Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-10; Romans 5:1-2, 6-11
Today we are celebrating the Protestant Reformation at 500. Day after tomorrow is the precise 500th anniversary of its triggering event. It was on October 31, 1517, that an obscure German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, challenged the established church to debate several doctrines he found to be grossly un-Biblical and pernicious. Why is it important for us to observe this anniversary? Because, as Scottish historian Harry Reid puts it, the Protestant Reformation brought about “the dangerous birth of the modern world.”
We just heard a verse from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, that “the proof of God’s amazing love is this: While we still were sinners Christ died for us. That verse spoke powerfully to young Martin Luther. It changed everything. Because he had been schooled in a totally different reading of God’s ways with us.
Luther was raised in the piety of the Middle Ages. This meant that he was continually preoccupied with his sinfulness, God’s judgment, and the problem of his personal salvation. The medieval church alternately played on people’s hopes and fears: hope that they would attain bliss in heaven, and dread that they would instead be consigned to eternal punishment in hell. The sensitive Christian was plummeted into a constant state of anxiety. Young Martin was a particularly sensitive and troubled Christian.
In terms of the theology he learned, he knew he was in the wrong before God. The more he pondered all he had done that he ought not to have done, all he should have done but hadn’t, the more he knew that God was even more aware of his sin and guilt than Martin was himself. Since God is “of purer eyes than to behold iniquity,” Luther could come to only one conclusion: Before God, he didn’t stand a chance.
Now, the medieval church had a solution for Martin’s problem: You could become “justified” – that is law-court language; it means you could be acquitted – (acquitted) by doing certain beneficial things to make yourself more pleasing to God. You could be justified before God, the judge, by doing good works. And there were many “works” that a medieval Christian could do. But most valuable of all, you could elevate yourself, not remaining an ordinary, run-of-the-mill Christian. Instead, you could become a nun or a monk. And that is what young Martin did. Here is how it happened.
When he was a teenager, one night he was terrified during a thunderstorm. Lightning struck nearby. Fearing for his life, and even more for his soul, Martin Luther fell on his knees, and cried out a vow to God that he would take holy orders – would become a monk – if he was spared. He was. And off to the monastery he went.
At first, Martin felt at peace. But his turmoil returned when he led his first mass. He was suddenly stupefied in recognizing that he, a puny, guilty creature, was daring to address Almighty God. At once, he redoubled his efforts to become more worthy.
There were other “works” that a Christian could do. You could do charitable acts. You could pray special prayers, and beat on yourself – whip yourself – mortifying your flesh. You could go on pilgrimages. You could fast. So Martin did all that. But still felt no relief.
He turned to the sacrament of penance for help. And when Martin placed his hope in penance, he did it with all his might. He would confess his sins for six hours at a time. His confessor once became so exhausted that he cried out through the screen: “Brother Martin, if you are going to confess so much, why don’t you go out and do something worth confessing? Why don’t you kill your father or mother, instead of trotting out all these baby sins?”
So for Martin, doing “good works” just didn’t work. No matter how much he did, the nagging questions remained: Have I done enough? Shouldn’t I have done more? Am I worthy of forgiveness yet? Martin couldn’t be sure. He was worse off at the end than he had been at the beginning.
* * * *
Martin Luther’s problem stemmed from the church’s theology. It could be a problem also for some of us, emphasizing “good works” as much as we do. For instance, consider tonight, when a number of us will be feeding fifty homeless neighbors through PADS. But I trust that none of us believes that, by doing loving deeds, we are somehow saving ourselves. That misunderstanding – the oppressive error of “works righteousness” – was what Brother Martin aimed to help us get over.
Here’s how it happened for him: Martin Luther finally discovered, through his long spiritual struggle, that he himself could do nothing about his problem, and that God had done everything. He rediscovered Amazing Grace. It was in the fall of 1513 – when he was teaching Bible classes, first on the Psalms, and then on Romans – that he found the answer.
