Reformation Sunday October 31, 2021
Practice What You Preach: Reforming the Church in the Holy Spirit
There is a lot of talk in the world these days about revolution. A revolution is a revolt against established authorities and institutions with the purpose of overturning them and replacing them. History is littered with revolutions; the signs of revolution, spilled blood and wholesale destruction, can be found in every time and in every place. History is littered with revolutions, but it is not littered with successful revolutions. Most revolutions end in spilled blood and shattered cities because destruction is the central goal of revolution, and the authorities and institutions against which revolution is aimed fight back, seeking to preserve what revolutionaries intend to destroy. There is, also, a third reason revolutions fail. They fail in the long run because the initial appearance of revolutionary success wipes out the victim pool of their violence, so revolutionaries run out of people to destroy and turn against one another. The French Revolution was the perfect example of this. Eventually Madame La Guillotine ran out of aristocratic heads to separate from aristocratic bodies, and factions of the French Revolution turned against one another, feeding yet more bodies to the blade of the guillotine, leaders and common folk alike. The French Revolution lasted a decade, and at its end over 17,000 people had been executed by guillotine in Paris alone. This alone should bring us to a deep appreciation of what it is that our colonial forefathers and foremothers accomplished in that first, and the second, war against Britain. There was blood and destruction throughout the American Revolution, but it was not wholesale and, in the end, what was accomplished was the creation of a new republic which offered a true liberty to all of its citizens, although admittedly, that took years to extend to all people, female as well as male, renters as well as owners, black as well as white. But that Republic was established and grew, for its principles, beginning with, “All men are created equal,” could not be denied their full expression.
The American Revolution was atypical because revolutions usually fall back into barbarity, meaning cruel, uncivilized behavior, because the intent of the revolution is to replace the old norms of civilization with new, vaguely defined norms. The revolutionaries insist at the point of the sword that these new principles, all of which sound very pretty, and new traditions, which they say will elevate the common man, and new structures of power, that invite the powerless in to participate in civic life, will benefit everyone, especially the poor. But that promise of newness is a lie, for what happens instead is a messy devolution into barbarity and the bodies pile up. Violating those norms is easy, since they are made up along the way and supported by those in power however temporarily so. The Church, with its emphasis on the practice of a mercy like that of Jesus is the first to be shut up, and so mercy itself becomes a victim of revolutionary violence, and all that is let is a merciless, hateful, harassment of everyone.
You’re not wrong to see indications of this merciless, hateful harassment around you today, especially on the internet. And you are most assuredly not wrong to shrink away from such behavior.
All this is to say that we observe on this day a reformation, not a revolution. Martin Luther’s call to the people of his day was not about destroying old institutions and authorities so that he might build new on their remains. Rather, like many a church man or woman before him, Luther’s intent was to go back to the foundations of our faith that our faith and the Church that fosters it might be restored to what it had previously been. If we break down the word reformation into its three parts, re, form, and tion, what we get is a word that means the action of re-forming. Luther intended to form the Church again by taking it back to its beginning, to Jesus Christ and the Word of God. So, on October 31, 1517, when Luther nailed the 95 theses on the Wittenberg Church door, he intended to begin a conversation within the Church that focused on the grace of God as given us through the atoning death of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, on the cross.
He did not intend a revolution.
To be fair to Luther’s critics, both the Roman Catholic establishment and the far-out arms of what we call the Radical Reformation, Luther’s Reformation did not go in all ways as intended. There was violence, there was blood shed as civic leaders and enthusiasts used his cry of ad fontes, or back to the beginning, to further their own political fortunes or ideologies. Faith is always in danger of being misused for personal or political gain, or loss. As St. Paul tells us in the text from Romans, all human beings “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God….” Luther did not rail against the Church of his day because it adhered too closely to old traditions, but rather that it had instituted new traditions, traditions that were not founded in God’s Word. Sinners as they were, they created a new Gospel that depended not on the grace of God but on the funds in their bank accounts and in pious and often painful acts.
Luther watched the people of his congregation, remember, he was a working pastor, grow increasingly anxious as they sold their goods to “redeem” a loved one from purgatory or grieved because they had nothing to sell. So, he preached as Augustine preached and as St. Paul before him preached. And that preaching is this: that we are all of us, “justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation through His blood, to be received by faith.” Or, maybe more simply, we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We cannot save ourselves, but rather we trust Christ for our salvation.
This is the truth that sets us free, and that the enemies of Jesus refused to see and for which they killed Him. But God’s own truth cannot be murdered, it lives, as does our God eternally. So He asks us to abide in Him, that we might live in His grace and trust it. But, we all sin and we all fall short of the grace of God, and rather than abide in the steadfast grace of God we choose to depend on our own efforts and our own goods to save us. What we do as individuals the church in its local form may do as well, trusting in fundraisers and law to save rather than abiding together in Christ.
And this is why we continue to observe Reformation Sunday, not to stick it to modern Roman Catholics or Pentecostals, but because we all of us, individually and together, come to a point where we need to go back to the beginning, to God’s work through Jesus Christ as described in His Word, that we might be re-formed in His image, to the glory of His Name, not ours.