This Reformation Sunday Sermon was presented at Resurrection on October 28, 2007, by Pastor Jim Kniseley. The scripture text is Romans 3:28, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed the law.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
We begin with a truth: The Church is always in need of reform. It is a good thing for people in every generation to ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in leading and inspiring our understanding and practices. In Martin Luther’s day (he lived about 500 years ago), he discovered something very important. He discovered by reading the Bible carefully (he could read the Bible in Latin and Greek and Hebrew), that there were big differences between what he read in the Bible and the practices and teachings of the Church.
This afternoon, thirty-some of our confirmation students plus others of us will be attending the Reformation Festival Worship Service at National Cathedral. This morning seems to b a great opportunity to help you answer the question: What is so important about what Martin Luther did that 500 years after he lived we still look to his writings for guidance?
This is what Martin Luther did: He wrote down 95 things that he thought should be discussed openly, that would help people rethink some of the practices of the Church that had gotten so far from what is taught in the Bible. He took his list (we call them the 95 Theses) and nailed them to the door of the church in the city of Wittenberg, Germany. You may not think that such an action would lead to all the turmoil and change that resulted. But we can look back these 500 years later and see that the Holy Spirit was unleashing a force for reform that impacts us here today at Resurrection Lutheran Church and in many other parts of the Christian Church.
Martin Luther probably did not understand what would happen from his action. He simply knew that he must speak up, that he must be faithful to what he read in the Bible. He probably didn’t understand the risk to his own life. About 100 years before Martin Luther’s action, a man named Jan Hus was burned at the stake, for asking similar questions about the Church and the need to return to Biblical Teachings. The name “Hus” means “goose’ in the Bohemian language. Just prior to his being burned, Hus was asked to recant his teachings. His response: “You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan you can neither roast nor boil.” We believe that Martin Luther fulfilled Hus’ prophecy. This prophecy was mentioned at Luther’s funeral in 1546. Even today the swan is a symbol in many Lutheran churches for Martin Luther.
I am grateful for the Lutheran magazine that arrived in our homes this past week, just in time for Reformation Sunday. It includes a copy of 95 Theses and it has a wonderful article, “It’s All About Grace.”
What really offended Luther on October 31, 1517, was the selling of indulgences. These were pieces of paper that you could purchase that would do all sorts of things promised by the Church. You could get extra credit for helping yourself or relatives get a good place in heaven. You could purchase a piece of paper that promised forgiveness for something you intended to do before you did it.
The Lutheran magazine explains very well that the idea of Purgatory was thought up in the Roman Catholic Church. It was the place you could go if you hadn’t built up enough merits or credit to overcome your sins and faults. Martin Luther was the one who dared to ask aloud, “Where did you get that idea? The Bible doesn’t say that. Jesus never said that. Why is the Church teaching and practicing something that goes against the Bible?”
I want to share something today with you that we call the Three Solas. The word “sola” in Latin means “alone” or “only.” Martin Luther said that the Bible and the teachings of Jesus can all be understood by three solas: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, and Sola Scriptura. Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture alone.
If today you understand these three solas, you will be able to wonderfully explain what the Reformation was all about and what is the heart of the Bible as we understand it even today at Resurrection Lutheran Church.
Sola Gratia: Grace Alone…The symbol of the ladder comes to mind here. We don’t climb a ladder of trying to do good deeds and thinking certain ways in order to obtain Grace, Grace is God’s free gift of love and salvation. In Jesus, God’s grace comes down the ladder to us. God humbled himself and became human in order to bring us his love.
Sola Fide: Faith Alone…We are saved because we have faith – trust – in God’s mercy. We believe Jesus really is “for me”, as we affirm in baptism.
Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone. The Bible is the source and norm of our faith life, not tradition or human pronouncements handed down by church authorities.
Let’s sum up the message of this sermon by telling you about a picture. It hangs today in one of the churches in Wittenberg, Germany. It was painted by a friend of Luther’s, Lucas Cranach. It shows Luther in his pulpit preaching. The people of the congregation are intently listening. Luther’s finger is pointing to something in the church that is the heart and soul of all that we teach and believe. He is pointing to the cross on which the dying Jesus hangs. His message: You and I can’t add one thing to the price Jesus paid to take away our sins. Our salvation is a gift that comes to us from God who came down from heaven to perform this action. We make this gift our own by faith, which is simply trust in Jesus. And we learn all about this in the Holy Scriptures that alone are the test of what is true or not true in our understanding of God.
This is most certainly true. Thanks be to God. Amen.