This Sermon was originally preached on Sunday, October 29th, 2017—Reformation Sunday in the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation—at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church in Louisville, KY.
Please pray with me—Holy God, may Your Spirit move among us as we approach Your word together. Amen.
Today is Reformation Sunday, the 500th anniversary of Reformed faith. The most central theological element of the reformation is the emphasis on God’s free grace. The freedom of God’s grace is what we hear about in the reading from Luke.
In the gospel reading for today, the Pharisee sounds confident.
“God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.”
He sounds confident, but the confidence is a thin veneer on a thick anxiety—anxiety that he is exactly like other men. The Pharisee is trying to convince God that he is worthy of grace.
In contrast, the tax collector knows himself to be a sinner, and he knows that God knows, too. He is not separated from God by a layer of pretension. He recognizes that he has not earned anything from God. And yet, he calls on God for mercy in a true prayer of confession.
One of the key points of reformation theology is that we do not need to strive anxiously for purity or perfection. We do not need to convince others that we are better than they are. And we do not need to convince God that we have earned salvation.
Reformed theology emphasizes that God’s grace is not beholden to our worthiness. Thank God, it is not up to us to save ourselves! Instead, confident in the grace of God, we are free to share our true selves with God, that every part of our lives might be shaped by mercy. And, in gratitude for grace we did not earn or merit, we can meet every other human being on equal terms—sinners, reliant on grace alone.
The early reformers were critical of corruption in the church that restricted God’s grace. The church at the time was involved in activities—including selling indulgences–that exploited the poor, propped up the rich, and played on fear and anxiety in order to retain power.
In sharp contrast, Luther and Calvin emphasized the free grace of God, unconstrained by human institutions and beyond the comprehension of human intellect.
For Calvin, the enormity of God’s grace offers long-term SAFETY. While we may experience great suffering, that does not mean that the forces of evil are winning. The story of humanity is not as chaotic as it appears to be. It is a story written by God and the end of the story is grace. Actually, the beginning, middle, and end of the story is grace, even when it does not appear to be.
I disagree with Calvin about many things. His theology of God’s sovereignty lacks the cutting-edge appeal of process theology, the urgent demands of liberation theology, and the philosophical panache of medieval hylomorphism. In my very first semester of teaching my own classes, I taught a course on evil. When I designed the syllabus, I put Calvin at the very beginning. I thought his perspective, so obviously inadequate, would be the negative foil for the rest of the semester.
For Calvin, this safety, the safety of God’s grace, does not mean we don’t do anything. Rather, it frees us for action.
The class met to discuss Calvin, on September 12, 2001. And the students LOVED him. Calvin asserts that even when we are beset by illness, inequity, and violence, God is still sovereign and God’s grace still defines the day. Even in the midst of chaos, he claims, we are safe as kittens in the hands of God. The young undergraduates in that class desperately needed someone to tell them that terror and death and confusion do not have the last word. Calvin assured them. For the rest of the semester, in their eyes, no one could hold a candle to Calvin.
For Calvin, this safety, the safety of God’s grace, does not mean we don’t do anything. Rather, it frees us for action. This frame helps me understand Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination—that God wills some to heaven and some to hell, completely regardless of the merits of the individuals involved. Calvin was developing his theology while teaching to young pastors in the reformation movement—to people a lot like the seminarians in our own congregation—like Beth and Daniel and Donna and Megan. Except these young pastors were about to go back into France to preach the good news of God’s free grace, and they knew that they would be persecuted and possibly killed. We know from their diaries that what these young men of faith were most afraid of was that they would be tortured, and that under torture they would recant their faith. Again, Calvin assured them. God has had your name down for heaven from before the world was created. Even if you recant, God will not let you go. You are safe in the gracious hands of God. And because you are ultimately safe, Calvin instructed, you are free to risk your lives in service of the gospel. For these young pastors, safety freed them to act boldly.
There was an article in the news this past week about the influence a sense of safety can have on human behavior. A psychology professor at Yale, John Bargh, and his colleagues, did a study where they asked participants to imagine they had superpowers. One group was asked to imagine they could fly. A second group of participants was asked to imagine they were indestructible—no weapon could hurt them, no accident kill them. Then both groups were asked about their political views. Participants who had expressed socially conservative views previously, such as “it’s ok if some groups have more of a chance in life than others,” changed their minds when they felt invincible. They were more open to changes in the social order that would make things equitable. Those who imagined themselves flying didn’t change their views. It was the sense of safety, Bargh concluded, that allowed people to think more about the welfare of others.
Today, 500 years after the Reformation began, Pope Francis is not selling indulgences to the rich. Some of the battles Luther and Calvin fought are completely outdated and obsolete. Indeed, the relationship between Lutherans and Roman Catholics has become one of mutual respect and admiration, in which they agree about much.
And yet, the need for the witness of Reformed faith has never been greater. If we take our Reformed heritage seriously, we are called—and equipped—to do three things.
First, as it says both inside and outside of this sanctuary—Be not afraid! Fully recognizing all that is wrong in our world, we are called to remember that God’s grace is bigger than any politician, ideology, or system of oppression. While no one is exempt from the suffering of this world, we are, ultimately, safe as kittens in the hands of God. The end of this story is love, even if we can’t see it in this chapter.
Second, we are called to confess. Our practice of communal confession is desperately needed in the United States today. So many white people are unwilling to acknowledge the history of colonialism and slavery that has shaped our nation from the beginning. In their fear and anxiety, they deny the facts, defend themselves as individuals, or go so far as to take up the cause of white supremacy themselves. They are anxious to convince themselves and others that they are, at least, innocent, and, at most, inherently more worthy than other human beings.
As Reformed Christians, we are called to know and to do better. We should be able to say, those among us who are white, that our history reveals our collective brokenness, that our ancestors were part of creating and sustaining that brokenness, and that we ourselves are shaped by it and benefit from it. We can say that out loud, because we are not trying to convince God or ourselves that we are worthy of grace. The grace came first, which is why we can confess.
Third, the safety of grace also allows us—and compels us–to reject the religious abuse of power, and to counter any form of Christianity that attempts to restrict God’s grace in ways that exploit the poor and uphold the wealthy. It frees us to fight against any form of Christianity that gains power by nurturing fear and anxiety. That which calls itself Christianity and yet supports white supremacy, upholds misogyny, encourages persecution of the LGBTQ community, and promotes hatred of immigrants—that is NOT the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As the inheritors of the charism of Luther, of Calvin, of those young pastors who risked their lives in service to the good news, it is our particular duty to lead the fight against the corrupt Christianity that has so much power in our nation today.
The reformers did not shy away from speaking harsh truths. It would be ridiculous to celebrate their legacy without emulating their courage. As the inheritors of the charism of Luther, of Calvin, of those young pastors who risked their lives in service to the good news, it is our particular duty to lead the fight against the corrupt Christianity that has so much power in our nation today.
It isn’t our job because we are morally or intellectually superior. But because we are sinners, who know the grace of God. Amen.
Author Bio: Rev. Dr. Shannon Craigo-Snell is professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the PC(USA). Her latest book, entitled No Innocent Bystanders: Becoming an Ally in the Struggle for Justice and co-authored with Christopher Doucot, addresses social justice through a Christian lens.