Homily for the Reformation Sunday
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “They will
roast a goose now, but in a hundred years’ time they shall hear a swan singing, and they
will have no choice but to hear him out.” Dear brothers and sisters in our Lord and
Savior, Jesus Christ, these few words I just spoke to you were some of the final words of
Jan Hus, a fifteenth century Czech reformer who, having taught the truth of Sola
Scriptura and having dared to criticize the blatant abuses of the Roman Catholic church in
Bohemia in his day, was condemned to death as a heretic at the Council of Constance in
the year 1415 and was thereafter burnt at the stake, a most unchristian fate. Jan’s last
name, Hus, means “goose” in the Czech language, so I’ve been told. So they literally
roasted a goose in 1415 – and about a hundred years later, give or take a year, a swan
indeed began to sing around the university town of Wittenberg, Germany. Jan Hus was
right; perhaps God revealed this truth to him at the very end of his earthly life – He must
have. But what was repressed in the fifteenth century was far too commanding and
formidable to stamp out in the sixteenth. They did not listen to the poor goose, to the
bodily detriment of St. Hus; they put him on the roast and burnt him to a crisp. But the
saintly swan who came later, they could not think to ignore.
This powerful imagery that was elicited from the tongue of a man being led to his
own funeral pyre has lasted throughout the centuries, and thanks be to God. In many
images and icons of our blessed Martin Luther, you will see a swan at his side. It is, in
many ways, his symbol – his spirit animal, if you good Christian people would be willing
to humor a loose heathen analogy. Jan Hus was burnt alive and his ashes were tossed
carelessly into the Rhine River. But Luther began on fire, he was inflamed by the Holy
Spirit from the get-go, so no church authority nor civil ruler was ever going to be able to
stop the truth from bellowing right out of his fierce German lips. They could not stifle the
great swan’s song.
And as St. John relays to us in his apocalyptic vision this morning, “there was once an
angel who flew directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell
on the earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And the angel said: ‘Fear
God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come, and worship Him
Who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’” This angelic figure seen
long ago was none other than our bold reformer, dear Dr. Luther. It was a heavenly vision
of a future visionary in an Augustinian monk’s habit and cowl braving the forces of the
Holy Roman Empire at the Diet of Augsburg for the sake of the Gospel and God’s
people. Or at least that is undoubtedly how church tradition has interpreted those
particular biblical words over past the half millennium. And so this feast day we
remember and celebrate Luther’s legacy and the legacy and future of the faith he and
others suffered to bequeath and graciously hand down to us, seemingly from on high.
What happened five hundred years ago was indeed a reformation. It began with
the church and then spread to every single facet and aspect of human life. After Christ
Himself, perhaps no other man has engendered more change in this fallen world than
Martin Luther. And change immeasurably for the better. Ours was a true reformation. A
reformation of the church catholic. However, in this day and age, five hundred years on,
there is not one single lesson, but rather two primary lessons and takeaways from this
reformation that we must not lose sight of nor forget.
Firstly, reformation itself is never quite finished. The church is admittedly never
perfect. Our doctrine may be perfect and pure, as it has been given to us in our
confessional documents—and it is perfect and pure, to be sure—but practice seldom is.
So some sense of reform must always remain a viable option, for the sake of correcting
poor and impure practice. But the second and equally important—and entirely
related—lesson is this: ours was a conservative reformation, as the sainted Missouri
Synod theologian Charles Porterfield Krauth once famously argued.
In his magisterial 1871 book The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology, Krauth
writes: “The spirit of the Reformation was no destroying angel, who sat and scowled with
a malignant joy over the desolation which spread around. Instead, it was overshadowed
by the wings of that Spirit Who brooded indeed on the waste of waters and the wilderness
of chaos, but only that He might unfold the germs of life that lay hidden there, and bring
forth light and order from the darkness of the yet formless and void creation. It is vastly
more important, then, to know what the Reformation retained than what it overthrew; for
the overthrow of error, though often an indispensable prerequisite to the establishment of
truth, is not truth itself; for it may clear the foundation simply to substitute one error for
another, perhaps a greater for a less.” Good old Krauth, he always had a way with words
– and such facility with the English language. He was easily one of the finest theologians
this American synod has ever produced. And I highly recommend that book to you all.
