Chetwynd Shared Ministry
(A congregation made up of 4 denominations: Anglican Church of Canada, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Presbyterian Church in Canada, United Church of Canada)
October 29, 2017 - Reformation Sunday
Scripture: Romans 3:19-28
In 1517, Martin Luther was living in Wittenberg, Germany. He was an Augustinian Monk, a priest, and the head of the theology department at the University of Wittenberg. He had started out his education to become a lawyer – his parents thought that law would be a good secure profession for him – but he had switched to theology after a near-death experience involving a lightning strike.
He loved the church. And because he loved the church, he was disturbed when he saw occasions when he thought that the church wasn’t keeping to God’s ways.
In particular, Martin Luther had been studying Paul’s letter to the Romans. We heard a bit of this letter this morning. Paul wrote that, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift”; and then a bit later on, “for we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
These two concepts would prove to be most important to Martin Luther – the idea that we are saved only by our faith and not by anything that we do or that we don’t do; and the idea that this salvation, this faith, is a free gift from God, otherwise known as grace, and our salvation is not something that we could ever earn or deserve.
As I said, Martin Luther loved the church, and he was concerned that the church had lost the importance of grace and faith. And so he wanted to do something to grab their attention. He wrote a document – 95 statements or theses – outlining his concerns with the church practice as well as his understanding that humans are saved by faith alone and by grace alone.
Then on October 31, 1517 – 500 years ago this Tuesday – Martin Luther walked up to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, and nailed these 95 theses to the door.
The word Reformation doesn’t mean starting a new religion or denomination. Martin Luther didn’t set out to start the Lutheran Church – instead he wanted to re-form or re-shape the church that he was a part of. Unfortunately, the church wasn’t yet ready to be re-formed – that would come a century or so later with what we now call the counter-reformation within the Roman Catholic Church. Prophets – those who point people back to God’s ways – usually aren’t appreciated by the powers that be, and so within a few years of nailing his theses to the door, Martin Luther had been excommunicated. But he was passionate about his faith, and this passion was contagious, and others joined him, eventually forming the Lutheran Church.
Next door to Germany, in France, John Calvin was a few years younger than Martin Luther. He was a precocious and devout child, but gradually drifted away from the church as he grew up, and he became a lawyer in the humanist tradition. In 1533, he experienced a sudden revival of his faith, not triggered by an external event like Martin Luther, but by interior conflict and turmoil – a deep sense of his own unworthiness next to God. He realized that we could only be saved by Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ was accessible only through the scriptures. Jesus Christ was the one true head of the church, and not any person.
The Roman Catholic Church having become suspicious of people looking to reform the church in the wake of Martin Luther and the other early reformers, was not very tolerant of dissent at that point in time, and John Calvin’s awakening in faith was followed almost immediately by his break with the church and flight from France to Switzerland which was more open to reformers.
John Calvin’s theological work fit well in some ways with the theological work of Luther. Both of them believed that it was only by faith and by the grace of God, and not by anything that we did or didn’t do, that we could be saved. But for Luther, the salvation of each person was the primary emphasis, while for Calvin, the important thing was that God was glorified through this salvation.
Both Luther and Calvin emphasized the importance of making the scriptures accessible to every person – Luther was responsible for the first German translation of the scriptures; and Calvin believed that our salvation came through knowing Jesus Christ through the scriptures.
The two reformers disagreed though, on the relationship between the church and the government. Luther saw no problem with the church being run by the government – in Germany at the time, each state was governed by a local prince, and having the prince involved in the church would ensure that the faith was spread within the borders of that state. Calvin on the other hand argued that the church should be separate from the government – by having this separation, the church could be critical of how the government was run, and could be an independent voice for transforming civil society.
One of Calvin’s students was named John Knox. John Knox was Scottish – a priest who had become involved in politics around the English reformation who had managed to get himself banned from both England and France, and who eventually found himself in Switzerland. After studying with Calvin, Knox brought Calvin’s theology back with him to Scotland and founded the Presbyterian Church. Remembering that Jesus Christ is the one true head of the Church, and not any person, the Presbyterian Church was to be governed by a system of councils, or presbyteries.
Now, if we jump from Germany and Switzerland, across the English channel, there was a reformation of the church going on in England around the same time. The English reformation started as more of a political rather than religious reformation. The primary question was: where should the authority of the church lie? In a city and country on the other side of Europe or here at home in England?
The church split happened fairly quickly but it didn’t stick. Under the reign of Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI, the authority of the church was local, but then when Henry’s daughter Mary became queen, she turned the authority back to Rome. When Mary died and Elizabeth became queen, authority shifted back to England and stayed there.
Now there were some theological implications of this political flip-flopping. When the authority shifted from Rome to England, it was important that the scriptures be made available in English rather than Latin; and so like the European Protestant churches, the Anglican Church also made sure that the bible was available to everyone in the language that they understood. The prayers also had to be accessible in the language of the people, and this led to the development of the Book of Common Prayer, the first English-language prayer book. But while the form and order of worship services was kept the same, the prayers weren’t simply translated from Latin into English; and in writing these new English prayers, the theology of the European Reformation – of Luther and Calvin and others – crept in.
