Reformation Sunday Yr C
October 26, 2007 4 Comments
Reformation Sunday Yr C, 28/10/2007
Ps 46 & Jn 8:31-36
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson,
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“God’s Presence, Freedom and Truth”
Today we Lutherans, along with some other Christian denominations, celebrate Reformation Sunday. When we think of the Reformation, we Lutherans are likely to remember the important emphasis on the three solas—scripture or the Word alone, grace alone, and faith alone. Indeed, here at Grace Lutheran at the back of our nave’s centre aisle, we have Luther’s emblem combined with those three solas. However, there are actually five solas. The two additional solas are equally as important for us as the other three, they are: Christ alone and the cross alone. Indeed, one may be so bold as to claim that without Christ and the cross, our emphasis on the other three solas would be of little value. We Lutherans are a Christ-centred Church, and we endeavour to live by and teach a theology of the cross over against a theology of glory. That essentially means the heart and centre of our faith always focuses on the God who acts in a multitude of saving ways in and through Jesus Christ. All history is dominated by God’s action and saving presence in and through Jesus Christ. This too is the emphasis and theme in today’s Psalm and Gospel.
Many of you likely know that Psalm 46 was the basis of Martin Luther’s most famous and best-loved hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The psalm affirms ancient Israel’s confidence in God’s presence and saving action. It may have been composed after the Israelites had experienced threats from their enemies and God acted to deliver them. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” the ancient Israelites sang with joy and confidence. Yes, even in worst-case cataclysmic events, the psalmist says that God is still with us thus we need not be afraid.
Centuries later, Martin Luther picked up on the Good News message of Psalm 46 and was inspired to write the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Luther too had faced many threats as he undertook his work as a reformer of the Church. Luther knew and trusted, by the grace of God, and the powerful promises in God’s word that God in and through Jesus Christ was present and active, and protecting him from all evil and harm. Music was an important gift given to Martin Luther. He went on to write 37 hymns. And indeed, the Lutheran Church developed the reputation of being “a singing Church,” since one of the important reforms Luther and his supporters introduced to the Mass was congregational singing. One tradition has it that so loved was “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” that Luther and his supporters sung it often, perhaps even daily, as a source of strength, consolation and inspiration for the reforming work. Eventually, the hymn was translated into some 200 different languages, and today it is widely sung in most, if not all mainline denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church!
As I’ve shared with some of you before, this past summer while attending worship in the Red Brick Church of Skive, Denmark, we discovered the ongoing legacy of the Lutheran Church as “a singing Church.” Several hymns were sung by the congregation, most of them containing around six or more stanzas! One of my favourite Lutheran hymn writers was in fact a Dane, Nikolai Grundtvig, a nineteenth century reformer and bishop, who wrote hundreds of hymns.
Coming back to Psalm 46, we too like the ancient Israelites and Luther and the fifteenth century reformers can find strength, consolation, confidence and inspiration from these words. As the promise in the psalm says: “The LORD of hosts is with us.” We know our God as Immanuel, God with us. Jesus came to live among us as Immanuel, God with us. He is our clearest picture of who God is and how God is present in our world and in the Church today.
The following story, originally told by Paul Harvey, illustrates how God is present and active today to protect his people.
It is a story about West Side Baptist Church in Beatrice, Nebraska. Normally all of the good choir people came to church on Wednesday night to practice, and they tended to be early, well before the 7:30 starting time. But one night…one by one, two by two, they all had excuses for being late.
Marilyn, the church pianist overslept on her after-dinner nap, so she and her mother were late. One girl, a high school sophomore, was having trouble with her homework. That delayed her, so she was late. One couple couldn’t get their car started. They, and those they were to pick up, were subsequently late. All eighteen choir members, including the pastor and his wife, were late. All had good excuses. At 7:30, the time the choir rehearsal was to begin, not one soul was in the choir loft. This had never happened before.
