Download or listen to the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost/Reformation Sunday, “October 31” (Mark 10:46-52)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Obviously, October 31 means different things to different people. For many people, especially people with children, it means dressing your children up as various creatures or characters and taking them door-to-door so they can receive candy from strangers (exactly what we tell them not to do most of the time!). On the other hand, for some Christians, for some churches, Halloween is simply a glorification of the devil or witchcraft, and so they have various other events—which seem to me, at least, Halloween without calling it Halloween. But when it comes to the Church, what you allow your children to do or not do, whether you allow them to have candy or not, is not really relevant to the message at the heart of the Church’s proclamation. Because for hundreds of years, October 31 has been celebrated in the Church as the Eve of All Saints. November 1 has been called All Saints’ Day for hundreds of years, long before haunted houses or costumes. On that day the Church celebrates the free grace of God, that by the blood of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, He makes sinners into saints, unholy into holy. And going all the way back to Genesis, where it says “there was evening and morning, the first day,” and so on, both Jews and Christians have always celebrated festivals beginning at sundown the previous day. So Christmas Eve begins our celebration of Jesus’ birth, the Vigil of Easter begins our celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, and All Hallows’ Eve begins the celebration of All Saints.
For the past five hundred years or so, many Christians in the Western Church have celebrated October 31 as Reformation Day. For obvious reasons, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox do not celebrate Reformation Day, but for those who do, it marks the day when a German monk nailed some statements for religious debate onto a church door in Wittenberg. Luther knew that many people would be coming to the Castle Church on All Saints’ to see the large collection of religious relics, so on All Saints’ Eve, he posted his 95 Theses on repentance and indulgences. But even among those who mark Reformation Day on the Church calendar, there are differences of opinion about what should be done. Some celebrate it as the birthday of the Lutheran church, with large celebrations—the best ones include beer and bratwurst. Others, however, mark it almost as a day of mourning and repentance, because they view it as the day when the Lutherans began to separate themselves from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church—usually viewed as the Roman Catholic Church. But if we are going to celebrate Reformation Day, or Reformation Sunday, then it cannot be all rah-rah Luther, nor can it be the marking of an ecclesiastical crisis. If we are going to celebrate Reformation Sunday, it has to be about something at the heart of what the Church is, and that is the Gospel. Anything else, and this day’s about as worthless to the Church as the calories your children are going to consume on Wednesday night.
But even if we’re talking about the Gospel, people have different definitions of what the Gospel is. People preaching the Gospel may be talking about different things. So let me lay out the definition of the Scriptural, Reformation Gospel: the free, undeserved, unconditional gift of God in His Son Jesus Christ for sinners like you and me, in the middle of a broken creation. If the Gospel being preached is for someone other than a sinner; if it’s for someone looking for some good advice, or nice and sentimental words, or for a little help for people helping themselves, then it’s not the Scriptural, Reformation Gospel. If the Gospel being preached is about the love of God outside of Jesus—that is, if it’s about some way that God loves outside of Jesus’ death and resurrection, then it’s not the Scriptural, Reformation Gospel. If the Gospel being preached is about somebody other than God in Jesus doing something—that is, if you have to do something—then it’s not the Scriptural, Reformation Gospel. If you have to do something, then you can never have complete certainty about whether God is pleased with you. And the lack of certainty will be the death of faith. The Reformation was and is about destroying that burden of the Law from the backs of sinners. The Reformation was not about destroying the Church, or the Church’s liturgy, or the Church’s ritual—except if those things got in the way of the Gospel. It was about destroying the burden of the Law which continued to weigh down Christians.
So, Reformation Sunday is not really any different from any other Sunday, because every single Sunday in the Lord’s House, in the Church of Christ, must be about the preaching, the hearing, the believing of the free Gospel of Jesus Christ for sinners. If it’s not about that, it’s not Christian preaching. Today, you have the readings for Reformation Day printed on your insert, and I highly encourage you to read those on Wednesday. But today we heard the readings for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, specifically the reading from Mark’s Gospel, chapter 10. This Sunday, like every Sunday, is about the Gospel, and the healing of Bartimaeus is about as good a summary of the Reformation Gospel as there is.
Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem, where He is going to do what He told His disciples three times He would do: He is going to be delivered into the hands of sinners, suffer, die, and rise from the dead. On His way to Jerusalem, He passes through the city of Jericho, and some walls are going to come tumbling down. As Jesus is walking with His disciples and a large crowd, they pass a blind beggar by the side of the road. His name, Mark tells us, is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Mark gives us this detail either because Bartimaeus or his father were known to the congregations to whom Mark was writing, or because they are the eye-witness source of this account. Either way, Mark says he was a blind beggar: helpless, dependent, totally reliant on the mercy and charity of those passing by. But when he hears that Jesus is passing by, he calls out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” This is sort of a strange thing for him to say. “Son of David” is a loaded title, bringing together all of the hopes and desires of Israel. Bartimaeus is calling Jesus the promised Messiah, the one whom God would send to shepherd His people. But the crowd tells Bartimaeus to be quiet, much like the disciples rebuked the people bringing little children to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t have time for blind beggars. But Bartimaeus only shouts louder, “Son of David, mercy me!” And Jesus stops, and tells the crowd to call him. This crowd, which moments before was telling Bartimaeus to shut up, now says, “Take heart, get up, He calls you.” So Bartimaeus throws off his beggar’s cloak, and comes to Jesus, probably guided by those in the crowd. Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” “I just want to see again.” “You have it.” Your faith receives My Word, and you are saved. Go in peace. But Bartimaeus doesn’t go in peace; he stays with Jesus in peace. He immediately sees, and follows Jesus on the way. Before, he was a blind beggar sitting beside the way. Now he is a seeing beggar, following Jesus on His way to the cross. He hasn’t suddenly become rich; he’s still a beggar, but now he’s with the one he knows who gives mercy to blind beggars.
Blind beggars. Luther’s last words were written on a little scrap of paper and left on his bedside table in February of 1546. He wrote in German: “Wir sind Bettler.” And in Latin: “Hoc est verum.” We are beggars, this is true. We are all blind beggars. We are all Bartimaeus, waiting on the side of the road for someone merciful to pass by. We are all helpless, dependent, incapable of saving ourselves. And then Jesus comes by, and tells those gathered around Him: “Call him. Call her.” And someone does. “Take heart, rise, He calls you.” He calls you. Do not let anyone or anything keep you from the only mercy there is for sinners. Do not let anyone or anything keep you from Jesus. He not only has time for blind beggars, they are the only kind He’s interested in. He’s on the way to the cross, and He’s gathering a bunch of blind, helpless beggars to follow Him there. He’s taking sinners to the cross with Him, and giving them eyes to see Him in faith. He’s raising them from the dead. Here, in this Jericho, Jesus is stopping to give out His mercy to beggars. He is the mighty fortress within whom His Church hides. He is the one who keeps you steadfast in His Word. He is Church’s one foundation. He is the Rock on which the Church can and must stand.
If you’re in this place for something other than the Gospel, for a little self-help, or some nice religious words, or to put in your time with God, then this is going to get old pretty quickly. Because you’re going to hear essentially the same thing every single week. But if you’re here because it’s all you can do to cry out with all the saints, “Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy,” then this is the place for you. There is mercy for beggars here. There is a place behind Jesus for every single sinner, including you. He is leading His Church through death and into life, and His Gospel is free for the taking. This is the only thing the Church has to offer sinners that cannot be gotten anywhere else. This is the Gospel of the Reformation. May it always be preached, heard, and believed in the congregations of the one, holy, catholic, Church.
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, 10/27/12