A Sermon for Reformation Day

On October 31st, 1517 the "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” was posted on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany. We know it as Luther’s 95 Theses. The thoughts of this then little known pastor and professor would eventually reach the Pope himself, and light the fuse of the Reformation. In doing so, Luther shows us that sometimes the most God-glorifying thing to do is not to sit quiet and honor authority but to speak your mind and question it. He showed the world that sometimes, when just one mouth is opened and one hand is raised, the entire world can change.

There are moments in life where you just have to speak up. There are moments where so much is at stake, something so egregiously wrong is taking place that the option of keeping your mouth closed and your opinion to yourself is impossible to rationalize. There are certain moments, certain situations where you think “I know someone is going to be upset but I just have to say something!” So you muster the courage and say, “Are you there? It’s me. We need to talk.”

Have you ever been there? And then, just as you feared, once you open your mouth your words spark a much bigger deal than you’d ever intended. Those moments are fun, aren’t they?

If you can relate, then you know exactly how a little known pastor and college professor, in the modest town of Wittenberg Germany felt after tacking his 95 Theses to the main doors of the local Catholic Church.

The man was Martin Luther. The day was All Hollow’s Eve—the pre-cursor to what we now celebrate as Halloween. Martin knew that on this day the villagers, students and fellow college faculty would file through those church doors for a special mass and that while entering some would stop to read his pastoral thoughts on problems in the Church at large. Martin wasn’t the first to post things in this manner. Church doors were commonly used as a community bulletin board of sorts. Today he might have posted it on a blog and pointed his peers to it via Twitter.

He wasn’t doing anything that wasn’t done a hundred times before. To be fair, he must have known that this would eventually get the attention of some people in power—perhaps even the Pope. It was, in some ways a means of tapping the powers-at-be on the shoulder and saying, “Hey there it’s Martin. We need to talk.” But he certainly could not have imagined it would spark a revolution that is still ringing loud and strong nearly 500 years later.

Today is the 498th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg Germany; an event that sparked what we know as the Protestant Reformation.

But at the Genesis of this history-shaping, world-changing, and Jesus-focused revolution was one man, one pastor, who saw simply saw something wrong and offered a solution. He was a man who believed that every once in a while something is so bad that you simply can’t stay silent. Sometimes you have to speak up. And we’ve all been there.

Now, perhaps you already know this, but something we have to understand is that the Christian church in Luther’s day was a much different deal than it is today. While you and I live in world where Christianity is like ice cream, full different flavors for different tastes, it was the exact opposite some 500 years ago. Catholicism was the only game in town. Plus, church and state were so closely mixed that the church at the time had significant political power in almost every town. And lastly, rather than a common understanding that God’s Word was to be upheld as the highest authority, in Luther’s day the office of Pope was often given the ultimate say.

Now to be fair, Pastor Luther apparently had little problem with much of what was just mentioned, but one reading of his 95 Theses will tell you that he had become incredibly concerned that amidst the church’s massive influence something of massive importance had gotten lost—or at the very least become obscured. What might that be, you wonder? Just a little something we like to think of as the Gospel.

In 2nd Thessalonians we hear Paul commending the Christians gathered in Thessalonica. He applauds their growing faith in Christ and their visible love for one another. Faith and love that are blossoming despite intense persecution and public scorn over their devotion to Jesus. And their steadfastness in the fight of faith has drawn Paul to pray even harder for his friends.

In particular Paul prays that God would continue to mature them in the faith, that he would enable all of their faith filled efforts to succeed, that His power would be put on display through their good work and that as a result Jesus Christ would get massive amounts of glory both in their believing hearts and in their unbelieving town. And in these few words, from one church planting pastor to his persecuted people, we can hear the very message, the very Gospel, that Martin Luther rightly feared forgotten.

You see in Luther’s day there was little preaching by pastors and almost no Bible study amongst the people. In the fifteenth century most pastors were ill trained or not trained at all. Knowledge of the Scriptures was considered something for university professors and parish pastors were seen as largely perfunctory, best used for walking the public through mass and hearing personal confession. Likewise, amongst everyday churchgoers literacy was rather uncommon, and even if one could read and write in German the Bibles that were available were offered only in Latin.

It’s no wonder the message of God’s work on behalf of the world Jesus Christ had become more frighteningly hidden than your 8-year-old in his high dollar Halloween costume. With the Scriptures largely un-preached and the people mostly unaware, the focus shifted off of Jesus and onto us. That is, rather than a message of grace that glorified God’s Son, it became a message of works that put the burden of salvation upon God’s people.

Church officials sold indulgences claiming it set sinful souls free from purgatory and into the arms of Christ, all the while allowing the church to build fancier digs. The message that was preached was more a mix of mathematics and personal morality. Grace plus good works is what got in the door. Yes, Christ died on the cross, but in order to be assured of salvation, one had to also do their best. But God’s Word told Luther, and tells us, something drastically different. 

