(From a Sermon by Pastor Charles Lehmann, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Belgrade, MT)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
In the year 1517, the Christian family gathered for worship, they communed only once a year. And even then only the Lord’s body was received. His blood fully regular people. Only the lips of the priest touched the chalice.
Even in the worship service following Luther’s nailing of the 95 thesis on the Castle Church door, those that gathered in Wittenberg simply watched the priest say the words of institution. They listen for the bell that announced that the bread had become the Lord’s body and the wine had become the Lords blood. They knew that their lord was physically with them, so they bowed in silence. But, they didn’t dare go forward to receive the sacrament. The Lord’s Supper was too holy for miserable sinners. The Supper was for those who achieved holiness on their own, those who worked to please God. So, God’s presence brought fear, not joy. There was no comfort for sinners in the meal, no forgiveness.
Christians had been taught that God was a vengeful tyrant whose wrath could only be turned aside by prayers, fasting, and offering the endless stream of mass after mass. It didn’t matter that almost no one communed. The mass (that is the Holy Communion Service) was important because it was human work to appease an angry God. The fact that barely anyone communed, the fact that the Word of God was almost entirely neglected, didn’t matter. The important thing was the priests mumbling the words before the altar, the friars peddling indulgences to build the church.
By 1530 everything was different. Faithful Christians longed for services on Sunday. Martin Luther’s sermons taught a loving and merciful God who sent his Son to die on the cross for their forgiveness. They knew that God’s righteousness given to them through faith in Christ was reason for joy. They were certain that though the blood of Jesus shed on the cross they had been received into God’s favor, they had forgiveness.
Luther’s pastor, Bugenhagen celebrated the Lord’s Supper only when there were penitent sinners who desired to receive the comfort that it gave. And that didn’t mean twice a month, or quarterly. It didn’t mean the First (Second) and Third (Fourth) Sunday’s of the month either. Once the people were taught that in the Lord’s Supper they received gifts nowhere else so readily available, life, salvation and forgiveness of all their sins, they demanded to receive it every week, every service.
And that’s exactly what their pastor did. Penitent sinners streamed to the altar. They didn’t come because they were holy, better than others. They came because they were sinners in need of what God offered. They were wicked. They were selfish. They were stubborn. They were liars and thieves, adulterers and cheaters. They knew their sin pushed them away from God. They knew hell was the place they deserved. They knew that God would have been perfectly just in striking them dead on the spot. And, they knew that he wouldn’t. They knew that God wanted above all else to give them his gifts at the altar. They knew that he wanted them to have forgiveness, life and salvation found in Jesus Christ alone, offered at the rail. All they need do is open their mouths and receive it from God.
And God gives it. He bound himself to bread and wine, word and water. He used the hands of a sinful pastor to give it. He put the very body and blood of Jesus into their mouths. He used the mouths of sinful men to announce that the true body and true blood of Jesus would feed them what they needed more than anything else in the world. There is no greater gift of God.
It was only 13 years. The church turned from its satanic ways, its greed and wrath, to joy and peace. They were no longer taught they had to work to make themselves right with God through impossible works. The church became the place where God’s grace was proclaimed and given. Forgiveness, life and salvation were given to God’s people according to God’s command.
The Reformation was no small thing.
For Centuries the good news of Jesus’ salvation was hidden inside the demands of the law that could never be met. Church services weren’t even in their own language. All they had that proclaimed the gospel was art. The gifts of God, his Word, the Lord’s Supper and Confession and Absolution were empty deeds that were used to earn, unearnable salvation.
Is it any wonder that the gifts were despised? They were no longer gifts but burdens. They were a club used by the church to beat into submission. People ran from them. The supper was something they did, and as little as possible. They didn’t confess their sins because they could never do it well our complete enough. And when they did confess, the burden of penance was heavy. Why go, only to carry and even heavier load than before? Why go, and have something new to feel guilty about? The church of God had been taken captive by Satan’s lies. It was corrupt and evil. But it was the bed that made the Reformation.
God used Luther and those who gathered around him to speak his truth. Satan had come at God’s people with all the power of hell, but one little word made him fall. The name of Jesus, proclaimed as savior of the world.
It began with Luther’s hammer and peaked with the princes so dedicated to God’s Word that they bared their necks to the emperor rather than have it taken away from them. Twenty years earlier they wouldn’t have cared about the Lord’s Supper, now they stood in the halls of power vowing to die rather than lose it. Twenty years earlier they didn’t confess theirs sins. Now they would be willing to run a hundred miles to receive the comfort of the Gospel spoken to them in the Absolution in response to their confession. Some of them died a martyr’s death, some of the lived through the reformation and died of old age. But the Gospel clearly proclaimed changed them.
Jesus told Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail against God’s church. Before the Reformation it looked as if Satan had the upper hand. But God is active in his church, in his word and sacrament, doing what he always does: he calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies his children. The dimly burning wick is not snuffed out. Christ Jesus preserves his church throughout all time, until the end of time, just as he promised.
He is here for you today, in bread and wine, water and word. Your pastors are required by God to proclaim God’s forgiveness and feed the body and blood to any penitent sinner who asks.
You are forgiven. You are free. You are heirs of the Reformation. Rejoice! Be glad! The creator of the universe has given every good thing to you, and He’s about to do it again. Be at peace. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.