Sunday 29 October 2017
Today is a special Sunday. This is Reformation Sunday. We are here, on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses to celebrate the Protestant Reformation, a movement to root out corruption in the church, to base theology in the words of scripture, and to lift up the ministry of the laity. This day is especially important to us, as a Lutheran church, because it marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of our strand of Christian thought and practice.
The founder of the movement, Martin Luther, was born in 1483 as Martin Luder in Eisleben, Saxony, in what was then the Holy Roman Empire and is now eastern Germany. It was a mining town, and his father was an up and coming mine owner. Martin was sent to school to get a classical education in the law, so that he could represent his family’s growing mining concern.
As a young man in 1505, Martin was traveling during a thunderstorm and was nearly struck by lightning. He was so afraid that he prayed to St. Anne, Jesus’s grandmother, that if she would protect him from the storm, he would go to a monastery and become a monk. When he followed through on the promise, his father was furious. All the money he had spent on Martin’s education in the law was wasted.
Martin worked very hard as an Augustinian monk in Erfurt. He spent hours in prayer, fasted frequently, and he would sometimes stay in confession as long as six hours at a time, much to the annoyance of his confessor. He was often overcome by feelings of worthlessness. He was afraid of God, and could not make peace. He said of that time, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.” His spiritual superior tried to steer him away from constantly focusing on his faults but rather to focus on the goodness of Christ, but Martin had a hard time with it.
Already a monk, Luder became a priest in 1507. When he officiated at communion for the first time, he was overcome by terror. He was holding Christ’s body in his own hands, and it was overwhelming.
In 1508 he moved to Wittenberg to study and teach in the new university there. Within four years he had earned two master’s degrees and a doctor of theology. This is where he really started to mature and develop. He was reading, studying, and teaching the Bible. And as he read it, he started to realize that many of the things the church was teaching were not actually in the Bible. There were no popes, no purgatory, and no indulgences in the bible.
Martin had been on a pilgrimage to Rome in this same period, and he was not impressed. The church was building beautiful new buildings, while the poor went hungry. Popes and bishops lived in palace, while many people were homeless. And the people were not being offered grace, they were being offered indulgences.
Indulgences were a way of buying forgiveness. The theory was that Jesus and all the saints had lived such exemplary lives that they had produced an overabundance of good works, or merit, more than was actually required in order to let them into heaven. So these extra merits were stored up in a kind of treasury or bank. The pope, the most powerful priest in the Roman church, had the keys to this divine treasury of merit. And so, the pope could make withdrawals from the bank of good deeds and offer them to other people, people who were sinners.
But the pope didn’t just give these merits to anyone, they had to be bought. In exchange for a donation to the church, the pope could give you an indulgence, which would keep you from going to hell or help you get into heaven without having to spend a long time in purgatory working off your sins.
What is more, these indulgences were transferrable. You could buy them for other people, even people who were already dead. And so the preachers of indulgences told the people to imagine all of their loved ones burning in the fires of hell, and the only thing they needed to do to get them out of hell was to buy an indulgence. It was incredibly exploitative, and it caused people who had no money to spare to spend all they had on these worthless get-out-of-hell free certificates.
One of the most prolific and most abusive indulgence preachers was Johann Tetzel, who was sent to Germany to sell indulgences. Half the money raised was supposed to go to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and half of it was to pay off the personal debts of the local archbishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg. Tetzel is known for saying “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Just give me your money, and I will let your suffering relatives get into heaven.
It was on October 31, 1517, 500 years ago, that Martin posted his 95 Theses. They were addressed to Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg, the same one who had commissioned Tetzel to sell indulgences. In it, he attacked the church for the practice of selling indulgences and for numerous other acts of corruption and oppression. This is the event that we mark as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This is the event that we celebrate today.
It was also around this time that Martin changed his name. He was born Martin Luder. But he changed it to Martin Eleutheros. The Greek word, eleutheros means free. Later, he shortened it to Martin Luther.
A major part of Luther’s new understanding, and the core of Lutheran theology, is the doctrine of justification by faith. Luther came to it through his study of the bible, including the passage that we read this morning from Romans. “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There’s no distinction. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus.”
