Jeremiah 31:31-34 I will write my law in their hearts, says the Lord
Psalm 46 The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Romans 3:19-28 Justified by God’s grace as a gift
John 8:31-36 Jesus says, Continue in my word and you will know the truth
"What is truth?" Rev. Fred Kinsey
Today is the day, 504 years ago, that a young Martin Luther posted his 95 debating points on the door of the Wittenberg castle church for all to see – as the legend goes. It was the Eve of All Saints Day, or All Hallows Eve, October 31, 1517.
So much has been written by, and about, Luther, it’s not surprising, I guess, that just this week, I came across a new fact. New to me, at least. Young Martin changed his sur-name! It was probably right around this time, at the posting of the 95 Theses. His original family name was Luder. L-u-d-e-r. But, as he set out to protest the corruption he found in the church, and as he diligently read the scriptures, he fell in love with the word in our Gospel reading today, “e-leuther-ia,” which means “to set at liberty,” or simply, freedom. And so instead of Luder, he became Luther, for e-leuther-ia!
And so perhaps, like so many stars of our time, Prince, Lady Gaga, Bob Dylan, Audrey Hepburn, to name just a few, it seems old Marty, was ready to make a name for himself, too.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free – e-leuther-ia.”
Luther, was in pursuit of that freedom, the truth about Jesus the Christ, and what it could teach him! He was so enthralled with this question, that despite his father’s expectations, that his oldest child should go to law school and become a high-priced lawyer, the young Martin took his vows, and entered the Augustinian monastery, before his father had opportunity to change his mind.
Luther desperately wanted to find his freedom. His soul was imprisoned and tortured by the thought of eternal damnation, which the medieval church had kept alive. And not only did the church hierarchy, not believe it themselves, but they conceived of ways to profit off of the falsehood too.
And to bring the truth out into the open, Luther posted his 95 Theses, hoping to debate things like, Indulgences, the veneration of the relics of the saints, restricting access to the Bible and other prohibited books, and the ostentatious wealth of the Church verses the Gospel’s call to carry your cross.
Luther experienced this huge disconnect when he was sent on assignment to Rome. He even engaged in the tourists’ most popular attraction, going up the “Scala Santa, or Holy Steps — brought back from the Holy Land and believed to be the very steps from Pontius Pilate's palace that Jesus climbed on the day he was convicted, [and Luther] saying the Lord's Prayer on each step. Reaching the top, Luther stood up and thought, "Who knows if this is actually true?"” (https://classroom.ricksteves.com/videos/martin-luther-s-experience-as-a-pilgrim-in-rome)
And so, Luther didn’t feel any closer to the freedom that Jesus promised, after visiting the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. It wasn’t until perhaps two years later, in what has come to be called Luther’s Tower Experience, that the vision of his Protestant theology started to come into focus for him. Reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans that, we are justified by God’s grace as a free gift, by our faith in Christ, or, the faithfulness of Christ, was the big breakthrough.
There’s nothing we can do to deserve this grace, Luther realized. It’s a passive, and overwhelming gift. It’s the truth, and a gift of life, given to all people. A gift of salvation. We are saved by grace through faith. Grace alone; faith alone; scripture alone, as Luther would write. This, is the truth, that made Luther free. That liberated him from his guilt and anxiety. There was no flagellation, no holy relics, no Indulgences, that could save him. Only God’s gift of grace in Christ Jesus, can free us.
That’s the truth!
Of course, some people say, truth is relative. And not only today, but Pontius Pilate cynically said, later in John’s Gospel, at the trial of Jesus, “what is truth?”
Fast-forward to today, and just in the last couple of weeks, the former President’s Media and Technology Group (TMTG) issued a press release announcing the creation of a new social media site called, “TRUTH Social!” Rather than a “tweet,” a statement on the new site would be a “truth.” Although, if you read the fine print, in the Terms of Service, it says, criticism of the former president is prohibited.
Mr. Trump is passionate about creating his own “brand of truth,” certainly one that is not based in scripture. It is more closely aligned with a, self-absorbed, self-deluded, Authoritarianism, that no one dare question.
But ‘truth’ matters. Truth can set us free. While a false-truth can imprison us.
Today we celebrate the true spirit of the Reformation. And it is not a celebration of the person of Martin Luther, or any of the other reformers who came before or after him. Luther himself was deeply flawed, as well as, brilliant and courageous. But in his later days, we know, that he devolved into bitterness about converting Jewish people to the Christian faith. And, as Lutherans, we have to acknowledge this.
In one flippant writing for example, Luther even says he may resort to burning down Jewish homes if that’s what it would take for their conversion. This is tragic, detestable, and unacceptable. And we have to acknowledge our part in it, and because of people like the former President, and the white nationalists who would use it still today, just as the Nazi’s did to justify Kristallnacht, and all that followed, just 80 short years ago.
So, what we celebrate today, is the Spirit of the Reformation, which was inspired by the Holy Spirit, herself! We celebrate the freedom, that comes from knowing God’s truth.
Pilate’s famous remark, “What is truth,” is the wrong question. “Who, is the truth,” is the real question. As Jesus says, later in chapter 14 of John’s gospel – “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Jesus is the truth that sets us free, because he is sent by God, at once an outside reference point to our human fallenness, and also a close and intimate friend, like a familiar Good Shepherd. He is the truth, because he knows, ‘greatness’ is in becoming a ‘servant,’ and, ‘the last shall become first.’ That’s how Jesus became the true Messiah and Savior for us.
From our perspective, here in this life, the truth for today, you could say, is much like that oft quoted Reformation motto: “The church is reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.”
God’s truth is un-changing. But our experience of truth must always be in the process of praying and reflecting on where we have been, and where God is calling us to now, in this moment, in this time, in our era. As new discoveries, scientific and literary, are revealed to us, we need to re-measure, according to the Word of God, what is the truth that sets us free.
There are many ‘false-truths’ that intend to imprison us, for their own selfish reasons. But freedom in Christ, is the only true liberation for us. This is the constant task of the followers of Jesus, as we journey with our Good Shepherd to the foot of the cross, and beyond.
Let us rejoice today, and celebrate the truth that sets us free, the Word revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, which always is reforming us, by God’s love and grace.
And on this Reformation Sunday, let the people say, Amen.