It is common knowledge that Dr. Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk when he set off the chain of events that we remember as the 16th-century Reformation. As an Augustinian, Luther followed in the footsteps of the great St. Augustine of Hippo. Not only in his theology, but also in his personal journey of faith, Luther mirrored the famous namesake of his monastic order. Both men spent years searching for the truth of God, before the Lord would use them to make such monumental contributions to the historical life and theology of the Western Church.
There is one saying of St. Augustine, in particular, found in his autobiographical Confessions, which captures the essence of Luther’s own search for the truth. “You have made us for Yourself, O God,” the Bishop of Hippo prayed, “and our hearts are restless, until they rest in You.” It is a justifiably famous saying. And what is more, it is in fact a profound prayer that could easily be used to summarize the entire thrust of the Reformation.
As a young man, as near as we can tell, Luther must have thought and reflected a great deal on the meaning of life. He was restless for a sense of purpose, as young people often are, and he was especially anxious to know where he stood in the eyes of God. Finding little satisfaction or fulfillment on his way to becoming a lawyer, in desperation he entered the monastery. And just as St. Paul had excelled as a pharisee among pharisees, so did Luther push himself to be the most diligent of monks. The stories of his self-inflicted burdens and deprivations are legendary. So many hours on end did he spend in the confessional, wrestling with his restless conscience, that his father confessor finally had to scold him and send him away.
How often have you also wondered, Why am I here? What is the point to it all? How many restless nights have you spent — unable to sleep, worrying about money, worrying about your children, worrying about your job? How many times do you find yourself in such a hurry to get through the day, already anxious for tomorrow, yet frightened of what the future might hold? Like running on a treadmill, or riding an exercise bike, you work and sweat with all your might, never seeming to get anywhere. Or what is worse, maybe everything seems to be going your way, so that you start to feel like you’re really in control, only to discover (when all is said and done) that nothing lasts forever, and you can’t take it with you. Why are you here, and what is the point to it all?
In a restless search for answers to those fundamental questions, too often you work and struggle to create your own meaning and purpose, to make a name for yourself. Perhaps you take on the impossible task of trying to please all of the people all of the time. It is even more bold and foolish when you strive to set things right with God and earn His favor by way of your own efforts and achievements. But as futile as such strategies are, it is very possible that you might be able to fool yourself for a while with your various attempts at self-styled meaning and purpose. Sadly enough, many people never do see past their own charade. They fool themselves, until it is too late.
That was the case for many of the Jews in Jesus’ day, the very people who should have known better. As St. Paul indicates in his Epistle to the Romans, they had been given all the advantages. They had the Covenant from Yahweh, the Word of the Lord, the Temple, the Priesthood, and the Sacrifices, the Worship of God. They had the promise of Messiah. And all of that was pointing to the Sabbath Rest of Christ Jesus, the promised Seed of Abraham, who would give meaning and purpose and blessing to the people of Israel and become the Light of Revelation to the Gentiles.
To be sure, many of the Jews did receive their Messiah with faith and thanksgiving: Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, Peter, James, and John, and (eventually) even Saul of Tarsus. As the Scriptures had promised, Salvation did begin with the Jews. But far and away the majority turned their backs on that Salvation. Instead of receiving the one Seed of Abraham who gave meaning and purpose to the whole family, most of the Jews chose to boast in themselves instead of Christ.
“We are the seed of Abraham,” they have asserted against Him in this Holy Gospel. And in their words you hear echoes of your own claims to fame, as though you were something special in your own right, by virtue of your own heritage, your own efforts, your own wealth and achievements. And don’t we all want to believe that “we have never been slaves to anyone.” Especially in these United States, there is a lot of talk about our rights and freedoms. But like the Jews in this Holy Gospel, you are tempted to deny or ignore that your fallen flesh has been enslaved by your sin and kept in thrall by Satan, trapped by the inescapable fact of your mortality and death.
In response to such denials, the Word of the Law is clear: “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” You sin, not because you are free to do whatever you choose, but rather because you are sinful in your heart, mind, body, and soul, already from your conception and birth. It is not that you could “quit any time you like.” In fact, apart from Christ, you can do nothing else but sin, and then die.
So the truth is that you are a slave to begin with — a slave to sin, death, and the power of the devil. And a slave does not remain in the house forever. In this body and life, we all receive the gracious providence of God, both slaves and children alike. The sun shines and the rain falls on both the evil and the good, and God gives daily bread even to the wicked. To that extent, everyone is in His house for now. But if you remain a slave to sin, that is, apart from faith in Christ who sets you free, then you will not remain in the House of the Lord forever. There will be a Day of Judgment.
For Brother Martin, for all his dedication to monastic life, that Day of Judgment hovered always on the horizon. Like a great black menacing storm cloud, that great and terrible Day of the Lord — that day of wrath and punishment — was enough to shake his frightened heart like a withered leaf on a tree as winter approaches. Always on the brink of hopeless despair, Martin Luther drove himself into the ground, trying with all his might to reconcile an angry and wrathful Judge. Yet, he could not escape the dread of being trapped and doomed by his sin and the judgment of God.
But of course, that is not the end of the story, as you well know. For even as Luther was quailing in fear of his heavenly Judge, his heavenly Father was beholding him in mercy and compassion. As He has done for you, as well, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ sent a minister of His Word to comfort Luther’s frightened heart with the Gospel. His wise and godly father confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, though he did not live to see the Reformation develop, was instrumental in pointing Luther toward the only resting place that any of our restless hearts will ever find.
