Sermon: “Happy Birthday, Protestantism!”

October 31st is both Halloween and the anniversary of the Protestant Revolution. How is the church today called to continue to be reformed and always reforming?

Happy Birthday, Protestantism!
The Rev. J. Carl Gregg
Mark 10
31 October 2010
Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

The last day of October is not just Halloween. In many Protestant churches, October 31st is also Reformation Day. Although there were many factors that contributed to the movement that became known as the Protestant Reformation, October 31st is an annual reminder that on October 31, 1517, a young monk named Martin Luther nailed parchment to the main door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. So, you can think of today as time for saying, “Happy Birthday, Protestantism!”

Buried in the word “Protestant” is the word protest, and Luther’s parchment enumerated “95 Theses” about areas of abuse, corruption, and needed reform in the Roman Catholic Church. Luther posted these 95 protests prominently in the hope of spurring public conversation over these matters, but no one could have predicted how far and wide Luther’s writing would spread. Luther’s Theses are widely credited for helping catalyze the Reformation. And this morning, on Sunday, October 31, 2010, we we are only seven years away from the 500th anniversary of the original Reformation Day.

One of the most famous sayings of the Reformation about the church is the Latin phrase reformata semper reformanda, which means that the church must be both “reformed and always reforming.” In other words, we must not only remember the lessons of the original Protestant Reformation, but also look for the ways that the church needs to be reformed in our own present day. So on one level the spirit of Reformation Day gives us permission to protest, seek change, and make reforms.

We must also be cautious. Just as Luther’s actions had an impact far beyond his wildest expectation, there are almost inevitably unintended consequences — both good and bad — to all reforms. Of course, there are also consequences to maintaing the status quo and choosing not to reform. As the late historian Howard Zinn liked to say, “You can’t stay neutral on a moving train.”

As we consider reforms this morning, a caution is probably also in order for individuals. Although Luther focused on reforming the institution of the church, he also was somewhat neurotic about his own inability to reform himself —reminiscent of the apostle Paul’s famous confession in Romans 7:15 that, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” So, although the spirt of Reformation Day focuses first on reforming corruptions and abuses in the institution of the church, remembering the individual level is important too. Remembering the individual level of reform, can remind us that we sometimes need to be gentle with ourselves when our attempts at reforming our lives— whether at work, through an exercise regime, or some other discipline — proves more difficult than predicted.

As I read Mark chapter 10, our scripture for this morning, through the lens of Reformation Day, I see many traces of how a trajectory of ongoing reform was set from the earliest days of Christianity. And underneath this reform agenda, I believe there is a common factor of looking to God as a ongoing source of reform and revelation.

Concerning divorce, Jesus does not look merely to an unchanging tradition — that is, to the offered interpretation of what Moses taught about divorce, which in this case allowed a husband to divorce a wife, but not necessarily for a wife to divorce a husband. Instead, Jesus points before and beyond Moses to God, saying, “what God has joined together, let no one separate” — seeming to imply that neither male nor female should initiate divorce. Some commentators have interpreted Jesus’ words here are seeking to protect women from husbands who may seek divorce on a whim. But I have met many Christians who have been deeply wounded by this passage on divorce, often either remaining in abusive marriages longer than they should have or being shamed in or run out of conservative churches for being divorced. So perhaps in Jesus’ day one needed reform was against divorce being initiated only by male. But in the 20th century, many sensed the need for a culture in which divorce was less stigmatized and shamed. But decades later many would argue that now, with divorce rates in the U.S. hovering around 50%, we need reform in the opposite direction. We can see unintended consequences at each stage. And in each new historical moment, we can only do the best we can to balance compassion and justice for all concerned.

A few verses later in Mark, we see signs of another tradition of change. Jesus asks the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Mark is not alone in recording these words. Luke 18:19 also has Jesus saying, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Of course, in first-century Judea, these words would have seemed natural because of the strong theology of monotheism — that is, a belief in one God. The sense of someone listening to Jesus’ exchange with this young man would have been that, of course, no one is good, but God alone. But through the centuries Jesus has been come to be understood in many different ways, including as part of the Trinity. And many have wrestled over the years with how to reconcile their understanding of Jesus with his claim that “no one is good, but God alone.” As with divorce, our understanding of Jesus continues to evolve; it is reformed and always reforming.

And, as mentioned already, we, too, are each in an ongoing process of change and development. God is always inviting us to continue reforming. In particular, Jesus issues a stark invitation to reform to the rich young ruler, telling him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Most of us, when we hear these words, follow in the footsteps of the rich young ruler, who “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

Interestingly, when Jesus lists the commandments for the young man, Jesus makes his own reform. For the most part, Jesus lists the Ten Commandments as they appear in Exodus chapter 20. But instead of quoting the Exodus language of “do not covet” your neighbors possessions, Jesus substitutes language from a passage in Leviticus that says, “do not defraud” your neighbor. The full verse says, “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” Thus, in a reform that has implications for our own economic situation, Jesus seems to be implying that the concern is not only with “coveting” possessions, but also in how one acquires one’s possessions in the first place.

