Changed Church, Always Changing
October 25, 2020
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-23, 28
Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox. You can find that foursome this morning in the back of Westminster’s sanctuary – perched high up in the windows that honor the Protestant Reformation.
Those windows and the names beg the question on Reformation Sunday 2020: in the throes of a pandemic getting worse every day, in the midst of a national reckoning with racial injustice, in the chaos of continuing ecological catastrophe, and in the heat and fear of a looming presidential election, why would the church insist on talking about something that happened 500 years ago? Why not set aside Reformation Sunday, at least this year?
There’s a lot to learn from history.
The Christian Church is not immune to the context in which it finds itself. That’s been true in every age. It is for us today; it was for beleaguered Catholics in northern Europe in the early 16th century who felt the need to try to reform Rome – and, eventually, to break from it.
In fact, the Europe of that time, like our nation today, was wracked by violent political tension between old ways and new winds blowing. Efforts in our land today to overcome vast disparities in power and privilege parallel the Reformers’ rejection of corruption and the unquestioned power held by a few. Economic disorder and uncertainty roil our time as they did in the Reformers’ Europe. And just as the Internet has transformed our lives, the printing press revolutionized communication 500 years ago.
There’s another historical parallel between the 16th and 21st centuries. The first documented influenza pandemic in history broke out in Italy and spread through France and northern Europe only a few years prior to 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. It was the start of two centuries of intermittent flareups of what was called the Plague. The pope announced it was caused by the wrath of God because of the breaking apart of the Church; many Protestants, in turn, blamed the Catholics. In other words, even then, responding to disease was politicized. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3180818/)
There was an especially bad outbreak of the Plague in Luther’s city of Wittenberg in the 1520s. To respond to the controversies that arose because of the Plague and to sort out the competing ideas about how to deal with the Plague, Luther wrote a letter.
Some people, he said,
“Are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say…that if God wants to protect them God can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting God.”
Sounding like a 16th century Dr. Fauci, Luther goes on,
“Use medicine; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like someone who wants to help put out the burning city…If everyone would help ward off contagion as best they can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate. But if some…are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die.” (https://blogs.lcms.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Plague-blogLW.pdf)
That was in the 16th century.
Like today, the Europe of that long-ago time was struggling with serious challenges and confronting the need to change systems and structures. The Church was in the thick of it, right where it should be. The Reformers enshrined in our windows in the sanctuary reflected the turmoil of their time – and led their communities through it by casting the transformation taking place in theological terms. God was at work among them.
Protestants read the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans and drew conclusions with far-reaching impact:
“But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…A person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Romans 3:21-23, 28)
Christianity was being decentralized, deconstructed, and democratized by the men in those windows in our sanctuary. To declare that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God is the flipside of the priesthood of all believers. While ostensibly a theological response to the power of Catholic bishops and the pope, the assertion of the priesthood of all believers had political consequences. Once lay people were empowered in the ecclesiastical realm, it was only a short step to their expecting to have agency in political affairs, as well.
But Calvin was no political revolutionary. He held that people should obey those who ruled over them, as those in power, he said, had been placed there by the will of God. Still, Calvin taught, all rulers are subject to a higher law written on the human heart, and when they subvert it, they should be resisted.
“But this is the covenant that I will make,” God says through the prophet Jeremiah: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)
When that covenant with God – that higher law written on the human heart – was violated by those in power, Calvin argued, the people had a duty to speak up and work for change. “The whole world (is) accountable to God,” as the Apostle Paul had said.
This new theology in the 16th century sowed the seeds of political democracy: the people had a right, and even a responsibility, to participate in their own governance by holding their leaders to the limits of their power defined by the justice of God.
That’s why Protestants, and especially we Presbyterians, have always engaged in political life. Our faith compels that of us. We write constitutions and design governments, as we did in this land. We advocate for public policy. We speak up for equity. We work for systemic change. We run for office. We call our leaders and our nation to account when we stray from the values of “liberty and justice for all.” And we vote – trusting in the power of democracy to move us toward the justice that God desires.
The Reformation changed the church – and the church participated in the changing of the world at the same time. To keep faith with our forebears and to follow the living gospel of Jesus Christ, we in the church today must do the same in our time.
A major contribution of the Presbyterian stream flowing out of the 16th century is a view of the church that expects it to change and to be an agent of change as it follows God’s Word.
Some years ago, Anna Case-Winters, a theology professor at McCormick Seminary in Chicago, represented our denomination in a dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. She later wrote,
“One of the memorable moments in this first-ever face-to-face conversation between the Presbyterian Church and the Roman Catholic Church…(occurred when)…Cardinal Cassidy observed, ‘You have a saying that seems to be at the heart of your self-understanding as a church. What do you mean when you keep referring in your documents to ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda?’” (https://www.presbyterianmission.org/what-we-believe/ecclesia-reformata/)
The Cardinal was correct in making that observation. He listened well. At the heart of our Reformed, Presbyterian understanding of Church is that it has changed – ecclesia reformata – and it will always be changing – semper reformanda – by the power of God’s Word. The new covenant of which the prophet Jeremiah speaks is not finished, but is always being renewed.
Our worship today began with the great hymns of the Reformation, I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art, attributed to Calvin, and Luther’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Both hymns reflect a 16th century male European confidence in the authority and control of the Almighty. They were written by people who themselves had access to privilege. “Sustain us by thy faith and by thy power, and give us strength in every trying hour”…”A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” Life with God means holding fast to an unshakable divine power. Ecclesia reformata.
Our worship this morning will take a turn in a few moments. We will conclude with hymns that have a different perspective. The Spanish language Tú Has Venido a la Orilla/Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore sings of life with God as a journey, ever changing: “Now my boat’s left on the shoreline behind me; by your side I will seek other seas.” The African-American spiritual We’ve Come this Far by Faith similarly understands God as one who accompanies us on the way through the challenges of life: “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in the holy Word, God’s never failed us yet.” Ecclesia reformanda.
Reformation Sunday has lost some of its luster over these long Protestant years. We used to be the cutting edge of Christian faith – seen as radical in the eyes of the traditionalists who wanted no change in the Church. We found our voice through the 16th and 17th centuries, defining Protestant theological claims over against those of Rome.
Then in the 18th and 19th centuries we defended and expanded our theological assertions and found ourselves in an Enlightened world and an emerging capitalist system that fit well with our individual Protestant ethic. Each of us, we began to assume, were the authors of our own salvation because it was freely given by God’s grace – as if the Reformation had stopped at free grace.
William James warned against a flaw in the Protestant theological emphasis on freely-given grace: people might as well enjoy a lifelong “moral holiday,” he said. (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/royce/)
Our Protestant tendency to adopt an ethic with ourselves at the center got the better of us. Along the way we lost the verve of Luther’s passion and the call of Calvin’s vision. The discovery of grace as the free gift of God is not the end of faith – it’s the beginning of it, the start of living faithfully in the world.
We show that not by withdrawing from the world or centering only on our own needs. We show it in how we respond to the challenges of the real world around us – how we respond to a pandemic, or embedded racism, or to the degradation of the planet, or to hyper-polarized politics.
Knowing that with the freely-given grace of God comes profound responsibility to others, wherever we seek to apply our faith to the injustices of our day, the Reformation lives on in us.
Wherever we speak truth to power and call those with privilege to account, the Reformation lives on in us.
Wherever we insist on the value and dignity of every human life, wherever we put our trust in a higher law, the law of God, the Reformation lives on in us.
Thanks be to God.