Reformation 500, Why it Matters, and What it Means to Us
A Homily for Reformation Sunday
October 29, 2017
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Today is commonly called Reformation Sunday, marking the Sunday before Reformation Day. As you are likely to know, Reformation Day is the Anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses, a list of frustrations, criticisms and complaints with the medieval theology of the Roman Catholic Church of his time. He took this action on the eve of All Saints day. His protest would spark a revolution with both positive and negative consequences for the entire western Church.
If you are visiting, I want to say – that I would normally focus on one of the passages that we read today and preach on either a portion of it or the whole thing, that we might know Christ more deeply and our theology would be biblical. Today, as it the Sunday before the 500th anniversary of such a monumental day, I feel it’s important to talk briefly about it and then what it means for us as Christians.
It is the negative fallout from Luther’s actions that make me hesitant to celebrate the Reformation. Ultimately, to blindingly celebrate The Reformation is to celebrate a divorce. It is to say, it is good that we are ignoring Christ’s prayer in John 17 – that we all may be one. Certainly, the fractured state of the church is a point that our savior feels sorrow over. I read once that there are over 9,000 protestant denominations worldwide, driving down the street makes it easy to believe this number.
The reformation opened a floodgate that allowed fractions and schisms to occur. However, this reforming was desperately needed. While Luther himself didn’t wish for the church to schism, he knew that a change was desperately needed. The Church needed to return to ancient, Biblical Christianity, for she had wandered far from this and into superstitious beliefs.
Perhaps the biggest, and most well-known problem was the selling of indulgences, and the belief in purgatory in the first place. First the idea that your soul would tormented for a certain amount of time in order that you might be made worthy of heaven was prevalent by the time selling of indulgences came along. The idea that we are called to dwell in the grace of Christ, and it is his grace, through the Holy Spirit that is making us perfect, that is drawing us into a relationship with God, and is making us ready for heavenly participation was all but forgotten. Instead, the church taught of purgatorial fires to make us perfect for God. It was then that the church thought, “hey, we could make money by giving a false hope through the selling of indulgences,” a far cry from the gift of free grace found in Christ. To those who bought these indulgences it was promised that their loved ones would have to spend less time in the purgatorial fires.
It is easy to see why Luther felt the need to push for the reformation. Yet, instead of having their consciences stirred, those who were in control were angered. They excommunicated Luther and soon after more excommunications and even what amounted to holy wars followed. It was a bloody and sorrowful time in Europe and it opened the door to allow people to think “hey, if I disagree with someone, I can just take my toys and start another denomination.” We even see this attitude within our small branch of Christendom. Men and women more often preferring their pride over unity in Christ. Preferring to fight, as opposed to submitting to good order.
As an aside, while getting frustrating and leaving often seems easier, unless some heresy is being practiced and not being repented of, it is far better to stay. To stick it out in love. To stay and gently correct, to love well, is a far better for our soul and for the community as a whole. Unfortunately for Luther, he was not given this choice. His choice was violate his conscience or take being excommunicated.
Despite the negatives, it also set to reorient Christendom so that we become more intently focused on making out faith grounded in the Biblical doctrine as is set forth by the historical creeds of the church. The church became more aware of the need to introduce Christ to the laity, to help men and women come to know God.
This desire to help Christians know God opened the way for the translating of not only the scriptures into the tongue of the people, but also the liturgies. Before Luther came along we worshiped in Latin, and there was a beauty in that commonality, but the uneducated person hadn’t a clue what was going on. In England, the reformation took a little longer to catch fire. In 1526 the first readily available English translations was produced by William Tyndale. While he was persecuted for his efforts, it wouldn’t be long before the English reformation was set into motion. In the English reformation, the first two Liturgies to be translated were the Litany and the office of Holy Communion. I was briefly tempted to ask Bishop Grundorf if we could use the original litany and communion service for our Reformation day celebration, but then I looked at the service and realized how incredibly difficult to follow it would have been. If you are curious about this, I have printed off a copy of the 1544 Litany and 1548 Holy Communion service for you to look at. While they are hard for us to follow, it was revolutionary for the people of that age and it set in place the next step.
