29 October 2017

Always Reforming

Reformation Sunday

In 1521, standing before the imperial council of the Holy Roman Empire meeting in Worms, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was asked to recant his Ninety-five Theses against the sale of indulgences, which he presented four years earlier on the 31st October 1517, 500 years ago this week.[1] Recant or be excommunicated out of the Church—an unthinkable, terrifying thought for Luther because there was nowhere else for him to go. Not excommunicated out of the Roman Catholic Church, but out of the Church—there was no other Church for him. This 37-year-old Augustinian monk, priest, professor had given his life to the Church, against the wishes of his father (who wanted him to be a lawyer). At this council (or Diet), which met for five months, Luther had to decide. Tradition says this was his final response: Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders. Here I stand, I can do no other. Dramatic, to be sure. Especially in German. However, there’s no firsthand account that he ever said these words.

Here’s what Luther did say, however, a verbatim of his testimony. First, imagine Luther saying these words before Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) and all the authorities of the Church. He said, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

“I am bound by Scriptures and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Luther’s reform of the church was informed by scripture alone. Sola scriptura, the reformers cried. The Bible has greater authority over any authority the church might claim for itself, because popes and their councils are fallible. Scripture can be trusted. Scripture gives witness to God’s covenant with God’s people. And, scripture gives witness to a higher authority, scripture gives witness to Christ; it tells the redemptive story of Christ. Scripture, as the Word of God, is the mouthpiece of God, and through it and through the proclamation of the Word in sermon, God continues to speak: a word of judgment against the errors of the church, a word of grace, a word of hope. Luther “rediscovered the gospel” when he read the Bible for himself, in Hebrew and Greek, and listened for the Spirit.

This is the reason I chose these long readings from Isaiah 43 and 2 Corinthians today, so that we could immerse ourselves in the text, dwell in the richness of scripture today, and listen for the Word of God emerging from these ancient words. The Protestant Reformation was all about turning back and moving forward. Back to scripture. “Ad fontes!” they cried. Back to the sources, back to the fountain of divine wisdom, back to the foundational texts of the Church, in order to reform the church. They weren’t interested in reform just for the sake of reform. They believed, especially the followers of John Calvin (1509-1564)—who came later, Calvin was eight years old when Luther wrote his Ninety-five Theses—that the church is always in need of perpetual reform. Why? So that the Church can really be the Church! So that nothing obstructs us from proclaiming the Gospel, so that nothing hinders us from being about God’s mission in the world! The reformers looked back to the early church and in looking back they moved forward into a new future. After looking back, they were then thrust into their time, into society and culture, in radically new ways, thus altering the future of the Church.

On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we are not here to celebrate, but to commemorate this movement. We are not here to idolize Luther or Calvin or the others. They were flawed human beings, sinners like all of us. But if our commemoration of the reformation is going to honor the good that came out of the reform, then it is incumbent upon us to learn from them, by listening to the testimony of scripture, and then being open to the new thing God is calling us to do today—for this is what at the heart of what it means to be Protestant, to be Reformed.

I could have selected passages from the psalms or Romans or Galatians, books that were important to Luther and others in the Protestant movement. Instead, I felt called to turn to Isaiah 43 and 2 Corinthians. Why? Because they are not looking backward, but forward. They call the church to lean into the future with anticipation of God’s redemption. These texts talk about newness, new beginnings, new creation. God says through Isaiah, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old; I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is. 43:18-19). Paul reminds the small church in Corinth, “…if anyone is in Christ”—meaning if you are in the fold of Christ’s grace, if Christ is alive in you, if Christ is living through you—“there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17).

To be in Christ is to part of God’s New Creation—which is always new! We are coming fully alive, through grace, and sharing in the new creation, new formation, new re-formation of the Spirit. We are, right now, participating in what Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich (1885-1965) loved to call the New Being. It’s all around us and in us and through us. “Here and there in the world,” Tillich said, “and now and again in ourselves is a New Creation, usually hidden, but sometimes manifest and certain manifest in Jesus who is called the Christ.”[2]