I believe that Jesus’ word play here does not betray the tradition of the Ten Commandments. Instead, Jesus freely substitutes the word “defraud” for “covet” to show us the fluidity of the tradition. Moses delivered the Ten Commandments originally as a needed reform for the Israelites on the ground in the wilderness. And Jesus shows us how the tradition is both reformed and always reforming.

Finally, toward the end of the passage, the disciples — as is so often the case — show us the need for always being humbly open to how our perspective is so often in need of ongoing reformation. Although we all have trouble faithfully following Jesus today, we are speaking metaphorically about following Jesus. Part of our difficulty is that Jesus no longer here for us to literally follow, so we are not always sure what the way of Jesus looks like in the 21st century. Thus, I am always amused when the disciples, who Mark chapter 10, are literally following Jesus down the road and still find themselves in deep need of reform! They are able to see Jesus, hear him, and touch him, and they still miss the point by arguing about who will get to sit on Jesus beside Jesus in the place of privilege. But as with the rich young ruler, Jesus rebukes the disciples with a call to reform: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

On Reformation Day 2005, theologian and priest Matthew Fox visited the same church in Wittenberg, Germany where Luther had posted the original 95 Theses in order to post a new document that he called “95 Theses or Articles of Faith for a Christianity for the Third Millennium.” Luther was inspired to write in response the church’s abuse of power in the early 16th century. Fox named the following as his reasons for sounding a 21st-century call to reform. He writes, “At this critical time in human and planetary history, when the earth is being ravaged by the violence of war, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and eco-destruction, we need to gather those who offer a future that is one of compassion, creativity, and justice to speak their conscience as never before. Religion ought to be part of the solution, not the problem.”

For this morning, as a way of celebrating Protestantism’s birthday, I have combined and adapted a “Top Ten” list of Fox’ Theses. In a few moments, I will invite you to listen prayerfully for the areas of potential reform that resonate with you most strongly. After I read the ten theses, I will ring the bell to invite you into two minutes of silent reflection. In the silence, I be open to how may God be calling you to be part of a church that is both “reformed and always reforming.” As you listen to Fox’ list of reforms, consider also how you individually and we as Broadview Church can be part of modeling a reformed Christianity for the Third Millennium.

  1. God is both Mother and Father.
  2. Science can help us more deeply penetrate and appreciate the mysteries and wisdom of God in creation. Science is no enemy of true religion. Authentic science can and must be one of humanity’s sources of wisdom for it is a source of sacred awe, of childlike wonder, and of truth. Fourteen billion years of evolution and unfolding of the universe bespeak the intimate sacredness of all that is.
  3. There is a priesthood of all workers (all who are doing good work are midwives of grace and therefore priests) and this priesthood ought to be honored as sacred and workers should be instructed in spirituality in order to carry on their ministry effectively.
  4. Loyalty is not a sufficient criterion for ecclesial office—intelligence and proven conscience is.
  5. The term “original wound” better describes the separation humans experience on leaving the womb and entering the world, a world that is often unjust and unwelcoming than does the term “original sin.”
  6. The Spirit of Jesus and other prophets calls people to simple life styles. Poverty for the many and luxury for the few is not right or sustainable.
  7. To honor the ancestors and celebrate the communion of saints does not mean putting heroes on pedestals but rather honoring them by living out lives of imagination, courage and compassion in our own time, culture and historical moment as they did in theirs.
  8. A diversity of interpretation of the Jesus event and the Christ experience is altogether expected and welcomed as it was in the earliest days of the church. Therefore unity of church does not mean conformity. There is unity in diversity. Coerced unity is not unity.
  9. God is experienced in experiences of ecstasy, joy, wonder and delight. God is experienced in darkness, chaos, nothingness, suffering, silence and in learning to let go and let be. God is experienced in acts of creativity. God is experienced in our struggle for justice, healing, compassion and celebration.
  10. Love of Life is everyone’s daily task.


1 For more on  Jesus substituting the word “defraud” for the word “covet,” see Ched Myers, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, 124-125.

2 Matthew Fox’ new “95 Theses” may be viewed on his website: Fox has also published a book that sets the larger context for his “95 Theses” titled, A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity. You may also compare Fox’ work with Luther’s original 95 These here:

3 To offer one example of an answer to the question of how a church may model a reformed Christianity for the Third Millennium, theologian Raimon Panikkar famously wrote, “To the third Christian millennium is reserved the task of overcoming a tribal Christology by a Christophany which allows Christians to see the work of Christ everywhere, without assuming that they have a better grasp or a monopoly of that Mystery, which has been revealed to them in a unique way.”

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One Response to Sermon: “Happy Birthday, Protestantism!”

  1. Pingback: Carl Gregg » Sermon Series Retrospective: “The Gospel According to Mark”

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