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Stop Nailing It

Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Psalm 46

Romans 3: 19-28

John 8: 31-36

Reformation Sunday

October 29, 2017

Stop with the Nails

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The practice of commemorating the Reformation reaches back almost as far back as the nailing of the 95 Theses itself. According to some sources, this day began to be commemorated in 1567 but it wasn't made an official commemoration until the 200th anniversary. For probably over 300-400 years, Lutherans have gathered together on the weekend before October 31st to rally the troops and remember that fate-filled day when Luther's 95 theses changed the world. This day over the centuries has had commemorative items such as coins, coloring sheets and even a Martin and Katherine Von Bora bobble head that parishioners would receive to remember the day. The pastor would regale the congregation with talk about how we should "celebrate" Luther's ultimate act of defiance when he challenged the pope around the use of indulgences and the other fallacies. The church would usually talk about Luther being this fearless leader and we would be reminded of our Lutheran battle cry: "Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me." And we swear up and down how we should never allow ourselves to ever look, act, or smell like the Roman Church.


We all know the story of Luther or so it seems we do...

Legend has it that Luther, in the middle of the night after completing his 95 theses statements, goes to the Castle Church's doors and nails his document there so that everyone in the town can read them. But some recent scholarship has uncovered a few problems with this.

So you nailed something to the church door and I don't like it...what do I do? Rip it down and tear it up.

However, there was a rule at the university that if a faculty member wanted to debate a topic such as indulgence in an academic forum (this is what Luther wanted to do), he would have had to post it to the church's door. However, Luther would have used wax because nails ruin doors. And to be honest, Luther was a faculty member, he probably handed this task off to one of his students or assistants.

I am one of those skeptics that wonder if Luther ever nailed the document. You knowing, posting could have meant sending out a letter via a mailbox to the faculty.


What most likely happen was after Luther posted the 95 theses, one of his students or even more likely, one of his fellow professors saw these 95 theses as a way to get their small university on the map. They used this new piece of social media called a printing press and the document widely circulated. This legend of Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door started around the 1600's when Lutherans and Catholics were nailing each other over theology. Political cartoons of the time began to circulate portraying Luther with a hammer in his hand and the document in the other. That is where this legend of Luther with the nails comes from, nearly a 100 years after they were originally posted. The sad part of this whole historical narrative is the fact that we have been nailing each other ever since...

Have any of you ever read the 95 theses? Most of what Luther wrote has been addressed and changed. Back in 1999, Lutherans and Catholics signed a declaration on Justification and the sale of indulgences. Justification and the sale of indulgences was the main argument that Luther focuses on in the 95 theses. You know, for a document that is so fundamental to this day, almost nobody today has read or even studied the 95 theses. The 95 these are not even included in any of our confessional documents. Yet, isn’t that what we normally focus on during our commemorations of the Reformation?

You know, we still think, as Lutherans, that the religious world of today still resembles the religious world of the 1500's. Pope Leo is nothing like any of the modern popes of today. Leo was elected pope around the age of 38 but what is more scandalous is that He was a named a cardinal-deacon at the age of 14 (against canon law at the time). Leo didn’t have good role models or a good spiritual upbringing. Imagine giving a 14 year old that much power and then that 14 year old grows up and becomes on of the most powerful men on the planet? Emperor Charles V was elected Emperor at the age of 19. The world was really being run like a frat house with no adult supervision.

So, what are some takeaways that we should gleam from the reformation for us today. For one, we need to understand how improbable the Reformation truly was. Luther normally would have been tried, convicted, and burned at the stake just like the other reformers who came before him. But this time was different and because the reformation succeed, the gospel message was opened to thousands of individuals. But understand this, The reason it ever happened was because Luther opened his Bible and thereby, changed the world. By opening his Bible, Luther saw a different dominion laid out by God which was being hidden by the leaders in his day. Luther, upon reading and then teaching on passages like Romans 3 that say, "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law" saw that this was counter to the sale of indulgences; the sale of forgiveness. Luther knew, because he was a theologian, the power that God's forgiveness had for a people living in bondage to sin. He knew as a pastor that so many of his flock would spend their very last penny to buy an indulgence to feel God's forgiveness and would forgo food for their children and family. The pastor in Luther couldn't let his people go on living in this way. The theologian in Luther could not stand by while the church spread this false gospel. Luther opened his Bible and changed the world.

