The purpose of good religion is to help people live in ways that bring them closer to God. A life lived closer to God, with awareness that God is mixed in with all the everyday details of life, is not a life that leads to great wealth, or power, or fame. It does not make us invulnerable to pain, or loss, or confusion, or sadness. It does not protect us from sickness or death, no matter how much we may wish it could.
A life lived in partnership with God, with the awareness that God is with us for every breath, every step, every choice we make, is a life that can be lived with meaning, and generally with a sense of peace. It is a life that can be lived in such a way as to have a good effect on people around us.
Good religion can help us to forgive ourselves, and to show grace and kindness to the people in our lives. It can help us make sense of hard things that happen, and can help protect us from the pain we are capable of causing ourselves, and each other, through poor choices, through selfishness and greed, through our pride, and through the futile attempts to satisfy the appetites of our egos.
A life lived in the light that shines through good religion is not a perfect life. We can be faithful and religious in this good way, and still be human, still make mistakes, still need to try again, with the recognition that we are works in progress, and that God is still helping us.
Good religion can offer us hope in hard times, help for living, and show us the way to peace, at least enough peace to help us through the days, and make it possible to sleep at night, and not be haunted by fear or regret, or guilt.
Good religion can be a very powerful force for justice and compassion in people’s lives, and in our world. Unfortunately, bad religion can also be a very powerful force. Bad religion can be used to frighten, and control, and manipulate people. It can be, and is, used to get rich, and to wield power.
Not all religion is good, and that not everything that gets said and done in the name of religion- any religion, is good.
This morning we join with churches all around the world who are celebrating Reformation Sunday. The Reformation was a movement to bring about change in the western European Church that began in the early 1500’s. At that time, most people in western countries that professed the Christian faith were part of the Roman Catholic Church. If you lived in Asia, or Eastern Europe, you were likely part of the Orthodox Church, which still has, its own traditions, history, theology, and hierarchy distinct from the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1517, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther, who was a scholar at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, nailed what he called 95 Theses to the door of a church. His purpose was to open debate and discussion about what he saw as abuses of power, and religious malpractice, on the part of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.
Luther particularly objected to the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. An indulgence was essentially forgiveness for sin, which could be purchased from an authorized agent of the Pope. The revenue stream from these sales was enormous, and was used to finance church- sponsored armies that fought in the Crusades, and to pay for huge building projects like the Cistine Chapel at the Vatican. Luther did not believe forgiveness could be bought and sold.
Luther is the best known of the Reformers, but he was not the only one. Movements to repair the church began all over western Europe.
Historians view the Reformation as a triumph of literacy, and of the printing press. Moveable type made it possible for relatively inexpensive documents to be printed for mass consumption. Martin Luther fed the revolution of thought by translating the Bible into German. Other scholars began the work of making the Bible available in their own languages. The Bible became an important tool of faith for many more people. In the past, when every book had to be hand-copied, and most people never learned to read, Bible were only the hands of the very wealthy, which included the hierarchy of the church. Even local priests were often illiterate, and relied on stories and teachings they had memorized.
Access to the Bible made it more possible for priests lower down the power structure, and lay people, to get another perspective about their religion, and to ask questions. It was not long before there were breakaway churches, led by preachers who had become alienated from the Roman Catholic Church, and moved from trying reform it, to founding their own “protesting” or Protestant churches. There are now literally thousands of Christian denominations, distinct from each for reasons of theology, of biblical interpretation, or lifestyle.
I want to tell you about my favourite Reformer. George Fox was born in 1624, in a village called Fenny Drayton outside of Leicester in England. He was born into an England whose churches had already broken away from Roman Catholicism. In 1534, Henry the Eighth by royal decree had made himself the Supreme Head of the church in England. This break from Rome helped foster a sense of religious questioning, which was helped by the growing availability of the Bible in English, and by the social unrest and breakdown of institutions that came with the English Civil War.
From a young age, George Fox voraciously devoured the Scriptures, and thrived on conversations about faith. He sought, from about age eleven, to live a simple and pure life. He grew increasingly disillusioned with teachers of religion who seemed to him to be too enamoured of a life of luxury. He was particularly critical of their use of alcohol.
As a young adult, he left his home village, and travelled around England. He spent time with many different religious thinkers and preachers. He formed and tested his own beliefs in conversations, and increasingly, listened to an inner voice, which he experienced as the Spirit of Christ at work within him.
He eventually became a preacher himself, with some pretty radical things to say, for his time, and for ours. He called for a return to what he called a “primitive Christianity”, more like the first followers of Jesus. He had little or no use for the institutions of the church as he saw them.
He taught that outward rituals such as baptism and communion could be safely ignored, as long as a person had experienced a true spiritual conversion, that is, they had become convinced that following the Spirit was the only way for them to live.
Fox taught that the only real qualification to be Christian minister was the work of God’s Spirit within a person and in their life. No amount of academic study could take the place of the Spirit. This also meant that anyone, including women and children could be ministers. This was radical in mid-seventeenth century, and in some circles, is still radical today.
Fox taught that God dwells in the hearts of obedient people, and is not confined to a particular church building. He believed that you could experience God’s presence anywhere, and was content to gather to worship in fields and orchards. He found great value in believers gathering together for worship- he just did not think they needed a special building in which to do it.
Perhaps the most significant impact, and challenge of George Fox has to do with his understanding of authority. How do we know we are following God, and God’s ways?
In Roman Catholic theology, the institution of the church and its hierarchy, and its traditions represent religious authority- the idea is that the correct teaching is preserved and passed along within the church. The visible head of the church, the Pope, is the spokesperson for that authority.
With the Protestant Reformation, thinkers like Martin Luther gave that authority to Scripture, saying that God’s will for our lives is revealed in the Bible. The Reformers used the Bible as their test, and their ammunition, when challenging the teachings of Roman Catholic Church. Many Christians still get caught up in this kind of dialogue, pitting their interpretation of scripture against people who see things differently from them.
Although Fox was an avid reader of the Bible, he taught that believers could follow their own inner guide, the light of the living Christ within. In the beginning, those that followed Fox’s teaching called themselves “Children of the Light”, or “Friends of the Truth”. Eventually they became known as the Society of Friends of Jesus Christ. They are also known as the Quakers- that name began as a kind of a putdown, followers of Fox were mocked because he often preached about trembling at the word of the Lord.
The Quaker teaching that the Spirit is at work in every person continues to be an important message. If God is at work in every person, each person is of immeasurable value, but no one person is more important than another. God can, and does, offer wisdom, and truth, and direction to each of us, if we are able to quiet ourselves, and to direct our lives to listening, and following that direction. Amen