Back to the Basics

a sermon for Reformation Sunday (October 29, 2017)

Romans 3:19-28

Luther (2)

Here we are gathered on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, which ended up being a truly world-changing movement. I do not hold a degree in history, but I know enough to know that the Protestant Reformation, which for all intents and purposes took off that final day of October 1517, quickly became one of those few events in the course of history that eventually touched on just about every aspect of human life, one of those events where everything after ended up being significantly different than what came before. Ideas and yearnings for change had been brewing prior to that October in 1517, but now we know things really took off when Martin Luther, a relatively unknown monk and college professor, began circulating 95 specific ideas for discussion on the door of a relatively unknown backwater town in a depressed part of northern Germany. He had had enough of certain teachings and practices of the church—a church which he deeply loved—and felt emboldened to get people to talk about it.

If you’ve ever had to take a class in European or world history, you’ve learned about the Reformation and Martin Luther. You don’t have to be Lutheran or even Christian to appreciate the world that Martin Luther’s Theses and hammer helped bring about. Historians often argue that were it not for the Reformation, other movements like the Renaissance and the Enlightenment—the widespread flourishing of the arts and humanities and the concepts related to the “rights of man”—might not ever have come about in the ways they did. Political scientists and economists say that the Reformation is what made possible the organization of people into nation-states, which is still the system governments are arranged by now. Rather than things like empires and independent cities with their own armies, the world has countries and capital cities which run them.

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But all that is for debates among the experts, and, truth be known, none of those reasons is why you and I are gathered here today. We are gathered in this place on any given Sunday because this congregation, for better or worse, is still associated with Martin Luther’s original message. When we cut past all the ties each of us may have to the Lutheran movement through our heritage and history, this congregation still finds something about Luther’s core teachings that we think is invaluable to Christian faith and the ministry to which God calls us. This congregation is still built on the belief that, even if we don’t intentionally reflect on it all that much, and even if we don’t do a good job with it 100% of the time, that there are basics about the gospel that must be gotten right. The Reformation that happened 500 years ago this week and the message the Spirit helps us embody every Sunday hence is aimed at the basics about God and Jesus and the life of faith.

On Reformation Day twenty years ago I found myself gathered in Wittenberg itself, the city where it all began. I was living in Germany at the time, in a small village not too far away, behind the former Iron Curtain. Almost no one identified as a Christian those days because the Communist Party had been fairly successful in stamping out the church. But I was surprised that in Wittenberg they were pulling out all the stops. There were organ recitals, worship services, lectures scheduled all day long. We even watched puppet show (for some reason lost to us it was “Puss in Boots”). What took me really off guard was that on every street corner people were handing out copies of Luther’s Small Catechism. That struck me as very peculiar, especially in a land where almost no one went to church or really professed belief in God.

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In Wittenberg on October 31, 1997, with a friend (Lauren). The city church where Luther preached is in the far background. The Luther statue is behind me on my right.

For those who may not know, the Small Catechism is probably Martin Luther’s most well-known book. Catechism is a fancy church word for a teaching book, and Luther wrote it in 1529 to teach the basics of the Christian faith. It contains concise, easy-to-read explanations for the five things Luther considered central to Christian faith: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.  It was little in size and the writing was very accessible. His hope was that families would use around the dinner table at night.

I’ve owned this catechism I got in Wittenberg for 20 years, but only this week did I notice that the very back page is the multiplication tables. It seems very non-sequitur for me: what in the world do fundamental arithmetic lessons have to do with teachings about the church? Thanks to someone in this congregation who did a little research, it seems that printing the multiplication tables in the Small Catechism was Luther’s original idea. Just as parents would drill their children on their basic math facts each night, they were also to help them learn their faith basics. Sounds like loads of fun, right?

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the front cover of my German Small Catechism (left); the times tables on the back page (right)

Luther and other church theologians could fill volume upon volume  in their thinking about God and the church, but when he had to boil it down to the basics, he got the Small Catechism. And if you could get these five things down pat, then you had the foundation for building the rest of your faith.

