October, 31, 1517 – A thin, Saxon monk reaches high outside the church in Wittenberg, tacking some writings to the door. At 34 years old, he’s making a critique of the worldwide Catholic church. He was seeking a debate, and he got it… Just over four years later, he’s standing before looming churchmen at Worms, called to recant over 25 writings in the same vein as those first ones. And he truly took a stand; he wouldn’t recant a thing he’d written. And, you might have heard the mythos of it all in words like turmerlebnis, theses, and diets, and theological words like justification and indulgences. But it’s 2022, a whole world away in a city called Brookfield where the public posting board is digital and the lingo is about tweets, recession, and November elections. So, even though we put that monk’s meaty mug up on a banner and have a Sunday celebration called Reformation, you might be asking whether it really has value…
Well, aside from any arguments like, “Hey, this is the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, one of the most momentous organized religion happenings in world history…” There’s also that, that monk, Martin Luther might be now dead and dusty but his argument was the same as one made centuries earlier by St. Paul himself. And, though the things Martin was arguing about might seem trifles to you and me, they were just as serious as St. Paul’s concern about a little skin… The truth is, the value of the Reformation is that it’s about the heart of the Christian faith – your salvation and mine.
To consider that, it’s St. Paul’s words in Galatians we have before us. Martin Luther loved Galatians. He called it “my epistle, to which I am betrothed. It is my Katie von Bora,” who was Luther’s dear wife. He loved this book. And that makes sense, because Luther’s reformation work and Paul’s Galatian letter say the same thing. They both call us to “stand firm” against slavery.
Paul’s words were, “Stand firm…and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Paul, of course, was talking about a slavery to trying to win God’s approval. Specifically, the Galatians were being told they had to follow an Old Testament regulation of circumcision. Now, this is most probably weird to us – if we know anything about circumcision, we know it as an elective medical procedure for boys just born. They knew it then as the way boys and men were physically marked as being God’s family – sort of like an Old Testament baptism. And some among them were concluding, “If non-Jewish believers like us want to be Christians truly – real ones, then we’ve gotta be circumcised.”
Certainly, there is no requirement like this to be a member at CTL. But we could be tempted into such things: “the church music must be organ music or it’s not church music” – meaning: Jesus is unhappy if church sounds otherwise… Few of us would conclude thus but we’re all tempted by pretending that God’s happier if we follow the right rites or use the same hymnal or a thousand different things that are mostly innocuous human makings. And, if not here, out there in your jobs and your neighborhoods, our world makes plenty of moral demands: “Be anti-this…”, “Be for that…”, “Don’t restrict this freedom…”, “Stop using that resource…” And they’re all parts dismissable and silly, or devilish when they become the things that define us and, perhaps, by which we think, “Ah…now God is pleased with me…” or “If only you do that, then God’s face will beam…” And, most often, those things seem pretty innocuous – just a bit of this or that, one label, one declaration, or…a little skin…
In short, Paul argues here and elsewhere that those OT laws about circumcision and tattoos and not eating pork applied to the Israelites waiting for the Savior; and they apply to no one now that he’s arrived. But more, take a look at the kind of language Paul uses about these seemingly innocuous things. Serious results: if you choose to be circumcised (wear label A, do thing X) as a way to be a real Christian, well actually, “Christ will be of no benefit to you at all!” You better do everything – “obligated to the whole law” are we. Later on, Paul even says about those who would teach any kind of thing like this, “I wish they’d go the whole way and just chop it all off!” (5:12) And worst of all, for all our own working, we might be “fallen away from grace,” and even “alienated from Christ.”
That is, inarguably, the worst of all. The word Paul uses means to invalidate or wipe out something as though it didn’t exist – your relationship with Jesus. Some translations say it instead, “you have been estranged from Christ.” Perhaps you know about that? Being totally disconnected from a former friend or family members – completely estranged. Where you have no real, functional relationship. You know nothing about where they are, or how the grandkids are doing; you can only see it from a distance. What a terrible circumstance – in this life, certainly – but for your eternal relationship with God? There is nothing worse. And defining our relationship with God on the basis of what we do is always sure to get us there.
