Reformation Sunday was a big deal in the church of my youth.
Folks pulled their red apparel out of the closet and filled the pews. Mine was a church of German heritage. Every adult knew who Martin Luther was and what he did, and the young people were learning as they memorized the Small Catechism. We sang A Mighty Fortress with joy and conviction, and our pastor once again told the story of that great hero of the faith, Martin Luther.
I suspect some of you reading this remember similar Reformation celebrations from your youth, and I am old and honest enough to admit that I miss them. They helped form my Christian identity and ground my faith. But that was thirty some years ago. Today the truth is there are many people in our congregations who have not been shaped by that kind of Lutheran practice. They don’t know much about Martin Luther or his role in the 16th-century Reformation. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t excite their curiosity.
As a historian, I put a lot of stock in knowing about one’s past. Reformation Sunday is a good time to help people understand why we call ourselves the Lutheran Church. Preaching by storytelling is powerful, and this is one good story. From the thunderstorm to his last words, Luther is a fascinating character, often admirable, sometimes despicable, always a man of faith. You have to shape your tale carefully. You don’t want to get stuck trying to explain indulgences or late medieval nominalism from the pulpit.
Begin by identifying a particular teaching or practice of the church in Luther’s day that undermined the gift of Christ’s grace. I find the practice of confession to be a good one. Believers were required to make oral confession before a priest at least once a year. They had to feel true sorrow and to enumerate all their sins before receiving absolution. In addition, the priest imposed an act of penance which they had to perform to complete the process of forgiveness. For Luther, this was outrageous because it demanded the impossible and put a condition on God’s mercy. No one could remember all one’s sins, and more importantly, Luther argued that sin was a condition, our inability to love God or our neighbor rightly. It cuts through every quality of our being. The cruel selfishness that drives every one of us cannot be quantified into a list of wrongful actions. Nothing we can do, no act of penance, can seal the gift of forgiveness or secure God’s favor, because both are already ours. God does not parcel them out to the qualified; God pours them out to the needy. For Luther, there could be no compromising this good news.
This is one historical example that allows you to open up the heart of Luther’s theology. Now you can unpack the biblical text(s) for the day and explore how Luther heard in them the compelling witness to the free grace of Christ that drove his ministry. And then there is the question, how should it drive ours? Luther believed that works righteousness was the first and last sin. How does that manifest itself in our church, our community, and our lives? We are to receive Christ’s grace freely, not cheaply. Being called to account is not easy−as the targets of Luther’s polemics experienced−but it is worth the struggle so that we may know the power of Christ’s cross and the fullness of His love. Raising these questions and risking an answer or two from the pulpit will pull people out of the fascinating past and into the challenging present. Let’s apply Luther’s lens to our faith life and see what it looks like.
Having initiated such a discussion from the pulpit, it could be valuable to follow the service with an adult forum in which members explore together the question of what reform might look like today. One aspect of bearing the name “Lutheran” is the enduring commitment to be open to change, so that the Gospel is not undermined. People need to hear the Good News as purely good. That was Luther’s lifelong battle. And we have inherited it even though our circumstances are vastly different.
Of course the biblical texts appointed for the day are central. It is important to talk about Luther, but not proclaim Luther at the expense of Jesus Christ. With that caveat, I suggest that a good biography of Luther would be helpful (and interesting) in preparing the sermon. Along with that, a showing or showings of the recent Luther movie some evening near Reformation Sunday−complete with popcorn and discussion time− would be a great time of learning and fellowship.
My final word on developing a sermon for Reformation Sunday: Be bold in talking about sin. This is an essential part of the Lutheran witness. We hear often that sin gets mission nowhere these days; it is offensive and off-putting (as if it were ever otherwise). But without an honest reckoning with the reality of sin (what it is, what it isn’t, what to do about it), we speak considerably less than the truth and make a mockery of the Gospel. There is forgiveness after all, and with it new life, there for the taking 24/7. Is that such a downer?!