Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Bells played an important role in medieval life across much of Europe, so it’s not surprising that the reformer Martin Luther would mention bells frequently in his writings. In a lecture on the Book of Numbers, he likened bells to the warning trumpets of the Old Testament, “We, too, have certain trumpet calls when the enemy is near or when fire rages in the city. The prophet, therefore, is ordering that the trumpets sound to call together the entire people, as if to say: “Cry out, cry out, summon all the people, ring all the bells!” At the death of the Elector John, he wrote, “The ringing of bells sounds different than usual when one knows that the deceased is somebody one loves.” Even in his own last days, Luther described in a letter to his wife Katherine von Bora, the wonder of winter and the merriment produced by bells. “Otherwise the young lords are happy, and ride around together in sleighs decorated with fools bells, as do the young ladies; they all visit each other in carnival masks, and are of good cheer.”
There was, however, a sound of ringing which Luther did not like. Throughout Saxony, peddlers of indulgences were crying out, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” and across the land faithful believers, both young and old, were eagerly buying the official papers issued by the church to release their loved ones from the torments of purgatory. Luther actually mentions this sound, in a less than a positive construct, in the 95 Theses he posted on the University Church in Wittenberg “As the money clinks into the money chest, so rises greed and avarice.”
Posting a notice on a church door in Luther’s Wittenberg was not a dramatic event. Professors and students nailed things to the doors of the university church all the time. It was the local bulletin board and scholarly debates were one of the common notices posted. But neither Luther nor his students knew how his invitation to a scholarly, theological debate would ring out and echo across Europe. It was a debate that would have legal, social, religious, and political overtones. Did forgiveness and salvation come from God, or was it the result of human action?
Within in a generation, scores of Protestant reformers emerged across Europe and began to write their own theses. Many of those churches still exist today- and others have emerged from them. And for the most part, whether in Europe or here America, or anywhere else in the world, the Protestant theology has changed little since the 16th century. What you hear on most Christian radio, or what you see on most Christian television, what you see in most Christian churches is the same. They all understand faith and salvation in the same way. To their credit, they all acknowledge the power that sin has over people. They all understand that God has to do something to save them. And that something is Jesus. But they all wrestle with the question, “What is our own human role in that process?”
So what separates and distinguishes Lutheran from other Protestant Christians? After 500 years, do we still have a unique voice? As Luther once said, does, “Every bell have its own unique voice and tone?”
My friends, together with our confirmand Ben Mechels, I would like to explore with you again, our unique understanding of God’s grace, which is the heart of Lutheranism.
Luther wasn’t suggesting in his invitation for a theological debate on the 95 Theses that he had discovered something new. Rather, he was arguing an interpretation of God’s grace drawn from the scriptures themselves, and most notably from the Book of Romans. He was defending a position that he had uncovered in the writings and in the traditions of the Church.
Our confirmand Ben Mechels captures Luther’s historical confession in his understanding of the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator and heaven and earth. What this means to me is I believe that God is the one and only god, and he is all-knowing and all-powerful. Growing up in the church, I was taught that God was the creator of all things and he has given to us everything that we have. I was also taught that we are to honor, respect and fear him, for all that he is.
But Luther also discovered something in the scriptures which he was not expecting. It was the loving heart of God. Righteousness is God’s very nature. In St. Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome, where Jews and Gentiles were fighting over who was more righteous or so to say in a right relationship with God, who could be saved and what they needed to do to be assured of the forgiveness of their sin, Luther discovered a profound scriptural truth. He read that there is nothing that we can do to earn God’s forgiveness. Nothing. It is God’s free gift to us. We can simply trust his promise.
Ben captures Luther’s understanding in his own explanation to the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord. What this means to me is I believe Jesus Christ is the true God, who suffered for us dying for the forgiveness of human sin, and that he was a martyr for my wrong doings. I also believe that Jesus Christ was a teacher of God, and spent his life in the service of others. In my religious upbringing I was taught that Jesus Christ loves everyone and that he lived without sin. He is important to my faith because of his teachings, that no matter how hard I try to do good deeds and live as Jesus lived, I cannot earn eternal life. I can only hope to live by his example and then rely upon his mercy and forgiveness to be granted a place in heaven. Jesus also teaches that it is not enough to realize what you have done, but also to realize what you have left undone. These important lessons are why only through Christ, our Lord, can we find eternal salvation.
Trusting in God’s promise in Jesus Christ, and what he has done through his death and resurrection saves us. Period. It has nothing to do with our trying harder, obeying the ten commandments, or even working to be better than our neighbor. How can you and I be assured of this gift of forgiveness and salvation? It is because of what God has done.
Regretfully, many Protestants today can make their neighbor’s feel just as uncertain as in the medieval church of the 16th Century. They may not speak of purgatory, or eternal judgment, but they make their listeners fearful just the same. How do you know you’ve really found Jesus, or that he has found you? Frankly it doesn’t whether they ask, “Did you do enough penance,” or “Buy enough indulgences?” Or if they ask, “Have you truly turned your life around? Confessed your sins. Been Born again. Given Your heart to Jesus?” All these innocent and curious questions are meant to make you doubt your faith and to doubt God’s love and grace. They are meant to make you look inside of yourself, and to make you question what you can do about it. Oddly, as much as they speak of Jesus as their Savior, salvation is largely up to them, their deeds and their decision. They speak of God’s grace in Jesus Christ as something they alone can maneuver and control.
That is perhaps, the one aspect that truly captures and distinguishes the Lutheran tradition. Faith itself is a mysterious gift of God. There are many things that we cannot do, band so by faith we simply open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit, so that it can play its part, and allow us to trust in what God has done. As Ben writes.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, and the holy Christian church. What this means to me, is I believe that I cannot know the word of God or the teachings of Jesus Christ, without the Holy Spirit guiding me in my faith. I was taught that the Holy Spirit allows me to come to God and be enlightened of his presence and his greatness. Only with the Holy Spirit can I find my way to God, and understand the meaning of his importance to me.
My friends, ultimately that’s what the Reformation is all about. It’s not about Luther, or the Catholic Church, or the sale of indulgences, or works righteousness. It’s not about the Small Catechism or German hymns. The Reformation is about what God had been doing all along. He sent his son the relationship right between himself and creation. He sent his son Jesus to do what you and I cannot do. In Jesus’ dying, and rising, and in his giving of himself, he gives you and me the certainty and confidence, that because he lives, you and I shall dwell with God in his eternal kingdom forever, and that we can enjoy peace with him, here and now. That is our hope and our confidence, and there is nothing in all creation that can take that gift away from us. It’s not up to you to do. Our Lord has already done it and has promised it to you. That is the gospel, and as Luther would write in his 95 Theses, “the gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies.” Today, with the dedication of our four bells we are doing our very best at Lake of the Isles. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.