As Lutherans celebrate the 501st anniversary of what we consider the seminal moment of the Protestant Reformation, the question begs to be asked …. Is this whole gig still relevant? Are Lutherans still relevant? Does the pulse still beat in whatever spirit it was that drove Martin Luther to nail almost one hundred statements of dispute on the bulletin board of his day … the door of the town church … inviting discussion around those statements by the believers in Wittenberg.
Today, Luther would have tweeted the 95 Theses … maybe a half dozen a day … probably over a two week period of time. The question is … would anyone care today? Do statements about penance … purgatory … indulgences … and excommunication … matter to anyone, anymore … do they matter to any of you here today? Do we still resemble those 16th century reformers who in time took Luther’s name to as their “party” title.
(Hold up ELW) Let think about worship, which was extremely important to Luther. So much so, that he took on Rome itself, by not using the Latin Rite liturgy which was the preference and norm in Luther’s day, and instead encouraged worship in his churches to be in German, a language people spoke and could understand. Luther believed it was of critical importance for worshipers to be able to understand and engage the words they were speaking and singing. For when you know the words and music so well, that you can give voice to them almost without thinking, you have the opportunity to move beyond those words and music to a deeper spiritual state. We have ten different musical settings of our liturgy in our hymnal, four of which we sing somewhat regularly. And we have almost 900 hymns, psalms and liturgical songs. I wonder sometimes if we have traded familiarity for variety. And I’m not sure Luther would see our worship as expressing the passion and vibrancy he knew it deserved.
(Go to the altar) We gather at the Lord ’s Table at least once every Sunday, and on average, 2 out of 3 of our Sunday services are centered around Holy Communion. Luther, as a former priest, was a strong advocate for what he termed “regular” participation in the sacrament of the Altar. He could not understand why anyone would not want to physically take into your body a tangible infusion of God’s forgiveness and grace. The church of Luther’s day in most cases had daily offerings of the Lord’s Supper. Luther would probably see our current communion frequency as inadequate at best.
(Go to baptism font) We do pretty well here. Baptisms in Luther’s day were sometimes in people’s home and sometimes in an empty sanctuary with just a few individuals present. Baptisms here are always in the midst of worship services where parents, sponsors and the congregation all promise to uphold and care for the baptismal candidate. Luther would be pleased with our baptismal practice.
(Go to center of rail) I even find myself thinking about our vestments – this unorthodox clothing we wear as worship leaders. Martin Luther was always a champion of shrinking the gap between church leaders and people worshiping in the pews. Recalling the words of 1 Peter, Chapter 2, Luther often wrote “We are all priests.” Luther used the phrase to remind us that baptism was the primary sacrament which defines us, and all Christians shared that baptismal identity as God’s child. Sometimes I wonder if our vestments get in the way of our attempts to connect with all of you through word and song, scripture and sacrament. Luther, as he looks down from heaven upon his Lutheran clergy children, might be appalled by our papist tendencies, and the ways we separate ourselves from you the priesthood of all believers.
(Take a bulletin to someone in the pews) Then, of course, there is the coup de gras … the granddaddy of disappointments for Luther. What does it say here? (St. Peter’s Lutheran Church) Let’s see what Luther thought of the title of “Lutheran” which some reformers adopted, who found themselves drawn to his teachings and beliefs about the Christian faith. Here are Luther’s words — What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone … How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name? Luther argues against what he called “party names” and lobbied for the children of Christ to be called just that … Christian. But we continue to divvy up the church Jesus himself called into unity. We currently have 40 active Lutheran denominations in America alone. A far cry from the unity Jesus envisioned, and the unity Luther lobbied for. In John’s Gospel today, we hear Jesus offer these words — If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. We pray for that freeing truth, though we seem unable to embrace it when it is offered to us. Martin Luther would no doubt be appalled at our divisiveness and separatism.
(Head back to pulpit … on the way, stop and turn) Well, then there was that little issue of the Catholic church building some huge worship space in Rome, and harping on church members to pony up to help pay for it. I think the name of that church was St. Peter’s. (Tongue in cheek) That of course, has no bearing here, does it?
Well … lots of different things Luther would witness were he to return to our world. A lot has changed in the course of 501 years. Were Martin Luther to walk into our sanctuary this morning, he might have 95 Theses of critique for us, too. They would not be about indulgences and purgatory and excommunication. But they might be about worship and communion and the absence of unity among us. And we might find ourselves judged by the one whose name we bear. But even if we miss the mark on many of the hopes and dreams that Luther had for those Christians who would life on after his death, I believe we still hit the mark on one of those hopes. It is the hope found in our second lesson from today for St. Paul’s magnificent words in Romans, Chapter 3 … one of the places in St. Paul’s writings where Luther found great hope and comfort. St. Paul writes: For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.
We have all fallen short of the glory of God. Pick your poison in terms of what it looks like. But not one of us can dare suggest that God owes us one, because we are so faithful and true. But the heart of what Martin Luther taught us, in pointing to St. Paul’s words, is that our sin and disobedience can and will be redeemed by Jesus. And that our redemption comes to us through Jesus’ actions on the cross, not by our modest attempts to be faithful in our lives. It is this belief … what we call “justification by grace through faith” … that saves the day for us in the end. And frees us to rise each day with the goal of living out that promise in our life and in our actions. Let’s close with Luther’s words from the small catechism … not from one of our five favorite sections (Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, and the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion). No, these words are from the lesser known section entitled “Daily Prayer.” They are words Luther advises us to recite upon rising each morning. You could do worse that these words each time you rise from sleep.
I thank Thee, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, that Thou hast kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray Thee to keep me this day also from sin and all evil, that all my doings and life may please Thee. For into Thy hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the Wicked Foe may have no power over me. Amen.
Let it be so for us all … every day. Amen.