Saturday, 29 October 2011

Notes for Reformation Sunday

Reformation Sunday.

Today is Reformation Sunday. It’s always interesting to get Christians together & find out who does and who does not consider themselves to be ‘Reformed’. I think as I was growing up (as a part of the United Reformed Church - formed by the union of Congregationalists and Presbyterians) we were more likely to use the term ‘non-Conformist’ than “Reformed’: though as time goes on I think I prefer the more positive title of Reformed. And it’s particularly interesting to ask Anglicans where they stand, because they need to decide whether the formation of the Church of England was, at least in part, a response to the European Reformation or merely a split from Rome, so that they feel more Catholic than anything.

But if you’re worried about this turning into a history lesson or an exercise in tribal allegiance instead of a sermon, let me remind you that being Reformed means, among other things, taking the Bible seriously. So let’s do that.

At one level it sounds as though both Micah and Jesus are thumbing their noses at authority. Micah says :
“I am filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD,
and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.”

Whilst Jesus declares: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

It would be easy to say something like 'the Reformation challenged the authorities of that day & won through - thanks be to God’. Micah & Jesus both show us that we should always be ready to question authority. This is what one American Old Testament lecturer, Fred Gaiser, has called the approach of 'hey Martin (Luther) got it right and so do we!'.

So today I want to preach Reformation but not as a historical 'hoorah' - rather as a challenge to all of us to never forget that we need to keep our eyes on God's gracious working among us.

So what is really happening in the time of Micah? How was God’s grace in action then?
The prophet Micah preaches against those calling themselves prophets in his day who were telling the people of God only what they wanted to hear – that God was with them, that all would be well. Micah, in contrast, talks of the judgement against his people for the way they are refusing to walk in God’s way, but then ultimately of God’s salvation which will come to his people when they turn back to him. When Jerusalem subsequently fell to their enemies, God’s people found in Micah’s prophecy an explanation for what had happened, and eventually did indeed become faithful to God once more.

So, yes, Micah criticizes the leadership of his time, but it is all God’s people whom he is calling to a new faithfulness. He is not simply telling people to ignore their leaders and choose new ones, he is telling people to take responsibility for their own lives under God. That is the difference between revolution and Reformation.

Meanwhile Matthew tells us about Jesus’ teaching, and again we hear the grace of God in action.
It is interesting to notice that this is the beginning of the last section of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s gospel before the crucifixion, and if we look carefully, we find ia counter-balance to this last section of teaching in the first section in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus’ teaching, which is the Sermon on the Mount (in chapter 5).

At the start, Jesus teaches the disciples in the hearing of the crowd, here at the end he does the opposite – he teaches the crowds in the hearing of the disciples.

In the sermon on the mount Jesus teaches about blessings – the beatitudes ‘blessed are you when…’ – here at the end he is about to embark on a series of ‘woes’ = ‘woe to you when…’
Having begun his teaching by trying to set his listeners on the right path, Jesus ends his teaching by warning against the wrong path. So in what seems like an all-out attack on the Pharisees, Jesus uses these stereotypical characters “the Pharisees’ to warn his listeners against living lives which do not echo their religious beliefs.
What you believe must inform what you say and do, says Jesus. Remember that Jesus’ greatest criticism was reserves for ‘hypocrites’ of all kinds – those people who say one thing and do another.

It is said that Calvin locked the doors of the Cathedral in Geneva other than for worship on a Sunday, to remind his people that God was not only to be found in the Cathedral, but everywhere in the world beyond.
The Reformed sensibility teaches us that our 'religious' lives are not just what we do in church, but how we treat others in 'the world'.

So Reformation Sunday is not a time to celebrate the victory of one way of being a Christian over another, or a chance to rail against what we perceive to be the faults of our leaders – in the church or in the political sphere. It is a time to celebrate the grace of God, which come to us through God’s Word. It is a time to take seriously Gods living Word to us, and to be open to continually being re-formed, to have our hearts set on fire to get out there & live God's way.

May what we believe and what we say and do be evidence to the world around us that the living God hasn’t finished with us yet, whether we choose to call ourselves Reformed or not.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

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