John 16:5-15; 2 Timothy 3:10-17
So, how’ve you been? Keeping well? Behaving yourselves…or misbehaving?! Well, I look forward to catching up with all I’ve missed over the last couple of weeks, including, of course, the series of services that you’ve had over the past 4 Sundays. I hear they’ve been diverse, educational, and – I hope, helpful for our reflection of what the reformation might mean for us today. I wonder, then, what you’ve taken from the past few weeks. I wonder how God has spoken to you, perhaps through you, as you’ve looked at reformation stories and. I wonder how you might answer if one of your friends asked why we’re bothering to give any of our time remembering the likely apocryphal story of a miserable monk nailing a few complaints to a church door in Germany five hundred years ago.
And whilst you’ve been worshipping with this theme here, I’ve also been riding the reformation train, looking at Martin Luther and his actions at a Synod level on the minister’s summer school in Lydney, at a national level, with other newly ordained ministers in Cambridge and finally, of course, at an international level, with sisters and brothers from 109 different countries at the World Council of Reformed Churches in Leipzig. Each of these gatherings had their joys; each had their challenges and I’d love to share with you some stories about the incredible people I met; the thrill of sharing bread and wine with sisters and brothers from so many different countries and contexts; the…shall we say…learning experience of ending another 12 hour day by debating whether one resolution should be written with the word ‘particularly’ or ‘including’ for over an hour – all the many weird and wonderful elements that made up my reformation reflections over the past few weeks…but to do so would mean to remain here until tonight. Of course, those of you who worshipped with Samuel and Joshua, our friends from Zambia and South India, will know that it’s not uncommon for services to last two to three hours elsewhere…but there are some local cultural norms I think it’s okay to stick by!
Instead, then, ever the narcissist, I thought I might bring our recent run of reformation reflections to a close by sharing a few snaps from my travels – four churches I’ve been to – which will enable me to share what I think God has said to me, what I am still working through, about how the reformation can speak to our living out of God’s good news in Pontypridd today.
The first then, is a photograph of the Berliner Dom – the Cathedral of Berlin.
Two weeks ago, my alarm went off at 4:30am when I sprang out of bed with a ‘Thank you God for this new morning’…or words to that effect…before a long journey to Berlin where we took part in a worship service in this grand building. All the delegates were told to all go in our national dress. I had unfortunately left my dragon costume at home so I went for a t-shirt that read ‘Refugees Welcome’, as a nod to Wales’ much revered hospitality and in the hope that the message might be picked up by the television cameras there. The clothing worn by our sisters and brothers from Asia and Africa in particular, though, was simply stunning. And as we sat there in our colourful, cultural diversity, we listened as the Bible was read in English and Spanish; in German and French, in Bahasa Indonesian and Korean…and those who spoke and read other languages were encouraged to read the Bible in their mother tongue too. This wonderful Pentecostal experience reminded me of how the reformation is grounded in scripture. In an age when the Church celebrated man-made rituals, Martin Luther rediscovered God’s amazing grace in the pages of scripture. In an age when only the elect few guarded Church truths, the reformers declared that all of us could encounter God’s good news in the Bible. And at a time when the Bible was only to be heard in Latin – the language of the holy huddle – the reformers printed copies in the language of the people…in English and Spanish, German and French, and later in Bahasa Indonesian, Korean, Welsh and every language under the Sun.
God’s extravagant love, breathtaking grace and world-shaking hope as witnessed to in scripture could be heard, read, embraced and lived out by all! Reformation then was, and still is, grounded in scripture. So I wonder how we might be re-formed by the Bible today. Might we think about reading the Bible regularly at home, if we don’t already? Might we give more time to wrestling with the Bible in community – to be open to critique, and be critiqued, by the words of the Bible? How might a deeper grounding in the Bible reform our daily living, our faith, our community today?
Of course, reading the Bible can be a dangerous thing! Perhaps some of you have read, or are currently watching, the excellent yet harrowing ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood – a terrifying story of what can happen when powerful Puritans use, abuse the Bible in order to justify a totalitarian regime where might is right, women are oppressed, homosexuals are killed and diversity violently crushed. Would that such a story be wild fiction and not a mirror to the atrocities which have been committed in the name of God and justified by the words of scripture over the years. The reformers were not innocent of this and neither is the Church today.
In our reading earlier, we heard how scripture is God-breathed…and we know that when breath is held, contained, it loses energy, it disappears into the ether, it can no longer sustain life. The same is true of scripture when we try to contain it by using it for our own purposes or to support our own prejudices. Instead, we must let the breath of God breathe through The Bible and through us as we engage with it. As Christ told his followers before he left them, we must be open to the one who has yet more to teach us. Five hundred years ago, the Spirit blew through the Church and turned everything upside down. But the Spirit’s reformation of God’s people did not begin with a hammer and some nails in Wittenberg, nor did it end there. The Spirit has more to reveal, to challenge, inspire and transform in our Church today. We are to be an ever-reforming church, shedding security blankets and extra baggage we cling to and picking up unfamiliar, sometimes uncomfortable ways of sharing God’s good news in our context today. So the ongoing reformation of the Church must be Spirit-led.
And to symbolize this, here’s a photograph of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg – the church where Luther was said to nail his 95 theses – his 95 complaints – to the Church doors.
And there are the said doors – well, the replacement ones which stand where the old doors once were and which have Luther’s 95 theses engraved on them.
Only when I went to see the door, it was being worked on by a female worker. Isn’t that wonderful?! The idea of the doors not yet being complete, of God’s reformation of the Church not being over, of the Church being worked upon, refashioned, reformed by a woman is to me a delicious symbol that the Holy Spirit is not finished with us yet. If we are open to her working in us and through us, perhaps we, too, will be worked upon, refashioned and reformed today.
As well as being grounded in scripture and suffused by the Spirit, the reformation was subversive in action. In 1517 the State and Church were intertwined in a system that was hierarchically structured, built upon power and guarded against diversity of thought. The Church was universal, unified and uniformed with differences of belief, gender, ethnicity or sexuality questioned and quashed. The reformers spoke out against such a system. They suggested that the ethics of the Bible were not compatible with the ethics of the Empire. They argued that the teachings of the Church were not always aligned to the teaching of Christ. They declared that the good news of God’s grace was obscured by the false trappings of the status quo. And so they prayed and protested for change and religion, politics and the social structures of our world have not been the same since.
And I wonder whether the world of Luther, Calvin and the other reformers is that different from today. I wonder whether the ethics of the Bible, the teaching of Christ, the good news of God’s grace might compel us to protest and pray for change in our context. Our Empire might not tell us that we have to buy indulgences to get into heaven but it does tell us that fear and despair and division are to be accepted as everyday realities. It tells us to uphold a financial system in which the eight richest people in the world control the same wealth as the 3.6 billion poorest; it tells us to be deaf to the cries of those drowning while crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life; to be blind to the suffering of those fleeing Syria, those dying in Iraq, the landless in Bolivia, those under occupation in Palestine…
Perhaps it’s time to rekindle our subversive streak, to regain the spirit of protest, to reclaim the dangerous, radical and subversive message of the God who came to us declaring good news for the poor, release to the captives and liberation for the oppressed.
It was exactly this subversive spirit that saw this church – St Nicholas Church in Leipzig – hold prayers for peace every Monday night in the oppressive conditions in 1980s East Germany.
In October 1989, Erich Honecker, the Communist leader of East Germany, declared that this subversive church should be closed and the peaceful protests stopped by any means necessary. On the evening of October 9th the police were sent in to stop the church service armed with guns and riot gear; those at the church were wielding prayers and candles. And yet the police stepped aside; Erich Honecker resigned and exactly a month after the events in Leipzig, the Berlin wall came down. In an age in which wall-building is in fashion again, how might we best subvert the Empire today?!
So, scripture-grounded, Spirit-led, subversive in action and, finally, the reformation was centred on salvation. For all our remembrance of Luther in services and celebrations, the Reformation of five hundred years ago was centred on God’s saving act revealed in another man – a man born in Bethlehem, who died on a cross and rose in a garden. Luther’s great discovery or, more accurately, re-discovery is that we can never gain our own salvation. God loves us not because we are good enough or clever enough or religious enough…God loves us because God loves us because God loves us. Our salvation…our being made whole; our welcome into God’s presence; our reformation and transformation by God – however you want to put it – is because of God’s action in Christ, not because of our actions. We do not earn God’s grace; the Church does not own; rather it is a free gift from our mysterious, magnificent God. This is God’s good news. And so which church might symbolize this best. There was one that came to mind…St. David’s Uniting Church.
Next week will, I hope, be a wonderful service in which we get to celebrate all the many fantastic things that go on in this place. Work with the children and young people, with older women and men, with refugees and the homeless, with the lonely, the stressed, the grieving, the grumbling, the loved and the sometimes hard to love…and in amongst all the meetings we have, groups we host and worship we offer is the simple, scandalous message that God loves us because God loves us because God loves us and if friends and strangers get even a glimpse of God’s grace in this place, then thank God for working through us, in us, and sometimes even in spite of us!
So, as we remember the Reformation of five hundred years ago, let us pray for the continued reformation of our hearts and minds, of our Church and our world. Let us be grounded in scripture and subversive in action. Let’s be open to where the Spirit might take us and share the song of salvation in all we do. Living God, reform and transform us once again. Amen!