This is what Luther discovered in scripture. And what he discovered in scripture led to the discovery of the new creation at work within him. This is the real spark that ignited the reformation. Luther, himself, tells us that the pivotal experience in his life was neither writing the Ninety-five Theses, in 1517, nor even standing against the authority of the Church, in 1521. Instead, the decisive event of his life occurred in 1519, in the tower of the Black Cloister in Wittenberg, Germany, as he was studying Romans 1:17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” Luther tells us that the words, the “righteousness of God,” terrified him; it was “like a thunderbolt in my heart,” he said, every time he read it. He viewed God as angry, ready to punish and strike him down in judgment. Luther meditated on this verse day and night when he had the life-changing insight that the sinner is not justified by anything one might do, by works; instead, one is justified by receiving the grace of God, through faith. Luther discovered that we are saved by an “alien righteousness,” not ours, but Christ’s. When Luther realized this, he said that he “was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates…that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning….”[3]

This—this kind of experience—is where the reformation was born, in that tower, where the Spirit used scripture and transformed his life. The reform began in his heart, when the Holy Spirit convicted Luther with the truth of God’s righteousness, God’s faithfulness and grace toward him, a sinner. The Spirit then, as Luther said, “fired him into the world with a velocity not his own.”

It’s easy to think that Luther was special. He wasn’t. Yes, he was smart, brilliant, driven. Certainly neurotic. But he wasn’t that special or unique that we should idolize him. What happened in him happened, in different ways, in the other reformers. In his book The Protestant Era, Paul Tillich reminds us that, “The great spiritual revolution which occurred in Luther was the fruit of a century-long discipline of introspection and self-examination. Only on the basis of this ‘culture of the soul’ could Luther’s experience of God grow to such an explosive power.”[4] Europe was ready for it. Luther was the spark, but he wasn’t the only one. The reform of the soul was not, is not limited to that time alone; and it’s not limited to Protestants, of course, but open to Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox, indeed, anyone the Spirit chooses to convict with grace. It can happen in anyone—both within the Church and beyond it— and when that happens and every time it happens, our lives and the world are reformed, in both small and large ways.

Semper reformanda. Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum dei verbi. A church reformed and always reforming—or, better, being reformed, according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit. We go back to scripture to discover where we need to go. This means that the reformation continues. The reformation isn’t over. We are not where we need to be. There are new things for us to discover. There are new ways of being faithful. “I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?” Can you see it? Do you perceive it? Do you?

We should all give thanks that the reforming work of the Spirit continues. We should be thankful that we’re not where we were one hundred years ago, in 1917, when Christian Europe was slaughtering itself, and when the divisions between Protestants and Catholics were sharp, deep, and painful.

This week, my friend Dr. Derek Browning, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) met with Pope Francis, in Rome. Derek is not the first moderator, but the fifth since 1960 to meet with the Pontiff. Today, we can acknowledge how much we have in common. And the Reformation is being viewed in a new light. Pope Francis said to the Moderator: "Let us thank the Lord for the great gift of being able to live this year in true fraternity, no longer as adversaries, after long centuries of estrangement and conflict. This has been possible, with God's grace, by the ecumenical journey that has enabled us to grow in mutual understanding, trust and cooperation. The mutual purification of memory is one of the most significant fruits of this common journey. The past cannot be changed, yet today we at last see one another as God sees us.” The Moderator said to the Pope, “We acknowledge openly our doctrinal and governance differences, but gladly note the complementary dimensions of our shared faith within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,” he added. “I am doing a new thing,” says the Lord. “Do you not perceive it?”

The New Creation, the “new thing” continues to unfold. There are so many places—in individuals and communities—where the Spirit is doing a new thing. And, there are so many areas in the world where there’s still plenty to reform. For example, consider the role of women in the Church. We must remember that the Reformation created a way for women to serve in new ways—that was certainly a new thing. We must not forget Katherine von Bora (1499-1552), Luther’s wife, a former nun, mother of his children. Katherine supported his work of reform and provided a theological framework for the importance of the family. There were early women pioneers of reform, such as Marie Dentière (c.1495-1561), known as “The Lightning Rod,” the only woman named on the Reformation Wall in Geneva. Sadly, it took far too long for women’s ordination. But even here, as we know, reform is still needed in many places in the Church today. 

Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was at an ecumenical consultation recently in Italy to discuss the ordination of women. There were leaders present from the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communions. Jan shares, “After I spoke, one of the Orthodox leaders quietly informed me that women are not created in the image of God.” ([She] asked him to repeat himself because [she] was pretty sure he said that women were not created in the image of God.) “He clarified that ‘men are created in the image of god and women are created in the image of men.’”  It sounds like this Orthodox leader doesn’t know that the Lord is doing a new thing. We need to affirm—even more—the ministry and witness of women ministers, elders, deacons. And we need to celebrate contemporary female theologians, such as Katie Geneva Cannon, Kathryn Tanner, Sarah Coakley, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Emilie Townes. I am doing a new thing…do you not perceive it?

