Remembering the Reformation

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 46 | Romans 3:19-28 | John 8:31-36

Jeremy Richards

I have to begin this sermon with a confession: I’m a bad Protestant. I’m a bad Protestant because I forgot, up until Monday of this week, that today is Reformation Sunday, and not only is it Reformation Sunday, it’s the 500th anniversary of the Reformation! Our resident Baptist historian, Slayden, who isn’t here right now because he’s serving as the interim pastor at FBC Gresham, would never forgive me if I didn’t talk about the Reformation today. He told me months ago that I needed to do something for this important milestone. And, like I said, I forgot until this week.

Luckily, I was listening to a podcast that discusses each week’s lectionary readings – yes, there is such a thing, and yes, when you’re a pastor you listen to those kind of podcasts – and in this podcast they said, “If you’re preaching on Reformation Sunday, we have a separate podcast for those readings.” Crisis averted.

So, I made an adjustment and switched over to the Reformation Sunday podcast, so that I could be sure and make Slayden proud. I don’t want Janis going back to him and telling him I dropped the ball on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation!

500 years ago, there were basically two Christian churches in the whole world: the Eastern Orthodox Church in the East and the Roman Catholic Church in the West. If you were a Christian in Europe before the Reformation, you were a Catholic.

But 500 years ago the Catholic Church had a bit of a problem with corruption (as all churches are prone to, unfortunately). One of the most problematic things it was doing was selling “indulgences.” The church said that living people could pay the church money for indulgences, which would get loved ones out of purgatory. This was essentially a scheme for the church to make money.

In addition to this, many in Church leadership had become corrupt, greedy, and didn’t seem to be taking their position as spiritual leaders seriously. A monk named Martin Luther saw all this and was disgusted. So, 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther reportedly nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle in Wittenberg, Germany. These 95 theses were essentially 95 issues he had with the way the church was being run. He wasn’t trying to cause a division in the church, he actually just wanted to have a scholarly debate, because he was also a professor.

However, one thing led to another, Luther was excommunicated, and a division that exists to this day was created between the Catholic Church and what has become known as Protestant churches.

The story of how each and every denomination arose is long, complicated, and not always clear, and there were actually multiple “reformations” following Luther’s initial reform, but I’m not going to go into all that. Suffice it to say, though, that many of the key ideas and beliefs that came out of Martin Luther’s Reformation are central to our church’s understanding of faith. Here are a few:

1.    An emphasis on grace over works

2.    The centrality of Scripture

3.    The sermon, not the Eucharist (communion), became the central part of worship

4.    The priesthood of all believers, meaning all Christians are like priests, we are all set apart, we are all called to bear witness to the Gospel

5.    Pastors were allowed to be married

6.    Because of the importance of Scripture and the belief in the priesthood of all believers, Luther and other reformers believed all people should be educated, so they could read the Scripture for themselves. The Church should be a community that discerned Scriptures together.

These are all things that, to some extent, we also value and practice as a Baptist church. However, it should be said, Luther would definitely call us heretics, based on our understanding of communion alone, and I’m sure there are other issues he would have with us.

So, for many reasons, the Reformation is worth celebrating. We wouldn’t be who we are without it.

And yet, as much as the Reformation is something to celebrate, I think it’s something to grieve over as well. The Reformation marks a further divide in the Church that Jesus prayed in John 17:22 “would be one, as [God is] one.” And it wasn’t that the Reformation marked a 3rd church in addition to the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic, the Protestants themselves fractured into smaller and smaller pieces, and those Protestants started fighting amongst themselves and even persecuting and killing one another.

Now there are thousands of Protestant denomination. Today there are more than 100 Baptist denominations in the United States alone!

For the 500 years since the Reformation, there has been a strained relationships between Catholics and Protestants. The USA, early in its founding, was often anti-Catholic. This continues today, with some Protestants not even considering Catholics to be Christian, which is ridiculous. Just this week, one of our fellow Baptists in Texas said that Catholicism is a “cult-like pagan religion.” [1] So, the divisive anti-Catholic sentiment remains today, even 500 years after the Reformation.

So, I’m thankful for those parts of the Reformation that gave us the ability to be the church we are – the freedom to interpret Scripture and to interpret the leading of the Holy Spirit as a community without oversight from a religious authority, the ability to be a married clergy person, the emphasis on education and the ability of all people to read Scripture and speak truth –

but I lament the divisions it caused, and the way it has catered to individualism, so that instead of working within a unified family, people and groups often break off, starting new churches or new denominations whenever there’s a difference of opinion.

The good news is that, in the past few decades, the walls between Catholics and Protestants and between different Protestant denominations have begun to come down. In fact, in celebration of the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation, the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity published a document titled From Conflict to Communion.

In the forward to this document it says,

In 2017, Catholic and Lutheran Christians will most fittingly look back on events that occurred 500 years earlier by putting the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center. The gospel should be celebrated and communicated to the people of our time so that the world may believe that God gives [Godself] to human beings and calls us into communion with [Godself] and [God’s] church. Herein lies the basis for our joy in our common faith.[2]      

This statement by Catholics and Lutherans reflects our Gospel reading, when Jesus says, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

The Catholic/Lutheran document From Conflict to Communion and Jesus’ teaching in John both put the Gospel – the life and teachings of Jesus – at the center of our faith. Our religious traditions, the families we’re born into, our cultural preferences, our political affiliations don’t set us free. Jesus Christ sets us free.

