Sunday, October 30, 2016

By Faith Alone: Sermon for Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016

Scripture readings are from the New King James Version of the Bible.

In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head while on his bed. Then he wrote down the dream, telling the main facts.

Daniel spoke, saying, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the Great Sea. And four great beasts came up from the sea, each different from the other.

“I, Daniel, was grieved in my spirit within my body, and the visions of my head troubled me. 16 I came near to one of those who stood by, and asked him the truth of all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of these things: 17 ‘Those great beasts, which are four, are four kings which arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever.’"
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.

In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.

Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.

And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
Ephesians 1:11-23

Then Jesus lifted up His eyes toward His disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
For you shall be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
For you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
And when they exclude you,
And revile you, and cast out your name as evil,
For the Son of Man’s sake.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!
For indeed your reward is great in heaven,
For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
For you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full,
For you shall hunger.
Woe to you who laugh now,
For you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
For so did their fathers to the false prophets.

“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.
Luke 6:20-31

We have Reformation Sunday today because on October 31, 1517, a priest and theology teacher named Martin Luther went up to the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, and posted his 95 Theses on the door – 95 objections to church teachings that he believed had gotten away from what Jesus and the apostles had taught. And, partially because a new technology, the printing press, allowed these theses and other writings to be distributed quickly, that started the Protestant Reformation that spread across Europe. Our United Church heritage in the Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches is Protestant and goes right back to those days. We are a Reformed church, with our identity shaped by this Reformation.

Before the Reformation there was one church across all of Western and Central Europe, the Catholic Church. One of the key differences Luther and the other Reformers had with Catholic church teaching of the time was about how we are saved by God through Jesus. Luther said that the church had lost sight of the truth about salvation that is found in Scripture. Basically, the Catholic church back then taught that people are saved by works, that is, what we do. One thing that got Luther riled up to post his 95 theses was that a commissioner from Rome had been sent to the area to raise funds to build St. Peter’s Basilica. That’s the huge church that is now at the centre of the Vatican. The pope’s delegate was selling what were called indulgences. If you gave money for St. Peter’s, you received an indulgence, a promise that this good work would guarantee you a quicker entrance into heaven.

And even with our Protestant heritage, we still talk sometimes like Catholics 500 years ago. If someone does something nice for us, we say, “Oh, you will go to heaven for that.”

Luther pointed to what the Bible says. The Protestant Reformers proclaimed “Scripture alone.” They didn’t teach anything that couldn’t be found in the Bible. So Luther turned to the letter to the Ephesians. We just read part of the first chapter of Ephesians, about God’s saints. In the next chapter, it says, and these are the verses Luther and the Reformers highlighted:

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives (Ephesians 2:8-10, Common English Bible).

We are saved by faith, not works. Faith alone. We can’t do anything to earn our salvation. It is God’s free gift to us, whether we deserve it or not. Good works are still important, but they are a sign of our faith, not the way that we are saved or justified or put right with God.

This truth found in Scripture is called the doctrine of justification. Luther said that this is the one and firm rock, the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine. We are saved by God’s grace. Luther was summoned before an assembly of the imperial and church authorities. It was called the Diet of Worms, which sounds pretty funny, but a diet is a parliament, and the city is spelled Worms in English but pronounced Worms in German. So it wasn't really a "diet of worms." Anyway, Luther was told that he would be declared an outlaw unless he recanted his statements on justification. He responded, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me.”

If we know anything about the Reformation, we probably think about it as Protestant vs. Catholic, and it was. Divisions were deep, and people were persecuted, and put to death, and wars were fought, because of these differences over what people believed. Jesus said that people will hate and exclude and revile his followers. That was certainly true, terribly true, during this period and the centuries afterwards.

But the Reformed churches aren’t the same as they were 400 and 500 years ago. A Reformed motto is “the church is reformed and always reforming.” And the Roman Catholic church isn’t the same as it was then either. It has been reforming too, changing many of the things the Protestant Reformers were rebelling against. Pope Francis will visit Sweden this week for the anniversary of the Reformation, in a show of unity.

And there has even been progress on resolving that key difference at the heart of this split in the church, the disagreement over the doctrine of justification. Catholics and Protestants in fact worked out a solution only 20 years after Luther first published his ideas, but this effort failed as the two sides were already too entrenched. So in recent years the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches arrived at a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It has now been affirmed by Methodist and Anglican churches. The United Church of Canada belongs to the World Communion of Reformed Churches, with 229 member churches in 108 countries. It’s hoped that this Reformed association will sign on to the Declaration next year when it meets in Germany as part of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. As the chair of the Theology and Inter-Church Inter-Faith Committee of our denomination, I just sent in our Canadian response to the declaration on justification.

This declaration by all these churches means that this historical difference on how we are saved in Jesus Christ no longer divides us. The churches affirm together some key truths from scripture about our Christian faith: God calls all people unconditionally to salvation in Jesus Christ; we are powerless to save ourselves, so no one can respond to God’s call apart from God’s grace working in them; we receive salvation by grace alone, through faith in Christ, not because of anything we have done; we remain dependent on God’s grace throughout our lives. Grace is the source of our justification while faith is how we receive it. Our union with Christ by faith involves both justification by grace and sanctification, or growing in grace.

And while our justification is not because of any good works, our faith is acted out in how we love. In Christ the Holy Spirit renews us in order that we may be equipped to do the works of love God has prepared for us, as a sign of our justification. Faith without works is dead, the New Testament says. In our United Church response we wrote that we affirm that there is unity between justification and justice. God's movement towards us in love does not end with us, but always flows outward, moving us outward to participate in God's mission of healing the world. The Reformed churches are convinced that the doctrine of justification can’t be abstract, somehow separated from the reality of injustice, oppression and violence.

So good news on this Reformation Sunday, especially for us with the motto - right there on our United Church crest - “That they may all be one,” the prayer of Jesus for his followers. We see new possibilities for overcoming 500 years of division and for the joint witness to the world that is the will of Jesus. Thanks be to God.