Sermon: Reformation Sunday: The Importance of Being Students of History
Scripture: Romans 1:16-17
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date: October 29, 2017
We live in a historical moment when our country is basked in the tumultuous throes of learning how to be sensitive and respectful of others while at the same time reassessing the symbols of our own history. A good example of this recently is how the Confederate Battle Flag has been sensibly removed from some state’s flags like the Georgia State flag. For some, the Confederate Flag is a sign of their cultural heritage; they know the rest of the country looks at the South as an odd duck and for some Southerners, the Confederate Flag highlights our oddity. For others, however, the Confederate Flag represents a tragic time in our history when one race enslaved another race. For yet others, the Confederate flag has been assimilated and reinterpreted to be a symbol of white privilege and hubris.
This has also spilled into the issues of statues in many community’s public squares that remember the leaders of the Old South like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The push is to tear them down and remove them from public view. I have no problem renaming Nathan Bedford Forest middle-school in a predominantly black school district as he was the founder of the KKK. What I do believe all of us need to be aware of, however, is the danger of revising the parts of history we do not like or forgetting our history altogether. We are damned to repeat history if we fail to remember and study it.
Students of history. The very word ‘student’ describes a mentality of a person who has to work at learning, understanding, and appropriating facts and knowledge into one’s life and the world. If you are a student, it is axiomatic that it requires work and effort. Beloved, today is the 500th birthday of the Protestant Reformation and I wonder how many of us fully understand the significance of that historical moment that ushered the modern world out of the Dark Ages and led us to the Enlightenment.
Luther was a student of history. He was a brilliant thinker and had his mind sharpened as an Augustinian monk and seminary professor in his homeland of Germany and his mind was always churning. Eric Metaxas, in his wonderful new book, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, describes how Luther pondering on our scripture text today, Romans 1.16-17, launched his part of the Reformation Fire.
According to history, Luther went to the special place many people have incredible epiphanies and insights: The bathroom. You know that’s true for yourself! You are taking a shower and boom! A flash of insight shoots through your head. Or, as in Luther’s case, as he was sitting in the Cloaca Tower at the Black Cloister in Wittenberg Germany in early 1517, the realization that the Church had lost its moorings to her own history in Christ came rising from within him. Paul’s words from Romans 1.16-17 kept rattling around in his head. Our scripture reads:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ 
The righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith. These are words that hardly sound like the kindling that set fire to the events that changed the world. Yet, if we look at these words from Romans as students of Scripture and as students of history as Luther was, it becomes all clear.
As a student of the Scripture, Luther remembered the prophet Habakkuk who wrote during the time the Babylonians came to ransack Jerusalem and take the people hostage. In the midst of those dark times, God was reminding the prophet and the Jewish people that the “righteous shall live by faith.” Luther was also living in dark times, what we call the late Dark Ages, and this verse jumped at him. Why?
Well, Luther was also a student of religious history. For him, in Metaxes’ words, Luther remembered that, “God reached down not halfway to meet us in our vileness but all the way down, to the foul dregs of our broken humanity. And this holy and loving God dared to touch our lifeless and rotting essence and in doing so underscored that this is the truth about us. In fact, we are not sick and in need of healing. We are dead and in need of resurrecting. We are not dusty and in need of a good dusting; we are fatally befouled with death and fatally toxic filth and require total redemption.” For Luther and other early Reformers in Europe at the time, he was reminded that salvation and wholeness begin and end with God’s love, God’s faith, in humankind and not our broken ability to earn that love and salvation from performing good moral or biblical works. The Reformation Church’s battle cry was “Sola Fide!”, by faith alone!
In Luther’s day, the Pope and the various kings and leaders throughout Europe were odd bedfellows. The Roman church needed the vassal leaders throughout the land to keep the church in power. The practice of the sale of indulgences began to rise as a way to pay for the Vatican’s building program in Rome as well as to line the pockets and treasuries of the kings and politicians in the remote parts of the empire. Let me clearly state that the Catholic Church does not adhere to this practice anymore!
Let’s say you have a crazy Uncle Bob or Aunt Mary who lived a shady life and have died. You could by an Indulgence, a piece of paper, that indicated you paid such-and-such to the Church and in return, you have purchased enough redemption points to get Uncle Bob or Aunt Mary out of purgatory and set their spirits on the way to heaven. Another reason Indulgences were popular is that if you yourself committed a horrible sin, you could purchase redemption points that will clean your sin-slate.
Well, as a student of scripture and as a student of history, Luther, theologically speaking, realized this was just whack. Scriptures and history remind us that in Christ, God came to freely give to us what we ourselves could not afford to buy: Relationship with the Holy One. What hit Luther that day in the bathroom was that you cannot buy that which is free! It’s all about faith for faith; God’s faith in us brings about our faith in God in the midst of our own spiritual, social, economic dark ages. We are made righteous, the fifty-cent word for “brought into right relationship,” through our faith in God’s faith expressed to us in Christ Jesus. You do not need a piece of paper to get crazy Uncle Bob and Aunt Mary out of hell because God first went to hell himself in Christ Jesus to get Bob and Mary out personally. God’s faith in humanity stems from His love for us and His covenant promises made to us. Salvation is God’s gift to us; salvation is not our gift to God but our faith is!
So, as all of this stewed within Luther, he posted the infamous 95 Theses on the community’s village bulletin board: The church doors. These theses were not so much a battle cry against the Pope as they were an invitation to the community, full of seminary students, to come and debate and discuss these issues. Today we would say that Professor Luther posted topics for a lecture series but no one showed up for the class. Luther never meant his 95 arguments about scriptural and historical issues to be the battle cry to leave the Roman Church; what happened was that someone copied the 95 Theses and because the printing press was recently invented, they were mass produced and sent all over Europe without Luther’s knowledge or permission. In modern parlance, we would say Luther sent an email to the academic community in Wittenberg but then it got copied and went viral in ways Luther never imagined. He did not want to leave the Catholic Church; Luther wanted to call the Church to reform and reflect on its ways so that it would be a healthier church.
It is thanks to Luther and others like him such as Calvin, Hus, and Knox that launched not only a spiritual enlightenment but an artistic, philosophical, intellectual and political enlightenment as well. The early Reformers and the divine-timing of the printing press got the word out quickly. It drove to the rise of universities where not just monks went to school but the larger population went as well because now people were taught to read in their own languages which spurred forth even more spiritual, social, intellectual and political breakthroughs.
Beloved, today is a reminder for us to be more like the Reformers. We are being called back to become students again – students of Holy Scripture as well as students of our own spiritual histories and backgrounds. We will discover that Church is more than position statements on ethical or moral causes; we will remind ourselves that it is God’s initiating faith and love for you and me that gives rise in our faith in God, and in turn, with one another. It’s only when students engage the scripture and history that we become able to change agents for Christ in the world. Beloved, you are a Reformer! Now let’s go and prepare for that task by once becoming students of our Scriptures and our religious history! And all God’s people say, Amen.
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
Metaxas, Eric. Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (pp. 95-96). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Luther, in his own words reflects on the moment, “Diese Kunst hat mir der Spiritus Sanctus auf diss Cloaca eingeben” which means, “The Holy Spirit gave me this art in [or upon] the cloaca”…Cloaca was the ancient Latin term for “sewer” and at the time of Luther had come to mean “outhouse.”
 The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Habakkuk 2.4.
 Metaxas, 97.
 Dunn, James D. G. Word Biblical Commentary. Romans 1-8, (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing Co., 1988), 43-44.
 Metaxas, 108.