The only thing that marred a perfect day, in a perfect setting, was the very bad violinist murdering “The Windmills of your Mind”
- as I ate my delicious sandwich, and drank my strong black coffee in the village square in Wittenberg, in former East Germany.
I was there to visit the most famous door in the world…the door in the church at Wittenberg – where in 1516 Martin Luther pinned his complaints against the church of the day….and sparked an explosion of ideas that changed the face of Europe forever.
And the argument was all about a thing called - grace.
Luther was convinced that the church had lost its way…
that the systems and thinking of the church had corrupted the essential message of the gospel…the unique selling point of Christianity – and was leading men and women away from the gospel of grace – and burdening them instead with a religion of works and effort and human achievement.
By presenting people with a whole range of obligations and conditions, which they had to meet and fulfil - in order to gain their salvation, the Church of the 16th century had drifted far away from the gospel teaching that we are saved by grace – because of the sheer undeserved and unmerited and freely given love of God…and had begun to teach that
“If you performed certain religious procedures, and donated to some specific causes, and purchased particular pardons provided for a fee by the Church – you would force the hand of God to the extent that he would be required to let you into heaven
– when you showed him that you had ticked all the boxes that the Church had placed before you he would be duty bound to give you the nod.”
For Luther this was the precise opposite of the teaching of the New Testament - in which Paul, in particular, insisted that there was nothing we could do – no achievement we could aspire to …no act of nobility – that would come within a million light years of making us good enough…making us “right with God” enough…
and that because of the frailty and fallen-ness of our human condition – all we could do was put our trust in the undeserved, unmerited freely given love of God…
“By grace we are saved through faith…not of works…”
It was for this truth that Luther and the reformers were prepared to split the church…and set Europe alight with ideas and invitations that were to alter the face of the continent…for the next four centuries.
But we don’t like it…we the people.
We are still emotionally disinclined to accept this model. We feel there should be some correlation, some connection, between the good things we do…the helpful acts we perform – the occasional moments of self-sacrifice that we rise to…and some right - as a result of that - to claim God’s good favour.
The fact that most people for most of the time…are pretty decent folk…and that “we’ve never robbed a bank or committed murder…”, surely – that should be enough…we know we’re not perfect -= but we’re not steeped in sin either…so surely, God will see the good things that we’ve done…
we’ll be weighed in the scales of justice and come out alright…
Like when they ask you at the co-op if you’re
“collecting the stamps”
…and once you have enough you present enough of them to the appropriate person –you get the towels, or the casserole or whatever…no argument – you’ve earned it!
so when we face our maker….we catalogue our acts of charity…our moments of kindness…and he says…
“Fine, no bother…in you come!”
There is something self- deceiving and naïve about that understanding of who we are and how we live...and what God requires…
Like it or not,
The reality is that there are too many moments of neglect, there is too much self- regard…the tragedy that is the world…with its unfinished business and its injustices…rises up to mock our pretension
there are too many silences…and too many gaps…missed opportunities for compassion…hidden private moments of unworthiness…ragged ends of un-forgiveness –scattered around our story, for us ever to attain the holiness and generosity of heart that would entitle us to automatic entry by right of our goodness into the kingdom of God…
And most searching of all - is the time we never spent with him…the days and weeks and months, when we never sought him out to find out his will and purpose for us…and when we held back from the commitment to him that his love requires.
Not a comfortable truth to embrace – especially for confident self-determining modern men and women who often feel they can achieve anything, do anything. To be told that we are “not measuring up” – and need to depend absolutely on God’s limitless love for our healing and salvation - is hard to swallow.
And it was hard to deal with back then…which is why the church developed all kinds of coping strategies to make people less dependent on trust and faith…
Give a whopping donation to the church – and we’ll make sure that you get through the door of heaven no bother at all…
Live a life of austerity and discipline in the monastery or the convent - and we’ll guarantee that you’ll be OK come the Great Assize – the day of reckoning.
Luther was having none of it. In his own psychology – he had tried the way of the monk and the rule book – and he found no peace…knew instinctively that it just wasn’t going to work…just wasn’t ever going to be enough. He observed the church selling guarantees of heavenly bliss and he was shocked and disgusted…and he read his New Testament and realised that it is only by grace…only by trusting in the love and power of God – that we can know peace of heart and serenity of spirit…what he had done for us in Jesus Christ – that is what saves us…not us running harder and harder to make the wheel spin faster and faster…heaven and God’s blessing and eternal life…these were God’s gifts to us – free given…and our role was to accept that wonderful salvation…and then go out and live lives that reflected our status…sinners saved by grace….redeemed and liberated and freed up to live bravely and joyfully…not looking over our shoulders with a nervous glance to see if we were running fast enough – keeping up the pace – on the race to heaven. Resting in God’s love and mercy…that’s the gospel…living freely and triumphantly because God has done for us what we could never never never do for ourselves…that is the Christian experience.
If throughout the course of the Reformation – and the subsequent upheavals across Europe – if through the pain and blood of the struggle for that truth – all sorts of other ideas and twists and turns evolved…that is not the fault of the basic truth rediscovered by Luther and re-introduced into the thinking of the church….all the blood and tears and trauma of ideas and ideologies locked in mortal combat is what people do with truth and ideas and all sorts of other elements came into that discussion debate and struggle…
So that when people, rather simplistically, complain about all the wars caused by religion…they do well to look at the what the wars were really about…about land…and power and control…and nationalism and independence of thought – and liberty.
But the reality is that the spark which ignited the tinder box of a Europe that was ready for radical change – was Luther’s realisation that the church had allowed its essence to be poisoned by greed – and it was vital to find again the purity of the New Testament gospel that leave none of us in any doubt that without God’s grace – we are lost. And no amount of moral huffing and puffing and social do goodery is going to make that crisis any better. “Do it yourself” salvation is a non starter.
“Knit your own” passports to heaven just won’t pass muster.
A tender social conscience and a willingness to roll up your sleeves and make a difference is a highly commendable way to live your life…but the Bible warns against us depending upon that for our eternal salvation…good – very good…but no cigar! Not enough. Not enough by a long way.
That offends our pride and our self-reliance – and that is part of the scandal of the gospel…what makes it unpopular and unpalatable. But it is rigorous in its assessment…not enough. Not enough. By grace we are saved through faith…not of works...
From the very beginning of Christianity there were people who wanted to put a spin on that –
“if God will love and forgive us for all our sins – by his free grace…what’s to stop us just sinning more and more and living lives of careless excess – for God’s going to forgive and love us anyway…!!??”
It was a debate into which St Paul himself was drawn and his response was simple…
If you think like that – you don’t understand what “basking in the grace and welcome of a loving God” is all about. For when we enjoy his healing mercy and undeserved loved and accept that this is who we are…sinners saved by grace…when we really do that – the response that is born in us – is a desire to live to please this loving God…to honour him by following his will and purpose and serving him in the world…We desire to demonstrate compassion and change the world for good…not in order to win the favour of God and get him on our side…he has shown us beyond all doubt that he is on our side…with us - for us…
In response to the love he has shown us…we want to love others….in the freedom of our Christian liberty – we are released to make his kingdom…build his kind of community>
This is what worship is…never a collection of people confident of their own worthiness and goodness - but the singing of freed slaves celebrating their freedom.
This is why the church is committed to works of healing and compassion. Not to appease some angry deity and to win him over on to our side…but as a response of spontaneous love to the divine initiative…for the God who when we were sinners came looking…
the shepherd’s hands bloodied and scratched as he scours the wilderness for the lost sheep…
the prince of heaven snuggled in the hay…
the shredded back of a good man whipped and scourged and crucified to achieve the eternal salvation of the very people who were doing these things and who would persist in doing them generation upon generation.
Grace is a cross stark against the horizon –
Grace is the risen Lord - powerful and glorified – yet his wounds still visible…
And we respond to that grace with thanksgiving and with tears.
We were lost – hopelessly lost – and he came to find us – at immeasurable cost.
We were naked in our helplessness and sin…and he came to clothe us with his goodness and to bring us home to the Father…
Our thanks is expressed in our loyalty and love…our yes to his invitation to follow him to the ends of the earth.
Peter is asked by Jesus…will you also leave me…
Where else can we go Lord, You alone have the words of life.