This morning I begin a brief series of messages based on the Protestant Reformation. Really, you might ask. Sounds kind of boring to me. I assure you it is not. Speaking about the Reformation is much, much more than simply offering a dry history lesson, as it continues to so profoundly influence us after 500 years, and there are more than a few ways in which it has shaped and molded how we live today. In fact, most of the time we live our lives without any idea \of just how profoundly the Reformation shaped our world and our lives. In terms of our lives, here are a few of the ways the Reformation has made a difference to us – if you brought your Bible to church today, you can thank the Reformation. Because you have a Bible you can read every day and because you can read it in English, you can thank the Reformation. If you believe the Bible is the source of our authority, you can thank the Reformation. If you believe you are justified by grace and not by works, that you do not have to earn your salvation, you can thank the Reformation. If you believe that all people are equal in the eyes of God, you can thank the Reformation. If you believe that we are all ministers in some way – that is, if you believe in what we call the priesthood of all believers – you can thank the Reformation. If you believe faith is more about the heart than about the head, that is, that faith is more about the heart than it is reason and intellect, you can thank the Reformation. The fact you are in this church this morning, you can thank the Reformation. If you like to read, you can thank the Reformation, as it stimulated publishing in a tremendous way and brought about what we might call the earliest forms of social media. If you believe it is your right to make a point, that you have an opinion that not only can, but should, be heard, and if you believe it is your right to question authority, you can thank the Reformation, and it is that point we will particularly focus upon this morning.
In the most basic sense, the Protestant Reformation was a movement that led to the second major schism, or division, in the church. For the first millennium of the church there was one church, with only a few minor exceptions. The Catholic Church (the word catholic means universal) was the sole church until 1054, when the first major schism in the church took place, dividing the church into two branches –the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches. The Reformation brought the second major schism and formed the Protestant churches, that is, those churches that are not Catholic or Orthodox.
I should add an important note at this point, and that is that I am not anti-Catholic. I mention this because it can be difficult to speak or write about the Reformation without sounding, in some ways, anti-Catholic. My family has strong ties to the Catholic Church, as my mother’s family was Irish Catholic. Though they were not regular churchgoers, their Catholic roots were, nonetheless, strong throughout the family. Even though my mother’s side of the family were Catholic, I grew up not understanding much about the Catholic Church, and it took a lot of time to gain a more detailed knowledge of their theology and understanding of how and why the Catholic Church operates and thinks the way that it does. As Protestants, we often hold to some erroneous information about the Catholic Church, and I will try and cover some of that in the next few weeks, if possible.
October 31st is recognized as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, as that was the day when a priest by the name of Martin Luther nailed what became known as his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. I guess today Luther would tweet his 95 Theses, which seems far less dramatic, doesn’t it? There is an inherent drama in taking a piece of parchment, walking up to the big wooden doors of a church, and nailing that parchment to the door. Somehow, hitting a button on your phone just doesn’t have the gravitas!
The official title of the 95 theses was disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light. That’s not very catchy, is it? That’s like calling Star Wars by the title the possibilities of future space travel in light of Einstein’s theory of relativity and its presupposed efficacy for the inhabitants of the known and unknown universe. That wouldn’t get a line at the movie theater on December 15th, would it?
The 95 Theses were what we might call today “talking points,” points of contention Luther had with some of the Church’s practices, specifically the practice of what were called indulgences. An indulgence was the granting of forgiveness based upon what was considered to be a surplus of righteousness of the saints. Indulgences assumed that a person gained entrance to heaven as a result of their good works. If we imagine salvation as being on a scale of 1 to 100, the entrance to heaven might require, say, a score of 75. A saint, for example, might have a score of 95, which means there are 20 points in excess that could be used by someone who might be 5 points short. An indulgence could be purchased to gain the extra 5 points needed. Obviously, this was a formula for financial abuse to take place, which did happen, not to mention the fact that no one would know where anyone was on the scale of righteousness, if such a scale existed. Indulgences, though, were an entrenched practice in the church and their sale helped to finance the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.
The title of the message today is Making Your Voice Heard, which Martin Luther certainly did, and his example of speaking out has become foundational to our culture. For our Scripture text we will turn to the book of Acts, where we find a story about the disciples Peter and John, when they taken before the Sanhedrin after healing a man who was unable to walk.
Acts 4:13-21 –
13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say.
15 So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together.
16 “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it.
17 But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”
18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.
19 But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!
20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
21 After further threats they let them go. They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened.
I have two points to share with you today, the first of which is –
1. There are many who want us to go along, to be quiet, and to accept things the way that they are.
It is hard for us to fathom what a gift it is that we have the freedom to express our opinions, our thoughts, and our beliefs. Martin Luther, like many people throughout history and even today, did not enjoy that gift. In fact, Luther was, for a time, under the threat of death because of his beliefs. If not for the protection of one individual, Luther would most certainly have been put to death.
In 1521, Luther was taken before the Holy Roman Emperor and leaders of the church to answer a charge of heresy. He was confronted, in that most intimidating of surroundings, with these questions – Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? I ask you, Martin, answer candidly…do you repudiate your books and the errors they contain? Luther gave his response, which ended with these words, I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither safe nor right. God help me, here I stand. Amen.
