The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
October 29, 2017, Reformation Sunday
The Reformation, 500 years ago this month, brought about the second great separation among Christians – the first coming 600 years before, when Roman Catholic Christianity and what is called Orthodox Christianity went their separate ways.
While, other things being equal, the more unity among Christians the better, there is bad division, and not-so-bad division.
In both the split of the 9th century and that of the 16th, there was an institutional division within the world-wide Christian community. But such institutional division amounts to significant disunity, and compromise of the church’s purity and witness to the world, only if it involves a division of mind and heart in which Christians disagree about foundational truth claims and purposes.
If Christians don’t disagree along those lines and treat each other respectfully, fairly and kindly, there need be no scandal or problem with their denominational division. It may only mean they have different callings, likely for the sake of reaching different people, and those callings prompt them to emphasize different biblical themes or to express the same ones in different forms. Then, even with their institutional separation, they can still maintain the most important unity of shared core convictions, crucial concerns and commitment to Christ.
When separation becomes more problematic is when a part of the Christian community has – for some time and with no indication of any intent to change – lost its way and violated the fundamental integrity of the faith.
Martin Luther was as devout a Roman Catholic as you could ever find. He was, in fact, an obedient and dedicated monk! He only reluctantly led a break-off from his church, as a last resort, when at a unique point in its history his church, the Roman Catholic church, was showing very strong resistance to acknowledging any error, even the crucial one of having drifted away from a central biblical doctrine (which, by the way, the Reformation precipitated its reclaiming eventually).
That central biblical doctrine was the conviction that there is no possibility for anyone’s salvation except by a 100% dependence on nothing but God’s grace.
The Reformation’s creating the second major split in the worldwide Christian community was rooted in a sad despair over any openness from the Catholic church of the day about returning to its scriptural foundations and reaffirming the essence of the good news of the gospel.
That good news is that, while there is no hope for mortals in human achievement, there is great hope for forgiveness and renewal as a divine achievement; that, while good works should be the fruit of salvation, they are no part of the root of salvation; and that, while God’s transforming us for the better moves us to do many things, the Christian life is really all God’s doing, from beginning to end.
The key assertion of the Reformation leaders was the key assertion of this scripture lesson from Ephesians: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing.”
To be “saved” is to be rescued from something, and to be rescued for something. It is to be rescued from the burden of having to pay for the evil of our ethical and spiritual misdeeds, rescued from our inability to improve ourselves enough, and rescued from the worst consequences, both earthly and eternal, of our being less than we might have been. Likewise, to be saved is to be rescued for an abundantly empowered life in the here-and-now and an infinitely blessed life in the hereafter, rescued for the fulfillment of our potential as those made in God’s image and endowed by God with gifts and abilities, and rescued for the enjoyment of a close relationship with the best Friend one could ever have, in shared service to the best purposes one could ever have.
We can, this scripture says, be saved like that only “by grace”. What is grace? It is something we can never bring about but only be given. It is something we can never deserve or earn any more than we can the magnificence of a horse, the beauty of a Bach cantata, the joy of being loved and loving someone ourselves, or the blessing of being alive at all when we are not necessary to the world.
Grace is the unlimited goodness of God lavished upon us, all out of proportion to our virtue or record of accomplishment. It is the unrestrained love in which He immerses us, not due to anything about us, but solely due to something about Him. It is God’s saying, “I want you to be my child,” when we expect Him to say, “Just you wait!” It is experiencing a better life than any we dreamed of, and realizing it’s all on the house.
There’s only one catch to this good news. Like any other gift, it can be ours only if we reach out and take it.
Of course, being able to reach out and take it is a gift too. Even that is first and foremost God’s doing, and not our own.
But God’s doing it all involves our doing a whole lot in response. Only all that doing, as costly and as effort-filled as it might sometimes be, is what we get to do and no longer what we have to do. And it is a work that is completely derivative from God’s prior work. Thus, our scripture says, “We are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
By what means then are we saved by grace? Though faith! So, what is faith? It is deciding to allow grace to do its supernatural work on us, in us and through us by deciding to give up on self-reliance and to give ourselves over instead to unrestrained reliance on what God has done and would do. It is choosing trusting before trying, praying before pressing, being dependent before being diligent, and availing of divine achievement before activating human achievement.
So let us just be what God makes us as we dare to do nothing but trust God in every way – in our thoughts, words and deeds. That will make us people of the Bible and of the Reformation on this, its 500th anniversary!