Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”John 8:31-32
Every year we set apart a day on our church calendar to celebrate Reformation Sunday, and this is the day. We always do this on the last Sunday in October because it was on October 31st that Martin Luther first nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and began what we now call the reformation. But what does the reformation mean to us today, 505 years later? Why do we still celebrate it?
It is always good, I think, to revisit this question, of why to celebrate an event that took place so long ago. It has been said that the church must always always be reformed – ecclesia semper reformanda – and I certainly agree with that. But to know how the church needs to be reformed, we need to know something about why it needed to be reformed in the first place, don’t we?
And that is what I want to focus on today: Why was the reformation needed then, and why does it still matter now? In a way, the reason is actually very simple: The church had gotten away from the basic message of the gospel. The good news of God’s saving love in Jesus sometimes doesn’t seem like enough, so the church can be tempted to add on to it. To me, that is why the reformation was needed in Luther’s day, and why it still matters now: Because the gospel still matters now.
What Won’t Save Our World
The world today is in a bit of a mess, I think we can fairly say. And we might wonder what in the world will fix it. What will set our world on the right path? What will save us from the mess we are in? What gives us hope? In what (or in whom) should we place our faith?
There are a lot of competing answers to these questions. And before we get to the answer at the heart of this day, let me offer a few other answers that are given in our world, for a way out of this mess.
First, there is science. Science is a reasonable place to put our hope, isn’t it? Whether it is in chemists who bring us new medicines and the promise of better health, or economists who bring us new jobs and the promise of financial security, we often put our hope in science.
The Star Trek shows and movies offer a vision of a world where scientific progress has eradicated many of the problems we face. (Maybe that is one of the reasons they are still so popular.) We all hope for a world where these problems are fixed, and often we hope that scientific progress will do that. But we can’t “progress” our way out of this mess.
Science is not our savior. Science can do many good things. It is important. It matters. But it cannot save us.
So, how about politics? That is another place we turn to find answers to the problems we face in our world today. This is often what our world believes will fix the mess we are in. All of our news media seem to be fueled by this belief, that politics is either the problem or the solution.
Earlier this week, I re-read a sermon preached on Reformation Day in the early 1980s by the Lutheran professor and theologian, Carl Braaten. And in this sermon he reflects on the state of the world in the ‘80s that sounds similar to the way it is now. He specifically talks about politics as a false source of hope, but one that we often turn to. He says:
“Politics has become the new shape of religion in the world. In Luther’s day people somehow poured their religious energies and loyalties into their churches. Then came the religious wars, the Enlightenment and the resulting secularization of the modern states. What happened was that vast numbers of people transferred their religious hopes and commitments from the church to secular politics. Politics became their religion … The political party [he concludes] has taken the place of the church.”
I don’t think that these words are any less true now than they were 40 years ago. They are arguably more true. We have transferred our religious hopes and commitments from the church to secular politics.
But politics cannot save us. Like science, it is important. And we should all be informed, and vote, and stay involved. But politics cannot save us.
So what about religion? Religion is, of course, another place we turn to find answers. And we might think that religion is what this day points us to. But it’s really not. Reformation Sunday is a day when we are reminded that even religion will not save us.
Martin Luther famously turned to religion to find answers in his life, and failed to find them there. He disappointed his father by turning away from politics, from the law. He entered a monastery. He devoted his life to finding hope and meaning in religion. But even in religion, Martin Luther did not find what he was looking for. It is not religion, Luther learned, that saves us. It is not religion that helps us when we are down. It is not religion that can forgive our many mistakes and sins. Religion didn’t create us, and isn’t what frees us from sin or despair. Religion is not what justifies us, what saves us. It is no different from science or politics in that way.
What (Who) Will Save Our World
Today is not about religion. Not really. Today is about the gospel. It is about God’s grace shown to us through the love of his son, Jesus. It is Jesus who saves us, not religion. It is Jesus who offers us our true hope. It is Jesus who we can trust. It is God’s own son, who emptied himself of his divinity in order to show us how to live, and then to die on a cross to save us, to free us from all that binds us. That is really what the gospel is all about, and that is really what this day is all about. It’s about remembering that our hope is not in politics, or in science, or even in religion.
Our hope is in the gospel. Our hope is in Jesus, the Savior of our world, the only one who can save the world. And the reformation is really all about the church being called back from all these other false hopes to this one, true hope. Our world is always tempted to turn to false hopes. And the church is always tempted to follow the world in that futile chase. So, the church is in constant need of being reformed, of being called back to the gospel – ecclesia semper reformanda. The gospel is what this day is all about.
Martin Luther on the Gospel
Martin Luther once made a statement about the gospel that I think is fascinating. He said:
“My gospel has nothing to do with the things of this world. It is something unique, exclusively concerned with souls. To promote and settle the affairs of the temporal life is not a duty of my office, but of those called to this work, the emperor, the nobility, and the magistrates. And the source upon which they must draw is not the gospel, but reason, tradition, and equity.”
For Luther, the gospel has nothing to do with the things of this world. The gospel is not about the temporal life. It’s not about politics. The gospel is about our souls, that most precious part of us that connects us to our loving God. That’s what today is about: the good news of the gospel, the truth that sets us free, the hope of the world, and the reason for our joy, even in the midst of all the problems that we see in our world.
In the Reformation Day sermon from the 1980s that I mentioned, Carl Braaten revisits this statement of Luther’s that the “gospel has nothing to do with the things of this world.” And he offers this revision:
“[The gospel, he says,] has everything to do with the things of this world. It keeps the things from becoming the gods of this world. It keeps them in their place. It keeps the things of the world from becoming the hope of our salvation. It keeps the world worldly, it keeps history, science, religion and business and politics from becoming absolute, totalitarian, and the objects of human trust.”
The gospel, in other words, keeps our focus on the one thing that can save us, and that is always Jesus. The reformation was really about nothing more than bringing the church back to the gospel. It was about reminding the church that when we stay close to Jesus and his message, we are always on the right track, no matter how messy things might look. And when Jesus is not at the center of our mission, we are on the wrong track, no matter how good things might look.
Changing the World
Jesus urges us in today’s gospel reading (John 8:31-36) to continue in his word, to stay on the right track, to remember the truth that makes us free, the freeing truth of the gospel that is at the heart of this great day. When Martin Luther embraced this truth, it changed his life. And then he changed the world. And so can we. The church can change the world. I believe that. It changes the world by changing lives. It changes the world by sticking to the truth of the gospel. That is what changed me.
Through the church, I re-discovered the truth of the gospel. It set me free, in a way that I had been looking for, searching for, but hadn’t found. So, thirty years ago today I joined Good Shepherd Lutheran Church: Got involved there, got active there. And three years later, I went to seminary. And here I am. Standing here to remind you (and me!) that the gospel is what will save the world: God’s grace shown through the love of Jesus. That is what will fix the mess we are in. That’s what will change us. That’s what will change the world, like nothing else can. And it starts with us, the church, sharing our faith, defending our hope, and loving our neighbor.
Martin Luther once said that the gospel means that God doesn’t need our good works; but our neighbor does. Our neighbor needs our good works. Our neighbor needs our love. Our neighbor needs to see in us the hope that comes from the gospel. Our world needs to see people like you and me, who refuse to despair or to give up hope, who know where to turn, and who have hearts full of love. Our world needs people who believe that the reformation still matters, because the gospel still matters, because Jesus still matters.
So let us be changed by Jesus, be re-formed by him. And then? Let us live in such a way that our world sees through us a hint of the good news that is at the heart of this day: That God so loved the world, and so loves us, that he gave us grace and truth and hope and salvation through his only son, Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.