In Service of the King

Text: John 8:31-36
Date: The Quincentenary of the Lutheran Reformation  Reformation Day (Observed) + October 29, 2017

Today we mark the Quincentenary or five-hundredth anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. For five centuries the church of the Augsburg Confession, evangelical catholics come to be known as Lutherans, have marked this day as the birthday of the Lutheran Church or shall we say the re-birthday of the Holy Church Throughout the World. But why this day? And what exactly are we celebrating or commemorating?

I’m reminded of the temptation that seems to afflict young seminarians learning to preach or pastors in their first year of ministry, namely, the temptation to include everything, Genesis through Revelation, right away, in one sermon. In a similar way, especially with such a major milestone of the history of the Reformation one feels completely inadequate to address the entire significance of such a thing.

Therefore, let’s narrow it down. Why this day? Because it was on October 31, 1517, the eve of All Saints Day, that the Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Little did he know that anyone, much less all over the world five hundred years later, would make such a big deal out of what he intended only as a call for discussion and debate of certain religious issues. Certainly he knew what he proposed would make for at least some lively debate. But he hoped that this would lead to some seriously needed theological reforms in his Catholic Church.

Therefore, if you will permit the pun, to really nail down our consideration today, let us take only the first of his Theses, namely, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” With one word Luther set the stage for a way of understanding the Christian faith that was meant, first, to conserve the foundation of the Christian Church, and yet also to keep some of what the Church had added to that foundation that did not contradict it. This, of course, meant also eliminating those additions that did contradict the foundational teaching of Christ.

All Christians agree that repentance is a necessary feature of the saving faith, the sorrow and contrition of conscience aware of its violation of God’s Law and faith in God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. That’s why we in the Missouri Synod have come up with the overall theme, “It’s still all about Jesus.” But not all are in agreement with the idea that repentance be a mark of “the entire life of believers.”

In our Reformation Day Gospel from John 8, Jesus did not say to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you hear my word once and repent, from then on you are my disciples.” He said, “if you abide,” remain, continue in my Word “you are truly my disciples.” As Luther’s first Thesis said it, He wills the entire life of believers to remain and abide in His Word. For the truth is that we all remain sinners even as we are counted saints by God by faith in Jesus Christ.

What is His Word? It is, obviously, everything He taught and said. But more than that, as the Word of God Himself He is behind every word of the inspired, inerrant Holy Scriptures from Genesis through Revelation. And that’s the biggest and main thing we should celebrate on this day, the fact that what drove Luther was always the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures.

I love how Luther wrote about Andreas Karlstadt in his “Against the Heavenly Prophets” of 1525. Karlstadt was the sometime friend of Luther at the beginning that, when Luther was hold up as a fugitive in the Wartburg Castle, here comes Karlstadt sounding more like our cartoon character Mighty Mouse singing, “Here I come to save the day.” But instead of “saving the day” he actually made things worse. Among those we call the radical reformers he was the one who went too far, tearing out images and statues and anything that looked “catholic” causing all manner of chaos among the people. Then, when Karlstadt began to adopt a view of the Lord’s Supper that denied the real presence of Christ’s body and blood saying the bread and wine only represent these, Luther wrote these words.

“Our teaching is that bread and wine do not avail. I will go still farther. Christ on the cross and all his suffering and his death do not avail, even if, as you teach, they are ‘acknowledged and meditated upon’ with the utmost ‘passion, ardor, heartfeltness.’ Something else must always be there. What is it? The Word, the Word, the Word. Listen, lying spirit, the Word avails. Even if Christ were given for us and crucified a thousand times, it would all be in vain if the Word of God were absent and were not distributed and given to me with the bidding, this is for you, take what is yours.”[1]

Jesus said you are truly His disciples “if you continue in my word.” This is why our Lutheran preachers are schooled in the proper interpretation of scripture. “Exegesis” is the process of bringing out the full and complete meaning of a scripture passage. “Eisegesis” on the other hand is any reading into the Word what is not really there, as when Karlstadt, Zwingli or the Reformed to this day insist Jesus’ word, “This is my body” means merely, “This represents my body.” “Is” means “is” whether you are speaking directly or metaphorically. Just because you can’t understand how bread and wine can become the Lord’s body and blood doesn’t mean it can’t happen. So it is the Word, the Word, the Word that makes all the difference and educates and informs faith.

This was the most important difference I noticed when I was coming from an LCA congregation (Lutheran Church in America) into a Missouri Synod congregation. I was immediately impressed with how seriously and centrally people listened to and treated God’s Word.

Look at his little catechism. What seems to be the main concern especially in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father”? God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity. God’s kingdom comes “when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word.” God’s will is done “when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word.” We believe in Holy Baptism because Christ promises in His Word, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”

Or listen to Luther’s hymns: “Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word” (655), “The Word they still shall let remain Nor any thanks have for it” (656), “Come, holy Light, guide divine, Now cause the Word of life to shine” (497). “Therefore my hope is in the Lord And not in mine own merit; It rests upon His faithful Word To them of contrite spirit” (607). “Thy people’s pasture is Thy Word Their souls to feed and nourish” (823). “Your invitation summons forth Ev’ry nation By Your holy, precious Word, In ev’ry place resounding” (938).

One word summarizes the ongoing reformation of the Church, “repent,” because by it the Holy Spirit turns us around from running away from God to coming to Him for life and salvation. Another hymn writer caught this when he wrote:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down
Thy head upon My breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
So weary, worn, and sad;
I found in Him a resting place,
And He has made me glad. (LSB 699)

There’s so much more to say: over seventy volumes of Luther’s Works, all the doctrinal writings and confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Today we give thanks to God for this angel, this messenger “with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev 14:6). And today we recall that it all began with one word, “Repent.”

[1]Luther, M. 1999, c1958. Luther’s works, vol. 40 : Church and Ministry II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works. Vol. 40 (Vol. 40, Page 212-213). Fortress Press: Philadelphia