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Don't miss out on the coming reformation

Reformation Day always seemed to me to be the odd day out on the church calendar. It was one of those days, and there are many in church life, when we tried to say one thing with our mouths but when the words came tumbling out we were pretty far from our intentions. Reformation Day in my youth was a self-congratulatory festival where we celebrated why we were not Catholic and how through the gifts and insights of the enlightenment we had advanced well beyond primitive religiosity. Perhaps the reason Reformation Day has in many ways gone by the boards is that many became aware as they were growing up that the only church around that seemed engaged in massive reformation was the Catholic church. The life and actions of Pope John XXIII had ignited a spirit of renewal that could only spark the envy of many Protestants, replacing the austere visage of Pius XII. John XXIII's demeanor seemed to reflect the humanism that was behind much of the motivation of the original Reformation.

As it was presented to us, the Reformation was very much an event that took place in the past. Yes, there was some lip service to the notion that reformation should be a continuing event but as one looked around, you did not see much evidence that the Reformation was a continuing event that challenged central dogmas and that had implications for the way we worshiped or governed ourselves.

If anything, the events and personalities that were changing church life were coming from outside the church rather than from within the church. Civil rights, the women's movement, Vietnam were all doing something more to liturgy, polity, theology, and pedagogy than anything taking place within or initiated in the church. Yes, there was the "God is Dead" movement that managed to place its claims on the front page of Time magazine. Yet this does not seem to be the stuff of which reformations are made, as evidenced by the fact that there are few who can remember what the movement was about or name any of its protagonists.

By the time my generation of Christians came along, the Reformation had been reduced to a fairly narrow personal struggle over one's own salvation. One could come away believing that Luther was dealing with his own private existential struggles. Gone were the political and social consequences that came as the result of a shift in theological understanding. Our understanding of the Reformation did little to prepare any of us for the development of "liberation theology" that generated a new understanding of poverty and the role of religious institutions in creating the kind of attitudes that maintained poverty. This should not be entirely surprising in a community that was clearly part of the "haves."

In many ways, our celebration of Reformation Day was a bust. What we missed out on is something that each of these texts embody. "The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah" (Jeremiah 31:31); "Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith" (Romans 3:27); "They answered him, 'We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, "You will be made free"?' " (John 8:33). All of the texts remind us that reformation is something that God initiates. God is free to initiate in the church or from outside the church. The real Reformation comes when, despite all evidence to the contrary and our certainties, we are open to what God will initiate.

Jeremiah 31:31-34
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." So opens Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities: the story of the French revolution and its horrors and the glories of human beings in the face of massive change. As much could be said of the Hebrews' return from exile and their rebuilding of their faith community. At a recent church council meeting, a member of the council remarked that a good church fire is not the worst thing that can happen to a church. His point was that good fire can be a worst of times/best of times sort of moment. Yes, there will be plenty of hard work to do to recover from the destruction. On the other hand, such times can be the occasion for the rediscovery of what church is primarily about, as the members plan for the future in real time as opposed to a theoretical proposition. A pastor/colleague remarked that the best thing that could happen to his church and community would be the start of a new church in his relatively small community. It would be a good test of the party line that soccer and other activities had overtaken Sundays so people had plenty of reason not to go to church.

What do all these events have in common? Each of them cries out for a return to the primal events and understandings of what a faith community is about in order that "... but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31). The recondition for the flight of the eagles is a return, a reenactment, an engagement with those times when the community experienced God's leadership. In my tradition, heavily influenced by the writings of Phillip Schaff, it is important to note that renewal is defined before anything else as return so that there might be reformation. There is some evidence in the writings of Dianna Bass and others that the spiritual hunger of the current generation is not so much a longing for a break with the past but a curiosity and thirst to know where Christians have come from and what is usable from the past to build on. The culmination of scripture is in the affirmation of things past, "And the one who was seated on the throne said, 'See, I am making all things new.' " Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Note that the text does not say, "I make all new things." God makes things that are new.

This is what the prophet Jeremiah is proclaiming when he writes, "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." What is new here is that the covenant will become an internalized reality for God's people where the rhythm and beat of sabbath becomes the guide to planning and work. That would be quite a significant reformation. What occurs here is not the abolition of the law but its internalization into the life of the community. God will do this; not votes or resolutions but openness to the activity of God will make this possible.

The prophet makes clear that this reformation will involve everyone. The common experience of all, sharing in the sabbath/shalom pattern of life and the equal playing field that it establishes will be the primal source of the Hebrews' renewal as they remember the law to the point that it is written on their hearts. This is the best of times if the work of God is accepted. There are difficult times ahead if the Hebrews reject the God that is reaching beyond all the betrayals and rejection to yet again enable God's people to enter into the primal experience of the new covenant based on the law.

Romans 3:19-28
One of the trends that has brought the church to a place of reformation in the last few years has been the hunger for authentic religious narrative and experience. On the part of many there is a feeling that they can no longer internalize the narrative of their youth. A narrative that was suitable when religious authority was accepted is no longer operative in a world where individual experience is the measure of truth. In a sense, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation was a battle fought over the same ground. "What would be the teaching of the church regarding salvation in the world to come?" The current Reformation shifts the ground to "What is the experience of salvation in the world that is?" For moderns, the rallying cry is less about what shall be taught about Jesus and more about "How may I have an encounter with Jesus?" Clearly, the Reformation is something less to be taught than to look forward to in our day.