Anyhow, for us now, we already know well what the Reformation overthrew,
don’t we? It overthrew legalism, works-righteousness, the foolish dependence on fallen
human reason and uncertain tradition over against the clear, perspicuous Word of God,
and the tyranny of the papacy and of faithless popes, of course. Naturally, the dangers of
these things have been ingrained in us from our catechesis as Lutherans, either as lifelong
members of this church body or as recent converts. And the threat of these dangers
always looms in the background, make no mistake – because the devil never takes a day
off. We have to bear that in mind continually. But friends, Krauth is right. It is just as
important in our time, if not more important now than ever before, to know and to
confess what the Reformation retained, what it kept and maintained in addition to what it
rejected and overthrew.
We must not simply align ourselves with the greater Protestant Reformation and
movement. We here celebrate the Lutheran Reformation, not every so-called Protestant
breakaway in the sixteenth century and thereafter.
In the mind of Luther and most Lutherans five hundred years ago, and most Lutherans for
several hundred years, for that matter, in their minds, the theological menace presented
by Rome and the papacy in the sixteenth century was soon surpassed and quickly
overshadowed by the unspeakable abuses, untruths, heterodoxies, and potential and
apparent heresies that were born out of the Radical Reformation. We reject Rome’s claim
to primacy. That should go without saying. Yet we just as much repudiate with a full
throat those who throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water; who, for instance,
disparage and downgrade the Means of God’s Grace, who belittle the Office of the Holy
Ministry, and who eagerly dismiss the valuable and salutary traditions of the church
catholic. Not the Catholic church but the church catholic – there is a profound distinction
between the two, and one that is incredibly consequential for us Christians in every age
and generation. We cast aside what was wrong with the church in the fifteen-hundreds –
but only what was wrong and unbiblical and unnecessary. We do not now, nor have we
ever, abandoned whatever is precious and profitable in what the church in her wisdom
practiced for several thousand years. Rather, we welcome and embrace tradition and are
proudly called traditional. And the growth we see here right now, at Bethlehem this very
morning, and that we will continue to see—mark my words—proves the indispensability
and the treasure of church tradition.
To be certain, in the Middle Ages, the church in Rome began to depart from what
was entrusted to her from the early church and from the apostles themselves. She began
to depart from Holy Scripture above all. A reformation was therefore fitting and
altogether necessary. Having said that though, Luther did not set about to create a new
church. To the day that he died, Martin Luther considered himself catholic. That’s a fact,
you can look it up. He was well aware of what the word really and truly meant, what it
always meant. Instead of creating a new denomination, Luther set about to clean and
clear the figurative threshing floor of the church of his own birth, to restore it to that
pristine state which the church herself had once inherited and enjoyed for centuries.
Luther recognized that the church desperately needed change, and with the Holy Spirit on
his side, he risked his life time and again for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of
But that change he sought, it was not a change into something new at all – hardly.
Rather it was in truth a return to the plain truth, a return to what the church previously
was, from her infancy, a return home, so to speak, a homecoming, a return to herself as
the church of all time; thus it was not a new formation but a re-formation. And again,
ours was a conservative reformation or re-formation. We conserved what was always
worthwhile in the church we inherited. That’s what it means to be conservative, by the
way – to actually conserve the good of the past, not merely to stave off the backwards
and satanic supposed progress of the future. And that is still our duty today, to conserve
the truth, that truth which has stood and will continue to stand the test of time and which
is, in fact, eternal. Luther was able to witness that truth because he stood on the shoulders
of giants, the giants of the church past, like we do presently. But the radical reformers in
his century, whose descendants are still with us today, they were never able to catch a
real clear glimpse of the truth Luther saw because they voluntarily hopped down from
those giant shoulders and ended up tripping on their own individual pride on the way
down and landed face first in the mud of enthusiasm and sectarianism.
