Every 500 years the world changes. Reading the great historians and religious scholars (Phyllis Tickle, Phyllis Airhart, Harvey Cox, Justo Gonzalez, etc), this is profoundly true about our faith. From the shift from Moses to Kings, from Exile to the birth of Jesus, roughly every five hundred years, we undergo a dramatic shift. Phyllis Tickle said “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale,” where everything is up for grabs.
Why does this matter? Well, if you remember from the beginning of service, this is the 499th anniversary of the Reformation this year, and the impact of this event changed the church as we know it.
Author Harvey Cox, uses three epochs, the Age of Faith, the Age of Belief, the Age of the Spirit to talk about these transitions over time. The first, the age of faith, is that time during and immediately following Jesus’ life. Knowledge and experience of Jesus was first hand. You could either have experienced him directly or could six-degrees-of-separation your way back to the source. Believers of ‘the Way’ (which is what the early Christian movement called themselves) carried a faith both directly inspired by Jesus, as well as backed up by the little handbooks of his collected sayings. To practice your faith at this time meant persecution, struggle, and for some, death.
Then it all changed. Round about 4-5th Century, Christianity grew powerful. It became the religion of the people, of the Empire. Christianity moved from a fringe group of frightened followers to one of domination. The cross was put on shields as a sign of faith, and people began in some ways, to fear religion. Because in this age of belief, if you didn’t believe the right things, you didn’t fit in the “state-approved” religious beliefs, and you were going against all of society. During this time, both the celebration of Christmas and Easter was established (using pre-existing pagan celebrations) both the Apostles and the Nicene Creed were written, as well as the established canon of what was included in the Bible (and subsequently, what was not). Then it all changed.
It was at the end of this era that the church experienced its first big split. When the (Eastern) Orthodox split off from the Western church, Christianity started to show the signs of its age. As we crossed the first millennium, the divisions of belief, and moreso the divisions of power started to pull us apart. Because of the interplay between church and state, Rome became profoundly influential, and that influence only led to weigh heavier and heavier upon human beings no different than you or I. They were flawed and swayed by temptation. Larger and larger churches were built not just to the glory of God but also the glory of the popes, and as a result cracks within the Catholic church made many question its infallibility. Here we are, nearly 1500 years after Jesus, and the church of the poor and forgotten looked remarkably different from its humble origins. Of the issues under debate, indulgences caused the most heartache. In its simplest form, indulgences were a tax by the church to eliminate sins. You did something wrong, you paid the church. Let’s say your loved one died, and didn’t live a perfectly upstanding life, or you really wanted to make sure that they’re taken care of in the afterlife, so you paid for the church to ensure they get them into heaven.
No one, not even the Catholic church, speaks very highly of this time in our faith. The humanity of the people involved was profoundly apparent as scandal and corruption became more important than the Gospel.
And this is the era in which Martin Luther was born, and brought this change about, moving and feeling this age of the spirit. Luther, a theologian and monk took great offense to what his faith had become, and took particular umbrage with indulgences. He wrote his Ninety Five Theses, or the list of everything the church was doing wrong, or the longest letter to the editor you’ve ever seen, and the second great schism (split) within the church was born. It wasn’t all Luther’s fault – there were many like him in places across Europe that had grown weary of how problematic their faith had become: Calvin in France, Zwingli in Switzerland, Knox in Scotland, and others.
But it was Luther who started it all. He wasn’t out to start a new denomination, merely wanting to reform the Catholic church so that it might return it to its foundation. Luther’s reformation had three main tenants which would become powerful foundations upon which the United Church would rest these nearly 500 years later:
the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, the belief that Scripture should be translated into the people’s language, and the birth of congregational singing. [Luther] felt that music was of God, not of human beings. And he was determined to restore congregational singing in the German language to the Church.
