500 years later, what does God want nailed on your church door?
Hespeler, 29 October, 2017 © Scott McAndless Reformation, Baptism
Matthew 19:13-15, Ephesians 2:1-10, Psalm 13:1-6
lmost exactly five hundred years ago, on the last day of October in 1517, a young monk and doctor of theology took a piece of paper upon which had been printed 95 theses and he nailed it to the door of a church in Wittenberg. It was not, I want to be clear, an act of vandalism. Though Luther was angry about a few things that day, he was not taking out his anger on that door with a hammer.
It was actually quite an ordinary thing
for a professor in his position to do. He had written down these 95 little ideas on one sheet of paper because he thought that they were provocative ideas. He didn’t necessarily think that people would agree with them – not all of them anyway – but he wanted people to discuss them together so that, out of the discussion, they might come to a better understanding of where the truth lay. Nailing the theses to door was simply the normal way of posting them in public. The church door was basically the sixteenth century version of Facebook.
But the banging of the hammer that nailed that document to the church’s door was loud – so loud that it has echoed down through the last five centuries. For the posting of that list of ideas did not lead to the civil discussion that Luther was looking for. It was the spark that ignited protestant reformations that would transform the spiritual landscape.
Today is actually a big deal in church history. It is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. And, in Protestant churches across the country and around the world, churches are celebrating, in particular, the unique contributions of Protestant Christianity. And there is no question that there is much that is worth celebrating. The Protestant reformers, starting with Luther, really did open up new possibilities for how we could think about and relate to God.
The reformers did that by declaring what are often called the Five Solas. (Sola is a Latin word that means alone – like when someone sings alone and we call it a solo.) By declaring these solas, the reformers were saying that we only really needed these five things in order to work out our salvation and our relationship with God. The five solas are: Sola Fide (by faith alone), Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), Solus Christus (through Christ alone), Sola Gratia (by grace alone) and Soli Deo Gloria (which means glory to God alone).
These were wonderful and powerful ideas in their time especially because, in Luther’s day, the institution of the church as it existed then had been trying to control every aspect of the human relationship with God. The church had been teaching people that it’s traditions and authority were sufficient to fix our relationship with God and that you could even purchase the forgiveness of your sins with gifts of money. That was the thing that had made Luther particularly mad when he nailed up those 95 theses.
So the reformers came along and said no, you didn’t need to be dependent on the church and its traditions and officials; you really only needed five things. You could work out your relationship with faith alone, with scripture alone, through Christ alone, by grace alone and so that God alone should be glorified. That was a beautiful and liberating message and, as I said, it transformed the world.
I happen to believe that the message of grace was by far the most important part of that. They realized that it is pointless to try to please God with your good works or by being more righteous than anyone else. Nothing you could ever do could impress God after all. All you can do is receive God’s gracious gift of salvation, forgiveness and whatever you need most. You can never pay for it.
But I have a question. What is the best way to honour what those reformers did? Should we just take their lessons and wisdom and set them in stone? Should we just say that they figured it all out once and for all and we don’t have to think about any of it anymore? That can easily become the temptation on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation – to get frozen in what happened 500 years ago. But does that really honour Luther’s courage and the courage of the other reformers?
The Christian church is now about 2000 years old. And someone recently pointed out to me that in those 2000 years, the church has gone through three major shifts. The church began, after the time of Jesus, as a small movement that was at odds with the power structures of this world, especially the Roman Empire, but by about the year 500, it completed its first great transformation to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. That changed everything. Then, 500 hundred years after that, the church was shaken by a second great transformation as it split for the first time into two great churches, the Roman Catholic in the West and the Orthodox in the East. From there the two churches took two very different courses. In particular the western church gave ever more power to its hierarchy which led to a number of abuses which led, five hundred years after that, to Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.
Every five hundred years the Christian Church has gone through a major upheaval – a series of events that changed everything. It is consistent enough to make me think that there is a design to it all – to make me think that perhaps it is part of God’s plan. But, of course, you have realized the other question that such a history raises: what if, five hundred years after the Reformation, we are due? Is it possible that God is going to do something new in the church today? This is not to suggest for a moment that God is leading us to question or reject the wisdom that comes to us from the Reformation, but maybe we have gone somehow astray in how we have been living them out and God is getting ready to call on us to live out the gospel more authentically given the new challenges of the twenty first century.
