What Is Reformation Day?
Reformation Day is a very special day! On this day, we are celebrating the Protestant Reformation. What is Protestant? There were people who wanted to make a new church. A new church? Yes, 500 years ago, the Roman Catholic Church was the only church in the West, but there were people who didn’t agree with the Catholic Church. They wanted a new church and became Protestants. Then, what is the Reformation? It was their movement that actually made new churches. And Martin Luther was one of the most important leaders of this reformation movement.
There is this famous phrase in church history, “The church is reformed, always being reformed, according to the word of God” (ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, secundum verbum Dei). I think this phrase well captures the spirit of the Protestant Reformation. Yes, the church is always in need of being reformed. Not only by the leaders of the Reformation 500 years ago but also by all of us here and now, the church has to be reshaped and revitalized. Then, why? What’s the reason for this constant reformation?
There are two simple reasons. First, it is “because of who we are.” We are humans. We make mistakes. We have many limits. We are not perfect but sinners before God. And the church is one of the human institutions. Second, it is “because of who God is.” Our God is the living God who is not bound to any human mind or tradition. God’s work of love and grace among us is always unfathomable, and God’s way of leading us always goes beyond our imagination. Therefore, if we want to attune our lives and our church to God’s way and will, there is no other way than constantly renewing us by the living Word and Spirit of God and reminding us of who we truly intend to be.
So then, what is Reformation Day? Reformation day can be everyday. True, reformation day doesn’t have to be just one special day when we commemorate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation that happened in the past. Yes, we can make our everyday as a small reformation day as we try hard to renovate our church to be the Body of Christ where people see God’s love prevails, where people feel the vivid presence of the Holy Spirit.
When Is It Observed?
Reformation Day is October 31 of every year. That is the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. He was a respected professor in Wittenberg, as well as the assistant pastor of the Castle Church. So he wanted people to raise their voices with him and started the reformation movement. Luther chose October 31, the day before All Saints’ Day, because he knew that next day, many people would visit the church and read his theses from the door.
Last summer, Jee Hei and I traveled around Eastern European cities. There we encountered the history of the Protestant Reformations.
This (left) is the statue of John Huss (Jan Hus) who is considered to be the first Church reformer even before Martin Luther. I took this photo at Old Town Square in Prague. Huss dedicated his life to the reformation of the Church in Bohemia, the Czech Republic today. He was executed, burned alive at the stake but he didn’t give up what he believed. This Martin Luther’s statue (right) was in front of the Church of Our Lady in Dresden. Dresden has been the capital city of the State of Saxon, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation where Luther hid himself from his enemies, translated the Bible from Latin to German, the language of the people, and wrote many hymns. Wittenberg is also in the same State.
Other than these two reformers, there were many reformers and Christians who committed their lives to the truth that couldn’t be confined in a church or its dogma. They put their faith into action even enduring great dangers and even death. Today, we are observing the day when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. While celebrating the day, why don’t we take time to check our commitment to faith in Jesus Christ and think about how we can take our faith into action?
Why Did Luther Post His 95 Theses?
In Luther’s days, there was a document called “indulgence.” What is that? It was a certificate that says, “If you purchase it, you are forgiven and saved by God, and you will have eternal life.” The Pope asked the churches to sell these indulgences to raise money for the construction of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Some of Luther’s church members also purchased one and asked Luther, “Pastor, does this really work?” Luther went so mad because it can’t be true. So he wrote his 95 theses to tell others, “There is something wrong with the church and we need to change it!”
With his 95 Theses, Martin Luther helped numerous Christians to understand that the institution of the church is not equal to God. God is God, and humans are humans. No church or no human being can hold any divine authority on the way of salvation, or the authority over the Scripture.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32 33). Then, people ask him, “What does it mean to be free? We are not slaves.” Then, Jesus answers, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (8:34-36). Yes, if the Son sets us free, we are free. Indeed, Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life. So we don’t need any other human way than Jesus’ way of love. We don’t need any other proof of our forgiveness than our faith in Jesus Christ whose truth sets us free. And we don’t need any other way of life than our life in a relationship with Jesus.
When posting the 95 Theses, Luther might have wanted all the people to know this simple and yet easily forgettable truth: God’s grace is boundless, and its free flow cannot be controlled by any human authority. And the good news of Jesus Christ has explosive power, and its liveliness cannot be contained in any institutional practices.
