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Reformation Day

John 8:31-36

October 29, 2023 (repreached)

Freedom is a word that gets tossed around like candy. The United States is a “free” country. I’m “free” to choose what church I want to go to, or my favorite restaurant, or what to do with my spare time. The slaves have been set “free”; the prisoner has been “freed.” Buy one, get one “free.” Churches and non-profits are tax “free.” 20% more, “free.”

I could go on. The word “free” is such an important, and let’s face it, abused word in our society. And yet with all our freedoms, not many people know what it is to TRULY be free. Oh, they think they’re free because they chose a different gender. They think they’re free because they chose a career or a car or a house or a spouse or chose not to marry at all. But none of these things are truly what it is to be truly free, and in fact some of it is a facet of slavery to sin and the devil.

I want to begin by saying that our idealized, American understanding of freedom, the freedoms that we have as citizens, the freedoms that we have protected in our constitution, the freedom that is protected by our military and our congress and even our president, the freedoms that all people, black or white or red, embrace…. that such freedom is only an image, a pattern, a type of the one true freedom which, in the end, is the only freedom that really matters.

And our Gospel text, as brief as Jesus’ words are, clearly defines for us what this true freedom is all about.

But today we celebrate the Reformation, so we should spend a little time talking about Luther, the reformer who just 500 years ago, revived the true, orthodox teaching of freedom – a teaching that had been buried beneath a “see” of works righteousness and legalism and politics.

Luther was born into a time when God was thought of and taught as…a merciless, wrathful judge. God was one who was always out looking under every bush and rock, desiring vengeance and wrath upon every human being who did wickedness. It’s like the old Johnny Cash song, “You can run on for a long time, Run on for a long time, Run on for a long time, Sooner or later God’ll cut you down.”

And if you didn’t pay for your sins in this life through the sacrament of penance, then you’d certainly pay for it in the quasi-life called purgatory.

Now what was penance – or what IS penance? Penance is that bargaining chip, it’s the way out. You commit heinous sin? Well, say three hail Mary’s, a couple Our Father’s and call me in the morning. Or during Luther’s time, spend a few of your hard-earned dollars on an indulgence, and you can make whatever you want happen in heaven, anything from a lifetime of divine pardon to yanking your favorite family member out of purgatory. Jesus’ forgiveness of sins was controlled by the pope and how much money a person was willing to give for it.

And the reason that penance, to this day, is called a “sacrament” in the Roman church, is because salvation, forgiveness, appeasing God’s court is all about what YOU do. Bear in mind that the definition of “sacrament” in the Roman church is quite different than our definition. This is why I and others continue to insist that there is not much difference between the Roman Catholic church and many mainline protestant or reformed churches in the world. The language may be a little different, but the subject of salvation is the same: you, your works, your actions, your choices, your commitment…you, you, you, you, you. Jesus simply becomes the good coach, the stately symbol, the divine example of how you should be, if you truly want to be saved. In this way of thinking, Jesus becomes YOUR subject; He becomes a weakling controlled by the power of YOUR will.

This is the problem with penance and works of satisfaction in Catholicism and the inner search for God we find in many protestant churches.

Luther would spend much, most of his time trying to free himself from God’s wrath. He was obsessively afraid that God was out to get him for any sin that he did, and that he failed to make up for. It was all about his works and his looking into himself for…something…to comfort him and appease his terrors. But he could never find it.

The man would literally “count his sins” and make absolutely sure that he had confessed every one of them and done his due penance. And even after hearing absolution by the priest, Luther would never feel absolved. Even after all the penance, the prayers, after the pilgrimages to Rome, and the praying up the stairs of the basilica, he was tortured.

After all a God who knew every thought, every word, every deed that Luther had ever thought, said, or did…it was simply impossible for he or anyone to remember every little sin or to do enough penance. The anger, the wrath of God was coming, and Luther believed that there was absolutely no way to escape it. And the church…the church of Luther’s time used this fear to control and manipulate countless people, to literally pick their pockets of every coin they could steal in the name of God.

