Grace Presbyterian Church
October 25, 2015, Reformation Sunday
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Romans 3:19-26; Psalm 46
…and Always Being Reformed
October 31 (this coming Saturday) marks the 498th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his so-called “ninety-five theses” to the door of the cathedral of Wittemburg, Germany, an event considered seminal in the Lutheran Reformation. That date, or the Sunday before it, has been frequently observed over the centuries as a special day in many Protestant churches – not quite a full feast day, but one significant enough to inspire a sermon at the minimum.
One has to point out that October 31,while observed fairly widely as Reformation Day, is significant in the Lutheran tradition specifically. Though we moderns are prone to speak of “the Reformation” as if it were a single monolithic event, in fact the impulse of reformation broke out in multiple parts of Europe at various times over at least a couple of centuries. The insert in your bulletin points to an early movement, well before Luther’s initial act, spearheaded by the Bohemian Jan Hus, who staked his position on scripture as ultimate authority in the church, ahead of any priest or bishop or pope, and lost his life for it.
As Presbyterians, our branch of the Reformation is seated primarily in the work of John Calvin, a French-born scholastic who became a principal leader of churches in cities such as Strasbourg and especially Geneva, and Calvin’s pupil John Knox, who brought Calvin’s teaching to his native Scotland. Calvin’s efforts are perhaps noteworthy as much for what he did not succeed in implanting in those churches as for what he did. For example, if it had been up to Calvin, the churches of Geneva under his leadership would have practiced communion on a much more frequent basis, even as often as the church was gathered in worship – that would be weekly, at minimum – like the churches under Luther’s leadership. The elders of Geneva were not persuaded to go along with that innovation.
While the churches that emerged from these varied traditions of reformation grew in sometimes strikingly different directions, one trait they held in common was a focus on the primacy of the reading and proclaiming of scripture in the church’s worship. This focus was taken to a greater extreme by Calvin than by most other reformers, as Calvin sought to cut back other elements of worship in favor of scripture and preaching. For example, while the text of our first hymn this morning is attributed to Calvin, he would have been horrified to hear it sung in worship; to him the only texts suitable for singing in worship were texts from scripture, particularly from Psalms, the biblical songbook. That practice is represented by this morning’s other three hymns, which are all psalm settings. Clearly that tradition has continued and become widespread, as witness the final hymn in this service: a psalm adaption from modern-day Indonesia! But Calvin would still have been troubled; these hymns have harmonies and accompaniments, and are accompanied by piano and/or organ, which Calvin distrusted as too much a distraction from the scriptural text.
One goal that the various reformers shared in general was a desire to facilitate the proclamation of the Word, as noted above, by making the Word available in the languages of the people, rather than in the fine but no longer spoken language of Latin, and to make scripture available for all to read. Even as far back as the 1300s, the English pastor John Wycliffe met his violent end at least in part for translating the Bible into English.
Suffice to say that our modern Presbyterian churches are quite different from anything Calvin or Knox would have recognized. On the other hand, Calvin might well have anticipated such change. One of his most famous quotes, after all, described the church (in Latin): reformata, et semper reformanda. Reformed, and always reforming – or better, always being reformed. The church is, under the moving of the Spirit and the Lordship of Christ, is not static, but always growing towards the mark, towards God’s design for us.
I get it; that’s not the way we tend to think of the church. An awful lot of churches these days are trying to go backwards. You know what I mean. The church wants to go back to the days when the pews were full. Back to the time when everybody went to church, even if over half of them were only there under social pressure. Back to the time when we Christians had all the influence, even if that influence turned out to be pretty damaging to our witness. All the dreams, all the hopes of that church are directed backwards.
But Calvin and other reformers saw that this isn’t how the church works. God had no interest in glory days or the church existing merely to be at the top of the social ladder.
The vision offered by the prophet Jeremiah, in the short passage we have heard today, points to a vision – a dream, one might even say – that goes far beyond even the most fervent yearnings of any of the reformers with their vernacular preaching and translations. “The days are surely coming;” the prophet says that the Lord says “the days are surely coming” – but is clearly not here yet in Jeremiah’s day. “The days are surely coming…when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
That last sentence gives a clue to the state of Jeremiah’s people. He writes to a people already divided, and not just divided but conquered (Israel) or soon to be conquered (Judah). The two kingdoms were weak, their people living demoralized or even in despair, and quite distant from any relationship with the God who had covenanted with them so many years before. The promise of a “new covenant” was hardly new, but Jeremiah insists this covenant will be different, not like the covenant of the past, with their ancestors. Jeremiah can’t resist getting in a dig at his people, reminding them that they, not God, had broken that covenant, but then goes on to describe the difference in this “new covenant.”
It turns out that the difference is not in content. It isn’t a list of new laws or new promises. Rather, this new covenant will not be one carved into stone tablets or scribbled onto scrolls or any other document. No; this is a covenant in flesh and spirit, one that God will “write…on their hearts.” The covenant will be so intimate, so direct, that there will be no need for tablets or documents.
Or for teachers or preachers, for that matter. “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…” I will be quite out of a job. All of us preachers, Sunday school teachers, elders…quite superfluous, when God’s word resides in each of us, written on our hearts. And to be clear, like so much of what scripture teaches us, this isn’t a “me” thing; their hearts, them, their, they…the pronouns are all plural. This writing of the law is a unifier, bringing God’s people together; we will be God’s people, all of us, together.
I don’t think it’s too hard to figure out that we’re not there yet. If anything, our world is more fractious and divided than Jeremiah’s, and our proliferation of churches and denominations (seriously, how many different kinds of Presbyterians are there any more?) point to the degree that we are well short of having God’s law written within us.
Yet we do not despair, not if we’re doing this right. We continue to teach and support one another, studying the scriptures until they really do reside in our hearts. We encourage one another. We live in the kind of service Jesus showed us how to do, and commanded us to do. And we do it a certain way because we are inheritors of a particular heritage. We inherit a tradition that says scripture matters, profoundly, above the power of any preacher. We inherit a tradition that insists that the church is of its people, governed by those selected by its members (we call them “the session”), and that the pastor is never the “boss” telling members what to do. We inherit a tradition of an educated clergy, a mandate to serve and to bear witness, to teach one another and encourage one another, to proclaim a gospel of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love, the one that Jesus lived.
Those are very much ideas of reformation; Luther’s great breakthrough was the realization of the words of Ephesians – “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” – did much to set him on his course. By no means should we presume to have any kind of exclusive grasp on this gospel, by no means. But it is our heritage.
For grace, for love, and even for being Presbyterian, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art” (PH 457); “God Is Our Refuge and Our Strength” (PH 191); “When In the Night I Meditate” (PH 165); “Hallelujah! Sing Praise to Your Creator” (GtG 18)