On October 31, as many recognize All Hallows Eve (the eve of All Saints Day or Halloween), many Protestant theologians will be celebrating 499 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. As I often remind people, the Reformation did not start with Martin Luther, just like the civil rights movement did not start with Martin Luther King, Jr. But like King, Luther was a charismatic leader, and his actions marked the turning point for a movement which saw the Roman Catholic Church as corrupt and disconnected from the faith which they were supposed to be supporting.
It should be noted that Luther was not trying to start a new denomination. Rather, his letter “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” known better as the 95 Theses, sought to reform the Catholic Church by addressing specific areas of corruption and abuse. Core to Luther’s thesis was criticizing the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church. An indulgence is “a partial remission of the temporal punishment, especially purgatorial atonement, that is still due for a sin or sins after absolution.”
Ultimately, when this attempt failed, the evangelicals, as they were known, split from the Catholic Church to become the Evangelical or Lutheran Church. (It should be noted, this should not be confused with the Evangelical Movement in the United States, as they are very different.)
While this was going on in Northern Germany, things were starting to get hot in Switzerland. A Catholic priest named Ulrich Zwingli had just moved from Glarus to Zurich to become the priest at the Grossmünster, or Great Church, in 1518, where he began to preach his Protestant theology. Zwingli was radical in his beliefs, stating that the Roman Catholic Church was beyond repair and that a new reformed church needed to be created. Zwingli saw the excesses of the church and worked to bring it back to the core aspects of the faith.
Zwingli argued that the Bible was the only basis for his theology. He rejected the veneration of saints, hell and damnation, and questioned the need for any sacraments as a divine right. He also held up the sale of indulgences as an example of the corruption in the church. We see Zwingli’s influence in our church today, especially when we think of baptism and its “replacement” for circumcision, and the connection between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper.
While Luther is the undisputed “father” of the Lutheran movement, Zwingli is the “father” of the Reformed movement. Though scholars still argue how much influence or reaction Luther had on Zwingli, Zwingli claimed that he took no leads from Luther. But Zwingli was not the great leader that others would become, and in most Protestant circles, he is not really known. To be honest, I only knew about him because he is part of my family lineage.
Better known among the Presbyterians is John Calvin. The problem with Calvin, like Luther, is that he is so well known, much of what we know about him is more apocryphal than it is actual. My initial image of Calvin was that stark college professor who was always precise and never lenient. I have no idea where I got that, but it is a very common misconception. After reading Calvin’s works over and over, I am constantly amazed at his grasp of grace, struggle, and acceptance.
Calvin was a French humanist and a supporter of the Protestant Reformation. If you go to Geneva, there is a famous monument to the Reformation. As you walk up to it, you will first see two corner pillars: one with the name Zwingli, and the other with Luther. A few feet away, you see the reliefs of a handful of men, with Calvin in the middle. The symbolism is important, because it is from the theology of Zwingli and Luther that Calvin, along with others, developed the Reformed tradition.
Calvin was able to do something incredible. Like Zwingli, Calvin did not have a desire to change the Catholic Church. He was looking to make the world a better place. Along with his “institutes of the Christian Faith,” the basis for Reformed Theology, many historians credit him with transforming Geneva from a provincial town into an intellectual capital of Europe. Geneva was a beacon of political, as well as ecclesiastical, reform. In fact, as democracy spread, Geneva became a model, which is why our church structure and the United States government are so similar.
Calvin attracted to Geneva renowned scholars, highly qualified craftsmen, and more modest families fleeing persecution. He thereby boosted the economic dynamism of the region, to which the development of watchmaking and banking activities remain a testament to this day. At the same time, he was able to make Geneva a land of refuge, by inspiring local attitudes with liberal and generous views.
As both a lawyer and theologian, Calvin was deeply involved in the reorganization of political and social institutions. He fought for a fair relationship between church and state; his views on law gave the justice system a solid ethical foundation; and by reorganizing the General Hospice, he brought concern for the poor back to its place in the life of the town. Perhaps his crowning achievement was the creation of the College and the Academy, where the quality education offered to all, without distinction, ensured the wider influence of a model dynamic society that was open to the world and to development.
I could go on and on about the Reformation, but one thing that is true is that just as Calvin built on the foundation provided by Zwingli and Luther and reformed their theology and understanding of God, many theologians, pastors, and people influence our understandings and insight into God. We continue to be reformed always, by asking how we are being faithful to God’s Word.
