First attempt at a Reformation Sunday sermon.
Rennie Memorial Presbyterian Church
October 26, 2014, Reformation Sunday
Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28
Always In Need Of Reforming
This is, according to the calendars of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other demoninations in the Reformed tradition, Reformation Sunday. Reformation Day itself, October 31, marks the anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to the door of the cathedral at Wittenberg, an event historically regarded as the initiation of the process that eventually came to be known as the Reformation, or at least the Lutheran Reformation. Typically, most churches will observe that occasion on the Sunday before October 31, which is of course today.
As we are highly aware, Lutheranism is not the only tradition to find its roots in that century of protest and reconsideration; the work of John Calvin gave rise to a distinct and different tradition, one in which we as Presbyterians find our roots, albeit filtered through the work of another man, the Scottish reformer and firebrand John Knox.
Knox is a rather shadowy figure, at least in his early years. We don’t even know his birth date or place for certain, although a decent amount of evidence suggests he was born five hundred years ago, and it was certainly somewhere in Scotland. Knox had already embraced the principles of the Reformation before fleeing from England to Geneva in 1553, when the Catholic Queen Mary ascended to the English throne. Knox studied and worked with Calvin for about six years there before returning at last to Scotland, where he became the principal figure of the Reform-oriented party in the Scottish kirk.
Knox would be the principal author of three notable documents that played a major role in the shaping and growth of the Scottish Presbyterian tradition. One of these is the Scots Confession, which remains in the modern Book of Confessions of the PC(USA). Another was the Book of Common Order dating from between 1556 and 1564 (commonly known as “John Knox’s Liturgy”, an adaptation of Genevan prayer forms and texts for use in Scottish worship. You might note that today’s Prayer of Confession is drawn from that liturgy. Knox also wrote a history of the Reformation as it transpired in Scotland, though that was suppressed for many years and did not appear in a complete version until 1644, well after Knox’s death.
It is good and right to take note of the events of the sixteenth century that set in motion our Protestant tradition. Our faith and doctrine continues to be permeated and influenced by such figures as Luther, Calvin, or Knox in ways we may not even realize. Luther’s fervent embrace of the scriptural teaching of salvation as a work of grace, outside of humanity’s efforts, remains a core principle of most Protestant traditions. Calvin’s understanding of humanity’s fallenness and inability to save itself drives a reformed understanding of the need for God’s grace as well.
This understanding is incredibly important in Paul’s letter to the Romans, pervading the apostle’s writing throughout the epistle. Our reading today from the third chapter of the book makes the case about as straightforwardly as possible, as Paul notes that the power of sin over us is so pronounced and so strong that no amount of works can save us. Adherence to the law, as understood in the Jewish context Paul addresses in this passage, won’t do it. We are not, and will never be, self-savers.
I was not raised a Presbyterian. My formative years – actually, all of my years through my mid-twenties – were spent in another denomination. In that particular tradition a great deal of emphasis was placed on learning scripture, up to and including by memory. As a result, I have a number of free-floating Bible verses in my head, and one of them sits at the heart of this Romans passage. I can still produce verse 23 almost without thinking, as if by reflex – “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” – even though it’s still in the King James Version in my mental memory banks.
Yep, this was me. Second place in the state of Georgia in 1980, by one stinkin' point.
This was not necessarily a great thing. This verse is actually an example of fairly inefficient verse division. To read that verse as a stand-alone sentence – or, as in my case, to have it floating about my brain as a stand-alone sentence – is to fail to grasp its meaning, which is thoroughly embedded in the material surrounding it. The full sentence, beginning in verse 22 and continuing verse 25, is this:
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.
This is a whole different kettle of fish, all of a sudden. First we have to go back and look at previous passages to see just what Paul is talking about when he says “there is no distinction”; it turns out to mean that both Jews and Gentiles (i.e. Paul’s audience for this letter) come equally under condemnation. Then, the old memorized part turns out to connect to the “no distinction” part as a description of why there is no distinction. The real kicker is to find the next clause – “they are now justified by his grace as a gift…” following as the logical conclusion of that statement. From there the sentence unfolds Paul’s understanding of atonement as enacted by God through Jesus, drawing on a fascinating image from Hebrew Scripture as described by scholar Frank Matera in which Jesus, on the cross, becomes no less than the “mercy seat” of God’s redemption of all of us.
