Listen to it:
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A lot of things have changed since 1517. 493 years ago today, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, Germany. 95 statements for theological debate, on the nature of repentance. We often mark the beginning of the Reformation from that date, so we call it Reformation Day. But a lot has changed since that day in 1517. Technology, the ease of transportation, scientific progress. Some people even say the Reformation is over, that’s how much things have changed. I wonder whether Luther would recognize the world in which we live, compared to the world in which he lived. What would he do with an iPad? For that matter, I have 56 volumes of Luther’s works in English on my shelf; he wrote a lot more in German. What would he have been able to do with a computer, or even a typewriter? I don’t know whether Luther would recognize this world, but the bigger question for us today is whether he would recognize this church? Would he know this church as his church? I’m not talking about the language, or the name on the board, or our tradition, or how long we’ve been here. In fact, there is only one thing by which Luther would know this church as his own: and that is the eternal Gospel proclaimed in Revelation 14.
February 22, 1546. Four days after Luther’s death, Johannes Bugenhagen, Luther’s pastor, Luther’s confessor, and Luther’s friend, preached Luther’s funeral sermon. In that sermon, he said that Luther’s enemies and the enemies of the Gospel shouldn’t rejoiced too loudly or long, because even though Luther was dead, “but the mighty, blessed, godly doctrine of this precious man still lives most powerfully” (Bugenhagen’s funeral sermon, http://bit.ly/a5rDPW). And he went on to say that Luther was, without a doubt, the angel of whom is spoken in Revelation 14, with the eternal Gospel to proclaim to all the inhabitants of the world, to every nation and tribe and language and people (Revelation 14:6). Which sounds strange to us, even arrogant. I mean, who would dare say that Luther is prophesied in the book of Revelation? But even if Bugenhagen really believed it, that is not his main point. “Angel” in Greek is simply “messenger,” like the “angels” of the seven churches are their messengers, that is, their pastors. The point is that Luther is a messenger, like all God’s messengers, who existed to preach the same eternal Gospel that is preached in the Church at all times. The eternal message of Law and Gospel, “fear God and give Him glory” (14:7). Fear God, because you are a sinner. Because the Law of God condemns each of us, that we are all lost and damned sinners, who deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment. That even our best works are filthy and impure. The Law tears every mask from sinners, even the masks of our own piety. It shows us that all in our religion, in our moral striving, we seek not God but ourselves (Hermann Sasse, The Lonely Way, vol. 1, 327). Fear God because He is a consuming fire, a jealous God, in whose Presence no sinner can stand and live. We are as Luther’s last written words say. “Wir sind Bettler; hoc est verum.” We are beggars, that is true. We have no claim whatsoever on God and His mercy. But give Him the glory, that which rightfully belongs to Him: that His salvation has come. I don’t know if Luther is the angel in Revelation 14, but I know that Jesus is the angel in Revelation 18:1, who comes down from heaven, with great authority, and whose glory lightens the earth. Read John 1 if you don’t believe me: Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is the light of the world, which lightens everyone. We have seen His glory, the glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:9, 14). As the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders sing to Christ in Revelation 5: “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because You were slain and You purchased for God by Your blood [people] from every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9). The pure Gospel that Christ has done everything, that His salvation is complete, that He who knew no sin became sin for you, so that you would become the righteousness of God. And that eternal Gospel is nothing other than Jesus Christ proclaimed and delivered. It is the Gospel of which Jesus spoke: “This Gospel of the Reign of God will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). That “it stands written for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, in order that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached in His Name to every nation, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). That is the eternal Gospel that gave birth to the Church, fed her, nourished her, sustained her. Even in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, for which Luther had very few kind words, even as much as he condemned her abuses, he knew the Church of Christ remained. How? Because Sunday after Sunday, and on every festival day, Luther heard the words: “This is My Body, this is My Blood, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” Even though it was obscured and hidden, and the Blood wasn’t even given out, the words of that eternal Gospel remained: “Christ’s Body and Blood, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.” The Gospel doesn’t get any clearer or purer than that: “All Jesus’ work, given to and for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.” And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation.
The question for us is not whether that eternal Gospel has changed, but whether we have changed, and departed from it. Do we still live by the bread of heaven, Jesus Christ alone? Do we know the pure Gospel with no addition of our works at all? Do we hear it and believe it, do we hunger and thirst for a righteousness not our own? And if we know it, is it a living and active faith? Is it the living tradition of the dead, or the dead tradition of the living? Is it just words without content? The Reformation was not about Martin Luther; it was not about Germany; it was not about some human right to read the Scriptures in their own languages; it was not even about the Roman Catholic Church. It was about the Gospel, and if the Church continues to be reformed, it cannot be about anything other than the Gospel. Without the Gospel, the Church is nothing, let alone the Church of Christ. But if the Gospel is still preached and heard and believed, then Christ is actually here, closer to us than to the tax collectors and sinners with whom He ate.
No matter how much has changed in culture, technology, ease of travel, or science, nothing has changed for the Church. We are the living Body of the eternal Gospel, and we need that life-giving food as much today as in 1517. Why? I was at the banquet for the Women’s Pregnancy Center in Grand Forks, and there were seven women sitting in front. They went down the table, and each of them said words like this: “I killed my child.” “I murdered my baby.” “I took the life of my unborn child.” They said, how can God forgive me for this? They said, there is an unsatisfied justice, because my baby is dead and I walk free. So they hurt themselves, they abused their bodies with alcohol and drugs and sex, trying to punish themselves for what they had done. But they could not get rid of their sin. Until they heard the free Gospel, that “for us men and for our salvation, [Christ] came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered, and was buried, and the third day He rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven and sits and the right hand of God and from there He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” That the justice for their sin had been satisfied by Christ, by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who was slain and had purchased them by His blood. For their sake, we need the Gospel. For the sake of all who suffer with guilt and shame and that sense of unsatisfied justice. We need the eternal Gospel; not only to speak it before kings and emperors, but to our children, to teach them the fear of the Lord, to tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever. “In these last days of great distress, grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness, that we keep pure till life is spent Your holy Word and Sacrament” (LSB 585:2). O Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word, that we live and die in the faith that the riches of Christ’s means of grace are inexhaustible: the Gospel in sermon and absolution, in Holy Baptism and the Holy Supper—inexhaustible for all beggars (Sasse, “Luther’s Legacy to Christianity,” The Lonely Way, vol. 2, 177).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/30/10