November 17, 2019

Reformation Sunday 2019: Can’t Buy Me Love

Luther and Zwingli debate at the Marburg Colloquy (1529)

REFORMATION SUNDAY 2019
Can’t Buy Me Love (Luke 18:9-14)

On this day, in our tradition, we commemorate Reformation Sunday. We recall the work of German reformer Martin Luther in the 16th century, who pointed out abuses, faulty teaching, and pastoral neglect in the churches of his day, and who sought to bring renewal and reform to the Christian faith.

At that time, of course, in Europe, there was only one primary church institution in the Western world, and that was the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s intention was to reform the church, but in the end, what happened was that he, in conjunction with many other factors, unleashed a tidal wave that broke the one Church into a thousand different denominations and groups.

For example, on our recent trip to Switzerland, we visited the church where Ulrych Zwingli was the pastor back in Luther’s day. Zwingli was another reformer, but he and Luther had some severe disagreements, and, as a result, Switzerland became home to Reformed churches rather than Lutheran congregations.

We also visited places along Lake Geneva, in southwestern Switzerland, which is the French-speaking region of the country. In the city of Geneva, it was John Calvin who became the father of other groups of Reformed churches, many of which later represented the Presbyterian tradition.

Then one day we had the opportunity to try and track down some of my wife Gail’s Swiss heritage in the little town of Langnau, near Bern. There we visited the site of the first Mennonite congregation, a group that also goes back to the 1500s. Mennonites are heirs of the Anabaptist tradition, a group that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli disagreed with.

Luther and the other reformers led movements that laid the foundations for the entire world of Protestant Christianity. Over the centuries Protestantism has been characterized by its propensity to divide and form various denominations and groups, each with their own distinctive teachings and practices.

However, something else must be said. A closer look at the Roman Catholic Church itself will reveal that it is not as monolithic and unchanging as many people think. Over the centuries, Catholicism has had many reformers who, unlike Luther, did not break away from Rome to form their own movements. Instead, they were able to reform the church from within and remain within Catholicism.

We saw this in Europe too. We visited a Benedictine Abbey in Tuscany that remains functioning today. This abbey was founded in the 1300s, two hundred years before Martin Luther, and it was based on the Rule of St. Benedict, written by Benedict in 516 AD, a thousand years before the Reformation! Benedict was one of those who brought renewal to the Catholic church by forming a movement within Catholicism.

We also went to Assisi, the home of St. Francis and St. Clare. Francis came along around the year 1200 and heard God calling him to repair the broken ruins of the church in his day. So Francis, who never became a priest, started an order of renewal that, to this day, retains its distinctive emphases, teachings and practices within the institution of the Catholic church.

When we say in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” we are not describing one institution. We are describing a many faceted movement, a diverse, worldwide family of people who, by God’s grace through faith, have come to trust and follow Christ.

For years and decades and centuries and millennia, Christianity has been criticized as a religion of division and conflict, and in all honesty that’s right. East and West. Catholic and Protestant. Thousands of different denominations and movements that separate themselves from each other. Reformation Day is a good day to acknowledge that, to confess our lack of love and partnership in Christ. It’s a good day to remind ourselves that Christianity always need reforming.

But it is also a good day to celebrate the bottom-line truth of what unites us, despite our many differences.

At the turn of the current century, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation published a document called “The Joint Declaration on Justification.” After almost 500 years of fighting and disagreement, they put out a statement affirming that God has been at work, helping us to recognize our common commitment to the one thing that matters: the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Joint Declaration states:

Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.

In other words, God’s love, acceptance, salvation, forgiveness, and active presence in our lives are all gifts. Even faith itself is a gift, the statement goes on to say. They are all pure gifts. We don’t earn them. We can’t buy them. It’s not a matter of jumping through certain hoops or climbing any ladder. We don’t have to qualify or pass an entrance exam. We don’t have to meet certain criteria. There’s no transaction that has to be processed. “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God…”

It’s like life itself. What did you and I do to earn the privilege of being born and entering this life? The answer is obvious. We didn’t do a thing! Life is a gift we were given through someone else’s act of love. Even so, our spiritual life, the new life we have in Christ, the forgiven life, the resurrected life, the life of faith and good works, the life of fellowship in the family of God, the life of vocation in the world, the life that hopes for a new creation to come — this life that God has given us is just that: life that has been given to us by God who loved us and sent his Son for us.

