Summary: A Reformation Sunday sermon preached 10/25/2009 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Audubon, Iowa that talks about the need for ongoing Reformation in the church today.
Today is Reformation Sunday, the day each year where we gather in churches to sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”, the liturgical color for the day is red, some churches have special afternoon or evening services to commemorate the day, and we talk about Martin Luther. Some people really look forward to this day. Others think it’s a nice thing once in a while, but wonder why are we commemorating something that happened nearly 500 years ago? What was the big deal about a monk in a city in Germany posting a piece of paper to the doors of a church that we celebrate yet today? Our Epistle reading for today is going to help guide us through that discussion, and help us understand that Reformation Sunday isn’t just about something that happened 500 years ago, it’s about something that’s happening yet today.
To really understand the importance of the Reformation, one has to understand the spiritual condition of the Church of the early 16th Century. In those days, you had one church in the west: what we call today the Roman Catholic Church. And of course, the Roman Catholic Church was ruled by one man, the Bishop of Rome, whom most called the Pope. Now in and of itself, having someone as the head of a church body isn’t a bad thing. However, the Roman church also taught that whoever occupied the Papacy was the “Vicar of Christ” on earth, literally Christ’s “stand-in” and whatever the pope said, it was to be treated as if it were from Christ himself. As a result of this false teaching, problems crept into the church over time.
Another un-scriptural teaching that had been introduced into the Roman Catholic Church through the centuries was the idea of Purgatory. Purgatory was viewed as a “holding area” where the soul of a believer went after death to undergo a final purification of sins before it was permitted to enter into heaven. One’s time in purgatory could be reduced by doing enough good works in the eyes of God to make satisfaction for one’s sins, or after one’s death, loved ones still living could offer prayers to the saints on behalf of their deceased loved ones to implore the saints to share some of their extra merit to free the deceased’s soul from purgatory. The other way to decrease or eliminate time in purgatory was to purchase an indulgence, a piece of paper which in essence granted remission of sins and freedom from purgatory, either for a living person, or a deceased loved one.
By the early 16th century, the Pope was Leo X. Leo had a vision of building a beautiful basilica named St. Peter’s Church in Rome, which stands today and is perhaps one of the most famous churches in all the world. Building a church of that size was going to take a lot of money. Thus, Leo, using his power as the “Vicar of Christ”, authorized the sale of indulgences to help finance the construction of St. Peter’s church. One of the foremost indulgence sellers was a monk named John Tetzel. Tetzel traveled from village to village, preaching in the churches, and offering for sale a papal indulgence. The phrase “A coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” became rather popular in relationship with Tetzel’s work. People flocked from all over to hear him preach and to have the chance to buy an indulgence, either for themselves, or for a deceased loved one.
Some members of St. Mary’s Church in the city of Wittenberg, Germany were among those who bought an indulgence from Tetzel. Their Pastor was a priest named Martin Luther, who was also Professor of Bible at the local University. If there was anyone who knew what it was like to live in constant fear at the idea of an angry, vengeful God, it was Dr. Luther. Early on in his life, Luther viewed Jesus Christ as only an angry judge, a vengeful God waiting to throw Luther into the depths of hell for eternity over his sins. He tried everything he possibly could to try to appease God. He confessed every single sin he could think of in the confessional to his father confessor, he tortured himself, he deprived himself of food and sleep, but the harder he worked, the further he went into despair. “God is righteous, I am not. Because of that, God will judge me to eternal damnation” were Luther’s thoughts of God.
That is, until he really started studying the Scriptures. In our Epistle reading from Romans 3, he finally understood what that phrase “The Righteousness of God” truly meant. Here, he read, in the words of our text: “For there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Okay, he knew that all too well. But it was the part that followed that changed everything. St. Paul continues: “and (all) are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” That was wonderful news for Martin Luther! God’s righteousness wasn’t something that Luther, or anyone else had to earn through prayer, confession, penance, works, or indulgences, it was a FREE GIFT from Christ for all who believe! We are justified by Christ, so that when God sees us, it is “just as if I had never sinned!” What great news! It wasn’t about me, it was all about Christ. It was all about Christ and what He did for us at the cross. No wonder Luther felt he could never atone for his sins, because all had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But Christ justifies us. It wasn’t our work, it was all Christ’s work for us! That’s what the Gospel is really all about. That’s what Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were really all about!