Reformation Sunday 2019
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
Today we celebrate the birthday of a movement. The Protestant Reformation of 1517 brought radical change to the practice of Christianity throughout the world and today that movement is 502 years old. It’s fun that we celebrate this birthday today because today is also my birthday, though I’m not nearly as old. On my birthday each year I like to take time to reflect back on the year that has past and dream about what God might have for me in the year to come. So today I want to spend time with you looking back on our heritage as Reformed Christians. Then, I want to dream a little with you about where God might be leading us in the year, and in the years, to come.
What were the Reformers wanting 502 years ago? Martin Luther was the spark that lit the Reformation in 1517 and some romanticized accounts have turned him into a bit of a radical, looking to chop the church off at her knees. But really, Martin Luther was a devout Catholic and he was looking to change the Catholic church from within. Luther, and the countless reformers who came after, were seeking one thing and one alone: truth. Luther did not set out to start a whole new church when he presented his 95 Theses, or complaints, to his superiors—Luther wanted his beloved church to come even closer to the truth of Jesus by reforming itself. But when the church resisted, excommunicating him 1521, Luther felt that God was calling him to lay the foundation for a new church, built on five theological pillars.
The first of those pillars is solus Christus, in Christ alone. Sometimes we joke that if you don’t know the answer to a question in church, always say Jesus. But in the church prior to the Reformation, Jesus had become less and less the answer for anything. In fact, Jesus did not really have much of a place in the church of the 16th century. That’s because throughout the Gospels Jesus continually sides with the poor and disenfranchised and the church had no time for those sorts of people because they had so very little to put in the offering plate. The church was in the money-making business, and Jesus was dangerous to their cause. Everything from going to heaven, to the candles on the altar, to reserved pews on Sunday, everything the church did was for sale. If you had the money to pay, you had full access to the church and its flimsy promises. This communicated a message that money was the ticket to salvation. The Gospels say something quite different—it is Jesus, alone, who saves and redeems and there is no price, no admission fee, no tax on the amazing grace of his love.
The second pillar that Luther and the other reformers built their new church on is similar to the first: soli deo Gloria, to God alone be the glory. God alone is the source and author of all things and God alone is to be praised and honored. The truth of our humanity is simply that we are easily swept up in worshipping other things: time, money, organizations, people. And worshipping these things had turned the church of the 16th century into a shrine to holy people and relics of history. But we fail one another; time and money run out; statues crumble and relics turn to dust. God never disappoints, never fails, God never changes. God is beyond and above all that we could possibly imagine, and in love God has placed us on a path that leads to life and not to death. God became one of us so that we might know the full height, depth, and breadth of God’s love. When we place our faith, hope, and trust in God alone, there is no end to the abundance of life that is at our fingertips.
The third pillar of the Reformed tradition is a response to the first two: sola gratia, by grace alone. The Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesian church, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” How exciting and liberating is it to know that we don’t have to do anything to receive God’s love and forgiveness? The Reformation was an all-out resistance to the notion that one must do certain good deeds, or pay a certain amount of money, or pray certain prayers in order to be saved. By God’s sovereign power, and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all people have been removed from the clutches of sin and renamed as children of God. Grace is God constantly wiping the slate clean in love so that we might live our lives in holiness, generosity, and compassion. We can’t earn it, and the good news of the Gospel is we can’t do anything to have it taken away, either. It is the gift of God.
Now, the fourth pillar of Reformed theology answers any questions we might have about how we receive and respond to the gift of God’s grace: sola fide, by faith alone. This might sound like I’m talking out both sides of my mouth, but by faith alone we receive and respond to the grace of God that we cannot earn or revoke. That sounds like faith is an action or work through which we earn God’s grace. But remember, we can’t earn it or have it taken away—we must simply receive it as one receives a gift on their birthday, and respond in gratitude. Through faith we receive assurance that God has wiped the slate clean, setting us up for a life free from being defined by sin and death. Through faith, we can look with compassion and concern and anger on a world of natural disasters, violence, pain, and suffering, and know that God has not abandoned us. In faith, we are shielded against the dark forces that seek our destruction until the time when we are ready to fight back with the light of Christ. It is by faith that we grasp on to God and know that God’s grasp on us will never let us go.
And the fifth pillar of Reformed theology asks, “Well, how can we know any of this?” and the answer to that is: sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone. This is, more than any of the others, the most highly contested and debated piece of our Reformed heritage. What is the Bible? Which version of the Bible is best? Is the Bible to be read literally or not? These questions echo in the church today as they did 500 years ago. But the point of sola Scriptura in 16th century is still important for us to consider today. This doctrine was born out of fatigue over church doctrine and book and books and document and documents that laid out rules and regulations for Christians to follow. Sola Scriptura gets rid of all that and makes the Bible the primary source material of our faith. If we have a question about God, we must go to the Bible. If we have a question about Jesus, we must go to the Bible. If we want to know what it means to be holy, redeemed, peaceful, generous, compassionate, and kind, we must go to the Bible. That’s really what sola Scriptura was originally all about.
