Pastor’s Perspective. . .
Over generations of Christian practice and tradition Roman Catholicism had developed a few theological barnacles that stubbornly clung to the hull of the Church. Over time the traditions can become so present in the work of an organization that they begin to become part of the structure of the organization. To seek to remove them seems like you are cutting out an essential part of the work. It takes a skilled physician to cut out the cancer without also destroying the body. For that reason the Reformers sought to be both biblical and reasonable.
Luther’s appeal to Rome in his 95 Theses was both logical and scriptural. His manner of debate was not as dramatic as we have made it, but in many ways no different than a college student posting a document for discussion on a dorm floor cork-board. Nailing the document seems needlessly confrontational, but let’s for a moment recognize that post-it notes had not yet been invented.
Unfortunately Luther had chosen a topic that the Church did not want to discuss, much less debate. The offense wasn’t the scars in the wood but the sore spot touched by Luther’s inquiry. The indulgences that Luther had railed against were a big money maker for the Catholic Church and it was money that they both wanted and needed for the building projects they sought to continue. The Church had been caught in a web of greed and deceit, but instead of acknowledging their sin they attacked their accuser. Luther had wandered into politically correct territory, and like our inquiring collegian, he found himself against a politically correct administration that sought not to seek the truth, but to destroy the opposition.
The Catholic Church’s response to Luther inadvertently stoked the flames of resistance in Germany and around the Western world. Luther developed deep relationships with many German knights and the noble class who soon began to rally in support of Luther and voice opposition to Roman control of the German people. Who knows what would have happened had the Church simply listened and responded to the inquiries of a sincere critic and would-be saint? Sadly the lack of Christian love quickly turned a principled debate into a shooting war and the Church was broken into many pieces by the conflict.
Luther and his fellow reformers are the “heroes” of the story to each of us who attend Protestant Churches, but sadly the path that they began has led us to a place of deepening division. As people began to question the traditions of the Church and discern the Biblical foundations for Christian thought and practice, the schisms that began with the Catholic Church continued to extend throughout the entire denominational structure. The Church would soon discover that without the control of an authoritative body, every theological distinction would eventually spawn a new denomination.
The earliest sign of trouble occurred in 1529 when Prince Philip of Hesse sought to create a formal treaty between the various Protestant leaders and their cities. Gathering at the Colloquy of Marburg, the Reformers discovered that they agreed on fourteen of the fifteen issues discussed. For most people going 14 for 15 would be a clear sign of unity, but for Luther it was a sign that, “we are not of the same spirit.” The one place of disagreement was based on their conflicting understanding of how Jesus was present in communion. Luther held to the traditional Catholic understanding of a physical presence in the bread and the wine, while men like Zwingli and Martin Bucer saw the presence of Christ in the elements as symbolic. It is painfully ironic that the Church could not find harmony at the Communion table. Philip was unable to broker the peace between the cities and their leaders. The representatives from the Protestant strongholds returned home agreeing to disagree.
This created the first, but not the last, separation between the Protestants and gave rise to the growth of the two main branches of Protestantism: the Lutheran and the Reformed tradition. Anabaptists would create yet another branch of separation, and soon every theological distinction had the potential to create another schism within the Church.
What began as an attempt to cure Roman Catholicism and the Pope of its wayward theology, soon began to separate believers on the basis of any and every theological disagreement. The danger of giving people the opportunity to decide for themselves is that eventually…they will. The ability to determine our own theology and articulate our individual faith soon (and naturally) caused us to articulate our differences with greater emphasis than we did our places of agreement. No one publishes a treatise that agrees with modern dogma. The really juicy books, the ones that are remembered and bring fame and renown to their authors, are written by the dissidents.
Theological disagreements and the resulting political fallout resulted in an age of warfare that pitted Christian against Christian, with each disagreement escalating the conflicts. The end result was that Europe, once the center of Christian culture, grew to resent the violent legacy of the Church. What had once unified a Continent now was blamed for generations of European conflict. Sadly, in large part due to the high levels of conflict displayed by the Church over the ages, western Europeans in the modern era have thoroughly rejected the Church of Jesus Christ.
If the western world is going to be Christian again then it is time for a new Reformation of the Church. Once again we must attempt to discover the original intention of the Church. Once again we must seek to removes the barnacles off the hull of the Church. It will demand careful hands and pure hearts. It will demand that those who attempt to move forward are empowered by the Holy Spirit and evidence the fruits of faith, hope and love.
Allow me to offer a very simple thesis.
We can start by reframing our questions. For 500 years we have been providing answers to questions that people are no longer asking. The question of Eucharistic “presence” is no longer the primary question of our day, but many people are seeking the presence of God in their lives and in our world. How can we help them find that presence? Interestingly many people are embracing the mystery of the Church in a new way. This embrace of mystery is in many ways a rejection of the surety that was sought during the reformation and the enlightenment periods of our history and has reached a philosophical dead end in our technological age. In an age that can explain everything and deconstructs the very atoms that make us who we are, the most captivating questions that we can ask may be “what is love” and “how can we live in community together.”
The gospels answer these questions. Jesus provides simple questions, who is my neighbor and how many times should I forgive, as guideposts for the primary questions of the Church. Jesus helps us to sort out the issues of love and grace, forgiveness and judgement, sacrifice and fellowship. These are the questions that we need the answers for today. But we cannot simply state the answer, we must live it. We must become the standing stones that are written about by Peter. We must show the world our faith by giving to them our (agape) love. We must learn to forgive our neighbor seventy times seven times daily. We must learn to take the quid pro quo promise of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”) seriously.
What I am sharing with you is not new. It is not a unique idea. Yet it will cause us consternation and foment criticism because it undermines the traditions that have built up like barnacles in our lives.
God sent His Son to live and love sacrificially and to die for the sake of sinners yet unborn. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God has also sent the body of Christ (us) into the world to live and love sacrificially and to bear witness to the work of God in Jesus Christ. The world will know us by our love. It is time for a love reformation.
Will you nail this upon the doors of your heart and proclaim it to the world?