(Word of God Across the Ages, Bill J. Leonard, p. 34)
The world of power often works on threats and intimidation. That’s why Luther was brought in to face the emperor and the other powerful leaders, by himself. That’s why Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin and threatened, and told to speak no longer to anyone about Jesus. The apostles were often threatened, and not only threatened but beaten and jailed, and only because they dared to speak up about what they believed. Power is often threatened by those who are willing to speak up and not be silent, but we are gifted by God with the freedom to speak our minds! Martin Luther actually changed the spelling of his last name from Luder to Luther, which comes from the Greek word eleutheros, which means free or freed. Martin Luther King, Jr’s. father changed his name and his son’s name from Michael to Martin in honor of Luther, and the name change become prophetic for Dr. King and his willingness to speaking out. Because of the Reformation we are Protestants – protestors. Protesting, and raising our voices has become more suspect these days, unfortunately, and we often feel uncomfortable with raising our voices in dissent. To raise doubt in our minds about raising our voices is how people prevent needed change from taking place. But if we don’t raise our voices, how will injustice ever stop? How will things ever get better?
Imagine how different the world would be had Abraham Lincoln not signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Imagine if he had listened to any advisors who might have encouraged him to remain quiet, to go along with the status quo, and to protect what masqueraded as commerce. Imagine the difference in the world if those opposed to slavery had not raised their voices. Imagine how different the world would be if Rosa Parks had given up her seat on the bus. Imagine how different the world would be had Martin Luther King, Jr. not spoken up and spoken out. Imagine the impoverishment of our world without his great I Have A Dream speech. Imagine if women had not raised their voices and declared their God-given right to have a voice and a vote. Imagine if women in business and industry and Hollywood had not raised their voices to declare it is time for harassment and abuse to stop.
There are many people who would like us to remain quiet and not upset the status quo. Just be quiet and go along with things. Don’t rock the boat. That’s just the way things are, just accept it and live with it. Those are a few of the things we are told in an effort to keep us silent about the injustices of the world. That’s one of the ways in which people such as Harvey Weinstein manage to get away with abuse and harassment for so long. For women to stand up and say no more abuse and harassment takes a great deal of courage. For Martin Luther to stand up and raise his voice to the Holy Roman Emperor and all the powerful figures of his world took an immense amount of courage.
To raise our voices is not just a privilege; it is a necessity. We who are blessed must become the voices for and the champions of those who are the powerless and those who are the victims of injustice.
2. Don’t fear the backlash.
Fear. That word always haunts us, shapes us, and controls us. Fear whispers in our ears and tells us don’t risk what you have. Don’t put your livelihood at risk. Don’t put your family in a difficult situation. You’ve got yours; let others get theirs on their own.
Martin Luther was not the first to feel the fear that would seek to derail him from his mission. Abraham must have felt fear in leaving his home to set off to a land that God would show him. Moses was fearful about facing Pharaoh in order to issue a challenge to let God’s people go. Peter felt fear after stepping out of the boat and onto the sea. But each of them also conquered their fear. The disciples, who huddled together in the upper room after the crucifixion, courageously left that room to proclaim the message of Jesus in spite of the backlash, the resistance, and the persecution they faced. In spite of arrest, imprisonment, and physical attacks they persevered.
Jesus certainly faced a great deal of backlash, but it never kept him from his mission and it never rendered him silent. Jesus was followed constantly naysayers, opponents, and accusers, yet he never, even for a moment, strayed from his mission. He was not afraid to challenge the powers of his day and he had strong words for those who preyed upon others and perpetuated injustice. He offered grace and forgiveness in spite of those who claimed he had not the authority to do so. He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, even though his own disciples were troubled by his doing so. He challenged the crowd of accusers who brought to him the woman caught in adultery, and stood in bold love and grace as they one by one dropped the stones they had intended to use upon her. He entered the Temple, casting out the moneychangers and others who made a mockery of that holy place. He stood without fear or doubt before Pilate, Herod, and the Sanhedrin as they unjustly arrested and accused him, as they beat him, and as they crucified him. And on the cross there was no fear and no bitterness, only love and forgiveness.
I received an interesting piece of mail some weeks ago. I could tell by the envelope it was one that was not fan mail and that it was probably anonymous, as it was marked Personal and Confidential: To be opened only by the addressee. I knew it was not a gift certificate to a nice dinner in that envelope. After enough years you learn to recognize certain types of correspondence. When I opened the envelope I found it contained no letter, only one item – one of my columns from the Sentinel-News. Written across the newsprint were some harsh words – garbage, unpatriotic, un-American, and other such comments. My first instinct about anonymous mail has always been to throw it away and forget about it, but I did not throw this piece of mail away. Instead, I went and purchased a frame, put it in the frame, and hung it on the basement wall of our home, beside my desk. I did so not because I enjoy seeing and being reminded that some people will not like what we have to say, but to remind me that what others think should not silence us.
I am unashamedly a child of God and a follower of Jesus. I believe that all people are children of God, born in his image, and granted the same freedoms as any other person. I believe in the right of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world to worship in freedom and that they should be able to do so without fear of persecution. I believe that those governments who desire to punish, persecute, and silence believers are wrong and ought to be called to account, especially by those of us who enjoy the freedom to worship without fear of repercussion.
There are people in our world – in our community – who need a champion. There are people who need us to speak up and speak out. But there are also people who will not like it when we do, but we must follow the example of Jesus, who inspired many across the centuries – like Martin Luther – to speak out and to follow the lead of the Spirit. Never be afraid to make your voice heard.