It is always easy to get wrapped up in faith as if it were a fad. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a new pop-culture Christianity started to make its way into the schools I attended and the general culture. Like many mainstream trends, it added to the culture, but also lost some of the essential understandings of the faith. One of the strange fads that came with this movement was the WWJD wrist band. Strangely enough, it was a marketing gold mine, as WWJD wear took off as if it were a teen high-fashion brand. In time, the acronym could be seen marketed on clothing and jewelry, even on lunch boxes and school folders. It seemed to be everywhere. Unfortunately, one thing seemed to be missing: not everyone wearing the logo knew what it meant. In fact, many of my friends had the very popular bracelet, but few could express the meaning. Their understanding of the statement that they were making---asking the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”---was lost in following the momentary fashion trend.
Over the past month, we celebrated our church with Anniversary Sunday, Pentecost, and Confirmation. But as we celebrate the church and its role in our lives, I cannot help but think what others in my generation think of the church. Many claim that the church is a hypocritical institution; some proclaim that all the church is interested in is money; and others say that church is merely irrelevant. Sometimes I even have a hard time defending it, as the debates and division within our churches do not even concern timeless issues. Sometimes I even wonder if we, as a denomination, might fall into the trap of following the fad of religion, going through the motions to keep up with others whose lives we so deeply wish we had, instead of reaching a real understanding of God and of faith.
As I thought about this, I remembered the prophet Micah. Micah is found among the minor prophets: "minor" with respect to size, not content. Micah was a prophet who was a contemporary of Isaiah. His book can be split into two similar but distinct sections. Each section begins with prophecies of punishment and leads into prophecies of salvation, reminding us of God’s presence and desire for all to live in peace.
As with many of the prophets, even his name, Micah, is prophetic. Micah, in Hebrew, means "Who is like Yahweh?" (Yahweh is the name of God used throughout the Old Testament). This is important, because Micah is speaking to what seems to be God’s perpetual battle with humanity. This battle is one where we are constantly falling away from God, complaining over the destruction that ensues, and ultimately, God’s rebuilding toward peace.
The interesting thing is that Micah is constantly reminding us of God’s desire, even in the midst of the destruction. In a way, it is like when a parent spanks their child saying, "This hurts me more than it does you!" For Micah, God gains no joy in seeing his people hurt and destroyed. Rather, he seeks "what is good," prompting the simple question, "What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" In other words, one might argue that Micah is asking what is so hard that you cannot merely be just in what you do, love and strive to be kind toward others, and know a bit of humility by allowing God to take credit?
This is a powerful concept, and if followed as a guide, it helps us to understand and act on our calling. Many leaders in this country have quoted this as a part of their understanding of the political office they hold. President Jimmy Carter used this passage at his inauguration, as well as John Ashcroft, the day he was nominated. It makes me think, if leaders truly followed it, maybe our world would be much different.
I often wonder what the world would be like if everybody went to church to simply give glory to God and thank God for the lives that we have, and took that glory and love out the doors of the church and gave it, as a gift, to everyone they saw or met throughout the next week, sharing the kindness we know to be right.
And what about sticking up for those who are unable to stick up for themselves because they have no voice or because they are weak? Instead of leaving them to be bullied and left alone, what if we gave them a place to be and be heard?
Here is the kicker, what if we did this and never let it be known what we did, keeping a true humility with God?
Unfortunately, some feel that once an individual experiences salvation, we need only be focused on the relationship with God, and ask, "What does action have to do with faith?" Though faith is rooted in our relationship with God, it is serving God that builds up our faith and helps us to understand God better. See, what Micah points to so vividly in his prophesies is that the constant faith comes from God; it is us---yes, all of us---that lose sight of God. Instead of helping, we hurt. Instead of giving, we take. Instead of acting in justice, kindness and humility, we buy a sticker or a wrist band to prove our allegiance
Like the Hawaiian greeting “Aloha,” or the Hebrew “Shalom,” the greeting “Peace be with you” is a common way that Christians introduce themselves into a common situation as well as depart from it. I began to think of this phrase the other day when I left the hospital and out of habit, said “Peace be with you” to someone who was unconscious. Like many things we do, saying “Peace be with you” is something that I was taught to say but never really gave a great deal of thought to, until I decided to look it up in the Bible.
“Peace be with you” is a quintessentially New Testament phrase, with the only close relation in the Old Testament found in Job, which, loosely translated, says, “May you find peace in the fact that God is with you.” This is not too far off from what the writers Luke and John point to in their use of “Peace be with you.” In each occurrence, it is in the voice of Christ, and is often linked to a deeper revelation of Christ. In John 20, in each of three appearances the risen Lord greets the disciples with “Peace be with you.” In each instance, they are behind closed doors, in the dark. Obviously the disciples were not at peace, even though the revelation had come to fruition, so we can see the spark of irony or even humor that is found here.
