The Pastor’s Page
October News Letter
As always, on the last Sunday of October our congregation, along with other Protestant congregations throughout the world, will be celebrating Reformation Sunday. But this year’s celebration of the Reformation will be extra special because the year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which technically began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed what are called the “95 Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, calling for public debate over 95 things Luther believed the medieval church was teaching and practicing in error. The 95 theses can be summed up in this statement that became the rallying cry of the Reformation: “Salvation by grace through faith.” Three important principles grew from this:
- Sola Gratia (“grace alone”) — We are saved by the grace of God alone; not by anything we can do to earn our salvation.
- Sola Fide (“faith alone”) — Our salvation comes through faith alone; we need only have faith that our sins have been forgiven through Jesus Christ.
- Sola Scriptura (“scripture alone”) — The Bible alone, and not any church authority, is the standard by which the teachings and doctrines of the church are to be judged as true and reliable.
The existence of Zion’s Union Church is due to these teachings of the Protestant Reformation. The roots of our congregation can be traced back to the three most influential reformers — Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. Luther is the father of the Lutheran church, while Zwingli and Calvin are the fathers of the Reformed and Congregationalist churches that would eventually give rise to the United Church of Christ. Zion’s Union Church has its roots in all three of these Protestant traditions.
What made Luther’s reform movement successful where previous efforts had failed was the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. This enabled the views of Luther and the other Reformers to be circulated to a wide audience throughout Europe and drummed up a lot of popular support for the reform movement. Many influential political leaders, and church leaders such as Calvin and Zwingli, came to see the truth of Luther’s teaching and gave him their support.
The Reformation led to some major changes in the worship life of Christians who joined the reforming churches. But Luther’s reforms in the area of worship were actually modest and conservative compared to some other reformers. Luther, who was a Catholic priest, retained all the basic elements of the Mass, a reason why worship in the mainline Protestant denominations is still very similar to Roman Catholic worship. But Luther also called for the revival of regular, every Sunday preaching, which had fallen out of favor in the Catholic Church. He also restored the Cup to the people at Holy Communion, which had been withheld for fear of spilling the Lord’s blood. Most importantly, Luther denied that the bread and wine became the literal body and blood of Jesus, as the Catholic Church taught (a belief called “transubstantiation”).
But Luther’s changes to worship were far less radical than some other Protestant churches that were springing up known as the Anabaptist churches (from which the Amish and Mennonites are descended) that did away with infant baptism in favor of adult baptism (or “believer’s baptism”). Luther insisted on the vital importance of infant baptism. Luther also did not do away with vestments for the pastors, or candles or crucifixes or stained glass windows, as the more radical reformers did. The main principle that guided Luther was this: “Retain everything in the Tradition that is not contrary to Scripture.”
But one tragic side effect of the Protestant Reformation was the splintering of the “one holy, catholic and apostolic Church” into hundreds of different denominations. Thankfully, in the past century, many of those denominations are coming back together. The United Church of Christ (UCC) is the result of the merging of the Evangelical and Reformed Churches and the Congregationalist Christian Churches in 1957. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is the result of the merger of three smaller Lutheran denominations in 1987.
And we here at Zion’s can be extremely proud that we are at the forefront of ecumenical relations. Since our founding in 1826 as “Zion’s Union Church,” separate Reformed and Lutheran congregations shared the same building, but with separate pastors and separate worship services. Then in 1987, the two congregations united in a “shared ministry” and now worshipped together under the leadership of one pastor. Most recently, in 2013, we took another major step forward in becoming a “federated congregation.” Now there are no longer two separate congregations but one legally and ecclesiastically united congregation. We are still called “Zion’s Union Church,” but the name is more fitting than ever—we are truly united in Jesus Christ.
Three years ago when I was called to be your new pastor, I was thrilled to read this statement in the preamble to your new constitution: “We, baptized members of the Church of Jesus Christ, responding in faith to the call of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel . . . come together as One Church of Jesus Christ from historical Lutheran and Reformed traditions to form a more effective ministry by continuing our affiliation with the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America . . .” And in an accompanying statement to the congregation, the Church Board wrote: “Now we, again, have taken another step to cement our relationship and set precedence in the world of religion. We are setting the example of unity and togetherness in the goal of furthering the ministry of Jesus Christ our Lord.”
As we celebrate Reformation Sunday on October 29th, I want to put the emphasis on the reformation that is happening right here within the walls of Zion’s Union Church. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli would surely all be very proud of what you have achieved. But, more importantly, our Lord Jesus Christ is surely very proud, for he once prayed, “I ask . . . on behalf of those who will believe in me . . . that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21).
Celebrating our new unity,