Sermon: The Real Reformation
The Real Reformation
Text: Matthew 22:34-40
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 10-29-2017)
Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church in Germany on October 31, 1517 – 500 years ago on Tuesday! In his pre-Twitter time, these theses not only stimulated conversation within the church, they disturbed an institutional bee hive. Little did Luther know that his attempt to debate practices within his beloved Roman Catholic Church would not only lead to death threats but would give birth to what we know as the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
Not long after Luther raised the hackles of Rome in Germany, John Calvin called for similar reform in Paris and then in the city of Geneva, while Huldrych Zwingli did the same in Zurich and Menno Simmons in Holland . Some years later, Thomas Cramner and John and Charles Wesley would do the same in England.
For the most part, Reformers did not nit-pick the stupid stuff, such as: Should you stand or sit to pray? What color flowers should adorn the sanctuary or should there be flowers at all? No, the Reformers were tired of the church focusing on stupid stuff. They wanted to have big conversations, important conversations, in the church, such as: Did Jesus die for all humanity or only for a select few? Can we ever fall outside the umbrella of God’s grace? If so, what would we have to do or say or think to sink so low?
The earliest Reformers were not looking to leave the church but to see much needed reform in it. For instance, they wanted to stop the greatest fund raising scheme ever devised by any church huckster – the selling of indulgences. Simply put, an indulgence could be purchased to cover my sin and to assure that I would not linger in purgatory but would be on the express train to heaven. The greater the sin, the greater the cost of the indulgence and with more sins came the purchase of more indulgences. Given our human tendency to sin, there was always a high demand for the purchase of indulgences. A greater church fund-raiser has never been devised! In honor of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and in this Stewardship Season, I will be selling indulgences right after worship today. Step right up!
To be fair, the church in every age needs a healthy dose of reform. And, if you take time to listen to modern so-called “Prosperity Preachers” on TV, you will learn that the selling of indulgences is still alive and well 500 years after Luther’s theses. Their pitch is different but the abuse is the same. These preachers say, Be generous to the church, give extravagantly to the church and God will give extravagantly to you. As I said, the church in every age needs a healthy dose of reform.
In many ways, the exchange between Jesus and a lawyer – actually, a better description of this person would be a Seminary Professor – is all about reform. The lawyer asks what seems to be a simple enough question: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Matthew tells us that this is not a simple question. He tells us that the lawyer wants to entrap Jesus, just like the Herodians and Pharisees tried to do with the coin.
Even so, it seems like a pretty lame trap. You and I know that there are only Ten Commandments. We have seen them posted on everything from Sunday School walls to the walls of state capitols in the South. How hard can it be to pick out one of ten as the greatest? Well, here is where some local knowledge of the time is helpful. “Jewish scholars . . . came up with 613 separate commandments,” according to Tom Long, “The lawyer is asking Jesus to pick one out of this number as ‘the greatest’, thereby exposing him to criticism over the 612 commandments he did not choose. The lawyer is licking his chops over the prospect of embarrassing Jesus with a follow-up question. But Jesus leaves no room for a follow-up” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, p. 154).
Instead of taking the bait, Jesus posts just two theses on the door of the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus blows up the lawyer’s question when he replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’.”
Whether in ancient Jerusalem or 16th century Geneva or 21st century Covesville, Jesus refuses to engage in the stupid stuff – how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. He refuses to reduce the Christian faith to a rule-keeping contest. The lawyer wants to talk about law, and Jesus wants to talk about love.
Isn’t that just like Jesus? We want to talk about law and rules and tradition, about what’s and what’s wrong, about who’s in and who’s out and Jesus wants to talk about love. He does not want to talk about syrupy sweep love, but the kind of love he walked around showing the world. Love that bent him over to wash his disciples’ filthy feet. Love that led him to the wrong side of town to restore a wild man to his right mind. Love that filled him with compassion for a crowd of hungry souls. Love that gave him arms to embrace the outsider and to welcome the ostracized. Love that gave him the courage to take on the religious and political powers in Jerusalem. Love that gave him the words to pray for forgiveness even for those who nailed him to a cross.
That is the kind of love that Luther and Calvin, Wesley and Zwingli, were calling the church to remember. The love that Jesus lived has nothing to do with obsessing over rules or watching life safely from the bleachers, keeping our hands clean and thinking only nice pious thoughts. Watch Jesus and you will see him resist the stupid stuff, will see him show that love of God and love of neighbor can never be done at a distance.
The poet Mary Oliver captures what this kind of love looks like at the end of one of my favorite poem. Mary writes:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world
“When Death Comes”
Jesus did not “simply visit” this world. He did not watch the world from a safe distance, careful never to get his hands dirty. He entered this world with the full force of God’s love on the loose and he refused to settle for sickness, refused to abide hunger, refused to compromise with corrupt political and religious leaders, refused to throw up his hands at mental illness, refused to accept the old adages about this group being in and this group being out. Jesus loved God and loved neighbor way too much to sit in the bleachers and watch life unfold.
Now, Luther was no saint. Just read his anti-Semitic tirades and that becomes clear. On his best days, though, along with Calvin and the other reformers, Luther knew that the church is at its finest when it does not live in the weeds of do’s and don’ts as did the lawyer who queried Jesus. The church is at its finest when it does not simply visit this world as the self-appointed divine rule keeper, but dives deep into world with heart, soul, and mind loving God and loving neighbor. When that happens, God’s love changes the church, changes the world. It re-forms the church, re-forms the world, re-forms you and re-forms me.
I do not want to visit that kind love occasionally or as a casual observer; I want to live it every day and I cannot do it alone. Won’t you join me?