The conversation is growing about how we might, in 2017, celebrate 500 years since the Reformation.
Some of the conversation makes me wonder if the Reformation really ever happened at all.
2017 presents a great opportunity for the gospel. There is so much we can learn from the Reformers to spur on gospel ministry in our own context. But 2017 also presents a great danger. Wouldn’t it be tragically ironic if our celebrations contradict the very gospel the Reformers laboured to assert?
Events will abound in 2017, exploring the life and theology of the Reformers. These have their place, as we learn from how the Reformers spoke the gospel into their context. The tone ought not be pious chest-beating but humble reflection upon our own gospel mission. And if the crucified Christ isn’t the one really in the spotlight, then we’ve missed the point of the Reformers.
Study tours and pilgrimages will also abound in 2017. I’m more concerned about these. Yes, much can be learned by travelling to historical sites. But let’s recall John Calvin’s thinking on this. Anticipating in his lifetime that he’d be remembered long after his death, Calvin requested burial in an unmarked grave. He didn’t want pilgrims visiting his resting place and indulging in the kind of idolatry he spent his life standing against.
Looking back to 31st October 1517 has its place. The biggest date on the Reformers’ Calendar, however, was the day of the cross. This crucial event propelled them forward, rethinking everything in the light of the gospel. ‘The Church always reforming’ was their motto after all.
499 years ago tomorrow, when Martin Luther nailed ‘The 95 Theses’ to the Wittenberg Cathedral door, he didn’t have everything nailed. It was the raw beginnings of his gospel carpentry. ‘The 95 Theses,’ apart from being quite dull and repetitive, contains some terrible theology. At no point, for example, does it even question the existence of Purgatory.
‘The 95 Theses’ is, of course, an historical document. As the gospel of grace was beginning to grip Luther’s heart, he saw one very clear implication worth hammering ninety-five times: selling Indulgences to build St Peter’s in Rome, was wrong.
Luther hadn’t yet come to see Indulgences – guilt money to ease suffering in Purgatory – as wrong, full stop. He did later. He hadn’t yet come to see Purgatory as unbiblical. He did later. That’s the point of the church always reforming. Luther would spend his whole life shining the light of the gospel of grace into more dark corners of the church, its theology and its practice. As we must. Not to honour Luther, but to honour Christ whom he honoured.
What gospel reforms do we need in 2017?
As we remember the other great Reformation mottos of ‘Faith alone,’ ‘Scripture alone,’ ‘Christ alone,’ ‘Grace alone’ and ‘To God be the Glory alone?’ How are we going as ‘the church always reforming’ around these truths?
Here’s my suggestion for celebrating the Reformation in 2017. Let’s hold an event every week, perhaps on Sunday. Let’s call these events ‘church.’ Let’s gather and proclaim the day of the cross, the gospel of grace. Let’s do this 53 times next year. There are 53 Sundays in 2017. That gives us 53 opportunities to invite people to meet Christ crucified. 53 ways to really celebrate what the Reformation celebrated.
And as we proclaim the gospel across 53 gatherings, let’s consider how we might keep reforming. Let’s keep reforming our practices in the light of the gospel, both within these
gatherings and beyond them. Let’s not just be Reformed, but Reformational also. Always reforming.
There’s no one particular reform I want to nail right now. And in the Presbyterian system there’d be way too many doors for my supply of nails in any case. But here are a few ideas…
Seventy Minute Sermons
There was an intense online debate recently concerning the length of sermons. Some argued that people can only really listen for 20 minutes. Others argued that it’s impossible to do all a sermon needs to do unless it goes for 45 minutes. But what if the whole duration of our gathering – 70 minutes say – was the ‘sermon.’ All of it. What if we carefully crafted the Bible readings, prayers, songs, preaching and teaching, interviews, testimonies, media elements and so on, so that it all combined to clearly express the gospel of grace? What if your experience as a newcomer to church was that ‘before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified?’ (Galatians 3:1)
Priesthood of All Believers
One immediate effect of adopting the ‘70 minute sermon’ approach is that preparation will be highly collaborative. A lot of talk about the standard sermon – be it 20 minutes or 45 – sounds rather priestly – one guy in his study, with it all on his shoulders. If our message is that it’s all on Jesus’ shoulders, that will change plenty. If Jesus is the only mediator and we are his body, there will be lots of parts to play. If Jesus is the priest at God’s right hand, if church is the priesthood of all believers declaring his praises, there’ll be lots of voices in our gatherings. Perhaps, for example, we need to re-unite Word and Sacrament. The latter is still in the hands of too few. Perhaps we also need a fresh look at ordination in that light. This will also involve a fresh look at gender roles, certainly not reducing the discussion simply to who does the part of the 70 minute sermon we call preaching. Now, I work very hard on that ‘preaching’ element. But one vital part of my work is seeking wisdom and insight – prophecy you might call it – from a diverse group of men and women who love Jesus. I’m grateful to be in a context where the preaching – as with all 70 minutes – is collaboratively prepared by a wonderful team of men and women, fellow workers in the gospel.
Ten Thousand and Eighty Minute Sermons
Or at least that’s how many minutes my calculator tells me there are in a week. If all of life is worship as Romans 12:1-2 suggests, if we all have gifts to express in the body as Romans 12:3-8 suggests, if we’re to be ‘devoted to one another in love,’ as Romans 12:9-21 explores, if we do all this in ‘view of God’s mercy’ to us in Jesus… this worship of Jesus and love of one another will spill into all the minutes of our week. All 10,080 of them. ‘Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light,’ as the great hymn says. Speaking of songs, listening again to the songs from the 70 minute sermon can play a special part in carrying the gospel story into the 10080 minutes of our week. Linking Bible studies to the Sunday services is another great way to flow from the 70 to the 10080. As we weave our shared life sitting in rows on Sunday with sitting in circles midweek, our ‘one another’ ministry deepens. Linking daily Bible reading and prayer to this Sunday and group life can also help deepen our one another ministry in rich ways. Let’s keep exploring ways the Sunday service can overflow into our mid-week groups which can then also overflow into our daily lives. Lives always reforming.
What else? Perhaps we need to…
- Identify other ways the role of the ‘Minister/Pastor’ needs reforming from priest to pastor-teacher?
- Identify other ways the plurality of ‘fellow workers in the gospel’ – and the ‘priesthood of all believers’ might grow in our ministry understanding and practice?
- Rekindle the idea of pastor-theologian, to guard against distance between the academy and our churches?
- Rethink our church courts to focus more on our churches than our committees?
- Reconsider the wisdom of churches being named after saints?
- Reconsider prayers of confession to better capture God’s delight in welcoming home sinners and our bold access to the throne of grace?
- Consider other stumbling blocks to unbelievers accessing the saving gospel of Jesus?
- Utilise technology more wisely for gospel proclamation?
- Better partner in the gospel, one church to another, to strengthen our gospel ministry?
There is plenty to take or leave in this discussion and list of questions. But preaching the gospel every time the church gathers in 2017 and beyond? That’s a great way to celebrate what the Reformers celebrated. In fact, let’s not wait ‘til 2017.
Every time the church gathers is a precious opportunity to proclaim the true story about God, the world and us. I went to church this morning. I saw Jesus clearly portrayed as crucified. I heard and sang and celebrated the wonderful gospel of Jesus. It’s just what I needed to hear. It’s just exactly what everyone needs to hear.