When Martin Luther started the Reformation in 1517, what did he imagine that the church would look like when he was done? What was the goal toward which he was taking those who were willing to follow his lead? Was he simply reacting against things he thought were wrong? Or did he have a new vision of what the church could and should be?
Our Gospel lesson expresses what Martin Luther had in mind when he attacked the Pope and the doctrines of the Catholic church. Jesus said in John 8:31, “If you abide in my Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That, in a nutshell, is what the Reformation was all about, as far as Luther was concerned. Luther wanted the church to remain in Jesus’ word, without adding to, deleting from, or altering that Word, so that the church would be the true church, so that the church would know and proclaim the truth, and so that Christians would be free from sin and all its powers and effects.
Martin Luther envisioned the church as a people, not an international-political power, as it was then, nor as a department of the government or a non-profit organization, as it became thereafter. Luther wrote these memorable words in his Smalcald Articles: “Thank God, even a seven year old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd” (Smalcald Articles III, xii, 2; Tappert, 315). What do they believe in that makes them holy? God’s holy Word. Where do they hear the voice of their Shepherd? God’s holy Word. Martin Luther envisioned the church as a people of the Word.
Although Protestants claimed Martin Luther as the founder of their type of religion, not all of them accepted his vision of what the church should be. Chief among these was King Henry VIII of England. Henry was king, but he found that his “sovereign will” over affairs in England was thwarted by the Pope through the cardinals, bishops, abbots, and clergy. The pope refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, but had granted annulments for many other kings and princes. This demonstrated to Henry that the pope was only concerned about manipulating kings and nations to his own unholy purposes, not unlike the “Emperor” in the “Star Wars” movies.
In Henry VIII’s mind, the church should be a department of the Christian government governed by the Christian king. The purpose of the church, for Henry, was to guide the religion, morals, and behavior of the people for their own good and for the good of the kingdom. If the religion, morals, or behavior of the Christian king changed, then the church would have to change in that way too. These were the basic ideas of the Anglican church, which were adopted by almost all of the Protestant state churches in Europe by the end of the 16th century. Today the British monarch is still the “Supreme Governor of the Church of England” and is titled “Defender of the Faith.”
Henry’s idea of the “state church” was soon contested by many. Although he dissolved the monasteries and stopped the payments of offerings to Rome, in many ways Henry’s religion was still Catholic. When he died, his crown passed to his daughter Mary, who was Catholic. Her successor, Queen Elizabeth I, established a religious compromise that was too Catholic for people known as the “Puritans.”
Similar to Luther’s idea of the church, the Puritans were inspired by the idea of a church “purely reformed” according to the Word of God. Many of them were unable to live in peace with the king’s church in England. So they sailed to the shores of North America to found the colonies of Plymouth, New Haven, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. In due time, they founded the Puritan colleges of Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth, chiefly to prepare pastors who would teach their congregations “purely,” i.e., according to the Word of God. After the Revolution, the idea of religious liberty became dominant, with the result that these states disestablished their churches from 1790 to 1833.
All of the European lands that claimed Luther’s theology in the 16th century adopted some form of “state church” government. This worked out fine, as long as the princes and kings agreed with the Bible and Luther’s theology. But when, in the 19th century, the princes started to support the theology of Rationalism and the practices of Unionism, the people of the Word resisted. Some stayed in Germany and Scandinavia and started “free churches” that still exist today. Others emigrated to the United States and Australia, where religious liberty was the official law.
Our church-body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, was founded in 1847 by people who steadfastly adhered to Luther’s vision of the church as a people of the Word. Some were emigrants who settled in Saint Louis and Perry County, Missouri to escape the Rationalism of the Saxon king. Some were emigrants who settled in Frankenmuth and Saginaw County, Michigan to escape the Unionism of the Bavarian Protestant church. Some were emigrants who settled near Milwaukee, Buffalo-New York, and central Texas to escape the Unionism of the Prussian king. Many were pastors, like our founding pastor, the Rev. Andreas Saupert, who could not obtain positions in the German churches, because of their steadfast faith in Jesus and their commitment to Luther’s theology and the Word of God.
The question then comes to us here at Trinity Lutheran Church, Evansville after 171 years in this place: Are we people of the Word? Do we live up to Luther’s vision of a church that is ruled and guided solely by God’s Word in the Holy Scriptures? Does the truth of God’s Word set us free from sin and all its powers and effects?
I can’t answer those questions for you as individuals or as families. I know that I try my best to preach and teach according to the Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. I know that we administer the sacraments in the way that Jesus ordained them. I know that other aspects of our life together in this congregation are in accord with the Gospel and Holy Scriptures.
But I can’t answer the question of whether you are a person of the Word. I can’t answer the question of whether you still believe the Word that you once accepted in baptism and confirmation. I can’t answer the question of whether you believe all of the truth that the Word of God reveals. I can’t answer the question of whether you have found the true freedom that comes through the forgiveness of sins. Only you can answer those questions for yourself.
I hope you ask yourself those questions this week, as we again observe the Reformation. I hope that you discover that when “the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!”
In Jesus’ name. Amen.