November 5, 2017

Series: November 2017

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

9You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

13We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.


          I have had a reminder of this year’s 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on my desk since my brother-in-law traveled to Europe last year and brought it back…This is Lego Martin Luther.  Luther, as we’ve been taught, is the hero of our story, a superhero even, who nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg 500 years ago last Tuesday, changing the church, changing the world, forever. 

         Something strange kept happening to my Luther Lego figure throughout the year.  Almost every Monday when I came in, his little Lego parts were disassembled and spread across desk.  His cape—fitting for a superhero—would be over here, his little cap over there, his Lego hair helmet over there…I’m not sure he ever lost his head, though some would say that’s debatable.  I suspect the deconstruction had something to do with my son, but he pleads the fifth…not the fifth amendment, the fifth birthday. 

          A deconstructed Luther became a fitting metaphor for me as I read about and reflected upon the Reformation throughout the year.  As is often the case, the fairy tales we are taught may be more fiction, sometimes even propaganda, than fact.  (Think of what we grew up learning about Christopher Columbus.)  At the very least, we know who gets to write the history.  Nailing those 95 theses to the door, if it really happened, would not have been the dramatic event we’ve come to celebrate.  Doing so would have been the medieval equivalent to tacking something up on a bulletin board today.  Similarly, the notion that Luther was singularly responsible for turning the tide of history ignores the contextual reality that a complex set of forces—historical, political, and cultural, as well as religious—conspired to create a perfect storm and result in a sea change.  Even the notion that Luther is solely responsible for bringing the Bible back to a place of primacy, sola Scriptura, was the Latin phrase, overlooks that, at the time, there was a widespread intellectual movement across disciplines to return to the sources, particularly of Roman and Greek antiquity.[1]

          It is a mixed legacy.  Church historian Christopher Ocker, from our very own San Francisco Theological Seminary, reminds us the Reformation wasn’t only about understanding theology properly in the church, but also about the seizure of church property by the newly budding Protestants, who used it for their own purposes.  The later life anti-Semitism of Luther is well-documented, and our own theological forbearer John Calvin willfully advocated for the execution of Miguel Serveto, or Servetus as he is commonly known.  Servetus, a scientist and biblical scholar, was responsible for discovering the process of pulmonary circulation in the field of medicine.  Having fallen out of favor with the church, he came to Calvin in Geneva.  But Calvin, too, took issue with Servetus on theological matters, namely on the subjects of the Trinity and infant baptism.  In the end, Servetus was burned at the stake.  Our hands are not clean.

          And yet—two of the most important words in preaching, if not in all of life—and yet, look what was accomplished in the Reformation.  Regardless of the fact the Reformation was a part of a larger stream of returning to the sources, and Martin Luther may have been a symbol and catalyst of something greater, symbols and catalysts do matter.  Similarly, the Protestant Reformation did lift up biblical authority and help put the Bible in the hands of the people, in version printed in their own language, the significance of which cannot be overstated.  This was at a time when the laity weren’t allowed to fully participate in communion—that was for the priests, who faced the altar, away from the people.  In fact, the people were sometimes left to observe outside the sanctuary behind a gate! 

The Reformation called into question the concentration of power in one person, a religious monarchy of sorts, ushering in a more democratic system of governance, which, incidentally contributed mightily to the form of government we have in the United States. As with any religion, our polity is our theology, and we believe God’s will is best discerned in community, with elected representatives making decisions for the good of the whole.  Similarly, we hold fast to the belief that one needs no formal intercessor with God, such as a priest.  In Christ, all have direct access to God.  And, on the famous issue of indulgences, the notion of selling access to heaven not just for financial gain of the church, but essentially functioning as a tax to pay for state-sponsored foreign military campaigns, the Reformation challenged this practice as unjust and unholy.  Who among us would say that such a practice is in keeping with the Jesus we encounter in Scripture?

          Luther was clear about the true treasure of the church, as Thesis 62, which is on the cover of your bulletin.  It is the gospel, the grace of God, freely given.  No transfer of human treasure earns that grace.  As the confession of faith for which this church is named reminds us, we don’t earn are way into God’s love, we are adopted, chosen for relationship, for unshakable love, and are “never cast off.”[2]

          It is as if Luther and those who later followed in his footsteps, such as our own John Calvin, looked at Paul’s words from 1 Thessalonians, the oldest book in the New Testament and thus the closest to the actual time of Jesus, encouraging his followers to “lead a life worthy of God,” and said, ‘The church isn’t doing that, isn’t leading a life worth of God, and it must change.’  Sometimes things need to be broken so they can be re-formed.  Think of what was risked, and what was lost, and yet what changed, what ultimately was gained by that reforming?  The Protestant movement was born and carries to this day the motto Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, the church reformed and always reforming, or always about to be reformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Our best ideals remind us that the process is never complete, involves constant adaptation to the context, both going back to return to what has been forgotten but is essential, and moving forward by letting go of what no longer serves.  The Reformation changed things and the Reformed movement continues to change.  Interestingly, the Catholic church changed too, and thankfully we now enjoy a friendship with that tradition.  We might say we have made one another better.  Maybe both of us could use another round of shaking up.  Maybe we’re already in the midst of it already.

          The personal shortcomings of the founders, the failings of the church along the way, the manner in which we still do not live up to the best of our ideals—these should not take away from the goodness of the story.  In fact, the good news of the gospel may be this:  Look what amazing things God can accomplish through broken vessels.  Through broken vessels families could have their own Bibles in languages they could read.  Through broken vessels grace could rightly understood to flow freely without having to be purchased.  Through broken vessels in churches throughout the years, people could be loved through the scariest times in their lives. Through broken vessels forces of evil and oppression could be confronted and struck down not through brute force, but through soul force.  It’s through broken vessels that our faith has actually grown because this is how God seems to work.  If the Reformation has anything to teach us today, it is not in perfection.  It falls far short of that.  It is that in imperfect ways, through people who have their share of shortcomings, blessing can break through.  By extension, we need not let our own assumptions about our lack of self-worth, fears, simple limitations, or deeper inadequacy stop us from recognizing that we too can be conduits of that blessing.  Children of adoption we are, the most blessed title there is, and we shouldn’t forget it.

          Let us then, this All Saints Day, remember the saints of our lives, called so not because of their perfection, but because of their ability to channel God’s grace in some moments and measure.  Let us remember those who changed the world for the better.  Let us remember those who paid attention to us in a way that was clean and made us feel valuable.  Let us remember those who sacrificed that we might have here what we have.  Let us remember those who gave to us gifts of priceless value, our values.  Let us remember those who struggled, mightily at times, maybe even stumbling, but tried their best to model an upright life.  Let us remember those who taught us something of love.  Let us, this All Saints Day, remember all those we love and have lost, even those who could not or did not receive our love as we would have liked, all trusting they remain in the eternal care of the Great Love…

          Today may be a day for our heroes, but let it not be only for superheroes.  The figures God uses to shape the world are not made of plastic; they are made of flesh and blood.  As we approach the table to share in the body and blood of Christ, let us remember that.  Amen.

[1] Hans J. HIllerbrand, The Division of Christendom: Christianity in the Sixteenth Century (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 6.

[2] Martin Luther, Thesis #62, and the Westminster Confession of Faith.