Preached 10/28/12 at Head of Christiana PC – Reformation Sunday
On October 31, 1517, so the story goes, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses “on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. This document was a public and aggressive statement against the whole practice of the church, and then once it was translated from Latin into German, and reproduced into pamphlets that circulated all over Europe, this spark of rebellion caught into a fire that had been building for nearly two centuries. This Augustinian monk, Luther, began to faithfully disagree with the church’s authorities, and his words fell on fertile soil to set off a revolution that would change the face of Christianity forever.
I’m sure Luther did not set out to have this kind of radical impact, at least at first. He was a faithful man; a dedicated monk and an accomplished preacher. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the study of the scriptures, and sought to make them accessible to a wide audience. As a whole, he did not like the book of Hebrews, from which we read today, but he saw this emphasis on grace and the importance of God’s word in scripture – which are important themes throughout the New Testament – and he saw that the practices of the church in his day had shifted their priorities.
Luther’s world was in a state of transition. The encounter of Europeans with the Americas at the end of the 15th century had, from their perspective, just doubled the size of the known world. This “new world” was unlike anything that any Christian had ever encountered before. All of a sudden, here were people who did not even share the same fundamental assumptions about the shape and history of the world. It had never occurred to Christians that anyone could believe a different creation story – the Genesis creation story was simply the only thing they could conceive of.
We who have grown up in this so-called “New World” hear those words and think of bold explorers, and new frontiers, and adventure! But for European Christians at that time, “new” just didn’t have that same kind of appeal. For a culture and a church that traced its lineage back over a millennium, the New Testament was about as “new” as they were comfortable with.
But suddenly, this world was challenged with newness. The very shape of the earth was changing. The basic assumptions of a life ordered around the church – cities divided into “parishes,” which became synonymous with the church building at their center – were being challenged by the mere existence of people and societies that organized themselves differently.
And with the invention and spread of the printing press, more people had access to more information than any time before in history. First the Latin Bible – which still could only be read by educated people – and soon after, translations into German, Italian, French – this new technology meant that over the course of a few generations, the scriptures went from something that was only accessible through an educated priest, and became something that could be owned and read, and studied, by laypeople. And in the midst of all this, the church in Europe continued to deliver the Mass in Latin, even as fewer and fewer people had any idea what the priests were saying.
It must have felt like the whole world was shifting. Fundamental assumptions about who we were as humans, how our world worked, and how the church fit into that world – all that was changing. And into this volatile mix of cultural forces came the voices of Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland, suggesting a new way of being church together, guided by their own strong faiths and convictions that every one of us should have access to the word of God and the grace of God, not to be mediated and controlled by priests and bishops and popes.
And it is this radical new way that we celebrate as our heritage. Our tradition, the Reformed tradition, was born out of the words and the crazy new scriptural interpretation of a few upstart preachers. And before these ideas started to catch hold, their intellectual predecessors were convicted of heresy, and executed. John Wycliffe, an English theologian, in the 14th century was one of the first to articulate themes that later became central to the Reformation; and these ideas were considered so threatening to the established church that after he had died a natural death, Pope Martin V ordered that his body should be dug up so that he could be burned as a heretic.
These are our theological ancestors. And today, we celebrate their work and their legacy. We celebrate them not simply because they were upstarts and radicals, but because they were on to something. This idea that the scriptures should be both central to our worship and accessible to everyone?!? In another era, a suggestion like that might be called “communist” – but it is also deeply biblical. God’s word is for all. Jesus is celebrated as our closest link with our Creator God, and that is a link that is accessible to all people, not only to priests or ministers. We recognize, today, that faithful convictions and right practices came from outside the church establishment. Beliefs once called “heresy” – ideas so threatening that books containing them were burned rather than poison the orthodoxy of the church – these ideas are the very foundation of our tradition.
Today, we find ourselves in a similar time of upheaval. Within a matter of generations, the church’s place as the central ordering principle for life has shifted. We are faced with people who do not have the stories of the Bible woven into their understanding in same way that they were in the past. New technology has changed the way information is transmitted, and suddenly an unprecedented number of people have access to an unprecedented amount of information. That access, too, has changed the expectation for “truth.” We are now used to hearing multiple voices, multiple perspectives, and synthesizing them into our own experiences of the world. The idea that we would have one authority figure shaping our beliefs about the world now feels like a relic of ancient history. Those of us born since 1972, for instance, have never known a world in which politicians could be trusted not to lie to us. These days, we have to approach things with a little more skepticism.
In many ways, we are speaking a new language. It is a language of ambiguity, of multiple very different perspectives, it is a language in which we are presented with multiple versions of a story we are told are all “truth,” and we are left to find our way between them. It is a language in which the most popular news source is the “fake” news on Comedy Central – the dialect is sarcasm, and we read between the lines to find the truth for ourselves.
In such a context, we the church may as well be speaking Latin. The people outside our doors – and occasionally, the people in our pews – no longer speak the language of one guy standing up here in the pulpit, preaching the one truth, and sitting down, end of discussion. It is as if, for the first time, people are able to read the scriptures for themselves in their own language – and they’ve got some questions.
Now, we’ve got a few options here. We could run and hide and hold fast to our orthodoxy, as some churches are doing. But we could also recognize that what we hold today as orthodoxy, as the one right way and one right belief, those ideas were once called heresy. We held to it because it seemed to be a faithful expression of God’s eternal Word, a truth which is so large and so grand that we can only hope to glimpse bits at a time. I can promise you this: God’s truth and God’s love are so much larger than the traditions and practices of the church. Faithful, godly truth may come packaged in the words of upstarts and rebels. And the church may change, and grow, and reform, inspired by God’s holy Spirit. And that’s okay.
As the psalmist affirms, God’s steadfast love endures forever. God’s people change and God’s people grow, and God’s steadfast love endures forever. God’s people get things wrong, and God’s people are guided back toward right things, and God’s steadfast love endures forever. We may fear the future and the change that comes with it, but God does not fear it. God has seen the changes and reformations and evolutions of eons, and God endures forever.
God is not threatened by the new Reformation that is coming, by the growing pains of our little corner of God’s church. And we need not feel threatened either. Once, not too long ago, our traditions were the new ones. What we know as tradition was once called heresy! But sometimes, out of the ashes and rubble of our own human battles, a beautiful, faithful thing can emerge. I pray that we may keep ourselves focused on the essential things as we search out, together, a new way of being church for this new time. And, perhaps, that we avoid burning too many people at the stake along the way.
Because when it comes down to it, reform is our tradition. A foundational truth that came out of the Reformation was a Latin phrase that translates: “the church is always reformed, and always reforming.” Our ecclesial ancestors did not believe they had the final word on what the church was, and nor do we. May we seek God’s continuing reformation and re-formation of our church and of our lives. By the grace of God, amen.