You all know who Larry Bird is, right? A pretty well-known basketball player who grew up in Indiana, played college and professional ball...used to be involved with the management of the Pacers? That Larry Bird. Well, I also know who he is...now...but back in the early 80's, not so much so. I mean, I knew the name, of course, but I am not sure I could have picked him out of a lineup. As a matter of fact, I sort of met him once, but only because someone pointed him out to me.
It was back when Rob and I were still in college. We had come to Indianapolis to attend an event downtown at Union Station when it was still a happening place. Honestly, I don't recall why we were there, but I do remember that another girlfriend and I were standing around waiting for our dates to finish paying for dinner when a man neither of us knew came up and asked us if we wanted to meet Larry Bird.
We looked at each other and I asked the guy, "Larry Bird, the basketball player?" He said, "Yes, he is right over there." Now, the only way I knew which one was Larry was because he towered over everyone around him. So the guy says, "I am a friend of Larry's and he sent me over here to invite you ladies to join his private party."
Now let me just say up front, I admit I was a bit naive, but here's how much. I enthusiastically said, "Yes, we would love to go to his party. That would be so cool. And my boyfriend, who loves basketball, is going to be so excited to meet THE Larry Bird."
Well, the guy looked at me like I was from Mars and said, "Boyfriend? Ummm, no boyfriends. Larry's only inviting you ladies." OK...so...I didn't understand it at the time...but turns out that Larry Bird had his own personal "gatekeeper" whose job it was to decide who gets to meet Larry, and who doesn't.
Needless to say, my friend and I did not go meet Larry. And neither did our dates.
This idea of gate-keeping...controlling access...having a handler?? It's pretty common for famous people like sports stars, rock stars, and political figures. Heck, even some pastors have gate-keepers.
Mine is named Nancy Turner.
OK...so you do know I'm kidding, right? Although, during the weekdays, the access button for the locked front door is in her office.
Seriously though, the idea of controlled access...or like in Larry's case, having a go-between, was a point of contention for Martin Luther and the Reformers. As we mentioned earlier in this Reformation sermon series, Luther was concerned that layers of clutter within the church had begun to bury the gospel of Jesus Christ. He also felt that the ordained leadership had claimed an exclusive authority that placed an unnecessary burden on the laity. More specifically, according to church doctrine at the time, the ordained priests held positions of power over everything in the life of the church - they were gatekeepers of the sacraments, the only ones with access to scriptures, and they only provided mass in Latin -regardless of what language the people spoke.
This led to a troubling perception that when a priest offered absolution of sin, it was perceived to be a function of the priest himself, rather than it just being a function of the office. In other words, it was by the priest words and actions that the sacraments were effective, not God's. The priest also had the authority to decide the penance for sins - which during the Middle Ages were typically quite severe. So Luther, a priest himself, was furious that the curate had assumed and abused authority which was not theirs to hold in the first place.
Now, let me just say a couple of things...the fact that we are doing series on the five "solas" of the Reformation is not in any way, shape, or form meant to be anti-Roman Catholic. All this stuff happened 500 years ago...in the Middle Ages. A whole lot has changed since then. In fact, the Reformation was followed by a counter-Reformation within the Catholic Church that addressed several of the sinful practices that the Reformers had originally protested. So, please...don't hear what I am not saying. When I speak about the Catholic priests during this series...I am not talking about Father Tim around the corner at St. Joe's.
Yes...the Catholic church has had its share of ugliness...as did the Reformation movement...as has the Protestant churches as well. We are human...we sin.
Luther understood that. His desire was for the church to repent of it and be transformed. And, yes, eventually the Catholic Church did just that...but not until after the great schism had already gone so far that there was no turning back. Not until the baby had already been thrown out with the bath water.
That said, there are current signs of healing and progress between Catholics and Lutherans as this anniversary approaches. All across the world, joint worship services are being planned to acknowledge the culpability of both sides and to seek reconciliation. Praise be to God, both traditions have come a long way since the Reformation.
As we continue along in our sermon series, today we dig into the idea of solus Christus, Christ alone. For Luther and Reformers, the significance of this statement was a little different than what it holds for many people now. Today, when we say Christ alone, the emphasis of the "alone" is usually in contrast to any other faith tradition in our world. In other words, we say our salvation comes from Christ alone, not Mohammed, not Buddha, not the Dali Lama, not any other spiritual leader.
