(In this 30th installment of the UPI series of sermons, UPI religion correspondent Uwe Siemon-Netto, a Lutheran lay theologian, reflects on Luther's search for a gracious God that led to the Protestant Reformation).
This sermon is based on Romans 3:19-28
Modernity began with a question that will sound topical in the ears of many wrestling with the evil we witnessed on Sept. 11: "How do I find a gracious God?"
As he began this search, Martin Luther was not struggling with any external manifestation of iniquity. A gaunt Augustinian monk, he was tortured by his own sinfulness -- to the point that his own abbot thought he was nuts.
Having confessed and done penance, Luther would dart to the altar, but then double back to the confessional before receiving the sacrament.
He did not deem himself worthy to commune because on his way to the altar he had again sinned in his head and his heart. Or so he thought.
"Read Paul, read his letter to the Romans," Johann von Staupitz, his abbot, counseled him, directing Luther to the text that is being read in Protestant churches around the world today.
It says, in effect, that no human being is by his or her own deeds righteous before God.
"Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith," Paul wrote (Romans 3:23-25).
In other words, whatever led to the estrangement between man and his creator, a condition we call original sin, human beings cannot undo it. Buying indulgences will not help. Being a do-gooder won't either.
It is God who puts things right -- in a way that boggles the mind:
The very aspect of God through which all things were made (John 1:3) reduced itself to a human body.
God made himself small "for me," as Luther would later say. The power that sustains the universe, the pre-existing Christ, becomes weak and small and is nailed to the cross and thus undoes our separation from God.
And so, as Luther said, a "froehlicher Wechsel" occurs, a happy exchange: Since man cannot free himself from sin, God carries his burden. All that is required of man is that he believes in the act of this gracious God we all are yearning for.
"If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed, " Christ said (John 8: 36).
It is perhaps not surprising that humans find this hard to swallow. This whole concept is of such grandeur that our this-worldly intellect cannot accept it.
To acknowledge it, requires an alternative intellect, which is called faith.
It is this faith that has inspired history's greatest minds to build soaring cathedrals, such as the one in Chartres, France, or to write oratorios of sublime beauty, such as Bach's Saint Matthew Passion.
It has inspired Michelangelo and Mother Theresa. And it inspired Luther to nail his 95 theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg, Germany, exactly 484 years ago this coming Wednesday.
As a result, it inspired man to shape his world freely, knowing that the force that orders the universe has liberated him. The seeds of our free society were planted on that autumn day in Wittenberg, a small university town in Saxony, and the seeds of a free America, too.
And yet the idea that this amazing force allows itself to be tortured to death sounds crazy; Saint Paul readily acknowledges that.
What a way for God to establish a new covenant with the pinnacle of his creation! "I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more," God had made Jeremiah say well before this occurred (Jeremiah 31:34).
No wonder Christians have fallen away from faith time and again throughout church history. In Luther's day, much of northern Germany had reverted to paganism, a state of affairs we are painfully familiar with in our era as well.
This is why we should not be surprised when men who believe in a woefully warped form of another faith react with disdain and loathing to the religious void they discern in our society.
If we don't accept what Paul has taught and Luther has rediscovered, why should they? Why should they not conclude that Christianity was a putrid faith waiting to be dealt a final blow?
They are wrong, of course. Just because we are often too bewildered to regale in divine grandeur, we must not conclude that this grandeur itself has become obsolete.
If anything, the events of Sept. 11 have pushed us into rediscovering what Luther had rediscovered almost half a millennium ago.
We dare not to engage genuine Muslims (not the demented criminals murdering in Allah's name) in a genuine dialogue, unless we acknowledge our own theological assets.
Many mushy words have been spoken about the need for such a dialogue. But as long as we are not grounded in our own faith, such exchanges will remain as shallow and dishonest as political correctness, this blight of our faithless era.
No, words don't help. What is required instead is our rediscovery of the Word in the way the apostle John uses this term -- the logos, the world-ordering mind of God, that became flesh to free us from the slavery to sin, meaning, from our estrangement from God.
This Word alone stands between man and the fear that has reached a crescendo on Sept. 11. None other is the message of Luther's stirring Reformation chorale "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" that Protestants sing this Sunday.
Perhaps no other verse addresses our post-Sept. 11 fears more powerfully than this hymn's third stanza:
"And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, / We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us: /The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; / His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,/ One little word shall fell him. "