He’d spend hours in Scripture, hours talking to his father confessor seeking answers, seeking some loophole, some other way of being accepted by God, but he continued to seek God’s acceptance through the lens of God’s anger, God’s wrath, and the divine scales of good and evil which he thought God held in front of him. He continued to seek God within but only found wrath.

Somewhere around 1515, Luther began teaching the Pauline Epistles at the university and he found himself reading the books of Romans and Ephesians and Galatians, and particularly the very first words of the very first chapter of Romans where it says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”

It was here that the Holy Spirit opened Luther’s eyes to understand two very important things:

First, that it’s all about Scripture and Scripture alone. See the problem for Luther was that he was trusting, putting faith in the dogma, the doctrines and traditions of the church, and of the priests, the bishops, and the popes who told him that God’s wrath needed to be bargained with, appeased through his good works. Luther spent the first part of his life thinking that if the Pope says it and it’s what’s taught by the learned in the schools, it must be true. But it was by reading Scripture, hearing the Word of God, that Luther was awakened to THE truth, the freeing truth, which is found nowhere else but in Scripture.

Second, Luther finally, after years of trying to bargain and appease a wrathful, angry God, he finally understood that God was in fact a loving, merciful, and forgiving Father who loved Luther so much that He sent His son to die so that His wrath and justice could be appeased. Luther stopped looking inside, in himself and his eyes were instead opened to the cross.

Luther was set free by that same message that Jesus preached throughout His earthly life, a message that’s EVERYWHERE in Scripture, for the whole message of God to man is one of salvation by grace and grace alone through faith and faith alone. All of this was given, freely through the atoning sacrifice of Christ and Christ alone.

No more penance, no more trying to appease and angry God through bargaining or indulgences. And so, the true reformation, the reformation that really counts, was when the Gospel was once again proclaimed from the lips of Luther and the reformers, out to the people who had so long struggled and fought to appease God through their good works.

Here’s the truth that Luther rediscovered through the power of God’s Holy Spirit:

  1. The law – no one, not Luther, not the Pope, not the president, not me, and none of you can appease God, make God happy, earn His favor by trying to keep the law, because on account of the sinful and spiritually dead state of all humanity, no one is righteous enough, all have sinned, and all fall short of the glory of God. No penance or promises can change that. And in fact, the idea of penance as a means to salvation is a violation of not only the 1st commandment, but 2nd, the 3rd, and really all the rest. We cannot achieve salvation, and the harder we try, the more concrete it is: we can’t do it.
  2. The Gospel – God Himself rescued us from our sin and the eternal consequences of sin. God took on flesh, our flesh, but unlike all of us, God was not born sinful, but He was born without sin – truly God and truly man. He was born the Christ, the Messiah, Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus, and He accomplished what Luther tried so hard to accomplish. Jesus remained obedient to the Father in every way, lived life without sin, without need for penance. He set his journey to the cross, knowing full well that he would face chastisement, pain, and death, but He did it fully knowing and desiring to save His people. And as Isaiah says, by His stripes we are healed.

Now throughout the life of Luther and after, many other things were born from the Reformation. We have a liturgy that isn’t foreign, impossible to understand, that isn’t focused on the clergy but is truly focused on God’s divine service of Word and Sacrament for us.

It’s not a worship practice where man tries to get to God, where man looks inward to find God or feel God, where we have to jump through hoops or do crazy things to “get the Holy Spirit to move among us,” but we just come and we listen and we respond in thankfulness through singing, prayer, offerings, and fellowship.

We have hymns and music richly offering us not only moving tunes but good theology – the teaching of both Law and Gospel, the Trinity, Eternal life, salvation, the Sacraments, and of heavenly things. It’s not just vain, empty, meaningless music to stir us, but it’s music to feed us and teach us and nurture faith in us.

