October 28, 2012
Today is Reformation Sunday, a time that invites us to reflect on what it means to be Protestant Christians nearly 500 years after the beginning of the Reformation, to consider what we are and who we are and why we continue to claim that name with pride and purpose.
Mainline denominations such as the United Church of Christ are descendants of the great Protestant reformers who challenged empires and reordered societies. As John Buchanan recently wrote in The Christian Century, “The facts of history underscore the necessity of the Reformation. Corruption and the appalling abuse of power inspired courageous Christians, who often paid for their dissent with their lives, to imaging a new and more faithful way of being the church of Jesus Christ.” That, in a sense, is what the Reformation—and being Protestant—is all about: to this day we continue to imagine new and more faithful ways of being the church that God is always reforming. We don’t stop where we are. We go further.
The tradition we bear has continually fostered important innovation in meeting social needs. This tradition has produced powerful voices of prophetic judgment and has frequently given birth to great movements of moral protest—saying “no” to what is and also saying “yes” to what, by the grace of God, might be.
One of the great leaders of the Reformation, John Calvin, reminded us that the human mind is a factory of idols. There is a human tendency to make just about anything sacred—even though it is not God. Recognizing this, Protestants have always been willing to question authority—including the authority of the church and of tradition. The “No” of Protestantism is important because it contains the divine and human protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality—even if that claim is made by a Protestant church.
In an age when so many churches are quite ready to make such absolute claims—especially as we have heard in recent months against the rights of women and against the rights of gays and lesbians—we have all the more reason to announce the classical Protestant beliefs and practices that place healthy restraints on the human tendency to deify political or economic systems or individual leaders. All systems and all leaders are accountable to a higher authority.
The “No” of Protestantism is important and sometimes we must speak it loudly.
But Protestantism also has a “Yes.” As a result, at our best, we are always looking for new ways of being faithful people in changing times. Out of the Protestant Reformation came key Western values—social reform, individual religious conviction, hard work, and the rejection of corruption, hypocrisy, and empty ritual.
I think that most of us recognize, however, just how difficult it is to live out this tradition of protest and affirmation. It’s easy to get stuck, to stay comfortably where we are instead of faithfully following where God might continue to lead us.
So we constantly need reminders.
Each Sunday we put that sign out in our front lawn that announces, “God is still speaking.” There is always something more that we need to hear and something more that we can hear if we will but listen.
This morning we sang that wonderful hymn that was based on Pastor John Robinson’s farewell sermon to the Pilgrims as they left Holland for England and ultimately for the New World: “The Lord hath yet more truth and light to break forth from the Word.” We recognize that, in the words of that searing hymn by James Russell Lowell, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.”
During her Bible study in September, Marilynne Robinson handed out a longer description of that farewell sermon by John Robinson written by one who had heard it.
In it, we are told: “[Robinson] took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period in religion, and would go on no further than the instruments of their Reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans, they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; for whatever part of god’s will he had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. And so also, saith he, you see the Calvinists, they stick where he left them; a misery much to be lamented; for though they were precious shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living, saith he ,they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received.”
Within one hundred years of Luther’s actions that caused a smoldering reformation to burst into flames, the light was already threatened by a calcifying captivity to the past. Robinson reminded the people of their greater calling and encouraged them to move beyond the accepted dogmas of the past, whether of the Roman Catholic Church or John Calvin, and to move toward more truth and light.
Within another century, the New England Congregational heirs of the Pilgrims would reject much that was called “Calvinism” and lay the groundwork for a liberal Christian alternative.
As Protestants living out a continuing reformation, we are not embracing change for the sake of change, or simply jettisoning our past for something more convenient and less demanding.
We are following in the way of Jesus Christ that he put before us when he told his disciples: “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.” Throughout his ministry Jesus was clear that the work he did was God’s work. Now he includes those who follow him as co-workers with him. We who follow are included in showing the power of character of God—love, peace, and mercy—in what we do. Indeed, our work is in a sense greater, Jesus says, because we announce the whole Gospel story of the Word made flesh, who is both crucified and resurrected.
From the start, the Christian faith, following the resurrected Christ, has been about looking forward, discovering the new truth that God is revealing for our time. In spite of our tendency to make an idol of the past and the ways things were in any imagined golden age, Reformed Protestant faithfulness to the living Christ turns our ears toward the new truth that God is speaking and turns our eyes toward the light that shines from the future. We are constantly invited by God to go further.
Reformation Sunday is not a time for looking backwards and worshipping our history or enshrining the very human men and women who were our ancestors in faith. It is a time to open ourselves to the ways in which the Spirit of God continues to renew and reform the church in our own time. This day is as much about our present and our future as it is about our past.
As an election approaches, our Protestant faith requires that we continue to be involved in the political process. Our faith gives us the tools to make theologically informed political decisions. Recall the image of the early church at Pentecost, where people spoke with “many tongues.” A congregation is not the place where political consensus is reached among members, nor is it a place where discussion of political issues is silenced. Rather it is a place where a variety of political positions receive critical theological attention, so individual Christians can become theologically informed citizens. The Reformed idea of the sovereignty of God calls for all to participate in decision-making, and that decision-making, in the church and in the world, should be guided by what is good for all—the common good.
As we become a more diverse society, and as people are drawn into different special interest groups, the need to care for the public’s life and sense of itself will only become more important. Our task as Protestants is to help our nation and our world see larger realities and value the long-term health and well-being of the whole creation more than the issues that dominate the latest news cycle.
Our world and our time require a humble faith, one that is at home among other faiths, comfortable in asserting our own beliefs and comfortable in living along side those with different affirmations. The gift of the United Church of Christ is a form of Christianity uniquely suited to help us negotiate our way in a world where faith matters and in which religions are many. We begin and we end our spiritual journey in the majesty and mystery and wonder that is God.
In all of this, we recognize that, as Luther’s hymn put it, “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be loosing.” All our struggles—to love our neighbors, those for peace and justice, our efforts to reduce and eliminate hunger—all our struggles are not losing battles because of God’s grace working in us and through us.
“The righteous shall live by faith,” the ancient prophet tells us. We come into relationship with God not through our own strength, not by our fine moral character, neither through our wisdom nor our financial well-being. It is by God’s grace that a relationship is offered to us and by God’s grace that we are able to respond to that offer.
When we realize this—and that’s not always easy to do—we begin to relax. Sometimes we try so hard, as if everything depended on us and us alone.
While it is true that God depends on us and uses us for working in the world, it is God who is at work. Today, Mainline Protestants are experiencing a renewed sense of mission and strength in many places, including, I think, in this congregation. Claiming our proud history, we are finding new ways of addressing current challenges as we live by faith.
We live by faith—faith in the God who is our refuge and our strength, a very help in times of trouble.
We are Protestants.
We live by faith.
 John Buchanan, “Luther’s Legacy,” The Christian Century, 10/17/12, pg. 3.