“Re-Formed” – Pastor Donna Doutt – 10/27/19 Reformation Sunday
Joel 2:23-32 & Luke 18:9-14

Greetings friends! Today is a special day for Christians. It’s Reformation Sunday! Who knows what that means, or how it relates to us? Well, let me give it to you in a nutshell how it all happened:

[1]In 1516–17, a Dominican friar and papal commissioner for “indulgences,” was sent to Germany to raise money to rebuild St Peter's Basilica in Rome. This was during a period in history when the Catholic officials literally bought their way into their clergy and papal appointments.

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther, who objected to this way of choosing church leadership that involved “selling” appointments to the most wealthy instead of to people who were true followers of Christ,  wrote to the Archbishop protesting against the sale of what they referred to as indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy (Efikasy) of Indulgences", (Efficacy means “the ability to produce a desired or intended result.”  This letter from Luther came to be known as the Ninety-five Theses. Luther didn’t really have any intention of confronting the church, but saw this dispute as an objection to church practices.  One of the points of the thesis asks, “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?"

Luther objected to a saying that was going around at the time that suggested, "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [also attested as 'into heaven'] springs."  Luther insisted that, since forgiveness was God's alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances. What do you think about that? Do you agree with Luther? Can we buy our way into heaven?

Luther "wrote theses on indulgences and posted them on the church of All Saints on 31 October 1517", an event now seen as sparking the Reformation.

The Ninety-five Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied, making the controversy one of the first in history to be aided by the printing press. Within two weeks, copies of the theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe, leading to many protests and uprisings against the Catholic church. Those who protested were called pro-test-ants, and eventually became what we know as Protestants. Protestants constitute a member or follower of any of the Western Christian churches that are separate from the Roman Catholic Church and follow the principles of the Reformation, including the Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran churches, and of course, we Methodists.

[2]Looking back at the Reformation is always feels conflictual. We see sincere efforts at renewal that happened in Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Yet, in contrast, we also see the extraordinary pain that this severing of the church caused.  For example, Europe was thrown into a Thirty Years’ War as civil authorities took sides. A result was millions of deaths though military action and civil disruption.

In 2017, The Lutheran World Federation and the The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity produced a common document, the result of years of conversations: From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.This document is both historical reflection as well as statement of “ecumenical imperatives.” It acknowledges that “Repeatedly, we have stood in the way of the good news of the mercy of God.” It hopes that study will result in a “deeper communion of all Christians."

In fact, the document calls on churches to work “from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division.” Differences are to be acknowledged and common commitments named, but, more important, the “experience, encouragement, and critique” of the other is honored. That’s some profound advice! Seeking unity, listening respectfully, honoring another’s experiences, and joining in “service to the world” witnesses “to the mercy of God.”

In the midst of the admissions and hopes of this document, let’s turn to the lectionary texts, focusing on the Joel and Luke readings. Joel is looking out at the devastation of the land. The vision before him is as if locusts have eaten and destroyed everything. Probably a post-exilic prophet, Joel sees brokenness everywhere. Yet he also sees possibilities for new life.

Joel writes: “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2: 27 NRSV).

Joel, as all prophets, advocates for the people to turn back to God who is “gracious and compassionate” (Joel 2: 13 NRSV). The prophets were disgusted when the people took advantage of one another and broke community. They knew God expected more – faithfulness and care for the least.

In many Jewish communities, Joel is read as the prophetic text the week before the great celebration of Yom Kippur (or the days of atonement). The rabbis who shaped Jewish patterns of worship (Torah and Prophetic readings) believed that Joel’s themes of “repentance, lamentation, divine forgiveness, and restoration” provided a fitting prelude to seeking the renewal of community through Yom Kippur. Living in community is always difficult. People will never see eye to eye, but efforts to seek the best for others and to build relationships are expected.

The Luke text is another amazing parable. Luke sets the parable in the context of “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18: 9 NRSV). What a challenge, both in Jesus’ time and today! Can community ever be built with those who regard others with contempt?

