Event Name Sermon given at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, Good Friday 2017
Start Date 14th Apr 2017

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

The fact of earthquakes and volcanoes, the destruction they wreak and the consequential human suffering are sometimes taken to be an argument against the existence of a God of love. But the damage they do is nothing by comparison with the suffering caused by the cruelty of human beings one against another. And however hard we try, still we get it wrong. As St Paul said, ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’

The fatal attacks on Westminster Bridge and at the gates of the Palace of Westminster on 22nd March remind us not to be complacent about the ability of our Police and Security Services to protect us from random acts of terror and violence. Perhaps they make us feel a little more vulnerable than we did. But truly the human condition is to live with uncertainty and vulnerability, though our western way of life can often mask from us the universal truth that sin and death are all around us, are powerfully destructive forces to which we all appear to be subject. As St Paul went on, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’

500 years ago a young Augustinian monk, a priest who was also a professor of theology at his local university, was wrestling with this problem of the rescue from sin and death, which we call salvation. How God saves human beings from sin and death was the issue. Did the Church have the right answers? On 31st October 1517, Martin Luther wrote to his bishop to protest against the sale of indulgences. Later followers of his suggested that he had that day nailed 95 theses on the issue to the door of the church in Wittenberg, but, whether that happened or not, he certainly gave wide circulation to his views. Martin Luther’s objection to the sale of indulgences to raise money for the re-building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome arose from his theological reflection on the fact of his own sinfulness. With St Paul, he asked, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’

The pope at the time, who took the name Leo X, was Giovanni di Lorenzo de' Medici, the second son of the ruler of the Florentine Republic, Lorenzo the Magnificent. He had been elevated to the cardinalate at the age of 14. When at the age of 38 he was elected pope in 1513, he had not even been ordained a priest. He spent heavily on the decoration of the Vatican Palace by artists such as Raphael and is alleged to have said, ‘Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.’ He wanted to re-build St Peter’s Basilica. He wanted also to do more to embellish the papal palace. So he came up with the ingenious plan of selling indulgences throughout the Church. Now it may not be immediately obvious what exactly he was selling. An indulgence could be gained by acts of piety or good works. Its effect was understood as reducing the length of time a person would have to spend in penance for sins forgiven, though popularly understood to reduce the time a soul would have to spend in purgatory before being released to heaven. A plenary indulgence was understood to give automatic relief from purgatory.

What Luther began to discern was an underlying fault behind the idea of indulgences. Was it really the case that our simple acts of piety and our various good works could free us from sin, could save our souls? Was not this release from the burden of sin, this salvation, ultimately a matter for God, not for us? He had himself been obsessed by his own problem of sin, but careful reading of St Paul’s letters had led him to be free from that excessive anxiety. This was the particular passage that gave him a new perspective, from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.’

‘By grace you have been saved through faith.’ In his letter to the Romans, St Paul argues that Abraham was justified by his faith. Quoting the Old Testament, St Paul writes, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Abraham had come to believe and trust in God’s promise that, despite his already being old and his wife Sarah being old, he would become the father of many nations. This belief was reckoned to him as righteousness. St Paul came to the view that all who come to be believe and trust in God will have their belief reckoned to them as righteousness. He goes on, ‘Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.’ And again, ‘For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.’

Luther’s assiduous pursuit of his new faith and determined efforts to spread his views created the Reformation and set off a period of turmoil and uncertainty within first the German lands, then the whole of northern Europe. In England we had our own version of the Reformation, part Lutheran, part Calvinist, ultimately settling into the via media of Elizabeth I’s reign, with the Church, as it is now, being described as both Catholic and Reformed. The Roman Catholic Church went through its own Counter-Reformation, in the middle of the 16th century, when the corrupt practices of the Medici papacies were done away. The English Reformation was to last much longer, into the Civil War of the middle of the 17th century. But it brought clear benefits.

What is left of these ancient disputes in our own day? There remains the question how God applies the impact of our Lord’s sacrifice on the cross to transform our lives? Is our salvation achieved when we follow the example of Jesus by performing acts of piety and merciful kindnesses, or when we put our whole lives into the hands of our Lord Jesus Christ, believing and trusting in him?

On 31st October last year, 499 years after the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation, Pope Francis visited the Lutheran Church of Sweden and signed a common declaration with the leader of the Lutheran World Federation. In his homily the Pope said this, ‘The spiritual experience of Martin Luther challenges us to remember that apart from God we can do nothing. “How can I get a propitious God?” This is the question that haunted Luther. In effect, the question of a just relationship with God is the decisive question for our lives. As we know, Luther encountered that propitious God in the Good News of Jesus, incarnate, dead and risen. With the concept “by grace alone”, he reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response. The doctrine of justification thus expresses the essence of human existence before God.’

God always takes the initiative. It is not our good works or even our profession of faith that begins the process of our becoming right with God. It is God’s movement towards us, first through his birth into human flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord and then through the sacrifice of Calvary, in which he gives his own life to save us from our sins and to open for us the gate of eternal life. God always takes the initiative with us personally, if only we will open our hearts and minds and eyes and ears to him.

The Pope concluded, ‘Together we can proclaim and manifest God’s mercy, concretely and joyfully, by upholding and promoting the dignity of every person. Without this service to the world and in the world, Christian faith is incomplete.’ It seems that the ancient disputes at the time of the Reformation have now found their resolution. The way is open to more intimate mutual engagement between the Catholic and Protestant Churches as it is between Catholics and Anglicans.

Together we believe that God’s initiative in Christ itself triggers our response of faith. That response then leads us to acts of mercy, to good works. These acts of mercy then both confirm and demonstrate our faith and also encourage others to place their faith in the God who always takes the initiative.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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