Reformation Sunday, Oct. 31, 2010 / Resurrection Lutheran Church / Message by Rev. Carol Haynes Kniseley
With this being Reformation Sunday as well as All Hallow’s Eve…I thought Pastor Jim was playing a “trick” when he handed me an article that he had downloaded from the local newspaper. The title was a catchy one, I have to admit: EVANGELIZING WITH FEAR. I was hoping the subtitle would shed a little more light…but actually it made it worse. I could feel a knot forming in the pit of my stomach as I began to read: This Halloween, a Spotsylvania County church wants to scare the hell out of you. Literally.
The article then goes on to tell of Hell House…a haunted house with a message…that takes visitors on a journey through the pits of hell, with Satan as the tour guide. I’ll spare you the gory details…but if you’re wondering what message the church is trying to convey, let me sum it up with a quote from the youth pastor: “Some people are not receptive just hearing about the love of God. They also need to know there are consequences. Basically, anyone who doesn’t choose Jesus burns in the fiery pit.” In other words, they will go to hell.
Unfortunately, evangelizing with fear…is not exactly new to the church. Even in Martin Luther’s day, the Roman Catholic Church had practically mastered the art of scaring people into heaven. And since the people themselves could not read Latin…they were solely dependent upon the church to teach them about God.
According to Luther, from the time that he was a youth until the time he became a monk…the God that he had come to know was not a God of love and forgiveness. No, this was a God whose wrath struck terror into the hearts of people because every single person “had been taught..by the church” that God was a holy and “just” God who wanted nothing better than to punish those who had sinned.
And it was Martin Luther who considered himself right up there with the worst of all sinners. If God was somewhere way up above…and we, sinners, were left to wrestle with our guilt down here on earth…then the gap in-between us and God must be our sin. In Luther’s mind, that gap was as wide as an ocean…and there was nothing that he could say or do to draw God any closer.
In the time of Moses, priests would sacrifice animals to atone for the sins of the people. Now, according to Luther, the church had found a “new” way to deal with sin. A way that was just as effective…and invoked the “work of the people.”
Sanctioned by the Pope himself, an “indulgence” was a thin piece of paper that simply stated for a fee…one’s entire sins would be forgiven from the time one was born…until that very moment of purchase. And what was even more exciting was to learn that one could buy indulgences for other people, including those who had died and were now (according to the church), serving out their time in a place called purgatory…before being allowed into heaven. In fact when the payment was made…the good folks were often reminded: ‘When the coin in the coffer rings…a soul from purgatory springs.’
It was practices like these that had no Biblical foundation whatsoever, that sent Martin Luther over the edge. On All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween…Oct. 31, 1517…Luther walked down the street to Castle Church in the town of Wittenburg. And knowing that the church doors were often used as the university’s bulletin board, he proceeded to nail a set of propositions to debate the practice of granting indulgences. Since called the 95 Theses.
Luther had long been studying the Bible in hopes of finding some way to appease God’s wrath. He was utterly convinced that no matter what he did…from wearing himself out with fasts and relentless self-examinations…there was no assurance of any kind that God was even listening. Finally…something happened…he heard a word from beyond himself, a word that was about to turn his world completely upside down.
They say that Luther’s breakthrough occurred sometime in the fall of 1516…and has been called his “tower experience.” Luther was studying Paul’s Letter to the Romans, focusing on the phrase “the righteousness of God” or “the justice of God.” “I hated this word…the justice of God,” Luther wrote. He had been taught to understand it in terms of the “justice with which God is just…and punishes the sinners and the unrighteous.”
He was angry with God and even admitted to hating “this righteous God.” As he continued to think about the phrase that troubled him, he wrote, “I noticed the context of the words, namely, ... the righteousness of God has been revealed; as it is written, the just shall live by faith. Then and there I began to understand the justice of God… as that by which the righteous man lives…by the gift of God, namely by faith.”
Luther said that at that very moment he fell to his knees and felt as though reborn. It was a dramatic reversal. The relationship that he longed for with a loving God had been restored. The God of punishment and death had been replaced.
Luther had finally heard Paul describe…how the God who raised Jesus from the dead…goes beyond initiative, beyond passive waiting to actually give what has been demanded: to make the believer righteous, to justify, to complete what has already been begun…by creating faith. Faith… in what God has done by putting Jesus forward as the sacrifice for the atonement of our sins. Martin Luther had received the greatest “treat” of all time. He had been set free by the grace of God and now his heart was held captive by the Word alone.
What I would love to say to the church trying their best to evangelize by fear: Your message needs “reforming”. No longer is it a matter of us choosing between accepting Jesus…or going to hell. As Martin Luther finally discovered…the decision has already been made. Jesus has chosen us…by bringing us back into a right relationship with God the Father...and granting to us the gift of faith.
And for folks who still believe that fear is the best way to reform the world, I would simply ask: “Why not try preaching the gospel instead?” The one that states: the gospel of Jesus Christ is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who has….faith.” No “trick”….just pure “treat.” Thanks be to God.