Posts Tagged ‘Reformation’

What we don’t know is so much greater than what we do know

August 10, 2018

Pentecost 12 – 2018

John 6:35,41-51

Marian Free

In the name of God who stretches our minds and expands our imaginations. Amen.

Having been in Italy and finding myself in Geneva, I am conscious of the schisms created by the Reformation and the sometimes vast differences between the different arms of the Christian Church and of the passion with which members of different denominations hold (or held) to their truths. Arguments raged in my own tradition about whether to kneel for communion or to use the sign of the cross. There were some who died rather than renounce their position on particular issues and bishops who only two centuries ago went to jail for using candles as a part of the liturgy. Today, most of the animosity between traditions has disappeared. The ecumenical movement has led us to understand that the heart of our faith is the same even if some of the externals differ.

That is not to say that the churches have achieved unity – externally or internally. New issues have emerged that are at least as divisive as those of the past – the ordination of women and the marriage of same sex couples to mention two. Again, those on either side of the debate present their arguments with equal intensity and with equal conviction that it is they who are most faithfully interpreting the scriptures and the will of God.

Where we stand on these and other issues depends on many factors including our personal experience and the tradition in which we have been born and raised. Sometimes our opinion is formed or altered by our education or our exposure to those who differ from us – though it must be said that education and personal experience do not always challenge pre-existing views.

Our particular experience of church and of faith also impacts on the way in which we approach change. There is so much at stake that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to change direction. To give a personal example, even though my sense of vocation was powerful and strong, there were moments when a verse from scripture made me waver, made me wonder if the opponents to the ordination of women did in fact have it right. My life’s experience and the teaching I had absorbed as a child were so deeply ingrained and so much a part of my understanding of salvation that it was hard to isolate the voice of the spirit from the accretions of practice and tradition.

So – perhaps we should not be so hard on the hapless ‘Jews’ who are Jesus’ opponents in John’s gospel. As we saw last week, Jesus’ communication could be confusing at best and obtuse at worst. Furthermore, he was taking traditions that had been held for generations and turning them upside down. In today’s gospel we hear Jesus claiming that he is to the Jews what the manna was to their ancestors. In fact he is asserting that he is much more. Using the language that God used to identify himself to Moses, Jesus claims: ‘I AM’. ‘I am the bread of life.’ ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

Jesus, whom everyone in his audience knows to be the son of Joseph, is now insinuating that he is God. As God he is able to guarantee life eternal to those who believe. It is an extraordinary claim for which Jesus’ listeners are completely unprepared. Nothing in their past experience, nothing in their religious practice, nothing in their tradition or teaching could have led them to expect the outrageous claims that Jesus is making. It really is not surprising that they found what he had to say difficult and incomprehensible.

Perhaps the question that we should ask ourselves is not why Jesus’ opponents did not believe, but ‘what was it that enabled at least some to believe?’

Complacency and self-satisfaction can be the enemies of a deep and authentic engagement with the divine. They can give us a false sense of what should be and make us blind and deaf to what really is. We cannot, and will not, ever know a fraction of what there is to know about God.

Instead of arguing over trivial and superficial issues perhaps we as believers should unite in a concerted effort to suspend all our certainties and be caught up in the great adventure that is a relationship with God – Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver – who is ultimately beyond all our efforts to comprehend and who will always be beyond our grasp.

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Forces for change

November 4, 2017

All Saints – 2017

Luther

Marian Free

 In the name of God who speaks through holy men and women in every place and time to challenge, encourage and renew the people and the church. Amen.

In the early sixteenth century in Germany, a monk of the Augustinian Order had been going through “hell”. Martin Luther was obsessed with his own sinfulness and the impossibility of remembering in his sins in order to confess them, anxious lest he forget and therefore not be forgiven. Trying to work out how to become righteous before God, Luther had tried all kinds of self-abasement – sleeping in the snow and lying almost naked in the belfry tower at night. Nothing seemed to work. Luther felt that he could never do enough to earn God’s favour. Luther could see only God the All Terrible, God the Judge, God the Divine Majesty, God the impossible to please.

Luther’s behaviour was extreme, but we have to remember the context in which he found himself. The Roman Catholic Church (THE Church) was focused on sin and judgement. The Doctrine of Purgatory was based on the idea that imperfection had no place in heaven, and that Christians had to be purged of all sinfulness before they could enter eternity. In purgatory all traces of impurity were burned away making a person fit for heaven. The greater the sin, the longer it took to purge, though prayers on someone’s behalf could reduce the time a person spent in purgatory. In such an environment it was impossible to believe in grace and forgiveness, love and goodness but only in demand and judgement, fear and anxiety about what the future might hold.

