S. Reformation.19 “The Holy Festival of the Reformation” John 8:31-36
    Fondly I recall a former vicar the one with the bad smoking habit, the week before Reformation asking what the readings were for the Sunday upcoming. “Reformation,” I said “it’s that time of year.” And he said (with a wry smile and a twinkle in his eye) “Ah, the Holy Festival of the Reformation” and I laughed out loud. I’m supposed to corrupt the vicars, not the other way around. But it doesn’t always go as planned.
    Now I see a couple puzzled expressions, so I need to unpack the inside joke for you, why it was funny and what point the vicar was making; and, God-willing, I will do so in plain language, easy to understand. First, you need to know this former vicar is a cradle Lutheran, passionately committed to the Faith as old Lutherans confessed it and very “high liturgical”; he loves the Festivals, the Liturgy of the Church, the continuity it gives us with Christ and His Apostles—an Israelite in whom there is, well; I won’t say no guile—maybe just a little…
     There was subtle mockery in that vicar’s: “Ah, the Holy Festival of the Reformation”. His tone and manner indicated that he thought the Reformation is not really a church festival at all like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, or even like the Day of St. Peter and St. Paul. He thought we make way too big a deal out of it; that maybe there really shouldn’t be a Reformation Festival at all, that maybe it’s not holy, but perhaps actually a bit unholy. He has a good point. It would be very hard to imagine Luther himself attending a “Reformation Festival” with anything but disgust, annoyance, and heavy dose of the sarcasm for which Luther is known and appreciated by some of us. The vicar’s wry “Ah, the Holy Festival of the Reformation” was a wonderful example of that sarcastic irony of which Luther was a Master. In mocking Lutheran Reformation Festivals as not all that Luther-like, he was showing himself to be a true Lutheran. Gotta love a paradox, right?
    But why? I mean if we’re Lutherans, for Christ’s sake, and liturgical to boot, why wouldn’t we want a Holy Festival of the Blessed Reformation? The Reformation was a Good Thing, right? Well, yes, but…: one of the things Luther hated about the church in his day were all the man-made, unbiblical festivals and parades (like the Corpus Christi Procession) that proliferated in the late middle ages, which celebrated human achievements instead of the Gifts of Christ Jesus. When the focus shifts from the adoration of Christ as God and Savior to celebrating the Faith and the Achievements of Christians in the Glorious Past, we’ve not only moved into a space Luther himself would not inhabit; we’ve probably moved out of fellowship with the Church Christian, Catholic, Orthodox, and Apostolic. We probably need some Reforming ourselves!
    So why do we do it? How did the Holy Festival of the Blessed Reformation come about? Ah, answer that and you’ll fully appreciate the vicar’s remark.
    As near as I can tell, the first Holy Festival of the Blessed Reformation took place in Prussia in 1817. The Prussian Union of German speaking peoples was getting up and running. The Kaiser was all about Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles—whether the alles wanted it or not. He inspired the intellectuals as well as common folk. And there were some German university professors who were dissatisfied with the dreary Kantian rationalism that had largely replaced the Christian Faith in German speaking lands of that time.
    Some of them had begun to poke around in the writings of the young Luther. In him, these professors saw a populist nationalist, like a new Kaiser who would lead the German People from bondage to Roman tyranny, from papal (or French or Spanish) rule to the true world domination that was the birthright of the German Nation. They didn’t know Luther’s writings very well and they were only interested in the early writings like the “95 Theses” and “The Freedom of a Christian” and “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”.
    One of my teachers, John Stroup, a most learned Luther and Reformation historian, insisted that the early Luther from 1512 through around 1528 is basically a Roman Catholic, with a few evangelical insights. Have you ever read the 95 theses? They are dull. There is not much Gospel there. And the Freedom of a Christian and the Babylonian Captivity of the Church tracts from 1520 or so are a bit better, but concern themselves more with earthly than with heavenly things.
    So, the first Reformation Festivals, some 300 years after the thing itself, were aimed more at populist German nationalism than at anything particularly Christian. It was then, I think that the readings we have today were selected.
    Flash forward another 100 years: in 1917, Revolution was in the air! German nationalism was still a big part of the 400th anniversary festivals, but this new generation of German professors, Harnack and Holl, were trying to give a more theological read on the Reformation. But they still saw Luther as a revolutionary, only now with a fresh philosophy promising spiritual freedom and glory (and national, too). Like a new Doug, I mean… Nietzsche, they saw Luther casting aside all restraints on achieving human greatness.
    In a weird way, they completely misread the traditional Reformation Gospel from John. They took it to be saying that the Jews did not achieve Christian freedom because they still were hung up on the Law—but Lutherans!; ah, a radical Lutheran knows the Gospel has freed us to do whatever we please as Sons of God ourselves, princes and kings and rulers. Abraham’s children were in bondage to lots of things, but Lutherans, well, we are the first truly free Sons of God: which is something to celebrate with a “Holy Festival of the Reformation”.
    Which completely misses Jesus’ point (and Luther’s!).
    Luther himself reading this passage from John would see it the opposite way. We are just like those Jews who (sometimes, kinda) believe Jesus. We think the Word frees us to follow our will, to do as we please, to make God serve our own self-chosen ends whether those be nationalism, personal heroism, the construction of churches for the Ubermensch, world domination, or personal fame and fortune. See… the more things change, the more they stay the same! Those who boast in their freedom they have achieved by their liberated will and understanding are the true slaves.
    Why? How? Because they commit sin. And whoever commits sin is a slave of sin—and they don’t abide in the House forever. So, only if we are made free of sin are we free indeed. And sin (simply put) is turning inward on ourselves (as Luther, following Athanasius and St. Paul rightly sees). It is turning away from the humble, outward adoration of Christ our God and Savior—as Eternal Joy and Everlasting Delight simply to gaze upon—instead to exult in our own powers, glory, freedom, wisdom.
    The Truth is: slavery to Christ is true Freedom. It’s a paradox you get by not getting it. When we celebrate our freedom we’re just looking at ourselves; but Christian adoration looks only always already outward to Christ!
    “The Holy Festival of the Blessed Reformation” is mainly a test: if we’re looking at Luther, looking at ourselves, celebrating our glorious freedom and purity of doctrine, we’re not looking at Jesus are we? We’re not, as poor miserable sinners, bending the knee and trusting in His grace alone to free us from sin by faith alone in Him, are we? Kneel with Luther not to him!
    In the slavery and subjection of Christ, in His humiliation on the Cross, is genuine Freedom, real Victory. When we bend the knee to that, ah!; then we have come to a true and Holy Festival, a Real Reformation where, abiding in His Word, Peace, surpassing understanding, guards hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.