Reformed and Reforming: A Reformation Day Sermon

Below is a sermon I gave on October 24, 2010 at a combined Reformation Day Celebration (yes, I realize that the date of the service is a week before the actual Reformation Day).  The Bible readings were from Isaiah 43:18-21, John 13:34-35, Ephesians 4:22-24, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Revelation 21:5-7.

We are gathered here tonight to celebrate a movement that began nearly 500 years ago when an unknown monk from a small rural town nailed 95 objections he had with the church to a cathedral door.  What does a monk from the 1500’s have to do with us today?  Quite a bit actually.  What Martin Luther started nearly half a millennium ago has deep implications for us and our congregations today, particularly as we strive to understand our identity as Reformed people in our post-Christian, postmodern, multicultural world.

When I think of Martin Luther, the Reformation, and what it means to be Reformed, I think of my dad.  Unlike Martin Luther, my dad is not a monk, he doesn’t have wear a tonsure (the funky monk haircut), and he isn’t known for upsetting the pope.  So, how is my dad like Martin Luther?  To understand the connection, you need to know a bit about my dad.

My dad loves doing renovations.  So much so that the joke in my family is that renovations are my dad’s hobby.  Who here has ever done renovations or has seen the show “Extreme Home Makeover”?  If you have, you know that renovations are hard work.  Why someone would enjoy such dusty, dirty, difficult work as a hobby?  Nevertheless, my dad loves doing renovations.  Here’s the proof.  Take a look at these pictures – I was five years old when we moved into this house .

Here is the same house just before my parents sold it two years ago.

Over the course of 23 years my dad did a complete renovation of the house, inside and out.

I remember him coming from work one day and burying his hammer into the wall between our living room and hallway.  “After dinner”, he said “this wall is coming down”.  My mom wasn’t too pleased and since we were his labourers, my siblings and I tried to lengthen dinner time as long as possible, dreading the messy job that awaited us.  True to his word, after dinner the wall came down.  Not only that, but the house came down a bit too, about 3 inches, since the wall we removed was a load bearing wall (in other words, it was one of the walls that helps holds the house up).  We all thought dad was crazy – why take down a perfectly good wall?  But we couldn’t see what he could see – to dad the wall was standing in the way, it was limiting our space and the potential beauty of our house.  So, it needed to come down.  My dad had a vision of how the house could be improved by removing it.  And you know what, he was right.  With the wall gone, our living room looking much better and the main floor of our house became more spacious and welcoming.

Why does my dad enjoy renovations?  While he enjoys the physical work, what drives him is excitement about the completed project.  He sees the possibilities and works to make those possibilities a reality, even if it means taking down a wall or two.  My dad also enjoys renovations because they are an ongoing project – there is always something to be done inside and outside the house.  As you know, renovations often lead to further renovations, which lead to further renovations, and so on.  Renovations also require the ability to improvise.  While my dad has the completed project in mind, often unforeseen issues arise that require creative problem solving.  This is part of what makes renovations interesting.  Any well formulated plan still has to leave room for the unexpected, such as a house shifting when a load bearing wall is removed.

My dad is a renovator.  He is committed to making things around the house better in order to bring out their potential.  He is willing to upset my mom and to get dirty in order to improve things.  He didn’t constantly renovate the house because he didn’t like the house; on the contrary, he renovated the house precisely because he liked it and saw its beauty.  And this is why my dad reminds me of Martin Luther.

Martin Luther was a renovator.  I’m not suggesting that Martin Luther wore a hard hat and knew how to use a table saw.  Martin Luther was a theological renovator who used ideas to renovate the Western church.  Like all renovators, Luther was someone with a vision.  He developed a clear picture of what the church can and should be and how to renovate it accordingly.  In making these renovations, he was not afraid to get dirty even when it meant upsetting those in power.  Luther was committed to renovating the church because he loved it.  He saw how the beauty of the church had been concealed behind some questionable practices and traditions of the church.  The church was building walls that were confusing the faith of people and seemed to contradict what the Bible said.  Luther was a renovator because he was willing to tear down these walls.

