This Sunday, October 28 was Reformation Sunday, a day when Lutherans and other Protestant denominations commemorate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Notice that I said commemorate and not celebrate. A schism is never something to celebrate, even if you believe (as I do) that it was ultimately necessary. But in commemorating this day, we do celebrate reformation in the past, present, and future. So what do you see that needs reforming in you, or our church? How is God working to do it?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I wonder if he was scared as he approached the church doors. Did he have any idea what was going to happen when he left his treatise on the door of that building? Could he have known that his life was going to be in danger? That the entire continent of Europe would eventually be engulfed in chaos and war because of this one act?
But still, whatever his doubts, conscience convicted him and to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses. Ninety-five claims, ninety-five statements, about God, about the church, about human nature, about sin and forgiveness. He put them there in the hopes of starting a discussion, in the hopes of amending things in the church he thought needed to be corrected. He put them there in the hopes of reform.
And so begins the Protestant Reformation, with this dramatic act of defiance and courage. Five-hundred (and one) years later, at the end of every October, we look back on this act as the beginning of Lutheranism, when Luther broke from the Roman church and changed Christianity, and the world, forever. It’s a great moment, made to be reenacted and dramatized.
Except, in all our remembrances, and prideful celebration of this event, we can so embellish this moment that we lose sight of what actually happened. Some historians think the whole thing is an embellishment, that Luther never nailed his theses to the church door at all. That he simply put them in the mail to his bishop. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it would certainly take a lot of the drama out of the event.
One thing is certain, though. Luther wasn’t trying to start a new church. Eventually that is what happened, but that wasn’t his first goal. He wanted to reform, to change, to adapt the church that he knew and loved. It had made some errors, he thought, and through his ninety-five theses, he sought to make changes, not start over. To reform, not reinvent.
As we mark Reformation Sunday today, our focus shouldn’t be on celebrating Luther or Lutherans, but instead on the task that Luther boldly and courageously took up. On reformation. Our commemoration of this day should be more than merely praising our history. It should be earnest prayer that God would continue to reform Christ’s church. To continue to reform us.
Re-form. It’s a frightening word. Because if God re-forms the church, reshapes it, recreates it, it will not be what it was before. If God re-forms us, we will not be what we were before. And that can be a scary thought. Jesus is promising change, promising re-formation in our Gospel reading today.
He says that believing in him, and therefore knowing the truth, will set you free. The response is almost comical: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!” How quickly have the people forgotten their time in Egypt. Their time in Babylon.
But oh, how quickly we do it, too. “We are Americans and have never been slaves to anyone!” Well, at least some of us haven’t. “We are descendants of Luther, and have no need to be reformed, no need to be made free! We did that 500 years ago!”
But if we can just see the truth, we will see how much we are in need of freedom and release. That we need to be made free from our selfishness. We need to be made free from our prejudices. We need to be made free from our fears. We need to be made free from our self-doubt, from our self-criticisms. We need to be made free from the ways that we constantly judge others and ourselves. From the ways that we seek to justify ourselves and our actions.
The church, too, is in need of freedom. Freedom from an inward focus. Freedom from tradition for tradition’s sake. Freedom from worry and anxiety about the future.
Re-formation is a scary business. If the Son sets us free, as Jesus promises, and if the same Christ makes us into God’s way of righteousness, as Paul promises, and if God re-writes our hearts as Jeremiah promises, who then will we be? Are we ready to be something new and different?
The freedom that Jesus promises is not just freedom from things, but also freedom for. It is not just freedom from the things that will hold us back, but freedom for a new way of being. Freedom from self-doubt and judgment means freedom for relationships with God and others based on love and mutuality. Freedom from prejudice means freedom for community and care. Freedom from selfishness means freedom for others. Freedom from worry and anxiety means freedom for building the kingdom of God. It means freedom to experiment, freedom to try new things, freedom to fail.
To bring it back to Martin Luther on this Reformation day, and the central focus of the Reformation found in our Romans reading. “A person is justified by faith, apart from works of the law.” What does that mean? It means that it’s not up to us. There’s nothing we can do, or not do, to earn God’s love. We can’t earn it, because we already have it. And when we are freed from worrying about ourselves, we are free to spend our time and energy in care of neighbor.
What do you need to be freed from? What is holding you back, what is not letting you be your whole self, what is keeping you being everything God intended? And the second question: what do you need to be freed for? Who might you be if God re-creates your heart? How might you use your gifts and talents and blessings to serve God’s people and creation?
On this Reformation Sunday, let us be mindful, not only of our past, but also of our future. Let us remember with thanksgiving the ways that God has reformed and recreated the church in the past, and let us pray earnestly that God might re-form us today. That we might be a living church, renewed and recreated to do God’s work in this world. That we might be renewed people, loved by God and freed by God to share that love with all we meet. Amen.