Opening Prayer: Gracious Father, we thank you that You have made us your children and that you love it when we pray to you as our Father. We thank you that you have made us part of your family, and that you feed us and clothe us and care for us and all of our needs. Feed us now, our Father, visit us in our distress, for we pray in the name of the righteous Son, our Lord Jesus, and Amen!
After visiting Strasbourg, Gerard Roussel, the chaplain of the queen of Navarre, reported in 1526 that the way the poor were cared for was one of the most impressive aspects of the Reformation. In the city of Nuremburg, alongside the reformation of the baptismal rite and the translation of the liturgy into German was a new city-wide plan for caring for all of the poor. Homes for the care of the elderly, widowed, and orphaned were run by the deacons of the churches in every protestant city. Calvin taught early on that the office of deacon was primarily an office called to care for the poor, and the Reformation in Geneva included the establishment of hospitals, schools for orphans, homes, and support for refugees. As we commemorate Reformation Day, it is good to remember what it is that we are celebrating. Often we emphasize the doctrinal legacy of the Reformation, but hand in hand with that came an aggressive ministry to the poor, the strangers, and orphans and widows in their midst. What’s really wonderful, is that over the last several years, God has been giving us some of these same opportunities, and the following is in many ways something of a “go, team, go!” This is an important part of what it means to be “Reformed.” But as we celebrate the Reformation, this is a good opportunity to think through this aspect of Reformational living. I want suggest that it was the reform of the Mass that was directly related to caring for the poor. At the center of reformation is worship, and this means gathering around the table of the Lord to feast upon His Word and Sacrament. One of the great blessings that God has bestowed on us is a community of Sabbath celebration and feasting which flows out of our worship, and when the people of God understand this gift, it breaks out in families and cities
The Text: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…” (Ex. 20:8-11)
Sabbath and Feasting are for the World
The Sabbath command begins with the word “remember.” The Sabbath and all feasts are memorials in time. And this act of remembrance was to include not only taking rest but also giving rest. As the command makes clear, the requirement to rest extended to family, visitors, and even to animals (Ex. 20:10). The Sabbath principle also applied to the land (Ex. 23:10-11, Lev. 25) and debts (Dt. 15:1-2). And the supreme expression of Sabbath was in the 50th year, the year of jubilee (Lev. 25:8-17) which began with the sounding of the trumpet on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 25:9-10). But the Sabbath was not merely a day off; it was one of the high feast days of the Old Covenant (Lev. 23:1-3). What is significant is that these feasts (like the Sabbath) were not merely for the enjoyment of those who threw them and their friends. The Feast of Weeks was for the fatherless, the widows, and the strangers (Dt. 16:10-12). The Feast of Tabernacles was for the fatherless, the strangers, and the widows (16:13-14). And this emphasis was to be a way of life for Israel because they had once been slaves in Egypt (Dt. 24:10-22). The offering of firstfruits and tithes was likewise for the world (Dt. 14:27-29, 26:11-15). The Jewish leaders who established Purim also clearly understood the Sabbath principle (Est. 9:18-22).
Let us Keep the Feast
It is no accident then that as the early church grew and multiplied, at the center of that covenant community was the doctrine of the apostles, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers (Acts 2:42). At the center of the early church was worship, the Sabbath Feast of the New Covenant. And because this Sabbath Feast was the Old Covenant feasts all grown up and glorious, it’s not surprising that there was almost immediately problems distributing the bread to the widows (Acts 6:1). When the gospel breaks out in a city, one of the greatest challenges should be figuring out how to care for all the orphans and widows. This challenge appears to be the origin of the deaconate, and immediately following the close of the canon, we find deacons assisting with the Lord’s Supper and taking the bread and other alms out to the poor of the church and community (e.g. Tertullian). This is the probable connection for why the deacons came to be primarily liturgical assistants in the middle ages rather than leaders of mercy ministry. But in the Reformation this was recovered by all the major reformers. Worship – and the Lord’s Supper in particular – was for the world. The gifts of bread and wine and milk and honey that were placed on the table during the offertory were alms for the poor. When we break the one loaf here, it is meant to be multiplied to feed thousands. As we “remember” here and celebrate the Sabbath feast here, we are immediately called upon to give Sabbath and to remember the strangers, orphans, and widows.
Conclusions & Applications
As we celebrate Reformation Day and All Saints Day, we do so as people who are thankful and grateful all the way down to the ground. This is because we understand the gospel, and when we do, we immediately see our mission. There is a rich legacy of mercy ministry that has been handed down to us in the Protestant Reformation. Hand in hand with the recovery of the gospel and faithful worship was the recovery of mercy ministry.
As we pursue this calling it must be remembered that part of this means not carelessly creating more strangers, fatherless, and widows (1 Tim. 5:8). There is no either/or dichotomy here. The command is still there to love your wife, love your children, and love your neighbor. But the promise is that there will be more oil (2 Kgs. 4). There will be more than enough bread to feed them all.
And we know this because there is still bread for us. Every week God invites strangers, fatherless, and widows to his feast. The Christian Church is the orphanage of God; he has not left us as orphans in the world but has given us His Spirit. We were once strangers, but we have been brought near; God has given us the Church as our Mother and himself as our Father. In this family there is more than enough to go around. As we celebrate Reformation Day, we celebrate the restoration of the gospel to the masses; we celebrate the bread of life for the world.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Closing Prayer: Our Father, you have bestowed on us great mercy, great grace, and you keep giving us good things in spite of ourselves, in spite of our ingratitude, in spite of our squandering. You keep inviting us to your feast, you keep inviting us into your rest, into your Sabbath. Teach us to truly rest in you, to rest such that our sons and daughters and spouses, and friends, and enemies are blessed. Through Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, who taught us to pray singing…