Luther JESUS” – Romans 3:23-24
Note: This sermon was written for the Confirmation of four young people at Hope Lutheran. Some parts of this message are addressed specifically to them.
In a Nutshell: 500 years ago, God raised up Martin Luther to re-brand the Church of his day – not to be a Luther-church, but to be a Jesus-church! Luther still directs us back to the Law (all have sinned) and to the Gospel (we are justified and saved by God’s grace in Christ Jesus). It’s about Jesus, and God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness, and God’s love that leads to eternal life!!
A couple of years ago, my wife bought me this book that was published just before the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in 2017. It’s titled “Brand Luther” with a long subtitle, “How an unheralded monk turned his small town into a center of publishing, made himself the most famous man in Europe and started the Protestant Reformation.” It’s the story that many of us are familiar with – how on this day, October 31 in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. He was an unknown monk from a sleepy, little German town, but within 4 years he was famous – or should I say infamous – for taking on the entire institution of the Roman Catholic Church, and its powerful leader, the Pope.
Just into his 30’s, young Luther came of age with the printing press, a technological innovation only 60 years old, but with the untapped potential to change the world. The back cover of this book explains that “noted historian [and author] Andrew Pettegree shows us a new side of Luther, not just as a great theologian, but as the world’s first master of mass communication. His pamphlets, written in colloquial German and enlivened by the distinctive imagery of artist Lucas Cranach, spread like wildfire, attracting countless imitators and winning the battle of ideas.”
If Luther were alive today instead of 500 years ago, he would be using every social media platform available: Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit, LinkdIn, Pinterest, and even that new one… Catch-Up. You confirmands are all on Catch-Up, aren’t you? No?? That’s because I haven’t invented it yet!!
If Luther were alive today, he would have millions of followers, and his blogs and videos would go viral within minutes. That’s the kind of innovator he was. That’s the kind of impact he had.
I don’t know if you kids are aware of this, but sometimes when a company has gotten kind of stale and has lost its edge, it has to re-brand itself. So, it comes up with a new corporate logo and slogan and jingle. That’s why MacDonald’s no longer refers to its Big Mac as “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onion on a sesame seed bun,” and that’s why its ads on TV no longer sing the “you deserve a break today” jingle. That’s so 1970’s – when I was your age!!
In the early 1500’s Luther basically re-branded the church. It wasn’t that it was stale or had lost its edge. It was worse than that. It was MORE IMPORTANT than that. The church had lost its anchor, its ethos, its raison d’etre, its foundation and mission and purpose. So, using that new hot-off-the-press printing press technology, Luther re-branded the church… about Luther? NO, NO, NO… Luther opposed the church being called by his name. He re-branded the church to be ALL ABOUT JESUS. The church of his day was about the power and wealth of the pope, the cardinals, and the bishops, and about praying to long-dead saints, and about paying money to have your sins forgiven (that was called indulgences), and about mindlessly saying the prayers associated with the beads of the rosary, and about doing good works to earn your salvation, and about buying and revering religious relics, and about following all the rules and regulations, and about a fabricated holding place for the dead called purgatory. Yes, the church of Luther’s day definitely needed re-branding, reforming, and Luther was annoyed enough, and stubborn enough, and determined enough to take on the machinery of the entire church. Why?
Because the message he read in the Bible was SO IMPORTANT that it couldn’t be concealed or covered up or painted over or lied about any longer. The message of the Bible was also SO SIMPLE that it didn’t need to be complicated by relics and saints and indulgences and good works. We heard how important and simple the Bible’s message is in our Epistle reading from Romans 3. It’s just three words and then seven words.
Three words – “all have sinned.” That’s what Luther called the Law. It says that you and I and everyone in the whole world has rebelled against God and disobeyed God by what we have said and done, even by good things that we haven’t done. “The wages of our sin,” Paul would write three chapters later, “is death.” Death, and hell, and condemnation – that’s pretty simple… you sin, and you will pay for it for all eternity. The church of Luther’s day was pretty good at pointing the condemning finger of God’s Law at people.
What the church wasn’t good at was consoling people with the next seven words – “and are justified freely by His grace.” That’s what Luther identified as the Gospel. That simple but life-giving message was that God makes us right and righteous with Him again as a free gift because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, shedding His blood to forgive our sins. When Luther understood that, he said that the entire Holy Scripture became clear to him… that “light-bulb” moment (when there weren’t yet light-bulbs). Again three chapters later in Romans, Paul would write: “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s the rebranding that Luther launched – the supremacy and superiority of the Gospel over the Law! It’s all about Jesus, and God’s grace, and God’s forgiveness, and God’s love that leads to eternal life!!
So, things that were part of the church re-brand were:
Confession of sins – Luther affirmed that, according to the Bible, this is a personal act between you and God rather than an enumeration of all your sins in a booth before the priest, and forgiveness is certainly not something that you buy. “God is faithful and just to forgive our sins.”
Reading the Bible – In Luther’s day, uneducated common people had to rely on the church leaders to read and interpret Scripture for them. Luther translated the Bible into German, and used the printing press to distribute it so that everyone could read it for themselves. We are blessed still today with Bibles that we can read in our own language.
Music – Luther composed many hymns so that Scripture and worship elements could easily be sung in unison by people in the pews. We are still a singing church. We still sing his hymns.
Teaching – Luther wrote the Small Catechism so that parents could teach their own children in their own homes the most important aspects of the Christian faith – the Creed, the Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confession and Forgiveness.
Prayer – Luther made prayer something to be engaged in at home and throughout the day (bedtime and meals) rather than just practiced within the walls of the church building, by the religious experts.
Vocation – In Luther’s day, clergy and church workers were honoured above others in society. With a renewed understanding of the Biblical concept of the priesthood of all believers, Luther elevated the status of every person recognizing that each serves Christ in their daily “callings,” and he brought about a greater sense of the inherent worth and equal value of each person. For all of us – me as a pastor, you as today’s confirmands, adults in the work force, or retirees – that calls us to use whatever technology is at our disposal (even that Catch-Up thing I haven’t invented yet) and whatever opportunity we have before us to connect people to God’s grace in Christ.
So, for you confirmands, on your Confirmation Day, remember those three words and those seven words, but remember especially that the Gospel of God’s love for you in Christ surpasses the Law. Remember, too, that the Bible and music and prayers are God’s tools for you to grow in your faith, and your future vocation – whatever it might be – is God’s way to live out your faith every day.
For all of us, thanks to Luther’s re-brand, church is still and always ALL ABOUT JESUS!! Amen.