10/27/2019 Reformation Sunday The text is John 8: 31-36 .
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
“God is good”, all the time! “All the time”, God is good!
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
For those among you who happen to be Scripture Lectionary geeks; and I count myself among you; you may have noticed something of a departure this morning. Since my first Sunday with you back in early July, the Gospel Reading has been from Saint Luke. And now this morning we find ourselves ‘smack-dab’ in the middle of Saint John. And since we are celebrating ‘Reformation Sunday’, what better version of the Good News to encounter than that of the most metaphysical, spiritual, and mystical of the Gospel writers; John? This is the Gospel that ‘in the beginning’ gives us ‘logos’, the Word of God; Jesus, who became flesh. Quite a divergence from Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the Synoptic Gospels. These authors also recount the stories of the life and ministry of Christ, but John places them in a more spiritual light.
So, it’s appropriate that John’s words are chosen as our Lectionary reading for this, our 502nd celebration of the Protestant Reformation. In John, Jesus tells those who profess their faith in him, that his word, the ‘Word’ of God is Truth, and if they live into this Word, this Truth, they will be set free. Two-thousand years ago Jesus began this reformation process; by his life, death, and resurrection he set the world free from its bondage to sin. This freedom of, and through Christ, recounted by John is at the core of Christian belief. Yet we remain in slavery to sin, it’s our human nature. For although we persist in living lives of continual transgression, we are made ‘free indeed’ by our faith in the word of the Son. We are: ‘simil Justus et peccator’. ‘At the same time, sinner and saint’.
Fifteen-hundred or so years later, Martin Luther and others sought to ‘re-form’ the Christian church, in response to a number of theological and political concerns that were prevalent at the time in Western Europe. One of the main results of these oppositional clashes, commonly referred to as the Protestant Reformation, was that ordinary Christians were now encouraged to develop a personal, individual relationship with Christ. Again, although still enslaved to sin, our sixteenth-century forebears were again remined of the freedom they are blessed with through faith in Christ, by the grace of God.
So, the Reformation is concluded and we are here today to celebrate its completion, right? No, like the kingdom of God itself, the church is ‘already, but not yet’. Today we ‘already’ benefit from the reforming that has taken place, confident in the knowledge that, as followers of the Way of Christ, that we too are made ‘free indeed’ by the Son. But the ‘not yet’ part looms large. While the actual figure is elusive, it is estimated that there are tens of thousands of Protestant denominations around the world. This includes the major mainline churches; Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopals, and others. Added to these are the myriad non-denominational churches, along with those not found in the US. Suffice it to say, when it comes to achieving Christian unity, ‘not yet’ is the best descriptor. It would seem that things are still being ‘re-formed’.
The wider Lutheran denomination of which Emanuel Lutheran is a part, the ELCA, is in full communion with several Protestant church bodies. One of these is the United Methodist Church. In 2009 the ELCA adopted a policy to affirm ordination of gay and lesbian pastors. This past February the Methodist church reaffirmed their traditional policy of not ordaining openly gay or lesbian persons to the pastoral office. Now I mention this difference in church policy solely for the purpose of illustrating how far away we seem to be from the ‘not yet’ unity that Christians have been promised by the freedom offered by Christ.
The initial re-formation of the way people viewed their relationship with God took place 2,000 years ago, at the foot of the Cross. Luther and his contemporaries took steps to re-form a number of the policies they thought contrary to Christ’s original teachings. Today, in the current concept of reformation, the Christian church is tripping over itself, trying to understand why people are leaving the church in droves. It seems that just about anything and everything are under scrutiny in the wider church, in an effort to reform itself. Traditional organ music or praise band? Open worship style or strict adherence to liturgy? Open and affirming regarding gay and lesbian pastors or totally against? Laser light show and a smoke machine or choir robes and the hymnal? In our freedom in Christ we are permitted to make these and all the other choices that are currently under consideration in the Christian church. This period of ‘reformation’ is likely to determine what the church will look like in the next couple of decades.
