REFORMATION SUNDAY 2019
Can’t Buy Me Love (Luke 18:9-14)
On this day, in our tradition, we commemorate Reformation Sunday. We recall the work of German reformer Martin Luther in the 16th century, who pointed out abuses, faulty teaching, and pastoral neglect in the churches of his day, and who sought to bring renewal and reform to the Christian faith.
At that time, of course, in Europe, there was only one primary church institution in the Western world, and that was the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s intention was to reform the church, but in the end, what happened was that he, in conjunction with many other factors, unleashed a tidal wave that broke the one Church into a thousand different denominations and groups.
For example, on our recent trip to Switzerland, we visited the church where Ulrych Zwingli was the pastor back in Luther’s day. Zwingli was another reformer, but he and Luther had some severe disagreements, and, as a result, Switzerland became home to Reformed churches rather than Lutheran congregations.
We also visited places along Lake Geneva, in southwestern Switzerland, which is the French-speaking region of the country. In the city of Geneva, it was John Calvin who became the father of other groups of Reformed churches, many of which later represented the Presbyterian tradition.
Then one day we had the opportunity to try and track down some of my wife Gail’s Swiss heritage in the little town of Langnau, near Bern. There we visited the site of the first Mennonite congregation, a group that also goes back to the 1500s. Mennonites are heirs of the Anabaptist tradition, a group that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli disagreed with.
Luther and the other reformers led movements that laid the foundations for the entire world of Protestant Christianity. Over the centuries Protestantism has been characterized by its propensity to divide and form various denominations and groups, each with their own distinctive teachings and practices.
However, something else must be said. A closer look at the Roman Catholic Church itself will reveal that it is not as monolithic and unchanging as many people think. Over the centuries, Catholicism has had many reformers who, unlike Luther, did not break away from Rome to form their own movements. Instead, they were able to reform the church from within and remain within Catholicism.
We saw this in Europe too. We visited a Benedictine Abbey in Tuscany that remains functioning today. This abbey was founded in the 1300s, two hundred years before Martin Luther, and it was based on the Rule of St. Benedict, written by Benedict in 516 AD, a thousand years before the Reformation! Benedict was one of those who brought renewal to the Catholic church by forming a movement within Catholicism.
We also went to Assisi, the home of St. Francis and St. Clare. Francis came along around the year 1200 and heard God calling him to repair the broken ruins of the church in his day. So Francis, who never became a priest, started an order of renewal that, to this day, retains its distinctive emphases, teachings and practices within the institution of the Catholic church.
When we say in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” we are not describing one institution. We are describing a many faceted movement, a diverse, worldwide family of people who, by God’s grace through faith, have come to trust and follow Christ.
For years and decades and centuries and millennia, Christianity has been criticized as a religion of division and conflict, and in all honesty that’s right. East and West. Catholic and Protestant. Thousands of different denominations and movements that separate themselves from each other. Reformation Day is a good day to acknowledge that, to confess our lack of love and partnership in Christ. It’s a good day to remind ourselves that Christianity always need reforming.
But it is also a good day to celebrate the bottom-line truth of what unites us, despite our many differences.
At the turn of the current century, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation published a document called “The Joint Declaration on Justification.” After almost 500 years of fighting and disagreement, they put out a statement affirming that God has been at work, helping us to recognize our common commitment to the one thing that matters: the good news of Jesus Christ.
The Joint Declaration states:
Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.
In other words, God’s love, acceptance, salvation, forgiveness, and active presence in our lives are all gifts. Even faith itself is a gift, the statement goes on to say. They are all pure gifts. We don’t earn them. We can’t buy them. It’s not a matter of jumping through certain hoops or climbing any ladder. We don’t have to qualify or pass an entrance exam. We don’t have to meet certain criteria. There’s no transaction that has to be processed. “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God…”
It’s like life itself. What did you and I do to earn the privilege of being born and entering this life? The answer is obvious. We didn’t do a thing! Life is a gift we were given through someone else’s act of love. Even so, our spiritual life, the new life we have in Christ, the forgiven life, the resurrected life, the life of faith and good works, the life of fellowship in the family of God, the life of vocation in the world, the life that hopes for a new creation to come — this life that God has given us is just that: life that has been given to us by God who loved us and sent his Son for us.
In Jesus’ parable that I read this morning, we have a portrait of one person who understood this, and one who didn’t.
The Pharisee, one of the most moral and religious people you would have been likely to meet in Jesus’ day, nevertheless misunderstood his relationship with God and with others. He thought of life in transactional terms. He thought he had entered into a contract with God. His part of the bargain was to be religious — to fast, to pray, to go to temple, to tithe, to live a moral and ethical life, and to avoid the bad choices others made that led them down the wrong paths.
Nothing wrong with any of that, of course. If everyone lived like that, this would be a far better world. But the point is not how he lived, it’s that he thought by doing so he was earning his place with God. He paid his part of the agreement with God, so God must declare him a righteous person.
This also led the Pharisee to have less than stellar attitudes toward others. He’d done his best to get to the top of heap, and now all he could do was look down on others, like the tax collector he saw in the temple that day. C.S. Lewis once said that pride is the most deadly sin because as long as we’re looking down on others, we can never really look up to God. But that’s what a transactional approach to life gets you. You keep your part of the deal and it very naturally leads to an attitude of contempt toward those who haven’t.
The other person in this story, the tax collector, however, didn’t view his relationship with God as a transaction. He just came before God honestly, admitted his shortcomings, and asked for mercy. He wasn’t trying to make some sort of payment toward his salvation or forgiveness. He wasn’t playing “let’s make a deal” with God. He just knew he needed forgiveness and renewal, and he asked for it. He came to God personally, authentically, and without playing any games.
It’s like the Beatles sang: “Can’t buy me love.”
That’s the bottom line, folks. That’s the message Christian people everywhere, no matter what institution, denomination, or group they belong to, need to keep coming back to: the good news that God’s love and acceptance, God’s salvation and forgiveness is all a gift. That’s the good news of Jesus Christ. And that’s our common ground.
If we try to build our relationships with God and others on a transactional basis, we will always come up short. But if we live with honesty, with genuine humility, with gratitude for the gift of life and all the gifts of God that come with it, then we will truly experience life and find ways of sharing it with others.
And that’s what will always bring reformation to the church and to our lives.