What exactly is Reformation Day? It has been a lot of things. This sermon mentions a couple of them. But almost of of the alternates are corruptions of what it really was. Which is a recovery of the Apostle Paul. Which is a new birth of freedom in hearing the law and the gospel. It is not just the gospel, although that is the happy best part. It is also the law. The Reformation recovered that 200 proof cask of grace that Paul preached. Christ died for sinners and God’s righteousness is given to you as a gift. You have been made a member of God’s house by God’s choice. And that free gift also frees us to see the law for what it is. It is not a method of saving ourselves. But it is also no longer our writ of condemnation. Yes, we are sinners. But the righteousness of God does not come by the law, but by grace through faith. So we can accept the law as God’s good gift to us for our good. Reformation Day is about the law and the gospel, and how they Reform our hard hearts into hearts of flesh.
It was a full service. Reformation Day, A Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Lots of Red. We did something a little different, the choir got the showpiece – “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. That is a treat left in the recording. I went with reformation Baptismal hymns for the day. LSB 596, All Christians Who Have Been Baptized, is left in the recording.
Reformation Day is primarily about justification. That is the fancy term for what Christ did for us. The bible speaks of this work in many different language domains: New Life (like baptism), sacrifice (the lamb), legal (advocate) and some others that the sermon starts with. The domain of John 8, our text, is deliverance. The Son has made us free. We are often tempted to judge this freedom lightly, or to trade it away for next to nothing. This sermon attempts in the context of Reformation Day to proclaim the magnitude of the freedom on offer.
It is Reformation Day. The Lectionary gives us an alternative gospel text and I tend to take it. There are a bunch of reasons. The sermon puts forward a couple of reason. But the deepest reason is simply I like it. And I like it because it captures a gritty and real moment. Jesus, John the Baptist, the crowds and a confrontation of a sort. What did you think the Kingdom was? What are you going to do now?
Individuals of every age might have to answer “who do you say that I am,” but not every age gets confronted with a dramatic prophetic call. That is what John the Baptist was. That is what Luther was. Whose works and wisdom do you trust? Your own, or God’s? What this sermon is, is my pathetic attempt at proclaiming what a new Luther or a new Baptist would be saying to this generation. “To what shall I compare this generation?” My simple answer is that we lose that gospel because we dismiss its specific nature. We dismiss the specific law of the people of God defined in the Decalogue. And we glide over the body of Christ, the form of the gospel. We believe that god loves us, but we do so in a generic way such that the god who loves us is not Jesus Christ, at least not the one of scriptures, but one that looks more like ourselves. A recovery of the gospel today would be about its specific-ness and peculiarity – Jesus Christ, friend of sinners. It would be a recognition of the body in Word and Sacrament in our midst.
Worship note: I left in a little more music than normal. I left in stanza one of our opening hymn, Salvation Unto Us has Come (LSB 555). Our choir sounded great this morning in liturgical duty. I didn’t leave their Introit, but you can hear them in the gradual (between the First lesson and the epistle), and in the verse with the Alleluia before the gospel. A Mighty Fortress is Our God, LSB 657, was our closing hymn. We tend to sing the Bach arrangement, but most of the LCMS uses a LSB 656. A Mighty Fortress ends up being “the reformation hymn” but if you asked pastors they would probably give you Salvation Unto Us has Come. It captures the teaching of the Reformation clearly. A Mighty Fortress is a great hymn, but its popularity stems not so much from its teaching but from a later political-theological rallying cry.
Reformation Day has had a number of modes of celebration through the years. This sermon mentions some of them, but maybe surprising for a Lutheran preacher, I’ve just never had much connection with the day. I guess part of that is my general distaste for the common forms of hagiography. If Luther is a hero (and he is) he can only be a hero in one form. Likewise, if he is a heretic who destroyed the church (and he did destroy a form of it), he can only be damned. Neither of those flavors ever appealed to me. We humans are way to complex for that. And it doesn’t give a good report on Luther’s key insight. In this life we are sinners and saints simultaneously.
