“The Spirit of Reformation”
Northwood United Church Dt. 6:1-9, Rom. 10:9-13, Col. 1:15-20, Rom. 1: 16-17
500 years prior to the life of Jesus, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited to have said: ‘the only constant in life is…change’. One half a millennium later, Jesus’ life, his death and his resurrection would prove how very true this statement is! And, for those of us who have spent a few years on this planet, we know all too well the truth of the unfolding of life. Our bodies change, our lives change, and through the movement of the Spirit, the ways we connect with God changes as well. On Reformation Sunday, we are reminded that while God does not change, religion does. In this era where we are drawn to question all areas of authority, it is helpful to be reminded of what religion, actually, is. From the Latin, where we get the English word for ligament, religion is our human quest to link with the divine. And we have changed, a lot, over time. And religion has been used in good ways and in bad. Yet throughout, the movement of the Holy Spirit, has been at work guiding this reformation of change.
A quick review of history would recall that there were times when the thought of a musical instrument being played in worship would have been unheard of. At other times, one would be were required to stand during the delivery of an entire sermon ~ a homily that would last well over one hour (don’t worry, that won’t be the case here this morning). At other times we devoted the entire day ~ Sunday ~ to Sabbath rest in the Lord. In short, what we do on Reformation Sunday is humble ourselves to be reminded that we don’t have it right; that the Spirit has been unfolding in how we do ‘church’, how we do ‘religion’ since the beginning. Hopefully, in a best case scenario, we are a part of the faithful roadmap of the unfolding work of the Holy Spirit throughout the ebbs and flows of time. For Protestants, the greatest Christian Reformation in history occurred on October 31, 1517, so churches across the globe tend to take time to observe, not only that point in history, but rather how we are a further part of its unfolding…be reminded that we are, when we function most effectively, a part of the humble body of Christ.. open to the ebbs and flows of the movement of the Spirit.
Finally, I would encourage us never to view the Reformation as an affront to the Roman Catholic Church. As we discussed two years ago on the 500th anniversary of the reformation, even the Pope acknowledges that the church is changing. This is a chance for us, in all humility, to celebrate where we have come from and where the Spirit is taking us. And throughout, we are reminded that God has never changed. Yet we, the church, faithfully continue to reform as the Body of Christ, as spiritual people and this morning, we take some time to reflect on some of the key readings that shaped the movement of the Reformation….as we continue seeking to walk faithfully into the tomorrows God leads us towards.
Reflection 1 : The Spirit of Reformation Through the Old Testament: One God
Scripture Reading: Deuteronomy 6:1-9
So, what brought about the Protestant Reformation in 1517? Two things really…the invention of the Guttenberg printing press and the passionate work of the reformers. One reformer who comes to mind, of course, is Martin Luther who was a key reformer in Germany. He was the one who on October 31st placed his 95 theses – his 95 areas of concern with how the church was being run – with how he was hoping that it might reform. He placed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. At the same time, other reformers were working in parallel ways in other countries throughout Europe. Notably, we think of John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Knox. These, and many others, utilized this new power of print to share their message widely and a movement of reformation began! The movement is often referred to as the “five solas”, and we will be exploring these during our reflection time this morning.
The first two areas of Reform called for from the Roman Catholic Church were ‘sola scriptura’ and ‘the priesthood of all the believers’. Sola scriptura: the church had lost its place in relation to scripture. The reformers argued that the highest authority was the Bible alone, not the church interpreting it. It was not the sacred tradition of the church that held supreme authority in people’s lives. Related to this was a belief in ‘the priesthood of all believers’. This was a deep inclusion of the people, the laity ~ the people had profound value in the church, not just the priests. The ‘priesthood of all the believers’ took further power away from the church, which had risen to an, almost, divine status: over and above scripture, over and above the people. The Reformation shifted the power from what had evolved to be an exclusive focus on the church to the scriptures and the priesthood of all the believers. It sought to reform a new balance of scripture-people-church.
The text that Ian just read was used by the Reformers to argue that very point. Arguing that ‘the church’ had become overly elevated, the Reformers reminded people of this very same error that our faith ancestors made as well in the Deuteronomy passage. The Lord is our God…the Lord alone. Your Lord is not the gods of the sky, your Lord is not Caesar, your Lord is not the church, your Lord is money or status or power. Our Lord is the One who gives life, who gives hope and meaning and calls us to justice and reconciliation. This is a challenge to us, as much today, as in any other time. Some argue that with the advent of internet that we are now entering a digital reformation. The challenge is throughout is for us place God at our centre ~ to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might. To keep these words through the blessings and the storms of life.
Reflection 2: The Spirit of Reformation in the Early Church: Jesus’ Lordship
Scripture Reading: Romans 10:9-13
“Jesus is Lord” seems to conjure up images of crazy televangelists vying for our pocketbooks. But, lest we lose the text’s meaning, it is important to think about this language in its historical setting. In the time of Jesus, the title ‘Lord’ was reserved for the one we offered allegiance, loyalty, and devotion. “Lord” was a title reserved exclusively for the Emperor of Rome. People followed him, people worshipped him. People viewed him ~ especially with his own story of an immaculate conception ~ as a deity himself. The Jesus movement viewed Jesus, not the Emperor, as Lord. The letter to the church in Rome is an example of where they reinforced that it was Jesus who his followers saw as reflecting the pure essence of God. It was not the Emperor to whom they offered allegiance; it was not the Emperor to whom they offered loyalty ~ it was Jesus. It was not the Emperor to whom they saw as ‘god’ ~ it was in Jesus that they saw God fully present, and viewed as their Lord. At the time of the Reformation, the church had become viewed, as almost, ‘a god’ itself. They had the power to assure one’s salvation through the sale of indulgences. Imagine that…salvation for sale ~ now that would be an effective fundraiser! This critical area of the reformation was referred to as ‘Solus Chritus’. As Christians, we only follow the Way of Christ; that was the earliest name given to Jesus’ followers: ‘followers of the Way’. I wonder what the modern-day pitfalls that take us astray from being followers of the Way might be? Back in Reformation time, the church had overused its power and functioned as a required intermediary between the people and God. Books, at the time, were written out, in hand, by scribes and were extremely expensive. So, people did not have their own Bible. The printing press changed all that, placing God’s living word in the hands of all. The Reformers saw the position of the church as ‘walking with’ the people as neither the Church, nor the Priests were to be Lord. But rather, Jesus rightfully assumed place, once again, as Lord.
