Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Always Reforming

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
Reformation Day (October 29, 2017)
Ephesians 2:1-10 (CEB) – “Always Reforming”

At one time you were like a dead person because of the things you did wrong and your offenses against God. You used to live like people of this world. You followed the rule of a destructive spiritual power. This is the spirit of disobedience to God’s will that is now at work in persons whose lives are characterized by disobedience. At one time you were like those persons. All of you used to do whatever felt good and whatever you thought you wanted so that you were children headed for punishment just like everyone else.

However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace! And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus. God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

This 500th anniversary of the Reformation has special meaning for me. As a person who was born Lutheran, I’ve got a soft spot for ol’ Dr. Luther. For a long time he’s been a model of what it means to stand up for what one believes. I love his line from his trial at Worms: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I can do no other!”

This passage from Ephesians also has special meaning for me. Those last three verses were the favorite of my grandfather, who died earlier this year, the Rev. Dr. William M. “Bill” Waddell. Pop was a Lutheran pastor and because he was so enthusiastic for the gospel, he used to drill these verses from Ephesians into his confirmation students. I learned this about him at his funeral. He would recite the verse, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God,” and expect the confirmands to say “YAY RAH!” after that. He’d then finish the drill with those last two verses, “… not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” YAY RAH!

Since hearing that story, I’ve wondered why this verse was so inspiring to him and what about Martin Luther inspires other people. On the whole Lutherans seem to talk more about their founder than we Presbyterians speak of John Calvin, I think because Luther is more ingrained in the identity of that tradition. But why the “YAY RAH” on this 500th anniversary of the time Luther tacked his critique of indulgences on that Wittenburg door?

Colleges are hosting lecture series on the Reformation. Churches throughout the world are celebrating it today. People are getting really, really excited about Luther. As an example: youth pastor friend of mine in Texas is holding a “Reformation Faire” after worship today. The youth in his church are dressing up as 16th Century Germans and auctioning off beer steins! Folks are posting Facebook profile pictures with their faces encircled in the words “Reformation 500.”

So seriously, what legacy has the Protestant Reformation bequeathed us?

Put more bluntly, for a church that doesn’t observe this day annually, why should we care in 2017?

As an aside, speaking of Presbyterians, on Jeopardy last Thursday night—I didn’t watch it, but I heard about it—“What is Presbyterian?” was the correction question to the $2000 answer during Double Jeopardy. The answer was, “John Knox led the establishment of this branch of Protestantism that uses a system of elders to govern.” Guess what? Nobody got it right!

Because it’s hard to evaluated history in a vacuum, those are hard questions. And like most other events in history, the Reformation is a mixed bag.

In the positive column… this movement asserted the individual’s unmediated access to the Holy, whereas previously people could only come to God through an elaborate medieval system. Reformers challenged that corrupt system. What we take for granted is truly extraordinary; with the battle cry of Sola Scriptura the Reformation (and the Gutenberg Press) put the Bible into the hands of ordinary people and worship into the language of the people. Advancements in education, science, and the humanities also owe a huge debt to this movement. How we think about the human person shifted dramatically during and after that period. The ripple effect is hard to trace.

The negative column… however, includes several wars and the endless splintering of the church. As with many movements that begin with good intentions, the Reformation spiraled out of control. Thousands of people lost their lives in armed conflicts over these issues and Europe was thrown into turmoil. Theologically speaking, the subsequent proliferation of denominations is at least a partial results of these events of 500 years ago.The ecumenical movement has made great strides in the last generations, but the worldwide Christian Church is as divided as ever. I’ve heard that there are as many as 30,000 denominations or Christian groups on the planet

So what do we do with this heritage? What are some positive takeaways?

Theologically speaking, I think the Reformation left us with a rich understanding of God’s grace.There’s something powerful about the idea that grace, God’s favor, is a free gift available to all people without qualifier. Salvation is a gift, a gift from a God who seek us out. Period. There’s nothing we can do to earn it, buy it, deserve it, or fully comprehend it. It’s a “just because” sort of thing, a “just because” of the goodness of a loving God. What we can do, however, is live in gratitude. We can make our lives a grateful response to Christ’s gift by loving others, seeking justice, and working for peace and reconciliation. As Ephesians puts it, we were “created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” As a wise priest told me once, “Luther and Calvin took people’s eyes off heaven and to their neighbor.”

I also like to think that one thing Luther modeled in struggling with the religious authorities of his day is that no human or institution is equal to God. When systems are corrupt, people of faith ought to call that out. And also implicit in that is a need for humility, an acknowledgement that none of us has a monopoly on the truth. That’s why we Presbyterians are so big on committees by the way; we believe that no one can know the mind of God exclusively on their own, so we have to deliberate in groups.

Another strength of this Reformation legacy is the notion of reform itself. What I mean is, we are heirs to a living tradition that continually seeks to make itself relevant. There’s a Latin saying in church circles that expresses this; in English it’s “the church reformed, always reforming according to the Word of God.” We update our beliefs, in other words, with the help of the Spirit. We ought to be constantly asking ourselves if what we’re believing and what we’re doing aligns with Scripture. And, in this denomination, we believe that our understanding of Scripture shouldn’t be frozen in time, but read it with the brains that God gave us and put in conversation with what we know from academics and our own experience. That’s a gift of the Reformation.

We are in a historical moment similar to the Reformation right now. Phyllis Tickle argued in her book The Great Emergence that Christianity goes through what she calls a “rummage sale” about every 500 years in which we discard what’s no longer useful and hold onto what is. [1] We’re in the midst of a rummage sale right now in terms of the upheaval of cultural norms and the advent of world-changing technology (Luther had the printing press; we have the internet). And I don’t have to tell you that church is much, much different than what is was even 30 years ago.

Worldwide, the center of Christianity is moving from the global north to the global south. In this country the fastest growing category of the religiously affiliated is, well… people who aren’t, especially among younger generations. Things are changing dramatically and rapidly, and faith communities are having to adapt and reorient themselves to new realities.

Yet I choose to believe that in the midst of all this change, there are some exciting possibilities for followers of Jesus. As the church in this country moves from being at the center of the power structures of society to a more marginal position, we have an chance to rediscover the true source of our power, the freedom of the gospel. We’ve been entangled with Christendom, with the vestiges of Empire, for so long that the current reformation involves coming back to our radically loving roots. That’s where the word “radical” comes from, by the way, “forming the root.”

Just as the Reformation attempted to call the church back to its essentials, Jesus’ timeless teaching to love God and love neighbor is taking on fresh new meaning today.

Because of the pervasiveness of communication technology and because of the swelling of movements for social change all around us, we can be aware of the experiences of others unlike us. We are more cognizant of the suffering of others and the impact of our actions on their suffering. I’m thinking of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the #MeToo responses on social media dealing with sexual assault as just two examples. The needs and the lived experience of our neighbor is right in front of our nose in a way that it’s never been. So that’s the reformation we are in the midst of now: the Spirit is calling Christians to a deeper, bolder practice of love.

All that change sounds daunting, of course. But the one thing that does not change, 500 years ago in Germany or 500 years from now, is the enduring grace of God. That was Luther’s source of confidence and that’s our source of hope. As the writer of Ephesians put it, “You are saved by God’s grace! …God did this to show future generations the greatness of God’s grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.” The grace of Christ empowers us. That grace goes with us.

You know what I feel like saying to that?


[1] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (2012)

Featured image: painting by Wilhelm Ferdinand Pauwels (1872), Wikimedia Commons.