Back to the basics. That is one way to view the Reformation movement that Martin Luther and his fellow reformers, including his wife, Katie, began in the early 1500s. Martin Luther looked at the church of his day—a church that seemed to be entrenched in all kinds of rules about how God’s grace works, a church with a structure and format so convoluted that the ordinary person had a difficult time relating to a loving God—and he decided it was time to get back to the basics, because it was important that people relate to God’s love.
Granted, the Reformation turned out to be more than just an event for the church. There were a whole bunch of social and political pressures in Rome's declining empire that played into the upheaval that the Reformation brought about. Nevertheless, Luther saw his time as an opportunity for the church to look again at some of the core principles of the faith and his position as a priest and professor and his educated background gave him the opportunity to know what people were struggling with. His own challenges as a person of faith trying to be assured of God’s favor also helped give him a good bit of insight into what needed reforming.
|95 Theses is a lot of basics...but still|
Some of those basics that Martin Luther used to reform the church are still well known today. The biggie, of course, is that we are justified by grace through faith alone, apart from works of the law. This was the main one Luther arrived at early on as he read the New Testament and drove home over and over again in his teaching and writing. Luther really felt this was the core of it all, the belief on which the church stood or fell, the belief which should have completely invalidated many church practices in his day: that is, God’s gracious love in Jesus Christ is nothing we could ever deserve or earn on our own. It is not possible purchase or work for real estate in the kingdom of heaven. Rather, it is a free gift to each and every one of God’s children, granted once and forever in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You can see how that’s a basic belief: if Christ’s death on the cross is ultimately not really necessary because God still expects us to do something on our own, then Christ’s sacrifice was in vain.
Another one of the basics that Luther brought up was the importance of Scripture’s authority. That may seem rather obvious to you and me nowadays, but in Luther’s time the Bible was rather removed from the practice of Christian faith most ordinary folks. For one, it wasn’t printed their language. In Latin, it was something only the priests and monks could read and understand. Luther changed that by translating the Bible into German. With that, along with Gutenberg’s printing press, everyday people soon had access to the Scriptures. Furthermore, it wasn’t always clear that things the church taught and drew a hard line on had any basis in Scripture. So, Luther did a lot of housecleaning, and the tool he used was the Word of God. Seven sacraments, for example, got narrowed down to the basic two the Protestant Church has today. Since Scripture was silent about papal infallibility, Luther saw no more use for believing the Pope in Rome had the final say on everything. There were a few other basics that Luther tried to bring the church back to, some of which proved to be more controversial than others. To some degree, these are still the main, basic issues that Lutherans attempt to hold the church to today.
Interestingly enough, Jesus had also sought to bring people back to the basics, too, in his time. We see a prime example of that effort in the gospel lesson this morning. In the face of the Pharisees questions of theology and belief, who are trying to find something to fault him for, Jesus gives a simple but straightforward answer: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In other words, these two commandments are the basics. Everything that was contained in the Jewish law code and the words of the prophets through the ages were in some way dependent on or in support of those two commands about a disposition toward and actions of love toward God and neighbor. The Pharisees, you see, liked to use that law and those prophets’ words as weapons as they hurled them at their opponents or as walls against people who they viewed as unclean. Jesus very quickly reminds them that the foundation of their entire religious system was really about loving God with every fiber of your being and loving other people as you love yourself. That is, everything the people of God are about should really come down to these two related commandments about love. One of them involves a vertical dimension—from God to us—and the other a horizontal one that unites us with the people around us.
|The Pharisees gather...|
Interestingly enough, this is the final encounter Jesus has with the Pharisees and the scribes. The last little argument that Jesus has here involves his identity as the son of David and Messiah. The Pharisees had essentially denied that anyone could ever be greater than King David, their ancestor. Jesus, however, uses Scripture to prove that a Messiah would come that would be even more “anointed with the Spirit” than David was. Again, those were the basics: that a Messiah would arrive who was God’s own son and that that God was concerned about a relationship based on love more than anything else.
