October 30, 2011

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

In many churches, including Presbyterian ones, the last Sunday in October is designated as “Reformation Sunday.” As Presbyterians, we are part of a Christian tradition or a family of churches that is called “Reformed.” And although we don’t celebrate Reformation Sunday every year, we have the opportunity on this Sunday to remember and give thanks for the Reformed tradition of which we are a part.

I suppose that a good place to start on Reformation Sunday would be with a few definitions of terms. My apologies to those of you who may have grown up in a Presbyterian Church and heard this stuff about a million times already.

First of all, there is the word “Presbyterian” – the Christian denomination of which we are a part. The word “Presbyterian” doesn’t describe our theology or our beliefs as a church, but it describes the way our church is structured and how we make decisions.

“Presbyterian” comes from a Greek word “presbyter” which means “elder.” Presbyterian churches are ruled by elders who come together in the courts of the church. These courts are called sessions at the local, congregational level, presbyteries that oversee a number of congregations and ministers in a geographic area, synods that cover larger areas, and General Assemblies for whole countries.

This Presbyterian type of church structure was a significant reformation from a structure that included rule by bishops. So significant, I suppose, that it came to be the actual name of our denomination. Whereas Pentecostals and Baptists are named for their theological emphases, Lutherans and Mennonites are named for the theological leaders who led them, and Anglicans are named for their country of origin, we Presbyterians are named for our church structure. So, if someone asks you what makes a church Presbyterian, you might say, “We are ruled by elders.”

Presbyterians do belong to a larger family of Christian denominations that are sometimes called “Reformed.” “Reformed” is a term that emerged during the time of the Protestant Reformation in Europe during the 16th century.

Prior to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church (which had divided from each other in 1054) were the major Christian bodies. In 1517, a monk named Martin Luther began a movement that questioned his own church’s position on a number of theological issues.

What Luther really wanted to do was to reform the church from within, but that didn’t work out too well. Instead, he and other Protestant Reformers ended up being separated from their church as they began new movements and churches that reflected their theological concerns and emphases. Luther’s followers, for example, eventually came to be known as Lutherans.

Other reformers agreed with Luther’s criticisms of the Roman Church, but also began to differ with him on some items of biblical interpretation. Theologians such as Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and Heinrich Bullinger became leaders of this movement, which became known as the Reformed tradition. The term “Reformed” apparently came from a comment by Queen Elizabeth I in England that the followers of Zwingli and Calvin in England were more “reformed” than the Lutherans, in that they wanted a more thoroughgoing reform of worship practices based on their understanding of the bible.

The Reformation theologians made huge contributions to our church’s theology and practice that are still evident today – things like the doctrine of justification by faith alone, that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favour. Or the emphasis on the bible being for all Christians to read, and study, and interpret for ourselves. Biblical interpretation is no longer reserved to a small group of educated clergy.

Issues like these divided the Christian Church in the 16th century. But today many churches have found agreement on most of the issues that once divided us. We’ve all gone through reformations over the centuries. And though there are still issues that divide us, we are recognizing what we hold in common more and more.

In “Living Faith,” our Presbyterian church’s statement of Christian belief, we are reminded: “The church is in constant need of reform because of the failure and sin which mark its life in every age.”  The Roman Church in 1517 needed reform, as did the Reformed churches in 1650. And all our many and varied churches today, and indeed the Christian Church as a whole, is far from perfect and needs to be continually reformed according to the Word of God.

If there is one principle that we should remember on Reformation Sunday, it’s that God is not finished with us yet. One of the basic tenets of the Protestant Reformation was expressed in the Latin phrased “Ecclesia semper reformanda est,” meaning “the church must always be reforming.” It refers to the conviction that the church must continually re-examine itself to maintain its purity of doctrine and practice.

