One Consistent Thing
DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
26 October 2014 – Reformation Sunday
Click here to read the scripture first: Matthew 22:34-40 (NRS)
Here we are: Reformation Sunday 2014. 497 years after Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door to All Saints Cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany. You probably remember that he intentionally did that on October 31, 1517: All Hallows Eve – as he knew every faithful follower would be at the mass for the high holy day on November 1 in honor of All the Saints. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, as he pounded his points for discussion on that great big sanctuary door, he was beginning what became one of the most radical changes in the Christian Church of the West.
Things had come a long way since the start on Pentecost, year 33 of the Common Era. Back then, the first followers of the way had nothing but a commission and the Spirit of God pulsing through their veins. To Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the earth they were to go as witnesses of the good news of God’s unfailing love (Acts 1:8). We can read in the New Testament all about those first tenuous years as Christ’s disciples faced various challenges. Initially, they did their best to remain faithful Jews. They would go about life as usual, but had to figure out how to reconcile this new experience they were staking their lives upon in the life, death, and resurrection of one they came to call the Christ – the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish nation and all the world. Acts of the Apostles tells how those who remained in Jerusalem and those who went far out clashed with one another as they were working it all out: who’s in, who’s out, and how. Major change was taking place in their worldviews as they came to understand more deeply that this work of God in Christ Jesus was good news for all – not just those of direct Abraham descent.
Once the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, things got tougher. Remaining Jews and emerging Christians sought to self-define over and against each other. Tensions were high as little by little those who followed Jesus as Lord found new ways to gather – in each other’s homes at first until the state would allow buildings to be built for what we often call churches. A very different mark came to signify one’s inclusion in the group: baptism with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The rite of partaking together around table was key as a remembrance of the same self-giving love expected of them. Not an easy path to tread with Rome still oppressing them all.
By the end of the First Century and the beginning of the next, those wanting to join as followers of the Way underwent intense guidance. A mentor who had been at it longer was assigned to walk with each would-be convert. Sorta like an AA sponsor – one that could be called upon at all hours as the person who was seeking to give their total life to the mission of Christ their Lord felt that they might be slipping. In the early house churches, this intense period took place for about a year – or more if needed – before the seeker was allowed to be baptized and finally join the rest of the community at the table for the bread and the fruit of the vine. In those days before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, followers of Christ’s Way literally were dying to their previous lives and putting on a totally new life in Christ. Some leaving behind families, and all of them beginning to live counter to the ways of the world in order to be a part of a new communion in Christ. Persecution was typical and commitment to this newly unfolding movement needed a serious time of preparation, not to mention daily reinforcement with one another in the morning and again at night for them successfully to be about Christ’s self-giving love for the sake of a better world. . . . It’s a long and sorted story of how we got from those early days of the church to what we had become in the West in Luther’s Sixteenth Century. Lots and lots of changes took place through the centuries – some of them for the better, some not so much – until it came time for a pretty substantial reform.
It’s important for us to remember our history – for we’re just a small part of the stream of God’s Church for the world. I know it can be hard to wrap our minds around days when the bible could not be read by anyone other than a theologically educated clergyman. I can’t imagine gathering each week for worship in those grand cathedrals of old Europe. Hopefully the architecture could speak to you of the marvelous grace of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; because the words you’d hear there were not of your own tongue. Try keeping off Candy Crush the whole length of those services while the priest literally rattled along in a language you could not understand. Changes indeed were needed if God’s people were going to remain God’s vibrant apostles for the world – sent out to live the ways of Christ with the Holy Spirit of God pulsing through the veins of their bodies. . . . And so in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries we get bibles in the language common to the people. The first Sunday Schools for lay people to learn what was in those books. A revival of Spirit in some ways as those who worshipped faithfully every week of their lives finally came to know the good news of God’s grace for us all.
I love what one Lutheran pastor published about the Reformation this week: “On Sunday, October 26 we . . . will gather to remember that while the Reformation may have begun with Martin Luther, it certainly did not end with him. The Reformation continues in the work of (God’s) people to reshape and reform our world to be the place God originally intended it to be. This is done through worship, the study of Scripture, and prayer, certainly. But it also is done in the many ways we as the church work to reach out to a struggling world” in service; in love to those in need. The pastor goes on to write: “We welcome all people to join us in the continued reformation of the church and the world. You may not be seeking to change the world, but take an example from Martin Luther. You never know what God has in store for you” (by Derek Fossey, Pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church in Afton; on: stillwatergazette.com/2014/10/17/oct-31-also-celebrates-martin-luthers-reformation/).
Good words. Because the church of Jesus Christ has taken many shapes and so many different forms throughout the centuries. It will continue to do so in all the years to come. We cannot know today what re-forms will be needed tomorrow. How God will work to ensure that God’s church remains relevant to a world that still needs to hear. Open to the new ways God wants us to understand, and be, and put into action for the sake of the good news of Jesus the Christ. God’s church never looks the same in any place from one year to the next. But the most amazing news is that one thing remains consistent. It’s the one thing Jesus proclaimed so very long ago. As the folks came to question him about the law that was the greatest. In other words, the one thing that had to remain consistent. He told them the ancient, two-fold command he’d read about in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The undisputable ways of God he’d come to know in the marrow of his holy bones. No matter the shape, whatever the form of God’s Church in this world. The one consistent thing is that we always be about the love of God with our whole heart, soul, and mind AND the love of our neighbors as ourselves. As long as the church of Jesus Christ keeps to these, it won’t matter one bit what we look like, where we worship, or how. Everything hangs on this one consistent thing: that we love God and neighbor as ourselves enough to let God re-form whatever might be needed to keep us loving God and neighbors each day. . . . Thanks be to God for the continuing reformation in each one of us! Thanks be to God for re-shaping us into what we need to be today for God’s sake in this world!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)