People of God, I have something to tell you this morning that you are not going to like. We are nothing but slaves – you and I – all of us – are slaves – we are all slaves – to sin, to the world, and as slaves, we are all condemned. None of us are worthy to be here, to come to the altar and receive the body and blood of Christ – none of us!!!
We sin, we choose our own wants and desires over the needs of others. We hoard our time, our money, our family, our resources. Daily, we let people around the world starve. We even let our neighbors right here go hungry, go without food and shelter, even though we have enough – for ourselves, our families, and even enough to share.
We demand that things be done the way that makes us happy, no matter what. Our happiness comes first – over and above the needs of others. We pay lip service to keeping the commandments, but don’t really care that we break them – daily. We don’t even pay lip service to keeping the laws of the land – like speed limits and traffic laws. How about the command of Jesus to love our neighbor? If they are good neighbors, we might at least try to like them, but if they cross us just once, we don’t even speak to them anymore.
And yet, somehow, God sees fit to bless us anyway; sees fit to create a covenant with us, claiming us as his people; through the means of grace, God cleanses us, washes away our sin, frees us from our slavery, and justifies us by his grace, through his only son, Jesus.
This is the mystery of salvation that Martin Luther struggled with so greatly. Luther could claim himself as a sinner, unworthy of any attention from God whatsoever. Luther understood the need to confess his sins and be forgiven, and his need to forgive others. Luther understood that he could not keep the law, no matter how hard he tried, no matter how hard he punished himself, no matter how hard he studied and prayer. But deep down, Luther also understood that through his baptism, through the covenant God made with his people, that is was God who had the last word.
For all that we hear about Martin Luther and the Reformation of the church, we don’t often hear about Luther’s struggle in life – the same struggle that each of us has. We struggle daily with sin, our desire to be our own person, to do those things that satisfy ourselves, rather than those things that might satisfy God. We may not spend hours each day in confession as Luther did, but we certainly, at the end of the day, can look back and see those things that we are (or at least should be) ashamed of. We know our own imperfections, and even if we don’t there is surely someone who is willing to point them out for you.
Luther understood all of this, but he also understood who and whose he was - a child of God. Luther, through much study, despair, and soul-searching, found that God had not abandoned him to slavery. Through Luther’s study of the writings of the apostle Paul, he realized that God had not just made a covenant with Israel, as we read about in the first lesson, but had indeed made a covenant with all of his people.
If you will turn to page 1162 in the back of your hymnal, and read Luther’s response to the second article of the creed with me:
"I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father in eternity, and also a true human being, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord. He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. He has done all this in order that I may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally. This is most certainly true. (hold your finger in this page)
Here, we see that Luther found that his salvation, his redemption, was not dependent on his own actions, or even his own understanding, but completely dependent on what God has done, through Christ Jesus. As Paul wrote, “…since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”
Redemption – forgiveness – cleansing – freedom – all these gifts we receive through the actions of another, not through our actions, not through anything that we could possibly do, not through our own self-righteousness, but through the selfless act of Jesus, the messiah, on the cross. Through this one act, so Luther tells us, we are saved (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 1162)."
Now the question becomes, saved for what? Jesus did the hard work – we are forgiven and redeemed children of God. Now what?
That seems to be the question that has plagued Christians ever since the Reformation. While Luther mourned the loss of unity, others reveled in it, even going so far as to split off again and again and again – any time they disagreed over something. Many of these dissenters would even point to Luther and say that he led the way, and that when we disagree on theology, or doctrine, or even the color of the carpet, we should pack up and leave, finding or creating a place where our viewpoint is accepted.
I would imagine that if anyone actually asked Luther about this, it would be to find that Luther’s greatest regret was that the church had split, rather than worked toward reconciliation. Even today, almost 500 years later, we as Lutherans still look for the opportunity to reconcile with our sisters and brothers in other denominations.
For Luther, the “now what” question had much more to do with this, how am I – sinner by birth and saint by the grace of God – to live a life that in some meaningful way shows God that I have accepted His gift of Grace and want to respond to it in such a way that it shows how much it means to me? How is it that I – a sinner – can live a life that shows that I am also worthy of being called a saint?
If anyone understood how hard this would be, it was Luther. Luther most certainly knew that his justification by grace did not let him off the hook. How does one thank God for a gift this great? This wonderful? This unbelievably fantastic? Certainly not by saying, “Oh thanks” and then just going on with life like nothing had happened. This gift does come with a string attached – no, not something that we have to do in order to earn or keep it – but a string that ties us forever to Jesus, a connection that cannot do anything but change the very core of our being. Sure – we can try to ignore it, or even try to cut it, but there is a problem. You have been claimed through your baptism, and marked with the Cross of Christ forever. You are branded! That string won’t go away just because we don’t like it. You have been made holy. Turning back to page 1162, here is what Luther says in his response to the third article of the creed on being made Holy:
"I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins – mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true (ELW, 1162)."
Through the Holy Spirit, we – the church – this gathering of believers – we are called, enlightened, and made holy. Can you imagine? That is what happens to those who are redeemed by the Cross – we are made holy.
We are called through the gospel to do as Jesus taught the disciples to do – to feed the hungry, care for the poor, to share the good news with all people. We are called to keep the commandments, especially the two great commandments – to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind, and to love our neighbor – just as much as we love ourselves. We are called to care for the widow and orphan, and all who are oppressed. We are called to give for the mission of the church – not as we want, but as the widow gave with her mite. We are called to follow Jesus – all the way to the cross. We are called, like Paul, to have our lives transformed, and to suffer for the sake of the gospel. We are called, to be Christ to one another. Not so that we will be saved, but because we have been saved – by faith, through, through God’s amazing grace. This is most certainly true. Amen.