Message by Pastor Pokora – October 25, Reformation Sunday

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

Today we mark the 503rd anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in Germany.

Many Lutheran congregations across our nation, though not necessarily all of them, will tell again the familiar story of Martin Luther walking to the University of Wittenberg chapel to post his 95 theses on the church door on the eve of All Saints Day 1517. That simple act precipitated a series of events leading to schism with the Roman Catholic Church, the birth of Protestantism and the resulting social and political repercussions which continue to affect Western civilization to this very day. That was a momentous time to be sure.

I remember clearly, as a grade school student, riding the bus from our home to downtown Springfield to St. John’s Lutheran Church to see the 1953 film “Martin Luther,” starring Neill MacGinnis in the title role. My understanding of Luther and the Reformation was influenced by this dramatic motion picture. The image of Luther standing defiantly before the Diet at Worms, defending his belief in the primacy of scripture, despite the opposition of Pope and Emperor, has been etched in my memory, not to be forgotten.

On the other hand, for years we teach our confirmation students about the selling of indulgences, Luther’s enforced stay at the Wartburg Castle and his translation of the Latin Bible into the German language. These confirmands listen politely to us, but what we are teaching them doesn’t always connect well to their world. I wonder about that lack of relevance.

The truth of the matter is this: the modern Lutheran Church continues to go through an identity crisis. Showing a sixty-year-old film about Martin Luther and the reformation doesn’t seem particularly relevant to many people. And it’s not just the relevance of our church history that has been drawn into question by modern Christians. Our adherence to Lutheran liturgy, theology, and hymnody have also been found wanting. The rise of non-denominational groups and the decline of membership in Lutheran and other Christian denominations has led to many soul-searching questions about the mission of the church in our society.

We are not the only Lutheran Christians to think about these issues. Every Lutheran denomination in the United States knows the Reformation understanding of Jesus Christ to be the foundation of the church’s ministry and mission, our reason for being. But we also recognize the world around us may not listen to what we have to say. We have answers, but possibly not to the questions raised by our society. Or it’s possible Lutheran answers to religious questions are out of tune with the times. Our children who live in Denver or Chicago or New York or Dallas or San Francisco may not believe their parents’ church provides what they need to lead their lives.

Like Luther, our faith has been built on an enduring faith in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote these words. He said: “The righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” We believe that God has acted through Jesus Christ to bring us redemption from sin. Only by faith will be saved. The world in which we live may dismiss this profession of faith, but this proposition remains at the very center of our belief.

When Luther nailed his theses to the chapel door, he argued Christ must command the life and mission of the Church. The Church grows from and reflects the Word of God made visible in Jesus Christ. Any attempt to hijack the Gospel for individual or institutional or political reasons is wrong. The Church leaders, the politicians and even the ordinary folks of Luther’s time turned Jesus Christ into a water boy for self-serving purposes. Christ became a cover for the political manipulation of both the church and state. The common folks turned Jesus into a magic potion or talisman. Luther’s action called the self-serving agendas into question by arguing Christ alone is Lord of all.

The restoration of Holy Scripture to the center of Christian life stands as the second great accomplishment of Luther on Reformation Day. Several years after Luther nailed the ninety-five theses to the Castle Church door he was called before a conference in the city of Worms to defend his actions before the Emperor and leaders of the Church. Luther stood before that assembly and said that he had to be convinced from Holy Scripture before he would recant his convictions.

Luther believed scripture alone revealed Jesus Christ to the Church.  Holy Scripture commands the human conscience. The government may legislate laws. Society and culture can allure us. We can deceive ourselves. But only the Christ who lies at the heart of scripture can command us. Once again, this great principle of the Reformation lays before us. Unfortunately, modern Christians are almost as unlearned of scripture, as the peasants who wondered at a Bible written in Latin. Today Luther calls the church back to the Bible to find the Christ who is Lord.

Finally, we recall when Luther mounted the Castle Church steps, he did so trusting only in God. Luther had no money, no armies, and no followers, but he willingly carried an invisible cross upon his shoulders. He suffered for his action but trusted in the wisdom and power of God to guide and sustain him through his great ordeal.

Do we have the faith of a Martin Luther? How often in our life do we feel bereft of all support? Inevitably, we face times when the assurances of friends or family, the magic of modern technology, the guarantees of government programs or laws fail us. Suddenly, we feel stripped of the layers of protection wrapped around us. We are alone by reason of health or old age. We feel vulnerable. No amount of money can help us. At that moment we stand before our God with nothing more than our faith to offer. He affirms, comforts, and leads us.

Let me conclude with this thought. Reformation Sunday is not about waving time worn banners. Reformation Sunday has to do with living our faith today. Our Reformation worship is an act of remembering. We are called to be faithful to the great principles which brace our faith. Without remembrance, there will be no fidelity to the faith handed down to us. When Luther nailed the ninety-five theses to the Castle Church, he affirmed Christ as Lord, restored the authority of Scripture, and placed all his trust in God. May our resolute faith in God carry us through our own tumultuous times. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.