This has been quite a week! You may think I’m speaking about Halloween and Handel’s Messiah, but you’d be wrong. I’m referring to what this week has represented in the life of the Church of Jesus Christ, from its earliest days through the Reformation, events and persons that in various ways have helped to shape and define where we are today.
Each day this week from Tuesday through Friday brought a significant commemoration. Tuesday was celebrated as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, specifically the day when Martin Luther is said to have posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg in northeastern Germany. Those theses summarized some of the main points raised more than 100 years earlier by reformers such as the Englishman John Wycliffe and the Czech reformer Jan Hus. And while we tend to think of them as dealing almost exclusively with the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church, I’ve pointed out before that Thesis #1 articulated Luther’s belief that the entire life of the Christian is to be one of repentance, a belief to which I happen to hold ardently. Jesus taught us to pray daily that our sins would be forgiven as we forgive those who sin against us.
The sale of indulgences certainly formed a prominent rallying point for many within the Catholic Church who believed that it needed reforming. After all, all of the Reformers were Catholics who decidedly were not out to create a new Church but to reform the existing one. And the Counter-Reformation was simply an acknowledgement by the Church that the Reformers were right about many things. In the end, even after the Counter-Reformation, other lines had been drawn in the sand besides selling indulgences, and reconciliation seemed impossible. One of the saddest chapters in the history of the Christian Church in Europe soon followed with the 30 years war from 1618 to 1648, a protracted affair in which by some estimates well over 10 million Christians lost their lives. We tend to forget about this dark period, but it’s found on every list of the longest and most destructive conflicts in human history. It’s certainly not among the things that were being celebrated this past Tuesday, but it was one of the by-products. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Wednesday was on the whole a much brighter and more unifying celebration that nearly all Christians observe as All Saints Day. In fact, the number of denominations that do not observe this day in any way is remarkably tiny. All Saints Day is a day set aside for us to remember all who have lived a life of faith and have gone on to their eternal heavenly reward. They include the saints of old who are rightly or wrongly glorified in their hagiographies. Many of the best-known ones died as martyrs who fall under this beatitude, this blessing, of Jesus: “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But they also include billions of others whose names are forgotten as well as those whom we personally have known, loved and revered, family members and friends who have loved Jesus and accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. “For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one, too!”
Then there was Thursday, All Souls Day, often hopelessly confused with All Saints Day; but, unlike All Saints Day, All Souls has strikingly different meanings for persons in different branches of Christianity. In the Catholic Church, All Saints Day commemorates all who have died and are now in heaven, while All Souls Day commemorates all who have died in the faith but have not yet been received into the heavenly Kingdom. And so on All Souls Day, a devout Catholic will pray for the souls of the departed, that their time of waiting, their purgation, may be abbreviated by God’s mercy. While it’s certainly true that some Protestants find this entire concept spiritually and Biblically abhorrent, it’s also true that prayers for the faithful departed have been part of Christian worship at least since c. 200 ad and possibly even from the time of the apostle Paul.
Many Protestant Christians, by contrast, remember on All Saints Day those saints and martyrs of the past who have died for their faith, while on All Souls Day they remember all who simply have died in their faith. Instead of praying that the state of those faithful departed will be changed, prayers are offered in grateful remembrance of their lives, their witness, their inspiration and their love for Jesus. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” There’s great value in having days for these special remembrances. Those of us who have lost close loved ones, and that might include most of you, know how meaningful and treasurable such a time can be. It’s not an exercise in wallowing in the past; rather it’s a way of giving thanks to God for each person who has had a special place in our lives, and for their continuing fellowship with us in the Body of Christ, now and forever. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Then there was Friday, the Lesser Festival day for Richard Hooker, who was the Anglican Luther or Calvin or, as some say, the Anglican Aquinas. Hooker is readily distinguished from the other leading writers of the Reformation by virtue of his more comprehensive scholarship, contributing to such diverse subsequent writers as Izaak Walton, John Locke and C. S. Lewis. Hooker’s theology was firmly rooted in the absolute and supreme authority of Scripture, not only for faith but also for the governing of all human conduct. He also adhered fervently to the idea that both Church and secular government needed to be structured after Biblical models. He spent much of the last decade of his life writing his “Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity,” Book 5 of which is an absolutely superb articulation of Biblical, Reformed faith as given its expression in Anglican worship.
