Sermon - Sunday, 29 October 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 29 October.

Scripture: Isaiah 51: 1-8 / Matthew 22: 34-40

Text: Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn   (Isaiah 51: 1)


According to tradition on 31st October 1517 a young Augustinian friar called Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 theses or statements of concern to the door of All Saints Church in the German town of Wittenburg.

In fact there is no good historical evidence he ever did so and Luther himself never mentioned it in any of his considerable correspondence.

However on the basis that you should never spoil a good story for the sake of a little truth – just think of the Loch Ness monster and its value to the local tourist economy– so the tradition continues and on Tuesday coming, 31 October 2017, while the present Moderator, Derek Browning is in Wittenburg, I will be in London to take part in a service to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

What Luther did do – and on this the historical evidence is much more reliable – is that in a letter dated 31 October 1517 he wrote to his boss, the Archbishop of Mainz, expressing his concerns about some of the practices of the medieval Catholic church of his day.

One of Luther’s particular concerns was the practice of selling indulgences, an ever more elaborate scheme of payments made to the church to absolve someone of their sin and so reduce the time either they, or one of their loved ones, would spend in purgatory.

However corrupt it had become, Luther’s objection was not so much to specific abuses of the system but to the system itself, most importantly that there was no Biblical authority for the practice.

From his reading of the scriptures, and in particular the letters of St Paul, Luther had come to the view only God could forgive sin.

Dependent on a contrite heart, someone feeling truly sorry for what they had done wrong, and not some spare cash, forgiveness was the gift of divine grace and for the church to claim a role, and to demand payment for that role, was simply wrong.

Knowing that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation was coming, for the last few weeks I have spoken a great deal about Martin Luther, the would-be lawyer turned priest, whose influence changed not just the face of the Christian church but the social and cultural face of western Europe.To paraphrase the prophet Isaiah, in so many respects Martin Luther represents the rock from which we are cut and the quarry from which we are hewn.

Based upon his reading of the Bible, Luther developed an understanding of the individual – and in particular an individual’s conscience, responsibility and accountability before God.

If the priesthood of all believers became one of the catchphrases of Luther’s Reformation, it captures something of the essence of his thought, namely, that a person does not need a priest or a church to intercede on their behalf because through faith in Christ Jesus each person has direct access to God.

With his focus on the individual and an individual’s conscience before God combined with his ideas about the two kingdoms of church and state with their respective areas of authority – the state having authority over the externals of life – property being the obvious example – with the church having authority over the spiritual domain – over the soul God can and will let no-one rule but Him – Luther’s thought gave rise to modern notions of liberty and human rights.

If much of what we would now recognize as human rights legislation can be traced back to Luther, it is perhaps ironic that the growing secularism of our age is to some extent his responsibility too, the freedom of the individual not just to stand before God but to reject all belief in God or gods.

Although the Reformation came quite late to Scotland - in 1517 John Knox, the principle theologian and architect of the Scottish Reformation, was but a two year old child - and by the time the Scottish (Reformation) Parliament met in Edinburgh in 1560, some of the Reformation’s most notable achievements had been realised in Luther’s Germany, in the Switzerland of Calvin, Zwingli and Bucer, and in England under Henry VIII and Edward VI - so much of what is familiar in our church life today comes from Luther.

For example, upheld as the supreme rule of faith and life, and the irreplaceable witness to God’s presence, purpose and promise in all creation, the Bible is central to the life and worship of the Church of Scotland with the reading and preaching of God’s Word at the heart of our Sunday service.

And because the church stands under the Bible, not the Bible under the church, baptism and communion continue to be recognised as the two sacraments of our church - why - because they are the only two with Biblical authority.

So although it came late, in so many respects Luther’s thoughts and ideas and the Reformation movement to which he gave birth are indeed the rock and quarry from which the Church of Scotland is hewn.

However, important as it is to recognise our roots, my interest is not purely historical, for these same roots have the capacity to nourish and strengthen the church today and as we look to the future.

Based on many of the things we already do well as a church – the fact we have congregations in every corner of Scotland with tens of thousands of people committed to living the gospel, a positive history of engagement in social reform and a proven track record of delivering high quality social care, a breadth of theological outlook, a genuine concern for the environment and a commitment to education – considerable time and effort is being spent by the church at the moment through its Council of Assembly to develop a common strategy for the coming years.

Centred upon Jesus’ commandment to love God and to love our neighbour, the aim is to encourage growing congregations with well-supported ministry teams, balanced budgets, and fewer but better equipped church buildings.

And after years of feeling as though things were in decline, the hope is that by encouraging people to engage with local and global concerns, and with more flexible national church structures able to support local congregational initiatives and solutions, we will breathe new life and vitality into our church.

And that for me is Martin Luther’s enduring legacy.

However important all his other contributions – his translation of the Bible, his emphasis on scripture and with it his profound conviction that it is by faith alone in Jesus Christ that we are put right with God – it was Luther’s capacity to look at the church of his day, recognise its failings and shortcomings, and see how things could be different that appeals.

When he became a priest, Luther had no thought of changing the church of his day any more than he imagined himself refashioning society.

To that extent Luther was not an Old Testament prophet in the tradition of Isaiah or Amos or Micah, their repeated appeals to let justice flow like a river and righteousness like a never-ending stream.

Instead what started off as a concern for salvation and an often very difficult journey towards God became a passionate concern for the life and worship of his church to be renewed.

Whatever else Martin Luther lacked, he did not lack the courage of his convictions.

Put on trial in 1521 and charged with heresy, his life in considerable danger, his 22 volumes of books were placed on a windowsill and Luther was asked whether or not he recanted from anything he had written.

Of the books of instruction regarding Holy Scripture he said he could find nothing bad in them

Of his lectures on Christian teaching he claimed the opinions expressed were widely shared.

And of his contentious books, those in which he had quarrelled with the Pope and the church authorities, if he could be shown the error of his ways he would be the first to throw them onto the fire.

I must stand by them is how Luther remembered his reply, I can do no other than what our dear God wills.

Acknowledging the rock from which we are hewn and the quarry from which we are cut, continuing to draw our inspiration from scripture, secure in our faith that salvation is found in Christ alone, committed to doing what Jesus commands, that is, to loving God with heart and soul and mind and our neighbour as ourself, what better way to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation than in all the challenges and opportunities of our time to seek to discern no other than what our dear God wills.

After all, we are the Church of Scotland, a church once reformed and yet a church that is always reforming.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen