The Church Reformed – October 28, 2007
Exodus 34:29-35, II Corinthians 3:7-18
October 28, 2007
This is Reformation Sunday. This is the day we honor Martin Luther – that upstart monk! And we remember him nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg cathedral on October 31, 1517. Doing so, he sparked what we now know as “the Protestant Reformation.” Reformation Day doesn’t get much “air time” in our world. Because it’s overshadowed by a seemingly more important day, Halloween. But this was a major change in the course of history. It was a watershed experience for the Church.
There were many “complaints” in that document, but the one we tend to remember was also for Luther, the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” That had to do with the Church’s “Sale of Indulgences.” That was a practice by which a person could buy for a price forgiveness of another person’s sins. And maybe you didn’t know this, but the proceeds of that sale went to fund the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in what is now known as the Vatican.
Luther had begun early on to see the Church focused too much on “works righteousness.” In other words, what we do, our good deeds or lack thereof, determined our eternal destiny. Luther would eventually become so sensitive to anything that even sounded like works righteousness, that he came to dislike the book of James. Luther left that book out of his copies of the New Testament.
By the way, I don’t think James would have disagreed with Luther one bit. He did say, “Faith without works is dead.” But what he meant by that was that we cannot just say we believe. We must live our belief. And I know Luther would have agreed. But I suppose he didn’t even want people to have in mind any words that might support any idea that they would “get to heaven” or not, based on their good works.
As a result of his actions, the Protestant Reformation began. And now all of us Lutherans, and Calvinists, and Presbyterians are part of that stream of thought and teachings. We are “protest-ants,” because our forebears “protested” the policies of the Church. I’d like us to think about that today. And maybe even give some thought to it on Wednesday when all the little ghoulies and goblins and ghosts are visiting our neighborhoods. Maybe we should all go home and write in “Reformation Day” on our calendars.
What does that mean to us today, almost 500 years later? I suspect not a whole lot, which is probably why it doesn’t get much “air time” in our world or in our Churches. But I’d like us to consider that “reformation” is always part of the life of the Church, and of the life of believers.
II Corinthians, from which we read today, is a wonderful book about the idea of “Reformation.” There we find these words. “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. That past is finished and done, behold the new has come.” (II Corinthians 5:17) Also these words, which we read this morning. “Now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to the next.” (II Corinthians 3:18)
Change is at the heart of the Christian message. Our lives are changed by our relationship with God – so much so that we are new creations! And as we are “new creations,” we are being changed into the likeness of Christ – from one degree of glory to the next. (Not that we are becoming Christ, but that we are becoming like him.)
Rick Warren talks about this same thing in his book, “The Purpose Driven Life.” There he states that our lives are to be modeled after our Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the person we are to strive to be like. That is clear from the scriptures. If we are going to follow him, we are to be like him. The Reformation is taking place in us continually!
The problem with too many Christians is that they think “where they are” is “good enough.” They learn what they have to do to “do the minimum,” and they don’t care to go beyond that in any way. They don’t care to grow closer to God, or to deepen their commitment to his kingdom. The don’t care to be changed into the likeness of Christ. In a sense, they’ve lost the spirit of the Reformation! What about us?
There was a slogan during the time of the Reformation that we Presbyterians have kept alive over the years. And it’s a statement that reflects the ongoing nature of the Reformation. That slogan is “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.” That’s a Latin phrase, which I’m sure I’m butchering, but what it means is, “The Church Reformed, Always being Reformed.”
One Presbyterian Publication says this about that motto. “Our Reformed motto, rightly understood, challenges both the conservative and the liberal impulses that characterize our diverse church today. It does not bless either preservation for preservation’s sake or change for change’s sake.” And I like that, because it takes those highly charged words out of the arena of Reformation. And it helps ease the shock of those for whom change is a difficult thing. Reformation is not change for change’s sake. In fact, it may not even mean “modernization” or “innovation,” at all. You see, reformation is not about the form of what we do.
It goes on, “In the 16th-century context, the impulse it reflected was neither liberal nor conservative, but radical, in the sense of returning to the “root.” The Reformers believed the church had become corrupt, so change was needed. But it was a change in the interest of preservation and restoration of more authentic faith and life. It is a church reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.”
In Luther’s eyes. the Church had strayed from the purity of the faith. That’s what mattered to him. And he was passionate about it. Passionate enough to risk bringing the wrath of the whole Catholic Church down upon himself. And in the sixteenth century, the Church was the most powerful force in the world!
In thinking about Reformation Sunday I finally got to watch Erik Till’s film called “Luther.” If you haven’t seen it, this would be a great week to watch it. He did a wonderful job portraying the passion and courage of this lone German monk, standing strong in the face of enormous pressure by the Church – pressure to be like everybody else. What does that say about our own reformation?
For Luther, who was charged in his trial with bringing “innovations” into the church, it was really those innovations that had been added by the Church that were the problem. The sale of indulgences, the promotion and sale of the “relics” of the faith – splinters of the cross, the veils of Mary – that kind of thing. But it was not even the traditions and practices themselves that bothered him the most. It was the way they had so obviously strayed from the Scripture from which they supposedly came.
Later John Calvin would say, “We are accused of rash and impious innovation for having ventured to propose any change at all [in] the former state of the Church.” “We are not ‘innovating,’ but restoring the church to its true nature, purified from the “innovations” that riddled the church through centuries of inattention to Scripture and theological laxity.”
There was another slogan of the Reformation that speaks to all of this. It was the phrase “Sola Scriptura,” which meant, “Scripture alone.” The Church had added many objectionable things to the Christian faith under the banner of “Tradition” and “Practice.” And the Reformers wanted them reexamined under the light of the Word of God.
When we think of the Church and of reformation, we should consider the words of Church historian David Steinmetz who put it this way. “We acknowledge that the church even at its best is a frail and fallible human institution… We know that we ‘hold these treasures in earthen vessels.’”
The challenge for us this Reformation Sunday is to know that reformation is not just a corporate word. It is a matter of each one of us “recognizing,” as Edward Dowey put it, “how far short we fall from God’s intentions. We continually submit all doctrines and structures to be reformed according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.” And I love this description he gives of the Church. As the Church, he says, we are “a frail and pilgrim people, a people on the way, not yet what we shall be. The church, because of who we are [as humans], remains open to always being reformed.” What about you?
While you’re thinking about that, listen to Dowey’s conclusion. “…while we honor the forms of faith and life that have been bequeathed to us, we honor them best in a spirit of openness to the Word and the Spirit that formed and continue to re-form the church. The church, because of who God is – a living God – remains open to always being reformed”
As you go from here today, I want you to think about your own reformation. And I want you to consider that Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda calls us to something more radical than we have imagined. It challenges the impulses and the habits and agendas we may have taken up. It brings a prophetic critique to our lives, and calls us to personal and institutional repentance. It invites us, as people who worship and serve a living God, to be open to being “re-formed” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.
Eternal God, help us to see how we are being changed into the likeness of Christ. Forgive us when we resist the call and reformation your spirit gives. Help us to center our lives on the reforming nature of the Gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.