What is the Reformation, Anyway? • June 11, 2017
This sermon is part of Good Shepherd’s summer worship series Reformation Then & Now: Why It Still Matters.
Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Have you ever played the game dominos? Not the pizza, the game. Whenever I’m in El Salvador or Mexico, I’m always intrigued by folks that I see sitting around a small table playing a unique little game called dominos. It always seems like a gentle, mostly peaceful game.
My entire experience with Dominos, though, can be summed up in times as a young boy stacking dominos side-by-side with my friends. We would knock the first one over and watch the chain reaction that would make the others fall too. This version of dominos, as I remember it, was anything but gentle or peaceful. A bit like the Reformation actually.
Last week, Pastor Pam invited us into our summer worship series on the Reformation by closing her sermon with the reminder that “We are gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit.” She challenged us to think about how the “Holy Spirit is inspiring and empowering us today.” That’s a great thought to carry with us throughout worship today too as we ask the question “What is the Reformation?”
In the words of Luther Seminary Professor Rolf Jacobson, Reformation is “A revolution within Christianity that started in 1517 and is either still happening or needs to happen again, depending on whom you talk to.” (Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms, pg. 140)
When I think about the Reformation – I think of two things.
First…the event that happened on Halloween in 1517. An event that we commemorate the 500th anniversary of this year. Second…I think of a movement within the Christian church that continues today. In other words, Reformation is an ongoing, never-ending renewal and reform of the church, not just a one-time event.
A few years ago, Augsburg Fortress – one of the ELCA’s publishing houses – released a great little book called The Lutheran Handbook.
The title of one chapter in this book is, “Five Things You Should Know About the Lutheran Reformation.” These five things, according to the author, are…
- Most people in medieval times had low expectations. They didn’t know anything about advanced medicine, modern psychology, or what it was like to live in a democracy. They didn’t expect to live very long. They didn’t think they had much power over their lives. And they didn’t think being an “individual” was very important.
- The “Lutheran” reformers were Catholic. The reformers wanted to make changes within the one Christian church in Europe, but they wanted to stay Catholic. None of them ever expected that their actions would lead to more than 30,000 different Christian denominations that we have today. All claiming to be the one true church.
- People in medieval times weren’t allowed to choose their own religion. You could believe whatever you wanted, but you could only practice the faith your prince or king chose. After the Reformation, only the regions whose princes had signed the Augsburg Confession could practice any faith other than Catholicism.
- Martin Luther wasn’t the only reformer. Luther wanted the church to rediscover the good news of Jesus that creates and restores faith. Other reformers fought for changes like the separation of church and state, a mystical relationship with God, better-educated priests, and more moral leaders in the church to name just a few issues that arose from the reformers.
- Luther and his colleagues cared about what you hear in church today. They taught pastors how to tell the difference between law and gospel so the Word of God would hit home and create faith. This skill has been taught to Lutheran pastors ever since.
(The Lutheran Handbook, pg. 58-59)
Now, if you’ve heard of the 95 theses before today, good for you. That’s outstanding. My guess is that there are many of us in worship who have never heard the term 95 theses before today. And if we have, we might not actually know why or when or where or what they even are. Or why they have any importance to our lives and faith today.
It’s important to note, and as you can see from the insert in your bulletin, the 95 theses is not a list of things Luther didn’t like about the church. The 95 theses are an academic argument focused on one specific topic – indulgences.
Just like memories of dominos falling as a kid while playing in my backyard, Luther’s 95 theses at the start of something that became known as the Reformation caused dominos to fall. And in many ways, I believe God continues to call the church toward reform that will cause more dominoes falling. Because things like indulgences are still present in the Christian church today.
As I shared earlier, Professor Jacobson’s definition of the Reformation is “A revolution within Christianity that started in 1517 and is either still happening or needs to happen again, depending on whom you talk to.”
In 2017, we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the start of this reform movement. I’d argue that this reform didn’t begin in 1517 after all. It began with Jesus’ instructions to us in the Gospel of Saint Matthew.
Jesus sends his first disciples – and you and me today – into the world to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
And as we do this reformation work, Jesus promises to be with us always, to the end of the age.
So in light of Professor Jacobson’s definition of reformation – I think it all started long before 1517 and I think it’s still happening in 2017. And you and you and you and you and me and all of God’s children who are or will ever claim to be followers of Jesus are invited to join the movement into that kind of reformation every day.
As we were reminded of last week, the Holy Spirit is still inspiring and empowering us. And I believe with everything that I am as one of your pastors that, because of that truth, the world – and each one of us – will be transformed and blessed if we answer Jesus’ reforming call. Send us Lord Christ is my prayer for us today. Amen.