19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
As many of you know, today is Reformation Sunday. But what is Reformation Sunday? The worship committee asked that we take some time this morning to wrestle with what the Reformation is and why we celebrate it.
First off, perhaps we need to be a little more specific. Today, we remember the Protestant Reformation. We, as Lutherans, along with Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, and UCC churches, fall under the category of Protestant. While we are Lutheran, we are also Protestant.
And built into that word – Protestant – is the word protest. These churches are the result of the people who 500 years ago protested against the Roman Catholic Church. 500 years ago, these protestors split from the Catholic church, starting all of these other denominations.
Now, while this split, this thing called the Reformation, took many years, it is widely believed to have been sparked by Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.
It in order to understand this event that sparked an entire reforming of the Christian church, we should probably back up a little bit and get some background on Martin Luther.
Martin Luther was born in 1483 and his father had a dream for him – that he would someday become a lawyer. So, naturally, this father sent his son to Law School. But one night, when Luther was walking back to school, he got caught in a nasty thunderstorm. Terrified of dying and even more terrified that this storm was God’s judgment on him, Martin Luther started to pray. And he prayed to St. Anne, who is believed to be the grandmother of Jesus. And basically, what Luther prayed was that if he was protected during this storm, if he made it through, he would become a monk.
The storm ends, Luther survives, and two weeks later, he quits Law school and becomes a monk, leaving behind a very disappointed father.
As a monk, Luther did everything he could to live a totally pure and pious life. He tried to be as sinless and as holy as he could be. In fact, he even practiced self-flagellation, meaning he would use a whip of sorts to punish himself for the sins that he had committed.
You see, the reason Luther would do this is because the message that the church was teaching then was that our salvation relied entirely upon us. That one must do enough good works, be holy enough, faithful enough, pure enough to God to earn their way up to heaven. It was like climbing a spiritual ladder. Every good thing you did moved you up and every bad thing you did moved you down. The idea was that you had to pull yourself up by your own spiritual bootstraps, so that you could be good enough for God.
And so that is what Luther tried to do. He tried to be a good monk. He tried and he tried and he tried, only to realize that he could never get pure enough. Never be sinless enough to be worthy of God. He felt that he could never be worthy of God’s grace and forgiveness. And on top of that, he realized that his obsession with becoming good enough and holy enough for God was selfish as well. There were many people in need that he was not helping as he was only focused on himself and his desire to save himself. He was a navel gazer. Only focused on himself. On the outside, Luther succeeded greatly. On the inside, he suffered greatly. He was living a tormented life.
At this point, Luther was asked to get his doctorate and to become a professor. And he hated the idea. But he did it. And it was during this time of study and searching that Luther made a startling discovery. Throughout Scripture, Luther began to see that “the gospel”, the good news of God’s love and forgiveness was separate from the law, from doing good works and being pure. We can see this is in our reading from Romans today – Paul writes, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” This was the profound realization for Luther that God’s saving grace and forgiveness is not earned. You don’t win it by being a good person. You don’t receive it as a reward for the being the best person. Luther knew that if anything about his salvation rested on himself -his ability, character, or faith- he was out of luck. He knew that there is no way God’s grace could be earned and deserved. But rather it is a free gift from God to all of us, because all of us fall short. Look at vs. 23 – 24 in Romans, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” Luther’s realized that we are not loved and saved and forgiven by God because of the things we do, but rather because it is simply a free gift of grace given by God to us sinners.
So, with this new revelation in mind, Luther started looking at the Catholic Church around him, and he saw that the Catholic church was teaching basically the exact opposite of that.
It was all about good works. It was all about performing a certain number of good deeds so that you could slowly climb that ladder and make your way into God’s good graces and get into heaven.
Now, according to the Catholic church at that time, if you didn’t do enough good things to get into heaven, the teaching was that you would go to purgatory. Purgatory is like the world’s worst waiting room. After death, it is where you would wait in order to be purified of your sins so that you can eventually get into heaven. However, family and friends could do something to reduce your time in purgatory – they could purchase indulgences for you. These indulgences would forgive any of those remaining bad things that you did in your life that held you captive in purgatory.
Interestingly enough, the money from these indulgences, the money that people would give to get their poor, suffering loved one into heaven. It was used to balance the church budget. Oh, and update and finish St. Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City, so that the Pope could show off his stupendous building to all his friends.
Suddenly, this free gift from God. The gift of grace, and love, and forgivness…was not free. Not even close. The Roman Catholic church had put a price tag on the free gift. They were selling forgiveness for their own benefit. And this enraged Luther.
And it is at this point in the story, where Martin Luther, on October 31, 1517, nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. And when he posted these 95 statements, what he was doing was protesting against the sale of indulgences. Luther’s hope in doing so was to reform the Catholic Church. A church he dearly loved. But we know this was the act that sparked the split of the Roman Catholic Church, forming what we now know as Protestant churches.
There is much more to the story. For example the Pope told Luther to stop his writing and protesting or else he would be excommunicated and kicked out of the church. He didn’t stop and so he was kicked out. Luther eventually went as far as to call the Pope the anti-Christ.
It is also worth noting that Martin Luther never wanted to start a new church. And he never wanted a church named after him. He wanted to change the Roman Catholic Church from within. But it wouldn’t listen.
And so here we are almost 500 years later. And we celebrate this Reformation day with the color of red, the symbol of the moving of Holy Spirit, because, one, we trust that 500 years ago, God rescued and reoriented the church from having become corrupt. God bought back a church that had been pawned off to the devil for the sake of it’s own gain.
But secondly, because we as Protestants traditionally believe that God always reforming the church. It is not just the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago, but the Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, UCC, and Catholics of today. That all these churches are always needing to be reformed. Because, let’s be honest, if we all fall short of the glory of God, then the church will too. All of these churches continue to fall short. And we all drift away from God’s dream for this earth. We don’t always live out a life that reflects the free gift of grace that is from God and for all. In fact, sometimes the church can still look like a place that is trying to sell the love and forgiveness of God. We at times can continue to communicate to the world that you have to be good enough to receive God’s grace. That you have to earn it in your life time and if you don’t, then watch out. Seriously, sometimes it can seem like we’ve abandon the grace of God all together.
Of course, it is sometimes easier to recognize the failures of the church in a previous century than it is to see such failures in our own time. We don’t like to look at our own mistakes. But there is no one who is righteous, not even one. All have fallen short, the Apostle Paul tells us today. So no matter how hard we try to perfect our life and to always be right, to always have the right answer, to always do what is right, we will fail. And the church will fail too.
And so today begs the question: in what ways does the Church – whether Lutheran or otherwise – still need reforming, even today? For example, Sunday morning continues to be the most segregated day of the week. What are we going to do about that? What do you think God wants us to do about that? Also, when I go to churches, I almost never see people with mental or physical disabilities. I wonder if God’s church feels like a place that is welcoming to all people. What are we going to do about that? What do you think God wants us to do about that?
“We, as the people of God, lose our way. To say that the church is always being reformed is to say that God is still paying attention and paying the price to redeem our communities from all the ways we sell out to sin, death, and the power of the devil. (And the good news of today, Reformation Day, is that we can trust that even today,) God is still buying us back for something better.” Thanks be to God. Amen.