Reading: Romans 3:23-28 (NRSV)
Indulgences. We hear that word and maybe think of a candy bar, a beer on a Friday night, or maybe some chocolate chip cookie dough. However, in the Middle Ages, the term “indulgences” was a religious word. An indulgence was a piece of paper that the Catholic Church sold to absolve you—anyone really—of a sin. The greater the sin, the costlier the indulgence. They were invented when the Catholic coffers ran a little dry. Why not? Why should not the Pope reach his people through these slips of paper?
However, like most things over time, it became corrupt. The money used to buy indulgences did not reach the Pope. Instead, it went into the pockets of those who sold the pieces of paper. And who is to say that the Pope had the right to sell forgiveness in the first place? Can’t forgiveness only come from God? That is the Protestant way of viewing the matter. That is how we see it. Only God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit and can touch us with a forgiving hand. Not the pope. Not a mere mortal. Certainly not a piece of paper.
And, just a little over five hundred years ago in 1517, a monk named Martin Luther agreed. As history reflects, Martin Luther was an incredible man. He nailed his 95 theses to a church in Wittenberg, Germany, denouncing the selling of Indulgences, denouncing the Pope for his usage of them, and thus started the Protestant Reformation, the great Protest, against the Roman Catholic Church. He had to go into hiding in an independent German State for the rest of his life, but he created the first Protestant denomination—Lutheranism—and it spread across Germany and the rest of Europe like wildfire.
This was the beginning of our Reformation, and this is what we celebrated this past Reformation Sunday.
It did not matter that the Pope excommunicated Martin Luther. The Pope was a corrupt figure. He had no authority. His words, at this point, had become meaningless.
Of course, there were earlier critics of Indulgences than Martin Luther, other great Reformers. One such man was John Wycliffe. He was the first man to translate the Bible into English. Middle English, of course. If you pick it up and try to read it, it won’t make much sense. However, the language is beautiful and lyrical—and completely heretical.
At the time, it was forbidden to translate the Bible into any language other than Latin. Only the clergy were permitted to read the Bible. They were to present it unto the masses—in Latin—and only they were to understand its great mysteries. The Bible was to be cloaked in mystery that was revealed only in the stained glass windows around beautiful cathedrals and in priests’ sermons to the common man and woman. Men like John Wycliffe believed this was a fallacy of the church. He believed that the Bible should be given to the people, that they should read it for themselves, that they should understand, that they had the ability to interpret God’s words.
All these hundreds of years later his beliefs still hold true. Look in front of you at your pew Bibles next time you are in church. The Bible is in English, translated from the original Hebrew and Greek for your understanding, for your interpretation. You are considered worthy of this, intelligent enough to draw your own opinions. And this all started in the Reformation.
Now, we are New Englanders, descended from the English culturally en masse, although we come from many different traditions culturally. This English descent, too, is true of our religion. Congregationalism began as a break away sect from Anglicanism or Episcopalianism, or rather we are a reaction to it.
To better understand the English Reformation we must go back to Henry VIII. Now, Henry VIII is famous for his six wives. Some of you might know the rhyme that helps you remember what happened to all of them: “Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.” Now, the story really has to do with the first two: Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. I’m sure you know these names.
Henry VIII was driven by two forces. He wanted a legitimate male heir (which Katharine of Aragon had been unable to give him) and he also desired Anne Boleyn, who refused to become his mistress. Anne played a very dangerous game. Her sister Mary Carey had already been Henry VIII’s mistress and it is speculated that she had given him an illegitimate son, whose descendants perhaps exist to this day.
Anne, however, wanted more. She did not want to be a royal mistress. She did not want to be the official royal mistress, a position of respect and influence. She wanted to be Queen.
Of course, this meant getting rid of Katharine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of two great rulers herself: Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, who had united Spain with their union. Katharine was cultured, political, and extremely religious. She was also the widow of Henry’s older brother, Arthur, the Prince of Wales. Arthur had died before he had ascended the throne and Katharine always maintained that the marriage had been unconsummated.
However, Henry VIII was plagued. He had been brought up to be a priest, and he believed that the Bible verse, Leviticus chapter 20, verse 21: “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing; he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”
After much ado about what turned not to be nothing, Henry broke with the Pope and established himself as head of the Church of England, which was due a great deal to Anne of Boleyn’s proddings and personal beliefs. She herself was a Lutheran. She had her family’s private chaplain, also a Lutheran, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Cranmer would be instrumental in shaping the Church of England during Edward VI’s time as king, who was Henry’s only legitimate son. Henry VIII’s Lord Privy Seal, Thomas Cromwell, First Earl of Essex, was also secretly a Lutheran.
Anne Boleyn became queen after Henry VIII divorced Katherine of Aragon. K atherine, now the Dowager Princess of Wales, died in exile. She was never permitted to see her daughter, the Lady Mary (later Queen Mary, or Bloody Mary), again.
Anne Boleyn could not take this new church as far as she wished. She was unable to give Henry VIII the son she had promised and was accused of adultery and treason. This had her beheaded. Henry VIII, who is believed to have regretted his break from the Pope whom he had staunchly defended in his life before he had met Anne Boleyn, drew the church closer to Rome.
Despite this, he had the Bible translated into English. It caused much fanfare throughout England, as one might imagine. Henry VIII was greatly disturbed in his later life to learn that it was read out in pubs and not given the sanctity, which he believed it deserved.
Calvinism appeared in Geneva. John Calvin believed that revelation came directly through Jesus Christ and that our relationship with God was Covenantal. We promise God something and he promises us something back. An example of this is God promising never to bring another flood that will eradicate humanity on the earth, the sign of this being the rainbow. It’s a covenant. It’s not a creed that we recite where we promise God everything and he gives us nothing in return. This is a two-sided relationship.
Christ became truly human and it is through his sacrifice on the cross that we are saved. While humans are created in the image of God, we are corrupted by sin and thus need to be saved through the cross. However, although we have freewill to believe in Christ or not, Calvinism believes in predestination. Some people are predestined to be saved and others are not.
We as Congregationalists are descended from Calvinists and Calvinism came to England as a reaction to the Church of England. The Reverend John Robinson, an early Congregationalist, said, “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his Holy word.” It was Calvinists as well as Pilgrims (or Congregationalists) who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 and landed on Plymouth Rock. They were aiming for Virginia but, unfortunately, were blown off course. I’ve met many people in the area who are descended from one of the pilgrims.
My own ancestor, Thomas Rogers, died the first winter. His family came over a year or so later and settled this great land. His own great-grandfather was part of the Reformation in that he translated the Bible into English when it was illegal and was burnt at the stake for it. You can see that I have a long history of being in the ministry, that doesn’t just end with my grandfather.
The Pilgrims became Congregationalists. In Congregationalism, each church—each congregation—decides what it believes. It can be liberal. It can be conservative. It can be anywhere in between. No one can tell us what to think. No one can tell us exactly what to do, only that we should be good Christians in our own estimation of the word.
But Christianity has continued to evolve and change over the past five hundred years and we are part of that evolution. We aren’t cutting off people’s heads but we must think—what does our church mean to us? What do our missions mean? What do they say about us as a community? Now, we must always remember Christian love and charity. When we go out into the greater world, and it is through love and charity that we show ourselves to the world.
Our ideas of worship are going to change. Our very sanctuary recently underwent a renovation that made our heads turn but hearkens in a new chapter to our church life. Who says that has to remain the same? Who says any of it has to remain the same? We are evolving as a people, as a congregation, as a denomination—and that’s a good thing. We are part of a greater tradition, and we maust never forget that.