When people talk about how self-indulgent rock stars are, someone usually mentions the fact that the group Van Halen had a clause in its contract that there had to be a bowl of M&Ms in the dressing room but with all the green ones removed. That's a really petty abuse of power. And what's wrong with green M&Ms? Who is that picky?
People who care about the crew and the fans, that's who. Van Halen's concerts weren't just a handful of people on stage with guitars and drums. At the height of their popularity, the light show and the sound created at their live concerts were spectacular. So the band had to set up the tons of equipment needed to pull that off. The venues they played included theatres and stadia of various vintages. So the contract they had promoters sign made sure that each venue had a stage that could handle the weight and size of their set and equipment and an electrical system that could handle the demand of lights, instruments, mic and speakers. The contract was so minutely technical that it was the size of a book. But even so, they would occasionally come to a venue where it turned out that not everything was properly prepared. So lead singer David Lee Roth came up with the idea of burying in the depths of the contract the clause about eliminating a certain color candy. If the band walked into the dressing room and saw green M&Ms, they and their roadies knew they had to double-check absolutely everything because clearly the promoters had not read all of the contract or had not read it closely enough.
This is Reformation Sunday and today we are remembering a man who saw something in the Bible a lot of people had missed. His name was Martin Luther.
Had Luther continued his studies and become a lawyer as his father wanted, we might never have heard of him. But one day a near miss lightning strike made him vow to become a monk. There he became scrupulous about observing the rules and obsessed with his own sinfulness. He spent hours in the confessional and his confessor, in frustration at Luther's endless litany of every little thing he'd done wrong, told him to go commit some sins worth confessing. Luther became a priest and eventually a Doctor in Theology. His superior sent him to teach at the new University of Wittenberg. In teaching the Bible, Luther noticed something in there most people had missed: that, contrary to what they'd been taught, Christianity is not about trying to be good enough for God to save. That's because salvation is a free gift of God's grace. We can't possibly earn it so all we can do is trust in God's unreserved, undeserved goodness towards us. Though this was only explicitly stated in a few places, like Romans and Ephesians, once you notice it, you see it everywhere in the Bible. Paul's cites Genesis 15:6 as an early example. It can also be found in Jesus' parables about forgiveness, like the Prodigal Son, and in his forgiving and healing folks without asking for anything but their trust.
In Luther's day, this was a major insight. By the time he started teaching, preaching and publishing this, the church had been around for nearly 15 centuries. It had built up quite a lot of traditions, rules and bureaucracy. It had become very similar to the religion Jesus was up against in the first century, right down to the religious leaders becoming barriers to the good news of God's love rather than carriers of it. And just as the authorities of Jesus' day plotted to kill him so did those opposing Luther. Or in Luther's case, people were forbidden to give him food or shelter. And they were told that if they killed him, they wouldn't be prosecuted.
Why such a violent reaction to such good news? For one thing, it was a new way of looking at things. And while most people are all for new things that make life better, others are skeptical. The new ways are not well understood. The old ways are familiar. Folks know how they work. The new ways threaten to displace the old ways. Worse, the new ways have side effects, some of which are foreseeable, some of which are not. And the unknown is scary. What people fear they react strongly against.
This is especially true of those in power. They are not only familiar with the old ways, they are their custodians, if not their originators. They know intimately how they work and they usually profit from that knowledge. Their position and power is based in their control of the old ways. They not only fear the unknown side effects but the easily foreseeable ones, especially if they will diminish the power and centrality of those in charge.
In Jesus' day, his primary opponents were the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, the Herodians and of course, the Romans. The Pharisees, along with the scribes, were the custodians of the oral law, the additional rules that were supposedly deduced from the Torah. They had a stake in all the ceremonial and ritual rules they had come up with and Jesus' rather cavalier treatment of the rules of the Sabbath and ritual uncleanness threatened that. The Sadducees were the priestly party. They were normally opposed to the Pharisees precisely because they added all these rules to God's law. But Jesus' propensity to forgive people's sins, something folks should have to go to the temple and the priests for, threatened their whole reason for being. The Herodians, who supported the puppet king and his dynasty, and the Romans would be keen to stop the threat Jesus posed should he openly declare himself the Messiah, the rightful king of God's people.