There is a relatively large contingent of rather learned theologians who are of the opinion that the Lutheran church is no longer relevant and that there may not be a Lutheran denomination in America in fifty years. I sincerely hope and pray they are wrong. The Lutheran confession at the root of our faith is God’s grace; this is the ultimate expression of the freedom we have in Christ. But we are still faced with an ever-changing culture and an evolving expression of what the church should look like. How do we respond to this evolution? All things in life must change, modify, evolve. But there are those basic, unshakeable tenets that make us who we are and that must be ever at the forefront of all that we do.
We are saved through faith in Christ, by the grace of God! This foundation of Lutheran belief is then supported with the inclusion of only two necessary elements; the Gospel and the Sacraments. We are to preach and hear the word of God. We are to baptize new members into God’s family and we are to share in the bread and wine at the Lord’s Table. Everything beyond these expressions of Lutheran faith and practice is inconsequential. I know this may be difficult to hear, but everything else that we do as Lutherans is purely ‘tradition’, not necessarily canonical. Jesus tells us to ‘make disciples’ and partake of the bread and wine in ‘remembrance’ of him. Everything else is a human construct, created to support these actions. Now, please don’t get me wrong; I love being Lutheran Christian! I get queasy if worship isn’t liturgical. A choir singing ‘Lift High the Cross’ makes me teary-eyed. Luther’s admonition to ‘sin boldly’ serves as a cornerstone of my life. And I’m grateful that Katie Von Bora, Martin Luther’s wife kept the brewery successfully going when her husband was caught up in his ministry. I’ll bet many of you didn’t know that Brother Martin was a beer-maker!
But, if these and all the other trappings of church tradition were no longer in place, I, and all of us would still be blessed with what makes us followers of this freedom-granting Jesus; the aforementioned Gospel and the Sacraments. So, whether we are fully onboard or not, the Reformation continues. But there is a difference between re-forming just for the sake of change, and change with an eye toward renewal. As the wider church strives to determine what face will be presented to the world, whether it be lasers or pipe organs; at Emanuel we find ourselves with the opportunity to discern what our reformation will look like, now and for the future. The knowledge that Jesus sets us ‘free indeed’ must be the guiding principle behind whatever actions we take to achieve a thriving renewal for Emanuel Lutheran Church; God’s church, here in this place.
During this time of our individual church transformation, we have the ability to grow, expand, and renew Emanuel’s ministry and mission within and beyond our walls. Some rather exciting reformation is already happening here.
Emanuel is now part of the Lutheran Inter-Parish Youth Group, and along with folks from the six other Lutheran churches, a number of our young people stood in the rain last Sunday to worship with and provide a meal to hungry people. We have appointed adult members to the Emanuel Youth Group leadership team. A dedicated Youth Room is in process of being painted and furnished by our Confirmands and high schoolers. Our young people will serve in worship roles during next week’s ‘Youth Sunday’ service. We have been blessed with a wonderfully talented musician. An organ recital featuring a talented soprano is only a week away. The Harvest Fair continues. The bulletin boards are being redone. The Bishop will join us to preach and distribute bread and wine to our First Communion kids in a few weeks. The Mission/Outreach Team is considering what Emanuel’s mission to the community will look like. Perhaps a clothing mission; ‘Emanuel’s Closet’? These are components of not simply re-forming, but of hopeful renewal. They are actions undertaken with an eye toward becoming a thriving, vibrant, relevant church.
So, let us not fear the future, even if it doesn’t turn out to be exactly the one we imagined it would be. The future Christian church may look very different than it does now, but it’s currently radically different from the one that Luther knew. That’s the beauty of reformation; it’s an ongoing process. One of renewal; of adaptation when it’s necessary, but one that maintains those beloved elements that make us who and what we are. Those things that together define us as followers of the Way of this Jesus Christ, the One who promises us ‘freedom, indeed’. The freedom to hold close those things that make us the church we have always been, while being free to embrace those changes, those re-formations that result in renewal and revitalization. Martin Luther would be proud!
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, give us the will to cling to that which confirms us as your people, the strength to endure uncertainty, and the faith to trust in your will for the ultimate expression of your church.
And the people of God say…Amen.
God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. Amen.