The Festival of the Reformation (Oct. 31)
October 24-25, 2009
Text: John 8:31-36
Dear Friends in Christ,
The Church has always struggled to maintain the teaching of the truth. The reason for this is both simple and complex. At the root of the problem is that Satan is always trying to attack the Church and substitute his lies for God’s truth. These battles led to the first split in the Church in 1054. It is called the Great Schism. The Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople mutually excommunicated one another. A Roman cardinal actually had the gall to march in and lay the papal bull of excommunication right on the altar of the Hagia Sophia. By the late fourteen hundreds, the western church was in terrible shape. The teachings were all over the map. In one case, a man was burned at the stake as a heretic, at the same time as the Pope’s closest advisor was teaching the same things. Since few could read and even fewer had access to the Scriptures and the writings of the ancient fathers, no one really knew what was supposed to be taught. Even many priests could not read. Was this some grand conspiracy to hide the truth? No. It was simply a reflection of the fact that books were few and very expensive. A single copy of the complete Bible would have cost tens of thousands of dollars in today’s prices. In the late fourteen hundreds the price of books suddenly dropped. Why? Because a man named Gutenberg invented movable type. Now books could be easily pressed in mass quantities rather than copied by hand. This didn’t help the masses, but it was a great boon to scholars.
Most of us know that October 31st is celebrated as Reformation day, because on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, posted 95 theses protesting the sale of indulgences on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. But I want to focus on events that would take place a few months later. Luther was the lecturer on the Bible. He was the only professor at Wittenberg permitted to lecture on the text of Scripture itself. Other theologians had to lecture on the writings of other theologians. Luther, was one of most knowledgeable men in Germany on the text of the Bible. But the only Bible he’d ever seen was the Latin Vulgate. This was a translation done by St. Jerome in the 400's A.D. Early in the year 1518, Duke Frederick took a chance on a young scholar and added him to the faculty. He was just 18 years old. His name was Philip Melanchthon. Why did Duke Frederick covet this man’s services? Because Melanchthon, at 18, was already the foremost language scholar in Christian Europe. He knew Greek, something few did at that time. He also knew Hebrew, which was virtually unknown the Christian west. He was also the foremost expert on the writing the ancient fathers in the western church. A half century earlier, a scholar from Constantinople brought an extensive library of the eastern church fathers to Florence, Italy. They were quickly published, via the new printing press. Young Master Melanchthon devoured these writings and had them all but memorized. Melanchthon began to teach Luther Greek and Hebrew. Just three years later, Luther would translate the whole the New Testament from Greek into German in just six weeks. Luther, who had so struggled to understand the grace of God, now through the Greek text of the New Testament, found at last the peace from God that he was seeking. In a very real sense Luther finally, once and for all came to understand the Gospel through his friendship and collaboration with young Master Philip.
And what was it that Luther came to understand? That the truth would set him free. That’s a bizarre concept in this post modern age, where all truth is seen as relative. The Lutheran Reformation was about the conviction that truth is fixed in place and does not change. It is fixed in place by the very words of Jesus Christ. By this we mean the whole of Scripture, for the whole Bible is the voice of Christ speaking to us. And so if we abide in Christ’s word, we are His disciples and we are free. Free from what? Free from sin and death. Why are we free from sin and death? Because Christ says we are. In one of our hymns, we have the line “At Thy Speaking it was Done”. Many people connect that with creation. But it also refers, just as much, to “It is finished!” Christ speaks our sins forgiven and they are forgiven.
How did Luther and Melanchthon know that they had it correct? How did they know that they weren’t completely twisting the Scriptures to suit themselves? The ancient church fathers. They could quote Augustine, Cyprian, Chyrsostom, Nazianzus, Athanasius, and many others who taught the same thing. They could show that they were introducing nothing new into the Church at all. This is why it is significant that Luther was well read in the ancient fathers, and could quote them freely and Melanchthon was the foremost expert on the ancient fathers in the western Church. And so when we build on the teachings of Luther, we are building on the teachings the ancient fathers as well. It is true that the Lutheran Church was born in 1530, with the presentation of the Augsburg Confession, but the teachings presented at Augsburg, go back to the Apostles themselves.
And so we can have great confidence. We have the Scriptures. We have the fathers, right back to the days of the Apostles. The words of Scripture are clear in themselves. But we are doubly certain because we know that Christians for many centuries have understood these words in the same way.
This brings us back to Christ. Yes, we are born slaves to sin. A slave cannot free themselves. And because we are slaves to sin, we are helpless - prisoners of sin and death. But Christ, the Son, sets us free by His death and resurrection. Then, Christ presents us, dressed in His righteousness, to God the Father and says, here, Father, is your son. Amazingly, God the Father receives us as His son. Why? Because we have been set free from sin and death. We are free to be sons of God. And as a son of God, we remain in our Father’s house forever. We will not be evicted. We will remain with Christ and our Father as free citizens of heaven. We will remain free because the Son has set us free.
Nearly five hundred years ago, a great battle broke out within the Church. It began with hammer strokes on a church door in a small German university town. It was a battle for the truth. Sadly, we are still fighting that battle for the truth. It never ends. The devil is always trying to deceive us and the church as a whole. The church is always in need of reformation. This is just as true of the Missouri Synod as it was for the church in Luther’s day. Yet, it is a battle we cannot ignore. It is a battle we cannot lose. There is too much at stake. It is the difference between slavery and freedom. The truth will set us free. Jesus Christ is the truth. His words are the truth. And it is in His words that we learn that He has set us free from sin and death, to live as free citizens of heaven. This truth we must never compromise. This truth we must never surrender. For this truth is life.