29 October 2011
A Reformation Homily - 2011
“If you abide in My Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” So our Lord promises in today’s Gospel. And it was a very wise Vicar General of the Augustinian Order, Johann Von Staupitz, who decided that that verse held the key to what on earth to do with his troubled monk, Martin Luther. 1511 was the year. Luther could find no peace. He went into the confessional – he confessed his sins hours on end, he did every penance that was given to him, he fasted and tortured himself. There was nothing he didn’t try of what the Church commanded and yet he could arrive at no peace in knowing that his sins were forgiven. He was brutally honest. He knew his heart of hearts that he did not love God with all his being and he certainly did not love his neighbor as himself. In fact, the more he dealt with God the more he came to hate and despise Him for giving humanity laws that no human being born in sin would ever be able to keep. How can a man be righteous before God when he couldn’t even BEGIN to keep the Law of God for a single day? Luther had an acute ear to hear every bit of God’s law, but he was utterly tone-deaf to the sweet strains of the Gospel.
How to help the poor man? Staupitz decided: “Make him a doctor of Holy Scripture. God’s Word will do what I have not been able to do.”
And so Luther, monk and priest, was dispatched to the newly founded University of Wittenberg to assume the chair of a lecturer in Sacred Scripture and to become a doctor of the Church. Staupitz was wise. “If you abide in My Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Abide in the Word Luther did. And light began to dawn into his darkness. But heaven broke upon his soul as he chased down ONE term. He was seeking to understand the righteousness of God. You see, he read in St. Paul in Romans chapter 1, that in the Gospel the righteousness of God has been revealed. And he puzzled his puzzler over how that could be good news. Moses was bad enough, but when Jesus started teaching about the Law, He made it a thousand times worse. Moses said “Don't’ commit adultery.” Jesus said: “If you even look lustfully at another person, you’ve committed adultery in your heart.” Moses said: “Don’t murder.” Jesus said: “If you’ve been angry or said nasty words to your brother, you’ve killed him in your heart.” The more Luther puzzled the less he understood how it could be GOOD news that the righteousness of God was revealed in the Gospel.
He prayed and read more. He pondered and studied. He continued to abide in the Words of Jesus, and suddenly he saw it. It shown with shocking brilliance. The righteousness of God that is revealed in the Gospel is not a righteousness that human beings bring to God; it is a righteousness that God freely gives to human beings. Not a perfection you have to achieve – the Gospel is all about a perfection that Jesus achieved FOR YOU and delivers to you. It’s not something you DO, it’s something you can only RECEIVE.
Oh, when he saw it, he said it was as though the very gates of paradise swung open before him. He had continued in the Word of Jesus, and the Word of Jesus did exactly like Jesus promised: it totally set him free. Suddenly the faith was filled with joy. The Gospel revealed not a God ready to crush him for his failures and sins; it revealed a God who LOVED him, sinner though he was, and who provided him a perfect righteousness. And suddenly even love became possible: for there is nothing loving about USING another person to exercise your good works on so that YOU can achieve some sort of standing before God. Why, that’s the height of selfishness itself! It leaves the human heart totally self-seeking in the doing of what it thinks is good. Good works can become good when we do them cheerfully and to the benefit of our neighbor – not because WE accrue some benefit from them, just to be a blessing to another person. They can’t even begin to add to your righteousness, because YOUR righteousness is whole and complete: it’s Jesus and what He’s done for you.
Did you hear it ring through chapter 3 of Romans? The law is there to shut up every mouth, to hold the whole world accountable to God, and by the works of the law – by doing your very best – no human being will ever be justified, that is, declared righteous before God. BUT NOW the righteousness of God (there’s the term Luther was worrying at), now God’s righteousness has been manifested – it showed up – apart from the law! Apart from your doing and not doing! It showed up as God’s gift in Jesus to all who believe. All have sinned, all fall short of God’s glory, and all are justified – declared righteous – by God’s grace as a gift through the redemption that’s in Jesus Christ. God put Him forth before you as your propitiation – the sacrifice that wipes out of your sin and the world – His blood does that. His cross was all about that. And faith trusts that His blood has done the job. Your sin on Him and so gone. His righteousness then on you. God is your justifier. You don’t need to justify yourself. You can’t. But He can. He did when He raised His Son from the dead. It counts for you and for all who believe. No boasting then, no pride. Wiped out by the way faith works. Instead, God declares you righteous – holy, perfect, without sin – by faith, apart from anything you do or don’t do. What a gift! For God’s heart to you!
Ah, the prison opened! Instead of ceaselessly trying and failing to somehow do enough for God to love you, accept you, embrace you; the Gospel gives you free, unearned, even unsought that love, that acceptance, that embrace. You’ve got all you need for time and for eternity from the hand of God. And so, as I said earlier, you’re free then to love your neighbor without the backward glance of how many divine brownie points its earning you. You do it with freedom and abandon so that you can even say: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you?” Faith only looks to Jesus and not to its own doings.
So today the great Feast of the Reformation. Is it still good to celebrate, even after all these years? You better believe it, people loved by God. For there is simply nothing that is so freeing as the Gospel and when anything in the Church’s life comes to obscure or cover or God forbid deny that the good news of the free gift of God’s righteousness to the sinner, then it must be removed. For the sake of the whole Church and for the sake of the world. So that all people might be able to hear and by God’s Spirit rejoice in that righteousness freely given in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
“If you continue in my Word, then you are my disciple, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Jesus’ promise came true for Martin Luther. It will come true for each of you too! And for that blessed freedom, the free gift of divine sonship and perfect righteousness, all glory to our Giver-God, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages! Amen.
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