A sermon preached on Sunday 13 August 2017 by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer.
What did the Reformation ever do for us? Fans of British comedy in the 1970s (which I’m sure covers most people here) will recognise the reference. In Monty Python’s biblical parody The Life of Brian, John Cleese addresses a meeting of the People’s Front of Judaea:
‘The Romans have bled us white...and what have they ever given us in return?’ - ‘The aqueduct,’ suggests someone. ‘Oh yeah, they did give us that,’ ‘And the sanitation,’ ‘Yeah, alright…’ ‘And the roads,’ ‘Yeah, well obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don’t they?’ - and so on, until finally, ‘Apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’
Something might have brought benefits that you so take for granted that you need to be reminded where the credit is due. That’s the idea we are testing in this Summer sermon series on the Reformation. Why the Reformation? Because five hundred years ago this year a thirty-something friar called Martin Luther nailed what must have been quite a large piece of paper to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. It contained his Ninety-Five Theses, a critique of the practices of the church, especially the selling of indulgences to get people’s souls time off in purgatory. That day is taken as the birth of what became known as the Reformation.
What sort of anniversary is it? Is it a celebration, like this year’s fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act? Or should we commemorate it above all with sorrow, like the centenary of Passchendaele, remembering how many deaths this religious revolution was to cause? And (which seems almost to matter more to some people) the destruction of religious art it provoked? Or is the proper mood a mixture of sorrow and gratitude?
There certainly are things that are part of our furniture that we owe to the Reformation - married clergy for instance - but this series will look at broader themes: what really happens in the eucharist, the authority of the Bible, our destiny under God; and first, Luther’s great cause, justification by the grace of God, through faith.
St Paul sets it out in our first reading: ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…effective through faith’; and today’s gospel shows what Paul tells: to the woman who reaches out and touches him Jesus says, ‘Your faith has saved you,’ and to the man confronted by the fearful truth of his daughter’s death he says, ‘Don’t be afraid, only believe.’ It is, said Luther, ‘the critical clause by which the church stands or falls.’ Two questions. What drove Luther to his revolution? And what can his insight do for us?
By 1517 Martin had emerged from a time of agony. His problem seems to have been that he actually paid attention in church. He looked with raw simplicity at the God who emerged from the pages of his Latin Bible and hated what he saw: a God of justitia, of righteousness, but a God who demanded righteousness (‘justification’) from his creatures; a God who required a whole-heartedness that the messy, tangled human soul could never produce, because no human act ever springs from unmixed motives.
There was a remedy: repentance, translated in his Bible as penitentiam agere: do penance, produce good deeds as recompense for your sins. But that just prolonged the nightmare, because each act of penance was itself compromised by mixed motives. You can’t escape this, any more than you can jump off your own shadow. So God was demanding what no-one could produce, then punishing those who could not produce it.
Luther described this period as a personal hell. Johann von Staupitz, the wise and caring head of his religious community, assured him that the New Testament actually said more creative things than that and sent him back to read it in the original Greek. Luther discovered there the true meaning of repentance: not a narrow business of doing penance but the redirection of your life.
As he began to see the face of a gracious God emerging from scripture, the penny dropped: God’s righteousness need not be a threat hanging over the whole of life; it’s not a weapon God uses to punish us for falling short of the mark; it’s what God gives us to make us belong to God; it is a source of grace, not condemnation, thanks to what Jesus has done for us in his life and his death. Here was a God Luther could love, a God who had loved him first. He said that this discovery was for him like the Israelites’ escape out of Egypt, a journey from slavery to freedom.
We could say a lot more about this, but this is a sermon not a lecture, something useful for faith in the present time, and a lot of water has flowed - and blood been spilt - since Luther’s day. The Roman Catholic and the Lutheran churches recently agreed a joint statement on these matters that would have greatly eased his agonies, and the big questions of our day are not those of the 1500s. Forty years ago, the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung said, ‘People in all churches today talk not about “Christian justification” but about “social justice”’ - yes, and there’s far too little of that in the Reformation debates about God’s justice. Kung continued:
Formerly it was asked in great cosmic and spiritual anguish: how do I get a gracious God? But now the question is asked with no less cosmic and spiritual anguish: how does my life acquire meaning?
And he’s right. Look at the evangelism programme the Alpha Course, which over a million Britons have attended. It begins with a question: not ‘What must I do to be saved?’ but ‘Is there more to life than this?’
So is Luther’s discovery like Trevithick’s steam locomotive, revolutionary in its time but now of merely historical interest? I think many of us still know that anxious striving that so tortured Luther half a millennium ago, that feeling of being punished for not doing what you don’t have it in you to do, even if you don’t relate that punishment directly to God as Luther did. Think of a job, or a relationship, or any dimension life, in which - however hard you try - you are always falling short. Paul may have got that image of falling short from the athletics stadium, and we saw two spectacular examples of it in London last night. You know that feeling, even you’ve never put on a pair of spikes: the race demands more than you are able to give.
When life does that to us, how are our lives justified? Where does our meaning, our secure identity, lie? Not, says Paul, in our performance (thank God) but in the free gift of God’s grace, the gift that awaits the receiving hand of faith. Faith, wrote Luther in his Preface to this letter of Paul to the Romans,
is a living, unshakeable confidence in God's grace; it is so certain, that someone would die a thousand times for it. This kind of trust in and knowledge of God's grace makes a person joyful, confident, and happy with regard to God and all creatures.
Five hundred years ago, that is what an intense young man found that God had done for him. And God does that for us now, as his Son invites to his table the ones who keep falling short, and waits for our receiving hands of faith.
This sermon owes much to Rowan Williams’ pages on Luther in The Wound of Knowledge.
Hans Kung, On Being a Christian, first English language edition 1974.