Everything hangs on love

Matthew 22:34-40

Sometimes things happen in the church in a way that we don’t even notice it.  An understanding today means something different years from now, when encrusted with lots of additional understandings.

Take Holy Communion, for example.  In the Lutheran Church we refer to Holy Communion as one of the “means of grace”, that is, as one of the ways that God gives, communicates his amazing free gift of love and forgiveness and salvation and life to us--unconditionally.  That is what Communion is and does—a giving, by Jesus, of himself, of his grace.

Now I have attended Lutheran churches, in my lifetime, where the expectation was that, before a person would go to Communion he or she must first:

  • Be a baptized member of the Church!
  • Have attended a minimum of two years of confirmation instruction concluded with a public examination on Luther’s Small Catechism, and have been confirmed.
  • Be a member of the Lutheran Church of Australia, specifically (not of any other Lutheran church or other Christian denomination).
  • Attend a session during the hour preceding the worship service to ‘announce’ the intention to go to communion, and to receive a card with a number indicating which table to attend.
  • Move forward for communion when the right number was shown on an indicator at the front of the church.
  • And, if female, wear a hat in church at all times!

And there is nothing particularly bad about these expectations.  They were simply a matter of good order, of pastoral responsibility, and of giving due reverence to the Sacrament!

They were, nevertheless, an accumulated set of conditions which could, at times, in the culture of the church—and certainly in the view of a child growing up, or in the view of a visitor, a stranger—give the impression that one has to first complete a lot of steps before one can expect to receive God’s grace in the sacrament.  (I expect most of you understand what I’m saying, and could probably think of lots of different examples of the church—us!—giving the impression that God’s free gift comes, if not at a price, at least with some conditions.)

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So it was with the infamous selling of certificates of indulgence in the late medieval western European church; like in Wittenberg in 1517.  The sale of indulgences had gradually grown out of the church of the Middle Ages trying to find a way of assuring people of God’s grace.  They developed out of rituals associated with the practice of confession and absolution, of inviting people to use various kinds of spiritual disciplines—including things as simple as prayer!—to recognize their sins, and the consequences, and to focus on ‘doing good’ as a means of demonstrating to God, and to others, one’s genuine desire to live, not in sin, but in a God-pleasing way.  The use of money, initially, had no connection with “buying one’s way out of trouble” but with using money as a gift of charity.

But things grew over the years, and where once someone had a ‘good idea’ to help people in their Christian living, the good ideas became common practices sometimes misunderstood, which became expectations, and the expectations became conditions, and the grace of God, the love of God, as communicated so clearly in the Gospel, and in Baptism, and in Holy Communion, and in Christians speaking and living God’s love to one another—that grace became hidden in questions like, “What must I do?”

When Martin Luther saw people, in their day to day living, constantly anxious about “doing” and “doing it right”, so much so that they would flock across the state boundary to buy certificates that said they had done the right thing—Luther understood the distress, and realized that the layers of accumulated understandings and misunderstandings needed to be challenged.  So he wrote his thoughts, in Latin, 95 points, and posted them on the notice-board inviting his university students to debate them.

A Latin invitation to Uni students to attend a debate on details of ecclesiastical theology and practice in relation to details of the rituals of the sacramental system is hardly going to draw the masses.  But some witty Uni student in cahoots with an entrepreneurial printer managed to get these points of debate translated into German, and printed, and distributed widely enough so that people all over Europe pricked up their ears at sentences like:  [printed on back of Bible readings]
“If the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.”
“Why doesn’t the pope…build this one basilica of St Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
“Why doesn’t the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of souls that are there if he redeems infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?”
“Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.  Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.”
“Christians are to be taught that he who give to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.  Because love grows by works of love, man thereby become better.  Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences….”
“The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God.”

We know that licensed sellers of indulgences appealed to the anxiety of common people:  Are you worried about where you stand with God?  Are you worried about members of your family?  Are you worried those whose lives don’t seem to be giving off strong signals that everything in their lives is holy?  These are good questions!  These are questions that we think about, often!

And what we often perceive as the answer to our anxieties is to find the thing to do—find the formula (the simpler the better) and then stick to it and get it right.  A list of rules to follow.  A contract.  Even a price.

Luther’s first blows with the Reformation were not aimed at humiliating the papacy, destroying the Roman church, creating a new super-smart theological movement, so that German peasants and their descendants could smile broadly and lift their heads high once each year at the end of October.

Actually, Luther had been so tortured by anxiety, had been so bruised by beating himself up over his weakness and failure to ‘get it right’, that when God’s Word—the Gospel—the message of God’s grace as ‘gift’—free—no price, no expectations, no conditions—when that message, that central truth of God’s Word was given to him, he did one of those paradoxical things that Luther is good at:  he clung to it for dear life, with one hand, would not give it up!; and with the other hand he gave it freely, passionately, energetically, with commitment, to anyone and everyone.

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When the Pharisees came to Jesus—the Pharisees were the best theologians of their day, the best scholars, and the most highly praised for their faithfulness and piety (praised even by Jesus!)—they also had established the most complex set of rules imaginable to be sure that they were focused, getting it right, and giving a good example to others in a society where people were pulled and pushed by all sorts of other influences—when the Pharisees came to Jesus just to clarify some key points of theology, Jesus replied, “Love.”

God’s commandments?  “Love.  Everything hangs on this!”

The word for love used is that used of God’s love for us:  love where one gives of oneself for the sake of the other—doesn’t ask in return; doesn’t demand conditions; doesn’t name a price—just gives for the sake of the other.

God’s love.  Grace.  Mercy.  Compassion.  Gift.  Free.  Unconditional.

Every once in a while the Spirit calls the Church, and individual Christians, to a spring clean:  dust off, clear away, shine up the Grace of God, for his people, and through his people, for the world.  Grace alone.  God’s love for the world.  Everything hangs on this!

Amen.