"REFORMATION" - Psalm 100 & Romans 3:21-27

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Texts: Psalm 100; Romans 3:21-27


            The famous comedian George Burns once said that the real secret to a great sermon is to have a good beginning,  . . . and a good ending, . .  . and to have the two as close together as possible.

            I will try to do that today.

But we have a big subject – REFORMATION.

            Today is Reformation Sunday; it is always the last Sunday in October. This year, the Reformation deserves special attention because we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

The Reformation gets counted from that day in 1517 when Martin Luther attached to the doors of the chapel at Wittenberg University his 95 Theses – they were “protestations” against the church. Those 95 “protestations” gave focus and energy to the Protestant Reformation, which brought into being the many Protestant denominations - the Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, and others. For 500 years, these faithful Christian communities have served God alongside the continuing Roman Catholic Church.

If you like genealogy, we have a wonderful family tree. Our family tree begins with God – God calling Abraham and Sarah and his epic family of covenant people. God’s people emerge in the stories of the Bible, through Genesis, then through Moses and the Promised Land, through prophets and kings, through Jesus and his disciples, through Paul and the early church. This is our lineage. The church came into being as God claimed, called, and maintained a covenant people to promote God’s presence and reign in the world.

The gospel of God’s love, and Christian communities, grew and spread first through the region of the Mediterranean. The church emerged as a factor in society, a place where people learned about God, and learned to serve God. In the history of the civilizations developing and changing, the church played a significant role, growing and changing along with society. We can see so often through our history these good seasons and bad seasons for both civilization and church.

By the beginning of the 16th century, especially in Europe, many factors were contributing to unrest in the world. Changing economic and social factors contributed to the Reformation with peasants revolting against the oppressive structures of medieval society. The printing press had also come into being, which brought change to all aspects of life. Together, these things brought about the Renaissance – bringing new ways to think about humanity, affecting science and culture, philosophy and religion, music and the arts. All these forces created a season of change in the world and renewal in the church. Martin Luther attached his 95 Theses to the door in Wittenburg in 1517 – but so many other factors were at work. In fact, many historians look back at history and argue that major changes seem to happen in civilization every 500 years.  Indeed, we seem to be in the midst of another Reformation in these days.

So this subject deserves our attention. What was happening in 1517? What was God doing? What can we learn from this today?

The key text from Scripture that inspired Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses comes from Romans, chapter 3. Listen:

21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Here is the key phrase – “we are justified by God’s grace as a gift.” This was the fantastic “WOW” for Luther – the insight that changed his own life, and changed the church forever.

We are made right be God, not by anything we do, but by the simple grace and love of God that comes as a gift, and covers us.

Think about this: Martin Luther was a devoted Augustinian monk. He had given his life over to serving God, to teaching God’s ways, to living faithfully. Yet Luther was haunted – truly haunted - by the sense that, despite all his devotion, all his acts of faithfulness, all his commitments, he did not feel worthy of God’s love, or confident of God’s presence and care. Do you know anything about that?

Then add to Luther’s anxiety and uncertainty all that was happening in the larger church: by the 16th century, the church was selling “indulgences;” the church was contributing to people’s anxiety about God. The only way to secure your sense of salvation, to feel confident of Christ’s love and presence, was to buy it, purchase it from the church. The larger church, in order to maintain its power, its buildings and structures in society, was selling forgiveness. God’s grace was not free; it had to be earned, or purchased.

So, . . . the church was ripe for Reformation.

And Martin Luther seized on this text from Romans, which is so very clear: “we are justified by grace through faith apart from works of the law.” It is not our doing; it is God’s doing. It is not our initiative and effort; it is God’s initiative and grace. It is a gift we receive. It is good news - the very essence of the gospel!

This text became the centerpiece of the Reformation.

In his 95 Theses, Luther demanded that we look past the church, past the pope, past the indulgences that had become so prominent, to the good news of God in Scripture. God’s grace comes first. God’s love covers us.

This is a really good word for me, and for all of us, today. Life can quickly get complicated and even overwhelming. Circumstances often do NOT go as we had anticipated. God gets blocked out as with Luther. God gets mis-understood or forgotten, as can happen through the ages. Then, things happen with our parents that perplex us and give us heartache. Things happen with our children that break our hearts or change the direction of our lives. Things happen at work, or in the community, that keep us up at night. People disappoint us; problems overwhelm us. What do we do? What can we do?

Perhaps the greatest theme of the Reformation is that God’s love covers us. God’s grace claims us. The Christian life is NOT about what we have to do or what we have done. It is always about God – what God has done in Jesus Christ, and how God’s grace covers us.  It is not our doing; it is the free gift of God. This is the most critical message of Romans 3 and the Reformation. The Christian life is about being open to God’s love, being covered with God’s promises, no matter what happens to us. The Christian life is in knowing we are always held by God’s care regardless of life’s heartaches. In all of the swirl and confusion of life, Luther’s great contribution to the church is his assertion of the gospel. We cannot earn or buy our way into God’s loving care. God’s care and love cover us forever.

