We haven’t observed Reformation Sunday since I became your pastor, but we’ll so this Sunday. This day is not as often observed anymore, quite frankly, because the numbers of Christians and churches in America is slipping so precipitously, that we can no longer afford old divisions. Catholic Christian, Orthodox Christian, Protestant Christian, we’re all in it together. It’s not easy.
We’ll commemorate the Reformation this Sunday, however, because it is the 500th anniversary.
A motto of the reformation was “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” meaning, “Reformed and ever reforming.” Our need to Reform is not once and for all, it remains ongoing with each new generation. I was reminded of this truth last week upon meeting a lifelong personal hero.
We’ve heard of Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, but Laszlo Tokes, a Hungarian Reformed pastor in Transylvania, Romania fired the spark that overthrew Communism. As he became a pastor in Timisoara in 1987, he mourned for his land because of how deeply the secular atheism of the regime had bitten into the people’s hearts. Still Tokes believed in the church to reignite passion.
He helped them grasp worship as more than Sunday ritual and trained them as a community to infiltrate the world with transforming good. Former members came back; new members joined. The Lord’s Table became the body and blood of Christ rising into their world. Within two years, the membership of his church swelled to 5,000 members being trained in Christian discipleship.
The Securitate of Nikolai Ceausescu found this intolerable, and they weren’t subtle, frisking members before Sunday morning worship. As worship began, agents cradled machine guns or dangled handcuffs with a clear message. Attending worship had become a silent act of protest.
Tokes was denied his ration book for bread, fuel, or meat. His people supplied them from their meager resources. Tokes was attacked. Four men wearing ski masks burst into his apartment while Laszlo and Edith had guests. They beat the intruders with chairs, leaving Tokes bleeding with a facial knife wound. The secret police knew killing Tokes would make only martyr him, so they transferred him to a remote village on 15 December 1989. On Sunday, December 10, Laszlo Tokes looked over the upturned faces of his congregation. “Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I have been issued a summons of eviction. I will not accept it, so I will be taken from you by force next Friday. They want to do this in secret because they have no right to do it. Please, come next Friday and be witnesses of what will happen. Come, be peaceful, but be witnesses.”
Five days later, on December 15, 1989, the secret police came to take Laszlo and Edith. They brought a moving van for the Tokes family’s belongings, but they never got to load the truck. For massed protectively around the entrance to the church building stood a human shield. Heeding their pastor’s call, members of the congregation had come to protest his removal. The brick-and-concrete home of their church sat directly across from a tram stop. Each time the crowded cars unloaded, passengers could see the people gathered outside the church building.
When commuters learned what was happening, many joined the group. Some were from other churches; some just curious or supportive. It was past one am as Tokes opened his apartment window one final time. Light from hundreds of candles pierced the dark. The demonstration continued the next day. Later that afternoon, the people began to shout: “Liberty! Freedom!”
Before dawn of December 17, the secret police broke through the non-violent resistance. As they did so, Laszlo and Edith took refuge in the sanctuary near the Communion table. Tokes wrapped himself in his clerical robe and picked up a Bible, brandishing it like a weapon. The secret police splintered the bolted church door. The police swarmed into the church building. They beat Tokes until his face was bloody. Then they took him and Edith away into the night.
With Tokes gone, the crowds moved from the Church to the central square of Timisoara. By now armed troops, shields, dogs, and tanks filled the streets. But even with the army in place, the people refused to retreat. The Communists responded with the brute force, their usual way meeting opposition. Security soldiers rained out a barrage of bullets. Explosions blew off limbs.
Savage gunfire claimed hundreds, but the people stood strong. No middle ground was possible.
By Christmas 1989, the world couldn’t believe what it saw: Romania was free. Ceausescu was gone. Churches filled with worshipers praising God. This revolution spread throughout the East.
When I met Laszlo Tokes last week, I told him how deeply honored I was to meet him. And I thanked for giving meaning and content to the Gospel as revolutionary power. He took my arms and embraced me…Friends, we have our own demons being loosed in our own land and in our own time. We’re given the same powers of resistance. It’s not about liberal or conservative. It’s about the Gospel as a radical force in the original meaning of radical, all the way to the root.
Where the world brings corruption, we bring transformation. We are Reformed and reforming. Amen.