Reformation: Returning to the Church’s True Mission
John 8: 31-36
Today is Reformation Sunday. Today we remember how Martin Luther reminded Christians in medieval Europe of the Good News of God’s grace and love. The church of Luther’s day had gotten too wrapped in the ways of the world and forgot its whole purpose. And Luther reminded us of the truly Good News that Jesus brought to the world, and invites us into continual reformation even to today.
The early church understood well that their mission was to continue the movement and ministry of Jesus. The church’s mission was for the healing of the nations. To participate in God’s ministry of reconciliation. In our Gospel reading today Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” And when Jesus ascended into heaven, he told the apostles to go out and make disciples of all nations, inviting all people to participate in this revolution of spiritual transformation and unconditional love. The Great Commission wasn’t about convincing other people to join this new club called the church. It was about living transformed lives, healing the nations, and inviting the whole world to join in on God’s ministry of reconciliation.
For the first few centuries, the church was truly counter-cultural. But when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and it eventually became the official religion of the Empire, things changed. Some may’ve thought becoming the official religion of Rome meant the church had accomplished its mission, the kingdom of God had come when Rome became Christian. The church had miraculously conquered the Roman Empire through nonviolence, peace, and love. It was quite an amazing feat. But it led to the church getting wrapped up in the world’s power structure and shifted its focus and priorities.
Then after the fall of the Roman Empire, the church filled a power vacuum and sort of helped keep Western civilization together. But in doing so the church became more and more like its own political-economic-military machine. And church leaders emphasized people’s need to obey their laws, to follow an orderliness that helped maintain Christendom. And when the church reached the top of the totem-pole, any ideas about transforming the world started to sound like a critique of the church itself.
So the church assumed the role of Empire and began opposing the very kind of message it was originally founded upon! The true meaning of the Gospel was never totally lost. Monks and nuns studied it in monasteries, theologians still wrote about it, but the general public had neither the time nor resources to learn this revolutionary message of grace and love, of healing and transformation.
There were some brave reformers through the centuries, many of whom were silenced with the sword or burnt at the stake. Then came a young monk named Martin Luther. He saw how the church was selling indulgences. Essentially it was the idea that you could make a “donation” which would earn forgiveness for your sins. It was based on the idea that merit was gained by any good work you did, and that made up for some sin you did. It was like a scale with sin on one side and good works on the other, and hopefully your merit outweighed your sin. If you had more merit, you would go to heaven. If you had more sin, you would go to hell. But to put people at ease a little bit they came up with the idea of purgatory—this in between place you’d go to work on merit to be worthy of heaven.
Luther didn’t like the idea of earning merit through good works to offset sin. He saw this was inconsistent with Scripture. And he really didn’t like the idea of selling indulgences because the church was clearly taking advantage of this incorrect theology. So he wrote 95 Theses and posted them on the church door at Wittenberg. It wasn’t as provocative and antagonistic as we may believe. The church door was like the medieval bulletin board; he was simply posting it there for discussion. But these 95 Theses provoked a lot of anger from the higher-ups in the church. Luther wasn’t gonna back down, and so the Reformation began.
Luther’s biggest legacy was his emphasis on God’s love and grace. That we don’t need to do good works in order to make God love us, gain merit, or earn our way into heaven. God’s love is a free gift of grace. That’s the message of Jesus, and it’s so abundantly clear in Scripture—how could anyone miss it!? Well the thing was, in a society where most people couldn’t read or afford a Bible, it makes sense this wasn’t common knowledge. So Luther made this Good News of God’s love and grace known all over Europe and throughout the world.
And in something that may surprise you, Luther also wrote a lot about good works. One great quote of his was, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” Luther recognized that loving and serving our neighbors in need is God’s mission for us. We don’t do it because we’re trying to earn our way into heaven; that’s already taken care of. We do it because we’ve been transformed by God’s love and want to share that love with others. We want to participate in the ministry of reconciliation, to take part in the healing of the nations.
This brings us back to the church’s original mission. We are a transformed people called to love and serve our neighbors everywhere! To be part of the healing of the nations, the reconciliation of the world. That’s the church’s mission, we cannot forget it again!
And so on a day when we celebrate how Luther reminded us of just how revolutionary Jesus’ message truly was—a message of complete forgiveness, amazing grace, unconditional love—we also remember the church’s calling, our calling. If this world isn’t about earning salvation, what are we doing here? If this world isn’t about accumulating enough merit and good works to make up for our sin, how should we spend our lives?
Well, Luther would say, we should love and serve our neighbors in need of course! We pray for God’s guidance on how to be involved in the redemption of the world. We spend our lives getting closer to God, growing in spiritual maturity—not because that growth will earn us a place in heaven, but because growing up is what life is all about. Growing up is what you want your child to do, and it’s what God wants God’s children to do. And when we grow up spiritually, we surrender our lives to God so that the divine life can flow through us. So that we can be God’s hands and feet in the world. As Luther would say, so that we love and serve our neighbor in need and reflect God’s image in the world.
I really want to drive this point home, because it’s easy to rest in the satisfaction of knowing that God loves us no matter what, and we’re saved by grace and granted eternal life. That’s wonderfully Good News! And it’s the start of the Christian journey. And we are also called to love and serve the world, to be vehicles of global transformation. To make this world a better place for all people. To align our wills with God’s will, to join Jesus in praying “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and to dedicate our lives to making God’s will manifest.
And so personally, I think it’s exciting to be a Christian! It’s exciting to be a part of the healing of the nations. This ministry of reconciliation. To be saved and called, healed and transformed, and empowered by God to love and serve the world in our own unique way. To be part of God’s mission. To be a child of the light shining everywhere! Helping the world to know God’s love, and continually reforming our lives, the church, and the world God so loves.
Luther reminded the world of the Good News of God’s love and grace. And he reminded us of our true calling and purpose in life. Not to earn merit so we can get into heaven (that’s already taken care of), but to love and serve our neighbors, and to align our will with God’s will so that the world may be reformed and transformed into the new creation— the physical reflection of the kingdom of God that God created the world to be. Thanks be to God for the truly Good News the Reformation brings!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian | Sunday October 29th, 2023.