“Heritage: Past, Present, and Future”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 25, 2015: Heritage Sunday
Isaiah 43:14-21 & Philippians 3:4b-14
Imagine this scene in your mind. It is Halloween night in the city of Whittenburg, Germany, 1517. Children and families are running from house to house in costumes and masks. Tomorrow is All Saints Day, so the children are having fun scaring away the ghosts and monsters in preparation for the holy day. It is cold and the leaves are starting to change and fall in the town square. Now, in the dim moonlight, a shadowy figure moves across the square towards the cathedral church. As the figure comes closer, the glow of the church lanterns reveal that it is a monk in long brown robes, with the signature shaved circle on top of his head. In one hand, the monk carries a long list on parchment paper, and in the other, several nails and a hammer. The monk ascends the front steps of the cathedral, positions himself in front of the great wooden door, and proceeds to nail the long, parchment list to the door. The Halloween revelers are amazed and confused: who is this man and what has he nailed to the front door of the cathedral?
The monk is Martin Luther, and he has just nailed to the front door of the cathedral his 95 theses. As the sun came up the next morning on All Saints day, and the townspeople and clergy read Luther’s list, the wheels of Reformation were irreversibly set in motion.
Luther’s 95 theses have often been called complaints, but they are not. They were calls for reform. Each of the 95 statements declares a truth of Christian faith in the face of a church practice that does not square with the gospel. For example, thesis #36 says, “Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon.” Luther wrote this to target the practice of selling indulgences. Indulgences were tickets you could buy from a local priest to get yourself or a loved one out of hell. Selling indulgences brought a lot of money into the church, because who wouldn't want to buy a ‘get out of hell free card’? Luther saw the money flying in the doors of the church, so he writes in thesis #56, “The "treasures of the Church," out of which the pope grants indulgences, are not sufficiently named or known among the people of Christ.” Luther is calling for fiscal transparency here, by basically asking, “Where is all the indulgence money going?” Is it going to the poor? Is it feeding the hungry? No, the money is going into the pockets of the clergy and into the building funds of the pope. Luther's final feeling on indulgences is clear in thesis #66: “The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men”. Instead of fishing for men and women with the good news of the gospel, Luther saw a church using threats and promises of heaven and hell to fish for people’s money. Luther saw a church in desperate need of reform.
Luther’s work did not finish with the 95 theses. In fact, he worked for the entirety of his life to reform his beloved church. He was excommunicated and exiled, but he never gave up hope that the church could one day become the church Jesus intended it to be.
It is easy to romanticize the story and the monk who got it all started. It is easy because it’s an underdog story, one of a simple man coming head-to-head with the gigantic machine of the Catholic Church. And in the end he won, sort of. Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists, and Presbyterians can all trace their spiritual lineage to that Halloween night of 1517. The Catholic Church did reform itself, and we, the inheritors of Luther’s desire for reform, continue to reform. I believe the church today is more of what Christ intended it to be than it was in the past, and I believe that the church of the future will be more of what Christ intended than the church is today. Luther and his desire for reform won.
But what is the heritage of the Protestant Reformation? Is it the romantic story of an underdog rising to the top? Is it about one side winning over the other? Is it the truth that, no matter what, Christians will always have a hard time getting along with each other? What is the heritage of the Protestant Reformation?
If we peel away the romance of Luther's story and his sometimes salty nature, we see that Luther wanted to reform the church for a very specific reason. He wanted to strip away the moneymaking and fake religiosity and fancy clothing so that the people of God could come into the church and experience God in an authentic way, to actually have a relationship with Jesus Christ. In Luther's mind, anything that prevented you and me from experiencing the living God of our faith, anything that prevented you and me from having a life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ, had to go. This is why Luther called for the end of indulgences. No where in Scripture do we read that one can buy their way out of hell and into heaven. Instead, we read that if one confesses their sins and believes in the Lord Jesus Christ, they will be saved. Indulgences were not just theologically wrong, they also led the church away from its calling with the temptation of wealth. Indulgences had to go.
Luther was the first Christian leader to demand that the church translate the Bible into the common language of its people. He was exhausted with the idea that a common person had to meet with a priest in order to hear God's word. This is not because the priest was bad or got the message wrong, but because Luther believed that in baptism all people have the ability to read, understand, and interpret the Scriptures. How else does one learn about and marvel at their salvation in Jesus Christ? What happens when a town or village does not have a pastor who can read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew? Luther saw to it that the Bible was translated into German so that his people could read the Scriptures, meditate on God, and live in relationship with Jesus Christ. In a very real way, being able to read the Bible in your own language takes down the wall between you and God; reading the Bible in your own language gives you unmediated, free access to God. If you are willing to spend time with it, the Bible will show you right to God.
Fast forward about 30 years to Scotland and the founder of Presbyterianism, John Knox, has keyed into a lot of what Luther was doing in Germany. Knox was especially fond of the idea that anyone can have free access to God. It was Knox who did away with the practice of confessing sins to a priest, because if all people have access to God, there is no need for a priest to hear confession. Knox also did away with the long-held belief that clergy were in some way physically and spiritually different from everyone else. Knox wrote that while clergy do different work in the world, they are no more or less important than anyone else. That makes sense, and it had a profound effect on society. There was no longer a societal barrier between clergy and people, no more hierarchy for the clergy to exploit for their benefit. If the clergy and the people are released from constructed hierarchy, they are free to worship and serve together, learn and grow together, experience God together in relationship with Jesus Christ.
