A Reformation Sunday Sermon
October 29, 2017
There is an old Hungarian proverb that goes: “If Lyra had not lyricized, Luther would not have danced.”
You see, 500 years ago, on October 31st, a Monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed a call for debate on the door of the church in Wittenburg.
He titled the document: “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” We know it better today as the 95 Theses.
And typically, in honor of this date, the Reformed Church celebrates this event as the beginning of the Reformation. In fact, in 1717, on the Bicentennial of this event, a group of Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian churches declared the last Sunday in October to be “Reformation Sunday.” And, as they say, “The rest is history.”
But, as others say, “Now for the rest of the story.”
You see, the Reformation in Europe did not really begin with Luther. Luther’s role was like that of a match or a spark that set off a powder keg that exploded across the western world. But the powder keg was already there…placed there by men like Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus… and like Nicholas of Lyra.
But before we talk about these pre-Reformers, I want to call your attention to Matthew 10:28:
“Do not fear those who will kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.”
This is a familiar enough passage, I trust, found in the context of Jesus giving instructions to his 12 Apostles, before sending them out in pairs to preach the Gospel. Amongst other instructions, he tells them to expect persecution — the world will hate the believer because the world hates Jesus and a servant is not greater than his master. So, when one goes out to preach (or to witness), we are to strive for the approval of God and not for the approval of men…and men will persecute us accordingly. Yet, man can only persecute you so far — they can kill the body, but that is it. God can kill both body and soul in Hell. You figure out who is more important to obey.
Over the next several weeks we are going to look at several figures who are part of the Reformation…and who are part of our past. But as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, I want to keep this verse in front of you because that is exactly the question that each of them had to ask themselves — do I fear the wrath of God more or do I fear the wrath of men?
The Roman Catholic church was one of the most powerful empires in that period of time…and they did not take well to people who challenged their authority.
So, it would have been easy (humanly speaking) for all of these men to be silent and to live quiet, comfortable lives, not challenging the status quo — for them to simply do and teach what they were told to teach. But the fire of the Holy Spirit burned in these men and when they recognized the Truth, they could not remain silent — frankly, the Truth does not like to be silenced and has a way of coming to the surface. And for these men, persecution would follow.
I believe that this is a message that is essential for us to hear over and over again because it is easy to fall into the status quo…just as easy today as it was back in the days of the Reformation. And especially when you challenge spiritual or theological error, persecution follows.
So, whether you take a stand against sexual immorality in a culture where sex outside of marriage is common and homosexuality is becoming commonplace…
whether you challenge the world who treats Sunday as just another day to be used for your own purposes rather than as the Lord’s Day…
whether you address the Biblical illiteracy of our culture which lends itself to a recklessness in worship and to a universalism that believes that everyone is going to a better place when they die…
or whether you just challenge the status quo of conventional “church speech” — things that everyone is used to saying but are not Biblical; for example, “God loves everybody,” or “God wants everybody to be saved,” or “God helps those who help themselves,” or “I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” People speak foolishness like this, assuming them to be Biblical, but they are not.
For some, it may not be so much a theological stand but a stand that is more practical in nature…
You might take a stand at work or at school that the Bible is true or that Jesus is the only way to the Father in a world that has embraced “coexist” as its mantra.
You may know someone near to you who is lying about something and need to confront him or her (privately and in love).
You may be aware of bullying that is going on or you may be the one bullying and need to repent.
Whatever it is, if you take a stand on the Word of God with respect to those things it will eventually cost you something. So, are you ready to pay that price? Be careful how you answer because the Holy Spirit may convict you of the follow-up question… “Why aren’t you already paying that price?”
That was the question that these Reformers were asking themselves and for many, it cost their fortunes, their families, their health, and their lives.
So, back to Lyra and his influence on the life of Martin Luther.
Nicholas of Lyra was born in 1270 AD, approximately 200 years before Luther. He was a Franciscan Monk and taught at the College of Sorbonne in Paris….a place where John Calvin would study about 250 years later.
What made Lyra stand apart was his rejection of the allegorical approach to scripture and his call to return to a strict literal approach to understanding the Word.
What you need to understand is that starting primarily with Origen, in the 3rd century AD, allegorical readings of scripture were all the rage. The historical context or the literary meaning was not so important as what the Bible meant to you. And this makes compelling preaching and I am sure that all of you have heard sermons in this style, though I hope not from this pulpit.
When preaching on David and Goliath, the question gets posed, “What are the Goliaths in your life that you need to strike down?” Perhaps even it is taken further by asking, “What are the five stones you need to choose to slay these Goliaths…the first stone is Scripture, the second is prayer, the third is personal integrity, et….”
