It really is about life and death
[Jesus said] “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 10:26-33 ESV)
The Brexit negotiations have begun. We can describe it as the United Kingdom is working through the issues of departing the ‘legal words’ that bind the members of the European Union together. Of course it has all sorts of implications because these ‘legal words’ impact on a great deal of everyday living for people. We don’t know the outcome. We hope for one future and will have to deal with the unintended consequences that arise. These discussions weren’t organised the week before but a year before with a referendum and there is a two year timeframe to hopefully get all the ‘legal words’ sorted out. Who is doing these discussions? You or me? Sometimes we feel we’d do a better job (!) but no, this work is left to our civic representatives – elected officials and public servants, in this case, diplomats who are serving what we describe as ‘the will of the people’ in the political structure we have in this land. At the end of the process there will be lots more words – formal, legal – maybe a summary on dot points – I doubt there will be 28 of them – and all participants will then know where they – where we – stand.
Folks, with a few word changes – go back nearly 500 years – take out the referendum but add in dukes, a margrave, a landgrave, a prince and mayors of regions and city-states – and turn the topic to religion – specifically the teaching of the Christian Faith and the everyday consequences for all citizens – and think about the years it took to get to the meeting and the years afterwards disputing – and the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession to Emperor Charles V in Augsburg in 1530 where the Lutheran princes and leaders of city-states wanted to stay in the Holy Roman Empire but not in the Roman Catholic Church all sounds eerily similar to me.
This week the United Kingdom presented its opening proposals on a number of topics and the EU responded variously – politely but generally saying that the proposals were ‘below expectations’ (I think was one term). The UK countered with ‘fair and serious’ – and we get a sense of negotiating tactics played out before us.
Back in 1530 the Roman Catholics just wanted the document presented in writing but the Lutherans wanted it read out so everyone could hear it. There were all sorts of politics going on. Luther wasn’t there – he’d have been arrested if he was because he had been excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church – and to be fair, he had responded by excommunicating the Pope in return – but these princes had their own civil servants in this case Philip Melanchthon and other reformers in Augsburg – and documents could be sent to Luther by ‘horse mail’ for comment. The Confession was read out in the end on this day 1530 and written copies were given and a public stand had been taken.
In August 1530 the Roman Catholics replied with the Roman Confutation – it was read out in the same place as the Augsburg Confession had been read out. The Emperor told the princes ‘see you’re wrong – now return to the Church’. The princes refused and a Defence (called an ‘Apology’) was prepared in September 1530 which the Emperor refused to receive. Philip Melanchthon kept working on the defence and it was eventually published around the beginning of May 1531 as a further explanation of what Lutherans teach about the Christian Faith. It is part of a longer story – that is still ongoing – but initially went from 1517 to 1580 when the Book of Concord – a compilation of the Lutheran teachings – was prepared and the Lutheran Church still to this day – as do all pastors at their ordination – declare these writings to be clear teachings of Scripture – about who God is, what God has done for us, how we relate to God, and how we are to live.
Why go on about this today? Isn’t it just history?
Because there was a big difference back then to Brexit now – and it is a difference that isn’t strongly felt in the UK – but is still part of life in many parts of the world – and it is this – that back then religion – faith – what you believed and what you taught about God was a life or death issue.
This occurred – and occurs – in two ways. Firstly, since we can be sincerely right and sincerely wrong about things so that sincerity is not a defining guarantor of truth it means that my sincere belief in one religion will get me on the ‘naughty step’ according to another religion. So our belief in a religion presents us with life – now and after death – that what’s being religious is about – living and dying in a world according to certain words and perspectives that create a belief in us. For Christians that anchor, centre, foundation, and focus is Jesus. Take him out of the picture and everything goes dark – life now changes and whatever happens after death becomes an unknown. So religions by definition deal with life and death issues. Choose one and that’s what you believe you get.
The second reason why faith and religion has been, can be, is in some parts of the world about life and death is because people have a need to control and want the people around us to be like us. We can violent to each other for many reasons – and one of them is over our beliefs – but we can fight over almost any topic on the planet. Sadly there is religious violence and persecution in this world whereby violence is a response to disagreement on spiritual matters or fear about them and their consequences. There are many issues here – involving pretty well every religion on the planet – but my point for this moment is that where there are desires for control and conformity there can be violence sadly as well. Thus religion and faith and what one believes can a life and death issue – or at least can involve pain and suffering. From the beginning Christians were persecuted. Sadly we have to acknowledge that in our history Christians have also been persecutors. Let us seek to follow Jesus when he says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God’ (Matthew 5:9).
Is religion life or death? Not so much in the UK, I think, where people deep down have a varnish of Christianity and believe that if they can ‘keep their heads down’ and not be ‘too bad’ God will let them into heaven. Religions are about belief first and behaviour second. Many people today however think it is behaviour first and belief is irrelevant.
Jesus didn’t think so! He spoke clearly as well as with stories and sometimes with some ambiguity but all messages pointed to him and to God and to the link between the two. ‘If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God. I do the works of my Father. I and the Father are one.’ He made it clear that following him was something personal – following him – not a general direction of niceness. And he said that sometimes the terrain will be tough because you’ll be attacked – there will be battles – precisely because you’re linked to him, to Jesus.
It is a life and death matter! Remember all religions are! But because of what Jesus has done on the cross and then because of his empty tomb, the followers of Jesus learn an amazing truth – that they live from death to life! The dying – judgement – hell has been dealt with by Jesus – all that is left is the living, following Jesus into each day. And yes one day, unless Jesus appears again to all the world beforehand, we will walk into the valley of the shadow of death but our living doesn’t stop even then!
This is what Christians believe – and live. And in the Church’s history of nearly 2000 years, Lutherans have a story of when they had to speak up and say what they believed and on this occasion they used the Augsburg Confession. They did then what we still find ourselves doing in all sorts of ways – make a stand – point to Jesus and tell those around us, ‘Yes, he’s my Lord and my God and I trust him and follow him. Why? Because he has died for me and in the Scriptures he speaks to me and to us all about his love and our sin and fear and about how to live. This is what I believe – and it’s as important as life and death.’
- Matthew 10:26 - 33