, a church that he loved, Martin Luther got a lot more than he bargained for. He asked the church to consider its teaching about how people become justified in God’s sight. He asked the church to consider its impact on its most vulnerable members.
He wanted change and reform, but he never wanted division and schism. But his ideas took off, and they changed the face of Christianity, of Europe, of politics. There have been movies, PBS specials, new books, podcasts, and articles. I loved it; I loved hearing about Luther and Lutherans in the news and pop culture. But I wondered, what could be left to say after all of that?
On this Reformation Sunday, we look back on all of that—on all of the history, change, important movements in the church and in culture—but at the same time, we are not historians. We are not sociologists. We are the church, the body of Christ right now. And so, as we look back and remember and give thanks, at the same time we must lean forward, into what it means to be a Reformation people today and in the future. And what a wonderful day it is that we celebrate the future of the church with two baptisms of Mia and Tyler.
Looking back, and leaning forward. This passage from the Gospel of John is always read on Reformation because it has a lot to say, not only about Lutheran theology, but to us right now. Jesus, speaking to a group of people who believe in him says, “if you continue in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
There’s a somewhat humorous aspect to their response: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” It seems they were forgetting about that time in Egypt. They were forgetting about the Babylonians, and the Greeks, and the Romans who were currently ruling over them.
But as much as we can chuckle at Jesus’ disciples and their selective memory, this idea of being enslaved and not knowing it, of needing to be made free, plays out time and again. In Luther’s day, it was what kicked off the whole Reformation. People thought that they could make themselves free from sin. Encouraged by the Church at that time, they believed that if they gave enough money—bought an indulgence, a papal assurance of salvation in exchange for money—or if they did enough good works, then they would be free. They had the power to control their own freedom. The ninety-five theses that Luther posted in 1517 were meant to start a debate around this very issue.
But we are not immune to the same struggles today. We may not be buying indulgences, but we too join in with the selective memory: “What do you mean we need to be made free, Jesus? We are the theological descendants of Luther! We understand that it all depends on God!” And yet, how often do we act differently?
The truth that will set us free actually requires two truths. The truth about ourselves and the truth about God. In the words of Alcoholics Anonymous literature: the truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.
The truth of the Son, the truth that makes you free, the truth at the heart of the ninety-five theses, is that we are sinners. From our Romans reading, we are reminded that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It is not an easy truth to hear. We are God’s fallen, sometimes flailing, regularly confused, always imperfect children from birth to death.
No amount of indulgences, or good works, or good intentions, or job promotions, or good grades, or likes, or friend requests, none of it can redeem us from that simple fact. It’s the truth, even if we don’t like to admit it.
But the second truth follows from it: we are also those sinners who are simultaneously God’s beloved children, those sinners whom God calls blessed and holy, those sinners whose futures are not determined by regrets from the past but by the possibility created by the resurrection.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” The truth will set you free: free from the bounds of sin, free from the worries of being enough, or doing enough, of always struggling to be good enough. The truth will set you free: you are enough, because you are God’s beloved child. That is what we will proclaim over Mia and Tyler today. And nothing more than that is ever needed to be enough for God.
As we look back today, we remember the wonderful inheritance of the Reformation. The discovering anew of God’s grace and love. But as we lean forward, we realize that it still applies to us today, just as new as it was five hundred years ago.
May this Reformation Day, may this momentous anniversary, be a reminder to you not just of the past, and where we have come, but may it serve as a reminder of God’s grace to you now, and the hope that remains before us. Amen.