What's The Reformation All About Anyway?

Rev. Michael Keith

It's October. The weather turns a little cooler or a lot cooler, depending on where you live. On the farms the harvest is often still in full swing. It is the month that Thanksgiving is properly celebrated. (you Americans are always a month behind on that.) In October the routines of life have returned after the summer break and pumpkin spice is everywhere! And in the Lutheran Church it's the time of year when we celebrate the Reformation. In fact, my grade 8 class that I teach each morning will be studying the Reformation and preparing a research paper for the entire month of October. I make a pretty big deal of it.

So, the Reformation is all about Martin Luther and his friends and how they stuck it to the man, right? How the little guy stood up to the big, bad, mean Roman Catholic Church, right? How Luther and his cronies went toe to toe with the Pope and didn't blink, right? This time of year Lutherans pound on their chest and roar, "Here I stand!"

And there is some good to this. We ought to know our history. We need to know where we came from. We need to know as Lutherans what we believe and why we believe it. This is essential. We need to be aware of the struggles and battles of the past. We need to have the same boldness that remains faithful to Jesus and what He has revealed to us through the Word of God, no matter the consequences.

However, there is a danger here. We can make the Reformation about Martin Luther and how wonderful he was. We can make it about describing the story of all the political intrigue that surrounded those important events. We can make the Reformation about how Lutherans are better than Roman Catholics and the Calvinists and the Zwinglians and, well, pretty much anybody else. We can make the Reformation a triumphant retelling of our Reformation superheroes that defeated the arch-villain Roman Catholic Church and the Pope for us and then we as good Lutherans can go out like vigilantes in our time and imitate them looking for more villains to vanquish. We can stand up tall and pray: "I thank God that I am not like those Roman Catholics and evangelicals. I studied the catechism, I sing 'A Mighty Fortress,' I don't pray to the Virgin Mary." But if we do that we miss the point. You see, the Reformation is not really about Martin Luther and how wonderful we Lutherans are. It's about Jesus.

You have been set free from the burdens of the Law. You have been set free from the punishments of your sin. You have been set free from death and hell. You have been set free and have been given new life. Jesus has set you free. "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36). Jesus has never left or forsaken His Church. To say that the Gospel had vanished from the Church before the Reformation is the same as saying that Jesus had left His Church and this is false. Jesus promised to be with His Church until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). It is true that the Gospel had become unclear. It had become entangled with man-made rules and regulations and traditions. The Gospel had become muted. The Gospel had become very hard to hear with all the other "noise" that surrounded it. It is also true that the Church had gotten her hands into the things of this world and confused the right hand kingdom with the left—leading to disastrous results. But Jesus was still there in His Church. He worked through the people of that time, including Martin Luther, to chip away at that which had obscured the Gospel so that the Gospel would be proclaimed more clearly. During this time Jesus worked through the people in order that the Gospel would be the center of the proclamation of the Church so that all would be comforted in knowing that we are saved by Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.

So, while we ought to remember Martin Luther and the other faithful people—both clergy and laypeople, who had a hand in the Reformation—we above all need to recognize on Reformation Day that the focus is to be on Jesus. It's not a time to throw a parade for Luther; it's not a time to pat ourselves on our backs and "tsk tsk" the non-Lutherans around us. It's a time to gratefully receive the gifts Jesus brings through His Word and Sacraments: forgiveness, life, and salvation. To remember your baptism and make the sign of the holy cross. To confess your sins and hear Holy Absolution pronounced to you as if it was Jesus speaking to you because it is! To kneel at the altar and receive the very Body and Blood of Jesus. To rejoice that Jesus will never leave His Church and this can give us confidence even as we face struggles in the Church in our day. To respond with thanksgiving and praise because you have been set free in Jesus.

So, when you hear the Gospel reading from John 8 appointed for Reformation Sunday telling you that you are free in Jesus don't be filled with pride and arrogance and look down on others who are not Lutherans. Instead, give thanks for those who have gone before you and who have delivered to you the Good News that you are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. Humbly receive this inheritance. Rejoice in it. Draw comfort from this great Good News. But above all on Reformation Day, give thanks to Jesus.

Rev. Michael Keith serves as pastor at St. Matthew Lutheran Church and SML Christian Academy in Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada.

Created: October 19th, 2016