“Sola” (500th Anniversary of the Reformation)

“Sola” (500th Anniversary of the Reformation)

II Timothy 3:14-17

My first year of Bible College
I shared a cramped two room dorm with three other guys.
The first roommate that I met on my first day on campus
was a guy named Jeff.

Jeff was from the area, his parents lived about 20 minutes away.
Jeff was a very nice guy, a tad socially awkward,
but still a nice and thoughtful guy none-the-less.

By comparison, my other two roommates
were raised as missionaries kids in the jungles of South America
and I, of course, in the arboreal jungles
of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

It would not be a stretch to say that compared to Jeff
the rest of us appeared to have been raised by wolves.

Jeff made his bed everyday.
He never wore the same thing two days in a row.
His laundry was always folded
and his shirts always had crisp collars.

Jeff worked hard in his studies
and he worked hard to keep our dorm room tidy.
But, poor Jeff, could not stem the tide of our chaotic house keeping.

See, we knew which day the RA was going to do a dorm inspection
so we just let everything go until the night before
and then we did a passable job getting things
shoved into places where they looked like they belonged.
But the areas that were Jeff’s were always, ALWAYS immaculate.

But that wasn’t enough for Jeff.
The chaos of the rest of the room wore on him.
When I try to think back about that time
I am pretty sure he was starting to develop
a nervous twitch when he entered our room.

When we returned from Christmas vacation
it was as though the magic cleaning fairies
had stopped by over the break.
Everything was in its place.
Everyone’s laundry was folded or in its proper hamper.
Beds were made. Garbage thrown out. Desks organized.

And aggressively taped to the door
was a long computer print out
with a list of grievances
and the things that would need to change in our two room world
or action would be taken and we would not like it.

I think it took me a good 5 minutes to stop laughing.
The threat was just so surreal coming from Jeff.
A nice guy, a tiny guy, without a violent bone in his body.

As my other roommates arrived and saw the room
and saw the note they laughed their requisite 5 minutes.
And then we all read the list again.

None of it, not one thing that Jeff requested,
was outlandish or absurd.
In fact it was all just common sense.

As we looked over it that second time
we all sobered a bit and realized
that we had been horrible roommates.

We hadn’t considered Jeff or each other at all.
We just did whatever we wanted
and chaos and disunity was the result.

Now I would like to tell you
that we all became as fastidious as Jeff.
That my bed has been made every morning
since then and that everything I own has its place and its purpose. (My wife would like to be able to tell you that, too!)
But that would be a lie.

What we did do was try harder.
My clean laundry got folded (but not always put away).
My bed did not have hospital corners
nor could you bounce a quarter off of it
but it was a reasonable facsimile of a made bed.
And I worked the hardest at keeping my desk clear of clutter.
I was there to study after all
and that desk was where I did a lot of it.

Not a one of us was perfect.
We broke the rules on Jeff’s lists countless times more.
But he never did anything to us,
not because he was weak
but because all he wanted was for us to try
and be more considerate of each other.
And in that, we succeeded.

I got to thinking about good ole Jeff this week
as I considered the implications of Martin Luther’s
aggressively hammered note
on that church door 500 years ago this week.

Luther was an unknown priest,
living in a backwater village,
teaching at a university no one had ever heard of.
Yet his action, his posting of the 95 Theses,
changed the Church and the world forever.

Today we consider that act
as the beginning of the Protestant Church
though I am sure Luther himself would not.

Luther’s grievances against the Pope and the Catholic Church
were not intended to cause schism.
They were intended to get people,
particularly people in power, to reform, to change,
to get back to what they were supposed to be.

At that time it was believed
that salvation only came to the world
through the Church Catholic.
That the Pope’s authority should be considered
as Christ’s authority when sitting on the papal throne.

Literacy for the poor was non-existent.
Church services were in Latin,
a language that few people spoke or understood.
And so, quite literally,
the people had to take what the priests and the pope told them about their beliefs and about their salvation on faith.

