Welcome to the 495th edition of Reformation Sunday! In the church in which I grew up, Reformation Sunday was kind of a big deal. It was the day when we confirmed groups of ninth graders who’d spent two or three years in Wednesday night confirmation classes. It was a morning for pulling out all the stops on the organ and hiring extra string and brass players. It was a day for preaching doctrine, talking about justification by grace through faith, and congratulating ourselves on being Lutherans. A lot has changed.
To get a sense for how much has changed, it might actually be worthwhile to look not at the Reformation Sundays of our youth, or even of the last century, but at the day we’re actually commemorating — October 31, 1517. On that day, Martin Luther — the Roman Catholic priest, monk and reformer from whom we take our name as Lutherans — wrote a letter to his bishop protesting what was, at that time, a common practice in the church, the sale of indulgences.
Indulgences were a sort of spiritual equivalent to the synthetic collateralized debt obligations, and other such risky financial securities, that contributed to the market crisis of the last decade. In essence, the church claimed to own the rights to God’s grace and forgiveness, and had sent agents out across Europe to sell these financial instruments, indulgences, to anyone feeling anxious about their salvation or a loved one’s. The living could even purchase indulgences for the dead, so that a son or daughter might buy an indulgence on behalf of their departed parents to get them released from purgatory and moving on to heaven.
It was a sham, making a commodity out of God’s free gifts of grace and life, but when Luther wrote to his bishop he wasn’t intending to break away from the church and launch a global reform movement. He was a professor of theology with a doctorate in Bible who was challenging the church on the basis of scripture and tradition, asking the church to consider its conduct and to be renewed. It was Luther’s colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, who — 30 years later — told the story of Luther nailing his 95 theses, or arguments, on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg.
There’s a lot more history to be told here, and some of you already know it. I was at a party last night and met a man who — once he learned that I was a Lutheran pastor — proceeded to summarize all the major plot points of the most recent movie about Martin Luther along with the personal research he’d done into the man, and he didn’t identify as much of a church goer. There’s a really rich biography here, of a man tormented by doubt, motivated by intellectual integrity, and liberated by grace — but Luther’s life is not the substance of the Reformation. The Reformation is, essentially, about the church.
To talk about the church is to talk about something much older than even the near-500 year old tradition we share as Lutherans. It’s even older than the two thousand-year old tradition we share as Christians. Talk about the church is rooted in a language that predates the life of Jesus, a Greek word, ecclesia, from which we get ecclesiology, or the study of the church.
Earlier this week, Joe Scarry, Rachel Bickel and I heard a presentation on ecclesiology from Bob Sitze, who lives out in Wheaton and, for twenty years worked for the ELCA in hunger education. We were at a two and a half day training on community organizing as a tool for congregational development, and Bob was laying the foundation for our conference by challenging us to remember what the church actually is. In its original use (almost 500 years before the time of Jesus), the Greek word ecclesia, that we’ve come to translate as “church,” actually referred to the group of citizens who were called out of their homes to conduct public affairs — to vote on legislation, to decide whether or not to go to war, to do the work required by the greater society. Bob challenged us, as faith-rooted community organizers, to think about what it might mean that the early church adopted for itself a very secular word that evoked images of people being called out of the comforts of their private dwelling places to take action on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good.
So, one of the first Reformations to take place occurred when the early church took a word from secular society and civil government and applied it to the life of faith. Living together in light of what they’d seen and heard from Jesus of Nazareth, who’d lived under and died while confronting empire, the early church imagined a new kind of society — one where the benefits of citizenship were extended to all who were baptized, a citizenship determined not by who your parents were, or how much money you had, or whether or not you spoke the right language … in fact, not by anything you did, but by what God did when God created you in love and claimed you as God’s own. Citizenship open to everyone.
This new Christian ecclesia, these new citizens — called out from their private dwelling places to take action on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good — were radicals from the start. Writing near the end of the second century, the north African lawyer and priest, Tertullian of Carthage, described the radically different nature of the community called out of the comforts of home for the sake of the common good that was the Christian community. He writes,
The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honour not by purchase but by established character. There is no buying and selling of any sort in the things of God. Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money as of a religion that has its price. These gifts are… not spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession. But it is mainly the deeds of love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred. See, they say about us, how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves would sooner kill. (From “The Apology of Tertullian,” AD 197)
Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas who grew up Lutheran in Jamestown, North Dakota, has studied the rise of the early church. He suggests that Christianity grew as rapidly as it did during the first three centuries because it proposed such a radical alternative to the values of empire. It treated women far better than the pagan religions. He argues that Christianity’s adoption by the Roman Empire actually weakened the faithfulness of the religion by bringing in large numbers of people who did not share the passion or zeal for an alternative way of living that characterized the church Tertullian described. Stark writes,
Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery chaos, fear, and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world… Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services… For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable.” (Rodney Stark, “The Rise of Christianity.” Princeton University Press, 1996, p. 161)
Do you hear in the words of Tertullian and the studies of Rodney Stark the echoes of the ancient meaning of that word, ecclesia — those called out of the comforts of their private homes to take action on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good? Do you hear how the early church was redefining what it meant to be a citizen, a member of society, in light of the grace of God they’d found in their baptism?
I know that not all of you are Lutherans by background or upbringing, so I’m going to share something with you that you might not know if you don’t come out of a Lutheran upbringing. It’s actually pretty uncommon to talk so much about taking action on Reformation Sunday. You see, part of what Martin Luther was reacting so powerfully against was the idea that salvation was something that could be earned, even bought. Martin Luther, whose powerful recovery of our biblical inheritance reminds us that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, fought hard against any notion that we are responsible for our own salvation. That, Luther taught, is God’s work, already accomplished in Christ Jesus. In baptism we are saved and set free.
This means, if you are sitting in your pew right now wondering if you belong here, if you are good enough to come to this communion rail, to eat this bread and drink from this cup, you can stop worrying. This ecclesia, this church, this gathering of people drawn out from their homes to take action on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good, is not made up of good people — it is made up of God’s people. Ordinary people, made extraordinary not by what any one of us or all of us together has done, but by what God has done in us, and for us, and through us.
This baptism that we keep talking about isn’t reserved for the good people, or the right people, or the successful people, or the smart people. It’s open to all people. It’s not a choice that we make, like some other action that we have to take, but it is a sign of God’s choice and God’s action. God chooses you. God is reaching out to you. You are already welcome in this church, among these people, at this font, around this table.
The actions we take, the organizing we do, the ministries we carry out, are not some modern indulgence, a form of payment for the grace and forgiveness we have already received. They are an expression of the love of God we have seen in Christ Jesus, which — when called out of the home and into the public realm — looks like justice and mercy and compassion and self-sacrifice.
This Reformation Sunday, and every Sunday, we are challenged to re-examine what we think the church is. When we wake up on Sunday morning, and on every morning, and leave behind the privacy of our homes, we are called by our baptisms to work on behalf of the whole for the sake of the common good. We are not working for our salvations, which are already in the bag. We are working on the side of love to revitalize cities and restore creation. By the grace of God, we are being reformed, every day.