On this day, 500 years ago, there was a famous meeting held in the German city of Worms. In the Bishop’s palace, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gathered with electors and German princes. The issue at the heart of the meeting on April 18th, 1521 was the teaching and writing of one Martin Luther. They were not there to discuss the teaching, to debate the faithfulness or errors of his writings. No, they had only one request of Luther. They laid out his writings on a table and said, “Do you or do you not recant your books and the errors in them?” Luther’s response is famous. He said in part, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or be clear reason… for my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me, Amen.”
Here I stand. He stood opposite the emperor, opposite massive political and religious power. He stood knowing that though he had been promised safe passage to and from the meeting his life would now be at great risk. While some in attendance cheered in support of him, others demanded he be burned at the stake for heresy. But the remarkable thing about Luther’s courage that day is how he knew something far greater was at stake than his reputation, his writing, or even his life. What was at stake was the free and clear proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. What was at stake were all those individuals who were tormented by their sins, who fought and struggled through the system established to lead to eternal life, but they could never be sure, could never have confidence they were, in fact, free in Christ.
From the other side, from the side of the Emperor and his gathered leaders, why the big push to get this little monk in line? Well, his teachings threatened the control of the Church. By that, I mean they loosened the grip the leaders had over the conscience and assurance of the people. The undiluted, free, ‘120 proof’ Gospel is a threat to all systems of power and control mankind devises, whether it is political or religious, or in Luther’s case a combination of both. As it turns out, his writings were beginning to split the faithful at a time when unity was needed the most. There was a threat to the safety and wellbeing of the Christian empire and Luther refused to play his part in keeping quiet and getting in line. Instead, he made his stand.
But the truth of the matter is, what he stood for 500 years ago is what the true Church has always stood for. It is what the faithful Church stands for today. It is what defined the Church at the very beginning. At the beginning of the book of Acts we encounter the story of Peter and John healing a lame beggar. This feat rightly garners a lot of attention. A crowd starts to gather around them and Peter’s words to them are more than a little bit shocking. He says, “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And His name—by faith in His name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all” (Acts 3:12-16).
In other words, he says to the crowd it was not by their power, or by their faith, or by their personal piety this man was healed but it was by faith in the name of Christ that he was restored. But amid proclaiming this wonder to them he also highlights their own role in His death. In other words, he exposes the sins of the crowd even as he directs them to faith in the name of Christ. He says, “You denied the Holy and Righteous One, you asked for a murderer to be spared, you killed the Author of life.” God’s Word, you see, is a two-edged sword. It cuts with the truth and does not allow you to hide in your usual feats of denial and ignorance. It exposes the sins of those who are part of the crowd shouting, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Therefore, even as the Word promises life and salvation in Christ alone it strips you of salvation by you own words and deeds. As the Word directs you to Christ alone it exposes the sins of your life and reveals Christ as the only means of life everlasting.
This means that for you today the Word of God is not some harmless or distant thing. It cuts and exposes your own life even as it drives you to the arms of your Lord. It does not speak the same things to you that Peter said to the crowd gathered in Solomon’s portico. You are not the ones who delivered Jesus over to Pontius Pilate. It was not you who shouted for the release of Barabbas, but that does not mean you are without guilt. In many ways, perhaps, the piercing cut of the Word of Truth is more profound in your life for you are not ignorant of these things. You know what happened. You know the great gift of the Son of God. Yes, the cut is more painful for it exposes to the light of day your disregard for the seriousness of your sin. You think lightly of your sins. You commit them without a second thought of your redemption, without weighing out the consequence paid in the blood of Christ. Honoring the Name into which you have been baptized falls far behind satisfying your own desires.
But what does Peter say next to those convicted crowds, those who know their sin, their betrayal of the Son of God? He gives them some of the sweetest and most blessed good news. It is something beyond our wildest dreams. He says, “Repent, therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19-20). Turn back. Turn back to the very One you crucified for there is forgiveness in Him. There is the promise their sins will be blotted out, that they will know the refreshing good news of God. This same Word goes out to you today. It is for you who have lived as if you mattered more than your Lord, you who have made light of your transgressions and the sacrifice of Christ. Turn back! Turn back to your Lord, to the Word which exposes your sins. For that Word is not finished speaking to you. Turn back and you will know the love of your God.
This is precisely where the institutions and desires of mankind try to take over. I mean, how often can one turn back? Do you get as many chances as you want? Do you just get to return over and again, time after time? At some point should we not put some controls on all this? Should we not say that after your second or third time turning back in repentance, we need some proof you are trying? Is it too much to demand some real measurable change in your life if we are going to just forgive you all over again? Does it not make sense to require some act of penance to prove your desire to faithfully turn back to God? I mean, if turning back is a regular part of your life, perhaps you are not trying to live as God would have you live. Perhaps you need to try a little harder. Perhaps we will withhold the Word of forgiveness until such a time that you prove yourself worthy of receiving it.
But such ideas would place obstacles to the Word of Truth. They would put the desires of men before the Gospel of our Lord. What is at stake is the free gift of forgiveness in Christ alone. Forgiveness that is needed not only occasionally are reservedly in the life of the believer, but daily, regularly, and every moment of every day this side of glory. Upon such forgiveness we make our stand. We cannot do otherwise, so help us God. Amen.