In the past, the battle for Lordship – allegiance to Jesus or Emperor – either caused people to be thrown to the Lions or rise in the ranks of Roman Imperialism. In short ‘Lordship’ was matter of life or death. Today, I wonder if the battle for Lordship is more over individualism: the rise of the individual and the ‘me’ generation. To view the spirituality section in a book store has become a list of best-selling ‘self-help’ books that promise a life of happiness and bliss, rather than pointing us towards Jesus’ Way as being Lord of our living. The battle for Lordship is alive and well today. The Christian life is not easy…it is about suffering, and sacrifice, and surrender. Yes, the Christian life leads to happiness, but it leads to so much more…it leads to wholeness, to salvation, to forgiveness, to healing, to the building of the Kindom of God. Paul wrote in the letter to the church in Rome: “No one who believes in him will be put to shame”. The question is…do we believe it?
Reflection 3: The Spirit of Reformation in the Post-Apostolic Church: Jesus’ Divinity
Scripture Reading: Colossians 1:15-20
This third part of the reformation expands our last conversation, the Lordship of Jesus. And it takes it even further. The Reformers called it ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ – to the glory of God alone. The point of our living is not to give glory to the Emperor, but to give glory to God alone. While a central focus on the divinity in Jesus will ultimately lead to our happiness, our worship is not a means to this end. Focusing on Christ, worshipping Christ is both the means and the end. The church is not the focus; the church is only an earthly means that has been given to assist us to commune with God through Christ. And when we do this ~ together ~ we become part of the living body of Christ. As Paul puts in this letter: “Christ is the head of the body, the church”. And as the metaphor of the Body of Christ is further expanded, we all are essential parts in this body.
The reformation, here, is that of moving beyond an understanding of apostolic succession ~ the apostles who succeeded him. It was a movement towards an understanding of the presence of Jesus in all followers of his way. Certainly the clergy were learned, devoted people. Yet, so are all the followers of Jesus’ Way. This movement of the Reformation was a shaping towards the invisible God being made visible through the whole living body of Christ ~ which includes you, and you, and me…through the entire body of Christ. In another setting, St. Teresa of Avila would prophetically put it this way: “Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which He looks Compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet. Yours are the eyes, you are His body. Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Reflection 4: The Spirit of Reformation Continues
Scripture Reading: Romans 1:16-17
One of the key debates in the Reformation movement was in the mechanism of how we connect fully with God, how we fully commune with God, of how we ‘win favour’ with God, of how we are saved. The debate was over the works we do versus the faith we have as being the key area for this connection to occur. Is it the works that we do that earn us God’s favour? (argued the church of the day) Or is it the faith that we have, that allows us to realize God’s grace, that naturally unfolds to our doing good works? (argued by the Reformers of the day). The last two ‘solas’ are the ones that lift up this area. ‘Sola Fide’ – meaning “faith alone” argues that we find full relationship in God through our faith alone. And, related to this is ‘Sola Gratia’ – meaning “grace alone” argues that it is through God’s grace, alone, that we are invited into a full relationship with God.
These two areas ~ saved by God’s grace through faith, must be the hardest of all the Reformation points for us to hold onto today. For, we are taught to ‘go after brass ring’ and be ‘self-made individuals’. There seems to be less and less room for God’s agency, God’s guidance, God’s strength in people’s lives in a day to day basis. Apart from the times of grief and death when we cling to hope from God, how often do we truly ask for God’s guidance each day in our living. We ask for God’s help in our dying, but do we ask for God’s help in our living? The church needed to find reform for it had became the dispensary of God’s grace. Requirements of ‘works’ in order to earn God’s grace. The liberation here was the opportunity to live in the light of God’s grace, each day ~ whether we are living or dying ~ and be strengthened to grow in our faith, and express it as we are so richly blessed.
The Kin-dom of God was never built by labourers paid by the hour, or guilted into performing works. The Kin-dom of God will be built as a community of grace where we all faithfully express our lives in the ways we are called. And that begins by the first offer of God in offering the amazing grace that we receive, it continues through the faith that grows in our hearts and our lives, and is expressed in their inevitable expression. And so, we are reminded. And we are reassured of the inevitability of change in our lives, in the world, and in the church ~ the human expression of our yearning to draw close to God through Christ. May we, with humility, realize our awesome responsibility of declaring, to each generation, what is the faith. This task will always be reforming. It will always be a fresh task for every generation that is faithful to the gospel. No sermon will ever be perfect, no creed ever complete, no verbal statement will ever relieve the Church of the responsibility continually re-think and re-state our message. Nothing can remove from the Church the responsibility for stating now what is the faith. For we belong to the essence of the living church that follows the living Lord as we faithfully and humbly seek reformation of the journey ahead.