Readings for the day (Lectionary 31 – Sunday, October 30, 2016):
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
As of today, we are one year and a day away from the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. 499 years ago tomorrow is when the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther took out a sheet of paper, a nail and a hammer, and proceeded to nail his 95 theses to the outer door of the castle church in Wittenburg Germany. At that time, the exterior doors of churches were really bulletin boards for the church and the community as a whole. The church was usually the center point of town. Luther’s 95 theses, or statements, named 95 issues that he wanted to see resolved within the Roman Catholic Church. He never intended to break away from the Catholic Church, start a new denomination, or set the framework for countless other denominations to form. All Luther wanted to do was to see some changes made to the church that he was serving.
Of course, the Catholic Church did not see it that way at all. They took Luther’s suggestions as threats; his comments as attacks. Sound anything like today? As a whole, wouldn’t you say that our society is very on edge? For every statement that is made, a reaction is made and offense is taken. It is getting so bad that I bet if I said that the sky is blue, I’m sure someone, somewhere would take that statement as offensive. We have rather thin skins today.
The story of Zacchaeus is no different. Jesus takes note of Zacchaeus, picks him out of the crowd, actually a tree, and all who saw it began to grumble and complained loudly. They thought that is was offensive that this respected teacher of God’s Law would voluntarily be the guest of a sinner. How dare he go and eat with a tax collector? Do you know how corrupt this tax collector is? The crowd saw Zacchaeus as someone who because of his occupation and social status, doesn’t deserve to have anything nice; especially important guests over at his house. People still think like that today. Does it really matter what a person’s occupation or social status is? If they choose to use their money to get something nice isn’t that their choice?
Now since Zacchaeus was short, he climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus. There was too large of a crowd for him to be able to see over them. Have you ever had someone taller than you blocking your sight? A sycamore tree is a really good climbing tree with lots of low branches. So Zacchaeus climbs the tree because there was something blocking him from seeing Jesus. For Martin Luther, the issues that he saw with the Catholic Church were preventing him from seeing Jesus. He couldn’t see how this God that we believe in could possibly be filled with grace and actually love his children when everyone has to remain in a waiting period after they die called purgatory. And their time in purgatory is dependent on how many sins they committed in this life. But if you bought an indulgence (aka donated more money to the church), you could decrease the length of time you or a loved one will spend in purgatory. For Luther, he couldn’t see God’s grace in any of that. These and other issues prevented him from seeing Jesus. What is preventing you from seeing Jesus? Maybe it’s a person, an object, an activity, a habit that is blocking you and prevents you from seeing Jesus clearly.
For as long as I can remember, Lutherans and Catholics have been in tension with one another. We don’t want our worship service to look too much like the Catholics because we’re Lutheran after all, not Catholic. Some churches even change the wording of the creed to read “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church.” That way they aren’t saying, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” When I was little I remember even saying, “one, holy, Lutheran, and apostolic church,” because you know, I wasn’t catholic. Except the word catholic means universal, as in the whole universal church; meaning all of those Christian churches that believe in Jesus and want to see Jesus. Catholic with a capital C refers to the Roman Catholic Church.
So for Luther, the Roman Catholic tree that he was perched in prevented him from seeing the gracious out pouring of God’s love and grace. For some people the ELCA tree prevents them from seeing God’s grace. And that’s okay, because there is one thing in common between the Catholic tree and the Lutheran tree, they both help people see Jesus. And as a huge testament to that truth, tomorrow, on the 499th anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany, the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church will be holding a joint commemoration service in Lund, Sweden where the headquarters of the Lutheran World Federation is at. And as a way of showing the healing our church bodies have been and will continue to do, Pope Francis himself will be attending this joint service tomorrow (beginning at 8:30 am our time).
The crowd began to grumble and upset that Jesus was picking Zacchaeus over any of them. Often we compare ourselves to each other and grumble when things don’t happen just the way we want or expect them to be. So we complain and grumble about this and that. We compare ourselves to what the Catholic Church is or isn’t doing and we grumble about it. We think that our tree is better, it’s taller, it’s brighter, it’s fuller. Except that’s not what matters. Zacchaeus didn’t climb that tree to be better. He climbed it to see Jesus. That’s my responsibility as your pastor – to show you Jesus. That’s our responsibility as the body of Christ – to help people see Jesus. That’s also the responsibility that our Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ have been called to do. That’s why nearly 500 years later, Lutherans and Catholics will be having a joint commemoration service.
At the end of the day, all that truly matters is that Jesus called out to Zacchaeus to come down from that tree and dine with the savior of the world. Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists alike all believe that Jesus is the Son of Man, God made flesh, dying for the sins of the world, and rising to new life for all of eternity. Our sin tells us that other denominations are like this chief tax collector named Zacchaeus. Someone we should avoid and hate. But Jesus shows us that we all are God’s children, called to show Jesus to the world. Amen.
© 2016 Anthony Christoffels. Used with permission.