As it happens, love really becomes the centerpiece of Jesus’ life and witness, and not the kind of love that is based on emotions or dispositions toward others. It is a love that stoops to serve. It is a love that reaches out to the other. It is a love which risks alienation and death, a love that Jesus eventually demonstrates in his death on the cross, the perfect but painful intersection of a vertical dimension and a horizontal one. The basic of all basics the cross of Jesus. That is where we come to understand the depth of God’s great love for us and the kind of relationship God calls us to extend to our neighbor. That is where Pharisees and outcasts alike all come to terms with their sinfulness and their shortcomings but also God’s gracious forgiveness and desire to include everyone in his kingdom.
The church should really always be about the basics, if you think about it. In fact, when we start going too far past them and adding things on to the mission of Christ’s Church is when we start to get in trouble. When the church, for example, gets aligned too closely with certain political or social agendas as it did even in Luther’s day, then the church can become just a tool for certain powers. When the church becomes too mired in rules of religious purity, as if following Christ is only about ticking off boxes and chiefly avoiding certain behaviors then we risk becoming more like the self-righteous Pharisees.
When it comes right down to it, the church should be a place where these two commandments are at the center of everything we do and say, where an understanding of God’s love for us in Jesus leads us to a love for our neighbors, especially those who are different or distant from us. As I heard a pastor once say, the holiness of the church is not its perfection. The holiness of the church is its capacity to love. That is to say, what makes the church the church is not our ability to be morally perfect people, but rather our embodiment of the love Jesus has for people. And we can only learn how to love over and over again when we are constantly reflecting on who Jesus is and what he does.
That, in fact, is the focus of that second argument with the Pharisees in this morning’s text. The Pharisees struggle to explain Jesus’ relationship to King David and to God. I think many of us—church leaders, included—struggle to explain just who Jesus is to us and why we feel he has rescued us, and just what we feel he rescues us from. It has been said that Lutherans are great at demonstrating the gospel through their actions. We could probably, however, bone up on articulating that gospel in our words.
Some interesting research has come out recently from the Barna Group about faith of Millennials, those who were born between the years of 1984 and 2002. One extensive study discovered that of those in the Millennial generation who are still active in the Church today, a full 68% responded that “Jesus speaks to me in a personal and relevant way.” It was the single-highest response across the board. Of those who have dropped out of the church, only one-quarter claimed that. According to that study, then, developing that basic relationship with Christ was more important than anything else—more important than beliefs about the Bible, for example, or style of worship. Two of the other most important factors in the faith of Millennials still active in church? “Close relationships with an adult in the congregation or parish” and “an experience serving the poor.” It strikes me that right there in those three responses you see both dimensions of that love…vertical and horizontal.
A few months ago we were sitting down to eat supper and our older daughter, who is seven, asked to say the prayer. That is nothing out of the ordinary. They often take turns offering one of our usual rote table prayers, “God is great, God is good…” But that evening she folded her hands and offered up a completely original prayer, in her own words. I was flabbergasted by the beautiful pattern of it, and her boldness to say it. It was clear that she had learned to speak to God that way, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t from me. Someone in this congregation—a Sunday School teacher, a Cherub Choir director, someone—had taught my own daughter to speak to God with her own voice. Someone here is modeling how to love God with her heart, her soul, and her mind.
Now, I wouldn’t want to base all ministry on studies and surveys, but it is striking to me that some research points to what we, in some ways, already are doing and knowing. That is, well…the basics. Here we are, almost 1500 years into this Reformation movement, and you can still see the need for many of the Lutheran reformers’ main points. They are simply a re-telling of Jesus’ own lesson, that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
In the middle of it all, of course, is that intersection of the two dimensions: developing that relationship with God through Christ so we may love with all our heart, and soul and mind, and strengthening our relationships of service and compassion with our neighbor. Therefore, in the Spirit of Luther’s reforms, let gather at that cross in the middle and recommit ourselves…to getting back to the basics.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.