499 – Will We Make 500?
I wonder how many of you knew, before arriving this morning, that today would be our annual observation of Reformation? Had this realization dawned on you at any point during the week? Were there any discussions or conversations about “wearing red”?
There is something wonderful about either answer to these questions. If you found yourself responding “Yes,” let’s celebrate your awareness of the significance of an annual lifting up of a series of events and tradition which truly has changed history.
If you answered “No,” let’s acknowledge the end to a terrible time in church life when an annual bashing of the Roman Catholics and everything “Not-Lutheran” is behind us. And good riddance.
But today is Reformation Sunday. And this is a significant Reformation Sunday. Even Pope Francis has had something to say about this Reformation Sunday. Today we begin a year-long observance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It was on October 31st, in 1517, that Martin Luther penned a letter to the Arch-bishop of Mainz, asking for a discussion of the Church’s practices. The ensuing discussions and divisions altered religious life and political life and the world as we know it.
I am not exaggerating. Do your own Google search. Be impressed with where Martin Luther falls in the rankings of history’s most influential persons. And in a world where religious upheaval figures so heavily into current events, you can betch ‘ya bottom dollar that there will be discussions of the Reformation and the Peasant’s Revolt (not to mention the Smalcald Wars.) The deaths and destruction associated with those events may equal (in significance and scope) the current strive within Islam between Sunni and Shia and within Islam and ISIS.
I don’t know if you will be pulled into water-cooler discussions of such matters, but you might. It is highly likely that there will be reports in the secular press about the 500th anniversary and the events associated with The Reformation. And as possibly the only real-life, living Lutheran on your block you might have the opportunity (or the challenge) to speak of these events and their significance. You might find yourself being asked questions about The Reformation.
So this week, I want you to take out your bulletin for a different reason. I would ask you to start making a list of the things you really should try to learn during these next twelve months. Things which are important (perhaps even essential) to the tradition in which we stand.
You can start by putting The Peasants’ Revolt and Smalcald War on the list.
Here is the next thing for your list: Luther never wanted folks to be called “Lutherans.” Every copy of the Book of Concord (you also need to have “Book of Concord” on your list) has this quote from Luther: “Who is Luther that any should be known by his name? There is but one name by which we are to be known and that is the name of Christ.”
Reading and re-reading that Martin Luther quote is one of the reasons I can get away with saying that Luther would have been delighted with those of you who drove to a “Lutheran” church this morning without remembering it is Reformation Sunday. Luther wanted us to be Christians, and the sooner we leave behind our fractions and fissions the better.
But there were some things which Luther was not willing to ignore – even for the sake of the unity of the Church. Those things are outlined in The Augsburg Confession which is contained in the Book of Concord. The Smalcald Articles are also in the Book of Concord. (Book of Concord – Augsburg Confession – Smalcald Articles. Your list keeps growing.) The Augsburg Confession was written by the Reformers as a last attempt to prevent the Church from dividing. It lists the Articles of Faith, most of which were readily agreed to by all Christians. There are several matters of dispute. The “Unaltered Augsburg Confession” is the guiding document for our denomination. Not that every Lutheran pastor or theologian will agree on how to apply the Confession.
Every Lutheran pastor is going to pull from the Augsburg Confession the articles they consider to be most significant and offer an interpretation as to what it means. So this is your reminder to get other opinions. But it is difficult to overlook the one which continues to dominate Christian conversation. And that would be the articles which speak of justification – or as we are inclined to speak of it – salvation.
Every Christian in the world will readily agree to the Reformation tag line of “justification by grace through faith.” But not every Christian, not even every Protestant, nor every Lutheran will be in agreement to what it means. “Justification by grace through faith.” Make sure this is on your list – and pay more attention to this than practically anything else. In fact, write it out. So you can see the words.
As a footnote, let me admit that equating “justification” with “salvation” is its own problem. The words don’t mean exactly the same thing, but unless you want another thirty minutes added to this sermon, let me get away with lumping them together. End of footnote.
So look back at that phrase – Justification by grace through faith. Everyone who reads it or speaks it will give a nod of approval. Everybody agrees with this statement – until you start to discuss where to place emphasis. Is it the “grace,” or the “faith” that brings the salvation.
Is it “faith” which makes it possible for us to receive the “grace” which brings “justification”? Or is “grace” the gift which makes “faith” possible and “justification” a reality in our lives?
This is the stuff of division. This is the battle which started as soon as Luther was in the ground. This is the current division within the Evangelish communities of Germany. It is the discussion which resulted in Halle and Geneva becoming contested centers of Reformation.
There are articles in the Augsburg Confession which address these issues. Your homework is to read them and form your questions for further discussion. And, with any luck, you and I will discover together that our newly arrived Parish Pastor has somewhat differing opinions than your worn-out and one-horse Campus Pastor. A healthy discussion between he and I on such topics could model how we discuss such topics in a way that is healthy and helpful.
There are a few more entries for that list on the back of your bulletin. The Small Catechism needs to be there. The three confirmands can attest to my approach to their final instructional meeting. Pastor Danielle had been meeting with them. There was one instructional session remaining and that one was to cover the Small Catechism. We did meet and discuss the Small Catechism, but in the weeks prior to our meeting we reverted to the original purpose of the Small Catechism. We turned it into poster-sized handouts and told them to put it on the wall in their home where their families could review this material with them. The Small Catechism was written for parents to instruct their children in the home.
Parents – don’t send your kids to confirmation ministry class to learn about the faith. Teach it at home. And if you don’t know the Small Catechism yourself, don’t ask them to learn it. Another mark of Luther’s reform? His instruction that every day every Christian would repeat from their heart the 10 commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.
I have been missing in action most of this first month that Jon has been with us. So he and I haven’t discussed a shared strategy for this 500th anniversary year. It is obvious that I plan to pay attention to this history and am likely to talk about it over these next twelve months. We are not to hold to the Lutheran identity as if it were in itself that important. It isn’t. And at least one of the reasons why our Lutheran congregations seem to be in decline may be due to something which lies at the base of our whole existence. Our Lutheran Theology is crystal clear that when it comes institutions – there is no reason – ever – to place the survival of a particular denomination above the preaching of the Word and the distribution of the sacraments.
Learn more. Then decide if this is where you belong or if there is a reason for any of us to belong.
Learn more. So you can turn those water-cooler conversations into fruitful discussions of God’s desire to love his children and help them to live meaningful lives.
Learn more. Not because it will change the way God sees you or how deeply God loves you – but so that you might more joyfully celebration the justification which, by the grace of God, has come into your life.