We see it in Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians. Look closely at his words. Who is it that makes us worthy? It’s God. (v. 11) Who is the One who will fulfill our efforts and be the power behind even our puniest of works? It’s God. (v.11) Who is the one that receives all of the glory and has earned for us God’s gracious attitude? It’s Jesus. (v.12)

The true Gospel is this: We’re too broken and messed up to stand in God’s presence but He makes us worthy to walk to in is love. We’re weak and unable to do what is right, but God in His goodness provides us with power. We don’t deserve such gifts yet He showers us in grace. Most of all, none of it can be earned. Therefore, Christ has claimed it for us through His death on the cross. God does all of the work. We reap all of the reward and Jesus gets every ounce of the glory. Salvation is ours to receive but it is not ours to earn. Our right standing with God as members of his family is given to us as a gift, we are passive receivers—not active earners.

Studying these words and reflecting on this point history should give us, as a church pause. Are we the kind of church where people feel safe to share their opinions? Are we a safe place for members and guests to raise their hands and ask “why” we teach certain things, do worship in a certain way, or what it is we believe about a particular topic or issue? How would we as a church community respond if one us pointed out flaws in yours truly, a truth that’s neglected or a people group that’s forgotten? Would we welcome it with dialogue? Would we shut it down out of pride?

Likewise, it’s good for us to use these words and this day to examine how well we’ve personally absorbed and live in the Gospel. Is there a part of you that still believes you must earn a right standing in God’s eyes or at least prove that you really want, really long, for His love? When you do something good are you picturing in your mind some kind of karmic scale that you’re trying to tip in your favor? Are your efforts to be a decent dad, a patient mom or a good son flowing toward your salvation, as if to secure it, or from your salvation as a joyful response to it? Good questions.

For Luther such questions were essential to assuring that the church universal—and us as the church local—are walking in the freeing light of grace, not under the evil burden of believing God’s love is contingent upon our works. And while some argued that such a Jesus-centered, grace-alone view of salvation would lead to lazy and licentious followers of Christ, Luther rightly proclaimed the opposite. In fact, he would later teach that such an understanding was key to what Paul referred to in today’s text as works that give the greatest glory to Jesus!

From his lectures on Galatians Luther writes this, “When I have this [passive] righteousness within me, I can descend from heaven like the rain that makes the earth fertile. That is, I come forth into another kingdom and I perform good works whenever the opportunity arises.”

Later, in his work on the book of Romans Luther would say this: “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all other creatures…without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him his grace.”

For Luther this was a message so freeing, so wonderful, and so good for the world that if it was being twisted, forgotten or fought against something simply had to be said, even it would get him in trouble. You’ve been there. We’ve all been there. And boy, did it get him in trouble.

After posting his list on the door of his local church Luther would later be forced to appear at hearings and give numerous accounts of all he believed. The pressure weighed on Luther who—at the Diet of Worms in 1521—was told to recant his teachings or face the prospect of death. This was his response: “Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." His refusal eventually led to his being booted from the church and forced to live in hiding—under the condemnation of Popes and Emperors and the constant threat of execution at the stake.

But a funny thing happens when you stand up and speak the truth. Even if those in charge don’t agree, the rest of the world standing near you still hears it. They can believe it. They can join you in sharing it and fighting for it. That’s exactly what happened with Martin Luther. Others saw we the message he’d rediscovered in the Scriptures and the abuses he noted in the church. Suddenly what started with a lengthy note from one pastor to a powerful Pope became a massive movement championing the message of grace. 

Though in hiding most of his remaining years Luther would keep on writing—seeing to it that the truth of Christ made its way into the hands of and hearts of everyday people. He would go on to translate the entire Bible into German and would coordinate a German language mass, both firsts. His greatest joy was the completion of a catechism—or an overview of Christian doctrine and life—which was intended to help dads teach the basics of following Jesus to their kids. That same catechism Luther and others would eventually take from house to house in an effort to personally pastor the people.

There are moments in life where you just have to speak up. There are certain moments, certain situations where you think, “I know someone might be mad or disagree but I just have to say something!”

May we be a people who welcome those moments when they arise in others. May we be people who in the face of injustice, error, and oversight can’t sit still. Most of all may the unwavering confidence we have in God’s grace drive us to do good, loving, selfless, joyous, Jesus-glorifying things. Let it free us to serve our neighbors, share our goods, and when necessary to speak our minds. Why? Becomes sometimes doing so can change the world.

“Are you there Pope? It’s me, Martin. We need to talk.” Amen

(This sermon was originally published in Homiletics, an on-line resource to pastors.)