Here is how theologian and writer, Roberta Bondi puts it: “Before anything else, above all else, beyond all else, God loves us. God loves us extravagantly, ridiculously, without limit or condition. God is in love with us; God is besotted with us. God yearns for us. God does not love us “in spite of who we are,” or “for whom God knows we can become,” God loves us hopelessly as mothers love their babies, and as tiny babies love everybody who smiles at them. God loves US, the very people we are; and not only that, but even against what we ourselves sometimes find plausible. God likes us.” (see R. Bondi, Ordinary Time)

This good news feels especially pertinent in these days. Even in a culture trying to right the wrongs of sexual harassment, trying to piece together lives shattered gun violence, God is present and at work. Even in a world trying to figure out terror, and violence that leaves so many refugees, and our prayers that we can avoid nuclear war with North Korea, and more, God’s grace holds us and holds the world.

And, even when our hearts are filled with the personal issues and heartaches that we can name - this promise of God’s love – a foundation of the Reformation – remains so critical to our lives.  God loves us extravagantly, ridiculously, without limit or condition.

Then, if we are so covered by God’s grace and love, we are to live by faith. As the text says, God’s grace becomes “effective through faith.”

 One of the key phrases of the Reformation was sola fides – only faith. What might that mean, both then and now? It is faith, not works. It is faith, not some formula that we have to follow.

Unfortunately, this word FAITH here – sola fides – has too often been understood as ascribing to a set of beliefs, or believing certain statements to be true. Faith may include learning and knowing important beliefs. But when Romans, and Martin Luther, say we are “justified by grace,” and it is made “effective through faith,” what Luther realized, and what can help all of us, is in thinking about faith, less as a set of beliefs we affirm, and more as abiding TRUST in God. 

Have you ever taught a child to swim? Most of us have. If we recall that experience, we know that the biggest hurdle is getting the child to relax in the water. “Don’t fret and fight with the water – relax.” Why do we say that? Because part of swimming is floating. We float in the water.

Faith is trusting in the buoyancy of God! Can you do that? Faith is trusting in the sea of God’s love. God loves us from the beginning, forgives and heals our iniquities, holds us through all things. It is not about what we do. It is about Whom we trust. We trust in God who never lets us go. (see M. Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 31)

So, 1) we keep our focus on God – and 2) we keep nurturing a TRUST in God’s abiding care. These are essential tenets of the Reformation. We keep looking to God, and we keep striving to TRUST God, especially in these days.

Then there is one more piece that deserves our careful attention today.  We are justified by grace – thanks be to God! We live by faith – trusting God. And then we know we SERVE God with our lives, with everything about our lives.

One of our Reformation catechisms reminds us – the primary purpose – the chief end - in life is “to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Justified by God’s grace – made right with God – it is all God’s doing – and trusting God – living in the buoyancy of God’s love – means to devote our lives to God’s work in the world.

Our bulletin reminds us that WE ARE ALL MINISTERS. We all know about God’s love and grace, and seeking to trust God with all things, we all strive to share God’s love, be God’s people in the world.

In another place in Paul’s letters, he asks us: “what are we going to do with all that we have been given?” God’s grace, freely given, leads to gratitude, which leads to serving God in the world as ministers – all of us. God’s abiding love covers us in all things, which allows us to float in God’s care, AND which absolutely expects us to serve God with all we have and all we are. We cannot we Christian in name only – the Christian life means our lives are about the love and peace of Jesus. The Christian life means we seek to devote our lives, our gifts, our time, our talents to God’s work in the world. We do this NOT in order to gain anything from God. We do this BECAUSE we are claimed by God and sent by God to bear light and work for peace in God’s world.

Presbyterians – part of the second generation of reformers – have a great phrase: “we are elected to service as well as salvation.”

So any Reformation sermon becomes a Stewardship sermon too. We have been justified by grace – it is all God’s doing – and it plays out in us as we live by faith – trusting our lives to God’s amazing promises and care – and serving God in the world with our daily lives – glorifying God and enjoying God forever.  We are called to offer to God all we have and all we are, always – our time, talents, and treasures in response!

As the Psalm 100 says: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord; . . . worship and serve the Lord with gladness. . . . the Lord is God; God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

One Sunday a cowboy went to church ...  When he entered, he saw that he and the preacher were the only ones present. 

The preacher asked the cowboy if he wanted him to go ahead and preach. 

The cowboy said, "I'm not too smart, but if I went to feed my cattle and only one showed up, I'd feed him." 

So the minister began his sermon. One hour passed, then two hours, then two-and-a-half hours. The preacher finally finished and came down to ask the cowboy how he liked the sermon. 

The cowboy answered slowly, "Well, I'm not very smart, but if I went to feed my cattle and only one showed up, I sure wouldn't feed him all the hay."

We have not addressed everything about the Reformation – “all the hay.” But the Reformation confirms for us the good news of God – God loves us, claims us, makes all things right with God. And we are to live by faith – trusting in God’s abiding care. And we strive to serve God with our lives – everyday – all of us – sharing and serving, giving and going toward the wonderful reign of God in Christ our Lord. And we are reformed, and always reforming – striving to be God’s faithful disciples forever. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: Move in our midst, O God, with your loving, reforming ways. We seek to trust and serve Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on October 29, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.


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