Sunday, October 29, 2017 - 19:00
I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself in the position that I did as a boy, when I went on a school trip to the Tower of London. The tour guide was exceedingly boring and more interested in conveying names and dates, than any other reality that might stimulate the mind. After a mind-numbing description of the bricks and mortar of the tower, a friend of mine and I – a young girl who was as naughty as I – decided we’d had enough of dates and names. After all, people had been executed in this building, and there were crown jewels and armaments to see.
So we took off down a hallway, thinking we could see something rather exciting. We got maybe thirty metres when big hands grabbed the two of us by the shoulders and hauled us backwards. “Where do you think you’re going?” The Beefeater said.
“Well, we were thinking we could go into the armament room, or maybe see the crown jewels.”
They looked at us bemused. They said, “By what authority do you have to be in this part of the building?”
Well, we didn’t have any, so I made something up. I thought if I invoke the name of my father, who was a clergyman, this was bound to impress these gentlemen. I said, “I am the son of James Stirling, the reverend, that is why I am here, and under his authority.”
The Beefeater looked at me, and only as a Cockney from London could say, he said, “I don’t care if you’re the son of the bleedin’ Aga Khan, you’re not going any further in this building.”
And the two of us immediately were taken by the scruff of the neck, and resumed the boring tour rife with dates, names and relics. Only at the end did we get to see the really gory stuff, but by that time I – and the rest of us – had switched off. It seemed that we didn’t have access to the real, proper building and we didn’t have the credentials to get there. It was such a shame.
My friends, it is a greater tragedy if we do not possess the credentials whereby we can enter into something far more precious than the Tower of London, the eternal counsel of the Almighty. What happens if our credentials are questioned when we want to come into the presence of a righteous God, and we want to invoke the grace and the forgiveness that we find in God? What happens if we do not have the credentials, and thereby do not have access into the heavenly comfort of the Almighty? What happens when our access is denied?
In the book of Romans, Chapter three, and Chapter five, verses one and two, the Apostle Paul addresses very clearly that very issue. I want to quote from Romans five. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
Here is the outline of all the credentials necessary to have access to the righteousness and the grace and the eternal love and forgiveness of God. Here alone is all that is needed that we are justified by faith through Jesus Christ our Lord. From the very beginning, the very genesis of the church’s ministry, under the influence particularly of the Apostle Paul, this was the creed of the church: The righteous shall live by faith, the just shall live by faith, we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have access to God. The credentials are established, the access has been given, and is found in Jesus Christ the Lord and Saviour.
Paul, of course, was writing to the Romans for the very purpose of suggesting that no other credentials were needed, neither moral nor legal nor religious, to enter into the presence of the Holy God. For it is not on the basis of any tradition, any laws, or any canon written by humanity that we enter into the presence of God. It is through God coming to us in Jesus Christ the Lord.
It is that very conviction, that very cornerstone, that animates it and gave such a great sense of freedom, and hope to the early Christian community. They knew, no matter what tyranny they faced, obstacles in their way, or guilt in their heart, through the grace of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, they have access to God.
In perhaps the apex of the Book of Romans, Paul says, “There is now nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Nothing can deny us access, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul. His words were tumultuous and foundational, but the problem is that over the years access increasingly became denied. By that I mean, religion as a whole, over a period of time, tends to build up what I call a layer cake. You start out with a foundational cake, and layers are added to it, moving far away from the foundation.
These added layers create a remoteness to the very core, the very principles, the very beliefs of the Christian church. For the last two thousand years, particularly in the first fifteen hundred, those layers were laid on heavily, through for example, a synthesis with other religious traditions and philosophies, that had started to build on the notion of justification by faith. Various forms of scholarship – Greek and Roman and others – that really wanted to make sure that there was a sophistication to all of this, a worldliness, a philosophical acceptance to it, added layers. Moral codes, papal bulls, various statements of doctrine added yet more layers on top of this cake.
Added to that was power and culture and empires; empires that had their own particular view of who constitutes the righteous, and maybe because of a particular language or race or culture, you have the tools, you have the gifts to have access to the power of God, above others. So this complex matrix of layers that were built up over the years, started to diminish – almost submerge – the magnificent clear teaching of the Apostle Paul in the Book of Romans.
By the time we reach the fourteenth, fifteenth and particularly the sixteenth century, some of these layers had become corrupt to the point that the only way you could have access to God, is if you subscribed to certain doctrines and beliefs, convictions or morals. Only if you knew, or were in possession of certain relics or gifts that you bought could you gain access to God, and the eternal reward of God.
In the midst of the build-up of all these layers, came an Augustinian monk called Martin Luther, who was deeply troubled by all of this. He was a man who, in many ways, was ill at ease, who was psychologically tormented by his own inability to please God. From that sense of displeasure and guilt, and a feeling that he could in no way justify himself before God, he turned to the Book of Romans again, and read Paul with a conviction and a passion that made him realize that all these layers had been built around him, and he wanted to go back to what was the core, to the truth – therein was freedom.
But it was not only for himself, it was also for the people. He said, “One day I hope that we make the scriptures available to people in the vernacular, when we translate the scriptures so ordinary people can read them.” he said, “I hope that the boy who ploughs the field will know as much scripture as the Pope himself.”
He wanted everyone to have this access, everyone to be able to read the writings of Apostle Paul. He wanted the whole world to sense the freedom that comes from knowing that the just shall live by faith.
Martin Luther was building on things that had come well before. The word “access” in this particular passage from the Book of Romans, Chapter five, in Greek is “prosagoge” which simply means “access to a royal court”. What Paul was saying to the Romans was that they would have access to this royal court, that they would be able to come freely into the presence of God in Jesus Christ on the basis of faith and faith alone.
