Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.
Galatians 5:1, 4-6, 13-14
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that theology is not what brought you here this morning. I’m going to go out still and little further and assume that most of you (I know there are at least few exceptions), don’t thrill on church history, that many of you didn’t know we’d be observing the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation today, and that, furthermore, some of you aren’t quite sure what that is.
Some church leaders might bemoan all those realities, might consider low levels of theological literacy a sign, or even a cause, of the church’s decline. They might want to use this quincentennial to teach some holy history, encourage some theological reflection, and maybe even inspire a little respect for a 2,000-year-old institution many believe is on its last legs. Others, wanting to be true to both the spirit of Reformation history and the disdain of our own anti-church times, are using the anniversary to incite some protest of all the things that are wrong with the church and what we should change.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that. God knows at least some of our ways of doing and being church do need reform and re-imagination. And I enjoyed the four “500 Years & Counting” Growing in Faith Sessions that a few of us participated in over the past several weeks. Using a UCC study guide, we discussed some of the theological views and historical developments that began rocking the church and the world 500 years ago: concepts such as the sovereignty of God, salvation by grace through faith (rather than works or indulgences), the priesthood of all believers, the authority of scripture, God’s saving mercy, the idea that we are all both sinners and saints, and, my favorite term: total depravity—the notion that self-deception and the “capacity to do really awful things” are a real and powerful part of the human condition.
All of that is good, but what I really want to do today is celebrate some of the gifts of the Reformation and encourage us to consider what they mean for the church today, for our lives, and possibly for our nation and the world. And because that’s a lot of ground to cover in the next 10 minutes, I’m going to touch on just a few key things, the good and the bad.
Take democracy, for instance. The political philosophy that shaped our nation was born out of the Reformation emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. The Reformation said Christians didn’t need a priest to gain access to the Holy; every believer could be Christ in the world and represent Christ to world. Church people were further empowered by the advent of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into their own languages; they could read and interpret the scriptures themselves instead of relying on what the priest said.
Bible knowledge is not considered so valuable and empowering today, but maybe it should be. The idea that God is still speaking—and to every person—took root 500 years ago, but back then it seemed more people were listening; then, as now and always, people were seeking meaning and understanding, to know their place in the “family of things.” Back then, most people were also trying to figure out how to escape eternal damnation. These days most of us believe that damnation, like salvation, is about the here and now; that God’s “punishment” is the natural consequences of our bad behavior and that salvation, or wholeness, comes as we are continually transformed and reformed by the Spirit of Love.
The Reformation, and the Enlightenment, also started us down the road to individualism, which is kind of odd because the Judeo-Christian story is all about a people, the community, the body of Christ—and also not odd at all because, well, total depravity (right?). And then there’s the whole technology piece. Thanks to Mr. Gutenberg and Martin Luther, people could read their own Bible in their own language and let God speak to them; thanks to the Internet and Mr. Zuckerberg and social media, we can sit comfortably in our own narrow silos, never interacting with people and views that are different from ours, so distracted by our screens that we can lose touch not only with each other but also with ourselves.
The Reformation—its theological ideas and the freedom and power it granted to the individual—would have been near impossible without the technology of the printing press. Five hundred years later, how can we harness the technologies of our times for good? How can we use social media and other platforms of communication to share the good news that God’s love is for all people, that Christ’s church affirms all people, that there is meaning and hope and healing beyond the mixed motives of individuals, activist groups and political parties, that transformation comes from being in committed relationships with others, from working together, as challenging as that sometimes is?
The Beloved Community known as the church must lead the way from alienation to engagement, from estrangement and division to mutual respect and reconciliation. Following Jesus, the body of Christ must again find new ways to preach the Good News of God’s radical, all-inclusive love, to lead us from the brokenness and bitterness of total depravity to the healing and hope that comes when humans realize they are not God but that God’s love longs to be known in and through them.
In celebrating the gifts of the Reformation, I’m going to go out on another limb: I’m guessing that most of you did not come here today out of a sense of obligation, out of the fear that if you didn’t come to church somehow your soul would be endangered. We have the good news of the Hebrew Bible and the gospel of Jesus to thank for that, but also the reforming emphasis of Martin Luther: that we are saved not by our own doing but by the unmerited and universal grace of God, that the life of faith is not about being good enough or holy enough or wealthy enough, but about letting God’s love reform and transform us from the inside out.
And yet our culture continues to tell us that we are not enough, that it is up to us, as individuals, to become strong enough, beautiful enough, cool enough, successful enough, and to have enough stuff. And how many of us, even in the church, are still wearing ourselves out trying to be dedicated enough or selfless enough to politically correct enough, perfect enough to fit in, to be accepted, to be loved for who we want to be rather than the extremely imperfect people we know ourselves to be?
Do we not know the gospel of Jesus, the good news of the Reformation, and what should be the resounding message of the ever-reforming, ever-emerging church: that Christ set us free from sin, free from striving, free from self-making, free from thinking we have to save ourselves, free from thinking we can do it all, free from guilt and fear, free from death?
Do we not know? Have we not heard? Well, we kind of know— but we forget. Because culture, because fear, because brokenness, because, well, total depravity. Right?
But the good news in every age is that we have been setfree—that freedom is not something we earn but that it is given to us by grace. That we need only—only!—die to sin and striving and be raised to new life. That by God’s free gift we are newly alive to Christ, the human manifestation of God’s selfless love. That it is for freedom—the kind of freedom that comes from losing ourselves in love for one another and love for our neighbors—that Christ has set us free from all that binds us.
Why do we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation? Because it reminds that the church can change, that the church, taking advantage of and using new technological innovations, can be an agent of positive change throughout society. Because it reminds us that God is always doing a new thing, in and through something and someone that looked all but dead, all but hopeless. Because it challenges us to see the church not only as a means toward personal salvation but also as an instrument of social change, ever-greater inclusion, and transformative empowerment.
Some say the church has a giant rummage sale every 500 years—throwing out what doesn’t serve and taking on new ways of being to get back to the basics of the gospel. What new ways of loving can emerge in and through us, in and through First Church Amherst? Legend tells us that 500 years ago, on October 31, a Catholic theologian named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany—and the world was never the same. What challenging message does the church need to hear today?
Some say the church is dying, that the signs are everywhere, that there is nothing we can do to stop it. But the gospel—and nature itself—tell us that new life comes only after a death. So what about our way of being church needs to die so that new life can be born? How can we create new ways for the Spirit to break into our world? We cannot hinder the God of love and justice, so how can we at least get out of her way?
I’m going to go out on one more limb and guess that these questions are not what got you out of your soft bed and into a hard pew this morning. I’m going to guess that, instead, it was something about love, some kind of longing for connection and meaning and hope. May we, as God’s people and Christ’s church, be that love, be that Beloved Community, provide that meaning and restore that hope.
By this grace of God in which we stand.