Reformation Themes 1
The first major theme of the Reformation is “salvation by grace through faith.” What does it mean? It means that we are saved not by purchasing indulgences or doing good works. But we are saved only by God’s grace and through our faith in Jesus Christ as the Bible tells us. Yes, by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God made the way for our salvation. We can accept Jesus Christ through faith.
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, the prophet Habakkuk tells us, “But the righteous will live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). And Paul in his letter to the Romans repeats, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17). Martin Luther, as reading this Word of God, he would’ve deeply realized that we are saved by grace through faith. It means that our good works and our righteousness cannot be the reason for our salvation. But it is the work of Jesus Christ and his righteousness that is the only ground for our salvation and new life. Indeed, Jesus Christ has done it all, and there is nothing more to be added by us to commence our journey of salvation.
Reformation Themes 2
The second major theme of the Reformation is “the priesthood of all believers.” What is that? It means that all Christians can personally meet God and have a direct relationship with God. We do not need anyone to help us with that. In this sense, all of us are priests who serve God and meet God through reading the Bible, praying, and participating in worship service.
The Protestant Reformation opened people’s eye to see that every Christian can enter into the direct relationship with God and nourish the relationship through personal or communal practices of faith. Faith is no longer controlled by the priests or any kind of gatekeepers. It is freely available to everyone. However, this privilege of being in communion with God comes with responsibility. Every Christian is now responsible for one’s faith, and the fruits they bear.
If there would be a difference between Lutheran or the Reformed tradition and our Methodist tradition, it would be our Wesleyan emphasis on “the Christian life” where faith and love are put into practice and where we bear fruits on the journey of sanctification. Once we freely receive grace, then, we respond to that grace with our actual works of piety and works of mercy. The Holy Spirit’s ongoing sanctification of us is a gift for us as individuals and as a church. On this way of salvation, today, we are called to reform our lives and our church to be more Christ-like, to be holier, to be more fruitful.
Reformation Day can be everyday. We try to renew us always. We are the next reformers. We put our faith into action and keep the faith until the end. We make sure that people get the good news straight, “You are saved by the grace of God and through your faith in Jesus Christ. And you don’t need any intermediary to be in a relationship with God.” After all, we are called to bear fruits worthy of God’s reforming grace, in our practices and on our journey of sanctification. May this day be the day we rejoice in the Lord who grants us unconditional grace and guides us with everlasting love. Amen.
 “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda,” Anna Case-Winters (Presbyterians Today, May 2004).
 The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016, ¶102: Our Doctrinal Heritage
It’s been a few weeks since I started putting this bandage on my forehead. As many of you already know, I’ve been receiving laser treatments to remove my birthmark here. My birthmark the size of a thumb was just so noticeable when I was little. The birthmark is quite visible. So as soon as I was born, my parents began to worry. They were concerned that growing up, my friends would make fun of me about my birthmark, and I would dislike my look. Then, all these would negatively affect my personality and self-esteem. Since there was no such thing like a laser treatment, my parents figured out a simple solution. And it worked out very well for me. The solution was to tell me over and over again that my birthmark is God’s fingerprint! It sounds funny now, but at that time, I took it very seriously. And I really believed it. My mother said that when I was in her womb, God especially chose me and marked me with God’s thumb saying, “Earl, you are mine, and you are very special to me.” I totally bought that story.
Having treatments to remove my birthmark these days, I recalled the story that my parents made for me. But interestingly enough, I don’t think that my parents told me a total lie or a fake story to just make me feel good. It’s because there is a certain measure of truth in that story. As a pastor and a Christian, I believe that I am, and all of us, are created in God’s own image as the Bible testifies. And as God created us, I guess, God might leave God’s fingerprint on us. I also believe that through the Holy Spirit, God always tells us, “You are mine and you are very special to me.” Yes, how important it is to affirm this truth and to realize whose we are. We can say that it’s the ground of Christian faith and life. So I’m thankful that I got to know this truth very early while listening to my parents’ story about my birthmark.
