As with just about every Lutheran congregation across the world and likely some other Christian churches as well, here at St. James we spend this weekend celebrating Reformation Sunday. The day given credit for triggering the schism in the medieval Roman Catholic Church as Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, Germany, thus jump starting arguably the greatest evangelical movement of all time.
While most people today understand Luther’s 95 theses to be a response solely to the sale of indulgences, the selling of the forgiveness of sins on behalf of the Catholic Church, the truth is, for Luther, the issue was much greater.
While the sale of indulgences was no doubt a driving force for Luther, the heart of his 95 theses and that of Luther’s reformation, came down to the right interpretation of the gospel, not just in what the church taught, but also on what the church put into practice.
You see, at the time of Martin Luther’s life, the Church was one of, if not, the most influential institution of its day. It held the money, the political authority, and in a world where few received any education at all and the Bible was only printed in Latin, it held the keys to the kingdom of heaven as well, or at least claimed to.
With this, a message of power-seeking-fear coming from the Church, overruled the message of the Gospel that became so clear to Luther the more that he studied, where only God has the power to remit sin, where forgiveness and everlasting life are rooted in God’s grace, given to us freely through faith. Or as we heard in our reading for this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
In 1 year from today we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, an event which religious scholar Martin Marty describes as “an invitation to a party, one that commemorates events that began five hundred years ago and have consequences throughout the world today.”
In addition to today being just one year away from 500, today also marks a significant day for me in being the first major liturgical moment marking my second year here with all of you here at St. James. In saying this, while, as a Lutheran pastor, I certainly agree with Marty in that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a reason to celebrate, as I reflect on my first year of public ministry, I question the level of consequences the Reformation continues to carry in our world today.
In other words, what does the Reformation really mean for us today as a people who claim the name of the reformer himself in the year 2016? Does the word Lutheran define who we are as individuals? Does it define who we are as Church? Does it define who we are as a congregation here at St. James? Do we cling to the teachings on which the Lutheran church was founded? Of which Martin Luther felt so passionately about that he would fight against everything he ever knew and held most deeply in his heart? That Jesus Christ is Lord above heaven and earth. That we are given forgiveness for even the worst of our sins, by God’s amazing grace, through faith in the One who died on a cross so that we may live. And that in response to this promise, all that we do and say, all that we have, all that we are, should be offered to God in thanksgiving.
As I look back over my first year here at St. James, it has been one marked by many things, but maybe most especially by the long-range strategic planning process that we as a congregation have been in.
The week before I officially began my time as your associate pastor, Pastor Mike invited me to a congregational council meeting in which a representative from Kairos Consultant Group gave a presentation on long range planning and the process his consultant group undergoes in such planning.
For a variety of reasons, our council decided not to peruse Kairos further, but instead to develop a long-range strategic planning task force, made up of our own members, in order to begin to look at our future as a congregation. In the following months the members of this taskforce have worked diligently in order to set us, as a community of faith, on a healthy path for the days ahead.
Most recently, through the Congregational Assessment Tool from Holy Cow Consultants, those of you who filled out the survey entered into this process as well, in sharing your thoughts and concerns, and the extent by which you participate in the life of St. James and respond to your faith.
This past Monday evening, leaders from St. James including, staff, Sunday school teachers, and members of council sat in the dining hall downstairs, just below where we sit this morning in order to discuss the results of this survey, discussion that will continue in the months ahead as we seek your further engagement. In receiving these results, it’s safe to say, that there is a lot of work to be done here at St. James, by you, and by me.
On this Reformation Sunday we are called to reflect on the question of why we celebrate. And we are called to do so, not just in the context to the historical events of Martin Luther 499 years ago, but also, and even more importantly, in the current context of our world today, of the Church’s role in it, of our role as St. James Lutheran Church in downtown Gettysburg.
On the night of my meet and greet with St. James during my call process, one of our long time members asked me the question of “what will lead me to be a great pastor, vs. simply a good one?” I won’t name the one who asked!
My response, with slight smirk on my face, while I’m not sure I’ll ever be a great pastor as opposed to a good or average one, or having any idea how you define such things, was that if there is a reason leading me to be a great pastor, my motivation is one of deep love for the Church. I love the Church. I was able to respond in that way with confidence, not simply because I meant what I said, but because I could tell that those sitting in the pews that night, looking to me for an answer, felt exactly the same way.
We, here at St. James, are a people who clearly love the Church, just as Martin Luther was. Just take 5 minutes to skim through our congregational report that will distributed in a couple of weeks and the many ministries we do in Jesus’ name. Or, better yet, spend one hour in our church office on any day of the week and talk to those to whom we offer assistance in their deepest time of need.
Yet to be honest, in looking over the results of our congregational assessment, a different picture is portrayed, with less than 2% of average incomes given to support the mission of St. James, and nearly 50% of us spending less than an hour of time a month volunteering of our time in order to support that same mission.
There is a lot of work to be done. And again I ask the question, why do we celebrate the reformation this day in 2016, what does it mean for us as Church, for us as St. James Lutheran, and for us as individuals? Just imagine what we could do as Church, if we would respond to God’s gifts in the way we are called to do.
Today, as we celebrate the Reformation, and we find ourselves just one year away from celebrating the 500th anniversary of such, I ask you to be brave in your faith as Luther was in his. To be proud of the name we claim. To love the Church, and to allow that love to show forth in all that you do and with all that you have in response to the gift given freely through Jesus Christ… the gift that brings hope into our lives when little else does… that forgives us in times when we can’t even forgive ourselves… that brings life into our world in times when death is close by.
Jesus gave his life for us. We are called to give of ours because of this in His name. To demonstrate his justice, an to live our lives in thanksgiving and in faithful service with the whole of our being. With our time, our talents, and our resources. In all that we do, and with all that we have.
So Martin Luther writes in his 95 these; “62. The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God. 94. Christians should be exhorted to strive to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells. 95. And by this they should trust to enter heaven through many severe tribulations, rather than through the security of peace.”
It’s with this that we celebrate this day and all days, and that we find our challenge as followers of Christ. With these words, Luther makes it clear that a life of following Christ is far from easy, yet we are called to do so through pain, suffering, and death because of Christ and His Gospel. The very means by which we are able to know the glory and grace of God. The greatest gift of all. That which will echo within these walls in just a few moments as we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism, and that which echoes in our hearts at all times. Where we are cleansed, forgiven, and united together as one with each other in the body of Christ. With this we give thanks and praise. With this go forth proud of the name we claim as Lutherans, and even more so of that of Christ, standing side by side in God’s mission for the life of the world.
~Pastor Andrew Geib