The New Reformation

Reformation Sunday – October 28, 2012
Pastor Monte Stevens – North Riverdale Lutheran Church – Dayton, Ohio

“The New Reformation”

In just a few moments we will sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”  It is a powerful and moving hymn.  It’s The Reformation hymn.

It will be sung today all across Germany and Europe and the United States and around the globe by both Protestants and, even now, Roman Catholics.  Although I have to say, I have only heard of Catholics singing this hymn.  I don’t know whether I really believe it or not, and, if they do sing it, do they really put their lungs into it!

Lutheran’s sing this hymn with gusto, with emotion, with pride they sing it to celebrate a proud heritage and rightly so!

In just a few years, in the year 2017, the 60 to 70 million Lutherans across the globe will be celebrating the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel.

I hope you know this by now, I am absolutely proud to be a Lutheran.  Born and raised and proud of it.  There is no other tradition that I know of  or have come across  that I would rather belong to, or be part of, than “Lutherans.”

Since “A Mighty Fortress” is our song to sing, I will sing it today full tilt and with feeling, as I do, each and every, Reformation Sunday.

The world of Christianity changed forever with Martin Luther boldly sharing .  through his 95 Theses how he believed the church needed both reformed and renewed  theologically and practically; a new orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

You already know most of the issues that were debated and reformed from 1517 to the late 1520’s.  Luther challenged the power of the pope and his role, and our role, in salvation.  Luther peeled away the emptiness of indulgences and pointed people to a gracious loving God that he had personally discovered in scripture.

Luther taught the absolute importance of the Word of God as opposed to the authority of the pope and church leaders and thought that people should read the scriptures for themselves and translated the entire Bible into the common German of the day.

To study the Reformation is to study a period of time where Luther literally changed the Western world – politically, culturally, economically, and theologically.  “Changed” is too soft a word.   He unsettled and upset the world and turned it upside down.

At the 500 year mark we are just now really beginning to fully appreciate and understand what happened in all its complexity and interrelated intricacies.

So be proud and sing your lungs out.  BUT, we then need to do what Luther said we would always need to do!  Luther believed that the church would always need to reform itself.  To be vital and meaningful and true to the Spirit of God it would always need to have a spirit of reformation.

Remember our prayer for the day?  Gracious Father, we pray for your holy church; fill it with all truth and peace.  Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in need, provide for it, where it is divided, reunite it.

Reform is in our DNA  and we must trust that the Spirit will continue to lead us into all truth and the truth will set us free.

500 years ago Martin Luther saw corruption in the church and he purified it.  500 years ago he saw things amiss and he reformed it.

We must do the same today, and we are the people called to the task of reforming the church in this kiros moment.  It’s easy to look back and realize how the reforms that Martin Luther was offering were right on and desperately needed.

Hindsight is wonderful.  We look back and are rightly proud of our bold prophet Martin Luther who really did put his life of the line for what he believed as he challenged the pope, the church, and kings.  This annual Reformation event is both a celebration, but also a necessary reminder that we must continue to reform.

So now, let’s turn for some critical and fresh reflection on reform 500 years post Luther’s Reformation.

In reading a book by Phyllis Tickle entitled, “The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why,” I came across a theory that has helped me understand change in a new way.  The thesis is that every 500 years there takes place what she calls a rummage sale.

What she means is this: if you go back roughly every 500 years you see major changes and shifts in the Western Church.  She believes that today, five hundred years after Luther’s Reformation, we are going through one of those major upheavals right now.

Today we celebrate the upheaval of Luther’s Reformation, but you know as well as I do, that when you are in the midst of an upheaval it never feels wonderful.  There are more questions than answers.  What we thought was permanent is shifting beneath our feet, and the security we held onto is now destabilized into a topsy-turvy reality.

With every great change there is always a resistance movement – a push-back – a person or movement that promises stability and glory-days renewed (if you just hold on tight to what worked before), but the nature of change is that that is a false promise.

When you study history you will discover that every 500 years God’s people have gone through a major reformation – a rummage sale of sorts – where they go to the attic and get rid of what they no longer need or no longer fits.  According to this thesis, this must happen so that – through reform – the needed new growth can occur.

We are just lucky enough to live in a time of destabilization and a time of great reform.  The destabilization starts about 100 years before the significant reform event and takes about 100 years to settle out after that event.  The folks in the 250 years in between enjoy some pretty secure times – if you like security.

Let me take you back in 500year chunks of religious history.

500 years ago was Luther’s Reformation.

500 years before that you have The Great Schism 1054.

500 years before that you have The Fall of Rome and Gregory the Great in 480.

500 years before that you have The Birth of Christ.

500 years before that you have The Israelites in captivity.

500 years before that you have King David and Solomon, and on and on it goes.

When you study each of these periods, as they pivot from one period to the next, they are marked by great upheaval.

