I don’t know about you, but in my lifetime, church has changed. A lot. I grew up in a church in which women did not serve as deacons or as ushers. I remember my mother serving as chair of the pastoral search committee one time, which was basically unheard of, but nobody had thought to make a rule, either written or unwritten, about a woman being in charge of finding the next pastor.
Today, over half of the students at mainline seminaries are women. There is a long way to go, and it is especially difficult for a woman to be hired as pastor at a larger church, but there is no question that things have changed.
There was a time when “Holy, Holy, Holy” was the first hymn listed in many hymnals. There was a certain playlist of songs you could expect on a Sunday morning that didn’t vary all that much from church to church. Now, there is a wide variety of music, not just contemporary praise music, but world music and new hymns and Taize music, along with the gospel songs and classic hymns, and the musical repertoire of different churches can be wildly different.
When I was growing up, churches held a certain place of prestige and influence in the community. When I moved to Arthur, Illinois in 1992 to pastor a church there, the country club had just discontinued its practice of giving local ministers a free membership. I’m not saying ministers should receive such community benefits, I’m just saying that the relationship between church and culture and the place the church has in the culture has changed a lot.
All of this is by way of saying that the culture is always changing, and the church is always in need of reforming, both to address the needs of the culture and to be more faithful to our calling to follow Jesus. Throughout the history of the Christian Church, there have been groups and individuals who have led the church to be more faithful, more of the church God calls us to be.
In 1521, Martin Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor and leaders of church and state to answer charges of heresy. Johann von Eck, the brilliant theologian, confronted him:
Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? Martin, answer candidly…do you repudiate your books and the errors they contain?Suddenly the words were pouring forth from Luther’s lips:
Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither safe nor right. God help me, here I stand.Today is Reformation Sunday. On October 31, 1517 – 500 years ago - Martin Luther nailed 95 theses, or complaints, or critiques - to the church door in Wittenberg. This was the community bulletin board, the social media of the day. And in some respects it was better than our social media, because it would be a bit of a chore to tweet 95 different theses.
Luther wanted to spur conversation, to bring about renewal within the church, but that act began what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. We have observed Reformation Sunday here from time to time, not necessarily every year, but since this is the 500th Anniversary, it seemed right this morning.
Maybe we need to begin with what Reformation Sunday is not. Reformation Sunday is not a day for Protestants to feel superior or to highlight our differences from our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. Luther protested practices and beliefs of the Church in his day, but he was not the only one, and in the years following, there was a Reformation within the Catholic Church. We are observing Reformation Sunday because in every age, the Church needs to hold itself up to the demands of the gospel and the needs of its culture and follow in new directions as God may lead.
Luther’s disagreement with the Church of his day had mostly to do with the belief that salvation depended not simply upon faith, but upon one’s merit. Most people did not have enough goodness to make it to heaven on their own and had to spend time in purgatory, being refined by fire – pretty much literally. But fortunately there were Saints of the Church who had excess merit—more goodness than they needed. One could receive some of that excess merit for certain religious acts – for making a pilgrimage to a shrine or for acts of charity. This was called an indulgence.
In time, indulgences were sold. The Indulgence Sellers preached a fire and brimstone sermon, got the people worked up, and then offered a way out. You could purchase an indulgence. “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” was the jingle. An indulgence could be applied to one’s own account, as it were, or used to help free a loved one, maybe grandma or grandpa, from purgatory. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but Indulgence Selling really took off as the Church was financing a new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
This was the time in which Martin Luther lived. He was a complicated figure: he struggled all his life with bouts of depression; he questioned his salvation; he struggled with the medieval view of Christ as a cold and calculating judge. He feared the wrath and damnation of God - until he began to really study the scriptures. He read Romans, particularly our scripture for this morning, and discovered that “the just shall live by faith” and “a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Luther wrote: “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely faith…I felt that I was altogether born again, and had entered paradise itself.”
For Luther, a focus on the scriptures led to an examination of theology. And theologically, the bywords of the Reformation were found in Latin phrases, in several solas.
First, sola fide, or faith alone. Salvation comes by faith. Now, this does raise the question of “what is salvation?” And we need to say that salvation is more than just getting to go to heaven – salvation in the scriptures is a broad term and it involves wholeness and meaning and fulfillment and living in right relationship here and now as well as in the life to come. This salvation comes by faith – by faith alone.
Luther was so careful not to suggest that our goodness has anything to do with it that he was not a big fan of the letter of James. James says, “faith without works is dead.” Which is true: faith leads us to good works; it leads us to act on behalf of others. If we show no evidence of our faith, then a person has to wonder. But we are not saved by our good works, we are saved by faith. Luther didn’t want anyone to be confused about that.
Closely related is sola gratia, or grace alone. Salvation is a gift of God through and through. Our experience of faith and our living and breathing each day is a gift. It is all grace. Even the ability to have faith is a gift of God. It is possible to get braggy about how great our faith is, but sola gratia says that everything, even our faith, is a gift of God.
Another Reformation theme is sola scriptura, scripture alone. This has to do with where we find authority. The scriptures speak to us and contain the truth we need. “Scripture Alone” means that others sources of authority do not carry the same weight as the Bible.
