Rev. Philip Meyer, Pastor Emeritus
+ In the Name of Jesus +
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In my lifetime I have seen what could be called "Lutheran Triumphalism," a glorious reading of the past as it pertains to Luther and the Church that bears his name, even though Luther never intended to have his name attached to the Church. Five hundred years is a long time. Our nation is a mere 241 years old, fewer than half the years we observe today.
It is very tempting to allow ourselves to lapse into Lutheran Triumphalism. We don't have a lot of heroes and we aren't so numerous as many denominations, and so, it is tempting, but not realistic. Worldwide, Lutheranism doesn't look healthy in the places where the Reformation took hold. European nations once considered solidly Lutheran are not even Christian in any sense of the word. In my lifetime we used to point with pride, sinful as it was, at statistics that numbered Lutherans worldwide at 70 million adherents. It was self-delusion. As we observe this anniversary Lutheranism seems to be in full retreat in North America and Western Europe. Yet, by the grace of God, it flourishes in many parts of Africa, but Lutheranism does not threaten to overrun the world.
So, why I am painting this dismal picture on such an auspicious occasion as a 500th anniversary? Indeed, we ought to give thanks to God for preserving the saving Gospel among us in our little corner of the world. Nine years ago our congregation celebrated 150 years of existence under the blessing of God. We DO give thanks for the blessings of the Gospel!
We are impressed by numbers, and the sum of our numbers sometimes makes us a bit crazy. Yet, God has never been impressed by them. God told Gideon to dismiss nearly all of his army and take only 300 men to conquer Jericho. Against Goliath God did not send a large army, just a shepherd boy armed with a slingshot and five stones from a creek. Jesus did not enlist an army of volunteers to advance his kingdom but chose twelve nobodies to do the most important work in the world. That's the way God works. He doesn't choose the campaigners, the front runners, the photogenic, but men and women with feet of clay. Luther was no exception. While we have a tendency to deify him, hold him up as a hero, there are plenty of faults to which we can point. Yet, Luther was the first to admit that it wasn't he who did it, but God. I'll repeat one of my favorite Luther quotes.
I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. 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 losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.
When our current hymnal, LSB, was being prepared, there was a discussion about which hymn should receive the number 666. In light of John's Apocalypse some thought we needed to be careful. The hymn that received this number is O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe. It speaks about the smallness of Christ's flock and the vast array of enemies lined up against her. It describes Christ as Gideon arising to uphold the Church and his Word.
Both our Old Testament reading and our Holy Gospel describe the feast of salvation. God prepares his table and spreads it out. He provides everything. In the parable the host provides the proper clothing for every guest. Yet, because of our innate sinfulness, our natural concupiscence [I've not said that since I taught children's catechesis!], we think that we must do something. The feast of salvation isn't a potluck meal where each person is obligated to bring something. We cannot appease God by what we do even if it is a very small thing.
God alone makes you righteous, declaring you righteous for Christ's sake. This gift is received by faith. In the parable righteousness is the garment which Christ himself distributes to every invited guest. Isaiah describes the invitation as "buying" the necessary gifts for "no money." God provides it all—free!.
The Church in Luther's day had institutionalized the idea that you could essentially buy God's favor through acts of penance and the good works of others. The whole matter of indulgences was offering people a way to pay off the penalty of Purgatory. Free forgiveness was no so free! People were left in serious doubt about their salvation. Indeed, finding a gracious God was Luther's own personal struggle. He could not balance his sins against God's demands to be righteous. In The Ninety-Five Theses Luther demanded a debate on the whole matter of penance, that is, good works done to placate God. Such things as penance, indulgences [which were sold for money], private masses, and the retreat into monasteries and convents did nothing to secure God's favor. Professor Erik Herrmann described it this way: "To put it succinctly, Luther's Ninety-Five Theses were written as a protest against bad pastoral care . . ." Another Reformation scholar described the Theses as a "malpractice suit against the church's authority at every level of the hierarchy." [Concordia Journal, Winter-/Spring 2017, p. 20]. This bad pastoral care taught people to rely on their own works, and even to buy good works from others who had a supposed super abundance.
