Jesus tells us that “the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence.” Just a few chapters from now in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will give the reassurance that the gates of hell cannot prevail over the Church. Even though “the kingdom ours remaineth,” it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a smooth ride. What does it mean that the Kingdom suffers violence? Certainly it means that we have enemies from without, people who cannot stand that the Kingdom exists, that we as congregations exist. They want any semblance of Christianity wiped out. That is violence against the Kingdom. But the type of violence Jesus discusses is doctrinal violence. The days ushered in by John the Baptist were the days of the public ministry of Jesus. He was the voice crying in the wilderness, the one making ready the way. But there were many who rejected Jesus. They knew who He was. There was no question in the minds of the Pharisees and the rest of the Jewish establishment. They know John is the last of the prophets. They know Jesus is the promised Messiah, the one who fulfills every prophecy spoken in the Old Testament. But they will not believe. The truth is plainly spoken to them, but they reject it and then try to destroy the Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven suffers this violence of false doctrine.
As we study Scripture and the doctrines it teaches, we find that three things are inseparably linked. Those three things are Christology—what you believe about Jesus; the Sacraments—what they are and what they give; and Soteriology—that is, how you are saved. If you change one, it necessarily affects the function of the other two. If you teach, as we heard in the Epistle, that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, then Christ is the only way to salvation, and the Sacraments are what deliver Christ’s saving work on the cross to us, something essential to our salvation. However, if you change salvation and say that we have some part in it, then the role of Christ is changed and diminished, and the Sacraments are nice extras, but not central to our Christian life.
This is what was happening at the time of the Reformation. The Catholic Church said you needed Jesus. There was no salvation apart from Him, but you had to add something to Him and His work. Your salvation needed your own acts of penance, something to show you were truly sorry for your sin. Without that, you would be trapped in purgatory for an unknown length of time. Baptism became a sort of jump start, something that helped you on the way to salvation by wiping out the penalty for original sin, but now the rest of your sin was up to you to fix. You did this by going to Mass or paying for special Masses to be said for yourself or your dead relatives. Instead of being a gift of the Gospel, something given to you by God to forgive your sins and strengthen your faith, the Lord’s Supper became an obligation of the Law, something you had to do if you had any hope of making your way into heaven. All of this made Christ less important. He was just one piece out of many that led to your salvation. When you change one link in the chain of Christology, the Sacraments, and Salvation, you necessarily alter all three—and never for the better. The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence as the violent attempt to take it by force with fraud which they themselves invent to confound the truth.
Into that system of earning your salvation and fearing an angry God who was always out to get you and punish you for your sins came a frightened monk. Like everyone else in his day, Luther was terrified of God, fearing His wrath that could destroy you at any moment. God was not a God of grace and peace, but a wrathful God, who delighted in plagues, floods, disasters, and misery. The Church, which should have been giving the Gospel, was instead peddling wares of indulgences and finding hope and comfort in the buying and selling of salvation. But God heard His people’s cries and pleading. He caused His Holy Spirit to work in the Word, just as He always has, and as Luther lectured on Scripture in the young Wittenberg university, he came to find that God was not a wrathful God, but one of love. He promised salvation by faith, by a free gift. Luther rediscovered the Gospel, that Jesus Christ gave Himself freely for the sins of the world and gives the salvation He accomplished by His all-availing sacrifice to all who believe, who hear the Gospel and are worked upon by the Holy Spirit.
What does this mean for us today, Christians who live 500 years after Luther began his work of restoring the Gospel, of returning that chain of Christology, the Sacraments, and Salvation to its rightful understanding? First, it means thanksgiving to God. As Christ Himself promised, the gates of hell cannot overcome His Church. Though the violent attempt to take the Kingdom by force, they will not prevail. God will fearlessly and sharply smite those who would harm His people. He has promised us that His Word endures forever, and that Word will always proclaim boldly that Christ has died for the sin of the world, that we are saved by God’s grace, and that the Sacraments deliver to us all that Christ has accomplished for us. This message that creates and sustains the Church will never perish. Though it may become obscured from time to time, God will not allow it to disappear or to be destroyed. He will always raise up faithful Pastors and teachers who will proclaim His Word boldly, even in the face of princes who would like to see the truth be silenced.
Second, it means bold witness. There is no confusion in the plain truth of Holy Scripture. All have sinned and in no way deserve God’s salvation. We are dead in our sins and need the resurrection only the Gospel can give. And that is what the Holy Spirit brings to us as we gather here in this place, fed by Word and Sacrament, Christ speaking to us and giving us Himself as Food and Drink. This Gospel, that God wants all to be saved and that He gives that salvation away without any merit or worthiness on our part is the message this broken, dying world needs. When life in this world is too much, we have the glorious promise of the life of the world to come. We have opportunity to bear witness to this joyous Gospel in our daily life, and the Holy Spirit promises to give us the words to say when we have the opportunity to make a confession of our faith. We can go boldly, ready to confess the source of the hope that we have, even on the most hopeless of days.
As we pass our days in the Church Militant, God has promised to give us His peace. The Kingdom of Heaven will suffer violence, but it will never be destroyed. The violent will do what they may, but Christ is victorious. His Gospel cannot be silenced. And since you have been incorporated into Christ at your Baptism, since His salvation has been made yours, you have nothing to fear. Let the earth give way, let the waters roar and foam, let the enemy of the Gospel rage as he will. Though the wicked everywhere abound, Christ is your Salvation, your Hope, your Defense.