Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon on October 30, 2016, The Festival of the Reformation.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Today we mark the 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Next year, 2017, we mark the 500th anniversary. Our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, wisely reminds us that Lutherans will very much be in the news for the coming year. Undoubtedly we Lutherans will be asked questions and we need to be ready with some answers. Each of us needs to have our 2-minute elevator speech. “What is a Lutheran? What do Lutherans believe? Who was Martin Luther?” Beginning with this sermon, I hope you will start preparing your speech!
Back in 2013 I had privilege of serving in Wittenberg, Germany, as a pastor in residence with Wittenberg English Ministry. We served tourists from around the world who wished to worship in English in the City of Martin Luther. There are two churches in the Old City, the Castle Church and the City Church. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church and he is buried below the high pulpit. He preached often at the City Church, was married there and his children were baptized there. I had the privilege of leading worship in each of these churches on Saturday afternoons and I conducted weekday services in the small chapel next to the City Church. Sometime during this coming year, I hope you will invite me to show you some slides of my great experience in Germany.
What set off the Reformation? Martin Luther dared to write down 95 things that he thought should be discussed openly that would help people rethink some of the practices of the Church that had gotten so far from what taught in the Bible. He took his list (the 5 Theses) and nailed them to the door of the Castle Church. You may not think that such an action would lead to all the turmoil and change that resulted. But we can look back these 499 years later and see that the Holy Spirit was unleashing a force for reform that impacts us here today.
Martin Luther probably did not understand what would happen from his action. He simply knew that he must speak up, that he must be faithful to what he read in the Bible. He probably didn’t understand the risk to his own life. About 100 years before Martin Luther’s action, a man named Jan Hus was burned at the stake for asking similar questions about the Church and the need to return to Bible teachings. The name “Hus” means “Goose” in the Bohemian language. Just prior to his being burned, Hus was asked to recant his teachings. His response: “You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan you neither can roast nor boil.” We believe that Martin Luther fulfilled Hus’ prophecy. This was prophecy was mentioned at Luther’s funeral in 1546. Even today the swan is a symbol in many churches for Martin Luther.
What really offended Luther on October 31, 1517, was the selling of indulgences. These were pieces of paper that you could purchase that would do all sorts of things promised by the Church. You could get extra credit for helping yourself or relatives get a good place in heaven. You could purchase a piece of paper that promised forgiveness for something you intended to do before you did it.
The idea of Purgatory was questioned by Luther. Purgatory is supposed to be the place you could go if you hadn’t built up enough merits or credit to overcome your sins and faults. Luther knew it wasn’t in the Bible, but was created by the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther asked, “Where did you get that idea? The Bible doesn’t say that. Jesus never said that. Why is the Church teaching and practicing something that goes against the Bible?”
Let me remind you today of the three solas. The word “sola” in Latin means “alone” or “only”. Martin Luther said that the Bible and the teachings of Jesus can all be understood by three solas: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, and Sola Scriptura. Grace alone. Faith alone. Scripture alone.
This could be a key ingredient of your elevator speech. That’s why I am providing a one-page flyer on the three solas.
Sola Gratia: Grace Alone…The symbol of the ladder comes to mind here. We don’t climb a ladder of trying to do good deeds and thinking certain ways in order to obtain Grace. Grace is God’s free gift of love and salvation. In Jesus, God’s grace comes down the ladder to us. God humbled himself and became human in order to bring us God’s love.
Sola Fide: Faith Alone…We are saved because we have faith – that is trust – in God’s mercy. We believe that Jesus is “for me”. Every time we affirm our baptism into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we see how much we are aligned with God who loves us eternally.
Sola Scripture: Scripture Alone…The Bible is the source and norm of our faith, not tradition or human pronouncements handed down by church authorities.
Let me sum up the message of this sermon by telling you about a picture. It hangs today just above the altar in the City Church in Wittenberg. It was painted by a friend of Luther’s, Lucas Cranach. It shows Luther in his pulpit preaching. The people of the congregation are intently listening. Luther’s finger is pointing to something in the church that is the heart and soul of all that we teach and believe. He is pointing to the cross on which the dying Jesus hangs. His message: you and I can’t add one thing to the price Jesus paid to take away our sins. Our salvation is a gift that comes to us from God who came down from heaven to perform this action. We make this gift our own by faith, which is simply trust in Jesus.
And we learn all about this in the Holy Scriptures that alone are the test of what is true or not true in our understanding of God.
This is most certainly true. Amen!