+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus said, “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force… Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
The alternate Gospel reading for today doesn’t permit the observance of Reformation Sunday to be a horn tooting, self-congratulatory, back slapping celebration. Rather, it calls for a more somber recognition of the plight of the church in a world where the message of the Gospel is neither desired nor tolerated.
It’s often been said, “freedom isn’t free.” It requires the taking up of arms to defend it, but it also requires constant vigilance on the part of the masses because freedom is most often lost, not in one fell swoop, but slowly, over time, by subversive judgments that undermine the very foundation of it.
Similarly, while the Gospel of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for the sins of the world is free, constant vigilance is required on the part of the church to keep the proclamation of it pure and undefiled. Why? Well, because, as Jesus says, “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”
Who are the violent and why are they so intent on taking the kingdom by force? Essentially, why do people want so desperately to change the Church and her message? Why do they even care? Well, the answer is as varied as are the people who hate the Church and her message. As a case in point, take, for instance, the whole evangelical atheist movement which is so prevalent today. For those not familiar with the terminology, or, the movement, an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of God. An evangelical atheist is someone who is intent on converting other people to their way of unbelief. In other words, since they don’t believe in God, they don’t think you should believe in Him either.
So, they focus their attack on the Word of God and specifically on the central message of God’s Word, namely, that God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. The reason they attack God and the Scripture is that if it was necessary for God to reconcile the world to Himself, the world must have been in some sort of a miserable, alienated state prior to Him doing so. For many, such a conclusion is untenable because it suggests a lack of moral clarity and purity on the part of mankind. It also suggests that mankind must ultimately answer to a higher being for it’s moral failure.
Throughout the ages though people have had all sorts of reasons for trying to change the Church and it’s message. Unfortunately, the pressure to change sometimes even comes from within the Church. As you know, cultures in which the Church finds itself are in a constant state of change. It has been said, the Church has to change with the culture, or, it will face decline and ultimately extinction. And there are those, of course, who are all too eager for the Church to look just like the culture in which it finds itself, but with a holy air to it.
Because the Church is so susceptible to unnecessary and even destructive change she must be ever mindful of her need for reform. Martin Luther found himself in precisely that situation in 16th century Germany. In his day, the Church had, in many ways, “suffered violence.” The Gospel of God’s forgiving grace in Christ had been concealed. It had been hidden behind Church ordinances and regulations. People’s consciences were bound to the law of indulgences and those who sought to restore the Gospel were treated with distain and even with deadly force.
A bohemian cleric by the name of Jan Huss stood before the Council of Constance in the year 1414. He was commanded to cease preaching against, the money making scheme of the church. Unwilling to do so, “he was taken to his cell, where many pleaded with him to recant. On July 6, 1415, he was taken to the cathedral, dressed in his priestly garments, then stripped of them one by one. He refused one last chance to recant at the stake, where he prayed, "Lord Jesus, it is for thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray thee to have mercy on my enemies." He was heard reciting the Psalms as the flames engulfed him.”
Almost exactly 100 years later, Luther was brought before an assembly of officials in Worms, Germany. He was commanded to recant his teaching or suffer the consequences. Being a student of history, he no doubt had the fate of Jan Huss running through his mind. In fact, he wrote at one point of his knowledge of Huss. Having read some of his sermons, "I could not (he said) understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill."
God gave Luther grace to stand firm and to stubbornly fight for the right to believe and teach the Gospel according to the Word of God. In his famous speech before the council he said, “unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”
On that day, the kingdom was not taken by force. By God’s mercy and providence, Luther was spared. And the rest is history. But, the need for Church reform didn’t end with Luther and the need for the people of God to be vigilant didn’t end either. The stakes are simply too high and the onslaught of those who would rob you of the Gospel, of the simple, and yet, life saving message of Jesus’ death and resurrection, is unending. Be they evangelical atheists, or, some other group, or, individual, people will continue to despise the man of sorrows who gave His life to win the world.
And yes, the temptation will always be there for you and I to underestimate and undervalue the worth of proper teaching and doctrine. And yet, it is characteristic of truth, indeed, of the Gospel itself that it always fights against error. John the Baptist knew it. The martyrs of the early church knew it. Jan Huss knew it. Luther knew it! And yes, you and I know it too.
In a world darkened by sin, the Lord has made you wise unto salvation. He counts you among his redeemed and beloved children. From countless altars in faithful congregations, He shines the light of His salvation through the Means of Grace to and upon you. “The Word they still shall let remain, Nor any thanks have for it; He’s by our side, upon the plain, with His good gifts and Spirit,” His means of Grace, so that for the sake of Jesus you are forgiven all your sins. So, “take they are life, goods, fame, child and wife. Those these all be gone. They yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
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