Archive for November 30, 2014

Holiday vs HolyDay — Love or Repentance?

The way in which the church prepares for Christmas compared to the way the rest of the world prepares for Christmas is confusing to many — even those in the church. For example: the “mood”of Advent is “penitential” and more sombre, and we don’t sing Christmas carols, which baffles people.

These reactions to Advent aren’t surprising, since we bring our “secular” experience into church with us. If everyone else is singing Christmas carols, why can’t we do it in church? We are the ones who gave the world the Christmas holiday. But, the result of such expectations is that we can come to see Advent as “so many spiritual shopping days before Christmas,” rather than seeing Advent as a time to prepare ourselves for a face-to-face encounter with the God of time and eternity.

The words of a Christmas song go something like this: “Oh, the real meaning of Christmas is the giving of love everyday.” That sounds nice, but it is not the real meaning of Christmas! In the church we prepare for Christmas in a different way. For the church, Christmas is a holy day, not a holiday. There is a profound difference between the two!

Christmas is a holy day because God became one of us! Christmas is a holy day because God began a journey toward a cross and an empty tomb to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves! Christmas is a holy day because the invisible God of the universe became visible! If Christmas is merely a “holiday,” then it is easy to see Advent as a time to get into the holiday spirit. However, since Christmas is a holy day, Advent is a time for us to prepare for an encounter with the Holy One.

You may be more interested in singing Christmas carols, or buying Christmas gifts, or baking Christmas cookies, and getting into the Christmas spirit than encountering the Holy One. However, the day will come for every one of us when we will meet the Holy One, and if your life today is in any kind of disarray, an encounter with the Holy One will make a big difference.

Meeting the Holy One face to face is so far beyond any experience that we cannot even begin to grasp it. It can even be frightening, for in the presence of God, we look shabby by comparison. Yet, that is what Christmas is about. God came to wrap us in the mantle of God’s holiness so that our lives can take on a new look, a new luster, a new value, a new direction, a new hope.

How can we prepare for an encounter with the Holy One? Look at John the Baptist. His appearance is not exactly in keeping with Christmas. A camel hair outfit is certainly not as festive as a Santa suit. Nor does his message ring with the “holiday spirit.” However, he does address the matter of preparing to meet the Holy One, for that is what his message of repentance is all about.

Repentance! What does it mean? The Greek word for “repent” means “to change.” But somehow, along the way we picked up the wrong idea of repentance. Our understanding of repentance is often associated with “hell fire and brimstone” and is characterized by cartoons with a long-bearded man and his sign announcing the end of the world and calling people to repent, lest they be damned eternally. That’s heavy stuff, wrong stuff. Repentance simply means to change —to turn around and walk in a new direction. In short, to“reverse direction.”

Since Christmas is all about tradition, it’s not easy to understand Advent as preparing to make changes. But if Christmas is really about an encounter with the Holy One, then Christmas must also be about change — changes in our values and priorities, changes in our attitudes, changes in the way we treat others.

So, what changes are we supposed to make to prepare ourselves? What are we currently doing in our lives that keeps us from being sensitive to God’s presence in our life and the lives of the people around us? What are we doing that keeps us at arm’s length from God and from someone else?

It can be working too hard, too much greed, a negative attitude and outlook, inner hostility and resentment, a chip on our shoulder or a hatred that we won’t let go of, or even too much religion in the form of false piety and arrogant self-righteousness.

The specifics of what God calls each of us to change is different. But they do have something in common: we are called to drop the barriers that we erect in our lives which prevent us from being open and sensitive to the spirit of God! As long as we have erected barriers in our lives against other people, the net result will be a barrier against God!

If you’re looking for the holiday spirit, you won’t find it here. But if you are looking for an encounter with the Holy One — if you are looking for the presence of the living God who sent his Son to change the hearts and lives of people — then you’ve come to the right place! To paraphrase the message of John the Baptist, “Reverse direction, for the kingdom of God has arrived!”

Reformation Today

Many Protestant churches mark the last Sunday in October as Reformation Sunday. Tradition holds that on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed a copy of 95 theses (propositions for debate) challenging medieval church teaching and papal authority to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Although this fiercely dramatic scene probably never took place, Luther’s document is real, and it really did help spark the Protestant Reformation.

Many North Americans today don’t know much about Luther. In 2010, the Pew Research Center found less than half of respondents (46 percent) could identify him and his significance. More Jews (70 percent), atheists and agnostics (68 percent), and Mormons (61 percent) knew about him than did Protestants (47 percent).

This lack of knowledge may stem partly from Protestants’ diminished place in North American society. In 2012, Protestants made up 48 percent of the population, losing their majority status of more than two centuries. Given Protestantism’s diminished prominence and many Protestants’ unfamiliarity with their tradition, does celebrating Reformation Sunday make sense?

Luther would likely have had no use for Reformation Sunday as an end in itself. He never intended to break with the Roman Catholic Church. It was Western Europe’s only church in his day (Eastern and Western Christianity divided in 1054), and he served it as a monk, priest, and professor of theology. Indeed, his devout faith and religious zeal were precisely what drove him to conclude that “the church . . . had misunderstood the gospel, the essence of Christianity.”

