For the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we had a single Sunday worship service followed by a variety of fun family activities, crafts, games, and even a trivia contest! We ended the morning with a church potluck.
In case it’s helpful for anyone in the future planning a similar event, here’s the booklet of Reformation 500 Activity Stations we made (that link is a PDF – here’s the Pages version). Pictures of lots of our activities are on the St. Peter Lutheran Church Facebook page here.
Our Reformation Day readings are John 8:31-36 and Romans 3:19-28. Here’s my Reformation 500 sermon:
As we’ve been preparing for today’s Reformation 500 festivities, I’ve spent some time thinking about why I am a Lutheran.
I know I’m a Christian because I believe God real and active in our world and Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior who has claimed me in the waters of baptism. But there are lots of Christians who aren’t Lutheran. So why claim this particular flavor of Christianity?
First, I’m a Lutheran because that’s what my parents were. My mom grew up as part of Immanuel Trinity Lutheran Church in Fond du Lac.My dad grew up in another denomination, and when they got married, they agreed they’d go to new member classes in each other’s tradition. As the story goes, Dad went to the classes at Mom’s Lutheran church first, and decided that was enough.
I suspect the majority of you were either born into the Lutheran tradition, or you married into it. Or m
aybe you consider yourself a different flavor of Christian, not Lutheran at all. That’s great!
As some of the news articles around this anniversary have pointed out, about half our country’s population is some variety of Protestant influenced by Martin Luther. And although it took a while, the Catholic Church eventually came around to many of Luther’s positions.
So, if most of us are Lutheran because our parents were, perhaps a better question for us, or at least for me, is not “Why am I Lutheran?” but rather, “Why am I still Lutheran?”
The answer for me is that I’m Lutheran because the core convictions of Lutheranism make sense to me. The foundation of our tradition is a living, daring, radical confidence in God’s grace shown in Jesus Christ.
Our namesake, Martin Luther – the one who lived five hundred years ago in Germany, not the one who fought for civil rights in the 1950’s – that’s Martin Luther King Jr. – it’s important to be clear which one’s which – our namesake was a monk who struggled with being a sinner. He knew God didn’t want him to sin, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t stop sinning.
Fortunately, the church at the time taught that there was stuff he could do to make up for his sin, like confessing and doing penance, or doing enough good works to balance out his sin. Even giving money to the church was a good deed that could make up for some sin.
But Luther was an extremely conscientious fellow, acutely aware of his sinfulness, and no matter how much good he did to make up for it, he never knew if it was enough. sHis priest complained Luther actually spent too much time confessing, often finishing up his confession and immediately starting over to confess something else.
As Luther tried to do enough to satisfy the demands he thought God was making, he began to lose hope that he could ever do enough to get to heaven. He got angry at God for demanding so much, and of course, getting angry at God felt sinful, which just made it worse.
And then Luther came across this passage in Romans, the passage we just heard. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;” – everyone is sinful – Luther was well aware of that part, but here’s the key – since all have sinned, “they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Read that last verse in the Romans reading with me, verse 28: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
God is offering love and grace, not demanding satisfaction. That simple idea of salvation coming from God’s grace through faith changed everything for Luther. Now he saw that the church had lost its focus. Instead of proclaiming God’s freely given forgiveness, the church had become corrupt, selling indulgences, charging money for grace.
Now he saw that the church had lost its focus. Instead of proclaiming God’s freely given forgiveness, the church had become corrupt, selling indulgences, charging money for grace. Understanding God’s grace changes everything for us too. You don’t need to set yourself free. You don’t need to worry if you’re trying hard enough or doing enough. The burden is not on you. We believe God loves us so much that God always makes the first move, to do what we can’t.
Lutheranism 101 is this: God always comes down to us. We don’t climb up to God.
I’m a Lutheran because I know myself, and there’s no way I’m good enough for God.
Lutherans are honest. We don’t think we’re that great. I’m Lutheran because I know I need God’s grace.
When you start with God’s grace as the foundation, all kinds of things shift. As Jesus says in the Gospel reading, ‘If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Realizing God always comes to us means we are set free from worrying about what others think. We are set free from fear of death. We are set free from bondage to sin, from our selfish, curved-in-on-ourselves nature.
We are set free to love God, set free to serve our neighbors. Luther once said, “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbors do.” We’re free to allow God to work through us, through this church and through each of you, because we believe it’s always God doing all the work. We’re even free to doubt God, because it’s not about us, it’s all about Jesus, the one who has set you free.Another beautiful thing about being Lutheran is our faith is not about Martin Luther. We’re not afraid to criticize the
Another beautiful thing about being Lutheran is our faith is not about Martin Luther. We’re not afraid to criticize the past, or to change traditions. We’re open to following the Holy Spirit wherever it blows. Lutherans are ok with admitting we’re wrong.
It’s a good thing this isn’t about Luther, because in addition to all the good stuff he did, Luther said and wrote some absolutely awful things, especially about the Jewish people. Some of his writings were even used in the Holocaust.
Because it’s about Jesus not Luther, we’ve been able as a church body to officially apologize for the terrible things Luther said about Jews. As he freely admitted, Luther needed God’s grace as much of any of us.
Luther vehemently hated the idea of a church being named after him. One of my favorite quotes from him is this:
“What is Luther? My doctrine is not mine, but Christ’s. I was not crucified for anyone.
How comes it to pass, that I, who am but a filthy, stinking bag of worms; that any of the sons of God should be denominated from my name?”
And yet here we are, because with all his failings, sometimes despite his best efforts, God used Martin Luther to change the world and reform the church.
As we mark 500 years since the beginning of the Reformation when Luther began arguing God’s grace was not for sale, remember also that Lutheranism is not a religion of the past. The church is always in need of reformation. Today, the United States is trending towards less church involvement, but God is not done with us. Lutheranism globally is growing.
The largest Lutheran church body in the world is the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, with 8.3 million members, and they’ve grown 24% in the last 4 years. God is still at work.
Grace is still relevant. The world needs to hear the good news that we are saved by grace through faith now as much as ever. We still need to hear the good news again and again. This 500 year anniversary is not the end of the story, because it’s still all about Jesus.
May you be blessed with a living, daring faith in the Gospel.
May the good news that the Son has set you free inspire your whole life.
And may the peace of God who by grace has set you free keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.