October 31…Let’s Party!
Oct 25, 2020
Text: Romans 3:19-28
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
The big October 31 observance is on Saturday! The warnings are going out from officials to be careful about gathering in large groups during this pandemic, but it is difficult not to celebrate the day. Children and young adults especially enjoy the festivities, and this year October 31 is on a Saturday, and there will be a full moon! What a great day to revel in … Reformation Day!
OH…you thought I was talking about Halloween and the fun of costumes, candy, popcorn balls, caramel apples, and, for some people, beer? Why would I tout that secondary event when the REAL, the primary one, is remembering the day Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, German – October 31, 1517? That was the event that sparked the Reformation and the birth of the Lutheran Church. So…let’s party!
Or…we could simply observe Reformation Sunday. On the Sunday before October 31, some people in some churches, especially if they have the word “Lutheran” in their congregation’s name, at least mention the 16th century monk for whom our denomination is named – Martin Luther. (Please remember that we are not the 20th century civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., who, by the way, was named after the earlier reformer.) I wonder what Martin Luther would want us to focus on about him?
In his book, Martin Luther: A Life, Dr. James A. Nestingen notes that Martin Luther was a man with many reputations. Let me quote some of the dichotomies Dr. Nestingen mentions. “There are those who considered him to be a brilliant interpreter who had discovered the center of the Bible’s message. Some considered him a prophet, like Elijah or John the Baptist, called by God at the end of his days to reform the church.” But Pope Leo X, the leader of the Roman Catholic church called Luther a wild boar ravaging his vineyard. Dr. Nestingen continues, “Was he an ecumenical theologian capable of bringing new life to the church? Or was he a haunted manic-depressive who misunderstood the Catholic tradition and led his followers down a dead-end street? Was he a brilliant poet, hymn writer, and musician who almost single-handedly founded the literary tradition of the German language? Or was he a self-centered loud mouth?” (1)
Some would say “yes” to all of these questions; Martin Luther was a complex man. He once called himself “a bag of maggots, food for worms.” Fortunately, though, being worm food did not keep Luther from his quest to know God, which is at the root of his reform movement and what I want to focus on today.
Martin Luther studied the Bible, particularly the New Testament; he used the Greek version to get as close as possible to the original text. His personal struggle was simply this: he felt condemned by God and unable to do enough or be enough to deserve God’s mercy. It was while he was studying the book of Romans that his life was transformed.
According to Dr. Nestingen, Luther was studying the phrase “the righteousness of God,” which he believed referred to the justice with which God justly punishes sinners. Listen to this explanation by Dr. Nestingen: “Luther felt that he was a sinner; he had no confidence that he had pleased God, no matter how conscientiously he lived the life of a monk and a doctor of Scripture. He was angry with God; he even admitted hating ‘this righteous God.’”
But, then, as he studied, it was as if the lights were turned on. “Luther had finally heard Paul describe how the God who raised Jesus from the dead goes beyond (our) initiative, beyond offer, beyond passive waiting to actually give what has been commanded; to make the believer righteous…. The God who Luther had sought to control with his own ‘understanding or effort’, ‘reason or strength’, had turned on him in sheer, unqualified goodness, promising to make him God’s own.” (2)
That understanding not only changed Martin Luther’s life, but led to the reforming and diversifying the Christian faith and eventually impacted the world. Today we read from the very same passage of Scripture that so transformed Martin Luther’s life. Does it have the same effect on us?
Probably not, since we are so accustomed to being “saved by grace through faith,” or as Paul wrote in today’s passage from Romans, “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.” (Romans 3:23) Even though we know that we somehow fall into the age-old tendency of attempting to justify ourselves.
I recently read a sermon in which Pastor Davis notes that in American Christianity, people often couch that self-justification in religious language and activities. Comparing the 21st century Christian with the believer of Luther’s day, he writes: “What you hear on most Christian radio, what you see on most Christian television, what you get in most Christian churches is the exact same thing (as in the 16th century church).” While both understand that people sin and need help through Jesus, the question is, how do you get it/him?
Pastor Davis goes on: “…it does not matter so much whether you ask (as a contemporary of Luther might have done), “Did a do enough penance?”, or (as a 21st century person might do), “Did I change my life for God?” The questions, “Do I have enough to buy an indulgence?”, the 16th century way to purchase forgiveness, and the 21st century inquiry, “Did I truly give my heart to the Lord?”, are the same. In either case, the focus is on what I do; it is the theology of me. (3)
In other words, our focus is on whether we are righteous enough or have enough faith or been open enough to God’s help; there’s a bar, perhaps not as high as it was in the 16th century, but nevertheless, a bar one has to clear to be saved. NO! NO! NO, there is not. That is not what it means to be saved by grace and to be Lutheran. We are justified by God’s grace as a gift; no decision, no works, no holiness is required or accepted. It’s all about God’s initiative, God’s mercy, God’s unconditional love, not us.
Today we remember Martin Luther and celebrate the birth of the Lutheran Church. But, every day, we live in grace; that was a reality long before Martin Luther and will continue to be true. So…bring out the candy, popcorn balls, and caramel apples and celebrate not just today, but on Saturday too … October 31 - it’s Reformation Day! AMEN
(1) Martin Luther: A Life by James A. Nestingern, 2003 Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, pgs. 8-9
(2) Same as #1, pg. 22