In this congregation, we read the Bible in a very careful way. In this congregation, we hold Scripture in the absolute highest regard. This means that we recognize that the Bible is authoritative and inspired, written and transmitted to us by fallible human beings. This means that we recognize that the Bible contains historical and grammatical errors, and even contradictions from one book to the next. This means that we place the Bible in its historical and religious context, remembering that its texts were written for specific people at specific times. All of this helps us to understand that even though the Bible might be hard to read and understand, and that it might contain errors, it is still the word of God that gives witness to God’s love throughout time. This helps us to encounter the God who calmed the chaos at the beginning of time, the God who will not be contained by our rules, theologies, or ideas. This helps us to taste and see, as the psalmist writes, that the Lord is good. This sparks in us imagination and dreaming and visions of a God who created the mountains in power and might and carefully knit us together in the womb.
This is who we are as Reformed Christians: Christ alone saves us, God alone deserves our honor and glory, we are saved by grace alone and assured of grace by faith alone, and it through careful and creative and respectful study of Scripture that we learn about God, about each other, and about the world we live in. In time, this theological foundation spread north from Germany into Scotland where an expression of Christ’s church was founded called Presbyterianism. In time, these pillars were used to build the church in which we worship today. So that’s the look back on this birthday of Reformation. What might God have in store for us in the years to come?
I know that there is a lot of anxiety in the air right now. That anxiety at one time or another will touch your daily life—it might be a part of your life right now. I’m reminded often that there have been other times in human history where the anxiety has been this high, and in some ways, that’s comforting. But in this moment—in the church, in the world, in politics and daily life—it is a lot to handle. There is anxiety about the direction our world is taking under extreme leadership. There is anxiety about everyday issues like medical care, debt, housing and jobs that pay a living wage. There is anxiety in the church about how the church today doesn’t look like it did 5, 10, or 15 years ago—there is also anxiety about how the church might not look like it did 5, 10, or 15 minutes ago. Clubs and organizations of all kinds are facing dwindling numbers and budgets as younger generations don’t seem to want to join. Our tutoring program is trying to help a small group of students fill in gaps in their education before they enter middle school, which is symptomatic of a greater problem in a broken system. Daily in our church office we come in contact with neighbors who are hungry, unable to make ends meet, some whose lack of access to basic human services has left them utterly without the necessities of life and utterly without hope.
My grandmother wrote a beautiful letter to my parents a week after September 11, 2001 in which she lamented for them the fact that they had to raise two boys in a world that would never be the same again. But in that same letter she intoned something that reminds in my mind to this day. She said, “But God is still God and there is nothing that can ever change that.” Yes, G-mom! That’s exactly what we needed to hear after watching the planes fly into those buildings, and that’s what we all need to hear today. God is still God and there is nothing that can ever change that. Yes, it is rough right now and it might be that way for quite some time. Yes, there is a tremendous amount of suffering in the world, in parts of the world we may never see and in parts of the world that are right next door. Yes, there are issues and complexity that we may never have the ingenuity and strength to finally overcome. But God is still God and there is nothing that ever change that. To God alone be the glory!
On this Reformation Day 2019, I believe God is calling us and leading us to have good hope because God is still God and we can’t change that—suffering can’t change that, governments can’t change that, no power of hell will ever be able to change that. The church might be smaller than it was before, but we still put on quite an evening on Friday filled with God’s love for 250-300 of our neighbors! Children might be struggling to keep up in school, so we’ll just have to keep spending a few hours with them each week until they catch up. Social services might continue to be cut and made harder to access, so we’ll just have to keep collecting our monthly mission offerings to bring good news and hope to our neighbors. Leaders of all kinds will continue to vie for our attention and our allegiance, so we’ll just have to keep worshipping God. We will continue to hear messages that this cream or this exercise routine or this club will save us, so we’ll just have to keep running to Jesus who alone sets us free. There are forces that will continue to try and separate us from one another because someone in isolation is much easier to attack, so we’ll just have to keep holding on to each other through the storms of life. So many things will try and silence our hearts and minds, so we’ll just have to keep on singing, keep on praying, keep on gathering in Jesus’ name until everything that stands in opposition to our God is fully and finally defeated.
If we stick to these things, my friends—if we remain true to our identity as Reformed followers of Jesus and put our time and energy and resources into the things that bring us life and bring life to everyone around us, there is no telling where God is going to lead us. It might not be where we thought. It might not be to a place we are familiar with. But it will be the place God wants us to be and God will give us everything we need to live life in abundance. So, when you leave this place today, go in the knowledge of just how deeply you are loved by God and by this community. Go in the knowledge that you are free and that your freedom is meant to be spread around. Go with thanks for prophetic and wise voices of the past that have made today possible. Go in the sure and certain knowledge that nothing can separate you from the love of God, and go with a new energy to be constantly changing and reforming according to God’s good and perfect will. Go, giving all glory to God who alone is worthy of our praise. Amen.