A Sermon for 6 September 2015
A reading from Romans 12:1-5. Listen for God’s word to us.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
We’re finally at it: the fourth of our four weeks on section F of the Book of Order. Presbyterian Foundational Principles. Foundation #4 is not quite as long as Foundation # 3 – the Calling of the Church. Remember Foundation #1 is God’s mission. Foundation #2 is Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church. And just to be sure every aspect of the Trinity has a part, listen to Foundation #4.
“(F-1.04) Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit. Point 1: Continuity and Change. The presbyterian form of government set forth in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is grounded in Scripture and built around the marks of the true Church.” You remember from two weeks ago, I hope. That we believe the marks of the true Church are the unity of the Church in Christ, the holiness of the Church as set apart, the catholicity or universality of the Church, and the a-pos-to-lic-ity of the Church: our being sent out on a mission into the world. So, “the presbyterian form of government set forth in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is grounded in Scripture and built around (these) marks of the true Church. It is in all things subject to the Lord of the Church. In the power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ draws worshiping communities and individual believers into the sovereign activity of the triune God at all times and places. As the Church seeks reform and fresh direction, it looks to Jesus Christ who goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him. United with Christ in the power of the Spirit, the Church seeks (as Romans 12 reads) “not [to] be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Point 2: Ecumenicity: The presbyterian system of government in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is established in light of Scripture but is not regarded as essential for the existence of the Christian Church nor required of all Christians. Point 3: Unity in Diversity: (Galatians 3 reads) “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27–29). The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church’s membership. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership. No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than those stated in this Constitution. Point 4: Openness: In Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all creation, the Church seeks a new openness to God’s mission in the world. In Christ, the triune God tends the least among us, suffers the curse of human sinfulness, raises up a new humanity, and promises a new future for all creation. In Christ, Church members share with all humanity the realities of creatureliness, sinfulness, brokenness, and suffering, as well as the future toward which God is drawing (us). The mission of God pertains not only to the Church but also to people everywhere and to all creation. As (we) participate in God’s mission, (we,) the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) seek: a new openness to the sovereign activity of God in the Church and in the world, to a more radical obedience to Christ, and to a more joyous celebration in worship and work; a new openness in (our) own membership, becoming in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, ethnicities, and worldly conditions, made one in Christ by the power of the Spirit, as a visible sign of the new humanity; a new openness to see both the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God’s activity in the world; and a new openness to God’s continuing reformation of the Church ecumenical, that (we) might be more effective in (our) mission.” (PCUSA Book of Order, 2015-2017; F-1.04).
If you’ve been Presbyterian for any length of time, perhaps Foundation #4 seems a bit shocking. Openness???!!! To the Holy Spirit???!!! Classically these have NOT been the things for which Presbyterians have been known. Back in Divinity School, which was an ecumenical setting, all my friends used to chide me that as a Presbyterian I was one of the FROZEN CHOSEN! And frozen had nothing to do with being from Wisconsin. For years, we Presbyterians have been known in lots of church circles as being very serious, stodgy, head-driven types who emotionally are frozen; stuck in our intricate theologies. Cold: not on fire like say rowdy Pentecostals who worship full of great zip and zest. And, even though Presbyterian’s big contributions to the Christian effort are fabulous confessional statements and carefully-constructed systematic theologies, we have not been known for elaborate doctrines of the Spirit. We’ve been even more overlooked when it comes to being a people ready to be blown where God wills by the winds of the Holy Spirit. Our historic reputation is more than unfortunate as one of the hallmarks of our Reformed Theological Faith – the basis of what Presbyterians always have believed is: “Ecclesia reformata, simper reformanda” – “The church reformed, always reforming,” according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit” (Book of Order, F-2.02). . . . Presbyterian Foundation #4: Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit challenges us to trust in a living God. We are asked to put all of our faith, all of our hope, all of our assurance in a God STILL at work in the world. A God ready to transform us as we look to a Lord and Savior who: “goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him” (F-1.0401).
If you ask me, this foundation is HARDWORK! At least it is for many of us. Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit implies a few things. First: it implies that we just might not be there quite yet. Incomplete. Imperfect. Unfinished. Who of us wants to be open to that?! Aren’t we always in a race in this society to be done? At the end – like those who have to peek to see how a good book ends instead of sitting back to enjoy how it all will unfold. . . . Some of us have lived a long time – a very long time. The Church has been around for a much longer time! And don’t you just feel weary some days? Haven’t we been open long enough? Haven’t we tried long enough? Must we continuously exist in this place of not quite yet being finished? . . . Though something in us just might want to cruise-control down the road on auto pilot. Being as we know. Doing as we’ve always done. Not having to face the grief that can come over that which ends before something new grows. One commentator has written that “if you’re a part of a vibrant congregation, (then) your church is in a constant state of transition.” And this is a good, welcomed thing! (Jan Edmiston, achurchforstarvingartists.com, “Rethinking Church Staffs,” 3 Sept. 2015). Openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit means a humble life of constant listening. Constant self-examination. Continual learning. Endless letting go. Openness can be really hard work!
And it’s not just about extra effort; this call to openness. It can be more than a little scary too! . . . You may know already that I grew up in the woods along Lake Michigan. In the winter when I was a child, my sister and I loved to haul out ice skates, tromp back through the snow, and see if the ice on the swamp was ready. I still can remember that old red coat of mine and the thick woolly socks. Gliding free over the ice was such a delight! It felt so amazing! Have you ever done it? The speed, the grace, the freedom of flying from one spot to the next way faster than any of us ever could walk. But you know what? Before those fabulous moments, I fell down – a lot! It was the risk I had to take if I wanted to skate. An older sister of mine once fell so hard she broke her leg – badly! Fortunately, I only bruised my knees a lot. . . . You know how when you’re just starting out – learning something new: be it ice skating, or driving a car, or maybe even trying to figure out how to relate to someone else in a little healthier way? Risk always is involved. We’re going to fall every now and again. But as the old saying goes: “Success consists of getting back up once more than we fall down.” Dust ourselves off and try again. No need to fear. Just accept that try and try again is a part of the process. . . . Being open to something new might scare us right out of our minds! But maybe that’s what God intends as a first step in having our minds transformed – renewed that we “may discern what is the will of God” in this situation and that instance and the next opportunity too (Rom. 12:2).
It’s exactly why we need to be open to the Holy Spirit – the wisdom that guides us into God’s desired future. . . . One commentator has written: “If a free flow of air is needed to make a fire, likewise a free flow of the Spirit is needed to form a church with a ‘burning center and porous borders.’” The commentator continues: “Without the Spirit, we will not only have conformist churches, we also will have churches suffering from respiratory failures. If churches are not inspired by the Spirit, then eventually they will expire” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3, Eleazar S. Fernandez, p. 378). And so: Come, Holy Spirit! Come and fill this place! Come and fill us with your surprising power! Come and lead us where God would have us go! . . . Remembering that it’s about continuity – staying in line with what has gone before – AND, as Foundation #4, point 1 states: CHANGE – being drawn deeper “into the sovereign activity of the triune God” . . . through reform, through fresh direction, through following Jesus Christ who “goes ahead of us.” He’s our leader not only so we know which way to go. He’s our leader because the living God sends him before us still to make a way for us to walk too. It’s as if Christ says: “this is the path. Walk on it!” We’ll be sustained by the Spirit. We’ll be given the courage needed. We’ll find ourselves standing one foot in line with the past and the other stepping forward to what yet will be.
This is our sure footing. Our foundation: God’s mission. With Jesus Christ as our Head, the Church called and continually open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for this solid ground upon which the Church of Jesus Christ forever shall stand!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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