The danger of Roman theology and practice is always out there. Works-
righteousness is forever in the air. Our inclination toward it is in our very nature as
sinners. But I submit to you that in our current theological landscape, it is not really
Roman Catholic thought and practice that is our most pressing concern. Lutherans in
America have always suffered from a bit of Romaphobia. And understandably so. When
we first came here, we did not wish to be lumped in with those loyal to the Vatican by
other Protestants. There was then a healthy reason for this fear and suspicion of Roman
association, as it were – and considering the most recent quite counter-scriptural
utterances of Pope Francis regarding sexuality and church blessings, that fearful
suspicion is still warranted to a degree.
However, the pendulum has arguably swung too far now in the other direction.
Sometimes we are overly willing to jettison, to forsake and disown useful and meaningful
practices from our own Lutheran past, from our rightful heritage as the true church on
earth founded by Jesus Christ in the first century, for the simple sake of distancing
ourselves in appearances from Rome. But in so doing, our actions are not neutral. Actions
are never neutral – every action, every bodily movement in our brief lives, articulates a
deeper meaning and teaching, whether deliberately or inadvertently and unknowingly.
So, by blindly, even unthinkingly acting to distance ourselves further and further from the
Roman church as a reactionary, reflexive, and impulsive tendency, by doing this we
invariably run the risk of bringing ourselves ever closer to those greater threats that
Luther once acknowledged and which Krauth once advised explicitly against.
By betraying the conservative nature of our reformation, we may end up siding
with those who are further from us in doctrine and practice than Rome itself. And we
have to admit that, bless her heart, that is occasionally the case in the Lutheran
Church—Missouri Synod, where some worship services constructed around the notion of
Sunday morning entertainment, along with all the questionable theology those services
subtly imply, they suffer the lack of even a trace of Lutheran distinction. And how sad
that is – that some would gladly forego their Lutheran heritage and patrimony and
identity when doing so no longer even brings young people through the doors, if it ever
once did, truth be told. But I don’t even remotely believe that that is the case here at
Bethlehem and in East Tennessee. We love tradition, we love the liturgy, we love being
Lutheran, and we sure aren’t afraid of showing it. But let us always be on guard against
the temptation toward superficial popularity and the world’s approval, because it is
present with us constantly. We are not generic Protestants. We are Lutherans. We are a
via media in the Latin, a middle way of sorts, somewhere in between the Catholic and
Protestant world out there. We are evangelical, we are the evangelicals – we literally
coined the term! – yet we are also still catholic in the most genuine sense of the word.
That is our heritage, and we ought to fight like crazy to hold onto it. Luther certainly did.
And we honor him and the Reformation he ignited by continuing to fight like crazy to
preserve what the Lutheran faith meant in 1517 and 1521 and 1530 and what it should
mean now in 2023 and beyond.
We are justified by grace through faith alone. This grace is given as a free gift
from God, worked by the power of the Holy Spirit and received through a faith in Christ
which is just as much a free gift from God. We are not justified by the law. No part of the
law ever saves us. Only Christ’s sacrifice saves – only His perfect obedience to the law
on our behalf at Calvary redeems. Scripture alone. Grace alone. Faith alone. These are
what deliver us. The Word of God is the sole source of our doctrine. It is our authority.
Not popes, not councils, not even tradition, but God’s inspired Word. These things Rome
let slip and forgot in former and foregone centuries, and we had to remind her.
Regrettably, she didn’t then listen and instead doubled down on her errors and evidently
does so to this very day.