I tend to think that that might be just the case. I see many indications that we are in a time of transition. For example, one of the developments that drove the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago was the invention of a new communication technology. You may have heard of it; it was called the printing press. It allowed for the ideas of the reformers to spread about at an unprecedented speed – so fast that the people who were invested in just maintaining things the same as they had always been could do nothing to stop it. Well, we are living in an age when new developments in communications are coming at us so quickly that almost nobody can keep up. Things are moving so quickly that the authorities – including church authorities – cannot manage the change.
So this looks like a time when God might be doing a new thing. But what new thing could God be doing? I don’t claim to know that for sure, but I wonder if God might not have sent us a messenger today. We had the great privilige and honour today to welcome Clara into the life of the church through baptism. We have admitted her into all of the fullness of what it means to be a Christian. But we have done that, as you may have noticed, without her really understanding what it means to be a Christian. We asked her some questions but she really couldn’t answer them. Her parents had to answer for her, as did we as her church family.
I believe that God has sent Clara to us to teach us about being a Christian in this present age. We believe and confess, as we have read, that we are saved by grace. That means that we believe that we are brought into the very presence of God (both now and for all eternity) not because we have done anything to deserve it but because of God’s kindness and love shown to us (particularly through what Jesus Christ did for us).
That is an essential part of the teaching of this church – of all Protestant churches – and one of our key inheritances from the Reformation that began five hundred years ago. But I suggest to you that we don’t really believe it. We don’t believe in salvation by grace because we constantly give into the temptation of adding conditions. We say, for example, that what we have done for Clara is not quite complete – that some day, when she is able to have some intellectual understanding of some of the things that we have said to her, she will have to make her own personal decision about whether or not she believes it. We suggest that her faith is not yet complete because she lacks in understanding.
But I suggest to you that, while she certainly will have to work out what she believes about many things for herself someday, none of that needs to limit the gift that God gives her today. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples when they wanted to prevent the little children from coming to him. He said, not merely that they could come to the kingdom of God but that the kingdom actually already belonged to them. Jesus believed that little children were actually more capable of the faith that gave them the kingdom than his disciples were. Maybe the disciples understood more, but Jesus knew that faith isn’t really about what you believe or understand, it is about who you trust and trust comes much more naturally to children than it does to us.
Ah, but you see, we Protestant Christians have this tendency to want to set up barriers. We are like the disciples in the story who “spoke sternly to those who brought” the children to Jesus. There are days when I really feel like there is a lot of stern speaking going on in the church. Anyone who disturbs your notion of what the church is supposed to be – who likes the wrong kinds of music, who doesn’t read the Bible in the same way that you do, who has a different understanding of how relationships are supposed to work – you speak sternly to them. Anyone who does something in a way that you think it is not supposed to be done, who makes the wrong noise at the wrong time, who leaves a mess behind them, you speak sternly to them. I’m sorry to say that I see it and hear about it all the time in the church. We may say that we are welcoming and loving, outwardly we may speak that way, but it is so easy to speak sternly to those others and it turns them off. Whenever we do it, we are forgetting the message of God’s grace.
So, I don’t know exactly what Reformation God may be aiming to start in the coming years. I am no Martin Luther and I don’t want to be one, but I can think of a few theses – a few ideas that it might be worth opening a discussion about. I don’t necessarily know what the answers are to these ideas are, but I also don’t know what new avenues for change might be opened up if we did boldly tackle these issues. So, in closing, I would propose a few theses for the church door in 2017.
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1. What if we actually took Jesus at his word and acted as if we believed that Clara and infants like her have a better grasp of what the kingdom of God is actually about than we do?
2. What if we didn’t speak sternly to children, or to anyone really, just because they had a different idea of what it means to live out their trust in Jesus than we do?
3. What if we believed in the grace of God so much that we actually treated everyone like a genuine sister or brother without regard to their ideas, their background, status, gender, sexual orientation or intellect.
4. What if we actually decided that the Good News about Jesus Christ and the people that that news is for were more important than keeping up the institutional traditions and trappings of the church?
I invite you to consider these four theses. (Nails the 4 Theses to the church door.)
Now, I don’t know if these are the right ideas to be debated. I don’t know if the debate will ever be held. But I do know this: sometime soon, God will take a few new ways at looking at questions similar to these and make a Reformation out of them. I also know that if you are more concerned for the state of an old church door than you are for the question to whom does the kingdom belong, your priorities might be out of whack.