Reformation Sunday 28 October 2017
(Jeremiah 31:31-34 Psalm 46 Romans 3:19-28 John 8:31-36)
“Action at the Margins!”
This weekend, as we not only celebrate Reformation Sunday, we also celebrate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, most notably when, as popular legend has it, Martin Luther walked to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, with nail, hammer and parchment in hand to attach 95 areas of concern/complaints/issues that Martin, a member of the clergy in the Catholic Church, struggled with at that time.
As you might imagine, the run-up to this year’s commemoration of the start of the Protestant Reformations has produced many new books about Martin Luther and the schismatic movement he inadvertently started.
The one book that has caught my attention is a book entitled, Wittenberg Meets the World: Reimagining the Reformation at the Margins. 1 One of the reasons this book initially caught my attention is that one of its authors is John Nunes, who I got to know several years ago when he was CEO of Lutheran World Relief, and who preached here twice within the past several years. He is now on staff at Concordia College, New York.
As I have noticed so many of the recently-written books related to the Reformation, in my humble opinion, what has always seemed to be missing is a book on how Lutheranism focuses on today’s global church and what message Lutheranism might offer to people today who really are not part of a predominantly White church.
I have always been so appreciative of the work our World Outreach and Social Ministry Committees do here at St. James to bring a message beyond the borders of our country and the walls of this building; no less, the commitment of our Lower Susquehanna Synod to the Konde Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania.
What I’m thinking on this reformation weekend is how the church, using the best thinking from the Reformation must continue to make sure that the poor, the needy, the marginalized, the neglected are not just cared for in a kind of noble, paternalistic manner, but rather, how these marginalized individuals must become full partners in the work of the church.
The writers of this book talk about individuals on what they call the “borderlands,” who are already part of the global church, though not always in ways that allows them full participation in the structure of authority.
In fact they wrote, today, “the average global Lutheran looks more like an East African than like a “German or white North American.” And speaking of the church in U.S., they cite a study that says that “the United States was 85% white in 1960 and will be 43% white in 2060.”
So, the authors of this book, both Lutheran pastors, I think argue persuasively, that this 500th Anniversary of the Reformation commemorates not merely the events of the past, but it also provides for Lutherans, in particular, who are part of a denomination whose “make-up” is changing drastically, a momentous opportunity to reinvigorate our missional movement within the church, both close and beyond our local borders.
We must be concerned much more about tradition (the living faith of the dead) than about traditionalism (the dead faith of the living).
So often the Latin phrase, “ecclesia semper reformanda” is translated as the church “always reforming.” In reality, that is not quite accurate to the Latin grammar, nor is it quite honest to the church’s reality. I don’t think we always have been a church reforming. It is much more accurate (and honest) to translate this phrase as the church is “always to be reformed.”
On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I hear a call for the church universal to be reformed, to identify itself with and draw wisdom from people who, too long, have been relegated to the borderlands of church decision-making and church life.
Martin Luther was at first focused on his own sin and what he took as his own unworthiness before God. When he discovered, reading Romans, that people are saved by grace through faith and not by works or personal merit, it was liberating. The danger in that, however, is that the one’s focus can become one of personal salvation.
I would argue that it is never enough to be concerned only with a personal relationship with God. I would also argue that the number one imperative of the Reformation Gospel is to embrace the world with God’s love and mercy.
The document written jointly last year by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation entitled “Five Critical Imperatives” says, “people at the margins are to be loved unconditionally because God is love and offers love to all humanity.”
If we truly have been set free by God’s Word and if we truly are a church “always to be reformed,” then we are called to value all others “despite and even within the full range of our differences.” What better time than on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation for us to put our words into action and more intentionally, to bring into more complete fellowship, all those on the very margins of society. Amen.
1 Alberto L. Garcia and John A. Nunes. Eerdmans. Wittenberg Meets the World: Reimagining the Reformation at the Margins. 2016.