I’m doing something unusual with this sermon, for in my 17 years as pastor at Zion, it has been very, very rare for me to preach on Sunday from a manuscript. Furthermore, just about everything I’m going to say is not my words, but the words of another pastor, Frank Senn, whose name many of you will recognize as the Senior of the Society of the Holy Trinity. This is a sermon that he has offered to be preached in many churches throughout the ELCA for this particular Reformation Sunday, one that is being preached in one form or another by a few dozen pastors across our church who are in the process of uniting to proclaim a clear word within the church we have been called to serve. So, here goes.
Ecclesia semper reformanda. "The church must always be reformed."
Martin Luther didn’t invent it; it was a medieval slogan. In fact, as the Luther biographer Heiko Oberman, reformation was "a medieval event." It grew out of the experience of the monasteries, which were always growing lax with regard to the observance of their Rule, and which required calls for reform and renewal. Sometimes this led to splits in monastic communities: for example, the Cistercians split off from the main body of the Benedictines. Martin Luther belonged to the "observant" branch of the Augustinian Order rather than the "conventual" branch. By the way, Luther was not, strictly speaking, a monk; he was a friar. Monks are cloistered religious; the friars were out and about on the streets and highways. Anyway, calls for reform were not new by the 16th century; and schism had been experienced—not only in religious communities, but in the papacy itself. The Protestant-Catholic schism was not the first schism in church history; but it was a pretty major one.
"The church must always be reformed." Once Luther’s reform movement settled into being a church established by law in the cities, territories, and nations of central and northern Europe, it too needed reform. The first major reform movement within Lutheranism was Pietism in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, which set out to "convert the outward orthodox profession into a living theology of the heart." Later in the 19th century, after the period of rationalism during the Age of Enlightenment, there was a confessional revival movement that sought to recover the confessional identity of Lutheranism.
Our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America came into existence in the 1980s on a wave of ideologically-based culture wars. The idea was to transcend the differences between the merging church bodies by creating a "new" Lutheran Church which cut continuity with preceding traditions. Sometimes in silly ways. For example, when I receive a notice from the ELCA I am addressed as "rostered leader," not "pastor." If you’re trying to be relevant to the contemporary world, who in the world knows what a "rostered leader" is? But there have been more serious issues raising the concern among many about whether "this Church" takes seriously the Scriptures, creeds, and confessions.
Not surprisingly, almost from the very beginning of the ELCA there has been agitation for reform. In the early 1990s, when I was still in seminary, there were two "Call to Faithfulness" conferences sponsored by three independent Lutheran journals and held at St. Olaf College. They attracted nearly a thousand participants who paid their own way, people whom at the second conference then-Presiding Bishop Chilstrom insinuated didn’t love the Church. In the year 1995 a document called The 9.5 Theses came out, claiming a "crisis of faith" in the Church. More than 700 pastors and some 300 lay people subscribed to them. The leaders of this effort appealed to then-Presiding Bishop Anderson to at least have the Theses discussed within the Conference of Bishops, but he refused to put it on the agenda, saying that he would be proposing his own faith formation initiatives. No one seems to remember what those were.
Out of this intransigence, the Society of the Holy Trinity was born in 1997 as an inter-Lutheran ministerium that seeks to renew the ordained ministry, a Society I joined shortly after its formation and which after our latest General Retreat last month now numbers over 260 pastors in 8-9 different Lutheran church bodies in North America. In the wake of the most recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly, a coalition of reform groups numbering 1200 people came together in Indianapolis a few weeks ago (again, at their own expense) to propose forming a free standing synod that will include pastors and congregations that are in the ELCA and those that are not in ELCA. I think there is promise in this proposal, if groups that have quite different, sometimes diametrically opposite, views on the nature of the church and ministry, can transcend those differences and organize an annual convocation in which pastors and congregations come together to do what the church needs to do: worship, study the Bible, discuss mission strategies and congregational life, and move beyond the culture wars that have dominated ELCA assemblies for twenty-one years.
Back in the 1530s there were lots of ideas about reforming the Church. Since early in the Reformation, Luther had been calling for a free synod under the presidency of the Emperor, rather than the Pope, to deal with the differences in theology and proposals for reform. He called for such a synod one last time in a 1539 treatise called On the Councils and the Church. People were confused about where the true church was found. He said, "not in Rome; not even in Wittenberg," but where the word of God is preached and the sacraments of Christ are administered. In other words, not in the churchwide structure, and not even in the local judicatory, even if that local judicatory is more to your liking. He expanded this to discuss Seven Marks of the Church, which Society of the Holy Trinity has spent the last three years studying.
Here in these Seven Marks is the basis of church reform and renewal, based not on human effort, but on the divine means of grace. In a time of crisis when reform is needed, you go back to the basics. Here are the basics, said Luther, but in their catholic fullness. It’s not just, as one reform movement has coined, "word alone."
