33 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
An atheist was rowing his boat across Loch Ness in Scotland one day, when suddenly the Loch Ness monster rose up out of the water and attacked the man, grabbing him from his boat. He panicked and shouted “God help me!” and suddenly, the monster and everything around him just froze. A voice from the heavens boomed “You say you don’t believe in me, but now you’re asking for my help?” The atheist looked up and said, “Well, ten seconds ago I didn’t believe in the Loch Ness Monster either.”
Soli Dei Gloria. Glory to God alone. Or, in some alternate Latin versions, for the glory of God alone. Or glory to the only God. There’s actually quite a scholarly debate about that, which unfortunately we don’t have time to delve into today. Regardless, this is the last of the five pillars, the five great “solas” of the Reformation — and it’s the one that all the others lead up to: Scripture, faith, grace, and Christ all ultimately point us to God and to God’s glory.
Like the other Solas we have considered this month, this one evolved from a disagreement (or perhaps a misunderstanding) between the 16th century Reformers and the medieval Catholic church, one that still persists today, even though it shouldn’t. Growing up in a Protestant church, I was always taught that the difference between Catholics and Protestants was that THEY worshiped the Virgin Mary or worshiped the saints but that WE worshiped God alone.
To be clear, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church has always been that Glory, or worship, belongs to God alone. In the 13th century, Catholic theologians even came up with three separate categories–latria, dulia, and hyperdulia–to explain the difference. Latria is the Latin term for worship that is given to God alone. Dulia is the Latin term for reverence or esteem given to the saints and those who serve as role models in faith.
Ironically, that’s exactly what WE do on days like today when we recognize and celebrate Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox. We don’t worship them, but we acknowledge their importance to our heritage and our faith.
The third category, hyperdulia (or hyper-reverence), was created specifically for Mary the mother of Jesus, in recognition of the fact that she holds a special place in our story, and even the scriptures single her out as one to be blessed by all generations. Blessed, not worshiped.
This is, and always has been, the official teaching of the Catholic Church. However, as any teacher knows, there’s a difference between official teaching and “common practice.”
The Reformers in the 16th century felt that the teaching was not clear enough, or not reinforced enough in local churches, where veneration of Mary or certain saints rose to a level bordering on worship and sometimes indistinguishable from it.
So they articulated this doctrine that glory–which translates the Greek word δόξα (doxa) used by Paul in the final verse of today’s scripture passage, meaning praise, worship, glory–belongs to God alone, and not to any human being, no matter how amazing or saintly.
This phrase, “Soli Dei Gloria” became one of the most popular expressions of the Reformation, and you can find it engraved on churches and public buildings throughout Europe today. Two famous composers, Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederick Handel signed their compositions with the initials S.D.G. Soli Dei Gloria is also the motto, today, of Wheaton Academy in Chicago, Concordia College in Minnesota, Luther College and Dordt College in Iowa, and of the American Guild of Organists.
Soli Dei Gloria. But what does it mean for us, as 21st Century children of the Reformation?
I don’t think that, in our time, Mary and the Saints are still competing with God for our worship–at least not nearly to the degree as other things: Today, we are more likely to give our worship to celebrities, to actors, rock stars, billionaire CEOs and charismatic politicians.
How do you know if you’re worshiping someone, and not just giving them reverence? If you put your hope and trust in a human being, and you believe that this person has the ability to save us, to singlehandedly make our world a better place, then you will ultimately be disappointed. Even the very best celebrities, politicians, and CEOs fall short of our expectations, because they are human, like us. Our expectations, on the other hand, are clearly superhuman. So as Christians, we would be wise to reserve our deepest hopes, our greatest reverence and worship, for a superhuman being. Glory to God alone.
But I think there’s another way of understanding this last, greatest “Sola” in the 21st century. At the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned that there were different Latin versions of the phrase. Most have the sense of “Glory belongs TO God alone.” The variation I’ve chosen (Soli Dei Gloria) occurs less frequently, and has the sense of “FOR the Glory OF God alone.”
