October 31, 2021 Reformation Sunday
Acknowledging our past can be difficult.
Humanity has not always been kind to one another, and there are still many examples of war and exploitation happening today around the world. The Native Americans were and continue to be treated as second class citizens in many places. African Americans were enslaved, and some people still consider themselves superior. It is difficult to acknowledge these facts as it points out the hypocrisy of ancestors. Historians have even pointed to the Martin Luther of later years and his anti-Semitic writings. However, it is important to recognize these facts so that we can grow as a people. As we grow, the good news works in us, and freedom is found in Jesus Christ.
Agreeing that one finds freedom in Christ can be a challenge when one thinks they already have everything. This is a glimpse into our gospel lesson. Jesus is speaking to the Jewish people gathered and tells them if they know the truth it will set them free. What do they have to be freed from, they think? They have forgotten their ancestors. They have forgotten where they came from. Were their ancestors not slaves? They were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph who was in Egypt. Egypt, where the Jewish people were enslaved to Pharoah. How easy it is to forget the past and brush everything under the rug.
The Jewish people Jesus is talking to are comfortable. They are comfortable with their place in society. Meanwhile, they are living in Roman controlled land. There is an emperor to answer to and they seem fine with this. They do not want to stir anything up because all is good at the current time. Jesus is disrupting the status quo. Jesus’ disruption comes in the form of truth and the promise of freedom found in the Word.
Martin Luther had a deep relationship with scripture. He lived in and for the Word of Christ. It is in scripture that he began to realize where the current church was headed, and it was not following in Christ’s footsteps. In Romans Luther prayed deeply over the lesson we heard this morning,
“But now, apart from the law, 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. 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…Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” Romans 3:21-24, 27-28
The church had been taking advantage of the common people for centuries. Those who did not know how to read or did not know what the Latin words meant. For Luther, this was heightened in the time leading up to his posting the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. Johann Tetzel had been selling indulgences to support the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or now known as Vatican City. These indulgences would shorten the time of a loved ones or their own time in purgatory. The more money you gave, the shorter amount of time spent in the liminal space of purgatory before ascending to heaven. Granted, this is not biblically based, and not too much different from someone selling an elixir saying that it will cure everything that ails you.
There was a televangelist this past year who was stating such a claim regarding COVID, by promoting a silver and blue bottle of tonic that could eliminate COVID. Needless to say, he was sued for these false claims. Where else in humanity are things believed because it would be wonderful if there was any truth to them? Jesus’ truth is the one constant since he was born. In the truth of Jesus, Martin Luther revealed a grace-filled God who was there all along. A God who was there from the beginning of creation, just co-opted to suit people how they pleased. A God who is present with us today in the same words of scripture. Words that speak truth. Words that lead us to a freedom found in Jesus Christ.
We are invited to continue in his word. To be courageous like Martin Luther and speak truth to the darkness. One of Luther’s famous quotes is, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” Jesus knows we are slaves to sin and although we repent, we are going to turn around and sin once again. It is the word of Christ and our faith in the word that we are saved. Nothing we do will earn our salvation. In this realization, Jesus sets us free as we continue in his word.
Freedom is easy to take for granted. It is easy to tie privilege to freedom. Living in the majority quite often is why freedom is taken for granted. Not being oppressed or persecuted speaks specifically to the privilege given. Martin Luther could have easily ridden along with his privilege in the Roman Catholic Church. He could have followed everything by the book and heed to those who had greater power than him. However, he turned to scripture and found true freedom in Jesus Christ. He realized holding the status quo was not an option if he were to follow Jesus. Through scripture he encountered grace and chose to reveal it for the entire world. Through his call for change, the light of Christ shines for all. In Luther’s boldness, we have his example to follow. In God’s grace, we are freed by Christ.