“The Reformed & Reforming Church”
Romans 5: 1-12 & 1 Peter 2: 4-9 ~ Northwood UC ~ October 29, 2023
When the French Novelist Alphonse Karr wrote “The more things change, the more they stay the same”, I don’t think he paid much attention to Martin Luther’s work that had occurred three centuries prior. Martin Luther continues to be one of the most significant figures in Western history. His life’s work birthed a profound reformation, the likes of which the world has never seen. Born into a prominent family in 1483 in what is now Germany. Young Luther received a good education: learning reading, writing and Latin. Following a powerful conversion experience, to his father’s dismay Luther left law school and he entered an Augustinian-based monastery where he began studies to become a monk. His studies continued and he went on to receive a doctorate and became a professor of biblical studies. Luther’s education and theological ponderings would have implications for the church that would extend to the present day and beyond as the reformed and reforming church began. He, along with other theologians and scholars across Europe, were beginning to do the unthinkable… to question the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. None of this would have been possible, of course, without the cutting-edge invention of the Guttenberg Printing Press. The printing press allowed the Bible ~ along with other theological writings ~ to become available to the masses, not just the elite who could afford a hand-written book. For those of us who begin to fathom the influence of the digital era and the internet today, a parallel consideration was the advent of the printing press back in the1500’s.
Martin Luther’s thought was formed in seminary and fashioned after the teachings of the 4th Century Church Father, St. Augustine. Augustine emphasized the primacy of the Bible, rather than church officials as being the ultimate religious authority ~ sola scriptura was a foundational belief of Luther. Augustine also emphasized that humans could not reach salvation by their own actions, but rather only God could bestow salvation by God’s divine grace ~ saved by grace through faith was the other key concept Luther promoted. This, of course, opposed the teaching of the church in the day. It was in the Middle Ages that the Church had begun teaching that salvation was possible through “good works” or “works of righteousness” that pleased God. And so, Luther’s two central beliefs, ‘sola scriptura’ and ‘saved by grace through faith’ became the guiding principles for the reformation movement.
Of the texts that were crucial for Luther’s work, I chose two of the key ones. The first passage, Romans 5, lifts up Luther’s fundamental belief in how we are saved by grace through faith. Paul writes: “therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. This was to counter the consideration that we could ever earn God’s favour on our own, that we are justified by our ‘good works’. Everything, Paul argued, begins with our faith, our connection with God. This, of course, later prompts our actions to good deeds. But it all begins with faith. Good works (the things we do) follow from a deep faith. But it all begins with faith ~ grace through faith. That is where the heart of the connection is.
The second reading is another that was important at the time of the Reformation. It is the wonderful image that you are a divine part of God’s creation, a minister of Christ’s church in the way you are enabled to be the hands and heart of Christ. The second letter to Peter says: “Come to him…let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…Indeed, you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. In the Reformed tradition there is a mutual honouring of the ministries that we all are called to. There is the minister who stands up at the front, and works alongside the many parts of the church…but there are all the ministries of the people who live out the hopes, dreams and vision of Christ’s church. We, together, are a united ministry empowered to be the body of Christ in the world!
Getting back to the historical occurrences 506 years ago, it was Luther’s beliefs on scripture ~ sola scriptura, grace and faith ~ saved by grace through faith, that he raised some deep concerns with what the church was doing and where the church was heading. One of the ‘straws that broke the camel’s back’ things was the practice of the Church’s sale of “indulgences” to provide absolution to sinners. The church, to put it frankly, was becoming increasingly corrupt. In 1517, Friar Johann Tetzel began selling indulgences in Germany to raise funds to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This infuriated Luther prompting him to write: “why does not the Pope, whose wealth is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers”. This prompted Luther to sit down and write his famous 95 theses ~ a list of questions and propositions for debate with the church and its current practices. He wrote the list and nailed it to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church 506 years ago (on October 31, 1517). And the rest, as they say, is history.
Luther’s 95 Theses fell into two categories. The first two theses contained Luther’s central idea, that God intended believers to seek repentance and that faith (not our deeds) would lead to salvation. The following 93 predominantly criticized the selling of indulgences. With the printing press now available, these theses by the distinguished Professor Luther quickly made their way throughout Europe, and of course … all the way to the Pope. Luther was required to defend his views over a three-day church assembly. He was examined and refused to recant his statements saying “Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other”. His writings were burned, and he was named a heretic. Luther went into hiding; however, his 95 theses began to spread faster than Elon Musk’s latest tweet. And then, in hiding, Luther did the most unsettling thing…he translated the entire New Testament into German…and mass production of Bibles began to spread throughout the country. Imagine that…for the first time… people (not just the priest) reading God’s word…themselves. Not just listening to what the priests said about scripture, but actually engaging with God’s word in their homes! Sola scriptura ~ God’s word being placed into the hands of believers. At the time, dozens of other Reformers were doing similar things in their own countries ~ the Bible translated into English, French, and so on. The church was changing; church was birthing into a new reality; she was reforming. And the various strands of the Reformed movement of the church were birthed and continue in denominations like Lutheranism ~ as we think of Martin Luther. And, of course for us, for us the denomination of the United Church of Canada, which is a blending of the Methodist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian Churches in Canada.
‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’. I’m not sure if that is true. Approximately 400 years after Luther’s work, a theologian named Ernst Troeltsch sought to explain the changes of the church in the modern era. In his 1912 book Protestantism and Progress: A Historical Study of the Relation of Protestantism to the Modern World, he talked about the cycles that faith communities inevitably go through. We begin as a ‘sect’, as we gather around a common set of beliefs. Jesus’ people, followers on the Way was the early Christian sect. Our genesis in the faith was as a sect ~ a small group of people with a radically different set of beliefs from the dominant culture ~ proclaiming “Jesus as Lord” and not “the Emperor as Lord”. Over time, as a sect grows, it develops an identifiable set of norms and values. It becomes more than just a small band of rebels, it becomes an established entity which he names as being a “cult”, a small religious entity. And as the cult grows, it forms into an established order on its own. In the 4th century Emperor Constantine declared what was the ‘cult movement’ of Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. Doctrines and rules were formed, and officials were named, and ‘the church’ was shaped and then you have “a religion”. Troelstch argued, however, that “a religion” is not the end point of the movement that began as a sect. As we humans get deeply involved in God’s business, in the religion, there comes a breaking point ~ there comes a reformation. Our selfish desires, our greed, our sin enters the picture and things inevitably break down. It sounds outlandish to hear the history of the church selling indulgences as a fundraiser to put a new roof on the Vatican, yet that is a part of our religious history. It seems inconceivable to think of our church barring people based on their gender or sexual identity from entering the ministry, yet that is part of our history. It seems unthinkable to think of our church participating with the government in running Residential Schools, yet that is part of our history. What Troelstch argued was that eventually a religion that had formed will break down and ‘re-form’. It will be re-shaped, re-fashioned. The church will be re-born again and again and again.
I wonder how the church will be reformed today? We were re-formed in Northwood in 1998 as the visionary founders imagined the Spirit uniting Fleetwood and North Surrey United Churches amalgamating to become Northwood at this location. I wonder how the church will be reformed today? My former congregation, the United Churches of Langley went through an amalgamation process during my ministry. Moving from four separate congregations into one united ministry in Langley. The three churches in White Rock have gone through a similar change. I wonder how the church will be reformed today? Sadly, money is a large driving force in the re-forming of churches. But it doesn’t have to be! I wonder how the Spirit is continuing to re-form and re-shape who we are and how we will function as the church in this little part of the world. Sometimes churches disband and close down which allows the new life of reformation to occur. Within our National Church structure, you may be aware that we have reformed from being a 4 court model ~ made up of local congregations, presbyteries, Conferences, and the General Council. We have now reformed to eliminate the second and third court, by merging presbyteries and conferences into a “Region” (the Pacific Mountain Region) thus streamlining the church to better do its work. I wonder how the church will continue to be reformed?
We are even seeing reformation with the Catholic Church. Six years ago, as we celebrated the 500th year of the Reformation, the Pope preached a sermon in Lund, Sweden at an ecumenical prayer service to Lutherans and Catholics ~ imagine that! Quoting Jesus’ words in John 15:4, “Abide in me as I abide in you”. The Pope said: “Now, in the context of the commemoration of the Reformation of 1517, we have a new opportunity to accept a common path, one that has taken shape over the past fifty years in the ecumenical dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. Nor can we be resigned to the division and distance that our separation has created between us. We have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another”. And, if we pay attention, I would suggest that we too are constantly being re-formed. Changed, shaped, moulded into God’s creation ~ providing we allow that to happen. We are children of ‘the journey’ followers of ‘the way’. And God is far from done with each and every one of us, no matter what age or stage we are at in life.
Getting back to Alphonse Karr’s famous quote: “The more things change, the more they stay the same”, I’m not really sure he is correct…at least when God’s Spirit has a part to play. And thanks be to God for that, for the shifting tides of this life, the ebbs and flow of our families, our churches, and ~ indeed ~ our very lives. How are you being re-formed? How are we being reformed? Maybe it’s not some much ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. Perhaps the better observation came a century later through Bob Dylan when he said: “The times, they are a changin’”. And thanks be to God for that! Amen.