Sermon by Fr Peter Wolton, United Benefice of Holland Park, Bible Sunday, 29 October 2017

Sermon by Fr Peter Wolton, United Benefice of Holland Park, Bible Sunday, 29 October 2017

"I do not make war on dead men"
So said Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, as he stood by Martin Luther’s grave in Wittenberg in 1547 in response to his troops question, “Shall we exhume Luther’s body and burn it?”

Within eight years Charles had abdicated. He was the last holder of the office that had lasted 731 years. No more would there be joint leaders of Latin Christendom.

This coming Tuesday the church commemorates the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses, supposedly pinned on the church door of Wittenberg, denouncing many practices of and calling for reform of the Church.

A historian has described Luther as an Augustinian monk who took a hammer and chisel to the cracks of the edifice of Latin Christendom and kept hammering with massive blows until it sundered.

Today I am not about to give a history lesson.

Rather I want us to do two things:

First that we reflect on Luther's gift to our understanding of God,
Second, the Reformation’s special message to us today.

Our understanding of God:
Before published his 95 theses, Luther was much given to confession, so much so that the leader of his monastery is reputed to have exclaimed in exasperation:
“Look here Brother Martin. If you are going to confess so much, why don’t you do something worth confessing? Kill your mother or father! Commit adultery! Quit coming here with such flummery and fake sins!”

Luther may have been extreme but he also reflected the church’s approach at that time, worshipping a God who was believed to punish us for our sins, and who achieved his purposes through pain and suffering.

Such belief are graphically displayed on the pre Reformation Doom painting in a Suffolk church of Wenhaston: 
St. Michael and the Devil weighing the souls of the departed against their sins. 
The Elect are sent through a gate to heaven, (a narrow gate), whilst the damned go to Hell where they a devoured by fire and horrible beasts. 
The odds of being saved were exceptionally small. Indeed one priest of the time calculated the odds of salvation as 1 in 30,000. So indulgences which were prepaid prayers for the dead were sold to help the dead progress more rapidly through purgatory, maybe the equivalent of the recent mis-selling of Payment Protection Insurance (PPI). And we all know what happens to organisations that mis-sell PPI.
In Luther’s view the church had become about saving souls and placating a stern punishing God, rather than displaying God’s love for his creation. 

It was when studying Romans that Luther made an astonishing discovery, He realised we were never going to be able to do enough to merit God's love and salvation. But through the gift of faith we can be declared righteous by God. This is the process by which we are acquitted, changed, and renewed by the virtue of divine promise and grace.

This love and favour of God towards human beings is unmerited. 

Our relationship with God right is like a healing process. As long as the cure is incomplete, God is willing to overlook our sins. 

“Luther had thrown wide the gates to a new understanding of God, 
A God who loves rather than punishes. A God of Grace: 
The mnemonic 

And so the chisel was placed in the crack. The Reformation was part of many changes in society across Europe. Blessings flowed but also division and acts of unspeakable cruelty by others claiming to know the same Lord. 
Three particular blessings:
A God of love was made accessible, the father in the prodigal son. 
Second: the Bible became available in countries’ own languages as did prayer books and services.
The role of the priest changed, no longer mediating between God and his people, celebrating Mass in Latin with his back to the people. And the role of the laity was greatly enhanced.
Back in Wenhaston the Doom painting was no longer in keeping with the new understanding and was plastered over and only revealed again until 1892. 

Now to the Reformation and its message. Is there a special message for us today?

The Reformation was made possible by the new technology of printing. A message could now be distributed so much more widely, quickly and accurately.
We too live in an age of momentous change, spurred on by, I suggest the polarising influence of social media. An individual can have a global audience. Their message can come to us directly. A characteristic of this age is short attention span. Considered arguments are replaced by black and white. No grey areas. Trump, Brexit and Catalonia show the power of the chisel being placed in the crack and being repeatedly hammered.
It is against this backdrop, this current noise, that the Christian message of God’s grace, as made known to us through Martin Luther, and proclaimed by St. Paul in his many letters such as to the people of Colossae that we give hearty thanks to God, this Bible Sunday.
This message of God’s grace gives us clear direction, and is the solution for polarised peoples: 
Let us conclude and remind ourselves of the message to the Colossians:
“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”
Fr. Peter Wolton

29 October 2017
Holland Park Benefice