Sunday, October 29, 2017

Reformation Sunday

Romans 6
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with,[a] that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

When that time machine finally comes online, I’m going to have a hard time deciding where to go first.

Amsterdam in 1635 perhaps, to meet Rembrandt and Saskia, spend time in the studio, maybe suggest he spend less and save a few guilders for later on.

Perhaps London, 1560 and the court of Elizabeth I. Watch her turn away dukes and princes who, in seeking her hand, thought she might share power with a man.

Or London in 1755, to meet Dr. Johnson in a pub or a coffee shop and talk about his new dictionary. Perhaps he could share some of his more clever definitions, like ‘Oatmeal, a food suitable for horses and the Scottish.’

Or maybe my time travel plans could be more modest, say going back two weeks, to the glorious height of second summer, not two months ago to the sad excuse for a summer.

And this week, of course, travel to Wittenberg in 1517, to meet a 34 year-old professor of theology from a small regional university who was about to change history with a list of 95 complaints. I might travel to his trial in 1521, known to historians as the Diet of Worms, but that’s just gross.

Pity the poor preachers this week. Only some of us are endlessly fascinated by church history, and the rest are struggling today to say something about Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Some are dipping into old textbooks, some have read and reread Wikipedia, and some have opted to sing all the verses of “A Mighty Fortress” and eliminate the sermon all together.

Here, of course, we’re trying to do three Sundays at once, with the sacrament of baptism, and our 196th anniversary, and that 500 thing people are marking this week. So how do you bring these three Sunday sermons together in a single 45 minute sermon? (sorry, that should read 15 minute sermon). You preach Paul.

St. Paul, who inspired Luther to write the word sola (alone) in the margin of his Bible (“The righteous shall live by faith alone”) was both architect of the Christian faith and the place reformers whenever they needed inspiration and meaning.

You will recall that when John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed (on May 24, 1738 at about 8.45 pm) he was listening to someone read aloud Luther’s preface to the Book of Romans. In other words, Paul inspires Luther, who inspires Wesley, who inspires the Methodists, who inspire the good people of Weston to build a log church on this spot 196 years ago. And thank God they did.

So what was Paul saying that changed young Martin and led to the revolution we mark today? Aside from the famous marginalia and the righteous living by faith alone (1.17), Romans provides ample guidance for those like Luther who make the transition from fearing God and God’s judgment, to recognizing God’s desire to save us from ourselves. And the reasoning begins with baptism:

3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Death and new life. Rebirth at baptism and raised to new life in Christ. Reading Paul, it sometimes seems he makes things unnecessarily complicated. In fact, when you break it down into smaller, bite-sized pieces, the clarity and the logic of his argument comes through.

At baptism, you (symbolically) go beneath the water and die with Christ.
Emerging from the water, you are raised with Christ, just as Christ was raised at this resurrection.
When we died with Christ, we died to sin, we’re no longer slaves to sin, and we are set free from sin.

And Luther, making his own summary, takes a far more personal approach. He wrote: “Drown me and throttle me, dear Lord, and henceforth I will gladly die to sin with thy dear son.” And why was he so anxious to welcome this death to sin, and embrace God’s grace? Because, he said, it’s the “death of death, the sin of sin, the poison of poison, and the imprisoning of imprisonment.” (Barth, Romans, p. 194)

The intensity of these words help us remember that behind the reformer, behind the small-town professor willing to challenge the power of Rome, is a (formerly) troubled soul who had to be reconciled to God before the rest of the story could unfold.

And like Wesley, it was a near-death experience that reinforced this fear of God, and his sense of inadequacy when compared to the saints of the church. It would take the urging of a mentor, and his own close reading of Paul and the Gospels to rediscover that his life wasn’t defined by every sin and slight, and he wasn’t being monitored by an angry God intent on cataloging every sin committed. Rather, he learned (and then taught) that true repentance didn’t come through penance and punishment, but a change of heart. It led him to write these words, words that Wesley heard that night at Aldersgate:

Faith is a living, unshakeable confidence in God's grace; it is so certain, that someone would die a thousand times for it. This kind of trust in and knowledge of God's grace makes a person joyful, confident, and happy with regard to God and all creatures. This is what the Holy Spirit does by faith. Through faith, a person will do good to everyone without coercion, willingly and happily; he will serve everyone, suffer everything for the love and praise of God, who has shown him such grace.


I would end here, but I think we still have time to recall what will surely go down as the most boring children’s moment in the history of children’s moments, the tree-legged stool. Shouldn’t kids be excited to learn that the Reformation is like a three-legged stool? Shouldn’t we get out our imaginary three-legged stools every October and rehearse how nimble they are, how the three-legged stool serves in both the milking barn and the theological college as a means to save yourself in a time of trouble?

You see, the three-legged stool of the Reformation defines us, constitutes our ecclesiastical DNA, and remains the place we return whenever we seem to be losing our way. The first leg is there in Romans 1, “the righteous shall live my faith” to which Luther added “alone.” We can’t earn our salvation, it is a gift, freely given.

The second leg is the priesthood of all believers, another Lutheran gift, that I’m not in the intermediary or the intercessor, or some kind of conduit to the Most High. We are all priests, meaning we all have to take faith seriously and we all have a direct relationship to the loving God we serve. From our Presbyterian tradition I’m the teaching elder, in a congregation with many elders.

The final leg, the one we point to on our own anniversary, is the freedom and the independence of the kirk (meaning the congregation). This church, and the elders that lead the church, are responsible for the spiritual direction of this place, the leaders we choose, the form that worship takes, and (most importantly) the spiritual formation of the next generation of believers in the place.

It is a blessing to worship freely, to serve one another as priests and pastors, and to know that we are saved by the grace of God alone. May the grace of Christ, the saving acts of God, and the power of the Spirit continue to surround us, now and ever, Amen.


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