Today (Monday), Bishop Nick helped start a year of events in Germany marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Speaking (in German) in the Erfurt monastery where Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk, Bishop Nick suggested that while Continental Europe was more influenced than England by the Protestant Reformation, we still we need to remember the significant role it played in the development of Christian faith.
He said, “If we forget our own history, we cannot know who we are. We lose our identity. And we cannot shape our common future unless we acknowledge our common past. In an aside he asked, “Is a loss of memory behind why so many Britons wanted to leave the European Community? We have been selective in remembering our history.”
He added that while the Church of England differs from the Church in Germany, its mission remains the same: it is called to show the world who and how God is.
He said, “If the Church is to fulfil its mission, it must learn from the bad memories and build on the good. Today we need to learn to meet people where they really are (and not where we want them to be), and to speak in a language that they can understand.
“After being surprised by the grace of God and freed from fear, Martin Luther opened the Bible for future generations to learn about that love and grace for themselves. So despite his many faults, he changed the world.”
It was on 31 October 1517 that Luther allegedly nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. He attacked corruption in the Church, such as the sale of indulgences (time off Purgatory) to finance the building of St Peter’s in Rome, and his overarching message was that salvation isn’t earned by good deeds but is received only as the free gift of God's grace.
31 October therefore marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation - the religious and political upheaval that splintered Catholic Europe, setting in place structures and beliefs that continue to this day.
(Right) Bishop Nick stands on the spot where Luther prostrated himself when he entered the monastery.
More on Bishop Nick's blog here. The English text of his sermon is below (NB translated through Google translate):
Augustiner monastery church, Erfurt 31 October 2016
I speak of righteousness before God, which comes by faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. For there is no difference here: they are all sinners, lacking the glory which they should have with God, and are made righteously out of his grace by the salvation which is done through Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:21ff)
Recently I went into a book shope and asked the assistant, "Where can I find the new biography of Martin Luther by Professor Lyndall Roper?" He said, "OK ... Martin Luther King ..." I said, "No, Martin Luther." He said, "Who is he? I’ve never heard of him." I was a bit surprised and said slowly, "Martin Luther was a monk in Germany five hundred years ago. He began the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and he changed the world forever." He said “Oh? How interesting, you’ll probably find the book under the title 'religion'." I finally found the book on the second floor under the title 'German History'.
How is it possible today that a well-trained university graduate has no idea who Martin Luther was? But here is the challenge. England isn’t very interested in the Reformation that began 500 years ago in Wittenberg. (Perhaps this story explains why so many Britons wanted to leave the European Community - they have no idea where they come from or where they came from.)
This is a serious matter, and an important challenge. If we forget our own history, we lose our identity. If we forget where we came from, then we can’t know who we are. And we can’t shape our common future unless we acknowledge our common past.
Martin Luther read the same Bible that we read today. When he studied the Old Testament, he must surely have noted the warnings given to the Israelis before they entered the promised land for the first time. The story goes like this. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for over 400 years, and their lives became unbearable suffering. They couldn’t free themselves by their own hands. With the help of Moses, frogs and plagues, they were finally liberated by God. But they didn’t immediately replace oppression for freedom, but had to spend 40 years in the desert, so that a whole generation of complainers, romantics, and others driven by nostalgia, would die out. During these hard years the Israelis had to try to learn an important truth, namely, you were liberated from oppression. That is clear - but for what have you been liberated? People forget very quickly.
This is why the people of Moses have been instructed to set up an annual ritual calendar. Through the year, the Israelites regularly had to perform rituals that practically brought back the history of the people. They had to think not only spiritually, but also to celebrate and tell this story with body and voice.
For example, in Deuteronomy 26:
When thou shalt enter into the land which Jehovah thy God will give thee, and take it up, and dwell therein, thou shalt take the first fruits of all the fields which thou hast brought from thy land, which Jehovah thy God, And thou shalt put them in a basket, and go to the place which the LORD thy God shall choose, that his name may dwell there, and thou shalt come unto the priest, who shall be in that day, and say unto him : I confess to the LORD your God today that I have come into the land which Jehovah swore to our fathers. And the priest shall take the basket out of thine hand, and bring him down before the altar of the LORD thy God. Then thou shalt lift up, and say before the LORD thy God: My father was an Aramaean, who came near to destruction, and went down to Egypt, and there was a stranger with few men, and there a great and strong nation.
In other words, "Don’t forget that you were slaves - that you had nothing, and were captive in Egypt. Because if you forget your own history, you will quickly treat other people like your slaves. You have to establish rituals that remind the people of where they come from. These regular stories of national history will help people to keep a right perspective to question their priorities. "
But what does this history of the Old Testament rituals have to do with the Lutheran Reformation? Some of us will think this is obvious: that is, the Church of today must learn from its history - not only to learn honestly about the bad memories, but also to build on the good. For example, we know that Martin Luther was surprised by the grace of God; That he was freed from fear; That he heard the love of God. But he was not always gracious in his behavior with other people.
But he changed the world. He opened the Bible for future generations of people who would also want to learn the history of God and mankind again and again. He was not a plastic saint, but a real person like you and me.
