Sermon for Reformation Day
Delivered at Central Lutheran Church, Dallas
31 October 2021
The Rev. Robert O. Smith, PhD
Jeremiah 31:31–34 | Psalm 46 | Romans 3:19–28 | John 8:31–36
This sermon was livestreamed; it is archived here via Facebook Live.
Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ, our Mighty Fortress, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
October 31st is the day Lutheran Christians around the world take time to recognize our lineage and heritage, celebrating and commemorating Reformation Day. It’s a day to recall what being Lutheran is all about, to recall with sorrow the fragmentation of the western Christian church that followed, and to press forward into new reformings and new possibilities.
The story goes that on All Hallows Eve, 1517, Martin Luther, professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg and town preacher at St. Mary’s Church, nailed his Ninety-five Theses against the sale of indulgences to the door of the Castle Church just up the hill. Indulgences rely on Roman Catholic teaching about Purgatory, the process of purification for those who have died. The Catholic Church still teaches that indulgences—gained either through good works or purchase—shorten a person’s time in Purgatory.
In Luther’s time, indulgences could be had for going on certain pilgrimages or viewing certain holy relics. In 1515, Pope Leo X granted a plenary indulgence intended to finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Aggressive preachers traveled throughout Catholic territories under Papal mandate, convincing people to purchase these documents for their loved ones presumably undergoing the purification process. One such preacher is reported to have said, “Once a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory heavenward springs.”
The 95 Theses themselves are an invitation to academic debate. Posting the Theses publicly wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was the reaction from every level of Church authority. In Rome, Luther was immediately perceived as a threat. In February 1518, Pope Leo asked for Luther’s religious order to silence him. Johann Tetzel, the most successful indulgence preacher, called for Luther to be burned for heresy. Luther was finally excommunicated in January 1521.
With all that at stake, why did Luther take this course of action? First and foremost, Luther was concerned that the sale of indulgences created deep pastoral confusion. As he alerted his Archbishop when he first shared the 95 Theses, Luther was concerned that preaching about indulgences led faithful Christians away from the Gospel. It is Christ alone who offers the free gift of salvation, not the Church, and not the individual preacher. Certainly not a piece of paper.
Luther always maintained that he never sought to create a public controversy, and never intended that the points he raised should divide the church. He simply wanted to express the truth as he understood it: the truth about God and the truth about humanity.
“You will know the truth,” Jesus says in today’s reading from John. “And the truth will make you free.”
As Luther developed his ideas in the leadup to October 31, 1517, he expressed the freedom of truth in his own name. His name, in fact, was an invention. He was born with the name Martin Luder, a name with uncomfortable connotations in German. Around the time he posted the 95 Theses, he experimented with variations, calling himself by the Graeco-Latin name Eleutherius, meaning The Freed One. Soon, that was transformed into Luther.
When we call ourselves Evangelical Lutherans, we proclaim that we are the church of the Gospel, the church of Freedom. “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
When we confess, we tell the truth. Either in a courtroom, when Perry Mason finally forces us to confess our crimes, or at the beginning of the liturgy when we confess our sins before God and one another, or when we confess our faith by reciting one of the ancient creeds of the church—to confess is to tell the truth about ourselves, about God, or both.
The truth is we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Notice that the people in our Gospel reading say to Jesus, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’? We have never been slaves to anyone!”
The text makes it clear, though, that these people are Jews, descendants of the Israelites delivered out of slavery in Egypt. The truth is that we will deny our own basic identity to make arguments to defend ourselves against uncomfortable truths.
Truth—the basic concept of what is true—is apparently something very difficult for us to grasp these days. We live in a time when the conspiracy theory almost always wins out over more traditional forms of knowledge production, where the YouTube video or Tweet carries as much weight as rigorous scientific research and data analysis.
The battle over Covid—from vaccines to mask-wearing to governmental restrictions on gathering—is a crisis over knowledge, a crisis of truth. This crisis, paired with absolutist assertions regarding individual rights, has led to immense societal harm. At 745,883, the United States has the world’s highest number of confirmed deaths from Covid-19. We have the highest number of deaths per capita among developed countries in the Global North.
Covid-19 is now a preventable disease; people have been convinced to stake their identities and their lives on rejecting the means of prevention. The societal divisions exposed during the last two years will be with us for many more years to come. We know the truth, but too many have been convinced that to ignore truth is a sign of being free.
Covid-19 denial is related to the rejection of scientific knowledge regarding climate change. The science is clear: the human use of fossil fuels has dramatically changed CO2 levels in our atmosphere, causing warming and climate change. Although we have passed the point of no return—earth’s climate has been changed and life conditions will deteriorate—corporations and governments continue to minimize responsibilities so their people won’t feel any effect until the climate crisis is overwhelming and uncontainable. We know the truth, but we insist that we are completely free, right up to the end.
The fight against truth has now reached deep into our public schools and efforts to improve the future through accurate teaching about race and racism in American society. It seems that people in power don’t want anyone else to know the truth. As a result, they will manipulate every lever of public authority to ensure that new interpretations of the past and present structures are not taught, that critical thinking is disallowed, and that people simply accept what presently is instead of seeking a different future for themselves, their children, and their neighbors.
Especially when it comes to the current culture war around Critical Race Theory, truth is a victim. Back in March, Christopher Rufo, the journalist behind much of the furor around CRT announced his strategy: “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” If any of your friends jump on the bandwagon of criticizing CRT, they have fallen prey to this cynical effort to manipulate the truth. You can know that they have been duped, they have been hoodwinked, they have been bamboozled by a pseudo-intellectual effort to manufacture facts masquerading as knowledge.
With all this going on … it’s time to start nailing things to the doors. My fellow Evangelical Lutherans, it is time for us to reclaim, restate, and re-announce our commitment to the truth of the Gospel and to the promotion of Christian freedom. Like Luther, it is time for us, in the spirit of the Reformation, to re-form our public commitment to the common good, a commitment not to the people in power but to the wellbeing of the people. It is time for Evangelical Lutherans to nail things to the doors.
I have heard time and again from ELCA folks that they don’t feel comfortable mixing politics and religion. There are lots of reasons you might feel like that, but there’s a problem: this Christian tradition was sparked by a political act that brought an immediate political response. We have been political ever since.
When we tell the truth for the sake of the people, for the sake of the polis, it is a political act. Jesus was political. Luther was political. That doesn’t mean that the church should get into bed with any one political party. What is does mean is that, when the truth is spoken, a response from governmental and economic systems seeking to protect their interests isn’t far behind. If we are trying to make a change in the world, we cannot avoid the political; the political will come find us. That is well and good. That is how it should be.
When Luther issued his call for a public debate on this day—October 31—504 years ago, he was seeking to tell the truth. He wanted to clarify the truth about sin and repentance, saying in the first thesis, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Luther reminded us that we can never repent enough to earn our own salvation. Instead, salvation is a free gift of the Holy Spirit made possible by the love of God the Father through the Son, Christ Jesus our Lord.
This gift, this truth is never to be abused; the people should never be confused. Indeed, as Luther says in Thesis 50: “Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the [extractive methods] of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.”
My siblings in Christ, my dear fellow Evangelical Lutherans, it is time to start nailing things to the door. It is time to begin publicly telling the truth for the sake of the people. “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” May it be so. Amen.
Robert Smith, an enrolled Citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, serves as Director of Briarwood Leadership Center and Associate to the Bishop for the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod of the ELCA. He additionally serves as Bridge Pastor for Central Lutheran Church in Dallas. He holds an MDiv and an MA in Islamic Studies from Luther Seminary and a PhD in Religion, Politics, and Society from Baylor University.