Reformation Sunday

The necessity for leadership, for direction, is a fact of life all the way from politics to a party or a family reunion or even going thru the checkout line. Who is in charge?  Who is giving direction?  Revolutions come and go, and right will not always prevail. Who, then, is in charge of your life? Who gives you direction and leadership so that you can become the person you want to be?

The Jews who had believed in Jesus were at least confused and probably hostile when Jesus wanted them to discard the leadership and the authority they had accepted before he came along. He told them “If you continue in my word you are truly my disciples.  And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Many years ago, I was pastor of a small congregation where Lutheranism was scarcely known. The same was true of the small Roman Catholic congregation there. Somehow, the pastor of that congregation, Father Tom, and I became well acquainted.   About a week before our Reformation Sunday, he posed a question:  “What is your Gospel for the Day?” I told him it was from John where Jesus says “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” This text can be miss-used to say that Luther and the Lutherans have the Truth and our Roman Catholic cousins do not.  That would be false for all concerned and an extremely unsatisfying idea today.

Father Tom smiled and asked, “So you Lutherans have the truth, and we don’t?” I’m happy to report that in recent years Lutherans and Catholics have drawn up several theological papers that emphasize our togetherness rather than our divisions.

Lutherans and Catholics have discovered in the last 25 years that we have much more in common than what divides us from each other.. In a word, the Catholic theologians have agreed that both of us speak the truth about salvation — which means we agree that Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection have given us salvation and eternal life by God’s grace. I’m happy to report that I visited Father Tom a few weeks ago in Maryfield.

The “truth” that Lutherans and Catholics now hold in common is that neither of us should make exorbitant claims about possessing God’s final word.\ The Jews who believed in Jesus wanted their leadership to come from the past. They thought everything depended on their descent from Abraham.

In the opposite position, we would like to think that each of us is in charge of his or her own life. We do not look to the past to find our identity although some of us may be overly proud of our heritage and ancestry from northern Europe. It is the modern American way, in which all of us are bombarded daily with the idea that if it feels good, do it. Individualism, in which we find pleasure  regardless of the consequences for another, is wrong and has never been stronger.  We haven’t learned much from the experience of .Adam and Eve.

They did exactly what they wanted to do in eating the forbidden fruit. Adam blamed Eve, who then blamed the snake.  Then they hid from God.  They disobeyed God and became slaves to their own desires.

The people around Jesus wanted to point to their past as being in charge of the present. It was enough that Abraham was their ancestor. They didn’t need to hear about freedom in Jesus or continuing in his word.  They did not understand his reference to being his disciples. Jesus, on the other hand, was pointing them to a process, the on-going loving relationship of continuing in his word, of exercising freedom under the direction of truth, living as his disciples.

This conversation with Jesus has a striking question for those of us who name Dr. Martin Luther as our spiritual ancestor. No one doubts that people in Luther’s day, in the early 1500s in Northern Europe were religious. They went on long and difficult pilgrimages to the Holy Land.  They attended church even  though they did not understand a word of what was being said or what was being done.  Nor were they taught basic biblical stories.. But they were religious.  Some even tortured themselves, drawing their own blood, in an effort to find forgiveness.  They paid for forgiveness and were given a document which said they were forgiven.  As professor of religion at the new University of Wittenberg, Luther studied the scriptures.  He came to believe that faith is a process, not something you have.

He said our relationship with God is determined by God’s own love for us, by what he has done for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If God is in charge of our relationship to him, then we cannot earn God’s love by reminding him of all the good that we have so recently done. These were controversial ideas.

Dr. Luther said these things should be least be discussed, and he offered 95 statements that should be considered.   As customary for a university professor, he posted them most likely on the bulletin board of the university, and not with a 3 pound blacksmith’s hammer as he is often pictured.

His act was seen as rebellious and unacceptable with the result that he was called a heretic and an outlaw and thrown out of the church.

All that followed began 499 years ago, resulting in the tragic division in the church we call the Reformation. The message of the Reformation is this: Faith is a way of living as disciples of Christ and being saved not by good works that we can do but solely by the mercies of God.

God has shown us hois true face in the life and work of Jesus Christ. The Son of God gave himself body and blood, innocently suffering punishment that we deserve, and now he has promised that we will be with him in eternity.

“Lo, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Luther’s great contribution was to hold up the mercy, the love of God as the way we are saved.  Not because we are good and do wonderful deeds, but  because God is merciful.

If left to ourselves, we repeat the sin of Adam and Eve, the same error of those Jews who thought being descended from Abraham was enough.

As Luther wrote in his catechism, “At great cost, he has saved and redeemed me, a lost and condemned person. “He has freed me from sin, death and the power of the devil, not with silver or gold, but with his holy and precious suffering and death.  All this he has done that I ,may be his own, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally.”

Who, then, has a right to be in charge of my life? Will the Word of God and the power of Jesus Christ guide us?” In other words, will we take direction for living from God who has forgiven our sins?

It will be difficult, but we must try. We live as with one foot on the earth, sinful and lost, but also with the other foot in heaven, made whole and holy. The leadership, direction, and authority that come from God are his gifts under which we can live in thankfulness and joy. As we move through life, day by day, decision by decision with hopes often defeated and joys often vanished, we can be sustained and soothed by our unalterable faith in God’s love.

In a world that is never secure, He has given us a permanent place in the household of God.

The good life is to live in the family of God where he gives direction, where he is in charge, where his leadership is all we shall ever need for this life and the life beyond.

Since the Son of God makes us free, we are now free indeed. Once again, who is in charge?

Jesus Christ takes his rightful place at the center of our living.

We wouldn‘t have it any other way.