Reformation Day (B)
October 28, 2018
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is from Saint Luke 24, verses 46-47, Jesus says, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations.”
When Martin Luther marched down to Castle Church in Wittenberg with a hammer and his 95 Theses, he had no idea the storm he would unleash. His act on October 31st, 1517 would start a reformation which would shake the Church, Germany, and, without exaggeration, the world. Luther’s desire wasn’t to break from the Roman Catholic church and he wasn’t trying to start a rebellion. He simply wanted to address errors that had made their way into the Church. He originally addressed the sale of indulgences, but what he was trying to do most of all was to restore Jesus to His rightful place in the Church. To do this, Luther preached the fundamental message of Christ Jesus: repent and be forgiven.
The cry of “repent” was heard frequently throughout Biblical history. The prophets, John the Baptist, and Jesus Himself all called on the people to repent of their sins. Repentance opens the door to forgiveness, but by the time of Luther, the teaching of repentance had become corrupted. The Roman Catholic church teaches that repentance consists of three parts. First, you feel bad about your sins, what’s called contrition. Although, if you weren’t sorry, like you were holding a grudge, then all that mattered was that you wish you could be sorry and that was enough. Second, you confess your sins. And third, you complete the assigned satisfaction, which might be a set number of prayers, a trip to a holy place, or an act of service. If you completed your satisfaction, you had repented properly and were therefore forgiven. But notice this – you’re forgiven only when you’ve done your part by paying God for your sins.
But who can remember all their sins? Nobody! So, in the Roman Catholic church if you don’t confess all your sins, you’re not making total satisfaction, so unconfessed sins must be punished in purgatory. Unless you obtain an indulgence which shortens your time, or the time of loved one, in purgatory. In Luther’s time an indulgence could be purchased, while the current pope gave one to those who followed him on Twitter during the 2013 World Youth Day. I hope I don’t have to tell you that repentance doesn’t work this way.
Proper repentance in Jesus’ name starts with contrition, with sorrow over our sins. It’s recognizing that you’re completely sinful. There’s nothing in you that isn’t sinful. If you think you’re holy, you’re wrong. If you think you have nothing to repent of, you’re wrong. As Solomon says in Ecclesiastes, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” Or as it’s said in Proverbs, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?’” We’re conceived sinful and this sinful nature plagues us our entire lives and leads us into the sins that are part of our daily lives.
Some people, maybe even you, don’t like to hear this. We like to think that we’re inherently good, that in the great scheme of things, we’re not too bad at all. Sure, we do little things that aren’t good, but they don’t really count against us. True contrition is the terror that fills your conscience when you realize you deserve God’s wrath. And you do! Contrition is seeing our sins against God in thought, word, and deed and realizing how bad we’ve messed up. Contrition isn’t just mouthing the words, it isn’t wishing you were sorry for what you had done, and it isn’t being sorry you got caught. Rather, it’s true sorrow.
We see examples of true sorrow in Saint Peter who broke down and wept openly when he had denied Jesus. Look at King David who was crushed when he realized the depth of his adultery and murder. They were grieved by their sins because they were crushed by God’s Word. The words of Jesus rang in Peter’s ears. The Word of God spoken by the prophet Nathan shook David to the core. True contrition is brought about in us by God, through His Word and through the Holy Spirit. But contrition doesn’t require you to be sobbing as you confess. You don’t have to want to die to prove your contrition is true. Your contrition isn’t better because you’re sure God’s going to strike you down where you stand. Contrition is simply knowing you’re a sinner, acknowledging that sin, and not trying to hide behind the lie that you’re not too bad.
The second part of repentance, after contrition, is faith that trusts in the forgiveness of sins. Luther realized that this faith was missing in the Church because it was all about the satisfaction. But if forgiveness is based on what you do or how you’ve paid God back, how will you ever know if you’ve done enough? You’ll face death not knowing what is waiting for you.
Having faith that the forgiveness of sins comes to you through Jesus alone means you don’t have to merit forgiveness. You don’t have to pay God for your sins and you don’t have earn forgiveness. If you had to pay for your sins, why did Jesus come. If you could earn your way into Heaven, Jesus died for nothing. But He didn’t die for nothing, He died for you. God doesn’t want to leave you in your terror or sorrow over your sins, that’s why contrition is followed by the absolution. A repentant heart hears that God is no longer angry over our sins. A repentant heart knows that Christ has done all that has to be done. You might not understand this. You might wonder how God can possibly forgive you. You might doubt His forgiveness, but it doesn’t change the reality that you are forgiven.
Take heart, your sins, all your sins, are forgiven. The sins you know, the sins you don’t know. The sins you commit on purpose, the sins that are unintentional. There’s no sin hanging over your head that will be thrown back into your face when you die. There’s no purgatory waiting to cleanse you from unconfessed sins. Forgiveness is complete and total. It is yours, right now, through the blood of Jesus. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from our sin, not some of it, all of it. Martin Luther brought back to the Church the forgiveness of sins without strings, and it’s what I give you this day. Don’t doubt it, don’t try to merit it, don’t try to pay for it because everything has been done by Christ once and for all.
The first thesis on Martin Luther’s list said, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said “Repent”, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” This means we daily repent of our sins and that we daily fight against our sins. Forgiveness isn’t a license to sin, and as Paul says, we don’t sin more so that we get more grace. Rather, we use the forgiveness that God has bestowed on us to reflect that forgiveness in all that we think, do, and say.
On October 31st, 1517 Luther ignited the fuse which would set off the Reformation. He is a hero of sorts to us and we proudly bear the name Lutheran, but he didn’t do anything on his own. It was the Holy Spirit who stirred up his heart to see where the Church had gone wrong. It was the Holy Spirit who opened his eyes to what Jesus had done. Our denomination bears Luther’s name, but more than that it bears Christ’s name. Because it bears the holy name of Jesus, because it is the Church of Christ, you can have no doubt that when you repent of your sins, they are forgiven. Have faith that what needed to be done has been done. Have faith in the promises of God that all your sins are forgiven! This is the message of Christ – repent and be forgiven. It’s a message for you from Him and it’s a message that will never change.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen