Today, is Reformation Sunday, the day when we remember the birth of the Protestant Reformation of the Christian Church in the 1500’s, that Reformation that God used to bring the focus of the Church away from what it had become: about human works, power and righteousness and back to what it was always suppose to be: focused on the message of salvation in Jesus Christ.
The Reformation was a spark that lit a fire of faith that burned through Germany enlightening peasants and princes alike. It had broad implications for government and changed the way the educational system of the time was run and which our modern education system is based upon. The Reformation made use of and helped to popularize the first movable type printing press, utilizing the Gutenberg Press 300,000 printed copies of Martin Luther’s tracks were spread across Europe in only 2 years, a feat that was unheard of before and led to the modern book and a Renaissance in teaching and literature. International Politics, Organized Religion, the Printing Press, the Modern Book, the Education System, Music and the Arts and much more could be talked about in depth in regards to the Protestant Reformation and yet, none of that was what the Protestant Reformation was about or what the man that God used to ignite that fire, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther would want the focus to be upon.
Ultimately the Reformation was about love.
In many ways, before the Reformation, the Christian Church had lost its way. The everyday clergy and priests were mostly uneducated, except in the rites and practices of the church, they could speak the Latin masses backwards, forwards or sideways but most of the priests knew as little about what the words actually meant as the common person they were performing the masses for. God’s Word was as inaccessible, translated only in Latin, the language of the scholar and the elite unavailable for everyday use or everyday people. Those elite and powerful in the church sought not righteousness but earthly power, riches and authority. God was depicted as being distant and far off, working and speaking only through the elite and powerful. God was painted not as a loving God who invites us to love Him back but as an angry and vindictive judge who heaps punishment upon the people and is only appeased by sacrifices of the mass and indulgences. These teachings instead of bringing peace and hope brought down the common person and layed a path in front of them that was burdensome in this life, followed by centuries of burden in purgatory. So were the abuses of the church at the time that people clambered to willingly pay money they did not have to gain little slips of paper called indulgences that would supposedly buy time out of purgatory and appease this angry God but instead simply lined the coffers of the papacy. There was no help in the world and there was no help in the church. This was what the Christian church had become losing the heart and soul of the message Jesus had given it to share.
And it was this angry and vindictive God that Martin Luther could not love but hated instead. Luther had gone into the monastery, spoke vows of celibacy and charity, gave all that he had to the poor, was a parish priest and a profound scholar, was good in the way that human effort and will could make a person good, so much so that his Father Confessor famously told Luther, only half jokingly, to get out and sin a little so he would have something to confess. But Luther felt acutely the demands of this angry God that the church taught so much about. How he was separated from God by sin, God hated sin and he was a sinner, he was burdened by the strict demands of the Ten Commandments and left in such a state of despair that he would lash himself to try to appease this angry God. Luther, a scholar trained in Latin and the ancient languages of Greek and Hebrew that the Scriptures were originally written in, struggled and wrestled between the teachings of the church about this angry God and the God that the Scriptures spoke of.
Luther recounts in his writings in the year 1519 of his Tower experience when the Holy Spirit showed him what was there all along in God’s Word. God does hate sin and all that is broken and evil. Love cannot approve and condone evil. If it did it would no longer be love. But instead of God placing the burden first upon the sinner to try and dig they’re way out of their sin and climb an impossible ladder to heaven, God does what God has always done, love comes down to the sinner and does what the sinner could never do on their own, love brings them to God. It is God who in love condemns sin but it is also God who in love saves the sinner from sin through faith in Jesus.
This simple realization, that was always there in God’s Word, but which had been covered over by tradition and greed and ignorance, was the spark that would set Luther’s world ablaze and bring faith once again to princes and peasants alike and hope in this world and the next where once no hope could be found.
It is this same message of the Reformation found that God in love condemns sin but also God in love that saves the sinner that we are inheritors to and speakers of as modern disciples of Jesus today. But the struggle we find ourselves in, in the church, is not the same struggle that Martin Luther had 500 years ago that was focused upon an angry God. Instead in our struggle today in the church, the pendulum has shifted instead of leaning to hard to the one side, on the aspect of God’s anger against sin, it has now gone too far to the other side focusing on God’s loving acceptance. Like in the Reformation, there was truth in the teaching, but the focus was so imbalanced that you lost the good news. Today, it’s the same, there is truth in the teaching but the focus on God’s acceptance is so imbalanced that you lose the good news as well.
There is a slogan I’m seeing on church billboards a lot lately, “God loves you, no exceptions.” This is true, in a good and scriptural and Christian understanding, in fact it is so true, that it goes far beyond what is comfortable for us. Not only does God love sinners, even those lost in their sins, not only those in socially acceptable sins, but God loves all sinners, the most extreme, wretched, hurtful, and wrong, those without God we would never even try to love ourselves. God’s love of sinners goes so far beyond our own comfort zone that those billboards, instead of being a message of acceptance to a culture in which anything goes, should be a message of challenge for all Christians to love in the crazy way that God loves sinners. But here’s the thing, that slogan is missing the very important second half of the message. “God loves you, no exceptions. BUT GOD DOESN’T LEAVE YOU THAT WAY.”
Love doesn’t leave the lost wandering around lost, the blind stumbling about in the dark or the dead, spiritually dead and apart from God. Love does what it does best, in a loving way it transforms the person and makes them more than they ever could because of the love of God. Think of it this way. Is it more loving to let a child run into a busy street and play because it makes him “happy” or is it more loving to teach the child where it is safe to play so they won’t get run over by a car? Love is not merely acceptance but shows us our sin and shows our savior.
The Reformation of the Christian Church didn’t end 500 years ago, but is alive today and it clears off all of the junk that gets added to the message of Jesus Christ, whether it be the junk of total anger or the junk of total acceptance and clears the way for what Jesus taught his church to teach others. It is God who in love condemns sin but it is also God who in love saves the sinner from sin.