Jesus uses a great visual image against “this generation” in the text. It was a generation that didn’t dance to the flute or sing to the dirge. Beyond that when the good law was proclaimed it said “he has a demon”; when the joyous gospel revealed it said “a glutton and a drunkard”. It danced to the dirge and sang to the flute, without recognizing the truth in either. For quite a while I’ve been feeling the same thing about Reformation Day.
But this year something happened that made it click. Stripping away the saint-stories and focusing on the story – A group of people confessing, remaining faithful, calling to the face the powerful and refusing to recant. It is a common story in the church. The only place I know of that celebrates those killed for being conventionally stupid. It is so much easier to recognize which side your bread is buttered on. The reformers did and they didn’t. Like Paul speaking to the Apostles wondering if his preaching had been in vain (Galatians 2:2) and confronting Peter to his face. Like the OT prophets sent to the Kings of Israel and Judah. Institutions go off track and sometimes need to be called on it. Separating the schismatics from the prophets isn’t always easy. And there is usually a little of both intermixed, but wisdom is justified by her deeds.
There is one more stripping away though. Institutions are fine and necessary. But as the hymn the choir sings in the recording tells us, God does not dwell in temples made with hands. He dwells in living stones. What is always most in need of reform is not the church or the collective or the other, but our hearts. Hearts that are no longer desiring only the clean story, but that desire God’s story – grace alone, faith alone and Christ alone.
Reformation Day to me is always a tough day to preach. For all my formative years and if any of the examples that I sampled this week are representative, the general approach to Reformation Day is full on Triumphalism and spiking of the football. And it is not that I can’t or won’t defend my side. I think Luther in particular and the reformers in general were right on a lot more than they were wrong. But if there is one thing that the gospel doesn’t really accept it is heroes. We have heroes of the faith, usually called saints, but ask why they are saints. Many of them are martyrs with a subset dying gruesomely. The next batch are those dedicated to outcasts – like the priests in leper colonies or Mother Teresa among the untouchables. There are the scholars and teachers and theologians. They often avoided the deaths, but the exchange seems to be that the society around them was passing away (c/r Augustine). Usually the equivalent of the Chinese toast, “may you live in interesting times”. What gets you on the list of the Saints is not usually someone confused with “winning”. The more we make a Hero out of Luther or the Reformers, the less they actually have to instruct us. The more we make them great men and women, the less we allow them to influence us.
Not an argument to tear them down or deconstruct them or even psycho-analyze them (although I suppose I do a little of that). The argument is to see them in context – fully human. When we do that, it is not bringing them down to our level, because according to the law we are already all on the same level – in deep trouble. But when we allow them to human, we are set free. We can admit the flaws (repent) and accept the grace. Both for them, and for us; both for their impossible circumstances, and for ours. We can hope to mend what was broken instead of building monuments. One of Luther’s most famous lines for theologians is: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” It is the harder road, but you don’t get real glory without walking through Calvary.
Baby Linley mentioned in the sermon is the grand-daughter of my A/V support, so the podcast version might be a little later. There is something deeply fitting about having a baptism on Reformation Day. Baptism is of course shared by the entire church, but each tradition chooses to emphasize a different understanding. And that actually gets to the core of this sermon. I hoped to present a uniquely Lutheran understanding of the Gospel. And to truly do that you need to consider baptism.
Objectively in baptism God has made you part of the family. Its His baptism. Its his word and promise and work. Through his work you belong. Subjectively it comes by faith. It’s true, but you need to make it your own. You have to believe it. And then you become it. As Luther says about baptism in the catechism, “the old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned…and the new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God”. We daily live out our baptism. We are daily becoming more like Christ. A Lutheran understanding of the gospel is a meditation on baptism.
For me the fullness of the gospel is best expressed by the Lutheran understanding. Everything else either adds something (Jesus and ______) or subtracts something (Sacraments just signs or just spiritual). That is why Reformation Day gets its observation. It is a yearly call to live our Christian Freedom bestowed in baptism. A call not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by Christ.
Traditions tend to pile up. There is nothing inherently wrong with traditions. Most traditions are in fact healthy and good. But they tend to pile up. Just think about Christmas. How many things are there that you “have” to do? Does the holiday just stop if you miss baking the sugar cookies or you don’t get the lights hung? Have you ever said the holiday has been ruined because we didn’t get to do X (fill in with your X)?
