Summary: Reformation Sunday. As in Luther’s Day, those who will kill the church are those who have no hope for its future, no respect for its past, and no presence in its present.
Near the Tower of London there stands an ancient parish church called "All Hallows". Just inside the wall enclosing the graveyard at All Hallows there is a large sign, placed so that tourists leaving the Tower may read it. The sign at "All Hallows" cites a bit of history and then raises a pointed question: "Jesus Christ has been worshipped in this building for 600 Years; on this site for 1100 years, and in Britain for 1300 Years. Don’t you think it’s time you got started?"
That sign points to the amazing persistence of the church of Jesus Christ; and it also suggests the reason why, after storms and splits, war and famine, mistakes and malfeasance, misjudgments and maladjustment, there is still such a thing as the church. Some of the secret has to do with the commitments of countless believers, of course; but most of the secret lies in the intention of God for the church. The church has lasted simply because God has wanted it to last. That’s all. That’s the bottom line. The church has lasted; and the church will continue because God has intended it to.
"By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed", says the hymnwriter. Yes, and sometimes savaged by the forces of evil and more often sabotaged by her own members, still the church persists.
How can this be? Why does this happen?
A number of years ago I read a little book called, “Who’s Killing the Church?" The authors of, "Who’s Killing the Church?" were intent on proving that the church as we know it was dying; it probably had less than a generation to live. They argued that unless we Christians came to grips with serious issues like war and poverty and racism and the like, no one would pay any attention to us. They insisted that the only way for the church to continue was for to abandon so much talk about spiritual stuff and get out there on the front lines of these issues.
It was not an easy book to read. It was hard to stomach. Some of it I don’t agree with. Some I do. But I did learn that the church of Jesus Christ has a whole lot less to fear from its announced enemies than it does from its alleged friends. Do not be afraid of those who directly attack the church. You will do more for the church by carrying on a lover’s quarrel with it than you will by defending its critics. The folks in Jimmy Swaggart’ s crowd down in Louisiana would do the church a whole lot more good by raising their own questions about his fitness for ministry than they will by trying to defend the indefensible.
Don’t love the church by defending it. Love it by quarreling with it. Love it by arguing with it. Love it by pushing it to be what it ought to be. "Who’s killing the church?" Not its announced enemies. Too often its alleged friends.
We celebrate today the occasion on which a young German monk named Martin Luther decided to take public his lover’ s quarrel with the church of his day. On the eve of All Saints Day, what we call Halloween, the young man Luther marched up to the door of the castle church in the town of Wittenberg in Saxony, and tacked up for all to see some ninety-five theses, or propositions, concerning the nature of the Christian faith and the practices of the church.
Someone has said that as Luther nailed these to the door, every hammer-blow rang out the death-knell of medieval Europe. No one, least of all Luther himself, could have predicted all that would happen. But if you had been there in 1517 and someone had asked, "Who’s killing the church?", you might have been tempted to answer, "He is. Luther is. Those who challenge, those who raise questions, those who take to the streets with their complaints. They are killing the church." It would have been easy, had we been there in Germany in 1517, to have said, "This man is killing the church. The church cannot survive such attacks. Authority is being questioned, new ideas are being brought forward. Who’s killing the church? This man who attacks its traditions, its history, its doctrines … he is killing the church."
We might have so answered. But we would have been wrong.
You and I now know that the church of Jesus Christ is alive. It is amazingly alive. It is vital and vibrant and vigorous in many places. And you and I know why. I said it a moment ago, but I say it again. The church of Jesus Christ has lasted simply because God has wanted it to last. That’s all. That’s the bottom line. The church has lasted and the church will continue because God has intended it to.