In Jesus’ parable that I read this morning, we have a portrait of one person who understood this, and one who didn’t.

The Pharisee, one of the most moral and religious people you would have been likely to meet in Jesus’ day, nevertheless misunderstood his relationship with God and with others. He thought of life in transactional terms. He thought he had entered into a contract with God. His part of the bargain was to be religious — to fast, to pray, to go to temple, to tithe, to live a moral and ethical life, and to avoid the bad choices others made that led them down the wrong paths.

Nothing wrong with any of that, of course. If everyone lived like that, this would be a far better world. But the point is not how he lived, it’s that he thought by doing so he was earning his place with God. He paid his part of the agreement with God, so God must declare him a righteous person.

This also led the Pharisee to have less than stellar attitudes toward others. He’d done his best to get to the top of heap, and now all he could do was look down on others, like the tax collector he saw in the temple that day. C.S. Lewis once said that pride is the most deadly sin because as long as we’re looking down on others, we can never really look up to God. But that’s what a transactional approach to life gets you. You keep your part of the deal and it very naturally leads to an attitude of contempt toward those who haven’t.

The other person in this story, the tax collector, however, didn’t view his relationship with God as a transaction. He just came before God honestly, admitted his shortcomings, and asked for mercy. He wasn’t trying to make some sort of payment toward his salvation or forgiveness. He wasn’t playing “let’s make a deal” with God. He just knew he needed forgiveness and renewal, and he asked for it. He came to God personally, authentically, and without playing any games.

It’s like the Beatles sang: “Can’t buy me love.”

That’s the bottom line, folks. That’s the message Christian people everywhere, no matter what institution, denomination, or group they belong to, need to keep coming back to: the good news that God’s love and acceptance, God’s salvation and forgiveness is all a gift. That’s the good news of Jesus Christ. And that’s our common ground.

If we try to build our relationships with God and others on a transactional basis, we will always come up short. But if we live with honesty, with genuine humility, with gratitude for the gift of life and all the gifts of God that come with it, then we will truly experience life and find ways of sharing it with others.

And that’s what will always bring reformation to the church and to our lives.

Comments

  1. God’s fee gift, I can’t earn it or deserve it. I started with grace, I travel by grace, I’ll find my end in grace — it’s my only hope, there are no other options. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  2. Excellent article, excellent comment from Robert F. All I can add is Amen.

  3. Those pre-Reformation reform movements usually took the form of founding a new monastic order. The new order began with enthusiasm, attracting people who sincerely sought to live a godly life. This in turn attracted donations from laypeople who, while not wanting to live quite so godly a life themselves, wanted the prayers of the godly to intervene on their behalf. So fast forward a few generations and the order is now wealthy, and therefore attracts those attracted to wealth. So a new reformer comes along and founds a new order. This cycle went on for centuries.

    I have read, but never confirmed, that the church in the late Middle Ages began resisting the formation of new orders. The suggestion was that this created pressure. The usual cycle of reform movement now had no escape valve, leading to the Reformation.

    As for that reform cycle, it is hardly only pre-Reformation. The rise of Evangelicalism in the 18th century followed exactly the same pattern. How this applies to the church today is left as an exercise for the student.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I view that as these orders and reforms have a life cycle, and what happened was as each order went through their life cycle, new orders had to spring up. “The church in the late middle ages began resisting the formation of new orders” because there were getting to be so many of these old moribund orders cluttering up the church and consuming resources.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    in the end, what happened was that he, in conjunction with many other factors, unleashed a tidal wave that broke the one Church into a thousand different denominations and groups.

    No, a thousand One True Churches Founded By Jesus Christ in 33 AD, each denouncing all others as Apostates and Heretics.

    The Pharisee, one of the most moral and religious people you would have been likely to meet in Jesus’ day, nevertheless misunderstood his relationship with God and with others. He thought of life in transactional terms. He thought he had entered into a contract with God. His part of the bargain was to be religious — to fast, to pray, to go to temple, to tithe, to live a moral and ethical life, and to avoid the bad choices others made that led them down the wrong paths.

