Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on October 23, 2005
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Reflections on Martin Luther
Sermon preached by
The Rev. Ethan Cole
October 23, 2005
Since next Sunday we are observing Reformation Sunday, with our centerpiece being a Bach Cantata whose words are a hymn text by Martin Luther, I have spent much of my reading this October considering Luther's life and teaching. It is said that young Luther had a profound sense of his own sinfulness. He felt like a man justly under judgment. That he was deserving of God's wrath and that there was no hope for him. He despaired. It reminds me of that scene in Pilgrim's Progress that great classic of Puritan spirituality where the Christian pilgrim has turned out of the way he was shown to the Heavenly City toward the town called Morality. On his way there, he gets trapped by the threat of a smoking fiery mountain falling on him and he despairs. The mountain is Sinai, symbol of the law. Christian despairs at his own inability to keep the law that he must keep to get to the Morality he seeks.
More recently, C.S. Lewis describes how we might feel this feeling. We live in a time where perhaps we don't feel dread as Luther did that we are surely damned for our sins--or terror that Sinai will crush us because we cannot keep the law. Lewis says we are more likely to have a vague sense that we haven't been doing very well lately--and as he titles one of the chapters of Mere Christianity "We have cause to be uneasy."
Jesus today gives us a summary interpretation of the moral tradition that he was trained in, the religion of Israel. "What is the greatest commandment?" Jesus is asked. "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
The greatest commandment: love God with all your being. The second commandment: treat everybody else fairly, love them as if they were your very own self. These are the top two. Everything else springs from these and depends on these: all the law, all the prophets.
The top commandments aren't prohibitions of spectacular sins: don't murder, don't steal. Nor are the top two exhortations to ritual purity: be holy, don't touch the dead, wash in the special way prescribed in the law. No, the top two are love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself.
When I look at my track record with these top two that God commands I can see why Martin Luther felt dread and why Bunyan's Pilgrim feared that he might be crushed beneath the weight of the law. When I look at my track record with these two commandments I see that I have a good reason to feel uneasy--and I do.
The last few weeks we have been hearing Jesus' parables of judgment, the wicked tenants, the wedding banquet where a man is cast out for wearing the wrong clothes. However, today Jesus doesn't speak a word of judgment. He lays out the moral code and leaves the judging of self to us. I find this passage more troubling than those terrible parables.
Who obeys this commandment? Who loves God with the entirety of his being? Has there ever been a saint so great that his entire life, his heart, his soul, his mind was so ordered toward God that there was nothing left over? Has there ever been a holy one who so identified with her neighbor that she loved all of them, the whole world, as if they were her very own self? Some of the saints have pointed the way down this road, and even tried to walk it, but I don't think anyone has completely kept it all the time. If even the greatest saints can't always keep even the top two commandments, where does that leave us?
Well, as Luther so deeply felt, as Bunyan so fearfully illustrated, as Lewis wrote so plainly, it leaves us as sinners. Sinners who have chosen to love things other than God all the time. Sinners who have chased our own well being and pleasure and comfort at the expense of our fellow humanity. Sinners who stand under the judgment of a righteous God who asks for our total love and commitment and a right attitude toward the rest of creation--and we are sinners because we fall short.
At this realization Luther despaired. There was no gospel here. No good news. Nothing but judgment and the threat of hell. Luther was left alone with nothing but his sins--and saw this as the state of all the rest of us too.
While Luther felt so judged by the law, he had read the rest of the scriptures too. He had read that God loves his creation. He felt judged but knew academically of God's love. He just didn't know how to earn it. So every time Luther fell into sin he performed rigorous penances after the medieval model of his day. If there was ever a man who could have bought his way into heaven it was Luther--and yet he still felt like he had nothing to offer God but his sins. And in this low moment of emptiness, Luther had a theological realization that would shake the world. If he had nothing to offer God but his sins, than that must be all God was asking for. The grace that sinners need to be set right with God can only be given to those who know they have nothing to offer in exchange for that grace except their sins. As one writer about Luther puts it, "The good news of the gospel is that that is all God asks sinners to offer."
The man who keeps those two great commandments is Jesus Christ himself. He fulfilled the law by loving God his Father with his total being. He is the one who loved the whole creation as deeply as he loved himself. In exchange for our sins, in exchange for our failure to live up to these great commandments, Christ will give us the grace we need to be made whole. That is the good news of the gospel to me. Even as step by step in my Christian walk I try to love God as he commands and I try to treat my neighbor as God commands, I will surely fail. But I can offer that failure to Christ, who in exchange will wipe that failure away, and give me the grace to try again. As Luther put it in his hymn: Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be failing; were not the right man on our side, the man of God's own choosing; dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is he!
It is on Christ that we must depend, and on his extravagant love for
us that we must rely. The currency we need to purchase our own salvation
is our own sins and failure and brokenness. In exchange for this, God
will pour down upon us the abundance of his grace. In great thanksgiving
for so extravagant a gift as God's love in exchange for our sin we love
God with as much of our being as we can muster, trusting that by the
grace of God he will teach us every day how to love him even more. Amen.
©2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York