Semper Reformanda

Introduction: Waldo & Francis

We’re celebrating an event today that might have turned out to be nothing in the scheme of things. A man in a college town in Germany became upset with certain practices of the church, and wrote out 95 reasons why he thought those practices were wrong. Then he nailed them to a church door. The rest is history. But it might not have been.

You see, Martin Luther’s attempt to reform the Christian church was neither the first nor the last. But because of the politics of the day, Luther’s Reformation became the event that started a movement which changed the world.

Long before Luther, however, there were some who tried to change things and were quickly forgotten about.
Others created movements which remained small. And still others created movements which were incorporated into the Roman church.

Of those pre-Luther movements that didn’t die out, a couple stand out in my mind. The first is a group called the Waldensians, and they’re still around today. Nearly 350 years before Luther’s dramatic break with Rome, a French merchant named Peter Waldo became convinced that he needed to change things. He believed three important things, and with these three beliefs, he started a movement:
  1. He believed that he needed to give up his material possessions.
  2. He believed that anyone who was moved by the Spirit could preach the word of God.
  3. And he believed that Christians should not swear oaths.
He gained some followers, and they originally called themselves the Poor of Lyon—the city Waldo lived in. They became relatively numerous in that part of France and spread to the mountainous regions of Italy. But the church called them heretics, and suppressed them pretty ruthlessly. After a while, they could only be found in remote valleys. And when the Protestant Reformation finally caught on centuries later, the small communities that survived adopted the theology of John Calvin. Not that long ago, the Italian Waldensians united with the Methodists in that country, and they still provide a witness for justice that’s greater than their small numbers might indicate.

About 25-30 years after Peter Waldo started his reform movement in Lyon, the son of another merchant—this one Italian—began his own little reformation. His name was Francis, and he hailed from the town of Assisi. Like Peter Waldo, Francis believed in a life of simplicity and poverty, but he also emphasized human oneness with the rest of creation. The movement Francis of Assisi started, instead of being suppressed by the church, became a community within the church, and continues to this day as the Franciscans.

I. Luther & Calvin

When Luther came along, the main practice of the Roman church that he reacted to was the selling of something called indulgences. Roman Catholics still believe in the need for indulgences, which are acts that, when performed with true faith, will lessen the amount of penance a person needs to perform, or the amount of time their soul will spend in purgatory. In Luther’s day the belief in indulgences was being abused to the point that they were being written on paper and sold for money.

Luther came to be convinced through his reading of the scriptures that this practice was contrary to the gospel. And his reformation—the one that came to be known as The Reformation—taught that salvation was by faith in God’s grace, and could not be accomplished, enhanced, or hurried along by human action.

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.
—Eph. 2:8-9

I wore a pair of these to church this
morning and talked about them in
my children's message
Luther’s teachings came to the attention of the church authorities in Rome, and they tried to force him to admit he was wrong. “Here I stand,” he responded, not knowing his words would end up on my socks; “I can’t do otherwise.” Though his life was originally threatened, he survived, and his theology was adopted by the ruler of his land. Other rulers followed suit until most of northern Europe had adopted what came to be called the Evangelical faith. 

Even in France, Luther’s teachings were spreading, and one of those who adopted them was a young man from Picardy who was studying law in Paris. His name was John Calvin, and in 1536 he ended up having to flee to Strasburg where he would be safe. Because of a war, he was forced to take the long way round, and his detour took him through Geneva, a city which had just voted to join the Reformation. They asked Calvin to stay and help them.

He did, and Geneva became a refuge for many who had become Protestant but who were being persecuted in their home countries. They learned the Reformed faith taught by Calvin, and through them, Scotland, Holland, other parts of Germany, England,* North America,* and even Hungary adopted Calvin’s theology.

II. Romania

After World War 1, Hungary lost a great deal of territory, leaving many Hungarians in neighboring countries. The largest Hungarian population outside Hungary is in Romania, where the Reformed church has hundreds of thousands of members. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian dictator, was determined that his government wouldn’t go the way of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and every other country in Eastern Europe. 

