2021-10-31 Reformation Day
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The funny thing about life is that the whole world operates on a system of merit. I recall the days, many moons ago, way back, when I was in cub scouts. We had those really cool uniforms - little green hat with the yellow piping; red neckerchief with a wolf logo woggle to hold it in place; skin-tight, spandexy grey long sleeved shirt that was super flattering to us rather “chunky” wolf cubs! And, of course, the garland of honour was up and down the spandexy shirt sleeves. Long before the days when people got enormous tattoos up and down their arms, the scouts were decorating their arms by sewing on badges! Merit badges. You wore those badges proudly with honour among your fellow cubs. The boys that worked hard and applied themselves earned a lot of cool badges! The cubs who slacked off and dindu nuffin to meet the requirements got none. It was simple! The whole cub pack knew if you were an over achiever or a total slacker depending on the collection of badges on your sleeves. And the whole world operates like this. If you show up on time for work, perform your duties well, then you get a raise. If you’re a good soldier in the army and follow orders, you get a promotion. If you’re a good student, showing up for class and getting assignments done you get good grades. You get the idea. It makes sense.
The more you work hard and efficiently do your duties, the more merit you gain. This applies to money, marks and reputations. You always get some kind of benefit. It’s positive cause and effect. People train dogs in the exact same way. Dog listens and does what’s required, he gets a scooby-snack. You do good, you gain credit. You do bad, you face the consequences. The entire world operates on this simple system of merit. It is ingrained into us from a young age. It is the natural law of the world. It finds its way into every aspect of life - including the church.
Enter: The Martin. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther was smack dab in the middle of this merit system because the church had become steeped in the ways of the world as well. The Western Church, the Roman Catholic Church, was and still is pretty much built on this same foundation of merit. We naturally think, as the sinful people that we are, that people who lead a good life full of merit and good deeds earn their salvation. After all, the whole world operates like this! These saintly Christians have separated themselves from the rest of the pack by their huge pile of good deeds and have secured their one-way trip to their happily-ever-after heavenly home! But what about the others. What about the non-spiritually elite who don’t have much to show in the merit department? What about the ones who are pretty good but also pretty bad? What happens to them? There was a lot of uncertainty about salvation.
The good, merit filled ones go to heaven. The bad guys full of wickedness and evil go straight to hell. And the in between ones? Well, they go to the purgatory waiting room! Think of it as a spiritual “fat-camp” for the soul! You go there to work off your bad deeds and overcome your evil as you earn your way into God’s good books with brownie points and merit badges galore! And, what’s even better is others can help you in your purgatory-peril! Friends and family can compensate for your failure and sin by praying for you, doing good deeds on your behalf or, they can donate money to the church for you! It was the carbon-tax cap-and-trade program of the middle ages! Wanna save gramma from purgatory?! Of course you do! “Once the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!”
But, and it is a YUGE but, the problem with this whole framework of merit in the church was and is that it’s completely wrong! When our Lord Jesus Christ stood before the Roman official Pontius Pilate before being crucified, He said clearly “My Kingdom is not of this world” (JN 18:36). This is to say that God’s ways are not our ways. The way of heaven is not the way of the world. The entire globe may operate on this system of merit - but the Kingdom of God does not.
This is precisely why we as Lutheran Christians commemorate Reformation Day. Some 504 years later, to the very day, from that iconic October 31, 1517 that changed the world, we’re still talking about that little defiant German Monk who wouldn’t pay the tax. It was this system of merit in the church that Luther came to destroy. Poor, miserable sinners were having their consciences crippled with grief and uncertainty about their salvation. Faith, which is by its very nature a relationship of trust and love, was transformed into a meritorious score sheet and a report card to a big angry God. People wondered and worried “Have I done enough good deeds to outweigh my bad ones?” “I have been patient or have I blown my top?” “Have I been forgiving of my neighbour or have I demanded justice!?” “Have I been more gracious than I have stingy?” Or, what’s worse, people would think - and largely still do - “God will of course let me into Heaven, I’m a good person.” What Luther discovered from the Bible those 504 years ago is that the worldly system of merit doesn’t apply to eternal salvation. It cannot. It must not!
We have this beautiful passage from St. Paul: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the [system of merit], although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:21-24).
The wonderful freedom of the Gospel of Christ breaks all the worldly rules! It grabs a Louisville Slugger and smashes the system of merit into oblivion! It takes justice and transforms it into mercy. It takes what "“I need to do for God” and replaces it with “what God has done for me!” It takes our faith and changes it from following a long list of rules and regulations and makes it a relationship. It’s a participation with Christ Jesus our Savior, Redeemer and Lord. It assures us 100% that our salvation doesn’t depend on our merit, worthiness or goodness. Truth be told, we don’t really have any of our own before our righteous God. Not even the most saintly people. We all have scads of sin and lots of death. But the Good News of the Bible that Luther championed is this: “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). The ultimate merit has been won for us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. His sinless life is exchanged for our sinful one. He becomes man that we may be forever with God. Such a gift cannot be earned, deserved, won, secured, established, obtained, procured, gotten and or acquired in any way but by grace through faith in Christ.
The problem that this free gift of grace creates is that people, once freed from the shackles of merit, don’t know what to do. It’s like a kid who has been ruled by an iron fist his whole life, then finally goes away to university and goes crazy with the new found freedom, spending money, drinking way too much Lutheran Lemonade and getting into trouble! Once the system of merit falls apart, many Christians think “now what?!” People come and get their babies baptized, pasted into the Kingdom of God by grace in the water and the word and then … that’s it. The kid is saved, we’re done! Let’s go home and eat Halloween candy. Unfortunately, this completely misses the point of grace. We’ve turned it back into a law, a checklist of stuff that must be done. Baptism? Check. Confirmation? Check. Graduate? Check. That’s that. We must always be on our guard not to return to the system of merit.
But when we keep reading in Romans, we run smack dab into this: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:1-4). We say these words at every Lutheran Funeral. Our freedom from sin is grounded in the Cross of Christ and given to us personally in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Being ignorant of this is terrible because we forget who we are – forgiven children of God with a mission to fight against sin! What Christ Jesus our Lord has accomplished for us on the Cross – an actual death to sin – Holy Baptism accomplishes in us: an actual death to sin and our freedom from its power.
The consequences of our Baptism and being brought into God’s Kingdom of grace are that we fight against sin with everything we have. We don’t live as people dwelling in the worldly system of merit. We live in that newness of life the Gospel gives. “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:12-14).
Our Baptized life isn’t about gaining merit and trying to earn heaven through good works. Delete this idea from your thinking. Rather, Christ Jesus our Lord by His death and resurrection gives us all the goodness we need by faith. It’s a gift. What happens next is that we fight against sin and evil with everything we’ve got! The Lord’s promise to you is that “sin will have no dominion over you.” So no, “the devil made me do it!” won’t hold water. We are under grace. Our sin is forgiven in Christ. God’s grace and forgiveness make us soldiers and warriors against sin and evil in the world. “Righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ [is] for all who believe” (Rom 3:22) and death is a defeated foe. Now fight the good fight of faith, dear friends (1Tim 6:12) and “receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12) Amen!