Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Simon and Jude, Apostles
October 28, 2012
Today we celebrate as Reformation Day. The Reformation is a big deal to us. But why? In a sense, the Reformation is an odd thing. The Holy Christian Church is truly the one, universal Church. Why is it that some church bodies have a celebration of reformation while others don’t? That doesn’t seem to speak very well to unity in the Church. We wholeheartedly celebrate the unity of the Christian Church even as we celebrate the Reformation. So why is reformation necessary? Perhaps one way to look at this is to see what Mark is doing in the Gospel reading.
He starts off by saying that Jesus went to Jericho. In the very next sentence he tells us an event that occurred when Jesus was leaving Jericho. Wouldn’t you like to know what happened while Jesus was in the town? What we know is that we don’t need to know. We need to know what happened as He was leaving the town. The reason Mark tells it is because he is delivering Jesus to you. You need to know what occurred with Bartimaeus because that’s how Mark is delivering Jesus to you. And that’s what the Church does.
The Holy Christian Church delivers Jesus to people. When it doesn’t do that there’s something wrong. That’s why we have the Reformation. The Reformers weren’t saying that the Holy Christian Church was in error. Here is where we agree with all those who say that the Church doesn’t need reformation. The problem isn’t with the Church but with the people in it. In His infinite wisdom God chose to make up His holy, pure, universal Church with sinners. That’s what the Reformation was about, not attacking the Church, but rather the teachings that people in the Church were delivering to the people of God that directed them not toward God but toward themselves. The Church delivers Christ to people. When those within the Church deliver something else to them there’s a serious need for reformation.
The Holy Christian Church is not merely an organization. The Church is a living entity, the Communion of Saints. The Church is where we get the forgiveness of sins. This is not done generally but specifically. Mark tells us of Jesus moving out of Jericho with a great crowd. But it wasn’t the crowd Mark was interested in, it was this one particular individual who found himself on the side of the road. He was blind but could hear very well that Jesus was about to move on away from him. So he cried out.
What is it that the Church teaches us about who you are? You are dead in your sins. You are laying on the side of the road, blind and unable to get out of your condition. What is it that prompted Bartimaeus to cry out to Jesus? Was there something within him that moved him to approach Jesus? This is a remarkably frequent understanding of how one comes into a relationship with God. You must cry out to him. You must make the first move and then He will come to you.
What does Mark show us, though? Jesus was the one who came to Jericho. It’s very possible Bartimaeus had heard about Jesus before Jesus even came to Jericho. It’s also possible in the time, whether brief or a few days, that Jesus was in Jericho that word got around about this man who came into town with a large crowd on His heels. That Bartimaeus cried to Him as the Son of David shows us that Bartimaeus knew who He was. Even before Jesus passed by Bartimaeus Bartimaeus knew who this man was; the Son of David, the Messiah. This is how faith comes to a person, through the Word getting out and by hearing that Word. Even before Jesus passed by Bartimaeus Bartimaeus had heard. He had received the message that Jesus, the Savior, was here.
But he was laying there. Would he miss out? The cry of faith prevented that. He cried out to Jesus and even so he still seemed to be prevented from receiving from Jesus the help he needed. The crowd rebuked him. You need to stay silent. Here in this detail also Mark is showing us how he is delivering Jesus to you. The Word rings out and cannot be silenced. At the same time, the cry that goes out to God for mercy will be attempted by many to be squelched. The crowd wanted to leave Bartimaeus to his own wretched state. They tried to silence him.
What does faith do in this circumstance? It cries out all the more. It is fixed on Jesus, not on the pressing cries of silence. Jesus hears this cry. When all seems to go against you you cry out all the more to Jesus. He hears this and responds to it. That’s exactly what He did with Bartimaeus. “And Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart. Get up; He is calling you.’” Jesus called to that man in His wretched state. He didn’t demand anything of him in order be freed from his wretched state. He simply called him. He met Bartimaeus where he was at.
And so He does with you. The crowd that tried to silence him now spoke words that should remind you of the importance of reformation and why it is always necessary: “Take heart. Get up; He is calling you.” This is the message the Church must always make known. Take heart. Get up. He is calling you. When those in the Church tell you of what you must do in order to gain God’s favor reformation is needed. When those in the Church tell you that you aren’t in fact in a wretched state, that you aren’t by nature sinful and unclean, reformation is of utmost importance. When those in the Church tell you that you must be the one to come to God in order for Him to come to you, reformation is the order of the day. This is shown when Mark tells us what Jesus did for the man and what He said to him.