Indulgences provided an opportunity for the faithful to repent and thus to have their sin forgiven. The more sin forgiven, the less time spent in purgatory.[1] During the Crusades, indulgences were offered as a carrot to get people to join the Crusades. Over time, the practice spread and indulgences became something that could be purchased by the wealthy. A privileged few, included Luther’s own Prince Frederick, were given the authority to offer indulgences themselves thus increasing their own coffers.In this environment, Luther struggled to overcome his perceived sinfulness and achieve some sort of worth before God.

Luther was an academic and a teacher. In 1515-1516 he was teaching on the Psalms and Romans. This forced him to reflect – first of all on the suffering of Christ (God) and on Christ’s sense of abandonment on the cross, and secondly on the meaning of the righteousness of God.

In his own words: “I greatly longed to understand Pail’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience; I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped the justice of God is that the righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning and whereas before the phrase “the righteousness of God had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in great love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven ….

If you have a true faith that Christ is your Saviour, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness. He who sees God as angry does not see him rightly but looks only on a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face.“[2]

In searching for the exact meaning of the Greek word “dikaisunē”, Luther came to understand that the word rendered “justice” in English, really meant the process by which sometimes a judge suspends the sentence, places the prisoner on parole and expresses confidence in him. (In other words it was less about being judged and more about being set free.) Further, Luther came to see that justification was not something achieved by the individual, but was God’s gift to us through Jesus. A consequence of this discovery meant that Luther was at last freed from his striving and his sense of inadequacy knowing himself secure in God’s love.

Through his study, Luther was exposed to the spirit of the age, which was demanding a return to a simple faith and in particular a reinstatement of the Bible as the sole source of authority for the faith. By now the Bible had been translated from Latin into the vernacular and many people were reading it in their own language for the first time. There was an air of renewal and reform throughout Europe, a desire to return to the heart of a Christian faith that had been over-laden with ritual, ceremony and artifacts and in which a person’s relationship with Jesus had been broken by intermediaries in the form of a plethora of saints.

In 1517, a monk, Johann Tetzel, began to sell indulgences in Germany with the goal of providing funds to renovate St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Now that he understood that salvation could not be bought, but came through faith alone Luther was incensed. He penned a response: “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” and, tradition has it, nailed his 95 Theses[3] to the door of the Castle Church. His ideas spread rapidly and it was not long before he was labeled a heretic, called to Rome and eventually excommunicated.

When at last he returned to Wittenberg, he discovered that his teachings and writings had galvanized a movement that was both theological and political. He himself had little to do with the movement but continued to write until his death.

Luther’s significance cannot be underestimated. His writings captured the spirit of the age and throughout Europe, reform movements sprang up and Protestantism was born. At the centre of this new movement were a firm belief in the Bible as the primary source of authority and that salvation cannot be achieved but only received.

While the Reformation took its own shape in England we as Anglicans heirs and beneficiaries of Luther’s intellect, wisdom and vision.

[1] The practice was, of course, open to corruption and could be used as a source of revenue not only for Rome, but for those whom Rome allowed to dispense indulgences themselves. In the words of the Article XXII of the Anglican Church “the doctrine concerning purgatory …. is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon not warranty of scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

[2] Bainton, R. Here I Stand – The Classic Biography of Martin Luther. Sutherland, NSW: Albatross Books, 1978, 65.

[3] http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html

Practicing our faith more intentionally

October 31, 2015

All Saint’s Day – 2015

Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us all to live with courage, faith and faithfulness. Amen.

One of the consequences of the Reformation was that the various churches that formed as a result either stopped or curtailed the worship or recognition of saints. The Anglican Church belongs in the latter category. Reformers on the Continent and in England felt that the Church of Rome had overlaid the practice of the faith with a vast number of things that could not be justified with reference to scripture. Some of these are listed in Article XXII that, (in what today would be considered inflammatory language), states: “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond things vainly invented, and grounded up not warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

The worship of saints was considered a distraction from the worship of God who, through Jesus, was now directly accessible to every individual through prayer. There was no need for intermediaries, no matter how holy. Anglicans were still happy to recognise that there were among the faithful those who lives were so exemplary that they provided a model for others, but they seriously culled the number who were so acknowledged and since the Reformation have only formally added one person – King Charles I – to the list of saints recognised by Anglican Church.

