Yesterday, I had an article published in the Cape Cod Times religious column. It is also now up on my blog (capecodlutheran.blogspot.com) if you want to read it. I was thinking about Reformation Day and the meaning of faith. It is language that I have used here before, challenging the idea that faith is in the realm of the logical/rational. I suggest that faith is more in the realm of the beautiful. It is not an idea we need to prove but a vision that we are called to live.
When I think about the Reformation what I see is a fundamental change in vision, how Christianity was understood, how the church was understood, and how God was understood. To oversimplify it, the change in vision that Luther ushered in was a move from seeing God’s primary feelings toward you to be anger and judgment to a God whose primary feelings toward were a mix of love, sorrow and mercy. In the former case, God is really angry at you for being a sinner and is ready to send to you hell. Thankfully, God has given the church as a means to escape the wrath of God for the moment. By participating in the ministries of the church you are getting yourself into God’s good favor again. God is gracious to the extent that Jesus died for you (and you should feel very guilty about that) and the forgiving power of the sacrifice of the cross continues to flow through the ministry of the church. To be outside the church is to be subject to God’s wrath.
Luther and the other reformers began to suspect that maybe God’s motivations are not all centered on wrath and judgement. Maybe God actually likes us a little bit. Two things. First of all, not every voice before Luther was about wrath and death and judgement. The Still, Small Voice group has been studying the English mystic Julian of Norwich who lived 150 years before Luther and her writing is all about extreme love and a God without wrath. God formed the universe in love and sustains it through that love and, her understanding seems to be, that in the end God will in some way unite all of us in that love.
Second point, Luther does not imagine God without anger and judgement. Luther believed that God was just and gracious and merciful and loving, ideas that are seen most clearly by looking at the cross. But he also labeled the Pope as the Antichrist. He said some really problematic things about the Jewish people and he often broke into exaggerated insults to those who disagreed with him, “May God punish you, I say, you shameless, barefaced liar, devil’s mouthpiece, who dares to spit out, before God, before all the angels, before the dear sun, before all the world, your devil’s filth.” He was a judgmental person and he believed in a God was just and judging, whom we should fear, but who was gracious and merciful, whom we should love.
Nevertheless, Luther’s recovery of grace ushered in a major change in vision, affecting how people viewed their relationship to God and how the viewed the place of the church. It also had some unexpected side effects, which lead to our current situation. Martin Luther loved the church. He did not want to break it up or destroy it. In 1517, Luther was hoping to begin a debate that would help the Catholic church transform itself from within. Throughout his life, he was a strong proponent of the sacraments. Although he reduced the number of sacraments from 7 to 2, he believe very strongly God’s work and Christ’s real presence in the sacraments. He would have had a hard time understanding why Christians would not insist on weekly communion at the least.
Yet one of unexpected directions that the Reformation takes is the idea that the church is not necessary. How many of you agree with this statement, “Missing church once in a while is not a sin.” Luther probably would have agreed. If you insist on church attendance, it becomes a work by which we are saved which is against the good news of grace. How many of you agree with this statement? “You don’t have to go to church to be a good Christian?” Luther is now spinning in his grave. He would say something like it is not necessary to be there for salvation, but if your faith doesn’t drive you there, you need to explore that faith. (I don’t think he would have put it as nicely).
In many ways we have created a theology of nice. It would be nice if you came, but it’s okay if you don’t. Every congregation describes itself as nice and friendly. We try to be nice people with nice music and nice, inoffensive faith. Sadly, there is nothing compelling about nice. The church may be nice, but so are the people at Wal-Mart and Applebee’s and Disney. Often they seem even nicer, because you don’t have to know them well and you are giving them money. Going to church is nice, but so is hanging out in sweatpants on the sofa, so are my Facebook friends, so is Sunday brunch. People can find nice anywhere.
We don’t need a faith that is nice and tidy. We need a faith that is compelling. We need a faith that gets us drop our nets at the lakeshore, a faith that makes us truly free. This is the faith that Jesus opens to us. This is the grace of God that makes us whole. We need to recover and rediscover that compelling way of life that sets us free.
So on this Reformation Sunday I say we need to continue to reform. We need to continue to have our minds blown and our vision changed. We need to take every opportunity we can to encounter this Jesus who speaks to us in scripture, who calls to us in the voices of poverty and injustice, who comes to us the communion meal.
And I think that may be the key to re-reforming the church, moving from being the place that praises Jesus to being the place that seeks to meet Jesus. I think it continues the cheap grace versus costly grace idea I was talking about last week. Praising Jesus is easy and nice. After all, this grace we talk about is wonderful. The promise of life that we share is beautiful. The story of the cross and empty tomb is worthy of our praise. We are good at praising Jesus, and we should, but we also need to meet Jesus in our lives.
Encountering Jesus is not always easy and not always nice, but it is always compelling. Sometimes he comes to us and says beautiful words of good news like, “Your sins are forgiven. Your mistakes are forgotten. You are loved by God. You are free indeed.” Sometimes he comes and speaks words we don’t want to hear like, “Forgive the sins of others. Forget the mistakes of others. Love your neighbor, and while you’re at it, love your enemy.” And both the easy words and the challenging words are part of our faith, our part of the good news that sets us free.
Every time we encounter Jesus we are renewed and reformed. Every time we encounter Jesus we are reminded the things that bind us and we are set free. Every time we meet Jesus, we are set free to be loved and to be loving, we are set free to be alive and live for others, we are set free indeed.