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Sermon for Reformation

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ October 31st, 2011

Sermon on St. Matthew 11:12-15

[The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence]

Reformation Day (observed)

30 October 2011

+ In the Name of Jesus +

Singing the Gospel

“[Luther] gathered the principal and most necessary points of doctrine and comfort in beautiful German Psalms and hymns, so that the simple too might make continual use of them–as has manifestly (praise God) come to pass, and no one can truthfully deny.”1 These words, written about a century after Luther, summarize what it means to be the singing church. As we are currently learning in Adult Bible Study and exploring in our day school this year, Luther’s legacy was not just talking about God, but also singing the Gospel. Singing engraves the text our hearts, gives musical expression to the text, and preaches the good news that Christ is present in our singing. This morning, I’d like to briefly explore two aspects of our sung confession of faith. First, the song of justification. Second, the song of Jesus’ real presence in the Lord’s Supper. We need to sing both of these songs, for they deliver the good news of Christ to our ears and to our very mouths.

The first song of the Reformation, justification, is rooted in the story of Luther’s 95 Theses. As many of you know, Luther was not taught the right doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Rather, the church of Luther’s childhood taught him that you must do something for your salvation. Recall, for instance, the ancient and modern Roman Catholic practice of contrition, confession, and satisfaction. Contrition: I feel sorry for my sins; confession: I’ll tell the priest; satisfaction: I’ll do something to pray the price for my sin. It’s also called “penance”: praying, giving alms, or fasting to pay the price for the sins that Jesus already died for. The Roman Catholic preacher, John Tetzel, for instance, rode into Wittenberg to sell indulgences to help fund the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tetzel said, “Once the coin into the coffer clings, a soul from purgatory heavenward springs.” Even singing among Roman Catholics (then and now) was not so much a sung confession, but primarily a chance to invoke the Saints or to pay the debt of praise that they owe to God (good works). This practice drove Luther to despair and nearly to death. For how could anyone know if he had done enough for his salvation?

Luther did not create anything new by preaching the Biblical doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Rather, he simply called the church back to her biblical roots, especially the clear teachings of St. Paul on what Jesus does for us. Christ died for all sin of all men, the Righteous for the unrighteous. When He said, “It is finished,” He meant exactly that: salvation is accomplished! The price has been paid! All that remains is for Him to distribute the gifts of justification in the means of grace. And so Luther, armed with the Sacred Scriptures, posted his famous “95 Theses,” arguably the most famous document of the protestant church. The first thesis reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He meant that the entire life of the believer should be one of repentance.” It’s all about repentance and faith, not indulgences or penance. In the rest of the “95 Theses,” Luther comments on what it means to stand righteous before God in Christ and concludes, “Christians should be exhorted to strive to follow Christ, their head, through pain, death, and hell; And thus to enter heaven through many tribulations rather than in the security of peace.” Do you see how it’s all about the work of Christ for us? And the song of justification continued through Luther’s life and to this day: the Small Catechism, his hymns, his sermons, and the lively legacy of full and free forgiveness in Christ.

We sing the Gospel of justification in Hymn 377, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come.” This, one of the oldest and best known of Lutheran hymns, was included in the first Lutheran hymnal and has been going strong ever since. It was originally headed, “A Hymn of Law and Faith, Powerfully Furnished with God’s Word.” This sung confession has also been called “the true confessional hymn of the Reformation” and the poetical counterpart to Luther’s key writings on justification. See how it proclaims full strength Law and the full consolation of the Gospel. The first four stanzas strip of us our own works and righteousness. “Good works cannot avert our doom.” The Law brought “wrath and woe on ev’ry hand / For man, the vile offender.” We, who could not gain heaven by our own efforts, need the Law “a mirror bright / To bring the inbred sin to light,” for “deep is our corruption.” Stanza 5, however, shifts from the Law to the Gospel. “Yet as the Law must be fulfilled / Or we must die despairing, Christ came and hath God’s anger stilled, Our human nature sharing.” Moreover, Christ hath “full atonement made” by His suffering and death. The rest of the hymn preaches the good news that we trust in Him alone as “faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone.” The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force with their false doctrine. But the church’s song thrives under pressure, giving us voice to confess with Elijah and John that Baptist that justification is entirely the work of God for us in Christ.