We know that today's world is not the world of Martin Luther. But despite the dramatic differences between 1517 and 2016, the vocation - that is, the mission - remains simple and clear to the church: it is called to show the world who and how God is. God frees mankind from slavery - that is why the liberated must also free others from their slavery. If we enjoy the love of God, then we must also love our neighbours. This is the clear and simple logic of the gospel. The Church of Jesus Christ should look as the Jesus whom we see in the Gospels. The Church should pronounce the good news of the grace of God with the voice of Jesus himself. And this is the only test of our fidelity as a church. We are still called upon to show the world what it looks like to be liberated from the grace of God as individuals and communities - to serve freely, to love freely, to forgive freely, free as the prophet Micah, who wrote "Do right, practice mercy and walk humbly with your God." That describes the prophetic role of the Church of Jesus Christ.
But I know that the experience of the Church of England differs from the experience of the Churches in Germany.
The Church of England is a strange church: a Reformed Catholic Church - probably the only such church in the world. English Christianity was less influenced by the Lutheran Reformation than by Jean Calvin and a king who fell in love with too many women. Honestly, I must say that Henry considered the Reformation mostly helpful in his disputes with the Pope. It was about the power, the royal and political independence. It was not primarily religion, theological questions, or the grace of God. And after Henry's death, the greatest challenge was the unity of England as a nation, as a country. In a separate or divided world, how can people - that is, Catholics and Protestants - be held together in a church? The answer was: Common Prayer and laws that created a single church for England. But today the Pope does not know exactly whether the Church of England is Catholic or Protestant: it is both.
The Church of England is territorially organized. That is, a parish priest is not only the captain of his or her church ship, but also the priest of all people who live or work in the parish. This not only brings with it legal responsibility and a general availability for all who live there, but also an inevitable commitment to the wellbeing of the whole community, and also gives the entire ministry a missionary perspective - to bring to Church those who have neither heard nor experienced God's good news.
This means that the Church must remember at any time why the Church is there and why the Church actually exists. The Church of England is a church for England.
But how do we fulfill the task of bringing the good news of God's grace to our generation?
Nowadays, we need to be self-sufficient, self-confident and imaginative when we want to describe the place and the meaning of the Christian faith for personal and public life. We need to find ways to describe the Gospel of Jesus Christ-and to live as witnesses of this gospel-to draw people to faith and to the Church.
In my diocese, we have identified three key words that give us a lens through which we can understand our mission: LOVING. LIVING. LEARNING. Love. Live. To learn. Previously we had: 'Confident Christians. Growing churches. Transforming communities'. These were keywords for those who are already church members. Loving, living, learning speaks to those who are outside the church. We love God and our neighbours and the world that loves God. We love life and strive for the welfare of the whole society. We want everyone to flourish (or thrive). But we must always be humble and learn from our mistakes.
The Church of England learns to meet people where they really are (and not where we want them to be) and learn to speak in languages that can be heard and understood. In the last fifteen years, we have developed thousands of projects which we call "fresh expressions of church". These include innovative gatherings in clubs, pubs and private houses.
This changed world has forced the Church of England to re-shape itself - and this challenge has not been easily accepted by some priests and laity. It is never easy to change. But the world has changed. And in my opinion, it's pointless and a missed opportunity to complain about it. If the Church is to fulfill its mission, it must be able to understand the language of today's world and, secondly, to speak. We must remember that Biblical history shows us that God is calling His people to live so that the people who come into contact with the Christian community experience something of the Christ that we read in the Gospels .
I’d like to illustrate this with a personal experience. From 1992 to 2000 I was a priest in Rothley in Leicestershire. My mission was to reach the people who did not come to church. And at the very beginning of my time as a priest, I made a decision that helped changed the perception of the church quite a bit.
There are five pubs in this village (with about 6,000 inhabitants). How difficult my job was! Every restaurant has its own character and its very own, not to say, unique, clientele. On a Monday I went to the old village pub - the Old Crown - where two men played billiards. No one else – it was completely empty. I asked the landlord, 'It's almost empty tonight. Is it always like this? '' It's Monday, he said, irritated. "Is it always like this on a Monday?" I asked. The landlord looked me in the eye and said: 'It's Monday.” I asked him," May I have the pub on Monday in three weeks - and I promise that many people will come? "You want to have the private room behind the bar? '' No, I want to have the whole pub. 'At last he agreed.
At that time I had only one computer graphic: a beer pump. I made some posters and distributed them all over the village: 'Pump the Vicar in the Old Crown' - 'pump' in English can also mean 'ask a lot of questions to someone'. So: 'Pump the Vicar in the Old Crown - 8pm on Monday. No taboos!'
Almost 70 people came. At 8pm I stood up (with my pint) and spoke for five minutes about Jesus. I said that it’s really worth taking a second look at God and Jesus Christ as an adult. I spoke briefly, but provocatively, then we began to discuss. I didn’t get home until 1am. Afterwards, we organized Pump the Vicar regularly.
Once I was in a BBC studio in London and the radio presenter suddenly asked me: “What is the Church for? What is the meaning of the Church? At such times, you don't have time to pull out a good sermon from your pocket. So I quickly thought and said, "The task of the Church is to create the space in which people can find that they have already been found by God."
I think the monk of Erfurt, Martin Luther, also discovered this concept when he began to experience and understand the grace of God. This gracious God can’t be bought or manipulated. Everything is grace. And when we think we have found him, we find that he has been waiting for us, as with the so-called prodigal son, who discovered that God's mercy is greater than human error. "But God shows His love for us in the fact that Christ died for us when we were still sinners." (Romans 5: 8) This is grace.
In this fearful world we can, like Martin Luther in his time, trust confidently and hopefully in God. We will remember our history and learn from it. Semper reformanda. The grace of God remains.
"They shall be righteous without merit from his grace through the redemption which has been done through Christ Jesus."
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.