By Whose Authority?

Sermon: By Whose Authority?

Scripture: Galatians: 2:1-10 and Luke 1: 46-55

Written and Preached by Rev. Shane Montoya on October 29, 2017 in honor of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

Every so often, a person arises; a special sort of person who does not simply flow with the currents of the river of history. Someone who causes tyrants to tremble, often so much that they do their work, and they always continue to do their work, under great physical, emotional, and spiritual risk.

These great heroes will force us to realign our entire moral universe. They seem to be the living embodiment of Mary, Mother of Jesus’s prayer we read today. Working through them, God puts uplifts the lowly and brings down the mighty.

In that great river of history, through a combination of being at the right place, at the right time, and sheer force of will, they force a new path for the river. Hopefully leading those of us caught up in the river toward a path of God’s justice and righteousness.

Today in church, we celebrate one of those figures. A man who, if not for him, we would not be here. I speak, of course, about Jesus Christ. Yes, I know it is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and yes, I believe it is a very big deal. I was a history major in college, and I listen to 20+ hour audiobooks on history, many about church history, in the car regularly.

But I was reminded a couple of days ago through seeing a conversation between some Lutheran colleagues that Luther would have absolutely, Hated, Just hated any celebration of his legacy that was not centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So we explore today the rich tradition and complicated legacy of Martin Luther, particularly as it relates to issues of authority, I will try to remind us that the gospel message was absolutely central to what Luther did.

And although I don’t believe that Luther got everything right- if he did I’d be a Lutheran ,I will not begrudge him his devotion and total focus on what he thought Jesus Christ was calling him to do.

We had the distinct pleasure of learning a little bit about Martin Luther earlier today through the virtuosic acting of our wonderful volunteers; Yes, Martin Luther was a university student, hoping to study law when, after traveling back to school from a short trip home, got caught in a thunderstorm.

By his own account, he was knocked down by a bolt of lightning and cried out, “Save me, Saint Anne, and I will become a monk.” Luther would continue that to display that flair for the dramatic and theatrical.

He would become a monk in the Augustinian order, an order dedicated to the 4th century Christian thinker Augustine, originator of the idea of the original sin, which would feature profoundly in Luther’s own thinking.

As a monk, Luther was extremely… fastidious, and became more and more fastidious as he grew older.

He became obsessed with confession, becoming more and more fearful that he would die with sins left unclean on his soul. He became so fixated on confession and being clean before God that he, this is no joke, Luther got his confessor to tell him to not worry so much about it.

Seriously, think about that for a minute. What it would take for a monk- and not just any monk, but a monk who did confession for a living in the 1500s to tell another fellow monk, “Hey buddy, slow your roll there, you’re getting too pious on us.”?

But that’s who Martin Luther was, and his confessor decided to do two things with Martin Luther:

The first was to send him to university, and the second was to encourage him to read the Bible. The first one sounds almost obvious- to get Luther out of a structured monastery setting, to fill his days with the rigors of academic life-

Many of which would be similar to anyone in a modern university: studying, teaching, writing, presenting papers. But the second one is a bit more curious: Read the Bible? Didn’t they already do that? The answer was complicated.

Martin Luther, we must remember, was living in a completely different intellectual and spiritual world.

The printing press, a German invention, was only a couple of generations old at the time, and although this greatly increased the availability of books, removing the need for monks to hand copy everything in their stores, literacy was still relatively rare- although growing.

But more important than that was some of the theology that was prevalent in the Roman Catholic Church that reading the Bible was not only unimportant, but could be counterproductive to the faith

After all, if the church- and by that, I mean the Roman Catholic Church- was instituted by Jesus Christ through the Apostle Peter, and if the church was the guardian and guide of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, surely the Holy Spirit had ensured that the church’s teachings were correct.

Indeed, it meant that the church’s teachings couldn’t be wrong. Reading the Bible by oneself could only allow for agreement with the church’s teachings, with much time wasted on Biblical study that the church had already done, at best, or heresy at worst.

But Martin Luther was a man living, although not on a frontier geographically- he was in a frontier in time. He was alive smack dab in the middle of the Renaissance, a movement which encouraged folks to among other things, go back to the original sources.

Although this movement started in philosophy and science, it began to trickle to theology and the Bible.

Nor was Luther the first to read the bible and come to different conclusions: John Wycliffe, an Englishman, had translated the Bible into English almost 130 years before Martin Luther was nailing documents to a Church Door,

Coming to many of the same conclusions that Luther eventually would. Jan Hus, a religious leader in what is today the Czech Republic, semi-successfully separated a portion of that country for an extended period.

But both of those folks were not Martin Luther. They weren’t in the right time or place to utterly shift the course of history, but Martin Luther was.

As he began to read the Bible, particularly the book of Romans, Luther began to have some questions about things.

Questions about the nature of grace and sin, of confession and absolution, about how humans can become justified-

That is, how we can be in right relationship with God. The church in his day said that the best way to do that was to do more more more. After all, if saying a mass was a good thing that helped to cleanse the soul, then saying more of them was even better.

That is why when you go to European cathedrals, those monuments to the majesty of God, there is not just one high altar down the center aisle of the church. No, on the sides of the churches, about where our stained glass is, there would be side chapels.

And back in Martin Luther’s day, folks would pay to have a number of masses said for them, to help cleanse their souls.

And heck, if you could pay to have a mass said for you and that help cleanse your soul, why not? And shouldn’t you be able to pay for other things that the church was doing, and have that go on your “permanent record?”The church was, after all, the guardian of the gospel.

So when the church needed to say, go on crusade, or rebuild Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, what do you do? You sell the ability to cleanse the soul, to get into right relationship with God.

