Reformation At 500

Written by Pastor Dan Wilfrid. Posted in Sermons

Reformation Sunday        John 8:31-36

Thanks to Jill Zitzewitz, we heard another powerful story this morning of Generosity Practiced Here, of how in this place, in this congregation called “Immanuel,” being followers of Jesus tends to get expressed most clearly and consistently in acts of generosity, to one another and to the world around us. Whether it’s people being generous with their time, with their skills and abilities, with their friendship and concern and emotional support, or with their money, we have in this place abundant examples of people practicing and growing in generosity, learning the joy of giving and encouraging others to do the same.

And on this Reformation Sunday, this 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, it’s worth noting that whatever generosity we practice here and in the other arenas of our lives, has its source and root and vitality in the generous God that Martin Luther discovered between the covers of his Bible. At its spiritual heart, the Protestant Reformation, begun 500 years ago this Tuesday, was about the rediscovery of the biblical message that human persons are saved by God and not by themselves, made right with God, put into a right relationship with God by God’s free and unmerited grace, God’s generous and abundant forgiveness in Christ Jesus, the unfolding fulfillment of God’s vision first given voice by the prophet Jeremiah: God’s dream of a world in which God’s law would be so embedded in human hearts that we wouldn’t need to badger our children to learn it, or cajole one another to remember it, or threaten horrible punishment on those who fail to keep it.

The entire Reformation was centered on the core premise that living close to God is not the product of our human efforts or quest or holy approach to God, but is the result of God’s relentless and steadfast and undying holy pursuit of us. That directional shift to what religion is all about is key. At the heart of those 95 Theses, nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany on October 31st of 1517, is the conviction that God is so generous with God’s grace and forgiveness that we are saved by God, period. We do not save ourselves. “While we were yet sinners,” God seeks and saves us,  “Christ died for the ungodly.”

Salvation, forgiveness, being made right with God and promised eternal life with God is a free gift of God’s grace alone, received by faith alone, apart from works of the law, despite our sin and unworthiness. And what then of good works? They too are transformed, from acts done to earn God’s favor or even to prove that we’re worthy of such favor, into thankful lives lived in trusting obedience.

And with that insight into just how generous our God is, how determined God is to draw us close and keep us close, came a new understanding of the church as well: the understanding that the bottom line spiritual reality is that we are here not because we choose to be, or want to be, or much less deserve to be, but because God, in unfathomable love, and despite of our sin and shortcomings, our distractions and misplaced priorities, our ambivalence and dullness of spirit, has worked things out in such a way to get us here, apart from our own doing and deciding.  Beneath and behind all of our choosing, we are here because God has called us here and gathered us here to do God’s saving thing to and for us: to tell us in Holy Baptism that we belong to God, to grant us forgiveness of our persistent sin and failure to believe and live the life God gives us, to plant his law in our hearts and to feed us the new life of Christ in word and sacrament, and then to send us out again to be Christ’s living presence in and for the world.

It was that insight into the nature of the relationship between God and humans, and the purpose and mission of the church that caused Martin Luther to reject the way that the church of his day had been teaching and doing the opposite. Instead of proclaiming God’s love poured out freely and generously, and the freely given Holy Spirit within us stirring a toward a generous human response of love for God and neighbor, the church had been portraying God as not only angry and offended, but stingy and cheap, with any favor, much less love toward humans, needing to be bargained out of God’s tight-fisted hands, which then turned the spiritual life into little more than a series of cold commercial transactions.

God’s love and favor, instead of being the starting point that stirred a faithful and loving response from humans, became the scarce and miserly guarded treasure that lowly humans needed to coax out of a God who didn’t want to part with them, and would only do so when sufficiently buttered up by their good deeds and penitential acts. God’s forgiveness was not a gift freely offered in and by the church, but a commodity needing to be bought, sometimes by acts of piety assigned in proportion to the severity of the sin, and sometimes literally with cash, through the sale of indulgences that promised reduced time in purgatory.

Martin Luther saw just how far the church had wandered from how the Bible taught people to know and understand God, and themselves in relation to God and to all of life. He knew from the hard experience of his own tormented soul that relating to God as a harsh, heavenly score-keeper, more eager to punish than forgive, meant that all of your energy and effort would go into worrying about yourself, whether you were good enough, and whether or not God would ever find you acceptable. It would turn your heart inward in a self-absorbed knot. Luther could also see that by being so curved in on yourself, you would have no regard, no energy and no resources to spare for your neighbor, in short, no room to live a generous, turned toward the needs of others, life.

And, as Luther came to see, that was the very definition of human sin – being so curved in on yourself that you have no regard for your neighbor - the exact opposite of the divine-human, love God and neighbor partnership that God was after.

Reformation Sunday reminds us that God saves us. We do not save ourselves. We are saved by God’s grace and we receive that gift through a faith that God also plants and grows in us by the Holy Spirit gift of our Baptism. We do nothing to earn it. No amount of money or effort can buy it. The church’s job is to proclaim that good news and dispense that forgiveness and new life freely and without price, so that people like us can be free to turn our hearts and our faith and energy toward loving and serving our neighbors.

God still promises to do that work in the church, perhaps not ONLY in the church, but SURELY in the church. And our job, now 500 years into this Reformation movement, is to figure out how God is calling us to proclaim that good news and dispense that new life today, in a world not only very different from Luther’s but very different from the one most of us grew up in, and that our church was built and programmed to serve.

The work that we’re doing this fall, asking one another about what needs to change here in order for us to attract families with children and youth, is Reformation work. It comes from a painful awareness that practices and programs and schedules and physical spaces and arrangements that had worked so well and for so long to draw new people into our congregation, just aren’t any longer, and aren’t likely to even if we try harder at them and double down our commitment to them. Maybe celebrating our 500 year reformation heritage this year can be a helpful reminder that the need to ask “what needs to change” is not new and always an important question for the church to ask.

One thing we can know and count on. These are not questions that we need to ask in fear. God is still working on this project of drawing people close to God and filling us with God’s life of love, and will continue to do so until that love is so imbedded in our hearts that it comes naturally. God’s passion to live close to us hasn’t diminished at all.

So even if we are unable to see the future and are still struggling to answer the “what needs to change” question, we can and will remain faithful to the reason we are here: to proclaim that good news of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ; to dispense that forgiveness and new life freely and without price; to feed the life of Christ to those who come to the table, to practice in life the generosity that celebrates life lived close to God; and to live the faith that turns our hearts and lives toward loving and serving our neighbors.

That, after all, is still our job, our calling, our mission as a reformation church: to continue in God’s word, to be disciples of Jesus, to praise God’s amazing grace and to practice God’s boundless generosity, until that day when living close to God comes so naturally that nobody needs to teach it, and everybody knows the truth: the holy truth that makes us all free.  AMEN