In Luther's days, his opponents were, ironically, the hierarchy of the church, as well as the Holy Roman Emperor. The Roman Catholic Church, like the Pharisees, had added a lot of rules to those in the Bible. So much so that the system they had built up over the centuries constituted a major barrier to people coming to God. His love and forgiveness were swallowed up by cumbersome rules administered by a bureaucratic church. As Jesus said about the Pharisees, “They pile heavy burdens on people's shoulders and won't lift a finger to help...You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 23:4, 14, CEV)
The thing that triggered Luther's public outcry against the status quo was a deal worked out between a bishop and the pope. The bishop was buying a 3rd bishopric and the pope needed money to refurbish St. Peter's in Rome. So they came up with a scheme to make the money for both projects: selling indulgences. An indulgence was a pardon for the punishment of sins issued by the church in exchange for good deeds. Giving money to the church was the specific good deed sought. You could also get souls of relatives out of purgatory, the intermediary place the church posited for dead Christians to work off unforgiven sins. And the man they got to spearhead the project was a master salesman. Johann Tetzel was a Dominican friar whose catchphrase was “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory springs.” He said that the indulgences he was selling were so effective that you could buy your way into heaven even if you had raped the Virgin Mary!
Luther was incensed by this perversion of God's forgiveness. What makes his grace so wonderful is that it can't be earned. It is freely given by a loving Father. The only requirements are repentance and faith in God's goodness as demonstrated in Jesus' sacrifice for us. Neither the pope or anyone else had the power to bestow this on people; this comes from God and requires no intermediary other than Christ, who makes it possible. And Luther said so in his 95 Theses, or propositions to be debated, which he mailed to his bishop and nailed to the local church's door.
This of course threatened the powers that be. If people didn't need to go through priests to receive forgiveness, that diminished their centrality in the spiritual life of the average Christian. If the pope couldn't dole out the merits of the saints to help people get to heaven, that diminished his centrality in the church. But that's the point: Christ should be the center of the church and of the life of the believer. The clergy are not God's handlers, screening those who want to contact him, demanding bribes to pass on requests, but his servants, helping his people by bringing them this good news.
I have personally seen the power of the good news or gospel. I have seen it when dealing with people who were racked with guilt. I have helped people in two different nursing homes who either thought God was punishing them or who were punishing themselves over various failings, real or imagined. In each case, I asked if they had asked God to forgive them. When they said they had, I quoted 1 John 1:9--“If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I told them that Jesus had taken our punishment so they could stop punishing themselves. And in both cases it changed the person. One patient resumed eating. The other stopped crying and thanked me every time she saw me.
We all sin. We all do things we know we shouldn't. We all fall short of God's glorious intentions for us. And we need to acknowledge that. Not to admit to one's wrongdoing is like not admitting to yourself that you overeat or drink too much or have a violent temper. If you don't, you won't get help. You will live in a delusional state and might even become one of those arrogant people who denies having any flaws and consequently will never grow or improve as a person.
But those who do acknowledge their sins needn't wallow in them. When we truly turn our backs on them and confess them to God, he forgives us. He does so not because we deserve it but for Christ's sake and because he is gracious. And because it depends on God and not ourselves, we can be secure that nothing, not even our own sins, can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
I started this sermon talking about Van Halen's infamous green M&Ms, buried in their contract and often overlooked. They were not important in themselves but signified much more vital things. But while God's grace was also overlooked, it was not mentioned in only one place in the Bible. It is first mentioned in Genesis 6:8 and last mentioned in the very last verse of the last book of the Bible, Revelation. All in all, grace and its variants appear 200 times in the Bible. And it is vital in itself.
So how did grace get overlooked in the church? It became like background noise or wallpaper, so common it gets taken for granted and ignored. But it was rediscovered by Luther and suddenly everyone could see it, even the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation led to the Counter-Reformation, in which the church Luther didn't want to leave but reform finally got around to cleaning house. And in 1999 the World Lutheran Federation and the Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that said both churches now hold “a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ.” And in 2006 the World Methodist Council voted unanimously to adopt the declaration.
In Ephesians 2:8 & 9 Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it it the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” And thank God for that. Our redemption does not depend on us, on our feeble efforts to make ourselves good enough for God. It is all God's doing. All we have to do is trust him and he will change us into people who can respond to his grace and love. All this was revealed to us by and in his son Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross made it all possible, and whose resurrection gives us hope that when we see him next we will be like him, mirroring the love that created us and restores us and reconciles us to God and to each other. That is the reformation that God truly desires, not of institutions but of human beings, and not just to make us different from what we were but better, as a doctor makes one better--whole and healthy and brimming with life.