Romans 12:17-21; 13:8-10

            Not everybody is likable.  We all have others that drive us crazy on the inside with their annoying habits or ungodly ways of life.  But sometimes we might experience much more than being irritated.  Raging vitriol that results in verbal persecution; becoming the targets of evil intent; and, in some cases, finding ourselves victims of violence done to us or a loved one can stretch our Christian sensibilities to their maximum.  It is understandable that in such cases we would be upset, angry, in grief, and desire justice.
 
As we reflect back on Reformation Day and the great truth that we are justified apart from any work of our own but by grace alone through faith, this helps to give understanding as to why we do not take vengeance into our own hands.  We are clearly exhorted in this passage of Holy Scripture to “repay no one evil for evil” because “vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  If justification is a work of God to rescue and redeem sinners from their plight, then wrath is also a work of God.  Just as to be justified is initiated and made possible through Christ by faith, so vengeance belongs to God, as well.  Our part in the whole affair is to trust God that he will take care of judging the world.  Judgment is way above our pay grade.
 
What is within our purview is showing love, even to those whom we consider enemies.  If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, then we will leave plenty of room for God to do what God does best:  either show mercy to sinners; or, execute judgment upon them.  It is really all his business what he does with his creatures.  Our business is coming under the lordship of Christ and allowing God’s new creation to work itself out through us.  We are to work for the kind of justice that provides others with what they need, not what they deserve.  The world cannot become a better place if we keep insisting on playing judge, jury, and executioner.  Sometimes the best way to show love is to sincerely pray for the person for whom we have such difficulty loving.  Who do you need to love today?
 

 

Just and merciful God, you are the rightful Judge of all the earth.  Help me to trust in you to the degree that I can give room for you to do whatever you want to do in others’ lives.  I pray you will grace many people with the repentance that leads to new life in Jesus.  Amen.

Luke 10:25-37


            In Christianity there is no justifying self.  The kingdom of God turns on grace, not more or harder work.  On this day, Reformation Day, Christians remember the famous posting of the 95 Theses by Martin Luther on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  Justification by grace through faith, apart from human effort, is the great theological emphasis and legacy of the Reformers.  I suppose one would expect to look at the books of Romans and Galatians on such a day.  But to the gospels we go….
             The parable of the Good Samaritan is just as famous, but perhaps not so much when one is thinking of the Reformation.  Yet, Luke gives us insight into the thought process of the person for whom Jesus told the parable.  The man sought to “justify himself.”  When we look at the parable from the view of justification, we see the perspective of the wounded and hapless man, the victim of robbers.  He was left for dead, and, indeed, in the story we know that he would die apart from help – the kind of help the man could not do for himself.  He was completely dependent on someone to rescue him from his plight.
             The Samaritan, the Christ figure in the story, comes and shows the man mercy.  This grace was free, lacked any sort of favoritism, and full of sheer kindness.  Without the Samaritan’s actions of binding up the man’s wounds and getting him to a safe place, the victim would have died.  
             Today is a special day to celebrate the wonderful and glorious reality that Jesus Christ saves people from their terrible plight.  His mercy is not dependent on what kind of people we are, but simply based on need.  God graciously gives us the gift of faith and the mercy of deliverance.  By Christ’s wounds we are healed.  Take some time this day to reflect on this most gracious of truths that we do not need to justify ourselves, but as Christians already possess justification by grace alone apart from human effort.  Read the parable of the Good Samaritan carefully and slowly, absorbing it from this angle of the inability to justify ourselves and the incredible mercy of Christ.  Let this sink deep in your soul to bring wholeness and healing.
             Merciful God, you sent your Son to rescue me from my sinful condition.  Thank you for the great grace you have shown through Jesus to save me and justify me so that I need no longer try and justify myself before others.  Amen.

Reformation Sunday

 
 
We all may be familiar with the fact that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle church which sparked the Protestant Reformation, but we are probably less familiar with the theological meat of Luther’s reforming spirit, his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, written the year following the 95 Theses.
 
            In his Disputation, Luther contrasted two opposing ways of approaching Christianity.  He called these two ways the theology of the cross and the theology of glory.  The cross, as expressed by Luther, is God’s attack on human sin.  It is the death of Christ that is central to Christianity, and one must embrace the cross and rely completely and totally upon Christ’s finished work on the cross to handle human sin.  It is through being crucified with Christ that we find the way to human flourishing and life.  In other words, righteousness is gained only by grace through faith in Christ.
 
            The theology of glory is the opposing way of the cross.  For Luther, the wicked person, and the vilest offender of God is not the person who has done all kinds of outward sinning that we readily see.  You perhaps have an idea in your head of what the worst of sinners is like.  My guess is that it probably has something to do with an actual sinful lifestyle or particular evil acts. 
 
            Luther, however, insisted that the worst of sinners are those people who do good works, who pursue a theology of glory.  More specifically, the wicked person is the one who has clean living and does all kinds of nice things, but does them disconnected from God by wanting others to see their good actions.  Another way of putting it is that the wicked person is one who seeks to gain glory for him/herself, rather than giving glory to God.
 
            Our good works, Luther insisted, are the greatest hindrance to being a truly righteous person and living in the way of the cross.  It is far too easy to place faith in our good works done apart from God, rather than having a naked trust in Christ alone.  It is far too easy to do good things for the primary purpose of having others observe our goodness, rather than do them out of the good soil of being planted in God’s Word.  The only remedy for sin is the cross, and the sinner is one who lives life apart from that cross, trusting in him/herself so that people can recognize them and give them their due respect and praise.
 
            Here is what Luther had to say in a nutshell concerning his thoughts:  “It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”
 
            So, then, the answer to this problem of doing good works out of our intention of gaining glory for ourselves is not to avoid good works, but to do them from the good soil of being planted in the law of God and being connected to the vine of Christ. 
 

 

            Reformation Sunday is a time to remember, and a time to repent.  We remember that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ.  We also take the time to repent of our works done apart from Christ and acted for the accolades of others.  Perhaps what we need today is another Reformation, that is, a reformation of spiritual habits that truly connect us to the vine of Christ – practices that shape our lives around the person and work of Jesus, and not around the idols of our hearts that make us look good and impress others.  What will you choose on this day?

Discovering the Reformation

Sometimes I need to go into my daughter’s room to get something.  More often than not, it ends up becoming an archaeological dig as I wade through the layers of stuff.  I don’t always find what I’m looking for, and I sometimes discover things I didn’t know I had lost.  Nearly five-hundred years ago, when Martin Luther went digging into the Bible, he found that he was wading through layers of church tradition and came upon something that was lost; he rediscovered that God justifies sinners by grace through faith apart from any good works done by us.  In other words, Luther found in the Scriptures that we are completely and totally at the mercy of God in Christ.
 
 
 
            The cross of Jesus Christ is our only means of salvation from what ails us because the cross is an attack on human sin.  Luther discovered that we all have layers and layers of stuff that have grown around our hearts to the degree that we no longer see the sheer grace of God in Christ alone to meet the most pressing needs of our lives.  In the centuries before Martin Luther and John Calvin came into history, God’s grace had gradually become something of a supplement to whatever is left of our human willpower.
 
            Apart from Jesus we are addicted to ourselves; and, the cross is the intervention we need to help us in order to confront our constant me-ism.  We might sometimes justify ourselves with the fact that we do good works.  However, one of the legacies of the Reformation is that good works do not earn us deliverance from sin.  What is more, Luther said that our good deeds are the greatest hindrance to our salvation because we have the tendency to trust in those good deeds instead of the death of Christ.  So, Luther actually called our good works a mortal sin that sets off God’s wrath and leads straight to hell.  In other words, doing good deeds are deadly if they are done as a means of approaching God.  It is only through the suffering of Jesus on the cross, his death for us while we were still sinners, not when we were lovely and looking fine with all our pious actions, that we are saved.  Luther had this to say in his Heidelberg Disputation:  “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering.  Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.  These are the people whom are under God’s wrath!  God can only be found in suffering and the cross.  It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”
 
            God does not come to us in our beauty and goodness; instead, he comes to us in our ugliness and sin.  While we were still sinners, ungodly, enemies of God, powerless to save ourselves, Christ died on the cross for us (Romans 5:6-11).  We might spend too much of our time and effort concerned about looking good and doing good things in order to present ourselves acceptable to each other and even to God.  But that is the very sin, Luther said, that sends people to hell.  Places of damnation are actually reserved for those outwardly righteous persons who trusted all their lives in themselves and how they looked to others without a thought at all about justification, reconciliation, and being restored to God through Christ.
 
           

 

 
            Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout, is a person who has good deeds but knows nothing of God’s grace.  It is a completely human tendency to decide which sinful actions are trivial and which are the biggie sins.  Yet, the only way of approaching God is by seeing our true ugliness, our rebellious hearts, and that the only hope of salvation is through the cross of Christ.  We are justified by God and restored to relationship with him because of Jesus, and not for any other reason.  A new relationship is established based solely in God’s grace.
 
            When we grasp this truth, even a little bit, it should cause us to repent of our good works done apart from faith.  When there is humility that leads to a total turning to Jesus, there is a revival to new life in God, and a personal reformation around the doctrine of grace instead of the doctrine of my glorious works that I perform.
 
            We, then, as the people of God, saved and justified through the blood of Jesus, ought to be the most joyful and grateful people on the planet.  We have salvation from the deception of our hearts to life in Christ!  Apathy and lethargy in the church to the things of God are the twin evils that reign in the place of awe and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ.
 
            There is nothing more God can do to show us that he loves us than by actually dying for us, and by doing so, satisfying his own wrath against the sin which seeks to destroy us.  The late Brennan Manning once told the story about how he got the name “Brennan.” While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, and went to school together. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together. One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on the live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan’s life was spared.
 
When Brennan became a priest he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So he took on the name “Brennan.” Years later he went to visit Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?” Mrs. Brennan got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan’s face and shouted, “What more could he have done for you?” Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, does God really love me? And Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “What more could he have done for you?”
 
The cross of Jesus is God’s way of doing all he could do for us. And yet we often wonder:  Does God really love me? Am I important to God? Does God care about me?  We tend to ask those questions when we are trusting in ourselves, because we never really know where we stand.  Let the doubts roll away.  No matter how bad or how good we are, the path of suffering of our Lord Jesus has taken care of the sin issue once for all.
 

 

This is what we call the gospel, the good news that Jesus suffered and died for all the bad things we have done, and all the good things we have done to try and justify ourselves before God and each other.  Week after week for the past 2,000 years, God’s people have been gathered together to worship this same Lord Jesus who died on the cross.  The only thing left for us to do, since Jesus has done it all for us, is to offer our lives to him.  In doing so, the spirit of the Reformation lives on.