Sermon - 5th November 2017
Reformation - All Saints - All Souls
Scripture - Romans 1:17; Ephesians 2:8; Matthew 5:2-12; Revelation 7:9-12
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Today’s sermon is going to look at three key dates in the church’s calendar which were last week: Reformation Day, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Last Tuesday was 31 October. History records 31 October 1517, exactly 500 years ago, as a decisive moment, when Martin Luther, a German monk and theologian, posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. His 95 Theses were a list of 95 concerns about the state of the Church. In those days in university towns, the way to begin the debate was to post your arguments in public – perhaps, the medieval equivalent of Facebook!
To understand the significance of his actions, let us consider what going to church was like 500 years ago. The services were in Latin: this meant that for most people, they did not understand them. Even the Bible readings were in Latin, so people would have known little about the Bible’s content. People were limited in their understanding to what the priest told them.
Communion was also different: they received only the bread. Only the priest drank the wine.
The Church sold indulgences: they were big business! An indulgence was where, in exchange for money, a person could allegedly reduce the amount of punishment in the after-life one has to undergo for one’s sins. St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was built by Pope Leo X by raising money through the sale of indulgences. To increase revenue, new types of indulgences were created through which folk were told that they could buy their deceased relatives out of ‘Purgatory’. It was the matter of indulgences that pushed Luther into what he did. He was appalled by the increasing exploitation of the people, where some were literally starving, having spent their money on indulgences.
Thanks to the invention of the printing press some 80 years previously (by another German called Johannes Gutenberg), Luther’s ideas spread quickly, gaining popularity. While in hiding from the Pope’s agents who were out to kill him, Luther also did something else extraordinary: he translated the whole Bible into German. For the first time, people could hear and read the Bible in their own native language… the beauty of the Psalms, the history of the Jewish and early Christian faith, the guidance of the Epistles, the mystery of the prophets and the inspiration of Jesus’ life in the Gospels.
Very quickly, people realised that much of what the Catholic church had been teaching could not be found in the Bible, and that much of the Bible’s teaching had been simply ignored.
We will now listen to two short examples of re-discovered Biblical teaching.
<1st reading: Romans 1:17; Ephesians 2:8>
At the heart of the Reformation are three points:
- Grace alone – our salvation through Christ is God’s free gift to us. There is nothing that we humans can do or need do.
- Faith alone – the only thing God requires of us is belief. Doing good works is a fruit or evidence of faith, not something which adds to our salvation.
- Scripture alone – the Bible is the authority against which church traditions and teachings are to be measured.
So, 500 years after Luther and through other Reformers like John Calvin, growing out of the Presbyterians and Congregational churches, the United Reformed Church began life in 1972.
The Reformation, however, was not a single point in history. As the URC Basis of Union says, we have a “Faith, alive and active: [the] gift of an eternal source, renewed for every generation.” In the past 160 years, we have seen ways in which the Reformation has continued, where the church has felt called to change: the abolition of slavery, the rejection of racism, the equality for women, and – of course – the understanding of God’s universal love, particularly to us as LGBT, God’s ‘rainbow people’.
Today, we give thanks for Martin Luther and other Reformers, whose faithfulness to God’s message enabled us to be here in this place today.
Last Wednesday was the first day of November, which is marked in many church traditions as All Saints’ Day. The word ‘saint’ comes from the Latin word ‘sanctus’ meaning ‘holy’. Another way of explaining ‘holy’ is something or someone set aside from the everyday.
Remembering Paul’s words to the Church in Ephesus: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” … there is nothing we can do to make ourselves holy: that is God’s gift. The Biblical teaching rediscovered in the Reformation is that we are all equal and equally worthy before God. We are indeed all worthy; we are all holy; we are all saints.
We are now going to hear read to us some of Jesus’ teaching, known as the Beatitudes which form part of the Sermon on the Mount. You may have heard and/or read these countless times. But today, I am going to ask you to use your imagination in a guided meditation: you may find it helpful to close your eyes and allow your mind’s eye to picture the scene…
- It is Sunday and you are at home.
- You hear the quiet sound of bells… getting louder.
- You put on your shoes and coat and make your way outside.
- It’s a cold but bright day, with a keen wind that makes you shiver.
- As you walk down the street to the church, thoughts go through your mind about your past week… things that are troubling you, good things that have happened.
- You reach the church…, open the door…, go inside…, and take your seat.
- As you sit waiting for the service to begin, you get a feeling of something new, something special about to happen.
- The general chatter and sound of the bells fade as people settle and wait silently.
- Someone stands, walks to the front and begins to speak and says: “Imagine you are hearing these words for the first time…”
- ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
- ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
- ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
- ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
- ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
- ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
- ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
- ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:2-12)
- After speaking, the reader sits down.
- Which words of Jesus spoke the loudest in your heart?
- Hold on to those words in a short time of silence… Amen.
November is a time for remembering… next week, we shall join in with the national commemorations of Remembrance for those whose lives were lost in wars which have secured our freedom in the face of tyranny; in two weeks’ time, we will mark Transgender Day of Remembrance.
But today, our thoughts remain closer to home. 2nd November is traditionally called All Souls’ Day, an opportunity for us to remember those near and dear to us who are no longer with us.
Because we are the living, it is only natural that we spend much of our time focusing on God’s call on our time here, doing the things which Jesus calls us to do: to live lives that reflect God’s love, helping those in need, working to overcome injustice. The earthly aspect is only a part of the Christian life: there is an eternal, heavenly dimension to our being: Jesus teaches that “everyone who believes in Him may not die but have eternal life”.
We cannot know what it will be like once we die. The final book of the Bible, Revelation, is a strange book written in very complex, figurative language, yet some of the passages are truly beautiful and inspiring, offering us hope of time that is to come, where “God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.” (Rev. 7:17) and where “There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain.” (Rev 21:4)
John, to whom to authorship of Revelation is ascribed, offers us this glimpse into the eternal through potent imagery and symbolism:
<Invitation to light a candle in memoriam.>
<Video reflection: “Jesus, Remember Me…”>