Saturday, October 31, 2009

Red Letter Day

Sermon for Reformation Sunday, October 25, 2009
by the Rev. Margay Jo Whitlock

First: Jeremiah 31:31–34
Psalm: Psalm 46
Second: Romans 3:19–28
Gospel: John 8:31–36
Today is a red letter day.  A "red letter" day, is literally, a day marked on our Church calendars in red.  It's a Holy Day.  That’s where the word “holiday” comes from.
Holidays were originally Holy Days. 

Today we celebrate Reformation Day.  The Church celebrates the Anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, or the Sunday before.  And we celebrate All Saint’s Day
on November 1, or the Sunday after. 

The word “Halloween” is actually short for All Hallows' Eve.  Like Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve are the evenings before Christmas Day and New Year Day, respectively, All Hallows’ Eve is the evening before All Hallows’ Day, also known as All Saints Day. 

It was on Halloween in 1517, the evening before All Saints Day, that a monk named Martin Luther decided it was time to debate the question of justification by grace through faith.  The reason the debate was called on Halloween, October 31, was that the very next day, November 1, All Saints Day, was the Opening of the annual relic and indulgence show, where people would pay good money to see the bones of old saints, and to get pieces of paper claiming to shave off years of time in purgatory.

Martin Luther thought this was terrible, because it misled the people.  To sell something that is free was just plain wrong.  Forgiveness is free, reminded Martin Luther, due to the fact that it was already bought and paid for – for you – by Jesus' death on the cross.  On this point, Luther refused to compromise.  And once he got started, he wouldn't back down until he got the whole church to come to an agreement regarding just how it is that our salvation comes about.

In order to reach a consensus, Luther called for a debate.  Since there were no blogs, no Twitter, no Facebook pages, not to mention radio or TV… if you wanted to have a debate, you posted your debating points on the door of the church.   Luther's topic was about Salvation:  Is it something we do, or is it something God does? 

How many people do you think came to the debate?  Zero, zilch, nada, nobody!  No one came in person.  No one sent word for about two weeks.  And then the next thing you know, the you-know-what hit the you-know-where!

For the next year, they tried to settle the debate by exchanging a new list of debating points.  No dice.  They tried to settle it by issuing a subpoena for Luther to go to Rome.  Afraid of being burned at the stake, Luther looked for another way. 

Finally there was a hearing with a Cardinal.  Luther refused to back down.  At this point, 3 out of every 4 Germans were on Luther's side, although it's hard to know how much support was national pride, and how much support came from Biblical, spiritual reflection.  By June of 1519, the whole issue had escalated to the point of requiring a second debate, this time in Leipzig.  And in June of 1520, Pope Leo X issued a papal bull (that’s what they called it) ordering all of Martin Luther's works to be burned, and calling for Luther's excommunication, unless he took back everything he had written or said. 

Now, back in those days, they had no e-mail or fax machines, and no UPS or Federal Express either, so mail took a lot longer to get delivered than it does today.  Therefore, it should not surprise you that Luther wrote something in September of 1520, before he received word regarding his excommunication.  This essay, "The Freedom of a Christian" (available online: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), was Luther's last attempt at reconciliation with Rome, the headquarters of the Worldwide Church.  And in this essay, Luther states that “A Christian is a perfectly free lord, subject to none,” while at the same time, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.”  (There is a band called CAPTIVE FREE, from the Lutheran Youth Encounter that takes its name from this concept.)

Meanwhile, back in the 1520's, bonfires started all across Germany.  They weren't burning the fall leaves.  They were burning Luther's writings.  Well, Luther answered with a bonfire of his own, in which he burned pamphlets attacking his teachings, the Papal Bull threatening to excommunicate him, and several volumes of Cannon Law. 

The official excommunication was issued in January of 1521.  Subsequently, Luther was ordered to appear before the Diet of Worms by Charles V, the new head of the Holy Roman Empire.  Luther again had the opportunity to take back what he had said in his books.  Here is what Luther answered:

"Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason-- I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other -- my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  God help me. Amen."

On his way back to Wittenberg, Luther was "kidnapped" by some friends.  In a move reminiscent of the Federal Witness protection program, Luther was dressed up as a knight, given training in knightly behavior, given a new identity as Knight George, and spirited off to the Wartburg Castle, where he spent the next year or so translating the Bible into German, the language of the people.                    
Martin Luther never meant to start a controversy, much less a church named after him.  Luther only wanted to get the church that he already belonged to, to modify some of its practices, especially practices that were not in keeping with the Gospel.  Well, exactly 482 years after nailing the 95 theses (also known as the Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences) to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Martin Luther finally got his way.  In 1999, ten years ago, in Augsburg, Germany, the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans -- representatives from the Vatican and from the Lutheran World Federation -- signed "The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of  Justification."  Susan Nagle, one of my colleagues here in the New Jersey Synod who at that time was a member of the Executive Committee of the Lutheran World Federation, was part of the ELCA delegation led by Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson.  So was one of my Professors from Seminary, Dr. John H. P. Reumann.  Pastor Gladys Moore, who was attending a conference of Black Lutherans in Germany was also invited to attend. 

Addressing the key article of contention of the Reformation, this document says that we agree that they agree on the doctrine of justification by faith.  It's something God does, NOT something we do.  As the Bible says in Ephesians 2:8

"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." 

Or as it says in our Second Lesson for today:

"For we hold that a person is justified by faith, apart from works prescribed by the law." (Romans 3:28)



Welcome to Beautiful Messenger, the online journal of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, in Rahway, NJ.  The mission of this journal is to share God’s love – revealed in the life, teachings, and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth – with one another and with our neighbors by publicly speaking to matters of Christian faith and practice, service to our neighbors, discipleship, and the witness of Scripture.  Articles may explore a variety of issues and are expected to offer a diversity of ideas and ruminations, but will always be consistent with our stated mission.  The journal is not intended to be a “register” of official positions of this congregation, of the New Jersey Synod, or of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

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