Even before Martin Luther, dating back to the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth century, there were those who were trying to push the door open into this royal court. The Cathars, who were heavily criticised and persecuted and who were a little dualistic, for sure, nevertheless believed that maybe it wasn’t in power and prestige and in the glory of the church at its greatest that the truth was known, but in the poor and the meek. The Waldensians believed the same thing. If only the church would divest itself of its authority and power, and the fact that it was working hand-in-hand with the rubber barons and the corrupt princes, maybe then everyone would have the freedom of access to God, rather than relying on a church to tell them that they could see God.
John Wycliffe, a Yorkshireman in England, wanted the Bible to be translated. He wanted people to be able to read it because he believed that there would be great freedom if they could read the scriptures for themselves, rather than have it interpreted through other sources, or interlocutors. In Bohemia Jan Hus went around preaching and said, in fact, that the church needed to repent in order that the gospel can be heard. Hus wrote: “In the truth of the gospel of which I have written, taught and preached, I will die today with gladness.”
Martin Luther said, “We are all Hussites,” that there was a power to the conviction of Hus in Bohemia, which was to shake the world. Luther was not alone, he didn’t just appear on the scene magically. It wasn’t one gnostic leader, one man with the only inspiration. Rather, this desire to go to the very heart and core of what the church believes, and to bypass the layers that had been put on so thickly, that ordinary men and women felt that they could not come directly to God through faith in the grace of Jesus Christ had been building.
Martin Luther opened the doors. He did it through his Ninety-Five Theses, some of which we have heard, but he concluded the Ninety-Five Theses with the theme again of access – it’s that word “access” it just keeps coming up, doesn’t it?
In the last two of these magnificent theses that Martin Luther placed on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, he wrote, “Christians are to be exalted, that they may be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths and even hell. And thus be confident of entering into heaven, rather through many tribulations than through the assurance of peace.” He was writing to a people that he knew would suffer for the conviction that the just shall live by faith and faith alone.
There is a second part to the meaning of the word prosagoge,“access to a safe harbour”. There is a sense my friends, and a sadness, that since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the cathedral that there has been a divorce. This divorce hurt! It caused division and schisms, empires to rise and fall, and millions of people to die! Taking away the top of that layer cake exposed something deep within the human heart, and that human heart can be one of division and dissension. Hardly a safe harbour.
I remember years ago in a place called Knysna, which was a lagoon in southern Africa near where I lived. One day I went out on a little fishing boat with two of my friends. In this lagoon, which was supposed to be very safe, and away from the Indian Ocean, we sailed, bobbed up and down, until suddenly there was a thump at the bottom of the boat. I said to my friends who fished there regularly, “What on earth was that? Have we hit a rock?”
They said, “No, it’s a Great White Shark.”
My prayer life improved immensely at the moment! I was trying to find reasons why the Lord should love me. I wasn’t doing the justification by faith thing. I was thinking of all the good things that I had done for God and it was the moment for God to remember them. And then there was another thump and a third, and I realized the Great White was bigger than the boat I was in. Then finally they said that it will swim away and it did. But in a lagoon where I should be safe, I was terrified. I said one of my friends, “These are terrible creatures, these sharks.”
He said to me something I’ve never forgotten, “In a year we kill infinitely more of them then they of us. We might be the problem.” “We might be the problem.”
At times, in trying to find our safe harbours, the places where we can meet and hide in our denominations, hide in our covenants, and confessions and find a safe haven where we are comfortable and at peace, we are doing it at the exclusion, rather than the invitation of others. When we do that we become the beast. Maybe it is because of the 500 years that have passed since Martin Luther nailed those Ninety Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, and rightly so. Maybe we have built up our layers also and maybe our layers are the ones that have to be removed. After all, one of the great principles of the reformation is: “ecclesia semper reformanda” “the church is always in a state of reformation”. Reformation did not just occur 500 years ago. Indeed, reformation is something that the Holy Spirit continues to work on us through.
Yes, be grounded in the scriptures! Yes, be solely convinced of grace. Yes, absolutely the centrality of faith! Yes, solus Christus, by Christ alone. Yes! But not when we have built up layers that have divided each other from those very things. There is an old Gaelic saying that ‘there is an ebb to every tide except the tide of God’s grace.’
Pope Francis, in his Evangelii Gaudium, said these words very recently: “Some customs may be beautiful but they no longer serve as a means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to examine them.” That examination is something on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that all of us need to do.
A few year ago, I was invited to Santiago, Chile and there I met some of the Roman Catholic leaders who opposed Pinochet. Some of them had borne great cost for their convictions of justice and righteousness. There was one man I was told I should really meet. So I visited this elderly (87 year-old, I think he was at the time), Roman Catholic priest who was partially blind. By way of introduction, I was told that he had been head of the Jesuit community in Latin America, and had helped write the ethics section of the Second Vatican Council – just the sort of guy you run into at Tim Hortons! – his name was Father José Aldunaté. There was a deference to this old man who I sat down with. What was supposed to be a 10 minute talk on what had happened in those years under Pinochet ended up being an hour and 40 minute heart to heart of a young Protestant minister and an aging Jesuit priest. At the end of it all I said, “José, do you have any advice for me?”
He said, “Yes, Andrew, make sure that you always have a faith that you are willing to die for, because it is someone who died for us, that makes our faith possible.”
He was saying, “sola gratia, solus Christus”. We embraced and said “Amen.” So should we. Amen