Those of you who might have limited interest in such things as Luther’s Theses, All Saints Day, All Souls Day and Richard Hooker’s writings, may have patiently endured this recitation while waiting for me to say something important and relevant. To you, I want to say that I believe all of this is indeed important, relevant and even inspiring. We often hear the adage attributed to Churchill that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” I believe that its truth goes a long way in explaining the chaos and divisiveness of our time. But I believe even more fervently, because it’s not only relevant but essential, that we as Christians need to know where our faith came from and how it’s been expressed, believed in and practiced by those who came before us. Otherwise far from wallowing in our past, we’re wandering aimlessly in the present with a brand of Christianity that, in trying to be more relevant and truthful, is dangerously subjective and rootless. Instead of hearing what Christians have believed for 2,000 years, we imagine ourselves to have a gift of interpretation that stands alone and is somehow superior to all that has gone before. In the end we do the same highly subjective thing that we rightly accuse our theologically liberal friends of doing.
Biblical Christianity is Historic Christianity. One of the great gifts of Hooker was his relentless insistence on sola Scriptura, on Scripture alone, as the ground of our faith and practice. But in so doing, he was simply articulating in 16th century England what many others had expressed in similar terms for centuries before him. He stood with those who had sought with every gift God had given them to know the truth of God’s Word and to apply that truth to every aspect of our life in Christ. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Appropriately, the beatitudes in Matthew 5 form the Gospel reading for All Saints Day. They also were the Gospel reading for the last Sunday in January of this year. When we looked at them on that Sunday morning, we noted that for most of us the last two of these blessings are the hardest for us to receive with thanksgiving. Jesus said, "Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” It’s the very same reward as the one for those who are poor in spirit. Most of us definitely would choose poverty of spirit over persecution for the sake of righteousness. But what greater reward could we possibly seek than the Kingdom of heaven? And it’s purely a matter of God’s good providence, not our choice, whether that comes with poverty of spirit or with some form of persecution.
Then there’s the last Beatitude: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely.” Has that ever happened to you? Once you step into the firing line of serving God, there’s a greatly heightened probability that you’ll get hit. But Jesus places this reviling and persecuting in a very specific context. Jesus says that if we are reviled, persecuted and falsely accused for His sake, then we are able to “rejoice and be glad.” Why is that? It’s because our “reward is in heaven,” and because “our reward in heaven is great,” and because we’re following the example of those prophets who came before us, those who received even more intense persecution. By remaining steadfast they discovered God’s will for their lives and, in turn, we also may find His will for ours. This eternal perspective completely changes our perception of what persecution in this life really means. From God’s own eternal view, no amount of insulting, persecuting or false witness can compare with the heavenly reward.
Here in the Beatitudes, as often, the words of Jesus are hard. Here, as often, they also are comforting. The blessing of comfort is the whole point of the Beatitudes. The Greek word that we translate as “blessed” literally means “enlarged” or “filled up.” When we’re blessed by God, we’re filled up with His grace and favor. There’s no greater source of comfort in this life than that. If you’re looking for comfort, and who isn’t, there’s only one place to look, only one place that has certain results, the only place with eternal results. Look no further. Are you suffering in body, mind or spirit? Look to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith. He began His preaching ministry with these words of promise to His disciples, the Beatitudes, and He ended His ministry by assuring them that He was going to prepare a place for them. He said, “In the world you will face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:23). This same Jesus, Who is seated at the right hand of the Father and receives our prayer, still offers us His blessing, His beatitude, whenever we’re mourning, whenever we’re hungering and thirsting after righteousness, whenever we’re suffering persecution, whenever we’re being more like Him Who suffered and died in our place. For then are we truly blessed, and great is our reward in heaven. Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto Him forever and ever. Amen.