Synod 2017: Opening service – Sermon

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel.”

Dominus et magister noster Iesus Christus dicendo, Penitentiam agite’ etc. omnem vitam fidelium penitentiam esse voluit.

Als unser Herr und Meister Jesus Christus sagte: „Tut Buße, denn das Himmelreich ist nahe herbeigekommen”, wollte er, dass das ganze Leben der Glaubenden Buße sei.
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” etc. (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. (The original Latin is ‘do penance’)

This is the first of Martin Luther’s famous ’95 theses’, and therefore, in a sense, the ‘first word’ of the Reformation. This thesis is less often quoted than others, possibly because of this, to us, not very agreeable term ‘penance’, which brings to mind those who undertake such things as fasting, ascetic practices, flagellation and so forth. We associate such things more with the tradition of John the Baptist than with Jesus, and certainly not with Luther: indeed, we are happy to think that the Reformation liberated us from all penitential actions and such things. However, the fact remains that this first Thesis ought not to be avoided, simply because it offends against our secularized Protestant thought; the Reformation begins with ‘Penitence’! (or ‘Penance’)

Martin Luther quoted the passage from Matthew chapter 4, but the version in Mark is identical in the original Greek. So ‘do penance’, in the Latin Bible of the day, used by Martin Luther in 1517, does not indicate in primis such things as fasting and all-night vigils, but ought to be translated as our modern translations do: “Repent!” In the light of the original, therefore, we may reformulate the ‘first word’ of the Reformation as: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent”, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of conversion. That is to say, the life of the believer, and the entire life of the Church ought to be one of conversion: that is, a change of direction, a new orientation.

Naturally enough, no-one changes direction without good reason. For example at sea, perhaps someone discerns danger ahead and the engines are put into full reverse. And often in the Bible, and in Luther, the words ‘repentance’ and ‘conversion’ have this meaning. But this is not the case here. Jesus invites his listeners to ‘change direction’ because he is bringing them good news, something wonderful, something we need to go and see immediately. Marco, in the opening of his Gospel has already understood and communicated this; and he has understood and communicated that the Good News is intimately tied up with the person of Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus Christ that this new reality, this ‘Good News’ manifests itself.

But how are we to understand this? The Gospel according to Mark, in common with the other Gospels, tells us the meaning of this through a series of stories: desperate people receive hope; women and men oppressed by a sense of guilt start to walk and live again; the sick are healed – even on the Sabbath!; the hungry share what little they have and find an unexpected abundance; human beings who are alienated from themselves (literally ‘outside of themselves’) are returned to themselves and to society. This is the reality to which Jesus invites us to ‘convert’.

Jesus, in his ministry, speaks about this reality, using brief images: stories of hidden seeds which grow impetuously; lamps hidden or placed on pedestals; trees which, strangely enough, ought to produce fruit even if out of season. ‘Turn from your current course’ says Jesus, ‘and move towards this new reality which is coming, and which is called ‘the Kingdom of God’. The life of Jesus, who he is, all that happens to and through him: these things are totally identified in the Gospel message with this coming kingdom, which brings liberation.

Mark knows this well. He knows that this good news, this happy, wonderful news, which is so destabilising for some, will lead to the cross. He also knows that which the frightened women, who went to the tomb that day after the saddest Sabbath of their lives, did not yet realise, as they stood in front of the empty tomb: that God the Father had said ‘Yes!’, had given his approval (“in whom I am well pleased”) to this Jesus, once and for all; Mark knew that the message of Jesus was the message of God – the message of truth. Mark understood all that, as, indeed, we learn from the opening of his book, where he uses the word ‘Gospel’ – ‘Good News’. He does not say ‘This is the Gospel of God’ but ‘This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ’. Jesus Christ himself, his story and who he is: all this is the content of the announcement of the coming kingdom. In the story of Jesus Christ we meet the Gospel of the Kingdom, the reality of God himself.

The Reformation attested to the reality of God by telling the story of Jesus. Often the Reformation did this in very synthetic ways, focussing all of this story in one word: ‘cross’; ‘justification’; ‘grace’; ‘faith’; even the word ‘Word’ itself. In each of these terms there is the entire story of this man from Nazareth, seen from a variety of angles. And each of these terms enters directly into the life of men and women, in their life of faith and in their everyday existence in the world.

The Gospel, therefore, is not ‘a new way of thinking about God’. The sick are not healed by ‘thinking about God’; bread is not multiplied by a ‘new theology’, no matter how brilliant; prayer is not ‘reflexion on a concept’, but an address to someone real. For Jesus, for Mark, for the Reformation, God is reality and only because of this fact may he be ‘thought’. He is the ‘Thou’ to whom we turn, and who intervenes in our lives.

The Gospel, therefore, is not ‘a new way of thinking about humanity’, which would help us understand ourselves better. If I am drowning, I am not going to be saved by ‘thinking about myself in this way, rather than in that way’. The Gospel, the Good News, is that God grabs hold of human beings, just as a coastguard, or a lifeboatman, saves the shipwrecked. For Mark, for Jesus, for the Reformation, salvation is not ‘a way of speaking’ or ‘a way of thinking’; it is the fact that I was ‘done for’, ‘lost’, ‘without hope’, and now none of that is true because God is as he is in Jesus Christ – that is, ‘good’, ‘loving’, ‘kind’. It is for this reason that Luther says to us (even if in Latin): “Repent!” “Convert!” “Change course!” He does not tell us to convert to a thought, no matter how correct, but to God, who is more real than all the realities which are so ‘in your face’ day in, day out.

In those (sixteenth century) days, of course, some people thought that God could become ‘reality’ only through the Church and its activities in the world. NO! God is real on his own account. He is more real than any Church, or Pope, or Council; more real than any King or Prince or Governor (though perhaps Luther might have done well to make that more clear than he did!); God is more real than death, which, in the sixteenth century was everywhere, and even in our own day is not without its effects; God is more real than the devil, who was, for Luther, extremely real and present.

During this anniversary year, we have heard it said time and time again (indeed, we have said it ourselves!): “The Reformation changed Europe – its thinking, its politics, its legal affairs, its art, its music and goodness knows what else”. The Reformation offers us so many different points for discussion and reflection. And that is all true. It is a living reality, and may it continue to be so. But from the point of view of Luther or Zwingli or Calvin, this is all secondary. The Reformation thinks as Mark thought, and wished to say one thing only: that, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the reality of God, God himself, is near; you may speak to him, and because of his presence you may live, and even dare to die, as a Christian.

The Church of the Reformation has nothing else to say. It bears witness to the concrete reality of God in history and in, in particular, in Jesus Christ, and it does so in a thousand ways, and with a thousand images; it recounts (and why not?) other stories which this story has generated, and which tell us, as might a parable, that Jesus is good, and kind, and loving, and God is as Jesus is.

But, you might say, our secularised and pluralist society does not understand this language, which speaks of God and of salvation. This is, of course, our alibi, the way in which we become traitors not only to the Reformation but to Christ himself. The problem is not society which, in the first instance, does not understand, but we who refuse to believe. We are the ones who love to speak about God as if he were a metaphor, a suggestion, an idea, a motivation: everything except as a reality – THE reality. We need to repent, to convert! Because a Church which wishes to be a true Church tells the stories of Jesus as the most real reality possible: that which changes your life and mine. The Church which wishes to be true to its calling tells these stories without fear or favour, and with the passion of those who live and breathe these stories. It does this in constantly new ways, but always paying attention to the ancient words with which our sisters and brothers in the past bore witness to the reality of God.

And you, who today will be Ordained, and all you other Ministers of Word and Sacrament, and you who are the Church gathered here, have this as your overriding calling: to meditate upon these stories and to recount them with every instrument the human mind may conceive. But this pastoral ministry has sense only within the context of a Church which, in prayer, recognises, even in our ‘incurable weakness’, that, literally, ‘our help is in the name of the Lord’ – the reality of God in Jesus Christ – and that this reality changes history, your story and mine. It is from this point that the Reformation started, and, quite probably, wished to go no further. Then, seeing that God is real, several other things happened as well…

Repent! Let us change direction! For whenever an evil voice, within or without, says that it is all ‘a tall story’, ‘a yarn’; that the ‘Word’ is only a concoction of words and that God is only a human thought; that you can call God whatever you like, it matters not, for he never answers; whenever this voice says that God is only an invention and that the only reality is what we human beings do: whenever we hear this, let us repent, let us change direction. In Jesus, God is real and close to us. This can only be known and proclaimed by the Church, the community of believers; it can only be known if it is lived; and if this truth is lived, in the very act of living it this message is announced with power. This is the Church’s calling. It is why the Church exists. And it is why we are here.


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