Where is the New Creation dawning? What is the new thing God is doing? It is incumbent upon us to know that we are being called to partner with God in the unfolding change and redemption and healing of the world. 

God needs us—a reforming people. Our children need us. The world needs us.

Therefore, to be reformed means that we must not be afraid of change. Neither should we be afraid of being changed by God’s Spirit. 

We must not be afraid of reform. Neither should we be afraid of being reformed by God’s Spirit. 

God is love and love is leading the way. What have we to fear?
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). This is the conviction that continues to reform God’s people. 

E. B. White (1899-1985), best known for Charlotte’s Web (1952), once said, “Human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders.” We must always be on the watch for coming wonders!

How, where is the Spirt—right now—reforming your heart? Where is the Spirit trying to reform the church? What are we being summoned toward? Semper reformanda.

[1] While there is no evidence that Luther ever nailed his theses to the doors of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, we know that he sent the these to Archbishop Albrecht on 31st October 1517. See Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (New York: Random House, 2017), xvii-xviii.

[2] From Paul Tillich’s sermon “The New Being” in The New Being (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 15-24.

[3] Martin Luther, Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works (1545), cited here. Luther also comments on the centrality of the Tower Experience in his Table Talks, one form 1532 (Luther Works 54:193-194), one from 1538 (LW 43:308-309), and one from 1542-43 (LW 54:442-443).

[4] Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, trans. James Luther Adam (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957)), 132.


15 October 2017

A Holy Priesthood

1 Peter 2:1-10

“There’s a wild boar loose in the vineyard.”  That boar was none other than Martin Luther (1483-1546).  This is how the Church in Rome viewed Luther in June of 1520, almost three years after the incident in Wittenberg, Germany, when this young priest/monk/theology professor took on the Church by writing 95-Theses against the sale of indulgences.  Tradition has it that Luther nailed his theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, although there is no first-hand account that ever took place.  Some said he used glue and pasted his theses to the church door.  Far less dramatic.  Whether he used a nail or a pot of glue we’ll probably never know, but what we do know is that the theses were sent on the 31st October 1517 to Archbishop Albrecht, the most important Churchman in all Germany.  Within two months almost everyone in Germany knew about the theses.  Hence, 31 October 1517 marks the beginning of the Reformation (although, it didn’t technically start on that date, reform started decades earlier).  It was the writing of this text that sparked the Reformation—it was a text that sparked the reform.  A text undermined Papal authority.  As historian Lyndal Roper writes in her new biography Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, the 95-Theses “implied the root-and-branch critique of the whole edifice of the late medieval Church,”[1] which led to questioning the sale of indulgences, effectively questioning the Church’s power to grant absolution, to grant indulgences that released a loved from the holds of purgatory, thus undermining the priestly function of the Church and undermining the authority given to priests.  

In several weeks, we will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  The churches of the Reformation are intentionally remembering and honoring the great events of the sixteenth-century reform of the church, but not celebrating; it’s a commemoration.  There is much for which we can be thankful; but the Reformation also has a shadow or dark side to his history—and we share in this legacy today, both the good and the bad. 

Luther was a child of God, which means he was a sinner like the rest of us.  He’s not someone who should be idolized.  He had his shortcomings.  He could be rude and crude and curse like a drunken sailor.  He was also anti-Semitic, like most of the Church at the time.  The reformers were not perfect.  The same goes for John Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva; Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1541) and Heinrich Bullinger (1505-1575) in Zurich or John Knox (c.1513-1572) in St. Andrews.  Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger, Knox, among others, were reformers trying to heal the church, they were innovators, but they weren’t radicals.  They never wanted to leave the Church, merely reform it from within.  They viewed themselves as being the true Church, not a new Church or something called “Protestant.” 

These reformers had little patience with those who wanted to push for greater reforms, such as the Anabaptists, the radical reformers, as historians call them. Anabaptists didn’t recognize baptism as infants in the Roman Church, so they were baptized again (hence, ana-baptist) as adults, by being fully immersed.  In 1527, Zwingli was so enraged by the Anabaptists that, with cruel irony, he said to the city council, “Drown the dippers.” And, so, they were drowned in the Limmat River in Zurich. Today, there’s a moving memorial to the victims in Zurich, along the river where they were drowned.  Religious terrorism—“Christian” terrorism—is nothing new.

