Sermon for the Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

June 25, 2017

Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia

“Jesus Christ is Lord.” Before there was an Apostles’ Creed, or Nicene, or Athanasian – before any of the great councils, before any catechism – before the New Testament itself was gathered together from the writings of the earliest disciples of Jesus – before all of this was the most important confession upon which all other confessions are built: “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

“Jesus Christ is Lord” is the original confession of the Church. To understand what this means is the subject of all true Christian study; to confess with all your heart, soul, strength and mind Jesus Christ is Lord is the source of all genuine spiritual growth.

Every new Christian confession or creed seeks to speak again the Church’s original confession: Jesus Christ is Lord. The Creeds of the ancient Church all centered around this one great truth. The Apostles’ Creed, which we are given at Baptism; the Nicene Creed, which we say at Divine Service; and the Athanasian Creed, with its defense of the Trinity – all these creeds flesh out what it means that Jesus Christ is Lord.

As time rolled through the centuries—with the collapse of the Roman Empire first in the West and then in the East, the rise of the papacy, and the loss of Biblical authority and influence—this one central truth became mingled with errors. The Lord’s Supper became a sacrifice performed by priests; that sacrifice was said to earn merit before God, rather than dispensing forgiveness. Around the tenth or eleventh century, the priests performing the sacrifice were forbidden to have wives. The blessed virgin Mary, mother of God, became more than a sublime example of faith, but one to whom we were to pray. Christian people were denied the Chalice in the Sacrament, and given the host only. The Mass was said in a language that many people could no longer understand. Confession before the priest lost its focus on absolution, and consciences were burdened with listing all sins, and penalties (or satisfactions) were imposed by the priest for those sins. Fasting became not an exercise of faith and Christian self-discipline, but a commanded work. The invented spirituality of monasticism superseded the authentic spirituality of living in one’s daily vocation according to the Ten Commandments. Bishops took on worldly power, becoming managers and governors rather than Gospel-preachers. Moral corruption among the clergy grew, while Christian knowledge and discipline among the laity declined. Through it all, the Lord’s Church persevered. Faithful pastors labored, monks and nuns prayed for the Church, many people continued to go to mass, say their prayers and be Christians as best they knew. Yet the need and cry for reform grew greater and greater. Rome protected its power, and persecuted the reformers. Men such as the fifteenth century Jan Hus were burned at the stake.

Finally, in the early sixteenth century, a reformation movement arose that could not be contained. Luther raised in his 95 Theses in the year 1517 the question of indulgences—purchasing with money the forgiveness of sins. This grew to the more fundamental question of what authority will rule in the church—the authority of Pope and human tradition, or the authority of God’s Word? All this came at a bad time for Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He already had big problems. The surging Ottoman Empire waged war against the West. Their armies laid siege to Vienna in 1529. Threatened by these Islamic invaders from without, the Christian lands were now torn from within by the turmoil brought about by Luther and other reformers.

So the emperor called a meeting, in the German city of Augsburg. Everyone desired unity. Everyone recognized the threat from the Ottoman Empire. But something even more important was at stake: the Church’s original confession—Jesus Christ is Lord. For the dispute was not simply about indulgences, the marriage of priests, whether the Mass was said in Latin or German, or whether the people could receive the Chalice at communion. The Gospel itself was at stake; those other matters were just symptoms of a deeper sickness – a corruption of the first confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, that we are justified, saved, declared righteous only by His death and resurrection.

Another war was being waged besides the Islamic invasion of Europe. Within Europe, within the heart of the Church’s hierarchy, a war was being fought against the most basic truth of the Gospel. So the reformers summoned to Augsburg could not help but confess. On this day in 1530, on the twenty-fifth of June, the Augsburg Confession was read before the Emperor. Twenty-one articles on Faith and Doctrine, seven articles on abuses that had been corrected. This confession took its place as one of the great documents in the Christian Church outside of Holy Scripture – for indeed, it pointed the Church back to Scripture and confessed again that one central truth: Jesus Christ is Lord. It became the standard of the Reformation of the Christian Church. Not an establishment of a new church, but a continuation of the pure teachings of God’s Word, a preservation of the genuine, ancient, authentic catholic faith. These confessors were later called, against their wishes, Lutherans.

487 years later, and 500 years after the Ninety-five Theses, the Reformation is unfinished. Many of Europe’s churches are museums. American culture is now commonly referred to as post-Christian. Remembering the Reformation should not be merely a history lesson. It will look differently than it did five centuries ago, or twenty, but now more than ever we are called to confess. Jesus says, “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”

What does it mean to confess? It begins with what happens when you hear the Law of God. As we heard from Nehemiah this morning, what happened when Ezra read the Scriptures to the people? “All the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.” When you hear the words of the Law, do you weep with the confession that the Law condemns you? Confessing Jesus as Lord means confessing that you need Him as your Lord, that without Him you will without doubt perish eternally.

Confessing Jesus Christ is Lord means renouncing every other lord, be it the false gods of false religions, or the false gods of pleasure, power, and finance. Who are your lords? What things do you serve? On what are you focused?

And what of the church? What is the church for us? Is it a place where our organizations, programs, institutions, societies, and endeavors dominate? Or is it a divine hospital where sins are confessed, forgiveness is given out in the means of grace, and God is praised? Do we worship ourselves and what we do and accomplish? Or is God worshipped?

You are doubtless aware that the churches in our day are deeply divided over questions about worship, questions about the office of the ministry, questions about homosexuality, among others. All of these questions are really about something deeper: the Gospel. Is Jesus Lord, or are our preferences lord, are our tastes lord, are our rights lord, is our immorality lord? Jesus is Lord whether we confess it or not – but is He Lord among us?

And then, is He your Lord? To be a confessing Christian, to confess Christ, is to say with the Augsburg Confession that there is one God in three persons, that I am born with original sin and have added my own sins to it, that God the Son became man to atone for my sins and give me His life, that faith is given to me through God’s establishment of the office of the holy ministry, and that this faith will result in a new life of obedience, and that all this takes place in the church where I am a part of the sacramental life of Baptism, private confession, and the Lord’s Supper.

To confess Christ will cost you. It may cause divisions among friends, divisions in homes. Confessing Christ will bring ridicule from the world, and opposition from those pastors and churches that are led not by the Holy Spirit but by the spirit of this age. Yet none of these things can compare to the great sacrifices made by the Apostles who confessed and were thrown out of synagogues, or the sacrifices made by the martyrs who signed their confession with their blood. Compared to these, do we wilt in the face of mere disapproval and insults?

Finally will come for you the last moment of confession – the end of this life. There, in the face of death and judgment, let this be your confession and your comfort: that Jesus Christ is Lord over death, that in Him your sins died, that on Him your judgment was laid, and that by the power of His resurrection you shall rise too, and appear before the Father on the Last Day. And then, you who have confessed Him to be your Lord, you will He also confess to His Father. And so shall we ever be with the Lord.