Salvation by faith alone was rooted in this scriptural passage from Ephesians: God is good, and we are loved because of who and whose we are, not because of what we do. This was a direct reaction to indulgences. You couldn’t buy your way out of your mistakes, because God got there first and forgave and loved you into wholeness. You don’t earn more of God’s love by doing more…though we like to think that we do. We are called to work and recreate the world in God’s image, to work alongside the divine, that’s not to shiny up your halo…you do it as a response to God’s grace, that gift that’s been given you.
While that was the primary drive behind Luther’s attempt to reform the Catholic church, the second two tenants gave rise to a whole new understanding of their faith lives. In that time, Scriptures were kept at a distance, and one had to be educated in Latin to understand them. Luther worked on the first German translation of the Bible, taking it out of the priest’s hands and making it something people could use in their daily lives. No longer did you rely on your priest to tell you what the Scriptures said for your life, you could read them and discern that for yourself. Our resources, Our Daily Bread and The Upper Room have this movement to thank for making the scriptures more accessible.
And with the same quest for empowerment, Luther, born into a musical family, sought to put the words of faith into people’s mouths and hearts and enable them to sing their faith. Hymns were written “to enable worshippers to engage fully in the praise of God.”  Today, we celebrate the Reformation, and we celebrate the life and impact of Martin Luther upon the church.
And if you’re still awake…you’re thinking to yourself, why does this all matter?
Well, we’re finding our way to that 500 year mark again. And the church again is showing signs of needing reformation. The struggles of the 20th century – clergy abuse, residential schools, and more have left the church needing to restate why we are still here, and why faith is important.
I give the United Church a lot of credit in participating in a reformation of sorts over the last eighty plus years. In 1925, instead of pulling people of faith apart, we brought them together: Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalist churches here in Canada focused on what they shared. God. Jesus and the Gospel. Hymn singing. We re-formed and re-shaped what it meant to be people of faith. And over the years we tried even more profound ways of doing this. Bringing in the EUB churches. Developing a hymnbook with the Anglican Church in the 70s as the first steps towards finding common ground (you may remember ‘the old red hymnbook.’) You may even remember that in the last year, we made it official that we would participate in full communion with the United Church of Christ out of the United States. In fact this weekend, I was at a youth event in St. Catharines that drew 200 youth from across Ontario and Western New York. There was a time that this wouldn’t have even been considered. These little signs of hope, of reformation happen all around us. I say it a lot, but at Christmas, we’re all reading from the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew and Luke and we’re all singing Silent Night. When we realize that that which unites us is stronger than that which divides, then a new reformation of the Christian church will be born.
A few weeks ago at our Worldwide Communion Sunday I lamented that the act of communion, especially in the Catholic church, has become a restricted act. Following that service (, I won’t name the person, but) someone came to me to share a most powerful story. They were celebrating the life of a loved one in a Catholic church. The family wasn’t Catholic so they were nervous, especially when the time came to talk about communion during the funeral mass. Not only was this family invited to take communion, but their child was invited to carry in the elements. The love of Jesus, the power of a resurrected Christ, reminds all of us that when we rise about the human systems, even our human religious systems, we will have new life.
I may be wrong, but I hope, I pray, that one day we will be reformed into a singular Christian church. It may take another 500 years of moving with the Spirit, but I pray that day will come. While there was a time that it made sense to contextualize the Christian message into Presbyterians, Uniteds, Catholics, Lutherans, Christian Reformed…because of the internet and the ability the connect globally, the world is a much smaller place. We make a commitment this reformation Sunday, to make the divisions between us Christians that much smaller. We need to think for ourselves, if we had to keep one thing about our faith, our faith lives, what would we keep…our singing…our scriptures…
May we have the grace of God to seek out our similarities,
instead of our differences.
May we have the hope of God
to imagine a world united by Jesus’ message of peace.
May we allow God to reform even our own hearts, healing old hurts and divisions, and making us new again, for we are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.
 Tickle, Phyllis, The Great Emergence, How Christianity is Changing and Why
 Cox, Harvey, The Future of Faith