Grace Presbyterian Church
October 29, 2017, Reformation
The Church Under Repair
Today we are celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.
Of course this is wrong. We are celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of one particular branch of the Reformation, or more precisely yet, one key event in one particular branch of the Reformation – an event which, to be sure, may not have happened quite precisely in the way it is often depicted, and which (if it happened that way) happened five hundred years ago Tuesday, not today. Still, five hundred is a big round number, and quite possible to ignore.
But, to keep things accurate: it was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther, then a young-ish German monk assigned to teach classes on scripture at the University of Wittemburg, first promulgated his ninety-five theses, or arguments, on the corruptions of the church and the need for reform. The theses were definitely sent to his superiors at the Vatican; popular lore also says he nailed a copy of those ninety-five theses to the door of the church at Wittemburg, as depicted in a number of popular paintings, though more concrete documentation of that event is not so easy to come by.
It would not, contrary to some portrayals of the story, have necessarily been a scandalous thing to do to use the doors of the church for such a purpose; in a still-rather-medieval town like Wittemburg, those doors were quite possibly a virtual bulletin board for the town, and Luther’s biggest difficulty might have been clearing a space to post his own rather substantial document.
The corruptions charged by Luther included such practices (under the guise of raising funds for building projects) as the selling of indulgences, something that smelled way too much like buying forgiveness to Luther. His theses enumerated scriptural and moral arguments against that and other practices, and called for a sweeping reform of the church to eliminate such corruptions.
Luther was a pretty unlikely candidate to trigger such an upheaval; much of his adult life had been consumed with nearly crippling self-doubt, he being convinced that he could never be good enough for God. The supreme irony of Luther’s career is that the study of scripture his new teaching vocation demanded of him had the effect of convincing him, ultimately, that he was right; of his own efforts he never would be good enough; a passage like today’s reading from Romans (as well as several others from that book) showed him that he was saved not by any work or effort of his own, but only by the great gift of God’s grace. So liberated, Luther found the nerve to bear witness against the all-powerful church even at the cost of his own excommunication, and thousands of others found similar courage to follow into something new and unknown,
Luther does teach us a lesson, one applicable even to us modern Christians; things don’t change if we don’t speak up. Whether perpetrated by church, corporation (unknown to Luther, of course), or government (or by the thoroughly unholy alliance of all three), injustice and corruption aren’t simply going to go away by themselves. Followers of Christ are obliged to bear witness – to speak out – against those injustices, no matter how pervasive or powerful, and no matter how much it costs us our standing in our community.
Let me repeat: followers of Christ are obliged to bear witness – to speak out – against injustices, no matter how pervasive or powerful, and no matter how much it costs us our standing in our community. Otherwise we’re fooling ourselves. After all, the word “protest” is embedded in the name “Protestant.” It’s in our spiritual D.N.A., so to speak.
Of course, Luther’s “reformation” was not the only one that took root in the church during this period. John Calvin was all of eight years old when Luther promulgated those theses, but by 1536 (at age 27) he produced his monumental theological treatise Institutes of the Christian Religion, which became a bulwark of the branches of Protestantism that include those various traditions that bear the term “Reformed” in their names, as well as our own Presbyterian tradition via Calvin’s Scottish admirer John Knox. The work of Ulrich Zwingli and others also played a role in Reformed theology: the Second Helvetic Confession found in our own Book of Confessions is a Zwinglian document. The Anglican Reformation would take root some decades later, and Methodism would evolve out of that tradition about two centuries later under the leadership of John and Charles Wesley. So, in short, the Protestant Reformation was no one-time thing.
Sadly, no branch of the Reformation can claim any innocence of its own corruption. For many centuries Lutheranism drank far too deeply of Luther’s own anti-Semitism, which long outlived him and was, useful to the Nazis in their consolidation of power in Germany in the twentieth century. The theological extremes of Calvin and Zwingli (predestination comes to mind) were easily twisted into harsh and destructive theologies that we are only now coming to grips with.
Calvin might look at passages such as those from Jeremiah and John as evidences for the sovereignty of God – the absolute freedom of God to do as God wills, unbound by any theological or other bind. It is ironic that his descendants have preached some of the most oppressive theologies against that sovereignty, claiming God to be “bound” to send person X to hell or give you great riches if you just say the magic scripture and pray the magic prayer. (I exaggerate, but not as much as you think.) Where such preachers seek to bind, the scripture found in John points to quite the opposite – “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” It resonates in such doctrinal ideas as the “priesthood of the believer”, the idea that every person is both free and responsible to minister to one another in the name of God and to, in the words of 2 Timothy, to present himself or herself to God as “a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” It’s an idea that every Protestant tradition somehow manages to claim as unique to itself.
In fact, the history of pretty much every reformation is one of taking such words of scripture and, often after a good start, failing to live up to them. Hence Calvin’s famous instruction that the church was to be “reformata et semper reformanda” – “reformed and always being reformed.” To be brief, we are – or always need to be – under repair. Being composed of fallible human beings, churches will fail, and must be constantly challenged to return to the scriptures and to be under the charge of the Holy Spirit to reclaim our calling, in order to live into whatever challenge might await God’s church over, say, the next five hundred years or so.
If we take today’s psalm seriously, we have in our God a strong fortress, a “bulwark never failing” in the words of the famous him we will sing shortly. We are never abandoned by God no matter how much we abandon God.
If we take today’s reading from Jeremiah seriously, we are under the watchful care of an all-sovereign God, a God who yet in the midst of such sovereignty and power knows us, and places in each of us nothing less than knowledge of him, writing on our very hearts.
If we take today’s reading from Romans seriously, we know that despite our deep sinfulness, we are preserved and redeemed by Christ, who is faithful to be the mediator of divine grace even unto death on a cross – a death that could not in the end keep him.
If we take today’s reading from John seriously, we are free. Free, that is, in Christ – we are freed from sin, freed to continue in the words of our Savior, free to know the truth.
None of these were new at the time of all those reformations. All of them are as old as the scriptures those reformers fought to put in the hands of followers of Christ and to teach and preach. It’s fair to say, though, that perhaps those ideas had faded a bit from the church’s collective memory, and needed to be refreshed. It’s on us – all of us – to reclaim all of those legacies, as well as the legacy that give us our name “Protestant.” It’s time to speak up. After all, a little reformation now and then is a healthy thing.
For a legacy, and for repair of that legacy, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #624, “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art”; #451, “Open My Eyes, That I May See”; #275, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”; #305, “Come Sing, O Church, In Joy!”