A doctrine of purgatory was created at some point.
A place of punishment that is not hell,
that can be escaped,
but only after you have atoned for your own sin in that place,
or until your family paid the Church enough money,
or, if you were rich,
you could buy time off of your stay in purgatory ahead of time.

The Church started selling “indulgences”
which meant that rich people,
who wanted to sin in a certain way,
could pay a sum of money and be forgiven
before they actually committed that sin.

The poor were allowed to glimpse
or touch holy relics like the bones of the St. John
or a nail from the crucifixion
and be blessed by them, all for a price of course.

In 1510 Luther made a trip to Rome for his order
and was sickened by what he saw.

In the center of the Churches power
was corruption like he had never seen.
Poor pilgrims swindled out of what money
they had by unscrupulous clergy.
And the greatest horror of them all for Luther
was seeing the luxurious lifestyle of Pope Leo X.

The spectacle of Rome and the Pope
warred within Luther against the scriptures
he read and taught and the Jesus he loved.

And the list, the 95 statements or, theses,
that got nailed to the church door,
addressed directly that corruption
and the need to look to the scriptures alone
as our authority for faith and practice.
Today we call that belief “Sola Scriptura”.

I don’t want it to get lost on us though
that for Luther this was not about splitting off
from the Catholic Church and doing something new.

This was about reforming the Church,
bringing it back to a more pure faith,
where our ability to corrupt the faith
could be held in check by the holy scriptures of our faith.

A huge part of the reason
that the reformation took off as it did
was because Luther worked
to have the bible translated into German,
into a language more accessible to the people than Latin.

And from there,
with access to reading the scriptures
in the common language of the people,
literacy became more important,
and the books that people had access to, were mostly bibles,
and so people, for the first time,
had access to the treasury of scriptures
that today we can buy in any bookstore or corner pharmacy.

The bible went from being a book
written in a mysterious language
only the most highly educated people could understand
to being a way that anyone, regardless of station in life,
could experience and understand God. And that is what happened.

People were ravenous for the word of God.
And, a side effect of that,
was a whole lot of new churches
and denominations being started.

Because it is one thing when your faith and practice
is disseminated from the Pope on down through the priests
without people being able to check the validity
of that information
and trying to pass something off as scripturally true
when everyone can check their bible and see that you are full of it.

And so what started with Lutherans
spread to Presbyterians, and Anabaptists,
and Anglicans, and Methodists
and Evangelical Brethren and southern Baptists
and North American Baptists and a hundred other flavors of Baptist.

Because with every person that could read the scriptures
came the opportunity for a slightly different interpretation
of a passage and soon
it was not simply differences of opinion
but differences about what it means to be faithful to God
based on how we read and understand the scriptures.

We are dealing with that very issue today
in the United Methodist Church.
I am referring of course to the debate on human sexuality
and the full inclusion our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
There are two sides with points of view that are diametrically opposed. And there are a bunch in the middle. And it is a mess.

And this is why our ability to read and understand the scriptures
is so important, this is why,
even with bible study being out of style
it is more important than ever for us
to be studying and applying and seeking
to understand our scriptures.
So that we know, within ourselves, what is right.

And knowing what is right
doesn’t come from simply hearing the sermon on Sunday morning. I mean, I’m good and all,
but there is far more going on in the scriptures
than what I can get into in 20 minutes on Sunday.

While Martin Luther had his sola scriptura,
John Wesley, a couple hundred years later, had the quadrilateral. Just a fancy way of saying
there are four facets to consider
in how we assess what is true
and what is faithful practice in our age.

Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.

We begin with scripture because as we read this morning:

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching,
for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient,
equipped for every good work.”

We have to start with what is most common to all of us.
We have to start with that which only changes as it changes us.
We have to start with the scripture
which is able to teach us, to correct us when we are wrong,
to train us in how we should walk in Christ
so that we will be ready with the tools and skills we need
to do good in the world.

There are many different translations
and interpretations and ideas
and confusing symbolism
and it can be chaotic and infuriating at times
but we all have to start at the same place
if we want to get anywhere.

Tradition.
This is one where we can get tripped up on
because we are talking about the traditions of the church
that go back thousands of years, baptism and communion,
and worship,
not the tradition of hanging the greens after church
on the last Sunday before Advent.