As in the first Reformation, three central things stand out as a feature of the change that is happening. The emerging church movement, like the first Reformation, betokens new understandings of power in its core elements: the need for experiential meaning, the need to see the movement in continuity with the historic church, and the desire to impact the world in redemptive ways. This has led to the breaking of historic form and patterns of worship as the movement mixes various historic elements of the church. One could find themselves at a Pentecostal Congregational church in which icons play a central role as they seek to redeem the neighborhood. This was not my mother's church.

The current Reformation, like the first, reflects a new focus on what it means to be a human being. The first Reformation was fueled by a shift toward a more Augustinian existential point of view. The new Reformation focuses on biology as a source of insight regarding faith and religious experience. David Brooks, in a New York Times article titled "The Neural Buddhists," illustrates the conversion of several elements of the new Reformation: human beings are wired to have self-transcending religious experience, moral instinct is universal, and human beings are to be defined relationally rather than substantially or existentially. God is what weaves together all these elements.

The third element of the new Reformation is like the first Reformation in that the canon has shifted in its emphasis from Paul to Jesus, as evidenced in the writings of Marcus Borg and others.

What does all of this have to do with a preacher standing before a congregation on Sunday morning looking out at faces that have come to know whether, as Karl Barth, the fundamental story is true or not? Part of the problem is that some will come as a result of the first Reformation and the others will come so the new Reformation can get under way.

Paul, who had his own personal encounter with Jesus, does have some advice that might prove helpful: "... All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." This is a helpful reminder that seems to have been thoroughly ignored by the first Reformation. The world seems to have found plenty of excuses to do some bloodletting in the midst of our current crises without the religious/spiritual community adding to the misery. While few in the pews on a Sunday morning seem ready to lead the charge in a holy war, I have attended enough seminars on the writing of Marcus Borg and others to know that quite a few are not ready to be liberated by the new Reformation in scriptural understanding. Don't participate in reformation unless you have a good leavening of humility in the strengths and weaknesses of your position.

Paul also writes to the Romans, "... the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." Paul is saying that if there is any truth in us as human beings it is because without distinction we have been graced by God. God has used many forms of the church to further the building of kingdom, leading to the conclusion we can neither reject any expression of the church nor fully embrace any form of the church as final. This always leaves the door open for reformation. God has passed over the sins of all previous reforms and will redeem all reforms of the future.

John 8:31-36
What could partake more of the struggle over reformation than these words from the gospel of John, "They answered him, 'We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, "You will be made free"?' " Here is the struggle between those who have been shaped by the tradition and one who wants to shape the tradition. The key question here, whether we see the activity of God through the Holy Spirit, is an ongoing work of the risen Christ. Was Luther right in concluding that the church is always reforming and that this is the work of God? Many rightfully ask that if the answer is yes then does that make us free or does it make us slaves to a never-ending pattern of change and uncertainty that we must learn to live with? Given the convulsive changes that we have had to live with in many areas, I can sympathize with those who have found themselves gun-shy in the reformation department. I appreciate the complaint of those who cannot take one more change to their favorite hymn or one more new authoritative biblical translation. The truth is that Jesus and the early church lived in a changing world: the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the inward turning of Judaism, the early persecutions of the church. Yet John's community had staked itself on the kind of religious reforms that would lead to its separation from Judaism.

However, as the text makes clear, it is Jesus who makes us free through the reform. It is crucial to see the change as a result of his work to liberate and make free. It does mean agreement with all change or the denial of any change. It does mean that reformation was the work of Jesus himself on earth. It makes all the difference whether we see that as the ongoing work of the resurrection. It challenges us as to what we mean by free and slave. Jesus does say in chapter 14, "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father."

If nothing else, Jesus invites us to a conversation around the meaning of reform. As a good Congregationalist/UCC pastor, I believe in that conversation we will hear the voice of Jesus.

The questions for the preacher as he or she approaches this day fall into three categories: Does the preacher come down on the side of full speed ahead on reformation of the church? Is the congregation that the pastor serves so wounded by change and reformation that it needs healing? Has the pastor's congregation never undertaken the work of extensive reformation in its life so that it sees no need to undertake this work? I suspect that in the first Reformation there were congregations that were ready to lead, some to follow, and others who were going to stay put. The pastor needs to ask of themselves where they and their congregation are on Reformation Day.

Alternative Application
John 8:31-36. One of the things that often seems to block the process of reformation is that we are so unfamiliar with our own tradition. My hunch is that it would be quite an eye-opener for most congregations to discover what their ancestors in faith actually believed was happening in communion or in the meaning of having a sabbath rhythm of your life or in the importance of hearing and discussing the preached word. This might be the day to help lay people understand what those who previously occupied the pews meant by faith -- by taking a lay point of view of the previous Reformation. It might be the day to help your parishioners understand that things may have changed over the years in more ways than the average congregation realizes. "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father."
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