Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:27,28 ESV)
What do you say after the big 500th anniversary of the Reformation when you’re at the 501st anniversary? Hopefully the same message as the previous 500 years! God justifies the ungodly. God forgives sinners. God declares us innocent of our sins because of the death of Jesus and we receive this verdict, this mercy, this life – because that’s what God’s words produce here – and we receive it through faith. And there’s a part of us, I think, that just goes ‘same ol, same ol’ and has already started to switch off!
At Christmas Jesus is born. On Good Friday Jesus died on a cross. Easter Sunday tells the story of the empty tomb, no corpse, and Jesus’ appearing to Mary, two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then the 10 apostles, then a week later to Thomas and that story hasn’t stopped, ‘Christ is risen!’. (He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!).The struggle for the preacher is for people to listen when they already know the story! That’s why people hope the preacher finds an angle, a point of view that helps them see the story anew, keeps their attention, and helps us all stay awake!
And this is truly a danger because the call of the new can lead away from the path of God’s Word, into shades of grey and speculation that support a personal perspective or culture and off the sure foundation of what God clearly says and doesn’t say and onto less solid ground – dare I say it, sinking sand. No one – or very few folk – just say outright heresy up front – it’s usually a slow process, a step at a time, a word at a time but the direction inevitably is clear. So after 500 years, we could be far away from the Reformation message! And after nearly 2,000 years, we could be further away from the Good News of Jesus!
Christian denominations reflect the different stories and perspectives that have emerged through the centuries. Once we’ve all said that we ‘all believe in the same God’ it doesn’t take too long in a walk with other denominations to realise that we do not see things exactly the same, we do not behave exactly the same, we do not worship the same. And we’re back to the desire for variety. We may all be family if there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism but we all know that families don’t necessary get on – and some don’t even spend Christmas together!
The tension is always one of truth and love – speaking to the truth that is important and acting always in love. Reformation Sunday is a reminder to us – and to the whole Church – that the truth is important.
Last year at a Heads of Churches meeting after ELCE Chairman, Jon Ehlers, had given a presentation on justification by grace through faith – 500 years and all that – the core of what the Lutheran Reformation and Lutheran teaching and Lutheran pastoral care are all about – another church leader – from a newer denomination, in the discussion afterwards, got up and declared that Jon had only presented ‘half the message’ – and he had concentrated on the wrong half! – that Jon had left out the most important part which is that we have to accept this message and without our acceptance, we are not saved. Forget grace. What is important are works.
I have attended services in other denominations in the past few years. I do think Christians should do their best and seek to be together in dialogue about God’s Word and working together on projects or tasks where we can serve those around us. I attend minister fraternals and ‘Churches Together’ gatherings and so on. And I have heard sermons and had discussions where Jesus is assumed, implied, but not mentioned and what is mentioned is for us to hold on tighter to Jesus, be more faithful, worker harder. I have had discussions with ministers where I am the only one who says that Christians are
still sinners whereas the others, on the day, were saying that Christians are not sinners but are people who, from time to time, sin. Words, meanings, semantics, contexts now after nearly 2,000 years are not unimportant! What is the message of the cross? Of Christianity? What is the truth?
Everyone agrees that salvation is a gift. What most churches say is that we have to reach out and grab it otherwise it is not ours. What Lutherans say is that God saves us and places that gift into us – we don’t accept the gift but receive it and now that we have it, we decide whether or how to use it and whether or not to throw it away. But the gift is ours – given in baptism – given in God’s Word – sure because God has done it – and received through faith.
Please don’t hear me as saying that the Lutherans never get it wrong! We have differences among ourselves and we’re not perfect in our behaviour or practice. Nevertheless the Reformation is a moment that takes the Christian Church back to its core. Why? Why, God, do you do what you do? Why, God, have you done what you have done? Why, Jesus, did you come into the world and, of all things, die on a cross? What should the church teach?
And if the answers don’t come clearly, ‘Because I love you’, ‘Because I love you’, and ‘Because I love you – and if I don’t take your place in the mystery of your rebellion and selfishness and succumbing to death, you will never really live – not fully in this world – and not for eternity’ – then we will miss the Gospel – the good news.
This is the message we must hear otherwise we have no certainty of grace and love – and we will have no real reason to get out of bed with meaning and purpose – and all the counterfeit reasons will eventually be shown to be unfulfilling, vanity, and lead to despair.
The Reformation is a moment that, with laser precision, takes us to the centre, the core, of who God is and his nature and we discover he is gracious and merciful and that doesn’t lead us to complacency in this world of sin and death but to discipleship, following – and we all follow something or someone – following this Jesus who has set us free – justified us – declared us innocent of our sins – so that we can then struggle against our personal sins and fears and live this life with a joy and a confidence that the world thinks is simply delusion.
God does justify the ungodly. God has forgiven sinners. God does declare us innocent of our sins because of the death of Jesus and we do receive this verdict, this mercy, this life through faith. And this message can never be far from our hearts, our mouth and our hands!
- Romans 3:27 - 28