In a very simplified way, great change takes place in how people understand God and how people understood themselves in relation to God and neighbor.  And at each 500 year turning point major turbulent shifts took place.

We are currently in the midst of the next 500 year change.  Boy I wish I would have been a pastor 100 years ago!  Or have been born about 100 years from now when folks will have already had this rummage sale and have all this figured out for the next 250 years.

I know there is anxiety and fear about the church these days.  I know it can be hard to, first, decide that one must have a rummage sale and then actually go up into the attic and drag out all that stuff that is no longer wanted, needed, or no longer fits.  It’s just easier to hunker down on the couch and do nothing and put the blinders on and just say: “Give me that old time religion.”

But God’s Spirit never leaves things alone for long.  As we who are created in God’s image learn and grow and mature, so must our understanding of God and self and our world in which we live.

Another sharp surveyor of the religious landscape is professor Harvey Cox.  He talks about these last three 500 year changes in a slightly different way.  He divides Church history into three ages:  The Age of Faith, The Age of Belief, and the Age of the Spirit.

During the first period from the time of Jesus to about 400 CE, Christianity was understood as a Way of Life based upon faith in Jesus.  Or as Cox puts it, “To be Christian meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the world that he had begun.

This gave way to a different way.  The dynamic sense of living in Jesus was displaced by an increasing emphasis on creeds and beliefs  Over time, these thickened into catechisms and replaced “faith in Jesus” with “tenets about him.  The energetic movement of faith had coagulated into a set of required beliefs: Beliefs about Jesus, Beliefs about God.  This age lasted some fifteen centuries to about 1900.

We are now in the Age of the Spirit.  If The Age of Faith was a time of “faith in Jesus” and The Age of Belief a period of “belief about Christ,” then The Age of the Spirit is best understood as a Christianity based in an experience of Jesus.

Cox believes that the Age of the Spirit is non-dogmatic, non-institutional, and non-hierarchical (which is not good for pastors) based on a person’s connection to God’s Spirit through mystery, wonder, and awe.  He concludes, “Faith is resurgent … while dogma (believing a set of beliefs), is dying.”

While visiting with Nathaniel this past week in Florida, I asked him how his generation thought the church needed to reform.  In many ways he described Cox’s “Age of the Spirit.”

With a new age comes anxiety.  Where are the young kids today?  What is happening to churches?  Why are they dying?  Why is the fasting growing group of people in the United States part of the group that is now unaffiliated with any church or check “No-religion” when filling out the latest survey.

Our Gospel lesson today declares that “The Truth will make you Free.”  The truth of our time, and our place, in God’s history, and God’s preferred future is that we are already in The Age of the Spirit yet we are still holding onto The Age of Belief.

This year at NRLC we have been talking about The Emerging Christian Story.  We read books over the summer that challenged The Age of Belief and started to pull the curtain open, just a little, so that me might see and begin to understand this Age of the Spirit.

The Age of the Spirit is something new.  Various authors are slowly leading us into understanding what this age will bring for God’s people and God’s church.

God’s Spirit is experimenting with communities of faith just like ours and is creating what Philip Gully called “A Better Christianity.”  We must trust the leading of the Spirit, and be as open as we know how, to prayerfully listen for the Spirit which is always beckoning us into the future.

A dramatic shift has happened.  We know this in our bones, and our questions about the church reflect the anxiety we feel with the change that has already begun.

I believe that God is reforming God’s Church.  God is healing God’s world.  God is moving us forward so that God’s priorities will burst forth in new and more vibrant ways.

I will admit to you: I am no Martin Luther.  The ushering in of the Age of the Spirit will not be named after me.  But I promise you that I will continue to do my best to listen and interpret the Spirit with you.

Where will we end up?  What will worship sound like and what shape will it take?  What will we “believe?”  There is so much I don’t know, but I do know that things will change as God’s people have always had to change to keep up with God’s Spirit.

God always has his people walking, journeying, on the move, and every 500 years or so we take a pretty good turn in another direction.

We are at a grand turning point and I must say we have been slow to see and perceive it but that has been true, in every great turn, in the history of God’s people.  I know things seem topsy-turvy and we long for security but, with God as our partner we know we’ll get it right in time.

And when we get it wrong God will still love us, and accept us, and welcome us home to the kitchen table to talk to us once again about his passions and priorities for this grand and wonderful world and what new shape those passions and priorities will take.

You’re invited on this Reformation Sunday to enter in The Age of the Spirit.  Some of you may have already entered years ago.  But enter we must, because God’s Spirit has already begun building the church of the future.  Now, we get to just catch up to where God already is.

What will be The Age of the Spirit hymn that will be sung 500 years from now as the Spirit, once again, calls for reform?  Who knows? But they will be singing about us and realizing anew, that as they celebrate the past (our present), they must always work toward the future to which the Spirit is calling them.