October 29, 2017 (21st Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 25/Ordinary 30)
Service for the Lord’s Day (Commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of Reformation)
Indian Hill Church
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine
22: 34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:34-46, NRSV)
Let us pray: Almighty God, your Son has shown us how to love one another. May our love for you overflow into joyous service and be a healing witness to our neighbors through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today is Reformation Sunday in the Protestant world. This year in particular is especially important because it is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It may not be a big holiday on the calendar or even a day that you have heard of, but it is an important day in the history of the church and the world. The motto of the Presbyterian church is “Reformed and always reforming”. It reminds us that the church, its theology and practices, the way the church lives, moves, and has its being, is not static or fixed in time, instead the church is always changing, always adapting, always stretching and always reforming.
In many ways the Christian faith is a long story of reform and change, way back to the very beginning. In Genesis we are told that God created this perfect, beautiful world and pronounced that it was good. Then when God created humanity, humanity attempted to gain some control of God’s world, and from that moment sin and corruption entered and are with us to this day. From that time forward God has tried to bring the world back to the condition of goodness. But as we know this is still a work in progress. So, this story of the people of God is one of prophecy and rebellion, law and sin, forgiveness and grace. The Old Testament ends with the promise of reconciliation and healing in God’s family.
The reconciliation comes in the form of God’s own Son, Jesus. Jesus comes and teaches people a new way of living, a new way of believing, a reformed way of understanding God. Jesus challenged the religious authorities who corrupted the way the faith was practiced. The Scribes and the Pharisees had made it a burden to live out the faith, laying law upon law upon the people, rule upon rule, until the practice of religion became a heavy burden, and an overwhelming duty. Devoid of the joy and generosity that God intended. Even worse religion became a practice of exclusion, and judgement with little regard for others. Jesus saw how religion was being lived out and rebuked the conceited leaders, showing a new way of living and leading, as a humble servant.
After Jesus death and resurrection his followers kept his message alive and believers emerged throughout the world. The larger the Christian movement grew but not without great challenges. The rise of the Roman Empire, was the first major challenge. The Romans viewed the Christian movement as a threat, so the Roman Emperors began persecuting Christians in hopes of squashing the movement. This persecution continued until the year 312 when Constantine, then the Emperor of Rome became a Christian. Emperor Constantine mandated that Christianity become the official religion of the Roman Empire and the church gained a new-found position of power. Now in a position of power, the church began to persecute other faiths. This period was known as The Crusades, or Holy Wars, and the empire and the church became one. So much so, that Roman soldiers marched into battle with crosses on their shields.
The church continued to grow, and leaders emerged, and they became organized much like an empire. They had elders and bishops and eventually a Pope who was the head of the church in Rome. The church became wealthy, strong and powerful, even more powerful than the Roman Empire that collapsed but the church did not.
Some within the church didn’t like this strength and power and sought to live differently. Some took vows of poverty and simplicity and withdrew from society to live in monasteries. Their focus became Jesus’ humility and service. Others felt that the church was becoming too ornate and fancy. These monks wore plain, brown cassocks and sought to live simple, humble lives of service, and charity.
It is now the middle ages, Enter Martin Luther. Luther was studying to become a lawyer. When one-day Luther was caught in a violent thunderstorm. He prayed to St. Anne, promising to become a monk if she would allow him to survive the storm. His life was spared, and Luther true to his promise and shed his worldly life and entered the Augustinian monastery. It was here that Luther fasted and prayed, constantly seeking to live a perfect and holy life to earn God’s approval. His attempt to live a holy life was more than he could achieve so he became depressed and despair consumed his mind and spirit.
One day in 1514, while studying Paul’s letter to the Romans in his tower room, he had an Epiphany. He saw what he called the pure Gospel. He realized that sinners are saved not through good works but by the gift of God through faith.
Luther’s disillusionment with the church continued to grow, specifically over the sale of indulgences, which were a monetary payment of penalty which, supposedly, absolved one of past sins and/or released one from purgatory after death. As you might guess this was a lucrative practice and the church realized that it could sell indulgencies to raise funds to pay for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The faithful could pay, the church would pronounce them forgiven and at the end of the day everyone was happy; sins forgiven, revenues up. The three parts of penance changed from contrition, confession and absolution to contrition, confession and contribution.
On October 31, 1517, Luther had had enough, and he posted his 95 Theses on the Castle Church doors, in Wittenberg, Germany. He was hoping for a scholarly debate on the sale of indulgences. Although he wrote them in Latin, they were quickly translated into German and distributed throughout the land, sparking the events that began the Reformation. Luther would continue to clarify his message to emphasize salvation by grace through faith in Christ. What began on October 31,1517 as an objection to the selling of indulgences launched a renewal of the church that continues to this day.
Reforming has always been a part of the Christian faith and the church. What Martin Luther was trying to reform was to get the church to go back to the basics and have more emphasis on Scripture. Particularly what he heard over and over in Scripture is that we are saved by God’s grace and not by our works or our money. What Luther witnessed in the church was people working hard to be saved, buying indulgences to pay for their own forgiveness and salvation. He witnessed the hierarchy of the church getting wealthy and powerful using rituals to build ornate cathedrals on the backs of people’s fear of damnation.
Through his Epiphany Luther found a new lease on life and a new purpose for the church. Luther wanted all God’s children to know about this free grace, abundant grace of God. But his imprint on the church did not stop there.
We see the influence of Luther all over our churches today. With our emphasis on education and mission, involvement in the world. Luther and other reformers have called us back to Scripture and encouraged all of God’s people to study, to pray and to have a relationship with God. We no longer need an intermediary, a Pope, a Bishop, a priest, a pastor, or anyone else to intercede on our behalf. We can approach God directly. It is a very freeing way to live and believe.
Through the life and witness of Luther and other reformers like Calvin, Knox, Cranmer, or Wesley we are reminded that we are part of a much bigger process of reforming the church, and we are all part of God’s grand plan for the church and the world. So, this day, Reformation Sunday, at its theological best, should call us to remember that God is always doing a new thing, even if we don’t always perceive it. The Reformers have given us a gift that reminds us that being a Christian is not a showy, elaborate ordeal, full of rules, instead it is a living faith characterized by humbleness and gratitude trusting the goodness of God. The church is at its best when we recognize that we don’t have all the answers and that the Christian faith is really all about God and not about maintaining the institution or even about us. This opens us up to freedom, the freedom to live and love and worship. Not freedom like we think of today in America, the choice to do anything we want but the sense of freedom to approach God ourselves and to worship God without the constrictions of the religious institution. We are not slaves to a demanding God or robots that follow a prescribed set of rules set down by the church. We are set free to follow Christ, to love God and to love our neighbor.
Today as we find our country so deeply divided, full of entrenched divisions that seem to deepen each day and hate groups spew chants we’d thought were long silenced and fear runs rampant, we need to hear Jesus commandments now more than ever: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is freedom that Luther’s bold reforming act gave us, a freedom to see the love of God for ourselves. A freedom that leads to relationship. Relationship with God and relationships with your neighbors. As Jesus responded to the Pharisee’s test he gives us the roadmap for life, Love God and love our neighbor and in doing so we realize what Luther’s disillusionment was all about, it was the freedom to move beyond ourselves and our own salvation and focus of bigger and better things like God. We as individuals and we the church are at our best when we acknowledge our own sinfulness and that only by God’s grace are we saved at all, when we live by the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbor.
Let us pray: