There’s a scene in the film The Life of Brian where the Judeans are discussing what their occupiers have ever done for them, and the idea is they’re meant to say they’ve done nothing. In fact, the Judeans come up with a long list of good things the Romans have done for them.
Today I ask the question, “what have the Reformers ever done for us?” There’s an implication on the part of many people that the Reformers were puritanical killjoys, or obsessed with the finer points of abstruse theology. At St. Columba’s United Reformed Church in Oxford, where I spent many happy years, the premises, like most churches, have a few odd corners. In one such corner, not often visited was a hidden away toilet. This was always known as the Calvinist toilet, because it was very dark and gloomy. It’s a sure fire bet that outside specialist theological circles, Calvinism always creates images of puritanical prohibition of enjoyment, of doom and despondency. When we look with 21st century eyes, there are many things about the Reformation that rightly make us feel uncomfortable, but I want to suggest that there are a number of good and important insights into being a Christian for which we can thank the Reformers.
What have the Reformers ever done for us? They’ve reminded us that God is in charge. It’s quite something to really consider that God is in charge of everything. Each and every one of us, at all times, lives before God who made and loves us, who redeemed us, and sustains us. Faith isn’t something that exists to satisfy our needs, or to give meaning to our lives, but how we acknowledge, praise, and serve our God. God is the beginning and the end of all things. God, is utterly indescribable, sovereign of all, but also and at the same time immediate and everywhere.
I don’t know about you, but I find that mind blowing, and very hard to respond to. There are many pressures on us from so many different directions. Do we always give God the place that he deserves in our pecking order? Is God the most important thing in our lives, or is God someone or something to which we turn when we remember, or when other avenues are exhausted? Is our church a family in which we gather under God, always seeking what God wants? Or do we stray into being a club? Do we ever fall into the trap of making plans for our church, assuming that we know everything, and not leaving room for God to act? God is in charge of us, whether we acknowledge that or not.
Another thing that the Reformers have done for us to remind us of grace. Grace is something of an old-fashioned word. It was very popular until the eighteenth century, but isn’t something we use so much in the twenty-first century. It means that God loves us all more than we can measure, understand, or appreciate. You might say that God’s mercy is not giving us what deserve, and God’s grace is giving us what we do not deserve. This grace of God is much bigger than we can imagine, much wider, taller, and deeper, than we can imagine. And it is with and for each one of us. I’m not sure whether the biggest challenge is to accept how God loves the people we can’t stand, or whether it’s actually harder to accept that God loves us, ourselves, so much. The word grace may be antiquated, but the concept certainly isn’t, and it can challenge our faith and our humanity at the deepest level.
There’s a story told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and World War Two. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city, and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighbourhood, your Honour.” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions – ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a $10 note and paid the fine, saying: “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.” So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery shop owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation. That is what God’s grace is like.
The Reformers all reminded us of how important it is to use our minds in serving God. Before the Reformation, many of the clergy were unable to read and write, simply reciting prayers that they had learned by heart. The Reformers translated the Bible, so that people could read it for themselves, and think through for themselves what it might mean.
A young boy once approached his father to ask, “Dad, why does the wind blow?”, to which his father responded, “I don’t know, son.”
“Dad, where do the clouds come from?”
“I’m not sure, son.”
“Dad, what makes a rainbow?”
“No idea, son.”
“Dad, do you mind me asking you all these questions.?”
“Not at all, son. How else are you going to learn?”
And that is the attitude of the Reformers.
In England, in particular, after 1662 those who were not part of the Church of England were excluded from the universities, and so they set up their own network of seats of learning, which were known as Dissenting academies. Through the 18th century, there were as many as a hundred Dissenting academies, many of which made their way into today’s theological colleges and teacher training colleges. Perhaps the most notable example is Homerton College Cambridge, now a full college of Cambridge University, which was once a Dissenting Academy. The Reformers were serious about not leaving your brain at the church door, but bringing it in with you to use your brain in the service of God.
The Reformers also reminded us of the importance of the Bible. All Reformed churches believe in the importance, the centrality, of the Bible. The United Reformed Church uses these words to express that:
The highest authority for what we believe and do is God’s Word in the Bible, alive for his people today through the help of the Holy Spirit.
This is quite important. In no way are we fundamentalists. We do not believe or suggest that every word printed in the Bible is literally true. What we are saying is that with the help of the Holy Spirit to guide us, we can interpret the Bible to understand how God speaks his Word to us through scripture.
Within the Bible there are some passages that contradict each other, and some passages that are bizarre. We do not suggest that the authority for God’s Word relies upon any individual verse, but the whole of scripture and its overall message, along with the Holy Spirit to guide us. One author describes the authority of the Bible with this analogy: “a trusted friend, on whose impressions and interpretations of an all important event or experience we place reliance”.
How do we use, rely upon, and seek to interpret the Bible in our own lives? How much do we read the Bible outside worship? How do use the Bible in our church, and where do we look for God’s Word to us?
So today, as we mark the anniversary of the start of the Reformation, the Reformers have done many things for us. They have reminded us that God is in charge; they have reminded us of God’s grace; they have reminded us of using our minds in God’s service; and they have reminded us of the importance of the Bible. What have the Reformers done for us? Really quite a lot! But we cannot remember the start of the Reformation, without thinking of the sadness of division among the church for the last 500 years, and the wrongness of this before God and the world. We can give thanks for the many good things the Reformers did for us, but also lamenting division of Christ’s body in the world.
We heard from the Gospel the most important commandment of God: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. The Reformers did all that they so precisely in order to help you and me love our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. May we do just that, today and everyday.