It is sometimes said that the Church of England, the Anglican Church, is a middle way between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches. In many ways it is similar to the Roman Catholic Church with priests and bishops and liturgy, but it is also a church of the Reformation which allows itself to be questioned and re-formed.
And then we come to the fourth denomination here at Chetwynd Shared Ministry – the United Church of Canada. This is, by far, the youngest of the four denominations, being not quite a hundred years old and so, arising 400 years after the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches.
Really – one of the important factors in the history of the United Church of Canada is the geography of Canada. Settlers from Europe brought their religions with them, but with small communities and long distances between communities, in the 1800s it was difficult for churches to grow and to do the work of the church in their communities.
And so in the late 1800s, a merger was proposed. What if the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregationalist churches were to amalgamate? Then the church could have more resources – people and finances – in order to do God’s work in these small and isolated communities.
Let me take a quick detour here before continuing the story. Presbyterians are part of the family of churches descended from Calvin, but where do the Methodists and Congregationalists come from?
The Congregationalist churches were a loosely organized group of churches, mostly in the US but with some in Canada. They were firmly grounded in the Reformation ideas that Christ is the only head of the church, and that the church should always be questioning and testing what it believes. Because of this, Congregational churches placed all authority at the local level – the congregational level – to make decisions about what they believed and how they would be governed.
The Methodists, on the other hand, were a result of a later reformation within the Anglican Church. In the 1700s, brothers John and Charles Wesley were Anglican clergy who experienced a conversion or renewal of faith. They remained Anglican until their death, but preached of the need for faith to be lived out – to experience the love and grace of God, and to live a life of ever-increasing holiness in response to this. Because of this “method” that they prescribed, their later followers called themselves Methodists.
So – back to Canada in the early 20th century. The Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists looked at joining together into one United Church in order to be more effective in carrying out God’s mission in Canada. While the Methodists and Congregationalists all joined, the Presbyterian Church allowed each congregation and each minister to decide for themselves whether they would join or remain Presbyterian. While the majority voted to join the new United Church, one third or so of churches decided to remain Presbyterian which is why there is still a Presbyterian Church in Canada today.
And so all of these reformation traditions are part of our Protestant Family Tree here at Chetwynd Shared Ministry. The Lutheran Church going back to Martin Luther nailing his theses to the door 500 years ago; the Presbyterian Church descended from John Calvin; the Anglican church with the need for a uniquely English church in England; and the United Church of Canada with roots in three different Reformation traditions. We really are a church of the Reformation! This isn’t a complete look at the Reformation – we haven’t been able to look at our Anabaptist siblings on the family tree which include not only the Baptist Church but also the Mennonite and Hutterite churches; and we haven’t looked at the Pentecostal branches either.
So how does all of this history play out today? I think that Chetwynd Shared Ministry is a fabulous example for the churches around the world of focusing on what we have in common rather than on what separates us. Because there really is a lot that our different denominational branches have in common. Jesus Christ is the head of the church and is known through scripture, therefore it is important for scripture to be available in the languages that people understand. We are saved only by God’s grace and not by anything that we do or don’t do. Our actions flow out of our faith, and as the Wesley brothers who founded the Methodist church pointed out, if our faith is growing, then how we live our lives should reflect that. Or in Calvin’s theology, our faith should cause us to question how the world is run, and that should lead us to work for justice so that the world is lined up with God’s vision for the world. But the most important thing for all of the reformers is grace, and that can only come from God.
And what happened on a small scale here in Chetwynd is happening on a larger scale around the world. Churches and denominations are figuring out what beliefs and practices we hold in common, and looking at how we can work together. In 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In it, they began the work of reconciliation following the split that began 500 years ago, by discussing what beliefs they hold in common, specifically that “justification comes by God’s grace through faith in Christ.” In 2006, the World Methodist Council signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, and this past July, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, which includes all of the churches descended from Calvin, also signed. And this week coming up, the worldwide Anglican Communion is going to begin the process of joining into this declaration.
And the other important thing to note is that the Reformation was not a once-and-over event. When we celebrate Reformation Sunday today, we aren’t just celebrating an event that happened 500 years ago this Tuesday. The Reformed Churches are not just reformed, but they are always reforming. Society changes, culture changes, and the church needs to always be questioning itself and figuring out how it can speak into the context in which it is located. We can never sit back and say to ourselves, “We’ve always done it that way, so that is the way we should continue to do it.” If we were ever to do that, the reformation is over.
And so what is God calling Chetwynd Shared Ministry to be and to do in Chetwynd in 2017? How can we relate to and interact with the context in which we find ourselves? How are we being called by the reformation – reformed and always reforming – to be the church here and now?
Let us pray:
who calls us to re-formation;
we thank you that we are saved by grace –
that we don’t have to depend on ourselves,
but can look always to you;
we thank you for the gift of faith in Jesus Christ –
for the scriptures through which we can know Christ,
and for the church through which we can live Christ.
Help us to always continue to question our faith,
and by this questioning, strengthen our faith.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
the head of your church.
(Playmobil Martin Luther moved from my office out to the pulpit to help me preach this morning)