Reformed and – like it or not – always being re-formed
Today is Reformation Day. I know you already know that – after all it’s a HUGE Hallmark holiday and all our kids are giddy with excitement that celebrating this day means lots of candy and dressing up like long dead people. Really – what’s not to like!
Okay… so in reality it’s a nothing of a holiday here except for nerdy pastors and seminary students in the Protestant tradition. On this day we remember Martin Luther and his 95 thesis. We remember the hard work of those who came before us to imagine the faith in new (that were really old) ways. Its work that never ends… we are constantly responding to God who tells us “I am doing a new thing, now it springs up. Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19).
The slogan that capture this is “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda” which is Latin for something like “The Church reformed, and always being reformed.” It is a rally cry of all Protestant Christians on some level and near and dear to those in the Reformed Tradition such as Presbyterians like me. So here is the thing. Often you will hear it said that we are, “Reformed and always reforming” rather than “Reformed, and always being reformed.” Today this struck me again and it struck me as the heart of a lot of problem in the Church and our particular churches.
Do you see the difference? Know where I’m going? Yup. We like the idea of reforming… because it’s active and its sounds like we are the subject. We are reforming our faith. On the other hand if we are always being reformed… suddenly we are recipient of the reformation and not the subject. We aren’t necessarily passive but we certainly aren’t in control. And that’s the rub. We like to be in control. We like to set the agenda. We like the idea of change… so long as we can pick and choose what is allowed to change and to what extent it can be messed with.
Right now people all over are fighting over changes. Changes to what constitutes a church. Changes to how we articulate faith and even understand it and whether it’s a noun and intellectual understanding or a verb and a way of being. Changes with how we package communal life in order to reach new and different people. We even have to change the idea of evangelism for those interested in it because the church no longer has to reach out to those who don’t know Jesus or the church… they have to reach out to those who have active dislike of the church (many with long seeded and good reasons) and ambivalence to and even distrust of Jesus. These are hard enough.. but we also have to see that God is changing? REALLY – no.. God doesn’t change…. Well I’ve never been convinced of that but regardless God tells us God is doing something new. God is a living God and sometimes I think we forget that… and God is on the move. Israel, after years of slavery, was a new thing. Kings rather than Judges was a new thing. Jesus… NEW thing. You can argue that Jesus is co-eternal and all that… but tell that to Peter and Andrew, James and John… to Nicodemus and Caiaphas and Paul… I mean even Paul is a new thing… Paul who was Saul.
New. “I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21)
So why do we cling to what has been? Why do we call up the ways scripture has always been read and say it cannot change? Why do we imagine that we know exactly who God will call into ministry and how and why and for what? Why do we think we can “stand on the Word of God” as if that isn’t shifting sand? Yes, yes. On this Rock I will build my church… but when did Peter ever display anything less than shifty–ness? Let’s not try to make that mean more than it does.
Its Reformation Day so for that matter look at John Calvin. Good Calvinists will run to his four volumes of The Institutes of Christian Faith like some second Bible (okay maybe not… but sometimes we do – when it suits our cause). But Calvin was never settled with it? He kept revising and changing it… REFORMED AND ALWAYS BEING REFORMED. Do you think Calvin would be happy with any of what it says 500 years later? He wasn’t happy with it days after writing some of it… clearly by now it would be entirely new (zombie Calvin anyone?).
Now I reign myself back. Does the character of God change? Not at God’s heart. (Though ample evidence displays that how God acted from God’s heart changed… no more destroying with flood – do you hear that Pat Robertson… no abandoning God’s people in the wilderness no matter how often they break covenant… healing the demoniac daughter of the Syrophoenician woman… these are the primary example from the Bible that come to mind.) But God works out God’s faith with fear and trembling too (Garden of Gethsemane anyone?)… doing a new thing when the world needs it. Making us new… when we need it.
We lament that change isn’t ours to control… rather we are changed –transformed and re-formed by the hands that knit us together in our mother’s womb. And this is scary and it rarely fits our agendas… it fits the heart of God who formed us to be the image of God – a living witness and testimony to the heart of God who yearns that we love each other, who desires to make the lame walk, the blind see, the poor have good news preached to them. The heart of God that seeks to, like a mother hen, gather us together under her wings. When we are re-formed communally – its always about community and relationship with God – it is about bringing together, expanding neighbor, and breaking down walls. So what is God’s new thing now? What ways is God reforming us to bridge, expand, open up our understandings, our world, our faith to be a grander vision of God’s community than ever before?
God is at work whether we are prepared and willing to see it or not. And if we do not perceive it God will grab anyone from an exile like Moses, or a sinner like Rahab, or a hermit like Elijah, or an outsider like Ruth, or a pillar of unexpected trust like Mary, or a fisherman like Peter, or a killer of God’s people like Saul turned into Paul, or a monk like Martin Luther… a laywer, a soldier, a doctor… God will grab anyone willing to perceive it and turn them into the source of re-formation willing or not, kicking and screaming all the way (and that’s just the prophet who usually doesn’t wish to be used, not to mention those of us trying to keep our ears closed).
So go out tonight and celebrate a bunch of dead people… whose lives were lived in order than we might see what means to perceive newness and follow God’s new thing. Not a one of them, I think, would expect that we are living what they lived… but every single one would expect we are living the WAY they lived.
Always being reformed – thanks be to God.