COBWEBS ON THE CRUCIFIXReformation
SO what was this Reformation business all about? Was it an "enlightenment," an emerging of reason and intellect? No, indeed. It was interpreted that way at one point in history, roughly from the time of Isaac Newton until around the time of the Civil War, but the Reformation was not about intellectual things. Those who see it that way have one eye closed and the other eye clouded. Even the historical philosopher, George Fr. Wilhelm Hegel, completely misunderstood the Reformation because he looked at it in intellectual terms. Was it, then, a breakout of passions and nationalism, a great political event? No, indeed. It is true that there were opportunists during that age who used the religious confusion as an occasion for their ambition. Henry VIII of England comes to mind, but that was merely an unintended side-affect, one that returned to plague Christendom many times thereafter. Early twentieth century historians saw the Reformation in economic terms. That was because they saw all history that way, but we cannot reduce the Reformation like that. Perhaps the best picture I can give you of the Reformation is the title of today's sermon; consider the image of cobwebs on the crucifix, the result of a neglected Gospel.
The Apostle Paul died a millennium and a half before the Reformation, but he told us what it was all about. Paul was an orator. He could have made his living lecturing on philosophy with the brilliance of a Pericles, but Paul was not an ambassador for himself. He was thoroughly loyal to Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the Nations, so he does not direct our attention to the Grove of Academos, neither to Imperial Rome, nor to the counting-houses and museums of Alexandria. Instead, he points us to Calvary, a small hill outside of Jerusalem. He points to a historical fact, an act of passionate hatred, permitted by an apathetic authority, to indescribable suffering and innocent death, that is, to the crucifixion of Jesus. That is whither our crucifix points as well, and the Reformation was a great crucifix in the midst of church history. Here where our building bears the name of Christ, and our denomination points us to Luther, we point to the cross as well. In Luther's day cobwebs had grown on the crucifix, the Gospel was getting covered up by them. Luther's aim was to sweep those cobwebs away.
We don't have to go very far to find hatred and apathy. The world deals in those constantly. But it has no use for Christ and Him crucified. One would think that the church should be an exception to this. If you know where to look, you can find faithful witnesses, but they are not in the majority, not even in Lutheranism. Instead one finds clergy who are far more concerned with public policy than with the kingdom of God. Let me give you a personal example. For many years I taught children church history. When I tried to teach them about Luther, all too often they had the notion that I was talking about Martin Luther King. Adding that surname changes everything. That latter-day Luther hardly ever mentioned Jesus or the way of salvation. He devoted his ministry - he called it that - to changing public policy, diverting the flock of Christ to a utopian earth instead of leading them to heaven. The original Luther directed his people to the cross, where Jesus said It is finished. When Jesus said that, He was letting us know that the kingdom of God was built. We do not have to build it. Yes, the original Luther did write a few things about public policy, but 95% of his work concerned the way of salvation, leading people to Word and Sacraments. Luther always lifted high the crucifix. No cobwebs could grow on it while he held it.
No one can live without Christ. Neither we, nor our friends and neighbors, nor our scattered families. Earth will never be paradise. No public policy can change the human heart. Christ alone cleanses the soul from sin. That is a short sentence, but it says so much. If your soul is cleansed, then you are reconciled to God. If your soul is cleansed, then your conscience is at peace. If your soul is cleansed, then no earthly misery, no violence of the worst terrorists, no personal disappointment or unfulfilled dreams, no economic ruin, neither grief, nor sickness can take the peace of God from you. Jesus said Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all things shall be yours as well. He did not instruct us to build the kingdom of God. There was nothing wrong with the one He built; it is that one we should seek. That is why Paul was determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That is why the church must put aside any nostrum it might have for solving this or that problem. The church has God's Word and Sacraments that lead us to the cross. So among our generation, let us know only Christ crucified!
Even as I say this a problem arises which Luther did not have to face. Today when we preach Christ crucified we cannot assume that everyone will know that we also mean Christ risen from the dead. Today we must be explicit about the resurrection. We do not preach a dead Jesus. We preach a Jesus who died, not a Jesus who is dead. We proclaim Jesus who was dead, but is risen and alive now. He is still God Incarnate. That did not end, neither will it ever end. He assumed our manhood and will never give it up. Jesus is still the Second Adam who resisted temptation. He did not eat of the Tree of Life for Himself, but submitted meekly to the ancient verdict, Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return. He did not have to do that, but freely offered Himself in love. To preach a Savior who is still dead makes no sense at all. God will be just and right. If Jesus did not rise, then He was a sinner, whose death was for His own sins and not for ours. If He died for His own sins, then His soul is in hell, and everyone who was ever born will be in hell with Him. So we preach Christ crucified and risen, no matter how much the devil tries to silence that message, no matter how much he distracts us with false preachers like King, who let cobwebs grow on the crucifix while they call people to political action. Today we remind ourselves to thank God that He cares enough about His church to reform it, that the Reformation of Luther's time will not be in vain, rather, that our generation proclaims the Gospel of God's grace through Christ crucified … and risen. AMEN.
~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross