Savonarola was a Dominican priest and reformer of the church shortly before Martin Luther’s time. He lived in Florence, where he was a very powerful man, but eventually he was tortured and burned at the stake for his efforts, when Martin Luther was still a teenager.
Early in his ministry, Savonarola noticed an elderly woman who came to the cathedral every day before mass and knelt before the statue of the Blessed Virgin to pray for an hour. Savonarola mentioned her devoutness to an old priest who had served the cathedral for decades. He smiled and said, “things are not always what they seem. Years ago, this woman was the model for the statue of the Virgin. She’s not worshiping God. She’s worshiping who she used to be.”
Let us not use Reformation Sunday to worship who we used to be. When a congregation is as old as ours, when we belong to such a long and noble tradition, there’s always the danger that we can forget our need of God.
Back in the 1960’s, when Muhammad Ali was still Cassius Clay, he boarded an aeroplane with a group of reporters, and was showing off to everyone. When the Flight Attendant told him to fasten his seatbelt, Ali looked around at his captive audience and said, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” The Flight Attendant smiled, leaned down, and fastened him in, and said, “Yes, well, Superman don’t need no airplane neither.”
We are not supermen or superwomen, or super-Christians. We always need God’s truth to remind us of our limitations and needs. Just like Savanarola, and Martin Luther, and John Calvin, and yes Muhammad Ali, and a host of others, we need to hear and know the truth, and be set free by that truth.
What is the Truth that sets us free? A few years ago there was an opinion poll which asked people a very simple question: What are the most important words you’ve ever heard?
Answer 1 – (no surprise) I love you.
Answer 2 – (no surprise either) I forgive you.
Answer 3 – (Unexpected) Dinner’s ready!
These three phrases, “I love you”, “I forgive you”, “Dinner’s ready,” summarise the truth of the Gospel, and they remind of why we’re here, they tell us why we built this building, and what we are called to do and be here.
I love you. Of course, we all know that we say that God is love. We read and we hear it so often that I think we regularly fail to take any notice of it. Even more so, many of us believe it in an intellectual kind of way in our minds, as a fact, but really struggle to take it into our hearts and souls and believe it’s true for us. It was St. Augustine who said that, “our hearts are restless O Lord, until they rest in you.” He also said that, “there is a hole in the heart of (humanity) that only God can fill”.
Until we rest in God, until God fills that hole, we will fill it with other things. Whether we are aware of it or not, I think all human lives are driven by a search, a yearning, for God, and to know and believe that God loves us. If the church is anything, it must be to tell the world that God, in Christ, love, without limit or condition.
I forgive you. Sometimes knowing that God is love just isn’t enough. Somehow that doesn’t rescue us from our despair and our desperate search for peace. Sometimes knowing God’s goodness and love just makes us feel so aware of our own brokenness and frailty, that we find it impossible to live up to our own standards, let alone God’s.
The only thing that can hope to make any sense, when we feel like that, is the clear message that God’s love is greater than what we perceive as our failure. God’s love is so deep and so wide and so complete that it can forgive and defeat even in the darkest and most seemingly hopeless circumstances.
The reason that cross stands at the centre of our lives is to remind us just how deep and wide and complete God’s love is. It’s a love that is free, but it isn’t cheap. Showing us God’s love in a way that we can understand cost the life of Jesus. Through the cross, the Church is a sign, shouting out to the world: You are forgiven!
Dinner’s ready. And this flippant remark is just as important. We know we celebrate Communion – once a month we respond to the invitation from God to share his supper. But it’s more than just a personal thing. Anglicans and Roman Catholics often talked about making “my Communion” as if it was solely between them and God, and that was all there was to it. The word communion has much more to it than that. It also refers to the connection and community we have with God and each other, a connection and community that exists at all times and in all places.
When we gather at God’s table for God’s special meal, it’s a celebration and a strengthening of a reality that never ceases to be true; that we live now and forever within the eternal life of God. We gather here to remind ourselves that we are a community united in Christ, and in constant love with one another. That’s why the table is always open and inviting to all, calling us back, time and time again, to the place where God’s love and forgiveness are made real and touchable for us in the bread and the wine.
Love, forgiveness, community. That is why we are here. This is the truth that sets us free.
We are not here to worship who we used to be, we are here to worship God. This church does exist for the benefit of those of us in here. This church exists for the salvation of those out there, as an outpost of the Kingdom of God, as a sign of God’s love, as an agent of God’s forgiveness, as an open table where God’s hungry children can be fed. It’s our calling to cry out to the world: God is love, you are forgiven, dinner’s ready! Come and get it!