By Paul Koch –
The great Reformation of the church is, in many ways, an explosion of what was falsely imprisoned. That is, it was the result of what happens when you try to bottle up something that simply cannot be contained. In this case, what was bottled up was the simple and beautiful Good News of Jesus Christ our Lord. For this is a message that is a living and active thing, and so it presses out against the bars of its imprisonment and bows the walls that surround it. And when it finally breaks free, it comes with such force that it changes the landscape. Everyone from the peasants working the fields to the kings and emperors in their mighty palaces are touched by its power. It plays a role in the affairs of the state and brings comfort to the conscience of the downtrodden and oppressed. The Reformation was about more than some monk nailing 95 Theses for debate to the local church door. It was about more than a bunch beer drinking Germans refusing to get in line behind the Pope. This was an explosion of the Gospel. An explosion that continues to this very day.
And it must continue, in part, because there is a never-ending column of opposition that attempts to bind it up again, to limit it, to hold it back, to contain this gift of freedom and mercy and hope. At the time of the Reformation there were threats of excommunication and imprisonment and even burning at the stake for disagreeing with the established practice and forms of the church. Thank God those days are long gone; well, at least the burning at the stake part is long gone. Because the disagreements still exist. There is infighting that marks the church to our day. There are so many different types of churches out there. You can hunt for a church the same way you shop for a new pair of socks. Do you just buy what you have used in the past? Do you look for what everyone else is wearing or what is most comfortable or most durable or some other combination to suit your liking? Each church out there will attempt to capture and hold the Gospel for its own purpose.
The imprisoning of the Gospel is always found in some system of the law, some scheme of limitations and controls, of do’s and don’ts that define how and when the Gospel can do its work. The once mighty explosion is limited and given out in small doses for the deserving. However, a particular spiritual tradition deems them to be worthy. Some suppose they can contain the Gospel through bureaucratic devises, systems of authority that seek to protect the interest of the whole by limiting the variables. Other look to traditions handed down through the centuries, traditions that assure us of who is faithful and who is not, or so we tell ourselves. Still others might think of certain forms of music or worship style or how a preacher dresses or if there are screens and praise bands and any number of other systems they’ve come up with as the sure marker for the giving of the Gospel.
It is therefore controlled and limited and given out at the right time in the right place to the lucky ones who have done what was expected to receive it. Come to this place, avoid that place, sing this song but don’t hang out with those folks, decode the system, and you too can have the Good News. In our Lord’s day this was seen most clearly by the chosen children of God. Those who had been given the commands and decrees of the Almighty. They believed by doing the works of the law they could be sure of their salvation. By being obedient they could establish assurance of eternal life. In the days of the Reformation of the church it wasn’t all that different. Salvation was secured by Christ alone, but now you owed him obedience to keep such salvation. You must pay off the debt by acts of penance that show your worth.
In our day, not much has changed. The Gospel remains a threat to the value of your sacrifice, a threat to your wisdom, a threat to your good deeds, a threat to whatever system you’ve believed in as a sure guide for gaining eternal life. So, you too must do your part to lock it up, to limit it. After all, if the Gospel was just to run free, why, there would be anarchy. People would just be running around doing whatever they want. True freedom, true grace, is dangerous to a well-ordered society, not to mention a well-ordered church. The law makes sense. We need it so that we don’t look like the rest of the unbelieving world. We want them to know that we are Christian by our love. We don’t want to be embarrassed by our brothers and sisters in Christ. So we need the law to keep everything and everyone in line.
And yet, St. Paul writes, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:19-20) Quite clearly, the law of God is not leading anyone to eternal life. It does not have the ability to justify anyone. The law, the commands of God, the limitless do’s and don’ts of your life, serve to shut every mouth, to make everyone accountable to God. That is, the law serves to crush you, to stomp down your quest for glory, to amplify and highlight just how sinful you really are. Hope isn’t found in the law. Life isn’t found in the law. Yet, you still want to hold on to it.
It seems foolish to do church upon the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Oh, I know people talk that way, but they don’t really mean it. Without the threats of the law, how do you get funding? How can you be sure that people will support the work when their good works are not gaining them anything before God? How do we get volunteers, or impact your community or guide the youth to morally upright living?
It seems foolish, except for the ones who have really tried to live that way. The ones who have tried to assure themselves of eternal life by the doing of good works. The ones who have tortured themselves with knowledge of their shortcomings. The mother who cries herself to sleep as she sees failure in the lives of her children, the husband who can’t seem to love without resentment and hurt, the alcoholic who longs to stop but fails yet again, the depressed who doubts the love of God, the long time member who has worn a fake mask of success for so long they can’t remember what it was like to be truly honest about their fears and worries, the pastor who hopes his stumbling and failures won’t lead the flock astray. To them the Gospel is everything. It is hope and life and sweet, sweet assurance.
For all those who are broken and smashed under the endless demands of the law, there is a simple line in our text today that lights the fuse to grand explosion of the Gospel. Paul says, “but now.” “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, 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.” (Rom. 3:21-24) But now there is a righteousness apart from the law. Apart from your effort, apart from your failure, apart from your fear and worry. But now, right now, this hope and life is given to you.
This “but now” is the explosion that changes your life today. Christ didn’t wait for you to get all your ducks in a row. He didn’t wait for you to finally endorse the right bureaucratic system of church governance or the right traditional practices or sing the right songs. No, right here, in the midst of our shallow and shaky worship he says, “But now, apart form your effort, apart from you work, apart from your deserving, I forgive you all your sins. I forgive you by dying in your place, by rising for you life and by living in your heart.”
And so, you can declare boldly to the world in which you live, “But now, this day I have assurance. I am redeemed. I am a holy one of God.” But now there is hope. But now there is strength. But now there is a new day that dawns in the pure and holy gifts of God.