The second aspect of singing the Gospel is the good news of the real presence of Jesus’ true body and blood in the Sacrament. If the doctrine of justification separated Lutherans from the Roman Catholics, then the doctrine of the real presence of Jesus’ true body and blood separated Lutherans from the mainline Protestants. This is clear in Luther’s debate with a radical reformer named Zwingli. While Luther was preaching and teaching in Germany, there was a preacher in Switzerland named Zwingli. At first glance, he appeared to be on Luther’s side, especially to do battle against the Pope’s false teaching. However, in rejecting the errors of the Pope, Zwingli also rejected the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. He taught that the bread and wine were only symbols of Jesus’ body and blood. After debating back and forth in print, Luther and Zwingli met face to face in the city of Marburg. They seemed to agree on just about everything except the sacramental presence of Jesus’ body and blood. At the height of the debate, Luther actually wrote on the table at Marburg with a piece of chalk, “This is my body.” Then he covered the words with a fine cloth as if it were the fair linen on the Communion altar. He insisted that the word of Christ stood firm against all human reasoning. He also demanded that Zwingli prove the words “This is my body” untrue from the Scriptures. Here, of course, Zwingli was disarmed and unable to prove that Jesus is a liar. Indeed, Christ cannot lie or deceive. As sure as Jesus forgives our sins by His word of absolution, so He gives us His body and blood for forgiveness in the Sacrament of the Altar.

So it is for us! The teaching of the real presence of Jesus’ true body and blood in the Lord’s Supper still separates us from our Protestant neighbors and calls us to Lutheran identity. I ask you: what do you get in the Lord’s Supper if it is not the true body and blood of Christ? You get, at best, a memorial meal; or, at worst, a sip of wine and a bite of bread. That is precisely why our Protestant friends have a low regard for the Sacrament, celebrate it every once and a while, and have little or not use for reverence and dignity in the Divine Service. Lutherans, on the other hand, order everything in their church according to the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament: baptism as the robe of righteousness to prepare us for the Lord’s table; confession and absolution to return us to the promises of our baptism; confirmation and instruction to make sure we can discern the very body of Christ; and the Lutheran Mass with all its traditions, customs, and vestments to highlight the good news that Jesus is here in the Lord’s Supper.

Through the centuries, the church has sung the Gospel of the real presence in Hymn 313, “O Lord, We Praise Thee.” You see in the upper left-hand corner that stanza 1 is by an unknown author. It was sung as a post-Communion hymn before Luther, and for other occasions in the church year that focused on the Lord’s Supper. Luther added two stanzas, and . . . voila! A favorite Communion hymn among Lutherans ever since. See this hymn’s strong confession of the true body and blood of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament! “Thou with Thy body and Thy blood didst nourish, Our weak souls that they may flourish.” And again, “May Thy body, Lord, born of Mary . . . And Thy blood for us plead.” And yet again, “Thy holy body into death was given . . . That Thy blood should bless and sustain me.” Lutherans sing of the real presence of Christ during distribution. Perhaps at no other time is the phrase “word and sacrament” so profoundly fulfilled in our midst. The Sacrament is given from this altar, nourishing your body and soul to life everlasting. At the same time, the Word is sung in distribution hymns from the nave, preaching the good news that the same body and blood once offered on the cross are now present in this meal. Building on today’s OT lesson, the house of the Lord is cleansed through the preached Word, and the altar of the Lord is prepared with Jesus’ true body and blood.

About a century after Luther, one Roman Catholic monk marveled at how securely Luther’s hymns had planted Lutheranism in Germany, “pouring forth from Wittenberg to fill the German houses, workplaces, markets, streets, and fields.” Still another Roman Catholic, taking stock of things a century after the 95 theses, lamented that “Martin Luther had destroyed more souls with his hymns than with all his writing and preaching” (Singing the Gospel, 1). And perhaps most remarkable of all, those who lived through the turbulent seventeenth century say that they could identify the Lutherans by their singing of hymns. So it is for us! We are the singing church because the twin truths of justification and the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament are too good just to talk about. These truths must be sung “to every nation and tribe and language and people.” Through singing the Gospel, we “worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Epistle), even to the final resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” + INJ + Amen.

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church

Bayside, NY

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