The God of Grace

File:Luther-Predigt-LC-WB.jpg

Luther preaching, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca. 1521 from the predella above the altar in St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg

A reflection for Reformation Day

Written as the sermon for Reformation Sunday, October 25, 2015 at Los Altos Lutheran Church, Los Altos, California. The scripture readings for the day and other reflections for this week can be found here at my blog “Watching for the Morning.”

There are lots of pieces in this complex drama we call the Reformation. But at the center of it was the Scripture. And at the center of Scripture was Christ. And at the center of Christ was grace.

It was 498 years ago next Saturday that a German monk, parish pastor and professor of scripture at the new University of Wittenberg walked to the other end of town and posted on the door of the castle church a proposal for an academic debate on the Christian understanding of repentance, forgiveness and the sale of indulgences. There were ninety-five different propositions to be debated. We call them the Ninety-five Theses.

This was intended to be an academic argument and an ecclesiastical argument. The propositions were posted on the castle church not the town church. The castle church was used by the university community as their chapel. Its doors were the university bulletin board. And the propositions were written in Latin, the language of the university and the church, not the language of the people.

Some scholars have suggested that Luther didn’t actually post the theses, that the story about the doors of the castle church were a later embellishment. Certainly our individualistic culture has made it an iconic image: the lone voice of conscience pounding on the church door. But that is the wrong reading of the moment. Whether the theses were literally posted, they were composed by a pastor and teacher concerned for the welfare of the church.

The debate Luther proposed never actually occurred – though the topic was fiercely debated in the days, months and years to come. These Ninety-five Theses were more like an extended argument than discreet points for debate, each proposition building on the others to support the central argument.

Scholars also argue over Luther’s motives, but it seems clear that his fundamental concern was for the care of souls. People were being misled by the claims of the indulgence preachers. Nuanced theological ideas were being intentionally obscured. In the effort to raise money, people were being told they were purchasing their way out of purgatory – or paying for their loved ones to be delivered from purgatory. Johann Tetzel’s famous phrase was: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

Indulgences couldn’t be sold in Wittenberg. Luther’s prince, Elector Frederick, had his own indulgences to be obtained. Frederick had one of the most famous collections of holy relics in all Europe. By 1520, Frederick had 19,013 holy relics, all with letters of authentication from the pope and adorned in jeweled glory, including straw from the manger, a thorn from the crown of thorns, bread from the Last Supper (miraculously preserved), pieces of Mary’s veil stained with Jesus’ blood, a twig from the burning bush and one of the nails from the crucifixion of Jesus. Making a pilgrimage to view them on All Saints Day granted you a release of 1,902,202 years from purgatory.

But Tetzel was selling his indulgences just across the border, and people from Luther’s parish were crossing the border to buy them. They came back waving their handsomely ribboned and sealed paper, declaring that they never had to go to confession again. They had what they considered a “get out of jail free” card. They would go straight into eternal bliss and bypass the millions of years it took to purge the sin from our souls and makes us worthy to enter eternal bliss.

Luther was eleven days shy of his 34th birthday. He had been an Augustinian monk for 12 years (counting the probationary year he was a novice). He had been a priest for 10, entrusted with the holy power to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He had been appointed to the University 6 years before, and been a Doctor of the Theology for 5. His field was the Bible, and his doctorate was not simply an academic decree. It made him a Doctor of the Church, one of those appointed by God through the church to guard the teaching of the church. Finally, Luther had been the pastor of the town church for 3 years.

When he posted the 95 theses, he was acting as a Doctor of the Church and a man responsible for the spiritual welfare of the people of his city. He didn’t set out to change the world, but change the world he did.

John Tetzel was selling indulgences because Albert, one of the sons of one of the most powerful families in Europe, had the chance to become the Archbishop of Mainz, the second most powerful positions in the Holy Roman Empire. It would make him the head of the Imperial Diet and one of the seven who voted to elect the Holy Roman Emperor.

The problem was that Albert had already spent a fortune becoming the Archbishop of Magdeburg and the Bishop of Halberstadt. By church law he was too young to be a bishop, so he had had to make a generous gift to the pope for a dispensation – a waiver. It was also forbidden by church law to be the bishop of two places, so he had also needed to make a generous donation for that dispensation. Albert was maneuvering himself into power – and then, unexpectedly, the Bishop of Mainz died.

