Happy Reformation Day! As I have said in the past, Reformation Day is one of my favorite holy or holidays and I think it is appropriate that we greet each other in this way, “Happy Reformation Day!” This year, Reformation Day is as it always is on October 31, which this year is not until next Saturday. Which means that next Sunday we will celebrate All Saints Day on the actual day of All Saints Day. Anyway, Reformation Day is the day we celebrate the act of one man, the sainted Dr. Martin Luther, after whom our church denomination is named, who on October 31 in 1517 posted his 95 statements or theses for debate on the town bulletin board, which happened to be the church door. It was this act which set off what we now call the Reformation.
Dr. Luther did not suggest that he had found the real church which was lost. He did not suggest that God had given him any new revelation for beginning a new church. He was not trying to form his own new church, rather he was trying to make his old church, the Roman Catholic church of his day, aware of what he knew were false teachings and false doctrines which were being proclaimed, so that the truth of the Gospel might prevail. And if anyone understood these falsehoods, it would be Dr. Luther. Perhaps you have heard his story.
Dr. Luther was born to Hans and Margaretta Luther, November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. He began his college education studying law, but at the age of twenty-two a thunderstorm and the death of a friend moved him to make a vow to enter the quiet life of a monk in monastery wherein he also began his studies to become a priest in the church. Young Luther believed that if he worked hard enough, if he studied hard enough, if he stayed out of the public life and could keep from sinning, then he might be able to earn heaven. This teaching is what was being taught in the church during his life and as we will see, this is also what he wanted to reform. In the language of our text for today, Luther became a slave to works righteousness.
The “truth” that young Martin Luther was taught and believed was that if you were good enough, if you kept from sinning, if you did what was right, then you would be justified, then you could stand before God as a just person, deserving eternal life and heaven. Unfortunately, or rather, fortunately for us, the more young Martin Luther tried to justify himself before God, the more he felt unjust and undeserving. More than once young Dr. Luther fasted to the point of almost starving himself to death. He would beat himself in hopes of appeasing, what he believed to be, an angry, vengeful God. And so, Dr. Luther really kept himself in a vicious cycle of trying to appease God, thinking he had to do more and so he tried to beat himself more, fast more, confess more, and that only made him realize he could not do enough to appease God, so he tried even harder.
Young Dr. Luther did not know the truth. He was like many people in our world today. We live in a world where truth has become relative. What may be true for me may not be true for you and what may be true for you may not be true for me, or so the world would have us believe. Today, in our world, truth is validated, not by facts, but by feeling. If I feel it, it must be true, at least for me. Or truth may be validated by one’s perspective, that is from my point of view this or that is truth, but it may not be true from your point of view. I am here to proclaim to you that there are not many truths, that each one of us does not possess our own individual truth, but that there is one and only one truth. There is only one absolute truth. I know that goes against the world and against our culture, but I, and the whole Christian Church for that matter, cannot do otherwise. The very reason we are in the mess we are in, having various truths, is because we do not know the Truth. In answer to the question of “What is truth?” the only answer we can give is the answer of Truth Himself, that is, that Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Apart from Jesus there is and can be no truth. Why do we have such a problem with truth in our world today? Because we live in a truth-less, Jesus-less world.
John tells us, in our Gospel reading, that it is faith in Jesus Christ alone which brings us into all truth and which makes us a part of God’s family. We are not a part of God’s family by physical birth nor DNA. We are not a part of God’s family by who we know. We are not a part of God’s family because we are so good and deserve to be a part. We are only a part of God’s family by faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus makes Him our brother and God our Father, then we are a part of the family. When it comes to eternal life in heaven it truly is not what you know, but who you know, or better, who knows you!
Young Dr. Luther’s problem was that he was not a part of the family. Young Dr. Luther’s problem was that he was a slave to everything except Jesus. For young Dr. Luther, the Scripture reading, “The just shall live by faith,” meant that he had to be just, he had to live a just life, he had to do what was right in order to stand before God and be declared righteous. It was only after his eyes were open by the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God that Dr. Luther came to understand the truth. The truth is that “the just shall live by faith,” means that we are declared just and right before God, not by our own accord, but by faith in Jesus Christ. We, you and I, can never do enough good things, we could never fast enough, we could never beat ourselves enough, we could never do anything enough in order to pay the price, to work off the cost of what our sins have earned. And believe me, our sins have earned plenty. We are born in sin and daily we add to our sin. And the cost of our sin, the wage of our sin is death, eternal death, hell. Maybe, before we turn to the Gospel, too quickly, we need to spend some time with young Dr. Luther in the Law. We need to spend more time in the Law, because until we realize that left to ourselves we are deserving of nothing less than eternal life in hell, the Gospel will mean little or nothing to us. To young Dr. Luther the thought of deserving hell was devastating and that is what drove him to do all he could to redeem himself. Perhaps we might need to spend time contemplating our destiny apart from Jesus Christ, because, you see, a part from Jesus Christ, we are, you and I are, deserving of eternal death in hell. And that ought to be pretty scary for us.
