Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
The Reformation was a great movement in the church and in the history of Europe. The reformers in Germany and other countries wanted to correct abuses against teaching and the Christian way of doing things that had grown up in the church during the Middle Ages. They called believers back to God’s word and taught that Jesus is the source of our salvation. He wants to lift us up and bless us with abundant, fruitful lives. With the help of two verses from this morning’s gospel, we’ll explore what the Reformation means for us. We’ll have something to say about a few key words. The first is “you”.
Jesus went to Jerusalem to attend a feast, and while he was there he met with various people. It must have gladdened his heart that his teaching inspired some of them to believe in him. The “you” in the text refers to believers in Jerusalem who had come to him. He is not talking to the city or to the world as a whole, but to his own people, whom he invites to approach him in confidence. You and I may include ourselves. God comes to his people directly in Christ. That’s one of the themes the reformers emphasized. We enjoy personal relationships with the Savior. He doesn’t come to us through priests or church structure. We do not rely on grandparents who were people of great faith or on a friend who happens to be a mighty prayer warrior. Jesus is God himself; he is the mediator between ourselves and the Heavenly Father. We approach him directly. This doesn’t mean we treat him like a pal or a larger version of ourselves, but it does mean we count on his friendship and his concern for us. He knows us perfectly, better than we know ourselves. He reaches out to us and says “you” to us, just as he said “you” to his people in Jerusalem.
The next word is “hold” or “continue” or “abide”, as other translations put it. Faith is not just for special days and big occasions. God’s grace doesn’t come to us only on Christmas or Easter or the Sunday of our confirmations. Jesus invites us to walk with him every day. We keep on going in faith that we will safely reach the destination he has in mind for us. It’s human nature to let distractions get the best of us. If we slack off or let negative thoughts rule us, we can’t claim that we’re abiding in faith, but simply going through the motions. We need Jesus’ pardon and heaven’s gift of strength as we cope with our daily challenges. Jesus rejoices with us when we’re happy; he steadies us in rocky times; he comforts us when we grieve or if disappointment strikes at us. We gives us the courage to put one foot after the other. We don’t run from him but keep on at his side. We abide in faith, because we know that he abides with us and that he blesses us abundantly.
Continuing in the faith can be challenging, but its basic principles aren’t mysterious or hard to understand. We abide in Christ by holding onto his word, and this is our next term. The “Word” means several things for us Christians. We use it to refer to Jesus himself and to the sacraments and the Bible. We don’t expect God to speak to us directly. He comes to us by his Word, which always brings us the same message so that we can rely on it. God’s word brings certainty. It is eternal and will never pass away. The Word is powerful and full of God’s Spirit; it gives us life. God’s promises come to us by his Word – that he will bring us into eternity, that his Holy Spirit will comfort us every day, and that the Heavenly Father calls us to live in fellowship with him. His Word is an open door that will never shut.
Now, as we continue in God’s Word, we are Jesus’ disciples, who follow him and learn from him. There’s nothing glamorous about the life of a disciple and nothing out of our reach. Discipleship involves self-denial. We don’t let the desires of our minds and flesh lead us. We forsake everything for Christ, and in return he gives lives that are fruitful and full of meaning. We’re rich in faith and hope; works of love flow from our hearts. Jesus makes us sturdy so that others may lean on us. We don’t quit on him or the tasks he’s set out for us, because he assures us that a great prize is waiting for us. We bear our neighbors’ burdens cheerfully; we gladly share with them the faith the Holy Spirit has put in our hearts. We are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Whatever others may say, God has created a special place for his Christian people. Are we not the apples of his eye, his beloved adopted daughters and sons? If we ever feel neglected or discouraged, we have the privilege of remembering that our blessed Lord has included us among his chosen ones, his disciples.
Jesus encourages us to trust that because we abide in God’s Word, we know the truth and not only with our brains but also with our hearts and souls. When Jesus spoke to a group of believers in Jerusalem about the truth, he meant the gospel – the good news that he would give his life for all sinners – and all of us are that – and then by his resurrection he would open the gates of heaven for all believers. Jesus’ disciples know the gospel – God’s everlasting truth and the power that sets us free.
The church puts the gospel before us. It’s not our good works that count, though I suspect St. Peter’s people do plenty. What matters most is God’s grace working through the faith we receive as a gift from him. “This is not our own doing,” Paul wrote in Ephesians, “it is the gift of God – not because of works, so that no one may boast.” Human nature wants to put itself forward and make an impression on God. We want him to notice how good we are. We love to put the cart before the horse. The gospel proclaims that we are saved because Jesus suffered and died in our place. We respond with gratitude. We carry out the good works that God prepared for us beforehand.
The case of Martin Luther is a handy example. He performed many good works in the public eye after he discovered the gospel. You may recall something of his early years. He had a strong feeling for God and his church even when he was a boy and went against his father’s wishes by becoming a monk. He wasn’t satisfied, though, with being an ordinary monk. He wanted to be the best monk possible, because he believed this was the only way to please God. He submitted himself to a life of strenuous exertions. The more he tried to win God’s favor, though, with prayers and fasting and numerous good works, the less certain he became of God’s good opinion of him. He knew that heaven demands perfect righteousness and complete obedience, yet the more Luther pushed himself the further away he seemed from his goal of pleasing God. He passed through a time of misery and frustration. A person who exerts himself harder than other people expects to have a gold star next to his name, but Luther felt driven to the point of despair.
No one outside his monastery would ever have heard of his struggles, though, if the Holy Spirit hadn’t stepped in and brought him a new way of understanding the scriptures he’d studied diligently. God requires righteousness, yes, and of a kind we can never offer him. He provides this righteousness himself, as a gift to everyone who believes in him and trusts his promises, for the sake of Jesus. Luther came to a profound understanding of such Bible passages as this one from Psalm 31: “In you, O Lord, do I seek refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.” And these lines from Psalm 71: “In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame: in your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me! Be to me as a rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.” Luther especially found comfort in a passage from Romans: “In the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written, he who is righteous through faith shall live.”
Luther discovered that his personal struggles did not make him right with God. We are in a hopeless situation if we try to stand before God on our own strength. We need an advocate, a mediator, a friend to speak up for us. This friend is Jesus, who lived a perfectly righteous life, then took our sins upon him and died in our place. Because of Jesus’ actions and through our faith in him, the Heavenly Father sees us as perfectly righteous – just the way he wants us to be. We receive his good opinion of us as a free gift. He calls us saints; he claims us as his children. He clothes us in robes of righteousness that we can’t see this morning but that God sees. He gives as a gift for Jesus’ sake and through the means of faith what we can’t achieve on our own.
This is the truth Jesus meant when he spoke with the believers in Jerusalem. God is a refuge, a rock, a fortress for everyone who trusts him. Luther’s ferocious inner battle ended in peace, certainty, and joy. He told others about the truth to which the Holy Spirit had led him. His discovery reverberated in the souls of million people, including yours and mine.
To sum up, then, we rejoice that Jesus frees us from doubt and uncertainty. He releases us from bondage to sin and the devil and the fear of death. We are free to live as God intends.
The passage from John reminds us that it is God’s will that we trust the truth of the gospel. He makes it possible for us to abide in his word. He pours his grace upon us. He declares that by our faith in Christ, we are worthy to receive his abundant blessings. He teaches us to hope that the insights and victories of the Reformation will continue among us. In Jesus’ name. AMEN.
The peace of God.....