Can you imagine living your life wondering if you have been made right with God? We take it for granted, 505 years later. Imagine the church telling you that the only way for you to be assured of a place in heaven was to purchase your very own seat. If that was truly the case, there would be no need of a cross, no need for Jesus. All you would need is your wallets. But what if you don't have enough? What will you give up to buy your seat? Food? Shelter? Luther, Pastor Luther, saw his flock living in bondage to sin and the church was not telling them the truth—that they are already been set free and that God forgiveness is free.

That’s the message from John 8. Jesus says, "you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." This truth is not something that you can find like like a lost coin or a clean shirt —Jesus is the truth. Jesus is the truth and that truth alone will set you free from slavery.

But what are enslaved too? Sin, right? But Sin in the eyes of John was more about the broken relationship between us and God, not just misdeeds. If we abide in our Lord, we will know the truth and the truth alone will set us free and restore our relationship back to God. And who does Jesus say is the truth. Jesus...I am the way, the truth, and the light... Freedom then, in the eyes of John, is committing yourself to Jesus and abiding, pitching a tent within the confines of our Lord. Freedom is anything but autonomy, according to John. Freedom does not mean you get a get-out-of-jail-free card. Freedom means having our relationship with God restored and trusting in Jesus Christ alone for the healing of that relationship. Having this freedom means that the Church can't fix that relationship, the pope can't fix it, Pastor Luther can't fix, I can't fix. Only Jesus Christ alone can restore that relationship and he did so on the cross 2000 years ago.

I am firmly glad every day for the Reformation and the continuing reforms we make as Lutherans in the church. I am forever grateful for Luther being bold in his care of his flock and for putting the gospel into the hands of all us—not just the religious elite. I am forever grateful to know that my freedom from sin does not lie in my hands or in the church's hands, but in the bloodied and bruised hands of Jesus Christ. But I also know the Reformation has cause a great amount of disunity and broken relationships that have taken many, many years to mend and heal. That is a truth we must contend with this day as well.

You know something, after over 500 years of commemorating the start of the Reformation, I have begun to wonder if it is healthy to continue to have these commemorations. We ultimately felt that it was okay because here we are, but I do want to be careful about how we approach this day now and in the future. For many years, the Reformation Service has been a pep rally for Lutherans. We used it to get everyone excited about “heritage”, to get excited about a monk who defied the Catholic Church and who won the right to preach and teach his views of scripture and theology. We sing rousing hymns like Almighty Fortress is our God and other good German hymns. We talk about Martin Luther shouting to the Cardinal at the Diet of Worms, “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me.” Yet we forget the part of history where Luther, when he was first asked to recant, he didn’t shout that line and then run off into the sunset to continue to lead the Reformation like Hollywood portrayed. No, he asked for more time to reconsider the charges and the court granted it to him. When he returned the next day, Luther said those famous words not in a booming voice, but in barely above a whisper out of fear for of what would come next. He knew that his teachings and his words would be used to divide the very thing he wished to reformed—that his words and teachings were going to cost him his life.

What Luther did 505 years ago tomorrow forever changed the landscape for Christianity. But I think 505 years is long enough to celebrate the division that this movement created. 505 years is long enough to view Catholics as our enemy. 505 years is long enough to use this day as a prep-rally. I really think this day in the future needs to be less about the story of nailing a document to a church door and more about the power of God's word in our world today. I think commemoration of the Reformation needs to be less focused on our German roots and instead embrace the great diversity that Lutheranism has throughout the world. You know, The Lutheran Church in Africa is growing by leaps and bounds. That is not the case in Europe and America. So, maybe we should not limit our hymnody on this day to hymns like A Mighty Fortress and other German hymns but sing other Lutheran songs like “Listen, God is calling” from Tanzania or “We are marching in the light of God” from South Africa. As much as I dislike the ELW, one thing the ELW does well is including those other Lutheran voices and create a hymnody that is really reflective of the Lutheran Reformation movement today. The reformation is a global movement and is not limited to just the past, but is worldwide and culturally diverse. When we talk about our Lutheran heritage today, I think we need to think beyond liturgically correct jello, potlucks, or Garrison Keillor humorous, yet fiction stories of the Lutherans of Lake Wobegon and instead, see our church as part of a global, theological movement still reforming today.

So, let's start a new tradition by reclaiming some of past. Instead of using our Lutheran Battle cry in defiance this day, let us these words instead to say, “Here we stand with you. We can do no other because the gospel will not allow us to stand any other way. And God help us all to stand together.”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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