Sermon for Reformation Day, preached on October 31, 2010.
Not so long ago I had a conversation with a Christian who wondered about those Lutherans, especially their educational programs. I told him about us and related about Sunday school and Bible study, but he did not seem interested. Then I talked about catechism class and confirmation and it was catechism class that caught his interest. He saw it as an indoctrination (negative idea) in which we told kids the answers when we should have been equipping them to think for themselves and choose their own answers to life's big questions. I responded that catechism was indeed indoctrination – not to the teachings of men but the embrace of God’s Word and the teaching that alone imparts forgiveness, life and salvation.
This man saw the truth of God's Word as many truths, taught by many different denominations, and the Christian's purpose to find the version of truth that fits you. We all find temptation to see matters of faith as less about truth than about interpretation – as if God's Word were sufficiently vague to make it impossible to know whose take on that Word is genuine and true. We all find certain attraction that we get to decide what Scripture says and what is truth.
I am here today to tell you that this is baloney. The different ways people read God's Word are not merely variations on a theme but radically different Gospels. The Reformation of Luther is not about competing interpretations but about the one Gospel which is true and others which are false. If you read St. Paul's letters, you hear him warn the people against departing from the truth that He delivered to them. He was not offering one version of the truth but the only truth that saves — the truth of Jesus Christ. We face exactly the same challenge today.
Christianity is not the domain of differing but equally true ideas about God. Christianity is not some umbrella religion of many different truths that all claim to be right. Christianity is about the one, true Gospel that has the power to forgive, save, and give eternal life. The other gospels are false gospels that are powerless to do anything for you. Luther's battle was not with a pope or a council but with a false gospel which had robbed the Church of the Word that does what it says, delivers what it promises, and bestows what it speaks.
Lutheran identity is not rooted in an opinion of a man named Luther but in the rediscovery of this one true Gospel at a time when it had long been hidden and distorted by false teachings that deprived it of its power to do what that Gospel promises to do - to forgive our sins, redeem us from death, and impart to us eternal salvation. Lutherans do not proclaim a Lutheran Gospel but the one, true, unchanging Gospel that St. Paul insists is the only truth at all. What is this truth? The article on which the Church stands or falls is justification – how are we saved.
We are saved by grace as the free gift of God in Christ Jesus and not by our works. The truth is that much of what you hear on TV and the popular books hawked as Christian today is nothing less than a religion of works. If you are good enough, you get happiness, health, and wealth today and if you are not, you have to fix what is wrong so that God can give you these things. This is not the Gospel of the cross, of sin and forgiveness, of death and life.
We are saved through faith – not a faith which is the fruit of our reason or intellect or the warm fuzzy of our feelings but the faith that only the Holy Spirit can plant in us, working through the Word and Sacraments, so that we might grasp hold of the cross and trust in Jesus Christ alone. This faith is not about your decision but about God's declaration, not about knowledge or understanding but about trust.
We are saved in Christ – not as one of many messengers whom God has sent whose names may be Moroni or Mohammed but as the one and only Son of God, incarnate by the Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit, who suffered as the innocent for the guilty, died a death that was ours to die and rose to impart to us the life none of us could accomplish for ourselves. Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus – not a teacher or mentor or role model but the Savior whom the prophets promised, who kept the commandments for us, and who alone has the power to cloth us in righteousness and holiness. Without this Jesus, the whole Christian religion falls apart and there is nothing left to hold on to or hope in.
It is not that we Lutherans have an exclusive claim to this truth – we do not. But apart from this exclusive truth, there are no Christians. We gladly affirm those who came before us and those who may not bear the name Lutheran but who confess this saving truth. Yet we also warn that apart from this saving truth, there is no truth that saves, no hope for life over death, and no good but the fleeting pleasure of the moment.
Lutherans confess that this Gospel is the message of Scripture and no other. It is this message that is confessed from Genesis to Revelation. It is this Gospel of Jesus Christ, this Gospel of the cross and empty tomb, and this Gospel of forgiveness, life and salvation that is the one message of the Bible. Scripture cradles the Christ of the manger and cross and empty tomb and without Him its words speak nothing to us.
This is the truth that saves – it is not a consolation for the bad things you have to endure in this life but the hope that sustains you today because by baptism and faith you confess the eternal tomorrow Jesus prepare for you. This is the Word that sets us free from sin, free from fear, and free from the impossible task of being good enough to fix what is wrong with you.
What is the Lutheran difference? In reality, there is none. In our confessions, Lutherans hold in trust the one, true, saving Gospel which is the promise for all but which is always under assault. We are not Lutherans to be different but Lutherans to be faithful to this one saving Gospel. We celebrate the Reformation history because this Gospel could not be silenced, because of the faithful who confessed before the world the faithful truth that still sets us free. We call ourselves Lutheran only because of this heritage of faithfulness and we pledge to do nothing less than faithfully raise up this Gospel and this Christ in our own time.
In our Lutheran Confessions is not our interpretation of the Bible but embodied for all the one truth that belongs to all in Christ. This is the ecumenical truth that alone reforms and unites and saves. We exist as Lutherans for the sake of this one authentic truth in Jesus Christ, to proclaim it to the world and to live it out within the community of God's Word and sacraments. The truth that endures forever!
Robert Capon wrote of this truth in vivid terms in his book From Noon to Three: “The reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two hundred proof grace -- of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the gospel -- after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps -- suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started...Grace has to be drunk straight boys: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, nor the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.”
God help us to stand for this truth today with courage and confidence, to drink deeply of his sweet grace, not to dilute it in any way, nor to allow it ever again to be cast aside in favor of something which is powerless to reach into the abyss of our sin and death with forgiveness and life. This is what the Reformation is about. Then and now. Amen.