26 October 2014, Naples, FL
Circuit Reformation Service at Grace Lutheran Church
Text: Revelation 14:6–7
We are here today to do what Lutherans have done for generations, that is, celebrate the Reformation of the church which a 33 year-old priest ignited on October 31, 1517 when he tacked his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Of course whether you are a Christian or not, you can’t escape the significance of the Reformation. It is an important chapter in Western history; yes, in world history.
The Lutheran theologian of the last century Hermann Sasse, in his important book *Here We Stand*, suggested that there are three inadequate interpretations of the Reformation. First, there is a **heroic interpretation** of the Reformation. In this view, Luther is regarded as a hero in much the same way as a George Washington or an Abraham Lincoln might be viewed. Focus is placed on Luther’s character, traits, inner struggles, and personality.
Second, there is what Sasse calls the **cultural-historical interpretation** of the Reformation. Here the Reformation is understood as a movement of liberation, a turn from the unenlightened darkness of the medieval world full of suppression and superstition to the bright dawn of a new world marked by the power of the intellect and the freedom of the individual.
Third, there is the **nationalist interpretation** of the Reformation and as you might imagine this was quite popular in German especially in the years leading up to the 400th anniversary of the Reformation in 1917. Here Luther is portrayed as the German Reformer who defied a pope in distant Rome and the Spanish emperor, Charles V, to assert that a German church with Bible and liturgy in the German language was necessary. Here Luther and the Reformation became a symbol of German identity and independence.
Now, Sasse tells us that each of these views the Reformation is inadequate. And he is right. The fourth view says Sasse is the correct view and that understands the Reformation as an episode in the history of the one, holy Christian, and apostolic church. That is why we adorn the chancel with red paraments and the pastors wear red stoles today. Red is the color of Pentecost, the festival of the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, and enlightens a holy Christian people for Christ Jesus through the gospel that forgives sin. The Reformation is an episode in the history of the church. We call it Reformation for the church was deformed by false and misleading teachings that were embodied in errant practices making Christ’s holy bride almost unrecognizable under the papacy.
This young Wittenberg professor spotted pastoral malpractice in the Roman church and he sought argue the case on behalf of Christian people living under the burden of demands they could not fulfill by their own spiritual power. Luther was not about creating a new church, but restoring the gospel to the church so that genuine repentance and true faith might be preached among every nation, tribe, language, and people might be brought to worship God as He wills to be worshipped in Christ Jesus.
That brings us to our text from Revelation 14:6–7 as John the Seer reports that he saw an angel flying overhead with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on the earth. This was the text Pastor Johannes Bugenhagen used in the funeral sermon at Luther’s burial in 1546 where he identified Luther as that angel who carried this “powerful, blessed, divine teaching,” which would continue to live, overthrowing the Babylon of the pope’s church (Brecht III:379). Well, the gospel Luther preached was nothing other than the one eternal gospel that is the power of God unto the salvation of all who believe.
There is only one gospel—the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting the trespasses of sinners against them but on account of the atoning work of the Son of God, by the Word that forgives sins, setting sinners free from condemnation. It is that Word, and that Word alone, Luther confessed and fought for in every aspect of his Reformation work. It is the Word of the gospel, the Word of the Cross, the Word by which I became and remain a Christian as Luther put it.
Luther’s confidence and our confidence is the Word of Christ, this eternal gospel. In the early days of Lent in 1522, Luther came out of hiding in the Wartburg Castle to return to the pulpit in Wittenberg to rescue the Reformation from those whose fanaticism would turn it in a chaotic revolution. On that occasion Luther confidently preached: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such loss upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything” (AE 51:77).
Luther, like the Apostle Paul before him knew that the Word of the Lord was not chained up or fettered but was living, loose, and active. Luther knew and trusted in the promise of the Lord recorded in Isaiah 55: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; It shall not return to me empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:10–11). God’s Word is packed with the Lord’s own power. It says what it does and does what it says because it is his Word, his eternal gospel.
Jesus says that the heavens and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away. So the slogan, *Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum*, “The Word of the Lord endures forever,” became a battle cry of the Reformation. Nations come and go. Princes rise up and fade away. But the Word of God remains. It is an anvil that has worn out many a hammer said one wise Christian. Persecutions ancient and contemporary have not been able to snuff it out. “Crumbled have spires in every land” we sing in that fine old Danish hymn, but the church of Jesus Christ is kept secure in the eternal gospel that never loses its newness.
This eternal gospel has a history. It was promised to our first parents after the fall, proclaimed by the prophets, and in the fullness of time, it was fulfilled as the Incarnate Word suffered and died under Pontus Pilate for our trespasses and was raised again on the third day for our justification. This eternal gospel was preached by the apostles, confessed by the creeds, and when it had been dimmed and diminished by human notions of salvation by works, it was restored to the church by the Lord through his servant Martin Luther, who shouted where others merely mumbled to paraphrase church historian Mark Noll. In season and out of season, this eternal gospel has a history.
Yes, humanly speaking these present days might appear dark and threatening for God’s flock. Luther once warned his dear Germans that the gospel is like a summer rain shower. Therefore, we are to be eager to hear Jesus’ words while they are proclaimed in our midst. The prophet Amos warns of a famine of the Word of God when through man’s persistent rejection, God lets his Word move on to other places. There are places mentioned in the New Testament where once there were Christian congregations alive and thriving, but if you go there today you will find none. Think also of the majestic European cathedrals that today are nearly empty on a typical Sunday. Do you realize that on any given Sunday, there are more people attending Lutheran services in Africa than all of North America and Europe combined? The eternal gospel moves on.
Where this eternal gospel is preached and received as God’s own announcement that the ungodly are justified not by works of the law but by the atoning death of Jesus now received by faith alone, there is the true worship of God of which the angel speaks. There the Living God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the One who is the source of the vast oceans and bubbling little springs, is feared, loved, and trusted above all things. That is the true worship that by God’s grace Luther restored to deformed church so badly in need of reformation. In this worship, human beings do not seek to placate a holy God with the idolatry of their own sacrifices, but learn rather to receive God’s favor as he bestows it in his preached Word, in the waters of baptism, and with his body and blood. That is why our Confessions call faith the highest and holiest worship of God, for faith looks to Christ alone for forgiveness of sins, comfort now in this life of suffering, and peace in that kingdom yet to come.
So we celebrate this Reformation Sunday not with a nostalgic recollection of a great and heroic man named Martin Luther nor as a marker of a turning point in western civilization nor as a reminder of our German heritage. No, we celebrate this Reformation Sunday by repenting of our unbelief, confessing our slowness to treasure God’s Word, and by faith laying hold of the eternal gospel Luther preached, for in it we have the forgiveness of our sins and peace with God now and forever. Amen.
Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.