• Jack Hughes Robinson, Ph.D.

A Festival of Hymns - Our Faith Through the Centuries


Romans 3:19-28

19Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. (NRSV)

October 31st marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther, an unknown monk and university professor, nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church.

The Protestant Reformation was an attempt to reform the catholic church based in Rome. Later, it became a schism from the Roman Catholic Church initiated by Martin Luther. There had been earlier attempts to reform the Roman Catholic Church; however, Martin Luther initiated the Reformation with his Ninety-five Theses, which criticized many practices of the church at that time, such as the sale of indulgences. The theses proclaimed that Scripture was the source of proper faith, and that belief in the grace of God in Christ, and not good works, was the basis of redemption.

The largest Reformed groups were the Lutherans and Calvinists. Lutheran churches were in Germany, the Baltics, and Scandinavia, while the Reformed churches were in Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Scotland. Other reformed movements arose in Europe, such as the Radical Reformation, which gave rise to the Anabaptist, Moravian, and other Pietistic movements. England broke from the Roman Catholic Church in 1530. The Roman Catholic Church responded with a Counter-Reformation initiated by the Council of Trent (late 1500’s).

To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we celebrate this Sunday by singing a festival of hymns. This marks a departure from our usual order of worship. The theme is: “Our faith through the centuries.” The ten songs I have chosen give us a glimpse of how people of a particular era understood their faith in Christ. As we sing these hymns, I hope you will pay close attention to the words, for they reflect something important about a specific period or movement in Christianity. Prior to singing each hymn, I shall give a brief historical description of what led to the writing of that hymn. We will remain seated through all the hymns, except we will stand for the closing hymn.

I

Our first hymn we already sang - “The God of Abraham Praise.” This hymn with a Hebrew melody reminds us of the link between Christians and Jews. Because Christianity grew out of Judaism, Jews and Christians are like older and younger brothers or sisters. We must never forget our ties with the Jews. This hymn we sang reminds us of that covenant relationship God continues to have with the Jews, with Christians, and with humanity.

II

Our second hymn we are about to sing reflects a controversy which threatened Christianity in its infancy - the Arian controversy. It struggled to describe the meaning of Jesus as the Christ. This struggle culminated in the 4th century with the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). The council affirmed that we experience God in three ways as Father, Son, and Spirit. The hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” is a song of praise to the God who has revealed God’s self to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. Let us remain seated as we sing hymn # 1 - verses 1 and 2.

Congregational Hymns # 1 - “Holy, Holy, Holy” - verses 1 &2

III

As Christianity grew out of its infancy, with youthful vigor in the 11th century Christians turned their attention away from the Holy Roman Empire and in the Crusades attempted to recapture the Holy Land from the Turks. This, I believe, marked a low point in the Christian movement. When several crusades failed, legend says a youth named Stephen arose to proclaim God had called him to gather the youth of Germany to retake Jerusalem. Legend tells us as they marched onward they sang “the Crusader’s Hymn.” This legend is probably false; but the words of the hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus” do proclaim the simple faith of the peasant population in the Middle Ages. Let us join in singing hymn “Fairest Lord Jesus” # 630 - verses 1 and 4.

Congregational Hymns # 630 - “Fairest Lord Jesus” - verses 1 and 4

IV

Following the Crusades, many reform movements attempted to purify the church of its political ties, and to restore it to its New Testament basis. Francis of Assisi, in the 13th century, initiated one such reform. He reminded Christians that by a vow of poverty we are to hear Jesus’ message of love, poverty, and union with God and nature. Let us now join in singing a hymn tradition attributes to Francis, and that is hymn # 15 - “All Creatures of Our God and King” - verses 1 and 2.

Congregational Hymn # 15 - “All Creatures of Our God and King”- verses 1 & 2.

V

The biggest reform movement came about after the Middle Ages in the 16th century. Attempting to return the church to the age of the Apostles, stepped the figures of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox. Martin Luther led the reform by his strong personality and by his studies of the Scriptures reminding the church we are “justified by grace through faith.” This movement we now call the Protestant Reformation. In 1529, tradition says Luther wrote a hymn, which exemplified the God who is strong enough to save us. The Choir will now sing - “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” – as their anthem.

Choir Anthem - “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”.

VI

During the Reformation, England set itself free from the church in Rome in 1530. Years afterward, people felt the Church of England failed to speak to the needs of the people, especially the poor. Out of this situation in the 18th century came a movement known as Methodism, led by a fiery preacher known as John Wesley. Wesley’s message was simple. He proclaimed God’s unconditional love for people. John’s brother, Charles Wesley, set this theology to music writing several hundred hymns, many of which were set to popular bar tunes. When people criticized the use of bar tunes Charles simply replied: “There’s no reason to let the devil have all the good tunes.” Some of the hymns he wrote included “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!!”, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” and “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” The hymn we will now sing reflects the message of the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Let us join in singing hymn # 232 - “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” - verses 1 & 4.

Congregational Hymn # 232 - “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” - verses 1 & 4

VII

Another movement in Christianity was the congregational movement, which emphasized the individual’s relationship with God. This movement gave birth to such denominations as the Baptist, the Assembly of God, and the Church of God. The message of these churches was the need for the individual’s decision for Christ. The hymn we are about to sing reflects how Jesus is seen as our personal Savior and Friend. Let us now join in singing hymn # 465 - “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” - Verses 1 & 2.

Congregational Hymn # 465 - “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”- verses 1 & 2.

VIII

One of the unique contributions made to the music of Christianity has been by those in the African-American tradition. Kidnapped from their homes, experiencing great suffering under the institution of slavery, and their continuing oppression in the American nation, African-Americans brought a deep faith in God which gave them hope of freedom and led them to act to eliminate their oppression. These hymns or spirituals included “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian,” “Let Us Break Bread Together,” and “We Shall Overcome” (379). Let us now join in singing hymn # 228 - “Were You There?” - Verses 1 & 5.

Congregational Hymn # 228 - “Were You There?” - verses 1 & 5.

IX

Into the 20th century the Christian movement came. Out of the experiences of two world wars, the great depression, and the influence of secularity, the churches began to reform themselves again by speaking to the needs of the people in the pew. One such dramatic change occurred in the Roman Catholic Church. Under the influence of Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council initiated reforms, such as having the Mass done in the people’s language not in Latin. In addition, the worship services changed by including having worship services with guitars and new songs expressive of the modern faith. Daniel Schutte, a young Jesuit priest, in 1981, wrote one such song. This song reflected how people still respond to God’s call. Let us join now in singing hymn # 69 - “Here I Am, Lord” - verses 1 & 2.

Congregational hymn # 69 - “Here I Am, Lord” - verses 1 & 2.

X

Finally, in the 20th century, more people have been killed for the sake of Christ than any other century, including those of the early Christian persecutions. Because of totalitarianism, nationalism, communism, and terrorism people who have stood up for faith in the name of Christ were martyred for their faith. The continuing spread of the good news of the gospel for all humanity depends upon people like you and me who boldly and lovingly stand up for Christ and for all people. The hymn we will now sing was written by Harry Emerson Fosdick, a minister of Riverside Church in New York City who stood up for the church in modern times. The title is “God of Grace and God of Glory.” We will sing all verses. Let us stand to sing our closing hymn.

Congregational Hymn # 307 - “God of Grace and God of Glory”

Amen!

(Copyright – 2017 by Jack Hughes Robinson. Use by permission only.)

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