Sunday, 29th October, 2000: SERMON FOR REFORMATION SUNDAY, 2000

Our Saviour’s, Knox; St Peter’s, Frankston.

Grace and peace be to you,
from our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.


Reformation Day. What does this conjure up for you in your mind? What are we celebrating today as we sing “A mighty Fortress”, and hang red paraments on our altar and pulpit? Do you think of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg church? Or do you think of the four “alones” of the Lutheran Church: “Faith alone, Grace alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone”?

There is certainly a right and a wrong way of celebrating Reformation day. If, on this day, we celebrate the way in which the Spirit has led his Church into all truth over the last 2000 years; if, on this day, we give thanks for the constant guidance of God’s word in the scriptures; or if, on this day, we rejoice in the good news of the Gospel of free forgiveness in Christ, then, I think, we are celebrating Reformation Day day appropriately.

But on the other hand, if we celebrate this day as a triumph of Protestantism over the Catholic Church, if we celebrate this day as if the Word of God began with Martin Luther on October 31st 1517, when he posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenburg church, or if we celebrate this day in a way that suggests that Lutherans alone of all Christians teach and believe that we are justified by faith whereas other Christians, especially Roman Catholics, think they are justified by their good deeds, then, I think, we are celebrating Reformation Day in a way that is thoroughly inappropriate.

Sadly, I think Reformation Day has been celebrated inappropriately more often than we have celebrated it appropriately. This has become all the more clear for many of us as we have reflected on the implications of the Joint Declaration signed last year by the Lutheran Churches and the Roman Catholic Church saying together that justification comes by grace alone through faith in Christ. For years we have propogated a characterisation of the Roman Catholic Church;
namely, that they teach salvation by good works. We can no longer continue to characterise them in this way, because it is not true. It is necessary for us to reconsider our Catholic brothers and sisters, and to re-examine their teachings and practices in the light of this new agreement.


At the same time, it is necessary for us to re-examine ourselves, and to ask ourselves whether we have indeed been as faithful to God’s word as we would like to think we have been. All over the world, the Lutheran Church is facing many thorny issues --modern issues that never faced the Reformers--issues that we have to examine again in the light of God’s word and in the light of the truth that has been preserved and handed down to us by the Christian Church of the past.
Some of these issues are moral issues--I touched upon them a few weeks ago: issues pertaining to divorce and remarriage, issues pertaining to bioethics--such as abortion, euthanasia & genetic modification, issues pertaining to sexuality--such as homosexuality. But other issues are doctrinal: issues such as the Ecumenical movement and eucharistic fellowship among churches; issues such as the ministry and women’s ordination; issues such as the nature of the church itself and authority in the church; issues such as the right way of worshiping and conducting the liturgy.

If we are truly a “Reformation” church, then we need to come to terms with what “Reformation” means. For a start, “reformation” does not mean “innovation”--it does not mean “change for the sake of change”. The Lutheran reformers did not go to all the trouble they did 500 years ago, because they felt the Church of their day was “old-fashioned” and needed to “catch up” with the rest of the world. They did not want to “form” a new church, but to “re-form” the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of which they were a part. “Reform” means returning to the original form--not making a new form. It meant removing abuses. But even at the time of Martin Luther, there were reformers who wanted to throw the baby out with the bath water. That was not the way of the Lutheran reformers. The Lutheran reformation was a “conservative” Reformation. As I said a few weeks ago, the aim of the Lutheran reformation was to remove the rubbish but to keep all that was good, and pure, and beautiful. The Lutheran Reformation was concerned with God’s Word and with faithfulness to the Truth. It was not concerned with “modernisation” or “updating” the Church.

Secondly, Reformation is not a once-off event. The problem of abuses creeping into the Church was not simply a problem of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. It is as much a problem of the modern Lutheran Church. We are not immune to this problem. We are as human as the next denomination, and because we are human it is just as necessary for us to continually hold up our own church, the Lutheran Church of Australia, to the Word of God, and to seek the Truth, even if the Truth accuses us of wrongdoing or leads us in a direction that we may not have expected. And so we must always be “reforming” our own corner of the Church also.


But having said all that, we must also face some historical questions. Reformation Day is, after all, a celebration of an historical event, and all historical events are open to interpretation. If the Reformation is to have any real meaning for us today, then we must face some of these questions, difficult as they may be.

The first issue we must face is that, in order to be effective, true reformation must take place within the church, and not outside it. Lutheranism was originally intended as a reform movement within the Catholic Church. We have often been told that Luther did not intend to start a new church. Yet the outcome of the 16th Century reformation was precisely that: a new Church, the “Lutheran” Church, came into being. The Lutheran reform movement that was supposed to work within the Church became the first of many new separate “churches” or “denominations” separated from the Roman Catholic Church and from one another. We need to seriously ask ourselves how effective the Lutheran Church can be as a movement for reform in the Church Catholic if we have set ourselves up in our own cosy little denominational structures
with no responsibility to anyone but to ourselves?

