Fr. Charles McClean: Sermon for Reformation Day 2010

REFORMATION DAY 2010
Immanuel Church
Alexandria

You know the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and this morning I first want to talk briefly about two paintings which express in an unforgettable way the very heart of the Reformation.

Just two years before Dr. Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Matthias Grünewald completed an altar painting for a hospital in the village of Isenheim. The painting can still be seen in Colmar. Once having seen the painting, it is hard to forget. The Savior hangs on the cross, his whole body covered with numerous bloody sores. To the left of the cross the Apostle John comforts our Lord’s mother, and at the foot of the cross Mary Magdalene kneels with hands folded in prayer. But then to the right of the cross stands John the Baptist who of course couldn’t possibly have been there because he’d already been beheaded by King Herod. As our Lord says in the Gospel for this day, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force” and John the Baptist had indeed “suffered violence.” But Grünewald’s painting is not a strictly historical painting but rather a kind of visual meditation on our Lord’s death. So John stands there, and with one greatly elongated finger, out of all proportion to his body, John points to the crucified Lord.

And what Saint John the Baptist did, Dr. Luther also did. Just one year after Luther’s death Lucas Cranach completed a beautiful altarpiece for the Parish Church of Saint Mary in Wittenberg, a painting which can still be seen there. In the middle of the picture we see the crucified Savior, on the left hand side we see the people of Wittenberg, and then on the right hand side we see Dr. Luther in his pulpit, with his right hand pointing to the crucified Lord.

And so in these wonderful paintings we see both Saint John the Baptist and Dr. Luther pointing not to themselves, not even to their own experience of faith, great as that must have been! They point to the crucified Savior—and to Him alone!

Well you and I can never have too many reminders that saving faith has nothing to do with us and everything to do with Christ; and faith itself is the pure gift of the Holy Spirit, as Dr. Luther instructs us in his Catechism, nothing that we do “by [our] reason or strength.” Certainty of God’s merciful forgiveness is grounded completely outside ourselves: in Christ once crucified and risen from the dead, in the once-for-all having-happenedness of our Baptism, in the often spoken word of Holy Absolution, and in the frequently received mysteries of the Lord’s Body and Blood. There is certainty, there is the ground of hope—not at all in us but completely and only in Christ—as He comes in His Word, in His Sacraments.

Dr. Luther’s task was not to create a new Church but to reform the one holy Church. Creating a new Church was the farthest thing from his mind! As someone has said, the difference between the Church before and after the reformation is comparable to a garden before and after it has been weeded: the weeds are gone but it is still the same garden! Dr. Luther’s task was to clear away the weeds which had terribly obscured—but never destroyed—the good news of Jesus, the only Ground of hope in life and in death. It all comes down to this: Whom do you trust? Yourself, your inner life, your spiritual experiences or do you trust Christ, Christ in His Word, Christ in His Sacraments?

We all know or should know that in Luther’s day the greatest threat to that blessed certainty, that one Ground of hope, was the teaching that human beings can—in however small a way—somehow save themselves, have some part in raising themselves from spiritual death, despite the clear Word of God spoken by Saint Paul: “And you [God] has made alive who were dead in trespasses and sin.” As little as a dead man can raise himself to life, just so little can we who were spiritually dead raise ourselves. No, God alone can raise the dead, God alone can raise us; or, as our Lord said to Nicodemus who came to Him by night, “You must be born again—of water and the Spirit.” Now birth is not something you do, it’s something that happens to you. Just so our new birth of water and the Spirit is nothing we do but rather God’s work, raising us through the baptismal waters from the death of sin to eternal life in Christ.

But—sadly—both in Dr. Luther’s day and today there are so many people who’ve been misled into thinking that being “born again” is something they do, usually by making what they call a “decision for Christ,” utterly failing to see that the new birth of water and the Spirit is not our act of commitment to Christ but Christ committing Himself to us in all His grace and all His mercy, raising us from spiritual death. Yes, this error is no different and just as serious as the error that we can—in however small a way—somehow save ourselves, have a hand in raising ourselves from spiritual death. In fact it is much the same error because it looks to something in us, some kind of inward experience instead of looking to Christ crucified and risen, relying only on Him, placing all our trust in Him and His sure word of promise: once for all given in holy Baptism, renewed in every holy Absolution, and sealed with His once sacrificed for us Body and Blood. It all comes down to this: Whom do you trust? Yourself, your inner life, your own spiritual experiences or do you trust in Christ, Christ in His Word, Christ in His Sacraments?

Dearly beloved, in this day’s Gospel our Lord Jesus says “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force.” They still do. Our Lord plainly teaches that “violence”—in the sense of opposition to Him and to His Word—will not lessen but will in fact increase as this old world grows older and comes ever closer to its end.

It is inexpressibly sad to reflect on the fact that within the Roman Church—despite the correction of so many abuses once decried by the reformers, despite the fact that in the Roman Church, too, Christ is proclaimed as Savior, Baptism is faithfully administered and Absolution given to penitent sinners and the Lord’s Body and Blood administered, albeit all too often in mutilated form, the chalice being withheld from communicants—there still remains this tragic ambiguity, this seeming inability to say plainly and without any qualification that we are saved alone by mercy. Instead there is a strange continued effort to in some way qualify that gift.

But sad as that is, it is even sadder to reflect on the state of Protestantism and—alas—of much that calls itself “Lutheranism” today.

On the one hand, we have the spectacle of nothing less than abandonment of the faith once delivered to the saints. The attempted ordination of women to the pastoral office and the rejection of Christ’s teaching concerning marriage and chastity are only symptoms of a conscious or unconscious abandonment of the foundation of faith.

And then on the other hand, we have the so-called “Evangelicals” with their reliance on inward experience, on their “decision for Christ,” together with their rejection of the holy Sacraments as given by Christ, reducing these holy mysteries, in which Christ truly acts and saves, to mere signs or symbols of what in fact happens quite apart from the Sacraments. And we surely deceive ourselves if we foolishly imagine that we are safe from these all too powerful influences!

Yes, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force.” And so on this Reformation Day we are again called to repentance and prayer: to repentance for our sins of ingratitude, of taking for granted the treasure of Christ’s saving Gospel and the Sacraments as He instituted them; for our easy accommodation to the world with all its works and ways; and for our lack of charity both among ourselves and especially toward the most broken and defenseless. And we are also called to prayer for our Church here in Alexandria, for our Synod, and for the Church throughout the world. We pray in the sure confidence that Christ’s promise to His Church has never failed, even in the Church’s darkest hours, and that promise will not fail: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” And yet we must in deep repentance and humility pray as our Fathers have for over four hundred years:

Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide,
For ‘round us falls the eventide,
O let your Word, that saving light,
Shine forth undimmed into the night.

In these last days of great distress,
Grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness
That we keep pure till life is spent
Your holy Word and Sacrament. Amen.

+VDMA