That is not to say that Anglicans do not recognise that there are those among us whose lives of faith are so outstanding that we might wish to continue to remember them or to follow their examples. To that end a number of people have been acknowledged as “holy men and women” without the requirement of a lengthy process to determine whether or not they have been responsible for a pre-determined number of miracles. Within Anglicanism there is freedom for each Province to add to their yearly Calendar persons of particular significance for their part of the world. There is also within our tradition the possibility of adding to our liturgical year those whose faith-life is deemed to have universal significance – whether or not they belong to the Anglican tradition.

These include a number of twentieth century martyrs – Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran), Oscar Romero (a Roman Catholic) and William Wilberforce (an Evangelical Christian). In Australia we pay tribute to many who have made a significant contribution to the life of faith and of the church in Australia. These include – Sister Emma[1], Eliza Darling[2], William Broughton,[3] and John Wollaston.[4][5]

One holy woman whose writings and spiritual direction were a significant part of the twentieth century is Evelyn Underhill. Though a layperson and a woman, Evelyn was much in demand as a Retreat Leader and Spiritual director. She was also a prolific writer, penning some 39 books, 350 reviews and countless letters during her career. Evelyn was unusual in many ways. She was not only an independent thinker, but also an independent woman. At a time when women did not work unless they had to, Evelyn earned money from her writings and had the freedom to leave her husband behind on those occasions when she required time to write or was called upon to lead Retreats and give Seminars.

Not only was Evelyn independent at a time when many women were not, she was also unconventional in her approach to organized religion. She was critical of the church once stating: “not only the Vicar and the Curate and the Mother’s Union Committee …. the Church is an ‘essential service’ like the Post Office, but there will always be some narrow, irritating and inadequate officials behind the counter and you will always be tempted to exasperation by them”[6]. It appears that she had a great sense of fun that sometimes took by surprise those who were expecting a serious spiritual guide.

According to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Underhill’s book Mysticism that was published in 1911 remains a “classic in the field”. In it she reflects that one could find the central element of mysticism in the experience of the mystic, which, she thought was “an overwhelming consciousness of God and of his (sic) own soul: a consciousness which absorbs or eclipses all other centres of interest” (p 3)[7]. From this we can gather that Underhill was not interested in the theory of spirituality (as were other writers of the time), but in the practical nature of mysticism and in mysticism as experience. This may have been in part because the book was written to help her explain her own early experiences of the spiritual. In Mysticism, she argues that: (1) mysticism is practical, not theoretical, (2) it is an entirely spiritual activity, (3) the business and method of which is love. (4) Mysticism entails a definite psychological experience.

During the course of her life Underhill influenced a great many people through both through her writing (books and letters) and through personal contact. Through her life and the impact that she had on the faith lives of others, Underhill is a reminder that saints (holy people) are not always quiet, pious people who withdraw from the world to pray. She demonstrates that holiness does not require separation from the world, but can thrive just as well when it engages fully with the world. Importantly, Underhill is just one person who is evidence that saints do not belong to a past era but continue to be raised up in every generation.

Our Articles of Religion may tell us that “the invocation of saints .. is repugnant to scripture” but our tradition reminds us that among us are holy people whose faith and life can support and uphold our own, giving us reasons to explore our faith more deeply and to practice our faith more intentionally.

On this day, we remember all the saints – those known to all and those known only to a few. We give thanks for their lives and examples and endeavour to model our practice and our faithfulness on theirs.

[1] Superior of the Society of the Sacred Advent.

[2] Prison reform

[3] First Bishop of Australia.

[4] Priest and missionary.

[5] For more details put “Holy Persons and Holy Days in Australian Anglicanism” into your search engine or go to this link – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calendar_of_saints_(Anglican_Church_of_Australia)

[6] Quoted by Oberg, Delroy, in Evelyn Underhill and the Making of “Mysticism”: Celebrating the Centenary of the 1st Edition – March 2, 1911. Self Published by Delroy Oberg, 2015, 14.

[7] Mysticism can be downloaded as a pdf file from a number of sites including: http://christianmystics.com/Ebooks/The_Essentials_Mysticism/teom.pdf


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