    And what is “Walk the aisle, Say the Sinner’s Prayer, and get your Personal Fire Insurance Policy with complementary Rapture Boarding Pass” other than a tit-for-tat Transaction? If the Pharisee’s attitude is the product of his transactional “contract with God”, it would explain a lot of today’s Evangelical Circus.

    Was “moral and ethical life” and “the bad choices others made that led them down the wrong paths” also defined primarily to entirely as Pelvic Issues?

    • Iain Lovejoy says

      The modern Evangelical has one advantage of Jesus’s Pharisees: they have helpfully negotiated a much better deal, reducing their side of the bargain to attending Sunday worship (or Sunday’s free concert of Christian-themed songs) and mouthily supporting the right political positions by denouncing anything at all onerous as “works righteousness”, thus getting all the advantages of moral superiority without the necessity of actually even maintaining the appearance of being morally superior.

      • just read a comment on another blog to do with the abandonment of the Kurds to slaughter

        something about ‘in our best interests to cut our losses’ and it occurred to me that we live now in times when what is decent and honorable has been blurred in such a way that a committed Christian person could say such a thing about the ‘benefits’ of walking out on a war ally who fought just last month with our troops and had their backs because they trusted us

        ‘moral’, ‘morale’, ‘honor codes’ . . . .my goodness, if people in their guts no longer reckon that it is wrong to betray a friend, what HAS happened to the soul of our nation?

        ‘we were only obeying orders’ . . . what kind of people say stuff like that?
        NOT AMERICAN SOLDIERS, HE!! NO

        • A lot has changed in the last three years. Our country will never be the same and very few christians seem to care.

          • Yeats, the ‘prophet’ ?

            ‘and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born . . .’

            • Unfortunately, Yeats was a sympathizer of authoritarian, fascist, and nationalist movements, and was anti-democratic. He and Mule would probably have gotten along swimmingly.

              • senecagriggs says

                You sure about that Robert F? You’re pretty much condemning a man you don’t actually know aren’t you?

                • I’m not condemning him. He made no secret of his political stance; he saw nothing wrong with it. It’s public record. Look it up. The renowned expatriate American poet Ezra Pound was even more invested in fascism; he was arrested for treason by the Americans in Italy as a result of his public support for Hitler and Mussolini during WWII. If not for the intervention of some influential people, he might have died in prison; but with their help, he was found mentally unfit to stand trial, and was committed to a psychiatric hospital. Fascination and embrace of fascism in the early twentieth century was not a rare thing among poets, or philosophers; it seemed like a brave new movement to beat back the modernism and democracy that many of them thought distasteful and destructive to their cultures and history.

                • I responded to you in a long comment, but it disappeared into cyberspace — who knows when or if it will reappear. I’m not condemning Yeats; he was proud of his political support for fascism. It’s on public record. Look it up.

                • Are you talking about Yeats, or Mule?

            • When Yeats speaks of the worst being filled with passionate intensity in the poem you allude to, he is speaking of the the lower classes; when he refers to the best lacking all conviction, he means the aristocratic classes. When he images the slouching Beast in his poem, it’s highly unlikely that he had in mind anything like we with liberal sympathies might — likely he had in mind just the opposite.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            A lot has changed in the last three years. Our country will never be the same and very few christians seem to care.

            And four out of five Evangelicals (the only REAL Christians) cheer it on, giddy with glee.

            Between We Win The Culture War and End Times It’s All Gonna Burn, they have both bases covered.

  5. Ian:

    You said” thus getting all the advantages of moral superiority without the necessity of actually even maintaining the appearance of being morally superior.”

    Wow! That is so true. So many of these folks make zero effort to even appear as if they are practicing following Christ’s teaching in their daily lives. But most will go to church and make sure they vote.

  6. ‘When we say in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” we are not describing one institution. We are describing a many faceted movement, a diverse, worldwide family of people who, by God’s grace through faith, have come to trust and follow Christ.’

    This is why I have begun to really value resources that draw from many Christian traditions, such as Renovare: http://www.renovarelife.org/, theologians such as Thomas Oden : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_C._Oden & the Northumbria Community: https://www.northumbriacommunity.org/ (that one thanks to Dana).

    Such richness when we step outside of the box & realise that God is at work all over the place, & throughout the ages.