After all, the church can’t be wrong because it has the power of the Holy Spirit behind it, right? The church called these indulgences, And Johan Tetzel, who we met earlier today, he was the guy who was selling these indulgences like hot dogs at a baseball game: “Get your indulgences here, 1 for 2, 3 for 5, 10 for 10,“ was one of the folks who sold them.

Now, I may have taken a small bit of dramatic license with him selling them like a baseball vendor. But to understand the crude commercial nature of these transactions, the second quote, “As soon as the gold in the basket rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs” is a real quote from his mouth.

So, Martin Luther, this professor and academic, sees this going on, and he’s reading the bible, particularly the letters of Paul, such as the letter to the Romans, and the letter to the Galatians and he’s not seeing this stuff in there.

He’s not reading about indulgences. He’s not seeing anything about having that the way to get to heaven is to pay the church to say masses for you.

We can picture him desperately searching the gospels and letters, trying to make sense of the disconnect between what he was reading, about our relationships with God being defined not by what we do but through the grace of God. The grace of God that we encounter through our faith, that when we make even the most tentative steps toward God and Jesus Christ, that God wraps us in.

That was Martin Luther’s great insight in that specific time and place, the one that the world needed to hear, the one that calls out to us through the ages.

But if that is the content of the Protestant Reformation- especially its Lutheran branch, then its methods are almost as important to us, if not more relevant.

Because salvation through grace by faith, could not have found that message through the teachings of the church at the time. Luther’s genius, the thing that allowed him to remake the course of Christian and world history, was to rethink the way that we thought about authority.

In his day, the Roman Catholic Church was the authority on all things spiritual; going against it meant death, both spiritual and often physical. Luther said it was not the Church that had ultimate authority over the teachings of Jesus Christ, But rather that the Jesus Christ, as found in the scriptures, had authority over the church.

Luther did not follow the doctrines of inerrancy that modern fundamentalists would create almost 400 years later. He did not worship the bible. Rather, he thought of the Bible as the place in which the Word of God- Jesus Christ- is most easily found.

One famous metaphor he used was to compare it to “the manger in which the infant Christ sleeps.” It is the bible that must set norms for how the church operates, not the church that must regulate how and if the Bible is read.

This has astounding implications that overturned in an instant, millennia old hierarchies. If we are to find the Word of God- that is, Jesus Christ, most easily and accessibly in the Holy Bible, then we must do things to make it more readily accessible. No longer would the Bible only be accessible in a millennia old translation into Latin, but we had a duty to get as close as possible, to the oldest texts, and translate those directly into the local languages that people actually spoke.

Although literacy would remain low by 20th century standards, in the decades to follow, literacy would greatly rise, higher than it had ever been in history, propelled not only by the marvelous technology of the printing press, but also by a theological imperative to know God and Jesus Christ through the scriptures in a local language.

This meant that church services would also be done not in Latin, which only the educated understood, but in local languages. No longer would the goings on of the church service be a mystery to the faithful- I believe our faith still has plenty of mystery, but something that we could understand logically as well.

With more freedom, we could create some of the most beautiful works of music ever created; most of Johann Sebastian Bach’s and many of Telemann’s musical works were to be performed in church.

This revolution, of aesthetics, reason, the power of humans to be able to make sense of their world was rooted in this world of reformation. For that, we, and the whole world, have much to give thanks for.

But what does that mean for us, today, living in a world of mass literacy, mass entertainment and mass science? Of course, Luther’s core message is one that still resonates, still forms a core of our theology, how we understand what it means to be Christians, even if we do put it into different words. That Jesus Christ is known to us through the Bible, and through faith, God’s love can help make us whole. I don’t want to underestimate that.

But I believe Protestant Reformation is worth remembering for another reason. And that reason is that we are going through another reformation right now. This reformation is not one that we started; we have played only a tangential role in it at best. Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (although also in 3 of the churches that meet in this campus) are some of the fastest growing religious groups in the world today.

And their practice of Christianity, as strange as it might be to us in Progressive, mostly white, comparatively staid New England, is sending shockwaves throughout the world today. Most surprisingly, it is entering our very own practice of progressively minded Christianity.

The primary lesson of this reformation is that authority is not only to be found in the ancient text, of the Bible, but in the personal and lived experience of the believer. In those churches, individual worshippers with spiritual power have profound experiences of speaking in tongues, of becoming slain in the spirit, of speaking in “prophecies.” I’m not saying that our own practices are anything like that, at least in form, but aren’t we now recognizing the power of folks’ personal stories?

When we have our mission moments, our stewardship testimonies, aren’t we honoring those stories to a place that was at one point only reserved for the Biblical text?

In the Seeds of Grace service that I’m helping to organize and lead, we do this explicitly; we have non-Biblical readings, but they’re almost all stories; In addition, we call on people to share their stories, be they of abundance, despair, or hope.

They are honored through our sacred silence and ritual as holy creations of holy people. This is our new reformation.

So when we honor Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, we do so not only because of his ideas, because of his and its broader historical and theological importance, but also because it gives us permission to reform.

That our religious allegiance is not to institutions, even our beloved denominations and church buildings, but to Jesus Christ and the gathered body of Christians, but that we have other duties and bonds that stretch out beyond that as well. It reminds us that as a poor Jewish girl said over two thousand years ago, that the arm of God is mighty and is with us, that tyrants should tremble before the church when it stands for the poor.

Finally, it reminds us that the call to be prophets, apostles, poets, dreamers and reformers did not end two thousand years ago or five hundred years ago or fifty years ago, but continues on today, with you.