A Homily for Reformation Sunday
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who sets us free. Amen.
About eight years ago, when my parents were stationed in Germany with the US Army, I had the chance to visit them for an entire summer. On my way to seminary as a United Methodist openly flirting with the Lutheran tradition, I jumped at the chance to visit the numerous historical sites affiliated with the Reformation. Over those months, I traveled to Worms (as in, “the Diet of…” and of “Here I stand, I can do no other” fame), Augsburg (as in “Confession of”), and Speyer (lesser known, but no less important – there, Lutheran leaders protested the imperial ban on Luther’s teachings and earned the name “Protestants” – a moniker that seems to have some staying power).
Touring these sites in 2010, I was shocked to see “500th Anniversary” signs everywhere. At first, I was worried that I had somehow missed something – that, despite studying religion and history and being something of a nerd, I had gotten the wrong date fixed in my head, that I had mixed up the year the Reformation began. It was, after all, by my count a full seven years before the big five-oh-oh.
Rest assured: 1517 is actually the correct date. But the German government, recognizing the epoch-defining nature of Luther’s 95 Theses, decided that one day or even a full year were insufficient. They declared 2008 the start of the Luther Decade and began in earnest preparing for the influx of history buffs, theologians, pastors, curious tourists, and faithful pilgrims who would descend upon these German towns to mark half a millennia of the Reformation.
But much like the stores already peddling Christmas decorations today – which will undoubtedly disappear at 11:59:59pm on December 24th, Germany frontloaded their celebrations. While we have many more five hundredth anniversaries to come (such as Luther’s arguments with Cardinal Cajetan this very month, Luther’s excommunication in 1521, the German New Testament in 1522, the German Mass in 1525, the publication of “A Mighty Fortress” in 1527, the Protestation at Speyer and the Small Catechism in 1529, and the Augsburg Confession in 1530, and many more besides), it all sort of petered out last year. Or at least, the relentless publicity did, almost as if to say that the Reformation ended on the thirty-first of October, 1517.
This view puts the Reformation in the past, as though the renewal of the Church is something that happened and ended, that the Holy Spirit moved Luther and a few of his friends, and then She just sort of stopped.
But as a contingent of pastors and scholars were reminded at Emory’s Reformation Day on Thursday, though, the Reformation is not about the past. It’s about the future.* It’s not about what happened but about what will happen. Today, we give thanks – not just for what God did five hundred one years ago in a small German town but also for what God is doing around the entire world today. It’s about what the Spirit is calling us to – even here, even in Macon, removed though we may be from Wittenberg and Augsburg and Worms and Speyer. As our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton put it in the lead up to 2017, the Reformation is about what happens tomorrow and the next day, next year, the next decade, and over the next five hundred years, and the next two millennium.
The Spirit is pushing us on today, calling us to be ever-reformed and ever-reforming.
That “ever-reforming” bit can be a real challenge. Reformation is a difficult and painful process. The success of this whole “Evangelische” endeavor was far from certain in those early days, when Luther was excommunicated and exiled from society, when his books were burned in the public square, when princes turned theological debates into bloody wars, when Luther himself so viciously attacked his opponents and displayed hateful cruelty towards the Jewish people, when the Church fractured beyond measure, when reformers turned against each other and new leaders found new ways to abuse the Church. There are so many times it would have been easier to ignore the Spirit’s calling, to say this work is too hard. There were undoubtedly times when Luther questioned whether or not he was truly free in Christ, and later reformers like Teresa of Avila surely doubted their roles in God’s Kingdom.
There are times in this life when it feels like we are still enslaved – slaves to fear of an uncertain future, slaves to our sin and the damage it has done to relationships, slaves to the statistics of church decline, slaves to death. These chains weigh us down; they shackle us in places of dread and doubt. Demons whisper falsehoods in our ear: “You are not enough. You are unloved. You are doomed. Give up, curse God, and die.”
It’s not a secret that the Church – the Church universal – is in decline.
“Crumbled have spires in every land” – that lyric hits too close to home. Scandals, abuse, ignorance of Sacred Scripture and the Great Tradition, neglect of the Sacraments, bad preaching, and culture wars have wounded Christ’s Church deeply. And then there are the more mundane troubles – low attendance, shrinking budgets, a dip in the cultural importance of church membership and a rise in religiously unaffiliated and uninterested people who feel as though the Church has nothing to offer. Here in Macon, we are not immune. You long-time members know better than I how much the present troubles have plagued this local arm of Christ’s Body.
But my dear sisters and brothers, we have been adopted as daughters and sons through our baptism into Christ. We have become co-heirs with Jesus. We ARE set free – truly and wonderfully free. Free from fear, from sin, the devil, and death. And so when those demonic voices whisper doubt in your ear, respond, “I am not enough – but Christ is, and through him I know the love of God. It is death that is doomed to die. And so I will persevere, praise the Lord, and enjoy new life in the glory of Christ’s resurrection”
The same Christ who sets us free by his death and resurrection sends us forth to proclaim this Good News to the ends of the earth. The same Spirit that descended upon Christ at the Jordan, upon the Church at Pentecost, and inspired the great reformers of the past is given to each of us in Baptism and is empowering us to do great things.
In Christ, we are free indeed. Our freedom is not just a “freedom from.” No, it’s a richer, fuller freedom. By the power of the Holy Spirit, We are set free FOR the Kingdom of God. We are set free FOR the love of our neighbor. We are set free TO BE the Body of Christ for the sake of the world. We are free to move boldly into the future giving thanks for all that God has done and for all that God has called us to be.
Yes, we have entered year 501 of the Reformation. We’re approaching 105 years of ministry here in Macon. Thanks be to God! But the Spirit is not done with us yet. She’s calling us to live more fully into the freedom of the Gospel – the freedom to give all we have, trusting that God will provide more than we need. The freedom to love our neighbors and to be servants of all. The Spirit is calling us to be made new, to keep building and reforming the Church, and to trust above all that God will strengthen us for the future.
The picture in the header of this blog is Memorial Church, a Lutheran parish in Speyer, Germany, built at the turn of the century to honor the Protestation at he 1529 Diet of Speyer.