The Pope charged the city of Mainz an installation fee of 10,000 ducats. It’s hard to convert the values from historical economies, but this is a huge sum of money. It is 35 kilograms of gold – better than 77 pounds. The city had paid this twice in the last ten years and was in no position to do it again. Albert saw his chance and offered to pay the city’s fee if they would elect him. Altogether, Albert had to borrow 34,000 ducats to pay to the pope to be named Archbishop. But since he was tapped out, he would have to borrow the money. And to pay off his loans he negotiated the right to sell a plenary indulgence – with Rome taking half of the sales.

Albert wasn’t interested in the care of souls. And when he got the 95 theses from this pious monk in Wittenberg he immediately sent it to Rome with the demand that Rome silence him.

Luther had dared to say that forgiveness was free, that Christ’s sacrifice purchased for every believer a complete remission of all his or her sins. It was bad for sales. And it was electric. It took less than two weeks for copies of the 95 theses to translated, printed and dispersed to every corner of Europe.

Luther’s argument starts out with one central and profound observation: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

The word in the Latin Bible that translated Jesus’ call “repent” could also mean (in Latin) “do penance.” And the church had used that passage to support the sacramental system of the medieval church. Jesus had commanded us to do penance! And the people who controlled the rite of penance were the priests. But Luther now had in his hands a copy of the New Testament in Greek, a wonderful work of scholarship by Erasmus. So Luther now knew that the Greek word in the gospels doesn’t mean “do penance”; it means turn around, to change allegiance, to travel a new direction.

The entire life of the Christian is to be one of turning towards Christ.

The medieval religious synthesis was built on the fear of hell and the notion that only pious acts could earn you the credit needed to make up for all the sins and misdeeds of life. Pious acts like confession, or making pilgrimage to venerate holy relics, or saying three Hail Mary’s and an Our Father.

Luther had inadvertently pulled the legs out of that entire system, although it took some time for him and the church to recognize it.

There are lots of pieces in this complex drama we call the Reformation. But at the center of it was the Scripture. And at the center of Scripture was Christ. And at the center of Christ was grace.

Whatever else we may be as a church – at the center of the church is the Scripture. And at the center of Scripture is Christ. And at the center of Christ is grace.

If you want to write something down to take home as a reminder of what this sermon was about, that’s the sentence you should write down: at the center of the church is the Scripture. And at the center of Scripture is Christ. And at the center of Christ is grace.

At the center of Baptism is Scripture. And the center of Scripture is Christ. And the center of Christ is Grace.

At the center of Holy Communion is Scripture. And the center of Scripture is Christ. And the center of Christ is Grace.

At the center of our hymns, at the center of our liturgy, at the center of our prayers, and – I pray to God – at the center of our preaching and teaching – is Scripture. And the center of Scripture is Christ. And the center of Christ is grace.

God loves us not for what we do, but because it is God’s nature to love.

God comes to us not for what we do, but because it is God’s nature to love.

God is our refuge and strength not for what we do, but because it is God’s nature to love.

God is our healing and hope not for what we do, but because it is God’s nature to love.

God is our resurrection and our life not for what we do, but because it is God’s nature to love.

Yes, since God’s nature is to love, that has a lot to say about how we are to live, but that’s a second conversation. The first conversation is this: God loves us not for what we do, but because it is God’s nature to love. God comes to redeem the world, not because the world deserves redeeming, but because it is God’s nature to save.

Cain is not protected because of his piety. Noah is not saved because of his piety. Abraham is not chosen because of his piety. They learn piety. They learn faithfulness. Slowly and often ineptly, with plenty of mistakes, they grow in grace. But they are not chosen because of their piety – they learn faithfulness because they have been met by the God who chooses to save, who chooses to rescue and redeem a world that has fallen into bondage.

God loves because it is God’s nature to love. The fabric of the universe is not cold apathy, but passionate desire. And that passionate, suffering love reaches its proper end when we trust it, when we live it, when we soak it in like our dried flowers and trees will when it finally rains.

This Reformation Day honors Luther and Katy and Philip and Frederick and all the others who dared to live by the Christ they found in the center of scripture. But this day does not celebrate them. It celebrates God whose nature is to love, to save, to embrace, to forgive, to redeem. It celebrates the God of grace.

Amen

© David K Bonde, 2015
Photo: By user:Torsten Schleese (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Advertisements

About dkbonde

Pastor, Los Altos Lutheran Church
This entry was posted in Christianity, Sermons and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s