But that night, the only night in the history of the church that the choir wasn’t starting to practice at 7:30, was the night that there was a gas leak in the basement of the West Side Baptist Church. At precisely the time at which the choir would have been singing, the gas leak was ignited by the church furnace and the whole church blew up. The furnace room was right below the choir loft!1 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. The LORD of hosts is with us.” This Reformation Sunday, we celebrate the power and presence of God in Jesus Christ as he comes to us in and through his word, which is filled with promises that he honours and makes good on. He and his promise-rich word are filled with truth and trustworthiness, in life and in death. This is at the heart and core of the reforms introduced by Luther and his colleagues; this too is what it means to be a Church in continuous need of reforming.
Speaking of the truth, we turn now to our gospel, where Jesus makes this promise: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
When we think of the truth, likely one of the first things that comes to mind is a particular type of wisdom, knowledge, insight or understanding, such as: a philosophical or theological system, or a body of orthodox doctrines and intellectual assent to such doctrines. Or perhaps we think of legal truth as in the promise in a court of law to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” and then, using reason to factually present a convincing case that makes the truth clear enough to reach a proper verdict. Or perhaps we think of the truth we gain from any or all fields of study or work and life experiences. In the case of our passage from John’s Gospel today, Jesus is speaking of truth in a very different way. He is actually referring to himself here as the truth. The truth is a real live person, named Jesus of Nazareth. Actually, twice in the riddle-language of our passage Jesus refers to himself. He says, “If you continue in my word,” this too is a reference to both the word as Scripture and to Jesus himself, the word of God become flesh. If we continue to be connected with Jesus in relationship with him, then we will know him, “the truth,” and Jesus, the truth, will make us free.
How does Jesus the truth make us free? The story is told of some people who were observing a monkey. They noticed it seemed to be in pain as if it were inhibited by something around its waste-line. Looking more closely, they discovered that in the past some human must have captured this monkey; for it had a wire around its waste that could not be seen easily due to the fur growing over it. When the people discovered this wire they proceeded to remove it by cutting it off. The monkey did not resist them; in fact it seemed to them that the monkey was cooperating with them. After they removed the wire, the people noticed that the monkey actually seemed very grateful for what they had done. The monkey was no longer in pain or inhibited by the wire, it was set free.2
This is exactly what Jesus Christ has done for humankind. We were in pain and slavery to sin, death, the devil and all the powers of evil. Then, at the appointed time, God sent Jesus to earth to live, teach, suffer, and die and be raised again—all in order that we might be made free. The cross cut the wire of our sin, death, and the powers of evil. Thanks to Jesus we have been made free; all of these have been nailed to the cross, crucified, taken away, removed, wiped out—thanks to the love and saving work of Jesus. Sin, death, and the devil was no match for Jesus. As the God-Man, he, together with the other two Persons of the Triune God created and rule over the entire universe. Thus we are free from the powers of sin, death and the devil since they are defeated by Christ.
There is another side to the freedom we are given in Christ. In heart-felt gratitude, we are also free for being Jesus’ disciples. In serving God and serving our neighbour we are free thanks to Jesus. This is what Martin Luther understood so well when he wrote in his 1520 treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, Luther’s Works: Vol. 31, in which he explains that: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
Jesus modelled for us this perfect freedom to love and serve God and one another by the life that he lived. We do not have to earn our salvation. No, we have received it as an unconditional gift from God through Jesus. In response to this wonderful gift we are free for love and service—not because it saves us, or it is a law and we have to obey it. No! Rather, we do it in grateful response because we want to do it; we want to do things in love and service because it gives us pleasure to please the one, Jesus, who loves us so much. It’s not like the parent-child relationship where the child will not do something willingly if they feel manipulated or threatened and do not want to do it because they dread it. Rather, it’s like the parent-child relationship where out of love and respect for each other the child willingly and freely will do what the parent asks because the child really wants to do it and it gives the child much pleasure in doing it by pleasing his or her parent whom he or she loves and knows that their parent loves them. God’s Holy Spirit has prepared us for this freedom by giving us the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit to love and serve God and our neighbours. This is the wonderful Good News for us today: praise and thanks to our Triune God our Mighty Fortress, for protecting us, helping us and being with us when we face troubled times, and for giving us Jesus The Truth who sets us free! Amen.
1 Cited from: James S. Hewett, Editor, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1988), pp. 252-253.
2 I am grateful to my wife, Rev. Julianna Wehrfritz-Hanson, for this story.