“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” That is the Word which broke in upon the world like Martin Luther’s hammer against the Wittenberg Castle Church door nearly 500 years ago. It shocked the world back then…it still shocks and angers the world today…because we play the same games. In Luther’s day it was the buying and selling of Indulgences, pieces of paper that got your soul out of Purgatory. Nowadays it’s books and DVDs and gurus promising you the best spirituality money can buy.
So St. Paul is shocking: “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Strange words! Who needs ‘em? Oh, maybe back in Luther’s day people needed those words. They were so afraid that the slightest misstep would send them all to hell. But is anyone afraid of hell anymore? In Luther’s day the faithful drove themselves bonkers trying to do all sorts of good works…but today isn’t it the preachers who drive themselves bonkers trying to get people to do good works?
So it would seem that St. Paul’s words have long passed their sell-by date. And we stand, as Luther often said, like a cow staring at a new gate…wondering what all the fuss was about back in the 16th Century. Don’t we have more important issues? I mean, Election Day is only a week away, and listening to the rhetoric on both sides, it’s gonna be the end of the world as we know it if the other guy wins! And then in December the Mayans are coming! Don’t just sit there! We gotta get busy!
Ah…that’s the shocking thing about this text. It isn’t about us! This God’s Word. It’s like Luther’s hammer, a stop-what-you’re-doing, sit-down-and-shut-up-and-listen Word. As St. Paul puts it, This was to show God’s righteousness, not ours…to show that He is just…that He is the One who justifies the man who has faith in Jesus. This is God’s doing. So listen up!
The fact that these words fall on deaf ears is nothing new. In our Gospel Reading Jesus is speaking with people who do believe Him. “You will know the truth,” He says, “and the truth will set you free.” This truth that you are righteous for Jesus’ sake. And they reply, “We’re children of Abraham—we are Americans—we’re a free people. We’re not in bondage!”
Oh? Consider the stoplight. The stoplight keeps us from running into and over each other. So does the stoplight make us better people? Do you know anyone who likes to stop at the stoplight? We try to squeeze through on yellow, or even a second after it turns red (hoping an officer isn’t watching). We’ll sit and growl if the light takes a long time to change. Or honk at the driver ahead of us if that car doesn’t move the instant the light turns green. So what if someone were to start a society for stoplight discipleship? Would that spell the end of sin? I don’t think so. Law cannot remedy sin!
So God decided to start over, to do something which only God could do…and we could not. Not a new Law…He’d already created a whole mountain of Laws for Israel…and look how well that worked! No, God created something new. He sent Jesus into this world, to crush Him under that mountain of Law, to have Him die at our hands, so insistent about laws and rules and programs of self-improvement. Then…raised Him up again in order to say at last, “Now…now you are righteous for Jesus’ sake.”
No grand scheme, no improved set of Laws or outlines for growth or programs to increase our spirituality. He sent Jesus. He sent a Preacher to announce to whomever would shut up and sit still long enough to listen, that God forgives for Jesus’ sake, and He remembers our sin no more.
Most of the popular stories about Martin Luther come from the early, heroic days of the Reformation. But perhaps the more insightful stories come from the end of the man’s life. Luther died in the German town of Eisleben, the same town where he had been born. He preached his last sermon there in Eisleben during several days of negotiations between some squabbling magistrates. Now that much of the story is often told.
But what is not told is that only five people showed up to listen to Luther, only five people to listen to what would be his last sermon. He would die shortly afterward of an apparent stroke. Five people…to listen to Martin Luther. He was furious. He dashed off a letter to a friend despairing that the whole Reformation was a failure. Nobody’s listening. Three days later, he was dead.
But on that deathbed, where Luther was forced to stop all his own work, he realized again: “Wir sind Bettler!” “We are beggars; this is true.” It’s what he had written in the hymn years earlier: “With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected.” He knew! Once at dinner a guest was going on and on about the great things Luther had accomplished in the Reformation. The great man replied, “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word…So while I slept or drank good Wittenberg beer with my friends…the Word of God changed everything.”
“With might of ours can naught be done!” So we beggars maintain that we are justified by faith apart from works of the Law! Because for us…for us…fights the Valiant One, Jesus Christ, whom God Himself elected. And greater than Luther’s Wittenberg beer, that little Word, that Jesus, changes everything.
But what if no one listens? We say it again. What if only 5 show up? We say it again. What if people are too preoccupied with the world or with their own spirituality? We say it again. And again. And again. Because the Church, as Luther said, ist ein Mundhaus…a mouth house…where we sing and say what God has given us to sing and say!
And now…if you’re a preacher named Johann Sebastian Bach, well, you wrap it all up in some of the finest music ever composed, so that you can sing as gloriously as the words declare, how we are righteous before God for Jesus’ sake! For Jesus’ sake! And that little Word changes everything.