“The Essentials” Colchester Federated Church, October 31, 2021, Reformation Sunday (Mark 12:28-34)

Jesus was once questioned about the greatest commandment.  He responded with the greatest ethical teaching that those who claim the Christian faith as our own are called to follow.  Jesus said, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself.  No other commandment is greater than these.”[1]  These weren’t new commandments; both can be found in the Old Testament (in Deuteronomy and Leviticus specifically).  Both commandments were part of Jesus’ Jewish tradition.  Though Jesus connected them, telling those who questioned him that these two commandments—loving God with everything you’ve got and loving your neighbor as yourself—are inseparable.  These are the greatest commandments that all of Jesus’ followers are called to follow, the essentials of our faith.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself.

Now on the last Sunday in October many Protestants celebrate Reformation Sunday.  It’s a Sunday where we can consider what remains essential for Christians to hold onto in an ever changing historical and cultural landscape.  We remember that on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church as an invitation to debate the sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins.  And then he got excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church, so here we Protestants are—still protesting!  Martin Luther was a deeply flawed human being, but he helped establish the idea that the Christian Church is always in need of reform.  We are called to figure out how God is still speaking.  In our day and age there are the three branches of Christianity—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant.  And within those branches there are varied and diverse denominations.  No one iteration of the Church is perfect.  We’re close, but even we are not perfect.  Though we can do our best to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves.  To not just remember the essentials of the faith but actually live them out in how we practice our Christianity.  We can be open to how the Holy Spirit is guiding us to be the church.

Because we’re living in challenging times.  It’s worth sharing again that there’s a theory that was put forth by Phyllis Tickle (an authority on religion in America) that every 500 years or so, the Latinized cultures of the world go through a major cultural upheaval.  We begin asking ourselves questions like—where is our authority and how shall we live? 

Five hundred years ago, it was the Protestant Reformation.  All of a sudden, we had humanism, nation-states, a middle class, capitalism, translating the Bible into our spoken languages and printing them to eventually have in our homes to actually read.  We had Protestants proclaiming that religious professionals were not the only people with direct access to God.  And we’re saved by faith and God’s grace, which we can’t earn and certainly shouldn’t be spending our lifetime savings trying to buy, and you know the rest.

In 1054 we had the Great Schism of Eastern and Western Christianity.  Now we had Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics who disagreed on nuanced theological issues and split up over these disagreements.  Fifteen hundred years back we had the Great Decline and Fall, when the classical world fell away and ushered in The Dark Ages.  Ordered governments were no more and chaos ensued in the Latinized world.  The monasteries and convents rose from the ashes to save the culture.

Finally, around two thousand years ago, we had the Great Transformation.  The world fell apart in some ways and came together in new ways.  Rome moved from being a kingdom to an empire, the known world that was once scattered and disconnected became member-parts of a cultural, economic, and political whole.  All roads led to Rome.  And in this chaos was born a humble Jewish teacher who, because of his impact, would one day change the very way we date and mark time itself in the West.

So now we’re in this time period that Christian historians like Phyllis Tickle call the Great Emergence or The Age of the Spirit.  Some predict that changes we’re undergoing will be equal to The Great Transformation itself in its impact on changing everything we’ve always known.[2]  But how can we predict what this is going to look like and what this means for our beloved Christian Church?  Yes, today is Reformation Sunday.  But how is the Church being re-formed?  Tickle wrote, “We find ourselves alive and Christian in a time of almost unprecedented upheaval.”[3]  We just don’t know the answers to some of these questions yet. 

Keep in mind that she wrote all of this before the global pandemic that we are still facing.  We are living in an historic moment, and it’s too soon to predict how this is going to all play out.  But here’s the thing, religion is in decline in America.  This we know.  When Gallup first began measuring church membership in 1937 73% of adults reported that they belonged to a church.  Church membership remained around 70% for decades.  But things began to shift around the turn of the 21st century (which is in line with around 500 years after the Protestant Reformation).  And in 2020 just 47% of Americans said that they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque.  We are more multicultural and religiously diverse, and that’s wonderful.  Though this was a big shock because it’s the first time that this religious affiliation number has been below 50%.[4] 

Here’s what always gives me hope.  The folks who remain connected to a faith community (here in person or virtually in the times in which we are living) truly want to be here.  Not out of guilt or obligation or to be cool or because there’s nothing else to do on a Sunday morning.  People are part of faith communities because they are communities and connect us to each other in a world where too often we are isolated from one another.  The Christian Church provides a way to gather together to worship God and love our neighbors in profound ways and in ways that we cannot do on our own.

Sometimes churches are lifelines.  And maybe what we’re realizing is that we are being called to get back to the essentials of who we are and what we do.  We may be smaller in number than churches were in the 1930s.  Americans may be less religious than we once were.  But we can be mighty.  Do churches need tons of committees?  Do we need tons of programming?  Do we need to stretch ourselves so thin in some desperate attempt to be all things to all people, which we can’t do anyway?  Or do we focus on the essentials of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ?  Gathering people and breaking bread and feeding the hungry and telling the stories that can change lives.  The church can be a place of hope and healing in a hurting world.  It’s what we were made to do as a community of faith.  Love God.  Love our neighbors.  Love ourselves.  No other commandment is greater than these.  Happy Reformation Sunday.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

[1] Mark 12:29-31, CEB.
[2] Phyllis Tickle and Jon M. Sweeney, The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy is Shaping the Church, 9-13.
[3] Tickle and Sweeney, The Age of the Spirit, 20.
[4] Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” March 29, 2021 https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash