Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 23, November 9, 2003, dedicated to Susan E. Sitler, my wife of 18 years on our anniversary, to Olivia Rose Lane on her baptismal day and always to the glory of God!

"Word Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone: Societal Change Through Theological Justice"


(Part II of IV in the Sermon Series:"Reformed and Reforming: Speaking the Truth in Love in Every Generation")

Ephesians 2:1-11; Luke 4:16-21

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our lives be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.

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If October 31, 1517, marked the point of departure for the Protestant Reformation, then November 10, 1536, marked the point of arrival! It is not a well known historical watershed, unless you hail from Geneva, Switzerland, your name is John Calvin, or your roots lie in the reformed tradition of Protestantism. On that day, the city council of Geneva unanimously adopted the Reformed discipline as the way that all citizens should live, work, and serve - a doctrine which committed each citizen to live according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Although the 21-point Geneva Confession was accepted as the law of Geneva, many the city's citizens refused to subscribe to it. Nevertheless, this confession marked the first clear venture of the reformation into the path of faith influencing the political sphere - a path that our reformed tradition has never forsaken.

At the heart of the Geneva Confession and the writings of Martin Luther were three principles of Protestantism - Word of God Alone, Grace Alone, and Faith Alone. The battle cry down through the ages has been "Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura," - "Faith Alone! Scripture Alone." With the axis of faith and scripture, the movement felt that nothing could stand in the path of the in-breaking of God's kingdom of justice and righteousness.

The Word of God, the Bible, or Holy Scriptures, formed the foundation of all Reformation writings, teaching, and especially preaching. The word of God was God's will and testament revealed and confirmed in the holy Scriptures only. The Word of God was to be preached unto all the people. The effect and scope of the Scriptures was to specify and show perfectly all the ways of worshiping God, and was seen as the basis for all means of salvation. Luther and Calvin believed that the Word of God was not a static concept. It is the Word of God which calls us to faithfulness. It is the Word of God which awakens the heart of the one who hears it. All the meanings of Jesus Christ and the sacraments grow out of the Word of God. God is revealed to humankind in and through the God's word.

Although these beliefs seem unquestionable and unchallengeable, there were many differences - some clear and some nuances - between the reformers on how to read and interpret scripture. The differences define the splits that remain in Protestant Christianity to this day. For Biblical literalists who believed in the infallibility of scripture, the words of the Bible were and (still are) the actual words of God.

However, the wing of the Reformed tradition from which we come, largely influenced by Erasmus and other philosophers of the 15th and 16th Century, believed and still believes that "The Word of God" are the creative, redemptive, inspired and inspiring words of God and God's Beloved Son, prophets, apostles, and chosen people. Instead of a closed canon of the Bible, we believe more truth and light are always breaking forth on God's Holy Word. We believe that God's creating and renewing Word comes home to us and lives inside of our experience. God's Word displays itself in every generation and renews us every day.

With "Word Alone" as the foundation of the Reformation, Faith Alone and its antecedent, Grace Alone, followed closely in the movement! Sanctification is the theological word which refers to our growth in faith and the grace of God. Based on the Latin word, Sanctus, which means "holy," Sanctification has been used traditionally to describe the process through new life is imparted to the believer by the power of the Holy Spirit, who is first freed from sin and guilt and then enabled to love God, self, and neighbor. The other side of this coin is Justification, which refers to our salvation. In the epistles of Paul, the Apostle explains that we, as followers of Christ, are justified, or saved by faith in Christ. Justification is God's forgiveness of our sins. But, are we saved and thus made holy? Or are we made holy and as such, saved? Although John Calvin and later John Wesley placed Sanctification before Justification - holiness before salvation - theirs was not the final and only word on this. The key was that we are, in Paul's words, saved by faith in Christ - a faith that comes from "thelogia Crucis," in Luther's words - a theology of the cross. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the saving grace of God which surpasses all human understanding is made manifest. This grace is nothing we can earn or merit. This grace is a free gift given from God.

At times I have been asked if I have been saved. Have you had a similar experience? I find that people have at least heard of friends being asked, "are you saved?" My answer is "Yes! I have been saved! I was saved by my Savior, Jesus Christ when he died on a cross for me, for you and for all humanity 2000 years ago!" This not the answer people are looking for. But, it is, in my mind, the only true answer. The only answer with integrity. The only answer based on the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Beyond the personal questions of salvation and grace, one of the great challenges both within and outside of the reformation movement was the change from understanding sanctification and justification not only as personal but also as social transformation. In other words, how would living life in the holiness and grace of Christ change not only persons, but social systems? Reformers like Zwingli and Calvin, emboldened by the growing strength of their movements, believed the state and the empire needed transformation as much or more than individuals and churches. They posited that the church was placed on earth by God, through Jesus Christ, to change the world.

Change the world, they did. If the reformation had a fortunate outcome beyond its theological influence in the 16th Century, it was change for the life of the world. If we look today at the map of the great confessions and catechisms - Augsburg, Heidelberg, Geneva and Westminster - it is clear that the divisions of 1560 are still in place in the 21st Century, while the rest of the world takes its character from the geographical extension of the divisions of Christianity in the middle of the 16th Century. Of those affected by British expansion through America and the empire, 90% are non-European Protestants. So 90% of those who count Calvin among their ancestors are British, American, or people from former colonies or missions. The positive correlation between the Protestant tradition and political change comes in the establishment of electoral representation, thus, of democratic states and regimes.

Pierre Chaunu, a French historian and theologian, in his book The Reformation writes:

The cosmos of creation, freed from the omnipresent sacred, is a lay cosmos, a profane cosmos, an area of liberty in which one may grope one's way without risk of sacrilege . . . (They have, in essence changed the world. But we remember) Protestants may be fortunate Christians, may be "purified," may be "reduced to essentials," "uncluttered" in their faith and practices, but they are also fragile Christians. Reformed Christianity is both fragile and robust.

(The Reformation, edited by Pierre Chaunu, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1986, pp. 281-282).

"Fragile and robust." That certainly describes the faith and the faithful I have come to know in my lifetime within the Protestant Reformed tradition of Christian faith. I see some emboldened and able to take on the insanity of racism and injustice, such as The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many of the African-American pastors and leaders in the Civil Rights movement. I see the Desmond Tutus standing up against Apartheid in South Africa. But, I also see the fragility of pastors in our times buying into the status quo and failing to question injustice and the unfaithful actions of political and business leaders in our times. Although we claim the foundation of democracy in our deep and long tradition, we have yielded the ground of democratic society to special interests, big government, and big business in which the power of the few rules over the many.

We need to return the roots of the reformation. We need to see that God's Word is one which cries out for justice for the poor and forsaken, stewardship of our resources and of the earth, and a vision of God's Shalom - peace and justice embracing on earth. We need to claim once again Faith leading us to action. We need to see that as Christ's graced and saved people, we will live differently in the face of un-grace and the ugliness of injustice.

At a BREAD Clergy Caucus this past Thursday, several pastors from the "Holiness" tradition, lit up as they expressed their delight in attempting to live into the perfection of holiness. Claiming their roots in Wesley's bold reformation of the human condition, my colleagues were clearly feeling empowered to speak truth with love to injustice. And I was electrified by the power of God speaking through them! My prayer is that you and I find in Word Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone the power of God's Holy Spirit moving in us to speak the truth with love in our times. Next week I will begin two weeks of unpacking issues of injustice facing us in our times - issues which call upon us to speak the truth with love to power. Amen.

Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church

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