 

Typically, we have heard the parable interpreted as a contrast between the self-righteous religious leader and the unworthy sinner. That interpretation does fit so much of Jesus’ ministry as he reached out to those who were excluded.

[3]Yet, a commentary by the Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine (how many of you Front Porch study women remember her from our video series on parables?) offers additional insight. In Jesus’ day, the hearers of the parable would know that Pharisees were exemplary. Pharisees worked hard to live faithfully. They were respected in contrast to others who colluded with Rome. Some of the colluders included tax collectors. Tax collectors served Rome garnering the tribute Rome expected. In addition, they often took advantage of the weak for their own personal gain.

All parables have a surprise, and this one is no different. Dr. Levine writes: “Perhaps the Jews who first heard this parable understood the Pharisee’s merit positively to have impacted the tax collector. This would be the parable’s shock; not only that the agent of Rome is justified but that the Pharisee’s own good works helped the justification.” Just as the sin of taking advantage of one’s neighbors breaks community, efforts to live faithfully and witness to the grace of God restores community. What a surprise! What a challenge for the hearers of the parable who regarded others with contempt.

Efforts, all efforts, to embody and live God’s love and grace can miraculously build relationships. Similarly, From Conflict to Community document advises us to honor “each other’s experience, encouragement, and critique” and keep “service to the world” paramount. The effects can be surprising.

The lectionary texts from Joel and Luke invite us to break down the barriers of “us versus them” and “either/or” thinking. This polarized thinking infiltrates our United States, our political structures, the universal Church, and yes, even right here to our United Methodist denomination. Yet, as Joel prophesies, the Spirit is poured out upon ALL flesh. In a time of immense division, what if we were to (1) acknowledge the fractures among us, and (2) embody unity in visual form for this service of worship?

On All Saints Eve in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" calling for the reform of the church to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, that moment marked the beginning of the Reformation and the birth of the Protestant churches. In the decades that followed, John Calvin led a movement that would give rise to Presbyterian churches and Huldrych Zwingli gave rise to what would become the Baptist tradition, and King Henry VIII, who was embroiled in a fight with the Roman Catholic Church over politics precipitated the Reformation in England. And the Church of England provided the stage upon which John and Charles Wesley and the people called Methodists emerged.

How did the thinking that led to the Reformation and the theologies that developed in its wake affect the Wesleys and the rise of Methodism? They had a complex relationship to the theologies of the Reformation.

 

The Wesleys shared the Reformation's commitment to Scripture and to the priesthood of all believers. After all, John Wesley's famous Aldersgate experience of the warm heart happened as he heard Martin Luther's "Preface to the Epistle to the Romans" being read.

John had high praise for Luther's insight on justification by grace through faith, which is the cornerstone of the Reformation. Wesley writes about Luther he declares, "Who has wrote more ably than Martin Luther on justification by faith alone?" The Wesleys were convinced that God raised up the people called Methodists to remind the church of the whole Christ — the Christ who both pardons and heals.

So there you have it my friends. Now you have the low-down on the Reformation. You’ve heard maybe more than you ever needed to know about the reformation of the church. 

But know this: reformed is defined as “having been changed in such a way as to be improved.”

So let us recall the words from the From Conflict to Communion document: that being that churches are called on to work “from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division.”

We are to be “re-formed.” Differences are to be acknowledged and common commitments named, but, more important, the “experience, encouragement, and critique” of the other is honored. Great advice! Seeking unity, listening respectfully, honoring another’s experiences, and joining in “service to the world” witnesses “to the mercy of God.”

Let us too be “re-formed” in our faith. Amen.

 

[1] Wikipedia contributors. "Reformation Day." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 Sep. 2019. Web. 23 Oct. 2019.

[2] Discipleship Ministries. Twentieth Sunday after Pentecosts, Year C.

[3] [6] Amy Jill-Levine, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 138.

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