Text: John 8:31-36
Lord Jesus, Thou the Church’s Head, Thou art her one Foundation.
In Thee she trusts, before Thee bows, And waits for Thy salvation.
Built on this Rock secure, Thy Church shall endure
E’en though the world decay And all things pass away.
O hear, O hear us, Jesus!
O Lord, let this, Thy little flock, Thy name alone confessing,
Continue in Thy loving care, True unity possessing.
Thy Sacraments, O Lord, And saving Word
To us e’er pure retain. Grant that they may remain
Our only strength and comfort. ELH 212 v. 1-2
God’s grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Thousand, thousand thanks shall be, dearest Jesus unto Thee! Not only for the humble birth, life, ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but also for what He has continued to do on Earth since that time.
On Earth? Is Jesus still doing something here? After He ascended into heaven? Jesus continues to work powerfully here. You might even say more powerfully than before, if that’s possible, as He works through the Holy Spirit to create, bless, and sustain His Church by means of the gospel, the delivery of His forgiveness to troubled consciences, and the two arms by which He upholds the members of His Church in our faith: holy baptism, and the sacrament of the altar. Jesus is speaking even now, through the mouths of those whom He called for this purpose. He is baptizing. He is feeding His Church with food that somehow is His own body and blood. He joins with us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Jesus has been working with His Father since the Beginning, working for the benefit of His Church.
That’s the backdrop of the festival of the Reformation: Jesus’ work. He did a special work in the 16th Century through a number of people, not only Martin Luther. Jesus reformed His Church. On Monday, March 10, 1522, Luther preached, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” Yes, Jesus did much through His Word with the power of His Spirit. The Reformation was God’s work, and especially today we thank and praise Him for it.
Dear fellow redeemed:
Freedom. People like that idea. Ask them what they mean by it, and you will get a variety of answers. People living in a prison camp, people living with chronic pain, people living with guilt, people subjugated by a foreign power, students in a classroom, workers on a job site, citizens in a pandemic, people living under arbitrary law, dictatorship, or injustice. Each would have a different idea of freedom, and even people in the same situation would give different answers. But generally, they all would like freedom of one kind or another.
This morning, we need to know what Jesus means by freedom. “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” His hearers took it to mean the opposite of enslavement to other people. Jesus meant freedom from the slavery of sin.
This is one way to describe the point of the Lutheran Reformation: to reform the Church so as to provide this kind of freedom. Many Christians had lost it, because the word of Jesus had become obscured. In good catechetical fashion, we also need to ask, “What does this mean?” In what ways had the teaching become obscured, and how has the Reformation provided freedom from the slavery of sin?
How did the teaching become obscured?
The first question is about things that happened in the past. It’s history that explains and impacts the present time. In the time of the New Testament, John wrote (1 John 4:1-3), “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” The spirits that John means for his hearers to test are the doctrines proclaimed by those who speak or write to us. We test them to see whether they really are from God. Those that deny what Holy Scripture says about Jesus are not from God.
There were many such teachers in the next few centuries, but by God’s grace, the teaching of the Scriptures fought those spirits, and the Church worked out ways of confessing the truth. From that time we have the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed, and the testimony of many faithful teachers.
The apostles and the next several generations of Christians did not have a legal status for their religion in the empire. But through the Fourth Century, Christianity became not only legal, but very influential. But Roman civilization in Italy slowly lost its will to exist and crumbled under its own weight. In the Fifth Century, the Bishop of Rome had to step in just to preserve civilization. No other authority was available. This accumulation of earthly power continued through the next several centuries, and Rome’s authority changed from a mighty civil empire tied into pagan religion into a mighty religious authority with many ties into civil power, not only in Italy, but other places too. Caesar had moved away from Rome to Constantinople, but in his place at Rome was something different: a pope.
Some popes have done a lot of good. And they had a hard job. In A.D. 1054, the church of the west (the part of the old Empire that spoke Latin) had a falling out with the church of the east (the part of the old Empire that still spoke Greek). After that, the pope had no competition in the west. He carried the responsibility for all of western Christendom. That’s a lot of responsibility, especially when you consider that it’s not only religious, but civil responsibility. The pope was effectively a kind of king. The bishops under him followed the same pattern: religious power combined with civil power. (For the sake of time, we are passing by other changes.)
Many churchmen did their best with what they had. They preserved what was left of civilization after the fall of Rome. Many were also corrupt, living only to fill their bellies and gather more power to themselves.
Already you can see how the gospel was obscured.The church’s teachings were called the word of God, but they expanded way past the limits of Holy Scripture and the gospel. Church doctrine was put into a system by a new set of philosophers in the 11th, 12th, and 13th Centuries. They built their theology on the writings of Aristotle. Though they called it the queen of sciences, theology was just another science. It was mostly their work that was later used to attack the Lutheran Reformation.
The problem was not only the distorted earthly authority of the Pope, but that he and his theologians had added a whole set of their own teachings that effectively replaced Jesus. Instead of Him as our redeemer, they offered the Church with the merits of its saints and the sacrifice of the Mass. Instead of Jesus as our Lord and Head of the Church, they offered the Pope with his cardinals and bishops, who also had civil powers.
Into that mix came a monk with an especially tender conscience, Martin Luther. His superior assigned him to teach the Bible at a new university, and Luther was a quick study. He learned that we can have a better righteousness than what the church offered with its masses, saints, and our never-ending confessions and satisfactions. As Hosea wrote and St. Paul quoted, “The righteous shall live by his faith.” From this Luther learned the answer to our second question:
How has the Reformation provided freedom from the slavery of sin?
Luther understood this slavery personally. He was told to confess every sin, but the list never ended. His wicked mind, body, mouth, and soul was unworthy of God’s grace. (By the way, he was taught that grace is a divine power that God will give to help worthy people reach salvation.) Luther tried to work the system, but it was impossible. To some degree, that was the system. Instead of being designed to give the freedom of Christ, it was designed to keep people dependent on the Church, and on Rome.
But “The righteous shall live by his faith.” Luther finally understood what this means. We are called righteous by faith in God’s promise, and on this basis we receive the fulfillment: eternal life. Good works, merits, masses, indulgences, and such are not needed. The Reformation restored certainty to the consciences of Christians, because God’s favor no longer depends on us. It depends on Christ alone. God’s grace is simply His divine favor freely given on the basis of Jesus’ merit, not ours. God calls us justified, and Jesus said, “It is finished.” The Father raised Him from the dead, and nothing can take that away. There is nothing left for us to do, because it’s purely a gift. We simply receive it by trusting in the promise itself.
That promise comes to us in the preaching of God’s Word and the absolution pronouncing God’s forgiveness. God has attached it to water as the new foundation for every day of your life. Jesus also attached it to bread and wine as the food you need for spiritual nourishment that also connects with your physical self. These are the ways we receive the promise. That’s what Jesus was talking about in our Gospel. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The Reformation returns you to the freedom of God’s Son: sins forgiven, and a life ahead with a promise that it will never end. We pray:
Help us to serve Thee evermore
With hearts both pure and lowly.
And may Thy Word, that light divine,
Shine on in splendor holy.
That we repentance show, In faith ever grow.
The pow’r of sin destroy And all that doth annoy.
O make us faithful Christians!
And for Thy gospel let us dare
To sacrifice all treasure;
Teach us to bear Thy blessed cross,
To find in Thee all pleasure.
O grant us steadfastness In joy and distress,
That we Thee ne’er forsake.
Let us by grace partake
Of endless joy and glory. ELH 212 v. 3-4
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!