And Martin Luther understood that along with Paul. See, here’s the thing the Lutheran Reformation grasped: if we rely on human works – paying money for spiritual reward (indulgence), saying a thousand prayers or the right words and believing God will mark it in our “good” column, saying that Jesus died and rose for your salvation but your work takes you to the end – that’s exactly the opposite of being “saved by grace through faith,” of trusting in the work of Jesus Christ. And against anything that would put us back into that kind of slavery to our own deficient doing – against that we must stand firm.
And yeah, taking a stand, that brings division and difficulty – for ourselves, in our communities, even in the church. Sometimes, I think, the Reformation is counted as a great dividing force – now we were no longer just “the church” but all sorts of disagreeing denominations – how terrible! But, actually, standing firm in the Word of God is the only thing that really unites people… On Reformation Sunday, we celebrate who we actually are in Christ Jesus: it calls us into true, Christian community. Paul said, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…” And he meant to remind who we are and what unites us and to push past what tempts to divide us. Paul says instead, “Be free!” Despair of your own doing – human labels and works. Turn away from the thoughts that the better you do, the more God loves you. Embrace the fact that Jesus came to do perfectly and, based on his perfection, God’s love for you cannot change. Indeed, you are not marked by anything you do or don’t do. Rather, this is who we are – not those who “do” most, but those who “receive” the best.
Paul said, we “eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope.” Unpack that… Eagerly await is a word that means to look forward to receiving something someone else is preparing. Faith is how you’ll receive; it’s trust in something outside of you – in this case, Jesus’ perfect living under God’s law, fully paying the debt of all our failures and sins by his death, abundant life promised in his conquering resurrection from death. Righteousness is the result – being right with God – the status that Jesus won by his work. And hope? Well, that reflects our connection to that result: that, after the struggle and difficulty of this sinful life, one day we will finally see full perfection in God’s heaven – that’s what we hope for; but it’s also present, in the midst of the struggles, by faith in Jesus’ work, you are already everything God wants – that’s the hope we have within us. We are looking forward to receiving, by way of trusting in God’s work, the holiness we need which Jesus won – this is our hope, our direction in life…
This is what marks us: we’re the ones who react to God’s action – we receive what he has to give – everything we need. And so, we could define our freedom and unity as Christians finally like this, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” But I thought this wasn’t about your work and mine? It isn’t… You might think of us all like batteries. A battery doesn’t really do any work, it simply receives power from one place and releases it to another. That’s sort of like your faith. Faith receives what God’s prepared: Jesus’ perfection, love, and promise. Jesus says to you, “Now you release that love out into the world.”
People of faith freely express that love of Jesus with love of their own. Love comes in two simple forms: content and action. Content? The content of who you are and what you do, of your love, is your hope that the perfection and holiness Jesus won is yours and will soon be revealed. The action? Sharing that hope so others have it too…in quite a free range of ways. It may be in saying, “Here I stand,” on God’s Word and confidence in Christ alone. It might be in turning yourself or a friend away from sinful pride. It will be in all the beautiful things Paul talks about later in ch.5: loving your neighbor as yourself, being led by God’s Word and his Spirit in doing the things God loves, or all that good fruit walking through life with God’s Spirit brings: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (5:13-25)
That’s nothing new. And this Reformation thing is 505 years old this year. But the value of the Lutheran Reformation is this: it calls us to stand firm against slavery to sin and it calls us into true, Christian community – one marked by love – full of the love God gives and free to give to one another everything God loves. On this day, with Martin Luther and with St. Paul, we declare again that faith in Jesus Christ sets us firmly, freely in God’s grace: and that, no matter what our hearts or the world around us might say, there we stand and there we’ll stay.