“The Reformation Continues” Colchester Federated Church, October 29, 2017, (Deuteronomy 34:1-12) Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today’s sermon has presented a challenge. To fully celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and look ahead knowing that the Reformation continues. We’ll begin with our scripture passage and thinking about a faith leader who left a legacy before we even get to Martin Luther and the Reformation. That faith leader is Moses whose death is a rather sad story because after all the hardship of leading the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, Moses doesn’t actually enter that land. Moses stands on a mountain in the presence of God, looks upon the valley—at the land promised to his people. The people who complained and broke the commandments and rebelled. They move onto this Promised Land while Moses dies on the mountain.
This is the kind of Bible story that can keep you up at night because it seems so unfair. God says, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Did you notice that Moses doesn’t have a speaking part? Not one line. God tells him all this stuff, and Moses doesn’t resist, doesn’t argue, doesn’t protest, doesn’t complain. He accepts his fate and dies on the mountain in Moab, gets buried, and the people mourn for the loss of this great man. Moses seems to die at peace. No, he didn’t get to enter the Promised Land. But he got his people there. His hard work and forty years of desert wandering paid off. God lets Moses see that. And there’s an amazing ending to his story. The ending of the entire Torah: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt.” What a wonderful way to go out when you really think about it. Being praised as the greatest prophet Israel had ever witnessed, the man responsible for setting his people free and leading them home.
We won’t always get to see what our hard work and dedication yields in our own lifetimes. Though sometimes we are granted a glimpse of what we may consider our legacy. Moses can lead us to consider another great figure in our faith—Martin Luther. When Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church he didn’t know that this act would lead to a huge split within Christianity and the formation of hundreds of Protestant denominations after his lifetime. He opposed what the Roman Catholic Church was doing at the time—selling indulgences for the forgiveness of sins among other corrupt actions. People would give what little money they had to the Church so that their sins would be forgiven and they would be supposedly guaranteed a place in heaven. The poor got poorer and the Church got richer. Luther saw this corruption for what it was and passionately argued against it.
Luther’s beliefs led to five Latin phrases being used during the Protestant Reformation that codified the beliefs of the Reformers. This may be on the quiz later. The first was Sola Fide: by faith alone. The idea that salvation came through faith not works or the sale of indulgences. Sola Scriptura: by Scripture alone. Protestants argued that the Bible is the sole source of authority for Christians, not tradition or the Pope. Solus Christus: through Christ alone. Jesus is the one who offers access to God, not priests. This idea would be developed into the priesthood of all believers. Sola Gratia, by grace alone. Salvation comes from what God has done, there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s grace. And finally, Soli Deo Gloria: glory to God alone. Our goal as Christians is not to please church leaders, keep a list of rules, or look after our own interests. We live as Christians to glorify God alone.
Now Martin Luther had a rough go of sharing these beliefs. He was excommunicated by the Church in 1521 and made many enemies. At one point, Luther shuttered himself away in a castle to translate the Bible into German. Sometimes we may forget what a gift this is. We have the ability to read the Bible in our spoken language—this was one of the greatest gifts of the Protestant Reformation, the empowerment of the laity by translating the Bible into vernacular languages. So when Martin Luther was holed up in that castle translating the Bible he struggled with doubt and discouragement. Remember the lines we sang in “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”: “And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us. We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure: one little word shall fell him.”
Luther wasn’t in good health—many scholars think that he suffered from kidney stones, vertigo, heart problems, arthritis, a cataract in his eye, and a digestive disorder. Luther was known to throw inkpots around to scare away his demons. He would shout around the castle during his period of Biblical translation, “I am baptized!” Basically saying I am named and claimed by God. He was far from a perfect saint. Some of Luther’s writings are anti-Semitic and he can be partly blamed for the slaughter of many innocent peasants during peasant revolts in Germany in the 1520s. Martin Luther dealt with demons—the demons of self-doubt, the pain from his health conditions, and the stress from constant theological battles when he was doing his best to reform the Church and change the way it had always been done.
So Martin Luther was not a perfect man and just like Moses he also didn’t see the Promised Land before he died. Though their legacies lives on. Many of those central teachings of the Protestant Reformers ring true today in Protestant churches like ours. And we may be literally due for another Reformation. There’s this theory of church reform movements put forth by Phyllis Tickle, who was an authority on religion in America. Tickle explained that nearly every 500 years the Latinized cultures of the world go through a major cultural upheaval.
Five hundred years ago, it was the Protestant Reformation. All of a sudden we had humanism, nation-states, a middle class, capitalism, translating the Bible into our spoken languages and printing them to eventually have in our homes to actually read. We had Protestants come onto the scene, claiming that religious professionals were not the only people with direct access to God. God is accessible for everyone. And we’re saved by our faith and God’s grace which we can’t ever earn.
Let’s go back further. In 1054 we had the Great Schism of Eastern and Western Christianity. Now we had Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics who disagreed on nuanced theological issues and split up over these disagreements and so much more. Fifteen hundred years back we had the Great Decline and Fall, when the classical world of the Roman Empire fell away and ushered in the Dark Ages. Ordered governments were no more and chaos ensued in the Latinized world. Really the monasteries and convents were some of the only institutions that rose from the ashes to save some culture.
And let’s go back one more time. Around two thousand years ago, we had the Great Transformation—the world fell apart in some ways and came together in new ways. Rome moved from being a kingdom to an empire. The known world that was once scattered and disconnected became member-parts of a cultural and economic and political whole. All roads led to Rome. In this chaos was born a humble Jewish teacher who, because of his impact, would one day change the very way we date and mark time itself in the West! Think about it—we now use the terms Before the Common Era and the Common Era to not be so Christo-centric in our multicultural world. But our dates once read (and still have as their starting place) Before Christ and Anno Domini (In the Year of our Lord.) The Great Transformation indeed!
So now we’re in this time period that Christian historians like Phyllis Tickle called The Great Emergence or The Age of the Spirit. Some are predicting that changes we’re undergoing in the Church and in our global society will be equal to The Great Transformation itself in its impact on changing everything we’ve always known to be true. But how can we predict what this is going to look like and what this means for our beloved Christian Church? Tickle wrote, “We find ourselves alive and Christian in a time of almost unprecedented upheaval.” Did you know that the fastest growing expression of Christianity in the world is Pentecostalism? Christianity is growing the most in the Southern Hemisphere, not in America and not in Europe. Pentecostalism has at its center the Holy Spirit. If you ever speak to a Pentecostal, you will hear a marvelous discussion of the gifts of the Spirit. Pentecostals are known for being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, emphasizing direct and personal experiences of God.
It’s not a coincidence that these days the fastest growing expression of Christianity is known for its spirituality and direct personal encounters with God. Maybe this is truly the Age of the Spirit. And we can be part of a renewal movement in our expression of Christianity to get back to meaningful spirituality which is what makes us grow and thrive not just as the Church but as people. This doesn’t mean that we all convert to Pentecostalism. It means that we are open to the movements of the Holy Spirit. That we are open to new ways that God is speaking in our world. In our expression of Christianity we need to remember our heads and hearts because personal experiences of God in our lives bring about transformation. And if we take the charting of history to heart, on this 500th Anniversary of our Protestant Reformation—we are due for another reform movement. Church won’t look the same in the future as it does now. What a time to be alive and Christian in this moment. We can’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds it. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Deuteronomy 34:4, NRSV.
 Deuteronomy 34:10-11.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, 141.
 Phyllis Tickle and Jon M. Sweeney, The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church, 9-13.
 Tickle and Sweeney, The Age of the Spirit, 20.