Reformation.21 “Semper Reformata” John 8:31-36
Want to hazard a guess as to how many people received Holy Communion at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London on Easter Sunday, 1800? This was and remains one of the largest cathedrals in London (and, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful in all the world) which could hold over a thousand; and this was the high, holy day of a Christian nation (well, Anglican). What would you guess? Thousands? Hundreds? No! Six. Six people communed on Easter Sunday 1800 at St. Paul’s London! Alan Jacobs reported this fun fact some years ago writing about the rise and fall of Christendom in Western Europe. It was customary, BTW, in those days, for all worshipers to commune on holy days, so the total attendance was almost certainly less than 10.
Things were no better in Germany, perhaps worse, but attendance records for most all those churches have long perished—wars and such, dontcha know! Why do I report this? Well, because we have this idea that a graph of the Church’s growth would show a steady uphill climb from the 1st century peaking at the last day. But Jesus says if he didn’t move up the Last Day, there’d be no believers on earth. As Luther once said: “The Gospel is like a heavy, late summer afternoon thundershower. Today the Word rains down on Germany, but where it is scorned, it moves on.” The graph is like an EKG!
I report this to set the stage for Reformation Day October 31 in Germany 1817, which, as near as I can tell, was the first time the Lutheran Reformation was celebrated in something like our current form. The 1700s was the age of Rationalism and Revolution (French, American, what have you) overthrowing religion as outmoded superstition and enthroning man at the center of creation who by his thinking, scheming, and empire building would make heaven on earth.
What it made, actually, were years of war, devastation, famine, and pestilence. But Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations” and the Dutch East India company and associated oligarchs and their obedient servants got filthy rich; there was that…
A small group of professors who taught at Erlangen University in German in 1817 had looked back and figured that the Age of Reason was not an Enlightenment as proclaimed everywhere in the flourishing modern media, but a new Dark Age. Life had become, nasty, brutish, short. And they’d been reading this guy called Luther, and found in his writings Another Way, the Way of Christ and his cross that, to them, promised light and life.
So working with the Kaiser, they got a little Lutheran Reformation celebration going. Beer, brats, parties, celebrations of their heritage. But also some church services where an outline of the Christian Faith as Luther rediscovered it was proclaimed. And what do you know? Something like a Luther Renaissance got kicked off that grew throughout the 19th century in Germany.
Meanwhile, back in England at this time, something similar happened as Alan Jacobs writes:
“And yet [despite the 6 people communing in St. Paul’s on Easter 1800] by the middle of the nineteenth century, thanks largely to the rise of Anglo-Catholicism, there was an explosion of church attendance and church-building throughout England, along with an emphasis on the centrality of Holy Communion that had not been seen in England since the Middle Ages. It was not something that anyone had expected. It might also be worth noting that many of the prime movers of Anglo-Catholicism were former evangelicals — “former” not because they had rejected the key tenets of evangelicalism, but because they had found evangelical spirituality limited and insufficient to meet their needs. A strongly biblical evangelicalism was the seed-bed of renewal for English Catholicism. Nobody expected that either. Christian renewal happens in strange ways and at strange times, but it happens. I wouldn’t write off even the Church of England just yet…”
The point is, as Luther said, “Semper Reformata”—the church is always reforming! This is a day to remember not the glories of Luther, the German (or English) people, the staunch faith of the Missouri Synod, or our fathers, or our impressive orthodoxy here at Our Savior and give ourselves a hearty pat on the back and a gold star over beer and brats, later. No. This is a day, above all, to remember that, as our Lord says: “everyone who practices sin [practice makes perfect!] is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
This is a day to remember, to put it simply, that: to be free is to be enslaved by Christ. To be “free and independent agents, masters of our own domain” is to be a slave, while Xn servitude is royal freedom. This is the truth and only captivated by that will you ever be free…
This is a day to remember that church attendance has waxed and waned dramatically over the centuries! On the day of Pentecost 30 AD there were 120 Xns worshiping Jesus as Lord. A few months later. there were about 5,000. But that was out of a million or two Jews in the ancient Roman Empire! At the beginning of the 4th century the number of practicing Christians was probably less than 100,000. 50 years later (thanks to Constantine’s revolution) it was millions. Six people communing in St. Paul’s London in 1800. Countless thousands in 1900. And in 2000? Back much closer to six. And as in England, so in Germany, and so in America…
The churches of my youth in the 60’s and 70’s were jam packed and growing. By the time I was ordained in ’92 they were fast emptying out. The last year and a half have seen a dramatically more rapid emptying than anytime in our lifetimes. And what are the prospects for the future?
Well, with Mark Zuckerberg launching Skynet, uh, I mean “Metaverse” where we’ll all live the machine life, hooked up to the Matrix, er, “Meta” by the blue pill, uh, Virtual Reality devices, socializing, working, shopping, all in Skynet, sorry! “Metaverse”—just like the wonderful world of Disney, only more so (the fun will be mandatory, no opting out). Given such developments, the prospects for churches filling back up look bleak. I suspect this has been the plan for some time, as recent hysteria over health and safety has emptied our country’s churches much faster than old-fashioned persecution. Still, faithful Xns find Christ’s church the only truly life-giving place especially in plague-times. We believe health, safety cannot be achieved by human works apart from God’s grace; and even if it could, the sacrifice of the True, Beautiful, and Good remains, for us, too high a price to pay.
Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, prophetically, in “After Virtue” in 1981 that the bad news is not that the barbarians bringing another Dark Age are at the gates; it’s worser: they have been governing us for a couple centuries and it’ll probably get dimmer still in the next decades.
But Jesus says: “if you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Outwardly speaking, Xns have never been many, powerful, rich, or well-off, as the world judges such things.
But we are, have been, and will be… free! And that is worth all the humiliation, suffering, cross and trials. They killed Jesus, after all, for saying that. But he rose from the dead. And so have we, his church: from Roman catacombs of the 1st century, the dungeons of Constantinople in the 4th, the darkness of London in 1800, or the desolations of today.
Yes, by grace alone, through faith alone, for Christ’s sake alone, we captives of Christ enjoy royal freedom, peace, joy; and we shall rise . In the Name of Jesus. Amen. +