11/25/2020 Reformation Sunday “The Priesthood of Believers”
503rd Celebration Year of the Reformation
Once a year we call a Sunday, Reformation Sunday and try to focus on something about us that makes us Protestants. A lot of us have our own ideas about what that means, especially a Reformed Christian. We Presbyterians along with the Lutherans legitimately get to celebrate this day, because we were, as they say, present at the creation. All other denominations came along later. So, we are very proud of our heritage.
The Lutherans were first, of course, starting in 1517 in Southeast Germany with Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. Father Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic priest who was particularly upset about the Church’s selling of indulgences as a fund-raising scheme, the prohibition against translating Scriptures into the language of the common people, and even more important—at least to me—the Church’s understanding of faith—whether one came by faith through doing good or through the grace and mercy of God. It didn’t take long for our spiritual ancestors in Switzerland to get aboard the Reformation Express, and the one we remember the most is John Calvin, who turned Geneva into what we called then “The Greatest School of Christ on Earth.” Although Calvin and Luther differed with each other on a number of important issues, their longing was the same: to return the life of the Christian faith to the people of God.
Little is recorded of the life of the Scottish Reformer John Knox before 1545. Having been exiled from the Continent, he lived in Geneva and Frankfort. He consulted Calvin while in Geneva and had considerable influence among Protestants in England and Scotland; and began the duty of the righteous overthrow of the “unglodly” monarch, Queen Mary I. He was a political activist and was an outspoken preacher until he died. It was he who drew up a Confession of Faith (basically Calvinist) which was passed by the Scottish Parliament while passing laws to abolish the authority of the pope and all creeds and practices of the Roman religion. He was an outstanding leader of the Scottish Reformation founding the First Presbyterian Church in Edinburg where the original Confession of Faith is housed.
Both denominations, Presbyterians and Lutherans, are what we call Confessional Churches. That means we have a set of theological standards that guide our beliefs and practices. The Lutherans have their Augsburg Confession, their Book of Concord, and the ancient creeds. We Presbyterians have our Book of Confessions, now containing creeds and confessions in all. The main thing for us to understand now is that we are not just a denomination that says it believes in the Bible. We have taken time over the years not only to include in our Book of Confessions historic creeds like the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed, but have tried again and again to express in some systematic way what the Bible teaches about faith and life. The earliest of these is the Scots Confession of 1560 and the latest we have is the Confession of Belhar out of Africa of 2016.
At every General Assembly every two years we argue about how to get it right. The main thing to remember is that what we are trying to do is interpret the Bible in a clear and systematic way that will be helpful to our members who keep asking the questions: What does it mean to be Presbyterian? What do we really believe? The whole purpose of the Reformation was a rediscovery of the Truth of Scripture.
To really understand the Reformation, we have to know first of all what were the issues of the late 15th and early 16h centuries. You’ll be surprised. It was the justification of the sinner before God—period. Oh sure, there were a lot of other things going on—politics, economics, the dying of the medieval culture, church evils, Luther’s gastrointestinal problems but if you ignore the big one, justification, you will never crack the century. Simply, Luther sought a way for sins to be forgiven! He discovered the answer in Romans. “Grace is a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” The God who will be satisfied with nothing less than perfect love of Himself and our neighbor has a way whereby His own justice was satisfied. Satisfied in the death of Christ and we who are truly guilty before Him are given the righteousness that He demands of us all—and all free, gratuitously, a gift from the start to finish! This was the message of the Reformation that the church had forgotten. An article from Newsweek quotes a pastor of a megachurch as saying, “Our people are not interested in theology or justification or sanctification these days. We have to preach something else. “What is it about your service that attracts people,” he was asked. “It’s the sentimental music, its entertaining, its pleasant.” Now this was no liberal speaking, it was a Lutheran pastor! The claims of most successful movements within Christianity in America, that is evangelicalism, is in direct opposition to the theology of the reformation and the Bible. What do I mean by evangelicalism? The first thing that comes to mind is the nutty style with backup music where some polyester clad salesman tries to get you to pull out your Visa or Master Card! You get a lot of instruction on the Holy life. “10 steps to a better marriage, What Jesus says about your dating life, a biblical way to manage your household, how to raise Christian children and how to live a Christian life, a victorious life!” If this is what you are hearing from the pulpit—-FLEE! You see it all falls in the category of law—good news and bad news—you’ll never be able to do it well enough. It won’t impress your Father in heaven. Let’s get back to basics. Luther himself said, “justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. It’s the central theme of the Bible, it underlies the sacraments, it frames the way we worship, justification of the sinner before God is what the central theme is all about.
Back to identity for a moment. One caveat. This is not to say that we think the whole of Christian faith is contained in a right set of beliefs. We are not that scholastic. We know that faith is much more than that—mainly a personal relationship with God and his Son, Jesus the Christ, mediated through the work of the Holy Spirit. Faith is always person to person, rather than book to person, or document to person. But to get faith right so we don’t wander off into the swamp of some feel-good religion with no substance, we have confessional statements to guide us. Now having said that, I need to say that Presbyterians are also a lot of other things besides confessional.
We are a representative church. Very democratic. Locally we elect to our governing body—the session. They oversee the affairs of the church. We elect a Board of Deacons, which is a very special duty of service and compassion assigned by the session. And because we take seriously the ministry of the laity, that which Luther and Calvin called the Priesthood of Believers, we ordain officers just as we ordain ministers of the Word and Sacrament. And we insist that both men and women are eligible to the office and ordination. We insist that this groups be inclusive of all folks in the church, whatever their race, color or class.
Joel’s vision in vs 28 and 29 is a rally cry for the often misunderstood, doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughter shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.” This doesn’t mean that you are your own priest and you can worship God anywhere, including the golf course or the baseball field. We are meant to worship together, and to be priest to each other. Before I say more about what it does mean and what Calvin was trying to do, I should tell you why it matters to you. It matters because we are in a time when reformation is needed and reformation is happening. We have experienced a lot of change in or life as a church and I congratulate you on your willingness to embrace it. Over the years new generations will initiate even more change. It is part of our reformation.
The good news that came out of the reformation was the essence of vs 1-2 of Romans. “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have gained access to the grace in which we stand and we may boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Do you get it yet? God justifies the ungodly, saves sinners not on account of their works, but on account of their faith, which by the way, is also a gift from God. This faith which is given to you freely, which somehow hopes against hope, is credited to you, the righteousness of Christ himself.
Calvin’s longing was the life of faith to belong to the whole people of God. He believed in and taught the priesthood of believers, and we believe in that priesthood. The priesthood of all believers means that everyone, not just the professionals, can think about God. Calvin gave lectures on the Bible in the church on weekday mornings, and people flocked to hear them. They had never had a minister actually teach them about the Bible, and Calvin was opening a whole new world of thought to them. God was someone they could think about, ask about, and learn to understand better. God was no longer a subject to be regarded only by priest.
I want to tell you a story about a 12 yr. old Down’s Syndrome girl that I met while doing my chaplain residency. I think of her as the greatest theologian I have ever known. She had heart trouble and was in the hospital for heart surgery. One day I was visiting her in the coronary care unit when she reached through the bars of her bed and fingered the cross I was wearing. She said, “God.” “Yes” I said this represents God. She said, “God died.” What could I say? This 12 yr. old had grasped the concept of the Christian faith and showed me she understood how we know God loves us. Every time the Christian faith gets lost in one of its quarrels, I remember the profound faith and understanding of that child who fingered the cross I wore and what it meant.
The priesthood of all believers means that everyone worships, not just your minister. Both Luther and Calvin reformed the music of the church, so that it was no longer just the choirs who sang and the people listened. Reformed churches developed a simple style of singing that was easy to learn. Each line begins and ends with a long note, and the notes in between are regular and make a simple tune. Martin Luther mostly adapted drinking songs because the people already knew them. His comment was, “Why should the devil have all the good tunes.?!
Do you worry about your sins being revealed for all to see in open court one day before the judge? You think you know what is coming and find its almost too much to face. Then you hear the words, “Not Guilty.” That’s Justification. It’s the Father welcoming you home with open arms. For without you knowing it you were missed because you are loved. That’s what it ought to feel like every Sunday morning when you walk through those doors. Welcome home. This biblical image of God as a good and kind father was rescued by Luther and Calvin. The love of the Father is so relentless so incredibly powerful that he stops at nothing to rescue those who have gone astray. The Reformers, through this revelation, were set free by the truth. The truth which remain the foundation of the church. The whole point of the reformation. We can stand before a Holy and Just God by being justified by the blood of His son, which he has freely given to you, out of all fatherly love and goodness. My friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus is for all those who believe; though all have sinned. You are justified, you have been rescued by his grace, a free gift.
Oh, one other thing; we Presbyterian are a freed-up people. In the word of Paul Tillich, we know we are accepted, no matter what. So, our energies can go to doing all those things which we believe God calls us to do—live justly, show kindness, and walk humbly with our God. It’s nice to know we have a purpose for living that is from God and not from our own or someone else’s ego. The purpose is to give glory to God by the work we do.
I’m not particularly concerned if you go away from Sunday worship feeling good, although that’s a nice feeling to have. I’m not especially concerned if you like the music, but that’s a good thing, too. I’m not particularly concerned if I give you something to think about, although I hope I do. This is what concerns me: “Do you know God? Does your time here help you to know God?
John Calvin’s personal symbol was an outstretched hand, holding a heart. His personal motto was, “My heart I offer thee freely and promptly.” What is your personal symbol? What is my personal motto? Calvin offered his heart to God, in longing to know God and that all of God’s people would know God and be a priesthood of all believers. Could we possibly do any better than that? The truth has set us free and that’s why we remember the fathers of the reformation and lay claim to it today.
I could go on telling you more about the Big Three Luther, Calvin, and Knox. Perhaps I’ll save it until next year. But too much information can spoil the message!
Reformation will come as more and more in the church think and desire to say “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Closing Prayer: A Reformation Day Prayer
Lord God of hosts, the Refuge of every sinner and the Strength of all who put their trust in you, we praise you for having made us partakers of the blessings of your Reformation. Without any merit on our part, you have sent your Holy Spirit into our hearts and brought us to faith in your Son, Jesus Christ. You have made known to us the perfect merit of Christ. You have directed our faith to rest on the great and precious promises of your Gospel. You have revealed the beauty of your grace, which rescued us from a just condemnation and assured us of certain salvation in Christ. Grant us your grace that we may receive your forgiveness with thanksgiving. Use us as your witnesses in bringing the message of pardon in Christ to people everywhere. Open our eyes to a better understanding of your Word and a deeper appreciation of your grace that our faith in Christ Jesus may grow and flourish with the fruits of righteous living. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God forever. Now let us pray the prayer Jesus taught us, Our Father…Amen
November 1 “Good Works” Matthew 5:13-20, Galatians 6:7-10
November 8 “People of Vision” Joshua 24: 14-25 , Matthew 25:1-13
November 15 “Say Yes to Life” Matthew 25:14-29, John 10:7-10
November 22 “Watch Where You Step” 1 Kings 3:3-14, Ephesians 1:15-23
November 29 1st Sunday of Advent “Watching and Waiting” Mark 13:24-37