Most of the other places in the New Testament where we find this phrase are in the midst of the Pauline epistles. In Greek, the word “peace” is eivrh,nh. The Friburg Lexicon says:
eivrh,nh means peace or literally, a state of peace, that is the opposite of po,lemoj(armed conflict, war); figuratively, as an agreement between persons, in contrast to diamerismo,j (division, dissension); It is used as a greeting or farewell corresponding to the Hebrew word shalom: health, welfare, peace (to you), or as a religious disposition characterized by inner rest and harmony, peace, freedom from anxiety; or as a state of reconciliation with God of an end-time condition, as the salvation of mankind brought about through Christ's reign.
Peace can be difficult to achieve, especially when we place ourselves in the middle of controversy or distress. If there is anything that we learn from Job or the Gospel of John, it is that peace is a function that can only be a result of our allowing God to work his peace in this world.
Some might counter, “I do work for peace,” but here is the real kicker: in order for peace to grab hold, we need to let ourselves be given over to God, no strings attached. Granted, this is virtually impossible in the midst of our society. We operate, myself included, in the reality and complexity of our social structure, which causes us to choose safety, security, and sometimes personal comfort in lieu of peace.
In discussing grace, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of costly grace and cheap grace. He argues that the grace God offers is a costly one that ultimately calls us to give everything over to God, rather than a cheap grace which requires nothing. Here is where peace and grace become similar, in that true peace will come only when the whole of the earth accepts and welcomes that peace. Until then, we can only work for peace in our little corner of the world.
Answering God’s call for us to work for justice and equal voice among all the residents of our community is one way to bring peace among us. Among the many other ways to bring peace to our part of the world is to reach out to others and reconcile estrangements. Opening our ears and eyes to see and hear how God is calling us, and changing to meet other people’s needs are two more ways.
So when we turn to each other on Sunday morning and offer the peace, I hope you remember this note. I hope that you see that when we say, “Peace be with you,” we are making a pledge to work together as a community. Furthermore, we are calling each other to step out of our “box” and let the spirit of God guide us in which ever way God chooses. In this spirit, I say: Peace be with you!
Something great happened to me today as I drove up to Zephyr Point. My radio cut out just as I left Sacramento. Most of you have probably traveled Highway 50 from Sacramento to Tahoe, but if you haven’t, let me tell you that it is one of the most spectacular drives you can take.
Without the radio, no other cars on the road, and being wickedly early, I was able to go slow and savor the drive. From the sequoia forests to the cliffs and rolling stream, I could not help but laugh as I thought to myself what a remarkable world we live in. In the context of so many issues and problems that our world seems to be facing, it is amazing what happens when we break out and begin to realize that God’s world is much bigger than any immediate problem or crisis.
More than any single issue I see going on in the world, I think people are disconnected. We are disconnected from each other, and ultimately, we are disconnected from God. Even many who are our most faithful members are disconnected. That is reflected in the gloom and doom of the current election cycle, the perceived violence and unrest in our communities, and the very real distrust of authority because of the actions and laws which undermine trust.
As a pastor, I have been struggling with all of these issues for most of my ministry. Unfortunately, I still do not have any good answers, with one exception: we need to engage people in faith. No, I am not talking about standing on the street corner and preaching the Word. But I am thinking about how we engage those who are not in the church, those who do not consider themselves to be faithful.
At the continuing education conference I am attending this week, we are identifying this group as “nones,” and asking how can we reach them. I cannot help but wonder about the church and her relationship with this group. We do not do well. I am sure that you will hear much more on Wednesday and Sunday, but I often wonder how many times when we engage this group, we are focused on the wrong things.
That seems to be the direction this conference is going. I often say that people seeking church today are not seeking the things that the church did in the past. Many none’s only view of church is a caricature, because their only experience is through pop culture. Others have been abused by the church, and want to have nothing to do with it. Although those are the extremes, when someone from this group engages the church, they are seeking something different than what the church as an institution has offered. Instead, they are looking for a spiritual connection, a better understanding of God, and finally, a better understanding of themselves.
I know I have told this many times, but I find I feel closest to God when I am out in nature. It helps me to remember that God is so much bigger than what I am doing and what I want. As a church, we do not often have the opportunity to do that. When it comes to reaching out to people who do not identify as Christian, we often completely fail to connect with them. My theory is that we try to engage them in the “gimmicks” of faith: those stories, practices, programs, and so on that “worked” in the past. Instead of meeting people where they are or even preaching a message of Christ, we tend to lift ourselves up and play right into the caricature they hold.
Remembering that God is much bigger than we are, it is crucial to be humble in the way we engage those outside the church by being true to God and unashamed of our faith. This means we need to engage people not by focusing on what we offer as a church, but what God offers through faith. Think about it¾even at the age of 125 years, our church is only a speck in the history of God in this world.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen