The time was right. All the conditions were in place and the world was ready for a change. Many new that corruption was taking over the church. Indulgences were being sold as forgiveness of sin so if you had deep enough pockets, you could sin all you wanted. Priests were subcontracting their duties to their churches to unqualified people for less money than what they were paid so they could keep the profits and do none of the work. Many were learning to read and the Bible was becoming more common because of the printing press so priests risked people pointing out, “actually, the Bible doesn’t say that!”
Along came this guy Martin Luther who was a town preacher and professor. He, like many others wanted the church to be reformed and so on October 31, 1517 he famously published his 95 theses which has now been seen as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. He called for the end of indulgences and stated that it is the Bible and not the church that holds authority. This happened almost 500 years ago and we’re still living with the aftermath.
Luther was inspired by a passage in Romans 3 which says that we who have faith in Jesus are justified. What we mean by justified is that we are made right with God – we’re back on speaking terms. Luther took this one step farther and said that it is by faith alone that and not by anything we can ever do or not do that justifies us. This has become a cornerstone of the protestant denominations, United Church included. So there you have it – do you believe in Jesus? Yes? Good, go home and have a nap ‘cause the works done – you’re all good with God anyways so let’s forget this mission stuff. Justice seeking? Bah, it’s worthless.
Except. Interestingly, one of the readings for this Sunday, Reformation Sunday, is this passage from Isaiah. It reminds me about of the reading from last week about the pharisee in the temple who follows the law and even goes above and beyond the law, but still doesn’t get it. In this case, Isaiah is speaking for God to a population that is probably living up to their required religious observances. Sacrifices of food were a big deal in ancient history. This goes back to the idea that gods have to be pleased for us to receive favour. Maybe it’s a dance that will result in prosperous crops, throwing a virgin into a volcano so that you win an upcoming battle or sacrificing a fatted calf to please God at a festival.
In the kingdoms of the Hebrew people there were sacrifices of thanksgiving, forgiveness, there were the festival offerings of animals and first fruits. Almost all of this food would be burned at the temple so that the smoke, and the smell would rise up and please God. It seems that at the time Isaiah wrote these words, the people were doing a good job at this, but as far as God was concerned, this was a waste of time, and was just ticking God off.
All through scripture, God’s concern is is with the poor and outcast. There are people starving in the streets and what are the so-called good people doing? They’re not feeding the poor but burning up all this good food. God says, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation– I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity…learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:1-13, 17)
In verse 1, God even reminds them of the fate of the cities Sodom and Gomorra. In recent centuries it’s become common to think that this story had to do with sexual immorality but no. According to the prophet Ezekiel, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”
In other words, if you want to please God, it’s not religious observances that will do it, but getting busy and helping people in need. Hmm, are you maybe thinking that we won’t have time for that nap after all?
Of course, some might say that all this changed when Jesus came. Now, through Jesus, justification has changed – faith is now enough. Really? What about Matthew 25 where Jesus is talking about our judgement and how those who receive God’s favour are those who visit the imprisoned, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty and cloth the naked? Is is possible that Jesus wasn’t a very good protestant?
And then there’s the Letter from James which says that faith without works is dead. What are we to believe? What puts us right with God, faith or works? I think the answer is, yes.
I think some of the challenge comes in how we sometimes use the word faith. Faith has come to mean the acceptance of an idea even though there’s no proof to support it. I can’t prove God exists, so I go with faith. I can’t prove that there’s intelligent life out there in the universe so I instead have faith that there is.
That’s not really what faith has traditionally meant. The word faith comes from fidelity – to be true to something, to be faithful. When I say that I’m faithful to Jen, that doesn’t mean that I believe she exists, no, it means that I am true to her, that I care for her, and put her above all others.
Faith in Jesus then isn’t accepting that he once walked the shores of the Galilee. It isn’t hearing his parables and thinking, “wow, those are some beautiful words.” Faith in Jesus isn’t even showing up at church on Sunday, although I am so very glad that you do. It doesn’t mean that you need to believe that he told us to love our neighbours as ourselves, but instead we have to have so much trust in these words that we live them out in every thought, word and deed.
Faith in Jesus isn’t affirming that he was killed and in some mystery of God’s grace, was risen, but instead to put so much stock in this story that we are willing to let go of who we were, what bound us, what made us suffer, our guilt, hatred, and biases, to be born again, each and every day, into something new. Faith in Jesus the Christ means putting your trust in what he said and did.
Faith is not n intellectual exercise but a hole hearted commitment to walk the walk of Jesus, to talk the talk of Jesus. So are we justified by faith or by works? It’s the very same thing!
Now there is one more important thing about this justification by faith that became such an important part of the reformation and I believe should still be a foundation of our faith. We are indeed made right with God because of faith, but who’s faith are we talking about here? Mine? Yours? I don’t think so. No, I think we are justified by faith but it’s God’s faith in us. God loves us and calls to us. No matter who we are or where we’ve been, or what we’ve done, or what we’ve left undone, it is God’s faith in us that binds us into this relationship. No matter how many times our faith fails, no matter how many times we turn from God, God has faith in us. Thanks be to God!