Observing the Reformation

October 26, 2014



Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
(Revelation 14:6,7 ESV)

As 2017 draws closer – apparently a 500th anniversary has more emotive power than a 497th – there is an increasing awareness in Christian circles – especially but not only Lutheran – that the Reformation is something to focus on, attend to, ‘use’ in some way. Just as there is no Lutheran Pope or Lutheran Archbishop of Canterbury – no central Lutheran organisation – and the Lutheran Church is found in many countries and in many countries there are Lutheran churches with varying degrees of relationships – so there is no one protocol officer saying what should be done about the Festival of the Reformation this year or any year.

So the Lutheran Church of Australia began in 2008 a Luther Decade publishing theological articles each year on a different Luther ‘theme’ – this year it’s ‘Luther and politics’. The LCMS together with the SELK are busy working on the Wittenberg Project – the restoration of the Old Latin School next to the town church in Wittenberg into a facility for travellers and students to be opened in 2017. The Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity last year produced a 100 page book ‘From Conflict to Communion’ looking at a common commemoration in 2017 and addressing the issues of the Reformation in the 21st century. Here in the UK the two indigenous British Lutheran churches meet at least annually and I think it is fair to say that they agree that ‘something should be done’!

But do you start with a cheer or a ‘woe’? With sack cloth and ashes or a brass band? If the Reformation is a cause for celebration – is it muted and reserved or high five celebratory when groups who have mutually condemned each other in the past are together – and whose formal relationship is officially at some distance? No Lutheran group represents all Lutherans – globally we’ve had a fractious history among ourselves – and despite the signing of the ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ in Augsburg in 1999 by the LWF, many Lutheran churches believe more work needs to done. Similarly the Roman Catholic Church still officially in its response to JDDJ holds that some of the Council of Trent’s condemnations are not removed yet as there are still divergencies that are more than just matters of language or emphasis but are in substance about such things as the teaching of ‘saint and sinner’ – which is a hallmark of justification.1

The history of the Reformation is literally in the eye of the beholder – or maybe I should say ‘in the ear of the hearer’. After all we are talking about messages – messages from God it was claimed – preaching and teaching to be sure – church admin will always try and claim God’s imprimatur – and fortunately God’s Word was still read in worship. The words speak but the speaker, context and situation also determine how they are heard and that includes the language itself.

And so our 16th century Reformation sound bytes might be:
As soon as the gold in the casket rings; the rescued soul to heaven springs (Johann Tetzel).
For we hold that a man is justified by faith alone apart from works of law (Romans 3:28 Luther translation).
Which do you follow? Which reflect God’s Word? That is the challenge a hearer has all the time, working out how to hear – whether to believe and trust the speaker, the message, both. How you hear determines how you behave.
We might not use those words – Tetzel’s version of the message has been discredited today and while indulgences are still part of the Roman Catholic Church, the concept of sale is definitely prohibited. Many Lutherans squirm at Luther’s translation adding ‘alone’ to the verse in Romans but happily mention the solas
1 Samiec (2014) Reflections on ‘Conflict to Communion’ – a paper presented to Churches Together in England associated with the Lutheran Church – Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone – and of course ‘glory to God alone’ especially for all you musicians.

Both these messages reflect the story of people and God – how we live in this world – what we believe about the next. Whom do you believe?

The issue has always been about who is the subject and the object – is this story about us and what we’re doing or need to do or about God and what he is doing? Of course the answer is that we need to hear both aspects but in the grand narrative of a complete story. And if you ever wanted to hear a grand narrative then you could read the whole Bible or a much shorter version is the last book of the Bible – Revelation – that presents visual theology in the apocalyptic genre – to comfort and bless the hearers. God knows what is going on – yes, in this world there are all sorts of troubles – creatures like horsemen, dragon, serpent and beasts from the sea and from the earth and there places such cities on earth, the heavenly realm, Babylon, and there are breaking seals, blowing of trumpets, pouring of bowls, and pits and second deaths and a new heaven and new earth, a heavenly Jerusalem. This story tells the present and the past and the hope for the future – for the scenes, like the tolling of a bell, echo the same message – that God is victorious and sin, death, and the power of the serpent and his hordes never have the final say; that Jesus who was dead is alive and stands among the lampstands – with his people – who are called to live with him, to be faithful and to trust him. And such calls and comfort are made precisely because this is hard to do!

Our default position as human beings – our experience of life – is ‘me first’ – where everything is filtered through our senses, our sense of self, our perspective – and we want life on our terms – and our relationships likewise (though of course we know about ‘give and take’ – so we’ll compromise at times but they’ve got to give us something otherwise why be in them?). And we can even have a being called God who by definition is more everything than us in our lives, provided he knows his place, maybe the cosmic butler role or the genie when in trouble. The universe that is us is very small and ultimately lonely and in the big scheme of things very fleeting – the flickering of a candle. But it is ours. And God knows what we have done to ourselves and yet he is faithful in creation – the world still spins – and in rescue – a plan set in motion that is beyond us that focuses on his Son, revealed to be Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth who was crucified on a cross. Sadly the number of crucifixions on this planet are unknown but this one crucifixion about 2000 years ago in Jerusalem defies all our logic and reason and brings about God’s reconciliation, rescue, and redemption of people, of us, of you.

By the light of Jesus’ empty tomb your universe got a whole lot bigger and each day in this world can still have joys and sorrows, birth and death, peace and war, justice and tyranny but now we have meaning and purpose – creativity and joy – to be loved by God himself – that is the eternal gospel – the first message – God loves us – and has made it possible for us to live with him – and then hopefully with each other.

Do we reply with a cheer or a woe? In whose story, in whose universe do we live and teach? The one that has life is the one that has a cross clearly marked next to us, or on the horizon, or in the sky – it’s your picture – the story and the living is always about or under a cross – and the man whose scars we will see one day – God who still uses words, water, bread and wine to come to us and give us life.

We come here – maybe for a reformation – I suspect we all need one in some area of our life – what will that do to your behaviour in the coming week? – to hear again and meet the Word made flesh – to hear his story and to add ours as well. And this encounter is real whether we believe it or not we are affected by being here – hopefully strengthened, maybe wrestling and struggling more, we’re not all the same – but then we leave here to continue this story – living it out in our relationships and when the opportunity presents itself – and sometimes we need to take the initiative – we also tell the story in ways that will be heard by a world full of tiny universes trying get through another week.





Bible References

  • Revelation 14:6 - 7