Sunday, October 30, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
How many of you have seen the movie, “The Blues Brothers?” In this movie the two main characters are trying to get their band back together again. And every time they try to convince a former member to join they say, “We’re on a mission from God.” It doesn’t matter what obstacles come against them. They believe they will succeed because they are on “a mission from God.” As we celebrate the 499th anniversary of the Reformation today, I think Martin Luther felt the same way.
Why did he do it? Why would a Catholic monk, a learned theologian, risk everything –including his own life – to start a reformation? Why would he continue to say things that he knew would cause people to react with anger and hatred? Why would he speak against the church that he belonged to at the time? Did he want to get kicked out or excommunicated from the church? Did he want to go into hiding when things got really bad? Did he want to die as a result of what he was stirring up? What was so important that Martin Luther would risk his life over? He certainly didn’t start out wanting to change the world, but now he was on a mission from God.
Martin Luther, born in Eisleban, Germany had intended to go to law school as his parents wanted, when he felt the call of the Holy Spirit to enter the monastery. It was a life filled with learning, teaching, prayer, and penitence. Luther was incredibly hard on himself because he believed that God was a vengeful God and required Luther to always try harder to be more righteous – right with God. Yet no matter how hard Luther tried, he could never do enough to earn God’s grace – God’s unconditional love. He fasted, and suffered and yet felt worse at his brokenness. Until Luther started really studying Scripture, especially the book of Romans- the same verses we read in our second reading for today. He read, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Luther knew this, but the words continued to speak to him, “They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” When the Holy Spirit really broke through and touched Luther’s heart he understood that nothing he could do would ever bring him closer to God. It was God alone who came closer to Luther and closer because of what Jesus Christ did. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was the gift that was being offered to Luther. “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Luther’s works were not what would bring him salvation; it was the work of Jesus Christ who already did this. Luther now saw things in a whole new life. It opened him up; it freed him, and now he was compelled to share that glorious news with others. He was on a mission from God.
Through the study of Scripture Luther found other doctrines of the Catholic church that he disagreed with because they were contrary to what God was speaking through the bible. So Luther posted 95 thesis or points of disagreement with the church on the church door in Wittenburg, Germany on October 31, 1517. This was normal practice, to use the door as a sort of bulletin board for discussion. Luther didn’t want to start a new denomination; he only wanted to change the way the church did things, to reform the way they thought about things, and to live more closely to how God was instructing them to live through the words of Scripture. And he translated the Bible at that time that was only written in Latin into German, the language spoken by ordinary people living in Germany at that time. It wasn’t enough for just a priest to tell you what you should know, he wanted people to be able to read and study Scripture themselves and open their hearts just like what happened to Luther himself when the words changed his heart.
But change is something that makes people uneasy. They don’t want to do it. They want things to stay the same because change makes them feel uncomfortable. But Luther knew that change or reformation while uncomfortable and even dangerous needed to happen in order for the church to grow. It needed to happen if Christians were to remain true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So he pushed on. He didn’t give in even though more and more people were against him. It would have been easier for him to just stop and let things remain the way they were, but once you know the truth, you cannot go back. Luther wanted the world to know about this life-giving word of God spoken and carried out through Jesus Christ that we receive grace as a gift from God through faith – not because of any works we do, but because of what God has done. This is the good news that sets people free. This is the good news that gives people hope. This is the good news that accompanies people through whatever storms in life they are going through and to hide that good news from people would be the worst sin of all. So Luther kept fighting for reformation. He was on a mission from God.
He wasn’t the only one. There were many before him and after him. In fact, Jesus himself was the first person to start a reformation of faith. Why did he do it? Why did Jesus keep talking to people about turning their lives around when these people were getting more and more angry by the words he spoke. Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t always like what Jesus said, the disciples didn’t like what Jesus said, neither did all the people who came to hear Jesus. Jesus said that to follow him you had to be willing to give up everything and follow him, but that was just too hard. People even today want to follow Jesus, but not if that means giving up the things they hold most dear to them. People want change to come only if it doesn’t mean they have to change or give up anything to make that happen. But change requires sacrifice, and no one knows that better than Jesus. Jesus gave up the glories of eternity to come down to earth, to become human, to suffer, and then eventually die in order that change/reformation would happen. In order to set us free Jesus died. You can’t sacrifice any more than that. So why did Jesus do it? Because he was on a mission from God.
The church is still called to be a reformation church, to continue to change and grow into being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. We are called to get out of our complacency and to be bold and courageous witnesses to the gospel. In order for our churches to continues we need to be willing to sacrifice just as Jesus, Luther, and all the reformers after him. We are on a mission from God.
Next year will be the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Luther began the reformation against the sale of indulgences where people could essentially buy their way into heaven by the sale of indulgences and prayers. In 1999, the Roman Catholic church and the Lutheran church signed a document called the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In this document both denominations fully agreed that a Christian is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not by works. Luther didn’t see the fruits of the work he started, but all these centuries later it is coming to fruition. And currently the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran church have put together another document called the Declaration on the Way, which discusses the progresses we have made in our dialogues together over the past 50 years as we move closer to hopefully being able to celebrate Communion together. As a person who was raised Catholic, this is something I always hoped, but doubted would ever happen in my lifetime.
Reformation is hard work, but it is worth it. It’s worth the sacrifice because the good news that Jesus Christ came into this world to save everyone is something that cannot be contained. The Church at large and our individual churches and congregations are in need of reformation, redevelopment, and renewal so that we do not turn back inward on ourselves instead of reaching out to those around us. The church was not intended to be a place where people come to be complacent, but a mission center where people are empowered by the word of God to be the agents of change for good in this world. God’s mission for the church is to bring all people closer to a relationship with Jesus Christ who shows us the Father. God’s mission for the church is to stand up for justice for all people, to proclaim Jesus’ message of love and salvation for all people, and to set them free from whatever is holding them back.
What is holding us back? What things do we find so hard to let go of that we are willing to hang onto them even at the cost of hurting or alienating others? Change is sometimes hard, but it is the only way to grow. I recently heard about how lobsters grow, something I had never heard before. You see lobsters are soft-bodied creatures living in a rigid shell that doesn’t expand. When the lobster begins to grow the shell doesn’t expand and so the lobster feels confined, and under pressure. The lobster feels stress. And so the lobster goes under a rock formation, casts off its shell, and grows a new one. Until…the lobster again becomes too big for its shell and it repeats this process over and over again. In order for the lobster to grow, it needs to feel uncomfortable enough to cast off its shell and form a new one. The lobster is always in a state of reformation. We too need to cast off what is inhibiting our growth. We need to be set free.
Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, is our salvation. That truth will set us free – nothing else. God has written this promise of covenant on our hearts. May the Holy Spirit give us the courage to act with boldness and continue to reform our hearts and God’s church. We are on a mission from God. Amen!