It’s Reformation Sunday—last year marked the 500th anniversary of the reformation of the 16th century. That Reformation of the church that began on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted a list of 95 issues that he wanted the church to discuss. Luther had been reading and studying the Bible and had discovered that the teachings and practices of the church in the 16th century had strayed far from what we’re taught in Scripture.
It’s easy to understand why this happened in medieval Europe. Bibles weren’t readily available—books of any kind weren’t widely available. All books, Scripture or anything else, had to be painstakingly written and copied by hand. Additionally, no one had translated Bibles into the languages that were being spoken by the people of the day—so even if you had a Bible, you needed to be able to read and understand ancient Greek and Hebrew or Latin.
Luther, however, was a monk who became a Roman Catholic priest, a priest who served as a professor at Wittenberg University, teaching theology and biblical studies. So he had the necessary training to be able to translate the Bible. In addition, Luther had been experiencing a real crisis in his faith. The church taught that salvation was earned by living a good life. By doing good things.
But how good is good enough? At what point could you be confident that you had met the requirements? Luther agonized over these questions because he was very aware of his own sinful nature.
The church had also created—invented would probably be a better term—the doctrine of purgatory. Purgatory was a place where you went after you died, a temporary place that existed between this world and heaven. It was often described as a place similar to hell, where you were literally purified of your sin by fire. Loved ones could shorten your time in purgatory by purchasing indulgences.
So whether you went to heaven or purgatory or hell depended on how good you were and on the sins that you had committed during your lifetime. Because the church had also created a system of judgment for sin—some sins were labeled venial (which meant that they could be forgiven), while others were labeled mortal (meaning that they were so bad that they could never be forgiven, even with repentance).
So… how good is good enough? And what it you had been unfortunate enough to have committed a mortal sin? Murder is considered to be a mortal sin—but so is adultery, idolatry, slander. It gets even more confusing, however, because to steal something of little value is a venial sin but to steal something of great value is a mortal sin. Who decides what kind of theft moves you into the mortal category?
How good is good enough?
Luther was searching for answers and he was wise enough to search for them in the Bible. What he found amazed him and filled him with great joy. Because he discovered that we’re saved by the grace of God through faith. He discovered in Scripture a God quite different from the God that the church was teaching.
He discovered that truth had decayed over the years—seriously decayed.
Luther discovered a God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
He discovered that it was all about having a relationship with Jesus, with following Jesus, with being a disciple of Jesus. Jesus, Son of God, who had been largely forgotten by the church of the 16th century, other than for the fact that He would judge our sins when we died.
This was amazing good news and Martin Luther went to Rome to share what he had discovered with the pope, certain that the pope also would be delighted to know this and that the Roman Catholic Church would immediately begin to correct its teaching.
This, of course, is not what happened. And perhaps Luther should not have been surprised—because it was, of course, the established religion of the day that killed Jesus. The Jewish leaders decided to kill him because they didn’t like the message that Jesus was preaching. They wanted to be in charge, they wanted to decide what was right and what was wrong. They wanted to decide who was in and who was out—and the people Jesus was inviting in weren’t the people they wanted to associate with.
Things hadn’t changed much in 1500 years because the church of Luther’s day commanded him to stop talking about all the things he said needed to be changed. When he refused, they tried to kill him. And so Luther, who had simply wanted the church to return to the teaching of God’s Word, found himself faced with a choice: Do what the pope commanded or do what Scripture commands.
He chose to follow Jesus—which is why we’re here today.
At the LCMC gathering earlier this month, we discussed the fact that throughout history, not even just over the past 2000 years, but even prior to that during the Old Testament era, a time of reformation has occurred about every 500 years. And over the past 2000 years, these times of reformation have really been times of revival—times of change. A time when the church gets rid of the clutter that’s been collected, clutter that gets in the way of following Jesus the way Scripture calls us to follow Him. Clutter that gets in the way of us even knowing the Jesus of the Bible.
A time when we remember that the church is a movement, not an institution. The Church was never intended to be just another religion—religions are about rules and ritual. 2000 years ago, God sent His only Son into the world to change everything. Jesus didn’t come to clean things up a little, to remind us of which rules were really important. Jesus came to bring a new creation—He came to invite us to follow Him, to be literally a part of Him. To be a part of His Body. He came to show us and teach us how to live.
500 years after Martin Luther, we’re in the midst of another reformation, a reformation that has been rejected by some in the church—a reformation that others aren’t even aware is occurring.
Because over the past 500 years, the message has changed even within the Lutheran Church, the part of the church that has always been known for its solid hold on the Word of God. Known for its adherence to Word Alone.
The world is very different today than it was 500 years ago and the current reformation is focused on different issues. While the issues are different, however, the root cause is the same as it was 500 years ago—we have failed to depend on God’s Word. We have failed to know God’s Word.
The prophet Isaiah wrote 2700 years ago, speaking to the Jewish people as God was exiling them to Babylon, “My people go into exile for lack of knowledge” (Isaiah 5:13). They had the knowledge available to them—but they had forgotten to teach God’s Word to their children, to their grandchildren. And so God’s chosen people had turned to rules created by man, they’d failed to worship the God of creation, the God of the Bible. And their world was destroyed. Destroyed for lack of knowledge.
2000 years ago, the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, “If someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough” (2 Corinthians 11:4).
Jesus had been gone for only a few years, and already people were failing to understand His teaching. The problem once again, was lack of knowledge—knowledge of who Jesus is and what He taught. Knowledge that we must have in order that we not be deceived. Paul says, “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3).
We’re easily deceived—this has been a problem since Adam and Eve. It will continue to be a problem until Jesus returns. The way to avoid this problem is to have the knowledge that is available to us only in God’s Word.
As we’ve talked about these chapters of John’s gospel that focus on the night before Jesus was betrayed, we’ve discovered that in His final words to His disciples, He’s focused on the importance of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus will send to be with His people after He ascends back up into heaven. He’s also focused on a new commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).
And now, in our gospel reading, we hear Jesus’ prayer on that night, a prayer in which we find two important things: first, the fact that He is praying for a people—a specific people. The people that are His. The “people whom you gave me out of the world” (John 17:6). The people who have received the words that Jesus gave them and the people who would receive His words.
He prayed for a people—His people. Not for individuals who would come to know Him. Not for individuals who would decide to follow Him. He prayed for a people—a people who would be together, a people who would love one another.
And He prayed that this people would keep God’s Word. In John 17:7, He says, “Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you.” “Now they know…” Now they have knowledge.
“For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you” John 17:8.
John 17:14 “I have given them your word.”
John 17:17 “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
Throughout this prayer, Jesus speaks of them, they—of a group of people. A group that He will call His Body, a group that is His Church.
One of the major problems of the 21st century is the fact that we have almost completely forgotten the importance of the Body. Even many of us who come regularly to worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ often see this as an optional part of our faith.
This happens because we have failed to really know God’s Word. Our truth has decayed—seriously decayed.
It is this lack of knowledge of God’s Word that is the root cause of the second major problem we face—the idea held by many that salvation comes however we want it to come. We have become a society that feels so entitled that it apparently doesn’t even occur to many that we might not go to heaven when we die. This is very much like the first century Jewish religion at the time when God sent His only beloved Son. First century Jewish leaders thought that they decided what truth was, they decided what was right and what was wrong. They decided who was in and who was out.
Then Jesus came and told them they were out.
Luther brought us back to the understanding that God always comes to us first through Scripture, never through some kind of spiritual experience that often had little connection to God’s Word. And yet for many of us in the 21st century, we believe that we don’t need God’s Word, that there are many other ways we can connect with Him and experience Him.
The truth has decayed.
We come to know God through His written Word in Holy Scripture, the Bible. We come to know God through the Holy Spirit that He has sent. We come to know God through Jesus, His Son.
This is what Jesus taught, this is what Jesus prayed to the Father to continue. Then Jesus prayed that, knowing the truth, we would go into the world and share the truth.
The church, the Body of Christ, matters because it is only in relationship to one another, to brothers and sisters in the faith, that we grow in our own faith, in our own relationship with Jesus. it’s pretty hard to love one another if you have no relationship with one another. When Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” He was talking to eleven men some of whom were related to one another, and some of whom weren’t. He wasn’t saying, “Love your family.” He was saying, “You’re the group that I brought together to do ministry together, to follow me together—love one another. And then go out and bring others into the group—and love them, too.”
“Love them—and because you love them, you’ll teach them all that I have taught you because everyone needs the truth. And if you love someone you want them to know the truth.”
How do we learn God’s Word? We do it best in community.
How do we worship God? In community. Because worship isn’t supposed to be about you. It’s about coming together to encourage one another, to help one another grow, to love one another even as we all love God together.
Gathering together for worship matters. :Where two or three are gathered, I will be there.”
We have lost this truth—and we need to get it back. It’s important. More important than I think most of us have ever even considered.
When I was in the sixth grade, I was sick for a whole year.
Estonia – is it important for us to go when many, if not most of the people who come to our camp are already Christian?
What might be different if we realized that we’re not just here to listen to a message together, we’re not just here to sing together, but we’re here to enjoy God together?
What might be different if we realized that we gather from a variety of places: some come feeling great, some are distracted; others are worried. Some are battling serious sin. Our lives are up and down in this broken world in which we live.
But we come from wherever we are and we remember that we have a great God. The Holy Spirit works in our midst and perhaps later prompts you to reach out to someone that you don’t even know is struggling. How many times have I heard stories of someone being powerfully touched by the Spirit during worship—or during a conversation before or after worship. During fellowship. As we do life together the way Jesus taught us to do life.
As we worship together, as we enjoy Jesus together, He waters our thirsty souls, He offers a banquet to our human souls—not for individual snacking but for corporate feasting.
As we worship together, we’re bound in ways we may not even understand by the tie of whom it is that we enjoy, whom it is that we worship.
The church isn’t perfect. It often appears to be broken beyond repair. The people who gather together aren’t perfect—every single one of us is a sinner in need of a Savior. But the church is the Body of Christ, created by Him for us to be at work using the gifts He provides through His Spirit to change the world. To show the world what it is to love one another, to show the world how much better life is when we love one another. To bring the truth, to show God’s love—and then to invite the lost to join us. To come and see, come and learn, come and know.