Reformation Sunday • 29 Oct 2017

Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30

Rev. Prof. Clive Pearson

Imagine for just a moment that this is another time, another place. Imagine that we are not in Crows Nest; imagine that this is not October 2017 – imagine instead that, by some strange quirk of time travel, we find ourselves way back in time – we have landed down in year 1517. We are going about everyday business; we’re conversing with one another in our mother tongue which is German;

we are walking along the main thoroughfare of a small town of no more than 2000 people, a small seemingly insignificant, out of the way sort of place, tucked away in the north-east corner of German. Not many beyond the immediate vicinity have heard of it – not like some of its much larger neighbours like Halle and Leipzig, Frankfurt and Nuremberg further to the west. It’s got a new university but that institution doesn’t feature on the sixteenth century equivalent of an academic league table.

It’s not the sort of place likely to detain you; it’s not the kind of the place where big things happen that send ripples throughout the whole world and continue to reverberate across time, over the years to come. It’s not the sort of place you would expect to have much connection with the folk who five centuries later will worship each Sunday morning in Crows Nest

You make your way down the strasse, the main street. It’s the 31st October. In times to come children will be tricking and treating their way through Halloween but not yet, not now. It’s the beginning of the three day season in the life of the church where you and your neighbours, your fellow townspeople, - you remember the faithful departed.

And all those things comes close to you. Life is fragile in 1517. There is no private health cover, no bulk billing; there is no penicillin, no chemotherapy, no new medical procedures, no new miracle drugs; life is fragile and life can be taken young and can taken quickly. The faithful departed are never that far away from you – and so you remember them in your prayers.

As you walk down the street that day, one of your company breaks the routine chit-chat, gossip, and the forerunner of alternative facts and fake news. This man – he and his wife –had been in a nearby town not so long ago and they heard a preacher, a man by the name of Tetzel, saying that the Pope can intervene – that the Pope can help out. You wonder what on earth he’s talking about and so you ask the man what does he mean. His wife interrupts. “If you pay a sum of money, you can shorten the time your relative, your friend spends in purgatory”. Sounds like a good deal. “What do you mean?”, you ask, “How?”. Another fellow joins in: “I thought once you were in purgatory there was not much you could do about”.

Being a time traveller from Crows Nest you are not used to such exchanges. They are not the sort of conversation that one normally has while walking down the Pacific Highway; they may do that sort of thing in Wahroonga or Hornsby, but never in Crows Nest. You feel like you need to ask what is purgatory, but someone else gets in first and puts the question.

There had emerged over a number of centuries a belief that there was place between life now and life before one moved into the nearer presence of God. It was like a staging post beyond your earthly life and before your heavenly life. It was place of purging where one’s life and being was further refined before one came closer to God. To begin with it was said that if you prayed for your friends, your relatives, your family you could shorten their time in this shadowy place. In the course of time you might even buy out some of that time: the Pope could issue what was called an indulgence.

Your talk now along the high street was about purgatory, indulgences, the merits of such. You hear from that husband and wife team about this preacher named Tetzel commending a papal indulgence which sounded rather attractive: on the one hand it would shorten the time of those close to you in purgatory and, on the other, the money would help refurbish St Peter’s Church in Rome. It seems like a win-win situation.

One of your fellow walkers then chipped in said something to the effect: ‘well, that’s bound to make some folk in rich”. He had in mind one or two well-known bankers who were permitted to keep some of the money raised, while another of your party was a little bit disquieted about this money being sent across the Alps to Italy: why could it not stay in Germany and help our own people out a bit more.

The discussion was now becoming quite lively; being from Crows Nest you weren’t quite sure how to participate in this rather odd sounding conversation. It seemed to belong to another age, another worldview, another life time. You are drawing near the castle church. There is nothing to suggest that this day will go down in history; that future historians will claim it was one of those day that changed the world; it will be one of those days when you might find yourself sometime in the future, saying “do you remember what you were doing when ...”

When you first began to walk past the church door and you saw a notice nailed there. Now you have been to school; you know how to read and write while some of the others can’t. You’re curious about what the notice might be about – partly because when you do go to church – and you do go every Sunday, without fail – that’s the done – when you do go everything is done in Latin. You have never heard the words of Jesus actually read out loud in church in the only language you know – German.

And as you wonder about that, another thought crosses your mind. Every now and then you’ve wondered about the Communion service, the Mass; why is it that you are allowed to receive the bread, the body of Christ, but so far as you know, no lay person has ever been invited to receive the wine, the blood of Christ. It all seems a bit strange, but it’s just a passing thought and like the others in your circle, you just go with the flow. You don’t ask questions; you just accept what is – and that’s the way things are here in Wittenberg until the 31 October, 1517 – 500 years ago this year. The day the world was turned upside down.
Though - at the time you didn’t think there was too much out of the ordinary. It was the custom of those days: if a scholar, if an academic or a churchman wanted to debate something with his peers, his colleagues - he (and it was always a “he”) - he would then post the matter for discussion on the church door. It was standard practice. You take a closer look. One of the local friars, Martin Luther, has posted 95 theses on the church door. You’re not sure where this will lead.