While repentance, and that's the proper term in Thesis One, is necessary, repentance by itself does not save. Who of us can know if the moment of our death will find us repenting? It is not faith plus repentance which saves you. It is only faith in the merits of Christ which have been placed on you in Holy Baptism that saves you. The truth is this: Many of us may very well die in the commission of some kind of sin. It doesn't matter if it is large or small, sin continues to be sin. However, the righteousness of Christ covers all sin. That righteous garment, which God supplies, covers all the ugliness of sin that still lives in your mortal body. At your death that sinfulness and all sins you have committed are finally eradicated because Christ's righteousness covers you. Nothing else really matters. St. John writes:
And the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 Jn 1:7)
This righteousness of Christ alone [Sola] admits you to the feast of salvation. You receive it by faith alone [Sola]. It is true because God has declared it! The verdict has been handed down. It comprises the heart beat of Luther's pastoral care and teaching.
God has invited the whole world to his feast. In his mercy God has sent servants out to the remotest parts of the world, to the main roads and the back roads and to places where there are no roads. God wants his feast filled with people of every nation, race, family, and culture. You and I have been invited to this feast for sinners. Yes, perhaps we should call it that because only sinners are invited, and there are only sinners in this world. Even the worst of sinners is invited because the garment of Christ's righteousness covers all their sins. It covers all your sins.
Sadly, there will be those who try to slip in wearing their dirty rags of self-promotion. They won't be admitted. They will be kicked out. Only one reason exists for you to be removed, and that happens by casting off the garment of Christ's righteousness, that is, denying him, rejecting this faith. As long as you return daily to the cleansing waters of your Baptism, God does not rescind his invitation but rather strengthens that faith in Christ. It is by faith alone or nothing is received.
We sometimes talk about faith in triumphant words, yet, the truth be told, our faith is often weak. You know that you struggle daily. Satan attacks your faith and wants you to doubt and deny Christ. Sadly, some Christians fall prey to the lie that only strong, triumphant faith can save, but that's not true. Weak faith does not forfeit your salvation. No faith, however, is fatal. Out of his sheer mercy and grace Christ continues to provide for you in the Blessed Sacrament of his body and blood. Here is real forgiveness for your sin! Here is real strengthening for your weak faith! Here is nourishment for your faith! This Sacrament is sometimes called "the foretaste of the feast to come." Indeed, as we sing the Sanctus in the Service of the Sacrament, that "Holy, holy, holy . . ." the "angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven" join in our song. They celebrate the feast in all its eternal fullness while we long for it to be fulfilled in us. It's more than a rehearsal; it sustains us on our pilgrim way.
Last Sunday in the final distribution hymn we sang of this great feast of salvation [LSB 639]. I confess that I had a hard time singing that hymn because those references touched me in a very personal way. The last stanza shows us how united the Church in heaven and the Church on earth are in this Feast of Salvation:
The cherubim, their faces veiled from light, While saints in wonder kneel,
Sing praise to Him whose face with glory bright No earthly masks conceal.
This sacrament God gives us Binds us in unity,
Joins earth with heav'n beyond us, Time with eternity! [LSB 639.3]
Yet another hymn speaks to this:
Feast after feast thus comes and passes by,
Yet, passing, points to that glad feast above,
Giving sweet foretaste of the festal joy,
The Lamb's great marriage feast of bliss and love. [LSB 631.7]
Five hundred years have passed since the Gospel light began shining brightly. I pray that there are not another 500 years of this earth's sorry existence! I pray that our Lord will soon return. After receiving the Sacrament the following Collect is often prayed:
Gracious God, our heavenly Father, You have given us a foretaste of the feast to come in the Holy Supper of Your Son's body and blood. Keep us firm in the true faith throughout our days of pilgrimage that, on the day of His coming, we may, together will all Your saints, celebrate the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end;
And the Apostle John writes in the Apocalypse:
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.