While that is a tradition,
it is not one that most of the big “C” Church has in common.
So we read scripture and we consider tradition and why it is what it is.

Why we do those things that we do?
Why does one church only celebrate communion once a month
and another every week?
What are the implications of that for my spiritual life?
What does the scripture say about it?

Tradition means we recognize
that we are a part of a much larger conversation;
generations of Christians
have been wrestling for thousands of years
with what it means to be faithful to Christ.

They may not have always gotten it right,
and their answers may not always be helpful
in our day and age,
but it’s arrogant for us to ignore
the incredibly rich and diverse conversation
of which we are only the most recent part.

And that gets into reason.
God gave us minds to think. To consider.
To ask questions and ferret out answers.
To be able to consult with other believers
and theologians through books and sermons and conversations.
It is an active process.
We have to think about what we believe and why.

And finally, we have experience.
What we believe makes no difference
if it doesn’t make a difference.

We have to consider what it is
that we have experienced of God in our lives.
Where have we seen God’s love and mercy and grace in action?
When we pray has it made a difference?
Did it calm our hearts to be in contact with God?
Did we actually see God move in that particular instance?

And we weigh the experience of others.
We have conversations together
and we describe our own experiences.
We share them so that we can all be on the look out
for when similar opportunities come along.

We take all of those, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience
and we use them to figure out what it is that we believe.
What we believe about God.
What we believe about humanity, about ourselves, about others.

We use it to decide
what we believe is happening during communion or during baptism. We use it to answer the big existential questions in our lives
and we use it to help us make the day to day decisions
about how we live and work and raise our families.

And I know what you must be thinking.
“Pastor, that sounds like a lot of time and effort.”
And you would be right.

To study the scriptures, to understand our traditions,
to consider their implications stacked up against our experience does take time, on some issues it may take our entire lives.

But here’s the thing.
We are talking about the most important relationship in our lives. Our relationship with God.
How we understand that relationship.
How we interact with the divine.
How we interact with the world around us.
What happens next? When this life is over. What do you believe happens? Is this all there is? Is there some far off heaven? What about judgment and consequences? I can tell you what I believe but wouldn’t it be better for you to know what you believe?

When we are young it as if we decide
that these questions can be answered by our future selves.

We don’t have to worry about it now, its future Mike’s problem.
The trouble is, it’s not easy stuff,
it is life and death, salvation and eternity,

it is “the bible says to love my neighbor and my enemy,
how in the world do I do that” kind of stuff.
And if I wait and let future Mike figure it out
it’ll never get figured out at all.

There are no easy answers.
Even when we come to a conclusion about something,
it’s never really the conclusion.

What I believe today
is not the same as what I believed 20 years ago.

God has not changed but I have,
my experience has,
my ability to reason has,
my understanding of and interaction with tradition has,
and so the way I read and understand scripture
has changed, too.

And the more I know and experience and understand
the more I need to be examining my beliefs
so that I can be faithful to what I believe.

That is what Martin Luther wanted 500 years ago.
He wanted the behavior of the Church to match its beliefs.
For the church to seek to live up to its highest ideals.
For the church to be what it was commissioned to be,
messengers of the good news in both word and deed.

The reformation gave us an incredible gift
and a great responsibility.

It gave us the gift of access to the ancient texts
that speak of our God and of our savior.
The reformation gave us the gift
of being able to read and discover things for ourselves.
And it gave us the responsibility to wrestle with it.
To struggle with our beliefs
and with how we live and move and breathe in the world.
To question if how we are living
is really in line with what we claim to believe.

It is how we know if the church is on the right side of history or not.
It is how we know if what we believe
is in line with how God is moving in the world.
And while we’re all in this together,
while we can help each other along the way,
no one else can find the answers for you.
At some point, whatever is between you and God
has to come down to God and you.

The scripture is inspired God and is useful.
So let’s use it. Let’s be inspired by it.
And let’s prepare for every good work that comes our way.
Amen? Amen.

 

 

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