Sunday October 27, 2019
Reformation Sunday 2019c
Old Testament – Psalm 46:1-11
New Testament – Romans 12:1-8
The Church Reformed, Always Reforming
INTRODUCTION: Well, the time is almost upon us. In just a few more days, neighborhoods all around us will be teeming with trick-or-treaters decked out in costumes in search of candy.
Of course, being Protestant folk, October 31st is also a noteworthy day for another reason. For according to tradition, it was on October 31st in 1517 that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the front door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Luther, as many of you might recall, was concerned, in part, with the sale of indulgences for the dead by the Catholic Church. The idea, at least when it came to deceased loved ones, was that buying an indulgence from the church would shorten the time they needed to spend in purgatory. Slide the church a little cash, went the thinking, and someone dead that you cared about would have their time in purgatory cut short.
Or as the well-known saying at the time put it, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
But Luther? Well, he was big on the idea that forgiveness belonged to God and God alone. And since only God could grant forgiveness, the selling of indulgences was a huge error as far as he was concerned.
It also didn’t help that indulgences were being pushed by the Church as a way to raise money to pay for the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Or as Luther wondered in Thesis 86 of his 95: “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest [Roman], build the basilica of Saint Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”
And while most historians think Luther’s original desire was to simply start a conversation within the Catholic Church, and that he had no intention of ever starting a whole new branch of the Christian faith, he eventually did just that.
For by arguing that God’s forgiveness was given, not bought, and that it was available to all regardless of their station in life, Luther provided what would become one of the hallmarks of the Protestant faith. That it is, finally, God’s grace that saves us, and not works.
Of course, another area of Luther’s thought that we Protestant’s carry with us even today is the importance of congregational singing.
While it doesn’t get talked about much these days, for Luther and the other Reformers worship was a communal event. It wasn’t the priest who was supposed to be the star performer of the show, but rather the congregation. And one of the ways the congregation fulfilled its starring role was through voices raised together in songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Or as Luther, never known for his subtly, put it: “If any man despises music, as all fanatics do, for him I have no liking; for music is a gift and grace of God, not an invention of men.” And listen to Luther’s remarks about preachers: “I allow no man to preach or teach God’s people without proper knowledge of the use and power of sacred song.”
Well, no wonder Luther liked to compose his own hymns as yet another way to share the Word of God. And, of course, he would eventually compose what is considered to be the classic hymn of the Reformation - “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
A paraphrase of Psalm 46, the hymn has been a source of encouragement, inspiration, and hope from the very beginning of its inception. With its focus on the majesty and sovereignty of God, the song is its own expression of Protestant theology.
The hymn has been translated into most known languages and there are over sixty different translations of the words into the English language alone, with Frederick Hedge’s translation done in 1852 being the preferred choice here in America. Why the song is so closely associated with Luther, the first line of the hymn is even inscribed on the tomb of Luther at Wittenberg.
Turns out it isn’t a portion of Luther’s writings or a catchy line of his that is on his tombstone. (And trust me Luther had plenty of catchy lines!) But rather, the first few words of that great hymn. “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our helper he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”
Of course, on this day when we pause to celebrate the Reformation, it’s also important not to forget another big idea that came out of the movement.
While most of us have probably heard those watch phrases like grace alone, faith alone, and scripture alone, another phrase, while maybe not as familiar, is also just as important. “The church reformed, always reforming” the Reformers liked to say. “The church reformed always reforming.”
Frequently misunderstood, the phrase does not mean that the church should always be changing simply for the sake of change. While many often interpret the phrase to say the church should always be adapting itself to the times it finds itself in, that isn’t really the point.
Should churches be aware of the times they live in and how to best communicate with the world around them? Of course.
But, the church reformed, always reforming was the Reformers’ way of saying that people of faith should always be ready and willing to assess just how well, or not so well, they are living into the Gospel message as revealed in God’s Word.
So when the Reformers were accused of doing something new and different, when they were charged with wandering away from the faith, they argued they were simply seeking to return to an even purer expression of the faith than the version that existed in the 1500s. The Reformers weren’t trying to do something new. Instead, as far as they were concerned, they were trying to do something old.
Over the last few weeks, I have been tormenting a new crop of ruling elders as they prepare to begin serving on the Session with the new year. As part part of that process, we have discussed how being a ruling elder doesn’t mean they get to lord their position over people in the church. It’s not like they get run around announcing, “I am a ruling elder, bow before me, knave!”
Instead, as ruling elders, their job is to continually assess just how well, or not so well, we are being faithful followers of Jesus as a community of faith.
Ruling elders, as others have put it, should actually carry yard sticks (or rulers!) as reminders that their job is to continually gauge and measure in what ways the church might be in need of reform even now to live ever more faithfully into its calling to be a light for the world and salt of the earth.
Well, the metaphor is an appropriate one for any person of faith, right?
For it can be easy sometimes in the hustle and bustle of the faith to sort of lose track of why we do, well, what we do. And so every single one of us should probably carry rulers around with us in our back pockets as a way to remind ourselves of the need to always be assessing how faithful we’re really being to that message of love, grace, and mercy.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world,” Paul says in Romans, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Well, good advice, I think. For sometimes we can get kind of rote with our faith, right? We can get in the habit of just sort of going through the motions without really giving much thought as to just how faithful we’re actually being to Jesus and his message.
Why sometimes, without even thinking about it, we might even allow our minds to be conformed to the world’s standards, rather than to the standards of Jesus and his message.
No wonder after telling us not to be conformed to this world, Paul, later in chapter 12 of Romans, goes on to then provide a lengthy description of love and what it looks like.
And so the church reformed, always reforming is a helpful reminder. For it encourages all of us to pull out our yard sticks every now and then and do some measuring and evaluating.
And in the places where we measure up, well, marvelous! But in those places where we don’t measure up, well, that just lets us know we have some more work to do. And that’s okay. Cause we’re all works in progress - every single one of us.
CONCLUSION: Well, some ideas stand the test of time, I think.
Sure, the dustbin of history is littered with all kinds of great ideas and fades that soon went by the wayside. But every now and then, we come across an idea that is really worth keeping.
And surely the church reformed, always reforming, is one of those keepers. For regardless of the age or era or period, it reminds us all of the need to pause every now and then to do some measuring.
The church reformed, always reforming, means we get to grab our yard sticks periodically in order to see just how faithful we’re really being. And that’s never a bad idea, right?
Now to the Ruler of all worlds, undying, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.