A Sermon for Reformation Sunday
Preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, October 30th 2022
There’s no shortage of schemes to follow, offering that you will achieve your desired outcome. Years ago, if you wanted a muscled body, you wrote off for the Charles Atlas home bodybuilding course. Nowadays, if you follow the correct dietary regime, perhaps promoted by Slimming World, you will get to your “ideal weight.” In church settings there are any number of read-through-the-Bible-in-a year plans to improve your knowledge of the content of scripture. I once heard a Scottish Episcopal priest comment that she had tried several of these Bible reading schemes but never had the discipline to get beyond the first couple of weeks. The upside was that she was now really well acquainted with the story of creation in Genesis chapter one.
Body building, weight reducing, bible reading schemes will work, I suppose, if you can dutifully see them through to the end and take no short cuts to get there. Could there be similar scheme, which if we followed it properly would put us into a right relationship with God? I suppose that’s the thinking behind that frequently prayed prayer: “O God, get me out of this fix that I’ve got myself into and I’ll be a good boy or girl ever after.”
Such prayers are based on a widely held human understanding of religious rules or religious law- the idea that if we keep God’s rules then God will reward us appropriately. The likely downside, though, is what might be the appropriate response from God if and when we fail to keep our end of the bargain; when we fail to follow the rules. Sadly, it’s not unknown for churches to fall into presenting Christian faith as a life dependent upon keeping a set of rules.
Martin Luther, the religious reformer, pinned his demands for change in church practice on the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st, 1517. Hence, the last Sunday of October can be marked as Reformation Sunday. Luther’s initial argument was about the selling of indulgences. Indulgences related to human fears about what happens to us when we die; fear of hell because one had not kept all of God’s laws during one’s life.
Even the best of us are not good enough to qualify ourselves for entry into heaven. They realised that in the sixteenth century. Theologians speculated then that there must be an interim period when those who had died were made ready for heaven; cleansed or purged of their wrongdoings – hence the term, “purgatory.” This painful stage, it was thought, might last for years, decades or even centuries. But worry not, for the Church came up with a scheme to help people out.
The Church offered indulgences, an authorised remittance of your time, or the time of your loved ones, in purgatory, before being allowed into heaven. And a donation by the thankful in response to that would be gratefully received. Of course, soon this turned into an idea that people could buy their way out of purgatory and into heaven. The Church’s pastoral response to people’s fears morphed into a major fundraising exercise at a time when church buildings in Rome were proving expensive to build and maintain. Where have we heard of that problem before?
The industrial-scale sale of indulgences became a scandal, which kickstarted debates about the Church, which led to a combination of reform and schism. But behind the practice of selling indulgences lay the whole question of whether or how human beings can put right our relationship with God.
Martin Luther looked to the Bible for answers to the questions which had surfaced in his sixteenth century life situation. Particularly, he looked to the New Testament, particularly to the letters of the Apostle Paul, and among them particularly to Paul’s letters to the Galatians, and to his letter to the church in Rome; to Romans.
And Luther’s convictions were these.
First, everyone, good or bad, is in the same boat, for no human being could be good enough to be regarded as justified in God’s sight. No amount of good actions, no conscientious following of God’s law, will put us right with God; ‘no human being will be justified in God’s sight by deeds prescribed by the law,’ as it says in Romans 3:20.
Second, though, the good news is that we are not dependent on human effort, or any scheme to aid human effort, in order to be declared ok with God. That’s because God has acted to put things right between us and God. And God has done this through the life, work, death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ: ‘Now, irrespective of the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ,’ as it says in Romans 3:21, 22)
All we are asked to do is accept that God loves us, and that God has expressed that love for us through Jesus Christ: ‘God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus,’ as it says in Romans 3:26. It does not depend on us, it depends on God, who has been at work in Jesus Christ to reconcile us to God’s self. So, all those religious schemes, of which indulgences were but one example, can go out the window, whenever they are presented to us as necessary for our salvation.
Now that’s not to say that laws are without their uses. Life here on earth would get very difficult for us if we dispensed with good and useful rules, regulations and laws. One of the criticisms levelled at the Apostle Paul, at Martin Luther, and those Reformers who have followed him, is that their approach opens up the way for anarchy; people might do just as they please, relying on God’s love to see them right whatever they have done.
And Martin Luther himself did say that laws are helpful. Laws, he argued, help to keep order in society, and we all want that. Laws, including religious laws, also, he argued, confront us with our own wrongdoing. Since we prove incapable of keeping all of God’s law all of the time they reveal to us our dependence upon God for our salvation, not upon our own efforts.
And a decade or two after Luther, that other religious Reformer, John Calvin, argued that the Old Testament laws that we find in scripture, when flexibly and dynamically interpreted, provide us with wisdom, with a model or guide for how we should live in the here and now as God’s people. Christians, then, are not in favour of social anarchy. Do we overthrow the law by this [approach to] faith?’ askes the Apostle Paul in Romans 3: 31. ‘By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.’
Laws, rules, religious regulations then, when interpreted appropriately for our own setting and situation, are positive and helpful. What such rules, such regulations, do not do, however, is put us into a right relationship with God, one where God finds us righteous or justified.
It is God’s action (not ours in following rules or in any other laudable activity) which makes things right between us and God. Again, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 3, we ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,’ (3:23) but God has made up the inevitable, universal shortfall between who we are and who we should be through reaching out to us in Jesus Christ. Our good deeds are good, but they come second in the equation, not first. Our good deeds are our ‘thank you’ to God for God’s loving embrace of us through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
A woman called Anna Bartlett Warner put this in a traditional way which may seem a little childish or over simple, but contains a simple truth about the power and effect of God’s love for us:
Jesus loves me, this I know,
for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong;
they are weak, but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.
Accept that you are loved and accepted by God.
Accept that it is God who makes you acceptable to God.
God loves you and accepts you. So then, as much as you can, go and live your life in good ways, not because that will qualify you to be with God – that’s already been sorted out – but as a thank you to God for God’s deep, redeeming love for you. Amen.