Monday, October 29, 2007
It has been interesting to preach on Reformation Sunday this year. I am well aware of the Reformation, that extension of the Renaissance that developed in Northern Europe. It was a time that breathed new life throughout Europe in the 16th century. Now I know that Episcopalians still consider themselves catholic and do not celebrate Reformation Sunday with the Lutherans and the Reformed churches. But perhaps it might be something that could be observed.
The Renaissance came about when the trade from the East allowed a merchant class to evolve in Italy in the latter 15th century after the devastating plagues that had rampaged all over Europe and Asia. This new merchant class also thirsted for education and was willing to find it among the Muslims and Jews as well as from the Church. Centers of learning developed all over Europe, and the merchant class became the educated people, not just the nobility and church leaders.
Meanwhile, the Church was in a deep decline. Ancient truths were being overturned by new-found wisdom. Local nobles had wealth only through wise dealing with mercantile efforts, but they began to have more power than the Church who had for a time centered in Southern France. The popes no longer had the power to tax so they began to sell indulgences to raise funds for the re-building campaigns when they returned to Rome. They used the kind of authority they thought they had—over the gates of heaven.
Martin Luther, a 34 year old scholar-monk in northern Germany challenged the seller of the pope’s indulgences to a debate. Luther’s theology was not especially new or electrifying. But it was the first time that anyone had really challenged the papacy—and challenged it where it hurt the most—in the pocketbook.
What happened afterward was the real change of the Reformation. The nobles of the various states in Germany began to say No to papal authority because of the abuse of the popes. The papacy and the clergy throughout Europe had been wracked with scandal for years. It allowed the well-deserved criticism of the Church to stand and thrive by protecting those who began to follow Luther’s lead. Eventually the criticism began to spread all over Europe. Ultra-montaine leaders of both state and religion began to throw off the ancient authority of the popes. It was only this that gave Henry VIII the temerity to oppose Rome.
Luther’s theology did not stop with indulgences. It took on much of what was wrong with the superstitions that had developed in the age of anxiety during the Middle Ages. He attacked the paternalism that had evolved in the Church calling Christians to be responsible for their own faith.
Being responsible for our faith is the call to every Christian, Catholic or Protestant. It requires that all Christians live their lives in ways that emulate Christ and follow his way. We, who follow him, are to love the Lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves. We are to resist the temptation to buckle under the imperialism of our age. We are to provide a community, in which we can learn of one another, not exclude another because they think or act differently from the majority. Today Christianity cannot look to the majority as their paradigm. We cannot look to our political leaders for this kind of direction. We must be willing to find it in the way of Jesus.
In many ways today is somewhat like the 16th century. The laity has become the educated people in the face of fumbling clergy. The clergy are not trained to bring the message of Christ to a people who no longer understand the meaning of religious myth in their lives. Their myths involve sport’s heroes and get-rich-quick personages, not the stories of those who value truth, equality, integrity, and justice. The American myth no longer has to do with honor; it has to do with wealth. And clergy, who do not preach that God wants us to be wealthy, are likely seen by a great majority of society as irrelevant.
In this post-Christendom era when Christianity must be the leaven and not the loaf, we Christians must be willing to be drastically different from the majority of the world’s society. Christianity, if it is going to survive, is going to have to suffer the rejection of the majority in order to be true to the one who gave all that we might know faith. Honesty, integrity, truth, love, equality, perseverance, and humility, are all qualities that Jesus taught. The stories and parables he told remind us of the need for such virtue in our personal lives and in the social contract of those with whom we live. For that message, the message that a relationship with the God who is more than we can ask or imagine, is possible for those who are Christians look to Jesus. It is our gospel. It is our joy. If others want to know of that joy, we need to be willing to share it with them, not worrying about who can come to communion and who cannot.