But for Luther, of course, there was something even more basic than memorizing the catechism. And that’s what that original Reformation Day was about. Luther believed deeply that when you’re talking about God, the basics have to be grace. That is the way that God builds a right relationship with us. God always reaches out to us in our sin, in our brokenness, in our frailties and failings. That is God’s basic nature and character, the foundation of his relationship with each and every one of us. It is so easy to begin thinking that God will only accept and love us if we are morally perfect, or if we are sincere about wanting to be morally perfect. It is even possible to read Scripture and come to the conclusion sometimes that our relationship with God is primarily about what we do. Luther had been taught that by the church of his age, and it had led him into some very dark places. But when he stepped back and reflected on the life of Christ and the gift of faith the Holy Spirit opened his eyes to see that the basics always had to do with God’s free gift of forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

solagratia.fw_He found this reassurance especially in the letters of the apostle Paul, who himself had struggled with the relationship of his works of righteousness to God’s unconditional love. For a long time Paul had believed, just like the rest of his people, that in order to be in a good relationship with God you had to do the right things. A person had to work hard in order to stand justified before God. This is what Paul means by “living under the law.” To deal with human brokenness and the sin of the world, God had provided a system of rules and commandments that we could learn and follow. But that had all become obsolete once Jesus was given as a gift. His death and resurrection was a true world-changing moment, altering everything that came afterwards, because it meant that God was pouring out himself for the life of the world. Rather than sitting back and waiting for humankind to reform itself through the law of good works, God was moving towards us in grace. Grace had brought us into existence, and grace was now freeing us from the burden of sin.

And if you understood that, if your faith seized upon that, then you were justified—that is, you stood before God cleansed and free and forgiven. As Paul put it, for we hold that a person is made right by faith apart from works of the law. Or, as one modern translator phrases it, God does not respond to what we do, but we respond to what God does.[1]

SART-2015-09-13-1090x639And if that is the basic foundational understanding of who God is and how God works, then the church has to make that basic, too. When we are out and about in the world—maybe not standing on the street-corners, but sharing and living our message—it is vitally important that we keep God’s grace the basic, main message in all we do and say. Luther called this the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. And by that he meant that if the church can’t proclaim this clearly above all else, then it will cease to contain anything about God. By returning to the basics of God’s Word Luther helped return the church of his day to the message of grace.

And Luther knew that the church always carried this responsibility of reforming itself, of holding its message up to the living Word of Jesus. How does the church remain relevant? By proclaiming God’s grace in Christ clearly and lovingly. It’s so tempting to think that reform is about bringing things up to date. We can fall into the trap of thinking reform simply involves cleverly responding to the times or revising rules and procedures. Reform of the church actually doesn’t have anything to do with making things more modern or up to date, although it may have that effect here and there. Reform always has to do with helping the church mirror the grace of God in Christ as closely as it can. Reform first takes us back to our roots, takes us back to our fundamental understanding of how God interacts with us in Jesus Christ before it takes us anywhere else. We continue in his word and it makes us free—free to stand on the street-corners, free to stand at the end of Monument Avenue, free to love and serve our neighbor out in the world.

I distinctly remember sitting here several years ago during the children’s sermon. I can’t remember who was responsible for giving it that Sunday, and I certainly have long forgotten what it was they said, but I have clear memories of one little Sarah S. D. who was about 2 years old at the time. As some children are prone to do during the children’s sermon, she had gotten up and was walking around and inspecting things. I watched her climb up on the step behind the person delivering the children’s sermon and walk along the little step underneath the altar as if she were pretending to walk along the steepest mountain ledge.

It caught my eye because most kids who go up there face the altar, but she was facing outward, and she almost looked afraid to do it. And then, suddenly, she spread her arms outward to brace herself as she inched along the ledge. And as the words of the children’s sermon continued, we had there before us an image of the basics of faith. The mighty fortress of God pressed tight at our back, we find ourselves balanced, faces looking outward into the world. It is not our own doing, but Christ who makes us able. We stand before God by our faith in God’s grace, apart from any work we do. “We tremble not, unmoved we stand,” as Luther’s hymn goes. And there we stand, facing outward, forgiven and free, to engage the world and serve our neighbor. But always because Christ’s grace anchors us. It is the basics, the church’s number one task to live and proclaim.

So on this day, we’re gathered, 500 years after the movement started moving, to remember where God has placed us, to remember where God always places us: in the water, where we are cleansed and renewed. At the table, where we are fed and forgiven. And at the viewpoint of faith, ready to show the world how strong and how gracious and how freeing our God really is.

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[1] The Message (Eugene Peterson)

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