Today’s Gospel reading tells us another good story that leads us to see once more whose we are. Yes, as you may have noticed, today’s story of Jesus revolves around a question asking what belongs to whom. Let us look at the story closely. The Pharisees come together with the Herodians to Jesus in Jerusalem. This is an interesting situation, because these two groups of people really didn’t get along with each other in Jesus’ days. On the one hand, the Pharisees, who were the Jewish religious leaders, did not want to give money to the Romans, the pagans who occupied their land by force and oppressed them. So they opposed to paying taxes to Rome. On the other hand, King Herod and his people, the Herodians, had a great interest in keeping the Roman taxes paid properly, because they wanted to sustain their power with the Roman Empire. Therefore, when the Pharisees and the Herodians come to Jesus together and ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not,” they are really throwing Jesus a no way out situation (Matthew 22:17). If Jesus would speak against the tax, the Herodians would go mad and charge him of treason against Rome. And if Jesus would speak in favor of the tax, the Pharisees would publically denounce him as a betrayer of Jewish people. Yes, the Pharisees and the Herodians seem to successfully trap Jesus in a very difficult situation.
But then, Jesus asks for a coin, “Show me the coin used for the tax” (22:19). People bring him a denarius. Look at the picture.
On the coin, there is the image of Caesar Tiberius, the Roman emperor of Jesus days. And the inscription around the image means, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus” (Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs). And on the reverse, there is the image of a seated woman. She is Livia, mother of Tiberius, described there as “Pax,” the goddess of peace. And the inscription around her says, “the highest priest (Pontif[ex] Maxim[us]),” one of the many titles that the Roman emperor had. As you can see, the coin in the time of Jesus was not just a coin. It carried the political and religious propaganda of the Roman Empire in people’s everyday life. And it continuously reminded them of who is the legitimate and divine ruler and to whom they should remain loyal.
Showing the coin to the Pharisees and the Herodians, Jesus asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answer, “The emperor’s” (22:20-21). Then, Jesus says to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21). With this amazing yet simple conclusion, Jesus draws the people around him into further questions. “Yes, the coin belongs to the Empire anyway, so who cares if we give the emperor back his coin for the tax? But, ‘give back to God the things that are God’s?’ Then, what exactly is God’s that we are supposed to give back to God?” At this point, people might stop and think back on Jesus’ initial reasoning. Jesus leads them to confirm that the coin with the emperor’s image is what belongs to the emperor. According to this, what belongs to God should have God’s image on them. Then, what are those things that have God’s image on them?
The Book of Genesis says, “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in his Image, in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27). Yes, all we are, who created in God’s own image, are God’s. That’s what Jesus wants people to see. “Give coins to the Empire. The emperor claims his divine rule, but what he can get from you is just coins. But remember your Creator. You belong to God. So you shall give your life to God. Give your mind, heart, and soul to God.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are created in God’s own image. This image includes many things. In our heart, we have God-created love and mercy, compassion and kindness, sense of justice and righteousness…all these can be the image of God imprinted in us. These can be the unique fingerprints left in our hearts as God created us. Therefore, to give ourselves to God is to live our life conforming to this image and the likeness of God.
Like the Roman Empire in Jesus’ days, the world tries to impose false images on us and claims our loyalty and our life. And we sometimes find our hearts occupied by those false images and claims, and we consciously and unconsciously dedicate our life to something other than God. However, in this world full of struggles, temptations, and challenges, if there is one simple thought that brings us back to the right relationship with God, that should be about the truth we believe in: we are God’s children born in God’s sacred image, and we are God’s handiwork that have beautiful fingerprints of God. So let us remember whose we are and who we truly are. And let us listen carefully. Through the Holy Spirit, today, God tells each one of us, “You are mine and you are very, very special to me.” May we give to God the things that are God’s always. Amen.
What happened in Las Vegas last Monday was something too overwhelming and too shocking to give it some thought. Fifty-nine people were killed…fifty-nine people! And about five hundred were injured by this vicious shooting. What’s really disturbing is that the perpetrator had no clear reason to do so. He had no criminal records. He was financially stable. He was just one of the seemingly normal people we could meet on the street. And the fact that he was able to purchase more than thirty guns over the last twelve months just terrified me. All these bring us to a fearful awakening that anyone in this nation can be a victim of this kind of horrendous massacre at any given moment by anyone. What’s going wrong?