First, what did the man do when he heard the message that Jesus was calling him? “And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.” This is a picture of repentance. Repentance is so misunderstood, which is one of the reasons the Reformation happened and one of the reasons reformation continues to be necessary. Repentance is the work of God. We think of it as our work because we are the ones who turn, we repent. But when you repent you are not producing anything. And how could you? You are by nature sinful and unclean. How could you produce and accomplish the good work of repentance? You couldn’t just as Bartimaeus couldn’t. He was blind even as you are. Even though your eyes see you can’t find your way to heaven any more than Bartimaeus could have. When you throw off the cloak of your sinful nature and leave it behind and spring up and come to Jesus, this is solely the work of the Holy Spirit. Bartimaeus was given this ability to do this by Jesus Himself when He called Bartimaeus.
What did Jesus ask Him? And Jesus said to him, “What do you want Me to do for you?” Notice these words of Jesus to Bartimaeus. They are to Bartimaeus. There’s a throng around Him, there are multitudes of others who are in need, and yet Jesus’ words to this man are to this man specifically. “What do you want Me to do for you?” This is at the heart of the Reformation and of reformation as it continues in the Church. The ‘for you’ of the Gospel. Jesus died for the world and He died for you. Who is the one doing the for you? It is Jesus. The Reformers saw that there was entirely too much focus on what we must do to appease God and the ‘for you’ of the Gospel was getting pushed to the back. “What do you want Me to do for you?” The Gospel is always what Christ does for you and never what you do or must do for Him.
Because the Church is made up of sinners and sinners always carry around their sinful flesh it’s natural for us to take the words of Scripture and gravitate toward those words that seem to indicate that we must make some effort toward God in order to be saved. Bartimaeus cried out; Bartimaeus threw his cloak down and went to Jesus. Bartimaeus had faith. There’s no doubt these describe action on the part of Bartimaeus, a human and a sinner just like you and I are. The question is, how was he able to accomplish these actions? Of his own power? Of his own will? This is what many in the Church teach and this is the reason why reformation is still necessary.
Mark gives Bartimaeus’ answer to Jesus’ question, “What do you want Me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” Faith. When we confess the faith in the Creed, what do we do? We say, “I believe.” I believe in God, the Father Almighty. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. I believe in the Holy Spirit. This is faith. When you believe in God, in salvation in Christ alone. This is what Jesus was talking about when He said to Bartimaeus that he had faith.
This is all well and good, but it’s so easily misunderstood by people in the Church. Why that is is because we’re all sinners. Sinners have their focus on themselves. So when the Word of God talks about us having faith, we jump up, ready to please God, and say, “Yes, I have faith! I believe in Jesus.” This is the kind of thing the Reformation sought to expose for what it is: idolatry. The Church exists to point people outside of themselves, not within themselves. You are not to come up with faith. Look to God for that. He is the one who gives you the very faith required of you.
The First Commandment demands it: You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should, fear, love, and trust in God above all things. So there you go, do that and your golden. The problem is when people in the Church actually impress that on people as if that’s something they can actually do! Try it. You will fail. You will not get pretty close, or do pretty well, or make a good effort of it. You will fail. And you will fail miserably. Because you are a poor, miserable sinner.
You must have faith but you do not have it. So how it is that you believe? You have faith, how? What do we confess in the meaning of the Third Article of the Creed? I believe that I cannot believe. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” This is what the Reformation is all about. It’s what the daily Christian life is all about. Jesus is delivered to you, you don’t go after Him.
When Jesus gave sight to Bartimaeus he followed Jesus on the way. Jesus was going the way of the cross. Jesus has since gone that way. He went to the cross. He accomplished salvation there, for the world, for you. He doesn’t go that way again, but the Church continues to go back to it, constantly proclaiming Christ crucified for sinners, for people in the Church and out. For everyone and for you. He still makes His way but it is not the way of the cross but rather is the way of being delivered directly to you in the Church. In the proclaimed Gospel He is delivered to you. In your Baptism He is delivered to you. In His Holy Supper He is delivered to you. Sinners are the ones who hear the Gospel proclaimed and who are Baptized and who eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of all of their sins.
Reformation is always necessary because we are always in need of forgiveness. The unity of the Holy Christian Church is found not in Christians coming together and feeling good about each other or putting aside differences but rather in the observance and celebration of those means in which Jesus is delivered to them. Reformation is necessary because God loves you too much to leave you in your wretched state and so He calls you, He tells you to take heart, He delivers Jesus to you. Amen.