There were three main walls in the 16th century church that Luther tore down.  The first wall Luther demolished was the practice of indulgences.  Indulgences were basically “get out of jail free cards” that had two functions – you could either free a dead relative’s soul from purgatory or you could use the indulgence as forgiveness for a sin you were about to commit.  Who wouldn’t want to buy one!  In the first part of the video we watched earlier, the priests were selling indulgences to those on pilgrimages to Rome.  Luther spoke out against the sale of indulgences because the practice was obviously motivated by greed and took advantage of common folks.  He was also outraged at the theology behind the practice – because they implied that salvation could come through a piece of paper issued by the Pope rather than through Christ alone.

The practice of indulgences was directly related to the second wall that Luther demolished in his renovations, the idea of works-based righteousness.  According to Luther, the church was mistaken in its translation and understanding of certain verses in the Bible.  For centuries, the church taught that repentance and penance were directly linked, that genuine repentance requires certain behaviours.  For someone to receive God’s forgiveness, they must perform the acts of confession and penance.  Luther rejected the church’s teaching in this area because to him it implied that a person could earn God’s grace through their acts of confession and penance.  Luther argued that since one’s salvation comes through Christ alone, salvation is a gift from God; there is nothing humans can do to earn God’s grace – it is given to them as God’s gift through Jesus Christ.  The act of repentance is an act of faith and faith comes from God alone.  Therefore, we are made right with God, in other words we are justified, through faith alone.

Common folks simply accepted church teaching because they had no way of evaluating it.  At that time church services were entirely in Latin and what few books existed were written in Latin or Greek.  Think back to the beginning of tonight’ service – when you come into the sanctuary you couldn’t understand the lyrics of the music or the words I used to open the service.  That was the experience of 98% of people who attended church services during Luther’s time – the only people who could speak or read Latin where the priests and the nobility.  This frustrated Luther because it meant that common church goers were forced to accept church teaching without being able to understand it or to test its truth by reading the Bible.  Luther demolished the wall of Latin only church services and Bibles by translating the Bible and the liturgy into German so that everyone could understand what was said in church and read the Bible themselves.  For Luther, the message of justification by faith was clouded over by corrupt church practices, poor translations, defective teachings, and the inability of people to read the Bible.

Luther based his demolition of these three walls of the church because he believed that all church traditions must be based on Scripture alone.  For him, the church should never continue traditions for their own sake.  Continuing the practice of indulgences, teaching bad doctrine, and maintaining the Latin mass were problematic for Luther because he could find no validation for these traditions in the Bible.  To continue to follow them simply because people were used to them or because the church thought they were valuable would only lead to further error and confusion.  Because he was a renovator, Luther removed these traditions and started new ones.

In Bible readings for tonight, we see that like my dad and Martin Luther, God is also a renovator.  Throughout the Bible, we see God the renovator at work.  God starts his building project with creation – he creates stars, planets, solar systems; he brings all life forms into being including the pinnacle of his project – humans.  Because these humans are created in His image, God gives them the task of being his co-creators.

But then, these humans take matters into their own hands and decide to create apart from God.  They decide that they have no need to be co-creators; they alone will decide how they want to live in the garden.  They will create on their own terms.  They assume that their relationship with God is optional.  So, full of pride, they neglect their role as co-creators in order to be free from the Creator.  And for the first time, the good creation starts to unravel.

This breaks God’s heart; the creation he so tenderly and purposefully made has rejected him.  But because God is a creator, he is a renovator – he refuses to give up on his project because he knows its potential.  He will renovate because he loves what he has made.  God does not make junk; he refuses to throw anything out because he can see the goodness and beauty in everything he has made.  God is a renovator.

Allow me to explain how and why God is a renovator through a brief word break-down.  I know that you’ve probably had enough of Latin for tonight, but our English word “renovate” comes from the Latin word “renovare”.  “Renovare” means to reinvigorate and to make as if new.  In other words, to renovate is to renew.  And throughout the Bible it is clear that God is a God who renews.  God is a renovator.

God renovates through redemption.  Redemption renews life and restores original beauty and purpose.  Immediately after humanity’s prideful turning back on God, God immediately promises and starts his renovation plan – a promise we hear echoed throughout the prophets and the rest of the Old Testament; a plan that comes into reality with the birth of a baby boy named Jesus to a young unwed mother.  God’s promise and plan for renovation is based on the life, death, and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ.