But there is good news. The good news is that hell is what Jesus suffered for us, for you and for me, in our place. Jesus took all our sins upon Himself and paid the price, the wage, the cost for our sin. He suffered eternal death for us. That is what young Dr. Luther realized when he came to a proper understanding that, “the just shall live by faith,” means that we are made just in God’s eyes by faith. By faith Jesus’ life becomes our life. By faith Jesus’ suffering becomes our suffering, by faith Jesus’ death becomes our death. And by faith Jesus’ resurrection becomes our resurrection. Notice that it is no longer we who are doing anything, but it is Jesus who is doing the doing.
When Dr. Luther understood the Gospel, that Gospel set him free. Dr. Luther understood that no amount of fasting, no amount of beating himself, no amount of anything could pay for his sins. No amount of money could pay for his sins. His sins, the cost, the wage, the price for his sins had been paid, in full, by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus. Dr. Luther rejoiced in his new found freedom in the Gospel and from that day forward began boldly to proclaim that same freedom to others who, like him, were devastated by the constraints of the Law.
Which brings us back to our Reformation celebration. You see, as Dr. Luther grew in his faith and understanding of the truth of the Gospel, he began more and more to see the false teachings which had made their way into the church of his day. You might say that the straw that broke the camel’s back was the selling of indulgences, that is the selling of the forgiveness of sins. The story goes that on one of his walks through town, Dr. Luther stumbled over one of his parishioners who was on the ground drunk as a skunk. When Dr. Luther told him that he would be waiting for him to come to confession later in the week, the man held up a piece of paper and boldly stated that he did not need to come to confession anymore because he had paid good money for his sins to be taken care of. In other words, he had paid money for his sins to be forgiven so he no longer had to worry about sin, instead, he could live life as he wished with no repercussions, or so he thought.
It was this event as well as many other similar events which stirred Dr. Luther to sit down and write his 95 theses or statements for debate. These statements were written in Latin, the language of the educated, because he was looking to debate these concerns with others who were educated in the theology and teachings of the church. His sole intent was to correct and to reform what he knew were some false teachings of the church. He knew that church would be full on All Saints day, November 1, so on the eve of all Saints Day, on All Hallow’s Eve as it is called or as it has been mispronounced today on Halloween, he posted his statements for debate.
You might remember that a man named Gutenberg had invented what is called the printing press at about this time, about 50 years earlier and so Dr. Luther’s statements were quickly translated into German, the language of the people, printed and distributed for everyone to read and that is what started what we now call the reformation.
I believe there is an adage which reminds us that we need to study and be mindful of our past history lest we are doomed to repeat such history. We live in a world not unlike the world of Dr. Luther’s day. We live in a world where it is believed by many that it is our character, it is our good deeds, it is our sincerity of faith, our living an obedient life, it is our living as God’s people which will bring us to some sort of eternal existence. Jesus tells us that we are saved by His grace alone, through faith in Him alone. Both faith and the object of faith are important. It is our faith which brings us the truth. It is our faith which makes us members of Jesus’ family. It is our faith which makes us the people we are, little Christ’s or Christians. We are to have faith as a child, not trusting in anything of our own, being completely helpless, but trusting and clinging to Jesus alone who sets us free.
In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus is dealing with His own people, the Jews, who had similar beliefs to the people of our world today, people who believed they were saved by pointing to themselves. The Jews believed they were saved by their DNA by being born Jewish. Today people believe they are saved by pointing to themselves as well, by their good deeds. Just as Jesus reminded the Jews of His day so He reminds us today, we are not saved when we point to ourselves. Jesus points us to where we are saved, outside ourselves to Him and Him alone. Jesus said it best in our Gospel reading when He said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” As His disciples, being given faith, through the waters of Holy Baptism, strengthened and kept in faith through His means of grace, the Lord’s Supper, holding on to His teaching, the very Word of God, and being given forgiveness of sins, through Confession and Absolution and knowing that with forgiveness is life and salvation, we rejoice and say, to God be the glory. Thus, we rejoice and celebrate this day we call Reformation Day. We give thanks for the work of Dr. Martin Luther, but even more we give thanks for a clear understanding of our salvation, pointing, not to self but to Jesus and Jesus alone. Indeed we are sons of God, set free by the Son of God so we are free indeed. To God be the glory, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.