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Reformation Sunday 2017

Luther posted thesis for debate on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. I post cartoons on my study door. Not quite the same thing.

My most recent one (copied from Facebook) shows Luther at that church door with a big hammer. Others are looking on. Luther is saying, “No, the door is fine. It’s your theology which needs fixing!”

Day after tomorrow, on October 31st, will be the 500th anniversary of that date in 1517 when Luther fixed theology! His 95 thesis, which he posted there in the academic tradition of inviting debate, were 95 reasons why selling indulgences was a bad idea. The church had commoditized forgiveness. It had devised this really ingenious system of paying your way out of purgatory, or paying dead Uncle Fred’s way out of purgatory. Not only could you buy forgiveness for all the sins you had ever committed, but you could buy forgiveness for all the sins you would commit in the future… a sort of “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

Luther said this was a bad idea and he had scripture to back him up. He based his entire argument on Paul’s theology of grace as put forth in those very words from Romans we heard in today’s second reading: “…since 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.” Luther corrected their theology which said that it is our good works and deeds which save us. No, he said. It is the grace of God - alone – which saves us. We receive it by faith. Alone.

Well, the church didn’t take well to that and eventually kicked Luther out. The Lutherans, in return, formalized their own confession of faith which contained condemnations of Catholic doctrine. The Catholics, then at the Council of Trent, condemned the Lutherans. So, for just about five Centuries the Lutherans and Catholics had lived under these mutual condemnations. I grew up when Reformation Sunday was a time to give the Pope a little hell. Maybe you did, too.

Well, you will be glad to know that things have changed. The observation of this 500th anniversary of the Reformation actually started a year ago in Lund, Sweden, where the Lutheran World Federation joined Pope Frances in the Joint Commemoration of the Reformation. We will be gathering at the National Cathedral this afternoon for a service of commemoration of the Reformation. But notice the subtle wording. We are commemoratingthe Reformation. Not celebrating it. This is intentional. A year ago, with Pope Frances, we began this super-jubliee year with repentance and confession as well as an affirmation of justification by grace through faith. We also made a mutual commitment to keep on the path of reconciliation and to work together.

When we look back on the Reformation we tend to see Lutherans as the good guys and the Catholics as the bad guys. We forget that, after the Lutherans split from the Catholics, the Anabaptists split from us and suffered persecution from us including some who were burned at the stake or drowned for their belief in adult baptism by immersion.

We no longer “celebrate” our division from our mother church. Now we acknowledge that reformation is an ongoing process of admitting that we all get it wrong sometimes and are in constant need of correction. Lutherans and Catholics have both rescinded those historic condemnations of each other. More importantly, Lutherans and Catholics, in 1999, actually signed an agreement on the doctrine of justification by faith – the very thing which had split us 500 years ago.

So, the truth of the matter – the truth – is that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God … just as Paul told the Romans. That’s the truth. Jesus said, “Know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. I have always preached the spiritual meaning of those words. That is, if you know the truth that Christ, on the cross, has won victory for us over sin, death, and the devil, then you will be made spiritually free. But, I’ve been just waiting for this verse to surface again because, just once, I’d like to say something about the civic meaning of, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

The hidden significance lies behind the good news that we shall know the truth. It is an overtone to it. The hidden and timely significance for us in the civic and political morass in which we find ourselves is that there is truth. Truth exists. Truth is real. The post-modernists have it wrong – truth isn’t just what we perceive, imagine, or remember. Truth is a reality outside of us. Certain things did happen in history. Facts are real. I’ve just finished re-reading 1984 in which the main character, Winston, is brainwashed into believing the 2+2 = 5 because Big Brother says it does. I’ve spent a good portion of my preaching career reminding people that there are grey areas in life. But grey only makes sense if black and white really exist. Daily we are asked to believe that truth is fake and that falsehoods are true. We are asked to believe that things will happen simply because someone has promised that they will happen.

Will, this verse has surfaced and it will be awhile before it surfaces again, so let me say one more time: “Know the truth and the truth shall make you free” is wonderful because it proclaims our salvation. But it is also wonderful because it assuresus that truth exists and it begs us to know it.

This coming Tuesday, October 31st, on All Hallows Eve, on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation from 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (Eastern Daylight Time) there will be a live broadcast of Reformation Day worship throughout the world, from all regions of the Lutheran World Federation. The first service will be broadcast from Denmark. Then will follow services from Tanzania, Germany, Hungary, Hong Kong, the United States, and Argentina.

We’re in the spirit here, too, as we sing “A Mighty Fortress” and proudly display our red paraments. The cathedral service this afternoon should be exciting. But let’s not celebrate. Let’s commemorate. Let’s confess that we continually – all of us – fall short of the glory of God and stand in need of his redeeming – and reforming – grace.

And finally, it wouldn’t be a Reformation sermon without a quote from a famous Lutheran theologian. And so, I close with the words of that eminent systematician, Rick Steves, who has said, “I’m a Lutheran because it fits my personality—pack light, keep it simple, embrace life. Celebrate diversity. Jettison needless rules. Stand up to authority when the truth needs a hand. And dance through the blessing of life on earth like a child in God’s eyes.”

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