I had occasion to visit the local shopping centre this week (shopping isn’t my highest priority) and was surprised again at all the Halloween stuff for sale. I remember being surprised last year and probably the year before… It has really taken on a life of its own but seems rather removed from the real traditions that surround All Hallows Eve. On Tuesday evening whilst children are running the streets threatening to trick if a treat isn’t forthcoming (or whatever happens), others (probably relatively fewer) will remember that this is All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints Day. Perhaps fewer still may even recall that it is 500 years since the frustrated priest, Martin Luther, nailed 95 theses to the door of the church in the German town of Wittenberg. Luther knew that the next day, All Saints day, would bring large crowds to the church to celebrate and remember the significant saints of the Christian faith. The theses on the door drew great attention as they laid out compelling arguments against the state of the church. Ultimately, with the help of the relatively new printing press, these reforming statements led to the Protestant Reformation, the most significant change the church had experienced for 500 years. The last great change was the separation of the Eastern and Western church (into Orthodox and Roman Catholic) in the 11th century.
The reality is that it wasn’t just Luther’s 95 statements that wrought such dramatic change in the church. There were gathering forces in the western world for 100 or more years that were driving wholesale change across Europe. The Renaissance brought light and life through music, art, architecture, poetry and literature. There was the rise in modern science through the Enlightenment and the world emerged from the Dark Ages into a new era. Liberal Democracy became the political ideology and Capitalism the economic foundation of this new, emerging world. The printing press ushered in a communications revolution such as the world had never known – its impact was on a level with what we experience in the modern communications revolution. There was a movement away from the fiefdoms and serfdoms, the local Landlord structure with extended families and clans to the rise of small (nuclear) families moving into the cities for work. The king grew in status and power with more centralised authority and every institution of their world was under threat as everything changed. This included the church! It was clear that the church needed a great overhaul and realignment.
The ensuing Reformation brought such profound change that the church emerged from this era in forms that would never have been recognised or imagined 100 years earlier. The Protestant Church emerged in a variety of forms depending on the context and leadership in which it was birthed. It looks different in different places – the Lutheran Church, the Church of Scotland and Presbyterian Church, the Church of England and so on. The Roman catholic Church underwent its own inner reformation through its various Vatican Councils and other enforced changes. As the winds of societal change blew through the Western world, the church was swept up in reformation and transformation.
We are experiencing this same level of change and threat in our own era. Our world is experiencing a level of change not seen since this last major upheaval. The depth of change and transformative forces in our world are challenging every level of society and every level of authority. The shape and form of family, for example, has changed dramatically from the extended clans through nuclear family to the multitudinous forms we encounter as normal today. The nature of authority in people’s lives is changing as we seek that in which we can put out trust and hope – King and country have declined in a world of competing powers and trans-continental corporations, travel and the shrinking of the world through transportation, communications and technological revolutions.
The church is struggling – at every point it is struggling. There is a rapid decline in how people negotiate a spiritual connection in their lives. Droves of people have left organised religion for a vast variety of reasons, not the least because answers to the real questions of their lives aren’t honestly dealt with. Too much religion, it seems, has focussed upon a strict set of beliefs and how to get into heaven when we die. The reports from Europe, North America and Australia, describe how people want something deeper and transformative of life, something that touches on the deep questions and hopes, fears and concerns of their lives. People are constantly listening to what various Christians say in the public realm and are left cold by the arguments we seem to be having or the crises and evils we have to deal with. Religious people abusing children and leaders covering that up does nothing to kindle people’s positive attitude towards the church but nor does arguing over furniture in the church or some irrelevant piece of theology.
Whilst the world around becomes more lonely and isolated and depression and anxiety continue to increase in pandemic levels, the church has missed the point that Jesus’ message was about getting heaven into earth (not getting us into heaven!). After all his prayer invokes, ‘May your Kingdom come and your will be done on EARTH as it is in heaven.’ His central teaching is about the work of love – loving God with all we are and our neighbours as we love ourselves. This is the reading for this Sunday (Matthew 22:34-46 – another is Deuteronomy 34:1-12). It speaks quite bluntly about love as the central action of God’s people. This love requires a radical reorientation of our lives and invites us into a new way of being towards the world. Whilst many accumulate wealth or power or prestige or chase fame and are addicted to a lifestyle that denies them the freedom of being in relationships of joy and openness, Jesus invites us to love. It is immensely practical and action-oriented. It doesn’t require too much deep study, although getting together and exploring the depths of love is valuable. It requires a commitment to act and be a person of love. It is a choice to love another person, one we don’t know or even someone who is opposed to us or so different we do not understand and presume we will not like. It takes us into acts, small and large, of kindness and relationship that when added together will change the world. Love is the only source of power that builds and gives life. It shares, embraces, unites, seeks justice and life and seeks these for all people. Love is not a competition but a community that is inclusive and celebrates the diversity and uniqueness of all people. We are each values for who we are as children of God and here is no hierarchy, only community. This is the vision that will guide the church – and which the world needs! – as we move through this period of immense change and transformation in our world. In the Deuteronomy reading Moses stands on Mt Nebo and sees before him the Promised Land that they are journeyed towards for so long. It looms as a vision of joy. Jesus gives us a vision of life, hope, peace and joy as we love in God.