As you mark today the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I bring to you the good wishes of the Catholic community of St Bride’s Church only a short distance from where we are gathered. We in that community are of course not strangers to you, we share the streets and neighbourhood of our own town with you, we are your friends in ordinary life and even many of you will be related in family to members of our congregation. But we share also another great gift, the gift of a baptismal faith and what comes from it, a Christian life and the Christian journey. You should know neither the Protestant Reformers nor the Catholic Counter Reformation of 16th & 17th century ever denied the validity of the others baptism. We are bound together as baptised Christians.
The baptism of this young child today reminds us of that baptism that we share. In a way in his baptism we see our own baptismal life and where it has led us. Today we profess again with singleness of heart that it’s God’s action that justifies us, as the great figures of the Reformation reminded us, and that is in the grace and faith of baptism that we live.
Make no mistake what we are doing today is very significant. Those Protestant Reformers on one side and Catholic Counter-Reformers on the others side would have raised a holy eye brow at what we are about. A Catholic priest joining in a service to mark 500 years of the Reformation, a Reformed minister allowing him to step into his pulpit. Crikey, they would have said, (or the 16th century equivalent) what are those two up to? There would have been steam coming from under their 16th century dog collars and long beards! Such an action would have been unthinkable 500 years ago and maybe even, more poignantly, just a few years ago too.
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis on the doors of the Church at Wittenberg in Germany it seemed a small act from an unknown Augustinian friar in an unknown place, a small pebble thrown into a pool. But that act was to light the fires of the Reformation that would spread across Europe and eventually to the rest of the world. That unstoppable wave of reform and renewal has come down to us today.
Those actions of Martin Luther were not the actions of a malcontent as they were portrayed in Catholic circles both at the times and thereafter. Nor were they actions of a heretic, as some would have had it then, cooler heads should have prevailed, wiser words should have held sway but they did not.
These actions of Martin Luther, at the start of the Reformation, were the fruits of a genuine spiritual search. They were actions also of a genuinely courageous man and inspirational teacher. What he found in the Catholic practices, some genuine and some disreputable, was something akin to unsatisfying dry bread. By contrast what he found in his reflections on the scriptures was things that gave him light and hope and life – manna in the desert, water gushing from the rock. What he found especially as he pondered these scriptures was a profound experience that mirrored his own experience, man who was lost but man who could only be saved by the grace of God. All, he finally concluded was necessary, was the scriptures alone and faith alone. Other things were not necessary and may have been damaging, priests (I am sorry to tell you) masses, saints, pilgrimages, indulgences popes (not even that nice Pope Francis would have suited him) and bishops.
It was a Christianity in its most simple form not needing anything but God’s grace. Not needing anything but only faith. In truth, it is my belief in many ways Luther stands alongside the great reformers of the Church like St Francis, who called it back to that original simplicity of the Gospel, to discipleship, to a more authentic living out of the message.
Many things Luther was to say that were not only not necessary but detrimental, as you can imagine, did not go down well
The ideas caught fire so quickly. Probably through discontent with the way things were Maybe through decadence that had crept in. Stagnation and worldliness might have took hold. The history books tell us these were all factors. But what they don’t tell is the way that this spiritual inspiration infused the minds and hearts of the people of that day, leading them to great works. The translation of the bible in the languages of the people. The dissemination of the scriptures to be read by all. The making of the scriptures as a rule of life. The re-focusing and re-calibration of Christianity – Churches looked different, worship looked different, the clergy looked different.
We don’t have to rehearse or recall here the pain of the division that would follow, we know it all too well.
But we are fortunate to belong to a new generation of Christians who have shaken loose from the chains of division, to find in the faces of each other brothers and sisters who share the same baptismal faith and the same Christian journey. We are not strangers but pilgrims together. Those great monumental disputes and struggles of the past seem to be less important beside the fresh air that we breathe as brothers and sisters walking together.
Here in this place, our own town, we bear witness to that reconciliation: ministers and priests meet together regularly and find with each other bonds of friendship and common purpose. Here joint services take place. Here faith sharing happens between us. Here ministry is done in common.
