Everyone was gazing at his finger. They didn’t realize He was pointing at the heavens.
By the time John Trumbull was commissioned to imagine the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1817, the occasion was already pregnant with aggrandizement and mythology. While the motion to secede from the British Empire was adopted on July 4th, it would be nearly a month before anyone put quill to paper to sign it. The parchment was carried on horseback up and down the coastline for more than a month before taking the form we know today. Unsterilized history makes for a lousy painting, so we have this varnished myth instead.
The giants of history slaying overstated dragons in well-pressed trousers without breaking a sweat. Footsteps no one would dare follow in. Fictional characters with barely a trace of humanity still visible underneath unattainable grandeur. How quickly they become themselves the magnets that draw us backward when their accomplishments were designed to send us forward. The Declaration of Independence is less about heroes of the past than it is about the vision of a new nation going forward.
I imagine Paul violently ripping the rearview mirror away from his windshield as he dictates, “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 3:13). It’s almost hyperbolic, his drive to fix our eyes on where our God is taking His Church forward. Our God is, after all, always on the move.
It was 500 years ago this October that Martin Luther fired the shot that launched the Protestant Reformations. It’s a story saturated with a similar mythology; a determined Augustinian monk marching defiantly toward the doors of a Wittenberg Cathedral. Recognizable heroes driven by righteous indignation and villains wrought by the corruption of a fallen papacy; battling each other as the purity of the Gospel hangs in the balance. The Reformations are so easily relegated to aggrandizement and legend if we look back into the past at them. They become about the heroes themselves – Luther, Calvin, Huss, Paul III, Zwingli, and Philip Melanchthon – when they themselves would point steadfastly toward the vision Christ has for His Church going forward.
The spirit of Independence that birthed this nation of ours sends us into the unknown bearing the values and the mind of our country’s founders. They teach us how to form our own future boldly and without compromise.
My prayer for the Church as we approach this season of remembrance is not that we’ll forget the unvarnished reformers who lay behind us, but that we’ll be driven forward by their example; by their spirit of the Risen Jesus into the challenging unknown that lies in front of us. We press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus. Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est.
About the Author
Josh Hatcher is a devoted husband and father, hopeless wonder-junkie, and Senior Pastor of Historic Trinity Lutheran Church – an open and caring, radically Christ-centered, deeply sacramental and sometimes eclectic ministry in the heart of the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis.