Today, I want to be a bit professorial and give a little lesson in the fundamentals of the 16th Century Reformation. Our parents in the faith, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and others did not initially intend to provoke a church split. They believed that they were calling the Western church to follow the gospel and be fully faithful to the unhindered and unmerited grace of God. They took seriously Paul’s call in Galatians to live by grace, and not religious structures and rules, and they believed that their message invited people to live the spirit of new creation, Christian liberation, freedom from legalism, and openness to love one another in response to God’s love for us.
Four principles emerged, and I will speak briefly about them, because they are still the heart of our faith.
The first is the grace of God. Luther’s 95 Theses, nailed to the Wittenberg church door, according to legend, focused on God’s grace. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God shows God’s love for us and saves us from the bondage of sin and guilt. As Paul says in Romans 5, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Grace abounds – God loves you, forgives you, and gives you the chance to begin again. You don’t need to earn it. It’s yours and if God has called you – and I believe God has called all of us – you can never lose it, though you can stray from the path and forget how much you are loved.
The second is scripture. Sola gratia, only grace; sola scriptura, only scripture, were the mottos of the Reformation. The bible is a living word, the guidepost for the church and is mission, revealing God’s movements in history and in our lives. We are part of God’s story. Mary, Isaiah, Paul, and Peter are not foreigners; their lives are invitations for us to be part of a living faith. We read the bible to discover our calling in this time and place. The bible isn’t our only book and it is not intended to solve problems of science or mathematics; it is our guidebook and search light on the journey of faith, constantly illuminating the human condition, and inspiring us to seek God’s vision in our time and place.
The third is the priesthood of believers. This simply means that every Christian has a role in the body of Christ. Faith moves us to action; saved people become God’s companions and messengers in saving the world. Some are called to be pastors and teachers, and that’s important. The teaching and preaching role is at the heart of the Reformation. But, all are called to take their faith seriously and share God’s good news in daily life.
In the 16th century, the word vocation typically applied only to priests. For the Reformers, it meant all of us. As followers of Jesus, we are “little Christs,” letting God’s grace flow through us to everyone we meet, without exception.
Finally, the Reformers proclaimed that the “reformation is always reforming.” What is essential, as Paul says to the Galatians, is the new creation. We can’t stop God’s movements in our lives and history. God is constantly creating and challenges us to be creators as well. As the Puritan teacher John Robinson proclaimed, God always has more light to shed on the scriptures. Or, as the United Church of Christ proclaims, “God is still speaking.” Our calling is to learn and listen for God’s word in the events of our time – treasuring past achievements and rituals – but moving forward by grace and wisdom, trusting the visions God gives us.
So what do these four principles of the Reformation mean to us today? As children of the Reformation, we are part of their story of faith and recipients of God’s loving kindness.
Accordingly, we are first of all to be givers and receivers of God’s grace. “Cheap grace,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserted, means we receive everything from God, but do nothing in return. God loves us, the Reformers proclaimed, and despite the messiness of our lives, we can do something beautiful for God. Saved by grace, we share God’s good news with the world through our daily lives and the ministries of our church. This could mean sharing a sermon on line or inviting someone to join us at church or a meditation, bible study group, or special service. It means concern for an orphanage in India, the food bank here, soups and sandwiches, backpacks, casseroles, UNICEF, and hammers and nails for Habitat.
Second, let’s learn the wisdom and word of God. Take time to go to a bible study, find a good devotional book, and get to know the bible as a living word. If you can’t make it Sunday or Tuesday, find two or three friends, reach out to me, and we’ll find a convenient time for a bible study group.
Third, listen for God’s call in the events of your life – as Frederick Buechner affirms, your vocation – your calling as part of the priesthood of believers, is the place where your passions meet the hungers and passions of the world. Everyone makes a difference to this church by your prayers, presence, commitments, and ideas; and you may be someone’s saving grace by spending time listening and sharing God’s good news.
Finally, be open to something new in your life. Treasure tradition and share the best of it, as the Reformers did; but try new things, suggest new ways for us to be faithful here, and look for new behaviors that will be bring joy to the world.
Yes, the reformation is always reforming, and your life is part of God’s new creation, embodying the wisdom and energy of our parents in faith right now, for just such a time as this.