Reformation in the Digital Age

Editor’s Note: This post is from a sermon preached by Jason on Reformation Sunday, October 28, 2012 at Zion Lutheran Church in Iowa City, IA. Scripture texts for the sermon are: Jer. 31:31-34; Romans 1:16-17, 3:19-31; Psalm 46; and John 8:31-36.

Martin Luther Nailing the 95 thesis to the Castle Church door.Martin Luther
nailed a document to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg in 1517. Four hundred and ninety-five years ago this week, one document sparked a movement that over the following years smoldered before becoming an unstoppable fire.

Aided by new modes of communication, like the printing press, common people in Germany were able to read and interpret scripture in their common language, to receive the teachings of professors, and be included in the workings of the church, making their voices heard. Information was circulated faster than ever before.

Governments were changing, moving from fiefdoms and hereditary rule into the modern nations we now live in. People were revolting against the authorities. Economies were changing, and peasants would no longer work their lifetime for feudal Lords on land they didn’t own. The world was changing.

But the origin of this change didn’t start in northern Europe in the 16th century.

We have to go back further.

In 1054 nearly a thousand years ago, the Christian Church split into Eastern Orthodox Christianity and The Roman Catholic Church. Disagreements over doctrine and theology, practice, and politics led to a division that still exists today.

But the change didn’t begin a thousand years ago.

Just over 1500 years ago, the Western Roman Empire, which one stretched from Western Spain to the Middle East, Northern Africa to modern-day Germany, fell when emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed. The world power that had dominated the earth for centuries was no more.

Since the days when Jesus walked to Jerusalem, the world has been changing at a rapid pace. We can trace our history and see huge developments in the way we worship and live, with dramatic upheavals taking place every five hundred years or so.

This weekend we remember the beginning of the Reformation, a time in which Martin Luther and others, challenged and debated the practice of the church in Rome, not to start a revolution necessarily, but to hold accountable their leaders and thoughtfully practice the way of Jesus Christ, seeking salvation by grace through faith alone, guided by the Word alone, revealed in Christ alone.

Through their efforts and teachings, reformers of the church like Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, and others lived into their time and place, using the resources that were at hand to interpret scripture according to the world they lived in. In the midst of rebellions, excommunication, the threat of death by governments and Kings, these Christians stood their ground to bring about change in a tumultuous time, seeking freedom from oppression and persecution for practicing their faith in a way that was true to their understanding.

Jesus speaks of change.

In John’s gospel, Jesus speaks to his followers, who were Jewish people, about freedom and truth. Jesus was teaching about a change to come.

He has spoken about the change to his disciples, “Where I am going, you cannot come,” he tells them. Jesus was teaching them to “continue” in the Word of God. In Greek the word is μενω, and it encompasses the meaning of remaining, staying, dwelling, and abiding.

After explaining that He is going away, Jesus tells his followers to abide in Him. It’s a word of comfort, and it is a promise.

Abide in me, he says, and even though you do not see me, you will be changed, transformed. You will be made free. They protest against the change, claiming that they are already free, and have never been slaves.

Yet, in 515 BCE, just about 500 years before Jesus, many of the Jewish people had finally returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylonia, where they were taken prisoner for nearly a century. They thought they were already free. “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

Change can be overwhelming.

It’s not difficult to look around today, five hundred years after the Reformation, and be overwhelmed by the amount of change we see going on around us.

We have politicians arguing passionately for change, it’s already reached a fever pitch where many have made up their minds about who to vote for, and it is as important now as it was then, that we let our voices be heard. And change will come.

Maybe it’s a change that was sparked by the invention of the personal computer, which over the last two decades had continued to increase in use and usability to the point where the most powerful computer many of us will own, fits in the palm of our hand.

Maybe the change was sparked by realignment of world leaders, like in Europe, where in 1999, eleven nations with long histories of conflict and disagreement, joined together to form the European Union.

Or perhaps is a shift in our economies from manufacturing to networks of global information that has connected us all, and made the world we live in seem so much smaller.

Change will come.

Change can be frightening. For those of you who have lived into this transition, to look back fifty or sixty years, may seem like looking at another planet!

Your grandchildren and great-grandchildren cannot understand what life was like before the internet, microwaves, and pizza delivery. For workers who built cars and buildings, railroads and highways, the landscape of the economy is this country is dramatically different.

Since 2008, a growing number of people are changing careers, because the jobs that once provided for their livelihood just don’t exist anymore. Many will ask, “How will I feed my family?” “How will I get healthcare?” “What happened to my safety net?”

We can’t predict the future. We want to hold onto the past. We want to hold back from giving, protecting what we have left, especially when we are less optimistic about our future.

We can find it hard to be the loving, serving, giving community of the church, and we find ourselves seeking salvation from the things of this world. We chase after money, jobs, stability, and security. These are the things that enslave us. This is our sin. But we were not made for sin.

We need to be changed.

We cannot stop the change. It is happening in the church, just as much as in the world outside this place. We hear reports about increasing numbers of adults and young people that claim no connection to religion.

This has been happening for a long time. A recent poll in Great Britain showed the percentage of people who attend church once a week was less than 25%. The news last week announced that 79% of Americans identify with an organized faith group.

Just half of Americans claim they attend a church every week. Protestants are a minority in America at 48% for the first time since English colonists landed in North America.1

Those early settlers could not imagine the ways we would communicate in the 21st century. Most new pastors graduating from seminary will have their first interviews with churches from miles away, via Skype.

I post pictures of my kids online so that my mom in Georgia and my wife’s family in Las Vegas can watch them grow up, though they are far away.

I wrote a check to pay a bill last month. It felt strange.

In January of last year, my friend Paul was in Cairo, Egypt, serving his internship in a church there, when the revolution began just blocks away in Tahrir Square. People on the ground and across the world were communicating using Twitter from their phones and computers.2

Here in Iowa City, we can stay in touch with members of our community like Dirk Stadtlander and Kayla Cassavant in Senegal, and our friends of the Pare Diocese in Tanzania using these new modes of communication.

If you’re on Facebook and Twitter, make sure you follow Zion online. Our online community is growing. If you need assistance, give me a call.

Of course technology has become a part of almost everything we do. We can access our bibles on our phones and iPads, share a word of hope with one another, and reach out for prayer in our time of need. Technology has changed the way farmers harvest fields, the seed that they use, and how they bring food to the market. Vision can be corrected with the use of a laser. We can receive a pacemaker that regulates our heartbeat, to prolong health and life. Surgeons can repair and replace our knees to make us free to move again.

These modern advances have developed over only the last few decades.

Change happens fast.

We are reminded in Psalm 46 that through it all, God is with us. When kingdoms are in an uproar, God is in the midst of the city. When storms are on the horizon, and mountains are thrown into the sea, we will not fear.

Often, we find ourselves questioning our identity. What are we doing? Who are we?

Diana Dutler Bass, in her book Christianity after Religion, advises that as communities grow and change, the question is not, “Who are we?” but, “Who are we in God?” What is God doing in this place? What is the change that God is forming and preparing us to encounter?

As the people of God in this place, we are living into the future by preparing budgets for the year to come, and the capital campaign is continuing so that we can pay down financial obligations and begin to discern what comes next. The Reformation is still happening. The same Spirit that moved in Martin Luther is the Spirit that moves in us and among us this day.

We are agents of change too.

We are the body of Christ in the world, the hands and feet that enact the change. Technology is just a symptom of the change happening. The way we relate to other people is also being transformed. We are moving from Individual Networks to a world of networked individuals.

Our circles of influence are no longer just the neighbors on our street, the folks we work with, or the families we grew up in. We are hyper-connected. As we create new communities in person and online, we are able to walk with each other in new ways.

This has momentous implications and impact on how we share the ways Jesus has been in our lives. We are able to speak about our relationship with Jesus, freed to share a word of hope, a verse from the Bible, or lend a caring ear to others across thousands of miles, to serve others and grow in our understanding of each other, of new cultures, of all people across seas, across generations, and across history.

We abide in Christ through it all – this is true discipleship.

The chaotic times we live in can be frightening, but God was and is and will be our refuge and our strength, our mighty fortress.

In the raging sea of change, we seek refuge in the Word. The Word in scripture, the Word preached in sermons when we come to worship, the Word in, with, and under the bread and wine as we gather around this table. In this Word we find our source and strength to persevere through change.

God, revealed in the living Word, Jesus Christ, became human for us, to take up our fear and our pain and our suffering in the cross. Jesus died so that God’s grace can be poured out on us through faith in Christ, who abides in us through the Holy Spirit.

Jesus rose again that you might be changed, always being made new, made for eternal relationship with God. You are made free from death, made free for service to the world and your neighbor. Real freedom comes from abiding in Jesus Christ.

Be reformed. Be transformed. Live in the transformation. Abide in God’s Word. Know that you are made free in God’s grace. The Son makes you free, indeed.

1 “America’s Religious Past Fades in a Secular Age,” Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2012.
2  The Atlantic, Jan 31, 2011. “The ‘Twitter Revolution’ Debate: The Egyptian Test Case.” Accessed at www.theatlanticwire.com, Oct. 26, 2012.

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