Nothing to Fear
John 14:15-17, 25-27; 16:7, 12-13
Five hundred years ago this Tuesday, on October 31, 1517, a German priest challenged the mighty power and previously non-negotiable teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. At the time, it was the practice of the Church to sell what was known as “indulgences.” The idea was that, although our sins are forgiven by Christ, each of us is destined to spend a certain amount of time after our death in a place called “Purgatory.” The church taught that the length of our time in Purgatory correlated to the number and severity of our sins. The purchase of indulgences reduced the amount of time that souls spent in Purgatory.
And probably not coincidentally, it was a win-win. Because while the faithful got, in essence, a reduced sentence, the money raised funded special projects. In 1516, an official of the Church traveled all over Germany selling indulgences to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Martin Luther was both a priest and a scholar, who after receiving his Doctor of Theology was named Chair of the Theology Department at the University of Wittenberg. Luther not only believed that the idea of indulgences was bad theology, he also believed they were a corrupt exploitation of the poor. So on All Hallows Eve, 1517, he wrote to his bishop to protest the practice, enclosing a document titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” a document better known to history as the Ninety-five Theses. Legend has it that he also nailed a copy of the Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg that day, although scholars believe that is more legend than fact.
Whether or not Luther nailed it to the door of All Saints’ Church, the “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” was distributed throughout Germany in the months following October 31st. By the spring of 1518 it had been printed and distributed throughout Europe. It was a scholarly challenge to a misguided practice of the church, and it launched what would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation.
The Reformation would ultimately raise much bigger questions than the theology behind the sale of indulgences. Questions about where religious authority truly lies. Questions about the role of Scripture in the life of the believer. Questions about the relationship between faith and good works. Questions about the nature of justification, about how Christ restores our relationship with God.
And Luther’s impact is still felt five centuries later. His most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, is still beloved today. Sometimes called the “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation,” it was sung by Luther and his supporters as they walked into the trial where he would be officially excommunicated from the Church. And Luther’s Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans played an important role at a pivotal moment in the life of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. In fact, every Protestant denomination owes at least some measure of debt to the ideas that grew out of the reforming zeal ignited by Martin Luther.
But here’s the thing. The Protestant Reformation, whose 500th anniversary we celebrate today, was certainly not the first reform movement in the history of the Church. It was certainly not the last reform movement in the history of the Church. In fact, some scholars believe we’re in the middle of a new Reformation today, a point we’ll come back to shortly.
The key question for us this morning is about the nature of, and rationale for, reform in the Church. What is the theological basis for challenging long-held beliefs? Christ himself was a great reformer. What guidance does he give to us as his followers, about challenging the status quo, asking the tough questions, and wrestling with the teachings of the institutions we love and to which we belong?
Well, to help us answer these questions, we’ll turn to the Gospel of John. We’ll be reading from a portion of John’s Gospel that is set on the night before Jesus’ death. This is after his last meal with his disciples. He is giving them their final instructions, in what is known as the Farewell Discourse…
[Read John 14:15-17, 25-27]
This is the last time that Jesus will be with his disciples before his death. So he knows that this is his last chance to teach them during his earthly ministry. And he’s got an important promise for them. Knowing that the next day they will be devastated by his death, he assures them that all will, in fact, be well.
Because, he says, when he leaves, the Father will send to them someone he calls the “Advocate” (14:15). The word in Greek is “Paraclete,” a word that is elsewhere translated as “Helper” or “Comforter.” Jesus is referring to the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. He tells his disciples that when he’s gone, there’s nothing to fear, because the Spirit will be with them forever (14:15). And not only that. The Spirit will also “abide with them,” which means the Spirit will actually dwell within them (14:17). In other words, in the absence of Christ, the Spirit of God is with each of us, all the time.
This is a vitally important aspect of Christian theology. Jesus says that the Advocate, the Spirit, will teach us everything, and will remind us of all that Christ taught (14:26). So that in new situations, in uncertain circumstances, in unfamiliar territory or uncharted waters, there is no need to be troubled, no need to fear (14:27). Because God is with each of us, through the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Helper, the Comforter, the Spirit.
That’s not just reassuring. That’s empowering. It means that as we seek to make sense of the world and our place in it. As we seek to understand our faith and apply it to changing circumstances and in light of new knowledge. In the midst of reform and change, God is with us. To guide us and to sustain us.
There’s a serious theologian with kind of a funny name. Phyllis Tickle was an Episcopal theologian who served as senior fellow of Cathedral College at the National Cathedral in Washington. In 2008, she wrote an important book called The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, in which she offers a fascinating hypothesis.
She writes that every five hundred years or so, the Church has a theological rummage sale, in which it cleans out its attic. Which is to say, every five hundred years or so, the Church undergoes a significant upheaval, in which it asks new questions and challenges long-held beliefs. Every five hundred years or so, the church undergoes a significant period of change that is at the same time both frightening and exhilarating, both anxiety-producing and life-giving.
Five hundred years ago, obviously, that rummage sale was the Reformation, launched with Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. Five hundred years before that, it was the Great Schism between the Western Church of Roman Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Five hundred years before that, it was the fall of the Roman Empire and the accompanying Dark Ages, during which Christianity was saved by the rise of monasticism, a reform movement that would end up saving both the Church and Western Civilization.
Phyllis Tickle argues — persuasively, I think — that in our post-modern world we are undergoing a similar upheaval, one that she calls the Great Emergence. On the heels of the 20th century, at a moment in human history when we have unleashed the power of the atom in nuclear weapons, giving us the fearsome ability to annihilate the human race. At a moment when we are coming to realize the massive ecological impact we are having on the planet, and the potential consequences to our way of life. At a moment when we have gone to the moon and explored the farthest reaches of our solar system. At a moment when we have access to more information, faster, than ever before. At a moment in human history when our vast volumes of knowledge about our world and the universe have perhaps outpaced the wisdom we need to wield that knowledge responsibly.
In this fast-changing world, we are asking questions about the Church’s mission and how best to fulfill it. About the nature of authentic worship — where it should be held and what it should look like. We’re asking essential questions of inclusivity — who belongs in the Church? Who should be able to lead in the Church? Who should be allowed to be married in the Church? We are living in an era when denominational affiliations are more fluid than ever before and religion is sometimes treated as a consumer product, that we can take or leave based on its ability to meet to our needs and wants.
In this period that Phyllis Tickle calls the Great Emergence, we are seeking to understand and make sense of what can be, at times, a bewildering universe of competing ideas and values. We are wondering about the direction of the Church, and what will it look like for our grandchildren, and for their grandchildren. We recognize that the Church is in a season of upheaval and change. And we are trying not to be overcome by, or overanxious about, such big questions.
In such a moment as this, it’s good to remind ourselves that Jesus had something to say about who will guide us through times like these…
[Read John 16:7, 12-13]
Jesus says an astonishing thing here. It’s better for you if I go, he tells his disciples. Because while I’m here, I’m only with you when I’m physically in your presence. But when the Holy Spirit comes, the Spirit will be with each of you, always. And when the Holy Spirit is with you, the Spirit will guide you into all truth.
When change comes, and you have to figure out a new way of doing things. Which is to say, when you face uncertainty, and have to respond to the unfamiliar. When the Church is in the midst of one of its every-five-hundred-year upheavals and reforms, there is nothing to fear, Jesus says. Because the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Helper, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit will abide in you and will guide you into all truth. You can trust that God is with you in times of transition and change, Jesus says.
In our own congregation over the past few years, we’ve relied on this promise as we’ve faced new challenges. Starting a new worshipping community, and embarking on the most significant capital improvement project that we’ve undertaken in over 60 years. Asking ourselves how best to reach new people, and how best to lay the foundation for the next generation of ministry. These are big questions. Big challenges. We’ve relied on the Holy Spirit to guide us into a vision for the future of this congregation. And we’ll continue to do so.
Beyond our congregation, our denomination, the United Methodist Church, is in a season of uncertainty as well. You may be aware of this already. If not, I need to get you caught up. Every four years, Methodists gather from all over the world to do the business of the Church. To decide how we should govern ourselves. To decide what our official stance should be on the pressing social issues of our day. To decide what our missional priorities will be for the coming four years. And to decide how our theology and practice should evolve as we preach the gospel in a changing world.
At every General Conference for the past forty years, our denomination has wrestled with questions of human sexuality. Specifically, different groups within our denomination hold passionately different beliefs about issues of LGBT inclusivity. It’s important to be clear on this starting point. 100% of United Methodists, from the most liberal to the most conservative, and everywhere in between, 100% of United Methodists affirm that members of the LGBT community are beloved children of God.
Our Social Principles clearly state: “We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” Such clear statements of faith make me proud to a Methodist.
Having said that, church law does not permit the ordination of LGBT clergy. Nor does church law permit Methodist clergy to perform weddings for LGBT couples. Over the past forty years, these two specific prohibitions have become increasingly divisive. Every four years at General Conference, these two specific prohibitions have dominated the energy and focus of the delegates of General Conference.
So at General Conference 2016, something called the Commission on the Way Forward was formed. It’s comprised of lay and clergy leaders from across the denomination and across the theological spectrum, and it has been tasked with coming up with a recommendation for how to resolve this very difficult division within the Church. Very few want the Church to split over this issue. But everyone wants some sort of resolution about how to move forward.
At Clergy Retreat a couple of weeks ago, our Bishop Mike McKee said that the Commission is scheduled to make its report to the Council of Bishops in May. A special General Conference has been called for February 2019 to deal with the Commission’s recommendation and to vote on the way forward. Over the coming year, we’ll have opportunities in meetings and small groups to talk about this more. But in the meantime, I urge you to pray for the work of the Commission. Every day in my personal devotional time, I pray for the Commission on the Way Forward and for the unity of the Church I love.
Our bishop has said more than once to groups of clergy and laity alike that he has tremendous hope that the Commission will recommend a solution that we can all accept. He’s read the Gospel of John and knows the promise Jesus made to us almost two thousand years ago. A promise of guidance and comfort and help, even in the midst of tremendous upheaval and uncertainty. Or perhaps especially in the midst of tremendous upheaval and uncertainty.
Three years into the Reformation, Martin Luther was called to stand trial before Church leaders. The pope had demanded he recant several of his writings, including the Ninety-five Theses. Speaking with the confidence of one who had read John’s Gospel, Luther boldly refused.
He said, “I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me.”
Friends, these are turbulent and in some ways uncertain times. In our nation. In our world. And in our Methodist denomination. As we seek God’s guidance for the way we should go, may we trust Jesus’ promise that there is nothing to fear. Because the Holy Spirit will be with us and in us through it all.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016, pg. 113.