Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson:
For a Lutheran pastor, Reformation Sunday should be a much-anticipated day. The history of the Reformation, Luther’s vast storehouse of writings, and the host of Scriptural references on which he and the other reformers stood so boldly, all provide a rich resource for the preacher. At the same time, the years have changed the applications of many of those teachings. There is a real challenge to do justice to it all.
Maybe we preachers need Reformation Day to come around more than just once a year. It is such a powerful reminder of our naked humanity. William Willimon once told a little anecdote from Peggy Noonan, said by some to have been the best of the Reagan-Bush speech writers. She told of how difficult it is to write the “Big Speech,” and why it rarely and barely measures up to expectations. Of even the best of her speeches, she confesses, “After a few minutes you’re thinking, ‘What’s for lunch?'” Most sermon writers have to admit that, on Sunday mornings, we rarely finish before our audience starts thinking the same thing!
Fortunately, as Willimon said, God doesn’t need the “Big Sermon;” He only needs an opening — a window through which His Spirit can blow. The Reformation reminds us that grace is a gift — it is not only something we cannot earn or buy or deserve in any way, it is also something that even the very best sermon, let alone the best preacher, cannot give! In addition to remembering the great Reformation truths, “Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, and Grace Alone,” let us also remember that Grace is God’s alone.
In the Gospel Lesson for Reformation Sunday, Jesus says, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The people answer, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can You say that we shall be set free?” Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
The opening line of the lesson is significant — Jesus was talking to “Jews who had believed in Him.” This was not some gathering of enemies, with an ax to grind and a need to argue with anything Jesus said. These were the ones who believed in Him. For that reason we, as His believers today, may have something to learn from their question and their overwhelming need to ask it. What would we have said? Slavery has been abolished in this country for more than a hundred years. Would we have answered, “We are Americans and have never been slaves to anyone…” If we had answered like that, or if we think like that right now, Jesus’ searing accusation will catch us, just as it did those first century believers: “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”
A few years ago, five men escaped from a prison not far from where I live. Four of them were back behind bars in a matter of hours. A newscaster announced, “One is still free.” I remember thinking, “Oh, is he?” An escaped convict enjoys next to none of the freedoms for which this country is known throughout the world. He will never truly be a free citizen until he has returned to prison and finished his new sentence — one lengthened due to his escape. He wears a ball and chain as surely as if he had one literally attached to his leg. Freedom may eventually come to him, but it will come from someone else — from a judge who says he has satisfied his debt to society.
Jesus says that we all wear a similar ball and chain. Sin is the unbelief and suspicion that plagues our minds and motivates us to act contrary to the God we should trust and don’t. Faith is the only cure and, as with an escaped prisoner seeking freedom, it is not something we can give to ourselves. It comes from Someone else — a gift from the Judge who says we have satisfied our debt. Unlike the prisoner, however, our sentence is eternal death. Our salvation is that Jesus satisfied the debt for us. That is why the Judge forgives us and truly sets us free.
Like those first century Jews who believed in Jesus, we like to think that there is something so special about us — our ancestry, our citizenship, our membership in some denomination or congregation — that gives us a kind of special standing. We say: “We don’t need freedom. We have never been slaves to anyone. We don’t need forgiveness — we are good enough.” Thomas W. Currie III once wrote in The Clergy Journal that we sometimes find God’s forgiveness to be offensive: “It reveals us to be distressingly like everyone else!” (And we are so special.)
Perhaps the most distressing thing about it is that God picks up the entire tab. Have you ever seen people at a restaurant who were embarrassed to have someone else foot the bill? “Well, at least, let me get the tip,” we say. It’s not just that we think we should do something to deserve God’s love and acceptance, it is also that we want to! God’s grace is a little embarrassing when it strikes us full force.
Gerhard Forde said we want to dampen the explosive force of the Gospel by saying to ourselves, “Paul could not have meant that we don’t have to do anything. We are not that free. Surely we have to bake cookies, increase our pledge, lead the youth group.” But we absolutely must not compromise the radical nature of the Gospel’s claim. Perhaps, as Forde suggests, we need to be asking questions like, “What do I do now that I don’t have to do anything?” The gift of the Gospel is not something as small as a duty or task or chore. God is after much more — God is after us! To be free indeed is to entrust everything to God: our lives and souls and hearts and belongings and selves, everything.
An old shoemaker’s awl is on prominent display in the French Academy of Science. That awl fell from the shoemaker’s table one day and put out the eye of his 9-year-old son. Soon, the child became blind in both eyes and had to attend a school for the blind. At this school, the child learned to read by handling large, carved, wooden blocks.
When the shoemaker’s son grew up, he thought of a new way for the blind to read. It involved punching tiny dots onto paper, and Louis Braille devised this new method using the same awl that had blinded him in his youth.
When Patricia Houch Sprinkle told that story in Guideposts in 1978, she suggested that there would be a falling awl in each of our lives. She added, “When it strikes, some of us ask, ‘Why did God allow this to happen?’ Others ask, ‘How will God use it?'”
We post-Reformation Christians must continue to insist that the full force of the Gospel still have its way in our preaching and teaching. The only righteousness we have is not ours — it is the righteousness of God and it comes to us as the free (to us) gift of the blood of Christ (the real price). Justification from God is not attainable. It is not ours to gain, buy or earn. It is God’s and only God can give it. Grace is a gift — always a surprise. As William Willimon wrote, “It is not grace if it is expected.”
One of the most delightful wonders of God’s Word and worship and of receiving our Lord’s Supper is that we always seem to return home with more than we dared to ask. When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.