Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34 + Psalm 46 + Romans 3:19-28 + John 8:31-36
He had no idea what would happen next.
When Martin Luther sat down to write his disputation on “the power and efficacy of indulgences,” which later came to be known as The 95 Theses, he had no idea what would happen next. He hadn’t set out to fracture the church, or to launch a reformation. He was raising a theological objection to the church’s practice of selling indulgences to raise money for the construction of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. The theological regime of the day imagined that sins were like debts in an account that needed to be paid, and that the church was the executor of Christ’s estate, able to dip into the treasury of his merits to settle accounts, for a fee.
Luther, whose early years had been plagued by a fear of judgment, objected to the sale of indulgences because they pretended to sell something God has already freely given: the forgiveness of sin. Haunted by the sense that he could never be good enough for God, Luther had turned to scripture and there he found life:
“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 3:22-24)
Martin Luther, whose personal struggle with God brought him at last to a sense of his own freedom, was not content to keep that message to himself. Instead, he chose to share it with the religious, political, and economic powers of his day. But he had no idea what would happen next.
When we tell the story of the Reformation, we often focus on its innovations: the push to worship in the language of the people instead of the old Latin; the primacy of scripture over the church’s traditional teachings; opening communion in both kinds to common people; opening the priesthood to marriage; the advent of the printing press which allowed the movement to spread quickly, made it possible for every household to own a bible, and expanded literacy rates.
And isn’t it interesting how those 16th century innovations keep popping up in the on-going reformation of the church in our own day and age: we are still working out what it means to worship in the language(s) of the people, learning how to proclaim the gospel in words that 21st century hearts can hear; we are still discovering how the radical witness of scripture cuts against our longing for stability and tradition; we are still debating who is welcome to receive communion when we gather at the Lord’s Table; we are still wrestling with who may serve the church as clergy and how their relationships will be recognized; we are still catching on to new technologies that are reshaping how the story of God’s movement in the world is shared.
That’s what happened next, those are the things Luther could never have imagined when he set out to make his public witness to the faith that was in him. He could never have imagined how he would be put on trial and excommunicated from the church. He could never have imagined that he would have to flee for his life, that he would become the eye of a religious and political storm that would reshape Europe’s balance of power.
But all of these things are secondary to what came first. What came first was the encounter between Martin Luther and God, the living God, the God who called Abraham and Sara to leave their homes, who called Moses to lead the people out of slavery, who spoke through the prophets in every age to confront the powers and principalities of this world for the sake of freedom and new life. What happened first was the encounter between a soul trapped in fear and doubt and the God who will die before allowing us to remain enslaved to our pasts.
First Luther heard the word of grace, the new covenant written on his heart. First Luther experienced what it meant to be free from the old story of his inadequacy, and experienced the joy of the gospel. First Luther came to understand that God’s decision to love us precedes our decision to love God. Then everything changed.
The irony of the way we so often celebrate Reformation Day in the church is that we treat it like something that happened in the past. That, somehow, God’s reforming work in the world can be safely contained in the 16th century and trotted out once a year for us to admire from a safe distance.
But there is nothing safe or contained about our encounter with the living God! When we come into God’s presence we are on holy ground. We are like the bush that burned without being consumed. We are destroyed and recreated in the same moment. We are called to be and do more than we ever could have imagined. We are changed.
When Jesus tells those who had followed him that they would know the truth and the truth would make them free, they respond to him saying,
“we are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’” (John 8:33)
The irony here is that the foundational story of Israel is the story of the exodus from slavery. So in saying that they have never been slaves to anyone, what they are really saying is, “we have forgotten our story. We have forgotten ourselves. We have grown so accustomed to the way things are, we cannot imagine they have ever been otherwise, or that they could ever be anything else.”
So often when the moment of change comes, we respond like those who’d followed Jesus. In our encounter with the living God we are challenged to act like free people. We are pushed to grow beyond the boundaries of what the world has taught us to expect of ourselves. We are invited to remember that we have always been more than the labels slapped on us at birth. We are more than the rigid gender roles assigned to each infant. We are more than the racial stereotypes we discover in grade school. We are more than jobs people ask us to aspire to when we grow up. We are more than the balances in our bank accounts. We are more than market demographics or generational labels. We are more than the things other people say about people like us. We are free people, even when we act as though we are not.
When I first heard about this congregation while living down in Atlanta, how they were looking for someone to partner with them in redeveloping the church, I didn’t want to apply for the job. I’d made my peace with the fact that I’d never be a pastor. I’d just bought my first home, and hadn’t even lived there six months. When I finally threw my hat in the ring I wasn’t afraid that I wouldn’t get the job. I was afraid that I would. There had already been too much transition and loss in my life. I didn’t want to open myself up to the heartbreak of the new. I didn’t want to change.
Today it feels like everything is changing, though in reality this change has been happening very slowly for almost a decade. When we began our redevelopment there were only two non-negotiables: we weren’t closing and we weren’t moving. So we began, hoping we could make that so; thinking we could direct the course of the changes time had in store for us. But with each new face that walked through these doors, we became a new people. Our story was changed by their stories. They became us. We became something new together. We changed, and as the years wore on we began to ask ourselves when we had decided that being redeveloped, being renewed, being reformed meant getting back to the way things used to be. Our future does not lie in our past.
Simply moving out of our historic home does not make us free, though it does create the conditions of instability that often allow something new to emerge. Finding new ways to worship in a new place does not make us reformers, though it does join us to the growing ranks of Christian people who are reinventing what it means to be the church in an age of rapidly shifting identities, when those claiming no religious identity at all are the fastest growing sector of the American religious landscape.
The Reformation caught fire and spread because it spoke the truth to power, addressing a real need felt by everyday people. In Luther’s day life was brutally hard and often too short. People were terrified of hell, and the church was enriching itself by selling salvation, capitalizing on the people’s fears by taking the money they needed to feed and house themselves so that the wealthy elite in Rome could build an opulent cathedral while the hungry poor went without.
According to the same study that described the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, only half of Americans still believe in hell. It’s not an idea that drives our behavior, it doesn’t provide the kind of leverage the market needs to get us to part with our money. Instead of being preoccupied with the state of our souls after we die, people today are threatened with exclusion from the “American Dream” if they don’t project an image of upward mobility. Presidential candidates feel entitled to write the hungry poor off as “losers.” We have created hell on earth for those living with the least, so that the wealthy elites, the 1%, can build ever-bigger edifices to celebrate their success.
What would it mean for the church of the Reformation to speak with Luther’s passion to the plight of the exploited poor under these circumstances? What does it mean to be justified by grace through faith in an era of unfettered capitalism in the 21st century instead of an age of Christian colonialism like the 16th century? What is the truth that makes us free in a time like this?
We can’t answer all those questions today. However, because we have done the hard work of growing beyond our past, because we made the necessary decision to leave our historic home, because we chose a future together rather than a lonely death, we don’t have to. Instead, we will gather for worship around the means of grace once again next week, and the week after that, and for months and years to come. We will meet people who will have never known this place, but who will become as much a part of St. Luke’s as anyone here today or in ages past.
Today our hearts are breaking as we say our goodbyes to a home that has sheltered us, that has nurtured us, that has seen members of our families married and buried. Here in this place, within these walls, at this font and around this table, we have encountered the living God, and we have been changed. Without this place, we would never have grown strong enough to leave this place. Facing our death, year after year, we have come alive. We are being reformed. We are free, so who knows what will happen next?