Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Festival of the Reformation

Today is the Festival of the Reformation.  In October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five theses – or statements – to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany.  By this simple action, Luther initiated the Reformation.  Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s Church was called back to the truth that she can only live by Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone.  Today, we are reminded again that Scripture alone is the source of doctrine and practice in the Church.  We are reminded that salvation occurs on the basis of God’s grace alone – His undeserved love and favor towards us.  We are reminded that salvation occurs on the basis of faith alone – faith in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection for us.

Scripture reading:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
(Romans 3:19-28)

Collect of the Day:
Almighty and gracious Lord, pour out Your Holy Spirit on Your faithful people.  Keep us steadfast in Your grace and truth, protect and deliver us in times of temptation, defend us against all enemies, and grant to Your Church Your saving peace; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sermon for the Festival of the Reformation - Jn 8:31-36

                                                                                    Jn 8:31-36

            There are many different religions in the world.  There is Christianity, Judaism and Islam. There is Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism.  There is Taoism, Shintoism and Zoroastrianism.  There are many different practices of local religions such as animism and ancestor worship.
            It’s pretty confusing, trying to understand their different teachings and practices.  However, the Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper made a very helpful observation.  Pieper noted that it is actually very simple. There are, in fact, only two religions in the world.  There is the religion of the Law. And there is the religion of the Gospel.
            The religion of the Law is every religion of the world except Christianity.  Every one of these religions says that their version of “salvation” is based on what you do.  Now this is very obvious in a theistic religion like Islam.  There, the final judgment before Allah is clearly based on deeds.  But it is also true in a religion like Buddhism which doesn’t even believe in a god.  Instead “salvation” is the recognition that all of this is nothingness.  Yet here too, this “salvation” is based on the effort of your perception and insight.  It is something you must do.
            Christianity, on the other hand, is the religion of the Gospel.  It is entirely based on what God has done for you.  It says that you can’t do anything. Instead salvation is a gift that God gives in his Son Jesus Christ.
            You find the religion of the law everywhere for a very simple reason: we are hardwired to think this way.  God ordered his creation and he created us to think and live according to this ordering. As St.Paul told the Romans, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
            Our experience in the world confirms this.  You must do something, to get something.  Many of you will go to work tomorrow morning.  I doubt that most of you are going to do so solely because you enjoy it.  If I gave you the choice and said that instead you could do whatever you want each day and still get paid, I don’t think that many of you would say that we were just going to go to work anyway.
            You must do something to get something.  And the fact of the matter is that when it comes to religion, people like it when they are able to claim that they have done something. After all, then they get the credit. They can feel good about their own abilities and the way they apply them to the important subject of religion.
            Christianity is the religion of the Gospel.  But that has never stopped people from trying to bring the Law in through the back door. A challenge of Christian theology and practice has always been the temptation to add human works into the equation.
            For the reasons I have just mentioned, it has happened on a regular basis.  Developments that had begun during the early Church in the west accelerated in the medieval period. Scholars have noted that Christianity in Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century had a “book keeping” mentality. The Christian life was defined by the attempt to accrue as much merit as possible.
            Naturally, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was not completely overlooked.  It was taught that he made forgiveness possible.  But salvation was explained as a process of working with God’s grace – of being equipped by God’s grace to do things that led to salvation.
            A primary focus was the distinction the medieval church made between the guilt of sin and its punishment.  A Christian was to confess his or her sins.  The priest’s absolution forgave the guilt of the sin, and so the sin would no longer prevent salvation.  But it did not forgive the penalty for the sin – the debt a person owed to God for offending him by the sin.
            This penalty was addressed through penance that the priest assigned. But here was the problem.  The absolution was negated and the whole process itself became a mortal sin if a person didn’t do the assigned penance.  So priests would assign something very small, like saying some Our Fathers, to make sure it would be done.  Yet this didn’t cover the total penance owed – not even close.  The penalty not dealt with before death, still existed.  It had to be paid through purification in purgatory.  People found themselves facing thousands upon thousands of years in the suffering of purgatory’s fires before they could enter heaven.
            The answer, then, was to do as much as you could to pay off this penance during your lifetime.  Christians fasted, and went on pilgrimages, and paid for Masses to be said.  They bought indulgences that promised to take care of these penalties.  They became monks and nuns because this life was certain to address far more penance than just being a lay person.
            Martin Luther believed this theology and threw himself into practicing it.  He became a monk and lived that life rigorously.  But Luther discovered that none of this brought peace. It didn’t because you could never know if you had done enough.  It didn’t because no matter how hard you try, you can never avoid stumbling in more sin which produced the continual need for more penance.
            In his study of God’s Word, Luther finally realized why this was the case. We hear it in today’s Gospel lesson when Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”  The problem is sin.  When we talk about sin and its slavery, we don’t just mean individual acts that break God’s law.  Jesus said in chapter three: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The flesh - sinful, fallen nature – gives birth to flesh. 
            Only the Spirit of God can give us rebirth. Only the Spirit can make us children of God.  And even then, the flesh – the old Adam in us – is not completely destroyed.  Instead, as Paul told the Galatians, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
            This is the reason that the way of doing – the way of works – can never provide peace with God. This is the reason that it can never provide certainty about salvation. You know this from your own experience.  Despite your best intentions you continue to think angry thoughts, speak hurtful words, and do nothing when you should help.
            In our text Jesus states, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  Luther rediscovered the truth of the Gospel. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God has done everything that needs to be done for our forgiveness and salvation. 
            By calling you to faith through the work of the Spirit – by giving you rebirth through water and the Spirit – he has given it all to you. As Luther said when he preached on this text: “This freedom is attained when I have faith in Christ and believe that he suffered and died for me. This is what liberates me from sin – not I myself, fasting, the life of a monk or nun, the Mass, pilgrimage, or the intercession of Mary or other saints; but it is solely Christ’s redemptive work. For no one else was born of Mary, died, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven than this one Man, Christ.  Outside of him there is no one in heaven or on earth, not even any angel, who could help us.” 
            In Christ, God has given you forgiveness, salvation, eternal life – all of it right now. It is his gift, a gift received by faith alone. And this faith itself is also God’s gift to you.  This is the good news that Martin Luther and the Reformation rediscovered.  This is the great blessing that we continue to enjoy to this day in the Lutheran church.
            It didn’t take long for Martin Luther to discover an unintended consequence of his reforming work.  The emphasis that salvation was by grace alone, through faith alone, and not by works soon led many people to a conclusion – a conclusion they gladly embraced. They decided that there was no reason to do works at all!
            When talking about this error, Martin Luther was beside himself. This was not what God’s Word taught! This was not what Luther taught. No, Christians were no longer to join monasteries or nunneries; they were no longer to go on pilgrimages; they were no longer to give money for indulgences or for Masses. They were no longer to do these things invented by the church to gain merit.
            Instead, the doing they were now to undertake was service in the vocations – the callings - that God had established; the callings into which God has placed each Christian.  These were things that were not self chosen.  These were things that did not serve the self, but instead served others. These were things that sought no merit.  Instead they were faith active in love.
            You can find no better summary of Luther’s teaching than in the Post-Communion Collect he wrote – the one that we will use today. It says, “We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of your mercy You would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love for another.” Faith in God and love for the neighbor – it is the same basic apostolic teaching that St. John shared in his first letter when he said,And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”
            True Lutheran Reformation teaching provides the clear good news of the Gospel.  As Jesus says in our text today, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  By God’s grace, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has set you free. This is a gift.  Faith itself is a gift, something you cannot do by your own reason or strength, but instead worked by the Holy Spirit.  It is God’s doing from beginning to end and so it is certain and sure.  You have it now.
            And true Lutheran Reformation teaching also says that this faith now works in love for others.  It confesses what Jesus said at the Last Supper: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”  The Gospel alone is the reason we are saved.  Works having nothing to do with being saved. And because of the Gospel we now seek to love others in the way that God’s law describes.