Perhaps the greatest loss to the Church because of the Reformation is the fragmentation of the body of Christ. Therefore, we shouldn’t celebrate the Reformation, but commemorate it. Georges Florovsky, the great twentieth-century Orthodox theologian, captured the dilemma of the Church. Catholicism means “unity at the expense of freedom,” whereas Protestantism meant “freedom at the expense of unity.”[2] Today, there are roughly forty-three thousand Christian denominations in the world. There were approximately five hundred in 1800, and thirty-nine thousand in 2008.  By 2025, the number is expected to rise to fifty-five thousand.[3]

Despite its divisive nature, there is still much within Protestantism that needs to be honored and affirmed today—in new ways. Consider the great pillars of the Reformation: Sola fide (faith alone).  Sola scriptura (scripture alone).  Sola gratia (grace alone).  Solus Christus (Christ alone.  Sola Dei gloria (for the glory of God alone).  Scripture needs to read in one’s language. The interpretation of the Bible must not be filtered through tradition or priestly authority, but come directly through the Holy Spirit illuminating the text to an individual and to a community.  Faith saves us, not human works or efforts or acts of do-goodism.  It’s all about grace, free, freely offered by Christ.  All of these themes of the Reformation are just as relevant today.

The Protestant way of being Christian emerged out of the rise of humanism and Renaissance sweeping Europe in the late fifteenth- early sixteenth-centuries.  Without the Renaissance, meaning rebirth, there would have been no reform or renaissance of the Church.  One of the hallmarks of Renaissance humanism was: Ad fontes. Back to the fountains, meaning, back to the sources.  There was a deep hunger to go back to ancient texts, both religious and non-religious texts, to learn from them and then be informed by them.  This led to a questioning spirit, which permeated everything, including theology and the Church.  It led to questioning the interpretation of scripture, questioning the tradition of the Church, the authority of the Pope, the role of the priest, the nature of the sacraments, the meaning of salvation, the nature of Christian vocation, the relationship between the Church and the State.  A questioning spirit sparked intellectual growth, encouraged more people to read and, therefore, think for oneself.  This led to the democratization of thought, helped to spark the rise of science and an age of discovery in the 1600s, and, eventually, led to the emergence of democratic governments.  Renaissance led to reformation led to revolution, especially here in the United States in the 1770s, where most people living in the colonies were Calvinists, in one form or another.

There are many aspects of the Reformation which we could focus on to help shed light on the contemporary church.  The one I feel led to highlight today is the priesthood

One of the cardinal principles of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.”  As we know, Luther did away with the priesthood.  The leaders of worshipping communities were not called priests, but pastors.  Calvin preferred the designation minister.  I am not a priest. Although I’ve gotten used to being called Father when I’m visiting a hospital wearing my dog collar.  Sometimes I’m referred to as a priest, especially when I’m introduced in public settings where most are Roman Catholic. This doesn’t really bother me. 

What is a priest?  To be a priest is to be a mediator between heaven and earth, between humanity and God.  In ancient religions, priests offered sacrifices to the gods on behalf of the people.  I’m not this kind of priest.  I don’t preside as a priest at Communion.  There is no sacrifice being offered in this sanctuary.  That’s why Calvinist churches have tables and not altars in their worship places. 

Martin Luther's Address to the Nobility of the German Nation, 1520
Luther, the wild boar, really stirred things up in 1520 with his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation.  Luther criticized the traditional distinction between the “temporal” and “spiritual” orders between the laity and the clergy.[4]  From a Calvinist perspective, we should never use words such as laity and clergy.  There’s no such thing as clergy as a spiritual caste set apart, considered higher and more holy than everyone else.  Some so-called “clergy” think of themselves in this way, as being better than the so-called “laity.”  Sometimes congregations project upon their leaders the notion that they are more spiritual and holier than others.  From a Calvinist perspective, the ordination of a minister or elder or deacon is never to a higher status.  Ordination doesn’t elevate.  Ordination is to function and service.  Ordination differentiates, it sets people apart for a particular function, work, or responsibility. 

Luther argued that all who belong to Christ through faith, baptism, and the Gospel share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ and belong, therefore, “truly to the spiritual estate.”  We hear this same idea here in 1 Peter, where the church is viewed as living stones, participating and sharing in the life of Christ. Christ is working with living stones—human beings—to build a new temple, a spiritual house, offering a new way for us to relate to one another and the world as agents of Christ. And who leads rites and rituals and sacrifices in the temple? The priest.  But, there is only one great high priest (Heb. 4:14-16), Jesus Christ; and, as Paul said, there is only one true mediator between God and humanity, and that is Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5).