Sola scriptura is related to the idea of the priesthood of all believers – we can all interpret the scriptures for ourselves, aided by the tradition of interpretation, aided by our ability to reason and make sense of things for ourselves, and led by the Holy Spirit. But the scriptures must be allowed to speak to us directly, unfiltered, as it were. We all must determine the message of the scriptures to us for ourselves.
It is possible for a long tradition to be wrong. Many Christians long believed that the scriptures supported slavery. Many Christians long believed that the Bible taught a secondary role for women. Folks have used the Bible to support all sorts of things. Luther stood against the weight of church authority and tradition and said, based on scripture, aided by reason and the Holy Spirit, “Here I stand.”
I want to mention one more nifty Latin phrase that was a slogan of the Reformation – ecclesia reformandum, semper reformata. A church “reformed and ever reforming.”
I like that – the idea of semper reformata says that the Reformation isn’t over. And when I say the Reformation isn’t over, I do not mean the break between Protestant churches and Catholic churches. In fact, many ties between various parts of the Christian family are strengthening. When we say that the Reformation isn’t over, that means that the need for the church to constantly examine itself and follow the lead of the Spirit is still there and is always there.
One of my Baptist heroes was a guy named Will Campbell. Campbell was a self-described “bootleg Baptist preacher.” He was raised a Southern Baptist in Mississippi and went to Yale Divinity School. He returned to pastor a Southern Baptist church in Mississippi but found it tough going. His views on racial equality didn’t sit very well with folks. He wound up becoming the chaplain at Ole Miss but was fired there, amid death threats, because he supported integration. So he went to work for the National Council of Churches on a project to encourage minority voting and desegregation in the South. He helped escort the students who integrated the Little Rock Central High School.
His ministry had become one of fighting bigotry, but one day he had a revelation from God that he himself was bigoted – he was bigoted against bigots - and in the years that followed he became kind of an informal chaplain to rednecks and Klan members. He visited James Earl Ray in prison – the man who had shot his friend Martin Luther King. So by now pretty well everybody hated him.
Many years ago when I was at Virginia Tech, the Campus Ministers Association had Will Campbell come and make a presentation on campus, and beforehand several of us had dinner with him. One woman asked him what he thought of the institutional church, which was kind of like throwing him a hanging curve ball—you knew he was going to hit it hard. But this is what he said: “The church is OK. I don’t have any problem with the church. Once you accept that the church is inherently evil, then, yeah, the church is OK.”
That raised a few eyebrows, as you might imagine, so he went on to explain what he meant by that. The Church was an institution and like all institutions, he said, at some point the purpose of the institution becomes the perpetuation of the institution. So instead of changing lives or ministering to people in need or fighting injustice or educating in the faith or building God’s kingdom, the main purpose of the Church becomes the Church’s survival - and that self-centeredness is sinful. Will Campbell would sometimes say things for shock value, but I had to agree. It is easy for the Church to lose sight of its purpose.
And that is why after 500 years we are observing Reformation Sunday – to remind us of our purpose. To remind us that the church is ever in need of reformation. To call us to a renewed faithfulness.
Martin Luther went on to translate the Bible into German, and the Luther Bible is to the German-speaking world what the King James is to the English-speaking world. He was an ex-priest who married an ex-nun and together they had 6 children, and if that’s not Reformation then I don’t know what is.
Baptists did not descend from Martin Luther. We came out of the Separatist movement in England sometime later and were part of the radical wing of the reformation. (You heard me right: Baptists have been radicals from the very beginning.) We have a spiritual kinship with Anabaptists who were part of the Reformation on the European continent – people like Christian Fankhuaser, my grandfather 14 generations or so back, in Switzerland.
He was persecuted for his faith – by other Protestants – because he did not baptize his children as infants. He built a secret hiding place in the barn to hide from the authorities, and he eluded them for over a year before he was finally arrested becasue of his religious views, imprisoned for a couple of years, and finally deported.
Well, what about today? Where has this history and reforming tradition brought us? Today, the Church is at something of a crossroads, and the meaning and purpose of the Church in today’s world is very much in a state of flux.
There are those who see the Church as a quaint throwback to a bygone era, if they even give the church a second thought. Others see the Church as a bastion against reason and common sense – opposed to science, opposed to progress, opposed to rational thought. Some see the Church as helping to promote the incivility and intolerance that is so rampant in our world, rather than helping to build community and bring reconciliation.
The fastest growing group in this country in terms of religious adherence is those who claim no religious affiliation. Increasingly, people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” That can mean a lot of things, some of which are very positive, but it is largely a reaction against the kind of self-centeredness and empire-building and focus on self-preservation that Martin Luther and the Swiss Anabaptists and Will Campbell all protested in their own way.
You know who else is protesting that today? Pope Francis. The head of the Roman Catholic Church is one of a handful of religious leaders that come to mind as working for change and renewal and maybe even “Reformation” in the church. Ironic, isn’t it?
This is a time of change, but also a time of great opportunity. The Good News is: the Church has faced challenging times before. This is nothing new. And God continues to use fallible human beings - the Church - to bring wholeness and healing and justice and community and reconciliation and salvation. We know this. We have experienced it.
We don’t know exactly what the church will look like – this church or the wider church – in 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 years. But we are heirs to a great tradition able to change and innovate and follow God’s Spirit in new ways, in exciting ways, in life-giving ways. And in the end, as Luther and the Reformers reminded us, the just shall live by faith. Amen.