Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Reformation 10/26/2014

It’s always presumptuous to assume that we know what historical figures who lived a long time ago would think about things that are going on today in contexts that they couldn’t possibly have imagined but still, we do it all the time, usually in trying to justify our own opinions. So, for example we speculate on what the founding fathers of this country would think about this issue or that issue and each of us concludes that they would agree with us. Well, Lutherans do the same thing with Martin Luther as we consider issues related to the church and I’m going to do a little of it right now even though, on the other hand, in some ways, I don’t think what Martin Luther might think about what happens these days really matters all that much. I’m waiting to see if lightning bolts strike me dead. What Luther did a long time ago does matter; what he might think about today really doesn’t.

But…it’s Reformation Sunday, and the first question we might ask is would Martin Luther approve of taking one Sunday a year to consider what happened 500 years ago, or 497 to be exact, as on October 31, 1517 Luther posted a list of statements on the church door at Wittenberg, statements that came to be known as the 95 Theses. Luther wasn’t stupid, he had to have known that what he did could wind up being seen as provocative and threatening even if all he claimed he really wanted was a chance to discuss his concerns about what the church was doing, particularly what it was doing around the sale of indulgences. Regardless of his intentions though, whatever they were, his actions set off what is called the Reformation, ultimately leading to a split with the Catholic Church. But would Luther like it that we still take a Sunday to consider this?

Being presumptuous I’m going to say that Luther wouldn’t like it, but being even more presumptuous I’m going to take this opportunity to help him change his mind and not just because celebrating Reformation Sunday gives us an excuse to use the red paraments that always look so nice and to sing A Mighty Fortress. I think Luther wouldn’t like Reformation Sunday because he would say that while his role was important, all he was involved in is now ancient history; the church shouldn’t be looking back it should be looking forward.

But I would say to him, that’s right, but this isn’t about you, it’s about the identity of the church, identity that you changed. You opened this can of worms and whether you meant to or not you established the precedent of reform, of the church as an institution that is alive and on the move, not one desperately clinging to the past, clinging to power and longing for the good old days. You helped to make the church an institution open to change not just for the sake of change, but open to change for the sake of the gospel.

I would say to Luther that we call ourselves Lutheran not because we worship you or because we want to pledge allegiance to you, but because we admire your courage in raising questions and challenging ideas that were thought to be unchallengeable and unchangeable. We also thank you for giving us permission to do the same thing when appropriate so that our faith isn’t just about rigid, lock step obedience. In many ways, every Sunday should be a reminder of the Reformation but it’s good that we take this one day not to glorify you Martin Luther, but to remember that the church should always be about reform, again, for the sake of the gospel.

Have I changed his mind? I don’t know, but what I have done is to tell him and you what I think the Reformation signifies. I should add though that while there are many who would agree with me, many others would not. Those who call themselves Lutheran are a pretty diverse group these days and they vary greatly in how they interpret things, things that include what the Reformation signifies, and that’s OK. At its best it creates healthy tension and room for dialogue, kind of like the tension Luther created back in his day. But a big reason I’m Lutheran is because, apart from providing us with some really good theology, Luther has also given us permission to think and ask questions and pose challenges.

The questions we ask though are Bible based. In particular we are not afraid to ask the questions that the Bible itself raises; we’re not afraid to use our intellect and our imagination in engaging these questions. We’re also not afraid to make use of modern scholarship that sometimes challenges things and assumptions we thought couldn’t be challenged, not that it always gives us answers to our questions, instead sometimes giving us questions to our answers.

You figure though, that’s what Luther did; he approached the Bible using the best scholarship of his time. His big issue with the church was that people were being told they could earn their way into heaven, especially by purchasing indulgences which were pieces of paper said to grant forgiveness of sins and which also just happened to help fund church projects. But Luther, studying passages like today’s reading from Romans concluded that based on the witness of scripture, the church was in error and had to be challenged. St. Paul wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.” Justified by his grace as a gift, not justified by purchase of the proper indulgence. Grace; that became the center of Luther’s theology along with the idea that the Bible, correctly interpreted, determines what is true.

Which brings us to the anniversary of this church. As is the case with celebrating the Reformation, if all the anniversary marks is a look back, it doesn’t mean much. It’s good to remember who we are and where we came from but today isn’t about what a group of Swedish immigrants did back in 1870. It’s about where we are now.

Again, perhaps it’s presumptuous of me, but I would like to think that where we are now is that we are a church that remains true to the spirit of Luther. The changes Luther brought about were changes of substance rather than style. He retained the basic structure of the worship service, the Mass, which is why if you go to a Catholic church today or if someone who is Catholic comes here the style of worship should be familiar.

What Luther sought to do was not to change the pattern of worship; the change he sought had to do with making sure that the gospel was proclaimed rightly, getting at the heart of who Jesus was as the revelation of God and with that the grace and forgiveness that he offers to all people as a gift. That’s still what we seek to do in the ever changing world and context in which we live. In particular, in our understanding of the gospel, we seek to be a church that, if it errs, it’s going to err of the side of grace. I can’t claim to know that Luther would approve of all that we do, there are things he might have trouble understanding in a world very different from the world he knew, but I’m pretty sure he would approve of a faith strongly centered on God’s grace as revealed through Jesus Christ.

What I’m very sure of is that Luther would like the fact that a group of our young people are receiving communion for the first time today. Communion for him was the primary means of experiencing the real presence of Christ and the forgiveness that he offers. He would be pleased that the kids have been told about the promise of “given for you for the forgiveness of sin” and that they will begin to experience this promise in a new way starting today. There’s much that they don’t understand, there’s much that we all don’t understand but for any of us communion is not about knowledge and understanding it’s about experience, it’s something you grow into. It’s about the doing, “Do this in remembrance of me” and for ten of our young people, that experience, that doing starts today.

It’s a good day. It’s a good day to be the church. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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