Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
October 29, 2017
“What it Means to be a Progressive, Protestant, Christian”
Matthew 21: 28-32
“When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Growing up in North Dakota I didn’t encounter much in the way of diversity. There were Lutherans and there were Lutherans, meaning, there were a lot of white people and there were a lot of white people. The town where I went to school had two churches. Lutheran and Lutheran. My sister told the story that when she was a little girl, the school teacher helped the students fill out some form. The teacher wrote Lutheran on the black board to help students spell the answer to the question “what religion are you.” Mona raised her hand and said “I’m not Lutheran.” “What are you,” the teacher asked. “Evangelical United Brethren.” The teacher looked at her in disbelief and said, “Just write Lutheran.”
One more funny story: There was a big billboard on the interstate between Grand Forks and Fargo. It proudly proclaimed there were 100,000 Lutherans within 50-miles. There weren’t that many more than 100,000 total people within that radius, so we didn’t know whether that really was pride or a threat.
We were among the few non-Lutherans but I wasn’t too concerned, especially after I learned there was another group considered much more threatening. Catholics. They were so “other,” in fact, that most towns, no matter how small, had two cemeteries. Catholic and everyone else. What could possibly be so different about us that we not only didn’t worship in the same church but we couldn’t be buried in the same ground?
The formal breach happened on Tuesday, 500 years ago, when Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg. From a Lutheran point of view, it was 95 reasons he said “Enough” to the leaders of the church in Rome.
Luther is credited with the Reformation, but neither was he wasn’t the first nor certainly the only. Today we mark 500 years, but the Waldensians in Italy were founded almost 850 years ago. A reformer in Bohemia named Jan Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic for some of the same ideas 598 years ago. And while Luther was in Wittenberg, others like John Calvin worked in Geneva and Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich – their followers became known as the Reformed Church.
As the United Church of Christ, we are more descendants of Calvin and Zwingli than Luther, although one of our four predecessor denominations was known as the Evangelical Synod. (Not the small “e” of American conservative Christianity.) The Evangelical Church in Germany really meant it was a “united church” of Lutherans and Reformed, but get this, their union was ordered by the Prince to stop them from feuding. Yes, reforms led to reforms led to reforms – led to conflicts and even wars.
That’s one reason why Catholics are marking today’s historic event not as a celebration but a commemoration. I might agree, because Christianity remains deeply divided. There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world. About 50% are Catholic, 12% Orthodox (which represented a schism about 500 years before Martin Luther), and 37% Protestant. But Protestants are further divided into thousands of denominations. Not like a few thousand, but upwards of 40,000 or more different denominations worldwide. Catholics, and others, can rightly say, “What is WRONG with you people!!!” And rightly ask, how could we celebrate such division? I believe Jesus would shake his head with tearful disbelief at what has happened to his simple movement. That, or he would come through the doors angrily overturning the tables.
Yet, divisions are fading. On their own, lay Protestants and Catholics are increasingly adopting the positions of “the other side.” For example, one of the biggest arguments of the reformers had to do with the belief in “salvation through grace by faith in Jesus alone.” Faith alone, with no merit. That’s basic Protestantism 101. On the other hand, Catholics believe a combination of both faith and good works are necessary. And probably to the horror Martin Luther, so now do a majority of American Protestants.
Similarly, Catholics believe that religious guidance comes through both the Bible and church teaching. For Protestants, the Bible alone. Except that a majority of American Protestants now agree that one needs other sources too. The Methodist formula says it well: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
But after that brief history lesson, I have to wonder, “Why does any of this matter to us?” So, I want to explore the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian today?”
To answer I look at some of the protests of the Reformation. In particular, I embrace these five things. See what you think:
Those are some of the values held in common as Protestant Christians. But, the Reformation also means we must always be reforming, and for us, that means we are also Progressives. Among other things we believe…
1) Jesus is the way for Christians. But that does not mean that non-Christians are consigned to hell. Each person must choose and follow the path of the religion of their heritage or choice to its ultimate end, whether it be heaven, nirvana, or by following Jesus, a way of life made meaningful by living with compassion and justice. Leave God to sort the rest out in the end. Isn’t that the meaning of grace anyway?
2) What we do with our life is more important than what we believe. Deeds before creeds. Not to mention, questions often hold more value than absolutes.
3) The end of the world, whatever that might mean, will not come because everything has gone to hell, for which some people inexplicably pray, but because everything has been made right – when the world is finally open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. But that might sound like we have to earn it. Rather, justice is the Jesus way of life that gives our lives meaning and purpose. And that is more important than what may or may not come later. And matters a whole lot more to the poor and oppressed of our world.
We can celebrate many things about the Reformation 500 years ago. As well, we celebrate the gifts Catholics bring to us today, including a deeper appreciation of the sacraments, the rhythm of the church year, their social justice tradition as well as the mystics and monastics.
But rather than choosing to celebrate or commemorate, some have suggested we should be repenting today for the abuses that resulted, such as war and division. And include Luther’s rampant, ugly Anti-Semitism. And the fact that Christians looked the other way, for example, at the Holocaust because that was not their business, not the role of Christians to resist. We should remember the root of Protestant is protest.
But more than repent for the sins of our fathers and mothers in the faith, I believe we should review our own Christian path to evaluate and be judged by the standard set by Jesus when he was asked:
36 “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
If the reforms of the Reformation don’t fulfill these commands, then was it all a waste? What’s the point? Except that God is God and God can redeem anything – including you and me. And since I am a saint and a sinner, inspired by the Bible, I recognize I need the kind of grace that I can’t earn through my justice life. Don’t you?
 The “United” part when the EUB merged with the Methodist Church in 1968. I was raised as a United Methodist.
 Opposition to them and persecution by the Church almost annihilated the group, but nevertheless they persisted http://www.waldensian.org/2-whoweare/
 I’ve read articles ranging from 28,000 to 45,000 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2016/02/33000-protestant-denominations-no.html
 The Wesleyan Quadrilateral
 Source material from the booklet published by the UCC, 500: A Study Guide for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, The Stillspeaking Writers Group, 2017
 Just Mercy
 UCC booklet
 There is a document listing 8 Points, however I do not agree with all of them, and though prominent, it is only one of such lists https://progressivechristianity.org/the-8-points/