October 25th, 2015
Reformation Day is the most two-sided of all the Christian holidays. You won’t see it celebrated in the parishes our Roman Catholic or Orthodox brothers and sisters; they would be celebrating the day that marked a schism. You probably won’t see it celebrated in lots of the Episcopalian parishes, either. Lutheran parishioners, however, celebrate it like the 4th of July, waving the Lutheran flag. We do have a good message, that you hear today in the texts—we are saved from death by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Note, however, how the Bible fails to mention the work of Martin Luther. We are not baptized in the name of Martin Luther. He was a good theologian, and the in many ways, the right man for the time. But he was as much a sinner as any of us here, and perhaps even more—an Anti-Semite, impatient and disparaging to his enemies, a glutton. We have to be careful how much we praise him, or else we might as well start laying out napkins and cigarettes for the return o L. Ron Hubbard.
No, to be a church, to be part of a church means that we are a community of sinners, of the desperate, of people with nowhere else to turn, but have heard some good news. It means to be a people of hope, not denying the pain of life, the suffering we cause, the suffering we endure, but to steadfastly proclaim that God has not abandoned us to futility. I sometimes worry that we lose sight of this if we let Reformation Day become a celebration of a particular denominational heritage. We have so much more to share than a 500 year history and Bach. We have the point of the Reformation: we have the Gospel to share. We have the good news of God in Christ Jesus, who shows us that God is faithful and just and the redeemer of the world. We have forgiveness. We have hope. We have good news, that our God saves us.
I think to be part of the church is to be part of a great tale, a story that we hear from God, that we repeat to one another, that we tell the world. As we tell it, we find out that, as much as the story is God’s, it is also ours. Paul today is telling the Romans that God first was revealed in a promise to a wandering man long ago. He says this promise was attested in the law, delivered to a wandering people in the wilderness, who used to be slaves but were not yet a nation. It was a promise renewed in the witness of the prophets, who came to the nation when it had lost its way and forgotten to believe in the God that brought it into being and into freedom, the God that was both their mother and their husband. It was a promise that said, simply, believe in me. You are my child. And as our human family accepted, then rejected the promise of God, God sent his Son to testify with his death and his resurrection that this promise was sure, that nothing could separate us from God’s love. Not ethnic identity, not family history, not the breaking the law, nothing in life, not even death, could separate us from God’s love.
It’s a story we need to hear, because we know that to tell this story, we must acknowledge that we need that promise. We have to see that somehow, that promise can make sense of our lives. I said earlier that that church is the place for sinners and the desperate, and frankly, I’m not sure how much sense the story of Jesus makes if you don’t think you are either of these things. If there’s going to be a Savior in the story, there must be something that needs saving, or otherwise it is a story of self-discovery, or empowerment, or just a simple mistake.
Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the last great American theologian and sometime pastor in the Reformed church, one of our sister denominations, said that original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith. And he wasn’t exactly joking. The primary lie we tell each other is that we are all pretty good people. I know that it is true, in a sense. But the true story the church shares says that we are not very good people. We do our best. But we need saving, we need a Savior. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
And here, I think, is the Reformation's great contribution to our story. Luther and the reformers actually thought that original sin was the beginning of good news. Nowadays many people shudder at the thought of original sin, and there are a lot of questions about it--who can be saved? Why does God let it happen? What is there to be done? And Paul points out, with almost the same breath, that God does something about it. God makes a promise to us, in Christ Jesus, and by a marvellous gift of grace, God gives us God's own perfection as a garment and a gift.
Many of us here, I believe, find ourselves beset by feelings of failure and inadequacy. We are plagued by thoughts of anxiety and inadequacy. Even if we can forgive others, we have trouble forgiving even ourselves for our own transgressions, inadequacies, failures, and sins. And we are right to say we are not adequate by God's standard. But like the Reformers, I find this a freeing doctrine. I cannot live up to the perfection that I can sense, but really not even imagine. But instead of letting me wallow, God gives me grace. Jesus offers faithfulness and righteous to God for me, and in return, God gives me Jesus' eternal life. Nothing is lost in any of this, except my feelings of inadequacy and failure. God looks at me and loves me and says to me, "You will not fail. I will save you. You will not be inadequate. Look, I do more than fill in the gaps: I remake you and reform you and reshape you and renew you."
That's the good news we celebrate. You look around at this world, and you see the disparity between rich and poor, rich countries and poor countries. You see the way every human theory fails to adequately explain the sheer terror of human subjection of other humans, you will know that Niebuhr was correct, and that the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith is original sin. You're born with it. You can escape it as much as you can escape your right arm. But that’s the beginning of the story.
So, let's say you are plagued by your sin. You may even feel that it is impossible for you to be forgiven. Luther would call that the work of the devil, who tries to get us to doubt the mercy and grace of God. Most likely, your sins are no worse than any of your neighbors. I don’t know if that makes you feel more comfortable, or more afraid of your neighbor—but all of us here are desperate sinners. It's true. Just look in our hearts, if you can. But, Luther's advice is this: whether it's the Devil tempting you to believe that God's mercy cannot reach you, or that you do not deserve it, or more likely, that your own feelings of shame and guilt and self-loathing prevent you from feeling worthy of grace, simply say: You might be right. I might be the worst of all sinners. But that's exactly the kind of person Christ Jesus came to seek out. That's exactly the kind of person that God saves. He didn't come for the righteous. He didn't come for the people that have it all together. He didn't come for the people who didn't break any of the commandments. He came for me, and every single person like me, every person who doubts, who fears, who falls, who fails. Christ came for me, and Christ set me free. So get thee gone, devil or thoughts—get thee gone and trouble me no more. I trust God's word, that no one is beyond the reach of his lovingkindness, not even me. I am forgiven. I am free. Amen.