From 1513–16, as Luther studied and lectured on the Psalms and the Book of Romans, he experienced great anxiety about his salvation. He later wrote:

I had certainly wanted to understand Paul [in Romans] . . . But what prevented me . . . was . . . that one phrase . . . ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it’ ” (Romans 1:17). “For I hated that phrase . . . which I had been taught to understand as the righteousness by which God is righteous, and punishes unrighteous sinners. Although I lived a blameless life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner . . . [and] could not believe that I had pleased [God] with my works. Far from loving that righteous God who punished sinners, I actually hated him. . . . I was in desperation to know what Paul meant.

Luther ultimately experienced a breakthrough. No longer did he believe sinful human beings must perform works in order to earn God’s forgiveness. Instead, he became convinced, “that God provides everything necessary for justification,”including the gifts of repentance and faith, “so that all the sinner needs to do is receive it. God is active, and humans are passive, in justification. . . . God offers and gives; men and women receive and rejoice.” Luther summarized this insight in his teaching that sinners are justified, or saved, by grace through faith.

Luther’s new understanding of Scripture’s teaching on salvation fueled his criticism of Dominican preacher Johann Tetzel. Tetzel sold “indulgences” to raise funds for the restoration of St. Peter’s Basilica. He claimed to be selling relief from sufferings in purgatory not only for sinners still living but also for those who had died. A “jingle” attributed to Tetzel claimed, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Many of Tetzel’s contemporaries criticized him for misrepresenting church doctrine, but Luther’s critique wielded the greatest influence. His 95 theses about indulgences stressed the supremacy of God’s grace over any credentials granted by the Pope: “Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has a share in all the benefits of Christ and the Church, for God has granted him these, even without letters of indulgence. . . . We should admonish Christians to follow Christ, their Head, through punishment, death, and hell . . . set[ting] their trust on entering heaven through many tribulations rather than some false security and peace.”

The nascent technology of the printing press helped Luther’s theses find a wide audience. Luther followed the theses with sermons and other pamphlets calling for reform. A papal envoy to Germany reported, “Nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther.”

In 1521, Luther appeared before an official assembly (Diet) of the Holy Roman Empire in Worms, Germany. Faced with the threat of excommunication and given a final chance to recant his theses, Luther declared his conscience captive to God’s Word. He is said to have proclaimed, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”

This moment, too, may not actually have been as dramatic as portrayed in centuries of books, illustrations, movies — and Reformation Day sermons! Luther’s resolve did, however, unleash dramatic consequences for the church and society. “His iconoclasm, rebelliousness and demand for radical freedom,” writes religion scholar Karen Armstrong, “all demonstrate the pioneering ethos that would make the world anew.”

One of the most obvious results of the Reformation was the emergence of many new Christian churches, each professing to preserve the ancient, true faith. These churches asserted belief in one, holy, catholic (universal) church; however, they denied that this church was identical with the institutional Church of Rome. And after they broke with Rome, Protestants continued breaking with one another.

Luther’s translation of the Bible into German also proved momentous. Firmly believing Scripture to be the only authoritative source of doctrine and practice (a conviction frequently summarized in the slogan sola Scriptura), Luther also believed that individual, ordinary Christians were entitled to read and wrestle with the biblical text for themselves, as he had done. The fact that the Bible has now been translated into over 2,000 different languages is a direct result of the Reformation.

As author Gordon Thomasson points out, however, “Vernacular translations . . . unintentionally opened the Bible to an unlimited range of private interpretations.” The value Protestants placed on an individual’s right of conscience contributed to modern conceptions of individual rights and freedoms, but also challenged long-held senses of communal identity. Luther’s doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” — the teaching that all baptized Christians are called by God to serve one another and the world as priests — has frequently been misinterpreted as divinely granted license to be “a church unto [one]self,” as Peter Leithart writes. “Renouncing Rome’s one Pope, Protestantism has created thousands.”

Scottish journalist Harry Reid observes that many people regard the Reformation “as an unmitigated disaster which led to division and secularisation. Others regard it as the most positive movement in world history . . . that led to the opening of the minds of ordinary people and set them free from the forces of medieval darkness. . . . The Reformation divided, and it still divides.”

Should congregations celebrate this chapter of Christian history? Dr. Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity and Law Schools doesn’t think so: “I do not like Reformation Sunday. . . . [It] does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure.” For some Protestants and Catholics, Reformation Sunday represents how far we remain from realizing Jesus’ prayer that we might be one, as he and the Father are one (John 17:22).

If, we use today to “congratulate ourselves for being of [Luther’s] line and lineage,”we do a disservice to the reformer’s memory and, more importantly, dishonour God. But we could instead remember and give thanks for the Reformation as a time “when the Spirit has led the church kicking and screaming into a new reality.” We could pray that the Spirit will, as Jesus promised, continue guiding us into all truth (John 16:13), including fuller unity with our fellow believers. We could recommit ourselves to living out the classic Protestant motto, Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei — “The reformed church, always being reformed according to the Word of God.

Reformation calls us to the humble confession and joyful conviction that God, with amazing grace, is not done reforming the church and the world.