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.  This afternoon we will have a special Reformation Rally with other churches from our circuit. 

To really understand the importance of the Reformation, one has to 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 was ruled by one man, the Bishop of Rome, whom most called the Pope. The Roman church 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.

The Roman Catholic Church taught 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 or loved ones still living could offer prayers to the saints on behalf of their deceased loved ones. 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 had a vision of building a beautiful basilica named St. Peter’s Church in Rome.    It was going to take a lot of money. Thus, Leo, 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 Martin Luther.  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!”  It was all about Christ and what He did for us at the cross. It wasn’t our work; it was all Christ’s work for us! That’s what the Gospel is all about. That’s what Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were all about!

Dr. Luther now finds his parishioners coming to him, telling him “Guess what, Pastor? We were over in the village across the river the other day, and we heard Tetzel, and we bought this indulgence, and he said that the pope said that if we bought this, we could get out of purgatory and get into heaven! Isn’t that awesome! You’d better tell everybody that John Tetzel is in the area, and maybe even invite him to come here to Wittenberg so we can get everybody saved! Oh, happy day!” Operating on the principle of “Sola Scriptura”, meaning “Scripture Alone”, and having discovered from the Scriptures themselves that Christ is the one who justifies us, not ourselves or anyone else, what do you think is going to be Luther’s reaction?

His reaction was to call for a debate based on the Scriptures on the topic of the sale of indulgences. He developed 95 theses that were in agreement with the Word, showing how the practice of indulgences was not a scriptural practice, and posted them to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, which was in essence the “bulletin board” of the community. Printers got hold of them, copied them on their printing presses, and they spread like wildfire. Luther continued to preach from the pulpit that one was not saved by their own works or labors, but solely by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Luther was asked to recant, and he refused. Even when it led to his excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, which led to the Holy Roman Emperor naming Luther an “outlaw” meaning anyone could kill him at any time without penalty.

Luther original hope was to reform the existing church of his day. Only when the church of his day made it clear that they would prefer to boast in their own works, and in the words of a man in Rome, instead of boasting in Christ and His Word, did Luther face the reality that a new church would need to be formed. A church which would have what would come to be known as the “three sola’s”, as its motto: “Sola Scriptura” meaning “Scripture Alone”, Sola Fide “Faith Alone”, and Sola Gratia” “Grace Alone” to be the base of its belief.  Luther wasn’t a radical, he merely wanted to reform what was already in place. Although he wouldn’t be happy about it, the church that he formed would to be known as the Lutheran Church.

Okay, that was 500 years ago. But what about for us who call ourselves Lutheran today? The Reformation is over, we don’t fight the papacy anymore. So, why bother?

Luther once said that that the Reformation of the church is ongoing. There are constant threats against her. The Lutheran Church today is fighting a two front war that wants to rob us of our belief that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and turn it something else, something that cannot save us from sin, death, and the devil.   On the one hand, we still have those who fall into the traps of the errors of the church Luther’s day. Today, there are preachers who tell you “if you just give me enough of your money, God will show you favor in this life. You will be healed of your diseases, you will have riches beyond your wildest dreams.”  Their indulgences may not be getting you out of purgatory, but they promise to free you from God’s wrath in one way or another, for a price of course.

There are those who believe erroneously that God must favor me over others because of what I do for Him. I know He will favor me because of all the good things I do for the church.  When we fall into that mindset, we are back to seeking salvation based on our works. When this happens, we deny the scriptural truth of Ephesians 2:8-9 where we read: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” When this happens we have returned to the pit of works righteousness, believing that our works somehow contribute to our salvation. And that’s why we need an ongoing Reformation, to refute this mindset from happening in ourselves and in our churches, so that we only proclaim Christ Crucified.

There are some Churches, even some Lutheran Church bodies who instead of calling sin what it is according to the Word of God, it is now calling it a mere “alternative lifestyle”, as they refuse to hear God’s word of warning in His Law. Instead of living by the Reformation principle of “Sola Scriptura”, they have now turned God’s Word into a doctrinal buffet table, which one can pick and choose from what they want and pass over the rest. But when that happens, when one begins to doubt the authority of the Word, where do you stop? When that happens we can say, “We don’t need forgiveness, we’re not sinful. We don’t need a Savior from anything.” When that happens, we cease to be the church, and have become just another social club.

Indeed, Reformation Sunday is a wakeup call for us. We are reminded that yes, the Reformation began nearly 505 years ago, but it continues for us today. We are reminded of the constant need to look to Christ and the cross for our forgiveness, life, and salvation. On this Reformation Sunday, with all that has happened and continues to happen in the Lutheran Church in this country, now more than ever, we need to remember that the Reformation of the church continues, that it is centered in the message of sins forgiven through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and that our work as the church is to proclaim the message of the angel in our reading in Revelation, “with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” (Rev. 14:6) May God use us as His Reformation instruments to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified, for the sins of the world to the people in our community, and throughout the world for Jesus’ sake. Amen