A History Lesson in Grace
Oct 31, 2021
Text: Romans 3: 19-28
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Happy Reformation Day! It is not just Reformation Sunday, but the actual day since it was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. That was the spark that ignited the historical event known as the Reformation. Oh, how I long for that one youth who will make it clear to his or her friends that October 31 is not just Halloween, but the birthday of the Lutheran church. And, for all intents and purposes, all protestant faiths. This period is so important that units on it are taught in college-level history classes.
Of course, the star of the Reformation is Martin Luther. This week I was thinking about that ice breaker in which people are asked if they could spend an hour with a famous person, living or dead, who would that be, and why. Other than Jesus, my standard answer is Mother (now Saint) Theresa of Calcutta. But perhaps my response should be Martin Luther. One thing is for sure, that would not be a boring hour, although my dislike of beer might be a severe disappointment to him. I'm hoping he would not be disappointed with the state of the church he founded, but that might be hoping too much.
A couple weeks ago, Martin Luther was the topic in the Learning Saturday for the Confirmation class. We watched portions of the movie "Luther" with Joseph Fiennes starring in the title role. It's a great movie, now about 20 years old, and a good representation of the events in Germany in the early 16th century that transformed the church and the world. A little history lesson does not hurt us now and then, so here goes: my favorite scene took place at the Diet (or Hearing) of Worms in 1521, four years after that fateful October day in 1517.
During those years, Martin Luther wrote extensively and studied scripture diligently, using Hebrew and Greek, the original languages in which the Bible was written. His sermons, pamphlets, and books detailed what he perceived to be the abuses by the Roman Catholic Church of his day. The newly invented printing press spread these documents throughout the empire. Finally, in June of 1520, the Pope had had enough. He published a document, called a Papal Bull"; that listed 41 errors of Luther, demanding that he publicly renounce them and submit himself to the church's authority or be excommunicated. Excommunication carried the penalty of torture or death by civil authorities. Luther not only did not submit, but he publicly burned the "Bull" and told his followers that in condemning his teachings, the Pope and condemned the Gospel itself.
Luther was a threat, not only to the Roman Catholic Church but to the Holy Roman Empire. He was summoned to a hearing in the German city of Worms by Emperor Charles V. He was afraid, even though his Duke, Frederick the Wise, had brokered a promise of safe passage. At the hearing, 25 titles of his writing were read out loud, the contents of them proclaimed as heresy. Would he renounce them? He asked for time to respond and was given until the next day.
In the movie I mentioned, Luther is depicted as struggling with Satan through the night, but his words reveal his self-recrimination for not speaking up immediately and for allowing his fear to overwhelm him. I am always moved at the scene in the movie when he lies on the floor, arms out as if he is on a cross, at puts himself in God's hands.
The next day he stood before the most powerful people of his time and proclaimed that his conscience was captive to God's Word and unless his accusers could prove him wrong through scripture or sound reason, he would not recant. "Here I stand," it's believed he said, "I can do no other." It does not matter how often I see that event portrayed. It always gives me chills. Obviously, there is a lot more to the story, but here we are 504 years later – Lutherans.
I wonder if I would have Martin Luther's courage in the face of huge odds. Would I be so convicted of the truth, after years of studying scripture and prayer, that I would take such risks? Obviously, there are many historical reasons that the time was right for Luther's reform efforts. Also, unfortunately, there are aspects of his teaching and writing that are not deserving of praise and had a harmful result. Still, in 2021, are there people to whom faith matters that much who are so concerned about the faithful representation of scripture that they would take risks, and would their words stand the test of time?
Today, as we do every Reformation Sunday, we read Romans 3:19-28, which is one of the passages that transformed Martin Luther's life. He called it "the chief point, and the very central place of the epistle, the whole Bible." In this passage, the Apostle Paul places everyone on an even field. He wants the reader to understand that unrighteousness is the universal human condition. It affects every part of what it means to be human.
No one has been faithful. No one has kept the law, that is, the rules and teachings of the faith. While the law helps us see our failure and helps us identify how we need God's forgiveness, it cannot save us. (In other words, there is nothing we can do to earn or deserve God's forgiveness.)
Martin Luther's entire life and belief were turned upside down when he studied this section of Romans 3 and came to realize that it is not our actions that lift us, but God's righteous one, Jesus. Everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike, writes Paul, access Jesus' righteousness through faith, not works. Any boasting we do is in the object and perfector of our faith: Jesus. It isn't in what we know, or what we do, or who we are. We are saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus.
Just think, my friends, Martin Luther's devotion to faith alone, grace alone, word alone changed the world. On this Reformation Day, then, I want to close with the words of Martin Luther himself. From his writing, "On the Freedom of a Christian," one of those which he was called upon on recant. Imagine being a 16th Century believer who has been taught that one must earn by behavior or purchase of an indulgence God's mercy, but it will never be enough. Then you hear these words:
"If you truly believe how sinful you are, you will despair of yourself entirely. But in order that you may be saved from yourself and out of yourself – that is, out of ruin – God presents to you his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and bids you, through his living and comforting word, to yield yourself to him with a cheerful heart. For the sake of such faith, your sins will be forgiven, your ruin overcome, and you will be just and true, content and devout, fulfilling all his commandments, and set free from all things." (1)
Thank-you, Brother Martin. AMEN
(1) Martin Luther: Day by Day we Magnify You, selected from the writings of Martin Luther, Marshall D. Johnson, Editor, Augsburg Books, 2008, pg. 427