Another example might be when preaching on Jesus calming the waves, to ask, “What are the waves that Jesus needs to calm in your life.”
Or, when preaching on Jonah, to ask, “What kind of great fish must God send your way to rescue from the storms of your sin and bring you back into his will. God is the great fisher of men!”
It is engaging preaching and messages that stick with you, but when one preaches like this, Goliath, the storm, the great fish, all become allegorical symbols of the struggles you face in your life. It conforms the text to your ideas and preferences instead of conforming your interpretation and application to the text. The allegorical model uses the text to illustrate your message rather than your message existing to illustrate the text.
So, for a thousand years, preachers had typically preached like this, and Lyra said, “No! We need to discover the literal sense of the text and any application we make must be drawn from the text itself.”
And, in so doing, Lyra challenged the religious world and would be the first man to write a complete commentary on the Bible…a commentary that would find its way into Luther’s hands. Luther would say that Lyra’s commentaries were indispensable to his study and teaching of the Word.
And thus, the heart of what the Hungarians meant with their little proverb is simply that without Lyram Luther would have never become the figure that he became. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who have paved the way before us. There were others, of course, who contributed to the Powder Keg that awaited Luther, but Lyra played a significant role.
So, what about the 95 Theses? I need to confess up front that I really became convicted earlier in this year that I had never sat down and actually read the 95 Theses through. We had talked about them in History class in seminary and I basically knew what they were about, but had never actually read them, so earlier this year, given this was the 500th anniversary of their posting, I rectified that omission in my theological education.
Luther really deals with two connected ideas: the doctrine of Justification and the error of indulgences.
Indulgences were a kind of “Get out of jail free pass” in Roman theology. Their theology of salvation, then, looked something like this:
First, you were regenerated and forgiven of the guilt of original sin in your baptism. Thus, if you were baptize, so long as you did not renounce your baptism or become excommunicated from the church, you were going to heaven.
Yet, all of the sins that you had actually committed in this life had to be counter-balanced with good deeds — kind of like balancing a ledger if you are in business. And, since we never truly do more good deeds than bad, after we die, we still need to be purified of our bad works.
This, then is where they developed the theology of purgatory…a sentence of spiritual torment to purge you of the remaining evil in your life.
Further, Rome believed that the Apostles and Saints and especially Mary had done more good works than bad and so God collected all of their “extra” good works and put them into what they called a “Treasury of Merit” for the church to tap into on behalf of wretched sinners. This was stewarded then by the church and the church gladly sold these “indulgences” for a price.
So, if your dear, departed uncle or family member was sentenced to 10,000 years of purgatory, for the right price you could get that sentence reduced or even get your loved one released from purgatory and sent to heaven. Further, if you had a sin you wanted to commit, you could preemptively purchase an indulgence so that you could keep your conscience clean.
The church, then, used these funds for their own ends, most commonly for building projects. If you have spent time traveling in Europe and have spent some time visiting some of these very old Catholic Cathedrals, you must understand that these were largely built with money extorted in the name of God from the people of their day…sobering, isn’t it?
Now, as outrageous as that theology may sound to our ears, there are elements of this theology still present today in purchasing candles or paying for masses to be said on behalf of the dead. And the people of Luther’s day did not have Bibles in a language they could read to counter-check what it was that they were being taught about things such as this. They simply had to take the Priest’s word for it.
So, Luther said, “This is in error and we must address this matter to bring reform back to the church.” Of course, in the wake of the persecution of the Waldensians and the Moravian Hussites, he had to know that this debate might very well cost him his life.
Sadly, I don’t think that we are able to relate to this on much of any level today. We might lose friends or become estranged from family matters over points of doctrine, but risking our lives for a theological principle, that is a totally different idea.
But that’s the choice that Luther had to make, though he had something in his favor. You see, the German princes considered the opportunity to have a copy of the Bible that they could read themselves to be so valuable that they were willing to risk war with Rome to protect Luther.
Wrap your minds around this idea because it ought to convict us all. Defiance of Rome brought war — that was the reality of that era of time. And Rome had the largest and best organized military in the world in Luther’s day. These little regional German princes met and said, “we are willing to risk war to be able to read the Bible for ourselves.” And war came…for generations. And one of the results of those wars was that our ancestors migrated from Germany to America; yours to here and mine to what is now the Hershey area.
More importantly, we who live in a culture where Bibles and translations in our own native tongue abound, but who largely care so little about the Word of God that we barely read it or study it. We owe the Reformers a great deal, I just fear that we do not appreciate the gift they gave to us. May we remember their sacrifice not just today, but everyday and honor that sacrifice by studying our Bibles with renewed appreciation and vigor.