In the Scriptures, he found that God is the gracious, merciful God, that God does not require that we first become worthy people before loving us, but that God loves us even when – even though – we don’t deserve it. God loves the un-worthy. “While we still were sinners, Christ died for us.”
A great burden was lifted off of Martin Luther’s shoulders. The oppression of his soul, of his life, dissolved. In and through the Bible, and particularly in the letters of Paul, he rediscovered the heart of Christian faith: “While we still were sinners, Christ died for us.”
And so, on October 31 in 1517, Brother Martin walked to the front of the castle church at Wittenberg, in Germany, and tacked up on the cathedral doors ninety-five theses – ninety-five arguments – that he wanted to bring to church leadership’s attention for debate and for the potential re-formation of the church’s teaching. The medieval church wasn’t ready for his message. Not then. Although it is now. And we are its liberated inheritors and beneficiaries.
Now, let me be clear. Luther’s argument was with the medieval church, not the current Roman Church. Contemporary Catholicism has learned from the Reformation. So much so that, in our time, among the most eloquent proponents of justification by grace through faith have been Hans Küng and Henri Nouwen, both theologians of the Roman tradition.
* * * *
Now, I realize, all that I have said may come across as a mere church history lesson. About the past. But it’s much more than that. Luther’s gains are always at risk. Christian self-satisfaction and complacency can always tip us into works-righteousness. But even more, the Reformation story is germane because we are in a similar time right now.
Phyllis Tickle, in her important little book, The Great Emergence, says that about every 500 years the Church finds it necessary to hold a giant rummage sale. It has to clean out the attic. Some things are important to keep. But the church needs to dispense with things that used to be treasures, but no longer are, are no longer are compelling. The practices and customs of older generations have lost their traction. The new must be allowed to emerge. 500 years before the Protestant Reformation, there was the Great Schism when East and West came apart, Orthodoxy separating from Catholicism, Byzantium from Rome. 500 years later, “the dangerous birth of the modern world” what we call the Reformation. And now, 500 years after that, we are in a new time of great upheaval. The certainties of modernity have fallen apart. We find ourselves in a post-modern era. The Christian mega-narrative no longer holds sway in our culture. The verities and pieties with which many of us were raised are no longer persuasive. Just one example, what did everybody do on Sunday mornings sixty years ago when Trinity UCC began? Well, that time is over. Habit and duty no longer serve. What now? How shall we reinvent ourselves? Or better, how might God’s Spirit reinvent us?
There are probably two main ways of looking at this cultural transition. We can see it as tragedy. Or we can see it as challenge and opportunity. God-given challenge and opportunity. Our tradition helps us here. Theologian Paul Tillich extracted from our history what he called “the Protestant Principle,” which is that we are finite, not infinite; mortal, not immortal; sinners, not saints; fallible, not infallible. Protestantism, at its essence, is a protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality. We are “The Church, Reformed, and [thus] always re-forming.” Being re-formed. The Reformation must continue. Which really is our guide here at Trinity UCC with all these things are before us in a transitional time.
* * * *
Now, this wasn’t exactly the sermon your stewardship committee had in mind for this season. We dedicate our pledges for 2018 two weeks from today. So let me pause with a brief aside. Martin Luther used to say “There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the mind, and the purse.” The third conversion, he suggested, may be the most difficult one. Now, does that mean our pledges for Christ’s ministries through the church are means to our salvation? No. That would be “works righteousness.” That Luther struggled to overcome. No. Our giving and our pledges express our gratitude to God.
* * * *
In conclusion, I have a gift to share with you. It’s the mature Luther’s definition of faith. This is what Christianity became for him after he had re-learned God’s love for us beyond what we are, and despite how we are. “Faith,” he wrote, “[Faith] is a lively, reckless confidence in the grace of God.” Can you remember that. It’s worth committing to memory. Can you say it with me, Luther’s definition of faith? “Faith is a lively, reckless confidence in the grace of God.” Amen.
- with thanks to Roland Bainton and Robert McAfee Brown
For me, the intersection of faith and life is full of insight and surprise. Browse here for sermons and other sacred and profane ponderings.