Reformation: hearing the words properly
[Jesus said] “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,
“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:12-19 ESV)
The account of the Lutheran Reformation can easily be unknown or ‘drowned out’ here in the UK by the ‘English Reformation’. The Lutheran context was not church organisation, a king’s marriage, international diplomacy centred in the capital city and associations of power. Rather the occasion remembered tomorrow was the posting of 95 Theses in 1517 by a theology professor who had a responsibility towards correct teaching and pastoral care and who unleashed events not planned in any way when he put quill to paper. Martin Luther, Augustinian Friar, teacher of the Bible – mainly the Old Testament – in a new university (Wittenberg) in a far flung corner in present day Germany far away from Pope or Emperor had, I believe, not much of an idea of the real ‘state of the Church’ of his day. He didn’t wake up that morning and say, ‘What will I do today? Oh, I know. I’ll split the Christian Church into many denominations and give them the argumentation to keep splitting more and more!’ The pastoral and pedagogical motive to correct, help, and reform simply didn’t see what was going to happen!
The battlelines were drawn in 1521 when Luther was excommunicated. In response, he burnt the papal document! In 1530 when Emperor Charles V is involved, the princes and Philip Melanchthon present the Augsburg Confession to show where there was agreement and where the divisions existed, it was already becoming too late to ‘turn back the clock’. Other views and reformers and reformations were happening in different countries – including here – and they were all watching and drawing on what the Lutherans were saying and doing. A Church Council was promised but didn’t eventuate for decades – religions and politics merged – there were battles – Lutherans lost – so that by 1555’s Peace of Augsburg which brokered a way forward plus an acknowledgement that a country might have different denominations of the same religion in it – the religious landscape was forever changed. In 1555 here in this land the pendulum had swung back to Roman Catholicism under Mary I but the same situation of one country and many denominations was here to stay also – formalised in the Elizabethan Settlement.
We live in this trajectory and think little that a village or town has numerous Christian denominations in it. Organisationally the Church didn’t reform – it now has a complexity and chaos about it that makes people groan in anguish. Each denomination has its own take on theology and Christian disciples follow Jesus in ways that can be different from each other just as their description of Jesus and faith and discipleship and their worship, hymnody and church polity is different. And the differences very much began with the Lutheran Reformation and the desire to clearly present the Gospel – comforting sinners by the cross of Jesus and presenting Jesus as the means of our salvation. Jesus is God for us – rather than against us – and rather than ‘waiting and seeing whether we’re good enough for him’. The Lutheran reformers promoted grace alone, faith alone, and the Bible alone – not as new things – they didn’t invent them! – but they presented Jesus, grace, faith, and God’s Word with a single goal in mind – that troubled, worried sinners could be comforted.
The Reformation spoke into a time full of good works, artwork and statues, obedience, religious piety – none of them to be sneered at – and where necessary changed or re-oriented them so that whatever we think, do, or say, as disciples of Jesus, is understood as imperfect and sinful responses to what God has done first – loved us and saved us. This truth is something we need constant teaching on – and regularly reminding – because our perspective of faith is so much shaped by our experiences. If we don’t experience something then it isn’t real. We are always in danger of letting our perspective shape our reality.
A husband and wife don’t feel nice towards each other. Are they still married? (Yes.) What finally shapes their relationship? The words they’re saying to each – their feelings towards each at any given time – or the words which declared them to be ‘husband and wife’ and the blessing God gave to them for all time? What establishes their marriage – that reality and truth – are the promises they made to each and the declaration that those promises are valid and that they are husband and wife.
We are citizens because someone says so – even to acknowledge our birth. We are students of a school, an employee of a firm, a member of a profession or the military because words have been spoken over us – and make it so. How we behave and feel about our family, our country, our job is determined by us and our choices but the first reality is given to us in words.
Why do we find this so hard to understand spiritually? So many people think, believe, and say that they are a Christian because of their choice or decision or an experience or feeling – and we can understand that – but what counts is what God says and when. That’s particularly what the Lutheran Reformation clarified – no longer good works, no longer praying to the saints, no longer fear of hell as the motivator for behaviour – this silent – and it appeared angry – God now spoke the Gospel as the crucified Jesus is presented to us. In baptism God speaks personally to us. Our sins are not minimised but forgiven. Our fears are not ignored but replaced with hope. Our wondering about who we are and what we are doing here is not ignored but answers are given.
And the reference point in all this is the Bible – God’s Word. It is a leap of faith to follow Jesus and it is a leap of faith to read the Bible and seek to understand its message. For that we need glasses or a key or a way of understanding how to read it all and that comes in the message of Law – we are sinners – and Gospel – God forgives sinners. Even this paragraph – what I’ve just said – describes our perception of things so it is often said that we should have a spiritual awakening or warming or experience to confirm God’s Word. And it is so easy for our faith to go to those moments or experiences as regard them as evidence of truth and sustenance.
However the Reformation message was one of an objective truth – that by God’s grace we are saved because of Jesus’ death for us on the cross. When people bemoan their lack of faith and that they can’t make the leap the reply is not to encourage them to jump or at least to make an attempt but to declare to them that Jesus has already died for them and if they are baptised, that he has already taken them in his hand. It is not that we hold Jesus but that he hold us. It is not that we cling to God’s Word but that God’s Word clings to us. God’s Word either stands or it doesn’t. It is either truth or a lie and our experiences don’t affect it.
When Jesus was speaking about John the Baptist he made a few observations that we can appropriate for today. That John’s message brought to an end the message about Jesus in the Law and the Prophets which he fulfils and thus for us the Old Testament is critical in our understanding of God’s Word. After John comes the message of the apostles who present the truth of Jesus’ divinity and humanity and how his disciples live in this world. Welcome to the New Testament. That means for us our final source and norm for faith is the Bible.
Another thing Jesus said was that the generation – his generation – every generation – ignores the messages given. They don’t rejoice when they should and they don’t weep when they should – assigning good for bad and vice versa. Each generation are like children stubbornly wanting to do things their own way.
And this means that no matter what the disciples of Jesus do, it will always be criticised and viewed as incorrect. Talk about grace and works slacken. Emphasise works and grace is undermined. Describe faith as intellectual and people want the experience. Present faith as experience and people cry out for substance. At some point, each person grabs hold and says, ‘Here I stand!’. It can even seem violent and in opposition to those around them but Jesus is talking more about definite action rather than violence. Where do the disciples of Jesus find their hope and security?
In Christ. In his Word over us – forgiveness, Baptism, Holy Communion, blessing. Words create reality. Words affect us, change us, challenge us, comfort us. And the Word made flesh will never stop speaking to us … and he always begins, ‘I love you’.
- Matthew 11:12 - 19