A New Reformation
John 8:31-36; Matthew 22:34-40
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Sermon A New Reformation
Good morning. A couple weeks ago, I shared a story with you about my trip to Germany—a trip to the heart of the Protestant Reformation. I was really moved by that trip. As I reflect on that trip, the history of the place, and this moment in history, I believe it’s time we had a new reformation. Maybe that’s a little bit over the top or even arrogant.
Who am I to call for a new Reformation?
Then again, who was Martin Luther?
In 1517, Luther was simply an obscure German monk. He was a theology professor at the University of Wittenberg. The university was founded in 1502; it was very new. This wasn’t one of the great intellectual capitals of Europe, and Luther hadn’t published anything that was particularly noteworthy. Wittenberg wasn’t the place and Luther wasn’t the person who ought to have started the Reformation—one of the most important events in western history—nor did Luther intend to do so.
On October 31st, 1517, Luther posted a list of 95 disputations, 95 theses, for his theology students to discuss. It is said that he nailed this list to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. When we hear this story five hundred years later, it sounds like something bold, something earth-shattering. It wasn’t.
All of the classes at Wittenberg University were taught at the Castle Church. Professors posted notices for students on that door. It was routine. Martin Luther didn’t do anything out of the ordinary that day. He was a relatively unknown theology professor, he was about to turn 34, and he was preparing for class.
That same day, Luther also wrote a letter to his bishop, opposing the sale of indulgences. He included a copy of the 95 Theses with that letter. That started a chain of events that launched the Reformation. Over the next three years, Luther would be charged with heresy, and then excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.
A few months before he was excommunicated, Luther published one of his most famous works: On the Freedom of a Christian. This treatise is grounded in this morning’s reading from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus states, “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
Luther asserts that this freedom is freedom from sin and death, and makes two propositions that seem to contradict one another:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
This freedom comes from righteousness, which is not achieved through our good works, but through a right relationship with Jesus.
This is what Jesus means when he says, “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” The Greek word that is translated as “continue” can also be translated as “remain,” or even better, “abide.” That’s the sense of the word and that’s why our next hymn is “Abide with Me.” It is the enduring presence of the Lord that comes through a right relationship with Jesus; “in Jesus, there is the possibility of intimate relationship with God.”
Our other Gospel reading explains the basis for a right relationship with God. This story is very important; it appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Jesus is asked which commandment is the greatest.
[Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Jesus is saying that every other commandment, instruction, or rule—every other bit of Scripture—is based in those two commandments, love God and love your neighbor. That’s it. And that’s what it means to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. Luther would also say that all of our good works or deeds come out of that relationship; good works are an outward sign of God’s grace in us, not something that you or I can simply choose to do.
Luther began to develop these ideas before he published the 95 Theses, and he would continue to refine them all through the Reformation. Central to Luther’s theology was that grace comes from God alone; it cannot be earned. This is also what we believe as Presbyterians.
Luther wrote the 95 Theses in response to the sale of indulgences, among other practices of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Middle Ages, and even into the 1500s, the Catholic Church taught that there were different kinds of sins, and after death, a person’s soul had to be purged of those sins before going to Heaven. Even if a person lived a virtuous life, his or her soul would have to spend time in a place called Purgatory. The number and severity of the person’s sins would determine how long his or her soul would remain in Purgatory before ascending into Paradise.
The amount of time a soul would remain in Purgatory could be influenced by human actions. For instance, the family of a dead person could commission a parish priest to say a mass for the dead person, and that would reduce the time that soul spent in Purgatory. And if a man was rich and powerful enough, he could purchase an indulgence for his sins. That is, by making a large donation to the church, the local priest, by the authority of the bishop, could tell that man that his soul wouldn’t have to stay in Purgatory. The Roman Catholic Church claimed that it was not letting people purchase forgiveness for their sins, only a reduced sentence in Purgatory.
Martin Luther cried foul!
