In addition to being Halloween, today marks the 497th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther chose the date intentionally. He was challenging the medieval teaching on indulgences, purgatory, and what it is that constitutes a saint. Thus there was a symbolic value in doing this on the eve of All Saints Day. Before he completed his theological project, however, Luther came to see that the central issue at debate was not a single errant practice, but an overarching theological and salvific confession: justification by faith alone, the article of the standing or falling church and, ultimately, the difference between salvation and despair. All Protestants, but especially Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Christians look back to the Reformation as a definitive establishment of their confession of faith and as a mighty act of God through His Spirit. Traditionally, they have taken the occasion to celebrate.
But why celebrate the Reformation now? There are various reasons to ask this question and various ways to answer it, but instead of trying to say everything (my typical flaw), I want to get right to the bottom line because the Reformation is all about the bottom line. We celebrate Reformation Day because we believe in and celebrate justification by faith alone and the immediate work of God in the act of saving sinners. This means that God does the saving, He does it for free, and He does it on His terms. (See here if you want an extended discussion of mediation and all its ins and outs.)
What do you think of when you hear the word citizenship? Is it voting rights, the ability to participate in civic and political activity, or perhaps loyalty in times of war? Perhaps you think of it more along the lines of values and ideals: the American way. In the ancient world there were various understandings of citizenship and different demonstrations and festivals to impart a sense of admiration of one’s city or state. There were those who viewed their citizenship as a mark of honor, virtue, or civilization. They were Roman or Greek rather than a barbarian. Aristotle even thought that the Northern tribes were incapable of civilization. Anyone with red or blond hair, and especially someone with freckles, was thought to be outside the bounds of reason and domestication altogether. You can’t work with those people. Other views of citizenship were more philosophical but they all shared the concept of uniting different people together as one. Citizens were all on the same team, so to speak.
Paul, understanding the importance of this theme, picks up on the idea of citizenship in Philippians, and he applies it to the church. The church, he says, is the gathering place of the citizens of heaven. Heaven was the true homeland, and wherever the Christians might currently find themselves was a sort of outpost or colony. This gave the church a new kind of citizenship ideal. They were to think of themselves as a community of friends with specific concepts of justice and mutual support. In a certain sense they were exactly backwards from the ways of the world, then and now, in that they were people who did not “stand up for their rights” but rather voluntarily relinquished those rights for the good of those around them. This is, again, what Paul calls the mind of Christ, and we can’t understand heavenly citizenship without first understanding the shared mindset that heaven’s citizens must have. Continue reading →