After the translation of the Litany and Communion service into English, an entire prayer book was created for use within the English church, inside this book all the services needed for the life of the church were available. This move revolutionized worship in England, it was the first time that there was an entire service book available, that included everything a priest would need to serve his church. It made the service uniform through the land, and was in the native tongue. From this unity came the name “The Book of Common Prayer,” for the prayers were now held in common for all Christians in the land.
Books, upon books have been written about the reformation, and so I could go on, and on about it. However, having given you a little history, there are three important points that I would like to touch on today. First, it is always good to look back and remember where we came from, to be warned of the mistakes made along the way, so that we will be wise for the future. Second, we need to be aware that the church is always in need of reformation. Perhaps not the local body in this moment in time but we as a community need to be constantly looking at our hearts and soul of our community and asking ourselves where we need to improve, where we have failed to be Christ’s faithful witness and how we can better serve the king of kings. Finally, we as individuals are constantly being reformed.
We look back so that we can remember to avoid the pitfalls that our brothers and sister in Christ have fallen into. We are reminded to stick to the old paths as we talked about last week. To avoid vain superstitions, to trust in Christ alone, and to not add more to the burden of those who are desiring to walk with God.
So, as the reformers and the many before and after them who did not err from the orthodox truth we continually run back to scripture, searching it for the truth of Christ. We devote ourselves to reading it, to asking questions of it, to looking and learning about what it means to follow Christ.
We commit ourselves to live in the faith and grace that has been freely given to us, growing constantly in the Holy Spirit. That we may trust in the Lord to be our provision. The revolution that happened in the reformation that opened the doors for us to harken back to ancient Christianity, we must be grateful, and we must rejoice for that.
Next, the church is in constant need of reformation. Many of us have left other churches because a false Gospel was being preached. Whether it be a gospel that preaches a political agenda, hoping for a utopia in the here and now, or a gospel that demands works righteousness, that says – you need Christ, plus something else. When we wander from the Biblical truths, it is a thing of grace to find ourselves being corrected, that we may return to the faith that has been passed down from generation to generation.
So, we are called as a body to be harkening back to the true catholic faith, that is the faith that has been believed by all Christians, in all places, in all times. Not adding more to it than is proclaimed in scriptures, but constantly seeking to dwell deeper and deeper in the love and mercy of God.
When the church fails to teach people to do this, she needs reformation, she needs redirection so that she may be focused yet again on her savior. In honor of reformation day, and all the reformers from time past, time present and in the times to come we will pray the prayer church found in our prayer book at the end of the service. In this prayer, we ask that the Lord purifies, directs, reforms, establishes, provides, and unifies His church. This is our constant prayer for both our local body of believers and all of those in who are devotedly following Christ around the world. This is the desire of the Lord.
Finally, each of us, individually needs reformation. We all like sheep have gone astray, setting ourselves up as our own gods, delighting in our sin over the grace we find in Christ. It is for this reason that we confess every time we gather as a body, that we tell God of our sins. It is for this reason that we have the office of confession where you can come and discuss the hurts you caused yourselves and others. We confess, repent and turn back to God.
It is the Holy Spirit that is constantly reforming our hearts and minds, constantly drawing us closer to God. It is also for this reason that we read either the ten commandments, that is the Decalogue or the summary of the law before Holy Communion and the long exhortation before Morning Prayer. These remind us that we were called to holiness, and show us how we have wandered and strayed.
So, we check in on ourselves regularly. Praying for God to work in our hearts, praying to see the sins we didn’t see last week, that we may repent this week and grow in our walk with him. This isn’t always the easiest of calls, but it is a good call. For when we turn again to God we are growing to know him who has called and redeemed us.
While, some of the fruit of The Reformation has been tragic and sad, it was necessary, for it helped the church flee from superstitious belief, and it renewed the church’s faith in Christ alone as her savior. We remember that day 500 years ago, and we pray for a constant reformation in the church, not for division, but that we would be striving for deeper, truer unity, proclaiming a pure gospel message. Not that we would be looking for something new, but that she would be returning time, and again to the ancient truths the fathers trusted, and that we too would be constantly growing in that Biblical truth. And so, let us pray this week that our church, our hearts and minds would be reformed in the grace of Christ for an ever deeper walk with Him.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.