We have a collection of writings that we call the Lutheran confessions or the Book of Concord – texts and confessional proclamations that, like the three Christian creeds, are true to Scripture. We have sacraments – 2 sacraments, some say 3 – which are neither stripped of their value by rationalism nor turned into the musings of the mind by philosophy – the bread and the wine are Christ’s body and blood because this is what Christ says. Baptism saves because this is what Christ says. The absolution truly absolves us of our sins because this is what Christ says.

But most importantly, above all of this, we have true freedom. We don’t have to worry about confessional booths and indulgences and penance or purgatory or trying to win the favor of God. We don’t have to worry about a second mediator between God and man other than Jesus Christ, be that mediator a pope or an experience. We don’t have to worry about the teachings and traditions of some papacy, some church hierarchy telling us what we must believe – no, we have the Word of God the Scripture right here, in our pews, where we can open it up and we can read it, where we can come and hear it in our own language, and where on account of God’s Holy Spirit working in us through faith, we grow and conform to the will of God. Our lives are a true, ongoing reformation! We don’t have to depend on our own strength of will, whether we really meant it when we said, “I decided,” but we rely solely on Christ and His divine will and strength for us.

We don’t have to wake up tomorrow wondering if we’re really saved, worried that our sins have led to God’s losing favor with us, being guilted into going to church for another altar call, another baptism, another public testimony. We simply look to our baptisms and we, by honest repentance and firm faith, exclaim “that is where God made His covenant with me, and God’s ability to set me free from sin and death and the devil is so much stronger than my weaknesses.”

Some have said that the trouble with the Lutheran church is that it is so academic, so much about book knowledge that it leaves out the Spirit. That we worry more about theology than we do about just “letting the spirit move.” Well, I’ll be honest, we do worry more about theology than about “letting the Spirit move,” because we believe that it is from Scripture and Scripture alone that God’s Holy Spirit feeds us and teaches us and enlightens us. So, we certainly do believe in “letting the Spirit move,” but we also believe that the Spirit only “moves” within the work, word, and wisdom of God in Christ. God the Holy Spirit isn’t out doing His own thing and working separately than the Word because He IS God – same essence and same will.

See, it’s all about freedom, and freedom is all about the truth. And the Holy Spirit is all about freedom, and also all about the truth. We have been set free, released, lifted out of the prison of sin and death. No freedom in the world, in the universe can match that!

And the fact is that no opinion, no tradition, no philosophies of church leaders, religious leaders or academic leaders, and it matters not how popular they are or how many books they sell, can give the freedom that Christ has fully given each of us. And I am one who loves traditions, but traditions won’t set us free. I am one who admires philosophy, but it doesn’t set us free. I am one who considers history, but history doesn’t set us free. I am a church leader, but I can’t set you free. But it is only the living and active truth in Christ that sets us free, and we are indeed free on account of the truth.

Any truth, and teaching, any gospel other than Christ and His death and resurrection – they will lead you to despair and to fear and, like Luther, to an endless effort of bargaining and working for salvation. “Did I pray hard enough, did I give enough, did I say enough kind things, do enough kind things, did I really mean it when I said the Our Father…, did I present myself to others in a truly pious, reverent way, did I really ‘feel’ the Spirit or was that just this morning’s breakfast…” that’s not freedom.

But when the Son sets you free, you are free indeed! Free from guilt, free from the opinions and attitudes of those around you who think they know what they’re talking about, free from the eternal consequence of sin, and free to be the son or daughter, the child of God that He is lovingly molding you to be. People might think things or say thing about you – right or wrong it doesn’t matter – you are free; you are God’s and who cares what anyone thinks about you and your freedom.

We might live in nation where our freedoms are being taken away moment by moment – it doesn’t matter – you are free!

You might struggle with an illness, a disease, a condition that debilitates you – you can trust and know and rely on the God-promised fact that even so, you are free. “It is well with my soul,” right?

And here’s the simplicity of it, and I know our human nature fights against this to the bitter end: Each and every one of you is free – set free from the guilt of sin and the sting of death because God has proclaimed it to be so. This is the truth – this is the Word which has rewritten your reality – YOU ARE FREE! Amen.