Because God is a renovator, Jesus is a renovator.  He renovates the law because he is its fulfilment and he renovates the law by giving a new commandment – to love another.  Even though this made the religious leaders very upset, Jesus continued with his renovations.  He brings a new covenant between God and humanity, restoring their relationship.  Jesus is the foundation of God’s renovation plan.  Everything is built on him.

Because God and Jesus are renovators, the Holy Spirit is a renovator.  The Holy Spirit is given as Jesus’ presence to his disciples, those who are called to continue his renovations.  The Holy Spirit works in and through us as we participate and assist in God’s renovation.  Indeed, as Jesus’ disciples, our very lives are a testimony to God’s renovation project – he has made us a new creation.  He has made us new not by starting over but through the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  As much as we are called to assist God in his renovations, our very lives are also part of his renovations.

A helpful way to think about this is that God is the architect – he is the one with the design and plans.  He knows what the finished project will look like and what it will take to complete the project.  Jesus is the foundation – everything in all creation is built in and through him, including the church.  The Holy Spirit is the foreman; he is the one who directs the workers.  We, the church, are the workers, the ones given the task of helping God with his renovations.  We are God’s co-renovators.  He doesn’t give this task to a few; he gives it all his people because renovations require a team of skilled trades-people, each with a specific task.  We build and renovate together under the Spirit’s direction.  Not only are we builders and renovators, but we ourselves are also being renovated by the Spirit.

The experience of renovation in our own lives prepares us for the renovations that we are called to make.  So, what do Christians build and renovate?  Because the church is given the responsibility to continue Jesus’ work on earth, as his followers we build and renovate the church in order to help us be faithful to this task. We build and renovate the church upon our only foundation, Jesus.  We build and renovate the church as an ongoing project that will only be completed when Jesus returns.  We build and renovate according to the Bible, the blueprints given to us by the divine architect.  We build and renovate under Spirit’s guidance, trusting that he will show us the work that must be done.  We, the people of God, are given the task of building and renovating the Church in order to share the good news that God is renovating all things

In this construction metaphor, the church is a building.  So, if Jesus is the Church’s foundation, the Bible is the blueprints, and we are the renovators, what is the structure of the church?  What is it made of?  The frame and walls of the church are its customs, doctrines, habits, and practices.  In other words, the structure of the church is its traditions.  The traditions of the church are important because you can’t have a building without walls.  As builders, we construct walls.  This is part of our project.  Some of the walls are very old and still very solid.  Some of the walls are still being built.  Some of these walls are in a serious state of disrepair.  As renovators, we have the task of building, fixing and sometimes removing walls.  One of the slogans during the reformation was a Latin phrase – “ecclesia semper reformanda est”, which means “the church is always reforming”.

The church is always reforming because its traditions are not the foundation; they are the walls.  This was part of Luther’s main critique of the Church of his day – it made tradition part of the foundation and it hadn’t faithfully consulted the blueprints in constructing these traditions.  When the church makes its own traditions part of the foundation, it is pouring a weak foundation.  The consequences of building on a weak foundation are devastating – the building will collapse and won’t be able to fulfill its purpose.  This is not to say that traditions are bad.  Indeed, traditions are good and important things.  But as Christians charged with building the church, we have to understand the nature of our construction materials in order to be effective builders and renovators.  The walls we build are of our own making – and this is a good thing.  We are made in the image of the God who creates, so it is part of our nature to create.

However, when we treat the walls we make as immovable and indestructible objects, we have made them into idols.  The purpose of these walls is no longer structural; they have become ornamental.  We think they are beautiful and we marvel at what we’ve made.  We say to ourselves – what great builders we are –we have created such beautiful walls, why would we ever want to tear them down?  We leave these walls standing because we think the structural integrity of the entire building depends on them; forgetting that the foundation upon which we build is a solid foundation that will never let our building collapse.  And yet, we love our walls – they keep us safe, they make it easier to define who is in and who is out.  And we continue to build our walls, higher, bigger, and thicker, unaware that we’ve boxed ourselves into a room with no doors and no windows.  A coat of paint and some nice decorations will never fix this.  Sometimes walls need to be demolished.

When we neglect our renovating tasks, we become curators.  A curator is someone who is responsible for collecting and cataloguing historical artefacts in a museum.  When we refuse to renovate, we have made the church into a museum, and we’ve made our traditions into completely meaningless artefacts.  A church historian once said “Tradition is the living faith of the dead.  Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living”.  This gets to the heart of the difference between renovators and curators – renovators know that tradition is something that requires reformation if it is to continue living.  Curators want to preserve things they way they are as lifeless artefacts in a collection.

