October 31st 2017 marks the 500 year anniversary of the day in which Martin Luther is famously said to have nailed to the doors of his Wittenburg Church '95 Theses', calling for discussion and change in how the Church understood repentance and the sale of indulgences. While that specific issue may seem unrelatable and far away from the things we face as a Christians in Sydney, it is significant to us because it is the major starting point in understanding the Protestant Reformation.
This would be the movement that generated "Protestant" Churches, drawing a clear line of difference, and in some cases opposition, with the Roman Catholic. The historical impact of the Reformation cannot be underestimated. Whole nations found themselves at odds with one another as they adopted opposing views. Violent conflict was not unheard of.
It is important that we learn from these realities. Even the best motives, the purest intentions, the right positions, can be tainted by sinfulness. It is telling that in humanity's story, getting things right so often come with glaring oversights that gets so much wrong. We are not so good that our well meaning efforts to uphold the truth have never come with wrongful harm.
The Reformation as a whole engaged with a wide range of issues. Things like the accessibility of the Bible and the value of everyday people were important battlegrounds. There were even socio-economic influences at play, as society experienced changes moving away from Medieval Society towards that of the Renaissance. Politics was an ever close issue with many utilising the commotion of the time to their own personal advantage. Even science and technology was a factor, the development of the printing press being an important element of the distribution of Reformation material.
But its enduring effect, the heart of its continued meaning, is still its exploration of the doctrine of salvation. In challenging the tradition and teachings of the Catholic Church, the reformers established with force and clarity the Scriptures witness to the gospel being all about Jesus, by grace, through faith and for the glory of God.
These truths are the source of our confidence and hope. And while they were always there in the Bible, witnessing to God's goodness, the Reformation's rediscovery of them, and the consequent insistence on them as central, helps us to hold on to the foundation we have as Christians. We ought to give thanks to God for this movement as it continues to shape how we do Church and how we understand our faith.
It is regularly noted that the great lesson of the Reformation is that we need to constantly be looking to God's Word. The truth of Jesus and the gospel are revealed there. But perhaps the great lesson that is often overlooked is the Church's great need for unity. That a schism or split was necessary is regrettable. The simple reality is that the Christian witness was and is still today, compromised as the world see's two (and more) separate groups, who both call themselves Christian.
In John's Gospel, Jesus himself says this -
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Jesus prays that believers would be united. And that this unity would be so rich that it would be like that of the Trinity. This is no small thing, and its impact is profound. The Church as it is joined together, and as it is joined also to God, then becomes a witness, a proof, that Jesus is who he says he is. In short, the unity of the Church is evangelistic: a God given source of confidence in the gospel, one of our best and most compelling arguments for the Christian faith.
Our unity as Christians is God ordained. It is His intention that it would testify to the truth of the gospel. And it has been given to us in Jesus. We must do everything we can to maintain and uphold it, and to build it up, even when the threats are not immediately clear.
How many times has the question been posed, "What's the difference between Catholics and Protestants", or "Why are there so many different denominations", and "How come the views of one Church can be so completely opposite to another?" There are answers to these questions, but when asked they reflect a confusion about what Christianity really is. And it all comes with a feeling that Jesus makes less sense, that the gospel is less real, that the Christian faith is less true, because those that proclaim it are divided.
The impact isn't limited to our witness and evangelism. It also affects our fellowship. How often have we ourselves, Christians, wrestled to reconcile the real division we sometimes experience with the glory and goodness that should be? It is a special frustration to sit across a table from another believer who you know stands a world away from you on an issue you've been discussing.
Unity is important, far more important than we have typically given it credit for. We need to learn to make Jesus truly central. Only then will other things, important things that we may disagree on, be unable to drive a wedge between us.
While few of us will have the opportunity to speak into worldwide Christianity, every single one of us has a place in our little local Church. So let's make sure we promote unity where we are right now, and that we are humbly looking to God and the goodness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that we are saved by grace through faith alone, even as we wrestle to find it.
May a remembrance of the Reformation help us be thankful for God and the many ways he has preserved gospel truth in our world. And may it teach us to humbly and tenaciously pursue the unity we have already been given in Christ.