Today is Reformation Sunday, the day when we celebrate that 499 years ago, Martin Luther pounded his 95 Theses into the door at the church in Wittenberg, launching a series of events that ultimately led to the church in Germany (and eventually several other countries, including England) breaking with the church in Rome.
Except he didn’t actually pound them into the door. He sent them to the church authorities in an attempt to start a conversation about ways in which the institutional church was failing to live into the freedom of the gospel of Christ. If he posted them at all, only those who could read Latin would have understood what was written there.
He was not declaring independence from the Church of Rome; he was just trying to get the Church to look honestly at itself. Luther was acting as a prophet in the real sense of the word—not one who predicts the future but one who has the courage to name the hard truth about the present. He was naming the places where the church was getting it wrong, so that they could put the energy into getting it right. He was trying to call the church into self-reflection and assessment. He was trying to call the church into a better understanding of itself and of God. He was trying make the Church see that no one earns God’s love, no one buys their way into eternal life, no one manipulates God into doing things their own way. He was not trying to divide the church because he knew that the Church is the Body of Christ, and any attempt to be separate would be to tear at that Body, causing pain to the very heart of God.
The Church split anyway, because those in authority weren’t ready to hear the truth about its failures to be what God wanted it to be. And so we need to remember that Reformation Sunday isn’t entirely a day of celebration. We also need to remember that we are not living into the fullness of the kingdom yet. There are still places of division, still places where our disagreements get in the way and we hurt each other rather than build each other up.
In the Methodist seminary I attended, I learned church history from a Lutheran. One of the things that sticks with me is something he said over and over in the course of that semester, something we need to remember today: “Don’t be fooled, folks. We’re in the middle of a reformation RIGHT NOW.”
It’s easy to celebrate something that happened 500 years ago; a little less fun if we acknowledge that God is pulling and pushing and reshaping us even now. The Reformation never ended, because God never gave up on us. God is still working on us. And so the reformation needs to continue. We’re not done yet. The kingdom of God is near, but it is not yet here.
What does that mean? What does Reformation mean? I wrote about this a little bit in my newsletter article this week (extra copies can be found somewhere around here). Reformation is tied up with repentance—not just in the sense of admitting when we are getting things wrong, but also in the sense of ‘rethinking’—always being willing to be in conversation with God about what God needs us to be NOW. What worked in previous generations may not be the best approach for this one. It doesn’t mean we were wrong then. It doesn’t mean we are failing now. It just means that we have to be able to trust the Holy Spirit to guide us further along this path toward the kingdom.
We need to continue to ask ourselves hard questions. Are we too comfortable with the status quo? Are we afraid of change? Do we fear the loss that comes with change more than we trust God to bring something new and good and beautiful into being? Are we still walking the way with Jesus, or have we become a little too comfortable with the way things have “always” been?
Anytime the church becomes static it loses ground. We are NOT SUPPOSED to be too comfortable. We are not supposed to be too settled into the status quo. We are not supposed to be entirely happy with the way things are right now, because the way things are right now do not always provide justice and equality for all people. The way things are right now are not the way God wants them to be forever. We are constantly being called to examine what we do to bring the world closer to the kingdom. We are constantly being challenged to accept the transformation of God so that we become more and more the people God created us to be.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers a vision of what we could be. We could be free. Free from the power of death to make us afraid to live. Free from the power of sin to make us afraid to act. Martin Luther wrote to his friend Philip Melancthon those astonishing words—“Sin boldly!”—not as permission to do whatever we want, but to take risks for God, with the reassurance that God would rather have us sin boldly than do nothing at all. Act and hope that it’s the right thing—and if it’s wrong, trust that God’s grace and mercy will reach us and grant us forgiveness. Ground yourself in love of God and neighbor—and then DO something. Don’t be afraid. God will work through your efforts to bring about some good, even if you don’t get it quite right.
After church we will gather downstairs for a Ministry Fair—a chance for you to find out different ways of being involved in the life of this congregation beyond Sunday morning worship. It’s a way of approaching stewardship that isn’t asking you for more money, but asking you to roll up your sleeves and dive into the ongoing work of reformation. I ask you to seriously consider signing up for something you haven’t tried, or tried a long time ago. Give it a chance. Give God a chance to reshape you, to reform you into a person for whom that ministry fits. Take a risk.
Further, we have the promise that God is always trying to write the law on our hearts—to make that love so much a part of us that it will guide all our actions without us having to fret and fuss and wonder if we’ve gotten it right or not. We will not fear, we will just love. Without limits, without expectations, without boundaries. We will learn to love every person we encounter the same way we love God. Because that’s what God created us for—to open the gates to God’s kingdom wider and wider, making it possible for more and more people to come in and experience the grace and mercy and love and forgiveness of God.
This is what we celebrate on Reformation Sunday: that we are willing to risk our whole selves to let God continue to reshape us into the people God wants us to be. We celebrate that we are free—free to make mistakes. God will still love us. And God will continue to work on us, the way a potter works on clay, reshaping and remolding and reforming us into something that looks more and more like Jesus.