According to Peter, we, as part of the community of Christ, take on the priestly function of Christ, both individually and together.  This means, theologically, that each of us have become priests, by virtue of our baptisms.  “For whoever comes out of the water of baptism,” Luther said, “can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope, although of course it is not seemly that just anybody shall exercise such office.”[5]  All baptized believers are called to be priests, Luther said, but not all are called to be pastors.

But you are a chosen people,” declares Peter, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” The “you” is plural here in Greek. You all.  Y’all.  Y’all—are a chosen people.  Y’all are a royal priesthood.  Priests. 

Neither Peter, nor Luther, are claiming that “I am my own priest.”  Instead, in the body of Christ, in this holy temple, we get to mediate the presence of Christ to one another.  And, as priests, y’all have the authority, as priests, to pray to God on behalf of the world, on behalf of one another.  Luther wasn’t advocating for religious individualism or privatism; instead, he called the collective power of the community of the saints to mediate, share, embody, enact Christ’s love to another.

Calvin framed the priesthood of all believers in terms of the Church’s threefold office of Christ as Prophet, King, and Priest.  For Calvin, and many Protestants, every Christian is mandated to be a representative of Christ reaching out the world—not just the religious professional.  “All believers,” Calvin said, “should seek to bring others into the church, and should strive to lead the wanderers back to the road, should stretch forth a hand to the fallen and should win over the outsiders.”[6]  We each have a calling.  We don’t rest on our titles as priests.  We’re called to action.  We’re commissioned to act.

And, it needs to be stressed, therefore, that you have the authority to act. By virtue of your baptism, you are authorized to act.  You have more power, more influence, more ability, more capacity than you think.  You don’t have be at the mercy of an outside authority who gives you permission to be a priest.  God assumes that you’re competent.  You have everything you need to serve.  You have everything you need to love.  You have everything you need to offer grace, to care for your neighbor, to transform the world.

In many respects, through the notion of the priesthood of all believers, rooted in scripture, Luther is saying to the Church: grow up.  Set aside childish dependency. Become an adult.  Step into your own authority.  Live from your core identity.  Claim it.  You’re free to.  You have the power to mediate the presence of Christ. You have the power to mediate God’s grace.  Christ has called you out of darkness into “wonderful light.”  You/we can live from and with and through that “wonderful light”—thaumaston autou phos.  The marvelous, wonderful light of Christ.

Isn’t this what we’re called to be about as the Church today?  It’s so easy for us to become depressed about declining membership rolls and statistics, and so we get stuck and frustrated and despondent.  We grieve over the membership losses of the old Mainline denominations, we grieve the loss of power and influence in society that came with being the majority.  Looking backward doesn’t help us be faithful to what Christ is calling us toward today. 

The Reformers didn’t worry about membership decline.  Do you know why?  Because they were a minority!  They were a fringe movement within the Church.  They weren’t worried about statistics.  Instead, they had passion for Christ, for the work of Christ, their hearts and minds were on fire.  They were people with deep conviction and from that place of assurance, they acted in bold, courageous ways.  Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that American Protestantism is on the decline, that we have lost our voice and influence in society, because now we’re freer to really be the church, freer to be faithful to Christ, released, as it were, from our “Babylonian” captivity to the culture around us, freer to the vision of the gospel.

So, church: exercise your authority, use your gifts, take risks, serve, love, forgive, work for justice, for reformation, be agents of transformation.  One of the greatest blessings and joys of the church (when it is really being the church and not a religious institution or social club) is that we get to be priests, we get to mediate Christ presence to one another and the world. We do so because we can. 

Y’all can pray for one another, and on behalf of the world. 
Y’all can love. 
Y’all can listen. 
Y’all have the keys of the kingdom (Mt. 16:19).  
You have the capacity to extend mercy and forgiveness and peace.  You can offer hope and healing.  
You can be an agent of Christ’s marvelous, wonderful light. 
May it be so.


[1] Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (New York: Random House, 2017), xix.  For an excellent overview of the Reformation see Dairmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (Penguin, 2005).  See also Alec Ryrie, Protestantism: The Faith that Made the Modern World (Viking Press, 2017).
[2] Cited in George Hunsinger, “Can the Churches Be Reunited?Commonweal Magazine, October 11, 2017. 
[3] Cited in Hunsinger.
[4] Cited in Timothy George, “The Priesthood of All Believers,” First Things, October 2016.
[5] Martin Luther, cited in George.
[6] John Calvin, cited in George.