My naïve youthful understanding of the verse was not necessarily incorrect. As a factual theological statement, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” holds up well enough. It is, however, woefully incomplete to the point of being misleading. Paul isn’t handing us a club with which to beat up on ourselves and others as hopeless sinners; he’s pointing to the very reason we have hope at all, and ruling out that hope being found in our own doing. As I became an adult and a more thorough reader of scripture, my understanding of this verse (and many, many others in the Bible) had to be reformed – not just modified or tweaked, but broken down and re-shaped, re-built, re-formed from the very base of the scripture – the whole scripture.
I hope this offers some tiny illustration of the potential destabilizing power of speaking the church with the aphorism Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda – “the church reformed and always reforming.” We as a church, even at our most well-intentioned, fall into bad patterns of behavior. We close off. We become more concerned with preserving ourselves as an institution than with living as the body of Christ. We grow more obsessed with preserving our presumed influence in the world at the cost of being authentic witnesses to the world. We hold on to what we should give away.
The author Phyllis Tickle writes that the Christian church has faced, every five hundred years or so, some form of great upheaval producing profound and tumultuous change in the church. If one takes the first century as the birth of the church, then the sixth century saw dramatic change forced upon the church by the decline and fall of the Roman Empire; the eleventh century (or thereabouts) the Great Schism in which Eastern and Western churches were separated; and the sixteenth century the Reformations resulting in the numerous Protestant traditions. And of course, we are several years now into the twenty-first century, about time for another upheaval according to that theory. More of that change that nobody is particularly thrilled about. Just wonderful.
What we as a church – even those eagerly prophesying upheaval and reformation and emergence and other such buzzwords – what we need to remember is that so long as we presume ourselves to be the author and agent of change, we are destined to fail.
The various Reformations of the sixteenth century proceeded more or less from the same premise; that the (Catholic) Church that held sway in the West had become impossibly corrupt in a way that could no longer be tolerated. Though Luther may have advanced many theological arguments, his most vitriolic attacks were directed in most cases against the selling of indulgences, a practice widely perceived as buying one’s way out of one’s sins and into a guarantee of heaven. Luther found it impossible to square that practice with what he read in Romans – salvation as a gift of grace to all, because all have sinned – and finally could no longer remain silent.
What are the challenges or corruptions in which the church might be complicit today? Where is the church when it comes to speaking against the injustices of poverty, or racism, or sexism, or labor exploitation today? Are we there, refusing to be silent? Or are we too comfortable flexing our muscles on behalf of the rich and powerful?
Are we proclaiming good news? Are we preaching an authentic gospel that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable? Or have we become purveyors of a fake gospel that proclaims good news for me, but not for thee?
Where are the fault lines that keep us from a genuine, even troubling obedience to the witness of Jesus Christ? What is the Holy Spirit saying to us in this time? Where does scripture challenge us in our comfort and ease as a western Christian?
To be sure, the purveyors of modern reformations often have an agenda to peddle. That doesn’t mean, though, that the warning isn’t appropriate. To hear the world tell it, our witness isn’t making much of an impression. Between scandal-indulgent mega-preachers and somnolent churches indistinguishable from a particular political party, a great deal of the world around us has responded to the church with apathy. Such designations as “nones” or “spiritual but not religious,” however nonsensical they may sound to our ears, don’t happen because of some super-secret spiritual warfare that only the elites know about, the kind that get made into thriller moves. If anything, they happen because we’ve quit the battle for justice and retreated into our mighty fortresses of security and stability.
Security is not our calling. Stability is not our message. Our message is the love of God, love that refuses to remain confined within the boundaries we draw for it. Our message is the grace of God, grace that is applied to all, not restricted to any “chosen people” however that may be defined. Our message is the justice of God, justice that stands on behalf of the very people our world deems least valuable and most exploitable. And if the world seeks to squelch that, if the world tells us to be quiet and quit disturbing the peace – to go along and get along – then a little upheaval is long overdue.
We do not know what the church will see happen in this century or any other. We know that some individual churches probably won’t survive, some will thrive that don’t necessarily deserve to do so, and others will end up surviving, perhaps in a form it may not expect. But what we do know is that the church’s call doesn’t really change as much as people might claim. Love and serve the Lord; care for those in need; worship in spirit and truth; seek the word of God in the words of scripture; welcome the stranger; love one another; seek the Spirit.
To seek the Spirit, to be ready for whatever wind of change may blow through these walls, whatever reformation may erupt in our midst, is perhaps the most unnerving way for the church to live in uncertain times. And yet that is our calling, nothing less than to be the body of Christ in a broken and fearful world, whatever upheavals may come.
For reformations past and future, Thanks be to God.
Hymns: (numbers from The Hymnbook – the infamous “red book”) Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven (31), A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (91), Rock of Ages, Cleft For Me (271)