You’ll remember that Luther had been plagued by feelings of unworthiness. No matter how much he prayed, no matter how much he confessed, no matter how many good works he did, it was never enough. He never felt like he had done enough to deserve God’s forgiveness or God’s love. He could never achieve perfection, and so he always felt like he was cursed, damned. He was afraid of God, who always seemed to angry and wrathful. Jesus, too, always seemed to him like a harsh judge, not a helper or a savior.
But through his study of scripture, he began to come to a new faith. He read in Paul that “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.” He had always thought before the God’s righteousness meant God’s own perfection, God’s judgment of the world. Now he began to understand that God’s righteousness is a gift that God gives to humanity, a gift that comes through the faithfulness of Jesus.
As Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus.” No, he could never achieve perfection in life. No one could. We are all sinners. We all do things that are wrong, do things that hurt the people around us. Even when we try to do our best, we still make mistakes. It is human. And God knows that we are human. And God loves us as humans.
Luther came to believe there was nothing that humans could do to make themselves acceptable to God. Now, when you first hear that, it might sound rather depressing. No matter what we do, there is nothing that can make us look good in the eyes of God. But looked at from another angle, it is freeing. No, there is nothing I can do that will make God love me. But God does love me. God loves me as a free gift, through grace alone, not because of anything I have done, but because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
That does not mean that Luther thinks we should just do whatever we want, sin as much as we want, because God will forgive us and offer us grace. No, along with the gift of faith comes the desire to do good works joyfully, motivated by our thankfulness to God, not by fear of God’s punishment. To get a sense of Luther’s thought on this, I’m going to read a long quote from the preface of his German translation of the Book of Romans:
“You must get used to the idea that it is one thing to do the works of the law and quite another to fulfill it. The works of the law are every thing that a person does or can do of his own free will and by his own powers to obey the law. But because in doing such works the heart abhors the law and yet is forced to obey it, the works are a total loss and are completely useless. That is what St. Paul means in chapter 3 when he says, “No human being is justified before God through the works of the law.” From this you can see that the schoolmasters and sophists are seducers when they teach that you can prepare yourself for grace by means of works. How can anybody prepare himself for good by means of works if he does no good work except with aversion and constraint in his heart? How can such a work please God, if it proceeds from an averse and unwilling heart?
“But to fulfill the law means to do its work eagerly, lovingly and freely, without the constraint of the law; it means to live well and in a manner pleasing to God, as though there were no law or punishment. It is the Holy Spirit, however, who puts such eagerness of unconstrained love into the heart, as Paul says in chapter 5. But the Spirit is given only in, with, and through faith in Jesus Christ, as Paul says in his introduction. So, too, faith comes only through the word of God, the Gospel, that preaches Christ: how he is both Son of God and man, how he died and rose for our sake. Paul says all this in chapters 3, 4 and 10.
“That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law; faith it is that brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ. The Spirit, in turn, renders the heart glad and free, as the law demands. Then good works proceed from faith itself. That is what Paul means in chapter 3 when, after he has thrown out the works of the law, he sounds as though he wants to abolish the law by faith. No, he says, we uphold the law through faith, i.e. we fulfill it through faith.”
Luther’s faith changed the world. No, he was not a perfect man. In fact, he was rather prone to anger and pride. He could be petty and harsh. He was rather fond of beer, and he never shied away from using curse words.
And yet, his rediscovery of that simple truth found in scripture was revolutionary. We can do nothing to make ourselves acceptable to God, but God offers us acceptance as a free gift of grace through faith in Jesus, and in response to that grace, we become glad to do good in the world. The law is good, because it teaches us that we are sinful, that we are not perfect, that we are not as God wants us to be. And so the law drives us to God and to the gospel, the good news that God offers us grace, justification, and faith, not because we did anything to deserve it, but because God loves us.
And that realization—that God loves us even when we mess up, that God forgives us and accepts us through Jesus, that God works in us to make us joyful for doing good—that realization makes all the difference. It is the difference between being a terrified, self-hating slave and being a confident, joyful, generous child of God. And 500 years after Luther’s bold statement of protest, we are still learning, growing into the peace that comes from knowing that we don’t save ourselves, God saves us as a free gift of grace through faith. Thanks be to God.