To quote Galatians, “26 …in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

According to Galatians, all who put their faith in Christ and have been baptized “into Christ” are united as children of God, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or, I think it’s safe to say, even their denomination.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that we aren’t all unique. Being baptized doesn’t mean that you aren’t a woman or a man or non-binary. It doesn’t mean you’re no longer a Jew or a Gentile. It doesn’t mean you aren’t Catholic or Lutheran or Baptist.

It does mean that none of those things stand in the way of our unity as followers of Jesus.

So, you may identify as a woman or a man or as non-binary, but none of those identities makes you more or less a child of God. The same goes for our denominations. As a church, we identify as Baptist. There are certain tenants of Baptist faith that seem right and good to us, and that’s great! But that doesn’t make us more or less Christian – more or less children of God – than Catholics or Lutherans or Pentecostals or anybody else.       

This is, in Jesus’ words, freedom! We are free to worship God in ways that speak to us, so long as we continue to follow the teachings of Jesus. Some Christians like smells and bells – rituals and liturgies, others like emotional worship and speaking in tongues, and still others prefer long periods of silence with little or no speaking.

God isn’t confined to a certain denomination, or a certain style of worship, or a specific people group.

The Protestant Reformation opened up new possibilities to how God could be understood and experienced. Today, as a result of the Reformation, there’s more room for difference within Christianity. Now, to be honest, that wasn’t how it was in the beginning, it was very divisive, and to this day it can remain divisive, as in the case of that pastor who said that Catholics are a “cult-like pagan religion,” but at its best, the Reformation allowed different denominations to form, which emphasized different theologies, while still allowing for these differences to exist under the umbrella of “Christianity.”

To use Paul’s words, we’re all “in Christ,” but we aren’t all the same. 

In my own life I’ve met God in a number of different Christian denominations and contexts. As a kid, I grew up attending McCall Baptist Church, which was member of the Conservative Baptist denomination. I first learned about Jesus at that church, I learned to love Scripture there, I was Baptized by that church, I was mentored by our youth pastor who became a good friend of mine. At McCall Baptist Church I was surrounded by adults who modelled for me what a life of discipleship to Jesus meant.

Then, after I graduated from high school, I spent 5 months attending a discipleship school called Kairos that wasn’t affiliated with any denomination, but had a more charismatic bent. During this time I learned to listen for God in ways I hadn’t before.

After Kairos, I attend Concordia, a Lutheran college. There were quite a few things that surprised me about Lutherans regarding theology and church practice, but nothing surprised me more than the fact that my Lutheran theology professors drank beer!

While attending Concordia, and after graduating, I went to a large evangelical church here in Portland where I volunteered with the youth group, led a small group, and, after graduation, did a year-long internship. All of these experiences pushed me toward seminary, so after a period of discernment during my internship, I decided to attend Duke Divinity School.

And, once again, at Duke, I found myself experiencing a new denomination and a new expression of the Church. My first day of orientation at Duke Divinity, a Methodist seminary, I was shocked when we began the service with an organ. After going to a big church with electric guitars and a drum set, I didn’t know churches still used organs. Then people in robes precessed in, and the whole thing felt so…formal.

While I was at Duke I, once again, jumped into another denomination. Brie and I – along with Mitch and Kelcey, and Ben – attended Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, as I’ve mentioned before. Chapel Hill Mennonite taught me what it means to believe in the priesthood of all believers. I heard the Spirit speak through the variety of people who filled the pulpit, and the many people who shared their thoughts after the service, as we do here.

During my years in seminary I also got my first real taste of pastoral ministry by interning at a rural Methodist Church, where Brie and I were loved, and supported, and appreciated even though we weren’t Methodist.

Somehow in the midst of all that, I found my way back to the Baptists and ended my time in seminary by being ordained Baptist.   

I’m not very old, but I’ve experienced a lot of different expressions of Christianity in my life, and I’m thankful for them all.

I’ve been to worship services where the band plays non-stop, there’s no order, and people wander around speaking in tongues under their breath, and I’ve been in services with bulletins as thick as books, where every word is planned out.

I’ve listened to sermons that lasted over an hour, and I’ve listened to homilies that lasted 7 minutes.

I’ve passed the peace to conservatives, and I’ve passed the peace to liberals.

I’ve worshipped with 300 high schools students raising their arms and swaying back and forth as they sing praise songs, and I’ve worshiped with 40 Mennonites singing 4 part harmonies with no music.

I’ve listened to a white preacher choose her words slowly and speak them quietly, and I’ve listened to a black preacher shout and bang her pulpit. 

I’ve taken communion around my youth pastor’s dining room table with chips and grape juice, and I’ve taken Eucharist with a priest who reminded us that the bread really was the body of Christ and the cup really was the blood of Christ.        

And I have met God in all of these places. I’ve seen Jesus in the eyes of Methodists and Baptists and Catholics and Pentecostals. I’ve heard the Spirit speak in the silence and in the strumming of an electric guitar.

It may have taken 500 years, but I think Luther’s Reformation is, in some places, finally coming to fruition. Initially, he wanted to simply reform the church, and unfortunately, that led to division. But now many of the reforms Luther advocated for have taken place within churches, Catholic and protestant alike, and those churches are building bridges with one another across denominational lines, worshiping together, serving together, and learning from one another.

The beauty of the Church is not found in one denomination’s beliefs or rituals or style. It’s found in the many differences, each of which speak to a God who is too big, too mysterious, to be contained by any one.

The Church is not a perfect picture, painted with straight lines, but a mosaic of pieces broken then brought back together, each one revealing a piece of the Savior who unites us and makes us one.