Sermon Archives

By Grace Through Faith

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Oct 29

Text: Ephesians 2:4-10

Five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, a German Augustinian monk called for the reform of the church. Martin Luther was a professor of Moral Theology at the University of Wittenberg, and that fall morning, he went to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral and—as was the custom—posted his theses calling for debate. He also slipped a copy of his 95 theses in the mail to Albert Brandenburg, Archbishop of Mainz.

Luther’s complaint was that the Church had become intolerably corrupt. Luther was correct! Church authority had become horribly enmeshed with state authority. The Church had stored up wealth for itself, while most of the population lived in extreme poverty. The Church insisted that its own authorities—bishops and priests—act as intermediaries between people and their God. Salvation, they claimed, was won through the sacraments and rites of the Church, and through acts of penitence and forgiveness meted out by the Church.

The peak of this corruption came when the church began selling (yes, selling!) plenary indulgences—slips of paper with the imprimatur of the Pope, which were supposed to buy the release from purgatory of souls of loved ones who had departed from this life. (Those indulgences—by the way—were printed with the Gutenberg press, before any Bibles were ever produced on it!)

Luther was outraged by the selling of indulgences. And his response was outrageously bold—the posting of a long, very public complaint against Church authorities. Many recognized that the Church needed reform, but others who had attempted it had been met with the full wrath of the Holy Roman Empire. Excommunications, expulsions, burnings, executions, inquisitions.

How, then, did Luther succeed? First, he avoided execution! There’s a great story about Luther being kidnapped by his mentor—Friedrich the Wise—and hidden away for many months in Wartburg Castle.

Second, he was not alone. Luther’s 95 theses became the single most important catalyst for the Reformation. But before long, “Protestant” movements sprang up all over Europe—in Bohemia, Switzerland, France, England and Holland—and split from the Roman Catholic Church. Figures like Zwingli, Cranmer, Tyndale, Henry VIII, Calvin, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, initiated their own reforms which gave rise to a multiplicity of Protestant denominations.

So, Luther’s timing was right and his critique was necessary, but Luther also gave voice to radical new ideas that began to take hold. At the heart of Luther’s theology, is the idea of salvation by grace through faith. This idea unquestionably arose from Luther’s own personal psychology and experience. Luther understood himself to be—like all persons—subject to sin, and unable to free himself from it by his own will.

But Luther also experienced the vastness of God’s grace and mercy. He came to understand that nothing we can do will ever save us, but that God is constantly saving us through great acts of redemption and mercy. This theology was clearly a response to a particular historical moment, in which the Church saw itself as the vehicle for obtaining God’s favor. But it also opens the way to a more direct sense of God’s grace and power—unmediated by any institutions.

I’d like to look at Luther’s theology—briefly—through the lens of our morning scriptures, selected with Luther in mind!

Psalm 118 was one of Luther’s favorites. It praises God’s strength and might, and proclaims God a powerful protection against the powers of evil. In Luther’s eyes, the world was full of evil. The power of human sinfulness was palpably real to him. The words of Paul must surely have resonated with Luther: ”For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

In addition to ordinary human sinfulness, Europe in 1500 was a brutish place—rife with disease—cholera, flu and plague, besieged by endless wars, and ruled by corrupt monarchies with repressive, absolute power.

In this context, Luther wrote of a God who is like a fortress, a bulwark against the bitter foes that beset us from every side. Listen later for these themes, in our final hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” to which Luther, himself, wrote both lyrics and tune. This hymn quickly became a hallmark of the Protestant Reformation. It is said that when Luther and his companions were summoned to appear before the Diet of Worms in 1521, they entered town singing this hymn. (1)

Luther declared our morning scripture from Ephesians to be his favorite Bible verses. And it’s no wonder! The letter to the Ephesians articulates perfectly Luther’s own developing theology. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing.”

In this Epistle to the early church, Luther saw an idea that lit a spark within him. None of us is saved by our own doing. God alone can save us and not we, ourselves. All of our good works, our acts of penance, all the rites and rituals of the church, all of our good intentions cannot earn us a place in God’s kingdom.

Rather, God’s grace is freely given and our “work” is simply to receive it. That is a beautiful and powerful idea. It’s an idea you can feel. Perhaps—when you let the power of great music sweep over you, or you are lost in the beauty of this world, or when you experience the restorative hope of forgiveness. We are free to receive all this grace, says Luther. We cannot earn it through our actions.

And what’s more…here’s what I really love about Luther…when we truly know God’s saving grace, then our actions will be full of this grace. God’s mercy will flow out through us and into the world, which is sorely in need of justice, mercy and kindness. “You’ve been saved for the purpose of good works,” says Ephesians.

Thank God for this grace! Thank God for bold reformers. Thank God for a Spirit which calls us to continual reform, renewal and growth. May we all know the grace of this God! Amen.

1) According to 18th century German poet and essayist, Heinrich Heine, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Mighty_Fortress_Is_Our_God