In this treatise, Luther wrote:
The Children’s Creed [that is, the Apostles’ Creed] teaches us… that a Christian holy people is to be and to remain on earth until the end of the world. This is an article of faith that cannot be terminated until that which it believes comes, as Christ promises, "I am with you always, to the close of the age" [Matt. 28:20]. But how will or how can a poor confused person tell where such Christian holy people are to be found in this world?And thus Luther introduces these Seven Marks of the Church, which some of you may find familiar from a Lenten series Pastor Lund and I taught a few years ago. The Marks are:
1. "The Holy Word of God"
First, the holy Christian people are recognized by their possession of the holy word of God....God’s strong word is creative and accomplishes what it sets out to do. The word which the hymn writer Martin Franzmann wrote cleaved the darkness and created light can create and sustain the church.
[W]e are speaking of the external word, preached orally by men like you and me, for this is what Christ left behind as an external sign, by which his church, or his Christian people in the world, should be recognized....
Now, wherever you hear or see this word preached, believed, professed, and lived, do not doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica, "a Christian holy people" must be there, even though their number is very small. For God’s word "shall not return empty," Isaiah 55 [:11)
2. "The Holy Sacrament of Baptism"
Second, God’s people or the Christian holy people are recognized by the holy sacrament of baptism, wherever it is taught, believed, and administered according to Christ’s ordinance. That too is a public sign and a precious, holy possession by which God’s people are sanctified. It is the holy bath of regeneration through the Holy Spirit [Titus 3:5], in which we bathe and with which we are washed of sin and death by the Holy Spirit, as in the innocent holy blood of the Lamb of God.God claims us as his own people in Holy Baptism and places his Name on us. In times of difficulty we affirm with St. Patrick, "I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity."
3. "The Sacrament of the Altar"
Third, God’s people, or Christian holy people, are recognized by the holy sacrament of the altar, wherever it is rightly administered, believed, and received, according to Christ’s institution. This too is a public sign and a precious, holy possession left behind by Christ by which his people are sanctified so that they also exercise themselves in faith and openly confess that they are Christian, just as they do with the word and with baptism.The Eucharist has served as the glue that binds together in one fellowship the body of Christ on earth. We are bound together not by our organizations, but by the body and blood of Christ.
4. "The Office of the Keys publicly exercised"
Fourth, God’s people or holy Christians are recognized by the office of the keys exercised publicly. That is, as Christ decrees in Matthew 18 [:15-20], if a Christian sins, he should be reproved; and if he does not mend his ways, he should be bound in his sin and cast out. If he does mend his ways, he should be absolved. That is the office of the keys. Now the use of the keys is twofold, public and private.... Now where you see sins forgiven or reproved in some persons, be it publicly or privately, you may know that God’s people are there.A real church, as St. Matthew’s Gospel taught, has to deal with real forgiveness of real sins.
5. The Office of the Holy Ministry
Fifth, the church is recognized externally by the fact that it consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices that it is to administer. There must be bishops, pastors, or preachers, who publicly and privately give, administer, and use the aforementioned four things or holy possessions in behalf of and in the name of the church, or rather by reason of their institution by Christ, as St. Paul states in Ephesians 4 [:8], "He received gifts among men…"A public church has a public ministry which publicly preaches God’s Word and publicly administers the sacraments of Christ. In other words, the public ministry does God’s work, not just the work of human institutions.
6. "Prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God"
Sixth, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God. Where you see and hear the Lord’s Prayer prayed and taught; or psalms or other spiritual songs sung, in accordance with the word of God and the true faith; also the creed, the Ten Commandments, and the catechism used in public, you may rest assured that a holy Christian people of God are present. For prayer, too, is one of the precious holy possessions whereby everything is sanctified, as St. Paul says [1 Tim. 4:5].The church is visible in public assemblies for worship and in its public catechizing of the people.
7. "The holy possession of the sacred cross"
Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. And the only reason they must suffer is that they steadfastly adhere to Christ and God’s word, enduring this for the sake of Christ, Matthew 5 [:11], "Blessed are you when men persecute you on my account."The true church will experience trials and tribulations and persecution for the faith.
Finally, Luther writes as a conclusion:
Now we know for certain what, where, and who the holy Christian Church is, that is, the holy Christian people of God; and we are quite certain that it cannot fail us.The Seven Marks are signs of the true visible Church. Where you see and experience these marks, you see and experience a real church. But these marks also serve as a basis for reform and renewal, whether we’re talking about the 16th century, the 21st century, or any other period of the church’s history.
Ecclesia semper reformanda. "The church must always be reformed." It’s been a church slogan for nearly 1000 years.
Renew the preaching of the Word, the practice of Baptism, Holy Communion, and Penance, the holy Ministry, and public prayer and worship, and experience the cross of Christ in our common life — and the church will be reformed.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
N.B. The quotes from On the Councils and the Church are as they are found in Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, 1st edition (1989), edited by Timothy F. Lull, pp. 545-564.