Churches are like dumping grounds of traditions. Churches hold on to traditions long after the last people who knew what they were about have been carried out the door. To make matters worse, they often add theological reasons for a tradition. Here is an example. You probably have a US flag at the front of your sanctuary. Why is it there? Are the Kingdom of God and the United States equivalent things? What would happen if it wasn’t there one day? My guess is that someone would make an argument – put it back, Jesus and Paul both said something along the lines of Caesar is the appointed authority, that flag is our recognition of that authority, so put it back. A theological fig leaf for a tradition. Not that the tradition is bad, just that it is a human tradition.
But traditions can pile up to toxic levels. To levels where the core of what we are about as Christians becomes obscured. The original creed was Jesus is Lord. If you listen to the stirring reformation hymns – especially A Mighty Fortress – that is what you will hear. The reformation was about stripping out some toxic levels of tradition and reminding people that our salvation is found only in Jesus, that Jesus is Lord. Our lives should be shaped by that very direct statement. At all times and in all places, a people willing to live like Jesus is Lord do revolutionary and remarkable things. And the best part of that is that if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. You will be part of the house forever. That is what this very personal Lord has done for you.
You all know the big Reformation Day Hymn – A Mighty Fortress is Our God. If you want to start a real fight, ask a Lutheran which tune is the better – the Bach setting or the original Luther. Parson and Parson’s mother disagree on this. It’s not a pretty fight.
But Ein Feste Burg is not what I want to talk about. Instead I want to talk about a more obscure yet more numerous genre of hymns that Luther loved to write. This Reformation Day the choir is going to sing a couple of verses from Lutheran Service Book #766 – Our Father, Who from Heaven Above during the offering. The congregation will echo the same hymn at the close of service with different verses. This is a great example of a catechetical hymn. By that I mean it is a hymn that is teaches to music. Like A Mighty Fortress, words and tune are by Luther.
The Small Catechism – the short basic teachings of the Christian Faith by Luther that he thought everyone should have memorized – contain the 10 Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. It was quickly expanded to include baptism and the Lord’s Supper and Confession (or the office of the Keys). It all fits in a few page or one “poster sized” wall hanging. Printing a catechism poster was one of the first uses of the printing press at the time. The head of every household for a couple of pennies could have the catechism in his home to teach both the basics of the faith and reading.
This hymn takes up the Lord’s Prayer. The Choir is singing 1 & 5 over the offering. The congregation will be singing 1 & 9 at the close of service.
1) Our Father who from heaven above
Bids all of us to live in love
As members of one family
And pray to you in unity
Teach us no thoughtless words to say
But from our inmost hearts to pray
5) Give us this day our daily bread
And lets us all be clothed and fed
Save us from hardship, war and strife
In plague and famine, spare our life
That we in honest peace may live
To care and greed no entrance give
9) Amen, that is, so shall it be
Make strong our faith in You, that we
May doubt not but with trust believe
That what we ask we shall receive
Thus in your name and at your word
We say, Amen, O hear us, Lord
Observe how each stanza begins with a petition from the Lord’s prayer, and the rest of the verse answers – “What does this mean?” Luther would follow a similar format with:
Baptism – #406, To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord
10 Commandments – #581, These Are the Holy Ten Commandments
Creed – #954, We All Believe in One True God
Confession – #607, From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee
We don’t do that much anymore. In fact you could say that catechism style teaching is out of vogue. Asking a question, writing or memorizing the answer and building upon it in another Q&A seems to break our post-modern sensibility. As Steve Jobs would say – don’t just accept the dogma which is accepting someone else’s thinking. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was conflicted about that. At some level a catechism is invaluable. It gives you a starting point. Bloom’s taxonomy and all knowledge starts somewhere. Even Steve Jobs didn’t question Wozniak’s circuit board layout. I guess the synthesis I’d come to is a combination. Instead of the endpoint it too often became, the catechism is a start. We used to accept the memorization of Luther’s answers as proper catechizing. Now, its a good start, but you need to make the answers your own. That is the task of the disciple and of the Christian life – that we can truly say: Amen, so shall it be to “Make strong our Faith in You”.