“Believe the Gospel,” Staupitz ordered Luther. That is truly an evangelical command. For the Lord your God has commanded that you look to Him for mercy and forgiveness. It doesn’t matter whether you feel like it or not. It certainly does not matter whether you think that you are worthy. The fact is that you are not worthy of a bit of it, and you never will be.
That is what grace is all about. It is the charity of God. Regardless of your feelings and opinions, and despite all of your sins and weaknesses, God has forgiven you in Christ by His grace alone.
“Believe the Gospel,” Father von Staupitz ordered. “Seek and receive the forgiveness of Christ.” Stop trying to earn the mercy of God, and simply take the gift that is given to you freely in Christ.
That word of grace and mercy that Staupitz spoke to Luther is spoken to you, as well. For your rest is found in Christ Jesus alone, just as He offered His peace to the Jews in this Holy Gospel: “If you continue in My Word,” He declares — if you cling to Me alone — “then you will know the Truth” — for I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life — “and the Truth will make you free.” Free at last. Free at last. By the grace of God Almighty, free at last.
Unlike a slave, who must finally be cast out of the house, the Son remains forever. Christ Jesus your Savior, the only-begotten Son of God the Father, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary as true Man — the Seed of the Woman, the Seed of Father Abraham, of the Patriarch Judah, and of great King David — He is Himself the living and eternal God in human flesh and blood. And because He lives forever — in flesh and blood like your own — the life that He gives to you, and the rest that He provides for your restless heart, is never-ending and eternal. Indeed, He is your Life and your Sabbath Rest. Therefore, if the Son shall make you free, then you are truly free.
All of your Creator’s purposes and plans for you are fulfilled on your behalf by His own dear Son; your life and rest and peace and happiness are found in Him alone, who will never leave you nor forsake you. So are you called to the freedom and security of faith and confidence in Christ Jesus. No longer must you strive to make it on your own. No longer must you search for the meaning and purpose of your life. Instead, you live forever in the House of your own God and Father in Christ.
Your resting place, then, is that Mighty Fortress of Dr. Luther’s Reformation hymn. In this body and life, it is found within the Lord’s House, His Holy Christian Church, wherein you are Baptized in His Name, granted Peace by His Word of Absolution, that is, the forgiveness of all your sins in His Name and stead, and fed the Supper of His own Body and His Blood. Here you live and walk by faith in Christ, and not by sight, but in the Resurrection you will abide in the House of the Lord forever, as the crucified and risen Body of Christ Himself is and remains the very Temple of God.
It actually took several years before Martin Luther was able to embrace the wise and pastoral counsel of his father confessor. But when he finally did, it was then as though the heavens were opened, and he collapsed into the hands of his gracious and merciful Father in heaven. The storm clouds of judgment were gone. His restless heart had found at last its resting place in Christ Jesus. The purpose and meaning of Luther’s life, as well as yours, was finally clear to him in the Gospel.
There was nothing abstract or theoretical about the Reformation. It began with Luther’s restless heart, desperately searching for a place of peace and rest. And it continued because he found his rest in Christ Jesus. Despite all the numerous trials and temptations of the turbulent 16th Century, he was able to live and work, and finally die, with a peaceful confidence in the Gospel of Christ.
In his morning and evening prayers, Luther entrusted his life, his body and soul and all things, into the hands of God. Safe within that Mighty Fortress, he was able to rest secure, though devils all the world should fill, and though his family and friends and possessions might be taken away at any moment — to say nothing of his own life. Instead of striving to reconcile God with his own good works and harsh monastic discipline, Luther preached the reconciliation of God in Christ Jesus. And while that Gospel did its work throughout Germany and all the world, Luther was able to relax with friends and his good Wittenberg beer. No longer was he lost and restless for meaning and purpose, for he had found his resting place in Christ, who is alone our Rock and Castle.
The rest that Luther found is just as surely yours. By faith in the Gospel you look forward to that great day when you will rest in peace with Christ forever in the Resurrection. And already here and now, you find peace and rest in the Liturgy of Christ, in the preaching of His Word and in His Holy Sacraments. Resting securely in Christ Jesus, you live and work with peaceful satisfaction. For whatever it is that you are called to be and do in this life, wherever God has put you here on this earth, He has created you and called you by His Word to live with Him in His Kingdom.
Day by day, you are granted to share the security of the Psalmist, in spite of the insanity of the world around you. For the Son of God is your Refuge and Strength, a very present Help in trouble. Therefore, have no fear, even if the earth should open up beneath you, and even if the mountains fall upon you. You live in the Lord’s House, in the midst of the City of God. The Lord of Hosts is with you, the God of Abraham, Martin, and John is your Refuge. He is with you here, and He will surely help you. He calms your restless heart with Peace: “Be still and know that I Am God.”
“You have made us for Yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in You.” So it is that, when you breathe your last breath of life, you can rest in peace and smile as you go, because your restless heart already knows its way home. You know the way, because Christ Jesus has become the Way for you and has revealed His Father to you. And just as you have done so many times here at the Altar of Christ, so also in Paradise will you join forever with Luther and the Psalmist, and with all believers in Christ who have gone before, with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven, sharing the Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, which has no end.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.