First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
October 29, 2017
500th Anniversary of the Reformation of the Church
“Be the Church for Which you Long”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
He didn’t mean to do it.
Luther really didn’t mean to split the church. He had not set out on a ten-step plan to create the Protestant church as something new. He just wanted a few things to change.…. About 95 of them to be exact. The thing is, what he wanted changed were no small things, as far as Mother church was concerned. Like stop taking money to forgive people’s sins. He thought the church was a bit top-heavy so he wanted to take the unlimited power of the papacy away from Rome and turn some of it over to the people. Oh, and speaking of giving something to the people, the Good Book should be in their hands to read and interpret and study. No more mystery and secrecy around what the Bible actually says. Get it out to the folks in language they can read and understand.
See, nothing too earth shattering. Give up power and cut off a major source of income. Nothing to it. This reformation of the church should have been turned over to a committee, put into a document and voted on within the year. Isn’t that how things around the church change?
But, you know what happens in the church when people start talking about change.
It’s when you start talking about change that you find out that the faded tapestries hanging on the wall in the basement room that the youth want take over as their hang-out place were sewn by the great aunt of the first minister’s wife’s cousin.
Change is hard for any of us, especially change that calls for a different way of thinking, a different way of behaving, a different way of being an institution that is 2000 years old and carries forth traditions of the practices that preceded it. It’s why it took the reformation to take place over an extended period of time. From the time Brother Martin tacked his memo on the door at the church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, it took another 130 years or so to wrap up the age of the reformation of the church. And that’s not counting the movement toward reformation that was already happening before 1517 and the continuing reformation that’s been ongoing since. In it’s wake were executions and wars. We celebrate the reformation of the church this day, 500 years later, but let us not forget the cost.
Some say we are going through another reformation. It seems that tends to happen about every 500 years so, apparently, we’re due. I don’t think we ever stopped. Think about it. Think about how the world has changed in the last 500 years. You don’t even have to go back that far. Think about how the world has changed in the last 50 years. We have technology at our hands that leaves the Guttenberg printing press in the dust. Communication can literally happen around the world in seconds. People are living longer because we’ve figured how to deal with diseases that prevented old age. Now we’re dealing with age related conditions that we didn’t know existed back when life expectancy was much younger. We are understanding the impact of “isms” on culture and people’s lives: racism, sexism, homophobia. We know they are real and we know they are evil. We live in a time of convenience but we also know the impact that that comfort has on the environment as well as our own mental, emotional and physical fitness.
There is not an advancement, a change, a reformation in history that has not come at a cost or had rippling side-effects. It’s perhaps one of the reasons we’re so leery of change. But it shouldn’t be the reason we don’t seek to continually be about reformation – about being and doing the church that God has called us to be.
Even God is all about reformation. God is not afraid of change. Usually, when we’re talking about things that God is doing we use words like transformation, renewal, salvation, pardon for sins, repentance. God was about the business of reformation long before Martin Luther got all hot and bothered and wrote the words to put on the church doors.
Listen back to the words of Jeremiah…
New Covenant… not like the one of old… written in a new way …. On their hearts. No longer shall they go about things the old way.
Isaiah says it too… I am about to do a new thing. Do you not perceive it?
Paul picks up on this when he writes to the church in Galatia…. Words of reformation…. Before… it was one way but now, it’s different. No longer the old way but in Christ something new.
These are words that remind us that God does not sit still in a changing world. These are words that the institution that professes to love and worship an active God should not sit still in a changing world either. After all, the one we claim as our Lord and Savior didn’t even sit still in death. Talk about changing things. When God pulled Jesus back out of that tomb 2000 years ago, well, that’s when the real reformation started. It was God’s way of saying I’m not going to keep things the way they have always been and any one who wants to go along with me, come along. But hang on because the one who’s leading the way has a tendency to turn a few things upside down. Lame people end up walking. Blind people end up seeing. People who were once cast aside and forgotten are brought into the center. Hungry people are fed from practically nothing. Storms are stilled. Water becomes wine.
My friends, we are following a savior who stepped out of a tomb and reformed even death. And we think change in the church is hard.
But here’s one thing that Martin Luther did more recently that I think is really worth paying attention to. He reminded the church that it’s about the people. Not the institution. Not the power-brokers. Not the rules. The people. It’s where we get the belief of the priesthood of all believers. You all have a direct link to God through Jesus Christ. And that means that you are as much responsible for the church, its livelihood, its mission, its status in the world as I am.
Martin Luther longed for a different church and he sought for it. He worked for it. He gave his life for it. Not because it brought him fame and fortune but because he loved it and wanted it to be something that it was not. In nailing his plea to that church door, he not only gave that message to the powers that were that controlled the church, he was setting free all those who longed for a different church as well. He was setting loose the renewing, reforming, reshaping spirit of God that has spoken through the ages and he was spilling it out into the people of the church.
And, in nailing his plea for a different church to that door, he place it’s earthly responsibility into our hands. Ever since then, there has not been one voice that speaks for the entirety of Christianity, if there ever was one. When we talk about the voice of the church, we now must look to it’s members, the living breathing embodiment of God’s Holy Spirit on earth. It is not located in the doctrine. It’s not located in the structure. It’s not located in the governance. It’s not even located in the clergy. The voice of the church, the expression of the church is it’s people.
My guess is, we each have our hopes for the church and if Martin Luther has taught us anything, he has taught us that the church you long for exists. It exists within the lives and expressions of faith of each of its members. The reformation of today may very well happen when we each take that seriously and literally and we each become the church for which we long.