Throughout the Reformation 500 Commemoration, Pastor Jason will occasionally take on some themes of the Reformation and the ELCA - together always reforming towards understanding and living into the faith of Jesus Christ. Who are we, how do we honor our past, and how do we prepare for a future of change?
I wonder what Luther would think, 500 years from when he first posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. It might be surprising for some to know that Martin Luther was a devout Roman Catholic that took serious his sacred vows to the church and to the teaching of doctrine and scriptures. So much so that what he was doing, in posting his thesis, was his attempt to uphold his vows through directing the church to reform in a way more in line with scriptural teachings. It pained him to even imagine that his work would cause a schism that would forever split the church - and he even fought for a long time to keep the church together. Alas, this was not in the cards. The church did split. Violently on both sides. But it split on fundamental issues of faith and the understanding of salvation.
Our faith is in the scriptures and in the teachings of Christ.
Our salvation has nothing to do with works (we cannot work or pay our way into heaven), but has everything to do with the grace granted to each of us in the life and death of Jesus Christ.
One of the areas that Luther had issues was with sacraments. Sacraments, an outward and visible sign of our inward and spiritual grace. In his study of scripture, Luther found that there is a basis for only two of the seven sacraments practiced by the Roman church - baptism and the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. Marriage, Holy Orders, and the other seven, while noble and sacred things, they did not have the sacramental command as baptism and the Eucharist.
Every Sunday at St. Stephen’s we celebrate the Eucharist - the Last Supper. Gathering together, we share a meal and a story. Do you notice that every season we change some of the words while others remain the same? We always begin with a dialogue of “the Lord be with you...and also with you...lift up your hearts...we lift them to the Lord…” Then, here is where things change for the first time. Just before we sing "Holy Holy Holy" we hear about how the Liturgical season fits into the story of our salvation in Christ Jesus. Starting this Sunday, we hear about Epiphany, then we will hear about the Transfiguration before going into Lent.
After the "Holy Holy Holy" we literally hear a story. Sometimes we hear a long extended story about the history of our salvation starting with promises to Abraham and Israel. Sometimes it focuses on creation or the prophets. Other times it’s rather short and abbreviated. No matter what it goes directly into what is called the “words of institution.” This is when we get to the remembrance of the final meal of Christ…”on the night in which he was betrayed...took bread...took the cup...do this in remembrance of me.” All of this was reserved from the Roman Catholic practices of the time of Luther - changing some, but always holding some of these parts throughout the ages. Here we share a deep bond with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers.
Another aspect we share with the Roman Church is the sacrament of baptism. What more perfect example of the definition of a sacrament - an outward sign of the washing of sin, the drowning of our previous lives and the rising from the water as if resurrected into a new life with Jesus Christ. These are powerful images. I, however, believe we put a greater emphasis on baptism than do our Roman sisters and brothers. When we do not begin our services with the confession and forgiveness, we begin with the remembrance of our Baptism.
Something beautiful happened at St. Stephen’s...we acknowledged the primacy of baptism and the importance of having the waters in and among us. While in many Roman Catholic settings, where the font is either placed loftily in front and above the congregation, or tucked away in a baptistery - the people of St. Stephen's embraced the reformation and brought the waters in and among us. 500 years later, many churches of the Reformation are placing the waters of Baptism in their rightful places, at the entrance of the church or in the center of the worship space. Aesthetically pleasing and yet somehow inconveniently in the way of a direct path to the altar. The symbolism of having to pass through and by the font, be it in the entrance, the narthex, or in the center of a church helps us to remember we must always traverse the waters of our baptism as we forever seek the Word and body of our savior Jesus Christ.
With the tireless work that went into the introduction of the ELW (the cranberry worship books), the restoration of the centrality of baptism has been recovered. The centrality of baptism belongs to the entire congregation and the community, therefore having the font in an accessible place allows us to enter into dialogue with people. As St. Stephen’s enters into this phase of inviting new people and opening the doors to an ever widening community - we will encounter those that have yet to be baptized. What a joyous event it will be when we begin to baptize among us new people to the faith of God. Having more witnesses to the divine love and compassion that Christ showed for all people can be a beautiful gift to our city.
Imagine, 500 years after the reformation, we can take part in bringing this faith of love and compassion to a city that is in desperate need of such a witness. Would Luther be pleased that so much division has happened? No. Would he be pleased that the Word of God is being taken seriously and delivered by our little parish? I would hope and bet he would be.
As always, yours in Christ!