Filed under: Sermons | Tags: Jesus, martin luther, one church, reformation, roman catholic, truth
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Today we celebrate a festival called “Reformation.” We remember an event almost 500 years ago, in which the Catholic priest, monk, and professor Martin Luther brought his soul searching and Biblical study into a discussion within the religious and academic community. He challenged the way things were in the church of his place and time. Many others came after him. This led to the eventual breaking away from the one church of the West, the Roman Catholic Church, into a number of different churches.
All the religious conversations, theological writings, changes, political shuffling, and schisms of the 1500s are part of what we call The Reformation. It was a period of change and new developments that set the stage for the religious landscape in which we live today in which there are hundreds of different denominations.
While we talk about The Reformation as a period in history, reformation isn’t a once and done event.
Throughout every generation of the faithful, there is questioning and adapting in the process of meeting God at work in the world and the community. Scripture records drastic changes that force a reforming of the community’s understanding of God and God’s work.
Remember the Old Testament’s stories of the rise of the kingdom, which celebrated God’s promise to secure David’s line on the throne forever. This whole understanding of God at work was tested when the Israelites were conquered, the temple destroyed, and the leaders brought away into exile. The community had to reform into a new way of understanding God’s power and promises, as well as a new way to worship.
In the Gospels, Jesus pushes against expectations of how God is present, how God’s laws apply, for whom God acts, and how God saves. The community had to reform to accept Jesus the suffering one as the awaited triumphant messiah.
By the later New Testament, at the very beginning of the Church, Paul and Peter are confronted with God’s push towards including nonJews among the chosen people, and the community goes through a very difficult period of reformation as they figure out who is allowed in.
Reformation is the change that comes about in the community of believers when their images of God and their ways of worship are no longer sufficient to address their current reality. Reformation- change- can be difficult, as it’s a birthing process, a growing process, and sometimes the outcome isn’t so clear from the beginning. It can also be a destructive process, whenever people think they have arrived at the one answer, the one truth, and come to view others as enemies, who at best, are ignorant or deluded, and at worst, are agents of evil, spreading lies.
Our triumphant celebrations of the Reformation can fall into the destructive if we raise up Luther or our denomination as the only ones who have made it to the truth. As if we have gotten it all right and everyone else is lost and wrong.
Our bulletin celebrates today with a statue of Martin Luther and this powerful verse from the Gospel, “the truth will make you free.” Now, when Jesus stands before Pilate, Pilate asks, “what is truth?” I think we need to ask the same. The thing is, we all seem to think we know what the truth is.
The whole Reformation might be summed up by describing it as a search for the truth. The bloodly outcome of that search for truth points to the fact that we never got there.
Because you can’t claim the truth- you can’t contain it in a book, as if our Book of Concord held the truth, or even as if the Bible was the truth.
Jesus is the truth. We hear this explicitly in John 14:6, Jesus declares, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” The truth is the incarnate, crucified and resurrected one- and that God- that Jesus- isn’t going to be owned and pinned down by one sect or another.
Jesus is the truth that will set us free- free from internal struggles to attain holiness, free from the need to judge others, free from the interChristian fights to claim possession of the truth.
Today, as we near 500 years since the Reformation, the truth that sets us free from our Lutheran brand loyalty, free to witness to the world as the one Christian Church, is the crucified one.
When we look at Jesus on the cross, we are confronted by truth that clearly shows us ourselves. Our betrayal, power struggles, and need to direct hate and violence on to another – are all right there, pinning Jesus to the cross. Our need to make ourselves feel better by pouring hatred onto another, an outsider, an easy target is the truth Jesus shows us- the truth Jesus chooses to be crushed under and claimed by.
This crucified Jesus, with truth shining right on to us, is the salvation that will lead us out of the division of the Reformation. We can see clearly Martin Luther’s failure to grasp the fullness of God as he name calls the Pope or the Anabaptists. We can see clearly our failure when our differences in practice and belief form negative stereotypes or destroy our ability to work, worship, or pray together.
When Dave and I were talking about the upcoming 500 year commemoration of the Reformation, he reminded me that our language shapes our reality. It’s time to start talking about our shared identity as Christians first, and our tradition second, so that we can better work, learn, and worship together as Christians from the Roman Catholic background and Christians from the Lutheran background, Christians from the Baptist Tradition or the Methodist Tradition. We are one body, one Church, because the Truth to whom we cling is bigger than all the truths of our particular denomination’s teaching and practice.
Us Christians from the Lutheran tradition and from the Roman Catholic tradition have been working together in dialog since 1967 on a formal level through the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity. Together, we’ve published a number of documents that explore all those ideas and practices that once drove us apart, and have come to an increased appreciation for each other. We’ve had to listen deeply to each other, to discover how our different language points to the same truth. The latest document, “From Conflict to Communion,” helps us from these divided traditions to come together towards unity, with the possibility for a common commemoration of the Reformation that celebrates how God has been present within both churches, rather than trumpeting one or the other as the true church while the other is in error. We confess one holy apostolic catholic (little c, as in worldwide) church- and though we may never become one Church in shared organizational structure or practice, we remember that we are one in Jesus.
We are at the brink of a new Reformation, during which the unity of the Church is more necessary than ever. The Western and Northern spheres of the globe are expressing an increasing sense of the irrelevance of the Church. The world is staggering under violence committed by those claiming possession of the truth. Our culture seems intent on growing the church only by building a new worship center every time a disagreement ruptures a community. Will we show the world the face of a Christianity that is divided and consumed by arguments, or will Jesus hold us together as one, with the diversity of our practice contributing to the depth and richness of the face of Christ we show together?
Truth isn’t a set of facts to cling to. Faith isn’t about agreeing to a set of beliefs, as if you could tick off a list of ideas to which you assent, and you’d be good. Faith is about trust and relationship. Faith sometimes is the desperate reach of a floundering person drowning, hoping beyond hope that something might be there to catch him. The truth faith needs is a person. Jesus Christ is the embodied truth, the person who acts for you and in you to create faith, and to be the faithful one to whom you can cling, through change, through suffering, and into life and freedom.
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