Our Protestant Reformers & Catholic Counter-Reformers may have raised an eyebrow at all this but then again I think they might have approved of it all. Where they could not find a way, where they could not find common ground, where they could not find ways to overcome obstacles - we have.
We have lived in 20th & 21st century that has witnessed a thriving Ecumenical movement that has sought forgiveness for past hurts, terrible deeds in the name of faith. We have been part of an Ecumenical movement that has brought healing to neighborhoods and families. We are part of an Ecumenical movement that has caught hold of the great priestly prayer of Christ, “that they may be one” as he and his Father are one and – we are living it. We are part of an Ecumenical movement that has saw us leap forward to bind up wounds and bring healing to divisions that seemed would never be healed. These in many ways are the best of times that over the last 500 years people dreamed of living in.
Today in the course of the service we have heard of the Shema Israel. Matthew recounts it when Jesus is asked by the scribe of the law which is the greatest of the commandments and Jesus replies quoting Dt 6: Hear O Israel there is one God and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your understanding. These words became both a statement of faith for Israel and a prayer down through the ages and, even today, is amongst the holiest of all the prayers of Israel and is said each day by them and is taught to their children.
In the context of this service today we hear those words anew. We worship one God, we love this one God with all our heart and mind and will. Is this not the thing that unites us, it is the same God we worship? It is the same God we know, it is the same God who speaks to us and directs us, it is the same God who gives the breath of life within us. This is the God whom we seek to know and love and serve. There is not a God for us and and a God for you, not a God of the Catholics and a God of the Protestants, there is only one God whom we are both to love and honour.
But there is also another part of the text today which has a special relevance for us. Jesus follows up the quote from Leviticus, answering the scribes question , what is the greatest commandment of the law, by quoting Leviticus. That you are to love your neighbor.
In the context of our service this has also has a powerful significance, not to disparage our neighbour, not to divide ourselves from our neighbour, not to be a stranger to our neighbour, not to be our neighbour’s enemy but to love our neighbor.
Is that not exactly the work that we are engaged in: to bind the wounds, to heal the division, to offer the hand of friendship, to seek ways together. Are we not walking the rocky and uncertain path of love?
The great Reformers Luther and Calvin and Knox would always remind us that it is all God’s work, it begins and ends with his grace. Even to have that desire to love arise from his gift. He puts in our hearts and desire to love him, he puts in our heart a desire to love our neighbor. It is all his work.
Looking today at this young boy who has been baptised. He will grow up in the best of times. Happier than some of the centuries that have past. He will not know some of the visceral pain of that division. He will grow up knowing that it is normal that ministers and priests talking to one another, congregations working and praying together. He will grow up seeing Christians recognising in the other their brothers and sisters. These will be the best of times. Just as Deuteronomy reading tells us that there is a passage from Moses to Joshua, from exile to the promised land he will see the passage that has been crossed. From disagreement to accord; from being enemies to being friends; from rivalries to harmony and cooperation. No doubt in his own times he will see even greater times.
In this great movement of the spirit we have moved beyond Wittenburg where Luther nailed his 95 thesis. We have moved from Geneva where Calvin preached, we have moved from Knox’s Edinburgh or the Popes in Rome – we find ourselves in Bethlehem where it all began, where the Word became flesh and lived among us. We look on at this great mystery that is before our eyes and that unites us.
On Friday last the Moderator visited Pope Francis. There is an incredible thing that the Reformers never thought they would see. I can assure you we have not seen our chance and locked him in a dungeon, although Martin Luther was always worried that someone would kidnap him and carry him off to some cell. Instead the visit was incredibly amicable and warm, the two men sat together as human beings do, they talked to each other and gave formal addresses. They also gave each other gifts: the Moderator gave Francis a warm scarf for the chilly nights in Rome and hidden in the hamper of food a fine malt whiskey that he could sip when he had kicked off his papal slippers at night.
The times are different and better. It is all God’s work. He places the good intentions in our hearts, all we are asked to do is to have faith and great and impossible things can be done.
Today we renew our resolve to walk together, to pray together, to work together, to minister in this area for the good of souls. I think those great reformers and counter reformers would be pleased that we have come to this fork on the road.