Sermons at Union Congregational Church
Preached by The Reverend Gail L. Miller
October 28, 2018 Reformation Sunday
Looking Back ~ Looking Forward
“Tradition, Tradition!” Tevye sang in Fiddler on the Roof. And in that song he extolled the blessings and value of holding fast to that which has gone before.
I love tradition – I love knowing where I’ve come from and who’s gone before. And I especially like knowing why – why do we always do this this way? Why don’t we do it that way? For me tradition encompasses issues of identity as well as history – the why as well as the what.
Today, Protestant churches around the globe are celebrating the Reformation, which was begun in 1517 in Germany by Martin Luther. We are celebrating it as well, because it is OUR tradition, and because I think that knowing our roots is key to knowing who we are and where we’re going.
And it’s good to remember that this 500 year old tradition was, at the time, a change of epic proportion in the church.
I believe that if you don’t know where you’ve been, you’ll never discover where you’re going. So this morning we take a look at this part of our history.
Martin Luther was born in Germany in 1483 – at the end of the Middle Ages. His early life was ruled by a fear of God’s judgment. The course of his life changed when he was 22 years old during a thunderstorm in the summer of 1505. A lightning bolt struck near him as he was returning to school one day. Terrified, he cried out, “Help! Saint Anna, I’ll become a monk!” He did indeed survive and so he left law school, sold his books, and entered the Augustinian monastery just weeks later.
He became a pastor, got his doctorate in theology, and was a respected professor at the University at Wittenberg and an assistant pastor of the Castle Church in the same town. Luther’s personal and professional life both had the same purpose: to serve Christ and Christ’s church.
At that time in Europe, the “church” was the Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Leo X. The nature of the church then was very different from today. 16th century Catholic leaders knew that encouraging individual believers to read the Bible for themselves, in their own language, would undermine the authority of their hierarchy. So masses were held in Latin and the ordinary people had no access to the Bible, since it hadn’t yet been translated into German.
The church was also teaching that you could secure your place in heaven by doing good deeds; (the theological term for this is salvation by works) and that you could literally buy forgiveness. In fact, you could purchase a certificate which would grant forgiveness of your sins, promising salvation and eternal life. Pope Leo financed the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with this money.
During this time Luther had been studying the Bible, theology, philosophy as well as living the life of a faithful monk, and yet something was not right. For all his striving, he did not feel at peace with God nor with his church. Then, some of Luther’s parishioners purchased these “indulgences” and asked him about them. And this was the straw that broke the camel’s back – this was when he knew his beloved church was on the wrong path.
Also at this time he was studying and lecturing on the book of Romans and these verses from chapter 3 grabbed him:
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they [believers] are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (vv. 22b-25a)
His discovery of God’s grace transformed his life and he was never the same. And not only was the course of his life changed, but history itself was forever changed by his close and prayerful reading of these verses. And so he wanted to talk with folks in the church about his new insight and its implications for the church.
So he wrote his now famous 95 Theses – which were basically points for discussion – and sent them to his Archbishop. He also posted them on the front door of the church on October 31st (1517), which was the common practice of the day. The church’s front door opened on a main street of the city, and it was a good place to post a notice for public viewing.
He chose the 31st, because it was the day before All Saints’ Day. Luther knew that on the next day, Nov. 1, the church would be filled with worshipers for All Saints, many of whom were educated and literate. Posting treatises this way was the tradition and it happened all the time. It was the Twitter feed of those times. What is significant is not the fact that he nailed a piece of paper to the church door, but what he had written on that paper.
The bottom line is this – you can’t buy your way to God / heaven / or salvation with money, or good works. Only through faith in Christ can we find forgiveness for our sins and draw closer to God. And the way to know more about Christ and God is by reading the Bible.
The Bible, Luther discovered, does 2 things, which come through in our reading from Romans:
It shows us our sin,
And it shows us our Savior.
We are conscious of our sin, but we are no longer afraid of punishment from an angry God.
We learn through Jesus that sin is not so much breaking God’s law as it is breaking God’s heart. And so we come to God, brokenhearted ourselves like a sorry child coming to his mother. Because we know that the God we come to is love.
And because God is love, we can trust Him and His forgiveness. And we have this relationship with God because of Jesus.
Through Jesus, God turns the whole system upside down.
The woman caught in adultery is forgiven and her accusers are convicted.
The sick and maimed are healed and made whole.
The hated outcasts have a dinner companion.
The excluded children are brought to the center.
And at the center with them is Jesus.
And at the center of our life and faith today is – Jesus. Through the death of Christ, the blood that he shed on the cross, we are freed from the weight of our sin. Our identity as Christians and as the Church grows then out of this wondrous act of love – Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our salvation.
God gives us this gift not because we deserve it, but because it is God’s nature to be merciful – to give us what we don’t deserve.
This is really good news – and it was such good news to Luther 500 years ago that he had to find a way to tell everyone. And when he found that the church was an obstacle to this good news of God in Jesus, he set about to correct them. He invited people to debate and discuss his new insight, because he was confident that the Word of God would show people the truth and these errors would be corrected.
It’s helpful to note that Martin Luther never intended to break from the Roman Catholic Church. If he knew that there was an entire tradition named after him, the Lutherans, he’d be astonished. He truly wanted his church to share the good news he’d found in scripture and to re-align themselves with the Bible. He did not want to go off and start a new tradition.
But the Holy Spirit was alive in Luther and his work. Even though he was excommunicated from not just his church but also from his state, he continued to dedicate his life to bringing the good news to all people. While he was imprisoned (for his safety) he translated the Bible into German which put the Bible into the hands of the common people.
His following was immense and other scholars rose up to debate the issues he’d put forth – John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli – and the Protestant Reformation was born.
As the church moved and moves through time and history, things change – some changes are for the better, some not. Sometimes we’ll stop doing things a certain way and drop a tradition; other times we’ll take up new ways and new traditions.
But as we do, we do well to keep the story and insights of Martin Luther with us.
I’m reminded of a book about the church, written by Browne Barr, called High Flying Geese, In which he uses the lives of a flock of geese as a metaphor for the church.
When geese are flying, they are able to change direction quickly and extremely accurately. They may see food or a place to land and need to get from there to here on a dime. While flying they can bank their bodies to 180 degrees even as they swoop toward the ground. They can land with accuracy (and without injury) because no matter how much they turn their bodies, their heads remain level and fixed on the horizon.
And that’s how the church ought to move – with our heads and our eyes fixed on Christ. That’s what Luther was all about – focused on the Bible’s teaching about God’s grace and forgiveness – as he sought to steer them back on course.
And for us as well. As we constantly consider who we are as a congregation and where we are going, we should look back at regular intervals; but as we fly forward, keep our eyes on Christ – his death and resurrection and the Word through which we know him.
This will not only keep us from crashing, but it will keep us headed in the right direction, soaring to heights we can only imagine.