In this frustrating and fearful situation, people sometimes blame God. Why does the good and all-powerful God allow such evil things to happen in the world? Why?
To this question, we may be able to find some answer from today’s Hebrew Bible and Gospel reading. In those readings, there are two stories about the vineyard owner, referring to God. The owner of the vineyard works so hard and takes good care of the vineyard in anticipation of harvesting good grapes. But strangely, this owner fails to harvest grapes from the vineyard. Isaiah tells that the owner “had a vineyard on a very fertile hill,” and he “dug it,” “cleared it of stones,” “planted it with choice vines,” and “built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it” (Isaiah 5:1-2). But after doing all these onerous jobs, he only gains wild grapes.
The vineyard owner described by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew even gets the worst possible result. He does everything good for the vineyard too and leases it to the tenants before he goes to another country. When the harvest time comes, this owner sends his slaves. But the wicked tenants decide to take over the vineyard from the owner. So they beat the first slave, kill the second, and stone the third. Then they do it all over again and even end up killing the owner’s son. What’s wrong with these vineyards where these unfortunate and tragic things happen? If we were the vineyard owner who toils so much for good fruits but eventually loses many slaves and even a son, we would be just outraged and frustrated. Sure enough, the Bible tells us that there comes a grave judgment upon the ill-productive vines and evil tenants.
Let us go back to the question. Why does the good and all-powerful God allow evil things to happen in the world, in God’s vineyard? According to the two stories, God is not the one who allows or disallows evil things to happen. It’s not what God is up to. God just works hard and does everything good for the vineyard. God truly is the owner cultivating the vineyard and nurturing vines with great care. And God sent the prophets, the leaders, and even the Son, Jesus Christ to us as the owner did in the story. However, the choice vines yield only wild grapes against the intention of the good owner. And the evil tenants of the vineyard choose evil and reject the Son. Indeed, it is us who don’t remain faithful to God and fail to love God in return. Because of us humans, the beautiful vineyard of God becomes deserted and turns into a place of extreme violence. Then, why do we blame God about the existence of evil in the world?
Look around the world. See what is happening now in God’s vineyard. The Las Vegas massacre can only be a tip of the iceberg. The world we’re living in truly is a vineyard full of wild grapes and evil tenants. All God’s hard work for our wellbeing in the vineyard seems to be in vain. In this seemingly hopeless vineyard, the real question should be actually about us—not about God. In all seriousness, we need to ask to ourselves, “Are we still able to bear good fruits as the vines chosen to grow in God’s vineyard? Are we still able to make the vineyard a better place and make it produce good grapes as the tenants chosen to live in God’s vineyard? Are we able?
Living in the vineyard that has been ruined and barren, we may fall down and lose our hope. And we may find ourselves in the pit of skepticism and pessimism. However, the two stories of God’s vineyard assure us of one simple truth. That is…the faithful vineyard owner is still working hard for the vineyard and will continue to toil until the end of the world. The owner will never give up on the vineyard until the Day of Judgment. And until the day, the most incredible thing we can experience is that the graceful owner forgives our fault and gives us the new chance. His Son died for our sins, but he even brings the new life out of the death of the Son for our salvation, for our new life.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, let us not forget that we are the vines chosen to bear good grapes as our faithful owner grows us. Let us also not forget that we are the tenants, the stewards of God, chosen to keep the vineyard in a good condition. There is so much work for us to do in God’s vineyard. Whenever we feel discouraged, whenever we feel negative about the world, let us remember our Lord, Jesus Christ who is our only hope. By the work of amazing grace, God always leads us to see the resurrected Jesus Christ who becomes the first good fruit of the vineyard and who becomes the everlasting cornerstone on which we may confidently build the kingdom of heaven. Let us follow Jesus’ example and abide in him. Let us nurture and nourish our world with God’s grace to bear fruits of faith, hope, and love.
Are we still able to bear good fruit as the vines chosen to grow in God’s vineyard? Are we still able to make the vineyard a better place and produce good grapes as the tenants chosen to live in God’s vineyard? Are we able? Yes, we are. Yes, we still are with the everlasting grace of our God, with the steadfast love of Jesus Christ, and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. So as Paul tells us, let us also “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). And through our life, let us continue to make God’s vineyard beautiful and fruitful again. Amen.
It was in March 2004. I was on my way to North Korea, no kidding. And for sure, I was not deported or escaping from South Korea. I just took a bus with my friends to meet North Korean college students. Can you believe it? Back then, the relationship between North and South Korea was ever better than before. So North Korea hosted a social gathering for college students from both sides, and I luckily got the chance. How can I forget the moment that I crossed the border through a land road? Passing the heavily fortified fences, military posts, and landmine areas, the bus entered into the Demilitarized Zone, which is a buffer zone between the North and the South along with the border.
Because nobody lives there for half a century, it’s become an involuntary nature reserve. As I was watching the beautiful wildlife outside, I heard the announcement, “now we are crossing the border.” You wouldn’t understand it, but for me, as Korean, it was an emotionally overwhelming experience. My friends and I became speechless with the eyes welled up with tears. What a tragedy it is! Across the short distance I passed, about 2.5 miles, the Koreans from both sides were pointing guns at each other. And numerous Koreans have never visited their hometown again, and never seen their family members on the other side. I deeply felt the tragic reality and it broke my heart.
As soon as we arrived, we were invited to a dinner. There we met North Korean college students for the first time. The dinner table was well prepared with good North Korean food. At the round table, we shared a meal and got to know each other. I knew that the North Korean students were not totally free to share certain information with me. But I never felt them as strangers. They looked just like me. We could perfectly communicate with each other using the same language, though we had little different accents. Cheerful and friendly conversations went on and on over the allotted time. At the table, I witnessed that there were moments when our hearts were opened and connected. And there were moments when we saw each other as same Korean beyond our political and ideological barriers. Yes, it was one of the most unforgettable experiences in my life.
But sadly enough, that student gathering was first and last. The relationship between North and South Korea has gone down the hill fast thereafter. And today, we see how North Korea is threatening the whole world again. So recently, I thought about the North Korean college students I met on that day. How would they be? What would they do? And looking back on the experience, I noticed again that there was something special about the table we sat around and shared a meal. The table, which is one of the most common and usual places in our life, is actually quite extraordinary.
At the table, we not only share meals and have conversations, but we also get connected and enrich our relationships. At the table, we celebrate birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, and family reunions. At the table, we build up our friendship at social gatherings and church fellowship. At the table, we sometimes make an important decision about life. The table… this everyday place is actually, extraordinary.
Jesus and his disciples also experienced how extraordinary their table could be. On the night, just before Jesus entered into his time of suffering and death, Jesus shared a simple meal with his disciples. While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks to God and gave it to the disciples, and said, “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many” (Mark 14:22-24). At the table, Jesus not just shared a meal, not just had a good fellowship. But right there, he invited the disciples to become a true family in body and blood. And Jesus opened our way of having everlasting communion with God and with each other through his self-giving love that unites, embraces, and accepts.
Today, we are living in a broken world… not just to mention what’s going on between North and South Korea, but the whole world is suffering brokenness. The world is torn apart by wars, violence, antagonism, power struggles, nationalism, and religious extremism. We are divided by race, socio-economic status, gender, ethnic group, political party, religion, and by social issues on immigration, same sex marriage, climate change, foreign affairs, and so on. The stories of separation, division, alienation, and rejection always outnumber the occasions of reconciliation, unification, inclusion, and acceptance. In this broken world with broken relationships, where should we find the ground to mend all this brokenness in the world?
On this World Communion Sunday, I hope and pray that we can find the ground at the Lord’s Table… the table where everyone matters, the table where everyone becomes a child of God, the table where everyone receives unconditional love that welcomes, saves, forgives, empowers, and reconciles, the table where there is a seat for everyone from everywhere, from North or South, from East or West, from next door or across the street, from a luxury house or a street corner. I believe that this table of Jesus we share truly is the extraordinary ground for peace and reconciliation in the world and among us.
Today, Jesus is calling us again. “Come! Come to my table all you who love me. Come and have a seat. Come, taste my love that overcomes any barriers, and live your new life in communion with me and in communion with each other.” As we hear this call of Jesus again, let us come to his table with all the children of God. And let us invite more people to come to this table and let them feel the love of Jesus Christ that heals the division and brokenness in the world. May the self-giving love of Jesus dwell among us, unite us, and make us be one in that love always. Amen.