Being Saved by Grace is Just the Beginning! A Sermon by the Rev. Nancy Vogele, delivered on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

This sermon was delivered on Sunday, October 29, 2017, the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, by the Rev. Nancy Vogele at Our Savior Lutheran Church and Campus Ministry – Hanover, NH.  The gospel reading was John 8:31-36

Let me begin with a few preliminary notes:

First, a HUGE “thank you” to all of you who made this celebration possible.  Who practiced and practiced and practiced so our music is glorious. Who organized our luncheon and all who have brought food to share – and bread … and beer.  A huge “thank you” to all who helped organize our numerous Reformation events, too.  All of it brings us to this day. It is all God’s work and God needs our hands to make it visible.  Thank you for making God’s work and grace and love visible.

It is a bit daunting as an Episcopal priest to be preaching on Reformation Sunday and not just any Reformation Sunday!  I have read and read about the Reformation and this Sunday observance and I even collected a bunch of reformation themed phrases as inspiration.  Phrases like: “Always reforming.” “Looking Back and Called Forward.”  “Freed and Renewed in Christ”  “500 years of God’s Grace in Action.”  “Protest” and “Reform”.  And yet, even with all these inspiring phrases, I was drawing a blank on how to focus this sermon.

And then I received an email this past week from a student writing for the Dartmouth Review.  He wrote,

“Dear Pastor Vogele,

I am a contributor to The Dartmouth Review independent newspaper, and I’m writing an article for next week’s issue about the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. I was hoping that you may be available for comment on the importance of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation to your Lutheran faith and the legacy of Martin Luther within your denomination. The Lutheran Church and Student Center is an important Protestant community on campus, and it would be great to get your input.”

In a follow up email, he sent me some questions to answer:

“1. What is the significance of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg and the symbolic start of the Protestant Reformation to your community?

“2. What is the personal significance of Martin Luther to your Lutheran faith?

“3. What is his specific legacy within your church?

“4. How are you commemorating this major anniversary? Rev. Collins from St. Thomas also recommended I ask you about the Reformation beer.”

I just want you to know that I did invite him to worship with us this morning, but he is visiting his family this weekend so couldn’t come.  He did add, “I hope you and your congregation have a wonderful and meaningful worship and celebration…

Now, I don’t have a “Lutheran” faith – not because I’m Episcopalian but because I feel that our faith – whether we are Lutheran or Episcopalian or Congregationalist or Roman Catholic – our faith is Christian.  I have a Christian faith that leans Episcopalian … but I have to admit that thanks to serving among this congregation, my faith is leaning a little more Lutheran!

Or perhaps, better put, those aspects of faith that were so important to Luther and still are to this congregation today have begun to wake up in me more fully.  So, on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I want to tell you what you have taught me about the gift of leaning Lutheran.

Before attending Our Savior, my understanding of Lutheranism was that Lutherans sang a lot during worship – lots of hymns and lots of the service itself was sung. I still find that true and especially on a day like today!  The gift of music and singing is a real gift.  And all of you who make it possible are so precious. You give us so much and enable us to join in. Thank you.

Years ago, a Muslim student was asked why he chanted the Qu’ran instead of just reading it and the student responded, “we believe that when we sing, we pray twice.”  Your singing sure depends my worship experience as I trust it does for everyone else, too.

One thing I had a pretty hard time with when I started coming to Our Savior and especially when I started leading services was beginning every service with confession.  Us Episcopalians have to warm up to it and we slip it in after the prayers and omit it altogether during the Easter season.

I really didn’t like beginning the service every time with the confession.  It felt like such a “Debbie Downer.”  But now I realize a core Lutheran truth is being expressed in starting each worship service with confession – and that truth is we sin, we’re sinner – we cut others off while driving, we think unkind thoughts towards others, we say unkind things, we are selfish.  We lie. We cheat. We don’t always do what we know we need to do.  We sin.

But that doesn’t mean we grovel in it.  No we just honestly acknowledge it and sincerely ask God for forgiveness so that we can get on with worship and with our lives.  I appreciate that much more now and starting the service with confession no longer feels like a downer – it just feels honest.