I love the Reformed tradition that my grandparents brought with them when the immigrated to Canada.  Like some of you here tonight, they were builders who built churches, schools, universities, trade unions, and farmers groups.  Your dedication and sacrifices are a powerful testimony of your faith and to the beauty of our tradition.  Thank-you for what you have given me and so many others.  Thank-you for the beautiful walls you’ve made – they have served us well.

Because I and so many others love this tradition, we want to renovate it so that it can continue to be an important part of the church’s mission in the world.  However, there are those who treat our tradition as a possession, as if it were theirs alone; they refusing to give it to the next generation for us to renovate.  They vehemently guard “the way things have always been done” because don’t want to lose the tradition.  And yet, the irony is that the only way to keep a tradition alive is to allow it to be renovated.  When we treat tradition as a possession, its only value is as a museum artefact.  However, when we treat tradition as a gift, we allow it to continue to live.  Although it will inevitably undergo renovation, it will continue to serve a purpose and may even find new purpose.

As renovators, we need to continually ask ourselves – which walls need to be repaired and which walls need to be removed if we are to be effective in our calling in the world?  We can underline the importance of this question by thinking about your experience when you first entered the sanctuary – it was probably a bit strange for most of you because you couldn’t understand what was being said.  The music and the pictures were foreign to you.  This is precisely the experience of many both within and outside of the church – they cannot understand our vocabulary, our customs, or our practices.  These things have become walls that prevent the Church from carrying out our mission.  We are seeing the fruit of the strategy of ignoring the changes that are required – young people are leaving the church in never before seen numbers and many of our congregations are aging with no new membership.  And yet we continue to build up walls that prevent our message from being heard or understood; we like continually patching crumbling walls because it helps us ignore our Foreman’s instructions and guidance.

The time for speaking Latin is over.  We need to find a new way of speaking in order to translate our vocabularies, traditions, and practices into a language that our culture can understand.  This does not mean that we replace or dumb-down our language, but that we find new ways of speaking our message to a world that desperately needs to hear that God is renewing and renovating all things.  It is not that the world is unwilling to listen to our message; it is that we haven’t always been able to deliver it in a way that people can hear and understand.  Translation is renovation.  It requires vision, courage, imagination, and the willingness to swing a sledge hammer when necessary.

Martin Luther was a renovator.  As Reformed Christians, we celebrate Reformation Day to remember his work as a renovator.  This also means that we must take our role as renovators seriously.  We cannot be curators who maintain and preserve tradition or doctrine simply for its own sake.  Rather, we build and renovate so that we can fulfil our mission to be a blessing to all nations.  Furthermore, to be Reformed is to realize that our tradition has a history that extends all the way back to the early church because we are charged with the same task as they were.  This means that we share and renovate the Church with other Christians – Catholic, Orthodoxy, Pentecostal, Mennonite, and so on.  We cannot claim the building as our own since all our diverse traditions form the building.  The Architect expects us to work in unity.  Although the walls we build and renovate are different and diverse, they all serve the same purpose.  We cannot use our traditions as dividers since we all work for the same Architect and Foreman and well all build on the same foundation.  So while we differ as Christians, we work together in unity of purpose, using what we learn from each other in our own renovations.

To be Reformed means that we value the renovations of the Reformation without using them to create new walls.  We can learn from what was said by the reformers in the 16th century, but we have to remember that we live in the 21st century.  The renovations of the 16th century did not create perfect walls; they too are in need of constant renovation.  Removing walls is hard and messy work and it is often something that we are reluctant to do.  But it is part of what we are called to do – to be Reformed is to be a renovator, following the blueprints of the Bible, building on Christ alone, following the leading of the Foreman, and trusting in Architect.  We build the church so that all may see, hear, and understand that God is at work renovating the world through Jesus Christ

To be Reformed is to participate in God’s ongoing renovations of creation and to anticipate Jesus’ return when all our work will be complete and we can enjoy eternal rest with him.  But now there is work to be done.  It is the time to put on our work boots and hard hats, pick up our tools and continue the renovations.  Amen.

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