There is some pretty strong colourful language; there is much criticism of this business of indulgences – that is, the very thing you and your company were talking about just a moment ago. There is talk about purgatory - where did this idea come from? It’s not in the Bible. There is pretty strong language to do with the Pope and doubts about his jurisdiction over people once they’ve died. And there is talk of repentance and justification. The first of 95 theses reads: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent,' he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."

You yourself don’t know too much about this Martin Luther – you know he lectures at the university; you know that sometimes he preaches in this church; you know that he lives in a monastery but apart from that sort of stuff – which everybody knows – you don’t know him. Wittenberg is not that big. He’s not a local; he wasn’t born and bred here; he’s come from some mining district further west. You don’t know his folks.

Later, you will be able to read these theses in German; for now they’re only in Latin. You will agree with some of the things Luther has written; you suspect that those comments about the Pope and the power of the papacy might cause a problem or two – but, not for one minute, do you imagine that this rather innocent looking piece of paper, nailed to do a church door, will end up turning the world upside down and have an effect on people for centuries afterwards. You don’t know that. It never crosses your mind – besides there’s much in this notice you will not understand – like all that stuff about repentance ad justification – so you and your company go on about their everyday business as if nothing much has happened.

And truth to tell Luther himself didn’t think that what he had written would have such a massive impact. He was under no illusions – he knew he’d touched a nerve – but all he thought would happen was just another academic debate. Except. Except he’d touched a nerve; he’d lit a fuse – and its momentum would lead to a division within the life of the church between those who were Roman Catholic and those, like us in the Uniting Church, who are Protestant.

Luther himself would be placed under great pressure; there were those who strove to silence him; there were those who wanted him branded a heretic; there were kings, popes and cardinals all lined up against him – so much so that he did not know, at times, whether he would live or would be put to death. There were times when so much pressure was brought to bear upon him that all he could respond was with a saying that has echoed down the centuries - and to which whether you, in Crows Nest today, realize it or not, you are indebted: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me”. Luther shows the power of conscience – the power to stand firm for what you know to be true; the power to speak truth to power.

In due course Luther would translate the New Testament into German and set into practice the reading of the Bible in your own language, not Latin. He would alter the service of worship so that the sermon, in your own language, became central; he would compose hymns that you sang in your own language; he would change what happened in the communion service so that lay people received the wine as well as the bread; Luther would advocate for clergy to be married and he himself married, Katharina, a runaway nun;

Luther would campaign for universal education and that included schooling for girls as well - and, in the days long before the internet, twitter, alternative facts and fake news, through the invention of the printing press, he would become the sixteenth century’s most widely read author – all for the sake of the good news, the good news of Jesus Christ, the gospel.

All of which leads us back to our here and now, back to Crows Nest, back to this service of worship and an inevitable question. Why all this talk of Luther and his theses now? Why not on the Sunday at the end of the October? And the reason lies in this morning’s reading taken from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

For some years before he lit that fuse, before he touched that nerve, Luther had been struggling to make sense of what the gospel is, what might the death and resurrection of Christ signify – in other words Luther wanted to know how he might be saved, whatever that might mean. Reading the letter to the Romans he came across a verse in the first chapter which spoke about “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith”.

The world in which Luther lived was troubled by sin and guilt. He had tried all the spiritual disciplines of the age to make himself a better person, but all to no avail. He was conscious of living every day in the sight of God; it was not a comfortable space. He felt much dread and anxiety. He felt the judgement of God and everything he tried to alleviate that feeling of guilt only made him feel worse.

But now through this reading of the epistle it dawned on him that though he might do all manner of good deeds, it was through what God had done through the life and ministry of Jesus and what Paul called ‘the word of the cross’ that he was at one with God, that he was at peace, that his sins were forgiven, even despite his continuing to sin and live according to the ways of the flesh. And it was God’s gift, an act of grace, that this way of being possible. It was a case of the righteousness of God being revealed through faith from faith –

And it opened up the possibility of an authentic, a genuine, condition of personal freedom. Luther no longer felt the inner need to justify himself through his deeds; there was no need to be bound down by guilt and the troubled conscience. Luther did not become the perfect person overnight: in fact he was anything other than perfect person and was indeed reputed to have said in the midst of some of his theological table talk – to go and sin boldly. Through the work of the cross, through God’s own secret and alien ways, God had freed Luther from the crippling bondage of sin.

Our reading from Romans this morning sits within this tradition. It captures something of that anxiety, that stress of the troubled conscience that Luther knew only too well. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’. He wants to do what is the right thing, but finds that he can’t, he doesn’t. We might say that he’s only human and perhaps excuse him on those grounds – but neither Luther nor Paul was willing to opt for any soft option; they were not trying to win an argument with others or have their conscience eased by the words of comfort and consolation from others.

They were living in the sight of God; they were being realistic about who they are. They were not trying to justify themselves. They were puzzled by themselves. They wanted to follow the way of Christ; they wanted their lives to be right with God and thus be true to the kind of person God wishes them to be … but they knew they fall short. They cannot justify themselves. In today’s world we might say that we indulge ourselves in all sorts of ways just as we seek to justify ourselves -

Both Luther and Paul knew they could not be justified by their bank balance, their position in society, their status, their gender, their body shape, their reputation, their education. They believed that it is God who justifies them through their faith in Christ. That was the message Luther wished to proclaim when he nailed those theses to the church door. We are his heirs. Here I stand. Here we stand. We can do no other. God help us.