Sunday, October 29, 2017

"The Truth That Sets Us Free". A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on Reformation Sunday 2017.

"The Truth That Sets Us Free"

John 8:31-36

This weekend a lot of people are celebrating Halloween.  But many Christians are remembering another day—one that marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. 
Five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and theology professor in the university town of Wittenberg, published his Ninety-Five Theses by nailing them to the door of the Castle Church.  In those days, the church door served as a community bulletin board. 
The 95 Theses were in the form of an invitation to debate about traditional church doctrine and practice, that, in Luther’s mind, needed to be reexamined and reformed.  Luther was advocating for reform within the Catholic church, but before it was over Luther would be excommunicated from the church and branded an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor.
As John Buchanan describes it, “violence ensued, wars were fought, martyrs on both sides were tortured and executed.  Luther’s followers and their churches were called ‘Lutherans’ in derision, but during the next century large portions of northern Germany, France, the Netherlands, Hungary, all the way to the Italian Alps and the Scottish Highlands, separated from Rome and organized themselves into Reformed churches.”[1]
            Five centuries later, as we commemorate Luther and the Ninety-Five Theses, we are reminded that the Protestant Reformation was a development that took place slowly, over time, and that it is an ongoing process. 

            Reformation Sunday can be a time for giving thanks, but also for remembering that God is always doing a new thing, though we don’t always perceive it. God’s salvation story truly is God’s salvation story. Our time in the church’s history-- like the time of Luther and Calvin and Knox-- is a chapter in a story that we didn’t create and can’t control.  

            Five hundred years after the Protestant Reformation, we’re living in a difficult and challenging time to be the church.  Back in 2008, Phyllis Tickle started talking about how the North American church was going through an every-500-years “rummage sale.” She and some other church scholars have been telling us that, when we look at the big picture, it’s something we could have predicted.  
            Tickle predicted that it will take around 100 years to work through and to find a new normal as humans, as Christians, as people who are re-learning how to love and recognize the image of God in one another.  We’re in the “chaos” phase of this process of “becoming,” and it’s going to take a while, so we need to learn to live faithfully in the tension.[2]

            I think this 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses is a good time to listen, with new ears, to Jesus’ amazing announcement to his followers: “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
            These words should startle us as much as they did the Jewish followers who heard Jesus say them the first time. Some of them were offended. “We’re the descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’” I don’t think these people suffered from amnesia. Recounting the saving act of God bringing the people out of bondage in Egypt was one of the basic confessions of faith for the Jews. But it seems they had come to trust more in “Abraham being their ancestor” than in their history of slavery in Egypt and the Exodus and the liberating promises of God. I wonder if we’re very different, when we forget the truth of God and God’s promises.
            As often happens in the gospel of John, Jesus makes a startling statement and it leads to more questions.  “What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?’      For a moment, the people are shocked enough to open up enough to hear a new thing. 

            On this 500th commemoration of the Reformation and in the days to come, I hope that we’ll be shocked enough that God’s word can burn through the fog of familiarity and become fresh good news to us.
            The good news of the gospel is that God has done for us in Christ what we cannot do for ourselves. We are “justified”—made right with God—not by our own efforts to earn our salvation by keeping a lot of rules, but by God’s free grace in coming to us.  Salvation is not a prize to be won or earned by our good works, but a gracious gift for us to accept by faith.
            The good news of the gospel is that we are valuable and worthy because God our creator and redeemer says so.  We are creatures made in the image of God.  We are children of God, persons for whom Jesus Christ suffered, died, and was raised again, persons in whom the Spirit of God is at work.  Because of all of this, we are somebody.  That is the basis of our dignity, our worth, our human rights, and our human responsibilities.   
            Shirley Guthrie explains it so well when he writes, “We don’t have to try to earn God’s love and acceptance, because we are already loved and accepted by God—unconditionally.”[3]

            On Reformation Sunday, we are reminded that we are justified by God’s grace, through faith.
The question of the day is:   how shall we live, in response to God’s gracious gift?  That’s where sanctification comes in. “Sanctification” is a theological word for how we grow in the Christian life, as we are taught and led further into the truth and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
            Sanctification is a life-long process, as we are gradually freed from our fears and doubts and brokenness-- to love and serve God and our neighbors as Christ does. As we grow in Christian faith, as we open ourselves to be surprised and transformed by God’s word, we come to “know the truth.”
            One sign of growing in the Christian life is maturing in love for and solidarity with all of God’s children-- especially with those who are poor and marginalized.

            In a blog post a few years ago, church historian Diana Butler Bass writes: “It strikes me as interesting that those who followed the teaching of the new reform movement did not come to be known as ‘Reformists.’  Rather, the moniker that stuck was ‘Protestant.’  Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression.  These religious protesters accused the church of their day of being too rich, too political, in thrall to kings and princes, having sold its soul to the powerful.   The original Protestants preached, taught, and argued for freedom—spiritual, economic, and political—and for God’s justice to be embodied in the church and the world.”  Diana goes on to say, “It is time to put the protest back in Protestantism.”[4]
I agree with Diana when she says that at the heart of Protestantism is the courage to challenge injustice and to give voice to those who have no voice.   Protestantism opened access for all people to experience God’s grace and God’s bounty, not only spiritually-- but actually. 
The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church-- but they were creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity.   The original Protestant impulse was to resist powers of worldly dominion and domination, in favor of the power of God’s spirit to transform human hearts and society.  The early Protestants were not content with the status quo.   They felt a deep discomfort within.  They knew things were not right.  And they set out to change the world.     
We live in a time of great change and anxiety, perplexity and possibility, in the church and in the world.   In 2017, as the world groans under flame and flood, as families are left shattered by sprays of bullets and the devastation of war, in this time of pluralism and materialism and secularism, of brokenness in human relationships, I believe God is working to do a new thing in our time. 
I believe we are living in a time of new reformation and that God is working to create a new church, in and through us.  I believe that God wants to use us as instruments of justice and reconciliation in the world.
            So—on this Reformation Sunday—we can be thankful for the Reformation of the 16th century and for the gospel truth that is setting us free... and for this great adventure of growing in faith.
            On this Reformation Sunday, and in the days to come, let us be praying that we may respond to the challenges of our time with joy and eagerness to carry out Christ’s mission. 
“In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, may we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks, and to live holy and joyful lives.”[5] 

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 29, 2017

[1] John M. Buchanan, “Values Worth Fighting For,” at his blog Hold to the Good.

[2]  Britney Winn Lee, “Not Yet on Shore: An American Church in Tension”/

[3] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, Rev. Ed., p. 319.
[4] Diana Butler Bass, “Putting the Protest Back in Protestantism.”

[5] “Brief Statement of Faith” of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1991.