In the meantime, the Roman Catholic Church that Luther set out to reform has adopted just about every change that reformers called for in the 16th Century. It is interesting, in fact, to imagine which Church Luther would join today if he were faced with a choice between the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The ineffectiveness of Lutheranism
as a continuing reform movement in the Church was enough to lead one prominent American Lutheran professor to convert back to the Catholic Church in 1990. He simply asked himself the question: If Luther did not intend to create a new Church what are we doing acting as if the Lutheran Church has a divine right to exist?

Today, the Lutheran Church must see reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church as its first and primary objective. We exist as a separate church because of a disagreement that arose 500 years ago. If, as our dialogue with the Catholic Church is showing us, many of these issues have now been, or are being, resolved, we should not continue to act as if our own self-preservation were the paramount issue. The primary issue for us will always be seeking to know the Truth in the light of God’s word. If the Truth leads us back into fellowship with Rome, then that is precisely as it should be. There is no place in the Lutheran Church for the anti-Catholicism that is prevalent in many other protestant denominations. We have no right to simply oppose what is catholic because it is catholic. If it accords with God’s Word and Truth, then, whether it is Catholic or Lutheran, we must embrace it.


The second issue we must face is the absurdity of a church that is continually embracing change for the sake of change. In this new millenium that is dawning upon us, change is so prevalent that we sometimes lose sight of that which does not change. Jesus Christ is “the same, yesterday, today and forever”--why then, is our church always changing?

You know the problem. With each new pastor who comes to your congregation there is change. I have been as guilty of this as any other pastor. In fact, at Seminary, we are told that we have two choices: the first is to change nothing for the first two years, then to make all the changes when we have won people’s confidence; the second is to change everything in the first six months during the “honeymoon” period. But to change nothing at all is not even given as an option!!!

We are so future orientated, that we forget that the past has anything to say to us anymore. “Tradition” has become a dirty word in the church; but in fact, “tradition” is all we have! Perhaps this is because of a false dichotomy that exists in protestant churches between “tradition” and “scripture”, as if scripture itself were not part of the Church’s tradition: carefully preserved for us since the time when the apostles and prophets first wrote it; handed down through successive generations of the church; faithfully interpreted and applied throughout the ages. “Reformation” does not mean “throwing out tradition”--if anything it means the exact opposite: it means rediscovering the tradition of the past, over and beyond the abuses and innovations that have sprung up recently, and being faithful to that tradition. Again, this problem of constant change rather than constant reform was enough to lead another world renowned Lutheran scholar to leave the Lutheran Church in 1997 and join the Orthodox Church--a church that has characteristically dedicated itself to the preservation of apostolic tradition.


So, you see, being faithful to the Reformation is not quite as straigthforward as you might have thought it. Celebrating Reformation Day should raise all these questions for us. It should raise the question of what it precisely means to be “Lutheran” (in the good sense of the term). To be Lutheran then does not mean to be “anti-Catholic”, nor does it mean to be “anti-traditional”. In fact, it is best perhaps to understand the Lutheran Church as being both “evangelical” and “Catholic” at the same time. In the words of the Augsburg Confession, “nothing has been received among us, in doctrine or in ceremonies, that is contrary to Scripture or to the Catholic church. For it is manifest that we have guarded diligently against the introduction into our churches of any new and ungodly doctrines.” The Church of the Reformation needs to hear this again, and regrasp its identity--not as a protestant anti-catholic Church but a reform movement within the Church catholic as Luther and the other reformers initially intended it to be. Otherwise, what reason do we have to exist? What is our role in the ecumenical church, if not to constantly seek the Truth as we have received it through the Church in the Word of God?

At times some of you have remarked to eachother--and less commonly, to me personally--
that your pastor is “very catholic”. Some of you would prefer it if I was a little less “catholic” and a little more “protestant”. I hope that what I have said today explains why this is not an option for me, and why I do not believe it is an option for the Lutheran Church. I am not ashamed to say publically that it is my constant ambition to make everything I am or do or say or teach catholic. For to me, the opposite of “being catholic” is not “being protestant”, but “being schismatic”, “being individualistic”, “being heretical”. I am a Lutheran Christian, therefore, in so far as I am catholic Christian. I see no other way to be true to either the Church of the Reformation or the Church that long preceded the Reformation, the Catholic Church.


In our Gospel today, Jesus said: "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." I believe that seeking to remain faithful to God’s word seeking to know the Truth and to follow wherever it may lead, is the only way to be a faithful Lutheran. In fact, it is the only way to be a faithful Christian. It is the only path for anyone who seeks to be a disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to belong to his church, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of all time. Amen.

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