“Fresh words and deeds”: for Reformation Day

Over five centuries ago, allegedly on 31 October 1517, the Reformation began. That day, a German priest, Martin Luther, sent his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences his to the Archbishop of Mainz. In these theses, Luther criticised the common practice of his fellow priests, who sold indulgences to their parishioners.

He also disputed the teaching of the church about purgatory (an intermediate state after death, before entering heaven or hell), and criticised the authority which had been claimed by the Pope. As a result, he was excommunicated by the Pope and condemned as an outlaw.

Actions from that time unleashed a series of protests and changes across the church. This Reformation led to the formation of numerous Reformed churches. The Uniting Church stands with these churches, as a Protestant church, an heir of the Reformation. Our forebears held firm to the belief that the church was always to be seeking renewal; that supreme authority rested in the Bible; that salvation was possible only because of God’s abundant grace.

As we recall this event, on Reformation Day (31 October), we might well ask: is it time for a new Reformation? Have we come to a point in time when we need to kick off the shackles of old traditions and practices? Is it time to set forth on a new venture, as the people of God, to protest what we have left behind, to reform ourselves once more?

There are some very clear pointers in this direction, I believe, within my own denomination, which is a relatively young (45 years old) denomination. In the Basis of Union, the foundational document for the Uniting Church, for instance, I can find 12 occurrences of words like “new, anew, reform or renew”, as well as one “fresh” and one “afresh”.

Para 1 declares that the three denominations which united in 1977 “remain open to constant REFORM under his Word” and affirms that “they look for a continuing RENEWAL in which God will use their common worship, witness and service to set forth the word of salvation for all people”.

Foundational theological affirmations about Jesus which are included in Para 3 reiterate this perspective: Jesus is “the beginning of a NEW creation, of a NEW humanity”, “a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and RENEWAL which is the end in view for the whole creation”, and “a representative beginning of a NEW order of righteousness and love”. Para 4 concludes with a similar affirmation, that “in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and RENEWS them as his Church.

Para 15 locates us in “a period of RECONSIDERATION of traditional forms of the ministry, and of RENEWED participation of all the people of God” in the various aspects of ministry. And since the Basis was written, we have renewed the Diaconate and invited ongoing experimentation with other forms of ministry (Lay Pastor, Community Minister and Youth Worker—all now ended, and taken up in the umbrella Ministry of Pastor).

In para 11, the church declared that it “prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in FRESH words and deeds”. Para 15 enjoined the councils of the church to “enter a period of self-examination in which members are asked to consider AFRESH their common commitment to the Church’s mission and their demonstration of its unity”. All of these phrases point to a hope for ongoing renewal, refreshment, and revitalisation.

There’s one reference to “history”, but it is in the phrase “the CHANGES of history”, and three uses of “tradition”, one of which is in the phrase “a period of RECONSIDERATION of traditional forms of the ministry”. So these excerpts are oriented towards change and reform.

“Inheritance” pops up twice: once, “the inheritance of the Kingdom” (hardly an advocate for the status quo) and once in “the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries”, which promotes a sense of exploration and discovery.

Then, of course, there are the widely-known references to being a “pilgrim people” (once) who are “on the way” (twice). This imagery clearly points to the hope for still more reforming and renewing within the church.

The closing sentence in the opening paragraph of the Basis sets the horizons of openness to the future: the church “awaits with hope the day of the Lord Jesus Christ on which it will be clear that the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of the Christ”. It is this openness to whatever the future will bring which is most clearly to characterise the Uniting Church.

I think the primary orientation is very clear: as people of the Uniting Church, we are oriented towards the future with hope, and we are called to work for a different future. We are people with an inheritance from the Reformation and with a calling to continue to reform the church.

So, let’s protest, reform, and head on our way!!