By Graham Glover –
(The following was preached during the order of Morning Prayer, at the United States Army Chaplain Center and School, to a group of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Chaplains)
Dear brothers in Christ Jesus, this Saturday, 31 October, marks a tragic day in the history of Christendom. As you all know, 498 years ago, an Augustinian friar and professor named Martin Luther posted 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. This act, no matter what Luther or others thought of it at the time, was the impetus behind a movement that would ultimately divide the Western Church. And this is a tragedy. It is a tragedy for those who agreed with Luther, as well as those who opposed him. For today, almost 500 years after Luther rebuked the abuses surrounding the sale of indulgences, the tragic reality is that Christendom is as divided as ever.
Let’s not be naïve though. Our Lord’s Church was not completely united when Fr. Luther took his concerns public. Nearly five centuries earlier the Bishop of Constantinople severed, to the extent it ever existed, the East’s allegiance to the papacy. In this great schism, Byzantine and Rome would no longer be one – a divide that continues to this day. Nor was Luther the first to seek change. Some, like Jan Hus, tried before him and countless more followed, in the likes of Calvin, Wesley, and others. Some joined Luther’s call for reform from within – most demanded all-out revolt. But today there is still no unity. Today, the followers of Christ are still not in communion with one another. On this day, in 2015, the truth that Luther sought in his 95 Theses is still being debated – as intensely as ever. One need only look around this chapel to see firsthand how divided Christendom remains. We all wear the cross of Christ on our uniform, but we are all members of different denominations – with wide and varied confessions concerning this Christ and what faith in Him truly means. And this my friends, is a tragedy.
But this tragedy had to occur. Given the abuses by some within the 16th-century Church, its inevitability was all but certain. And as much as I wish it weren’t the case, this tragedy must continue. Although the division of our Lord’s Church is indeed a sad reality, the issue that underscored Luther’s 95 Theses and the reformation that followed is still unresolved. On THE issue that defines our faith, Christians remain divided. It is the issue above all others and on it our churches do not agree. And so it is that until the countless denominations within Christendom unite on that which makes us righteous before the Lord our God, that is, how we sinners are justified before the Almighty, the tragic necessity of the Reformation must continue.
Comforting isn’t it? Exactly the unifying words one hopes to hear when they come to chapel, right? I’m sure all of you – Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, are ready to join me in celebrating the Festival of the Reformation!
But this is who we are – a people – a Church – that continues to get what should be so patently obvious, so utterly wrong. No matter how often we hear what St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans, that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”, we continue to look to ourselves – to our deeds, our actions, our words – as that which makes us righteous before God. We know that it is grace which saves. We know that faith in Christ Jesus is enough. We know that salvation is all about the cross. It’s all about Him. Only Him. And yet we still cling to ourselves. We still hold on to our works, constantly looking to them to validate who we are as children of God. If only we can do more, we tell ourselves. If only we can act better, live a little more righteously. Then, we proclaim – then can become true Christians. How often we tell ourselves these things – these falsehoods and lies. How often we ignore the words of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin”. How often we maintain this false hope that somehow we contribute to our salvation. How often we fail to find comfort in the sure and certain hope that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”.
This is the true tragedy. The tragedy of self-righteousness. The tragedy of pride and arrogance. It is a tragedy that continues to infect all of Christendom: Lutheran, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox alike. A tragedy that compels us to return once again to the University of Wittenberg of 1517 and the 95 Theses that a German priest affixed to a church door.
As we recall the festival of the Reformation this morning, no matter our denomination, I pray that we use its tragic necessity to heed the words of our Savior: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This Word is all about the One who speaks them. This Word is truth. This Word alone sets us free. This Word is Jesus – of whom the 95 Theses testify and to whom our faith is directed.