If, at any point in our life together as a church, we start to think and act like we have everything figured out and we’re doing everything right, that’s when we’ll be in trouble. That’s when we’ll ruin any chance of being reconciled with our Christian neighbours. That’s when we’ll get so focussed on being right that we’ll forget about being kind or loving. That’s when we’ll start to turn into the hypocrites that many people outside the church already think we are. And I think that’s what Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel text.

I don’t think it’s that the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time were so terribly awful. Most of them were probably very well-intentioned and very faithful people. It’s just that they had become over-confident in their ability to follow God’s commandments and to please God through their religious practices and rituals. They had everything figured out, and their goals were to impart their religious knowledge to others, and to hold others to account for their inability to live according to all the many rules and commandments that had become their faith. These were the teachers – the leaders in the religious community – and they were seriously lacking in humility.

I have a friend, a retired priest here in Saskatoon, who – whenever I have done something well – tells me quietly, “Stay humble.” Father Bernard has said this to me numerous times after hearing me preach, or lead worship, or speak at a workshop. And I’ve heard him say the same thing to others who have done something well.

And I’ve always interpreted “stay humble” as a subtle compliment, which it probably is. But “stay humble” is also a warning. It’s a warning to remember that everything we know, and everything we understand, and everything we can do for God is because of God’s grace and goodness and God’s Spirit at work within us. It’s a warning not to raise ourselves up above others within the church or outside of it, as if our knowledge or our background or our role in the church makes us somehow worth more than others around us.

No matter how well the Pharisees may have done at following the details of God’s laws, if they raised themselves up and lorded it over others, if they did good things only to be SEEN to be doing good things, if they did not love their neighbours as they loved themselves, then they were missing the point. And Jesus would humble them. And Jesus will humble us.

One of the things that Jesus says in today’s Gospel is that we shouldn’t call anyone “teacher” because we have only one teacher who is God. And we shouldn’t call anyone “father” because we have only one father – the one in heaven. Now, it seems to me that none of the churches follow this instruction literally. Presbyterian ministers are also called “teaching elders” to emphasize our particular call to preach and to teach within the church, and Catholic priests are often called “father” as a way of acknowledging their authority and responsibility in the community of the church.

But in fact, even the apostle Paul soon contradicted Jesus’ instruction not to call anyone “father.” In today’s reading from his letter to the Thessalonians, he refers to himself as a father to their Christian community. He writes that he “dealt with each one of [them] like a father with his children, urging and encouraging [them] and pleading that [they] lead a life worthy of God, who calls [them] into his own kingdom and glory.”

But this is not the image of an authoritarian father figure who lays down the law and demands obedience. Neither does Paul describe himself as a teacher who knows it all and makes his students suffer if they don’t measure up or understand everything right away.

I don’t think that Jesus’ point was that we shouldn’t be teachers or fathers or mothers to one another. In fact, Jesus sent out his earliest followers with instructions to preach, to teach, and to heal in his name. But when we do become teachers, the Gospel reminds us that we need to stay humble so that we can continue to learn and not turn into hypocrites.

One of the things that I am appreciating about our newest staff member here at St. Andrew’s is her desire to learn. As you know, the church has hired Laura Van Loon to serve as our Pastoral Care Nurse, and we are all learning together what this new ministry is going to look like.

Laura is a very knowledgeable and experienced registered nurse with wonderful skills and the gifts of compassion and care. (Laura: Stay humble.) But working as a Pastoral Care Nurse within a congregation is a new challenge – providing spiritual care, and integrating health and wholeness in body, mind, and spirit. And Laura is just soaking up all that she can possibly learn – in the Parish Nursing Education Program, in Bible Study, and in her work with the Pastoral Care Committee. With that kind of attitude to learning and growing in faith and knowledge, I have no doubt that God will bless her ministry among us. As Jesus said, “all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Like so many of you, I love this Presbyterian Church of ours and the reformation principles that have shaped our theology and practice. And so, on this Reformation Sunday, I pray – May God keep us humble, both as individuals and as a church, so that we may be reformed and always reforming according the Word of God. Amen.