500th ANNIVERSARY OF REFORMATION
A “hero-protestant” who “re-founded” Christianity or a “wild boar who was let loose in the vineyard?
Renewal almost as profound as Pentecost or the unleashing of sectarian schism in the church and the creation of mayhem across all society?”
In a recent presentation to the NSW Ecumenical Council, Bishop Mark Lieschke, Bishop of the Lutheran Church NSW District, asked questions concerning Martin Luther and the impact of the movement called the Reformation.
The beginning of this great upheaval is attributed to this rebellious monk as he posted 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on the day before the festival of All Saints in the year 1517.
I guess it depends where you stand when it comes to the significance and the impact of the Reformation. The Uniting Church, of whom I am minister, describes itself as a church in the Reformed, Evangelical tradition where Congregationalism, Presbyterianism and Methodism has shaped its heritage.
Hence, for me, Reformation looms quite large on the ecclesiological radar as Reformation Studies were a compulsory subject during my seminary training while references to Luther, a touch of Calvinism, a little bit of Knox and a substantial amount of Wesley together with an emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers” continues to be a major force within the life and witness of the Uniting Church.
As a leader in the Lutheran Church suggests – rather than “celebrating” the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation it’s better that we “commemorate” this momentous event. Bishop Mark goes on to say:
“For how can we celebrate what came to be a most significant split in the Christian Church – one that at times has caused controversy, criticism, accusation, condemnation and bitter division in the body of Christ?”
I believe this Bishop has point here. The idea of exalting, eulogizing or, indeed, beating the drum about the Reformation is, actually, unwise. A study of European history at this time reveals considerable conflict, division, violence and bloodshed.
But it’s important that we do “commemorate” the Reformation. It’s important that we remember and acknowledge the significant religious reforms that came out of this event.
Here Luther’s focus on salvation being a free gift of God, a gift that is received by grace through faith in Jesus Christ cannot be ignored. For this affirmation surely points to the very essence of the Gospel and to what it means to be Christian.
Moreover, the Reformation’s declaration of “sola scriptura” (by scripture alone); “sola fide” (by faith alone); “sola gratia” (by grace alone) together with the affirmations – “solus Christus” (through Christ alone) and “soli Deo” (glory to God alone) went on to put a broom through the church and stir up an air of real reform within many ecclesial institutions over recent centuries.
Hence, the focus of many Reformation commemorations today shouldn’t be on the things that divide us. Rather, the focus should be on the things we hold in common. Our energy should be directed towards what can be done now as we move forward together and as we explore more deeply what it means to be the one body that is church.
This is a challenging call and the starting point begins, I believe, back with the first of Luther’s 95 theses. This states: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
Friends, the beginning point for any Reformation commemoration is sincere, humble repentance. The point from which the church is to remember the past, address the present and to then move on rests, not on a budding triumphalism or pious manifesto pointing to the failures of others while upholding the sanctity of our own religious institutions.
Rather the commemoration of 500 years of Reformation should begin with a reality check that engages in the business of truth-telling, of naming history for what it really is and admitting our need to do things, not in our strength, but in the power and the strength of the risen Christ.
And at this point it’s important to note what St Paul says in his letter to the Romans that “we have all sinned and fallen short.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, any commemoration of the Reformation needs to begin right here. We are all sinners. We have all fallen short. Sadly, we often think we have got it right while we claim others are have got it wrong.
We like to define ourselves over and against what we perceive others to be or not be. We idolise our particular branch of the faith while demonizing those across the street.
And here we need to be conscious that in our repenting, in our truth-telling, in our awareness of our “short fallen-ness”, it is the Good News of God’s unconditional love that picks us up and enables us to go on as God’s people.
That which feeds us and sustains us is the gift of God’s grace. It is not, and never will be, a sense of our own achievements, the assurance of our own righteousness, or a celebration of our own piety.
Friends, our commemoration of the Reformation needs to be an event where we humbly admit our short-comings and where we claim – who and what we are – is completely dependent on the liberating, life-giving unconditional love of God.
With these things in mind, Lutherans and Catholics have been working carefully together and a recent report of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity has produced an impressive document, “From Conflict to Communion.”
This document has been released in connection with preparations for a common commemoration of the Reformation which will take place today in Sweden involving Pope Francis together with leaders of the Lutheran and other churches.
The report, “From Conflict to Communion”, affirms Jesus Christ as the center of our common faith and it declares we all belong to one body that is Christ.
Meanwhile, five joint commitments or five ecumenical imperatives have been listed in this report and they are worth noting:
Firstly, begin with the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division. This is in order to strengthen what is held in common even though our differences are more easily seen and experienced.
Sadly, differences tend to define relationships. This means we are often acutely aware of what we cannot do. But there is much we actually can do together!
Secondly, it’s important that we let ourselves be continuously transformed by our encounters with the other and by our mutual witness of faith. Here we have much to offer one another. For it is when we humbly open ourselves and engage with the other that we flourish and grow.
Thirdly, it’s important to seek visible unity, to celebrate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal. And surely this is what we do this evening as an ecumenical community. It is what we do in Lent, at Pentecost and in Advent as we gather to worship as one People of God in Epping and Carlingford.
Fourthly, we are to jointly discover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time. Reformation was about affirming the truth of the Gospel. Reformation was about empowering God’s people for witness and service. Reformation was about pointing people to Christ. And, friends, these are ongoing tasks. They are critical tasks that we a called to do together.
Today the church universal shares in this vital challenge. It’s not the prerogative of one or two exclusive denominations. It’s not the domain of a few chosen bodies. This is a task for the whole church and we are called to engage in this calling together as members of the one body of Christ.
And, fifthly, we are to witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and in service to the world. In other words, as a people justified through faith, as a community gifted with the unconditional love of God, as persons redeemed through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are called to a joint witness and a collaborative service in the world.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, 500 years today, Martin Luther initiated an event we commemorate this evening.
In the light of this commemoration may we, together, kneel humbly before our God, receive the gift of God’s abundant grace, and be empowered to be the church now and in the future.