Romans 12:1-2; Psalm 104:24-33
This month is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Actually, it is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. The Lutherans are making a REALLY big deal of this! And we, part of the Reformed tradition, are close behind.
It is a big deal! Anniversaries are a big deal. Just observe that we ourselves are throwing one of the biggest parties ever for our 125th anniversary in November. Why are anniversaries such a big deal? It is just another day, with more days to follow. Anniversaries don’t start anything and they don’t end anything.
But we humans memorialize milestones. It is a way of celebrating what we have successfully negotiated so far along life’s river – the cataracts and waterfalls, the sharp bends, and the placid ponds. We are who we are because of those adventures and pauses. And from the milestones, we pause to look back and get a perspective on what has happened, and affirm our learnings.
The Reformation was the birth of Protestantism, the tradition in which we stand. All Protestant denominations trace their roots to the Reformation. Even though a woman I knew was proud of the fact that her church, the Baptist Church, was founded by John the Baptist! Since not even Jesus started a church, this seem a bit of a stretch!
Presbyterians and many other denominations identify themselves as “the Reformed tradition.” This term designates those denominations who trace their history back to John Calvin and John Knox, in particular. So we are reformed. Reformed and always reforming. We will talk today about the first part of the phrase, and the second part next Sunday.
Re-formed. Formed all over again. Changed for the better. Paul wrote to the Romans about this: Present your whole being to God. Let God reform you. Don’t be like the world. Be what God would want you to be – good and perfect! Here the object of reform is ourselves. This is probably always the best place to start. We know that both Luther and Calvin had to do some pretty deep soul work on themselves before they began to challenge the institutional church.
Back in Luther’s day, the church’s leadership was in complete chaos. Not long before Luther was born, the French and the Italians simultaneously elected different popes, who both insisted, violently, that they were the true pope. Then to top it all off, another group of Italians elected a third pope, who was just as intransigent as the other two. Three popes! How could it be?! The people, no matter how uneducated, knew something was wrong. They had always been taught that there was one pope, and that he was directly chosen by God to be the final arbitrator, of both religious and political matters. How could God have chosen three at the same time!? It was like opening a pandora’s box.
And it all came down to this: Where now is the authority? Who decides?
Martin Luther, and the other reformers answered this question quickly and clearly: “Sola scriptura.” Only scripture teaches us about our life with God, and is the authority for faith and practice.
This answer was Martin Luther’s personal answer. As a monk, he had a chance to read the Bible directly, for himself. And he found it to be much clearer than the doctrines of the church. He struggled mightily with what he read there and knew that it was not what the church leaders were teaching. Finally, he had had enough and he determined to ask, publicly, how the church’s teachings were derived from Scripture. It was a challenge to debate.
He walked up to the church doors of Wittenberg Castle church and posted his questions – 95 of them! – and asked for a debate. Many of these questions had been around for a long time, but when Luther wrote his 95 theses for debate, there was the printing press, churning out copies for anyone who could read. This was a public challenge which the church leaders had not seen. And they did all they could to try to silence Luther…. Unsuccessfully.
Now, because Martin Luther had gone public, many other priest, monks and leaders began to go public with their doubts about church doctrine and tradition. They were all searching the scriptures to find the truth.
Each person who could read could go back to sola scriptura and never again be told what to think or believe by a fallible pope or priest. But on the other hand, we know that if you teach five people to read then give them the same text to read, there will be at least three different interpretations of what the five read!
And so, sola scriptura, also led to a splintering of Protestantism, one of the not-so-angelic legacies of the Reformation. Divisiveness, often violent. Among those young upstarts were John Calvin & John Knox, both a generation younger than Luther. Calvin and Luther did not get along! For Luther’s part, he called Calvin a “cow,” Bullinger a “bull,” and proclaimed Zwingli to be from the evil one! And these were his fellow Protestants!
Perhaps, as Reformed Christians, this is one of the places we most need to be always reforming. May we seek unity in the One God.
But what does it mean to be reformed today? Besides our age-old problem of bickering and fighting? We are living in a portentous time. History has shown that about every five hundred years or so, a pivotal shift occurs which changes the story mightily. And that is exactly were we find ourselves. Celebrating (with trepidation?) 500 years. The Right Reverend Mark Dyer, Anglican bishop, quipped that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale! What does he mean? That about every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at the time become a hard, immovable, shell that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur. [Tickle, Phyllis, The Great Emergence, p. 16]
The birth of Jesus did this. Then again in the 5th century the Roman Empire fell, and Christianity went “underground,” sort of, taking refuge through the network of monasteries. In the 11th century, there was the Great Schism, east from west, when Christianity divided in two, and eastern Christianity was lost to western culture until very recently. The sixteenth century brought the renovation with which we are most familiar – the Reformation.
In each case, the ripping change came about as the faith became more and more institutionalized and set in its ways. It got so stiff, that the wind of the Spirit could not blow. There was no flexibility left. We know this on a human body level. Have you watched an infant suck on its toes? How many of us can still do this? As our bodies get used to the ways we move, they get set in their ways. The body even deposits calcium “supports” to the vulnerable joints, which we call arthritis. After a certain point, it is hard for us to turn our necks to see right and left, and our stiff hands lose their grip on power. We know in our bodies this stiffening.
Being Reformed today means living through as big a transition as the world experienced in the Reformation. Can we bend with the blowing Spirit? Pray God that we do. By the time the Reformation and the political wars surrounding it were done, the population of Europe was reduced by half, and the book of martyrs was long!
In this 500-year transition we are living, sola scriptura is no longer enough. I know that sounds unorthodox. But it has actually always been true. For whose interpretation of scripture do we trust? Why? We know that translation is not an exact science. When we read the Bible in English, it has been interpreted by people with a particular theological perspective. I discovered recently that the dictionary we use when we study New Testament Greek in seminary, was written by men who invented translations for rare words based on what they believed the context was trying to say. For instance, women’s names were converted to men’s names, because they knew women could not be pastors. We know that scribes changed words in the texts they handed down because it made more sense to them. Which sola scriptura do we rely on as authoritative?
We will always rely on Scripture. We will always have it as our great well of truth. Can we let it continue to re-form us? For me, I find that the way I approach the truth of Scripture is to look for its central teachings. Here we have some amazing words of Jesus to help. What is the greatest commandment? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Then Jesus added that the whole law and the prophets – the whole Scripture – are held in these two commands. It is all love. That is not the only thing the Bible teaches, but it is the central thing. Jesus himself said that if we only do this, we will live.
I am pretty sure we won’t know what this 500-year pivot is about until long after I am gone. Phyllis Tickle thinks it will have something to do with a new authority based on the Holy Spirit. She may be right. It will likely have something to do with globalization, perhaps a re-unifying and reconnecting of people of faith.
But being Reformed right now comes down to what I have always considered our most basic tenet of faith: That God is sovereign, greater than any being we could possibly imagine, and we will never get the whole picture of a God who is bigger, no…, beyond, no…, within, no…, smaller…. I just can’t come up with a word for how God is so much more than we can imagine – and perhaps this is the key. Sola scriptura is about words, and words will never contain God. This is something to do with the Great Transformation we are in. And it is deeply unsettling. We will always have our book, our stories, our teachings from Jesus. And these will always be only a sign-post pointing to something more.
So, will be let that “something more” re-form us? May it be so. Amen.