We have folks from all kinds of all kinds of religious backgrounds who call our church home, but still keep some of the flavor of their origins – folks with Catholic backgrounds, or Jewish, Adventist, Unitarian, so forth, as well as died in the wool Congregational/UCC. We do have Congregational roots and a United Church of Christ identity – and that’s part of us being more big tent in our welcome. But today I’m going to focus on that Protestant identity in how we try to follow Jesus. “Congregational” church, “United Church of Christ,” these are all flavors of Protestant Christianity.
So what does this mean? “Protestant Christians.” First, the big one: “Christians.” “Christians” means something like, “Little Christlings.” I’ve shared this before, but it’s worth repeating. The word “Christian” was at first an insulting term. People in the Roman world saw this scrappy little group of misfits trying to follow and emulate this Jewish guy, Jesus, as the Christ. They said he was anointed by God to show the Way to God. And that, people thought was pathetic. Jesus was a loser, in eyes of the world. So they called them – us – “Christians” – Little Christlings. “Psh, look at those Little Christlings waddling after their silly goose Messiah!” The term caught on and eventually Jesus followers themselves were calling themselves that. And we do to this day.
I think it’s important to remember this meaning of “Christian”, to know that we’re at best “Little Christlings.” That keeps us from getting too puffed up as we go about trying to be a little bit more Christ-like in our life with God. Jesus, after all, himself did a whole lot of popping of people’s puffed up consideration of their own holiness.
So that’s the “Christian” part of “Protestant Christian.” The “Protestant” part means “Protestor” – it means people of the Protest.
Protest against what? Basically, protest against the ways that Christians got themselves all puffed up with their self-importance. (Thank God that’s not a problem anymore, right?)
In a strange twist of history, Christians didn’t just stay this scrappy resistance of the heart against business as usual. They became business as usual. They became emperors and bishops and executioners. This is a human trend – to use the idea of God to puff ourselves up.
As Protestants, as Protesting Little Christlings, we inherit a spirit of upheaval against that trend. We inherit a spirit of upheaval that was unleashed 500 years ago this week with what’s known as the Protestant Reformation. The Re-Formation of Christianity. This re-formation was a long time in coming, and it got catalyzed by an act of protest against the way that power had corrupted the church. I told the kids about the church in Europe bilking people out of their money by laying on the guilt and getting them to believe that in order to become free of that guilt, and be spared God’s wrath, they needed to do what the church told them to do, especially in giving to the church.
The selling of indulgences is the most bald case of this. These indulgences were just pieces of paper that said, basically, “Get of Jail Free” – as a reward for your gift to the church, you have less time in Hell or Purgatory. You could buy them for your ancestors too. Now this was just one of the many ways that the church had become corrupt and had puffed itself up as if it were God-on-earth. The church had gained tremendous power and wealth, for centuries.
A lot of people had protested against this through history and had tried to form alternative communities of faith, but the church had managed to neutralize them. But Martin Luther 500 years ago was lucky enough to come at the right place and time for his protest to spark an upheaval that re-formed the whole religious and political landscape of Europe.
The heart of it for Luther was to pop our puffed-up self-importance, to puncture all the ways we make ourselves out to be God, all the ways we give god-like powers to the work of human hands.
What Luther did is clear away the clutter of our human constructions and let in more light and truth from the full scope and majesty of our God beyond name. Compared to these glimpses of the true nature of God, human powers are chintzy and pompous.
“Glory to God alone” – that’s one of Luther’s slogans. “Nothing is so small,” Luther said, “God is even smaller. Nothing is so large, God is even larger. God is an unspeakable being, above and outside everything we can name and think.”
Glory, glory! And yet: “God is nearer to all creatures than we are to ourselves.” Let that sink in: “God is nearer to all creatures than we are to ourselves.”
That nearness we know in Christ – God become flesh – God self-revealed in smallness, with us, within us. Follow that, and we will be led to God. Luther said, “By Christ alone.” A Christ who loves with us, a Christ who celebrates with us, struggles and survives with us, suffers and dies with us … and, with Christ, we are born anew as beloved children of God.
“God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.”
So this is about Grace, as well as Glory. Another of Luther’s slogans is: “By Grace alone.”
We can enjoy God’s love as a free gift. We don’t have to do something to earn it. We can’t, as a matter of fact. God’s love isn’t something we get by striving for it, or by doing only the right kind of things and not screwing up. It isn’t something that we can get and then doll out to others as we see fit. God’s love is of a different nature than anything having to do with what we as humans have power over.
That means we ourselves can’t build any kind of machinery of salvation. It is by grace alone, by faith alone, that we are saved.
It has been done for us, which we know because of Christ. It is just for us to say, “Yes.” And then off we go and do the best we can as Little Christlings.
The implications for our heart and soul are just amazing. And the implications for society and the church!
This all means that churches and clergy and kings aren’t any closer to God than anyone else. That’s a revolutionary statement. Luther translated the Bible into the common language and the printing press put scripture in the hands of the people. Worship is not some performance put on by the elect. It’s something we all do together, as Little Christlings coming together to celebrate God’s grace. The Protestant Reformation meant that people could sing in churches again, with whatever voices we’ve got.
So the Protestant Reformation was a tremendous upheaval, and complicated. It was an opportunity for princes to defy the power of the Holy Roman Empire. It was an opportunity for peasants to defy the power of the princes. There were wars and rebellions.
From a religious view, the upheaval catalyzed by Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and Menno and the other Reformers, was a renewing upheaval. It was the kind of turning from corruption and returning to a pure devotion to God that spiritual geniuses throughout history come to help us out with.
But it didn’t somehow cure people of sin. Luther himself was a puffed-up man. He popped puffedupery, but he had plenty of it himself.
He was prideful and even cruel at times. He caused a lot of damage. And he did a lot of good. Luther was human, all too human. And he knew this – well, at least some of it. He knew it well enough to know that he can’t save himself: it is by God’s grace alone that he is saved.
But Luther’s blindspots were huge and in many cases are still the blindspots of Protestant churches. One example is Anti-Semitism – hatred of Jews. That’s a big one. There are plenty of others.
All of this is why on this 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation I entitle this sermon “The Forever Rolling Reformation.”
We can’t make Luther into an idol … or anyone else. We can’t make the institution of any church or “The Church” into an idol … or any other institution, political party, government, nationality, religious view. We need a forever rolling reformation.
We must always let the Holy Spirit breathe new life through us, and turn us from the ways people limit God and use God’s name for human agendas, and return us to the tremendous love and grace that is always shining and humming and flowing out from that great Mystery we call “God.”
So let’s roll with it, as we do our best to waddle along together as Protesting Little Christlings.
Thanks Be to God.
(Delivered November 5, 2017 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla. By Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg).