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Is there a need to ‘climb’ the ladder? (Reformation 500)

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21st Sunday after Pentecost – October 29, 2017

1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13; John 2:19-21; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

So much is happening in chapter 8 of 1st Kings that we almost want to get dressed up and celebrate! It’s a big day… moving the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, into the inner sanctuary of the most holy place in the temple, under the wings of the cherubim and the cherubim spread their wings over the place of the ark.” Can you feel it? What a production indeed! The intent of this move was to restore God to the centre of the people’s lives, as individuals as well as a community.

Today we’re going to draw a comparison to another significant event in history which has some important similarities: The Protestant Reformation which began October 31, 1517, exactly 500 years ago this week. During this time, Martin Luther, an obscure monk, invited debate on a pressing church issue; and touched off a history-shattering reform movement. This too, eventually restored God and God’s wishes to the centre of people’s lives. The other notable similarity between our two stories is the abuse of power in the church and leaders making decisions for personal gain rather than for the good of God’s people.

You’ve heard in our scriptures some of the abuses that took place in Solomon’s time but what exactly led up to the reformation in 1517? There were many but at the top of the list, the Catholic Church was being questioned for their corrupt practice of selling “indulgences” to absolve sin. You do something wrong; no problem, just pay the church and you’d receive a letter, or an “indulgence” to permit you to be forgiven. Basically churches grew rich on the back of poor believers.

Abuses such as these began even earlier as church fathers were proposing a “ladder theology” of how a person could get to heaven. Pelagius, who lived around 400 CE, taught that if you want to get to heaven, you had better start climbing. No one will do it for you. It all depends on your choice and free will to start climbing. Go to church. Say your prayers. Feed the hungry. Contribute money. Step by step you will eventually earn your place in heaven.

You and I are familiar with the ladder mindset in our every day life. It follows a certain logic…if I work hard, then I’ll get the raise. If I study hard, then I’ll get a good grade. It begins way back, even as a small child, if I eat my meat and  vegetables, then I’ll get my dessert. Right? We all have this ladder mentality. It’s a progression that makes sense. Step by step, we must work our way to the top of the ladder.

Martin Luther had grown up with this ladder theology of the church. The picture Luther had of Jesus was a well-known wood carving of his day depicting Jesus holding a lily in one hand and a sword in the other. Heaven or hell. It’s your choice. You better start climbing. So Luther spent his days in confession, prayer, worship, and good works because it just made sense that there was no other way to the top but by earning your way step by step.

But something happened at this particular point in history that contradicted the ladder theory. Translations of the Bible became more widely available and it truly did not support the ladder theory. As Luther to dove into the teachings of scripture he found… In Romans 1, “The just shall live by faith.” In Romans 5, “Christ died for our sins while we were still sinners.” In John 15, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” In our text for today, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” Over time, Luther and others began to see the Bible as the primary religious authority, not the leaders of the church; and two, that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds. This in fact was the basis of Luther’s 95 Theses that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

Luther realised that there was indeed a ladder. But it wasn’t one meant for us to climb to heaven. We can’t do that. Our rebellious, sinful nature does not seek out a righteous God. So instead of coaxing us up an impossible ladder, God indeed turned the ladder upside down and climbed down to us. We are saved by faith alone in this God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, because God loves us.

Where are you and I at, with regards to these theories, what is our core basic belief? Do you still feel the need to climb the ladder? Do you think life is a partnership between you and God that enables you to get from point A to point B, ultimately to heaven, to eternal life? Most church-going active Christians still believe that you have to be a good person and climb ladders. Look at Dayspring and many of the amazing people here in our congregation. So many of our church family give endlessly give of their time and talents and resources. Are these people not climbing the ladder and guaranteed their perfect place in heaven?

It’s hard to believe that what the Bible teaches us it really so one-sided, by the unilateral act of God’s grace; by your faith alone, God chooses you, accepts you, believes in you, and loves you fully, without any ifs and buts.

“But I have to do something, don’t I?” the rebel inside who loves the ladder wants to know. But Paul says here and elsewhere that the answer is, “No. For freedom Christ has set you free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

This ladder is not for you to climb to God but for God in Christ to climb down to you and me. How then shall we live? Will it be for ourselves or will it be a life that is pleasing to God?

So often when I speak to the youth at church, they want to climb a ladder. They say things like, “Do I have to go to church? Do I have to go to Sunday school? Do I have to help my neighbour? Do I have to share what’s mine? Do I have to pray?” Do you hear the ladder theology? It is in each one of us.

To answer their questions, I say, “No. You are a Christian. You don’t have to, you get to. You get to go to worship to hear that your sins are forgiven. You get to help your neighbour by being the hands of Christ. You get to pray to a God who longs to listen. You don’t have to, you get to. That is the freedom you have in Jesus who climbed a ladder down to you.”

All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. The question is not what you have to do. The question now is what do you get to do for the sake of the kingdom.

God has come to live with us and to love us, through God’s Son Jesus Christ.

Choose wisely! Amen.


Much of this message is based on a sermon posted on www.sermons.com by Scott Suskovic entitled “Faith vs. Works”


Copyright 2017 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church

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