I think this was more along the lines of what Johann Sebastian Bach meant when he signed his compositions with those initials S.D.G. He wasn’t saying so much, “all glorious music everywhere from every composer belongs to God alone” (even though he probably believed that on some level). I think his intent was more along the lines of, “This small piece of music, inasmuch as it is good and beautiful, was written FOR the sole purpose of showing God’s glory to the world, and should be performed only in that spirit.”
We have learned from previous Solas that our actions cannot save us or earn merit with God. But our actions CAN be a response to God’s love and grace in our lives, and therefore our actions DO reflect that love and grace to others.
Or at least, they should. To often, the actions of 21st century Christians, churches, and church leaders reflect self-interest, self-preservation, self-glorification. When we do things in the name of God that primarily benefit ourselves, what we reveal to the world is our own broken selves, and not God’s glory.
Soli Dei Gloria (For the Glory of God alone) is a reminder that in the 21st century, God doesn’t judge us for our actions, but rather the world judges God for our actions, and learns about God primarily from our actions. We’re never going to be perfect, and God doesn’t expect that. But Soli Dei Gloria can be a constant reminder to us (get it tattooed somewhere you can see it) that YOU are God’s gift to the world, and whenever you do something, you have the opportunity, in some small way, to reveal as best as you can, God’s glory, God’s love, God’s grace to the world.
I want to conclude with a true story. It’s a direct connection between Geneva in the 16th century (the city that gave birth to the Reformation) and El Paso, Texas in 2018 (the city we find ourselves in at this moment).
In the second half of the 16th century, widespread violence and war broke out in France. Much of that violence stemmed from religious disagreements, but as with all wars, there were plenty of other motivations–including politics, money, and prejudice. More than 3,000 people were killed in a single day in Paris, the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre.
Over 200,000 refugees escaped from France and fled to other countries–Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Some cities turned them away. Some cities accepted a limited number, but no city took in more refugees than Geneva. In just a few short years, the city doubled in size, and eventually tripled. Take some time to imagine what that would have looked like.
Theodore Beza, a student of John Calvin’s in Geneva, writes of seeing cart after cart full of bleeding people pouring into the city from Paris and other parts of France. The experience disturbed him so much he could hardly eat or drink for three days.
Make no mistake–there were plenty of voices of opposition to receiving the refugees, and Geneva was something quite rare in Europe at the time…a democracy. Legitimate fears were expressed about the city’s inability to feed or shelter the sheer number of refugees. Fears were expressed about competition for jobs and limited resources. And of course, some expressed disdain for those dirty, lazy, good-for-nothing French foreigners.
At the heart of all this was John Calvin, the leader of the church in Geneva. Calvin believed in what would later be described as the “separation of church and state” and in the rule of law and order. But he also believed in the Christian virtues of compassion, hospitality, and love. And Calvin, just a few decades earlier, had himself been a fugitive from France.
Calvin, along with other church leaders in Geneva worked on two fronts: They tirelessly lobbied the council and government officials to change the city’s laws, to give official protection and status to the refugees. They also worked within the church, preaching and teaching the message of love for neighbor and welcome to the stranger. They collected funds, and with the support of their congregations, built houses, hospitals and schools to accommodate every last person who came to their rapidly transforming city.
And largely because of this effort, Geneva became one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe, which it remains to this day. John Knox–a refugee from persecution in Scotland who fled to Geneva and would later return to his home country to start the Presbyterian Church, called Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles.” The city has also been called the “shining light of the Reformation” and even today is known internationally as a city of peace, freedom, and help to those in need. It is the birthplace of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention.
How does a city rise to this stature? Certainly not by seeking its own glory, its own safety and self-preservation. Rather, in a moment of crisis, desperation and need, when God himself stood at the city gates, dressed in the humble rags of the refugee, the people of Geneva rose to the occasion and to the challenge, remembering, perhaps, that Europe was watching. Little did they know that all history would be watching as well, as Geneva opened its gates and its doors and its hearts, and let the glory of God shine through them for all to see.
What will you do with your moment, people of El Paso? People of First Presbyterian Church, the spiritual heirs and descendants of Calvin’s Geneva, what will you do with the refugees standing at your door? Will your actions be for your own safety, your own preservation, your own glory, or for the Glory of God alone?