I have also come to realize more fully that “Amazing Grace” is more than a folk hymn.  It is the core of God’s attitude toward all of his creation.  And God’s grace is amazing, isn’t it?  There is no way we can, on our own, be in a right relationship with God.  It is God – reaching out to us – that makes this possible.  God graciously reaching out again and again and again.  And for us Christians, it is primarily God’s reaching out to us in love in Christ Jesus. This is what sets us free – not anything we do, no matter how good the work is. In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus said, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

We do “good works” therefore not to gain favor with God but because God has shown his favor towards us and set us free – indeed.  As Kirk said a few weeks ago in his Temple Talk, “Since we are saved by grace through faith, we are freed from slavishly performing works in hopes that the scale of our sins and our works balances toward God’s favor. We are now free to perform works with vigor – and joy.”

The joy comes from realizing just how amazing God’s grace is.  This joy can be the source of all that we do if we never take for granted God’s incredible love and grace towards us.  It has been so good, so invigorating to be in a congregation where this grace is palpable.  Thank you.

The biggest “aha” for me since becoming your Transitional Pastor is directly related to this celebration of the Reformation.  It’s what I am calling “the reformation before the Reformation.” And this is not my idea.

In the minds of many, the Reformation began not when Martin Luther affixed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door, but when he had that amazing “aha!” which he referred to as his “Tower Experience.”

Luther was studying Romans 1:17 in his study in the tower of his monastery in Wittenberg.  He was really struggling with the phrase, “the righteousness of God”.  It terrified him because he knew that he was an unrighteous sinner who fell far short of God’s righteous demands.  In his tower room, he struggled for hours and hours over this phrase which he said he hated.

Luther wrote,  I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law…, without having God add pain to pain … by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.” 

But here’s the thing, he didn’t close his books and walk away.  No, he stayed in the struggle:

“I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.”

“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. … Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.”

“And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise. (LW 34:336-337)

In many evangelical churches, Luther’s “aha” – his born again experience –  would be the end of it.  But for Lutherans, being saved by grace is just the beginning!

There would have been no Protestant Reformation without Luther first having a personal reformation.  And that would never have happened had he not stayed in his struggle until it produced its fruit.  I am reminded of St. Augustine’s quote, “That which is sought with more difficulty is discovered with more pleasure.” (On Christian Doctrine).

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus declares, “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”  I have heard many a preacher add, “but first it’s gonna hurt like heck!”

Like Luther, we have our own struggles with understanding our faith.  Unfortunately, many of us grow weary and lose heart and so we miss the gate to paradise – for ourselves and for others – because we don’t stay in the struggle until we are given that “aha” moment that transforms everything.

And if we are committed to justice in this world, without a personal reformation we are left with acting for good on our own strengthen and our own wisdom.  And we simply cannot do it on our own.  It is too difficult.  We need God’s strength and God’s wisdom and that only comes through faith – a faith that – like Luther’s –is the product of having struggled mightily and therefore been tested.  Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “Test everything.  Host fast to that which is good.”  That’s what Luther did in his tower room and look what it produced.

Luther’s struggle led to his own personal reformation which found outward expression in the Protestant Reformation and to countless other reform movements in history since. Think about it!  The Abolitionist movement.  The civil rights movement.  Women’s suffrage.  And so many acts of courage and justice that are known to the direct participants and God alone.

It is a continual, ongoing reformation – within and without.  For the Kingdom has not yet come on earth as in heaven.  And so our work is not done.  Thank God we do not have to do it alone or in our own strength alone.

As Luther put it in the recounting of his Tower Experience, and I think from which we get the phrase “God’s Work. Our Hands.”  – he wrote that “the work of God [is] what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.”  All of it, God working in and through us so that nothing less than God’s Kingdom may come a bit more on earth as it is in heaven.

It is a Reformation begun 500 years ago that we are still living into to this day and for which we celebrate and give God our heartfelt thanks.  Even and perhaps especially this one whose Christian faith, thanks to you, now leans a bit more Lutheran than before.  Amen.

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