19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For "no human being will be justified in his sight" by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom 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; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
Where to begin, on this Reformation Sunday? Which, I guess, is another way of asking what the purpose might be behind a day such as this, set aside to celebrate the events of the Protestant Reformation? I mean, in a world such as ours, when being a particular type of Christian, be it Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Pentecostal, you get the idea, yes, when this mean far less than it ever did, we might be right ask just what we are doing here. I mean, we could certainly start with a robust singing of “A Mighty Fortress,” or a brief history lesson on Luther, the 95 theses that he posted to the door at Wittenberg Church, a quick tour through the catechism or any number of places. But to start there would be to miss the point entirely. Indeed, to get a sense of the Protestant Reformation, to see why it still might have something to say to us this day, beyond a mere history lesson, we are going to have to start in another place entirely.
And that place, as it turns out, is in Paul’s Letter to Romans. Specifically in this statement: “for no human will be justified in God’s sight by works prescribed by the law.” Now there is a little translating we need to do here in order for the full impact of what St. Paul is saying to hit us. You see, when St. Paul uses the term “the law,” he is certainly thinking of the 10 commandments, but he is also thinking about so much more than that. The law, as St. Paul understands it, describes reality in the fullest and broadest sense. The law, then, includes not just the “natural laws” of the creation as we have come to understand them, but also things like our ethnicity, our jobs, our families and spouses, the fact that we are Americans, or that we are Broncos fans or any of the rest of it. This is what St. Paul when he describes “the law,” the sum total of what it means to be human and how we relate to the world around us. So when he writes that there is nothing prescribed by the law that can forgive our sin and grant us the life everlasting, St. Paul is saying something totally and utterly radical. Something that goes against our most deeply-held and fervently-cherished believes that we hold about ourselves. Can’t you feel it? Feel the weight of St. Paul’s hammer against us? Against even himself? For he is saying nothing less than this: all that we love and hold dear about ourselves, all the stories that we buy into to make us people of value, be they stories about money or political party affiliation or perpetual youth or what it is to be a real man, or yes, even what Christian denomination we belong to, St. Paul is saying that none of that is what delivers us to a gracious God. In fact, looking towards these things to find God in them will lead to nothing but dead ends, nothing but the anger of God. Which might just explain why we feel so fearful, so uneasy, when we look to these things to tell us all that we need to know about ourselves and about God. And that’s just the trick. It is not that there is anything wrong with a lot of what St. Paul refers to as the law. In fact, it is good, God-given stuff. The problem comes in how we use and abuse it. How we look to things that are not God as though they were. And the radical thing that St. Paul here preaches is that we, on our own, are bound to do this and to continue to do this. When we think that the only thing that is valuable is our wealth, or our ethnicity, or particularly poignant in these times, our political affiliations, yes, when we believe that God only really loves the Lutheran church, or that God is not working in other Christian denominations, we are doing exactly what St. Paul describes. And this is why we are, in the words of the Apostle, silenced before God. Or in the words of Jesus, this is the bondage to sin that we are in. We just look to the wrong things to tell us about ourselves and about God.
“But now . . .” whoever thought that a conjunctive phrase, a phrase as seemingly miniscule as “but now” could change the fiber of reality as we know it. “But now,” says St. Paul, meaning that there is, in fact, a whole other way of being, of understanding and relating to the world in which we live, and that has everything to do with Jesus Christ and his faithfulness. Yes apart, far apart the law, apart from all our halting and frustrated attempts to find God on our terms, the righteousness of God has been revealed. And what a surprising righteousness it is. It is the righteousness of God in Christ. A righteousness that does not condemn sin, but forgives it. A righteousness that looks at human bondage and says, “I will do whatever is necessary to free these people, even if that means experiencing sin, death and hell itself.” It the sort of righteousness that claims people not because they have accomplished enough or belong to the right group or have lived their lives according to their own ideals, but because the faithfulness of God in Christ will simply do what he has come to do: and that is to return you to the place you always belonged, the loving arms of God. “But now,” apart from all the pain and fear and uneasiness of trying to find security through our own efforts, by our own strength, in our own wisdom, but now, apart from running away from the truth about our failures, apart from denying the bondage to sin in which we find ourselves on a daily basis, yes apart from all of this there is a new righteousness to be had: Christ and him crucified. Crucified and raised for you. So that you may know that none of your faults and failings, none of the fear, none of the guilt, none of it is who you actually are. Instead, you are those for whom Christ, apart from any human effort, has died and been raised.
And this was the remarkable, indeed revolutionary, re-discovery of Luther and Reformation. It is to this overwhelming and abundant grace that those events lo so many years ago testify. For Luther, it meant discovering, rather being discovered, by the grace of God apart from the elaborate machinery of the Medieval Roman Church. And it is from this perspective that we can begin to appreciate the reason we set aside a day such as this. Not because we somehow have the market cornered on Christian truth or because we are the only denomination that enjoys potlucks and coffee, no matter how much we do very much enjoy these things. But because the righteousness of God has been revealed in wonderfully anticipated ways. In ways that provide genuine freedom, freedom from sin and guilt, freedom from pride and fear. This is the freedom that the Son imparts. It is the freedom that come only when our efforts to be found good, found righteous, found free, yes when the effort to do this on our own has been brought to an end. It is then that the beginning may again take hold of us, just as it took hold of Luther and the reformers. And this is why we celebrate Reformation Sunday, why we sing a “Mighty Fortress” with all the gusto it deserves, why we spend a Sunday to think about our past. Not because any of these things make us righteous, make us whole, but because they so powerfully testify to the grace that does. Together, then, with St.Paul, with Martin Luther and with the countless masses that have been discovered by God’s grace in Christ, we sing to the God whose grace is eternal, whose love shines from this world to the next. For you have a permanent place in the Son’s house. In Jesus’ name, amen.