Indulgences were nothing new, and Luther wasn’t the first person to challenge indulgences. Theology students frequently debated the idea and many theologians argued against indulgences, but the debates always stayed within the university, and the debates were usually in Latin; lay people couldn’t participate.
In the 1500s, the Catholic Church got much more aggressive in the sale of indulgences. In 1506, Pope Julius II laid the foundation stone for the new St. Peter’s Basilica. This would be one of the Pope’s palaces and it would also include a grand tomb for Pope Julius. There had been another basilica dedicated to St. Peter, but it was old and in disrepair. This was the height of the Renaissance, and Pope Julius wanted a grand, new palace, built by the greatest architects and decorated by the greatest artists of the day: Michelangelo, Rafael, Leonardo da Vinci. Julius wanted to demonstrate the power, the grandeur, and the majesty of the office of the pope; he wanted to make St. Peter’s great again!
There was only one problem.
It was going to cost a large fortune to build St. Peter’s. In 1516, the next pope, Pope Leo X, commissioned the sale of indulgences to pay for all the new construction and artwork. In Thesis 86, Luther argued that the pope ought to pay for this himself: “Again, since the pope’s income today is larger than that of the wealthiest of wealthy men, why does he not build this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of indigent believers?”
Luther argued that the church was too caught up with the things of the world; it had been corrupted by a desire to build grandiose buildings, monuments to human power. What’s more, the church could compel the people to finance these monuments. The church had become too much like the world.
I think that’s still true today. I believe the Church has become too much like the world outside. Our schedules are not driven by our worship and our church life. Nor are they structured around loving our neighbors. Church is a place where we come for an hour on Sunday. It competes for our time with our children’s activities, work schedules, travel plans, and our need for adequate sleep. Church competes with our desire to watch or play sports.
We are slaves to sin and we are prisoners of our busy lives. We choose to be busy for so many reasons. We want our children to be happy so we spend all our time shuttling them from one activity to another. Sometimes the activities are very expensive. And we want new cars, new clothes, bigger houses, and lots of nice stuff to fill our homes. It’s expensive, so we work more hours to support all the stuff and all the activities. We make ourselves prisoners of the culture. We fail to live into the freedom that we have as Christians. When we allow these things to structure our lives and our priorities, we turn away from our relationship with Jesus.
To be set free from this self-imposed slavery, we must repent from our busyness and abide in Jesus.
To be set free, here and now, according to Jesus and according to the fourth evangelist, is to be free to see that, in Jesus, God is here, present, offering a relationship that is one of abiding love, provision, sustenance, nurture, and protection…because God loves the world.
This is what a new Reformation means; it is living into the freedom of being a Christian. Abiding in Jesus, the Word made flesh is freedom:
The kind of freedom that is known only in relationship—with God and with your neighbor. A freedom from loneliness and disconnection. A freedom from self-sufficiency and self-reliance. A freedom from the pain of not belonging and not being known. The commandments of Matthew remind us of the true meaning of John 8:31-32.
This is the antidote to our consumer culture in which we must always do more, be more, and buy more.
A new Reformation doesn’t begin here in the pulpit, it begins with each and every one of us—outside of the church. A new Reformation begins when we orient our lives toward God, as Jesus taught us. Yes, that starts with worship, but if we don’t live it outside of these walls, if we don’t make a visible change for everyone to see, then we are not fully living into Christ’s call to be the Church.
A new Reformation can begin anywhere, and it can begin in the unlikeliest of places. It can begin in Wittenberg or it can begin in Monmouth County. From there, or from here, it can and must spread, and we must be the ones to spread this new Reformation. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember that God is always faithful, always just. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Martin Luther. The Freedom of a Christian. In Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings. Ed. John Dillenberger, New York: Anchor Books (1962), p. 53.  Luther, p. 54.  Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 118.  Luther, p. 499.  Lewis, p. 119.  Karoline Lewis, “Freedom and Obligation,” retrieved from: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4989