This sounds a lot like what we've heard today from Paul's letter to the Philippians. Paul was the chief among chiefs in the religious establishment of Jerusalem, totally blameless in the eyes of the law. If it was written in the law codes of the Hebrew Scriptures, Paul lived by it and he was proud to boast of this to anyone who would listen. Paul measured the worth and value of his life on how he was able to follow God's law. Trouble is, many people can follow God's law without ever having any type of understanding or knowledge of God. Paul realized this when he had his encounter with Jesus. He was indeed righteous in the eyes of the law, but the law did not bring him close to God, nor did it lead him to a life of humility, joy, and love. Only when Paul gives up his religiosity to take on the resurrection of Jesus does he finally get it: he finally experiences God in an authentic way and nurtures a relationship with Jesus Christ. It took a lot of striping away, a lot of reform, to get there.
This is the heritage of the Protestant Reformation: stripping away and reforming anything that prevents you and me from experiencing God, anything that keeps us from living in relationship with Jesus Christ.
Today, in the present, we are still doing the work of our Reformed heritage. I experienced this recently and in a very eye-opening way.
Lately I have been really conscious of and concerned with the debate in our nation about addiction and how addiction is feeding our country's growing prison population. I've been reading everything I can get my hands on that discusses this issue: books, articles, sermons, Biblical commentaries. It seems that every person has a different opinion about how we can fix this problem. Some voices are calling for an entire reform of the systems, the systems of treatment and incarceration, where users are treated instead of imprisoned and drug laws are relaxed. Other voices say the opposite: punishments should be harsher and there should be stricter laws concerning drugs in the US. Voices from the church are all over the place: some say church folks should get involved, others say not. In my quest for knowledge and understanding on this issue I have even talked to a theologian who has written about these things and has spent time in prison for a past life of drug addiction.
I brought this issue to discussion with our church elders this past week. Opinions were different and we did not, in the end, solve anything. But in our discussion I was reminded of something important. I was reminded that too often we get so wrapped up in the big picture of problems all around that we forget the small ways each of us can make a difference. One elder expressed a desire to know more about what leads people into lives of addiction, so that maybe they can be with people in the beginning before addiction takes hold. One elder reminded me that something small like a meal on a Saturday morning may be that one thing that brings someone back from the edge. Another elder reminded me that helping a child learn may radically change their life.
And just the next day, the tutoring program started up for the year and we have the chance to positively effect the lives of 17 children. It could be that this one hour a week for the school year is the reason that one of those children chooses a better way. So I was reformed this past week because the elders of this congregation helped me to see clearly that my little, simple actions can make a tremendous amount of difference in this great big world. I was reformed this past week because I know once again that I'm just one piece of a great puzzle, one that cannot totally fix or totally wreck the whole thing. I was reformed because I love a tall soap box and I love to wag my finger at whoever I think is guilty, and I know deep down that nothing gets done that way. I was reformed this week because I was reminded that Christian faith and life is not easy, it is not meant to be, because Christian faith and life serves the needy, uplifts the broken hearted, and loves the unlovable. Reformed, I can take a run at things and hopefully make a difference.
Our reformed heritage today is begging you and me to take off the glasses that only see the big picture in order to see the small acts that make big changes. Our reformed heritage is urging us to put away the traditions and rituals that we do because we've always done them so that we can explore new and exciting ways of being God's people. Our reformed heritage is saying that's it's alright to get it wrong sometimes, to stumble, to crawl before we walk. The beauty of being a child of God in relationship with Jesus is that only one person in that relationship has to be perfect. And he already is. Our reformed heritage teaches us that we don't have to be anything other than what Jesus says we are: unique, fearfully and wonderfully made, gifted and called to be a citizen of God's kingdom. This is so unbelievably liberating--there is nothing standing in our way as we work with God for a better, more faithful, redeemed world.
What our reformed heritage means for the future is yet to be seen. But here is the good news: God promises to have it all under control. It seems that lately we are in the fire, up to our eyebrows in a sea that keeps rising. It may seem to you that you are in a desert, desperate for water that cannot be found. It may seem to you that you are in a wilderness, searching for but never finding a place to call home. It may seem that you don't know where you are, desert or wilderness or otherwise. But God has it under control. Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old, God says. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. God is in control. God promises that our needs will be met, our pains will be soothed, and our mouths will declare his praise. With this promise, we can and we will look to the future with hope and joy for whatever God has in store.
This is our reformed heritage: past, present, and future. With hearts and minds open, committed to prayer and study of the Scriptures, may we each live authentically with and before God, in relationship with Jesus Christ, and side by side with one another. In this way we can proclaim with boldness as Martin luther did, "Here I stand: I can do no other", and the rest will be securely in the hands of God. Amen.