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October 28, 2008

Reformation Sunday

Today is Reformation Sunday—the Sunday when we remember how Martin Luther, on October, 31, 1517, jotted down a few discussion points about the church and about theology (95 discussion points, to be exact)—and then nailed those discussion points to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

In nailing those discussion points—those 95 theses—to the church door, Luther was essentially doing the medieval equivalent of blogging, putting some thoughts out there for somebody—anybody—to see, in the hopes of prompting debate and discussion. And the debate and discussion that did ensue began the cultural, economic, and religious transformation that we call the Protestant Reformation.

We could go into a detailed and lengthy lesson on the history of the times, but today I want to suggest just one simple, basic reason for why the Protestant Reformation happened. I think, at its root, the Protestant Reformation happened because individual Christians in the 16th century took seriously what it means to be Christian. They took the Gospel seriously.

I also believe that if we take seriously what it means to be Christian, if we take the Gospel seriously in the 21st century, we—you, me, everyone in this sanctuary—we too will start a reformation. Our reformation may not be THE Protestant reformation. Our reformation may not result in a new denomination named after us. But our reformation, even if affects only one other person, or perhaps only our congregation, is reformation nonetheless.

Reformation Sunday challenges each one of us to say, “Martin Luther started a reformation. And so will we.”

I hear you thinking to yourselves, oh come on, “I’m no Martin Luther.”  It’s true, Luther was an incredibly gifted, powerfully compelling figure. He was a prolific writer, an engaging teacher, and an insightful theologian. He was able to compose hymns, translate Bibles, teach seminary classes, and produce an astonishing array of books and pamphlets.

But Luther, for all of his accomplishments, was still just a regular person, somebody like you and me. History tells us that Luther could on occasion get very profane and use all the available German curse words. He loved to drink good German beer. You just know that you could sit in a tavern with him and have a good time.

Luther is also very human in his weaknesses. He could be judgmental, especially about people who disagreed with him. His anti-Semitic outbursts are well-known. He suffered from depression and would lock himself in his room for days at a time.

But in the end, what mattered was that Luther was a person who took the Gospel seriously, not knowing where that would lead him.

Years after starting his medieval blog, Luther found himself standing before the Holy Roman Emperor and was asked whether he would take back what he had written and talked about or face possible charges of heresy. Luther replied, “I cannot. I will not recant. Here I stand.”

Jesus called Luther to love God with all his being. Jesus calls us to follow him, to give our whole lives to him, to be reformed by him and in turn to reform others, not just on Sunday mornings, or on our good days, or on days when there’s nothing pressing on our calendars. Jesus calls us into a whole new way of life, a way of life that entails risks, a way of life that has consequences—a way of life that is reformed and always reforming. 

Reforming isn’t easy. Following Jesus isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy for Luther, who all his life wondered if he was doing the right thing and questioned whether he was worthy of God’s mercy. 

And following Jesus certainly wasn’t easy for the lawyer in the Gospel story who asks Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus said, you need to give your life to God—your heart, your mind, your strength. And you need to love your neighbor as yourself.  Love as you are loved.  And you are loved a bunch.

What does being reformed and always reforming mean for us?
We live in a time and culture where most people don’t think Christianity matters any more. Where church leaders are so worried about declining church membership that we emphasize only the grace of God and soft pedal the demands of the Gospel. Where our culture screams out so loudly “me first!” that it threatens to overpower us and make us reluctant to ask Jesus, “What is the commandment I need to follow?” because we’re afraid of what the answer might be.

Our reformation means putting aside that fear, and instead embracing what Jesus and the Gospel demand of us. Our reformation compels us to reply to Jesus, with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. And to love our neighbor.

Our reformation means giving sacrificially of our time, our talent, and our money, even in a time of economic recession. Our reformation means loving God enough to risk. Our reformation means loving neighbor enough to share. Our reformation means acknowledging that Jesus—and no one else, not status, not job, not material riches, not the acclaim of our peers—is the Lord of our life.
When ordinary people love with heart and mind and soul, ordinary people go on to do extraordinary things. Ordinary people like Martin Luther. Ordinary people like you and me. Our reformation begins today. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thanks to my good friend and Luther scholar, Cynthia Bolbach, for sharing her take on the great reformer.