Friday, October 26, 2018

Commemoration of Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt, Hymnwriters

Today we remember and give thanks for Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt, Hymnwriters.  Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608) was a pastor in Germany during the Great Plague, which took the lives of 1,300 of his parishioners during a sixth-month period. In addition to his heroic pastoral ministry during that time of stress and sorrow, he wrote the texts for “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” and “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright,” known, respectively, as the king and queen of the Lutheran chorales. 

Johann Heermann (1585–1647), also a German pastor, suffered from poor health as well as from the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). His hymn texts are noted for their tenderness and depth of feeling. 

Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676) was another Lutheran pastor who endured the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War. By 1668 he lost his pastoral position in Berlin (for refusing to compromise his Lutheran convictions), and endured the death of four of his five children and his wife. He nevertheless managed to write 133 hymns, all of which reflect his firm faith. Along with Martin Luther he is regarded as one of Lutheranism’s finest hymn writers. 

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, the apostle Paul taught us to praise You in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.  We thank You this day for those who have given to Your Church great hymns, especially Your servants Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt.  May Your Church never lack hymnwriters who through their words and music give You praise.  Fill us with the desire to praise and thank You for Your great goodness; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Commemoration of Dorcas, Lydia and Phoebe, Faithful Women

Today we remember and give thanks for Dorcas, Lydia, and Phoebe, Faithful Women.  These women were exemplary Christians who demonstrated their faith by their material support of the Church. Dorcas (also known as Tabitha) was well-known and much loved for her acts of charity in the city of Joppa, especially for her making clothes for the poor. When Dorcas died suddenly, the members of her congregation sent to the neighboring city of Lydia for the Apostle Peter, who came and raised her from the dead (Acts 9:36–41). 

Lydia was a woman of Thyatira, who worked at Philippi selling a famous purple dye that was so much in demand in the ancient world. She was also a “worshiper of God” at the local synagogue. When the Apostle Paul encountered her in prayer among other proselyte women, his preaching of the Word brought Lydia to faith in Christ. She and her friends thus became the nucleus of the Christian community in Philippi (16:13–15, 40). 

Phoebe was another faithful woman associated with the Apostle Paul. She was a deaconess from Cenchrae (the port of Corinth) whom Paul sent to the church in Rome with his Epistle to the Romans. In it he writes of her support for the work of the early Church (Rom 16:1). 

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, You stirred to compassion the hearts of Your dear servants Dorcas, Lydia, and Phoebe to uphold and sustain Your Church by their devoted and charitable deeds.  Give us the same will to love You, open our eyes to see You in the least ones, and strengthen our hands to serve You in others, for the sake of Your Son, Jesus  Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.