500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation + October 31, 2017
July 4, 1776: The fathers of our country sign the Declaration of Independence. January 1, 1863: President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves. July 20, 1969: Neil Armstrong is the first man to step on the moon. Those are all big dates in American history. And October 31, 1517: Martin Luther posts his 95 theses protesting the sale of indulgences. That is a big date for Lutherans. It’s a big date for the Holy Christian Church. It is a big date for world history.
Now, all these four dates have something in common. What if the thirteen American colonies had lost the Revolutionary War? What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? What if the crew of Apollo XI got stuck on the moon with no escape? If those things had happened, those great dates of American history would be meaningless. Well, thankfully, it didn't work out that way. But we know what did happen. Six years after the Declaration of Independence, America won the Revolutionary War. Two years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union defeated the Confederacy. And four days after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Apollo XI returned safely to earth. That’s why July 4, 1776 and January 1, 1863, and July 20, 1969 are such big dates. What happened after those dates is what made those dates important.
You could say the same thing about October 31, 1517. What if the Roman hierarchy had convinced Luther to renounce his 95 theses? What if Luther had stopped preaching, teaching, and writing altogether? What if soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire had killed Luther after his stand at the Diet of Worms? If any of those things had happened, there would be no Lutheran Church, and today would only be a day for trick or treating. But, Luther did not retract his theses. He kept on preaching, teaching, and writing. He lived for another twenty-five years after he declaring, “Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.” And even after Luther died, the Lutheran Church continued to preach, teach, and proclaim the gospel. So it’s not just the 95 theses that make October 31, 1517 such a monumental date. It’s all the preaching, teaching, reforming, and correcting that took place after Luther protested the sale of Indulgences. Therefore, as we look back 500 years and see the big picture of the whole Reformation, we also look forward and discover that the Reformation Continues.
The Holy Christian Church on earth is one hundred percent filled with sinners who have a fabulous ability to mess things up when it comes to God’s Word and his plan of our salvation. This is why church historians have often used the Latin phrase Ecclesia semper reformanda est., which means, “The Church must always be reformed.” For example, we Lutherans know full well that God has saved us by grace alone, through faith alone, and by Scripture alone. But still, our old sinful nature puts blinders on our faith. Satan tempts us to think, Sure, Jesus is my Savior. But the only way I can really be sure that I am saved is if I keep to the straight and narrow. I can only be sure of going to heaven if I stay on God’s good side with my prayers, my offerings, and my good deeds. Thinking like that makes you a prisoner of the law. You are back to believing the lie of indulgences, which insists that the only way you can even think about going to heaven is if you give God something of value.
Here’s another example of why we must not rest on Luther’s 500 year old laurels. We know that only the gospel in Word and sacrament can create faith, sustain faith, save souls, forgive sins, and give us every spiritual blessing in Christ. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can do all that. But still, we want to “help” the Gospel. We think we can boost the Gospel if we take advantage of the latest marketing techniques, or if we find out what unchurched people are really looking for, or if we imitate the latest mega-church fad. Then the Gospel will do what we really want it to do. Adding human means and methods to the Gospel is to return to the same tyranny that Luther confronted: the decrees of corrupt popes and edicts of error-prone councils, a tyranny smothered the Gospel.
So, yes, the Reformation continues. The Reformation must continue as long as there are sinners in the Holy Christian Church - in fact, as long as you and I are in the Holy Christian Church.
But there is another reason why the Reformation must continue. The Bible says it has to. Both our Scripture lessons point that out. In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, he says, "For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains [it] will do so until he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of his mouth and destroy with the brightness of his coming." Saint Paul says that the lawless one was at work in his time. Luther dealt with the lawless one in his time. The lawless one continues his wicked work in our time and will keep on doing so until Judgment Day. As long as the lawless one exists, he will try to deform the Holy Christian Church on earth. So, the Reformation must continue. That’s because the man of lawlessness, that is, the Antichrist, will be working against the Church until the end of time.
And something else will also be working until the end of time. Our lesson from Revelation says, "I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people." This angel in heaven, this messenger of the Lord, has the only thing that can reform the Church and overthrow the man of lawlessness. That tool is the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel lasts forever. Only the Gospel can continue to reform the Church until Judgment Day when Jesus comes again in glory. Until that day, we will continue to celebrate the Reformation of the Church.
So what does a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation look like? It looks like what I am looking at right now. I am looking at the people of God. You are thanking and praising God for the gifts of the Reformation. You are remembering how God used a poor sinner named Martin Luther to preach the Gospel and reform the Church on earth. But the greatest way to celebrate the Reformation is by doing what the Gospel is all about. You are simply receiving. Through Word and sacrament you are receiving the grace of God. Through the Good News of Jesus Christ you are receiving the forgiveness of sins. Through the Gospel you are receiving the power of the Holy Spirit to keep you in the one true faith until the Day you enter heaven. If you want to participate in the ongoing Reformation of the Church, simply receive. Be the object of God’s love. Receive the forgiveness of sins through the absolution in the name of, and by the authority of, Jesus. Receive Christ’s own pledge and guarantee of salvation by taking his body given for you and his blood poured out for the forgiveness of your sins.
Yes, October 31st, 1517 was a great date. But every day that God’s people receive God’s grace and his gifts of salvation, every day the everlasting gospel goes into the ears and hearts of redeemed sinners, that day is just as great as the first Reformation Day.
May God bless his Church on earth with that constant, reforming power of the Gospel until that great and glorious Day when Jesus returns to take us home to heaven.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.