“The Reformation Still Matters”
Reformation Still Matters
Reformation Day Sermon, October 31
Does the Reformation still matter? Do we really need a special service to remember what the Reformation was all about? How often does it happen to you that you say you are Lutheran and people think you are a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr.? If you think that is true, uh, see me after church. I suppose it’s helpful to remind us that our Martin Luther is not the African-American civil rights leader from the 1960s, but instead is the man who lived in Germany some 500 years ago and helped reform the church. It’s certainly useful for knowing who we are as Lutherans, a bit of our history. But does the Reformation really matter beyond that classroom exercise of setting people straight and keeping our tradition alive?
You see, the Reformation wasn’t so much about Martin Luther as it was about righteousness and certainty. How could we be right with God? How can anyone be certain of eternal life? Those were the questions the Reformation wanted answered.
In the United States today, most people aren’t too concerned about those questions. Researchers have found that a lot of Americans don’t think much about heaven or hell. In fact, most don’t believe there is a literal place called hell. Neither do many believe there is a personal demonic being called Satan. As for heaven, not many get excited about the topic. One study showed that we are not hungry, sick, or persecuted enough to look forward to a much better life. Life is pretty good in our country.
But, of course, people still believe in life after death, which means that folks here will still think about what will happen once you die. But, when asked, just about everyone says they are going to heaven. Americans believe in happy endings. Americans are eternally optimistic, or at least we were until the 2008 presidential elections. So if everything will ultimately turn out all right anyway, why worry about whether you’re right with God or wonder how you can be certain about eternal life?
As an example of this happy optimism, after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, someone drew a picture of the buildings, with the smoke billowing up and out. Out of the smoke were figures, people rising up to heaven. Standing above the smoke was Jesus, larger than the buildings, the smoke, and all the people. He had His arms open wide, welcoming everyone into His loving embrace.
It’s a wonderful picture, but is it accurate? Did everyone who died in that attack—except the terrorists, of course—end up in Jesus’ loving arms and in heaven, as the picture seems to say? Does getting killed in a terrorist attack automatically qualify you for heaven?
No, not according to St. Paul in this Romans passage, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). He says: stockbroker, pilot, janitor, airline passenger, husband, wife, child, friend. It doesn’t matter how you die. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, sick or healthy, whether death came quickly or days later. It doesn’t matter if death comes at the hands of a terrorist, a drunk driver, cancer, or old age. All are sinners. All have fallen short of the glory of God.
If we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, then who is welcomed in the arms of Jesus and who isn’t? That is the very question that makes the Reformation so important. How can we be right with God so that I can be certain I’ll end up in heaven? American optimism or wishful thinking just won’t do it. We need to know for sure, and that’s why the Reformation still matters.
Those eternal questions were answered by Martin Luther and the other reformers by turning to God’s own Word in the Bible. Their answers were not made up to make everyone feel good. They were not guided by what most people believed. Rather, the Reformation answers were to stand on Scripture alone.
The Book of Romans was pivotal. We’ve already heard how all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. But that’s not the last word. Scripture adds that righteousness comes from God, that we are declared not guilty of our sins freely by God’s grace through Jesus Christ, free of all guilt before God.
Being right with God is His doing. Grace alone saves us. God reaches down with His amazing, undeserved grace and makes our relationship with Him right and good. Nothing of our own do we bring; only His love for us in Jesus, and Him alone, gives us the righteousness that we need for eternal life.
That’s where the picture about the terrorist attacks has it right. Standing above everything is Jesus. If anyone from that terrorist attack, if anyone from Newtown, anyone from Moore or El Reno or even Edmond is going to heaven, it is because of Jesus. In that picture I believe that His outstretched hands have nail marks in them. He hung on a cross to restore a right relationship between God and us. Eternal life comes from His death.
And certainty comes from His resurrection. Jesus welcomes people with His loving open arms because the grave could not hold Him. Death had no lasting power over Him. Only Christ our Savior can guarantee that life after death will bring heaven instead of hell, a loving Father instead of Satan.
Jesus Christ alone is the Reformation’s answer, the Bible’s answer, God’s answer to those questions of righteousness and certainty. Our faith stands on Scripture alone, grace alone, Christ alone. And this Reformation certainty about God’s righteousness in Jesus still matters.
We see a lot of news stories over the years about disaster, calamity, murder. Challenger and Columbia. Columbine, Va. Tech, Aurora, Newtown. Moore, Katrina, Fukushima, and Moore again. It is one thing to look at thousands dying somewhere else and say, “That is terrible.” It is. But when you know someone, like some of you knew someone at the Murrah Building, that is different, isn’t it? Then it is personal, not something awful a thousand miles away.
When death—and life—get personal, too close to ignore, too near to rely on American optimism and wishful thinking, that’s when the Reformation still matters. And the Reformation’s answer to questions of righteousness and certainty in such personal and up-close moments is Jesus. The Christian victims in all these incidents are not in heaven because they died at a tender age or because of how it happened, but because Jesus willingly died for them. God’s grace reaches into people’s lives at Baptism, connect people to Jesus’ death and resurrection, give faith to hold onto Jesus, and He brings them home to heaven safely.
My parents’ cemetery is in southeastern Wisconsin. Haven’t been back there since 2008. But you may recall my mom died in 2006 and my dad in 2007. When I stand in front of their grave, I remember people of faith. They took us to church. Early church. Every Sunday. Their faith in Jesus was there for us children to see.
When they left us, my brothers and I had several conversations about how people who do not share our faith, who do not believe in anything but themselves, how do they get through something like that? That was hard. Many of you have been there, you know what I mean. But as hard as it is for us, what about the folks who do not share our promise, who do not have our hope?
It’s been a few years since they went to haven. Yet I think about them every day. My mom, my dad, losing them was personal. Each day it is still personal, and that’s when the Reformation still matters. Without God’s grace, I’d stand here with no hope. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But by God’s grace alone, Jesus brings righteousness and life to someone like my father, my mother, and to people who have died in a terrorist attack, and kids who get killed by insane guys with automatic weapons, and to you and me. Yes, the Reformation still matters, for righteousness and certainty come from Jesus and Him alone.