But for us, there is more. We further believe that God works His grace through
means, through physical things, through sacraments. He saves us through Holy Baptism,
through a watery rebirth, even as infants. He forgives us through the absolution spoken
out loud by an ordained minister on Sunday morning, which means that we obviously do
not reject the dominical, divine institution of the Office of the Holy Ministry. And God
feeds us through His own Son’s body and blood. Our Lord is physically and fleshly
present with us in the Supper, without question. That is our faith. And moreover, we cling
to the liturgy, we cling to the traditions the church has held for millennia, and we
comprehend the significance of beauty in worship. The church architecture, the spires and
steeple, the organ, the stained glass, the statuary, the crucifix, the sign of the cross, the
ancient creeds, the historic lectionary and the feast days of the church year, the paraments
and vestments and colors and clericals, kneeling at the altar and our other sanctifying
gestures, our unparalleled hymnody, and the theological literature of the Western
Christian canon. These are ours.
We are not iconoclasts; we are not enthusiasts. It is okay for the house of God and our
worship to be beautiful and even sublime, every Sunday; it should be, and consciously so.
We should aim for our worship here to be the most beautiful and most edifying Christian
worship in this town, in this state, in all of Appalachia – why not? It is scriptural, after all.
Puritanism and Pietism are not – and so they have no place here whatsoever. We do not
despise the flesh nor creation, but recognize that creation is the vehicle for our salvation.
Luther understood that so well. And we Lutherans still proclaim this truth today so very
well. That is why our worship is defined by beauty – which, if you haven’t already
noticed, is something painfully absent and purposely neglected and distorted in the world
out there these days. So what a reprieve and delight it is to at least be able to see it once a
week in this sacred place. And the beauty of our services will, by the way, with the help
of God, continue to draw new believers to us, I promise you that.
You know, I feel like I have a special perspective on all this, as a convert – and a
convert from Rome, no less. I know well the theological troubles associated with the
teachings of that fold, trust me. The Holy Spirit led me out of that church, by the grace of
God, and truth be told, through Martin Luther’s own words – he and I were both led out
of that same church and into the church catholic and reformed right here. But having this
unique perspective, as a convert, I fully understand how crucial it is that we hold fast to
what actually makes us Lutheran. Again, we are not like every other church out there.
This day is not a celebration of the Protestant Reformation. It is a celebration of our
Lutheran Reformation. It is a celebration of our church, which is like no other church on
God’s green earth. So let us be sober-minded then, like Luther himself was. Let us be
ready to reform our practice where needed, yet let us also be equally concerned with
conserving and cherishing whatever in the tradition is of value. We are not radical, we are
evangelical. We are clearly not Roman Catholic, but neither are we strictly speaking
Protestant; we are instead Lutheran, that sweet scriptural spot right in between. Never
forget that, dear faithful.
Jan Hus perhaps heard the faint crooning of the swan song as he was led gravely to
his own fiery pyre. A century later, that song burst forth, a mighty chorus none could
even feign to disregard. That is our song, friends, the song of the Gospel, the song of the
truth of Holy Scripture, the song of that middle way, the song of Luther’s reformation
breakthrough and the song of the Book of Concord published over half a century later.
That’s the music of our God-given faith. We ought to never conform to the songs of this
world, neither to the songs of those with whom we are not in agreement and unity,
however seemingly popular and seductive those songs may be. Rather, let us sing our
song steadfastly, together, and loudly, until Jesus Christ Himself comes back to sing it
with us. Let us belt it out to the heavens. We are Lutherans. Therefore, let us be Lutheran.
Let everything that title means be our perpetual anthem today and tomorrow and the day
after. We are Christians, yes, of course – and we are Lutherans, too. To be Lutheran is to
be Christian and to be Christian is to be Lutheran – for being Lutheran means nothing
more and nothing less than being biblical and confessional and traditional and faithful to
Christ Himself. And thanks and praise be to God for that blessed fact. So take pride in
your faith, brothers and sisters. And be unapologetically Lutheran this day and every day.
In the most holy name of Jesus. Amen.