Christians, at least traditionally or historically, do not call attention to themselves. We do not brag, we are to always take the humbler part. As St. Paul said it, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). For instance, for this reason in church we rarely applaud the choir or the musicians (or the pastor, for that matter) for their part in the Divine Service (at least not right at that moment), because their part is not intended to be as much a performance for us as it is an extension of us in our worship and thanksgiving to God.
Nevertheless the tradition has been that we quite freely call attention to and brag about other people especially for their part or role in our common witness to and praise of Jesus Christ. For example, each of the Apostles is remembered on their special day, as is Mary, the mother of our Lord. And, because we simply cannot remember each saint that has gone before us we remember All Saints together at least once a year, on November 1. (You are, by the way, invited to the special All Saints Day service as I was asked to preside next Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m. at Zion Lutheran Church in Detroit.) We even have festivals when we commemorate not a particular Christian or person but a doctrine such as the Holy Trinity or today’s celebration of Reformation. You will notice that I am careful in the service folder to distinguish between “the worship of the Holy Church throughout the world on the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost,” and the fact that not all Christian churches celebrate the Reformation! Of course, they should! if for no other reason than to confess that the Christian Church “militant,” the Church in this world, on this side of heaven, still struggles with sin and is constantly in battle against the Satanic forces of darkness that are always trying to silence the voice of the Gospel of Christ. So the Church is always in need of being “reformed” to its original design, character and purpose. Today we call again on all Christian churches and pastors to walk together with us in unity of the doctrine and practice of the Gospel of Christ.
We belong to one of the few Christian church bodies, denominations or confessions that are named for their human founders. Almost all denominations are known by names that reflect the reach or peculiarity of their theology, geographic location, ethnic background or form of governing polity. In fact the few that do incorporate names of individual persons are generally the smaller, more radical sects. Martin Luther never intended to start a new church and, with his followers, never wanted to be called anything but Christian, catholic and evangelical meaning “gospel oriented.” We even hesitate from being lumped in with those “protestant” traditions that didn’t think Luther went far enough. Those of us who are “Lutherans” not only by birth or tradition but by conviction, choice and confession, while we do not deny that there can be and are Christians even in other denominations with which we are not in fellowship, really do believe that we belong to the truest form and expression of the one, holy, Christian, catholic and apostolic church in the world. It was as an hostile epithet that those who opposed Luther and his teachings began to call his followers “Lutherans.” In a strange way, and maybe as an “in-your-face” confession of the truth, we took up and accepted the epithet in a similar way that followers of Christ are called “Christians.”
So on this day that commemorates the historic event of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on the Eve of All Saints Day, 491 years ago in 1517, we annually celebrate the Reformation and preach on its central, most important doctrine, justification: the justification of the sinner by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone without the works of the Law.
Say what? That is, the truth that a person cannot be saved from sin and death and the eternal judgment of God by means of their own strength, merits, or works. It doesn’t matter how many times you have or haven’t gone to church, how many good works you have or haven’t done or how good or bad your reputation is. Rather, a person is saved only if and when God has come to you and declared you to be holy, righteous, justified and saved. And, pray tell, when and where can that happen? He does that only through His own appointed means of grace, His holy Word and Sacraments. “People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight.” In other words, we’re not just playing games or acting out an historic or pious hope when the called and ordained servant of the Word, the pastor rightly called, announces the grace of God to you, and then declares, “in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins,” for it is not the man presuming to forgive sins but Christ Himself speaking today, to you in this official and reliable way. The same goes for, “I baptize you in the name,” and, “my body, my blood given and shed for you,” and when and wherever the Word and Sacraments are preached and administered according to Christ’s institution.
It is this doctrine, this teaching of the Gospel that is so clearly declared in the Gospel appointed for Reformation Day, “Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8:31-36). It is this central, most important teaching of the Bible that is so clearly declared in the words of the apostle Paul in the Reformation Epistle, “by works of the law no human being will be justified,” “but now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation [appeasing God’s wrath] by his blood, to be received by faith…. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:19-28). In the past couple of decades the traditional First Reading has been replaced with a very fine reading from the Prophet Jeremiah. But you will notice that with our production of Lutheran Service Book we have restored the more ancient reading for Reformation from the Book of Revelation. And even there the “eternal gospel” is the center of attention for the whole world, “every nation and tribe and language and people,” declaring the gospel in the wide sense including both judgment and grace to be the hour of judgment and deliverance for all who believe. Reformation Day is all about this clear Gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith.
As I said earlier, we Lutherans don’t like to draw attention to ourselves but rather to Jesus Christ and to the main teaching of the gospel. But on this particular Reformation Day, and with the restoration of the more traditional First Reading, I just want to add one more observation. John “the Revelator” says, “Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim.” Who is this angel? According to the text it refers to any and all preaching of the Church both the judgment and grace of God throughout the world. But there is one other tradition. In the early years of the Lutheran Reformation many people taught that this angel was a Divinely inspired prediction of Martin Luther! As with the angel or messenger of the text, so Luther appeared at a certain, crucial time in history and announced judgment on injustice and false teaching. He proclaimed the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the free forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake. As a result people all over the world turned toward the sound of that voice, the voice of the gospel, and were saved.
Where did this rumor come from? More than just a superstition, it was from “A Christian sermon over the body and at the funeral of the venerable Dr. Martin Luther, preached by Johann Bugenhagen Pomeranus, doctor and pastor of the churches in Wittenberg,” 1546. After all his valiant work in uncovering, recovering and publishing the pure Gospel, you can imagine the sadness and sense of loss at Luther’s funeral. It should not be surprising therefore, that Pastor Bugenhagen should say,
For he [Luther] was without doubt the angel concerning whom it is written in Revelation 14, who flew through the midst of heaven and had an eternal Gospel, etc., as the text says…. This angel who says, “Fear God and give him the honor,” was Dr. Martin Luther. And what is written here, “Fear God and give him the honor,” are the two parts of Dr. Martin Luther’s doctrine, the Law and the Gospel, through which all of Scripture is unlocked and Christ, our righteousness and eternal life, is recognized. To these two he has also added this passage (“the time of his judgment has come”) and has taught regarding proper prayer and [worship] invocation of God the heavenly Father in Spirit and in truth. As the angel also says in Revelation 14: “Worship the one who has made heaven and earth, etc.”
And Pastor Bugenhagen concludes this application of the text with the assuring words, “the adversaries will not rejoice long over our sorrow, as Christ also says in John 16: ‘Your sorrow shall turn to joy.’ For according to Revelation, the aforementioned fourteenth chapter, we see that this has happened before and still happens. If Revelation has some validity, then the other will, without doubt, follow.”
In a couple of places in our Lutheran Confessions we call Dr. Luther “the precious man of God” (Trig. 851:5) and the “highly illumined man,” “the hero illumined with unparalleled and most excellent gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Trig. 891:28). So it is right to remember and to praise God for His gifts even in the fellow human beings He sends to us with His gifts, His Word and salvation including Martin Luther, C. F. W. Walther and the founders of our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, all the faithful pastors who have preached and administered the sacraments before us, our own parents who are, as Luther called them, the bishops and pastors in their own homes to their own children.
Lord, help us ever to retain
The Catechism’s doctrine plain
As Luther taught the Word of truth
In simple style to tender youth. (LSB 865:1)