2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Each year on or near October 31, many Protestant churches take time to remember the actions that resulted in some followers of Christ breaking off from the Roman Catholic Church. There are many aspects to what led to the various Protestant denominations we know today, and what happened in Wittenberg, October 31 1517, nearly 500 years ago, is one critical piece.
The German Monk Martin Luther did not plan to create the “Protestant Reformation.” He wanted to hold the Roman Catholic Church accountable for how they understood and applied the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The stories of his actions tell us he went to the large wooden doors on the Castle Church in Wittenberg and nailed 95 complaints, specific areas in which he felt the Church should be held accountable.
In his era, these doors were a good place to post a notice for public viewing and Luther knew that the next day, November 1 All Saints’ Day the church would be filled with worshipers, many of whom were educated and literate. Today he may have purchased a newspaper ad, a billboard, or sent out a series of tweets or Ytube videos.
Luther had earned his Doctor of Theology degree in Wittenberg and was a respected professor there, as well as the assistant pastor of the Castle Church.
Pope Leo X, did not share current Pope Francis’s commitment to modeling care for the poor and living as simply as possible. Pope Leo X had depleted the papal treasury built up by his predecessor Julius II, to purchase those things he wanted particularly fine art, literature and personal luxury.
With his financial resources gone, he devised a plan to sell forgiveness. That plan was known as the sale of indulgences, most of us studied that practice in world history. Church leaders gave official church documents to those who made financial contributions which transferred a portion of the merits of the saints to the bearer of the document. This transfer of credit for doing good by the saints reduced the sentence of the contributor or of a loved friend or relative to purgatory. In essence absolved the donor of all sin. Some of Luther’s parishioners purchased these indulgences and then asked Luther about their validity.
It was more than upsetting to Luther that the church would claim forgiveness could be purchased. He understood forgiveness to be free, paid for through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Luther lifted John 8:31-36 in support of his position: “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
A center of Luther’s position was that we are saved by grace through faith and it is Christ alone who puts us right with God. Romans 5:8 reminds us: 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Nothing we did or can do makes us right with God except God’s grace, given freely by God, a gift.
We sang “A Might Fortress” this morning, in which we find Luther lifts this important truth: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right man on our side the man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Saboth, his name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.”
Luther’s actions caused the initial furor that resulted in the Reformation and divided the western church, but they also led to a renewed enthusiasm among believers to study God’s word for themselves and to seek to live out a witness to the good news of the Gospel. The priesthood of all believers, which means that Christians do not need an intermediary between them and God, was also a significant theme of the Reformation. It put the accountability of our relationship with God on each of us, as we have the right and duty to enter into our own personal relationship with God, to read the Bible, worship in our own language, and to pray directly to God.
Church History shows us that as organized institutions, which the church uses as a tool to live out its mission, we sometimes do a better job of living as God calls us to live than at other times, and that accountability to other Christians and to God remains critical to our faith journey.
Charles and John Wesley, recognizing that to be true, developed Societies and Class meetings. Wesley’s classes were small accountability groups that met to help encourage each other to do right and resist temptation. They, like Luther, did not mean to form a new denomination, just to help one another live a life reflecting Christ.
In Wesley’s classes, they asked each other such questions as
John Wesley’s Small Group Questions:
- Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
- Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
- Do I confidentially pass onto another what was told me in confidence?
- Am I a slave to dress, friends, work , or habits?
- Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
- Did the Bible live in me today?
- Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
- Am I enjoying prayer?
- When did I last speak to someone about my faith?
- Do I pray about the money I spend?
- Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
- Do I disobey God in anything?
- Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
- Am I defeated in any part of my life?
- Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
- How do I spend my spare time?
- Am I proud?
- Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisee who despised the publican?
- Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I going to do about it?
- Do I grumble and complain constantly?
- Is Christ real to me?
Wesley’s Band Meeting Questions:
- What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
- What temptations have you met with?
- How were you delivered?
- What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
- Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?
Wesley felt the clergy of his day were not reaching all those who needed to hear the message of Grace. He was criticized for preaching in the fields to which he said, “one plain reason why these sinners are never reclaimed is this, they never come into a church. Will you say, as some tender-hearted Christians I have heard, ‘ Then it is their own fault; let them die and be damned !’ I grant it may be their own fault, but the Savior of souls came after us, and so we ought to seek to save that which is lost.” He saw the world as his parish not just one congregation worshiping in one building.
Wesley developed a culture of holding one another accountable in love to living increasingly like-minded with Christ and of offering Grace to those who couldn’t come into the church for whatever their reasons were.
Paul is holding the Thessalonians accountable to their call to follow Christ in the passage we heard this morning. He repeatedly emphasizes their identity in God and Jesus from the opening “Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,” to the conclusion in which he express his expectation that “the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
He holds them accountable to that identity, encouraging them to support and love one another as brothers and sisters, expressing gratitude that their lives show evidence that they are doing that more and more. That those things that their circumstances and culture would lift as differences, are not important. That their shared life in Christ brings them together, eliminating the “us”, “they, conversations. They are attempting to do something for each other and others, continuing to learn and to grow, enduring through the obstacles that could change their direction. Paul celebrates that endurance, encouraging them to love one another, to endure in faith, to remember they are empowered by God and Christ.
We exercise accountability to God and one another when we come to worship, participate in small groups and other opportunities to check in with each other. We exercise accountability to God and to one another when we work through disagreements to find a shared way forward. When we stop using “us” and “they” language, particularly when talking about our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We exercise accountability when:
We follow the policies and procedures of our United Methodist denomination and come together for the annual meeting we will hold later today.
We grow in love with God and each other as those in Thessalonica did,
We are able to endure all the things that come at us trying to get us to: accept the false truths of our broader culture; which push us to set different priorities than modeled by Jesus the Christ; encourage us to judge others as if the Grace of God needs to be earned; and other obstacles that keep us from an abundant life.
Following Paul’s encouragement, as well as the traditions formed in the leadership of Luther and Wesley we can echo the prayer shared in this passage:“asking that our God will make us worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Trusting our prayer will be answered, we are in a position to transform the world, accountable to the one in whom we find our identity and reflective of His grace in all we say and do, no matter what the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
 Reference: John Wesley’s Class Meetings: a Model for Making Disciples, by D. Michael Henderson, Evangel Publishing House, 1997, pp. 118-9