However, back in Luther's time, there wasn't a huge awareness to other faith traditions - they existed, but not prominently in Europe. So, for the Reformers, Christ alone was more about God's grace being meted out to the people only through Christ as opposed to through the church or, more specifically the priests. "Solus Christus" was a protest to the expressed need for an ordained priest in order to receive God's forgiveness...or to administer the sacraments...or to offer prayers on the people's behalf.
"Christ alone" was a summary statement that only through Christ has humanity been redeemed. It was also a statement about who held power and authority in God's church. Practically and theologically, Luther wanted to free the laity from being beholden to the priests...saying that we, the church, are beholden only to Christ. Likewise, Luther claimed that, according to scripture, we all have been given direct access to Christ...we do not need the gate-keeper or go-between.
We don't need others - religious figures or patrons or various saints - to intercede on our behalf.
We have Christ's spirit available to us -- within our own selves.
Now, Luther was not saying we don't need ordained clergy. He knew that God calls certain people into ordained ministry. His point was that being a minister is a role we fill within the church. We are called to minister to the people...bringing the Word, praying, offering sacraments. However, clergy are never the mediators of God grace and salvation. We proclaim the gospel of salvation and righteousness by grace through faith, but we can't save anyone or make them righteous. Only Christ does that.
Likewise, we can preside at sacraments like baptism and communion, but we are just presiders...the work and grace that takes place in the sacrament...the efficacy if you will, is God at work through the Holy Spirit.
Part of Luther's argument against the priests...and remember he was one...came from reading and studying passages like this one from Hebrews. He related to what the author of Hebrews had said to the Jewish Christians -- people whose ancestors had always had a very specific relationship with the Levite priests. The role of the priest was to represent God to the people and the people to God.
The high priests, who were called by God, were the equivalent of Temple gatekeepers. They brought forth the gifts and sacrifices given for the forgiveness of sin. They offered the prayers. They held people - including kings and prophets - accountable. Still, as anointed as they were, they were also fallible human-beings. They had their own sin, and therefore could not offer perfect righteousness. Ultimately they could not fulfill their most important purpose...to reconcile the people to God.
Only Christ could do that.
So, it seems, that perhaps part of what this author was trying to do was to help the Jewish Christians make a radical break from their reliance on Temple priests by explaining how Jesus has fulfilled the role of the Most High Priest. More importantly, he used the priest metaphor to explain how Jesus truly was the Messiah...the one who was chosen by God, to enter the fully human experience, remain righteous, and make the sacrifice for sin that no other human could make.
Notice, though, the author doesn't try to explain exactly how salvation happens. He just basically says that the only source of salvation is only Jesus Christ. He perfectly fulfills the role of Most High Priest. He, and only he, made the perfect sacrifice that reconciles us to God. Christ alone has done this.
The author, does however, place emphasis on the fact that Jesus, while fully and perfectly divine...was also fully and perfectly human. He is the penultimate high priest of God's mysteries - the one who conquers sin and saves humanity once and for all. BUT he was also the humble man who endured and experienced every weakness, every testing, every emotion that the human experience offers. (paraphrasing Rev. Susan Andrews, FOTW p 184)
As the author of Hebrews writes, while he was on earth he offered up prayers and supplications with cries and tears. Folks this is good news...Jesus...the Most High Priest...the ruler of God's kingdom...the Son of God...our savior...the One through whom we receive grace and are made righteous before God...the one who loves us enough to die on our behalf...that One...Jesus Christ...totally gets us.
He understands when we suffer, because he suffered. He understands when we are tempted, because he was tempted. He understands when we are lonely because his was a lonely ministry. He understands when people scorn us, attack us, or try to make us feel insignificant ...because all those things happened to him. He understands grief and pain and heartache because he endured them all.
Is it not incredibly reassuring to know that the One who stands before God on our behalf, has completely lived the human experience? He has been on his knees in prayer like us. He has begged and pleaded, and been reduced to tears. Yeah folks, the fully-human, fully-divine Jesus relates to us like no other god possibly can. And isn't that what we all want? To be understood.
That's why things like support groups and 12-step programs are so effective. It feels much safer to be our true selves with people who have had similar experiences as we have. When we find out we have a terminal illness, a broken marriage, or an addicted loved one...we are encouraged by stories from those who have also walked the same path.
Being connected through shared experiences is its own form of grace.
So, friends, when we come to the throne of grace, or as some translations call it, the mercy seat...in other words we come before God in prayer...seeking grace and mercy...asking for peace and comfort in our lives...we can do so with utter confidence that the One who completely understands...totally relates...is right there with our Creator listening and advocating...whispering: YES...you are so beloved...and then giving us the grace and mercy we need.
I'm telling you, if that isn't good news, I don't know what is.
Especially this week...as we try to wrap our heads and hearts around the mass shooting in Las Vegas last Sunday night...while we are trying to process the scope of devastation left by hurricanes...and wild fires..and flooding and earthquakes around the world. We're trying to comprehend the real threat of nuclear war with Korea...the real and active genocides happening around the globe...and the real possibility that millions of people are going to lose access to healthcare insurance.
Friends, our collective heart is breaking...and many of us feel helpless...maybe even hopeless...things are beyond our control. Some of us are struggling to find the right words to pray. I mean...what exactly are we praying for? What do we say that doesn't sound trite? Many of us are lamenting...like the psalmist, asking how much longer Lord? When will enough be enough? And a whole bunch of folks are feeling a impending sense of despair.
But let's never forget, our Most High Priest Jesus understands all of these feelings...he has experienced them...without ever being overcome by them. Notwithstanding his own broken heart, which I'm sure, Christ also feels right now...we can rest assure that when we pray, Christ hears...and when we can't pray...Christ prays for us. He advocates for us and offers the grace and mercy and hope and peace that we seek...even when words fail us...even when faith is weak. The fully-human, fully-divine, resurrected Christ reminds us that in the end, good will win.
I find great comfort in that...and I hope you do too. In fact, for me personally, it is all I have had to cling to this week as my spirit has been greatly disturbed after the horrific tragedy in Las Vegas. There is no shame in admitting that the onslaught of heartbreaking news for so many weeks in a row takes a toll on us. Instead of standing strong, or taking action, deep hurt drives us to cry out...to shed tears...to fall to our knees in prayer.
My first inclination this week was to go off this sermon series to speak to event more directly. But as I pondered how the church should respond to something like this, it occurred to me...there may be prophetic things the church needs to say or do eventually...but today, when we are still numb from it all...it seems to me that the thing we all -- the whole world -- most needs is Only Christ...and the thing we, the church, most need to do is pray. Pray directly and fervently, with bold confidence, to God through Jesus Christ. Because...we can.
Transition to the candles that will already be lit...
Prayer by the Rev. Dr. Laurie Ann Kraus Director, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance
God of our life, whose presence sustains us in every circumstance, As the sound of gunfire again echoes over another American city, we seek the grounding power of your love and compassion. As death rained down from above in the dark of night, We pray this day for the Sun of Righteousness to arise with healing in its wings, and rain mercy, grace and peace upon our broken people.
So many have been lost: brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends gathered in the unity of music, scattered by evil and hatred. We pray for solace for all who loved them. We pray for those who have been spared and those whose lives are changed forever that they may find healing, sustenance, and strength in the hard days to come.
We give thanks for first responders: who ran toward gunfire, rather than away who dropped everything to save the wounded and comfort survivors We pray for doctors and nurses and mental health providers who repair what has been broken who try to bring healing and hope in the face of the unchecked principalities and powers of violence. We ask for sustaining courage for those who are suffering and traumatized.
We cry, how long, O Lord? But the same words echo back, again and again as if the question comes to us from You— how long, how long, how long…
In the wake of an event that should be impossible to contemplate but which has become all too common in our experience, open our eyes, break our hearts, and turn our hands to the movements of your Spirit, that our anger and sorrow may unite in service to build a reign of peace, where the lion and the lamb may dwell together, and terror no longer holds sway over our common life. In the name of Christ, our healer and our Light, we pray. Amen.