Yours truly with László
Tőkés, now a member of the
European Parliament
But one Hungarian Reformed pastor, László Tőkés of Temesvár (Timișoara), preached fearlessly not as he was instructed to by the government, but as he felt led to by God’s word. When Ceaușescu’s forces attempted to remove him from his home and send him out of the city, his church members surrounded the building. Since it was right across from a streetcar stop, everybody saw the gathering, and when they found out what was going on, tens of thousands of people—Hungarian and Romanian—joined in. When it got dark, they lit candles. The police then opened fire, killing hundreds—some say thousands—of peaceful protesters.

And yet that wasn’t the end. The reformation that started in Temesvár spread throughout Romania, and in just a few days, the regime fell. I read about one of the individuals in Temesvár—a man named Daniel who wasn’t even a member of Rev. Tőkés’s congregation. He was a Baptist; and after being shot that night, his leg was amputated. When asked later if he regretted the loss of his leg, he said not at all—after all, it was he who lit the first candle.

And what is Reformation if not lighting a candle in the dark—a candle of hope in the midst of despair, a candle of guidance when the church has lost its way, a candle of protest when society has been overtaken by powers of darkness.

III. Go Light Your World

Kathy Trocolli
And in some ways, the candle might be a metaphor for Christians. Maybe it’s not up there with Paul’s idea that we’re all members of the body of Christ. But it’s still something to think about. Each of us is a candle—a little fire, such as the flames that rested over each head on the Day of Pentecost when the church was created in the first place. As we share our beliefs and convictions and hopes, we light other candles, and in this way the faith of the apostles has come down to us today. Sometimes people are able to light their candle from a blazing bonfire that gives warmth to all around. But sometimes their tiny candle has been lit from another flicker barely burning in the cold of a night long before dawn breaks.

And yet those candles burn. Darkness does not overcome them. Their light, which sometimes seems so inconsequential to the holder, might actually be visible to someone far away who otherwise couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a song I love from 1995 that talks about this. It’s by Kathy Trocolli, and it’s called Go Light Your World. It starts out like this:

There is a candle in every soul—
some brightly burning, some dark and cold.
There is a Spirit who brings fire—
ignites a candle and makes his home.
Carry your candle, run to the darkness:
Seek out the hopeless, confused, and torn.
Hold out your candle for all to see it:
Take your candle, and go light your world.

Conclusion: Semper Reformanda

One of my favorite things that John Calvin ever wrote was that, “by refusing to acknowledge any church save one that is perfect, we leave no church at all.” In other words, there’s no such thing as the perfect church, so don’t trust anybody who says theirs offers the only way to salvation. Another way of putting this is a Latin phrase that’s popular in Reformed churches: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, which means that the church that is reformed is nonetheless always being reformed.

The church is the body of Christ. But sometimes we as a body begin to get out of joint: When we prefer the rich to the poor, we need Peter Waldo’s candle; when we lose our connection to creation, Francis of Assisi can shed light on our mistake; when we think we can buy or work our way into God’s love, Luther started a fire that still illuminates the words of scripture; when we start to think our church is the only one, Calvin’s flame can show us that many paths converge in Christ; when we begin to associate the cross with a flag and start to think our nation or ethnic group is preferred by God, then we need to know that the candles lit by people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King were not in the end overcome by the powers of darkness, but live on in all who seek justice.

Today we celebrate 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. But what happened in Wittenburg on October 31, 1517 wasn’t the end of anything, nor was it even the beginning. It is simply a famous and important symbol of the work that God is doing in the lives of the faithful. In the end, Luther and Calvin ain’t got nothing on any of us. So carry your own candle, run toward the darkness, seek out the lonely, confused and torn. Hold out your candle, and go light the world.
—©2017 Sam L. Greening, Jr.

*The Anglican Church today does not seem very Calvinist, but their 39 Articles reflect Calvin’s theology, and both the Pilgrims and the Puritans were orthodox Calvinists who wanted further reformation of the English church, but instead founded American colonies. Though these colonies were in New England, the theology of the Anglicans in the southern colonies might also have been characterized as Calvinist at this time.